Back in the office yet?

So lockdown’s easing here next week.

What’s reopening on June 15? All of the lockdown restrictions easing on MondayLondon Evening Standard
All non-essential retail shops will be able to reopen from Monday, provided they follow Government guidelines to make them “Covid-secure”, Business Secretary Alok Sharma confirmed last night. Mr Sharma said the move will “allow high streets up and down the country to spring back to life”. These include clothes and shoe shops, book shops, electronics retailers, tailors, auction houses, photography studios, indoor markets, and shops selling toys.

Things might start to feel a little more normal for some, but for others less so.

Ten Lincolnshire schools report COVID-19 infections since reopeningThe Lincolnite
Years One, Six and Reception classes returned to the classroom last Monday. Since then Lincolnshire County Council said two school staff have been confirmed positive, while two results have come back negative and eight are still waiting.

Plan shelved for all primary pupils to be back in school before summer holidaysSky News
[T]he National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said that if the plans were confirmed, it would be “pleased to see the government will not force the impossible”. The body previously said returning all pupils before the end of term would present “unsolvable practical barriers if the hierarchies of control are to be maintained”.

It’s a difficult balancing act, with different parts of the country experiencing different transmission rates.

The UK may need local lockdowns. But can it make them work?Wired UK
Explaining to the public what scientific evidence local rules are based on will be key. “Under local lockdowns it seems very likely that people who live not very far from each other will end up receiving very different policing responses. So it will be important that those most affected understand the basis of those decisions, else they may feel they’re being unreasonably or unfairly dealt with,” says Stuart Lister, professor of policing and criminal justice at University of Leeds.

No change for me next week, though. I’ll still be working from home, logging in from the kitchen table with its view of our little garden and bird feeders. I could get quite used to this.

Remote work’s time has comeCity Journal
[I]t’s important to bear in mind that the pivot to remote work due to Covid-19 is being made under extraordinary conditions, rushed and relatively unplanned. Many will be attempting to work remotely while simultaneously providing child care and dealing with other pandemic-related exigencies. … The sudden expansion of remote work will feel especially socially isolating, since it is occurring amid general social distancing. In short, this is the worst version of modern remote work. It will get better.

Let’s hope so. The question we’re all asking is, when will all this go back to normal, whatever that new normal ends up being?

When 511 epidemiologists expect to fly, hug and do 18 other everyday activities againThe New York Times
Many epidemiologists are already comfortable going to the doctor, socializing with small groups outside or bringing in mail, despite the coronavirus. But unless there’s an effective vaccine or treatment first, it will be more than a year before many say they will be willing to go to concerts, sporting events or religious services. And some may never greet people with hugs or handshakes again.

When will life return to normal? This is the answer of epidemiologists, as embroidered by one of them, Melissa Sharp. Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

Cooking through adversity

Amid the news of Italy’s massive quarantine, here’s comicbook artist Krish Raghav’s poignant look at an aspect of China’s.

Quarantine Cooking: Finding Relief from Coronavirus Anxiety in the KitchenThe New Yorker
The question “What and how do you cook under quarantine” is being answered from millions of isolated dorm rooms, apartments, and houses across the country, and a new cuisine, with its own rules, norms, and tastes, is emerging. Call it quarantine cooking.

The post-nineties generation that uses sites like Xiachufang is not one that usually cooks. Their lives are defined by an arduous work culture and precarious careers. They rely on cheap and convenient food-delivery apps for most meals, making only occasional trips to the kitchen. Yet eating with friends and family is central to their idea of a “good life”. When restrictions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak take that away, quarantine cooking is the response, rebuilding that lost social connection with what’s at hand and what’s possible. […]

Sharing its preparation online is as important as the food itself. They are transmissions sent from isolation, like radio diaries from a stranded spacecraft. It’s about re-creating the conviviality of sharing a meal. It’s a response to boredom and a salve for the constant anxiety of following updates on the outbreak. […]

The act of looking for a recipe and reading others’ quarantine diaries has become like a trip to the supermarket. We tend to think of the Chinese internet as just a battleground—activists and censors locked in an endless conflict. But, to many, it is also homey and comforting, parts of it as familiar as a cozy kitchen.

The link seems broken currently, but here’s another, and here’s a screenshot that Joanne McNeil shared in her recent newsletter, when she noticed that Krish had mentioned her work in relation to this.

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Meanwhile.

How Facebook turned into a coronavirus conspiracy hellholeWired UK
The posts, which are filling innocuous Facebook groups normally dedicated to political discussions and flight deals, are a strange evolution of conspiracy theories that have been knocking around the internet for years. One much-mooted theory, for example, is that the coronavirus has been caused by radiation from 5G masts. […] These posts incorporate political conspiracies – for instance, one post on the “We Support Jeremy Corbyn Facebook” group, states that “people have bugs like this all the time, the media are basically covering up the economic global crash which is coming and also the Brexit shit show.”

Might a conspiracy theory be behind all this bizarre panic-buying of toilet paper?

‘It isn’t Mad Max’: women charged after fight over toilet paper in SydneyThe Guardian
A video of the incident was shared on social media and showed a small group of women pushing, yelling and fighting over a shopping cart filled with toilet paper. “We just ask that people don’t panic like this when they go out shopping,” the New South Wales police acting inspector Andrew New said. “There is no need for it. It isn’t the Thunderdome, it isn’t Mad Max, we don’t need to do that.

What is going on?

Coronavirus: why people are panic buying loo roll and how to stop itThe Conversation
In research I conducted with marketing professors Charlene Chen and Leonard Lee, we found that consumers compensate for a perceived loss of control by buying products designed to fill a basic need, solve a problem or accomplish a task. This is what we’re seeing as people rush to buy rice, cleaning products and paper goods in illogically large proportions.

Well here’s one possible solution.

Coronavirus: Australian newspaper prints extra pages to help out in toilet paper shortageThe Guardian
On Thursday the NT News, the Darwin-based newspaper with a national reputation for its headlines and antics, printed a special eight-page insert that can be cut into toilet paper. Its editor, Matt Williams, told Guardian Australia the paper was selling well and was “certainly not a crappy edition”. “We are a newspaper known around the world who understands the needs of our readers,” he said. “Territorians … are in great need of toilet paper right now so we had to deliver what they needed.”

The language of Utopia can be yours for just $81,000

I’m not sure if Duolingo will be turning this into a new language course any time soon.

For Sale: Sir Thomas More’s Utopian alphabetAtlas Obscura
The characters in the Utopian language walk the line between Greek and geometric runes. There is no casing, just large circles, squares, triangles and lines, with various accents attached. It would be gobbledygook if not for its accompanying Latin translation, which speaks to the creation of Utopia and its singularity as a philosophical—and aspirational—place.

As I was reading that, I was getting Thomas More mixed up with Thomas Cromwell, something that has happened to the Wolf Hall actors playing those roles, too. But anyway.

Thomas More is the villain of Wolf Hall. But is he getting a raw deal?The Guardian
The other piece of influential writing that has helped emphasise More’s superior character is his own book, Utopia. A philosophical argument couched in the tale of a traveller who returns from an unknown land, it has furnished English literature with many enduring ideas – not least that of a Utopia itself; a perfect, unattainable society. Published in Latin in 1516, Utopia still intrigues and amuses readers despite having been around for half a millennium. In More’s imagined Utopia, property, goods and food are all shared among the households in each city and there is a heavy emphasis on agriculture, although some weight is given to academic learning as well. When it comes to government: “Anyone who campaigns for public office becomes disqualified for holding any office at all,” he suggests.

That last line reminds me of that Groucho quote about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member.

But perhaps $81,000 is a little steep for just one book. Maybe you’re just after something to fill your shelves.

Books sold by the linear footBoing Boing
So it turns out there’s an entire industry of books hand-picked and organized to look good, sold in bulk according to a variety of visual or conceptual themes. Color gradients is a hot trend in the world of books sold by the linear foot.

Just a few stores I found: Books by the FootZubal BooksThe Book BundlerDecades of Vintage and Booth & Williams all specialize in books sold for their aesthetic appeal rather than their contents.

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Never mind the quality, feel the width.

Better Valentine alternatives

If you don’t want to send your sweetheart a Vinegar Valentine’s card, you could always try something a little different, like– a Valentine’s wall?

Say it with Banksy? Valentine’s gift catapults house to street art fameThe Guardian
She said: “We really want to preserve it, but he’s given us a bit of a headache. First thing’s first is to maybe get some Perspex to preserve it so everyone can enjoy it and then try to get some professional advice. It has been a crazy day, with lots of people being able to come and enjoy it and we want people to be able to continue doing that.

“I just kept like squealing and I’ve not stopped smiling all day. It’s just so special. They are calling it the Valentine’s Day Banksy.”

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It’s nice to see that Banksy has since confirmed it’s one of his.

OK, so sending someone some street art might not be very practical. Pen and paper it is, then.

Grab a pen. It’s time to revive the love letter.The Lily
Unlike digital messages, they’re concrete; we can feel their weight in our hands. (“Will we ever glow when we open an email folder?” Simon Garfield writes in a book celebrating letter writing. “Emails are a poke, but letters are a caress, and letters stick around to be newly discovered.”) Months, years, decades in the future, they prove we lived and loved, savored and felt sorrow. They allow us to grasp at immortality.

Enduring love: how greetings cards are surviving the smartphone eraThe Guardian
“The real growth we’re seeing is among people sending a message to cheer someone up,” says Fergusson, explaining that there has been a huge rise in “No occasion” cards. She believes millennials and gen Z are buying these cards because they are more powerful than social media messages. Hare calls her new range “contemporary sentiments” – one card says, “Just be your beautiful self”, while another reads: “Proud of you.” In 2019, the online retailer Moonpig launched a collection with the Samaritans – personalised cards were emblazoned with messages such as: “Matthew, I’m not sure how to help but if you need me, I’m here.” Fergusson says there has been a recent rise in “man-to-man” sending, but GCA research suggests 85% of cards are bought by women.

Alternatively…

Poundland sells 40,000 engagement rings ahead of Valentine’s DayBBC News
The £1 “Bling Rings” and “Man Bands” are meant to be used as “placeholders” for proper rings, it said. But one analyst described such promotions as “increasingly desperate”.

And here’s a modern take on that Vinegar Valentine idea.

Name a cockroach after your ex and watch an animal eat it on Valentine’s DayCNN
For just $5, zoo staff will name a cockroach after your former lover and feed it to an animal at their “Cry Me a Cockroach” event on Valentine’s Day. And if your ex-boo was an especially snakey one, pay $20 more to have them name a rat and feed it to a reptile instead.

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Update 20/02/2020

Sadly/inevitably, that Banksy Valentine’s Day graffiti has been graffiti-ed, which raises a number of interesting questions (including is it even possible to actually damage Banksy’s artwork, given that it itself is criminal damage, in law).

Banksy: what happens when someone vandalises graffiti – and who owns it anyway?The Conversation
Where graffiti has been applied to the wall of a property, that physical piece of “art” belongs to the owners of the property, who may choose to lawfully remove it or to protect it. If the property is rented – as is reportedly the case for the Valentine’s mural – the graffiti becomes part of the fabric of that building and belongs to the property owner, not the tenants. Ownership of the intangible rights to the artwork (the copyright), however, will remain the property of Banksy as the artist.

Our everyday dystopia

Inhumans Of Late Capitalism Facebook page posts pics that show the dark side of consumerismDesign You Trust
“Recording the slow collapse of humanity”—that’s how the Inhumans of Late Capitalism Facebook page explains its mission in life. The page documents just how bizarrely inhumane and immoral life in modern capitalist societies can be by collecting depressingly hilarious pictures from all over the internet.

Whereas I’m a little wary of some of the assumptions and theories behind a few of the posts on their Facebook page, the team at Design You Trust have managed to pick out quite a few thought-provoking and amusing images.

(Not to be confused with Humans of Late Capitalism. Learn more from a recent Quartz Obsession.)

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Less is more, more, more

We’re surrounded by stuff, let’s get rid of it all. Jia Tolentino reviews The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism by Kyle Chayka, and wonders whether, beneath the vision of “less” as a life style, there is a path to something more profound.

The pitfalls and the potential of the new minimalismThe New Yorker
It is rarely acknowledged, by either the life-hack-minded authors or the proponents of minimalist design, that many people have minimalism forced upon them by circumstances that render impossible a serene, jewel-box life style. Nor do they mention that poverty and trauma can make frivolous possessions seem like a lifeline rather than a burden. Many of today’s gurus maintain that minimalism can be useful no matter one’s income, but the audience they target is implicitly affluent—the pitch is never about making do with less because you have no choice. Millburn and Nicodemus frequently describe their past lives as spiritually empty twentysomethings with six-figure incomes. McKeown pitches his insights at people who have a surplus of options as a consequence of success. Kondo recently launched an online store, suggesting that the left hand might declutter while the right hand buys a seventy-five-dollar rose-quartz tuning fork. […]

“The Longing for Less: Living with Minimalism,” a new book by the journalist and critic Kyle Chayka, arrives not as an addition to the minimalist canon but as a corrective to it. Chayka aims to find something deeper within the tradition than an Instagram-friendly aesthetic and the “saccharine and predigested” advice of self-help literature. Writing in search of the things that popular minimalism sweeps out of the frame—the void, transience, messiness, uncertainty—he surveys minimalist figures in art, music, and philosophy, searching for a “minimalism of ideas rather than things.”

Along the way, he offers sharp critiques of thing-oriented minimalism. The sleek, simple devices produced by Apple, which encourage us to seamlessly glide through the day by tapping and swiping on pocket-size screens, rely on a hidden “maximalist assemblage,” Chayka writes: “server farms absorbing massive amounts of electricity, Chinese factories where workers die by suicide, devastated mud pit mines that produce tin.” Also, he points out, the glass walls in Apple’s headquarters were marked with Post-it notes to keep employees from smacking into them, like birds.

It’s not just a critique of style over substance, though.

The self-help minimalists say that keeping expenses low and purchases to a minimum can help create a life that is clear and streamlined. This practice can also lead to the conclusion that there is not only too much stuff in your apartment but too much stuff in the world—that there is, you might say, an epidemic of overproduction. If you did say this, you would be quoting Karl Marx, who declared that this was the case in 1848, when he and Friedrich Engels published “The Communist Manifesto.” Comparing a “society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange” to “the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells,” they contended that there was “too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.” Hence, they suggested, the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism, which brings the periodic “destruction of a mass of productive forces”—as, perhaps, we experienced in 2008, before the rise of Kondo and company.

Amazon fixes Valentine’s Day blues

Sure, shopping on Amazon is not without its issues…

Amazon Choice label is being ‘gamed to promote poor products’The Guardian
Which? highlighted a number of examples of manipulation that seemed to lead to unwarranted selection as an Amazon’s Choice product, including a car dashcam that had at least 24 written reviews mentioning the offer of a free SD card in exchange for a positive review, and a pair of wireless headphones that had close to 2,000 reviews thanks to the use of a feature called product merging – the majority of the positive reviews were about unrelated products including acne cream and razor blades.

… but if you’re worried about feeling a little left out next Friday, Amazon’s got your back. 1

Amazon Dating: The Future of Dating
Hot singles near you starting at $4.99 with Prime delivery.

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With a range of ages, styles and price points, there’s bound to be something for everyone.

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Footnote

  1. Before you all reach for your credit cards, Amazon’s not got your back.

Dreaming of past Christmas presents

Nostalgia overload! New Argos site lets you browse 45 years of winter catalogues
For many, flicking through the Argos catalogue was, and possibly still is, a pre-Christmas tradition. Immersing yourself in that weighty tome and imagining how nice it would be to get that special present for Christmas, perhaps even circling it, was all part of the big build up.

Now, the retail giant has created the ultimate tool for wistful nostalgia with its new Book Of Dreams website. Whether you want to look for the toys you never got for Christmas, see how much prices have changed or show your kids the sort of things you dreamt of unwrapping on December 25, you can take a very long stroll down memory lane.

For Proust, it was a madeleine. For me, it was those silly Kodak disc cameras and teak effect cassette storage cabinets from the 1982/83 Argos catalogue.

The Book of Dreams | Argos

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I wonder if the archive took its name from this Bill Bailey routine…

Bill Bailey – Argos

Happy shopper

Remember Banksy’s new shop? It’s closed now, though it was never really open. But now it is open. Er.

Gross Domestic Product
The homewares brand from Banksy™

It does look odd, seeing that little ™ symbol after his name everywhere. But before we get distracted about why he’s seeking to protect trademarks rather than copyright, let’s get shopping!

banksy opens online store selling limited edition pieces and items starting at £10
a few weeks after setting up a showroom ‘for display purposes only’ in south london, banksy has now officially launched his own online store. titled ‘gross domestic product’, or ‘GDP’, the shop counts the stab vest worn by stormzy at glastonbury festival and branded T-shirts tagged by the artist among its products. other items include a clutch bag, made from a ‘genuine real life house brick’, and a rug painted to resemble the ‘diabetes riddled corpse of tony the tiger’.

Everything’s bound to be sold out by now, right? Not necessarily.

Banksy opens online store to sell iconic items from just £10
To deal with demand outstripping supply and to give everyone a fair chance, potential buyers are asked to register their details and “prove you are not a robot” by answering the question “Why does art matter?” Their response will then be judged by comedian Adam Bloom, who is urging customers to make their answer as “amusing, informative or enlightening as possible”.

Hoping this measure will help restrict sales to genuine art fans, Banksy adds: “We can’t ever weed out all the people who just want to flip for profit, but we can weed out the unfunny ones.”

Worth a punt?

Banksy sells out

Remember back in March I linked to an article about Banksy’s legal conundrum? “If Banksy wants to keep enforcing any of his trademarks in courts around the world, and avoid the risk of them being canceled for lack of use, he will need to show judges stronger evidence of his brands being used in the market.

Well, here’s his response.

Gross Domestic Product: Banksy opens a dystopian homewares store
Tony the Frosted Flakes tiger sacrificed as a living room rug, wooden dolls handing their babies off to smugglers in freight truck trailers, and welcome mats stitched from life jackets: rather than offering an aspirational lifestyle, one South London storefront window depicts a capitalist dystopia. Created by Banksy and appearing overnight, Gross Domestic Product is the latest installation to critique global society’s major issues of forced human migration, animal exploitation, and the surveillance state.

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In a statement about the project, Banksy explains that the impetus behind Gross Domestic Product is a legal battle between the artist and a greeting card company that is contesting the trademark Banksy holds to his art. Lawyer Mark Stephens, who is advising the artist, explains, “Banksy is in a difficult position because he doesn’t produce his own range of shoddy merchandise and the law is quite clear—if the trademark holder is not using the mark then it can be transferred to someone who will.”

Despite this project’s specific goal of selling work in order to allow Banksy to demonstrate the active use of his trademark, the artist clarifies, “I still encourage anyone to copy, borrow, steal and amend my art for amusement, academic research or activism. I just don’t want them to get sole custody of my name.”

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All sales will be conducted online and, going by the reaction of those that have seen the shop so far, I expect everything will sell out very quickly, unfortunately.

Banksy shop featuring Stormzy stab vest appears in Croydon
A Banksy collector who came to see the display, said: “It’s brilliant. So good that it’s happening. I doubt he (Banksy) will turn up and go ‘hello lads, how are ya?’ But he’s obviously around.”

John, another Banksy enthusiast, who is on holiday in the UK from the United States, said: “It has all the earmarks of Banksy’s work. It’s graphic, it’s cheeky, it’s intelligent.”

Update 11/10/2019

This trademark/copyright issue might not be so straightforward, though, as this analysis from an intellectual property law academic explains. It’s worth a read.

How Banksy’s latest trademark row could backfire
Despite Banksy’s efforts to present himself as a down-to-earth, anti-conformist artist and paint the card company as the “bad guy”, this is more like a David v Goliath story – and Banksy is the giant here. Supported by a raft of experienced corporate lawyers and managers worldwide, his art is an undeniably powerful and commercially valuable industry.

Put your mouth where your money is

Not to be outdone by Japan’s offering, or those green tea ones, KitKat is at it again.

Luxury ‘bespoke’ KitKat candy bar to be sold in the UK
The range, which will be sold at the “KitKat Chocolatory,” includes several special edition flavors, including gin and tonic, cherry bakewell and earl grey, which will cost £7.50 each.

Customers will also be able to create their own bespoke candy bars for as much as £14, with almost 1,500 flavor combinations on offer. Custom-made “Create Your Break” KitKats will be eight-finger bars, which will offer a choice of milk, white, dark or ruby chocolate and three ingredients, such as salted caramel chunks and rose petals.

Buyer beware

A team of US academics have published research, Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites, which they believe shows the massive prevalence of sneaky user interface tricks designed to catch us out.

The seven deadly sins of the 2010s: No, not pride, sloth, etc. The seven UI ‘dark patterns’ that trick you into buying stuff
Dark patterns – user interfaces designed to deviously manipulate people into doing things – have become common enough on websites and in apps that almost two dozen providers have sprung up to supply behavior persuasion as a service.

And in some cases, these firms openly advertise deceptive marketing techniques, describing ways to generate fake product orders and social messages celebrating those fake orders.

These are their proposed categories of user-interface tricks.

Sneaking
Attempting to misrepresent user actions, or delay information that if made available to users, they would likely object to.

Urgency
Imposing a deadline on a sale or deal, thereby accelerating user decision-making and purchases.

Misdirection
Using visuals, language, or emotion to steer users toward or away from making a particular choice.

Social proof
Influencing users’ behavior by describing the experiences and behavior of other users.

Scarcity
Signalling that a product is likely to become unavailable, thereby increasing its desirability to users.

Obstruction
Making it easy for the user to get into one situation but hard to get out of it.

Forced Action
Forcing the user to do something tangential in order to complete their task.

‘Urgency’ and ‘scarcity’ sound like pretty standard advertising methods that we should be very used to by now, but some of those others are very dubious. Here are some screenshots from the research paper.

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Fig. 3. Three types of the Sneaking category of dark patterns.

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Fig. 5. Four types of the Misdirection category of dark patterns.

What can be done? Here’s one idea they discuss in the paper which I like the sound of.

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Fig. 10. Mockup of a possible browser extension that can be developed using our data set. The extension flags instances of dark patterns with a red warning icon. By hovering over the icon, the user can learn more about the specific pattern.

Pack your bags

The best laid plans, and so on.

This Vancouver market is handing out embarrassing plastic bags to customers
Currently, East West charges customers five cents per embarrassing plastic bag that they take. They plan to continue handing out the specialty bags for the foreseeable future, but note that they’d rather no one take them. Instead, they hope to start a conversation about single-use plastic bags, as well as influence shoppers to bring their own bags – whether they are shopping at East West or somewhere else.

But they were just too popular.

Problem in the bagging area: the plastic-shaming scheme that went very, very wrong
So perhaps the way to deal with the plastic crisis isn’t to daub single-use plastics with well-designed, slyly aspirational joke logos. Perhaps the bags should be printed with closeup pictures of dead seabirds and huge text reading: “I am pillaging planet Earth of its most precious resources.”

In the UK, a 5p levy was introduced in 2015 to discourage shoppers from using plastic bags. The supermarkets are supposed to be donate that money to good causes that benefit the environment. Is that really happening?

Are retailers ‘bagging’ the 5p plastic carrier bag charge?
What we found when we dug into the plastic bag levy suggests it has been managed in a way that can confuse customers and leave them unaware of the levy’s purpose or their option to return used bags. If customers believe their 5p is going to good causes but discover it’s actually going into marketing spend for retailers, they may lose confidence in the scheme.

Meanwhile.

At the Newark Public Library, shopping bags carry local history
The Newark Public Library in Newark, New Jersey, has an unusual collection that can’t be found in its stacks. Stored in the library’s Special Collections department, in one filing cabinet and 61 archival Solander boxes—some of which are so full their latches barely close—are over 2,000 shopping bags. Meticulously cataloged by geographic location, size, and theme, the collection records the history of graphics, culture, and everyday life from the mid-20th century to the current day.

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Remember buying music?

Here’s a simple but very effective chart showing the rise and fall of various music formats. This brings back memories.

Visualizing 40 years of music industry sales
For people of a certain age group, early memories of acquiring new music are inexorably linked to piracy. Going to the store and purchasing a $20 disc wasn’t even a part of the thought process. Napster, the first widely used P2P service, figuratively skipped the needle off the record and ended years of impressive profitability in the recording industry.

Napster was shut down in 2002, but the genie was already out of the bottle. Piracy’s effect on the industry was immediate and stark. Music industry sales, which had been experiencing impressive year-over-year growth, began a decline that would continue for 15 years.

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(Via Cool Infographics)

Instagrammable and Amazonable

Remember those cricked necks we used to get, wandering up and down the books shelves in Waterstones, Borders and the rest, head at an awkward angle to read all the spines? Book buying looks different now, with our stiff necks due to staring down at our screens.

Welcome to the bold and blocky Instagram era of book covers
None of these titles is available yet, but anywhere you find them online will likely direct you to preorder on Amazon. In fact, their covers are designed to ensure that you will. At a time when half of all book purchases in the U.S. are made on Amazon — and many of those on mobile — the first job of a book cover, after gesturing at the content inside, is to look great in miniature. That means that where fine details once thrived, splashy prints have taken over, grounding text that’s sturdy enough to be deciphered on screens ranging from medium to miniscule.

Social media has a part to play now, too, in our book-buying habits.

“Instagram is a major tool now in ginning up excitement that we used to see in print magazines,” says Emma Straub, Riverhead-published author and owner of the Brooklyn bookstore Books Are Magic.

She’s referring, of course, to the latte-laden still lifes that influencers post to brag about receiving an advance copy of a book, or the artful arrangements they use to signify literate lifestyles arranged in bold colors.

Down the Amazon storefront rabbit hole

The list of Things I Just Don’t Understand Anymore continues to grow. I’m familiar with shopping. I’m familiar with online shopping. But then again —

A business with no end
Recently, one of my students at Stanford told me a strange story. His parents, who live in Palo Alto, Calif., had been receiving mysterious packages at their house. The packages were all different shapes and sizes but each was addressed to “Returns Department, Valley Fountain LLC.”

I looked into it and found that a company called Valley Fountain LLC was indeed listed at his parents’ address. But it also appeared to be listed at 235 Montgomery Street, Suite 350, in downtown San Francisco.

So were 140 other LLCs, most of which were registered in 2015.

And so begins another incredible journey down the e-commerce internet rabbit hole with Jenny Odell, as she tries to untangle the mess of connections between an evangelical church university, many spurious, scammy Amazon storefronts, and an American weekly news magazine.

Indeed, at some point I began to feel like I was in a dream. Or that I was half-awake, unable to distinguish the virtual from the real, the local from the global, a product from a Photoshop image, the sincere from the insincere.

I’ve highlighted Jenny Odell’s journalism here before, and this piece is just as fascinating. It’s being discussed on the Amazon Seller forums, with legitimate sellers worrying how they can possibly compete with fraudulent dropshipping at such a big scale.

A Business with No End — Much explained about shady Amazon sellers
The vast international illegal operation employs hundreds of fake companies, fake churches, fake bookstores, fake department stores that may or may not exist, fake brands, fake HB1 visas, fake reviews, a fake university in California full of “students” on student visas who write click-bait and fake reviews, and even a fake psychiatric hospital. Oh, and apparently a lot of shady fake Amazon sellers. Not confined to Amazon, the empire also involves multiple click-bait farms and fake review farms, and even Newsweek magazine. All part of a vast hidden empire run by a man named Park.

Buyer (and seller) beware

Happy Amazon Prime Day, everyone!

Make of that what you will, but there’s no getting away from the fact that shopping is not what it was. It feels far riskier — and creepier —both for customers as well as vendors.

Who makes those insanely specific t-shirts on the internet?
One site, Sunfrog, implores a user to enter a range of my data (name, city, birth month/year, hobbies, job), and then generates hundreds of customized t-shirts — “just for you!” — in seconds. Another company boasts more than 10k variations of a single t-shirt phrase, with personalized names ranging from Aylin to Zara. Its catalog includes classics like “Never Underestimate A Woman Who Loves Stephen King And Was Born In April,” and “I’m a Tattooed Hippie Girl Born With a Mouth I Can’t Control.”

But as it turns out, the key to these operations (huge volume) can also be its curse — and oftentimes, these “algorithmically-generated” products can go terribly, terribly wrong.

That’s an understatement…

As it turns out, Fowler’s algorithm had served as a sort of demented Mad Libs, generating phrases like “Keep Calm and Rape Them,” and “Keep Calm and Grope On.”

If only that was the only one.

Last year, an Amazon retailer by the name of “my-handy-design” made an unwelcome splash on the internet over its questionable iPhone accessories. A series of cases featured a seemingly random (and, consequently, NSFW) variance of images, including old men suffering from diarrhea, heroin spoons, toenail fungus, and “a three year old biracial boy in a medical stroller.”

As well as being potentially upsetting for the shoppers that might stumble across them, these not-quite-real-but-existing-nonetheless products and the algorithms behind them can have disastrous effects on the businesses involved.

The bad things that happen when algorithms run online shops
“It almost felt like somebody broke into your house or your personal life and started to take things away from you,” says Richard Burri, whose office stationery store was affected by the error. He and his wife estimate that the various computer algorithms working together would have cost the business between $100,000 and $150,000. Fortunately, the majority of the firm’s human customers who had bought one penny items agreed to return them when contacted.

Others found that buyers weren’t always so obliging. Shamir Patel sold pharmaceutical products via Amazon. He also asked customers to return one penny products, but he says about half of them refused to do so. The cost to his business, he calculates, was around £60,000. “You were a bit powerless to do anything about it,” he recalls. “You were literally just watching your money flush down the drain.”

But, of course, it’s not entirely the fault of the machines. Sometimes this is all deliberate.

The strange brands in your Instagram feed
What Ganon does is pick suppliers he’ll never know to ship products he’ll never touch. All his effort goes into creating ads to capture prospective customers, and then optimizing a digital environment that encourages them to buy whatever piece of crap he’s put in front of them. And he is not alone.

What a time to be alive.

Jenny Odell’s special investigative report for the Museum of Capitalism: “There’s no such thing as a free watch”
One interesting detail about this mystery company (in its many iterations) is where it draws the line in terms of deception. While the entire business model is obviously misleading, their FAQ sections sometimes include reassurances following the question “Is this a scam?” and always take care to mention that credit card details are handled by Shopify. The sites often include icons for Norton Secure and McAfee Secure, as if to provide even greater assurance. On a Reddit thread in r/Scams, in which people complain about the watches and discuss finding $1-2 versions on Amazon and Alibaba, Soficostal butts in only once, in response to a poster speculating whether it might be a credit card scam. Soficoastal writes, “We don’t have our customers Credit Card numbers. They are safely processed through Stripe or PayPal.” The negative posts then continue – “it’s just some lookalike from China worth peanuts … they gib you on shipping,” says one user – with Soficoastal remaining silent.

At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

The problem with buying cheap stuff online
Reviews of Wish suggest that many customers have indeed had bad experiences. The 512 customer reviews of Wish on Hiya.com are mostly negative, with one-star reviews and customers calling the company a “scam” and a “rip-off.” They tell stories of the site sending rings that turn fingers green, products paid for and never received, and requests for returns and refunds ignored. “Yes, you save money, if you actually get your stuff! Never again will I ordered [sic] from Wish,” one customer, Regina Ashley, wrote.

Happy shopping!