I’m sure we all had our fill of glitzy ads that may or may not have actually had anything to say about the goods and services they represented. Now, thanks to the magic of YouTube, we can watch almost any ad we want, at any time. So, take 30 seconds to see what a commercial can, in the hands of masters, do.
Notice that in scarcely 22 seconds, you are given an entire story about an adorable young woman and her equally adorable cat. It’s a great story too. Going to the big city to find your fortune is one of the oldest and most powerful dreams in the collective unconscious of humanity. In this case, it’s an eager woman’s trek to NYC from Oregon to pursue some kind of big opportunity. The best part, for the purposes of the ad, is that this dream is made possible specifically by use of the product they happen to be selling.
By enabling her cat to transition from an outdoor beast in, presumably rural, Oregon to an indoor homebody in the heart of NYC, presumably Manhattan, this product also gives our young heroine the strength to cope with her own emotional journey. The nature of this journey is brilliantly left entirely to the imagination of the viewer. The omission of pretty much all the details of her move forces the viewer to draw from their own best memories, stories, and dreams, creating a far deeper connection than would have been made by a more specific dramatization. We are given exactly enough to know what’s going on, and no more. By the end of it, you want to buy the cat food, and a cat as well, if you don’t have one.
This is how it’s done, folks. All the big game pretenders should take notice.
“Clowns to the left of me
Jokers to the right
Here I am
Stuck in the middle with you”
Stuck in the Middle
Joe Egan / Gerry Rafferty (Stealers Wheel)
I’m always fascinated by lies. Some whoppers are so easy to spot, it’s laughable. Some people believe anyway, and you have to wonder if they really want to get lied to, as a viable alternative to suffering the pains of reality. The best lies of all though, are the ones you never see coming. If you don’t engage incomming data as disputable facts at all, your BS detector might as well be off-line, entirely. The best lies, aren’t even made of words at all. The kind of lie I’d like to discuss today is a hybrid of sorts. If it were a computer program, it would be a lie structure, or lie object, if you will. You just need to instanciate it in the context of your choice, and it does all the heavy lifting for you. It’s well designed and time proven. It’s called the bell curve.
Now, I know you’re thinking Bozo is a couple of clowns short of a car load right now, but bear with me. Sure, the bell curve, as a tool for statistical analysis, is pretty cool. Sure enough, lots of questions that ask for a varying degree type response generate beautiful bell curves when plotted. Indeed the very idea of the bell curve conjures up strong feeling of science, numbers, and statistics. That’s fine, when it’s actually being used to interpret scientific data. The trouble is simply that it’s usually not used for anything resembling science.
A network marketer once said to me, “Are you interested in the products, or the business?” The question was rhetorical, because at that point he already had my money and was training me to bring more disciples into his network. He went on to explain that when you word a question that way, it automatically gives you a ‘yes’ to follow up on. Then he described the domino theory of stacked ‘yeses’ and I began to realize that I had a lot of vitimins to swallow in the next year or so. This kind of question is what is known as a false dichotomy. You are presented with two options as if you must choose one of them. It’s never stated that a simple, unqualified “no” is also a valid, logical answer. They are trained to pull you back from that ‘no’ too, though, so don’t think I’m providing proper defence of network marketers here. But people are cynical, and it occurs to many to answer ‘neither’ to the proverbial yes or no question, or to say ‘no’ outright to the false dichotomy. So, a new and improved false dichotomy was required, and the bell curve works amazingly well.
We all get the proper use of a bell curve, but here’s the deceptive use in a nutshell:
Some people are totally blind.
Other people have perfect human vision.
The rest of us, lie somewhere in the middle.
So, what do you mean I failed my vision test, I correctly identified exactly half of the letters on the eye chart?
Yes, I intentionally picked an absurd example. Here’s one more:
This glass of stout is empty
That glass of stout is the fullest pour I’ve ever seen
Most pours lie somewhere in the middle
So, at my bar, I’m just going to pour them a little more than half full, saving time and money. Nobody will complain.
Perhaps in my examples, I’m being too intentionally non-confrontational. Maybe you’d rather some examples ripped from the headlings, so to speak. Too bad! Bozo don’t play that way. But, I do feel a need to make an exaple that more accurately demonstrates how the bell curve is really used. O.K., let’s use a purely fictional example. First, we need some background:
XYZ, Inc. is a company that makes software for widgets, and they’re the best at it too! Needless to say, widgets have set release schedules and sometimes crunch time is required to get a working piece of software done in time to be burnt into the firmware of the widget. Failing to meet a software deadline would be disasterous for XYZ company and it’s anchor client ABC, Ltd. XYZ’s development of firmware for ABC’s revolutionary Widget 3000 was riddled with pitfalls. It was horrible for all hands on deck, because all the programmers were called in for lots and lots of overtime. The pay? A promise of a sweet bonus. About 10% of the programmers balked though. They had families and hobbies that had nothing to do with widgets, firmware, or even hanging out with the gang for the 13th pizza and work party on Friday night. They started making lots of excuses, and for the sake of the example, everybody knew exactly who was going to be noticably absent in hours 41-60. But all projects do come to an end, and there was to be a cerimonial dividing of the bonus pool. T. B. Kahuna sent a memo to the programming staff (yeah, it was on real paper. Can you believe it?) that said essentially this:
XYZ, Inc. values the contributions of all emplyoyees, but we all know that some gave their 110% every day while others were content with less. A bonus is exactly that, something extra. As CEO, I have complete discretion over how much, if indeed any, bonus money I pay to each employee. I don’t want to single out anybody specifically, as we are a really, solid team. I considered asking for a vote on what the underperformers on overtime should be paid, but instead, for the good of the team, I’ve decided to give you all a chance to privately, rate your own value on a scale of one to ten to the ABC firmware project. I’m not going to base your bonus entirely on your self-evaluations, but I will certainly consider them, and the honesty with which they were prepared. Thanks again for all your help! A celebratory pizza party is being held this Friday, attendence is mandatory, regardless of how you evaluated yourself. You all deserve a big pat on the back, so come give yourself one.
Did you catch the bell curve? I never said it was always going to be obvious. Let’s break it down:
XYZ, Inc. has the right to not give you a bonus
But XYZ Inc. wants to reward the best employees
However, XYZ, Inc. values the good of the team, so it’s unlikely even the come late, leave early, and take a long lunch crowd is going to get totally frozen out.
When the staff considers their self-evaluation it’s a little different:
I could have worked exactly 40 hours a week and still been an asset to the team
The best people dedicate every waking hour to the project, for the team.
Well, I’m not among the worst, but I could have done more, so I’m somewhere in the middle.
So on all counts, most employees lie somewhere in the middle, right? Wrong. Go back and read the background. I stated that 10% of the staff were not playing ball at all, and it’s my example. For the sake of simlicty assume that 90% attended every possible overtime session and 10% avoided them always. The only time the die hards were absent was for an excuse that would have worked in the middle of the day anyway. The only time the slackers showed up was when there was a specific requirement for some certain task they had to do, same as they would have for a non-crunch, a.k.a. genuine, emergency.
So, what is T. B. Kahuna’s game? How does the self-evaluation figure into it? Simple, T. B. Kahuna doesn’t care about ABC project at all anymore. He got his check from ABC, Ltd. already and he made a tidy profit. His immediate problem is shrinking that bonus pool and keeping more of his profit for himself. He is using an implied bell curve structure to get his long suffering employees to lower their own expectations of their bonus. How? By gently pushing them to the middle. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to be on either edge of a bell curve, when it’s presented as a bell curve. Sure, we’re number one, but were not number one when we’re in the same room with number eleven out of ten. We want to be great, but we don’t really want to have to face the opposite of greatness and declare it, especially when we didn’t even ever play that team this season. T. B. Kahuna has essentially halved his entire staff’s expectations for the size of their bonus, so he can diburse roughly 70% of what he would have paid pre-memo and probably yeild a greater degree of employee satisfaction out of the deal. Everybody is probably going to get the exact same bonus, even those deadbeats who only gave it 100%. Maybe he favors a few syncophants, that he has future plans for, but that’s totally unrelated to this. T. B. Kahuna perhaps could have justified shaving 10% off the bonus pool by not paying the slackers, which would have certainly caused them to start updating their resumes. Instead, he shaved 30% off the bonus pool, and didn’t completely alienate anybody.
You see the bell curve isn’t just a false dichotomy, it’s a false range. It’s most usefull in situations where it’s impossible to bring people totally in lock step with your ideal objective, but you know you can at least start them on the journey toward your way of thinking. Truly, you can’t convince upward thinking people of the wisdom of down, but with a little effort to define a false middle between up and down. By using a bell curve, you can get some downward momentum and build some real support for living on the surface between up and down. Then you wait a while. Then you do it again. This time, the surface is the new up, but down is still the same old down. Now you’ve got some of the surface dwellers, not all of the up thinking people though, moving underground with you. They still aren’t there with you, any you’ll never get all of them, but you will get some. Eventually, they’re in deep enough to consider themselves die-hard proponents of down, or at least close enough for your purposes. Yeah, the overall yeild of converts is a lot lower than you would have liked, but it’s more than you ever could have got by just going with a message of pure down. Plus, a decent amount of people, although not full-fledged downers, are far enough away from up that they certainly can’t be considered uppers any more. So although they aren’t in your camp per se, they certainly aren’t in the other guy’s camp either. Your opponent’s loss is at least a partial win for you.
But, surely you’re too smart for all of this. You reject the false middle and stay extreme. Hey, you’ve got way more character that way, plus a proud feeling of some kind of integrity is filling your heart with joy and mirth. Congratulations! You’ve successfully dodged a deceptively false bell curve, and settled instead for a lower tech false dichotomy. You’re not only a still sucker, but you fell for an even simpler scam. Now do you get it? The bell curve is a very advance form of lie. Even when you win, you still lose.
I have owned three Kindles, and got a Kindle Fire on day one. I didn’t realize they really gave out a free app every day on the Kindle marketplace for about the first month of Fire ownership. To a minimal level, my fears were confirmed. With this much to do on the Kindle that isn’t reading, will I continue to read at all? Nevertheless I still read. I even tried an enjoyed the lending system.
Now, I knew there were a lot of free Kindle books out there, but I didn’t readily discover a good way of finding them. There was a website, then an app with some tie in to a website, but these were cumbersome. The app took up a ton of space on the device, better spent holding free games. So, I kind of punted on the whole free book thing, only going after freebies when instructed by specific bloggers out to raise their rankings.
Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more selective of free apps. At first I grabbed everything and at least tried it. But I got more and more picky. Non-game apps were the first to go. Do people really hand their Android devices off to toddlers to finger paint on? I don’t. Is the Kindle going to succeed in motivating me to a life of exercise where my doctor failed? I don’t think so. Do I really need an interactive guide to the great battles of the Civil War?
Eventually the games started to drop off too. An art deficient word game? Well, it had better have a good gimmick. A side-scrolling bouncy moped game? Well, I’ll complete the ‘purchase’ but forgo the download for now. Another HOG? Sorry, can’t spare the space. Slot machine? One-button ninja? Match 3 again? No, no, no.
Another thing I couldn’t help but notice is that some pay-models were little more than a stupid tax. I mean really, if you can’t play this game well enough to work with the loose in-game currency system, you either have attention span of a gnat, or more money than brains. Maybe a combination of the two. Every once in a while, I would grab a free game off the top free list and the game would actually make a compelling case for me paying for more content. Then I freely did pay. But about 90 percent of the time the game either got boring before I saw any need to pay, or was enjoyable to the point where I earned enough points through normal play to enjoy it. I don’t get why people pay money just to buy their way out of actually playing the game, but apparently that’s what a lot of people do. Alternative, these pay models could be hopelessly broken and people aren’t making money off these games at all, despite the best laid plans.
This leads back to the books. Finally I found a reliable source of free books! Pixels of Link, or something like that. Up to five dispatches a day! Readable in any RSS Reader! About fifteen free books offered each and every day – a huge, yet manageable amount! Is this the El Dorado at last?
Day one, I’m a kid in a candy shop. I probably take a dozen of books. Am I selective? Absolutely not. A cookbook of non-alcoholic party drinks? Sure, I should probably cut back on the sauce. A bodice ripping yarn? Never read one of those, sure I’ll try it. A dystopian alternate history thriller? Well, If it’s too tech-wordy or historical I can always just stop reading it. 50 shades of your favorite childhood movie? Well, look what they did with the cover there, it’s worth it just for that visual. A series western? Well, that’s just like classic sci-fi only with horses instead of rockets, so it’s worth a throw. On and on I went, for about two weeks.
At first I didn’t even notice the slacking off. RSS reading is much more fun at the office, so weekends slipped first. Sure, I saw a couple of books snapped from free to the realm of $.99 or even $1.99, but I forgot about them very quickly. Plenty more fish in the sea. Now, on a Kindle Fire, the really are no practical limits as to how many books you can stash in the thing. Quite simply, in a world of gigabytes a book is sized at a number rapidly approaching zero bytes. Psychologically, it’s harder to fathom an endless pit of data storage, especially if you’ve got a few real world shelves of unread books staring at you from some corner of your home. At some point, even in the slickly organized world of the Kindle, digital clutter starts to feel real. I guess shoveling aside yesterday’s batch of free books to get back to that one game you really like to play with your morning cup of coffee starts to wear on you. But free books allow authors to move up in the Amazon rankings, and higher Amazon rankings means more exposure of the book, and more exposure of the book means more people read it, right? Sure a Kindle author might never get rich, but at least the story gets out there, right?
Last week I had several no free book days. Obviously misunderstood yobbo in grey hoodie on the cover? Pass. A story about a young girl with a supernatural…? Next. A gripping thriller taking place back in a time when…? Not today. Elves? Dwarves? Witches? No, no, no. Favorite sandwich recipes? No thanks, I typically just empty the fridge into a sandwich until it fills a plate. A coming of age drama? I already am of age, and frankly I never had much of a childhood to obsess about. A thriller from the point of view of a podiatrist? I realize your work is fascinating to you but … sorry. Vampires? Zombies? Werewolves? Not again, They peaked in the 80′s, and face it – that’s really about your dog. Volume 4 of the 12 book epic of the war between the fey and…? You don’t really expect people to casually sign up for that kind of commitment, do you? Wait! Redneck vampires? Genius zombies? Vegan werewolves? Sorry, my zany card is all full of punches already, I’ll take my free cup of normal now.
This is only my PERSONAL, race to the bottom. Your experience may be the exact opposite of mine. All told, I’ve read one and a half of my free books, spread across four actual books. I still haven’t made a batch of non-alcoholic party drinks. The rest, I haven’t even tested to see if they open. It’s not that they don’t sound great. I truly enjoyed reading the descriptions of these books, looking at the covers and making the ‘purchase.’ I went into it with the intent to discover great new authors, but somehow it just didn’t happen. Perhaps it’s true what they say about you only valuing things you have to pay for. Maybe we do have to bite the hand of charity, lest we feel diminished by the superiority of someone who can afford to give freely. In this digital land of plenty, I have gorged myself sick without even tasting the cuisine. It’s kind of like the old fable of stone soup. The free book is the stone and it makes a fine soup, but any meat, vegetables, and herbs you can add to the pot are just going to make it so much better.
It was autumn and the Indians on the remote reservation asked their new Chief if the winter was going to be cold or mild. Since he was a new Indian Chief in a modern society, he had never been taught the old secrets. When he looked at the sky, he couldn’t tell what the weather was going to be. Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, he replied to his tribe that the winter was indeed going to be cold and that the members of the village should collect wood to be prepared. Still, he worried that he might lose the respect of the tribe if he made a bad prediction. After several days he got an idea. He went to the phone booth, called the National Weather Service and asked,
“Is the coming winter going to be cold?”
“It looks like this winter is going to be quite cold indeed,” the meteorologist at the weather service responded.
So the Chief went back to his people and told them to collect even more wood in order to be prepared. A week later he called the National Weather Service again.
“Is it going to be a very cold winter?”
“Yes,” the man at National Weather Service again replied, “it’s going to be a very cold winter.”
The Chief again went back to his people and ordered them to collect every scrap of wood they could find. Two weeks later he called the National Weather Service again.
“Are you absolutely sure that the winter is going to be very cold?”
“Absolutely,” the man replied. ”It’s going to be one of the coldest winters ever.”
“How can you be so sure?” the Chief asked.
The weatherman replied, “The Indians are collecting wood like crazy!”