Google's brilliant salesmen

Google became a verb some time ago, through its suite of services it’s now graduated to being an ent

Having just celebrated their tenth anniversary, the boys at the big G have been so busy doing no evil of late, it’s becoming difficult to keep track.

In the last week or so, Google has launched a new web browser, version 3 of its image management software (with face recognition), sent a satellite into orbit (part financed by the DoD) to take pictures for use in Google Maps, filled in some of that pesky missing data on the map of Georgia and provided some tech-infrastructure for the Republican National Convention.

In all of this activity one of the initiatives that has been less reported is the announcement that they are stepping up the newspaper digitisation programme, which started back in 2006. The main development is the addition of full facsimile images of print pages, searchable and reproduced on screen using a very elegant browser-based reader. This gives an enriched account of the reported news of the time, contextualised by the advertising and print design of the day… At least, that’s if you can find something. There’s a very limited set of records available so far, although what there is proves compelling. The experience of seeing the microfiche translated to the browser is hugely seductive, and one could be tempted to sit back and breathe a sigh of relief that this is another element of your intellectual and professional life that you’ll soon be able to outsource to those well-meaning boys on the West Coast.

With an antitrust suit brewing around the proposed Yahoo! Deal (which could result in Google controlling (80 per cent of the online advertising market) it’s easy to be distracted from the monopolies which Google are already creating. Major universities are outsourcing their email to gMail, Google Apps is providing free groupware software for major organisations, tools such as the News archive are revolutionising the way in which research can be carried out and they are sole custodians of personal data the likes of which governments and credit agencies only dream of holding. But whilst the chirpy altruism of Page and Brin has propelled the company from student project through ten years of startling growth, the ‘no evil’ mantra surely can’t sustain it for a great deal longer. Even disregarding the concerns of the fiscal monopoly, we are becoming intellectually and professionally dependent on this extraordinary company. Google became a verb some time ago, through its suite of services it’s now graduated to being an entire workplace.

Google are software pioneers changing the landscape of the way we work and learn, but we shouldn’t forget what their business model and only major revenue stream is. They are brilliant ad-salesman.

Happy birthday Google!

Iain Simons writes, talks and tweets about videogames and technology. His new book, Play Britannia, is to be published in 2009. He is the director of the GameCity festival at Nottingham Trent University.
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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad