This Is A Blog Post… With A Twist

Gourmet Burger

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Some things are fine as they are yet people think that they’ve got to be reinvented, altered, made edgier, to be trendy, to appeal to the “modern consumer” who wants new experiences, blah, blah, blah. So we end up with food with unusual ingredients – Salted Caramel, Salted Chocolate, Chilli Chocolate – when I was growing up that would be the description of a Choc Ice. If there’s a left-field ingredient and especially if there’s a high-end price tag then it’ll be popular, just as if you call a coffee with milk an “Americano” or a “Flat White” then those people who consider themselves cooler than everyone else will flock to have their branded wax cups with their names scrawled on the side visible for all to witness. I’m avoiding the word “hipster” here but, they know who they are.

I particularly dislike the phrase “with a twist“. I enjoy Fish and Chips, I like them with Mushy Peas (not a pea crush, or puree), or curry sauce (not a spicy jus, thankyou), what I really don’t want is a twist, as in “Fish and Chips with a twist” or a “Bakewell Tart with a twist” – which will again indicate some odd ingredient has been used, like chocolate in a Spaghetti Bolognese. Conversely though the same phrase has now become so fashionable amongst the media that even just having different normal flavours are described as being “a twist” such as the Lemon Bakewell, which isn’t really a Bakewell but I like them anyway – this shows that some variations can work, as long as they’re in harmony with the original, a pickled onion Bakewell would be diabolical.

The “re-imagined classics” though are made all the worse when you see the portion sizes – a tiny piece of battered cod sat on top of a log-cabin shaped pile of ten chips, chunky of course, with a small ramekin of pea puree and whatever makes the twist, a tiny piece of “Beef in Artisan Ale Gravy Pie” floating on a smear of mashed potato, or a handful of chips sprinkled with chunky sea salt in a miniature galvanised bucket with fake newspaper round the edge, to look “authentic“.

Some of the best food is simple, tasty and satisfyingly filling. There’s no “twist” that can make a tray of chips, smothered in curry sauce with a battered sausage perched precariously on the top after an evening of beverages at the local pub any better than it is.

And the twist is… no twist. Not even a slice of lemon.

Stand There, Wave This

Cyclists

Image by stokpic from Pixabay

It’s probably not a new idea but I’ve only really noticed in the last few years because I’ve been watching the cricket and the Tour of Britain when it caused massive disruption, sorry, “brought valuable income”, to my home town. The idea in question is handing out flags and banners for spectators to wave during events where, unlike football, the spectators are unlikely to be wearing sponsor branded clothing.

Perhaps you’d expect people watching the Tour of Britain to be waving Union Flags as the cyclists sped past but no, they were enthusiastically waving little green flags in the faces of the lycra-clad pedellers. It soon became obvious that these flags carried the logo of the event sponsor. How does waving a piece of green sponsored plastic show your support to the event? Even national celebrations aren’t immune; I saw a clip of the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebrations and there were people waving Union Flags, nothing unusual apart from the middle of the flag was covered with the “OK Magazine” logo.

At the cricket fans wave boards with “4” on it when a player hits a boundary, again for no apparent reason – everyone actually paying attention would be aware of the fact that he’d hit a boundary – but just as prominent as the “4” of course is the series sponsor’s name which I will not repeat here as the only advertising on this blog pays for the hosting so I don’t have to. This has also spread to snooker now as at the 2019 World Championship crowd members were holding sponsored banners with “Ton Up” on it to wave when a player scores a century break, accompanied by, when I saw a bit of it, John Virgo hysterically screaming “ton ups, ton ups”… For no apparent reason.

These are examples of how people desperate to be part of what they’re watching, the selfie generation who have to show they were there, to prove it by being in the photo, are tricked into advertising for the sponsors in the hope that they might be seen on tv because they’re waving their bit of printed plastic while also feeling that they’re more involved, as people don’t seem to be satisfied with being passive spectators any more.

(The writing of this blog post was supported by Yorkshire Tea and a Kit Kat, by the way.)

Reminiscing Isn’t What It Used To Be

Box of Memories

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

It’s easy to start reminiscing about the past, particularly when you see the world as it is and you know it used to be better.  The summers longer and always sunny, the TV was better and so on.

Back in the day [here we go again] you’d half-remember something, whether it was the name of an actor who used to be on such-and-such a show or you wonder whether a chocolate bar you used to like might still be available, somewhere, and then spend hours trying to remember the details, the names, the design, until eventually you started to think you’d imagined the whole thing.

I found the other day that again our connection to the world’s knowledge is there to help.  I have looked for a few of these things recently, for the life of me I can’t remember what most of them were but one was an exact quote from Linda Smith and another was a particular chocolate bar I liked in the eighties.  To find the quote I searched using a search term that included as much of what I could remember of the quote and the fact that it was from Linda Smith, Google instantly provided me with dozens of pages quoting the exact, er, quote.  It wasn’t that old a quotation but with my memory it felt like it.

The chocolate bar was less successful, in a way.  I could remember the name but no matter how I worded it there was no sign of it, as a side effect though the Google image search did bring up many memories of other long-lost chocolate products, often from newspaper articles entitled “21 Chocolate Bars You Wish They’d Bring Back”.  Half and hour lost looking at photos of old chocolate wrappers.  I have done the same after looking for a history of a building I used to live opposite and finding a whole archive of historic photos of the town in general – just one of the internet’s many rabbit holes to fall down.

It does seem that as time goes forwards, as people upload pictures of old packaging, digitise books, photos and even old Argos catalogues the internet’s repository of knowledge is stretching further back in time.  So today reminiscing isn’t just enjoyable it can be more accurate than ever.

Slow News Days

Press

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

I haven’t got much to say today so I’ll quickly mention newspapers that seem to be similarly afflicted.

Linda Smith once said on a B-series episode of QI “My favourite ever headline was “Worksop Man Dies Of Natural Causes.”

The internet era equivalent of the Worksop man are the people from across the country who have done some DIY on a budget. The Google News feed on my phone provides me with, at least once a week, a story from a local newspaper site wherein someone has given their kitchen, bathroom or garden a spruce up for less than it should surely cost by doing something novel and amazing – buying things from a cheaper shop. Gasp.

They’re generally along these lines: “Savvy shopper Tracy transformed her home using items from [insert bargain store name here]“, and the article tells us “she got a new look kitchen for just £200.” Sometimes you’ll “never believe how she did it.”

Why is this news? Why is it unbelievable? Why haven’t I got an article written about me? Just last night I had fish, chips and mushy peas for less than the chip shop cost by buying items from Asda and B&M Bargains. Chips shop quality mushy peas too. And I’ve given my living room a makeover using stuff from B&M and Ebay no less.

When there’s a two-hundred foot UFO hovering over the town hall, that’ll be news.

[Glances out the window, just in case.]

A Tale of Two Ciders

Cider

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

It’s a Friday night in summer, half-past-eight and I’m listening to Jazz, watching the sunset and drinking a glass of Cider. It is one of my great pleasures.

Cider used to be simple, it was an alcoholic drink made from Apples, but as with so many things now it has to have more variety to appeal to wider markets so now there are Raspberry Cider, Strawberry Cider and so on. They’re not Cider. In a shop once the man stood near me said into his phone “They’ve got a Pear Cider kit mush, just wondered if you want one,” “it’s not Cider, it’s Perry” I muttered under my breath. There used to be Sweet Cider and Dry Cider, and the likes of Scrumpy, but you still got progressively pissed, or merry at least, just at a different rate. And it all tasted of Apple.  Apparently even in France Cider has to be made entirely of Apples.

Our American friends have muddied the scrumpy even more with Apple Cider and Hard Cider – the first being pure Apple Juice (it isn’t Cider, yet) and the latter is, let me think, CIDER.

As a result of the different flavours my favourite brand of English Cider now has Apple Cider on the label, though it might surprise any Americans who were expecting a soft drink.

To take this to its ultimate conclusion will the famous novel featuring the drink in the title, in future, be renamed “Hard Cider with Rosie”?

The Modern J. R. Hartley

In the eighties the Yellow Pages had a number of TV ads in the UK showing people finally finding some elusive item by using their book to find suitable shops and ringing them. One such ad featured the now famous but fictional author J. R. Hartley searching for a copy of the book he’d written called Fly Fishing. We were never told what had happened to leave him without a copy of his own book just that eventually he found one and was happy.

Today of course Yellow Pages is still with us but the same story could be used by at least three companies. In 2020 Mr Hartley, or his daughter from the ad, would sit down in the lounge with a computer and perhaps search for local bookshops on Yellow Pages itself, or Google, then visit their websites and browse their online catalogues of old books, then perhaps ring them instead.

Alternatively he might log on to Ebay or Amazon type his name or the books and see what appears. From personal experience he’d probably have to save a search on Ebay to get the book but would no doubt get one eventually, having trawled through numerous other books on fly fishing, or containing either of the words. He could, of course, get the Kindle edition but would probably feel that it’s not quite the same, not got that old book smell and tactile sensation. J. R. Hartley would want the real thing, his book.

Strangely though, as sometimes happens, fiction became fact and although J. R. Hartley remained fictional his book didn’t, emerging in the nineties, as people started trying to get hold of a copy – to see what it was all about, into real world bookstores and eventually onto Amazon itself, where I bought a second-hand copy, and where it also now exists as a Kindle edition so it has sort of gone full circle from an imaginary book to a book that exists virtually.

Biting The Hand That Feeds It

Adverts

Image by Falkenpost from Pixabay

I’ve been trying to catch up on some news articles I’d saved for reading later but it’s been difficult, not because of the news itself, it’s not that deep and meaningful, the problem is advertising. Just about every news website apart from the BBCs is virtually unreadable today, some more than others. The reason is animated adverts. On my tablet, or an adblocker-free browser it’s impossible to read most of these sites because the page starts to load, you see the article, you start reading it and then either it won’t scroll further down as the whole browser has locked solid or when you scroll down and keep reading it suddenly jumps back to the top again – often because some huge animated ad that’s taken an age to load has suddenly flounced onto the front of stage like the proverbial eight-hundred pound Gorilla. It’s even worse when there are multiple adverts and their continuous loops stop you reading down the page as it’s become unresponsive or slow or worse still when they obscure what you’re reading altogether.

When using a desktop browser with an adblocker to make the site actually usable many sites have a popup crying “you’re using an adblocker, how are we supposed to buy our groceries at Waitrose tonight?” So you turn off the adblocker and find that the site is back to being virtually unreadable.

Adverts in magazines aren’t animated, for obvious reasons – it’d be damned expensive to put a screen in every issue, and bulky – but they still achieve their ambitions, they rely on old fashioned techniques to gain attention, the sort of thing I used to design in the days before you needed to know about javascript syntax, curly braces and whether to use an unsigned integer variable; things like colour, typography, layout, imagery. It seems that the people who design websites started using animation just to show off that they could, and convinced marketers that they needed to use animation to gain attention from their target demographics, and the marketers believed them, and paid more for the animation. There is though now no going back because the idea has become so ingrained. They have combined the TV advert model with modern Hollywood firework displays, applied it to the written word media and ended up with a nuisance.

The thing is that although people do notice the ads and notice the message they’re also annoyed by the side-effects – if websites had static ads which would load at the same speed as the rest of the content and would instantly be there, front and centre then people wouldn’t need to use adblockers, we don’t object to the ads, they pay for the website, they pay for this website – though as I don’t develop the site itself I have no choice about the type of ads, on my Flickr page I pay to have no adverts. The objection is against the intrusion and frustration they cause. As with desktop software the developers test these websites and ads on powerful computers connected directly to a server rather than on a normal laptop or tablet connected to a 4 meg broadband connection so I doubt that they have much appreciation of what they fancifully call the UX (user experience) is like in the real world.

I wonder whether companies actually look at the website metrics – the visitor count, length of visit and so on – and perhaps notice that many visits are too short to possibly read anything. They no doubt do but the views that just put up with it outnumber those who don’t and at the end of the day a click is a click and another payment from the advertisers, even if the clicker doesn’t stick around long.

I though still think it’s about time the wannabe Hollywood filmmaker developers and marketers stopped showing off how clever they are and set out to please the users who ultimately pay their wages by tolerating the adverts that annoy them so much. If a brand gets its message across without the negative connotation of being a nuisance surely that’s better, no?

99p is The New Free

Yes, it seems it’s ebook week on The Lunch.

Free books

Free books (Photo credit: randomduck)

On just about every high street in Britain there is some kind of mis-named Pound Shop, selling things for 99p, and it’s a well-known psychological effect that we think that 99p is vastly cheaper than a pound because it has less digits, even if our subconscious obsession with lower numbers in buying but higher in selling leads us to all have jam jars full of pennies.

The odd thing though is a shift in the area of “free” goods.  On Amazon and other ebook stores there are thousands of free ebooks, some are actual out-of-copyright classics, some are good books simply written for the enjoyment of it and given away, others are free just to be generous and helpful.  The problem is that we often assume that if something is always free then it must be of lower quality, whereas we will eagerly grab a book that’s normally £3.99 but is reduced for a day to £0.00.  This idea of low quality is reinforced by many writers and journalists who have said that only crap writers do it for free [Andy looks at own not-for-profit blog and sighs].

This is a problem for new authors who are publishing solely electronically – price it too high and buyers might not want to take a shot at an unknown, give it away and it’s likely that people will see the words “FREE = CRAP” with memories of bookstore remainder bins in the back of their minds.

There has emerged a middle ground, more and more books are being published at 99p, cheap enough to be a potential throwaway purchase but someone thinks it’s worth actually charging money for which gives you a bit of confidence that it’ll be worth it.  It also feels like you’re getting a bargain even if it’s not reduced.

Amongst the ebook chaff there is wheat and if this idea gets it noticed then it doesn’t matter whether crap gets sold at the same price – that’s what Amazon’s reviews sections are for.

 

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Electric Hands and Aluminium Kitchens

chisels

chisels (Photo credit: The Year of Mud)

I was watching a TV show which showed a restaurant and the customers kept talking about all this “home cooked” food, OK it was a family restaurant, owned by the same family for generations but I was sure that they just showed the food being cooked in a very shiny, very metallic, very up to hygiene standards industrial restaurant kitchen behind the counter.  Do they live upstairs?  I thought.  On other shows this pattern repeated, maybe it’s the decor that’s making people think “home cooked”, don’t they know it’s not the owner’s dining room.

Next up came the description of hand-made food items which again didn’t seem quite what I would call “hand”-made, although hands were involved in some ways, moving the ingredients, pushing the button, turning the handle.

“The meat is still prepared by hand” – the guy pushed a piece of meat into a machine.  No knife, no hammer.

“Hand-cut fries” – the guy pushed a potato into a device and pulled a handle.  Again, no knife.

It’s not just restaurants though, more and more (often expensive and exclusive) things are described as “hand-made” when they’re in fact made by a machine and assembled by hand.  A chair leg hand-turned on a lathe is still hand-made, the hand that guides the chisel, but a cabinet where all the joints are routed by a set machine rather than a hammer and chisel – is that still hand-made?

Eventually I’ve come to the conclusion that the term hand-made, along with home-cooked has come to mean the opposite of “made in a huge mass-production facility in China”.  TV shows have shown examples of some mass-production methods used by food producers, occasionally emphasising the less savoury looking aspects – the infamous “pink goo” – which doesn’t look appetising it’s true but restaurants don’t make food like factories, they mass produce just on a smaller scale, I’ve done a large spaghetti Bolognese at home but not enough for a table for ten at eight.

As well as that people know that fast-food or large chain restaurants have frozen food items shipped in nightly to be warmed up which are as such full of preservatives and evil whereas in a small restaurant the food is made properly, just like you’d have at home, hence home-made.  Even if the mass-produced stuff is 100% beef and the home-made one is just as bad for you if you scoff too many.

Maybe I’m being picky over semantics, again, but even home-made “home-made” food can come from a kit you buy at M&S these days.

In our world where just about everything is manufactured in a factory, see How It’s Made on TV, people are more often craving the hand made for its roughness, lack of uniformity – in things like cakes and chocolate bars, but if you phrase it differently “made by hand” or “hand finished by Barry” suddenly you can charge a fortune for it, whether it’s a watch or an Aston Martin engine.  The irony is that less than forty years ago Fiat ran a campaign for the new Strada expressing how amazing it was that it was Hand Built by Robots.

If you can market something as home-made or hand-made you can imply it’s more wholesome in some way, even if many of the ingredients still contain colourings and preservatives, when used deliberately this way it’s tapping into consumers’ resistance to “processed foods” which are full of salt, fat or MSG.  You can also sell to those following the current fashion of seeking out “authentic” experiences, like rustic furniture, timber sash windows, overpriced hearty bangers and mash or real ale at six pounds a pint – yes you read that right, a pub near here is offering an authentic real ale in a real pub experience for just six quid a go. Again they’re selling people the idea that the past was better, that retro is the way forward, so to speak.

I think I’ll stick to my real real pub across the town at half the price, followed by a decidedly not home-made battered sausage.

 

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Bills and Shopping: The Rise of the Machines

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till

Point Four Touch Point of Sale Till (Photo credit: Cyberslayer)

It’s not that I don’t like banks, or that I’m in some way un-British and avoid queuing it’s just that I don’t like being required to go out on some cold, damp Saturday morning when I’d rather be sat by the heater reading.  This is why most of my bills are sorted out by Direct Debit, even my credit card which is paid automatically every month – as it’s exclusively for online use rather than credit as such.

However there is one, variable bill which I don’t do this way – the electricity bill, because I don’t want them taking the money if they’ve over-estimated it.  So once a quarter I trudge to the bank.  The last couple of times I’ve been intercepted in the queue and guided to the paying-in ATM which can, I am assured, be used to pay bills and sure enough it did, it scanned the bill, took the details from my card and printed me a receipt.  It lacked the friendly hellos and brief chatter of talking to a teller but it did its stuff efficiently without having to wait with the other customers and their queries that computers can’t resolve (yet).  It’s amazing what technology can do isn’t it.

When it works.

This time I queued for the ATM, a member of staff asked if I was OK with doing it myself, “yes,” I replied, proudly, stopping short of continuing with “fear not, I have done this before”.  The woman ahead of me was though clearly having trouble paying a cheque in and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the machine.  Some people would have been mortified at causing a delay for others.  When she went in search of a real person I approached the anonymous grey box, inserted my card and then my payment slip which it chewed a little, thought about and then spat back out at me.

The member of staff who had by now redirected the cheque woman to a teller dashed over, I tried again but still it said it was having trouble reading the slip.  “Oh,” said the smart-suited bank woman “I think it has trouble with the new smaller payment slips.”  Right, so it’s the electricity company’s fault.  I was redirected to the queue for the tellers too, while reflecting that it’s lucky there were still real people present to do the job. The banks say this is to do with improving customers’ experiences, to reduce waiting times and so on.  A while later a man ahead of me was plucked from the queue and escorted to the same ATM, poor unsuspecting soul, like something out of Nineteen-Eighty-Four he walked by, towards the room 101 of automated banking technology, “good luck” I silently whispered.

It’s becoming ever more common though, in the supermarket there have been self-service checkouts for a while, and now the incredible sounding Hybrid Checkouts – you get your own conveyor belt to play with, like your own Generation Game.  A tin of beans.  A lettuce.  A cuddly toy…

I like checkouts with people on them, you can say hello, chat a little, they do all the scanning stuff.  I know someone who can scan goods quickly, accurately and have a riveting conversation with you at the same time, all you get from a Hybrid Checkout is the infamous “unknown item in the bagging area” message.  Which is a further complication – having to precisely place your items in your bag instead of lobbing them in haphazardly.

They say it’s quicker, denying the accusations that it’s to do with saving on the costs of staff, as do the banks.  They encourage you to use them, “it’s for your own good” they virtually scream as they drag you by the basket towards the robot cashiers while you whimper “but I want to talk to the nice lady on till nine.”  I have been known to linger at the end of an aisle, apparently choosing coffee until I see a gap on a conveyor then dump my groceries onto it before they can have my basket away from me.  True story.

I’ve seen people using the Hybrids, repeatedly scanning a loaf of bread while looking around for help.  My friend on the till would have scanned it first time.  If you’ve got alcohol or something else that needs authorisation then you’re left waiting until an assistant can come and release you back into the community from whence you wandered, happy and smiling, ten minutes earlier.  Just nipping in for a bottle of wine and a curry you said.  Now you need something more substantial.  “What kept you?” your partner says as you get into the car.  You mumble something about bloody technology and drive home, which is something that, for now, you can still enjoy doing yourself.