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

Sweet As Molasses (Recipe Round-Up)

23 Dec

I vividly remember when my love affair with gingerbread began. It wasn’t what you think: it had nothing to do with Christmas. Instead it was sometime in the summer, sometime in elementary school. My family was on vacation in D.C. and decided to spend the day at Colonial Williamsburg, a living history museum in Virginia. I was really excited to be there – I’d read a bunch of historical fiction about the Colonial era. As we wandered the grounds, we bought a pack of gingerbread as a snack. One bite of that spicy, cakey treat and I was hooked. These were round, soft cakes with the perfect dose of molasses and the perfect blend of fragrant spices. I’ve been a gingerbread fan ever since.

Back in the Colonial days gingerbread was enjoyed throughout the year, for a variety of occasions. These days, it’s largely associated with winter and Christmas. Come winter molasses goes on sale, and I buy copious amounts. I like to experiment with new takes on gingerbread flavors, from muffins to cake. As many of you prep for this week’s Christmas baking frenzy, I’d like to share some of my favorite molasses-based recipes.

The Tartine recipe suggests molding the dough into patterned tiles, but I just make square cookies. This is certainly prettier!

Tartine’s S0ft Glazed Gingerbread: This is my absolute favorite, go-to gingerbread recipe. It’s from a renowned bakery based in San Francisco’s Mission District, but a friend actually sent me the recipe a before I even lived in SF. This is the cookie that comes closest to those first gingerbread cookies back at Williamsburg, too. Cakey, spicy, fragrant. I tend to treat myself to a slice over at Tartine, then bake my own take on it at home, too.

Molasses Triple Chocolate Cookies

Apple Pumpkin Gingerbread Muffins

Pumpkin Gingersnaps

Lemon Ginger Button Cookies

Next on my list: 

Gingersnap Spice Cake 

Brown Butter Soft Batch Gingersnaps

Soft Chocolate Gingersnaps

Soft Gingersnaps with White Chocolate

Another Man’s Treasure

17 Dec

Rusted spice tins. Torn postcards. Decorative lamps. Bin after bin of mismatched buttons.

As my friend and I strolled the never-ending aisles of the Alameda Point Antiques Fair, I started to wonder where the line falls between “old but worthless” and “old but meaningful.” We saw beautifully restored furniture, dazzling period jewelry and fascinating art. But we also saw a lot of things that just looked… well… old.

I had the same thought a few days later as I browsed the collection at an antique map store. Sure, there were cool maps and rare documents in there. But I was surprised to also find a very robust collection of those tourist maps you get from the hotel front desk. You know, the kind that tears off a pad and only lists every 5th street name, so that you’re never fully sure where you ended up once you stray off the main-street path. What were these dime-a-dozen maps doing in an antique store?

If I wanted to buy a souvenir bracelet 80 years after it was sold - does that mean someone will want to buy my childhood keychains someday?

Cool, right?

We hear stories of appraised antiques fetching millions at specialty auctions. And we’ve all seen important documents under lock-and-key. But for all the things that don’t get assessed by an Antiques Roadshow committee, how do you know if it’s worth anything?

Perhaps the meaning is in the eyes of the beholder. Back at the Alameda Fair that day, I geeked out when I found this souvenir bracelet from the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition. I spotted it, squealed, and exclaimed to my friend that I absolutely had to buy it. I am probably the only person you know who would get so excited about a World’s Fair souvenir. Maybe someone else that day got excited about a rusty spice tin, or a broken appliance, or a box of mismatched buttons. We find meaning where we feel it, tied to what we care about.

And that makes me wonder: which of my belongings and mementos could someday prove “meaningful” to a stranger? Should I save all my tear-off hotel maps and restaurant menus? Should I hold onto my Quaker Oats canisters in case one day, somehow, they become collectibles? Should I keep my childhood souvenir keychain collection well into adulthood?

I can’t advocate hoarding in the hopes that someday someone pays you a pretty penny for your belongings. But I love to imagine that years from now, someone wandering an antique fair will stumble upon a postcard I wrote or a souvenir I bought, squeal, and insist they just have to have it.


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