Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: One Night @ the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

One Night at the Call CenterOne Night at the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For its first three-quarters, this is a perfectly decent novel about a group of people working at a call centre. Shyam, the team leader and the main character, struggles to get over his old girlfriend, Priyanka, who works in his team. To add to his unhappiness, his boss Bakshi is an unprincipled moron who routinely takes credit for Shyam's ideas and work. Priyanka still has feelings for Shyam, but wants to make her mother happy, and her mother wants a "better match" for her. The other agents have their problems as well. Esha wants to be a model, but keeps getting told that she's too short. Radhika's mother-in-law is making her life miserable. The man known as Military Uncle says little, and suffers in silence with his secret pain. And finally, Vroom... well, Vroom is screwed up six ways from Sunday.

Their problems and interactions are told believably and engagingly through dialogue and flashbacks to dates between Priyanka and Shyam, which illustrate the deterioration of their relationship. Then comes the moment that they receive, on Shyam's cell phone, a call from God. Ironically enough, this is the moment when the story goes straight to Hell. Each thing they do to "fix" their situation is more inappropriate and implausible than the thing before it. There were scenes that I read while squinting and scanning because that was the only way I could stand them. After all, I didn't want to abandon a book 18 pages from the ending, even if it deserved that.

How did things go so badly wrong? I wonder. It's tempting to blame the phone call from God. After all, this was a completely realistic novel up to that point. One might argue that the author had no business turning it into a fantasy three-quarters of the way through. However, I was willing to accept the God call. After all, the author prepares us for it in the prologue.

In my view, the failing is a moral one. What kind of person thinks it's appropriate to meekly tolerate a boss's betrayals without a word, then all of a sudden blackmail him with a made-up email and physically abuse him? There are abundant options between these two extremes, and a moral adult would try one or two of them before resorting to violence. A moral adult would find a better way to save a call centre than by terrorizing Americans with lies. (By the way, Americans are abundantly and enthusiastically insulted in this book, so think twice before buying it if you are American. I'm actually amazed it got picked up by an American publisher.) Perhaps an author who has not managed to become a moral adult is the one most likely to resort to a literal Deus ex machina to fix his novel. There is a species of laziness here, which itself is a type of moral failing. Furthermore, if the thoroughly unbelievable turnaround of Priyanka followed by the thoroughly unbelievable rejection by Shyam followed by the thoroughly absurd and painful-to-read romantic car chase and reconciliation (thank you, squinting and scanning!) is any indication, the author has watched far too many Bollywood movies.

Yes, the previous paragraph has a lot of spoilers in it, but that's OK, because you don't want to read this book. Trust me. That would be several hours of your life you'd never get back.

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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Review of Rule Zero by Laurence Timms

Rule ZeroRule Zero by Laurence Timms
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you love non-stop action, mayhem, explosions, wanton destruction and high body counts, with maybe a zombie thrown in for good measure, this is the book for you. Laurence Timms is a screenwriter, and it shows. If Rule Zero were made into a movie, it would be very much at home with the other Hollywood thrillers of the day, only perhaps even more so. Timms is what the genetically engineered offspring of Iain R. Banks and Douglas Adams would be like if he were also high on amphetamines.*

Towards the start of the story, when things are calmer, there are some humorous and even insightful moments, especially pertaining to Helen, the luckless fluff-piece-writing journalist who gets caught up in the dangerous game going on between the Ministry of Defense and its enemies. For example, "She was the kind of person who packed four kinds of nightwear for a weekend away on the basis that you just never knew. What it was you never knew she wasn’t sure, but in Helen’s book equipping oneself with a choice of nightwear went some way to mitigating the horror of the unknown." These felicitous observations last until the action gets underway in earnest (up until that point, several people have tried to kill Helen, but it turns out that's nothing compared to what's coming), and then things are rather grim for quite some time.

To my mind, the novel's biggest flaw is its length. There is so much of it, so many different characters and different things going on, that the problem is twofold; a great deal to remember, and plenty of time in which to forget it. So I often found myself thinking things like, "Who's that guy again?" "What is this SMILE company trying to achieve, anyway?" and finally, "Was that explained earlier? Because I didn't get that at all. Did I miss something?" I expect that won't be an uncommon experience for readers. It might be a good idea to keep notes. Failing that, you might have to read the book twice to fully understand it.

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* And yes, he is British. Why do Brits write so much better than North Americans, by and large? Is it the educational system? The canings? Tea with milk? Frequent rain? I don't know, but I must find out. Back

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Recipe: Kale Chips (Garlic Flavour)

Kale chips are a tasty, nutritious alternative to potato or tortilla chips—but they cost nine dollars a bag at the health food store. It makes more sense to make your own.

Ingredients

  • 1 bunch kale, washed and dried
  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1/2 – 1 tsp. garlic powder, depending on taste
  • Salt (optional)

What is a "bunch?" Not a very precise measurement I realize, but the quantities are not crucial here; tweak as desired. A bunch is about what you'd get wrapped up at the supermarket. If on the other hand, you buy a whole plant at a farmer's market, it will be a good deal bigger, maybe twice as big.

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350F. You can use a toaster oven, but you might need to halve the recipe to get it to fit.

Place oil and garlic powder in a mixing bowl. Sprinkle in a little salt if you want. I don't think it's really necessary. Mix. Remove kale leaves from stems, tear into bite-sized pieces and add to bowl. Save the stems for something else. Add them to a soup or something.

Toss the leaves with the oil until well blended. I think the best way to do this is with your hands.

Spread the oiled leaves onto a baking tray and bake in oven for 10-15 minutes. You might want to flip them halfway through. Keep an eye on them so they don't overcook. They're done when they're crispy all the way through and brown at the edges but not right to the middle. Delicious!

I developed this recipe on my own. Then, when I decided to write it up and post it, I did a search online and discovered that there are already a bazillion kale recipes available. So, I'm not as original as I thought, and maybe my drop in the bucket is not really necessary. Still, here it is, for what it's worth, and I hope it's worth something.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Blither Age: Obfuscation and Fluff in Modern Business Communication

Our time has been dubbed the Information Age. Sometimes I think it should be called the Blither Age. In business and marketing communications, it has become acceptable, indeed expected, to use as many words as possible to say as little as possible. Certain words are especially popular: leverage, paradigm, dynamic. They are sprinkled liberally throughout written and verbal communications with little regard to their meaning.

Why did this practice come about? It was probably borrowed from the scientific and academic world. Professors and scientists alike have long taken pride in their ability to write dense, incomprehensible prose filled with as many long, obscure words as possible. It is a way for them to prove their education and credentials—not everyone can write like that, after all. When business adopted this tradition, it chose a different set of long, obscure words, but retained the denseness and incomprehensibility, as well as the goal of demonstrating cleverness and credentials.

On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with this goal. Who doesn't want to feel intelligent, and persuade other people that they are intelligent? However, one must examine the cost of this ego gratification, which may be quite high. Typical business and marketing communication, which is in fact poor communication, may result in a loss of productivity, increased difficulty in hiring qualified employees, and loss of business.

Meetings may be called to give employees information that will help them do their jobs. But this goal of providing employees with information may not be fulfilled as well as it could be if the speaker has another goal: to show everybody at the meeting how clever he is. Many an employee has drifted off into dreamland as the speaker droned on about leveraging paradigms. The more difficulty your employees have understanding you, the less they will be able to concentrate.

Jargon-filled speech is much longer than straightforward, clear speech, so its usage will extend the length of the meeting. Because of the lack of clarity, employees will need to ask more questions in order to fully understand the material. Either they will do so, which will make the meeting take even longer, or they will keep silent out of fear of appearing foolish, thus thwarting goal number one of the meeting: to communicate information.

Consequently, the speaker's goal of appearing intelligent through jargon-filled speech works at cross-purposes to the meeting goal, and wastes time. A waste of time means a waste of money, as the meeting drags on and runs into time that the employees could be using to do their jobs. You can see how poor communication in meetings can result in reduced productivity, but you may be wondering how it can get in the way of hiring employees.

Businesses employ classified advertisements when they wish to find an employee with precise qualifications. It would make sense, then, to state what is required in clear, precise language. But that is not always what happens.

A typical classified ad may say something like, "Seeking friendly, dynamic sales associates." How many of the words here tell the reader precisely what is being sought? "Friendly" and "sales associates" are fine words. Everybody has a pretty good idea of what they mean. But what about dynamic? What does it mean?

Consulting a dictionary, one learns that dynamic means, "relating to the forces in nature; relating to activity or things in movement; causal; forceful, very energetic" (Chambers Dictionary). Is this company looking for a sales associate who is a force of nature? Probably not. Dynamic also means something that moves. Is the company saying they won't hire a paraplegic or quadriplegic worker? That could get them in trouble. What about forceful? Possibly they want someone with an aggressive sales style. That seems the likeliest interpretation. Still, an aggressive sales style puts many customers off. That might not be it at all.

The point is that the reader of the advertisement has to guess, and then they have to decide whether they are dynamic, whatever on earth it means. The way "dynamic" is tossed around in classified ads these days, used to describe employees, products, companies and everything but the kitchen sink, I strongly suspect it means nothing at all. Yet there it is, in the ad, taking up space and costing money.

Yet this is a relatively benign example. The higher up you go in terms of prestige and pay scale, the more obscure the language. In a typical ad in the Careers section, we are told that among the responsibilities of the Director of Business Development is to "provide strategic direction in the planning and execution of innovative, integrated and results-oriented business development." This is fluff. Would you want your business development to be non-strategic? What does it mean for the business development to be integrated? Integrated with what? And what about results-oriented? Would you ever want your business development to be oriented towards something else, such as thumb-twiddling and money-wasting? Perhaps the development of classified ads like this one would qualify.

If all the words that mean nothing are subtracted from this phrase, we are left with, "plan and execute business development," or even "develop the business." Even this is vague. The prospective director is left with little notion of what is expected of him.

If you doubt that business jargon can result in the loss of business, you need only check out the web pages of a few software companies and attempt to figure out from the marketing lingo what it is that they or their products do. The task ranges from difficult to impossible. Instead of solid information on product function, software company web pages are full of writing about "leveraging technologies" to "deliver maximum value" as part of a "solutions-oriented approach." You can feel your brain throb as you read these words and attempt vainly to glean any sort of real meaning from them. If you're trying to figure out what the product does, it can be very frustrating. I have little doubt that many a prospective customer simply gives up, deciding that if they can't figure out what the product does, they probably don't need it.

The most ominous result of modern blither jargon may be the erosion, not just of the user's ability to communicate clearly but even to think clearly. I recently saw a Dragon's Den episode that vividly and poignantly demonstrated this inability to think as a consequence of marketingspeak. Click on the link to watch it yourself.

If you're not able to play the video, here's a brief summary.

Three would-be entrepreneurs pitch their web site idea, Whizof.biz, where would-be entrepreneurs (like themselves, presumably) would be able to get free, expert business communication advice from experienced entrepreneurs.

"Now, you're going to tell us how we make money, right?" says Kevin O'Leary.

"Yes," says Peter of Whizof.biz.

"When's that happen?"

"Right now."

But it doesn't happen. The Dragons ask increasingly detailed questions and get increasingly frustrated at getting waffle in response. Peter claims he can attract customers by offering 50% lower fees than competing companies, but Reg says they will attract the experienced entrepreneurs by offering higher payments. They can't explain how this is going to result in profits but only talk in vague terms: "If you've done well on the review and decide you want to do a rewrite, the cost of the rewrite is far less than would otherwise be the case."

Says Arlene Dickinson, "I usually don't get so frustrated but I'm listening really intently and I can't understand what you're telling me."

A short time later, Reg says, "We have in our minds at least a very clear image of how it will work."

But that's just it: they don't. The conversation as a whole suggests rather that everyone involved has a fuzzy image of how it will work, with all gaps filled in by magic, and the fuzzy language they use to talk about it protects them from becoming aware of the fact.

Needless to say, they get no offers. As Kevin points out at the end, they need their own product—badly.

Let us therefore bring back clarity in our speech, not only for the sake of relationships and good communication but for the sake of our higher brain functions.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

McCabe's: New Brunswick's finest ice cream is found by the highway in the middle of nowhere

McCabe's Ice Cream - Postcard
It probably seems out of proportion to get in the car and drive 40 minutes for ice cream. But this is no ordinary ice cream.

My husband found out about the place on a drive to Moncton a year or two ago, when he saw their road sign and popped in for some vanilla. He remembered it favorably enough to mention it to me one Friday evening in July, when the subject of ice cream came up. He thought it was about 20 minutes away.

My reaction was, hey, if it's that close, let's jump in the car and go! James demurred. It was evening. They might only be open in the daytime.

We tried to find out the telephone number, so we could call and find out their business hours. There was no entry under the Yellow Pages category Ice Cream & Frozen Desserts—Retail. We tried the Internet. There were some forum references to McCabe's, but no web page and no business hours. Likewise, yellowpages.ca had no entry for McCabe's. This business was unlisted! Whether this was some strange oversight or the place simply had no phone, there was no telling, and nothing to do but go there in person. But not that evening, especially since Google Maps' directions indicated that James' estimate of the distance was off by 100%: not 20 minutes, but 40.

It had to wait until Sunday. In the interest of pretending that this was not just an unusually long ice cream run but a whole day trip, we did some research on the area. Cambridge-Narrows is the closest town. Its tourism web page consists largely of a well-nigh unreadable scan of their brochure, 14 Things to Do in Cambridge-Narrows. At least it had a tourism web page. And a lake, so possibly there would be swimming. I threw a bathing suit, towel and cooler (in case they sold pints and we wanted to take some home) into the trunk, and off we went.

MCcabe's might not have a web presence, but their highway presence is more than adequate. The big sign at the side of the road is hard to miss, with its flashing yellow lights in the shape of an arrow. James pointed this out to encourage me, as I'd spent a substantial part of the drive fretting about the fact that it was Sunday, and things tend to close on Sunday in New Brunswick. Try going to Saint John, one of NB's biggest cities, on a Sunday. Almost nothing will be open. "How do I manage to forget this every time?" I'd lamented. "We'll have driven 40 minutes for nothing," etc., etc.

"Look, the arrow's flashing," said James. "That means they're open."

A further aid in guiding drivers is a red balloon, floating high in the sky above the spot.

After the sight of the giant sign and balloon, it felt incongruous to round the corner and see the tiny beige house. Outside, it didn't look like much. Inside, they offered a tiny selection of seven flavours. The menu was divided into regular flavours—vanilla, strawberry and chocolate—and the more expensive gourmet—coffee, mocha, raspberry and maple cream.

I mulled over the gourmet options but since none of them appeared to contain chunks of things, I chose that old standby, chocolate. James chose vanilla, the same flavour he'd had the last time.

I tasted my ice cream. OK, I thought, worth the trip. Maybe that's as much a comment on Fredericton ice cream parlours (or should I say ice cream parlour?) as it is on McCabe's. But my scoop was creamy with a rich chocolate flavour.

But I hadn't tasted nothin' yet. James offered me his vanilla, and then I knew I was in the presence of greatness. There was an explosion of vanilla bean on my tongue.

Honestly, I've never had a vanilla ice cream to equal McCabe's. Not Haagen Daaz. Not even Ben and Jerry's. And I still hadn't tasted nothin' yet. But more on that later.

The place is run by a smiling elderly lady with an accent that I couldn't place. I never found out her name, so I will take a chance and call her Mrs. McCabe. I asked Mrs. McCabe about pints. They don't sell them. If I wanted to take some home, my only option was two scoops in a styrofoam container.

I decided to get gourmet flavours, since we hadn't tried them yet: one scoop of mocha and one of maple. As Mrs. McCabe excavated our scoops, I asked about hours. McCabe's is open from 9:30 in the morning til 7 at night, seven days a week, from Victoria day to one week after Thanksgiving. Mrs. McCabe remarked that some of their customers buy a whole vat of ice cream, of the sort that the scoops come out of in the shop, so that they can have ice cream all winter. I have it on good authority from my ice-cream-fanatic father that those are three-gallon vats. One vat costs between 70 and 80 dollars, depending on the flavour, and requires a chest freezer. It's a special ice cream that inspires such devotion.

We also found out that they do not, in fact, have a phone number for the business. When I asked, Mrs. McCabe said with obvious reluctance that she could only give me her personal number. I could not in good conscience make such a request. They do have an email address though: homemade at auracom dot com.

Mrs. McCabe also wanted us to know that they had another location, on the road to Fundy Park. We'd actually come across that other address during our web searches, much to our confusion. This other location, she told us, was run by her husband. Here was a couple as devoted to their business as the vat-buyers are devoted to the ice cream. For their entire ice cream season, spring to fall, they get no days off, and they work miles apart from each other. I wonder what they do in the winter. It would be nice to imagine that they spend it taking a well-deserved vacation, but I fear it may not be the case.

Noting my interest in the business, Mrs. McCabe gave us a postcard gratis with our ice cream, though a sign on the counter said they were a dollar each. She also assured us that the ice cream is made from all natural ingredients. That was obvious. You can't get that intensity of flavour from anything but.

We put the ice cream in the cooler with a couple of cold packs, and set out to explore Cambridge-Narrows. We had lunch at Holiday Restaurant, a diner-type place just past the bridge. They do a pretty good hamburger and a surprisingly elegant salad, with a cucumber rose. Unfortunately, the dressing selection is the usual French-Ranch-Italian.

I asked the waitress if Cambridge-Narrows had a downtown. "Honey," she said, "this is it."

The centre of Cambridge-Narrows is a cross-roads. Signposts give the direction of places of note: the library, the post office, a winery. We visited the library, the wharf and the winery, Motts Landing, where they offer a delicious Chantilly.

It appears that the locals are not aware of the greatness of the ice cream in their midst. I mentioned to one woman that we'd come into the area for McCabe's ice cream. She got an odd look on her face. "I've wondered about that place," she said. "You drive by and that Cadillac is sitting there, and there are no other cars, and it makes me wonder if they really sell drugs or something." I assured her that there had been plenty of other people buying ice cream when we were in there; indeed, there was a lineup most of the time. "Well," she said, "that's good to know."

As we headed home, I noticed the time and began to fret. I'd read somewhere that a good cooler or thermos keeps its contents cold for three hours. More like four hours had elapsed. Were we going to end up with ice cream soup?

There was a fair quantity of soup, some of which had leaked into the cooler. As for what was still in the container, it maintained a small island of slushy solidity in the centre of a pool of melt—a testament, I thought, to the efficacy of my cooler, given how much time had elapsed. The slush even retained some degree of separation between the mocha and the maple, so we were able to taste them separately. Both were delicious. We put the ice cream in the freezer to harden it up again. Ultimately, though, we ate it all before that could happen. It was even better than the vanilla.

The McCabe's location that we visited is at exit 347 off the Trans-Canada highway, heading east. The other location is at exit 211 off Highway 114, heading to Fundy, as illustrated on the back of the postcard.Back of postcard

Friday, June 15, 2012

Recipe: Vivian's Dark Chocolate Orange Peel Bark

This recipe came about the day my hubby and I returned from grocery shopping with a bag of discounted oranges and a chocolate bar. I thought, why not put these two things together? So I did a search online for chocolate orange bark recipes, and discovered that the orange peel was invariably candied through the use of white sugar. Being me, I couldn't help but marvel at the oddness of adding outside sugar to a substance that surrounds a lot of naturally-occurring sugars and vitamins. So I decided to see what would happen if I used the juice from the orange instead of sugar and water. What happened? Deliciousness, that's what happened.

Ingredients:
  • 100 grams dark chocolate, preferably 60-80%
  • 1 orange

Wash the orange, cut in half and juice. We have one of those manual orange juicers where you impale the orange half on a conical thing. If you don't have a juicer, you might try squeezing by hand and/or with the back of a spoon, but try not to mess up the peel too much, because you're going to need it.

Put the juice aside and cut the spent orange halves into segments. Remove the squished pulp. It's not used in the recipe, but it's still good eating. Now lay each segment zest-side down and slice away the pith with a paring knife or other small, non-serrated knife. Watch the fingers. (If you don't know, the zest is the orange stuff on the outer part of the peel and the pith is the yellowy, bitter stuff on the inner part of the peel.)

Throw away the pith and slice the zest into little strips, about an eight of an inch thick. Put the zest strips into a saucepan with the juice from the orange and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer until the liquid is almost boiled away, stirring often. The zest will be coated with a sort of sticky juice reduction. Scrape it out of the saucepan and put it on a plate. I left it for a couple of hours in the fridge to dry out, but really I don't know how much difference this made; it never got completely dry. So skip this step if you don't have time, in which case you don't even have to turn off the burner. But you'll probably want to use a clean saucepan for the next step. Chocolate changes its texture if you get liquid into it when it's melted.

In the clean saucepan (or in the orange-juicy saucepan if you couldn't care less about your chocolate's texture—I mean, it's chocolate, right?) melt the dark chocolate over low heat. The traditional way to do this is with a double-boiler, to prevent burning. I don't have a double-boiler, so I just use the lowest setting on my electric stove. If you have a gas stove, I suppose you might not be able to get away with this. And if it's a warm day, leaving the chocolate out in the sun for a while might also be an option.

Use a rubber or silicone spatula to scrape the melted chocolate out onto a cookie sheet, aluminum pie plate, or something else flexible. (If it hardens on something rigid, like a plate, you may have trouble detaching it.) Finally, sprinkle the juicy orange peel over top. Oh sure, you could have just stirred the peel into the chocolate, the way you would with almonds if making an almond bark, but the orange peel is such a pretty colour, especially against the dark background of the chocolate, that that would be a shame. This way, you can listen to your friends ooh and ah over the beauty of your candy. Refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. It's a nice thing to bring to dinner parties. Or you can stay home and eat it all yourself, which is the option my husband and I chose.

Sorry I don't have a picture. It didn't last that long. I'll see about taking one next time I make this.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Latest Trend in Blogging: Tiny Paragraphs

What's with these tiny paragraphs I'm seeing in blog posts lately?

You know what I mean. Short sentences. And each one a paragraph.

I hate it.

It's not snappy. It's annoying and hard to read.

And let's not forget choppy.

I've seen two offenders in just one day: this post at Sebastian Marshall's blog and every single post at Inkably.

I suppose they might have learned it in journalism school.

But even journalists aren't this bad.

Usually.

So I think it's a web thing.