Monday, July 29, 2013

Little Things That BUG Me #9

When astronomers discover a new planet at the right distance from its star to have temperatures that can support liquid water and mainstream news sources report: "Astronomers discover habitable planet!"

First of all, distance from the star is not a guarantee of survivable temperatures; Venus is within the Sun's so-called "habitable zone" but its atmosphere full of greenhouse gases (96% carbon dioxide) make it the hottest planet in the solar system.

Even leaving that aside, just because a planet isn't hot or cold enough to quickly melt/freeze any human who lands on it doesn't mean it fits any meaningful definition of "habitable." The presence of water is hardly guaranteed, atmospheric oxygen is unlikely, and an atmosphere can be poisonous even if adequate oxygen is present.

And then of course, there's the issue of size. In a choice of language so appalling it really should have been in the opening sentence (or its own entry), many reporters have chosen the term "super-Earth" for a planet which is in its star's habitable zone but much larger than Earth. For example, the (relatively) recently discovered planets in the Gliese 667 system are maybe 10 times the size of Earth, so even leaving aside the issues of surface temperature, water, and oxygen, they're "habitable" only by a definition that forgets how gravitational forces are proportional to mass.

The discovery of a new planet is always interesting but badly-written headlines just bug me.

Addendum: This post was sitting unpublished in my drafts for some time, so it's gone a bit stale; the discovery of planets orbiting Gliese 667C was some time ago. Still, the principle remains unchanged so what the hell, up this one goes. If stale posts bug you, put that on your own blog.

Dispatches from Marketer World: Part 3— Assortment

I don't have a proper edition of DFMW this time, so here's a small collection of minor tidbits gleaned from various surveys I took.

Although the obsession with brands is something I've already written about at length, I was struck nonetheless by a particular example in a recent survey I took. In the midst of a long survey about dish washing products, the survey asked me:

"What drives your loyalty to the particular brand of automatic dishwasher detergent that you use?"

If ever called to provide a succinct explanation for my belief that marketers aren't actually human (thus ruling out my usual verbose rants), I would offer up that quote. A marketer writing a survey to try and learn the opinions of consumers assumed (a) that all consumers buy soap (a parity product) based on brand over all other factors, (b) that all consumers will only ever buy one brand of soap unless extraordinary external factors persuade them to change, and (c) the reason for this is because all consumers have loyalty to specific corporate trademarks. Keep in mind that at no point did I suggest anything that might support this conclusion even out of context; the question came completely out of the blue and not as a response to something I said.

Incidentally, the question was multiple choice; possible options included such delights as "I trust the brand" and "it's the brand I grew up with," plus the odd-sounding "it's the premium option."

To offer some semblance of actually answering the question, the idea of "brand loyalty" is ridiculous, especially when applied to a parity product like detergent; while I know I have dishwasher detergent in the cupboard under the sink I couldn't tell you what brand it is without getting up to check and I'm far too lazy to bother.

Moving on to another topic, many surveys on a wide range of subjects have blithely assumed I have a television, that said television is connected to some form of broadcast receiving equipment, and that I regularly watch said broadcasts when in fact, only the first is true and only barely. Many a survey has asked me how much television I watch in a multiple choice question that offered no selection for "none," forcing me to provide the awkward, if technically true, answer of "less than five hours weekly." At least three surveys have asked a series of half a dozen questions in a row where they would present a set of still images from different adverts and ask if I've seen that advert on the telly— without asking whether I actually watch television.

I suppose this is to my advantage in a way, since surveys are written for specific target demographics and they don't pay if you don't fit them; I'd have missed out on quite a few survey payments if they'd specified "television watchers" as a target demographic rather than simply assuming everyone watched. Still, it's symptomatic of a general culture among corporate interests that assumes television is the norm and "cord cutters" (to say nothing of "cord nevers" like me) are weird outliers— and that culture permeates through the media and content industries who habitually cut us cordless folk off from the best content because they assume we're a tiny and irrelevant minority.

Moving on to one more topic, it's hardly news to most people that many online retailers keep track of what products you look at to help them market at you. It's a form of ad targeting that's obnoxious as any other in principle and very hard to escape given that many online retailers won't let you buy anything without an "account" that ties your viewing habits to your name and identity, but it's one that in practice we generally let slide because the targeted ads are mostly limited to the online retailer itself; ads are more tolerable when we're in a buying mindset since they're not qualitatively different from the list of products being presented for sale anyway; basically just an aisle-end display.

That said, I have to question their value in actually driving sales. I've mentioned before that ad targeting is hit or miss under the best of circumstances; the list of "products you recently viewed" are not inherently likely to be the products you want to buy for precisely the same reasons that any targeted ad is likely to fail— a complete inability of computers to automatically determine why you looked at something from the fact that you did look at it.

The list of "products you recently viewed" is liable to be full of the products you want-ish but not that much, the products you considered inferior alternatives to the one you actually bought, or the products you did buy and don't need another of.

And then, of course, there's my list of recently viewed products from a well known electronics retailer.

Click to embiggen.

Well done, popular retailer. Well done. That ad will surely be responsible for driving many sales.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Media Habits (Part 1): Orange Is The New Black

So according to this Buzzfeed, the (relatively) new Netflix-made series Orange Is The New Black is "one of the year’s best offerings on any platform." Unfortunately, I only watched the version that's available on Netflix, which is mediocre at best.

In this newish series, Piper Chapman, played by someone I can't be bothered to google, is a shallow ditz who got convinced to transport drug money for dubious reasons and is now, ten years later, sent to prison for having done so. So basically, it's a prison drama. Yeah, I'm not sure why I watched it either.

Now I'm not saying I have to like a protagonist (I've written protagonists more unlikeable than Piper) but a problem arises when most of the tagonists (of both "pro" and "an" varieties) are so shallow and uninteresting that I simply can't move myself to give half a shit about what happens to any of them. Am I supposed to care that a shallow ditz is thrown into an unforgiving environment and being slowly molded into a more aggressive ditz? My caring about her personal struggles was out the window the moment she was more concerned with her weight than the fact that she was about to go to prison. Some of the other characters have more depth (there's a transexual who stole credit cards to pay for her surgery, an old Russian lady with an interesting backstory, and a slaver and murderer who is somehow supposed to be sympathetic) but they're minor characters compared to Piper and her drug smuggling ex-girlfriend.

And here is the point at which my disconnect with the show becomes complete. I'm asexual (and aromantic, if that's actually a thing), and because of this, using "true love" as a character's motivation will always strike me as an Ass Pull. I know intellectually that a majority of the population are animals who will abandon all pretense of higher functioning at the suggestion that they might get to mate, but on the semi-emotional level of understanding characters and why they do what they're doing, it just doesn't work. This is problematic, because about 90% of the plot rests heavily upon this authorial crutch. Why does a seemingly intelligent man fawn over a ditzy bimbo who's about to go to prison? Because he wuvs her. Why does said ditzy bimbo jeopardise the relationship she wants so much to have a fling with the crazy criminal ex who sent her to prison? Because she wuvs her. Why does one of the guards risk his career and his freedom over a relationship with an inmate that's legally considered rape? Because he wuvs her. Time and again, characters do things so stupid and out of character you want to scream at the screen and strangle the writer and we're supposed to just roll with it because "love." Maybe it's different for the 99% of people who have a biologically hard-wired compulsion to do weird things with their genitals, but my suspension of disbelief is just not that big.

Incidentally, my asexuality also means that the large quantities of fanservice are instantly transformed into squick, giving the show a decidedly minefield-like nature and meaning the single one emotional reaction that dominated my experience was "oh god, I did NOT need to see that."

Credit where credit is due: The show makes a point of revealing backstories for even the more minor characters, all of which are more interesting than the primary characters anyway. It also pulls off the difficult task of creating a character so unlikeable that we might declare nothing to be too horrific for her only to put her in a situation that is clearly too horrific even for her— and which is apparently true to life for American prisons at that, so full marks there. When the characters are not being motivated by "love" for someone they hate or driven by the absurd coincidences that plague Netflix-original series, they actually tend to be strong and well-rounded; even the ditz gets a proper development arc although it's too little too late to make me actually start caring about her.

Unfortunately, its comparatively minor selling points don't outweigh the problems with the show. Even if you're willing to buy that someone will throw away everything they love and want to preserve or maintain a relationship with someone they hate because "love," the writers clearly need to do a bit more thinking about how people act and react. Ditziness notwithstanding, a person who is being literally starved to death over a petty prison dispute with an inmate cook goes to the authorities to request a transfer to another prison— but then refuses to say why and then backs out of the whole thing. Maybe this is just one of those weird emotional things I'm just not capable of picking up, but I would think that the desire to (a) eat and (b) not die should override the loyalty to or fear of someone you've literally met once. Yet she doesn't tell the authorities, or her lawyer. She tells her fiance, but he doesn't think to do anything about it (even though he proves himself more than capable of interceding on her behalf later). Then, she's offered food after having eaten literally nothing for the past 72 hours, and she throws it away out of fear/loyalty to the prison cook or spite for the ex-girlfriend who gave it to her, when she should by all rights be too hungry to think before eating it. Later, a misplaced screwdriver creates a massive kerfluffle, and upon realising she inadvertently took it, she goes through an entire episode's worth of machinations to hide it and to try and return it secretly rather than turning it in at the earliest possible opportunity; it's not like the prison staff have proven so unreasonable that they'd overreact to an honest mistake.

Then, of course, there's the Netflix Coincidence problem; the tendency of Netflix-original shows to rely on absurdly contrived coincidences. She just happens to have a lawyer who's not good enough to get a fairly weak case against her dropped. Her crazy ex just happens to be in the same prison she is. The less that's said about the chicken, the better.

One other thing, the Buzzfeed article mentions the following little tidbit: "While love isn’t a word I’d apply to Pablo Schreiber’s sadistic prison guard, George “Pornstache” Mendez, even he displays an unexpected soft side." Apparently, that part was in the Buzzfeed-only version of the show because the closest I saw to that in the Netflix version was decidedly the opposite— the character is outwardly creepy and disgusting ("rapist"), but when he gets drunk and starts making tearful confessions, he reveals that he's actually a complete sociopath ("rapist who complains his victims don't appreciate him as a person") as well. So maybe Buzzfeed's Jace Lacob liked the show because he's a robot with a prototype emotion chip that still has some kinks to work out.

Rating Summary:

Medium: Television.
Genre: Prison Drama
Availability: Netflix
Bechdel Compliance: Yes
Rating: 5 to 15 years for assault and battery on my sensibilities and tastes.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Trouble With Brands

This is kind of a follow on or postscript for my previous long post about brands so I'm not giving it a "Dispatches from Marketer World" title because it's kind of an expansion and clarification.

One of the points I made was that brand is a very limited and flawed proxy for quality because brands can be bought sold and licensed, but the example I gave was downright obscure.

Here's a slightly less obscure one. Ben & Jerry's is a brand of ice cream that was actually invented by two guys named Ben and Jerry, specifically Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, two ordinary blokes who decided hey, they liked ice cream so let's start an ice cream company. So Ben & Jerry's began, and was a different kind of company, an independent company just started up by two blokes who overcame adversity (Ben doesn't have a full sense of taste) and built themselves a little slice of success by selling a better product than the corporate mass-produced crap.

You'll notice I used a lot of past tense there. That's because Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield haven't had anything to do with Ben & Jerry's since April of 2000.

Ben & Jerry's is owned by Unilever, the same company that makes Lynx.

The independent company started by two blokes that makes a better product went out of business 13 years ago, but its name and logos live on, attached to the same mass-produced crap that everybody else makes. And it's perfectly legal because the name "Ben & Jerry's" is a brand which can be sold, even though using the name and association of one product to sell a completely different product is fraud in a moral sense even if not a legal sense.

That's why shops touting that they have "my favourite brands" is so nonsensical; the brand is irrelevant, since it can mean something completely different one day or year to the next.