Bookmark management

Trying out the Post Formats in WordPress – this is an Aside, for short snippets that don’t really need a title. Or something. No one really knows what they are: try searching for “wordpress asides” to see what I mean.

My ideal way of building curated repositories of links would be through a place like delicious; however that never quite managed to take off (high barriers to entry, ease of use was always somewhat lacking. I used it the most between 2007 and 2009; since then I’ve tried a few times every year to go back, but the idea of having to properly retag my old bookmarks is daunting; the bookmarking process is still a bit too slow and clunky, and (to me) it is harder to access your bookmarks than to create them. I’ve since amassed a huge library of browser bookmarks, an uncategorized mess that I rarely wade into anyway.

I do think that if a big effort were made to reintroduce it today, it might really get somewhere, because we’re now so completely used to #tagging #everything and the idea of #socialmedia – something that the web in 2005-2010 wasn’t quite ready for yet.

I think the hypervisual bookmarking trend (see: Stars/Chrome Bookmark Manager) is a little silly. On Pinterest it works because I don’t think the site is a social bookmarking service, no matter what it and tech journos like to call it: it’s a social mood board site. Otherwise for users with thousands of bookmarks – who imo are most likely to desperately need bookmark managers – it’s a waste of space. Screen real estate is precious.

That the bookmark management problem is still exists is clear, at least.

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Link Roundup #1

It’s the day before my birthday, and I’m taking a break from an afternoon of working in a coffee shop with my (Windows, at least) laptop before me like the hipster I thought I would never be. First time for everything, I suppose, including a new feature (?) on this blog – link roundups.

Back when I read blogs more religiously than I do now, I used to follow a few that would regularly post collections of interesting links, helping alleviate the eternal problem of the internet: separating the wheat from the chaff.

I don’t post on a schedule (yet!) over here, so this isn’t going to be a “Weekly Link Roundup” or anything – just “Link Roundup #42”. The minimum number of links I need to collect before posting is five. No news/current events unless it’s particularly interesting, because there’s lots of that already. I’ll try to categorize them somewhat if there are a lot of links. Here we go!

Design and User Experience

Code

  • Beej’s Guide to Network Programming – apparently good. Haven’t read yet. A “little how-to guide on network programming using Internet sockets, or ‘sockets programming’, for those of you who prefer it.”

Cool

  • Gwern.net – some neat ways of adding further subtlety to blog posts/essays and representing the interconnected nature of knowledge; I’m definitely borrowing ideas from this in the future.
  • A Brief Guide to Pipe Organs – I sneakily watched an organist rehearse the Bach Fantasia et Fuga in one of the campus chapels a few weeks ago. It caused me to decide to start playing baroque and classical piano again, and made me message a friend with “listening to organ always makes me feel like if one could hear god this is the closest thing to it”, the most unabashedly spiritual comment this spiritual atheist.
  • Here’s the Bach piece:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkDyRCr_RQ0

Beliefs

I miss moving

In other news, last night I learned from my fellow sci-fi/fantasy club member Emily how to do a safety vault, a very basic parkour move. It was really fun!

I put aikido on hold shortly after the start of this semester because I was overloading myself and saying yes to too many things, but I miss doing a skill-based physical activity, and last night really reminded me of that. I reassigned this month’s gear budget to a donation to Medicins Sans Frontieres (click here to donate), but since I’m spending half of December back home, I may use part of next month’s food budget on getting a mat for my dorm room so that I can at least practice rolling and falling, and not black out within ten minutes of resuming training. Rolls mysteriously got a lot harder on my body earlier this year, and right now I can’t even do one from kneeling without getting dizzy and having the ol’ orthostatic hypotension kick in.

In which UX process actually works, and I am surprised

In the past month or so of working on projects with the Student Devs I’ve had a chance to use some of the methods I’ve read about, and in almost every case, I’ve come away impressed by how these methods are actually really useful.

Prototype screens
Screens for a clickthrough prototype I made this week.

Because I’m still relatively new to UX (to compare, I’ve been serious about illustration for over five years now), I run into a lot of firsts these days while working on projects. First guerilla user test! First stakeholder interview! First user journey! What’s been really enlightening – and humbling – has been understanding the utility of tools and methods that I previously thought of as kind of pointless.

I’ve been reading about user-centered design since discovering it shortly before coming to college, but I’ll admit that a lot of it always seemed…silly? obvious? overhyped? to me. A lot of UX techniques are very straightforward. Write down all the different sections of your site and organize them into logical groups. Make simpler versions to test first before investing hours into a high-fidelity prototype. They always seemed too mountain-of-a-molehill, too formalized, too much like Process with a capital “P”.

Well, I guess now I’ve learnt to not knock it till I try it – in the past month or so of working on projects with the Student Devs I’ve had a chance to use some of the methods I’ve read about, and in almost every case, I’ve come away impressed by how these methods are actually really useful.

For example, as a fun side project, Thomas and I are making an app that helps students shop more efficiently at the school snack store. I decided to try making a user journey for how students currently interact with the store – it would help identify ways our app could be more broadly useful than the simple initial idea, but I also did it in large part because I felt like that was what “real” designers did: go through Real Designer Processes. So I went through the process.

I felt very silly going in, writing down every step the student went through, I was also unsure of whether I was doing things correctly. There are tons of templates for user journeys online, all slightly different, all slightly confusing. In the end I decided to grab a random set of useful-looking attributes from the templates and made my own. Our imaginary persona was Hungry Bob, a student who had missed lunch due to a meeting with a professor that ran long. Hungry Bob was then brutally subjected to every stressful experience possible within the snack store: public shame, long queues, confusion about prices, not enough time to browse, hard-to-find items – all the while contending with gnawing hunger. To be honest, I thought it was a little over-the-top…so it was both reassuring and worrying that when I showed the completed user journey to Thomas, his first comment was “wow, that’s exactly what happens at [store name] all the time”.

By really getting into Hungry Bob’s mindset, reflecting on our own frustrating experiences at the snack store, and examining each step of the process in detail, I was able to come up with a few suggestions and refinements to the original idea that I wouldn’t have thought of before. For instance, we originally had your in-app cash balance hardcoded to be $8, since that’s the amount students are left with on their cards if they don’t use it on lunch. But while thinking about how students actually hunt through the overpriced items at said store trying to find a way to maximize the lunch money, I realized that people often don’t mind paying slightly more than $8 if it allows them to get a few items that they really want, instead of an item they really want and disappointing filler items like carrot sticks or something. (Sorry, carrot-lovers.) I feel somewhat sheepish that it took creating a user journey to realize this, but hey, at least we saw it, and now our app has a flexible lunch money limit. It’s a very, very simple change in the code, but it makes the app much more useful to students – at least, I think it will. We haven’t gotten to the user testing stage yet.

I’ve also had a chance to see the emotional use of prototyping beyond its obvious “let your clients complain about something before you spend weeks building it” purpose. This week has seen me creating a mid-fidelity mobile prototype for an app the Yale College Council requested, using InVision (which I’m happy to plug here because they gave me a free student subscription, and because it’s really an amazing tool). The councillors handling the project on their end have been really happy with the ability to play with an intermediate prototype, instead of crossing their fingers and hoping that we deliver something that they like, and we’ve been talking about changes they’d like to see.

What’s cooler in my opinion is what happened with the snack store app. On Friday last week we took the idea to some managers within Yale Dining, to ask if they’d be okay with us making it, to see what their broader goals were, and to ask for access to their data. I think doing the user journey gave us some useful specific student experiences that we could refer to during the meeting to make our arguments more compelling. Would we have been able to bring them up without doing the user journey? Yes, but having mentally walked through the store earlier helped make certain oft-overlooked points much more salient.

Anyway, our meeting was going on, and we were encountering some resistance to our idea – one of them didn’t think it was particularly useful, and was much more enthusiastic about the prospect of us (implementing? customizing?) a third-party service that did something else entirely. More than half an hour in, one of the managers was starting to get the utility of our idea, and I felt like this was a good time to lock in his support. We hadn’t planned on showing the very basic prototype that Thomas had made over fall break, since it’s a plain text-based app with a couple of hardcoded values that doesn’t really do much – we didn’t think it would help our case. But by this point in the meeting I’d figured that we needed all the help we could get in communicating our idea, so I got Thomas to pull up the prototype on his phone.

That was probably the most interesting mood transition I’ve ever seen in a meeting. (Thomas says he couldn’t detect it, but I’ll believe it was there.) Both managers got more interested immediately, leaning in, expressions changing, becoming more curious. Once there was a working – even minimally – prototype on that conference table, they got much more engaged, playing with our four hardcoded snacks, adding and removing items from the cart, testing the autocomplete. It was easy to see that our previous descriptions of the app had been too nebulous, not compelling enough – probably due to our inexperience with meetings and pitches – and that now they really understood what we were going for. After that it was an easy sell. I was really impressed. I mean, you read about this kind of stuff, and about how Processes/tools are supposed to “disrupt client engagement” or whatever Markov-chain buzzword is in fashion today, but seeing it work in person is something else.

So. Yeah. That’s been really neat. I’m enjoying being a designer and giving myself permission to work on design and only design: I kind of wish I had more to do with the programming bits, but I know there aren’t enough hours in my life for me to do that many things well. Besides, I’m making a MUD game, and writing specs and code for that is using up most of my programming time.

Humility in the face of mathematics

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

It’s 11/11 today, which started as an ironic celebration of young-adult singlehood in a culture that has an odd relationship with romantic relationships, namely, that they should be avoided at all costs before college, as long as a partner and multiple babies spontaneously manifest by age 30. Alibaba and other clever merchants have turned it into the Chinese equivalent of Black Friday. Happy 11.11, I guess. I’d like to share something a little less depressing and blatantly consumerist.

Our professor for Fractal Geometry, Michael Frame, a wonderfully sweet and somewhat melancholy man who worked extensively with Benoit B. Mandelbrot, likes to make lectures more interesting by telling us bad jokes, Mandelbrot stories and existential musings on life.

Today’s Mandelbrot story was that back in the 40s or 50s, when Mandelbrot was studying at Princeton under John von Neumann, people were fond of walking around (and driving) lost in theoretical contemplation without paying much attention to their environs. Once Mandelbrot nearly ran over three people who meandered into the path of his vehicle. The three were Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, who were a little cross but went on their way.

Most of the class had been about cellular automata: fun little machines, if you can call them that, comprised of very simple rules that are applied iteratively to 1s and 0s. Rules as simple as “a 0 to the right of a 1 changes into a 1 on the next timestep”.  You give it a certain starting configuration, start it, the automaton follows the rules, and things happen. Apparently at least four known cellular automata are Turing-complete. That the automaton is Turing-complete means that it is capable of universal computation – in theory, capable of executing every possible computer program that could ever be created. This is a very powerful claim that looks far less important than it actually is.

Today’s existential thought was hence that every text in the history of Earth – the works of Shakespeare, the speeches of Churchill, the first words you spoke, the last words I will say – every image – every video – every sound – could be created on one of these simple, stupid machines, if you just had the right combination of initial conditions and enough time. It’s quite remarkable, really.
He ended with a sentence that I quite liked, and have added to my to-calligraph list.

“We should have a little humility in the face of mathematics.”

Eight basic Chinese recipes for the novice cook

Super, super-simple ideas from my mum for when you want Chinese food and aren’t sure what to make.

I was trying to make my inbox a little less terrifying today, and stumbled upon this email my mother sent me a few months ago when I was first panicking slightly about how exactly to cook (trust me, there is really no need to panic) – super-simple ideas for when you want Chinese food and aren’t sure what to make. (The salmon thing isn’t quite as Chinese.)

Most of these one-liners are an “intuitive recipe” (I’ll write more about this later) for a common dish you’ll see in Chinese households. Well, I guess the Coke one is kind of weird, but the rest are pretty standard at my house, at least. They contain the essence of the recipe, but may be inscrutable to someone unfamiliar with Chinese food, so for some of them I’ve added in italics the cooking technique(s) needed and a picture of what a finished dish might look like (if you click on the photo, you’ll get to the original image). Each is also followed by a link to a Chinese recipe website (content in Chinese, but there are photos) that goes into more detail.

I should also mention at this point something absolutely crucial to Chinese stir-frying: do not use olive oil. I know it’s a favorite with non-Chinese cooks. Don’t use it. Southern Chinese food in particular is about enhancing ingredients, not masking them. Overmanipulation is a sin. Olive oil is a) unsuitable for extremely high heat, e.g. what is used in stir-frying, and b) leaves a bad taste and texture that overpowers the food.

Cold garlic and cucumber salad (凉拌蒜蓉黄瓜)

  • Slice cucumber; chop garlic; pepper, salt, sesame oil. The linked recipe includes salt and vinegar; I [my mum] don’t think this is necessary. Mix well and let sit for a while.
  • 黄瓜,蒜头切小粒,胡椒粉,盐,香麻油。你可以参考如下链接。不过,他们有放糖、醋。可是我觉得不需要。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-178159.html

Scrambled eggs and tomato (西红柿炒鸡蛋)

Broccoli and meat stir-fry (西兰花炒肉片)

  • Use potatoes, celery, bittergourd, or eggplant. Other vegetables work too. Use cornstarch to tenderize the meat. Boil or steam broccoli, cook meat, stir-fry together. Butter is better than regular oil, in my opinion.
  • 用土豆、或是芹菜 Celery、或是苦瓜、茄子都可以。其他的蔬菜也可以。需要 Corn Starch 把肉片捏软。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-41911.html

Red Roast Chicken Wings (红烧鸡翅)

  • Marinade wings in soy sauce and sugar, then fry briefly with a little oil; when both sides are lightly brown, add water and simmer until dry.
  • 用酱油、糖腌一下鸡翅,然后少油煎一下,两面都有点焦,加水,小火煮到水干。
  • http://www.meishichina.com/Eat/RMenu/200806/38611.html

Coca-cola Chicken Wings (可乐鸡翅) (I’d never heard of these…)

Fragrant Fried Salmon (香煎三文鱼)

  • “Marinade” fish with salt and pepper, then pan-fry. Salmon can also be used for a seafood pasta: just cut into small pieces.
  •  用盐和胡椒把鱼腌入味,再煎。三文鱼也可以煮意大利面。切小块煎后,放在意大利面上。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-53984.html

Prawn stir-fry (虾仁炒…)

 Noodle Soup (面汤)

  • You can use ham, sausages, vegetables, etc. to cook the soup. For details see link.
  • 可以用 ham, 香肠、青菜煮面汤,加入你喜欢的任何东西。煮法如下链接参考。
  • http://home.meishichina.com/recipe-103597.html

Let me know with with a comment how these turned out if you try them, or if anything needs further clarification/translation!

Panem et circenses et infantes

Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.

A friend showed me this article today: Apple and Facebook are covering up to $20k for “fertility and surrogacy” costs, including egg-freezing procedures.

Apple and Facebook are adding this perk to their arsenal in an escalating battle to recruit and retain technical talent, especially female workers. […] While still uncommon, egg-freezing allows women to remove and store eggs when they are in their prime fertility window, which often overlaps with prime career-advancement years. The quality of a woman’s eggs declines as she gets older, putting many women in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s. Egg freezing allows women to stockpile healthy eggs while advancing their careers or waiting to meet a partner with whom they’d like to start a family.

One one hand, it’s nice that these are covered in employee perks now, I guess? I see company help with fertility and surrogacy as being particularly beneficial to same-sex or infertile couples who want to have children. Really, any help with fertility-related costs is always welcome: these procedures are not cheap. Who knows, I might have to use them one day.

On the other hand, that this is being presented as some sort of feminist move by some quarters (not least the companies themselves) leaves a bad taste in my mouth. A large company isn’t thinking about feminism. It’s thinking about talent retention and pleasing the board and making money, and anyone who believes otherwise is even more idealistic than I am (which is really saying something). Apple says, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they care for loved ones and raise their families.” I’m sorry, did you mean, “we want to empower women at Apple to do the best work of their lives as they delay starting families, because now they have no reason not to?”

I’m all for expanding people’s access to the option of having children later. But this move is obviously going to create the expectation that they should have children later. Telling employees “hey, egg-freezing is now on the company dime” also inadvertently (?) sends the message that “now you really have no excuse to be taking maternity leave before your forties” – by which point you’ve probably dropped out of the tech industry for other reasons. If, as a young parent, you come back to workplace problems, hey, it’s your fault for stubbornly running off to pop a baby out when we offered you the chance to do it later.

I’m honestly a little astounded that this passive-aggressive move is actually a solution two of our tech giants have come up with to alleviate the maternity-dropout problem. Apple’s statement is telling: the focus is on getting women to “do the best work of their lives” instead of, I don’t know, being good parents, and it reinforces the unhealthy tech-industry obsession with a warped definition of “passion”*. Instead of making difficult institutional changes that support effectively starting a family and having a stellar career at the same time, let’s delay the childbearing window of our employees instead so that they can work harder for us before they burn out or leave to have their (delayed) kids at last.

Of course, it’s a hard problem to face. Important employees making significant lifestyle changes is tough for any business; in the ultra-competitive, sped-up, hyper-capitalist environment of high technology, it can be crippling. It’s far easier to distract from the root problem with false feminism.

But here’s the real problem. Why are those of us with wombs even “in a bind about whether to have children in their 20s and 30s”? Because they’re afraid of what might happen after that decision. Because “successful early career” and “children” are still widely incompatible, for some reason. Look on parenting forums and see the collective hand-wringing of ten thousand expectant parents. Ask your mothers, sisters, aunts, nieces. This isn’t something you need polls and statisticians to understand. (Numbers, anyway: 43% of UK mums on maternity leave will re-enter the workforce earlier than they would like; 47% of them cite job security as a reason.)

The tech industry is snapping up the best and brightest of our generation, right? They do it so that they can solve hard problems. How to support gazillions of complex queries for over a billion people with subsecond speed is a hard problem. So is this. Tech is one of the best ways of enacting positive social change today, but helping employees freeze their eggs isn’t the way to do it. Sponsoring egg-freezing is part of a family-friendly solution, and helping people have more options with regards to their personal fertility is always good. But fixing gender inequality in the workplace due to parental needs doesn’t start from giving ambitious employees the ability to start a family later** instead of never. Making a company more family-friendly doesn’t happen by telling your employees that having children is less of a priority.


 

* I’ve been doing some research lately, and startlingly few companies talk about their employees like they’re people, not factories.

** As if children were expensive toys, to be postponed indefinitely and acquired at a later date, once enough money had been saved. That’s a huge factor that goes into family planning, obviously, but it’s really not that simple.

Noticing when the glasses fall off

User-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but it can sometimes feel like a new pair of glasses that you carry around and sometimes forget to wear.

Although I am now a user experience designer with the Yale Student Developers, and have always seen myself as a very user-centred person – whether I’m programming or drawing a magazine cover – I haven’t been doing this quite long enough that this way of thinking is completely internalized. If you’ll forgive the somewhat contrived analogy, user-centred design is a lens through which we can see the world, but to me it still feels like a new pair of glasses that I carry around but sometimes forget to wear.

Today I had to borrow a laptop from a friend to record a short video for German class. (I actually had to try three friends and three laptops, and none of them worked properly, so I’m going to give the speech in person after class tomorrow. Yay, “technology-enabled learning” done wrong!) While trying to get to the webpage that would let me submit my homework, I couldn’t help noticing that this friend’s laptop was horribly slow. Tabs in Chrome were all unresponsive. It took me 20 seconds just to application-switch.

Curious, I looked at what was running in the background and the first signs of the problem became evident: he somehow had four antivirus suites (two expired, one semi-functional, one apparently working) and five file-syncing/cloud backup services all running at the same time. Despite the presence of the file-syncing clients, he also wasn’t keeping backups of any of his data. The applications running might not have been the source of the slowness, but that the machine (and his data) was in this state gave a good hint as to what the problem might be.

When I returned his laptop to him I asked if he was aware of this situation. “Uh, yeah,” he told me, sounding unsure. “I think I installed all those programs by accident? I can’t find the uninstallers. And I don’t back up my data, yeah, I know I should, but…”

This is a facepalm moment, isn’t it? This is the kind of story that you tell back at the tech support office, to collective head-shakes and horrified looks. “Oh my god,” we go. “Why are users so inept?” And then we exchange smug looks. Users, man.

This is the moment you have to catch yourself. Is it really the user who is at fault? Or is it because the uninstallation process** isn’t intuitive? Why isn’t he backing up his data despite having multiple user-friendly cloud backup services at his disposal? Does he think it’s too difficult? Does he not realize that these programs offer him a way to back up his data? Could it be that these aren’t as easy-to-understand as we think they are? (You’d be surprised at how hard it is to explain the concept of file syncing to people, even college undergraduates who have spent at least half their lives online.)

I certainly didn’t realize what I was doing at first – after all, poking fun at the less tech-savvy is a comfortable and familiar hobby for most of us. I was telling a programmer friend about what had happened, and we were expressing amazement at how widespread bad computing habits were when he remarked, “people need to take better care of their computers” – and I suddenly became very aware of how we were pinning all the blame on this guy who had lent me his laptop so I could do my homework.***

As UX and product management people in the tech world, it’s only natural that the user-centric glasses we try our best to wear still fall off our nosebridges sometimes. After all, we’re mostly in this industry because we care about the people using our products, yes, but also because we love technology. We think the stuff engineers can come up with is awesome, and we want to make it even better. We’re all geeks. (Some more than others.) There will always be times when we forget that not everyone is the same way, when we’re baffled by another person’s unfamiliarity with something we work with every day, when we’re tempted to roll our eyes and declare the the problem exists between the chair and the keyboard.

What’s important is realizing when that happens, taking stock of the situation, putting the glasses back on, and looking again.


* I considered adding the sentence “my goal is to have the mental equivalent of laser surgery”, but after thinking about it for a little while, I decided that this isn’t really something I want. Although great in theory, I suspect that would tip me too far into the other direction, and cause me to lose touch with engineers instead. I need to be able to see how others see – not fully become others and lose the ability to view things from multiple perspectives.

** Mobile is one place that really gets this right. Uninstalling apps on smartphones is almost universally painless – perform the action that brings up a context menu, then select “remove” or tap a cross or drag it to a trash bin. Macs come a close second, except that the drag-to-Trash gesture doesn’t work for every type of application. The desktop environment is so wide open and subject to developer whims that the same kind of standardization is hard to achieve.

*** The way we instinctively shift responsibility off our products onto users reminds me a little of the language used in contemporary misogyny, actually: “women need to be less aggressive”, “women need to wear less revealing clothes”, “women need to sacrifice their careers to focus on their families”. If we can put so many resources into hiring UX people and good PMs to change the dialogue surrounding our products from “users need to X if they don’t want broken computers” to “computers should make it easy or needless for users to X”, we can definitely put the same amount of effort into changing the power dynamics and dialogue surrounding non-males in the tech

Fenster, Rauchen, Tür: German windows, smoking and doors

In which I sing the praises of German windows, am puzzled by smoking in Europe, and scoff at German doors.

German windows are fantastic. I’m seriously considering getting some for my abode when I grow up and become not-broke, just so I can show them off to visitors. They open at the top: the verb to describe the action is kippen, to tilt. Like so:

I know, it blows the mind. (If that was interesting, have a look at these various contemporary styles of European windows – the 3D renders have occlusion shadows! Hover over a window on that website to see how it opens.)

From the existence of a window position specifically for letting in air from outside, you can tell that Germans have a bit of a thing for ventilation and fresh air. In green spaces, people comment on how good the air is and how you’ll never get that in the cities – and check out this lengthy German Wikipedia article on ventilation.

This puzzles the heck out of me because Germany has one of Europe’s higher smoking rates, which has been causing me lots of misery. (I hate smoke.)

In general, Europeans smoke much more than what I’m used to, and the phenomenon seems more loosely linked to socioeconomic class and far less stigmatized. Look at the numbers: In the US 18% of the population smokes (2014 figure) and in Singapore only 14.3% of the population does (2010 figure). Compare this to, as of 2011 for male smokers: 22% in the UK, 30% in Denmark, 31% in Switzerland, 35% in Germany, 39% in France, 46% (!) in Austria. Germany also has cigarette vending machines everywhere, one per 133 inhabitants; every two blocks or so in Mannheim you can see an ugly metal box affixed to the wall with ZIGARETTEN stencilled on its side. Now, in China the smoking rate is 47%, and in Indonesia it is a whopping 67% – but that’s something you sort of expect. I can’t say I entirely understand it in Europe. These people recycle obsessively, they eat organic food, they work out – they breathe smoke as if it were air. I don’t get it.

 

Now German doors are not quite as fantastic as their windows, except for their rather clever soundproofing, which, when present, involves a partially recessed frame, and is the reason hotels here are impossibly quiet even when full of guests. But for some reason all the doors I’ve run into in Germany in everyday life are usability nightmares. Take this one near the neighborhood supermarket, which had me stumped and lurking in a corner furtively waiting for someone else to show me the correct way to escape:

Confusing German door

 

Look at those large curved handlebars, invitingly calling your name! Do you push? Do you pull? Both wrong. You use the little door handle on the inside. What?

My aikido dojo here offers another horrific example of German door-engineering, so convoluted I can’t even find a photo of a similar one on the internet. It involves a metal plate that sticks out slightly from the door proper, and a handle underneath it that seemingly serves no purpose, as to open the door you must pull the plate. Yes, you pull the metal plate.

Only slightly more stupid than the ‘pull’ plate in this unfortunate set. (source)

For all the smoke and weird doors, though, I am sad to be leaving this country – this continent, really – in a few weeks. I’ve settled in quite well in my apartment, and I’ll miss cooking. For now I am making the most of it: tomorrow I will buy a whole chicken (hopefully my landlady’s rubbish knives are up to the task of chopping it up) and attempt to make chicken rice, that most wonderful of Singaporean dishes.


1. For further reading, Don Norman writes about doors quite a bit in The Design of Everyday Things.

2. While checking noun genders for the title of the post, I finally realized that Tor and Tür are actually not just different forms of the same word. An elementary mistake, but one unobtrustive enough that I’d never bothered to look it up. Wikipedia says:

Eine Tür, vor allem ober- und mitteldeutsch Türe, auch Tor für größere Exemplare, ist eine Einrichtung zum Schließen einer Öffnung in einer Wand, in einer Mauer, in einem Durchgang oder in einem Einstieg.

So a Tor is a large Tür – a large door. There doesn’t seem to be an exact definition, but often Tore (pl.) are more like gates – large, somewhat grand, two doors if there are any – for instance, das Brandenburger Tor, the Brandenburg Gate. And of course, in football, a Tor is a goal.

Super-easy jam recipe

I made redcurrant jam and blogged about it!

A recurring problem I’ve been facing here in Germany is that my fruit and vegetables go bad really, really quickly, due to a combination of crappy refridgerator and cheap low-quality food. I go to the Netto (a low-cost supermarket) near work every day after I leave to pick up ingredients for dinner, and they’ll usually be selling a package of fruit at a price too tempting to leave.

And so it was that I found myself with a 500g box of Johannisbeeren rot, redcurrants, in my fridge for a week. I’d been putting them in my other dishes to add some tartness and visual interest but there’s only so much of that you can do before fried noodles with berries becomes berries with fried noodle. They were too sour to eat large amounts of on their own, and I wasn’t sure what else to do with them. As the week neared its end I got a bit worried about how long it would take to get rid of them. Suddenly I remembered:

Jam.

homemade jam
Jam.

I’d been wanting some anyway to eat at breakfast, so jam it was. I did a bit of research on making jams at home and the consensus seems to be that proper canning equipment is a must if you don’t want to be poisoned by the fruits of your labor. There was some stuff about boiling the jar before use (which I didn’t do), and I think the pectin you usually add is also supposed to help lengthen the jam’s shelf-life. So my jam has neither preservatives, a proper jar, or an airtight cover, but I’ve been eating from my jam for a week now and haven’t died yet, although I am trying to use it up as quickly as possible by covering other types of fruit in it, eating it with potatoes etc. Imitate me at your own risk.

I didn’t put enough honey into my jam initially and it was almost as tart as the raw berries.

Short-lived homemade jam

Ingredients

  • a lot of fruit, enough to fill up to 2/3 of a pot (I used redcurrants and some shredded pieces of red date – they added a lot of interest to the final jam, which was nice)
  • honey or sugar, to taste

You will also need a jar. Preferably glass. Preferably specially made for canning, with a brand-new lid. The only jar I had around was one that formerly contained sauce hollandaise, and it didn’t have a lid so I used cling wrap… I’m violating food safety regulations by the dozen here. IMITATE ME AT YOUR OWN RISK and read up on what the proper way to can jams is.

Directions (step-by-step pictures at the bottom)

  1. Get rid of stems, wash berries well and discard any obviously spoiling pieces.
  2. In a soup pot or similar, heat up berries until boiling. Be warned that the froth might spill over if you put in too much fruit – 2/3 full is a safe amount. Also, I had a hunch that using ceramic ware instead of metal would help with the taste, but I honestly don’t know enough about cooking to tell you if this is true.
  3. Bring heat down, wait for froth to subside, then stir in honey. You will need more honey than you think you do, especially if the fruit itself is sour. If you want a less sweet jam, add less, obviously.
  4. Simmer, just barely boiling, for at least 30 minutes. I ended up doing 70 min or so. Stirring once in a while helps dislodge frothy bits that get stuck. As far as I can tell, the duration of simmering just determines how thick your jam will be. Without pectin it’s going to be nowhere as thick as store-bought jam, but don’t be too disappointed because now we are going to…
  5. Decant into a jar, cover in an airtight way, and stick the jar in the fridge. This makes a huge difference in turning the contents of your jar from fruit mush to something that actually looks and feels like jam.

Now pictures!

Remember, no preservatives + less sugar = this isn’t going to last anywhere near as long as commercial jam does. Keep it cold, and keep it clean.