Signs Seen in Service Stations

It feels like most of the time I’ve spent in a car this year, so far, has been for travel related to somebody’s recent death. And so it was that yesterday, Ruth, JTA and I zipped up and down the motorway to attend the funeral of Ruth’s grandmother.

It went really well, but what I wanted to share with you today was two photos that I took at service stations along the the way.

Sign: "Alcohol purchases in this motorway service area can not be consumed inside or outside the premises."
A sign I discovered at a motorway service station.

This one confuses me a lot. If I buy alcohol from this service area, I can’t drink it either inside… or outside… the premises. Are they unlicensed, perhaps, and so the only way they’re allowed to sell us alcohol is if we promise not to drink it? Or is it perhaps the case that they expect us only to consume it when we’re in a parallel dimension?

Costa's slogan, "The Americano Addicts."
Costa have decided to cut down on graffiti by writing all over their own walls.

It’s hard to see in the second photo without clicking (to see it in large-o-vision), but the sign on the opposite wall in this Costa Coffee implies the possibility of being an “Americano Addict”. And there was something about that particular marketing tack that made me cringe.

Imagine that this was not a café but a bar, and substitute the names of coffees with the names of alcoholic beverages. Would it be cool to advertise your products to the “wine addicts” or the “beer addicts” of the world? No: because alcoholism isn’t hip and funny… but caffeine addiction is? Let’s not forget that caffiene is among the most-addictive drugs in the world. Sure, caffeine addiction won’t wreck your liver like alcohol will or give you cancer like smoking tobacco (the most-popular way to consume nicotine) will, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that there are many people for whom a dependency upon caffeine is a very real part of their everyday life.

Is it really okay to make light of this by using such a strong word as “addict” in Costa’s marketing? Even if we’re sticking with alliteration to fit in with the rest of their marketing, wouldn’t “admirer” or “aficionado” be better? And at least that way, Costa wouldn’t leave me with a bitter taste in my mouth.

All Noise, No Product

I’ve just come across a product called SonicNotify, and I’m wracking my brain to try to find a way to see it as a good idea. I’m struggling.

SonicNotify. You spray red noise into your audience, and their phones become infuriating. Or something.

The world is just coming to terms with spatial advertising and services that “link” to their mobile devices. I’ve quite enjoyed playing with QR codes, but there are plenty of other mechanisms enjoying some amount of exposure, such  as Bluejacking: in the early days of Bluetooth, some advertisers experimented with devices that would push out Bluetooth messages to anybody who strayed within range. Now that most Bluetooth devices capable of receiving such messages “switch off” Bluetooth after a couple of minutes, they need to be coupled with a visual medium that says, for example, “turn on Bluetooth to get our business card”, or something, which is slightly less insidious.

SonicNotify works by having a smartphone app that passively listens for high-frequency sound waves, which act as carriers to the marketing message. These messages can be broadcast at live events over existing PA systems, embedded in traditional media like radio or television, or transmitted from localised devices concealed in billboards or alongside products on shelves. Lady Gaga tried it out in a concert, in order to – I don’t know – distract her fans from actually listening to the music by giving them things to play with on their phones, instead.

Buy Doritos? I never would have thought of that on my own! Thanks, SonicNotify!

Let’s stop for a moment and think about everything that’s wrong with this idea:

  • I have to install a closed-source third-party app that runs in the background and keeps my microphone open at all times? We’ve got a name for that kind of device: a bug.
  • This app would presumably need to run the whole time, reducing battery lifespan and consuming clock cycles… and for what? So that I can see more advertisements?
  • Thinking about the technology – I’m not convinced that mobile phone microphones are well-equipped to be able to pick up ultrasonic waves with any accuracy, especially not once they’re muffled in a bag or trouser pocket. I can’t always even hear my phone ringing when it’s in my pocket, but it expects to be able to hear something “ringing” some distance away?
  • For that matter: television and radio speakers, and existing PA systems, aren’t really designed to be able to faithfully reproduce ultrasound, either. Why would they? A good entertainment system is one which sounds best at all of the frequencies that humans can hear. Anything else is useless.
  • And let’s not forget that different people have different hearing ranges. Thinking back to the controversies surrounding anti-youth alarm The Mosquito: do you really want to be surrounded by sharp, tinnitus-like noises just on the cusp of your ability to hear them?

No thank you, SonicNotify. I don’t think there’s mileage in this strange and quirky product idea.

Ask for What You Want

Something I’ve been thinking about, recently; presented in three parts, for clarity:

Part One – Polyamory and Negotiations

There’s a widely-understood guideline in nonmonogamous relationships that you should always be willing to ask for what you want, not what you think you can get away with. To me, it feels to be a particularly valuable maxim. Like the majority of suggestions touted by the polyamorous community, it’s a tip that holds value for both monogamous and nonmonogamous relationships… but is naturally of more importance to those which are nonmonogamous because these have a tendency to depend more-heavily on honest and open negotiation.

I’m sure I don’t have to spell out to you why asking for what you want (rather than what you think you can get away with) is important. But just in case I do, here’s the three top reasons, as far as I see it:

  1. When you ask for what you want, there’s a chance that you’ll get it. When you ask for anything else, getting what you want is a lucky coincidence. Don’t you want the chance of getting what you want?
  2. Being honest about what you want and how important it is to you – and listening to what’s your partners want and how important those things are to them – you’re in the best possible position to come to the fairest possible compromise, if the things that you want are not completely compatible. Don’t you want the best for you, your partner(s), and your relationship(s)?
  3. Being open about what you’re looking for is an important part of being honest. Don’t you want to be honest with your lover?
Polyamory networks can grow quite large, and the management of this requires honest, open communication even more than a monogamous relationship does.

There are times that it’s okay not to ask for what you want, too, though. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure what you want; and it’s fine to say you need time to think about it. Sometimes we change our minds (shocking, I know!), and it’s more-admirable to be honest than consistent. Sometimes there are more important things to deal with. There’s no rush.
But it works. The more specific you can be – even to the point of “too much information” – the better this kind of communication can work, because the better your partner understands you, the better you both can negotiate. As ‘dirty surface’ writes“I’d like to get my butt caned by a professional Dom while you watch once every six months or so” represents a very different commitment of time, money and emotional energy than what someone might picture when you say “Let’s hire and share a sex worker regularly.”

Part Two – The Anchoring Effect

There’s a known psychological phenomenon called the anchoring effect. In order to demonstrate it, I’m going to plagiarise an example used in this article – if you want to see the effect in action; don’t click that link yet! Just follow the instructions below:

  • Now: without checking – do you think that Venezuela has a higher or a lower population than that country?
  • Finally, in millions, what do you estimate that the population of Venezuela is?

You’ll get the answer a little further down the page. But first, it’s time to come clean about something: when you clicked that link to WolframAlpha, you’ll have gone to one of two different pages. There’s a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of the United Kingdom (about 62 million), and a 50% chance that you’ll have found yourself looking at the population data of Switzerland (about 7½ million).

If you originally saw the United Kingdom and you guessed lower, or you originally saw Switzerland and guessed higher, you were right: the population of Venezuela is somewhere between the two. But if we took all of the guesses by all of the people who correctly guessed lower than the United Kingdom, and all the people who correctly guessed higher than Switzerland, then – statistically speaking – we’d probably see that the people who looked at the United Kingdom first would make higher guesses as to the population of Venezuela than those people who looked at Switzerland first.

The population of Venezuela’s about 29 million people. What did you guess? And what country were you shown first, when you clicked the link? Leave me a comment and let me know…

The anchoring effect is explored in detail by Ariely, Loewenstein, and Prelec 2004, in which studies are performed on groups of people who are told a (randomly-determined) price for some goods, and then asked to state how much they’d be willing to pay for them: those people who are given higher random values will consistently offer more money for the goods than those who were told a lower value.

It’s not a new idea. For hundreds of years, at least, salespeople have practiced the not-dissimilar door-in-the-face technique (sort-of the opposite of the more well-known foot-in-the-door technique), in which an unsatisfactory offer is made first in order to make the second offer – which is actually what the salesperson wants to sell – seem more desirable than it actually is.

Part Three – Hey, But That Means…

Taking the two previous parts of this article at face value can quickly lead to an unwelcome conclusion: we’re more likely to get what we want when we ask for more than what we want – and then back down to a false compromise position. A greedy but carefully-deployed “salesman” approach has been shown to work wonders when you’re negotiating for a pay rise, selling a product, motivating volunteers, or getting people to under- or over-estimate the value of goods and services. Surely it’d work when negotiating in a relationship, too?

“Hey, honey: it’d really mean a lot to me if I could could have a threesome with you and your mother…”

“What? No way! That’s disgusting.”

“Okay, okay, then… I suppose I could make do with having sex with your sister.”

Despite the extremity of the example above, the answer is that for the individual, this strategy can work: I’ve known people who’ve fallen victim to exactly this kind of con. Worse yet, I suspect that there are perpetrators of this kind of strategy who don’t even realise that they’re doing it: they’re just responding in the Pavlovian style to the “rewards” that they’re getting by continuing to act in what it – let’s face it – an unscrupulous and unethical manner.

Does it work, then? Yes, more’s the pity. But everything it gets for you is something that it’s taking away from your partner, or from your relationship. And maybe that’s the kind of strain that the relationship can take, but there are always limits.

Me? I’ll stick to what I believe in: so far as I can, putting my hand on the table and saying, “Here’s what I’m playing with: what’ve you got?” It’s a trusting and diplomatic strategy, but it’s the best solution to finding the best middle-ground for everyone. There are those who find that it makes them feel too vulnerable – at too much risk of their openness being used against them – to try to say what they want so openly. And to them, I say: if you don’t trust your lover with the way that you feel, then working on that trust that should be your first priority.

Now get on with loving one another, y’all!


Just when I think that I’ve gotten the hang of humans, they do something even stranger than ever before.

There’s a new fragrance for men that’s about to be hitting perfume counters around Europe: Vulva Original [NSFW]. Just… click the link, and watch the video that appears. Your first thought will almost certainly be: “They’re selling a perfume… that smells like sweaty vagina?”

Continue to explore into  the site and you’ll see that this is exactly what this product is.

I agree with Alex Day: unlike every other fragrance ever marketed at men, this perfume isn’t about trying to attract women (well duh: I’m pretty sure that walking around smelling like a vagoo will only attract a particular kind of woman, and it’s not the kind that’ll be interested in you as a man)… this product can only be targeted at men who just want to be able to sniff the back of their hand in a crowded elevator and pretend that they’re nose-deep in pussy.

That’s probably a fetish in itself.

Open-Source Shaving

Recently I saw a Basic Instructions comic in which the author/protagonist, Scott, weighs up his shaving options. You can read the full comic here, assuming you don’t read Basic Instructions already (and you should).

As the folks leaving comments on that comic quite rightly note, the comic covers only two of a number of different solutions to shaving: disposable razors, and cartridge razors, neglecting at least three other alternatives (even if you don’t count “just let it grow” as an option). Thanks in part of many of these comments, he’s now going to experiment with a few different options.

I’ve tried more different approaches than most gents, I suspect, so I thought I’d share with you a brief history of my shaving experience:

Electric Shaver

Surely I can’t be the only person who’s found these to be quite so useless as they appear. I’ve owned two in my time: a basic one that my dad gave me during my teen years in lieu of the iconic father-son bonding experience that I’m lead to believe that many other boys found in learning to shave from their dads; and a second, more-fancy one given to me in a gift box which also contained other male grooming tools (some of which are actually really quite useful: it’s just a pity that the shaver itself isn’t up to much).

I don’t hear anybody else complaining, so I’m probably in a minority: perhaps it’s the the softness of my skin… or the prickliness of my hair… or maybe I’m just “doing it wrong.” The net result is much the same: if I use an electric shaver it cuts my facial hair down just enough to still be slightly stubbly, it’s near-impossible to make a good effort of the area under my jaw, and there isn’t the control to be able to work around the outlines of a partial beard, as I have nowadays. Perhaps worse yet, it always feels like they “pluck” almost as much as they “cut”. The first few times I used one I took it apart to try to work out if I’d perhaps missed a crucial set-up step, like pulling out some kind of secret pin that actually engaged the razor blades. I hadn’t.

Disposable Razors

So I ended up using disposable razors. They’re cheap and simple and they work, right? They’re not the easiest things in the world, with their flimsy little plasticky handles and their strange shape… Although there is the fact that they’re not actually very sharp.

You know how they say that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade than a sharp one, because of the increased pressure you have to use? Well there’s a limit to that logic, and the limit is when the blade is so dull that you’d be hard-pressed to cut yourself if you were trying. I don’t know if it’s an anti-suicide measure by the Bic company, but wow are their blades ineffective. Sometimes you feel like you’d be better using the edge of the shitty plastic handle than the metal blade edge.

Cartridge Safety Razor

One day, back in in my first year at University, an unexpected parcel arrived for me. It turned out to be from Gillette, and contained a Gillette Mach3 (which had been launched a year-and-a-bit earlier). Their thinking, of course, was that as they’d given me a free razor I’d use it and then continue to buy the blades. “The fools,” I thought, “I’m perfectly happy with my twice-a-week-if-I-can-be-bothered shaves with these throwaway plasic things!” I planned to use the new razor ’til I’d blunted (all three of) it’s blades, then I’d just throw it away. No problem.

It turns out that giving away free razors like this might have been one of the smartest marketing promotions that Gillette has ever done, because, for me at least, it worked. A three-blade cartridge razor is a fabulous way to shave, and it’s a huge improvement on disposables. I’m sure that over the nine years or so I used my Mach3 – even if you don’t count the extra one I bought when I lost one – Gillette more-than made their money back in all of the cartridges I bought.

It’s got a proper handle with grips that work even when it’s wet, a funky button-release to let go of spent cartridges (and for me, at least, the blades would last a reasonable amount of time, presumably aided by the fact that the work was shared amongst three cutting surfaces), it tilts gently to work around hard-to-reach spots… it’s just a really well-designed bit of technology.

Traditional “Double-Edged” Safety Razor

Back in the early years of the 20th century, the removable-blade safety razor appeared to fill the demand for a razor that was easier than straight razors, which required such care and attention to both use and maintenance that many men just said “fuck it” and went to the barber’s instead. For decades, the double-edged razor was king, until it started to give way in the 1970s to cartridge razors and electric shavers. There are two major reasons for this change: firstly, cartridge razors are easier to use than double-edged razors – you can use them even if you’re tired, or drunk, or stupid. Secondly, cartridge razors (and, to a lesser extent, except approaching Christmas, electric shavers) have been very heavily marketed for years and years: this makes sense from the perspective of the manufacturer, because of the principle of vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in, more often discussed in the context of electronic goods and computer software, is about forcing the users of your product to continue to use your product: to remove from them the freedom to go elsewhere. It’s particularly obvious in the marketplace of cartridge razors, because each manufacturer can manufacture blade cartridges which fit only it’s own products. An entire marketing strategy, the razor-and-blades business model, is named after this approach.

At the tail end of this hundred-year history of razors is now, 2009. I’ve gotten good use out of my Mach3, but there are a few things over the last year or so that have really put me off continuing to use it:

  • Actual good-old Mach3 blades became harder and harder to find as the manufacturer began to focus production on Mach3 Turbo and M3Power cartridges, both of which cost more.
  • Mach3 Turbo is basically the same thing as Mach3, only a little more expensive for the privilege of “anti-friction blades”, which seems like a marketing gimmick – I certainly can’t tell the difference, and if there’s anything to learn from this blog post it’s that I’m reasonably picky
  • M3Power blades are identical to Mach3 Turbo, only more expensive still(!). What do you get for your money is “even more lubrication” (yeah, right) and blades that are compatible with the micropulse (i.e. vibrating) feature of the M3Power handle, which virtually everybody says is a scam.
  • Seriously, the marketing is bullshit. It was proven in court.
  • As the Onion predicted back in 2004, we’re starting to see the first five-blade razors getting serious marketing treatment: the “Gillette Fusion Power Stealth” (presumably targeted at men who like awesome-sounding buzzwords: seriously, what do any of those words have to do with removing hair?) have five blades and a sixth “precision trimmer”. That’s six blades every time you buy a cartridge: how much does that cost? I don’t even want to know. And someday, they’ll stop selling Mach3 blades entirely and they’ll try to force me to switch to an even more profitable razor, probably with seven blades and a lubricating, vibrating strip that sings the blues.
  • Gillette’s razor blades are sold at 4750% profit. Four fucking thousand seven fucking hundred and fifty fucking per cent. That’s like me going to Sainsburys and buying a loaf of bread (85p), a small pack of margarine (44p), and a medium-sized pack of cooked ham (£1.64), making ten ham sandwiches, and then selling them for £14 each. For a ham sandwich. £14.

So, a month and a bit ago, I decided to escape from this trap, and go open-source with an old-school double-edged razor.

Going Open Source

Sick of the marketing nonsense and the overinflated (and rising) costs of cartridges, I bought myself a traditional style safety razor (it looks a lot like the one in the photo in the last section), brush, soap, and a sackload of blades: and wow, blades are cheap.

It turns out that learning to use a double-edged safety razor is just a little bit like learning to shave all over again, with plenty of opportunity for self-injury along the way: although it doesn’t take so long – despite managing to clip myself the first few times I used it (nothing that a quick application of titanium dioxide couldn’t fix, albeit in an ouchy-ouchy way). It also takes quite a bit longer than shaving with a cartridge razor: rather than the eight minutes or so I’d spend shaving with my Mach3, I spend about 18 minutes in the bathroom with my double-edged safety razor. That’s not the end of the world, because I only bother to shave about one day in three anyway, and adding ten minutes to the time it takes to do something so infrequent isn’t going to kill me.

It’s actually remarkably good for the extra time it takes, though: I’m suddenly all remarkably-smooth, having shaved with this scary-looking implement: better than I’d ever managed with a cartridge or with a disposable, and far, far better than I ever got out of an electric.

So: cheap as chips to get blades for, and a better shave, at the expense of taking longer to actually have a shave. It’s a good deal in my book, and I’d recommend giving it a try, gents, if you haven’t already. Plus, you get the same kind of fuzzy feeling you get from using Linux or because it’s just a little bit more like using something that’s genuinely free of vendor lock-in.

Plus, it looks cool.

(I’m considering trying a proper straight razor at some point – or, more likely, one which takes snapped razor-blades in an injector, because I don’t particularly feel like having to learn how to sharpen and hone a true razor – anybody got any experience of them?)

Monday Morning

Another new week. I’m surprisingly jolly about it. Spent the morning so far discussing corporate image with my boss.

[quiz results removed]

Gotta love Mondays.

I won at Mario Party 4 again last night. But Claire didn’t come second… she came third, beaten to it by Paul. You’d think she’d be pleased. But no.

She kicked all our asses in a Flag Rally at Cel Damage, though. D’oh!