Tim Dowling: I am talking to the coffee machine. And yes, it’s listening

I have never attempted this trick in front of anyone – until now. It is the greatest day of my life

The oldest one stays the night. In the morning – the very late morning – he comes down to the kitchen looking groggy. “Look who’s up,” my wife says. “Did you both drink everything in the house?”

“Not everything,” says the middle one, without looking up from his laptop. “There’s still some vermouth.”

“How does this thing work?” says the oldest one, standing in front of the coffee machine.

Our oldest son moved into his own place over a year ago. He was not around when the old coffee machine started giving everyone electric shocks and we finally had to replace it. I remember what it’s like to return to your childhood home to find unfamiliar improvements; it’s like they waited until you moved out to make things nice.

“You’ve never used this one before, have you?” I say.

“Is it the same as the old one?” he says.

“It’s the same idea,” I say. “The procedure is quite different.”

I was all for getting an exact copy of the old coffee machine – I liked the coffee it made, electric shocks or no – but my wife found what she considered a superior model for less money. My wife does not drink coffee.

“First off, there’s a power button on the side,” I say.

“Yup,” he says, pushing it.

“The light on the front flashes red for a bit,” I say. “When it changes to a steady blue, turn the dial to the left.”

“OK,” he says. The light changes, and he turns the dial. The pump inside the machine starts up.

“After that, it’s all voice-activated,” I say. “Coffee machine STOP!”

The machine’s pump falls silent.

“Coffee machine START!” I say. The pump restarts and two thin lines of espresso begin to fill the cup.

A little background: when we first acquired the new coffee machine, last May, I plugged it in, filled it with water and coffee and put a cup underneath. Following the instructions, I pushed the side button, waited for flashing red to change to steady blue, and turned the dial anti-clockwise.

The machine responded with a loud, grating noise. Then, after a few seconds, it stopped. I figured I’d done something wrong, but just as I reached for the instructions, it started up again. The coffee it produced was fine, though not as good as the old machine. At least I wasn’t risking electrocution.

I soon learned that this pausing of the pump mechanism was standard: every time you switched the machine on it stopped after four seconds, and resumed after another three.

I took to pointing at the machine every morning with a dramatic magician’s flourish – first after silently counting to four, and again after counting to three. One morning the youngest one caught me at it.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“Oh nothing,” I said. “Just controlling the coffee machine with the power of my mind.”

“Your timing is slightly off,” he said.

“It’s a work in progress,” I said.

At some point in June I realised silent counting was no good – you simply had to gauge the correct intervals by feel. Some mornings I was spot on, but all alone. Other mornings, when there were onlookers, my pointing was woefully out of sync.

“Who is this trick supposed to be for?” said the middle one.

“I don’t know,” I said. “The important thing is that I’m ready when the time comes.”

The idea of voice activation is a late innovation – the idea being that the timing is a little more forgiving – but I have never attempted it in front of anyone until now.

As I sit back down, I consider improving my technique. Perhaps I should employ a more official-sounding form of words – maybe “SYSTEM OVERRIDE” and “RESUME FUNCTION”. Or I could go back to pointing.

The oldest one continues to watch as his cup slowly fills with coffee. Eventually it nears the lip of the cup.

“Coffee machine STOP!” he shouts. The cup continues to fill. The middle one lifts his eyes from his laptop for the first time, looks at the oldest one, and looks at me.

“Oh my God,” he says. “I can’t believe someone actually fell for that.”

“This is literally the greatest day of my life,” I say.

“What’s happening?” my wife says.

“Coffee machine STOP!” shouts the oldest one, even louder, to no avail.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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