Surprise Me: Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream

It’s a household tradition around here to take a child out for ice cream on the night before his birthday. Accordingly, I took one of them the other day to Baskin-Robbins, and I also took the opportunity to see how a local Tri-Citian would satisfy my insatiable desire for surprises.

Me
The boy here would like a single scoop of “Mint Chocolate Chip” on a sugar cone. And for myself, I’d like you to surprise me. Anything on the menu is fair game!
CSR
(looks down meekly and laughs to himself) uhm, okay. Uh, would you like it in a cone or a bowl?
Me
Your call! Surprise me!
CSR
(smiles nervously)

This was a curious experience, because the fellow behind the counter almost seemed embarrassed about the whole thing. It was as if my asking him to surprise me was like asking him to hold my purse while I used the restroom. Not that I have a purse. Or that I would ask anyone to hold it if I did.

After getting past the initial social awkwardness of someone asking to be blindly surprised, the kind man handed me a single scoop of “Salty Caramel” ice cream on a sugar cone.

Scoring Breakdown: Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream

Score Comments
Audacity -1 Frankly, the poor fellow seemed rather meek and apologetic. He literally avoided eye contact with me as soon as I’d asked to be surprised. Then he asked me about my preferences (cone vs bowl, when I didn’t even limit him to ice cream), and finally he chose a fairly safe flavor – caramel in vanilla ice cream.
Reaction 0 I give the server a neutral on this one because while he did seem embarrassed about the thing, at least he smiled and laughed a little instead of heaving a sigh and looking toward heaven.
Discovery 0 I probably wouldn’t have ordered Salty Caramel among other choices, but it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary as far as ice cream goes.
Satisfaction -1 I doubt I’ll order Salty Caramel again; other ice cream flavors are much more interesting.

Overall score: -2. This might be a little harsh, but I really was expecting more from Baskin-Robbins – they have all kinds of weird flavors and odd stuff on the menu. This didn’t really broaden my taste horizons.

Observations to Date

I have only completed four of these little vignettes, but already I am beginning to detect patterns.

  1. Safety bets. Nobody has yet given me anything that would remotely qualify as being “off the beaten path” (except possibly the “Grandma’s Cake Batter” ice cream, but I’m informed that cake-batter-flavored stuff is a “thing” now, so apparently it’s on the beaten path). People seem more eager to minimize risk than to offer me something potentially unpleasant.

  2. Nobody else does this. Maybe I’m way off base here, but I would have thought servers would encounter this type of thing more often. I’m a pretty boring person, so surely other more exciting folks must ask for surprises occasionally? Server reactions thus far suggest that the answer to that is “no.”

Let the surprises continue! Being that I do not wish to spend exorbitant amounts of money going out to eat all the time, I am devising creative new ways to apply this methodology of surprise. Stay tuned.

Surprise Me: Sleepy Monk Coffee

Sleepy Monk Coffee is a bustling little coffee shop in downtown Cannon Beach where all the stim junkies get their cuppa. They don’t have a drive-through and we were en route to Ocean Park for a heavy day of family reuning, so I sent Mystie inside while I waited with the kids in the rustbucket van. I instructed Mystie to either request the barista to surprise me or take it upon herself to choose the surprise herself at her discretion. (Sort of a surprise within a surprise, if you follow me.) Mystie chose to let the barista do the surprising, and she afterward reported that the latter, when informed that this customer sought assistance in pushing the boundaries of everyday existence, took on an attitude suggestive of an underlying “Are you serious? There are customers waiting in line” sentiment.

While it is true that there were customers waiting in line, this author hardly thinks that justifies the completely mundane mocha which resulted from the experiment.

Scoring Breakdown: Sleepy Monk Coffee

Score Comments
Audacity -1 A mocha is essentially the seafood sampler of a coffee shop. What patron of coffee shops *doesn’t* like a mocha?
Reaction -1 Expressing even the slightest hint or vague sense of hopeless negativity and fatalism when confronted by a surprise is completely unacceptable.
Discovery -1 I’ve had numerous mochas in my lifetime, and I am even wont to order them on occasion when feeling particularly dull. This surprise held nothing new for me whatsoever.
Satisfaction 0 As far as mochas go, this one was completely ordinary in every respect. Definitely not something I would order again from a hippy downtown fair-trade organic coffee shop. (Their coffee beans were actually pretty good, albeit a touch on the pricey side at roughly twice the cost per pound of my usual inorganic beans. We got a bag for free with the vacation rental.)

Overall score for the Sleepy Monk: -3, a pretty awful surprise. I would advise you to avoid requesting surprises here and just order something that sounds good. On a completely random note, I also just ate a Dove chocolate whose wrapper told me that I “should charge for your great advice”. If the chocolate peddlers think so, then it must be true. I’d best set about establishing a mechanism for doing so here. Consider this piece of advice to be the “first one”, which I am reliably informed is always free.

Surprise Me: Mo’s Restaurant

We always go to Mo’s when we’re at Cannon Beach, because it’s delicious and family-friendly and it’s on the beach with a nice view and we hardly ever eat seafood. I almost always order something tame, like clam chowder or such. This time I was determined to be surprised!

Waitress
And what would you like?
Me
I’d like you to surprise me.
Waitress
You’d like what now? (I sensed a recurring theme starting here. Serving staff seem surprised to learn that a patron wishes to be surprised.)
Me
I’d like you to surprise me. Anything on the menu is fine, but no hamburgers and I’m too hungry for a salad alone.
Waitress
Okay! Well that’s the first time in 8 years this has happened. You ought to get a prize or something!

For the record, I did not in fact get a prize. However, I did get a delicious plate of fried cod fish-and-chips, which the waitress explained is something they make right there at the restaurant. (It was not immediately clear to me what they don’t make at the restaurant. Perhaps she meant it was local fish or something, or that they ship their clam chowder from Wisconsin dehydrated in plastic bags.)

Scoring Breakdown: Mo’s Restaurant

Score Comments
Audacity 0 No samplers, which is good, but no raw oysters either, resulting in a middle-of-the-road score. Fish-and-chips is unquestionably a safety bet as far as seafood surprises go.
Reaction +1 This waitress really seemed to get into the spirit of the thing. Once she understood what I wanted, there was no faffing about with trying to figure out what I would actually enjoy. I received the impression of having brought a small ray of sunshine into her otherwise predictable day.
Discovery -1 I would have been very likely to order fish-and-chips if I was not seeking high adventure, and in fact I think I may have even done so several years ago.
Satisfaction +1 The fish-and-chips were quite good, I would definitely order them again.

Overall score: +1. This was a good experience, which is paradoxically not surprising, because Mo’s is always a good experience.

Bonus Surprise: Burly Motorcycle Gangsters!

I don’t think this was related to my efforts, but midway through the meal the restaurant was invaded by a horde of rather seasoned individuals whose bepatched leather jackets and stern looks proclaimed to be members of a “motorcycle club” whose logo prominently featured skulls and revolvers. There were at least thirty of these intimidating characters, and I began to wonder if this was a hostile takeover of poor Mo’s establishment. I would have snapped a picture of the scene, but I chose not to for two very prudent reasons: a) I didn’t have a camera, and b) I once read some extraordinarily sage advice which told me “never snap a photo of a man who can snap you”.

It is probably best not to apply our scoring scale to the incident of the motorcycle gang, as this here Internet is becoming full of more and more kinds of people and you never can tell how a hardened motorcyclist would take a thing like that. Therefore, I will leave it to your imagination.

Surprise Me

It is a frail constitution that will never stray from the familiar and the comfortable. If no other experiences offer contrast to the familiar, the familiar is no longer comfortable but confining.

This I have brooded on for some time, and last week whilst on holiday at the beach I realized that the situation demanded action. It began at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, where I found myself realizing that I only ever order their Brown Cow white-and-brown chocolate ice cream. (I believe it goes by some different name now, yet another victim to the brazen branding fanatics, but in my heart it shall always remain Brown Cow.) It is delicious, but it is routine. What of the other thirty-some-odd flavors on the menu? I resolved to order a three-scoop sampler and expand my tastes.

But almost immediately, I realized this was not enough. Were I left to my own devices, I would simply order three other flavors that sounded good to me. How could I make the experience more interesting? I girded up my loins and readied myself for high adventure: a mission to be surprised.

Anatomy of a Surprise

Here are the rules of what will become a semi-regular feature on this blog, the surprise experience. When the opportunity presents itself at a restaurant or other similar establishment wherein there are many suitable choices, I shall ask my host/server/proprietor to surprise me, and I will score the experience on four metrics outlined below: Audacity, Reaction, Discovery, and Satisfaction.

But firstly, a few ground rules.

Ground Rules

  1. I am allowed to rule out certain mundane options from the available choices, provided they do not meaningfully reduce the surprise factor. For example, when dining at Mo’s, I may specify “no burgers” when requesting the surprise, since although being served a burger at Mo’s would doubtless be surprising, I am loath to squander a rare opportunity to eat seafood on the beach.

  2. I will only conduct the experiment in suitable locations. An example of an unsuitable location would be a Jack-in-the-Box drive through with a semi-literate person on the other end of the talking box.

  3. I am allowed to set a price range if circumstances demand it. For instance, in my current state of fiscal affairs, I would rather not be surprised by a $200 bottle of wine.

The Script

Pursuant of consistency in the scoring of surprises, I will follow a script as closely as possible when requesting surprises. It goes like this:

(Waiter) And what would you like?

(Self) I would like you to surprise me. Anything on the menu is fair game. [Insert any applicable exceptions or clarifications here, such as “an entree” or “no hamburgers”.] [Optionally insert additional items to include, such as a surprise drink.]

Scoring System

The scoring scale ranges from -1 to +1. Each surprise will be scored on the following four metrics:

  1. Audacity. This is a measure of the server’s willingness to be courageous and choose something bold he thinks I will like (or dislike), rather than trying to compromise on middle-of-the-road options. For instance, a server at a restaurant who delivers a sampler platter of their common foods would receive -1: weak sauce. A server who delivers a raw oyster shooter, on the other hand, knows what a surprise is all about and would definitely receive +1 for his sheer audacity.

  2. Reaction. This is the server’s apparent willingness to play along. Any questions about my preferences after I request to be surprised (e.g. “Do you like X?”) will result in a -1. An eagerness to play along and/or general enthusiasm at the idea of choosing what to sell a customer receives +1.

  3. Discovery. This measure is inversely proportional to the likelihood I would have ordered the surprise item myself. Thus, if the Tillamook Cheese Factory gives me a scoop of Brown Cow, discover would be -1. If they give me a scoop of “Grandma’s Cake”, they get +1, because nobody in their right mind orders a scoop of “Grandma’s Cake” ice cream.

  4. Satisfaction. This measure is directly proportional to the likelihood I will ever order the surprise item again.

Thus, the Platonic surprise would receive a score of +4. An utterly mundane surprise delivered by a cranky nihilist would receive -4.

With the rules set and the scoring explained, let us proceed to our first surprise, conducted during my vacation at Cannon Beach.

Inaugural Surprise: Tillamook Cheese Factory

Following lunch at the Tillamook Cheese Factory, we proceeded to the ice cream bar where I proceeded to order several items for the children, and then my own turn came.

Me
And I would like a 3-scoop sampler, and I want you to surprise me with the flavors. (This was before I came up with a script.)
Cashier
You want what?
Me
Surprise me. Pick any three flavors, except no orange sherbet.
Cashier
Okay…how about I’ll pick my three favorites.
Me
Sounds fine.
Cashier
Do you like nuts?
Me
Nuts are fine.

With that, she proceeded to pick Marionberry, “Grandma’s Cake Batter”, and Caramel Butter Pecan.

Scoring Breakdown: Tillamook Cheese Factory

Score Comments
Audacity 0 This wasn’t really a good test, because I limited her to a 3-scoop sampler. However, her choices within that confinement were reasonably audacious, so she gets a score of neutral.
Reaction -1 She had to confirm that I wanted a surprise and she also asked about what I liked.
Discovery +1 I never would have ordered Grandma’s Cake Batter. No sane person does.
Satisfaction 0 Marionberry was okay, Caramel Butter Pecan was all right (too much butter and not enough caramel), and Grandma’s Cake Batter was downright horrible. I’ve never eaten a grandma’s cake batter when not otherwise baked into a cake, and I certainly have no inclination to start now. Good thing I was sharing my dessert with 2-year-old Knox, who had no apparent objections to eating cake-batter-flavored ice cream.

Overall, the Tillamook Ice Cream Surprise scores a flat zero: not bad for a first try, but nothing really out of the ordinary as surprises go.

The Unsurprising Conclusion

This is only the beginning. As I mentioned, my goal is to make surprises a recurring theme around here. I have two additional vacation surprises already catalogued and coming soon, but a rather practical problem remains beyond those: I rarely make these kinds of purchases when not on vacation, so opportunities for surprise may be few and far between. Nevertheless, I shall keep my eyes open for them. I hope to culminate this series someday in years to come with a “Surprise me” visit to a travel agency. When I do, you’ll be sure to hear of it.

Have a Slap in the Facebook

When you’re young, you look at television and think, There’s a conspiracy. The networks have conspired to dumb us down. But when you get a little older, you realize that’s not true. The networks are in business to give people exactly what they want. That’s a far more depressing thought. Conspiracy is optimistic! You can shoot the bastards! We can have a revolution! But the networks are really in business to give people what they want. It’s the truth.

Steve Jobs

Q. How do you know when somebody closes their Facebook account?
A. They’ll tell you about it.
— The Internet

I wouldn’t normally keep track of this sort of thing, because I’m not on Facebook. However, I do read a few tech blogs and news aggregators, and recent events have bubbled into my consciousness. In case you, also, are healthy enough to maintain general ignorance of Mr. Zuckerberg’s latest capers, allow me to briefly summarize the news of the last few weeks:

  1. Facebook gives all users an @facebook.com email address and changes user profiles to display this address instead of their previous one..
  2. Users of Facebook’s contact sync for mobile devices had their address books overwritten with @facebook.com email addresses.
  3. Users noticed that @facebook.com addresses were losing messages.
  4. Facebook announced that the contact sync bug was not intentional, but that users were just confused about missing messages.

So then, why do I care about this? After all, I’m not on Facebook, I don’t have a mobile device, and in my opinion, anyone who is still on Facebook deserves whatever they get, because they should have known better already. Respecting Hanlon’s Razor, I don’t know whether Facebook is actually a malicious entity, but either way I try to make sure my friends on Facebook are aware that the company is not out to do them any favors. If you’re not paying for the service, then you’re not the customer–you’re the product.

This is not a Facebook witch hunt post. Rather, I am completely fascinated by people’s sheer willingness to put up with continual abuse. And I’m not talking about high-minded abuses of liberties, abstract freedom, the downfall of society as we know it, or other holier-than-thou screeds I could write. No, I’m talking about abuse in terms of software slapping a user in the face by throwing away user data and disregarding user preferences. Losing email due to Facebook hijacking your address? Who puts up with that?!

My guess is that virtually everyone will put up with that, and this guess is confirmed by my casual conversations with several Facebook users at a 4th of July picnic today. You’ll have a tiny technical minority that’s outraged, a larger set of users who are puzzled and mildly annoyed, and an enormous plurality who either won’t know or won’t care about the changes. From the set of those who actually know what Facebook is doing and are angry about it, how many do you suppose will go so far as to close their account? My guess is an infinitesimal fraction, a rounding error in Facebook’s daily account signups.

What’s the lesson here? I write software and I am susceptible to trying too hard for perfectionism rather than pragmatism (resulting in analysis paralysis and deadlock and not achieving anything worthwhile), so the lesson to me is poignant and depressing:

Matt’s Law of User Abuse

The degree to which you can abuse your users is directly proportional to the number of users you have multiplied by the degree to which they are addicted to your service.

That’s too wordy, however. There is a succinct version I like better:

Matt’s Law of User Abuse

Most people don’t care.

Your software might have to be good and respectful of users if you only have a few, but once you have mass-market appeal, you can just about do whatever you like. I would put money on the notion that Facebook could post video of its staff sacrificing kittens on an altar every week and they still wouldn’t lose an appreciable number of users, because people don’t care.

Nobody should be surprised by Facebook’s success at the user abuse game, however. The observant reader will note that this type of behavior also has rather direct parallels to government and civil liberties. After all, people are willing to be publicly molested at airports in exchange for illusions of safety. Why would they object to having their privacy molested online in exchange for illusions of community?

An Auspicious Return

Most good writing has, buried somewhere in the mysterious, twisty passages of its inner caverns, a thesis statement. You may recall that this is the sentence that is supposed to sum up the point the writer is trying to make. Writings that do not have a thesis statement are vapid, nebulous, and generally irritating as the writer bloviates on with confusing combinations of words to conceal the fact that he does not, in fact, have anything to say.

This meandering brand of writing should be clearly distinguished from the writing that has a thesis statement but whose thesis is insipid, poorly-conceived, or flat-out wrong. This latter type of writing can still be entertaining to read, even while mentally filing away the author as one of the great intellectual lightweights of our time.

Still other types of writing have a thesis statement that may in fact be correct, and the surrounding writing actually provides some manner of coherent and logical support for its thesis. Unfortunately, the coherent and logical support is also boring to read and everybody would rather watch another lousy sitcom on Hulu.

Moving on down the line, we come to Twitter, which is possible to consume in parallel with the lousy Hulu sitcom. Twitter attempts to convince us that Mark Twain (the patron saint of misattributed pithy quotes) was really on to something when, at the end of a particularly lengthy missive, he wrote that he “would have written a shorter letter but had not the time to do so”. Unfortunately, it turns out the problem is there are two ways to get short writing. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one Twitter falls into.

The penultimate type of writing we shall consider today, when combined with Twitter, exemplifies a category comprising approximately 96% of the Internet. On the whole, I refer to them as YouTube comments. Need I say more?

All these categories together sum to 99% of all writing on the Internet.

And yet every once in a very long while, one stumbles upon an oasis of cool waters in the desert wasteland of spurious thinking, blind irrational hostility, and vaguely obscene cat memes—an oasis filled with the rarest combination of provocative ideas, witty insights, and humorous gambols, all rolled into one adorable and humble package.

Congratulations, dear reader, I am the 1%, and here you are.