Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Napoleon Dynamite Problem

The DVD rental service Netflix has a problem. Its "recommendation engine", which suggests movies to its customers is at the core of its business model. This "engine" uses customer's ratings of rentals to generate suggestions for titles they might enjoy. The mathematical algorithms that it uses have gotten better over the years and for the most part the suggestions are quite good. However, there are a handful of films that defy prediction and are impeding Netflix's progress in improving its service. The most notorious is Napoleon Dynamite.

The NYTimes published a detailed article on the The Napoleon Dynamite Problem and Netflick's open contest to improve its recommendation engine. The prize is $1 Million.If You Liked This, You’re Sure to Love That

NYTimes excerpt:
Bertoni says it’s partly because of “Napoleon Dynamite,” an indie comedy from 2004 that achieved cult status and went on to become extremely popular on Netflix. It is, Bertoni and others have discovered, maddeningly hard to determine how much people will like it. When Bertoni runs his algorithms on regular hits like “Lethal Weapon” or “Miss Congeniality” and tries to predict how any given Netflix user will rate them, he’s usually within eight-tenths of a star. But with films like “Napoleon Dynamite,” he’s off by an average of 1.2 stars.

The reason, Bertoni says, is that “Napoleon Dynamite” is very weird and very polarizing. It contains a lot of arch, ironic humor, including a famously kooky dance performed by the titular teenage character to help his hapless friend win a student-council election. It’s the type of quirky entertainment that tends to be either loved or despised. The movie has been rated more than two million times in the Netflix database, and the ratings are disproportionately one or five stars.

Sunday School at The Sherman Foundation: Comics and Cleanliness

The Economist reports on a fascinating study on the relationship between cleanliness and ethical evaluations. You would think that personal cleanliness (as in hand washing) would instill a higher moral disposition, after all, isn't "cleanliness next to godliness"? It appears that this is not the case.

Physical purification, in other words, produces a more relaxed attitude to morality. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus. Something to think about for those who feel that purification rituals bring them closer to God.

Dr Schnall’s study was inspired by some previous work of her own. She had found that when feelings of disgust are instilled in them beforehand, people make decisions which are more ethical than would otherwise be expected. She speculates that the reason for this is that feeling morally unclean (ie, disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong. However, as the cleanliness and purification rituals found in many religions suggest, physical cleanliness, too, is linked to moral behaviour, so she decided to investigate this as well.

Read: Cleanliness is next to godlessness, from The Economist.

The DMC sent me a link to a Flickr page devoted to Spire Christian Comics. Christian comics from the 70s and 80s.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Nature of Man: Wallmart worker trampled by shoppers.

This is not the first time that this has happened, but it leaves me aghast every time.

"A 34-year-old WalMart employee was trying to hold back the crowds at a Long Island store this morning at 5am, when they took the doors off their hinges and stormed the store. The man fell down and was trampled by over 200 people as he gasped for air. It's sad and despicable, and it's equally the fault of the dehumanized shoppers and the WalMart store it happened at."

VIA Gizmodo

Sunday, November 23, 2008

How big is the video game industry?

Here is one indicator. This massive display advertisement, on the side of a building on Wilshire Blvd isn't for an upcoming movie, it's for a video game release, Resistance 2.

The gaming industry, already bigger that the music industry may even be bigger than the motion picture industry. Here are some video game industry stats from The Entertainment Software Association

The U.S. computer and video game software sales grew four percent in 2004 to $7.3 billion -- a more than doubling of industry software sales since 1996.

Seventy-five percent of American heads of households play computer and video games.

In 2004, more than 248 million computer and video games were sold, almost two games for every household in America.

The average game player is 30 years old and has been playing games for 9.5 years.

The average game buyer is 37 years old. In 2005, 95 percent of computer game buyers and 84 percent of console game buyers were over the age of 18.

Eighty-three percent of all games sold in 2004 were rated "E" for Everyone or "T" for Teen.

Forty-three percent of all game players are women. In fact, women over the age of 1 represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (28 percent) than boys from ages 6 to 17 (21 percent).

In 2004, 19 percent of Americans over the age of 50 played video games, an increase from nine percent in 1999.

Forty-two percent of game players say they play games online one or more hours per week. In addition, 34 percent of heads of households play games on a wireless device, such as a cell phone or PDA, up from 20 percent in 2002.

From TED. David Perry on the history of video games.

From The New Yorker Conference: Jane McGonigal: Saving the World Through Game Design. A talk on ARGs (Alternate Reality Gaming).

Friday, November 21, 2008

Motrin outrage

It seems that a misguided ad from Motrin has infuriated Mothers. Mothers in not a demographic to f*** with. They are networked into a strong community.

I take a second offense to the ad. It uses that animated typography narration that is so so so played out.

A new ad for Motrin, sold by J&J's McNeil Consumer Healthcare unit, tried to appeal to moms with an attempt at a chatty copy about using Motrin to treat sore muscles that result from a baby carrier. But some members of the target audience were offended, and a flood of scathing items appeared on Twitter. The website went down Sunday night and as of Monday morning still hasn't come back up.

VIA Forbes: Twitter Moms Sink Motrin Ad. Johnson & Johnson's legendary marketing machine just had a rare mess-up.

Click here to see the scathing comments on Twitter.

The source, the source, Kathleen of course.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Attraction Scale

An excellent and useful tool.

VIA the DMC.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Isaac Mizrahi at Ted

I have been waiting a long time for TED to release this particular talk.

I have always enjoyed listening to Isaac Mizrahi speak. He is, like many fashion designers, an incredibly astute observer of culture. He first really impressed me when I saw him in Barry Levinson's documentary "Yesterday's Tomorrows" (On the way the future was envisioned in the 60's, highly recommended.)

I love that Isaac was invited to Ted. A very charming, funny talk. So often the speakers at TED from the design world are predictable and boring.

The video Isaac shows on women and fashion in the movies is great.

This is an audio clip of Isaac from NPR talking about earnestness and fashion.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

How Cereal Transformed American Culture

An outstanding, short piece from Mental Floss magazine on the history of cereal, children's cereal and advertising: How Cereal Transformed American Culture

An excerpt on Leo Burnett and television advertising:

Television took advertising for sugar cereals to a new level, and the master of the new medium was an ad man named Leo Burnett. He invented TV programs specifically designed to entertain children and sell Kellogg’s products. Much like Skippy a decade before, Burnett’s characters would turn to the screen in the middle of a show and pitch the merits of a particular brand. There was nothing subtle about it. Howdy Doody, Roy Rogers, Andy Griffith, Rin Tin Tin, the Beverly Hillbillies, Yogi Bear, and Fred Flintstone all became television icons because they were good at selling cereal.

Also at Burnett’s urging, cereal companies invested heavily in early television technology. (They still do; cereal is the second-largest advertiser on television today, behind automobiles.) The financial backing let them shape the medium to suit their needs—namely, adding color. Burnett was one of the earliest believers in motivational psychology and understood that colors appealed to kids and moms subliminally. When color TV became a reality, he persuaded Kellogg to use anthropomorphized cartoon animals as mascots. He thought animation would make for better, more colorful commercials. The first mascot they produced was Tony the Tiger, whose meteoric success was followed by hundreds of other cartoon icons.

Jason, thanks for forwarding this along.

It's like a witch hunt! (but with Old West theme park theatrics)

I caught Anderson Cooper's "Culprits of the Collapse" segment on CNN a few evenings ago.

I was surprised at how over the top the graphic treatments were. Western-style parchment sheets with burnt edges featured silhouettes of the "Ten Most Wanted" individuals in America's current economic collapse. Given the gravity of the situation I would have expected a less sensationalistic visual treatment from CNN. Anderson Cooper usually goes to greater lengths to present his self as a serious journalist. He might as well have had on a cowboy hat, a vest, sheriff's badge and chaps.

"Blame game" is a phrase I am hearing repeatedly from mainstream news sources reporting on the current economic crisis. It is usually invoked to deny participating in playing "the blame game" just prior to discussing reasons and responsibility for the crisis and, well... playing the blame game.

Don't get me wrong, I am a firm believer in responsibility and accountability, but I suspect that the media's handling of the issue, instead of helping to uncover facts and ensure that those responsible are taken to task, has quite the opposite effect.

More and more it seems that the institutions and systems that were set up to perform particular functions in society no longer do. For instance, the decision to go to war was once in the hands of Congress but that power was seized and remains in the autocratic grip of the Presidents office. I would assume that finding those held accountable for misdoings related to the financial crisis would be the job of the U.S. Attorney General, but I haven't heard anything to indicate any action being taken by that office. It seems that this will be handled largely by the media.

When the news media wraps the reporting of issues in sensationalism it has a very specific effect. It loads the delivery of that information with emotional impact and that information is received as a charged sensory experience. Thrill rides in amusement parks and rich ice cream are both designed to deliver heightened sensory experiences and they both go through a similar arc of consumption. You burn out on them really fast. The first few rides and bites are fantastic, but it you keep it up long enough you just feel sick. This combined with the relentless bombardment of messaging causes burn out and apathy. Take the Iraqi war and Gitmo for instance. Most people just don't want to hear about it. People are actively tuning out news about both "stories".

The current media witch hunt regarding the economic crisis is mostly theatrical. Whether its intentional or not, the end result is that no one will be called upon tho answer for their actions. They will slip away under the media's air cover. Taxpayers, numbed out, will suffer in silence.

Environmental Contributions: Claratin

Every time you buy just 5 (smaller that watch battery) Claratin tablets the makers of this antihistamine product will contribute this to your local landfill.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

37%... No Sexy time.

It appears that more than 1/3 of Japanese couples are too tired to bother with sex.

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - More than a third of married couples in Japan have stopped having sex, many of them because they are too tired or just can't be bothered, a government-backed medical researcher said on Wednesday.

The most common reason, given by a quarter of the males surveyed, was being too tired after work, while 19 percent of women said sex was too much of a hassle, he told Reuters.

"It's a question of work-life balance," Kitamura said in a telephone interview. "This is not something that the individual can tackle alone. The people who run companies need to do something about it."

His written survey involved 647 men and 821 women aged up to 49, who are married

VIA Reuters: Over a third of Japanese couples skip sex: survey

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Similar, yet legally distinct

There may be no better example of how awesome the power of mass media broadcasting and advertising once was than the creation, building and selling of breakfast cereal brands. Boxed bundles of cheap primary ingredients were magically transformed by packaging design, imaginative character design and some very clever and rather insidious 30 second narratives.

I have written several times in the past on the psychology behind children's breakfast cereal commercials. Almost everyone of them are based on fantasies of control, fantasies about forbidden desire and persecution dramas. Someone is always trying to steal or get their hands on the Lucky charms, Fred's Fruit Pebbles etc. I particularly like the schizo-paranoid persecution dramas of the Coo Coo, the Cocoa Puffs bird and the Trix rabbit.

The history of cereal brands and their advertising really does encapsulate a lot about post WWII America, broadcast media, advertising and consumerism.

Given the frame that I bestow upon this subject you can imagine my disappointment when I saw these BAGGED brand ripoffs in the isle of a West Hollywood bulk food store.

Every newborn in America is fed Cheerios... Tasteeos? crass and wrong.

Invert the name and replace the elves with poorly illustrated robots. Nice job.

2 clearly retarded is picking his nose... no one wants this in their breakfast nook.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unbutton Your Beast

Recently, I posted a "reading pictures" piece that deconstructed the non-verbal narrative of a Levi's 501 Jeans outdoor ad. The male model is posed to as if exposing himself to us and and the car and tarp double and reinforce the idea of exposure. I also commented that there is a tone of menace, as opposed to flirtatiousness to the ad.

Reading Pictures: Levi's Outdoor Exposure

Playful, but menacing exposure seems to be general theme of Levi's advertising these days. At Unbutton Your Beast you can select a trouser beast and record a message to send to people you would like to sexually harass.

Maybe I've been exposed to too much of Axe's tawdry, ironically-sexist advertising. My general response to this is ho-hum.

The source, the source Kathleen of course.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Greatest Breakfast Cereals of All Time

An interactive timeline that charts the history The Greatest of Breakfast Cereals of All Time starting with Grape Nuts in 1897.

Happy Monday!

VIA Kottke

Monday, November 03, 2008

Sweet 'Stache

The art direction on this makes me smile every time I see it on the counter of the 7-Eleven I go to in West Hollywood. The combination of the red-headed goober and the big cookie-duster mustache is fantastic. The typeface used for "sweet 'stache" is great, it's all you really need to read to get it.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

The Stuyvesant Town Rape Forest

The management of Stuyvesant Town in New York City is to be commended on the excellent job they have done on the grounds of this building complex. There is a new community day care, lounge and library. There are newly renovated basketball courts and playground equipment.

The lawns and the fountain look great and every Sunday there is a greenmarket.

There is one thing that they have done that makes me a little nervous. They have planted A LOT of trees around the buildings.

It gets dark around these buildings at night. When I walk the sidewalks to go to friends apartments and I survey all of these trees, plated so closely together I can't help but think that it will get harder and harder to see if anything is lurking in the fledgeling growth.