Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Default Burger

I think I'm going to do a trilogy of posts about food. Outdoor dining is one big problem, but another one is burgers. How do you serve one? Do you just throw on ketchup? How bout mustard? Pickles, lettuce, tomato? Mayo? Special sauce, relish, onions? Barbeque? Guac? And we're not even talking about the bacon and the cheese, or some of the more exotic stuff like hot sauce and egg.

Everyone likes their burger a little different. How many permutations of these toppings are there? Millions? Me, I like a cheesburger with ketchup and raw onions. Occasionally bacon - the flavor can be a little too dominant. And here's the real catch. I don't like pickles, but I also don't like no pickles. I like the faint, lingering residue of pickle that comes from finding pickles in your burger and removing them.

And I have several dealbreaker toppings. Mustard and mayo are two. They can be kinda scraped off, but they can't be truly eliminated. That burger is ruined. Same with Russian, or any unwelcome sauce.

And that's just me. One person in the whole burger consumption universe. Unless you serve me a burger with the cheese, the ketchup, the raw onion, and the freshly evicted pickle slice, you've left me unsatisfied. How can you serve a burger that will make everyone happy? You can't. It's not possible. Which leads me to this weeks' constructive suggestion for society. What I propose is a kind of hamburger bill of rights. We should enshrine these principles into law.

1) No condiment or topping should be served on a burger without the explicit permission of the burger consuming party.

2) One should never assume that they can act as a burger topping selection proxy for someone else.

3) When condiment preference is in any doubt, serve plain.

4) Serving the burger open faced, with toppings placed invitingly on either the heel or crown is not an acceptable compromise.

5) "Cheese" means cheddar or American. It doesn't mean jack, provelone, muenster or swiss.

6) "Onions" require clarification. They can be raw or grilled. If you intend to serve them carmelized, or a non-burger variety like Bermuda, this requires special consent. If you intend to serve an onion-ring on the burger, you are an idiot.

7) Saying that a burger contains 100% real Angus beef has never, once, impressed anyone.

A few burger establishments should be congratulated for being ahead of the curve on this. Burger King burgers, despite being bad overall, have always been open to full customization. Every other chain has since adopted the "Have it Your Way" philosphy. Fatburger, for instance, has signs at the register reminding you to identify your topping preferences. That's thoughtful.

What's less encouraging is the way a default burger is prepared, absent of an expressed preference, at many of these places. McDonalds will put mustard on the burger. Now this is just totally nuts. Very few people want mustard on a cheeseburger. Why is this automatic? Then there's Wendys. Unless you specifically countermand it, your Wendys burger will have lettuce, tomato, pickle and mayo. Mayo, for Gods sakes.

When someone orders "pizza", does the restaurant feel at liberty to add whatever toppings they want? No. Does someone order "salad" and let the chef decide what kind? No. But apparantly we have all agreed to to just say "burger" and let the establishment slather it with mustard or mayo or whatever else they want. The default burger should be plain, and any additions must be solicited.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Outdoor Restaurant Seating

Sitting outdoors at a restaurant sucks. There are worse things, I grant you. It's not the gulag. But the indoor seating is just indisputably better. Don't argue with me. It's true.

I can see if there's a) no wind, b) no glare from the sun, c) no frequent passing car exhaust fumes, d) a high-70s temperature, e) no insects, f) seating that's comparably comfortable to the indoor seating (i.e. not just metal chairs), and g) no annoying ambient noise, then yes, okay - you have a case for eating outside. But, in the 99% of the time when these ideal conditions won't exist, don't give me the "It's suuuuuuch a beaaaaauuutiful day.... Wouldn't you rather be outdoors?" No. No I wouldn't rather be outdoors. Is there something wrong with that?

See, that's the thing about these people who always want the outdoor table. I'm not allowed to have an indoor-preference. There's this presumption with them that they are in sole possession of the one acceptable preference: eating outside - and anyone who disagrees with them is seriously wrong in the head, and/or is maliciously out to spoil their good time.

I don't get it. It's just not the case that outdoors is always better. "Oh Harold, it's such a beautiful day - let's take a shit outside!" There's this mindset that, I don't know, all indoor activities and indoor living is some kind of tragic compromise, that outdoors is man's natural state. That any experience or task or activity is nicer if it can be done outside. In my opinion it's just the opposite. I think the entire history of human civilization and human endeavor has been one long quest to get indoors. Not to discover truth and God and purpose, but to be able to say "Screw this shit, I'm going inside."

Eating in particular is something that's especially well suited for the indoors. There's just too much little stuff that can get on your nerves at an outdoor table. That glare. Man, the glare. Notice how the person who proposes the outdoor seating always chooses the seat facing away from the glare. They should be obligated to sit into the glare. That should be the price. I mean there's just this unspoken covenant that you can't talk about the glare. That you should just suck it up and be a man. Have you ever tried to eat a plate of pasta when the sun is low in the afternoon sky, square with your shoulders, aimed directly at your face? Do it right now. Go outside and stare at the sun and try to get hungry. It just doesn't work.

And the wind. Ever had to use the condiments or the sugar-pack bowl to weigh something down so it wouldn't blow away? Why am I doing that? Was it worth it to sit out here?

Very occasionally, the outdoor seating is nice. You're on a Caribbean island. It's sunset, there's a terrace overlooking the ocean. The air is fragrant and warm and you can hear the surf. Bring on the sirloin and the twice baked potato. But street level dining at a downtown Chilis? Ever listen up close to a braking bus as it approaches the red light? The ear-splitting whine followed by the high-decibel chugging of the idling carriage? There's a nice sequence of sounds and smells. Oh but I forgot - it's suuuuch a beeauuutiful day.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Letting Children Win

I say it's time for this to stop.

The argument is simple. In real life, you lose. When a kid plays with his peers, he will lose. The sports team he roots for will lose. He will play video games and lose. Even when he's doing nothing more than drinking a coke he will play the look-under-the-cap game and lose.

Since the kid is going to have to deal with losing anyway, wouldn't it be a good idea to teach him early on how to cope with it? Learning grace, manners, sportsmanship - learning to be proud of your effort despite losing, all of this should be a priority.

I have a few childhood memories about this stuff. My first memory of losing was when I saw a new box of cheerios in the kitchen. There was some fabulous prize to be won if the card inside the box had the magic number printed on it. I tore open the box and found the card. The numbers were different. I lost. I remember not comprehending it. I didn't think that I was supposed to lose anything. I wondered if my mom had bought the non-winning box by accident.

I also remember a family wiffleball game in the park when I was about 9. My team was far out in front. In fact, we needed just one more out to seal up the win. There were two men on, but my seven-year-old-girl cousin was coming to bat. A ha! The easiest out on their whole bench! She predictably hit a weak dribbler to the mound, and I knew it was all over. I waited on first for the throw. But then my uncle, aunt and parents went into this 3 stooges routine where they deliberately fumbled, bobbled and tripped over each other, failing to collect the ball or pass it to anyone, and meanwhile my cousin was circling the bases. I screamed in agony and shock. Somewhere during this game-winning, in the park wiffleball homerun it dawned on me that my teammates were throwing the game. This merely doubled my incoherent rage. "You're letting her win! You're letting her win!" My cousin and her little friends were jumping for joy and I was on the ground, apoplectic.

This was probably where my opposition to letting kids win got started. In addition to making sure that kids learn how to lose with class, there are other good reasons to bring on your A-game when taking on junior. 1) How is the kid supposed to get better? As a poker player, I can tell you with certainty that one of the best ways to learn is to have your ass handed to you by a table full of superior players. That's what toughens you. Now if you're trying to teach a kid tennis, or chess, or something like that - how's he going to develop his ability if you keep handing him the confidence-building wins?. What about strengthening his intelligence? His tactics and strategy? The only way you can do that is by challenging him.

2) Is there nothing more insufferable than a kid who has never been permitted to lose? Do you really want to be around this whiny load? God forbid something ever goes wrong in his world - out come the waterworks and the tantrum.

In my opinion, the personification of the impulse to let kids win is the Sesame Street character Guy Smiley.

Guy was the game show host muppet. He'd have games like "Name That Shape!" (Yes! A decahedron!) and no matter what happened over the course of the game show, the ending would always be the same. He'd say something like "Well, the judges have totalled the scores... and... YOU ALL WIN!" And at home, at age 6, I'd be sooooo frustrated. "NOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!" Because I wanted, just once, to see a muppet contestant lose on the Guy Smiley show. I was so eager to bask in the schadenfreude of a distraught, crying muppet.

Well, yes, Mr. Hooper died and there were plenty of distraught muppets then. But that was sad. I wanted to relish in the misery of a muppet game show loser. Never happened.

Now you don't want to totally thrash the kid at the game or the sport. You don't have to go overboard. But you don't just give him the win either. If you want him to log in a few wins once in a while to build his confidence, try a game that's mostly luck. Like Yahtzee. The kid will win his fair share of those. (unless he's really a moron)

Saturday, October 15, 2005

The "No Bullshit" Line

I have a class this semester on "Service Management", which is maybe one or two evolutionary steps higher than the kind of pablum BS that we had to learn in Management Theory. (Management Theory was the class where we learned how to... talk to people.) There are at least some marginally useful concepts in this class, like how to make lines move quicker.

Now that would be useful to society, wouldn't it? Making lines move quicker. I'm fully on board with that goal. The class is all about automating tasks, upgrading software, taking care of customer's needs at home via computer so that they don't even have to come into the bank, etc.

That's all well and good, but it doesn't get at the root of the real problem that keeps most lines long and glacially paced. It's the idiots, the bewildered and confused, the assholes, the non-English speaking people and their stuttering nephew interpreters, and the conversation-starved elderly. That's the problem.

You're at the post office. You're there to do one of a few quick tasks. Maybe buy a roll of stamps. Maybe have a package weighed and posted. Maybe you got a slip in the mail and you're there to pick up your parcel. Quick and painless. Nothing big. You're maybe fifth in line. But why is it that the line isn't moving? Why has that one woman been at the window since you came in, ten minutes ago? What postal transaction could possibly be taking so long?

Or maybe you're snaking your way through a long airport check-in line. And you just happen to notice that one of the 3 available check-in desks has had the same family standing there talking with the agent the WHOLE time you've been on the line. The whole time. What, like 20 minutes? Why? Isn't the idea that you just step up, present your e-ticket, confirm your flight, check your bag, and take your boarding pass? It's a 2 minute procedure. What else is there?

One more. You live in Las Vegas. You have a $25 casino chip that you want to cash out. You go to the cage. There's a line. The man currently being helped seems to have ID Cards, documents in triplicate, a passport, a credit history, and a paystub out and he's involved in some fiendishly complex negotiation with the cashier. What the fuck is going on?

Ladies and gentlemen, I present my solution: The NO BULLSHIT Line. This would be a dedicated separate line, with an assigned staffperson, reserved for the exclusive use of people who have a bullshit-free transaction. Oooh oooh, and even if you had a bullshit-dense transaction and the NO BULLSHIT line was free, you still couldn't use it.

This is sort of a spiritual successor to the "10 items or less" line, or the "cash only" line, only it's applicable to virtually any business environment. Imagine the scene. You enter the airport. The check-in line is enormous, and what... only 3 desks open? You'll be there forever. But wait, there's virtually nobody waiting at the No Bullshit Line. You approach it. In front of you on the No Bullshit Line is a man, his fat wife and their three, fidgeting children. The family steps up to the counter, and my, do they have a long list of problems. Can they get a seat change on the flight? Do they have enough VISA miles to get an upgrade on the return leg? Speaking of which, we need to change that return day to Sunday. Is there a fee for that? Oh, and little Timmy will be taking a connecting flight by himself next week. Can someone meet him and help him get on the plane?

The agent listens patiently, and finally cuts in. "I'm sorry sir, this line is for No Bullshit transactions only. But don't worry, they'll be able to help you at the regular check in desk."

"But we're already here!"

"I'm so sorry for the inconvenience. May I help the next passenger with a bullshit-free transaction?"

Oh, the satisfaction. The joy. The justice. The look on dad's face as he turns around and contemplates the full line. The departing of what remains of his sprit. His acceptance of the suffering ahead of him. While I step up and conduct my business in exactly one minute - thirty, dad and family trudge off to the main line and get in place behind the man with the caged dog, and the old woman whose head never stops quivering in a circular motion.

And the guy at the casino cage with a limited command of english trying to exchange pesos for dollars. And the woman at the post office who doesn't understand when the clerk says that her box needs to be secured with more tape. And the dude at the ATM who seems to be milking every last drop of functionality out of the ATM's three choices. And the old man at the bank who never likes to get down to business until he's had a 5 minute conversation with the teller. And all the other millions of permutations of people who require special treatment and special attention, they can all step aside, and wait patiently for their turn to occupy someone's time with their bullshit.

The soup nazi had it right. Give me a line where something quick and simple can just get done. Give me a fast, convenient experience - one commensurate with the simplicity of my errand. Put me and those like me on a separate track.

P.S. We could at least start by enforcing the rules we already have. How often do you see a checkout person at the supermarket actually enforce the 10-items-or-less rule? Never. Wouldn't it be nice to actually see an offender kicked out into the normal line?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Saw my first Christmas commercial last night, October 11th. This may be a new record. It was for Carnival Cruises. Let's all do a good deed now and never take a Carnival Cruise.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Potpourri 4

Requesting an End to the Conversation
Here's a longstanding pet peeve I have. It's when you tell the person on the other end of the phone that you have to go because something is unexpectedly demanding your immediate attention, and the other person just doesn't get it and keeps the conversation going. Examples:

1. You: "Oh, hey - pizza guy's here. I gotta go."
Other person: "Oh yeah? Pizza? That sounds good! What kinda pizza?"

2. You: "Oh, okay - gotta hang up - the movie's starting."
Other person: "All right. But hey, before you go, what are we doing on Friday?"

3. You: "Oh, hey - that's my dad on the other line - I gotta go."
Other person: "Yeah? Hey how is your dad by the way?"

This really pisses me off. This is a simple cue to get off the phone. Obvious, perfectly commonplace, perfectly understandable. And your friend ignores it. More than once I've been tempted to just stop everything, ignore whatever it is that's pulling me off the phone, and just give my complete attention to the caller, confronting him squarely about his failure to let me off the phone, engaging him in lengthy conversation about it, refusing to change the subject, until I've reduced him to whimpering and tears.

There is only one response to "X just happened, I have to go." and it's "Oh! Okay! Talk to you later." That's it. You either say that sentence, or you are an ass. Maybe there'd be an exception if your caller could somehow trump your emergency with something even more important, but that would be rare.

Orange Juice Commercials Posing as Public Service Announcements
We're all familiar with ads from the Beef Board or the American Dairy Council, where they promote, uh, beef. And dairy. It's all good. I like a nonspecific commercial for "beef". "Beef, it's what's for dinner." That's nice. All commercials should be like that. "Slippers. Warm, comfortable - go out and get a pair." ... "Paper. You know you need more." etc.

But the orange juice people have gone too far. The one thing you're not supposed to do with these ads is get brand specific. What the juice people do is make it look like it's some kind of health department public service announcement. They have a smooth voiced announcer telling you about rising cholesterol and the risks of an unhealthy diet and lack of exercise. In the background are jogging people and heartbeat-monitor graphics and lab coat types holding test tubes, and it looks very official. And then they get to the point. "Studies have shown that drinking a glass of Minute Maid orange juice every day lowers cholesterol, blood pressure, and the risk of heart disease."

Hold the phone. Who gives a damn what brand of orange juice it is? Were the "studies" brand specific? Did the studies show that if you drank Tropicana orange juice instead then you were "Screwed, man. Screwed."

Now if it was an explicit Minute Maid juice ad then I wouldn't care. But this thing is masquarading as some kind of objective health announcement. The first 15 seconds of this ad had me convinced that this doctor really cared about me and my cholesterol. I was ready to take his advice. But no doctor telling you to drink orange juice would mention a brand preference. He's giving the game away. He's not a doctor, he's a Minute Maid house monkey.

The Minute Maid ad is fairly new. For years it was "Pure Florida Orange Juice", leaving me wondering why it was so important that the oranges come from Florida. Trying to make it sound like there was no health benefit unless it was a Florida orange. Bah!

What the Hell is This Thing?

I mean, I've seen this object dozens of times in commercials my whole life. Apparantly its purpose is to gently apply small dollops of honey to things. Has this thing ever been spotted in real life? Does a person buy one of these when he's not satisfied with just spooning honey into his oatmeal - he feels the need to turn it into a slow, fetish-like ritual? I think we need Martha Stewart to settle this one.

Monday, October 03, 2005

The International Star Registry

Hmm.. it seems I'm a little late on this one.

I was ready to rip the International Star Registry a new one and call them all kinds of names, but a whole lot of people have beat me to it, it appears, and now the ISR has bowed in complete submission and surrender.

This was the situation. Back in high school, I heard about this great gift idea. For about 40 or 50 bucks, you could actually name a star. The are millions of catalogued stars out there, most of them with just numerical designations and coordinates, so the international astronomy community could raise a little money by selling people the right to name them. What a cool idea! How awesome would it be to name an actual star? I could just imagine some future colony in a spaceship approaching my star, consulting their ancient charts, saying "Captain, it appears we're approaching the Dagobah system, in the Asshat cluster..."

And of course let's not forget the massive points one would earn naming a star after your sweetheart. You wouldn't have to lift a finger for the rest of the day, I can promise you that.

So here was this great idea, and I was ready with my wallet open to start naming stars left and right. And then I found out the truth. The truth is that the International Star Registry is just a private commerical organization with absolutely no authority to name anything after anybody. No authority whatsoever. It's just a couple of guys in an office. Their website was a masterpiece of deception. They didn't technically lie. They said things like:

"The name of your star will be registered and copywritten."
(Well, if by register, you mean "written down", then yes.)

"It will be published in the annual journal of astronomical names and designations."
(It was some book that they published themselves. It carried no additional meaning.)

"You will receive a signed certificate and a star chart with the position of your star indicated."
(Yup. They certainly would send you those things.)

Every choice of word and phrase was calculated to make it appear that this was official and legit, while at the same time cautiously avoiding any outright falsehood. It was clear that the International Star Registry business model depended entirely on deception. People would only buy a Star from ISR if they could be made to believe that ISR was offering something that it wasn't.

This cuts right to the core of things I despise the most. This is as bad as Digimon. For a while I would rant to whoever would listen about the ISR fake-out and how they were preying on innocent sentiment to make a quick buck.

But apparantly there have been some developments. I googled the ISR and came up with a lot of warnings from consumers, astronomers, all sorts of people - cautioning people about the scam. I also found a cease and desist type letter from the city of New York. http://www.enzerink.net/peter/astronomy/starfaq/isr_news.html

So then I went and checked the ISR website itself. Whoa nelly has it changed its tune! It's totally different now. They're no longer trying to fake you out. Now they're explicit that it's just a fun, make-believe gesture. What a 180! Go and see yourself.

At the bottom is their little, sad disclaimer. "International Star Registry star naming is not recognized by the scientific community. Your star’s name is reserved in Internatnal Star Registry records only." (Internatnal?) On the "About Us" page, they make plain that it's all just for fun. Ha ha! Up yours, International Star Registry!

So that's a little victory for the good guys huh? On a side note, I found out while doing this research that Nicole Kidman bought a star and named it "Forever Tom". Jesus. If you really were under the impression that you were giving a star a permanent name, could you please not make future generations heave and puke? (I'm guessing also it was a really small star that hung around even smaller astronomical objects to look big by comparison.)