society

Recommendations And Looking For The Group

We all know that Netflix and Amazon use ratings to make recommendations.

Recommendations tap into the force that the public relations counsel Edward Bernays wrote about in the 1920s in his book Propaganda, through to what Chris Anderson wrote about in his 2006 book, The Long Tail.

That is, that we look to others whom we respect to guide us to what we want. Therefore what we want is often a product of the groups with which we want to identify.

Opinion leaders, peer recommendation, group identification, tribes, niche markets, the wisdom of crowds – recommendations and ratings are the life blood of all of them.

Google depends on it, Amazon thrives on it.

There is more going on than simple numbers when I read that 900 people on Amazon have all rated a particular camera highly.

I am swayed by the numbers because I attribute characteristics to a significant majority of those people.

I assume that a significant proportion are familiar with cameras and are level-headed and intelligent. In fact they may all be complete idiots who only take occasional happy-snaps.

I don’t read all 900 reviews, nor even a significant sample. Instead, I distill those reviewers into a mirror image of the reviewer I want to be convinced by.

Chris Anderson makes an interesting point in The Long Tail when he points out a problem that eBay has.

eBay wants to recommend products to us, but the users define their own products when they write their ads. So eBay simply does not know what it is selling. Therefore it cannot recommend the products for which it acts as middleman.

It’s a plausible explanation for why eBay has started to specify criteria and characteristics that sellers must use for certain branded products – such as cameras.

Edward Bernays
Edward Bernays set himself up as a propaganda consultant – or public relations counsel as he described himself in Propaganda, the book he wrote in 1928.

He was Freud’s nephew and because he was well connected he had access to the industrialists of the 1920s – with whom he found common ground.

Having seen the slaughter of the First World War he believed that the majority of human beings had to be controlled and that without something to divert them they would, if given any excuse, tear each other limb from limb.

He believed that men follow leaders and that their sense of identity and identification with the leaders and the groups was generally more important than the underlying truth or falsity of what they believed as individuals.

Sometimes, without the group mind the individual was lost.

Bernays believed that as a consequence, men would often rather sacrifice the truth than lose the fellowship of the group.

Therein lies the power of ratings and recommendations. The individual is not looking for the best book, film, or whatever. He or she is looking for the group.

Whoa! But not me. (say we all).

society

Being A Fool When Everyone Is Smart

I was thinking about the film A Serious Man, made by the Coen brothers. The film is unusual because it begins with a short film shot in sepia about a poor Jewish couple in nineteenth century Russia who are visited by a dybbuk (a malicious spirit) that has inhabited the body of a recently deceased rabbi.

The wife is fearful and practical. The husband is ambivalent and hesitant. There is not much to a story but the nub of the story is that the wife is certain that she and her husband will be visited by more bad luck.

Then we segue into the main film A Serious Man about a man who watches his life fall apart around him. Set in the present day, the main protagonist is a middle-aged man, a lecturer at a college somewhere on the East Coast of the U.S. – an intelligent man with a responsible job.

His wife is having an affair right under his nose. Now she tells him she is leaving with her lover.

His daughter ignores and derides him. His son, who is soon to be bar-mitzvah’d, seems to be in a world of his own. His boss at work is enigmatic and disconcerting. His wife’s new boyfriend patronises him.

In the middle of all of this one of his students tries to bribe him to change his grade on a paper. The hero refuses to take the bribe. The student threatens him. The hero talks to the father of the student and the father also threatens him.

Still our hero refuses. He will not take a bribe.

And then he looks around and everything seems to tell him that the smart money is on the people who have no conscience. They prosper.

The student comes to see him again. Sitting in his office, and after saying no, no, no, repeatedly, he gives in and says yes and takes the bribe.

He wants to be seen. He wants to be heard. Taking the bribe is payback time for the pain of being left behind and ignored.

Taking the bribe makes him feel like he joined the human race.

And immediately after the student departs, the phone rings and it is his doctor saying he should come in right away to discuss the results of his latest tests.

Right there he sees the punishment for his sin of accepting the bribe. His life has immediately changed for the worse and he will probably die.

When Bad Things Happen To Good People

He is basically a good man. He has a moral conscience. He tries to do right. He falters and does something he knows he should not.

And this is his reward! That he should be struck down with a serious illness and probably die!

How can this be fair when there are people who do much worse things and don’t suffer any consequences?

They even prosper!

What Is The Answer

Let me ask you something. When you read this sub-heading ‘What Is The Answer’, did you wonder what the answer was? I bet you did. I would. We are all going around in smaller or bigger circles. We think we have it sorted out. We know what is right and wrong, but still…

The protagonist in A Serious Man is Jewish and so are the film’s directors – so it seems fitting to examine the question from the point of view of the touchstone of their beliefs.

There is a thread in the Jewish tradition that teaches that the inclination to do evil is a strange beast. For a man who does what he wants without a thought as to whether it is right or wrong, the inclination to do evil has no work to do and so it becomes lazy, and weak.

But with a man who is striving to do good, the inclination to do evil is really stretched. It is in tip-top condition, so it waits for its moment, and then it slips in and does its work.

And the nearer that a man gets to being a good man, the finer the balance and the greater the consequences for doing a bad thing.

That same thing if done by a bad man will not bring about serious consequences or perhaps even any consequences at all.

Whether this is all true of course, is another question, but we can at least accept that there is logic in the system of thought that holds it together. It is not crazy and illogical, at least.

Of course, a person may accept all this and conclude he can be really bad. Then the chances are that he will get away with just about anything without serious consequences. At least he will do not worse than someone trying to do good.

Way to go!

And that is really the test, isn’t it? – whether one can be a fool when everyone around you is being smart.

personal

A Long Jetty In The San Blas Islands

Some years ago I stayed a night as a paying guest in a house on the San Blas Islands.

The San Blas Islands are a group of semi-autonomous islands off the coast of Panama.

So, I had part of a room and it was curtained off from another part where one of the members of the family slept.

The owner of the house took me through the rules of the house and pointed out to me a very small key that was hanging on a nail on the wall. He explained that it was the key to the toilet.

Then he took me outside and pointed to the toilet in question.

It was on a jetty – a rickety wooden jetty that stretched out into the sea and ended at a little sentry box way above the sea at the far end of the jetty.

The light was fading quickly and I didn’t want to make my way out over to the toilet in the dark, so I set out with the key in my hand and walked along the jetty, conscious of how quickly night was falling.

I fumbled with the lock and put the key carefully in my shorts.

I am not sure what I was expecting when I opened the door, but the toilet was just a hole in the floor.

That was fine with me, but I was conscious of the little key in my pocket as I crouched down.

I crouched there for a while, all the time conscious of the key. I didn’t want to lose it, so I stood up carefully – making sure that there was no chance the key would fall out of the pocket of my shorts.

I closed the lock and then started laughing quietly to myself and continued laughing all the way back to the room.

I left the next morning and I didn’t ask the owner of the house the question that was on my mind.

I didn’t because I didn’t want to risk insulting him. He obviously thought the key was important.

But the toilet was just a hole in the floor, so why the key and the lock?

It seemed hard to believe that someone would claim exclusivity over a hole in the floor high over the sea.

What was he guarding? Did his neighbours go out in the small hours and use his toilet and deny him the opportunity to use it when he wanted?

These are questions to which I will never know the answer, but I can enjoy the memory.

personal

When I Gave Away A Hammock In South America

With three others that I met in Santa Marta we set out to the lost city and hiked for ten days. We went on our own, without a guide.

The hillsides were covered in mud. At every stream I took off my T shirt and ran it in the water to rinse off the sweat. We all looked unkempt, sweaty, legs caked in mud.

I remember seeing an Arawak Indian coming down the trail. He was dressed in white and looked like he was out for a casual stroll, and immaculate.

I fell in love with the light filtering through the huge trees. I can picture a stream broken into several streams and trees spread out around and sunlight piercing it all.

I bought a hammock for the trip. And at the end of the trip I had a hammock that I no longer needed.

I had a thing about keeping weight to a minimum, so I decided to give the hammock away to someone who had some ‘get up and go’ about him or her.

There were plenty of kids without any get up and go. You could see them any time you looked – curled up asleep on the streets with empty plastic bags clutched in their hands from where they had been sniffing glue.

So I decided to give my hammock away and I walked down the street in Santa Marta and I saw a young boy, maybe ten or eleven.

He finished shining shoes and started walking on purposefully to wherever he was going.

He was coming towards me and when he got near I mimed to him that I wanted to give him the hammock.

We exchanged looks and he held out one arm to scoop the hammock. He nodded a thank you as he kept on walking, not stopping to break his stride.

Maybe people gave him things every day. Maybe he was completely used to accepting gifts. Maybe.

If not, then he was very quick witted to size everything up in a second and accept my gift without hesitation.

And I felt like I had made good use of the opportunity to give something away.

web

This Is How To Improve Your Site Speed With Two Plugins

Site speed is good but speed isn’t everything everywhere. Speed is definitely not everything when, for example, contemplating beauty. But having to crank through slow pages on a website is one of those times when speed is a definite plus.

Disclaimer: I am not a developer, and everything I am writing here is information I have got from WordPress developers and then applied and tested.

I joined a local WordPress MeetUp group here in Edinburgh, and this article is based on the suggestions from Kathir Vel, a developer, who gave a talk about how to improve your site speed.

So, with that said, what I am describing here is not fancy or difficult. It will work with most web hosts and straightforward cPanel shared hosting.

And it uses plugins from the WordPress repository.

The two plugins are:

    WP Performance Score Booster

    Autoptimize

WP Performance Score Booster

WP Performance Score Booster removes any query strings from static resources like CSS & JavaScript files, enables GZIP compression, and sets expires caching.

Once you have activated the plugin, just check the two boxes and it will do its job. For it to work it assumes that you are on an Apache web server, that GZIP compression is enabled, and that you have write permission to the .htaccess file – all of which are pretty normal for most hosting packages.

Autoptimize

Autoptimize aggregates and minimises JavaScript, CSS and HTML. There are three check boxes. One is for CSS, another for HTML, and the third for Javascript.

As Stephen Harris, a developer in the WordPress group, explained: Other plug-ins on on your site may have compressed versions of their javascript files which they use to help reduce the plug-in’s footprint. Auto-optimising twice can lead to errors which you only discover by testing your site.

For that reason I did not check off the javascript box when I ran the plugin.

Do they work? Well as in many things ‘If you can’t test it, it doesn’t exist’ – so the three tools to test this with are:

GTMetrix
Pingdom
Google Pagespeed Insights

Google’s pagespeed test also tests for performance on mobile, and in fact that is the tab that comes up first when you test. So you will need to tab across to ‘Desktop’ to get those results.

If your site is not mobile optimised you will get a lousy mobile score whatever the speed is. Many sites are now mobile optimised, so hopefully this issue won’t apply to your site.

Pingdom offers a range of locations from which to test from. You can test from the USA, Australia, or Europe. You choose the location by clicking ‘settings’ just below where you input your URL. If you don’t choose a location it will default to a US server.

Which location should you choose? If your site targets an audience in a specific part of the world, use that. If your audience is worldwide, choose either where your server is located or where the majority of your audience is located.

The reason for choosing a test server near your own web host’s server is simply because it cuts down the distance the test server has to go to reach your host’s server.

One word of caution about Pingdom’s results: I have run tests on GTMetrix and PageSpeedInsights over and over and get very consistent results. That is not so with Pingdom. I don’t know why, but results do vary even when repeating a test after only a few seconds. That said, the results generally only vary over a narrow-ish range, so still well worth testing.

For your own benefit, it’s important to have a before-and-after snapshot. So before you install and activate the plugins, run all three of these tools with the site you are going to speed up.

Take a screen grab or make a note of the results so that you can compare the before and after results.

nomorepencils-gtmetrix-results

To give you an idea of what you can expect, here is a screen grab of the results of a test for this site according to GTMetrix.

This site is nothing fancy – a blog with ten plugins. I am not using any kind of caching plugin and the site is on shared hosting with a server based in the UK.

The GTMetrix servers are locate in Canada and I would expect to shave a bit of time off the page load time if GTMetrix had a UK server.

Update – A Third Plugin

As a final piece of the jigsaw I installed WP Super Cache. It’s made by Automattic, so the code should be good. Again, it’s a plugin that was recommended by Kathir Vel in the talk he gave.

So let’s see what GTMetrix says about the site now:

nomorepencils-after-installing-wp-super-cache

As you can see, the size of the page and number of calls to the database has gone up slightly because the new plugin is installed. But look at the page load time. Now it is down to 2 seconds. 🙂