The problem with a lot of industrial design is that it's cynically conducted to sell the device in the first place, rather than to actually be any good in the long run. That is to say, the device is designed to appeal to the shop-floor browser who's making a snap judgement between competing products, rather than to actually be a brilliant product for them to use year after year. Once they've bought it the game is over as far as the manufacturer is concerned, as long as it doesn't actually break down, because poor usability does not invoke the warranty! I came across a great example of this recently in the control panel of a Siemens fridge. Behold:

SiemensFridge

There is one button on here that you will use several times a day. The rest you may use either never or once every year or two. Care to hazard a guess which one is the magic button of actual usefulness? It's the one marked "dispenser". Or to be precise it's the one marked "dis-penser" split over two lines, such is their lack of grace. This button switches the ice/water dispenser between water, ice and crushed ice. To get a glass of iced water, you have to press it a few times to cycle round the options as you fill your glass with ice, then water.

This should be the only button on the front of the fridge immediately above the dispenser, and it should be very clearly labelled. In fact arguably there should be three buttons, for water, ice and crushed ice, with LEDs to show which one is selected. They should be labelled "Cold water", "Ice" and "Crushed Ice". Imagine a visitor to your house approaching your Siemens fridge for a cool drink. They will probably accidentally defrost your freezer then child-lock the fridge before giving up and having tap water. Maybe it's an eco feature?

The controls that are not related to the water/ice dispenser should be far away from it, possibly inside the fridge door or behind a panel, so as not to pointlessly engender confusion and accidental fridge reconfiguration when trying to get a refreshing beverage.

So why have Siemens chosen to take this insane path? I don't believe they could be so obviously dumb, so I assume it's a cynical ploy to sell more fridges. Imagine Joe Shopper, strolling through the aisles of Currys, looking at endless gleaming monoliths of cool technology. Joe wants a high-end fridge, the sort of fridge that says "Joe is a classy guy who won't let anything stand between him and a glass of brain-freezingly cold water." Given two stainless steel slabs of Germanic engineering with largely identical specs he's going to go for the one with the most 'impressive' control panel. So actually Joe, it's your fault, but the nice guys in the Siemens design department must cry themselves to sleep at night.

ClausthalerLowAlcoholLagerBeer

It's been a while – sorry about that. I've been posting very nearly every day on my other site UKNatureBlog so check that out for wildlife including lots from my own garden.

I've also been busy preparing for the imminent arrival of my first child, which is exciting and already life-changing. For instance I've now joined my wife in not drinking alcohol as I may be required to rush her off to hospital at a moment's notice. Hence I have entered the murky world of low alcohol beer! So far we've sampled Becks Blue (zero alcohol), Cobra Zero (zero alcohol) and Clausthaler Classic (< 0.5% alcohol). And I must say that Clausthaler has been a revelation that wins out over the others. It doesn't taste watery and overly bitter (like the Becks) but it's not cloying and overly malty (like the Cobra). In fact it actually tastes like a fairly normal weakish French bottled lager to me, which is a fair feat when it leaves your head clear. I know it's German but it reminds me of Kronenbourg or St Omer in stubbies when camping in France for some reason.

Actually it's truly quite wondrous stuff as you can savour a cold beer or two on a summer's afternoon and not be in the slightest bit muddled or woozy for the rest of the day. It's just refreshing, tasty and beery. I picked it up in Waitrose on a whim, but I now know that it's actually the most popular alcohol-free brand in Europe and I can see why.

I learnt a lot about it from this very good and fact-filled review by a beer-craving pregnant lady, a few notables from which I'll expound upon here. Apparently they brew it in the same manner as other German purity-law beers, but with a special yeast that doesn't generate nearly so much alcohol. This sets it apart from most other low alcohol brews that pass normal strength beer through an osmosis process that knackers the flavour. Clausthaler claim that the small amount of alcohol in their beer is just enough to make it properly 'beery' compared to those with none. Anyway – Clausthaler is thoroughly recommended, though I'm still hoping to find some low-alcohol bitter in the supermarkets. The 30p a can 2% generic value bitter you see in the low-end supermarkets doesn't count as the alcohol content is clearly just the result of penny-pinching.

 

Imagine how good Billionaires shortbread must be!

MinstrelsTube

Ah Christmas (I know that's now a fading memory, humour me). An excuse to gorge to excess on rich food and drink, and an opportunity to slip extras into the supermarket trolley without the wife putting them back on the shelf! Hence a big tube of Minstrels was craftily snuck amongst the shopping and made it through the till and home. Mmmmm Minstrels.

However glee turned to disappointment when opening the tube to find that it wasn't rammed full of giant brown Smarties, but instead contained three plastic bags of Minstrels. Bah! I emptied out the bags into the tube, which was then not quite half full. A complete swizz if you ask me. They've cunningly put them in bags so the tube doesn't rattle to give away the short-filling. I imagine I'm not the only shopper who assumed the tube was full but was disappointed, and I am willing to go out on a limb and suggest that the good people at Mars/Galaxy did this cynically to con the good British public. Even if it wasn't deliberate (and I bet they've got an 'official' reason for using the bags) I suspect they were perfectly aware of the fact that they were selling half the amount of chocolate that the buyer would intuitively assume. Grrrr.

I like a bit of chocolate, but my peanut allergy means I have to read the labels very carefully. One major annoyance is when I find the text "may contain nuts" or similar. The dilemma I face is that peanuts are not technically nuts – they are a legume, more like actual peas than nuts. Honest, it's true. So, when I read "may contain nuts" does the manufacturer appreciate this distinction (in which case I am safe) or are they including peanuts as nuts, as the common man on the street would most likely expect (in which case I am not safe)?

I asked Cadbury what their position on this is. Here's what I sent them:

As anyone in your industry likely knows, peanuts are not technically nuts – they are a legume. Can you clarify whether Cadbury labelling (e.g. on Cadbury Clusters) that says "May contain nuts"  includes peanuts in its remit or not? On a technicality I would think not and that I (as a peanut allergy sufferer) could eat the product with impunity. However it might be that you interpret "nuts" to include peanuts. Some companies specifically say "tree nuts" to be clear when they means nuts but not peanuts. I'm keen to understand Cadbury's position here so I know what's safe to eat and what's not. Thanks in advance. Either way, it would be helpful to all nut and peanut allergy sufferers if the labelling could be made unambiguous and I'd appreciate a comment on that more generally.

The response from Cadbury (over a month later, after me chasing them):

Thanks for your email

Our Technical area advise Cadbury labels Nuts when referring to Tree nuts. We would label Peanuts separately as they are not a Tree nut as correctly pointed out.

So, there's your answer, for Cadbury at least. It's a shame they didn't see fit to comment on perhaps using "tree nuts" in their labelling in order to be unambiguous.

Our kitchen had one patch of bare wall but nowhere to put cookbooks other than in a pile on a worktop. A perfect opportunity for some bookshelves! I planned a custom construction made from pine, comprising two uprights resting on the floor with four cross pieces (for three shelves and a top) with the whole thing screwed to the wall for rock solidness.

KitchenShelves

I originally expected to use 18mm thick sawn pine timber, but in B&Q it was clear that these were actually quite warped end to end – the top of a 2.4m plank was about 30 degrees twisted compared to the bottom so that it would have messed up the result something chronic. Instead I bought pine "furniture board" which is engineered from multiple pieces of pine glued together (edge to edge, not ply) which gives a much less lively result with hardly any warp whilst looking quite attractive. It's quite a lot more expensive mind you, and having waited 30 minutes for the timber cutting service to re-open after lunch I was told my 20cm wide boards were not suitable for the machine. At 2.4m long they weren't going to fit in the car so a hasty re-planning was required, resulting in the purchase of a number of smaller 25cm wide pre-cut pieces. I'm glad I went for that width actually as many of the books are 22cm and there's room to accommodate that depth from the wall even though I was worried there wouldn't be.

I had been keen to get all the lengths cut in store for a perfectly square, straight cut with identical lengths for all the shelves. I don't have a table saw so I was going to struggle to do this easily myself, but I was forced to saw the boards down to the right length with a hand saw. It was tough to get a good result here and to get them all the exact same length, but the flex in the uprights accommodated the differences. I simply put two number 8 screws into the end of each shelf to hold it in place, with carefully drilled countersunk screw holes, and that seems to have done the job. The countersink bit I bought recently is a godsend – it really makes the results look so much more professional.

A couple of simple metal angle brackets off the peg from B&Q allowed me to screw the whole ensemble firmly to the wall and it really is very rigid. Also note in the picture (click for bigger version) the 45 degree cut off on the tops of the side pieces and the cut-outs at the bottom to allow it to sit flush against the wall above the skirting.

Overall I'm extremely pleased with the result apart from one thing. I slightly lost track of of the height of my biggest books between start and end of the project, the result being that they don't quite fit on the shelves by a few millimetres. I'm kicking myself about this, but I'm a novice and I'll learn from these mistakes.

GrapePlant 

With a big expanse of South (ish) facing fence and an empty patch of soil I decided to plant a grape. It will be interesting to see how it does in our English climes, though global warming may be on my side. With any luck I'll be reporting back in a few years with pictures of lush bunches and even bottles of the finest home-produced wine. I can but hope. The variety is Pinot Blanc, which is apparently fast growing.

And yes, I know that weeding is urgently required (and in fact has been done since this picture was taken). 

Last weekend we had roast beef with most of the trimmings (there's always room for more trimmings). I made the yorkshire puddings myself with a recipe from a Gary Rhodes book. And they turned out just perfectly if you ask me. Though they do look a bit like horse's hooves.

YorkshirePuds 

RoastBeef