Google and the Predictability of the Human Mind

Google's iPage AdGoogle knows me better than I know myself

Much of the work I do has to do with website management and hosting. And so recently, I found myself editing a massive FAQ — roughly half the length of a novel. It was not exactly fun — at least at first; once it started to take shape, it was fun. But I found myself trying to explain to my 83 year old father what I was doing. He doesn’t even know what an FAQ is, so I was trying to find a way to explain the problem of trying to create a structure out of a collection of disparate information. And I said, “There might be information about, I don’t know, iPage.”

That was the example that came to mind: iPage. If I just started brainstorming, I could probably come up with a hundred web hosting companies. But it was iPage that popped into my mind yesterday evening. Then, this morning, I did what I normally do: I got a cup of tea and drank it while I did my political reading. And the ad on the left popped up. And that disturbed me.

Let me be clear what I am not saying. I’m not saying, “Geez, it sure is amazing that Google knows what I’ve been doing!” The fact that advertising follows me from site to site isn’t surprising. It is one of the first things people learn when they get on the internet. And I’m used to this. Not long ago, I was writing an article about Matlab, and so for a week after it, I was getting Matlab ads.

This is an interesting thing about being a freelance writer: ads tend to be very badly targeted toward me because what I’m searching for is only interesting to me for an hour or two. To give you some idea, my direct boss asked me to expand a document about how freelancers should submit their invoices. I said, “That’s a great idea; I didn’t realize we had a document like that!” And she said, “You wrote it.” Indeed I had: just two months ago. But I don’t remember things. You do them and then you move on to something else.

Anyway, the point is that I’m not surprised that some web hosting company I’ve been writing about starts getting advertised to me. But I wasn’t writing or researching anything about iPage. But clearly, I spend a lot of time on websites that talk about web hosting. And so I doubtless was on a page that was talking about iPage. And that’s why it was the hosting company that came into my mind and the one that Google thought I would like to see this morning.

I had a similar experience several years ago. I was at the grocery store staring at several rows of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Now, I like Ben & Jerry’s, but it isn’t my favorite ice cream. And as I looked at the selection, I remembered that earlier that day I had seen a banner ad for Ben & Jerry’s. It’s upsetting to be reminded of just how easily we are manipulated. But we are just very complicated machines. We are largely predictable.

I know that Google doesn’t know that I mentioned iPage to my father last night. But I do think that Google knew that iPage was on my mind, even though I wasn’t conscious of it. It’s creepy. And it will only get more so. Remember Transient Global Amnesia?

Consciousness is a joke.

Morning Music: Jurassic Park by Weird Al Yankovic

Jurassic Park - Weird Al YankovicToday’s song is “Jurassic Park.” Elizabeth commented, “Since I think you mentioned you don’t like MacArthur Park, this might cheer you up. Plus claymation!” Well, she was half right. I am a big fan of claymation, and in fact, every kind of animation. One of the great things about never having kids is that you aren’t required to ever act like an adult. (Note to all you parents out there: I know you’re all pretenders!)

But she’s wrong about “MacArthur Park.” I quite admire the song. She was probably referring to when I wrote this, “And ‘MacArthur Park’ from the days when metaphor didn’t embarrass Americans.” But that was a complaint about Americans and not the song.

The truth is that I am not much of a fan of strict metaphor. I find that it no longer leads to great art. Most people, however, are are just fine with metaphor but then scoff in the most affected way when it is used in an emotionally vulnerable way. I think songs like “MacArthur Park” and “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” are great. In fact, they are more than great; they are brave.

“Jurassic Park” is a straight parody of “MacArthur Park.” It is clever, as Weird Al Yankovic songs usually are. It does, however, really show off his weakness as a singer. Richard Harris was a far better singer. But that’s a minor point. The animation is also very good. I personally have no problem with Barney, but I thought it was very funny when his head was bitten off by a “real” dinosaur.

Afterword: Jimmy Webb’s Jurassic Park

I can’t get “MacArthur Park” out of my head. The image of a cake in the rain is so idiosyncratic! Who thinks of such things?! Jimmy Webb obviously. And he claims to have actually seen such a thing. But the reason the image works is because it seems almost unthinkable. Who would leave a cake out in the rain? It speaks to the intensity of the feeling and more than makes up for taking the metaphor to its logical conclusion, “And I’ll never have that recipe again.” Apparently, Jimmy Webb likes “Jurassic Park” very much and has even performed it live.

Anniversary Post: Pentium, 80586, Whatever

Pentium, 80586, 586, WhateverOn this day in 1993, Intel released the first Pentium CPU. It ran at 60 MHz — 60 million cycles per second. Think about that: the little clock inside that chip was going from 0 to 5 volts and back to 0 volts: 60 million times every second! That still boggles my mind. Meanwhile, the computer I’m writing this on has a clock speed of 3.1 GHz — 3,100 million cycles per second — fifty times faster. I think the more you know about computers, the more amazing they are. To most people they are just a given. It shocks me that this all works.

Anyway, I remember at the time that the Pentium was released, most people I knew scoffed at the name. There had been the 8086. And then there was the 80286 — confusingly called the “eighty-two eighty-six.” Soon everyone just called it the 286. The 386 was the first 32-bit version of the chip. And the 486 was just the 386 with a math co-processor, so no big deal. The 586 was a big deal. But it was the 586, not the Pentium. Did Intel really think their marketing campaign could get us all to use the silly new name?!

Well, I don’t know what Intel thought it could or could not do. But I do know that very soon everyone called it the Pentium. And after a few years, most people just gave you blank stares if you mentioned the 586 (much less the 80586). It’s like when I used to confuse people by calling Windows 2000 what it actually was: Windows 5.0. XP was Windows 5.1. I don’t mean to be difficult, but it’s actually a lot easier than things like “Windows Vista” (Windows 6.0).

The Pentium Name Means Nothing

It’s the power of marketing. And the amazing thing is that the name — Pentium — didn’t mean anything. The original Pentium had P5 microarchitecture. Within three years, Intel was selling the Pentium II, which had a P6 microarchitecture — more or less the 80686, although they didn’t call it that. The Pentium IV which had NetBurst microarchitecture, which would have been called the 80786 in a sane world.

We have the same thing today. Do you have an i3 in your computer? Or maybe an i5 or an i7? These names are meaningless because the chips keep changing. It’s all about branding. And I hate it! It isn’t because I’m a snob. I just want things to be clear. When you bought an 80286, you knew what you were getting. Now, you need to know a whole lot more than what chip you are talking about and what its clock speed is. In fact, my i5 might be more powerful than your i7 — or less powerful than your i3. I don’t know. I don’t care. I let Will make my computer decisions for me. And thank God for that! Otherwise, I’d be nuttier than I already am.