Archive for September, 2009

Further iSnack2.0 thoughts

Continuing on from my previous post

Has anyone actually seen an advertisement for iSnack2.0? The “name this product” campaign got a fair amount of air time, so it seems odd that they’d announce the actual name and not have it accompanied by a storm of ads that started at exactly the same minute.

Unless, that is, they intended people to talk about the name for a while before they started advertising it.

Here’s my hypothesis. It’s largely a post hoc attribution of cleverness to marketing people so it may or may not be accurate, but this is what it looks like to me.

Kraft’s plan all along was to give the new product a daggy name that would cause a storm for a week or so after it was announced. But they would carefully distance Kraft itself from the name during that time, to keep the emotional association to a minimum.

The name came from a competition in which customers named the product. And the announcement was made with pictures of the winner of the competition. Over time, people will subconsciously blame him for the stupid name instead of Kraft. Obviously Kraft chose the winner from a large pool of entries, so logically the blame is all on them, but brand recognition has very little to do with logic. The image of the daggy guy holding the jar of daggy spread is what people will remember, especially if they don’t do any other advertising to associate it with Kraft – which, from what I’ve seen so far, they haven’t. They’ve even noncommittally acknowledged that the name didn’t go down very well.

So here’s my prediction. In a week or two, after most of the hatred has died down, they’ll start a lighthearted and self-deprecating ad campaign, that acknowledges that the name is silly, but it’s still tasty so you should buy it anyway.

Bonus points if they use the line “iSnack2.0 – It’s cheesy!” or a variant thereof.

The result will be that people will give Kraft credit for being good sports about the whole thing. People – Aussies especially – love a company that can laugh at itself. That, combined with the fact that they didn’t strongly support or associate themselves with the name when it was announced, will lead people to forgive them – it could almost paint them as victims, having to live with the poor judgment of that dork who won that competition, but making the best of it.

Updates to come when I’m proven right. (If I’m wrong I’ll probably stay quiet.)

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So. iSnack2.0.

I’d provide a link, but odds are that you already know what I’m talking about. Which is why it’s marketing brilliance.

Don’t get me wrong. I hate the name. It’s awful. It straddles the line between ignorant and patronising, from the youth pastor school of trying to “relate” to a culture that they have no intention of knowing anything about. It follows the management-speak trend of stripping a term of its techical meaning (which is an achievement for “i” and “2.0″ which have very little to begin with) by using it as a wildcard buzzword in contexts chosen at random. In summary, it’s a collection of things that rub me up the wrong way.

But if they’d called it Cheesymite, I wouldn’t be blogging about it, Facebook wouldn’t be filled with status updates about it, and it wouldn’t have become a running segment on The 7pm Project.

In any discussion of any length about iSnack2.0, someone will bring up the “all publicity is good publicity” adage. Mostly this is an attempt to give Kraft the benefit of the doubt, usually met with a chorus of “maybe… but no.” Sometimes it’s even (smugly, or otherwise) suggested that they’re about to discover just how bad publicity can be. (Because we all hate marketers, right?)

I’m not entirely sure whether the uproar was a conscious part of the marketing plan, but I think there’s a good chance that it was. And regardless of whether it was planned or not, the instant viral memesplosion (yes that is now a word) that has happened over the last few days will be all upside for the new product.

Everyone’s annoyed about the name now. That will last maybe a week. People simply don’t hold a grudge against a spread – there are too many more important things to save your vitriol for. Okay, a few die-hard outragees will boycott Kraft, maybe. For a couple of months. After that even they’ll start feeling petty for not buying Vegemite because of a name.

In the next few weeks, people will start buying iSnack2.0 for the novelty value. It’ll become an in-joke. Some – or many – of them will discover that they like it. The stupid name will not stop them from buying it again. All of these people are customers they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

After a couple of months, the word (and number) will lose its silliness because it’s been heard so often, like a word that you say over and over and over until you forget what it means. At that point, everyone will know the brand; most people will still say it’s silly if specifically asked about it, but they won’t generally be annoyed by it. This is what happened to the Nintendo Wii – at first no one could say it with a straight face, now it’s just part of the vocabulary, and along the way it’s become the best-selling piece of white plastic in the universe.

So whether the Kraft marketing team are geniuses or just lucky, I think they got this one right.

But I still hate the name.

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Six kinds of awesome.


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Caffeine addiction


I’ve been an on-and-off coffee drinker for a while – I go through cycles of drinking it and then avoiding it with a frequency of a couple of years. Normally it’s not a strong dependency, and it’s mainly a matter of circumstance when I start or stop drinking it.

Lately my coffee intake has been slowly ramping up, to the point where yesterday, when I didn’t have one, I had a faint headache and felt vaguely lethargic for most of the day. So this isn’t good.

The options now are:

  • Cold-turkey detox.
  • Gradually decrease my intake over a few weeks.
  • Go with the flow and keep drinking.
  • Intravenous caffeine drip.

Currently I’m on coffee #2 for the day, so it’s possible that the third option will win by default.

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SYDNEY DUST STORM! There, now I’ve mentioned it on Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, my blog and the office whiteboard.


Happy Apocalypse Everyone!

Tina woke me up this morning…

“Hey, I know it’s early, but see that red glow through the blinds?”


“I thought you might want to take some photos.”

Apparently some heavy winds overnight blew the entire colour red from South Australia over to Sydney.

Wherein I wake up on Mars

Edit: ZDNet used my photo! I’m very slightly famous!


Silly trick

I’m running a script to do something a friend of mine asked for. (If you care about the details, go here.) We’re going out to a birthday thing with Tina’s family in about half an hour, and there’s a good chance it’ll run longer than that. (I actually have a pretty good idea of how long it’ll run, but let’s ignore that for now.)

So I was going to set up a loop to upload the results to somewhere every 15 minutes or so. But I’ll be out until later today, and it’ll be uploading the same thing every 15 minutes until I get home and stop it. (The bandwidth involved isn’t very big, but let’s pretend for a moment that this is a consideration.) But I want him to be able to check the progress, so making the interval much longer is potentially annoying. I could work out when the process has finished and stop uploading, but let’s assume that I don’t know how to do that off the top of my head (because I don’t) and that I don’t have time to work it out (which I probably do, but I’m blogging about it instead).

Then an idea popped into my head out of nowhere: Double the interval every time.

This way, it’ll be updating regularly at the start, so he (and I) can check the progress almost in realtime. Then the rate will slow down exponentially so that it’s not uploading all the time unnecessarily. And the delay between when the process finishes and when it does the final upload will naturally be in the order of the duration of the process itself (and in fact will be strictly less than it). And there will be very few extraneous uploads after it’s finished until I get home and kill it.

For this particular problem it was probably overkill, but if you change the scale of the problem and remove an easy way to find out when the process has ended or how long it will take in advance, it might actually be useful. It even seems to approximate people’s habits (or at least, my habits) when checking the progress of a long-running process – I tend to watch it closely for a minute or so, then check it occasionally at increasing intervals until it’s done.

Plus it was dead simple to do:

n=1; while true; do {upload stuff}; sleep ${n}s; n=$(($n*2)); done

Is this a known trick? Or does it even make sense?

Update: Looks like it’s going to finish just in the nick of time. Still… cool trick, right? Right?

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Apology to Turing

I’m just going to quote the whole thing.

2009 has been a year of deep reflection – a chance for Britain, as a nation, to commemorate the profound debts we owe to those who came before. A unique combination of anniversaries and events have stirred in us that sense of pride and gratitude which characterise the British experience. Earlier this year I stood with Presidents Sarkozy and Obama to honour the service and the sacrifice of the heroes who stormed the beaches of Normandy 65 years ago. And just last week, we marked the 70 years which have passed since the British government declared its willingness to take up arms against Fascism and declared the outbreak of World War Two. So I am both pleased and proud that, thanks to a coalition of computer scientists, historians and LGBT activists, we have this year a chance to mark and celebrate another contribution to Britain’s fight against the darkness of dictatorship; that of code-breaker Alan Turing.

Turing was a quite brilliant mathematician, most famous for his work on breaking the German Enigma codes. It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War Two could well have been very different. He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war. The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely. In 1952, he was convicted of ‘gross indecency’ – in effect, tried for being gay. His sentence – and he was faced with the miserable choice of this or prison – was chemical castration by a series of injections of female hormones. He took his own life just two years later.

Thousands of people have come together to demand justice for Alan Turing and recognition of the appalling way he was treated. While Turing was dealt with under the law of the time and we can’t put the clock back, his treatment was of course utterly unfair and I am pleased to have the chance to say how deeply sorry I and we all are for what happened to him. Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly. Over the years millions more lived in fear of conviction.

I am proud that those days are gone and that in the last 12 years this government has done so much to make life fairer and more equal for our LGBT community. This recognition of Alan’s status as one of Britain’s most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue.

But even more than that, Alan deserves recognition for his contribution to humankind. For those of us born after 1945, into a Europe which is united, democratic and at peace, it is hard to imagine that our continent was once the theatre of mankind’s darkest hour. It is difficult to believe that in living memory, people could become so consumed by hate – by anti-Semitism, by homophobia, by xenophobia and other murderous prejudices – that the gas chambers and crematoria became a piece of the European landscape as surely as the galleries and universities and concert halls which had marked out the European civilisation for hundreds of years. It is thanks to men and women who were totally committed to fighting fascism, people like Alan Turing, that the horrors of the Holocaust and of total war are part of Europe’s history and not Europe’s present.

So on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan’s work I am very proud to say: we’re sorry, you deserved so much better.

Gordon Brown

This is a Good Day.

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Comprehension test

The CAPTCHA war is starting to get old.

Unfortunately, it seems that the fundamental flaw in a CAPTCHA, that makes it different from the proper Turing test, is that it’s administered by a computer, not a human. If I had a chance to hold a brief conversation with the comment-leaving entity, I’d be able to tell the difference between a human and a spambot trivially. But the webserver is the one holding the conversation with commenters, not me.

Right there is an interesting point though: This is a blog. Someone leaving a comment is participating in a conversation that started at the top of the page. Shouldn’t I be able to lean on that somehow, to only allow comments that move the conversation in a human-like direction?

I suppose that’s achieved by turning moderation on. And I do delete spam comments afterwards. The problem isn’t quite that I’m not in a position to judge who’s human, it’s that I want the comment to appear on the site as soon as it’s entered, without my interaction. Hmm.

Now, suppose that, instead of a CAPTCHA, each post had some kind of comprehension test. To enter a comment, you need to provide a short answer to a question that will be obvious if you’ve read the post. Not only will this prove difficult for spambots, but it will also filter out human spammers and people who don’t read the post before commenting.

Gosh, where do I start on the problems with this plan. It means that I have to put a bit of extra thought into each post to come up with a question – it has to be unambiguous, but ideally not just a single word gleaned from the post, because that would be vulnerable to a spambot just trying every word. It can’t be so tricksy that it blocks legitimate commenters (a problem it shares with CAPTCHAs, but along a different axis).

Then there’s the problem of what to do with all my old posts that don’t already have a question – especially since they’re the ones attracting all the spam (presumably the ones that rank high on Google or something). In fact, I might need to regularly change old questions, because unlike the current CAPTCHA system which has a (semi-)unique challenge each time you load the page, the comprehension question always stays the same, so someone can throw an indefinite amount of spam at an abnormally popular post by just answering the question once. I don’t know enough about the mechanics and motivations of spamming to know whether that’s something anyone would want to do, but it seems like a big hole.

Encouragingly, though, there are some upsides. I already mentioned that it’s also an obstacle to human spammers of various kinds. It also doesn’t have the accessibility problems that CAPTCHAs have (for visually impaired readers and such). And it might actually be interesting to embed information in every post – it’d be like a whole series of mini-puzzle-making exercises. Not for everyone, but I might enjoy it. Maybe.

Some of you will presumably wonder why I don’t just turn Akismet on. That’s not the point. The point is… okay I’m not entirely sure what the point is, but at the moment this is more interesting to me as a problem-solving exercise than a spam-blocking exercise. So much so that I’m thinking I might actually try this. It’ll be a fun gimmick at any rate.

The comprehension test for this post, if and when I implement it, will be: What is the acrostic formed by this post? This is a bad question to use too often, because a spambot can just look for the word “acrostic” in the question and work it out easily, but the idea is that the space of possible questions is big enough that they can’t solve them in general. (And if they do, then maybe makers of spambots will contribute to the next major breakthrough in AI.)


The CAPTCHA war continues

What I learnt from logging CAPTCHA attempts was, essentially, nothing. Every post either entered nothing at all or the correct word, and all of the correct ones were obviously from the same source (not the same IP address, but structured the same way and advertising similar things). That is, it’s not being broken by a huge dictionary attack or anything.captcha

So I think the remaining alternatives are that someone has actually broken my CAPTCHA with 100% accuracy, or this is getting back to a human at some point. Possibly I’m caught in one of those man-in-the-middle attacks where my CAPTCHA is relayed to some porn site and decoded by a horny teenager. Alternatively, people are getting paid to leave spam. I’ve heard of this sort of thing happening – Mr Shellshear caught some of it a while ago – but if that were the case I’d expect the comments to bear traces of humanity as well, and as it stands they’re fairly obviously auto-generated. I think. Or written by particularly obtuse and formulaic humans.

Now that I read over that last paragraph again, none of those options stands out as being clearly more likely than the others.

So in a further attempt to narrow down the options, I’ve changed my CAPTCHA again. This has two advantages. One, it’s different enough to the old one that I’m fairly confident that it won’t be immediately legible to any bot that could read it before. And two, the new one looks cool. Also illegible, so I probably won’t leave it this way forever, but come on, it’s sleek.


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