Are We Really Still Doing This?

I don’t know why I’m surprised, but I am.

Since the beginning of the year, Head & Shoulders shampoo has been running a pair of commercials promoting their product as giving you confidence to pursue your dreams.

Said dreams seem to be of smooching.

And I’ve got no problem with that. Other people, however, find the commercials offensive. See, for example, this blog post from somebody who finds the spot featuring a couple with mixed loyalties–Steelers and Patriots–to be highly unrealistic.

More serious, though, is the reaction to the other commercial. Because–oh, the horror; oh, the humanity; won’t somebody think of the children–the ad features a pair of young women.

Who kiss.

On camera.

Oh, woe!

Predictably, the commentary has been horrified. On one blog–which I won’t link to, because why would I want to give it any publicity?–the comments are running 15-1 against the commercial.

As I said, that was predictable. I expected as much. What did surprise me was the nature of the complaints:

Procter & Gamble shouldn’t be politicizing commercials and I’m never going to buy their products again.

What does shampoo have to do with lesbians? Fire whoever approved the ad!

Sex has nothing to do with shampoo.

Gay couples kissing on TV should only be allowed after 8pm! And certainly not during a Disney movie!

And–my personal favorite–If I ran a commercial featuring Christian values, I would be harassed and mistreated!

All these years of homophobic mistreatment and marginalization, and nobody has managed to come up with a new complaint? That is what really surprised me.

I’m not going to bother with a line by line refutation. If you’re reading this blog, you know the counterarguments at least as well as I do.

But it doesn’t speak well of the mental acuity of the complainers that they don’t know the counterarguments and see no reason to find new reasons to object. Another triumph of imagination over reality, I suppose.

Anyway, you may be expecting me to offer P&G kudos for not pulling the ad. I do, but only to a limited extent. See, there’s a message in this pair of commercials that I don’t think P&G intended. At least, I hope the didn’t intend it.

Consider: In both commercials, it’s a woman who’s nervous about smooching the object of her affection. A kind of nervousness that can only be cured by Head & Shoulders.

And yes, okay, it can be read as “We’re all the same under the skin, LGBT or not, we all have the same fears and desires.”

But something in the way the spots play out come off a little differently to me. I’m reading them as “Only women are so unsure of themselves that they need to take refuge in a bottle.”

Does anyone else remember when H&S was marketed exclusively to men? Maybe I’m watching the wrong shows, but I can’t remember the last time I saw it pitched to men as a confidence crutch. (I’d love to be proved wrong–let me know if you’ve seen H&S ads aimed at men recently.)

For that matter, the ads I remember pushed the shampoo as a cure for what was standing between you and the job of your dreams. Not the love of your life (or your casual hookup at the football game).

It’s an interesting shift of emphasis. Does P&G think women don’t want to be upwardly mobile in the office?

Anyway, if you want to see this hideously offensive ad for yourself, try here. Just don’t let your kids see it before 8pm, or they might turn into lesbians. Or, worse yet, Democrats.

Blinders

They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

Ideas, that is.

Case in point, I’ve been sitting here for the last hour, trying to make something entertaining out of my recent discovery that Google Calendar supports time zones.

The key word there, of course, is “trying”.

It’s a useful feature, especially when dealing with an event that spans multiple time zones (hello, plane flight to Missouri). But entertaining? Not so much.

There’s some minor humor in the fact that the feature has been around for nearly a decade–the oldest references I can find to it date back to 2011–but I only discovered it last week. And you all trust me to be on the cutting edge. Sorry about that.

Maybe it says more about the user interface designers than it does about me. Google does have something of a fetish for hiding controls behind menus, so they can display the actual information in a sea of whitespace.

That’s a fetish they share with Apple, by the way. Which means most of the rest of the tech industry falls in line. Arguably, it’s an improvement over the previous state of affairs, where every possible control was squeezed onto the main screen, or at most, moved one menu level down.

There are still some holdouts in the old style–Microsoft’s Ribbon Bar, I’m looking at you–but I digress.

In any case, I can’t blame the UI here. There’s a prominent “Time Zone” button right next to the date and time fields on the event creation/edit page.

Clearly, there’s a lesson here about willful blindness, seeing only what we expect to see, and the triumph of imagination over reality.

Puts a whole different light on climate change deniers, Trump supporters, and anti-vaccination activists, doesn’t it? It’s not that they’re denying the evidence. They literally don’t see it, even though it’s right in front of them.

Not that that’s a legitimate excuse. The Time Zone button is right there, whether or not I saw it.

Does make me wonder what else I’m missing out on, though.

Unhappiness

Yes, we are still hosting MM in involuntary protective custody.

The weather has been changeable lately, going from somewhat too warm to a bit too cold and back over the course of a couple of hours–and lately we’ve had rain in the mix as well.

MM has been coping by sleeping in one of the shelters.
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Don’t let that peaceful scene fool you. She’s still not happy about her confinement. A few moments after I took this picture, she woke up and realized I was looking at her. That clearly was beyond the pale and she immediately claimed the high ground, climbing to the highest shelf on the catio. Safely above the intruder, she then launched a series of hisses to let me know not to come any closer than was necessary to clean her litter box.

Meanwhile, Rufus and Lefty were also unhappy for a while. They picked up a nasty upper respiratory infection. Lefty’s more robust immune system limited the trouble to bouts of sneezing. He just needed a little help, and he was quite happy to take his antibiotics wrapped in pill pockets.

Rufus, on the other paw, was hit much harder. He had the sneezes as well, but he also had a very runny nose and drippy eyes. He hated the eye-drops and loathed having pills forced down his throat (because of his lack of teeth, pill pockets are too much for him to swallow. It was obvious that nothing tasted right, and even with the bowls elevated, he still dripped snot onto his food, which just compounded the problem.

Yes, he does seem to have made a full recovery, but he didn’t have any qualms about telling everybody just how he felt about the multiple visits to the vet.
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Fortunately for everybody involved, she didn’t take it personally. She was, in fact, quite amused and insisted on getting a picture for his permanent record in their computer system.

SAST 14

Today’s Short Attention Span Theater is not brought to you by disease or lack of sleep, it’s just an excuse to deal with my to-do pile.

First, a brief administrative note.

I will be attending the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival at the end of the month. I’m not planning a book signing or any other formal event, but The RagTime Traveler will be available for sale*. Come on down to Sedalia, enjoy the music, pick up a book, and I’ll be delighted to sign it for you.

* Dad’s ragtime books, both fiction and non-fiction, will also be in the festival store. In my totally unbiased opinion, you need copies of all of those as well.

While I will take my laptop along, I don’t plan to write any blog posts. I’ll make sure to have a post for Friday, May 31–I don’t want to be responsible for riots caused by cat deprivation–but other than that expect silence between May 28 and June 4, with a return to the usual schedule on June 6.

Second, I’m a little disturbed to discover that El Sobrante* is more dangerous than I’d thought.

* For those unfamiliar with the Bay Area, El Sobrante is the closest of the several cities that border the part of Richmond where I live.

Over the years, I’ve gotten accustomed to the suspicious sorts lurking in the local undergrowth, but it appears that a new threat is moving in.

According to a recent post on everyone’s favorite unbiased news source–Nextdoor–“[…]a somewhat large buck with velvet covered antlers jumped out from the side… he mean mugged us hella hard and took a few quick steps towards the car…”

That’s right. As if street gangs of turkeys and terrorist coyotes aren’t bad enough, now we’ve got to deal with deer carjackers. It’s a bad neighborhood, obviously, and getting worse.

But I have to wonder: how the heck did the deer expect to drive the car to the chop shop? He could probably hold the key between his hooves, but it’s not like the driver’s seat can be adjusted to fit his shape. For that matter, what kind of payment would he have been expecting? I’ve heard that fences pay chicken feed, but salt licks?

Anyway, moving on.

The big story a few days ago was that Microsoft is working on tools to (as the Chron’s headline put it) “secure elections”. Which is great news as far as it goes.

Microsoft is doing it right: making the source code freely available, so anyone can audit it and any company in the voting machine field can use it.

The thing is, it’s not a complete voting system, and the value of Microsoft’s software is only as good as the implementation. Voting machine companies have a justifiably poor reputation for the quality of their coding. You can have the greatest software in the world for allowing voters to verify their ballot, and it’ll be absolutely useless if the rest of the software and the hardware it’s running on is riddled with security holes.

How many voting machines run on Windows XP, an operating system that has been completely unsupported for half a decade? (Probably fewer than the number of ATMs running on OS/2, which has been dead for three times as long. But I digress.) Sorry, not totally unsupported. Microsoft just released a security patch for XP. How many of those voting machines running the code are going to get the patch? I’m betting on a percentage in the single digits.

Also, as the articles point out, Microsoft’s new code doesn’t support Internet voting (something far too many people want, given the woeful state of the art) or vote by mail systems, which are increasingly popular.

I’m not running Microsoft down. As I said, it’s a step in the right direction. But we as a country need to take far more than just that one step.

And, finally, no SAST post is really complete without a mention of either the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch or the Transbay Terminal fiasco. I don’t have anything on the BBBB, but there was a brief note in the Chron a few weeks about about the terminal.

The cracked support beams are nearly repaired–though we still don’t have a date for the grand reopening. What we do have is word that the paths in the rooftop garden are going to be replaced.

Those paths, you may remember, are made of decomposed granite, and even before the terminal was closed, the granite was decomposing even further. So the decision has been made to repave the paths, this time using concrete.

As local megaconstruction repair projects go, it should be a comparatively cheap fix, no more than half a million dollars or so. The city and the contractors are, of course, arguing over who is at fault for the failure of the paths. We all know who’s going to wind up paying for the repair, though, and it isn’t either of the arguing parties.

Out, Out, Damned…You Know

Since we were talking about commercials…

Unlike last week’s example, this is not a good one. Quite the contrary. But it is instructive. Warning: once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

I can’t embed it, so you’ll have to go here to see it. And, of course, once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

I feel a little odd about complaining about this commercial, since it dates from 2013 and hasn’t aired since. But criticism knows no statute of limitations. And I really don’t know how this commercial got made.

Consider what goes on here. We’ve got the mother who’s totally incapable of managing her family. We’ve got the large family (and, let it be noted, the large minority family at that) of uncivilized brats, intent on the total destruction of the house. We’ve got the tired father who has to call in help to fulfill the basic function of his role (literally bringing home the bacon–or equivalent. What did you think I meant?)

Am I reading too much into the commercial?

At least the Jimmy John’s delivery man isn’t white. On the other hand, there is that wink. Because we all know that [insert minority of choice] are wildly promiscuous, right? (I could go on in this vein–consider the shape of a submarine sandwich, for example–but I’ll spare you the rest of it.)

What make the spot so vexing is that it has many of the attributes of a good commercial. It gets its message across. It’s not gratuitously insulting–the insults are there, yes, but as part of the message, not a separate attention-getter. There’s even a story there. A clean, simple story, much easier to follow than Casper’s tale about goat hooves.

And yet.

I can’t help but wonder if the current occupant of the White House has seen this commercial, and how he feels about Jimmy John’s food. Probably not greasy enough, given his apparent preference for burgers.

But I digress.

To the company’s credit, they have stopped running the commercial. They make a decent sandwich, too.

But the ad does too good a job of getting its hopefully unintended message across. I haven’t willingly eaten Jimmy John’s since I saw the commercial, nor do I plan to change that policy. I’m not militant about it. I don’t shame anyone for eating there. I don’t urge anyone to boycott them. I’ll quietly eat the food if it’s served to me. I just won’t willingly spend my money on any company tone deaf enough to have approved this ad.

Good Spot

Told you.
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Moving on.

For all the time I spend complaining about bad commercials–ones that insult their potential audience, are more than usually deceptive, or just plain don’t get their message across–it’s worth remembering that there are good commercials.

What’s a good commercial? Yes, it has to sell the product without insulting potential buyers or raising the general level of panic, doubt, and uncertainty in the world. But I’m going to raise the bar here. That describes an adequate commercial.

A good commercial does all that, but in addition, it entertains. It makes you want to watch it again, not just because you were too enthralled to write down the toll-free number the first time, but because you genuinely want to watch it again.

They do exist. Case in point:

 

By any interpretation, it’s an adequate commercial. No people doing idiotic things for no apparent reason, no flashing lights or blaring sirens, and it sells the product.

Full disclosure here: I haven’t been paid by Casper, nor do I own one of their mattresses. But I have been planning on buying a new mattress sometime in the mid-term future. I hadn’t considered Casper, but after seeing this commercial, I’ve added them to the “worth researching” list. I’m not laying down money, not yet. But any marketer worth their salt will tell you a potential buyer is worth far more than a non-buyer.

The question, though, is whether it gets past “adequate” and makes it to “good”? And the answer is “Absolutely.”

Those hedgehogs are totally adorable, I want to rub the rabbit’s stomach, and I could watch the black kitten fall asleep a dozen times. Heck, I watched the ad three times before I decided to write this post.

Mind you, as a viewer, I could do without the goats. I see those hooves and “relaxing sleep” is not the first, second, or third thing I think of.

But from a writing perspective, that’s a good thing. A story–and have no doubt about it, a good commercial needs a story–requires conflict. How do we get from hard, scratchy hooves to soft mattresses? That’s the story. And, believe me, it’s no accident that the spot begins and ends with the goats.

Heh. I just noticed that the black kitten has a grain of litter stuck to his paw. Talk about putting real life situations into your advertising!

Casper. Good commercial. Good mattress? We’ll see.

Google I/O 2019

Welcome to my annual Google I/O Keynote snarkfest.

In years past, I’ve used Ars Technica’s live blog as my info source, but this year it appears they’re not at Google I/O. So all the snark that’s fit to print comes to you courtesy of Gizmodo’s reporting.

My apologies, by the way, for the later-than-usual post. Blame it on Rufus. No, not really. Blame it on Google for scheduling the I/O keynote speech at 10:00. But I did have to duck out to take Rufus to the vet for a checkup. He’s fine. The keynote is over. I’m caught up. Enjoy your post.

First up, Google is bringing augmented reality to search on phones. The demo involves getting 3D models in your search results. You can rotate them to see all sides and you can place them in the real world with an assist from your phone’s camera. Why do I suspect the porn industry is going to be all over this technology?

Seriously, though, it’s part of an expansion of the Google Lens technology we’ve been seeing for the past few years and integrating it into search. Other enhancements to Lens include the ability to highlight popular items on a recipe and displaying videos of recipes being made when you point the camera at a printed recipe.

Does anyone really want these features? If I’m at a restaurant, I’m going to pick the dish that sounds the tastiest, not the one the most people have ordered. My tastes aren’t necessarily yours, after all, and sometimes it’s the odd little dishes tucked away in the corner of the menu that are the most interesting. As for the cooking videos, I try to keep my phone in the case in the kitchen. I’d rather not wind up preparing pixel ‘n’ cheese or nexus stew. Silly of me, I know.

Anyway.

Remember last year’s big feature? Duplex, in case your memory is as short as mine. That’s the feature that let your phone make reservations on your behalf. Did anyone use it? Maybe a few people will try this year’s iteration which can make car reservations and buy movie tickets. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the possibilities this opens up.

Assistant, the voice behind “Hey, Google,” gets an update this year, as well. It’ll be able to figure out what you mean by personal references. Want directions to your mother’s house? Just ask. Because it’s good to know that, when you can’t remember where your relatives live, Google can.

Slightly more useful is a new driving mode, intended to reduce distractions. Speaking as someone who nearly got rear-ended yesterday by someone looking at the phone in her lap, I think the only legitimate “driving mode” would be one that turns the damn phone off as soon as you start the engine. Not that anyone is going to implement that.

Moving on.

Google is very, very sorry for whatever biases their machine learning technology has revealed. They’re working very, very hard to reduce bias.

Let’s be honest here. The problem isn’t the machine learning tools. It’s the humans who select the data that the machines learn from. Fix the developers’ biases and the machines fix themselves.

Onward.

More privacy features. Which seem to boil down to giving people more ability to delete whatever Google knows about them, but precious little to prevent them from learning it in the first place.

Oh, wait, one exception: there’s going to be an incognito mode for Maps, so you can get directions to the doctor’s office without Google being easily able to tie the request to your earlier searches. They’ll still know someone searched for the office and there are a number of ways they could tie it to you, but at least they’ll have to work for the data.

I’m a big fan of incognito mode in the browser, and I hope they roll it out everywhere sooner rather than later–and that’s no snark.

Furthermore.

Generating captions for videos on the fly seems like an interesting, if somewhat niche application. Applying the same technology to phone calls, though… If Google can pull that one off, it’d be a big win for anyone who’s ever tried to take a call in a noisy environment or even just sworn at the lousy speaker in their phone. Yes, and for those whose hearing isn’t the aural equivalent of 20/20 vision.

Looks like there’s a related effort to teach their voice recognition software to understand people with conditions that affect their speech. The basic idea there is good–but Google needs to beware of inappropriate extensions of the technology.

Correctly interpreting the speech of someone who’s had, say, a stroke, is a good thing. Suggesting that someone see a doctor because there are stroke-like elements in their speech is moving into dangerous waters, ethically speaking.

On to Android Q.

Support for folding devices, of course. That was inevitable. Moving apps from one screen to another, either literally or figuratively (when the device is folded and the screen dimensions change, for example).

Improved on-device machine learning, which will let phones do voice recognition themselves without help from Google’s servers. That’s a win for privacy and data usage.

Dark mode. Personally, I dislike dark mode; I find white text on a black background hard to read. But I know others feel differently. So enjoy, those of you who like that kind of thing.

More privacy features, including new controls over which apps have access to location data and when they have it.

OS security updates without a reboot? Would that Windows could do that. It’s a small time-saver, but worthwhile.

Focus Mode–which will also be retrofitted to Android Pie–maybe somewhat less useful: you can select apps to be turned off in bulk when you turn on Focus Mode. If the goal is to get you off your phone, this seems like a fairly useless diversion, because who’s going to put their important apps on the list? It does tie in with expanded parental controls, though, so there’s that.

Moving on.

Like your Nest thermostat? That’s cool. (sorry) Now all of Google’s smart home gear will be sold under the Nest name. I guess they figured with the demise of “Nexus,” there was an opportunity for an “N” name to distinguish itself.

So, no more “Google Home Hub”. Now it’s “Nest Hub”. Expect similar rebranding elsewhere. It looks, for instance, like Chromecast (remember Chromecast?) will be moving to Nest. NestCast? Or something stupid like “Google Chromecast from Nest”?

And, speaking of Pixel–we were, a few paragraphs back–we’re getting cheaper Pixel phones, as expected.

The 3a and 3a XL, starting at a mere $399, and coming in three colors. (Yes, we see what you did there, Google.) The usual black and white, naturally, but also something Google is calling purple. Looking at the photos, I’d say it’s faintly lavender, but maybe it’s the lighting.

Judging by the specs, it sounds like you’ll get roughly Pixel 2 levels of performance, except for the camera, which should be the same as the high end Pixel 3 models.

And, unlike Apple, who preannounce their phones*, the Pixel 3a devices are available online and in stores now.

* Remember signing up to get on the list to pre-order an iPhone?Fun times.

Moving on.

Bottom line: once again, we’re not seeing anything wildly new and different here. Granted, some of the incremental advances over the past year are large, but they’re all still evolutionary, not revolutionary.

And no, there weren’t any hints about what the Q in Android Q stands for.

Comfort Zone

I know I’ve posted a lot about the Formerly Feral Fellows lately, but I couldn’t resist today’s pictures. I promise I’ll give the rest of the crew some screen time soon.

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This is, by far, the best picture of Lefty I’ve taken. Admittedly, using a real camera with an actual zoom helped a lot. But even so, Lefty’s growing comfort with allowing us to look at him and point weird boxy things at him helped even more.

He did retreat into his safe space under the futon when I came closer, but I’m fine with that. One paw’s worth of gain at a time is better than we had hoped for.

The reason I stepped beyond Lefty’s comfort zone was to see what Rufus was up to. And the answer was adorable.

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Telephoto helped with this one as well. I couldn’t have gotten close enough to take this shot with my phone; Rufus would certainly have woken up.

Note the obligatory blep–silly pink tongue–and the handsome lavender toe beans.

Yes, he does look a bit bedraggled. The nap came squarely between grooming sessions, I think. By late afternoon, he was his usual dapper self.

Mind you, I’d prefer he not sleep in front of the computer. I’d rather he didn’t make it so easy for fur to get into the case. But there are tradeoffs in everything, and if he’s happy, I’m willing to open the machine and clean it out periodically.

A Happy Thought

There may actually be some positives to the impending arrival of self-driving cars.

Yeah, I know, that sounds odd coming from me, doesn’t it? But it’s true.

Consider the case for predictability. Many of the concerns I see about self-driving cars boil down to “How do I know what it’s going to do in Situation X?”

How do you know what any driver is going to do in Situation X? In truth, you mostly don’t. You guess, based on your experience, your familiarity with the law, and what you’ve seen of the driver’s behavior. Usually you haven’t seen much of the last. If they’re doing something blatant–speeding, weaving back and forth across the lanes, going the wrong way on a one-way street–you pay special attention to them. But for the majority of drivers, you’re guessing.

How many times have you seen someone sit at a green light because traffic is backed up from the next light, so there’s no place to go? Not very often, at least around here. The default assumption is that two or three cars will move into the intersection and still be sitting there when the light changes. Now the cars on the cross street are blocked. Presto! Instant traffic jam.

And yet, this morning I saw three different cars waiting at green lights for the traffic ahead of them to move. It was startling enough that I took special note.

My point is that over time, we’ll build up a category of experience specific to self-driving cars. We’ll assume they’ll wait at green lights instead of blocking intersections*. And we’ll make that assumption because we’ll see them do it every time. Not just on days when they’re not late for work, didn’t have a fight with a loved one, or feel like being passive-aggressive.

* Assuming they weren’t programmed by Bay Area drivers.

We’ll be able to make better predictions about what they’re going to do than we will about all those human drivers on the road.

That’s a good thing, but here’s an even better one.

Even a tiny number of self-driving cars on the road have the potential to break up traffic jams before they start.

Seriously.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m extrapolating wildly from a study I saw back in the days before journal papers went online. But I’m a science fiction writer; wild extrapolation is part of my job description.

The gist of the study was that one of the common reasons traffic jams develop is that a few drivers slow down. The drivers behind them overreact and slow further, then speed up to close the gap. Errors accumulate, and again, Presto! stop-and-go traffic.

I see this every day. There’s a curve on the freeway where most drivers slow down from 65 (or whatever faster-than-the-limit speed they were going) to 60. Outside of commute hours, it doesn’t matter. Everyone slows a bit, then resumes speed on the next straight patch. But at rush hour, that curve always turns into a parking lot.

But the study went further. The investigators found that if a small percentage* of the drivers maintain a constant speed–even if that speed is well below the limit–instead of braking and accelerating, the jam never develops.

* I want to say five percent, but I’m working with twenty-year-old memories, so that may be incorrect. I am sure it was a single digit number.

Self-driving cars, if properly programmed, aren’t going to slow down for a curve they can safely negotiate at the speed limit. More to the point, if they get proper information about traffic conditions ahead of them, they won’t get into the slower/faster/slower/faster cycle that causes jams. They’ll just slow to the maximum speed that won’t result in a collision.

Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to those of you outside the Bay Area and other commute-infested regions. But not sitting in stationary traffic on that one single stretch of freeway would trim my morning commute by ten minutes. And there are two other spots on my normal route where traffic behaves the same way.

Saving half an hour a day and however much gas the car burns idling in traffic sounds like a very good deal to me.