Request for an Interview from an Academic Researcher

Rank48Recently I was approached by a university researcher who wanted to do an interview with me on the topic of writing in social media. He approached me as an Amazon reviewer so I agreed to answer his questions. Below find my responses to his first volley of inquiry.

Can you tell me a little about what got you started writing Amazon reviews?
I’ve always been of a mind to bore people with my online drivel so in 2011 I first stumbled across the GoodReads site. There you can sign up for book giveaways in exchange for an honest review of the book. I reviewed several dozen books and cross-posted these on Amazon and within a year I had offers for other items to review that were much less literary. I started, as I suspect everyone does, with small electronics: chargers, cords, electronic gizmos. It has been my observation that anyone in the top 10,000 reviewers or so that posts an email will be graced with at least one offer for a free product. As time goes on like begets like and whatever sorts of products you’ve reviewed before will find their way to your mailbox.

How would you characterize your writing style when you write Amazon reviews?
Terse. It has been my impression that customers don’t have time for a lot of protracted blathering on so I try to make things as short and sweet as possible, condensing my points to a few bullets that sum up things as succinctly and completely as possible. For those who want a bit more detail, I have tended as of late towards video-based reviews that demonstrate the product in some way or illuminate its shortfalls.

What are your goals when writing Amazon reviews?
This is a tricky and multi-headed question. The prime mover of all things in Amazon land is, of course, the helpful vote. Customers give us direct feedback by voting helpful or unhelpful on reviews as they read or watch them. So the ultimate goal in this game (and, let’s be honest, it is a game) is to garner as many helpful votes as possible. The more helpful votes, the higher your ranking and the higher your ranking the more free crap rolls in the door. At a very fundamental level, this is the most basic and visceral goal of the whole thing.

Attached to this is the idea that you’re helping others to make a buying decision. When I receive a product that’s just downright terrible my number one goal is to do everything I can to make sure nobody actually pays money for it. If I can find some redeeming quality in a product I’ll point it out but above all the goal is to make sure nobody gets taken for a proverbial ride and that when customers actually do buy something that they get what they expected based on the reviews. The vote system drives one to to write reviews but the injustice of the system is what really keeps a reviewer up at night.

Can you ever remember a time when you didn’t achieve your goals when writing Amazon reviews? Why or why not?
As I’ve said previously, the goal that keeps me up at night most is trying to make sure customers get what they expect. When a product arrives at my door it’s my duty to make sure it’s at least a serviceable product. I cannot even hope to tell consumers everything about a product but I can at least point out obvious fatal flaws and do everything in my power to ensure customers get a reasonable quality product. The problem with that, however, comes in two forms. Firstly, many, many reviewers hate to say anything negative about a product. They received it free so they feel they should say something nice or say nothing at all. So even if a product isn’t worthwhile, the ‘yes man’ crowd can drown out even the most circumspect naysayer. Additionally, the power of the vote works in both directions. Often manufacturers will hire services to suppress unflattering reviews with down votes and vote up the positive reviews that cast their product in the best light. As might be imagined, this battle is extremely difficult to win.

How do you decide what to review and why?
This answer varies wildly depending on my mood at the time I’m looking at an offer. In general, rather selfishly, I tend to offer to review products that I want to have or that I imagine others around me would want. Secondarily I will sometimes choose products that seem like they’d merely be diverting or interesting to try out. In summary, this is almost completely selfish. I review things that I have a use for.

Do you model your method of reviewing on anything? Do you read other professional or Amazon reviews before hand?
Typically, no. I don’t read other reviews for the same product because that tends to have a bias impact on the results. I don’t tend to read professional reviewers because, frankly, I think the more plebeian viewpoint is probably more helpful in some cases.

How do you decide which reviews to update and why?
I update any review on which I receive new information. Sometimes the manufacturer will contact me with updates or sometimes a friend to whom I’ve given an item will provide additional feedback on it. In general, however, I don’t go back to proactively update reviews without reason. Just slogging through new reviews is enough of a chore.

Do you have a particular process for writing reviews? Any steps you take before or while writing?
This varies wildly depending on the product. If the product makes claims that it’s “durable” or “shatterproof” then I put those claims specifically to the test. I’ve taken electronic equipment out into the parking lot and hurled into the air based on certain claims by the manufacturer. Admittedly at least part of the reason for that is because it’s entertaining but again, I want to make sure that manufacturers at least live up to their packaging.

How would you say your style of writing reviews has changed over the course of time (if they have)?
If anything it’s become even more terse than it was in the beginning. As time goes on you begin to get a very firm sense of what the identifying points are for any one sort of product so the whole process becomes rather formulaic. You test the 45th selfie stick in must the same way as the 44th selfie stick so it’s much less like writing than it is simply checking off a list of things to check.

Do you ever respond to comments about your reviews? How do you adjust your reviews in response to those comments?
I do, but not all the time. If the commenter requests information and I can actually provide it, I will do what I can to help out but often I don’t have the product any longer. If I kept every miscellaneous gewgaw that came across my desk I’d have little room for anything else. I have, at times, found myself apologizing to a commenter for missing some nuance of the product that I completely failed to pick up on. Those are exceptionally helpful for the next review but don’t make me feel any less guilty if someone bought a product that didn’t work for them because I gave it high marks. Luckily this doesn’t happen particularly often.

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Is there anything better than a Godzilla movie? I think not.

View on Path

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How to be a Victorian – Notes, Chapter 2 – Men’s Fashion

g2573Everything below came to my attention because of one little book. Well, a rather large book. If you want the real stuff and not my notes, go buy a copy here.  I won’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity you might encounter because of it, however.

So what was life like in Britain between 1837 and 1901?  Chapter 2 describes the fashions of the era.

  • Men’s Undergarments tended to be practical and geared towards keeping out the cold.  Sleeved vets and full length pants were the fashion of the day.  A man of this era would have found it disgusting to not wear full pants and vest between his skin and his outer garments
  • In shirts, among the wealthy, only the collars and cuffs were visible.  Taking off your jacket was something done in only the most casual environments.  Many colors were available but white was the mark of the rich since they were so difficult to keep clean.  Checked and striped were popular with the working people.
  • Collars were an essential part of any moneyed person’s attire.  Typically these were detachable from the shirt and starched very high.  Collars were such a pain to do at home that often they were sent out to be done by a professional even if the rest of laundry was done at home.  Often they were so starched that if one attempted to bend them they would crack.  A turned down collar was reserved for only the most informal occasions.
  • Offices and homes were typically kept around 50 degrees so fabrics of the day were much more substantial.  Waistcoats were made of very stiff, thick material that was often embroidered.
  • Gaiters, waterproof fabric wrapped around the ankles, was worn to protect the pants.
  • Slim waists were the fashion of the day even for men.  Many men wore corsets.  Trousers for men too were slim fit often with stirrups that went under the heel of the shoe.
  • The introduction of the sewing machine in 1845 changed the world of fashion considerably.  Previously the only ready-to-wear fashions available were baggy and any fashionable person would have to have their clothes custom made.  With the introduction of the sewing machine the available ready-to-wear lines became much more varied.
  • The 1860s saw the introduction of new chemical dyes to replace the previously plant and animal derived ones.  Men of fashion tended towards black for both fashion reasons and also for practical ones since the black did not show the ubiquitous coal dust of the city so readily.  Women tended towards bright eye-catching colors like never before.
  • No respectable man of the day would be seen without a hat.  Commonly they were only removed to show respect to another.
  • Hats had a strict social hierarchy with the top hat standing alone as the most aristocratic.  These hats stood up to 14 inches tall and could cost up to 3 months of a normal worker’s wages.
  • The Bowler hat was introduced by the Bowler brothers in 1849 at the request of a customer who wanted a hat that was “robust and easy to keep on”.  This replaced the top hat in many situations but still was a sufficient sign of status that a factory worker who attempted to wear one would likely be dismissed from his position.
  • Straw hats also saw wide use.  A high quality hat might last a lifetime.  These were considered rather luxurious items until cheaper imports of straw mats from China in 1880 made them more affordable.

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Movie Reviews: Different Drum

I picked this movie because it looked lonely and unrated on Amazon Instant Watch. Well, and because the description mentions Indiana. As a dude from Indiana, I can totally speak to that bit.

The nutshell summary is that this is a travelogue movie that’s shot in a very informal and random manner. You feel like you were there but all in all nothing of great consequence happens. A couple travels from point A to point B and have pretty realistic adventures that result in a pregnant woman with a bedazzled eyepatch, urinating on the train tracks and changing a flat tire.

In the end…. yeah, it’s not a picture that’s ABOUT something. There’s no grand crescendo but it’s a story that really, we’ve all lived. As the picture wraps you don’t say to yourself “wow!” so much as you do, “yeah, I remember when…” We have all lived some vague insubstantial version of this story but unlike this filmmaker, we didn’t bother to record it.

This is a movie that doesn’t make you remember IT so much as it makes it remember your analogous version of what you just saw. This is a movie for when you’re in a contemplative and reminiscent mood.

Notes from my viewing…

The style is that clumsy but endearing one in which everything is shot in a very informal way. Shots get cut off at times, don’t quite work out, sometimes out of focus, but very lifelike. It makes you feel like you’re there but it’s not got that over-processed look that most of the Hollywood junk does. I love this aspect of the film.

The credits are exceptionally high tech and come in about 11 minutes into the film. They add a distinctly charming air to the whole thing. They also act as chapter markers.

The whole thing feels VERY midwestern. I would swear that I’ve been in some of these places. There are some great shots photographically; very similar to what I’d take when I’m traveling.

The dialog in this film is so… pedestrian… there’s a bit talking about uncles and great uncles and how that works and it’s just so… real. It’s very much like a real life conversation that’s really ABOUT nothing but it’s the sort of thing that makes up our entire lives.

Movie is filled with lifelike little contradictions… like the pregnant protagonist who smokes and drinks at times but then acts terribly guilty about it. And her identical coats in yellow and green.

My god; some of these painfully nondescript settings are completely and utterly realistic. Case in point, visiting the protagonist’s cousin. The situation is rather bizarre but the setting is completely natural.

This movie….. this movie has the MOST polite armed robbery in the history of … well, of history. Holy CRAP that was nonchalant. That is the Midwestern way. “Give me all your money but, you know, whenever you want.” OK, not quite a quote, but that’s the general idea.

Eight minutes from the end, it’s time for Indiana!!!!!

Yeah, that’s Indiana. Northern Indiana at least. Lots of Amish.

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How to be a Victorian – Notes, Chapter 1

g2573Everything below came to my attention because of one little book. Well, a rather large book. If you want the real stuff and not my notes, go buy a copy here.  I won’t be held responsible for any loss of productivity you might encounter because of it, however.

So what was life like in Britain between 1837 and 1901?  Chapter 1 describes basic personal care from the era.

  • Most people in the Victorian era rose with the sun.  If you were a factory worker or someone who had to get up earlier, you could hire a knocker-upper to come wake you up at the appointed time since timepieces were rather expensive.
  • Windows were left open no matter the weather because stale air was considered deadly.  Therefore a nice bedside mat was considered a wonderfully luxury for those that could afford to keep their feet warm when first rising from bed.
  • The majority of people washed in a water-filled basin beside the bed.  Once a week the luxury of using hot water was common in many households.  Since the windows were wide open, most washed in their clothes to keep from freezing.
  • Before Victorian times, people didn’t wash with water at all as this was thought to invite disease.  Instead they rubbed themselves down with a dry pad and changed their underwear with greater frequency.
  • Scientists at the time thought the skin contributed greatly to respiration.  In one experiment they varnished an entire horse.  It quickly died from heat exhaustion.
  • Soap was expensive with a 4oz bar of soap costing as much as a joint of roast.  Washing and laundry could consume 5% of the typical household budget.
  • Ammonia or vinegar was a common deodorant.
  • Carbolic acid was a common disinfectant and even today its sharp smell is considered an indication of cleanliness
  • Tooth care products were often home made; their key ingredients were soot, salt or charcoal.  More expensive products purchased from apothecaries had many other added ingredients to make them taste better but tended to be pink rather than white.
  • Women’s sanitary needs were suspended from a belt or even slung over the shoulders since bloomers were not supportive enough to keep them in place.  Sanitary napkins were sometimes mail ordered or simply rags that were washed month after month.

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Random Book Notes: Indian Customs and Culture

This evening I perused a couple of books on Indian culture and jotted down a few notes.  This are far from detailed but they are the tidbits that leapt out at me as I read.  Note that these are VERY quick notes and I’m sure they’re completely overgeneralized in many cases so correct me if I’m wrong but be gentle, please!

  • Gained independence from the British Empire in 1947 becoming, eventually, three different countries:
    • West Pakistan; primarily Muslim
    • East Pakistan, became Bangladesh in 1971
    • India; primarily Hindu
  • Interpersonally, Indians like to invest time in others, really getting to know them.  In some cases it’s not unusual for an Indian person to want to spend a week or more with someone who is a new business contact
  • Indians tend to be intensely curious about Westerners and often gather in crowds around them.  They also tend to have much more conversation about family and personal matters than Westerners
  • Hinduism or Sanatana dharma, the eternal way of life
    • One God – Brahman with three aspects
      • Brahma – the creator
      • Vishnu – the preserver/sustainer
      • Shiva – the completer/destroyer
  • Indians do not tend to use toilet paper and are, in fact, rather disgusted by the Western habit of doing so.  They wipe with their left hand and wash afterwards.  As a result, the left hand is considered unclean and should not be used to touch food.
  • Meals
    • Morning tea: 6:30-7:00am, tends to be sweets, eggs, biscuits
    • Lunch: 1:00-2:00pm, rice and curries
    • Dinner: 8:30pm
    • If invited to an Indian’s house for dinner, it tends to be expected that you will be 15-30 minutes late in arriving
  • Body Language
    • The head and ears are considered sacred, never touch the head of a child
    • Pointing with the fingers is considered rude, instead Indians point with a jerk of their chin in the desired direction
    • Grasping the ears is considered a sign of sincerity
    • A point of confusion is the typical Indian style of head shaking. Shaking back and forth with a bit of sinusoidal tilt is often taken as meaning ‘no’ but in reality indicates fervent agreement
    • Traditional Indian greeting is the namaskar with palms together with fingers extended and a slight bow.
  • Family
    • Most Hindus married by walking seven times around a ceremonial fire; this is just part of the ceremony but this seems to be a repeated theme
    • It is vitally important for a wife to bear a son; only a son can perform the necessary ceremonies required to save the parents from “put” or hell.
    • Daughters are viewed as less desirable because they often require payment of a crippling dowry
    • Indian proverb:
      • Children from 0-5 should be treated as princes
      • Children from 6-16 should be treated as slaves
      • Children 16 and older should be treated as friends
    • Family groups are very tightly knit and children are always in the presence of many relatives.
    • Babies are not allowed to cry but are fed on demand whenever needed.  Diapers are not typically worn and children can pee freely wherever
    • The bond between mother and son is the strongest in most families
    • The bond between wife and husband is next to weakest with only the bond between sisters being weaker

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Reviews: Seven Seeds of Summer by Chantal Gadoury

For a very long time I resisted the idea of video reviews.  As it turns out, most of my reason for resisting them was my fear of being seen and heard on camera.  Since I was a kid I’ve hated the sound of my own voice on tape.  A few days ago I started to do a video review but stopped because it just made me stupidly nervous.  In the past couple days I’ve realized that the nervousness that I felt was an indication that this was something I NEEDED to do to expand myself as a person.  Today I bit the bullet and just DID it.  It might be silly.  It might be filled with disfluencies (um, uh, er, ah) but it’s my first and I’m confident that it won’t be the last.

As is often the case I received this book free in exchange for a review. Despite that kindness I am absolutely honest about it below.

This is a twisted love story drawn strongly from classic Greek mythology. Man loves woman, woman secretly loves man but doesn’t really quite know it yet or even realize that he does, in fact exist. What happens next is left as an exercise to the reader but does engage the reader’s interest quite strongly and has the feel of all those Greek myths that we either payed a lot of attention to in High School or totally ignored.

To the positive side, the story is enthralling and pulls you along from page to page quite nicely. The character development of our protagonist is profound and quite a Bildungsroman. Summer is entirely and utterly changed by the end and has lept from naive college girl to a grown woman in the period of a few months. The action in the novel is at times passionate without being trashy and leaves plenty to the imagination.

To the negative, the technical aspects of this novel are rather horrifying and not just from the typographic mistakes. The author at times slips into a mode of writing that would make one believe that English is not their first language. Idioms are completely misused, words are entirely misplaced and the text just needs to be thoroughly proofread and corrected. Our favorite example of clumsy writing is from page 270: “I watched him disappear behind his black door and heard it silently close.” Unfortunately no matter how strong the story may be, issues like this constitute an interruption of narrative flow that detract heavily from the impact of the novel. Lastly, the behavior of the characters is very erratic, more erratic than can be situationally explained. Summer’s development by the end of the novel is keenly evident but during that transition her emotions are insanely volatile. Her love interest too bounces maniacally from caring to monster in the span of a few sentences. While some of this is to be expected in the stress of such a complicated relationship, the portrayal in this novel is just too much to ever believe they’d end up in anything approaching a happy ending.

In summary, this is a strong idea for a novel but the detailed execution of it fails terribly. The whole text needs a sound editing to even out some of the fractured characterization and dialog as well as to resolve some of the author’s creative misuse of English Grammar.

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