ARTICLE

Amazon tastes bad

Some wonderful internet services rely on so-called 'intelligent systems' to keep you interested and stimulated. They guess your preferences, guide your choices, point you towards new (and lucrative) potential purchases. Perhaps the most famous such system is TiVo. Unknown in Australia except by technogeeks, TiVo is a US device that predicts which programs you will want to watch on telly. You tell it what you like (or don't) and lo! your diet of CSI and Alias spreads like a crimewave. Your TiVo personal digital video recorder saves every imaginable analytical crime series that your 300 channels can throw at you. Your partner suffers nightmares for months thereafter.

If telly isn't your thing, how about intelligent audio streaming? A service like Pandora lets you customise 'stations' of musical styles, and as the reasonably-empowered listener, you get to tell Pandora what you feel about each song it plays. It will even tell you why it chose a particular song for you. Very bright! You can discover that an affection for Santana's Maria Maria goes hand in hand with an attraction to Craig 'how-many-times-can-I-mention-my-name' David. Or that loving John Paul Young's Love is in the Air (which I do) makes you a candidate listener of Roger Wakefield. Wrong wrong wrong. Although opening Pandora's box can cause a few surprises, you can at least berate Pandora by telling it not to play that awful track again! Nonetheless, I find myself unable to train the dear gal to play music which I regard as in some way genre-sharing with Savage Garden. Chris de Berg? Gimme a break.

TiVo is said to be a little harder to control than Pandora. If you dislike cowboy movies, there is anecdotal evidence that you might face a barage of arthouse films and a dancepartyness of Queer As Folk episodes. Realigning one's sexual orientation with TiVo might be some sinister social experiment, but the 'intelligence' in the system clearly doesn't understand that not every straight boy aspires to be John Wayne. The amusing or dissonant effect of this sort of 'recommender system' (as they're called in the trade) was first highlighted in an article by Jeffrey Zaslow in the Wall Street Journal in 2002 and has become quite famous.

Notwithstanding my minor tussles with Pandora, I haven't had to contend with any serious distorting effects of a recommender system. Until yesterday.

Amazon thinks I have a sense of humour and would buy a book by Victoria Beckham (once 'Posh Spice' of the Spice Girls pop group). Let me revise that. Amazon.co.uk thinks I have a taste for quirky humorous books, and thinks I should buy popular fiction, and thinks I would like a book by Victoria Beckham. So, so wrong.

The good news? This affliction probably isn't permanent. Because I know the culprit. It's Jamie Oliver. All I had done was give a ranking to his new tome (Cook with Jamie). Suddenly I'm meant to want a book about why penguins' feet don't freeze. Amazon suggests I buy Ian Rankin and John Grisham too. Ha! The only near-hit is Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion. And then there's that book by Mrs Beckham. If it were one written by her hubbie I'd be camping out front of my local bookshop in an instant.

So, Jamie has buggered up my Amazon recommendations. I'm not talking about the 'Customers who bought this item also bought' section. Amazon customers can also view a 'Recommendations for you' page that develops as a result of your previous purchases, views and wishlist. Should I unrate Jamie? I might yet want to buy a Jamie book at some point (there is, however, no historical precedent). I faced a similar dilemma when a high rating of Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice resulted in a few too-hands-on titles about building brick ovens and the like.

I should explain that I use Amazon almost exclusively to surf the food/cooking category. It's a great way to keep abreast of new books (sometimes slow to reach Terra Australis), find old or unexpectedly interesting tomes, or even to buy the occasional item. Who'd have guessed? Anyway, the effect of surfing within a limited domain is that the recommendations are usually fairly acceptable. Sometimes Amazon gets a little too enthusiastic about Japanese or Persian cooking, but I can deal with it, and there was once a nasty incident when I told it I owned a book on butchery, but we won't go there.

I've been looking a little more closely at the recommendations. The situation seems quite grave. A few deviant food books have also crept in. Apparently Allegra's Colour Cookbook, Sophie Conran's Pies and Mary Berry's Christmas Collection are worthy of my attention. Is there happyjuice in my cordial? This isn't Jamie's fault.

An unlikely pair of culprits have been identified. On the one hand we have Bill Granger (Every Day). I knew there was something wrong when a guy can smile that much. And on the other is the Rose Bakery of Paris (Breakfast, Lunch and Tea). By rating these I've been thrown into the lifestyle end of the bookshop. I'm having visions of Donna Hay spinning spaghetti into neat little nests. Should I cook with Marie Claire? Is it time to redecorate? Do I need a makeover? If collaborative filtering (the process of predicting interests based on a range of people's preference patterns) does this to me then I don't want to be a team player!

Whether you've got £20 to spend in Top Shop or £2,000 to spend at Gucci, looking good isn't about money, it's about style, and style never goes out of fashion.

I wonder if the rest of Victoria's book is as rich in insightful aphorisms. With a title more like a C-grade porno than a fashion aid, That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) is not going to fulfil me culinarily. It strikes me that I've viewed the page for this masterpiece twice already and Amazon's recommender system has no doubt recorded that fact for posterity. I expect the clever algorithms are now irreparably biased in pink. Am I doomed to How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything when next I visit the 'Recommendations for you' page?

- DM

Links:

Cook with Jamie Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
The God Delusion Amazon US | Amazon UK
The Bread Baker's Apprentice Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Allegra's Colour Cookbook Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Sophie Conran's Pies Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Mary Berry's Christmas Collection Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Every Day Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Breakfast, Lunch and Tea Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Donna Hay Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
Marie Claire Books for Cooks AU | Amazon US | Amazon UK
That Extra Half an Inch: Hair, Heels and Everything in Between (Hardcover) Amazon UK
How to Walk in High Heels: The Girl's Guide to Everything Amazon US | Amazon UK

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COMMENTS

2 responses to “Amazon tastes bad”

  1. Harry

    Now you know very well why Victoria Beckham's book keeps popping up on Amazon. Buying all those Spice Girl CDs in your youth is nothing to be ashamed of! I'm sure lots of people did. But your secret's safe with me :p

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