Alexa, Google, and Cookies: The frightening reality

I don’t have a ‘digital assistant’. But my wife used to have ‘Google Assistant’ active on her phone. She liked that it allowed her to ask her phone a question, without having to type it in.

Many people love their ‘Amazon Alexa’, using it to do many things in their lives, especially to remind them of appointments or dates, or to play music.

We all know that ‘Cookies’ trace what we search for online, and most of the sites we browse on the Internet. We can refuse to allow Cookies in the main, though that will often mean you are unable to look at something, for example a news website in full.

In our modern society, many people complain about the intrusion into our lives. Excessive CCTV, tracking of credit card use, tracking of bus and train ticket use, and much more. Unless you walk everywhere, and keep all your money in a box under your bed, you can be sure that your habits are being tracked, like it or not.

But the ‘digital assistants’ take this to another level, and in my opinion, one that should cause us all concern.

Here are two examples of why I believe this to be true.

Earlier this week, we were watching TV in the evening. My wife’s phone was connected to the home wi-fi, but she wasn’t using it at the time. It was sitting on a side table, the screen black. During a break in the programme, she turned to me and started to talk about what had happened in the first part. Just general chit-chat, nothing too private. The screen on her phone lit up, and she picked it up, presuming someone was calling, or sending a text.

She was shocked to see that her phone was typing what she had been saying. She turned to me and said, “It’s typing everything I have just been talking about”. As she said that, it continued to type those words too. She went into settings, and disabled Google Assistant. The phone didn’t like that, and popped up a warning that ‘You will be unable to access many features of your phone if you do this”. If it could have spoken those words, I have no doubt it would have sounded very much like the voice of Big Brother, in the film of Orwell’s novel.

Once it had been uninstalled, she was unable to find where it had stored what it had been typing. Her words had disappeared into the Great Google Hard Drive, somewhere in America, presumably.

This morning, we were unpacking a parcel. It was a buggy and car seat combination that we had ordered for my step-daughter’s new baby, due in two weeks. As we struggled with the huge carton, my wife’s phone rang, and it was her daughter. A happy coincidence. They switched their phones to the Facebook equivalent of face-time, and she was shown the cartons laid out on the carpet. As they carried on chatting, I went back into the office room to continue checking on blog posts.

I had been reading one from Lobotero, concerning ISIS and Iran. Scrolling down to the end, an advertisement popped up at the bottom of his site.

It was for the exact same buggy and car seat combination. The same model, and the same colour. Stupidly, it suggested I should order one, and even offered a discount voucher. Perhaps they thought I would buy two of them, for one baby?

Of greater concern was the fact that Facebook had obviously been monitoring my wife’s phone camera activity on their site. In less than forty seconds, that had generated an large advertisement on the website of an unconnected American blogger, directly targeted at me.

If they can do that, I have to wonder what else they can do.

Film Posters

When I was young, films were advertised by posters, shown outside cinemas. They would have some of the film showing that week, and usually one of the next ‘Coming attraction’. There was no film advertising on TV, and it was all but unknown in newspapers. No Internet, so no Social Media, and no other way of really alerting the public to what was going to be shown on our cinema screens. There were a few specialist film magazines, but they were both expensive on a low income, and hard to find everywhere.

The posters did their best to tell the story of the film, but mainly settled for visual impact, to attract audiences. There was an element of psychology in the images chosen to promote their films, as well as a good understanding of what would lead people into parting with their money to watch the latest releases.

This poster was for the 1932 horror film, ‘The Mummy’
The studio took the gamble of showing the film’s horrific ‘big reveal’ of the Mummy’s face, and made sure to headline Boris Karloff, the star.
It also showed a ‘damsel in distress’, to indicate that some eye candy was on offer too.

HAM-015 Attributed to Karoly Grosz, The Mummy, 1932, produced by Universal Pictures, printed by Morgan Lithograph Company, lithograph, 41 × 27 in. (104.1 × 68.6 cm). Collection of Kirk Hammett. Courtesy of Universal Studios Licensing, LLC.

The Astaire-Rogers musical of 1937, ‘Shall We Dance’, took the option of showing the stars in a drawing, rather than a photograph.
They were so popular by then, an image of the couple was hardly necessary, so money was saved on using photographs.

In 1939, the poster for the epic film of ‘Gone With The Wind’ showed the two stars, and gave some idea of the story’s setting too.
It also promoted the film technique, ‘Technicolor’, to show how modern the studio was.

For 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’, the studio used a drawing, with Orson Welles looming large, but making sure to include two attractive women in the scene too.

The same year, Ida Lupino shared top billing with Humphrey Bogart, in ‘High Sierra’.
But she was ‘reduced’ on the poster, as Bogart was considered to be the star attraction to that film.

In 1944, during WW2, the poster for Hitchcock’s ‘Lifeboat’ portrayed the female stars as relying on strong men, who were protecting them as they drifted in the lifeboat.

For the Orson Welles’ film ‘Lady From Shanghai’ in 1947, they didn’t bother to try to explain the film.
A full view of the attractive star, Rita Hayworth, was considered to be enticing enough.

Ten years later, and a male heart-throb was definitely the draw, with Robert Taylor in ‘Ivanhoe’.
Despite the presence of the gorgeous Liz Taylor, her face appears very small on the poster.
Once again, ‘Tecnicolor’ was shown on the poster, this time in a much bigger font.

Just over a year later, and Liz was back. With ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’, the film-makers knew what the audience would want to see on the poster.
Just Liz, in a seductive pose.

Modern film posters began to focus attention on the name of the director, often above the title or stars. As in ‘A Marin Scorsese Film…’, and they also featured the studio or film company more prominently, with headlines like ‘Universal Presents…’.

Do you remember the days of film posters? Perhaps you had a favourite, or one you have never forgotten.

Cookies, and Advertising

I have written previously about the connection between cookies, and receiving targeted advertising. It is only to be expected, in our modern online world.

But it is getting better, and more detailed. There is ample evidence to show just how immediate and powerful it is.

Over the course of the last twelve months, I have had occasion to research things online. Subjects I would not normally investigate. For my serial ‘Benny Goes Bust’, I looked at the phenomenon of ‘Granny Glamour’, something that has an overwhelming following on Internet search engines. Within minutes, I received invitations for sites that dealt with ‘Granny Dating’, ‘Granny Sex’, and ‘Willing Grannies’. The only real surprise, was just how many ‘Grannies’ were out there. In various forms of undress, and in many manifestations of ‘old-age sex’.

More recently, I have noticed that whatever I search for, that subject will appear in seconds, either via email, or in a ‘pop-up’ when I am surfing any site, no matter how unrelated.

Not too long ago, I bought a pair of casual shoes, from the website of the manufacturers, ‘Crocs’. Seconds later, I checked my email, only to find numerous advertisements for Croc shoes, even though I had just bought them. And they were identical to those I had bought too. When it comes to the mighty Amazon, it is even faster. Buy something from that dominant website, and within a heartbeat, you will get emails suggesting that you buy exactly the same item again.

This is all driven by ‘Algorithms’, I am aware of that. But what kind of silly process decides that you will buy exactly the same thing again, five minutes after you have just ordered it?

I recently researched ‘Omega Seamaster’ watches, for a fiction serial. Moments later, my email inbox was full of jeweller’s advertisements for that very watch. I had to laugh, as they cost almost £2,000, far beyond my reach. Those algorithms are completely skewed, but the companies paying to be included are oblivious to the actual genuine market for their products. It may not be a problem for me. I can just delete the emails. But I am left wondering about all the time and money wasted, picking up on search engines, and sending targeted emails.

So this is an open letter, to all those companies paying a small fortune for ‘targeted’ advertising.

Forget it. It is pointless, and it won’t work.

It’s starting already

As everyone knows, yesterday was the first of October.

Of course, it immediately started with a vengeance. I received emails for Halloween ‘specials’. A flyer came through the door, advertising a local supermarket. Pumpkins were on sale, and already reduced.

Some bloggers were starting early too, mentioning special ‘scary’ film posts, building up to the supposed wonder of Halloween.

Then I went out late afternoon, to do my usual ‘big shop’. I could have been very confused. I may well have believed it was already the 30th, not the 1st. Costumes on sale, alongside socks with pumpkins on them, tights with skulls printed on them; witches’ hats, plastic brooms, and tubs of sweets for trick or treat. Once I got to the food aisles, I discovered a new phenomenon, ‘Halloween Food’. It seems that multi-packs of sausages, large boxes of oven-ready nibbles, and various designs of chicken bites, are all now required eating on the 31st.

The long confectionery section was also laden with ‘special’ boxes and packets. The same old sweets and biscuits, their wrappers in fancy dress, to cash in on Halloween. Obviously, a chocolate wafer biscuit is more appealing if it has a cartoon pumpkin on the wrapper, dressed as a witch. That makes them taste better, I’m sure.

OK, I am an old grump, and I hate Halloween. For someone of my age, in England, it is relatively new, and did not feature here at all, until I was in my late thirties.
But come on, consumers. Are you really going to keep falling for this crap every year?

Sadly, I suspect you are.

Significant Songs (162)

This Girl

On occasion, these song posts have nothing to do with nostalgia. They are not about a singer or group I have always enjoyed, or a song that changed the world, or at least my own life. Sometimes, they have a completely different significance, and this is one of those times.

TV adverts use music a lot these days. Not so much jingles, or a ditty written especially for the product, but mainstream songs from current recording artists. Annoyingly, the short duration of these advertisements rarely allows the viewer to hear the whole song, and almost never informs us of what the song is called, or who recorded it. At the moment, Peugeot cars are using a song to advertise their latest small car, and just as we are starting to enjoy it, the voiceover kicks in, and leaves us wanting more.

So, I looked it up. It is called ‘This Girl’, and by MNM Kungs, a duo I had never heard of. Fortunately, You Tube has the whole song (as usual) so I was able to enjoy it in its entirety. Proof positive of the power of advertising, if any was needed. But I haven’t bought a car…

Advertising Your Blog

Many of you will know of my association with the magazine Longshot Island. I have been happy to have stories and articles published there, both online, and in print. Daniel is now looking to expand the reach of the magazine, with features on Art and Photography, perhaps even cartoons. He is also offering something that most of us may not have considered, the ability to advertise our blogs, for a very reasonable fee. This is part of something he sent me, and it makes sense.

“If you’re an author, you know the importance of keeping up a blog. But how do people find your blog? There’s a growing trend of bloggers paying for ads to attract visitors. If you’ve got Google ads on your site, you make money with every page impression. So why not attract more people?”

Many of my blogging friends are published authors, and aspiring writers. But all have to depend on promoting their work via other blogs, email newsletters, Twitter, or Facebook. Few of us would think about paying for a classified ad to promote our blog, and thereby draw attention to their work or projects. But why not? Mainly because we think it is expensive, I suspect. But with ads starting at just $2, Longshot Island provides an outlet, for less than the price of a cup of coffee. Here’s an example. (Click on this, for a clearer image)

If you like the sound of this, the full rates are listed here.
Longshot rates

Don’t forget that Daniel and his team are always happy to receive submissions for consideration. They may be published online, in print, or both. Even if they are unsuitable, you can be sure that you will receive positive feedback, and only constructive criticism. Why not send something? Here’s a direct link.
http://www.longshotisland.com/submissions/

Have a think about taking out an advertisement. It is not expensive, so you have little to lose, and potentially lots more to gain.

Dying for a cigarette?

My earliest memories are of people smoking. Stinging smoke in my eyes, an ashtray on every flat surface. By the time that I was old enough to think about it, I didn’t hardly know anyone who wasn’t a smoker. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, many of my cousins, and all their friends and neighbours. Customers in shops, and shopkeepers and assistants too. Most of the teachers at school, a large section of my fellow pupils, and any man I ever met over the age of sixteen. They all smoked.

You could smoke on the top deck of a bus, in the smoking compartments of trains, and in any seat in a coach. The cinema was fair game too, though theatres had generally restricted smoking to the bar only, and during intervals. Restaurants provided ashtrays on every table, large stores employed people to sweep up the butts discarded on the floors, and nobody ever complained. Cigarettes were relatively cheap, as were matches. It was part of growing up, a rite of passage, as well as a huge industry.

Advertisers had been urging us to smoke for decades by then. Once commercial TV arrived, smart and glossy adverts urged us to try different brands. Almost sixty years later, I still remember some of the tag-lines. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’ ‘Consulate, cool as a mountain stream.’ Sponsorship followed, with F1 racing teams like JPS being financed by tobacco companies. Then there were the films. From the earliest days, smoking in films was portrayed as sexy, manly, or just a good way to chat someone up. Studio stars had portfolio photos taken, showing them lighting cigarettes, or sitting swathed in swirls of smoke. Soldiers in war films prized their smokes above all, with product placement for brands like Chesterfield and Lucky Strike accepted as fact. Lovers were shown lighting up after sex scenes, as if the post-coital cigarette was the reason for it all to begin with.

Almost everyone smoked, and nobody seemed to care.

In 1967, I was taken to see my GP. I had very swollen eyes, a result of my first experience of hay fever. Not only was this kindly old man smoking as I entered the consultation room, he offered my Mum a cigarette as she sat down. By the time I reached the age of sixteen, I had resisted the urge to try smoking. Still at school, I had little or no disposable income, so the prospect of spending what I had on cigarettes did not even occur to me. The following summer, I got a holiday job. I was on full-time wages, and finally had some real money in my pocket.

On payday, I went into the local shop, and bought twenty cigarettes and a box of matches. There was no question of not selling them to me. I had been sent out to buy cigarettes for my parents since I was seven or eight. I used to be allowed to spend the change on sweets, so always looked forward to being asked to run over to the shop. I lit my first ever cigarette, just over six months short of my seventeenth birthday. I expected to cough violently, and to not know how to smoke. I thought it might taste bad, feel hot, or be otherwise unpleasant. But it wasn’t. It was easy. I felt a little light-headed, but in a good way. I just had the one though, then put them away in a coat pocket.

A year later, and I had left school to take a full-time job. I smoked all the time by then, trying different brands to settle on the one I liked best. My parents had seemed relieved when they saw me smoking. To them it was perfectly natural, and it didn’t worry them in the least. I had joined the smokers, something that they had all been waiting for me to do.

Over the following decades, I smoked without thinking. I met my first wife, who also smoked, though only casually. My second wife had just given up when we met, but had no problem with me smoking at all. I could still smoke almost anywhere. Even the receptionists in the hospital smoked, as they booked patients in. Doctors would sneak into the staff room, to join the heavy-smoking nurses for a much-need cigarette break. But the tide was turning. Cinemas had brought in the ridiculous ‘right-hand’ system. All the seats on the right of the auditorium had smoking allowed, but not the left. That meant I would be sitting less than four feet away from a non-smoker during a 2-3 hour film, puffing away happily. On aircraft, you had to request a ‘smoking seat’. These were always the few rows at the very back. This still meant that a non-smoker was only one seat away from a person who might be smoking a cigar or pipe, as well as those using cigarettes. But duty-free cigarettes and cigars were sold to aircraft passengers, so there was a vested interest. Restaurants introduced ‘smoking tables’, again close to non-smokers who had to suffer in silence, most of the time.

Soon after, the anti-smoking lobby was gaining ground. Sides were taken, battle-lines drawn. Some of those same doctors who had sneaked into the staff room for a smoke in their youth, were now making television programmes about the hazards of tobacco smoke. Gory photos of cancerous tumours and diseased lungs were all over the media. And then there was the cost. Successive governments had increased the taxes on cigarettes, knowing that they could milk the nicotine addicts of their money, like so many cash cows. But I had a well-paid job, so I continued to buy my expensive Lucky Strikes. When I eventually met Julie, in the year 2000, one of the first things I told her was that I was a heavy smoker. By then it was important to get that fact across as soon as possible in any relationship. Fortunately, she told me that she also smoked, so that problem was solved.

Twelve years later, with retirement looming, I realised that I could no longer afford to buy cigarettes. They had increased in price to an extortionate £8.80 back then, and cost even more now. I could easily do the sums. Ten packets a week = £88. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and you get £4,576. That was more than one of my two pensions, just for cigarettes. So, we both gave up. Well, not exactly gave up. We switched to e-cigarettes, called ‘Vaping’ in some countries. It’s a fraction of the price, and is currently thought to be 95% safer than smoking. Very little in life is 100% safe, not even tap water, so it’s a fair gamble.

But it might all be too late of course. The damage could have been done all those years ago, as I sat enjoying my Lucky Strikes. Ask any smoker, and they will tell you it’s mostly about habit. Answering the phone? Light a cigarette. Driving in traffic? Light a cigarette. Enjoying a beer, or glass of wine? Better with a cigarette. Stressful day, or an argument with your partner? A cigarette helps. The first cup of coffee in the morning, or that last hot drink at night. Start the day with a cigarette, and round it off with one too. Just eaten a nice meal? Time for a cigarette. Leaving the house? Pat down your pockets, or check your handbag. Make sure you have those cigarettes and lighter on you. The habit is stronger than the addiction for most of us. And I say us, because I am still a smoker, albeit one of a different kind. I don’t preach, or take sides. It is what it is, for whatever reason it began.

But the next time you hear yourself say, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” You probably are.