What’s really behind those Facebook quizzes

Bullshit

Here’s what’s really behind these quizzes on Facebook.

1) First of all, the “92% of people can’t…” line is total BS. There’s nobody keeping track of scores. That “92%” line is designed to entice you into taking the challenge. It’s not based on any collected data at all, and has that “92%” number on it from the moment it’s released on Facebook.

2) The quizzes are designed to be easy so that you will do better than the “92%” and will share the quiz and brag about it, thereby enticing others to take the quiz.

3) You’ll notice that every question in the quiz is on a separate page. That’s not because there are slick web designers or usability experts behind the page; it’s because every time you go to a new question you load a whole new set of ads, thereby generating loads of ad revenue for the people who made the quiz. (There can easily be 12-20 ads per page.)

4) For quizzes that are designed to tell you something about your personality — what Star Wars character you are, or some other personal quality — know that the results are based on total BS. Some person spent half an hour in a cubicle drawing up a matrix based on nothing more than what kind of mood they were in that day, and that’s it.

5) By going through the quiz and then sharing it, the people making the quiz are gathering data about the things you like. (Car quizzes label you as a car fan; geography quizzes label you as a person who likes to travel, etc.) They sell this data back to Facebook (or perhaps a third-party ad manager) who uses it to build your Facebook advertising profile, which in turn determines what ads and “sponsored posts” you see.

So please do not think that these quizzes tell you anything about yourself, or that the results have any research or scientific thinking behind them. Go ahead and keep doing them if you like — after all, they can be fun — but remember that you’re a bit of a sucker every time you do so, and the results mean nothing.

The only purpose behind these quizzes is to keep you clicking and sharing so that other people can make money from it. But hey, people have to make a living, right? Fair enough. But for Pete’s sake just be aware of the level of BS you’re engaging in when you do it, and don’t bother bragging that you’re better than “the 92%” and don’t even bother questioning the veracity of that figure, because now you know it’s all just made up to suck you in.

(Published simultaneously on Facebook.)

Three Strikes, You’re Out!

It’s not the Blork Blog style to use this venue to issue screeds against local businesses, but in the case of Green Café I will make an exception, and the exception is based on the fact that Green Café has failed in three dimensions: food quality, web site, and customer service.

Food Quality

I went to Green Café (the branch on rue Drummond) for the first and only time on May 24, 2013, where I ordered a Niçoise salad to go. Green Café’s Niçoise salad doesn’t much resemble a classic Niçoise salad, but that’s an issue of interpretation, not quality. (Theirs is full of chick peas, has no green beans, and they give you a choice of tuna or grilled chicken.)

I returned to my desk and began to eat. The salad was tasty enough at first, but as I got deeper into the bowl the abundance of vinaigrette began to overwhelm. By the time I got to the bottom it was more like vinaigrette soup than a salad. Way too much!

So I thought I’d do the right thing and let them know that they need to reel in the vinaigrette a bit. After all, good restaurants encourage constructive feedback from customers.

Web Site

I went to their web site. As is sadly typical for restaurants, it’s a Flash-based site. Flash is bad for restaurant web sites for many reasons, including the fact that it fails on most mobile devices – and it’s while you’re mobile that you’re most likely to want to get the coordinates for a restaurant, or see the menu. It’s also a bad idea because it’s very likely no one in the restaurant’s staff or administration can update or change the site. This is the dirty secret of Flash-based web developers; once your hire them you’re usually more or less stuck with them for changes and updates. Regular HTML based sites – or sites that run on WordPress or similar systems – can be updated by virtually anyone with the correct login name and password.

In the case of Green Café, their site was not only Flash-based, but it contained an egregious error that no one seems aware of or is willing to fix. When you click the email link on the “Contact Us” page, where the email address is written in (Flash) text as “info@greencafe.ca,” a new, blank email message opens up with the “To” field automatically populated with their address. This is conventional, but in the case of Green Café, it populates the “To” field with the wrong address!

info@green.ca instead of info@greencafe.ca

I didn’t notice the error. So I wrote the following constructive email message and promptly pressed “Send.”

Hello. Today I had my first Café Green experience; I got a salade nicoise (chicken) from the store on rue Drummond. There was WAY too much vinaigrette on it; about triple as much as what I would expect. This isn’t just me being fussy, the thing was literally drowning in vinaigrette. I couldn’t finish it because it was so soggy.

There’s no need to reply, but please do a quality check at that store and give the preparers a reminder of how much vinaigrette is a normal amount. I’d love to try another Café Green salad one day soon, but if it’s as soggy as this one I won’t go back.

Thanks!

An hour later I got the following email from the Green Party of Canada (emphasis mine):

Don’t worry, Ed, your email went to the Green Party of Canada. We don’t serve Salade Nicoise.

Go to the Green Cafe contact page, and scroll down to where it shows info@greencafe.ca. Click on that link and look at the address on the email.

The domain “green.ca” is the property of the Green Party of Canada and is being used, to our continual petty annoyance, by the “Green Traiteur & Café” in Montreal. We have written to them repeatedly and have never received even an acknowledgement.

As you can see, this is not a new problem. Note that the address error occurs on both the French and English side of Green Café’s web site.

Customer Service

I promptly copied my original message and sent it to the (presumably) correct email address (info@greencafe.ca), with the following paragraph added:

One other thing: the email link on your website is broken. Although it says “info@greencafe.ca,” when you click on it it populates your email “To” field with “info@green.ca,” which goes to the Green Party of Canada. (They were kind enough to write back to me an tell me they had received the above comment. This is a re-send.) The same error occurs on both your French and English “Contact” page.

And then I waited.

Almost two weeks have passed. The error on the web site is still there, and even though I said “there’s no need to reply,” I would expect any decent company to reply as a matter of courtesy. I have not received a reply. I join the Green Party of Canada and doubtless many others in this club of people who receive no reply from Green Café when they try to contact them by email.

Any one of these infractions would be enough to warrant a frown along with the willingness to give another chance. Two of these infractions would prompt a personal boycott. But all three together add up to a frown, a personal boycott, and this public message to anyone who is reading – including, I hope, the management at Green Café.

Strike three, you’re out.

Update (June 2014)

A keen reader has informed me that Green Café has updated their web site. It’s no longer Flash-based, and the email address has been corrected. No word on whether or not they’re still over-dressing their salads.

The Great San Marzano Tomato Fraud

The San Marzano is the king of the Italian sauce tomatoes. It’s a long, thin, meaty fruit with very little water and seeds. The flavour is sweet, tangy, and less acidic than Roma tomatoes. Anyone who watches food television or who follows celebrity chefs on social media will be familiar with the by-now-unequivocal refrain that “real” cooks only use San Marzano tomatoes in their sauces.

I say bullshit.

There are many varieties of Italian tomatoes, including the aforementioned Roma, and they all have a role to play in la cucina. The qualities that make San Marzanos so special are fairly subtle, and those subtleties diminish as the dish you prepare becomes more complex and diffused with other ingredients.

Given that a can of San Marzano tomatoes is typically two to three times more expensive than a can of similar quality Roma tomatoes, you’re throwing your money away if you’re using them in complicated dishes with many ingredients. Do you think they’re using real barolo at Babbo when they make their famous Brasato al Barolo? No, it’s a $4 domestic merlot (according to Bill Buford, in “Heat”). Does it make any difference? No!

The same applies when you’re making a huge pot of ragù Bolognese or your grandma’s 50-ingredient lasagna. Use the Romas because you’ll never be able to tell the difference.

On the other hand, if you’re making pizza, use a sauce of nothing more than drained and lightly blended (use a hand blender) canned San Marzanos with a bit of salt and olive oil. Don’t pre-cook it; spread it on raw. Compare a simple pizza Margherita made with San Marzanos versus one made with Romas and you will most definitely see the difference. (The Roma one will be good, but the San Marzano one will be sublime and transcendant.)

Or make a fast and simple pasta dish by cooking down a can of San Marzanos with a bit of minced shallot or a touch of garlic. Cook it for less than ten minutes, and during the second half add a bunch of whole basil leaves. Then turn off the heat, remove the cooked basil, and tip in some just-cooked penne or other short pasta. Dress with a bit of olive oil, a fresh basil chiffonnade, and a bit of freshly grated pecorino or parmesan cheese. Again, it would be good with Romas, but it is mind-blowing with San Marzanos.

So the first level of San Marzano fraud is the idea that San Marzanos are necessarily and always better. No. San Marzanos are better when the dish is simple, emphasizes the tomato, and the tomato is as unmolested as possible. Otherwise, it makes little difference if you use San Marzanos or some other good Italian tomato.

Now that that’s settled, there’s another level of fraud you should know about, and it has to do with the definition of “San Marzano.” Put your thinking hat on, because this gets a bit three-dimensional.

San Marzano” refers to two things; primarily it is a variety of tomato. But it also refers to a specific protected denomination of origin (or in Italian, Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta, or D.O.P.). That means it refers to the San Marzano variety of tomatoes that are harvested in August and September in a specific area of Campania, Italy (called, to no one’s surprise, “San Marzano sul Sarno“).

In order to receive the D.O.P. stamp, the tomatoes must be:

  1. Of the San Marzano variety;
  2. grown in the San Marzano region;
  3. harvested by hand without mechanization.

Harvesting by hand is intended to ensure that the fruit is only picked when at its peak ripeness, with the not-quite-ripe ones left on the vine for later.

All this D.O.P. fussiness results in:

  • A very high and consistent standard of quality.
  • A significantly higher price.
  • Something for annoying foodies to cling to and use to pass judgement over those who are less familiar with the San Marzano story.
  • A great way for tomato retailers to rip off the marginally informed (those for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing).

Here’s where it gets tricky. Because the foodie world is flush with all sorts of judgement about San Marzanos and those who do or do not use them, the demand for San Marzano tomatoes has skyrocketed. This includes the demand for domestically grown, non-D.O.P. ones, which are San Marzano in variety only, without the benefit of having been grown in that special volcanic soil near Mount Vesuvius, and without a guarantee of the quality controls used in harvesting. Because of this high demand for the name and low understanding of what it means, a lot of domestic producers charge a premium price for their non-D.O.P. – and thus non-premium –products.

Here in Montreal, most of the San Marzano tomatoes one finds in the stores are, indeed D.O.P., and they typically cost between $3.50 and $5.00 for a 28 ounce/800 gram can (versus anywhere from $1.00 to $1.89 for regular Italian tomatoes, and a few premium non-San Marzanos tipping the till at $2.49). I can understand domestic San Marzanos being a bit more expensive than regular Italian tomatoes, but there’s no way they should be premium priced along with the D.O.P. ones.

These available-in-Quebec “San Marzanos” are not D.O.P. San Marzanos! They generally run about $2 a can, which is a fair price.

In the United States, the most commonly seen brand of “San Marzano” tomatoes are these ones:

The most commonly seen brand of “San Marzanos” in the U.S. They are not D.O.P. so they shouldn’t be priced like D.O.P!

Watch any U.S.-produced TV show or online video where they mention San Marzanos, and that’s the label you’ll likely see. Do a Google image search on “san marzano tomatoes” and that’s the label that appears most frequently.

They are not D.O.P. San Marzanos. They are U.S.-grown, non-D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes. No doubt they are good tomatoes, possibly better than most. But they are not D.O.P., so they should not be sold at D.O.P. prices. I picked up the can seen here at a Whole Foods store in Pasadena, California recently. The price? $4.39!

In my opinion, this is a rip-off. I won’t go so far as to say “fraud,” because there is no fake D.O.P. stamp on the can, and the label does say “Grown Domestically in the USA.” However, the label more prominently says “POMIDORI PELATI” (or “POMIDORI CUBETTI” for the diced ones), which implies these are Italian tomatoes from Italy. And they are priced as if they were D.O.P. San Marzanos from Italy. Furthermore, the Whole Foods store did not carry any D.O.P San Marzanos, so these non-D.O.P. ones are your only choice if you have “San Marzano” buzzing in your head.

This is a rip-off. I don’t know if they are similarly overpriced in other stores, but it seems that Whole Foods – or perhaps the distributor of the tomatoes – are inflating the price because they know that many people will robotically buy San Marzano tomatoes simply because the foodies tell them to, and they will pay any price for them. It’s sort of a bait-and-switch, except it’s the foodie blogs and foodie television that set the bait, and Whole Foods does the switch (by not even offering true D.O.P. brands).

Compare that to Epicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal, where I can choose from at least seven brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos:

A selection of seven different brands of D.O.P. San Marzanos at Épicerie Milano, on Boul. St-Laurent in Montreal. Most are under $4.00.

In conclusion:

  • D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes really are better in simply-prepared dishes where the barely-cooked tomato is the main attraction.
  • For long-cooked dishes that contain a lot of ingredients (or strongly flavoured ingredients such as salty and fatty meats), you will likely not see the difference between San Marzano tomatoes and any good quality regular Italian tomatoes.
  • The best quality San Marzanos are from Italy, bearing the D.O.P. stamp. They are more expensive, but worth it for simple dishes (see the first point, above).
  • Non-D.O.P. San Marzanos can be very good, but you shouldn’t pay D.O.P. prices for them. If you’re going to pay D.O.P. prices, then buy D.O.P. tomatoes.

I encourage you to eat more tomatoes, both San Marzano and other varieties, and even non-D.O.P. San Marzanos. But be informed! Bon appetit!

Further reading:

Conundrum

I have not been paying much attention to the Republican Presidential primaries happening south of the border because it’s none of my business and because I can’t bear to witness such wholesale human stupidity. On the other hand, as Pierre Trudeau told the National Press Club in Washington DC in 1969, living next to the U.S. is like sleeping with an elephant; you feel every twitch and grunt.

So it’s hard to ignore. I’m not what you’d call well informed, but I’m not completely uninformed either. What I do know has me facing a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it seems that of the entire roster, Mitt Romney is the least insane and delusional, although he’s barely less pandering. That implies that if he gets the nomination he’ll actually have a pretty good shot at the throne, as he could turn some disillusioned Obama supporters. And if he does become President, the U.S. will only be somewhat worse off, and its descent over the apocalyptic precipice will only be accelerated marginally.

My inclination is to hope that a nominee farther out on the fringes will get the ticket. Michele Bachmann would have been great, as there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell she’d get elected (although with climate change messing everything up, such expressions are becoming meaningless), but it looks like she’s bailed out of the race.

So here’s my conundrum:

Do I hope that the marginally whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has a better shot at the White House, but at least if they win they’ll do less damage than one of the other whack jobs?

Or do I hope that an entirely whacky person wins, knowing that such a person has only the slimmest shot at the White House, but if they win it will basically be the end of western civilization as we know it?

It’s all too painful to think about and downright tortuous to watch. It sickens me to hear any U.S. politician speak during campaign season (which is essentially 3.9 years out of every four) because not a word of truth escapes their lips, ever. Every breath is either pandering for votes or parroting for lobbyists.

I can’t really blame U.S.ers for their electoral apathy and low voter turnouts. Just look at what they’re stuck with! (Not just the politicians; the whole system is corrupt and absurd.) I’m not sure who is to blame for that, as it’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Or a snake eating it’s tail. Or maybe a snake eating a chicken egg. Whatever metaphor you choose to spoil, the end result is a so-called “democratic” political system in which the elected have nothing to do with the people who elect them, and a population that gets the government it deserves. It is unfixable.

At times like this I hope the Mayans were right.