I recently wrote my first book review on Amazon. I haven’t really felt compelled to post reviews on Amazon before, but in this case the book was truly horrible, and frankly I felt like I had been ripped off. The book in question was Discover Your Inner Economist by Tyler Cowen. I won’t repeat the review here; you can follow the link to Amazon if you care to read it.
What is relevant, though, is the very improbable distribution of reviews. Almost half of the reviews for this book give it 5 stars, yet for reviews with fewer than 5 stars, the most common rating is 1 star, followed by 2 stars, 3 stars, and then 4 stars. In other words, the number of 5 star reviews defies all probability. I noted at the end of my review that “most of the thirteen 5-star reviews for this book” (as of the date I was writing this) “were written within a week or two of the book's release, and at least three were written by people who live in Cowen's hometown of Fairfax, VA (and a fourth by someone in nearby Washington DC).”
The lesson? First: while Amazon reviews are generally very helpful, it’s worth scrutinizing the 5-star reviews to find out whether there’s really a critical perspective there. Second: Amazon’s graphical display of the distribution of review values may be a good shortcut to the truth about what real people think about a book. If the 5-star rating defies an otherwise clear trend line, then something may be amiss.
With the presidential primaries just a few weeks away, we’re deep in the throes of weasel season – when the political ends justify behavior that would be considered outright fraud in any other context.
About a week ago, I got a call from someone who appeared to be calling from a real polling organization. The questions started innocently enough… “Of the following topics, which do you consider to be the single most important for the country?” After a few of these questions, the topic turned to illegal immigration.
The survey questions were clearly written by someone with a pro-immigration agenda. In many cases, the phrasing of the questions and the multiple-choice answers provided could only lead to one of two options: either an answer that implies the respondent favors illegal immigration, or an answer that makes the respondent feel like an insensitive extremist.
Here are a few examples of the survey questions:
QUESTION: “What do you think is the best solution to the fact that we have X million illegal immigrants in this country?” The choices were essentially limited to “mass deportation” (the exact phrase used in the survey) and “amnesty”. By itself, this question doesn't seem terribly biased, but as the survey progressed, a larger pattern emerged in which anti-immigration responses were always expressed in ways that carried negative connotations. In this case, I suspect that if you were to replace "mass deportation" with "enforce our current immigration laws", then I suspect a lot more people might select that option.
QUESTION: “Do you think that the United States will need to resort to police tactics to root people out of their homes?” While I can’t say that this entire quote is verbatim, the “police tactics” and “root people out of their homes” are the exact phrases that were used. There was no definition given for "police tactics", but since law enforcement is traditionally performed by people with police powers, then yes, I suppose that police tactics would be required.
QUESTION: “Many of the people who oppose illegal immigration are members of hate groups that advocate racism and violence against illegal immigrants. Do you believe that the media is wrong to give airtime to groups like that?” Yes, generally I think it’s irresponsible to give airtime to hate groups, but let's admit that the premise of the question is highly debatable. I’m wary of the term “hate group”, which is often applied to any organization that opposes racial quotas or unrestricted immigration.
QUESTION: Which of the following actions do you think are the best way to deal with illegal immigrants? The first choice was “Violence and deportation”. That was provided as a single answer, and it was the only choice available that had any anti-immigration flavor to it at all. In other words, if you’re in favor of enforcing our immigration laws, then the only way to express that in your answer to this question is to also claim that you support violence against illegal immigrants.
This is where I ended the interview (although there were quite a few other questions throughout this process which I haven't recorded here). “Whoever wrote this survey clearly has an agenda,” I told the interviewer. She responded: “I’m probably going to get in trouble for saying this, and I’m really not supposed to say this… but I agree with you. Some of these questions are crazy.” Then she asked me to finish the survey, and I declined.
I’d love to know more about this survey and who is behind it. I'm waiting to hear a talk-show guest quote the survey that says "99% of Americans oppose deporting illegal immigrants". The interviewer on this described herself as being from “The Frederick Company” or something similar to that. If there’s anyone out there who knows anything more about this, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’ve gotten two calls recently from alleged pollsters, both of which were pretty disturbing, albeit in different ways. The most recent was a “60-second poll” that used an automated voice prompt system to ask questions and deliver pro-Huckabee propaganda to the person receiving the call. It started with a question that sounded innocent enough: “Who do you plan to vote for in the upcoming New Hampshire primary?” Based on my response (Mitt Romney), it followed with a series of questions about Mitt Romney: “Does it concern you that Mitt Romney changed his position on abortion…?”, “Does it concern you that Mitt Romney…”, etc. After two or three questions about whether I’m concerned about Mitt Romney, it finally occurred to me that this so-called poll was a fraud. Apparently this is called “push polling”, and in most cases it’s illegal in New Hampshire. Presidential primaries, for some reason, are exempt. The state’s attorney general’s office is investigating whether or not the calls in this case have any relevance to the general election, in which case they may be able to prosecute.
For what it’s worth, Mike Huckabee has denied involvement in the campaign, and has asked the organization responsible (a group called “Common Sense Issues”) to stop. (They are refusing.) I looked for a toll-free number for Common Sense Issues, but it appears that they don’t have one. If anyone has any brilliant ideas about how to retaliate against these folks, please share your ideas.
This raises the larger issue that when Congress created the National Do Not Call Registry, it exempted itself from the rule: political calls are still allowed. Shaun Dakin, a former product manager for the Motley Fool, recently founded an organization called StopPoliticalCalls.org . His aim is to create a “do not call” registry for political calls, in hopes that politicians will be compelled to either outlaw unsolicited phone calls or voluntarily honor a political do-not-call registry. Unfortunately, voluntary compliance will not solve the problem completely because candidates can’t necessarily control third party organizations making calls in their support. This is allegedly the case with the recent Huckabee push poll. This raises yet another issue: the potential use of phone campaigns to smear the candidate that they appear to be promoting. What if the recent push poll is in fact an underhanded move by another candidate to smear Huckabee?
I received another call recently that was far more disturbing… more on that in my next post.
I’ve finally come to the realization that as often as not, successful business ideas have little or nothing to do with logic. Recently, a 21 year-old British man named Alex Tew became a millionaire by selling advertising in the form of individual pixels on a website. Tiny ads – many as small as three sixteenths of an inch square – link to advertisers’ websites. The site contains virtually no other content besides a patchwork of tiny ads. As a pure novelty, it’s managed to attract enough curiosity-seekers to have reached the number-two ranking among all sites on the Internet (as ranked by Alexa).
It seems to me that no one with the slightest inclination towards logical thinking would pay good money for advertising with no target audience (excepts perhaps people with too much time on their hands?) which promises only a very slight possibility of reaching customers. What’s worse, there are reports that investors are clamoring to give this guy money. If this is true (and not just another piece in a very effective PR campaign), then I have to wonder what in the world these guys are thinking. In the days of the dotcom boom, this stuff happened all the time… but hasn’t the VC community learned that there needs to be a value proposition of some sort? Apparently the novelty has value. Advertisers say it’s been a great investment. But what happens when the novelty wears off?
In any case, there is an important lesson to be learned here; i.e. if you want to make money, stop being so damn logical. Not too long ago, I watched a great episode of Malcolm in the Middle. As Malcolm learns to flirt more effectively with a girl in his high-school class, he begins to discover that in many situations, acting dumb is a lot better than acting smart. With the encouragement of his half-wit brother Reese, Malcolm starts to apply this principle throughout the rest of his life. He dumbs down his thinking and is pleasantly surprised at how much it improves his life and relationships with other people.
The same principle seems to apply to business more than ever before. Why would a logical person want to use a debit card, when credit cards effectively give you an ongoing interest-free loan? Why would a logical person buy a pet rock… or pay $28,000 for a grill-cheese sandwich bearing an image of the Virgin Mary? And what can possibly explain the success of NASCAR?
Some of the most successful business ideas in the world are completely illogical. Perhaps all it takes is enough creativity and the willingness to do something really stupid.
In a lovely twist of fate, the greedheads who perpetrated the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) upon us may soon find themselves on the wrong end of the law that they helped to create. This has been a big story in the technology press, but it’s important news for virtually everyone: playing a Sony music CD on your computer can secretly install damaging software on your computer that is difficult to detect and remove from your system. I won’t re iterate the details here… but if you want to know more, check out this article at Linux Pipeline. For a list of affected CD’s, you can check out Sony’s webpage. Also be advised that the “fix” that Sony has issued may actually make the problem much worse.
It gets even more interesting when you hear that Sony may have violated copyrights in the software they’ve been installing. In their zeal to protect their dying business model the record companies have declared themselves to be champions of intellectual property. How ironic would it be if the software Sony has installed on an estimated 500,000 computers contains code that was illegal copied from an open source product? Brenno de Winter published this article claiming that Sony copied sections of its software code from LAME, an open source mp3 encoder released under the Lesser Gnu Public License (LGPL).
The most interesting question here, in my opinion, is whether or not Sony will be held legally accountable for what they’ve done. If a hacker had installed Sony’s rootkit on someone’s machine without their permission, he’d be at risk of going to jail. While I doubt that anyone at Sony will serve time for this, I have to admit that I’d love to see it happen. And Sony, along with the rest of the record industry, has been adamant about the need to crack down on copyright violators. Now that Sony has joined the ranks of the copyright violators, I wonder if they’ll have a change of heart.
Word has it that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is preparing to file suit against Sony. Here’s hoping they succeed. In the meantime, I don’t plan on buying any more Sony products.