Something I've noticed that seems to be a recurring theme in the iPod/iPhone ads over the last couple of years is what I'm going to call "the iPod Swipe".
It's that smooth, confident move of the hand that move an iPod across the screen, either to clip it to your clothes or to whisk it off-screen:
Looking at the ads by competitors (usually cellphone ads these days), the hands just don't move the same way. They move a lot more like real person hands do, somehow, but they just don't look cool, like the weirdly robotic hands that grab for iPods:
Isn't that odd? It just doesn't look real. Yet like with the shuffle ad at the top, you feel like if you had one, you'd almost be obliged to clip it to your clothes in a single fluid motion without pausing to get a grip on your zipper. You feel like if you were to pick it up, you'd have to scoop it into the air like a plane doing a Fulton Extraction, snatching it up with no jolts or fumbles.
Suppose maybe part of the reason the iPod remains so successful after all this time is that these ads—in much the same way that the "silhouette" ads give you the feeling that you could be dancing with your iPod just like these guys, but you're probably nowhere near as talented—make you feel like the product is just, you know, a little too good for the average person to aspire to?
It's as though they're creating an atmosphere where the product is presented as if it should cost a lot more than it does; so that when people discover that it's merely somewhat expensive, rather than prohibitively so, they feel like they're getting the bargain of the century.
Does that make any sense?
...And between that Voyager ad, the Sirius ad below, and the "Fulton Extraction" link (the method that was used to pick up Bond and his girl Domino at the end of Thunderball), do we officially have a "domino" theme today or what?
70%: The one that coats is the only one you need. 85%: Use this to illustrate to an alien visitor what "chocolate" tastes like. Ecuador: There's Arriba in there somewhere, behind all the broken glass. Madagascar: Something this sweet should be buying me flowers.
In our last episode, we looked at some 85%-class dark chocolates that included Lindt's Excellence 85% bar, one that seems to have achieved critical success that belies its widespread mass-market availability. I thought that this time I should look at the same bar in a different context: alongside Lindt's other three dark bars that you can typically find in candy aisles all over the country.
Lindt & Sprüngli is a pretty big manufacturer, perhaps not to the extent that one could call it "the Hershey's of Europe" (that moniker would probably be better used to describe Barry Callebaut, who owns Brach's)—but certainly they're right up there, with several subsidiaries of their own, including San Francisco's Ghirardelli. They make those little Lindor truffles you see everywhere, and all kinds of flavored bars in the Excellence line. Yet that line doesn't span much of the dark chocolate range, with only four unadulterated dark bars that I know about or could find on their site: blends at 70% and 85% strength, and single-origin bars from Ecuador and Madagascar, at 75% and 65% respectively.
Blended chocolates aren't inherently better or worse than single-origins; they have plenty of their own merits, such as the ability to convey a pure and classic "chocolate" flavor, as we already know the 85% is able to do. Some single-origin flavors can be one-note or strident or even not taste anything like "chocolate". Two excellent cases in point are the varietal strains from Ecuador and Madagascar, both highly specialized and recognizable tastes in the spectrum of chocolate, more so even than most other regional varietals I've tried. Perhaps it's for this reason that Lindt chose those two origins for their line, and not sources like Venezuela, the Caribbean islands, or West Africa, like Hershey's does with its "Cacao Reserve" line (they have varietals from Santo Domingo and São Tomé as well as Ecuador and Java). Either way, they're both fine choices for presenting unique chocolate flavor variations to the general public, especially with as wide an audience as Lindt commands in the U.S. and world markets.
We'll start with the 70%, move up to the 85% to compare it in context with that bar rather than other companies' 85-class bars, then proceed to the Ecuador and Madagascar varietals. The first two blended bars are both very dark, the 85% almost so much as to be blackish-purple. The copy on the back of the 70%'s box says it has a "warm color"; well, maybe if it's sitting next to the 85%, but not to the single-origins, both of which are very light by comparison, the Madagascar in particular boasting a reddish-blond hue that I recognize well from Valrhona's Madagascar plantation bar, Ampamakia. This color comes from the rarer and more delicate Criollo strain of cacao beans, as opposed to the widespread and hardy Forastero strain that makes up the vast bulk of world production despite its much less interesting flavor characteristics. This isn't to say that Forastero beans are completely unsuited to use in great chocolate; far from it. Lindt's blended bars are certainly based on Forastero beans, just really high-grade ones. It's just that Criollos will impart a flavor that's much richer and more complex, with more subtle notes drifting in and out of the palate as it melts.
The same level of complexity, however, is also present in the Forastero beans that make up just about every "Ecuador" bar you'll see on the market, because Ecuador's trademark strain of Forastero beans is so different from other Forasteros that it has its own name: Nacional, or more commonly Arriba. Arriba beans have a flavor that's unmistakable once you've tasted it: not necessarily the best flavor (I myself am not a huge fan of it), but definitely a good deal more interesting than the usual one-note song sung by even the best Forastero beans from elsewhere in the world.
Now, I'll come clean right off the bat and say that the Lindt 70% is one of my very favorites, and before I even taste it I know what to expect: the longest melt and smoothest finish of anything I've ever tried. This chocolate all liquefies at once in the mouth and turns into a thick, syrupy coating that goes everywhere and sticks—your tongue, your teeth, everywhere. And it stays with you, too. It takes ten minutes before it's all dissolved away, and it can be another half-hour before the flavor is completely gone.
Fortunately, it's a great flavor, as tasting it again reiterates. The initial sense is of something tense and a little alarming, like tobacco smoke; but as the melt begins it all resolves into a complex and fruity tapestry of tartness and sweetness and juiciness, hardly bitter at all, and thoroughly enjoyable. By the time you've taken stock of all the different notes that are happening at once, the thing has melted into its characteristic mouthful-o-mud, and now you get to sit back in your chair and patiently wait for it to seep into all the crevices of your teeth and dig itself in. There's far more to it than the Scharffen Berger 70%, which is pale and sugary by comparison; this one has a lot more going for it and is vastly more involving. It's so tasty it's hard for me to move on to the next square; but I must, and I do: a swig of Diet Coke to hasten the natural cleansing of the palate (even though this chocolate's aftertaste somehow makes the Diet Coke taste like coffee), and it's time for our old friend the 85%.
Next to the 70%, the bitterness of the darker bar is immediately apparent: its attack is smoother, but it retains that same intensity and angle throughout its melt, which is almost (but not quite) as long as the 70%'s. The flavor profile could hardly be more different: it's pure chocolate, with hardly anything else to distract from it, whereas the 70% was full of wild tartness and fruitiness with surprises every few seconds, like a fruitcake that's more fruit than cake. The 85% is content to revel in its mastery of the "chocolate" flavor and stand smirking on its pedestal of aloof bitterness, not stepping down to meet you halfway with any compromises or peace offerings like fruit baskets with "Friends?" written on a scarf tied to the handle. There's no need. This chocolate is there to be appreciated as-is, and you can like it or lump it. (Personally, I'm in the former camp.)
Next we move on to the Ecuador offering. Now, I've got some idea of what an Arriba bar is likely to taste like, having tried the Ecuadorian single-origins from Chocovic, Hershey, Domori, and Hachez; typically it's what I would describe as "dark" and "liqueury", even "medicinal". Most manufacturer labeling describes Arriba flavors as being "floral", though to me maybe that's true only if you're talking about things like orchids that have sat on the table too long. But at least in the case of Lindt, all they seem inclined to say about their Ecuador single-origin is that it's "an aromatic chocolate offering an intense note of cocoa", whatever that means. Perhaps I just haven't had a particularly good Arriba yet; the Hachez I had was so vacuous and unfocused as to be downright unpleasant, and even Domori's tasted to me like suntan lotion. But if it seems like I'm going into this tasting with a bit of trepidation, it's only because I am.
Aroma-wise it's certainly forthright; it's probably got the most nose of any of the chocolates here. I don't know that it has much in the way of characteristic Arriba smells, but it's quite pleasant and classically cocoa. Biting into it, though, I'm immediately distracted from any flavor characteristics by the brittle crunchiness of what can only be a stale bar. (The expiration date is 1/31/08.) Fortunately this shattering texture isn't the only notable characteristic, as with the Côte d'Or from last time; once it's crunched down to the melting point, you really get to enjoy some fine and assertive chocolate flavors, with Arriba's characteristic cloying floridity playing only a minor role among other bright and herbal notes. This isn't the somber and brooding Arriba I'm used to (possibly in keeping with how much lighter in color this bar is from most Arribas); it's more carefree and playful, like a satirical comic-opera version of Les Misérables put on by the cast of the original in order to keep from going insane. Not all is good, though—like most Arribas I've tried (especially the Ghana/Ecuador/Panama blend from Theo), it's quite astringent, leaving the tongue feeling dried-out and stictiony against your teeth and the back of the throat feeling oddly hot.
(The ingredients list "natural flavoring (prune)", alarmingly enough. I didn't taste any prunes, though—which is weird, because a prune flavor is something I've come to expect from Arriba chocolates, particularly the oddball Hachez.)
Perhaps it's fitting that the final offering, the Madagascar, is only a 65%—relatively low for a dark chocolate, but not for a Madagascar (the Ampamakia from Valrhona is similarly low-cacao-content). That's just fine with me, because even at that level it's apparent that bitterness wouldn't be this chocolate's finest presentation style anyway. If the Ampamakia is anything to go by, the diversity of the slate of flavors here will be unmatched outside of Club Technochocolate.
Unfortunately this bar might have suffered from even more of the languishing-on-a-shelf-at-Fry's than the Ecuador bar; grestigious though it might be, the expiration date is 12/31/07, which probably means I shouldn't expect it to measure up to the other bars texturally or even in taste. But even with that in mind, I have a hard time believing how the melt on this bar works. It crunches up into tiny little fragments, and then rather than those fragments melting into a mouth-coating paste, the whole ball of chocolate bits clumps together into a mushy, amoeboid mass that stubbornly refuses to disintegrate. Only by sticking my tongue into the middle of the ball can I get any sense of the flavor—and when I do, what I taste is mostly sugary sweetness, like an undistinguished marshmallowy Easter bunny or something. There's hardly anything I can do to coax out any additional flavor or get a sense for the distinctive Madagascar notes that I know should be in evidence—if this is a Sambirano cacao, as the Swiss-glish label alludes, I might expect something of a hint of the almost overpowering acidity of Domori's Sambirano; or failing that, there should at least be some of the fascinating tropical-plant notes of Ampamakia. But I'm not getting any of that. Every time I think I'm tasting something interesting, and concentrate harder on it, it dissolves away into mere sugars, leaving me wondering whether I'd tasted anything at all. In the end I'm left feeling like I just ate a sugar cube.
Maybe these problems with the Ecuador and the Madagascar can be attributed to the bars' relative staleness; maybe they can't. Certainly seventypercent.com seems to be generallypositive about these bars, if not effusive. But for me, I'm just not seeing these bars waving what ought to be much more confidently flying colors, particularly the Madagascar. The Ecuador is better, but not hugely so; neither of them gives me anything like the memorable experience I get from eating the blended 70% or 85% Excellence bars.
I think this ought to teach me a lesson: no more bars from supermarket shelves. If I'm going to taste something seriously, I need to get it fresh from chocosphere.com, and try it straight out of the wrapper. But even with that in mind, I don't think even perfect freshness could do much to raise the flavors of these single-origins to the levels the blends had led me to expect. I guess Lindt is leading no charmed life, which just makes me all the more appreciative that the 70% and 85% are so good.
Next time I think I'll get some Arribas together and compare them head-to-head. Maybe by that time I'll have found a fresher Lindt to throw into the mix.
Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM just took another step closer to the grave with the help of some rebranding. Those of you with players from SanDisk, Nokia, and Creative among others, looking for compatible music from Napster, Real Rhapsody, Yahoo Music, Wal-Mart and such must now look for the "Certified for Windows Vista" logo, not PlaysForSure. Of course, Microsoft's Zune is also certified for Windows Vista, just not certified for Windows Vista so it won't play back the same protected files. Man, could DRM get any more consumer unfriendly?
Astonishing. Naturally, Gruber makes a salient point. But I think Chris gets my vote for best reaction; when I suggested that Microsoft was at least providing a valuable service by keeping us entertained with stuff like this, he said "No... its like watching your arch enemy accidently run over his mother... its not something you'd wish on ANYONE."
Speaking of No Country for Old Men—well, yeah, it was good, all right. I guess I just didn't expect it to be so... so... so undisguisedly Fargo in Texas. Or for so few reviewers to have pointed this out.
And did you know that movies are now certifying themselves "Carbon Neutral", right in the credits?
Having heard that it was all kinds of good, I headed over to the mall after work to catch No Country for Old Men. However, not having been so savvy as to bother checking the schedules beforehand, I found myself there at the food court a full two hours before showtime. Ah well, I thought to myself. No sense in wasting a trip to the food court. I like food courts. Call it a guilty pleasure.
So call it a further guilty pleasure that when I saw that a new restaurant had installed itself at the end of the gaudy neon-lit semicircle surrounding the entrance foyer and Century ticket counter at Oakridge, I was drawn immediately and inexorably away from the Great Steak & Potato Co. and the Rubio's and the Subway to the plain, red, internally lit sign on an austere metal background that said, simply, dawgs.
I likes me a good hot dog.
"Would you like to try a Chicago Dog?" came the voice from somewhere in front of me, sandwiched between a Sbarro and an insane-looking thing called Beard Papa's, where three Asian chefs in tall cylindrical chef's hats peered around with confused expressions at the complete lack of people lining up for their counter.
I looked back and forth. There in front of me, under the austere metal sign and behind an almost equally austere metal counter with nothing in it but a few tiny trays of condiments and another bin of soft drinks, a lady beamed at me hopefully, proferring a tray of little Vienna sausage chunks on toothpicks.
"I might," I said, and chewed thoughtfully as I perused the menu.
Mall though this might be, that's all the menu was: a printed-out sheet taped to the inside of the sneeze guard. But look at those items, why don't you. New York-style Sabrett kosher. Garlic. Wisconsin Johnsonville brats. Bockwurst. Greek Loukaniko. A lemon chicken dog "for the true hot dog snob". And, of course, a Chicago dog—saying all the right things, from the pickle spear to the celery salt to the "neon green relish".
And what the hell—the menu, while it could use some proofreading, has a sense of self-deprecating humor. That's always a plus.
I briefly considered an item that was being shown on the two giant flat-screen monitors attached to the back wall, which were rotating through an echo of the menu (black text on white—about the lamest use of giant flat-screen monitors I've ever seen) and some various specials: a KOBE BEEF DAWG, which was normally $10, but for now was $6.50: "The King of the Hot Dogs". But no... ever since Wienerschnitzel stopped selling their (quite faithful rendition of the) Chicago Dog, I've had no easy access to one. So that's what I asked for.
Unfortunately, that's where things started to go all wonky.
First of all, the hot dog took the guy and the lady (the only staff there at 8:20 on a Tuesday night during Christmas shopping season) some five or six minutes to put together. The shop had clearly only been open for a couple of days at most, because she had to show him the process for making the hot dog, which ingredients to put on it, and so on; this after asking me whether perhaps I wanted to put the dog together myself, which I thought an odd option to say the least. ("You're the experts," I told them with an encouraging smile; the expressions I got back seemed more scared than gratified.)
Secondly, the dog didn't end up bearing that much resemblance to a classic Chicago dog as I understood it. First off, it had a slathering of cheese sauce on it, which I don't remember being anywhere in the classic definition or mentioned in the menu. And that's just the beginning. No celery salt. The tomatoes seemed stewed rather than diced or in wedges. The "neon green" relish was, as best I could tell, just your typical sweet relish out of a big foodservice jar—not the tart dill relish one might hopefully seek in circumstances such as, say, a dedicated hot dog restaurant. And the pickle spear.... the pickle spear... was no such thing, but several pale crinkle-cut chips, the kind with hardly any flavor to speak of. The one bright spot—aside from the chewy Vienna Beef sausage, which was quite nice, and the roll, which had some heft to it, though poppyseeds were not in evidence—was the little hot sport pepper. Too bad there was only one of them. Even Wienerschnitzel gives you three.
Oh yes: and they served it with a fortune cookie.
... Why, thank you, crazy hot dog store!
I cannot find hide nor hair of this restaurant on Google; apparently it's some local thing, judging by the "Made in California by local sausage makers" proudly flaunted by the menu. I have no idea how they managed to secure a spot in this high-traffic Silicon Valley mall, when every other concessioner there is a major chain complete with giant royalty-free pictures of people enjoying food and life grinning down on you from behind the garish logos. And I have no idea how much longer they'll be there, since I was the only person who came near their counter in the twenty minutes I was there.
But I've got to go back sometime, just to see if things change. And to try the KOBE BEEF DAWG. Just to see what the hell.