Peanut, Peanut Butter (Recipe Roundup)

19 Mar

People in the U.S. sure love peanut butter. It’s consumed in 94% of U.S. households, and Americans consume enough peanut butter per year to make more than 10B peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Walk the aisles of your local grocery store and you’ll find an ever-expanding selection of varieties, from chunky to smooth to chocolate-swirled. We put peanut butter on our fruit, our bread, even on our celery. Of course, my favorite way to eat peanut butter is in my desserts. Here’s a list of some of my favorite peanut butter-y treats I’ve made in the past, along with what I want to make in the future.

These Peanut Butter and Jelly cookies come from the blog “Tastes Lovely” – I can’t wait to make them!

Nutella-Stuffed Oatmeal PB Cookies 

Salted Chocolate Chip PB Cookies

PB Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies

Buckeyes (peanut butter candy filling, dipped in chocolate)

Chocolate Chip PB Oatmeal Skillet Cookie

Fudgy PB Swirl Brownies

Chocolate PB Cheesecake Bars

Next on my list: 

PB Cookie Brownies 

PB and Jelly Cookies

Banana Brownies with PB Frosting

Chocolate-Covered Pretzel PB Brownies 

The Life of a Coffee Table

9 Mar

Think back to your dorm days when you were assigned a boring, basic room with boring, basic furniture. That standard-issue room slowly became yours as you added a favorite blanket, photos of friends, maybe a poster or two. And as time passed, even that boring, basic furniture gained significance. When I think back to college, I forget about the white walls and stiff chairs. Instead, I think back to late nights writing at my desk, smoothie parties in my neighbor’s room, conversations in the long, sterile hallways. Basic, boring spaces became meaningful over time, thanks to our experiences and memories.

The Lack Table

I love a Washington Post story about Ikea coffee tables for this very reason. In her article, Jessica Contrera describes the “life” of an Ikea Lack coffee table across a variety of homes and owners. Contrera uses Craigslist posts as her inspiration, imagining the circumstances around each table’s acquisition and subsequent re-sell. Her story is well-written, and her point well-made. In this day of mass-produced merchandise and chain retail, so many of us own the same things. But it’s how we experience and use those things that turns a “possession” into a “personal belonging.”

As I wrote in a recent post about antique fairs, I think objects gain their value from the realms of emotion, experience and memory. I do a good amount of in-home interviews for my job, and one of the most interesting portions is the home tour. Our respondents give us a brief tour of their home, explaining things that have particular significance. It’s not always the wedding photos or trophies or expensive clothing that makes the cut. It’s often the everyday objects, or the most-used furniture. I could see the same table in 6 homes, and I guarantee you I would hear 6 very different stories of how that table is used. I realize this may sound like marketing speak to some of you, but nothing is “just” an object. There are always more layers to be found.

You should read the entire Washington Post piece, but for now I’ll leave you with my favorite quote:

“Described as sparsely as it is designed, the Lack table is discarded on Craigslist for $10 to $20, as if its companionship during the disorienting time of 20-something-ness gave it no additional value. As if it hadn’t been such a reliable foot rest during sessions of scrolling on Facebook, silently comparing the new lives of college friends. As if it hadn’t been such an adequate plate holder for food that was a real, cooked meal, and thus, a victory.” – Jessica Contrera

Like Taking Candy From A Baby

22 Feb

Have you ever found yourself unexpectedly buying candy – just because you saw it at the checkout counter? You know the drill. The grocery store line is taking a while, so you start to eye the tabloid covers. Once you get sick of reading about the Kardashians your gaze shifts to the rows of candy and gum. And suddenly there are chocolate bars on the conveyor belt, mixed in with your “real” shopping list.

Checkout impulse buys have long been a staple merchandising strategy. So it stirred up quite the commotion when massive UK retailer Tesco announced it would no longer sell candy in any of its checkout lines. Tesco enacted this policy in most stores years ago, but now they’re extending it to every store they run. Tesco’s reps attributed their decision to a customer survey showing that 65% of its shoppers wanted the candy removed. That statistic doesn’t surprise me at all. When we can’t rely on ourselves to act in a “responsible” way we tend to favor mechanisms that “protect” us from undesirable behaviors. Removing the trigger is easier than learning to resist the trigger. It’s the same reason I don’t keep Nutella at home. I know I won’t be able to resist eating it from the jar with a spoon… so I don’t buy it at all.

Tesco says their decision is in customers’ best interests, and they’re right. But the reason it’s so popular to put candy at the checkout is because it increases customers’ “average basket ring.” Which begs the question: what does Tesco hope to gain? When basket ring goes down, what goes up?

Well, for one, they’ll get shoppers’ goodwill. We all want to make healthier choices, after all. They’ll get parents’ goodwill, because shopping is less of a hassle if kids aren’t begging for candy while you’re trying to pay. And they get a reputation for caring about their customers, too.

Personally I think the more interesting question is whether Tesco should be doing this at all. There are many studies showing that shopper behavior is profoundly affected by merchandising. We’re more likely to buy the brands at eye level, more likely to buy more if we’re using a basket, more likely to buy more if we have to walk all the way to the back of the store to find the milk. But when stores start use merchandising to affect our choices in a constructive way it gets more interesting. Do stores have a responsibility to help us make good choices? It is even responsible for them to try to do so?

I recently read a book called Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Nudge discusses subtle ways that changes in policies and process influence us to make better, healthier choices. But when is it right for organizations to do this? And when is it beyond the scope of what an organization should do? Do we really want companies and governments explicitly influencing how we live? Do you want your grocery store helping you make your eating decisions?

I highly recommend reading Nudge if you want to ponder other ways your choices aren’t solely yours. For a nice preview, check out this article from the WSJ.

Off The Charts

6 Feb

ffeeeAt first glance, the chart to the left looks like an analysis of the things people do in a coffee shop. According to the chart, people spend more time buying and photographing their coffee than drinking the actual coffee. “Wow!” you think. “How interesting!” You want to share this fun fact with friends, so you start posting the chart on social media. Your friends also find this incredibly interesting. Until a particularly critical pal takes a closer look… and emails you to tell you the chart is completely bogus.

The image above from a Bold Italic series called “Made Up Charts.” All the data is fabricated and the charts are meant to entertain, not educate. This is an extreme example, of course, where it’s clearly labeled as fake. But while charts and graphs can be useful to digest information, their format also has a profound impact on the way people interpret information. According to a Cornell University study, people are more likely to believe information if a chart is included in the explanation. Two sets of people were shown descriptions of the same cold medicine. One description had charts and the other did not. Among those who didn’t see charts: 68% believed the medicine worked. Among those who saw charts: 97% of people believed the medicine worked.

This jump is significant. It shows just how much presentation matters, sometimes even more than the information we hope to convey. A chart makes people think information is more legitimate. We shouldn’t need charts to help us make decisions about what and who to believe. But graphic representation provides a credibility nudge, nonetheless.

Researchers have found a similar effect when studies or products claim to be “backed by science.” Just the suggestion that something is backed by science is all it takes: the materials don’t even need to include complex formulas. Simply listing a product’s ingredients in scientific terms, not layman’s terms, can be all it takes to make that product sound more “effective.”

Charts and graphs can be helpful, but we certainly shouldn’t let them affect how we interpret what we read. Pay attention to your reading habits. Are you more likely to believe something if there’s an official-looking chart? Do graphs feel particularly credible to you? Is your opinion swayed by presentation?

If you’re interested in learning other subtle ways we’re influenced by information architecture, check out Nudge. It’s a behavioral economics book with really interesting case studies.

Even if they’re bogus, or rather because they’re bogus, made up charts can be a lot of fun. Here are two of my favorite sources for humorous graphs:

If These Streets Could Talk (Picture Prattle)

28 Jan

I’ve always found streetscapes alluring. There’s something about peering down a street that stirs my curiosity. I wonder about the place’s world, its people, its ways. I think about the things that happen there, both important and mundane. I stare down the road, anticipating what lays ahead.

I’m sure my love of streetscapes ties to my love of wandering, to that burst of adrenaline I get when I start to explore. Wandering feels like a choose-your-own-adventure storyline. Should I stick to this street, or turn off? If I do turn, should I go left or right? If I just keep going straight – where will I end up? How will the scenery change as I continue on?

Whenever I get back from a trip I realize that about 50% of my photos are streetscapes. I’ve framed many of them and put them up on my walls. Gazing at these photos provides a sense of serenity, but also a sense of possibility. They inspire me to let my creativity wander, to let my brain go down its own path. They remind me of the thrill of adventure, and the rush of discovery.

Here are some of my favorite shots from the last several years. Where will you wander next?

Lost in Translation

15 Jan
This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

This is posted at a cultural site in Nimes, France

At some point, you’ve probably laughed at the absurdity of a poorly translated message. Perhaps you were in another country and read a translation so wrong, it was ludicrous. I don’t support laughing at people who make mistakes while trying to use foreign language skills. But I can’t help but giggle myself when it’s clear the poor translation is the work of an text-based tool. Those 1:1 tools just can’t pinpoint nuance, and they often suggest literal translations that make little sense, or suggest the wrong sense altogether.

Translation has been in the news recently thanks to Google products that promise workable, real-time translation. Google’s Word Lens translates signs with an impressive text overlay, while its live-audio service allows you to have a real-time conversation with someone speaking a different language. Both tools are a big improvement over pure text-field translation, and I can think of many scenarios where they’d prove useful and meaningful. Still, a couple of friends and I had to wonder: will tools ever get the cultural side of translation right?

When you study a foreign language you soon realize that translation is an art, not a science. Translating word-for-word can be clumsy at best, and culturally insensitive at worst. Gaining fluency isn’t just about vocabulary: it’s about knowing the right way to say things, and when to say them. So as you learn a new language, you also learn a new way of expressing yourself. Proverbs and idioms add another layer of complexity, as they’re often very different across languages and cultures. Try to translate your own culture’s idioms directly into a foreign tongue and you’ll likely receive blank looks because the intended meaning just isn’t there.

Add in cultural concepts, and you’ll find it’s even harder to get your point across once you switch tongues. This past week, a Facebook friend posted an article about culture and translation that really resonated with me. The article talks about “cultural concepts we don’t have in the U.S.” Examples range from a Norwegian term that expresses the benefits of being outside, to a Danish term that signifies “a deep sense of cosy.” As demonstrated by the article, you can certainly translate these ideas into other languages and get to an understandable place. But the translated versions just don’t have the same imbued meaning when they’re used by someone with a different cultural context. Trying to learn these concepts, and what they imply in their native cultures, can give us new ways of looking at our world.

I’m hopeful that new translation tools will help us be even more connected with fellow humans all around the world. But I hope they doesn’t inspire people to get lazy about learning new languages, or lazy about immersing themselves in other cultures. There is so much more to understanding other people than just being able to carry on a functional, efficient conversation. We’d be silly indeed to let technology take the place of trying to understand for ourselves.

Just for fun, because they really are good for a laugh: here are some of my favorite mis-translations from travels. These are clear victims of unedited, web-based translations.

The Annual Report (vol. 2)

11 Jan

Last year I wrote about a man named  Nicholas Felton who collects data on his daily life, then publishes an “annual report” for family and friends. His practice fits into the category of the “quantified self,” a phrase that’s getting hotter by the day. The “quantified self” refers to collecting data about your habits and practices to evaluate some aspect of behavior. Everyday it seems more devices emerge that track our personal “inputs,” from calories consumed to steps taken. Some think we might be at risk of mining too much personal data. Partly because companies or criminals could exploit it, and partly because it may just get burdensome to interpret every little thing you do.

What I like about Felton’s particular data set is its emphasis on the seemingly mundane. So much of what happens in our year isn’t social media share-worthy, or even text share-worthy. The bulk of our moments are made up of things like buying a quick snack, walking to the bus, and sitting in business meetings. Facebook’s “Year in Review” would certainly look different if it reported on things like that, wouldn’t it?

I don’t collect data to Felton’s degree of granularity so I can’t tell you every little mundane thing that happened to me this past year. But like I did last year, I decided to pull together an “annual report” with some fun facts and charts. The info below is based on rough notes in my personal journals. I could take it much further if I went into my online accounts – think about how much data we all have on ourselves! How would you measure your year?

travel 2014

basking 2

fun facts

One more thing: a quick round-up of the most popular posts on my blog for 2014. Thanks to all of you who read, comment, debate, etc. I love hearing from you!

39 posts published in 2014

Top 5 Posts – Not Food 

  1. What Is It Good For?
  2. A Touch of Class
  3. A Year Abroad
  4. Pay to Play
  5. Things Aren’t What They Seem

Top 5 Posts – Food 

  1. Buttery Goodness
  2. The Quandary of $4 Toast
  3. Something Unexpected (Recipe Round-Up)
  4. Tea for Thirty
  5. Potato, Potahto

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