Monthly Archives: March 2009

The most important room in your house

I am a toilet person.

It’s amusing and mildly embarrassing to read that line I have written above, but it is the truth. I am a toilet person because this is the space where for those 15 minutes of crapping you have the license to be cut off from the world. You don’t have to answer calls, reply to e-mails or feel guilty about reading a book when you should be working. It is this solitary haven that you can escape to whenever nature calls, in a world populated with far too many people.

I have been cautious with admitting this fact. I think I have only subjected two people to this thought so far, both of whom reacted with contorted faces of disgust. But I now have validation!

From Natural Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (not necessarily a literary genius but endlessly imaginative and bloody entertaining). Excerpt from what seems to be a dinner table conversation between 3 people:

‘In your toilet at home you can go at any time, even if you don’t need too. You can stay for hours, read a book or read cartoons. You can simply rest your chin on the palm of your hand and think. No other room gives you such privacy. This is the most important room, you know. The most important room.’

… ‘Those are private rituals, for your eyes only. Because nobody sees you there. I don’t think even God looks at you.’

And other insanely funny stuff including a diversionary chapter on the Great History of the Toilet and reflections like:

‘When I was a kid, I went to the village movie theatre and wondered why nobody ever went to the toilet. All those Indians, cowboys, entire Roman legions (LOL) and no one took a shit or peed.’ [Stuff in parentheses added by me.]

Lest you be dissuaded from the book, it is about a writer getting a divorce. The above and several other topics are just the protagonist’s thought diversions.


In my attempt to find a relevant photo for this post, found these two hilarious ones:

466908192_4160fe0ed6_m 2936178732_1d069fc268_m

And a Flickr group on toilets! http://www.flickr.com/groups/toilets/pool/

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Pondi’s Book of Business Ideas : Amazon Anywhere

A while back I was at Landmark, shopping for books and I felt really handicapped by the lack of relevant information. There were so many books and I hadn’t done my research about which one I wanted to buy so I was just ‘browsing’ – which is always fun – and I can spend hours in a bookshop – but on this occasion I could not. I wanted to find something nice and then head to whatever I had to attend to afterwords. There were the blurbs, there were the endorsement style reviews – but I so craved for an Amazon rating, or a third party review or the ability to find similar titles based on what I had read, or new titles based on what I might want to explore.

So I thought a great business idea would be to have something like ‘Amazon Anywhere’.

Amazon Anywhere LogoConcept: Pick out your phone, scan the bar code using your phone camera, hook on to GPRS/EDGE/Wi-Fi or perhaps an in-store BluZone (The bluetooth zones which found limited  popularity in malls for sometime – I don’t see them now perhaps because there might’ve been too much spam advertising!) and get some information about the title you are looking at.

Infact, when Android came out with it’s app challenge, I thought that would be a real cool app to make. Some issues were apparently the inability of camera phones to read regular bar codes (I believe they need 2-dimensional bar codes to work).

 

Then today I saw a video which showed me how limited my vision was. Limited because I couldn’t think beyond the available infrastructure and limited because I wasn’t thinking beyond books.

Guys, This is how the ‘relevant information’ will be delivered to you in the future – becoming a ‘sixth sense’ to your existing quintet. Watch Pattie Mae from MIT media Lab describe the sixth sense to you – her research student Pranav Mistry is the genius behind it.

http://www.ted.com/talks/pattie_maes_demos_the_sixth_sense.html

six_sense1 six_sense2

The guy got a standing ovation at TED! Man, that must’ve been something (Matlab, main ek baar TED dekh aaon to apne aapko dhanya samjhoonga). I’m very VERY jealous, and yet very proud..

The Personalisation Myth

I come across a lot of websites that have recommendation engines based on your history, or your past purchases or what you favourites are and then they pimp similar stuff back to you. I guess the notion is based on the idea that they can find stuff related to what you ‘like’ and thus not just improve the experience for you, but also increase their sales as you are more likely to make a purchase. Amazon is probably the most shining example of this where the very pristine and fresh home page changes to show what you have browsed before and what you might thus like, with every subsequent visit.

amazon_snapshot

The main area on ‘my’ Amazon.com home page lists 8 main sections. These are ‘Frequently Bought Together’ which shows an image of a book I had looked at earlier today along with two other books, ‘More to Explore’ which also shows a book I looked at recently along with related books, ‘Stay Dry with a New Raincoat’ – which is the one section unrelated to my ‘Amazon Past’, ‘Customer With Similar Searches Purchased’ – which another name for #1 & #2 above. ‘Recommended for you’ which seems to be based on purchase history as it shows an Action Figure I bought for a friend and a Shaver I bought 5 months back. ‘New for You’ which is again a recycled #1. And finally ‘Recommended for you based on your browsing history’ and ‘Inspired by your Wish list’.

A whopping 7 out of 8 sections are ‘personalised’ and pay no attention to stuff which I might want to try out or explore.

I think there are two variants of personalisation: a) Explicit  & b) Implicit. The Explicit variant is more common with personalised homepage service such as Netvibes where I specify what news sources I want to get my news from, my widgets and more. E-commerce sites however, cannot use explicit personalisation – they in turn use my explicit choices – such as a my searches and past purchases to make a guess at what else I might like.

I think the biggest problem with this is that it overlooks the exploratory tendencies in people. I like rock music, I like Bollywood – sure I’d like to explore more of the same, but then sometimes I want to try something completely new – recently a friend introduced me to Jazz – which I thought was pretty interesting too – why couldn’t Amazon recommend something like that? I think often people themselves don’t know what they like and would like to sample something new rather than more of the same.

Unfortunately, pretty much all services – from the Pandora’s to the Last.fm of the world empower only incremental exploration by showing related stuff, but haven’t cracked the question of how to encourage people to try out something radically different.

Another issue is the assumption that I want to buy everything I searched for (Personalisation at Amazon appears to based on favourites, past purchases and searches of which the last seems the most unreliable to me). A friend of mine once asked me to buy a Belly Dancing DVD for her, next I know I have 4 other similar titles showing up in ‘You Might Also Like…’ on Amazon! I think search related recommendations are best served on the Search Result pages – which provide related results within that context.

I really wish Amazon would stop deciding my future based on my past, or at least not all of it.

Postscript: Apparently an old report called ‘Beyond the personalisation myth’ published in 2003 (damn they used the same title!) seems to make a similar case based on more extensive research: :  Personalising Web sites ‘wastes money’.