JAMES SCOTT + FRENCH PRESS
I’m a professor of statistics and data science at UT, where I teach both in the McCombs School of Business and in the Department of Statistics and Data Sciences. I grew up in Katy, Texas and went to college here at UT, just like my mom before me. After graduating in 2004, I lived in England for two years to study math at Cambridge. Then I did my PhD in statistics at Duke University, and finally I got back to Texas as fast as I could.
The most exciting thing that happened to me recently is that I wrote a book about artificial intelligence, co-authored with Nick Polson. It's called AIQ: How People and Machines Are Smarter Together. It’s a book about AI, but it's for normal people, I promise! There’s no hard math or technical stuff, but we do teach you some key ideas in AI that help you understand the modern world a little better. It also has some tales of some historical figures who Nick and I find very inspiring. For example, there’s Grace Hopper, who was the first person in history to talk to a computer in English, and who also happened to be one of the first women ever to become an admiral in the US Navy. There’s also Henrietta Leavitt, who back in 1912 used a precursor of modern AI tools to do something amazing: she discovered a key statistical relationship about stars that allowed astronomers to measure the size of the universe. (You’ve probably never heard of Leavitt, but you may have heard of Edwin Hubble, who they named the space telescope after, and who used Leavitt's discovery to prove conclusively that the Milky Way wasn’t the only galaxy in the universe.)
Being a professor is a great job. I love teaching, I love writing, and I love being a data scientist. There’s a famous math guy called John Tukey who once said that the best part about being in statistics is that you get to play in other scientists’ back yard. For me, that nails it. I’ve worked with doctors, business people, astronomers, biologists, tech entrepreneurs, neuroscientists, you name it. And every time, I get to learn about their thing. It’s really a ton of fun.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE GO TO COFFEE DRINK?
At home, always French press. Away from home, if you go by frequency, it’s gotta be a short latte. That’s what I get most afternoons from Texas Coffee Traders in the computer science building. It’s close to my office, really nice coffee, and the folks there are super friendly.
DESCRIBE YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE ASSOCIATED WITH COFFEE?
I met my wife Abigail in Cambridge when we were both studying in England. At the time I was living on a really small student stipend. I wasn’t actually in poverty by any stretch, but I did have very little money, even by grad student standards. Going out for coffee frequently would have been an unaffordable luxury. So I will never forget how Abbie bought me coffee a lot, especially when I was studying for exams. She would always say “how about a wee latte?” — she’s from Northern Ireland, where “wee” is a term of endearment. It was such a lovely, kind, and generous thing to do. But then, she is a lovely, kind, and generous person!
Beyond that, I associate coffee with memories of writing. Both Abbie and I wrote large portions of our Ph.D. theses from coffee shops. And I did most of my writing for my recent book sitting at my kitchen table between 6:30 and 9:30 every morning, never very far from a cup of coffee!
DO YOU MAKE COFFEE AT HOME? IF SO, HOW DO YOU PREPARE IT?
Basically every morning for at least fifteen years now, I’ve made coffee in a French press. I have this simple indestructible plastic one that I picked up at Target, back in 2004, when I graduated from UT and was moving to England. The coffee from that thing has got me through a lot: two years of life abroad 5000 miles away from home, my Ph.D, my years on the tenure track, and nearly eight happy years of marriage and counting.
My wife makes fun of me for how specific I have become about coffee proportions and temperature. Hey, I’m a data scientist, I can’t help thinking about the numbers! I’ve experimented over the years and like about an 18:1 water-to-coffee ratio by weight. So for a big pot for two in the morning, I use 56 grams of freshly ground coffee for a liter of water. I heat the water to 200F — getting one of those kettles with temperature control initially seemed outlandish but is totally worth it. I bloom the grounds for 30 seconds with about 100 grams of water, and then pour in the rest of the water and steep for four minutes. That makes one big mug for each of us, plus a decent refill. So my wife makes fun of me, but she likes the coffee!
I still have and use that old plastic French press. But then last year I read about this brewer called the Espro Press, which is a French press a super fine filter. I picked one up and I really like it. The coffee you get out of it is somewhere between a traditional French press and a pour-over — it’s a little cleaner, and you don’t get that mud in the bottom of the cup. And once you’ve pressed it, you can leave the coffee in there for awhile and it’ll stay warm but won't over-extract. It’s pretty great and it looks awesome. But like I said, I still use the old plastic one from time to time, with unreasonable fondness, usually when we have guests and need to make a ton of coffee.
WHAT WAS THE CRITERIA FOR CHOOSING YOUR PLAYLIST?
I treated it as a chance to do something I haven’t done in a long time, which is scroll through all the old stuff I’ve downloaded on iTunes and pick out some tracks that I really like but that I haven’t heard in awhile. It was fun! But as a result there’s not much rhyme or reason here to my selection — just whatever struck me as “Hey, cool, I forgot about that one!" There’s some folk rock, some Austin stuff, a lot of country, a few songs I like to exercise to, and so on. But I begin and end with two classical pieces I love. The first piece from Scheherazade is just so beautiful. And the last track, too — I think the Piano Guys are amazing, and they do a beautiful version of Vivaldi’s Winter. You should also check out their version of Carol of the Bells, which is stunning: one guy with a cello overdubbing no fewer than twelve different parts for the cello.
18:1 Water-to-Coffee Ratio
56 grams of coarsely ground coffee to a liter of water.
Bloom grounds for 30 seconds with 100 grams of coffee
Add remaining water and steep for 4 minutes
Makes enough to fill two big mugs plus a decent refill