Sunday, 21 November 2010

Ad sense? No sense

I have noticed a change in my web use recently. The pages I visit regularly nearly all seem to have targeted ads by Google. In other words, it is not the Guardian that is choosing the ads I see when I read their newspaper on line. Sure they get some revenue, but Google is picking the ads to show to me. Based on what I have been up to on line. Which in the last couple of weeks has been planning my winter vacation. So now every time I glance at an ad it is either for Celebrity cruises or one of the big US hotel chains. But I actually have zero interest in these sites now, since I have (some time ago actually) completed all the arrangements. I am not "in the market" for buying these services. I have made my choices and paid my money. So showing me ads for them is a waste of effort. I am not about to click on them now, especially if I learn that the price I paid has now gone down some more. That won't add anything to my happiness.

Indeed it was seeing such ads for my former cell phone company that offered new customers a much better deal than they would offer me as a well established client with a good history. They even cheekily suggested that they would need a credit check. So now I am with a new cell phone company.

Google's algorithms are very clever indeed. But the basic idea of a successful advertisement is to alert me to a product or service, convince me to use one brand over others and then make me a customer. If I am already a customer - and not yet ready to consider repeat business - the ad is of no use to me - or the advertiser. If I was Celebrity Cruises or Westin Hotels I would be rethinking my on line strategy. Because I don't see this one winning any new business from me.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Cooking with Italian Grandmothers

When someone offers me a book to review, I think twice. I get offered more than I can comfortably deal with, and not all of them actually fit in with either my blogs' concerns or even my own. In this case, my interest stems from the development of the slow food movement originally conceived in Italy as a protest against fast food in general and McDonalds in particular. There are common themes here with rediscovering the pleasure of good food - locally sourced ingredients - a more connected way of life with a greater sense of community. It has been fascinating to me to discover how much of our local green activists' time is centered around food. This started with ideas like harvesting the fruit that neighbours were not bothering to collect themselves from their own gardens - which could be delivered to the local food bank. Community gardens have been shown to play a key role in increasing neighbourhood security. And here, offering to cultivate the gardens of others that were otherwise an expensive burden just to maintain as lawns, is producing local food and at the same time reducing the need for artificial weedkillers and fertilisers.

This is a big book. I put in on my kitchen scales and it came in at 1.5kg or 3 and half pounds. 295 pages - large format - with 150 colour photographs and 25 original illustrations. This is the sort of book that I probably would not buy for myself, but I would give to as a gift, and the timing of its publication is obviously aimed at the Christmas market. Because of its large size, and beautiful format, I would be hesitant to actually have it on my counter while I am cooking. There are cookbooks on my shelves that have been treated this way - and they fall open to favourite recipes where the pages are grease spattered. One of them - Delia Smith's Cookery Course - has for a long time been a staple. And that includes Osso Buco with Risotto. That offers a clear comparison with one of the early menus in this book. Delia aimed for simplicity and ease of replication so those unfamiliar with the dishes - and not having a handy Italian Granny - could be sure of producing something acceptable. Jessica Theroux is more interested in authenticity. The recipe she got from Mamma Maria has twice the number of ingredients as Delia's. That being said there is, of course, never just one way of cooking any meal - and I regard most recipes now as merely starting points. It helps if you have a good idea of what you are aiming for - and this is the sort of meal that is very accommodating to both the needs of the household - it won't hurt if it is kept waiting for a while - and adaptation to what is at hand. My partner noticed that Delia's version is almost bereft of vegetables - a great loss she thought. There's certainly more in Maria's.

This is not food for the faint of heart - or those concerned about their diet. "After two weeks of cooking with Mamma Maria, I had mastered the basics of Lombardian cuisine and added two inches to my waistline."

The recipes are only part of the book. The main attraction for many will be the narrative of how she met the women, and what they talked about. "This is a book about women and food and listening" is right at the front - and there were times when as a man I felt that I was intruding on the sort of discussions that woman have in kitchens - that they stop as soon as a man puts his head around the door. I am not sure I really wanted to know about some of the more intimate details discussed here, though I am sure that the people involved were consulted before their personal histories were published.

Theroux used the Slow Food Movement as a major resource in her explorations and according to her much of the content of the book was due to contacts and the willingness of people to recommend those of like mind. This makes reading the book much more pleasurable than the average recipe book. It is not only literate and informative, but full of stories - and we all love stories. For several evenings in a row, I simply settled on the couch and read them, delighting in the sense of belonging that they created. Sadly these days I am not called upon to create meals for many people. The recipes have to be scaled down for my kitchen. The quantities are given in the American fashion as volumes (not weights) so it is quite simple to adapt them. I somehow doubt that Italian Grandmothers are quite so precise. In my experience - especially with things like bread dough - the variability of such things as temperature and humidity can have significant impact on say the amount of flour needed to produce the sort of dough that will work easily. And whenever I talked to my Granny's - or my Mother for that matter - about cooking there was usually quite a range for many ingredients.

It would take a lot of time and effort to do this book justice. Trying out the recipes alone might take a year. Assuming one could source all the ingredients readily. Perhaps in major urban areas with Italian populations this will not be a problem, but I can see it causing some effort further afield. But worth trying, nonetheless. I am certainly going to try the sourdough bread next.

One thing I feel bound to comment upon is the disparity in pricing for the US and Canada - common to most books. While our currencies may be at par at present, book prices are not. This book retails for $40 in the US but $47 in Canada. Though you might, of course, find bookshops that will discount those amounts. It is certainly well worth $40 -and I can think of several members of my family who would be happy to find it in their stocking.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


At one time I used to keep the receipts for everything. Just in case. The litter that created I have been recycling. But I may have to start again, as so many things that I buy disappoint.

Not that this is a Big Deal - but when did it become standard practice to sell oranges with no juice in them? They look fine on the outside - and feel firm. But when they are peeled and segmented each one is simply a bundle of fibres. With almost no liquid. You cannot squeeze anything out of them at all. And this seems to be as likely with large Australian navels as small Peruvian mandarins.

Telus offer

I have decided to revive what has been dormant for a while . This blog I set up for things that were not transportation or planning. Maybe that's not specific enough - and may need to be changed. We will see but right now I have some things bugging me that i think are worth sharing with a wider audience.

I got an offer from Telus in the mail this morning. I have been looking at what I pay for tv, telephone and internet and this looked very tempting. Until I turned it over and started to read the tiny grey print on the back. Actually the fact that the print is so small and difficult to read is a red light for me, but the details are not at all encouraging. To get the promised low prices you have to sign a three year contract. They offer something really cheap in year 1, but say nothing about the rates in future years - but they do specify penalties for breaking the contract. In other words, the deal will turn out to be so poor that they expect people to want to get out of it once they find out what the prices are for the second and third years.

No, I won't switch. And if you want me as a customer, I want to know that i will be treated respectfully - not to be treated like a sucker.

And just in case anyone at Telus reads this the offer code is PZR01

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Cell phone rant

This all started when AirMiles sent me some promotional information from Primus. I was already a Primus customer, so I compared their offering to new customers to what I was paying, and the savings were significant. But the offering was only to new customers. And when I tried to get these new rates, I got the run around.

Some background first. So you can skip this bit if you like. I switched to Primus long distance some years ago, when it was still known as AT&T. The introduction of competition in the long distance market was welcome - at that time I was a BCTel customer (weren't we all) and the cheaper cost meant I could switch providers for ld service only and save money. At some stage, AT&T changed its named and joined the AirMiles "customer loyalty" program, so I had quite an incentive to get a cell phone from them, when they started offering that service. My first cell phone got lost - and I used it so little I didn't replace it, but other subsequent changes in my life seemed to indicate that a cell phone would be useful. When I last moved house, I bought a bundle from Shaw for home phone (including long distance) internet and tv. But I stayed with Primus for the cell phone since I had a three year contract. That contract expired last December.

Cell phones in Canada have for a long time been some of the most expensive in the world. Recent changes designed to bring in more competition - rather than the current proliferation of "resellers" (like Primus) and alternate brand identities for the three major carriers (Bell, Telus and Rogers) suggested to me that rates would finally start to come down, and some of the grinding restrictions customers faced here that are absent in other markets would dwindle. Actually, that has still to happen, as the barriers to entrance like setting up a new network of transmission towers is not trivial.

I was also carrying around a Palm Pilot - that no longer was any use at at picking up wifi - and a digital camera. So if I could get a new device like an iPhone I might be less encumbered with devices. The delay in bringing the iPhone 4 to Canada, the spat about antennas and its high cost deterred me from switching providers when my three year cell phone contract expired. But now I thought I should talk to Primus. So I called "customer service"and asked what i had to do to get the new rates offered to new customers. I could tell this did not fit into the script that the customer service rep had been given. The sticking point for me was that since I had to be treated as a new customer to get the new rates, they would do a credit check.

I paid Primus through pre-authorisation on my credit card and, for the period of the new contract, was willing to continue that arrangement. The rep agreed I had been a good customer - pre-authorisation means I never missed a payment. She also had to concede that a credit check was indeed insulting, but would occur automatically, and I would have been even more insulted if I found out afterwards that one had been done without them telling me. But she was helpless to do anything about it. So I suggested she get one of her managers to call me back. That took another 24 hours, and whoever called me was more emollient in tone but not actually capable of doing anything different. I talked to her about why customer retention should be important. Why getting emails from a company that claimed it valued me as customer, but charged me more than people "fresh off the street" and then told me they would check my credit - without cause -made me doubt the sincerity of that declaration.

So the next time I was in the mall, I started picking up cell phone rate cards. I already knew - from the experience of my son on a recent visit - that there was no such thing here as a disposable phone with a cheap pay as you go option. But there is a new company recently opened in Vancouver. Wind is just getting going so its network coverage is not yet Greater Vancouver wide, but will be soon. The main things they had to offer were no contracts - and thus no "free" phones - and no inexplicable fees. So no "network access" (Primus) or "government regulatory recovery fee" (Rogers wireless) and no "activation fee" (Fido).

I could get an Android phone (actually a Nokia 5230) which does much of what any smart phone will do, though the camera has limitations, of course. There are various rate plans - but it is important to note that none of the add-ons like US unlimited long distance is available on the lowest price voice + text $15 plan. That is also, by the way, not mentioned in their literature.

Now one thing that I wanted to do was hang on to my old cell phone number. And the WIND rep at the mall told me that would get me a rate discount too! What she did not say, but I learned today, is that only applies to land lines, not cell phone "lines". For a week or more I have been paying for two cell phone accounts since "porting" the number was what would have cancelled my Primus account. It has taken me over an hour - mostly on hold - of calls to both Primus and WIND to find out why and what I could do about it. Actually not much - cancel the Primus account and lose my number was about it. The tone of the operators convinced me that moving from Primus to Wind was still a good idea, even if Wind obviously has its own limitations.

As Joe E Brown says as the last line of "Some Like It Hot" - "Nobody's perfect!"