Archive for April 2010

An open bar and a look to the future

April 25, 2010

Weddings are really nice.  It sounds sentimental and a little melodramatic, but I really enjoy how positive and affirming the wedding experience is, at least for those not responsible for running it smoothly.  A bunch of people get together really just to wish some dear friends well as they start a big new thing in their lives.

I spent today at a wedding, and as usual I had a pretty good time.  The mood was positive, the food was decent, I met cool new folks, and I was just drunk enough for the little inconveniences not to bother me in the least.

Actually, the booze probably helped a lot.  There is a lesson here for anyone planning a wedding: if you want people to have a good time, spend the extra cash on a well-stocked open bar.  I’m sure it seems like a considerable expense, but it means that you can cut corners almost everywhere else and no one will care, or maybe even notice.

“Hey, this isn’t a wedding cake!  It’s just a painting of a cake…”
“Babe, check it out: the bartender gave me five cherries in my AMF just because I asked!”
“Nice!  Yeah, that reminds me, I need another double Captain and Diet.”

So, a good time was had by all.

I’m actually completely exhausted by a long day that started very early and is ending rather late.  However, because I’m sharing a hotel room with three women, I know better than to think I’ll be able to get into the bathroom to brush my teeth any time soon.  So, here at my laptop I sit.

The thing about weddings is that, for all the cheer and fun, they also get you thinking.  It’s pretty much impossible not to mull over your place in the world when you’re watching people make big formal changes in their lives.

If you’re married, you have little choice but to think back to your own wedding, and ponder the trajectory of your life since then.  Did it work out the way you imagined?  Do you wonder if you might have been happier taking a different path?  Did your spouse get ugly?  Maybe you’re gay after all?

I saw a bunch of married people looking wistful today.  I like to think that they were quietly reliving a happy moment in their past, and not reflecting on the worst mistake of their lives.

I’m not married, so instead I got to contemplate my own vacuous existence, and wonder if all this forward progress in other lives is a sign that I’m stagnating.  Which, I almost certainly am.  And, I knew that before, so the whole happy-wedding thing was really just rubbing my nose in it.  I suspect a lot of us felt that way, though, which swings the topic back around to why the excellent bar was such a key component of the day’s success.

I think the best thing about weddings, though, is how they are all about looking forward.  You may not be happy where you are, and you may be nervous or uncertain about where you’re going, but it’s still all in front of you, and you’ll deal with it when the time comes.  Even the most blistering cynic has to accept that a wedding is for walking ahead with the expectation that things are going to be better than they were yesterday.  Weddings are all about life getting better as time passes.

I like that idea a lot.

I’d like it even more if I could get into the bathroom to brush my teeth.  Also, I have to pee.

But, I still like that idea a lot.

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One for the price of one!

April 11, 2010

It’s a sad statement about my life that so many of my blog posts find inspiration at McDonald’s.  The official reason for this is that McDonald’s restaurants represent a cross-section of modern society, the touchstone against which any apparent cultural trends can be tested for ubiquity.

Really, though, it’s just that I eat at McDonald’s a lot.

Every time I go to McDonald’s, I order a baked apple pie.  I do this because they are cheap and delicious, and because after many years I have finally forgiven McDonald’s for replacing their deep-fried dessert pies; whoever made that decision is objectively and without hyperbole worse than Hitler.

And, every time I order a pie, I am asked the same thing: “Just one?”

At first, this seems like an odd question.  Yes, the pies are delicious enough to be eaten in groups (of pies, not people, although I suppose the latter works as well if you get enough pies), but the cashier never asks if you would like just one Big Mac, or only a single Large Fries.  The reason for this question, presumably, is that the pies are officially priced at 2/$1.  So, when the cashier asks if I want only one, he’s making sure that I don’t want to get two at the regular price.  But, if the pies are 2/$1, what does it cost to buy only one?

50¢.

“Hmm,” you might say, “buying two pies isn’t much of a deal, is it?”

And, this is what leads me to the topic of my post today: bulk pricing that suggest a deal or sale when there isn’t one at all.

Now, I’ll cut McDonald’s a little slack on this one, since I know the history behind this particular pricing.  There was a time when pies cost 99¢.  Then, there was a promotion: two pies for a dollar.  Well, that was a pretty good deal, and it seemed reasonable that the cashier would point out to anyone buying only one pie that a second pie could be had for a penny more.  Then, at some point (roughly around when the super-size option disappeared, making me wonder if encouraging multiple desserts was attracting unwanted scrutiny), the pie deal went away, but somehow it was the 2/$1 price that stuck, and a single pie became 50¢.  So, while it still strikes me as vaguely scam-like to offer a price in such a way as to give the impression of  a special offer where none exists, the official 2/$1 price is at least still the same price as when it did represent a second pie for only one cent.  In a sense, the price got better when the sale promotion ended, so I’m inclined to feel generous towards what at this point sure seems like an effort to encourage needless pie-buying.

My local grocery store, however, has no such excuse.  It’s a major national chain and uses a different-coloured price sticker to indicate special prices.  Special prices, however, are not necessarily sale prices.  My favourite brand of yogurt is priced in big letters: 3/$0.99; that sounds like a good deal.  In much smaller font is the price for each individual yogurt cup: $0.33.  Hostess Fruit Pies (yes, in general I like pie) are available in bulk: 10/$6.50; individually, $0.65.  Well, I’d better buy ten then!  I suppose a case can be made that yogurt and Hostess pies are somehow items more likely to be purchased more than one at a time, but I’m skeptical that three and ten are the usual amounts, respectively.

My personal favourite is the occasional sale price on 1-litre cartons of milk: 10/$10; or, for the mathematically-aware shopper, available individually for $1 each.  Now, think about it; this is milk.  Those 10/$10 1-litre cartons are sitting in the freezer right beside the 2-litre and 4-litre milk jugs.  Is anyone going to buy ten 1-litre cartons of milk?  That’s going to happen only if a shopper is so boggled by the pricing that he thinks not only that 10/$10 is a better deal than $1/each, but that he also thinks it’s a better deal than the 2-litre and 4-litre jugs, which at their perfectly normal, non-special prices cost less than $1/litre.  As such, this milk pricing has literally no use beyond confusing customers.

My point?  Well, partly I’m annoyed that it’s so transparent.  Give me some credit here; I can do basic math.

But, more importantly, I don’t want to do basic math.  It’s bad enough that I have to keep track of plainly-presented prices while I’m shopping.  I shouldn’t have to decipher the cost to buy milk.  Shopping should not be work; it should be a fun, magical experience of going through a store and putting everything I want in a happy little basket.  Taking that away from me is not going to get me to buy ten 1-litre milk cartons, and it’s also not going to make me enjoy shopping in general.  Transparent attempts to confuse a shopper just put me on my guard, and diminish the fun in finding things I want and taking them home.

Which, I suppose, is what really peeves me here.  Not only is such pricing insulting in its attempt to manipulate my buying habits, but it’s not even productively insulting.  I’d enjoy my shopping experience more, and spend more money, if I weren’t constantly reminded that the company I’m buying from is trying to trick me.

I’m not asking for a large chain store to act in the best interests of its customers instead of its profits.  As nice as that would be, I don’t think its reasonable to ask a business to put its customers ahead of itself; that’s just not how a modern western economy works.  But, if a business is going to try to put itself first, and actually end up hurting its own sales as a result (which is what happens when I lose my “Yay for stuffz!  Tra-la-la!” attitude about shopping) then no one wins, and I have less fun shopping.  Lame.

So, if anyone reading this happens to work in the middle or upper management of the grocery store chain which I am writing about, or any other store that uses a similar pricing model, then here’s a hint: it’s lame.

And, if anyone reading this happens to be the person who decided to take deep-fried dessert pies off the menu at McDonald’s, then you can burn in hell.

I shouldn’t need an iPad to enjoy my Big Mac

April 6, 2010

So, it’s been almost a month since I posted anything here, which is easily the longest I’ve gone without writing something, and is a far, far cry from the first month when I posted every day.  That said, I’m astounded at how much of my regular traffic seems to have continued in my absence.  I hope that doesn’t mean people were visiting the site over and over, and repeatedly finding nothing to read.  With luck, it was an opportunity for bored regulars to check out some older posts they may have missed.  Some nights when I’m lonely, I still think about the café girl who stole my heart.

Well, I would if I could remember anything about her.

I’m posting today because I intend to complain about something, and seemingly no one else in the world (or, at least, in my world) has the slightest empathy.  So, I thought I would simply post about it here, where my devoted regulars will apparently keep visiting the site for a month even without any new content.  I think my odds of finding a sympathetic audience are therefore bigger here than anywhere else.

So, print media is a dying industry.  This is hardly a new or clever observation, and the phenomenon has been happening for some time.  Much as video killed the radio star, the proliferation of free, casually available online information and entertainment has rendered newspapers and magazines increasingly anachronistic.  As someone who works with words for a living, I suppose I should feel saddened by the slow painful death of traditional print media, but my experience working for a newspaper was pretty miserable, and so part of me is happy to see the entire industry twitch and spasm like a whale feebly resisting its last moments under the scorching sun on a San Diego beach.

That was a long-winded way of saying that my investment in the print media industry is not especially deep.  I do, however, have one occasion for which I must absolutely, necessarily, have a newspaper or magazine of some sort: eating fast food.

I like junk food.  I once had a lovely $750 dinner at one of the premiere restaurants in the country, and while it was delicious (and a very nice experience in its own right), I enjoyed the food only slightly more than I would have if it had been Taco Bell.  I’ve written before about my deep-rooted fondness for McDonald’s.  Fast food is cheap and tasty, and if I’m hungry and have a few dollars to spare, in I go.

But, I have a very specific ritual for this.  I go by myself, I get a comfortable booth in a corner away from crazy people, and I read a newspaper.  It doesn’t have to be a major metropolitan paper; I’m usually quite happy with a free municipal paper.  It’s a chance to catch up on local issues, and as long as the paper has comics and Savage Love, I’m a happy camper.  I eat my junk food, I read my paper, and the circle of life is complete.

However, it’s probably no surprise that free local papers are the first victims of the winnowing of print media outlets.  You’d think that local news would be less easily replaced by alternative information sources, but the transition away from actual newsprint has also resulted in a centralization of news on a more national level, and so people who get their news online are also less interested in local news in the first place.  The end result of this is the recent disappearance of several of the free local newspapers that I would enjoy while scarfing my Five-layer Beefy Burrito.  This has been a long time coming, and most of the papers I read have been gradually reducing the quantity and frequency of their editions; a prominent local paper with “daily” in its name was going to press only once a week before it finally withered on the vine and halted print publication entirely a few months ago.  But, because I don’t eat junk food every day, and because there have always been several papers to choose from, this reduction never affected me before (and therefore, I didn’t care).

But, now that several local papers have disappeared entirely, and the rest are on reduced printing schedules, I am often finding myself with nothing to read.  This afternoon I spent twenty minutes wandering to every paperbox in the area, trying to find one that actually had a newspaper in it, and not a homeless person’s sleeping bag.  Hunger eventually drove me to just take a copy of the local “news in Asia” paper, which was good enough but certainly felt a little like scraping the bottom of the barrel; the persecution of the Falun Gong movement is interesting, but not exactly local.

So, now that the withering of print media has finally had a palpable effect on me personally, my annoyance makes me care, at least enough to complain on the internet.  This is admittedly not an especially high standard of investment.

The fact remains, though, that there is something fundamentally… undemocratic?… about not being able to read a free newspaper when the mood strikes, and it’s especially disconcerting that local news is probably the biggest victim in the movement towards online newsmedia resources.  Now, there are options.  I could, for example, spring for a “real” newspaper, costing a buck or two.  Or, I could lug around my laptop, or splurge on an iPad, so that I can access the online news content that is partly driving the dearth of newsprint in the first place.  But, those things cost money, and diminish the spontaneity of accessing information on a whim.

Oddly, the proliferation of free online news resources has actually led to news being less available in some quarters, requiring investments in cash or technological infrastructure before the information becomes accessible.  I look at the people in those fast-food restaurants, and many don’t seem the type to spare a few dollars every time they want to read a newspaper (and most are definitely not the type to carry an iPad or e-reader).  As information becomes more accessible to large segments of the population, certain communities are nonetheless marginalised by the changes in informational infrastructure, much as improved roads help only those who have a car or can afford to take a cab.

I know what this means for me: it means that if  I get junk food too often, I’ll be stuck reading the current issue of Auto Buyers Weekly while I eat my Big Mac.  Or, I could just break down and  buy an iPad, and read the digital versions of my disappearing newspapers (at least until that last gasp at financial solvency fails as well, and even those disappear).

It’s obvious, however, that not everyone at Taco Bell has the same resources as I do.  What it means for some of them is that they simply won’t know as much about what’s going on in their community.  And, maybe they don’t care, and read the local papers for the comics and sex columns like I do.  But, at least the information used to be available if anyone wanted it.  Now, they have to pay to get it.  That strikes me as one of the less laudable consequences of the move towards “free” online information.  The internet might not be as democratising as people like to think.