Wrong Way

Hi! Happy December! Welcome to the quiet period between the Thanksgiving-time sales and the–wait… What? Ack! Get away, get away! (At this point, you should picture me flailing my arms wildly, batting at the swarming objects around my head. What objects? Allow me to explain.)

Two years ago, I took note of the impending disappearance of “Black Friday” and its imminent replacement by “Black November,” in which the post-Thanksgiving sales would stretch earlier and earlier until the took over the entire month of November stretching the event so thin that it disappeared into the background noise.

I’m pleased to say that events appear to be moving in accordance with my prediction. Several retailers began their Black Friday sales at least a week before Thanksgiving–I’ve got an e-mail here somewhere from Best Buy promoting a Black Friday deal on Friday the 20th, for example. At this rate, Black November will be a reality by 2020, and we can finally eat our turkey in peace.

Unfortunately, there’s another trend I completely missed, and it’s not nearly so positive. I speak of “Cyber Monday Inflation”.

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed it, “Cyber Monday” is the first Monday after Thanksgiving. Supposedly it’s the day that everyone does their online shopping because they’re back at work after the four day weekend and can use the high-speed network connection in the office instead of their slow dial-up connection at home.

Yeah, not so much the case these days. Digital divide notwithstanding, the odds are good that if you have an Internet connection at home, it’s at least as fast as your share of the office connection. Hell, if you’ve got a 4G cell signal, your phone is likely to pull up Target.com faster than your office computer–if you can get through at all. Target’s system was so overwhelmed this year they had to restrict access. In other words, they had to turn customers away! This is not the kind of shopping experience that promotes brand loyalty, y’know?

Bottom line, Cyber Monday is a legacy of an earlier, darker era. In an ideal world, it would go away.

This isn’t an ideal world, as a quick scan of my inbox shows. Calendars.com sent me a new “Cyber Monday” promotion. Uh, guys, today is Tuesday. Dell, God help us, has declared this “Cyber Week for business”. More than thirty different companies have sent me ads with the word “Cyber” in the subject today.

Knock it off!

Not only have we granted you the entire month of November for your pre-Christmas sales, but we’ve even grudgingly admitted that with Thanksgiving over, it’s acceptable to begin the Christmas advertisements. Cyber Monday is bad enough, but the Cyber Monday Inflation is simply unacceptable double-dipping.

Look, let me put it in simple terms. Nobody can run in high gear all the time. Give us a little down time to catch our breath and we’ll come back refreshed and ready to spend again. I’ll even calendar it for you:
– November 1-30: Black November. Hit us with your doorbusters.
– December 1-7: Quiet Time. Any business that advertises a sale during this period will be required to collect sales tax at 150% of list price.
– December 8-22: Christmas Sales. Go for it, repetitive songs and all.
– December 23-24: Last Minute Sales. Give us those specials deals along with free or discounted emergency shipping.
– December 25: Do whatever you want. I’m not going to turn on the TV, check my e-mail, or open the newspaper.
– December 26: Post-Christmas Sales. Deep discounts on whatever you couldn’t unload earlier.
– December 27-October 31: Regular advertising. Holiday-themed sales allowed within one week of the actual date of a holiday.

Stick to that schedule, and I promise to stop complaining. Deal?

Good News, Mostly

How about some good news? Yeah, I know it’s a bit out of character for me, and I’m sure I’ll be back to my usual curmudgeonly self soon. Until then, enjoy the sunshine (but hope for rain).

Did you hear that Philips found a way to get kids to enjoy brushing their teeth? According to Gizmodo, the app that comes with the Sonicare for Kids toothbrush proved so popular that children not only brushed their teeth willingly, they actually brushed them more than the minimum recommended amount.

I still think that gamification is overused and often counterproductive, causing “players” to get wrapped up in the acquisition of points or banners at the expense of the actual work they originally set out to perform. But in this case, it seems that Philips used the technique well and tied the reward directly to the action. Nice job!

That said, it’s not entirely good news. The app proved so popular that kids resisted going to bed so they could keep playing with the app. Philips had to quickly turn around an update that would encourage players to go to sleep. That does make me wonder: most dentists recommend brushing after every meal. Does the app take the time of day into account, and encourage kids to go to school after breakfast? What about on weekends?

But I’m trying to be positive here, so I won’t get bogged down in the details. Kudos to Philips for actually making kids brush their teeth. I’m tempted to pick up one of their toothbrushes and see if it encourages me not to skimp on brushing.

Moving on.

Ars reports that the Food and Drug Administration is reconsidering how it regulates homeopathic “remedies” and the Federal Trade Commission (which is responsible for prosecuting fraudulent business activities) will be holding hearings next week on “Homeopathic Medicine & Advertising”. (The well-known and respected Science-Based Medicine blog has more details than Ars provides.)

Before I talk about the downside–and, regrettably, there’s some bad news here too–let me summarize why this is good news:

Homeopathic “remedies” do not work. If you already understand why they do nothing, feel free to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.

Homeopathy is based on two “laws” that have no scientific foundation whatsoever. These are the “Law of Similars” and the “Law of Infinitesimals”. The first states that you can cure a disease with a substance that causes the same symptoms in people who don’t have the disease: cure an upset stomach by eating something that makes you throw up. The second says that the less of the curative substance you take, the stronger it is, so the strongest “medicine” has no active ingredients. Bitten by a snake? Have some more venom. But not very much, or it won’t work. Better yet, have some water that was mixed with a tiny dab of venom. Even better, mix that tiny drop of venom into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water, and then mix in ten more pools of water. Now you’re getting close to homeopathic doses.

If you think this sounds familiar, maybe you’re thinking of the well-known principles of magic: the laws of similarity and contagion. These are the principles behind voodoo dolls, for example. A voodoo doll supposedly works because it looks like the intended victim (similarity) and is made with the victim’s hair, fingernails, or clothing (contagion). One wonders why conservative Christians aren’t threatening to burn homeopaths for witchcraft. But I digress.

So the good news is that the FTC is considering cracking down on producers of homeopathic “remedies” who can’t prove their claims that the quack nostrums actually do something. With no effective FDA monitoring of manufacturers’ claims, and no effective FTC monitoring of advertising, homeopathic “remedies” fill the shelves of drugstores, pharmacies, and (arguably worst of all) pet stores. The trash pushes out medicines that can actually cure diseases, and millions of people spend billions of dollars on “cures” that do nothing.

To my mind, that makes the prospect of FDA and FTC regulation not just good news, but great news.

So what’s the bad news?

As the Science-Based Medicine post linked above points out, the panelists at the FTC’s hearing are heavily skewed toward the homeopathic industry. The list is dominated by professors from schools that teach homeopathy, executives and lawyers from companies that sell homeopathic “remedies”, and advertising consultants who have previously testified against changes to the FDA’s practices.

That could mean next week will be a lot of sound and fury with no practical results. On the brighter side, that’s a good description for much of what governments do. I suppose that means the real good news is that the FTC’s hearings can’t make the situation any worse.

Some People Never Learn

Bet you thought I was going to talk about the Apple Watch.

You’re almost right. Apple didn’t really say anything new yesterday. OK, so now we know when we can buy the watch (preorders start today, actual orders and in-store purchases start in two weeks). We also know how much it’ll cost (anywhere from $350* to well over $10,000, depending on model and features). Everything else was revealed at last September’s “event” or has been discussed ad nauseum since then.

* OK, OK, $349. You can use the extra dollar to feed the parking meter while you stand on line outside the Apple Store on the twenty-fourth.

I’m still less than fully-whelmed. I’m sticking with my Christmas Kidizoom watch–thanks, Erin!–until I see a feature that will benefit me, rather than just Apple’s bottom line. That shouldn’t take more than three or four iterations of the Apple Watch. By which time, I’ll have charged my Kidizoom less than fifty times–have fun tethering yourselves to yet another charger, oh lovers of all things Apple. Yes, I’m getting more than two months per charge. The Apple Watch is expected to get eighteen hours–in a device that’s intended to monitor your health.

What I did find interesting about Apple’s “Spring Ahead” event was how tone-deaf they are. Their customers have been complaining for years about having to delete their own data to make room on their devices for iOS upgrades. So what did Apple do with yesterday’s iOS 8.2 update? They included an Apple Watch app which is installed on every iPhone that takes the upgrade. Wait, it gets better: like other critical Apple-installed apps (Game Center, iBooks, and Clock, for example) the app cannot be uninstalled. Didn’t Apple learn anything from last year’s U2 fiasco? Even better, if you don’t have an Apple Watch, the app will display an advertisement.

Oh, well. At least the Apple Watch app doesn’t get installed on iPads and iPods. Mind you, there’s no reason why it should be on those devices, since the Apple Watch only works with iPhones. But this is Apple, after all. If they can put an non-deletable advertisement on the phones, why shouldn’t they put it on other devices as well. After all, if you’ve got an iPad, you really ought to have an iPhone too, right? And as long as you’re picking up that must-have iPhone 6 Plus, you can pick up a gotta-have-it watch as well…

More tone-deafness: Apple finally realized that the $99 price tag on their Apple TV device wasn’t competing well against the $50 Roku, $39 Amazon Fire TV, and $35 Chromecast. So they drastically reduced the price: effective immediately, you can pick up an Apple TV for only $69. Yes, Apple has always cost more, justifying it with claims of “It just works” and “It’s aesthetically awesome”. Unfortunately, their competition also “just works”, and aesthetics are a personal matter. At this point, Apple TV’s only real distinguishing feature is the ability to be a receiver for AirPlay. Is that really worth a 40% price premium to the average consumer?

WQTS 07

Advertising, as I understand it, is the art of making people aware of a product and convincing them they must have it. Sounds simple–especially the first part–but apparently not.

This advertiser is having trouble with the first part.
wqts71
With a what?

My first thought was that it’s with a boat, but I’m not totally sold on that idea. All of the boats are showing wakes. If Google can use barges for mobile “interaction centers,” why shouldn’t these people use shipping containers for mobile farewells to the dearly departed? Especially convenient if you’re going to spread the ashes at sea. OK, maybe not.

They’re obviously shipping something–“all kinds of goods”–to Eritrea. Maybe it’s “with a course”? I don’t know. I’d assume the ship’s navigator would know where he was going. Probably not worth advertising. Or, since it mentions “conveniently secured,” perhaps it’s “with a lock”. That might work. But if that’s the major selling point, you really ought to be more specific.

Then there’s this advertiser, who’s having trouble with the second part of the process.
wqts72
It’s clear they’re pushing cat litter deodorizer, an easily-understood product with a clear market. And yet they completely fail to convince me that I need to buy it.

I’m the first to admit that I sometimes snuggle the cats, which means I wind up getting a nose full of their scent. And yeah, some of them can be stinky at times*. But I don’t go shoving my nose into their “area“. It’s even questionable whether cats have an area in that sense. Millions of people my age grew up with that euphemism, and will make the same association. Suggesting that we want to sniff our cats that way isn’t likely to encourage us to buy the product. And, let’s face it, the cats–who routinely shove their noses into each other’s areas–don’t want to smell deodorizer. They want to smell the cat they’re sniffing.

* Not Ms. Kokoro, of course, who has the sweetest smelling fur of any cat I’ve ever met.

In short, advertisers need to consider all the connotations of the words they use.

Moving on.

Advertising encourages a certain amount of vagueness. In the case of some products–think perfume–it’s not just encouraged, it’s apparently a requirement.

Other fields aren’t as easygoing. I wouldn’t trust a navigator who told me to head “thataway”. Other professions require precision. Baseball, for example. Pitchers need precise control to get strikes. Lawyers spend their lives arguing over the exact meaning of words and phrases.

And there’s medicine. Would you trust a doctor who doesn’t know who you are?
wqts73
I had to fill out this form recently. I won’t ding whoever created the form too much over the redundancy in asking about drinking liquids (there aren’t a whole lot of solids one can drink or liquids one can eat–though apparently Jello is considered a liquid. But I digress.) I’ll also let the oddity of asking about my PCP at the end of the form slide (shouldn’t that be at the top along with my insurance information?)

It’s that middle question that stumped me for a while. I finally wrote “Second Base.”

A Big Step Forward and a Small Stumble Backward

Got another case of crossed wires here.

For the last couple of days, the Internet has been celebrating Mozilla’s announcement of “Firefox Developer Edition”. For the 90% of you reading this who aren’t web developers, FDE is the familiar Firefox browser–albeit a frequently updated version of the browser that includes “experimental”* features–with an integrated selection of tools for creating and debugging websites and web apps.

* In more standard language, the browser portion of FDE is Firefox’s pre-beta release. By using that version, Mozilla is clearly hoping Firefox developers will “eat their dogfood” and use FDE to develop Firefox. Not unreasonable, even if it does have some interestingly recursive implications (“Is this a bug in Firefox or the development environment?” “Yes!”)

What’s getting slightly less press is Mitchell Baker’s blog post on Firefox’s tenth anniversary. (Mitchell is Chair of the Mozilla Foundation. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that his statement reflects Mozilla’s official position.)

The post is well-worth the few minutes it’ll take you to read it, but if you’re in a tl;dr mood, it boils down to this: Firefox saved the Web from being taken over by Microsoft, and now it will save the Web from big business.

In other words, the mission hasn’t changed, but there are far more targets now. As he says, “I don’t want to be owned and tracked by giant multinationals or governments, or told which of the Web’s astonishing possibilities I’m allowed to enjoy. I don’t want that for the rest of the world’s citizens either.” A laudable sentiment–as long as you don’t own one of those multinational corporations or control a government. Hold that thought.

The third recent announcement from Mozilla crosses those wires I mentioned in the first sentence. The latest release of Firefox–the regular browser, not the Developer Edition–includes two features to enhance user privacy. The first is that the popular DuckDuckGo* search engine is now built in; that means it’s as easy to set DDG as your default search engine as for Google, Bing, or Yahoo. The second is the addition of a “Forget” feature. In two clicks you can delete all cookies and all internal records of sites you’ve visited in the past five minutes, two hours, or twenty-four hours. A morning-after pill for your search history, if you will (though Mozilla would probably rather you didn’t).

* DDG’s popularity is due in large part to their promise to never track what searches you’re making.

Sounds like the new release supports the mission, doesn’t it? Except for one little thing. According to Slashdot, this release also rolls out advertising on the directory tiles page. Haven’t seen directory tiles? Open a new, blank tab, and by default Firefox will throw up a set of thumbnails of sites you visit frequently and have visited recently. Some like it, some hate it. But now there will be a new reason to hate it, as some of those tiles will be filled with ads. The page I linked above says it will only affect new users, and only for the first thirty days, but that was written nine months ago. Plans could have changed–and even if they haven’t, that feature is under Mozilla’s control, not the users’. It could change tomorrow.

There’s an old saying about using a long spoon when eating with the Devil. Taking advertising money to support a tool dedicated to reducing the influence of advertisers calls for a very long spoon.

Corporate Malfeasance

Apparently this is the time of year when I get pissed off about advertising. Last week, it was* Organic Valley’s casual disregard for science, logic, and their customers’ intelligence.

* Still is, actually

Then there’s this piece of trash produced by Comcast:
Comcast camping ad (Click to enlarge for readability.)

I sat on this for a couple of weeks to give my ire a chance to subside. It hasn’t, so I’m going to vent a bit.

Comcast, with casual disregard for tradition, has co-opted a piece of childhood. Yeah, OK, I know they’re hardly unique in that, but I find this a particularly egregious example. Damn it, the backyard campout isn’t about watching movies. A computer has no place in a kid’s tent. The backyard campout is for looking at the stars, eating junk food, and telling time-honored scary stories. Oh, and hoping that those noises outside the tent are just the neighborhood raccoon, rather than the neighborhood psycho with hooks for hands*.

* Mind you, the raccoon’s claws are likely sharper than the psycho’s hooks, but the raccoon is much cuter. That excuses a lot of questionable behavior, right?

Look, I’m not questioning Comcast’s right to advertise the wonderful advantages of Wi-Fi in the backyard. I’m sure there are some, even if I can’t think of any off the top of my head. If they want to promote watching movies in the yard, how about connecting that laptop to a TV and showing the whole family gathered around it on the deck (every family has a deck in the backyard, don’t they?) Or show the kids using a tablet to look up information about a frog they’ve found in the yard. Obviously, I’m not going to make it in the ad industry, but the point stands: there are ways to show off their service without crushing a hallowed tradition under a steamroller.

But wait: the ad gets worse. Did you notice the text at the bottom? “…with a plan to create more than eight million hotspots across the nation.” That plan is to use their customers’ routers as hotspots. As Ars reported earlier this year, when Comcast sends customers new modems with built-in Wi-Fi routers, they’re sending them pre-configured with a public hotspot. Yes, customers can turn it off, but Comcast doesn’t go out of their way to advertise the feature or make it easy to turn off.

They do charge customers seven dollars a month to rent the modem/routers, though. That’s a pretty good deal for Comcast, getting their customers to subsidize expansion of Comcast’s hotspot network.

Comcast is currently pushing the new modem/routers on customers via paper mail and robocalls warning them that their “devices need to be upgraded in order to fully maximize our service offerings”. Isn’t that a nicely worded phrase? It suggests that the change is of direct benefit to the customer, when it’s actually all about a direct benefit to Comcast.

As the final touch, the letters warn customers who are using Comcast’s voice telephony that–unlike their current modem–the new modem/router will not include a backup battery. Unless the customer purchases a battery, they’ll lose phone service if the house’s power goes out. Read that again: the customer must buy a battery from Comcast for a device that they rent from Comcast in order to maintain the same level of service they have now.

I’m starting to froth at the mouth, so I’ll wrap up before someone calls Animal Control to report a rabies-infected koi in the neighborhood. No doubt they’ll think I caught it from the raccoons that invaded my backyard campout. You know the one: the only one in the whole community that didn’t show movies on a laptop.

Mew Are You?

Apparently yesterday was Facial Recognition for Pets Day. I must have missed the announcement, and for some odd reason, it doesn’t seem to be a Federal holiday, as I did have some mail delivered.

When I checked my e-mail, I found a note from Lior pointing me to an article about “Bistro”. The article in turn pointed me to the Indiegogo campaign.

Bistro is, as the masterminds behind it say, The Smart Feeder That Recognizes Your Cat’s Face. It can recognize your cats, dispense the amount of food you want them to have, display webcam footage of your cats eating, and generally do everything you would do except pat the cats.

Sounds like quite the spiffy gadget, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look, because quite frankly, I wouldn’t let this thing in the door.

According to the campaign page, Bistro can use advanced cat-facial recognition technology to determine which of your cats is eating or drinking, record each cat’s individual diet history (how much food and water it eats or drinks each time it visits the feeder), notify you of any change in the cats’ health status (eating more or less than usual), display the video stream from the facial recognition camera on smartphones, and “share your kitty’s life with Bistro’s online cat community”.

It works its magic by weighing the food and water it dispenses, so it knows how much the cats consume; weighing the cats every time they eat or drink; and sending all of the information to Bistro’s servers for analysis.

Why is the analysis done on Bistro’s servers? Why is the video stored and displayed from Bistro’s servers? Here’s a hint: “All features on the Bistro App will be FREE for every Bistro owner.” Catching on? Here’s another hint: “Get feeding and health advice…See cat food reviews and ratings”. Bistro isn’t saying it in so many words, but it seems clear to me that they expect to sell usage and user information to pet food manufacturers and probably other pet-oriented vendors. ‘Nuki is uppity enough as it is. Can you imagine what it would be like if he started getting mail?

Dear Mr. Watanuki,

Why do you continue to let your humans feed you that awful meat-based food that’s stale by evening?

It’s time for you to stand up for yourself and demand [name redacted] brand cat food, made with only the finest grains and loaded with preservatives to keep it fresh in your Bistro feeder all day!

Sincerely,

Corporate Drone #3752 (who is willfully unaware that cats are obligate carnivores whose digestive systems are tuned to eat meat…)

Actually cat food ads are the least of it. If they sell the usage data, their customers are going to start getting advertisements from vendors of miracle cures for renal failure.

Let’s get real here. If a smartphone can use facial recognition to unlock the screen, Bistro could easily hold enough brains to do the feline facial recognition locally and transfer the consumption and weight data to phones via Bluetooth just like exercise gear does for humans. The video could be held on the feeder on a cheap SD card (or a USB-connected hard drive for the real data fiends) and transferred over Wi-Fi. This is a $250 device folks, and it already has Wi-Fi capability. Adding BT, SD, and USB can’t add more than $15 to the cost, and the creation of the analysis software is pretty close to the same whether it’s being written and tested for Bistro’s servers or for individual users’ smartphones.

I suspect Bistro’s counterargument to doing all the processing locally is that by doing it on their central servers, they can detect changes in the data immediately and send alerts without having to wait for data to be dumped to the phone for processing. If so, I disagree: if they alert on a single feeding being smaller or larger than usual, they’re going to be generating a lot of false warnings*. Alerts should be based on series of atypical feedings, not a single, possibly-spurious event. If you’re looking for a series of events, daily uploads should be more than enough.

* Say, maybe they’re also getting paid by vets anticipating a surge in office visits. “Fluffy didn’t eat as much as usual in his midday feeding! What’s wrong with him?!” Nah, probably not. Who wants to field that many panicked phone calls?

On the other hand, I’m not a vet. Maybe there is some benefit in instant alerts. Fine. Build the thing around a Raspberry Pi instead of a custom processing board and do all the processing on the feeder instead of Bistro’s servers. Your total hardware and development costs probably go down instead of up, the alerts can be sent directly from the feeder (eliminating one possible point of failure in the process), and you can still do all of the same social functions. (Why the heck do they think anybody would want to watch videos of someone else’s cats eat?)

And I haven’t even touched on the security concerns of having all of that data on central servers. I’m not going to bother spelling it out here. It’s no different than Dropcam storing a continuous video record of your home; Apple, Google, and Amazon storing months of your location data; or Target storing your credit card information.

As of Wednesday evening, Bistro’s Indiegogo campaign was 60% funded with a month remaining. It seems likely they’ll succeed. I don’t wish them ill, but I hope I’m wrong about the demand for their product, because I doubt I’m wrong about their business plan.


OK, one product doesn’t make a national event. So why am I calling yesterday Facial Recognition for Pets Day?

After I finished digesting Bistro’s offering (sorry), I went downstairs to read the paper and I found an article about Finding Rover.

Finding Rover is a smartphone app that uses canine facial recognition to help locate lost dogs. (The developer, John Polimeno, is planning to expand to cats later this year–no word on whether it’ll be as part of the same service, or if he’ll be spinning off Finding Fluffy as a separate venture.)

You take a picture of your dog and upload it to their server. Users of the app take pictures of possibly-lost dogs which are matched against the database. If you’ve marked your dog as lost and a match is found, you get an alert.

Animal shelters are apparently very favorably impressed with Finding Rover. It’s free (advertising supported, but with ads on the website, not targeted ads sent directly to users), and users can enroll their pets without a visit to the vet to get a chip implanted.

Unlike Bistro’s case, for Finding Rover, uploading the photos to a central server makes sense: far better to do searches for matches in one place than redundantly on phones around the world. And, if properly handled, the amount of personally identifiable information can be much lower. At minimum, it could be no more than an e-mail address.

I’m going to wish Mr. Polimeno well. Our gang is chipped, and they’re indoors-only, but when Finding Rover expands to felines, I’ll give them a close look. At first glance, I don’t see a downside to having the fuzzies enrolled, just in case they get loose.

Here’s looking at you.

If You Say So…

There’s an interesting trend going on in the area of denial of science and common sense. No, I’m not talking about “intelligent design”/evolution denial or climate change denial. It’s in the area of food and food safety.

Case in point: Chobani Yoghurt* recently advertised that they produced a 100 calorie serving of yoghurt without scientific help. There’s a great destruction of the claim on Popular Science, but that’s beside the point.

* Thanks to Maggie for tipping me to this story.

The point is this: Somebody at Chobani thought this claim was a good idea.

Another example: Organic Valley is running radio ads touting the fact that, and I quote, “Our milk, butter, and cheese are pasture-raised.” This isn’t isolated to their radio ads, by the way. As I write this, their website proudly announces “Pasture-Raised™ whole milk is nutritionally excellent“* (emphasis theirs). Please note: it’s not the cows that are pasture-raised, it’s the dairy products. Yep, they’ve apparently found a way to grow milk, butter, and cheese without involving those nasty bovines.

* For the record, Pasture-Raised™ is a trademarked phrase. According to the website, the tag requires a minimum number of days on pasture, and a significant portion of nutrition coming from “organically managed pasture and stored dried forages”. So that butter has been growing in the pasture for at least 120 days and has been fed corn and non-iodized salt supplements. Because there isn’t enough nutritive value in grass, and Heaven forbid we should mix any nasty chemicals into our, um, other chemicals.

This is useful information, folks! If Chobani and Organic Valley don’t need science, common sense, or grammar to work their wonders, can we extend the principle to other areas of the culinary industry?

Wonder of wonders, the FDA is already working along these lines. They recently issued a statement noting that because wood is porous, it can’t be cleaned. That being the case, cheese aged on wooden racks (as has been done for hundreds, if not thousands of years) is, by definition, unsafe.

This kind of logic could save us a lot of money. If we take it to the next level, we should ask if we even need the FDA and their partners in common sense, the USDA? Think about it: remember the government shutdown last October? You may recall that there was a salmonella outbreak while FDA and USDA employees were on furlough. But nobody died. Nobody even got sick. Why are we paying billions of dollars for these agencies for their questionable “science-based” food safety regulations?

Remember, folks, this is America, where you’re free to believe any damn thing you want. And apparently advertise it.

The Future Is…

I’ve been threatening you with this post for a week. Yes, at long last, it’s the much-delayed Curmudgeonly Rant You Can Blame On Lior.  (Say it with me: Thanks, Lior!)

I bet you thought I was going to delay it again so I could give you the scoop on Apple’s “A Lot To Cover” event. Much to my surprise, though, every single tech blog on the planet is planning to cover Apple’s announcements, many of them with live posts from on-site. Since Apple seems to have neglected to send me an invitation, why should I even try to compete with the rest of the world? I’ll let you get your up-to-the minute news from the anointed outlets, and save my usual snarky commentary for Thursday’s post. Deal?

OK, on with the rant.

Lior and I have been talking about the intersection of the Web and writing, specifically the possibilities for doing fiction using blogs and other social media. And then he found this.

Let me save you the pain of reading it. “The Future of Storytelling: Phase 1” is the first part of Latitude 42s’ vision of the inevitable next stage in the evolution of fiction. According to this manifesto, today’s readers don’t want to be passive consumers. They want their fiction to tell them what else is going on in the world while the story is happening. They want to take control of the story. They want the story to spread across all of their electronics. And they want it to inspire them to do something in their real life.

OK, what?

Maybe some examples would help. These were taken directly from the document, so don’t blame me for making anything up. “What else was going on in the world when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy were falling in love?” “I want to really friend Bond, and have him call me by name and listen to my advice.” “I’d love to be a part of a real-word game, whereby, citywide, everyone is reading the same book.” “While reading Cinderella, I’d like if actions and recipes for the perfect scrubbing of floors or green window-washing could be accessed.”

Is it just me, or does this seem like it boils down to “Entertain me, and sell me stuff. Oh, and let me tell you how the story should go!”

Exqueege me? If you don’t like the story I’m telling, how about you tell your own story instead of co-opting mine? Want to know what else is going on, do a little research — I did, that’s why I know the background. But you can’t include everything, or every short story would be buried in 900 pages of “meanwhiles”. Like the sculptor removing all of the stone that isn’t an elephant, it’s the author’s job to cut out everything that isn’t part of the story.

Ooh, here’s a good one. “It would be amazing if my e-reader kept track of days I read and days I didn’t. For example, if I had just read a part of Ender’s Game where Ender was about to engage in a big battle, and then I stopped for a few days, it would send me a ‘news’ email telling me about the victory—or about the loss.”

Are you out of your flipping mind? Look, if I stop reading a book, it’s for one of two reasons: either I hated it and want nothing more to do with it, or I’m too busy with something else and I’ll get back to it. In either case, why would I want to be interrupted with spoilers? And that doesn’t even consider the implications of a third party knowing what I was reading down to the specific sentence where I stopped.

Look, if you take inspiration from something I write, that’s great. Whether it’s inspiration to write something of your own, to learn about something going on in the world, or even to buy some floor wax, I’m glad to know I touched your life. But if you insist that everything I write has to provide you with “your perfect glass slipper (read: high end shoe)”, I’m not going to be inspiring you, I’m going to be advertising to you.

Oh, wait.

Let’s take a look at Phase 2 of Latitude’s magnum opus. If you’re really feeling brave, you can find it with a quick web search. I’m not going to spoil your adventure by giving you the URL.

Again, I quote: “At Latitude, we work with some of the foremost companies in media, technology, and advertising, helping them to grow their audiences through great storytelling. As the landscape evolves, we’ve been exploring possibilities for next-gen narratives—including how technology is enabling more immersive and interactive experiences with content and brands.”

Yup. The future of storytelling is advertising, folks. Forget those antiquated ideas of entertainment and teaching. In the Wonderful World of the Future, it’s all about selling. Their entire study population is smartphone owners, more than half of whom are also tablet owners, and all of whom are TV watchers to the tune of “at least six hours a week”). Clearly this is not a biased group, nor one that has any need for non-commercial storytelling…

Think I’m exaggerating? Page 8 is dominated by an infographic (don’t you just love that word?) titled “Which elements should next-gen advertising include?” The text assures us that the public is demanding “innovative advertising” and that “Stories could be one-click storefronts”.

Not my stories, thank you. I’ll stick with my advertising-free tales, even if that does seriously curtail my audience.

Latitude’s idea isn’t new. I invite anyone who thinks it is to read Pohl and Kornbluth’s “The Space Merchants” from 1952. There is literally nothing in Latitude’s documents that wasn’t covered in the book.

One final ironic note: That infographic (shudder) on page 8 gives percentages of their study group who agreed with various statements about kinds of advertisements that would engage them. The winner, with 47% of respondents agreeing was “I’d like to see more advertisements that feature a deal.” Yup. The best thing this company can do to help you improve your advertising is to tell you to offer a discount. Now that is interaction I can believe in.

Orly?

Perhaps you heard about the resort in Florida that partly collapsed this week when a sinkhole opened up underneath it? Did you also hear that the manager took pains to announce that they’re still open for business and guests with reservations (presumably both kinds) should “Come on down”? Seriously!

Fortunately, there were no injuries or deaths in the collapse, thanks at least in part to the actions of the security guard who ran through the building to wake people up and get them outside.

That just makes this particular matching of content to advertising on the Chicago Tribune’s website even more surreal than it might otherwise have been:
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Presumably Google’s algorithms matched keywords such as “injured”, “evacuated”, and “Walt Disney” in determining that the web page was death-related*. One hopes that they’ll fine-tune things a bit.

* What, you hadn’t heard about Walt’s cryogenically-preserved corpse? Legend has it that Walt’s frozen body lies in state somewhere under Disneyland.

More to the point, though, one hopes that Ancestry.com will fine-tune their advertising a bit. I was thrilled at the idea that I could enter my own name and find out how and when I was going to die. Imagine my disappointment when I got to the site and found that they wanted me to input the year and location of my death!
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Still, the site says that not all the information is required, so I went ahead and gave it a try. Apparently I’m going to be busy dying for quite a while.
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“Casey Karp” is, it seems, a popular name. I entered my birth year and place of birth and they still found 141 matching death records. Nice!

That “View Records” button, of course, takes you to a sign-up page where you are encouraged to spend $19.99 per month after your two week trial membership. Note that you must provide payment information in order to create an account. Yup, gotta provide a credit card or PayPal information before you can use your free trial. But that’s OK. Look, they offer a 100% Guarantee that you won’t pay anything today:
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No, I didn’t give them my credit card. I think I’ll be happier not knowing when those 141 deaths are going to find me. Especially given that “Casey” is a nickname; presumably those 141 deaths actually belong to someone else. My real name–including full middle name, which is known only to family, former employers, and the NSA–actually produced 232 matches. That’s more dying than I really want to do. Well, OK, one death is more than I really want, but I understand that, Walt aside, that is the quota.

I’ve stretched this joke about as far as it’ll go without breaking, so I’ll let it go (<snap!>). The ad just pushed one of my hot buttons (grossly oversimplifying something to the point of becoming misleading), and the actual implementation pushed another (concealed auto-billing). It doesn’t help that Ancestry.com is well-known for a confusing cancellation process or that even its apologists concede that they’re experts at concealing little details like total costs in the fine print. (My favorite example is in an opinion piece defending Ancestry.com. Check towards the end of the comments where the guy who wrote the piece says “I think one thing that people familiar with Ancestry.com learn to do is read the fine print because they end up getting burned on stuff like this.” Really? Apparently he considers that sort of deceptive practice acceptable because “they offer such a massive database of information.”)

Another one of John’s signs of the collapse of civil society, I suspect. It’s certainly one of mine.