Archive for May, 2020

By any other name

This just in: the world is still batshit crazy. Back to you, Colleen.

And now let’s talk about me. Probably close to a year ago now, I had an experience that I knew in the moment would be a classic story to tell my friends and family. Many have already heard it, and they’re the only ones who read this, so I’m pretty much getting this down for posterity I suppose.

I was overseeing a team in another state, and a new second-in-command was hired named…Peter. I joked to his boss that “new Peter” would have a lot to live up to sharing a name with me, and he said that the new hire actually went by Pete, so that should minimize the confusion.

The following weekend, there was some issue and we had a bunch of emails going back and forth. One person asked IT if they could share a document “with Peter” so we were all looking at the same thing. Minutes later, I got an email giving me access to something I already had. I wrote back, “Thanks. I think they might’ve been talking about Pete(r) Lastname and not me.” He wrote back apologizing for the error, and I said, “No problem at all – maybe we can get him to go exclusively by Pete.” That was it.

Monday morning came, and someone higher up in IT walked up to my desk. “I heard we had Petergate over the weekend,” he said. “What?” I asked, with genuine surprise. “Yeah, apparently you were upset that they messed up and confused you and the other Peter.” “No!” I said, “I wasn’t upset at all!” He started scrolling through messages and then read aloud, “Peter K. is concerned that confidential information might get sent to the wrong person-” I cut him off: “I’m not concerned about that! I didn’t say anything about that at all. I just said that I thought they had the wrong person!” I couldn’t believe how quickly my note had been twisted and misinterpreted, and that made me much more exasperated than normal. But wait, there’s more (and this requires a new paragraph).

“Well, we’re fixing it,” the IT guy said. “Ok,” I said, taking a breath. “Yeah, he’s just going to go by his middle name Joseph now.” And that’s when I became the monster they already thought I was. “WHAT?! No – absolutely not. We can’t make this guy change his name just because we sent one email to the wrong person. I’m not concerned about this at all! Please stop that happening right away.” “Well, they already created a new email address for him this morning, and he was totally ok with it,” he said. “Of course he said he’s ok with it, but I’m not. Please change this back. We can handle this. Call me ‘Los Angeles Peter’ or ‘Peter K.’ or whatever, but this is absurd. We have two (insert common name)s in IT and manage to function still. We can’t change this poor guy’s name.” “Ok, I’ll tell them to change his name and email back.” “Thank you,” I said, “I can see the negative review online now – ‘The boss in Los Angeles couldn’t handle someone having the same name as him so he made me go by my middle name’ – I’d sound like such a tyrant, and I’m not actually worried about his name at all!” When the dust settled, his name was changed back to his real first name, and I wrote him apologizing for the overreaction and subsequent correction to the overreaction. All was well.

A couple of months later, it was time to prepare bonuses for everyone. I had a spreadsheet from HR with all of my team’s names, salaries, bonuses from the previous year, and placeholder amounts for that year. It was the end of the day, and I wanted to email the spreadsheet to myself so I had it handy. Just before hitting send, I noticed that I’d accidentally put the other Peter’s email address in (after typing “p-e-t” and accepting the first thing that popped up). I quickly changed that up and thought, “Well shit, that would’ve been a big problem. Maybe I should start going by Todd.”

Marketing for 200, Alex

Hello again, the 3-5 people who read this. I hope you’re all doing well, though texting you to really find out would probably be easier. I should try that.

Two things for you today. First, I was washing my face in the shower and noting how big my beard has gotten. I wondered, “Should I use my normal face soap or switch to shampoo since it’s actually a sizable amount of hair now?” I was making cases for both in my head, but thought shampooing my beard just seemed too weird. Later, I searched on ye olde Google and saw listing after listing for…beard wash. Of course. Why would either soap or shampoo be good enough when you can create a new category and sell us additional products? A quick search of “beard wash” on Amazon brought up 868 results. To be fair, some are other beard-related products, but there’s plenty of beard wash and, of course, beard conditioner to follow up with. I’ll stick to my face soap for now, though I have tried some beard oil post-shower to soften it a little and it might actually work, so who the fuck knows? Seems like a marketing gimmick, but I suppose that doesn’t automatically mean that it doesn’t also work.

Speaking of marketing, I’ve been working in that industry for 15 years now. So I’ve seen a lot when it comes to ways to highlight benefits, and I keep an eye out for those things as a consumer too. I’ll never forget when companies started plastering “Fat Free!” on things that never would’ve had it in the first place, like fruit snacks. But one caught my eye and got my goat this past week. We have a box of Honey Nut Cheerios at our house. I’ve tried several times to insert the picture I took of it, but apparently that’s a step too difficult for me to manage. So I’ll describe it instead: just more than halfway down the front of the box is a big red ribbon-style banner that reads in all-caps, “Can help LOWER CHOLESTEROL* as part of a heart healthy diet.” The “lower cholesterol” font is larger and nearly as big as the words “Honey Nut” in the product name, so between that and the way the red banner stands out, it’s very visible (and intentionally so).

And then beneath that, in a much smaller font and harder to read on a yellow background, is the part that the asterisk after CHOLESTEROL was referring to. Ahem: “Three grams of soluble fiber daily from whole grain oat foods, like Honey Nut Cheerios cereal, in a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart disease. Honey Nut Cheerios cereal provides .75 grams per serving.”

So let me get this straight. Their big and bold claim about how their food can potentially help lower cholesterol has some pretty fucking big caveats. First, it needs to already be a part of a healthy diet with low fat and cholesterol. That’s like saying something will help you lose weight if you’re already dieting and exercising. Second, those “maybe benefits” (maybenefits?) only come into play if you have 4 servings a day. I do like that they decreased attention to that by having them at the opposite ends of the text. And writing “three” instead of “3” and “.75” instead of “0.75” are nice touches too. You know what else you get from 4 servings of the cereal? 96% of your recommended daily amount of sugar and 36% of the sodium to boot. That’s quite a trade-off for some some maybenefits.

Two quick stories came to mind when writing about this. The first is a little X-rated, but you’ll be fine. An old co-worker once told me about a female pleasure cream that his former company sold back in the very early days of the internet where nothing was regulated. He said it was just a normal cream with no special properties, but in the instructions it said to “apply by rubbing the cream into the desired area 50 times in a circular motion,” so he felt like they legally covered themselves enough. Classy.

The other story involves the last company I worked for. We were about to start selling a new and improved formula of a popular product. I was in a meeting and looking at the new marketing materials, and I said, “Is it really 5 times more effective than the last version?” The head of the product development team turned to me and said, “No. It’s actually 23 times more effective, but that number is too unbelievable to consumers so we’re lowering it. We thought about just saying ‘twice as effective’ since ‘twice’ is a powerful word.” That blew my mind, but I also understood it at the same time. You don’t want to cross into “too good to be true” territory, and though I can’t really explain it, “twice as effective” might make me more likely to buy than “5 times.” Weird stuff, but I can’t help but love it.

That’s it for today. I hope everyone enjoys their long weekend, and make sure you mix in some NO FAT! NO CHOLESTEROL! foods like carrots and bottled water.

Lost in (a lack of) translation

Hello, and welcome back to things I thought and chose to wrote about. For example, oatmeal is really more of an oatsnack, ya know? Thank you, you’ve been great.

Quick story for today: with everything going on in the world and our lives, I haven’t really felt like watching any serious dramas on tv. My lovely wife and I don’t have too many shows we watch without our kids, but enough that episodes are usually there when we want them. We might still have a couple “Grace and Frankie” episodes left when the mood strikes, but we completed all of “Schitt’s Creek” and are waiting for the next absurdly-inappropriate “Big Mouth” season to begin.

So the time was right to look around Netflix and Amazon Prime to see if anything caught my fancy or tickled my eye. Lo and behold, my eye was tickled. I saw that Phoebe Wallers-Bridge (of “Fleabag” fame, which we thoroughly enjoyed) had a previous show that she wrote and co-starred in called “Crashing.” (Note: there’s a different U.S. show of the same name, so this is often referred to as “Crashing U.K.” online.) It had only one season with six episodes, and all of them were under half an hour. Totally worth giving it a shot for an episode or two because of what we’d seen from her before.

So we watched the first episode and it was…good. I added ellipses because it was a slightly complicated “good.” I could tell that in that brief episode, the characters were well-written, I wanted to learn more about them and their world, there was humor, and there was some really solid storytelling. But I didn’t love it off the bat and was able to pretty quickly put my finger on why. “I think we should watch the next one with subtitles,” I told my lovely wife. She immediately and enthusiastically agreed.

Here’s the thing: not to brag, but I speak English pretty good. I even understand British English most of the time (except for when my British co-worker either ordered a box of S’mores or Samoas from my daughter and I had to ask her to point to which one because they sounded exactly the same – try it!). But this particular British was fast, witty, and with some Aaron Sorkin-esque banter at times that we just weren’t picking up. Add to that a French character who had some French sentences thrown in there that we couldn’t tell if we were supposed to understand or not.

So we watched the rest of the episodes with English subtitles on, and the show is great. We were sad when it ended because we would watch several seasons of it and follow those storylines wherever Ms. Waller-Bridge’s very capable mind took us, but she moved on. And now that I’ve accepted the fact that I might need English subtitles for a show in English, I added a handful of other shows to my queue to check out in the same way. I’m excited by this, because I could see it leading to me eventually transitioning to non-English-language shows with subtitles and open up all sorts of possibilities, ya know, in all my free time.

That’s it for now. Just wanted to share a show you may be interested in along with the warning/suggestion that you might need help understanding your native tongue. There’s probably a deep lesson in there somewhere and a parallel I could draw to listening vs. understanding and how we can be speaking the same language but missing the real connection because we need to work on finding the right tools to allow the message to really hit home, but I think I’ll have another cup of coffee instead.

A puzzling decision

Good morning, and Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there. I hope your day manages to stand out as special despite all the sameness we keep experiencing on a daily basis.

So last week, I got on a video conference as I now do multiple times a day. When the other party joined, the first thing he said was, “Hey, nice quarantine beard!” Normally I’d say that I have further proof that my beard is making me look noticeably different, but here’s the thing: I’d never met this guy before. He has no idea what I looked like a month or two ago but my face still screamed “quarantine beard” enough that led with it. Maybe it’s more like, “There’s no way he’d normally go around looking like that.” Either way, a risk on his part since he had literally no data to go off, but he was right.

That’s not why I’m here today though. I feel like I’ve definitely shared this story in writing somewhere but can’t find it on this blog, so I guess I haven’t since I only write things here. As probably everyone reading this knows, I’m a big fan of crossword puzzles. It’s in my blood from my mother, and I get a lot of joy from correctly filing in those boxes. I have the New York Times puzzle app on my phone and do them all the time and love it. Back when things were normal, I would travel every two months or so to visit another site for work. As soon as I’d sit on the plane, I’d pull out the in-flight magazine and try to complete the puzzle before the wheels were off the ground, and I always succeeded. (In truth, most of that is because I’m on there the moment I’m allowed and everything takes so long with the announcements that I have a good amount of time). My coworkers have made fun of me for getting excited when our trip out there is at the end of one month and the trip back is in another since that means we’ll have a new magazine and puzzle, but they can go fuck themselves.

In any case, a few years back I flew up to the Bay Area for my cousin’s bar mitzvah. It’s a quick flight, and I decided I would go there and back on the same day. I’ve done that with one-day conferences to Las Vegas before and it’s not bad at all when the flights are so short. I wore a suit and brought a pen in my inside jacket pocket so I could do the puzzle, which I did before we took off. (And it felt great as always to fill in that last box. Ahhh.)

That afternoon, I got on the plane again and saw the same magazine issue as before. I had a funny (to me) thought: “What if I nonchalantly do this puzzle again in record time and make people around me think I’m some sort of genius?” I saw no downside. I took it out, flipped to the page, pretended to consider it for a few seconds, then took out my pen and went to work. I paused and looked up a couple of times (a la Doogie Howser – my brother knows what I’m talking about at least), but went pretty much non-stop through it all. Then when I was done, I looked it over and nodded as if to say, “Yep, I just did that without really trying and I guess my work is done here,” then put it back in the seat pocket in front of me. I had no idea if anyone was watching – and why would they? – but I chuckled to myself over my ridiculous behavior.

We took off, and I sat back and listened to a podcast or music for a few minutes before something very unexpected happened: a tap. Not just any tap – a tap with a newspaper. I was in the aisle seat on the left side of the plane, and I turned back to see the woman in the right aisle seat one row back offering me a newspaper section opened to the crossword puzzle. “Oh, thank you!” I said aloud as I took it from her. But inside I was thinking some combination of shits and fucks. She’d seen my stupid act, bought it, and was now asking the puzzle genius to perform on command. Shits and fucks, my friends.

I quickly sized up my options. I could make a show of putting it in my bag, saying thank you again, and then closing my eyes and pretending to sleep for the rest of the short flight. I could try doing the puzzle but know that it would be slower than the first and I might disappoint my only fan. Or I could double down and do it super quickly…with random letters in the boxes and a satisfied nod at the end. That last one seemed too risky…and possibly a tad insane. So I went with option two and started doing the puzzle.

I was making progress, but I also purposely checked my phone a few times and changed what I was listening to as a way of showing that I wasn’t 100% focused on the puzzle. I have no idea if she was watching any of this of course since she was behind me, but she watched me complete the puzzle before, so it was possible. Thankfully I was able to complete the puzzle and it wasn’t one of those super hard ones with all 9-letter clues with proper noun answers I’ve never heard of. It wasn’t lightning quick and may have let my fan down, but I lifted it a little when I was done, nodded at it, and then went back to my music while my heart rate went back to normal. At the end of the flight, I thanked her again and prayed she wasn’t going to ask me any questions or hand me another puzzle. She didn’t, so prayer obviously works.

That’s my story. I did something kinda stupid for no reason, got caught, and had to try replicating it on the spot. I lived through it and did such a poor job learning my lesson that I’ve done the same thing coming back from work trips when I return in the same month. I don’t know why, but I haven’t been handed any other puzzles from strangers. Oh I know why – because something’s wrong with me. But there may also be a dozen people out there who have left a plane, called a friend or family member while walking to the baggage claim, and said something like, “Yeah, flight was good. And I sat near a crossword puzzle genius.” Shut up, it could happen.

App-ealing

Good morning, everyone. I’m going to have a very busy work week, so I can easily see many more days going by without posting anything. Therefore I’m forcing myself to do it now. Quarantine goals!

I’ve noticed a change in something recently, and I’d like to know if it’s just me or not. It’s about apps, and more specifically, the ads for apps. I was playing a game on my phone called Nonogram, which is Sudoku-like in some ways and I’ve found fairly addicting. I’d made one too many mistakes and needed an extra “life,” so the program showed me a 30-second ad for another app. It’s a stupid one I’ve seen many times and have never had any desire to try out. You need to get a fish or human (depending on the ad they’re serving up at the moment) to safety by doing all sorts of silly things. Sometimes it’s choosing a wrench instead of a steak, for instance. Thrilling stuff.

For this ad, it was a little more logic-based, and you had to pull metal rods in the right order to get the fish to safety instead of burned to death by lava. Nice and light-hearted, right? So I was watching the sample gameplay as a fake user pulled one metal rod to the side and then moved to the next logical one. At the last second, it moved to another rod and the fish burned to death. Then it asked if I wanted to give it a shot. This was interesting for me, because I’d never had the desire to play that game, but seeing someone inept at it made me think, “Moron, I could do that better.” And I swear this didn’t use to be the case.

Here’s how I remember ads for apps, and I really want to know if it resonates with others. The first ones I remember seeing showed people being successful at the games. They popped the bubbles, hit the homerun, shot the bad guy, etc. It was aspirational, which is a tried and true form of marketing – you show the person you want to look/feel like and not the one who needs the product/service. You show the professional driver on a closed course illustrating what the car can do at its peak performance. You see the amazing athlete chug the Gatorade after dunking on his opponents. This method let to me still getting apps from time to time when the gameplay looked like fun.

I remember seeing a change a couple of years ago with an ad for a brick-breaking game. It showed a split screen, with “My Mom” on the left and “My Dad” on the right. Since men have to be oafish buffoons in all ads by law, the ad showed the “mom” playing very well while the “dad” character stupidly shot directly at the bricks right above him and got way fewer points. This was still aspirational in the sense that people watching would want to be more like the mom and would want to give it a shot.

But with this fish game and a couple more I’ve recently seen, it’s like they’re going all-in on a new angle: “Look at this idiot. You could totally do better, right? Prove it.” I don’t get it, and I especially don’t get that it worked a little on me. I didn’t download the game and still won’t, but I found myself briefly wanting to show that I was better than the idiot.

Has anyone else noticed ads like this? And if so, does it work on you at all? I can’t tell if it’s aiming at a younger demographic with super high self-esteem or what, but it was a noticeable enough shift over the past few years that I jotted down a note to write about it sometime. And here we are.

Take care, everyone, and I hope you all have a good and healthy week.