A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Checkout Line Musings

Whenever I go food shopping, there is one decision that frustrates me more than any other: which is the fastest or most efficient checkout line? No matter how carefully I evaluate the different lines, I always make the wrong decision and end up in the slowest one. While I’m waiting there’s always someone ahead of me who has scanned something that’s not in the database. No one knows what the correct price is, and the cashier isn’t going to take the customer’s word for it, so she calls someone over, hands him the item, and off he goes to find out what it costs. Meanwhile, everyone else in the line has to wait.

While this is happening, I’m usually surveying the other checkout lines and thinking to myself “If I had chosen checkout line #2, I would have been right behind that guy right now – the one who has just finished bagging his groceries and is now leaving the store”.

Checkout Lines

I also spent a lot of time watching the cashiers at work, and thinking to myself “I don’t think that I could be a cashier – this is a job that I am suited for”. Of course, the job much easier than it used to be – in the days before scanners, the cashiers had to enter the prices into the register; now all they have to do is swipe everything across the scanner. Except for the stuff in clear plastic bags – that’s when the magic happens. Most cashiers simply look at the bag, and know exactly what code to enter. I’ve looked at those bags too, and half the time I can’t even identify the type of vegetable inside them!

A large bottle of cranberry juiceAnother reason why I would make a lousy cashier is that I wouldn’t be able to resist making comments and lifestyle judgments, based on the items on the conveyor belt. For example, if an elderly or middle-aged man was buying a bottle of cranberry juice, I would scan the bottle, hold it up, look at it briefly, turn to the customer and say (quite helpfully and earnestly) “Cranberry juice! I was just reading an article in a health magazine, and do you know what they said about this? Cranberry juice – a friend to urinary tract health. I see you’ve bought the large bottle, sir. Do you really like cranberry juice that much, or is there perhaps some other… medical reason for your purchase. Tell me, sir – does it hurt when you pee? Be honest, you can tell… What do you mean it’s none of my business? Listen – those other cashiers would just scan this item silently, but not I. That’s because I care. I care about your prostate. Because that’s just the kind of value-added cashier I am.”

Reason #3: I’m the type of person who gets bored very easily, and I need to do things that keep my mind sharp. Often, I’ll start making up games with the customers to keep myself amused. “OK sir, your total comes to $11.84″. From twenty, your change should be… $8.16. Does that sound right to you? What do you think? Does that sound right? You’re hesitating… don’t you know? OK, I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you $8.16 right now, or you could choose option #2, and accept whatever amount the cash registers calculates as your change. Which choice will offer you the best deal? Or will the numbers be the same? You have five seconds to make your decision.”

Finally, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier because I don’t suffer fools gladly. One of my countless supermarket pet peeves is the innumerate shopper. These are the people who invariably come up short at the cash register, and then rather than admit their ineptitude, spend 30 seconds spewing face-saving nonsense such as “I must have left my wallet in my other purse”, “I know it’s here somewhere, just give me a minute”. Finally, when the cashier helpfully offers to remove one or more items from the total, the innumerate (and now indecisive) shopper spend another 30 seconds trying to decide which item that should be. My response, if I were a cashier: “Sir/madam stop wasting everyone’s time by trying to save face. We all know that you don’t have enough money to pay for all of your items, and that’s because you can’t do mental arithmetic. You are unable to keep a running total in your head, and I would wager that you likely don’t know which items are taxable. If I may say so, this is the price we as a society are paying for twenty years of sub-standard Mexican weed and a decade of insipid reality television – we now have stores filled shoppers like you, who are wandering around in a permanent mental fog.”

Clearly, I wouldn’t last long as a cashier. Now, back to the line analysis…

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Checkout Line Efficiency Analysis

The basic initial strategy is obviously “choose the shortest line – the one with the fewest people in it”. As most of you already know, this strategy isn’t particularly effective, since there are too many other variables to consider. Some people have more groceries than others, so I modified my approach and discreetly looked at the number of items in everyone’s cart and then recalculate based on the total item count, rather than the number of people.

I’ll often walk past all of the checkout lanes and glance at each cashier. Is she young or middle-aged? The young ones generally work faster since they are vibrant, full of energy and eager to make a good impression as they enter the workforce. The middle-aged cashier – especially one whose face tells you that life has beaten her down – is more likely to be on auto-pilot, and therefore will be working at a sloth-like pace as she counts down the hours and minutes until the end of her shift.

An important consideration is what I call “the old lady factor”. A senior in the checkout line will usually gum the entire works (and this applies equally to older men). For example, a cashier might say, “OK madam, your bill is $20.94” and the old lady will say, “Here’s $20, and I think I have 94 cents. Now, where did I put my change purse. Oh, I don’t have my glasses. I can’t tell if this is a quarter or a nickel. Now I’ve lost track… how much have I given you so far?”.

Another variable is the age of the cashier. The older the cashier, the more likely she is to make small talk with the customers. This slows down the scanning and increases the wait time. Also, the smaller the town, the more likely it is that this will happen, and the longer this time-wasting banter will last.

If there’s time, I’ll check for multitasking abilities. When a cashier is making small-talk with the customers, does she stop scanning? It’s important to avoid cashiers who are unable to multitask.

There is also the plague the efficiency expert. This shopper will place all of their groceries on the conveyor belt, and then leave the line for that one item they forgot. Naturally, they don’t return as quickly as they thought, and everyone else has to wait. I don’t know if they’re simply absent-minded, or if they believe they’re being clever and efficient for thinking of this shopping strategy, but let me say this: I hate these people with the burning fire of a thousand suns! Unfortunately, you can’t identify these inconsiderate, inward-looking blackguards until you’re already in line with them, and by then it’s too late.

A little reconnaissance work (while not related to line efficiency) is also crucial. When I leave my regular supermarket, I’ll sometimes walk past cashiers who are on a cigarette break. What do you suppose the chances are that they will wash their hands (or even use hand sanitizer) after sucking on that cancer stick and covering their hands in carcinogenic filth? Probably slim to none. Personally, I don’t want these people handling every one of my food items before I bring them home. Make a mental note of who these cashier are, and avoid them at all costs during future visits.

You also need to consider the self-regulating behaviour of the other shoppers. Everyone else is doing exactly the same thing I am – we all want to get into the shortest line, so when one line is clearly shorter than the others, shoppers will gravitate toward it. In fact, if the disparity becomes pronounced, shoppers may abandon their own line to stake out a place in it. Checkout lines lengths don’t remain unequal for very long.

Conclusion

Finally, after incorporating all of these variables and making allowances for the self-regulating aspect of line lengths, I have come up with my own method of choosing the best checkout line. Since you’re never going to pick the shortest or most efficient line, just do what I do – choose the checkout line with the best-looking cashier!

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Dumbing Down Nutrition

When I was a kid, we didn’t have any nutrition labels on food. Of course, back then I didn’t care what was in the food, as long as it tasted good, Now that I’m older, I read the labels more often, and I must say that I’m impressed with how nutritional disclosure has improved over the past couple of decades. For example:

  • Nutritional labels now state the vitamin and mineral content of a product as a percentage of our Recommended Daily Allowance.
  • Fast food chains now provide nutritional information upon request, and some even print it on their table tray liners. 

Nutritional labelling is becoming more widespread and comprehensive all of the time, thus enabling the consumer to make intelligent, healthy and well-informed choices. That’s why I was surprised and disappointed to see a major supermarket chain (which shall remain nameless) promote a new nutritional labelling programme. This is what was included in their weekly grocery flyer:

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At first glance, it looked like a way to simplify nutritional labelling, and it appeared harmless enough, until I turned the page and read the details.

I don’t mind simplification; in fact, I even wrote a blog post praising Steve Jobs’ minimalism and his personal philosophy that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Unfortunately, this particular simplification of nutritional labelling is not only useless, but (if relied on exclusively) erases the gains we’ve made during the past couple of decades. Fortunately, this is merely one grocery chain’s attempt to simplify nutritional labelling and is intended to supplement, rather than replace the existing product nutrition labels.

As you can see from the description, this new “Guiding Stars” categorization system assigns 1-3 stars to food items. Suddenly, all of our food falls into only three categories, represented by a corresponding number of stars. This over-simplification is (to me, anyway) reminiscent of the line in George Orwell’s Animal Farm “Four legs good; two legs bad”.

This Guiding Stars system, on its own, removes a consumer’s ability to analyze properly, the nutritional value of a food item. For example:

  • Individual ingredients such as sodium, fat and sugar, are now bundled together, rather than listed separately.
  • The amounts of these items are no longer quantified. It’s up to the consumer to guess how much saturated fat or sodium a product needs to contain that will cause it to lose a star.
  • Since sugar is not quantified, this evaluation method is completely useless to diabetics.
  • If you’re counting calories, you will be disappointed with this system, since calories and serving sizes are not listed.
  • Someone with high blood pressure may be on a reduced sodium diet. Therefore, the sodium content of each product is of paramount importance. The Guiding Stars evaluation system addresses only “added sodium” and lumps it together with fats and sugar.
  • Similarly, someone with high cholesterol will pay close attention to the amounts listed on nutritional labels. The Guiding Stars initiative (judging from their promotional material) doesn’t even mention cholesterol.

In my opinion, this is not only a bad idea, but also a sad commentary on our society. This evaluation method (when used alone) not only prevents consumers from making intelligent and informed dietary choices, it also strikes me as patronizing and condescending. The implication here is that we are incapable of doing our own analysis based on our individual dietary goals (or restrictions) and need corporations to slap what amounts to a “healthy”, “OK” or “unhealthy” label on all of our grocery items. The accompanying media quotes also talk down to us:

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“it is in no way influenced by any brand…”. Neither are the standard nutritional labels. Are they trying to make us feel grateful for a lack of corruption or influence in the food industry?

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“Trying to sort between the healthy food and the not-so-healthy stuff seems to get tougher all the time”. Really? Maybe if you’re a drooling imbecile. Two decades ago, food items didn’t even have nutritional information on their packaging. It’s never been easier to determine what is healthy. This quote is utter nonsense.

In my blog post Be A Critical Consumer, I talk about the increasingly condescending way that corporations are treating consumers. Many corporations (in my opinion) seem to think that we will automatically jump up and down excitedly at whatever product is dangled in front of our collective noses. They don’t seem to understand that the vast majority of consumers are intelligent and are perfectly capable of making informed decisions. This ability is especially important when making decisions concerning our diet, and by extension, our health.

Be aware of any dumbing down that you see, and refuse to be treated like a simpleton. Don’t tacitly allow corporations to decide what is good or bad for you; do your own analysis and make those decisions for yourself.

The Death of the Twinkie… and of My Cushy Retirement Dreams

On November 16, 2012, Hostess Foods filed for bankruptcy protection. Hostess was the manufacturer of many popular snack foods, including Wonder Bread and Twinkies, and unfortunately, wasn’t able to continue operating during a prolonged bakers’ strike.

I know it sounds strange, and perhaps a little mercenary, but I’ve actually been waiting for this day – not because I have anything against Hostess Foods, but because this was going to mark the beginning of the first phase of my elaborate strategy for financial freedom… that is, until this morning. Allow me to explain what I thought was the perfect plan for a luxurious and carefree retirement.

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me that Hostess Twinkies have no expiry date. I don’t know if this is true because I no longer eat them. I ate a few as a child, but I don’t think I’ve eaten any since grade school, and I’ve never bothered to actually look for one in a supermarket and check the box for a “Best Before” date. However, my friends insist that Twinkies not only have an indefinite shelf life, but that they are virtually indestructible. In fact, it’s rumoured that in the event of a global thermonuclear war, the only things remaining on Earth afterwards will be cockroaches and Twinkies.

It was from these unverified urban legends that I concocted my own unconventional retirement plan. Should the day ever arrive when Hostess stops selling Twinkies, I will be prepared. On that day, I will travel from store to store and buy up all of their remaining stock. I will then sit on this inventory while the rest of the world savours their final Twinkies. Then, I’ll wait a little longer, until the entire planet laments their loss in unison and longs plaintively for their cherished, non-perishable spongy treat. I’m not sure how long that will take, but it doesn’t matter; since Twinkies are supposedly inert, my inventory will always be fresh.

When our collective longing for Twinkies has crescendoed to a shuddering climax, phase two of my plan will commence. I will then start selling my Twinkies on eBay… slowly – one box at a time, or even one Twinkie at a time. Since the Twinkies will still be in pristine condition, my auction should trigger an unprecendented bidding frenzy from a hungry and nostalgic public. The Dutch tulip mania of the 1600s will pale in comparison to the global Twinkie mania that I will create singlehandedly!

I can’t estimate what price the Twinkies will command on eBay, but I’m confident that my investment will easily outperform the S&P 500, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and the ten-year return of every mutual fund in existence. As the world’s only supplier of Twinkies (in perpetually mint condition), my inventory will become increasingly valuable as the years progress. While the first few boxes might be offered on eBay, I fully expect that museum curators will eventually contact me, and implore me to let them purchase a Twinkie for their collection.

I fantasized of a Twinkie empire so formidable, that it would elicit the following proclamation from investment guru Warren Buffett “My dear shareholders, I offer my heartfelt apologies to you. Bob saw what Charlie and I missed. We should have invested in Twinkies. The returns are just astronomical”. My Twinkie empire was going to be so pervasive, that it would even alter our lexicon. The classic motivational metaphor “dangling a carrot in front of someone”, would soon be replaced with “dangling a Twinkie” – since the incentive was clearly much more powerful and persuasive.

I had my cushy retirement planned to the last detail. I would be the world’s only supplier of Twinkies, which would soon become the most coveted commodity in history; all I had to do was wait. Then on Friday (November 16, 2012) when Hostess declared bankruptcy, everything started falling into place… that is, until this story from Business Week utterly destroyed my dreams of inestimable wealth.

As this article makes clear, Twinkies, unlike diamonds, don’t last forever; they actually have an expiry date, and it’s a miserable and heart-wrenching 25 days – which is impressive for a pastry, but not suitable for a long-term retirement-based investment product. Therefore, it is with a heavy heart that I must chastise myself for believing those urban Twinkie legends as I now fall back on my retirement “Plan B” – hard work.

The Last Cookie Enjoyment

This October (2012) marks the start of Barbra Streisand’s latest concert tour. While your reaction may be anything from excitement to indifference, I find it both amusing and philosophical.

Back in the summer of 2006, Barbra Streisand treated her adoring public to another Farewell Tour. Her previous Farewell Tour was in 2000, but I guess she changed her mind – which is perfectly fine, since many performers  decide to come out of retirement. To Streisand fans, this announcement would normally be a joyous opportunity – a chance to see their celebrated performer in concert one more time – but not everyone was thrilled.

Shortly after the tour announcement, a group of fans threatened to sue Streisand, because she had promised a Farewell Tour in 2000. They paid top-dollar for those tickets, believing that they were attending her final live shows. Now that the 2006 Farewell Tour has been announced, they feel cheated because their favourite chanteuse didn’t keep her word and remain in retirement.

I don’t know how the lawsuit is progressing – frankly, I can’t be bothered following such things – but I don’t imagine that her fans will have much luck in the courtroom. The reason for my opinion is a phenomenon called “The Last Cookie Enjoyment”.

A few years ago, I was watching a stand-up comedian on television, and he was troubled. He told the audience that he was watching TV the other night, sitting on the couch, and eating cookies out of a bag. His idyllic existence came to a sudden end when he reached into the bag, felt around, but couldn’t feel a cookie. He stopped watching the screen, and then stared into the bag for a more complete visual inspection. Nothing. In desperation, he started pulling out the white corrugated paper separator, that divides the rows of cookies. The bag was empty. He felt cheated, because had consumed the entire bag without experiencing what he called “The Last Cookie Enjoyment”.

This is how he explained it “Cookies taste pretty much the same, until you get to the last cookie in the bag. When you reach for it, you know there are no more. As a result, you savour that cookie and make it last. You may even examine it first, and note its epicurean beauty – its weight and heft; the sight of the multitude of chocolate chips; the smell of the spices; the sound and feel of the crunch as you bite into it; the state change of the chocolate as it melts from the body heat of your mouth and tongue; if the cookies are freshly-baked, the heat will warm your insides, and finally, the taste of the cookie itself. All of your senses are completely engaged, while consuming that final cookie. You and the cookie become, quite literally, one.”

Through his own lack of attention, the comedian was denied the Last Cookie Enjoyment, and now there was diminishment in his life.

In my opinion, these Streisand fans should not file a lawsuit, because back in 2000, they each experienced the equivalent of the Last Cookie Enjoyment. They thought that Barbra Streisand was on her Farewell Tour, and as such, their collective experience was undoubtedly heightened. Whatever premium they paid for the tickets was certainly worth it. Now with the 2006 Farewell Tour, they will enjoy another concert and immerse themselves in the Last Cookie Enjoyment experience once again (at least until Streisand’s next tour is announced). They are getting more than their money’s worth, and one could argue that Streisand is actually doing her fans a favour by announcing more than one Farewell Concert Tour.

When you are eating your way through a bag of cookies, it’s easy to tell when you’ve reached the end, and when you will experience that Last Cookie Enjoyment. Unfortunately, life is not as predictable. That cookie you ate for lunch this afternoon could have been your last. Did you enjoy it? Did you really experience the cookie as intensely as you could have?

Warren Zevon, the musician who achieved fame in the 1980s with the song Werewolves Of London, died from terminal lung cancer in 2003. A few months earlier, when he knew his condition was terminal, Warren Zevon was a guest on Late Night With David Letterman. In fact, he was Letterman’s only guest for the entire hour. Letterman asked him if there was anything he understood now, facing his own mortality, that he didn’t before. Zevon replied “You put more value on every minute… you’re reminded to enjoy every sandwich”.

So enjoy every sandwich, and enjoy every cookie – today. Embrace all of your life’s experiences – especially the ordinary ones – wholly and completely, because your final cookie will not be labelled. When you pull back life’s white corrugated paper, there may be another row of cookies underneath it, but there may not be…