The Future is Creepy: Reading Consumer’s Brainwaves

brainscansProduct marketing has always been a high stakes game, where companies rely on psychology, competitive strategies, and well-honed ad campaigns to appeal to consumer’s instincts. This has never been an exact science, but it may soon be possible for advertisers to simply read your brainwaves to determine what you’re thinking and how much you’re willing to pay.

This past October, the German news site Spiegel Online profiled the provocative work of a Swiss neuroscientist and former sales consultant who is working on a method of measuring brain waves to determine how much a person would be willing to pay for a good or service. Known as “feel-good pricing” to marketing critics, the idea is already inspiring horror and intrigue.

brainwavesThe neuroscientist in question is Kai-Markus Müller, the head of Neuromarketing Labs who has over 10 years of experience in neuroscience research. According to his test, Starbucks is not actually charging enough for its expensive coffee. In fact, it’s probably leaving profits on the table because people would probably still buy it if they charged more.

To conduct this test, Müller targeting an area in the brain that lights up when things don’t really make sense. When test subjects were presented with the idea of paying 10 cents for coffee, their brain reacted unconsciously because the price seemed too cheap. A coffee for $8, on other hand, produced a similar reaction since the price seemed too high.

brain-activityOne would think that this method would help to determine optimum pricing. However, Müller then set up a coffee vending machine where people were allowed to set their own price. The two methods then matched up and revealed that people were willing to pay a higher price than what Starbucks actually charges. Somehow, paying less made people think they were selecting an inferior grade of product.

Naturally, there are those who would be horrified by this idea, feeling that it represents the worst combination of Big Brother surveillance and invasive marketing. This is to be expecting when any talk of “reading brainwaves” is concerned, dredging up images of a rampant-consumer society where absolutely no privacy exists, even within the space of your own head.

neuromarketOn the other hand, Müller himself takes issue with the notion of the “transparent consumer”, claiming that “Everyone wins with this method”. As proof, he cited the numerous flops in the consumer economy in the Spiegel Online article. Apparently, roughly 80 percent of all new products disappear from shelves after a short time, mainly because the producers have misjudged the markets desire for them or what they are willing to pay.

It’s all part of a nascent concept known as Neuromarketing, and it is set to take to the market in the coming years. One can expect that consumers will have things to say about it, and no doubt those feelings will come through whenever and wherever producers try to sell you something. Personally, I am reminded of what Orwell wrote in 1984:

“Always the eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, working or eating, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or in bed — no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimetres inside your skull.”

futurama_lightspeedbriefsAnd perhaps more appropriately, I’m also reminded of what Fry said about advertising in the Season 1 episode of Futurama entitled “A Fistfull of Dollars”:

“Leela: Didn’t you have ads in the 21st century?

Fry: Well sure, but not in our dreams. Only on TV and radio, and in magazines, and movies, and at ball games… and on buses and milk cartons and t-shirts, and bananas and written on the sky. But not in dreams, no siree.”

Somehow, truth is always stranger than fiction!


News From Space: IAU Revises Stance on Naming Planets

alien-worldGood news everyone! According to the International Astronomic Union, the public can now participate in the naming of new exoplanets. What’s more, they can be popular names like kinds found in science fiction, assuming they are appropriate and the public is behind it. This represents a big change in terms of IAU policy, which previously reserved the right to give names to newly discovered bodies outside of our Solar System.

As recently as late March, 2013, the IAU’s official word on naming exoplanets was, “the IAU sees no need and has no plan to assign names to these objects at the present stage of our knowledge.” Their rationale was since there is seemingly going to be so many exoplanets, it will be difficult to name them all.

IAU_exosBut then, on March 24th, the IAU added on their website:

…the IAU greatly appreciates and wishes to acknowledge the increasing interest from the general public in being more closely involved in the discovery and understanding of our Universe. As a result in 2013 the IAU Commission 53 Extrasolar Planets and other IAU members will be consulted on the topic of having popular names for exoplanets, and the results will be made public on the IAU website.

This new decision follows from an event earlier this year where the SETI Institute and the space company Uwingu organized their own campaigns for creating popular names of objects in space. Both events were wildly popular with the general public, but generated some controversy. For one, the IAU issued a statement regarding the contests saying that while they welcomed the public’s interest, the IAU has the last word.

Pluto-System_720-580x344For example, the SETI institute’s contest, “Space Rocks”, was intended to name two newly discovered moons around Pluto. Though the name “Vulcan” was the top contender for one of them, and even got a nod from William Shatner, the IAU overruled their decision and went with the name “Styx” instead. Additionally, the IAU took issue with the “selling” of names, referring to the fact that Uwingu charged a fee to take part in their contest.

However, given public interest in the process and the fact that other bodies might begin privatizing the process, the IAU has altered its position on these matters and opened up the naming process to the public. The new rules, which were passed this summer, now allow individuals to suggest names of exoplanets and planetary satellites (moons) via email to the IAU.

gliese-581.jpgThose looking to make a contribution to naming newly discovered planets and moons are asked to abide by the following criteria:

  1. Prior to any public naming initiative the IAU should be contacted from the start by Letter of Intent sent to the IAU General Secretary
  2. The process should be submitted in the form of a proposal to the IAU by an organization
  3. The organization should list its legal or official representatives and its goals, and explain the reasons for initiating the process for naming a particular object or set of objects
  4. The process cannot request nor make reference to any revenues, for whatever purpose
  5. The process must guarantee a wide international participation
  6. The public names proposed (whether by individuals or in a naming campaign) should follow the naming rules and restrictions adopted for Minor Bodies of the Solar System, by the IAU and by the Minor Planet Center.

Among other rules cited in their new policy are that proposed names should be 16 characters or less in length, pronounceable in as many languages as possible, non-offensive in any language or culture, and that names of individuals, places or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable. Also, the names must have the formal agreement of the discoverers.

KeplerThis about face has its share of supporters and critics alike. Whereas people who support it generally see it as a sign that we are entering into an era of open and democratic space exploration. the critics tend to stress the contradictions and ambiguities in the new policy. Whereas the IAU previously claimed it had the final word on the naming process, their new stance appears to indicate that this is no longer the case.

In addition, companies like Uwingu are now free to participate in the naming of planetary bodies, which means that their contest to name Pluto’s moon “Vulcan” would now be legitimate under the new framework. Many people, such as astronomer and Uwingu CEO Alan Stern, are wondering if the new rules will apply retroactively since they were previously forbidden from having any input.

kepler22b.jpgAs for me, this puts me in mind of my own attempts to name real or fictitious exoplanets. Sadly, since it this was done for the sake of writing fiction, they would have no legal standing, but the process was still fun and got me thinking… If we are to begin exploring and colonizing planets outside of our Solar System, how will we go about naming them?

Now it seems there is a process in place for just such a thing, one which will assign actual names instead of bland designations. And it appears that this process will be a trade off between scientific organizations and public input, either through campaigns or contests. And I imagine once we start breaking ground on new worlds, settlers and shareholders will have a thing or two to say as well!

Planet Microsoft… Planet Starbucks… Planet Walmart… I shudder to think!


Data Miners – Chapter 2


He’s arrived early.  H-hour, eighteen-hundred hours, at the Seattle Coffee House, one night since receiving the email.  His dark shades block out the harsh reality that is stinging his senses.  Last night’s activities have left him a little sore and sluggish.  But he’ll suffice for tonight’s engagement.  He steps a few feet away from the barista at her serving station and does a three-hundred sixty degree survey of the room.  He spots a woman in a dark suede jacket and black glasses sitting in the corner nursing a 20 ounce cup.  A mountain of curls hangs from her head, draping over her shoulders and down to the handbag that swings from the arm rest of her mahogany chair.  He smiles and steps up to the bar.

“Twelve-ounce macchiato, extra strong,” he says to the sardonic white kid with the braces and a constellation of zits.  He demands an exorbitant amount of money in exchange.

“Here you go,” he says, forking over a five and rummaging around for some loose change.  Such is the price of fair-trade and inflation.  He receives his cup from the barista and walks over to the self-serve doctoring station where he adds lots of milk and several spoonfuls of the coarse brown sugar.  He pauses and wonders if it is fair-trade too.  Some sugar farmer in the Caribbean could be living a better life thanks to his preference for sweetness.

Speaking of which, Angie is waiting.  He walks over to her table, trying not to seem overly casual.  As he walks, he wonders what it might be like to bury his nose in that mountain she’s sporting on her head.  He’s come close once or twice, the scent still comes back to him in rare flashes.  Lilacs and cherry blossoms, or at least what he imagines they would smell like.  Her lips are encrusted with rubies.  What do rubies taste like, he wonders?  Cherry?

“Angie,” he says as he takes a seat opposite her.

“Hello Yammie,” she says in return.  “You’re early, as usual.”

“Figured I’d get a good seat this way, opposite you.”

She sips from her cup.  He notices the Chai tea tag hanging from it.  “Hope you enjoy the view,” she says.  “I’m in a bitchy mood.”

“With you, dear Angie, any mood is heightened by the mere fact of your presence.”

She scowls at him from behind those dark glasses.  “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, there’s no way, Yammie.  Now just sit still and wait for the others.”

He smiles like a boy who’s been chastised by his pretty teacher.  She’s taken the challenge to heart, it seems.  He still doesn’t know what it is exactly, but it’s clear it’s got her peeved.

“While we’re waiting, how about we talk about turn ons and turns offs?”

“Been reading too many porn mags there, Yammie?”

He chuckles, suddenly aware that the dope hasn’t totally worn off.  She’s conjecturing that too much exposure to pornography has convinced him that this is how men and women communicate in real life.  She’s not entirely wrong, but who the hell reads magazines anymore?  He doesn’t dignify the accusation with that response for fear of revealing too much about himself.  At this point in their relationship, he figures what she doesn’t know won’t hurt his chances.

“What about favourite sites to cruise?  Can I ask you that?”

She takes another sip of her Chai and thinks it over.  She shrugs.  “Misinformation and Monster Dicks,” she says casually.  Prad laughs so hard it turns some heads in their directions.  He looks back at them and waves, the mandatory gesture to show he’s not crazy.  When he looks back at her, he notices she’s pulled her glasses down to reveal her shiny hazel-greens.  Her eyes could slice through metal, they are that focused on him.  And she doesn’t look too happy.

“Are you fucking high?”

“What? Noooooooo…”

She is unconvinced and keeps staring at him with that penetrating gaze.  Slowly, the glasses go back into place.  He’s a little self-conscious now, even though he’s told her the truth, sort of.  It’s been less than six hours since he embraced the Purple Haze.  It was intended to get him through the afternoon but he hoped to be sober enough by this point.  Unfortunately, he skipped his after work nap that was supposed to sleep off the last of it.  Idle conversation proves to be a losing game after that. Prad, in spite of his playful antics, is not immune to being shot down in the most blatant of ways.

Luckily, it doesn’t take long for the others to arrive.  One by one, two by two, they file through the front door wearing attire appropriate for the evening’s “briefing”.  There’s Lynette Bradford, DeeMark “Fiddlergrrl”, Tommy “OnKrack” Chu, Claude “Voodooman82” Mecklenburg, Sam “Sandngrr” Sa’id, Tania “Cutegrrl” Zeta, Zuhair “Mohandas5323” Subramanian, and Arthur “Kingdome” Achebe.  These are the sum total of the Society, the best and brightest in their respective field, or at least they say so.  All are dressed in dark leather or suede jackets, wearing the same dark glasses as Angie herself.  They don’t look too conspiratorial walking directly to her table, only a few stopping to order caffeinated beverages.

“Okay, thanks all for coming, so I’ll get right to it.  We’ve been challenged.”  This is how she opens when they all sit down.  Everyone leans in to listen attentively.  Prad gets a few nods from people acknowledging him as they crowd around and press forward so they can hear better.  Suddenly, Prad is feeling pinched and suffocated.  And he resents the loss of privacy with his dear Angie, who seems to have all but forgotten about him as she prattles about their mission.

“The DeePs are known for being assholes to us measly miners, but this is one I couldn’t well pass up.  And it’s a big one, a risky one, so if anyone has any doubts or feels like they don’t want to be a part of it, now’s the time to say so.  Walk away now, and I promise, no one will think less of you.”

Achebe raises his hand and smiles at his own gesture.  He looks like an oversized schoolboy vying for the teacher’s attention.  Angie calls on him accordingly.

“Yes, Artie?”

“I for one would like to know what the challenge is before I make up my mind.  I think everyone would.”

Nods and murmurs of agreement around the table.  Angie nods approvingly and begins to lay it out for them.

“As you all may know, there has been some serious scuttlebutt recently about a certain Congressman who has a long and checkered history, and a strange ability to get re-elected in spite of all the shit that comes out of his mouth.  His hobbies include waving the Confederate flag, denouncing the enshrinement of civil rights in state charters, and hanging nooses on the tree outside his office.”

Some of the group laugh.  They, unlike Prad, it seems, know exactly who she means.

“More recently, his activities included getting anti-gay marriage legislation passed, domestic spying, calling his opponents queers and terrorist sympathizers, and demanding that our current president produce a birth certificate because he doesn’t seem to trust his allegiance.  Ah, fuck it, you know who I mean!”

By now Prad and the remaining clueless apoliticos are catching on.  Sa’id spells it out for his own satisfaction.

“Congressman Dangle, that cocksucker.”

“Right,” says Angie.  “The DeePs seem to agree with me that this man needs a good ass kicking since his constituents are in the habit of re-electing him.  They thought it might be nice if someone were to provide proof of his past affiliations, something that no one could deny.  I told them that if they thought so, they should hack into his campaign d-base and dig up some dirt, like they always do.  But they said they already tried that a few years ago.  They looked into who’s been financing his campaigns and who he’s shaking hands with.”

“Nothing incriminating?”

“Nothing illegal,” Angie replies after taking a sip of tea.  “Any shit he’s done or asses he’s kissed has been out in the open.  Worst thing anyone could find on him is that he takes contributions from the Christian Right and shakes hands with them in public.”

“Stuff any idiot would know,” Prad says.

“They got nothing?” Sa’id says, incredulous.  “Those DeePs found nothing on someone like Dangle and they admitted it?”

“And it pissed them off to no end.  I taunted them about it, but they claim that Dangle must be clean, or just good as faking it.  In either case, they figured that if some dirt didn’t exist, that someone ought to create it and put it where it could be found.”

Prad’s eyes widen and a few people begin to push themselves back from the table.  Sa’id and a few shush them and look around to make sure no one is listening in.  Their volume has exceeded tolerable levels.  Enough noise and even the patrons of a Seattle chain will start to get nervous about a left-wing conspiracy.

“Like I said,” Angie goes on.   “Anybody’s not into this, now’s the time.  The challenge is straightforward, but challenging.  We hack into the FBI d-base, find ourselves some good old fashioned domestic terrorists, and add a little information to their file that suggests they knew and were on good terms with Dangle.  Nothing major, just something that’s going to throw up some red flags at FBI headquarters on Wednesday morning.”

“Sounds dangerous, and borderline sleazy,” Achebe says.  “But if you’re gonna’ do it, count me in.”

“Me too,” Sa’id says.  As a man of Arab descent, he’s waited years to get back at the assholes who made life hell for him and his family.  The years in which he couldn’t get a job and had to move back in with his parents he blames wholeheartedly on these people.  Between the years of oh-one and oh-nine, there was nothing scarier than a Moslem with a high-tech degree.

“I’m in,” Tommy Chu says and raps his knuckles against the table.

“Not me,” says Tania.  “Sorry Ange.”

“It’s okay,” she says with a raised hand.  She knows Tania has just started a job with a company that does government contracts and can’t risk anything that might land her in hot water with her superiors.  The Jerk follows shortly thereafter.

“I’m still on the INS watch list.  I can’t.”

“Yeah, I’m not so sure I’m out of the woods on that either,” says Zuhair, who is trying to bring his parents over from Sri Lanka.  Angie gives them both a gentle smile of understanding.

That leaves Prad, who feels at least four sets of eyes on him.  Three in, four out, and Angie leading the pack.  At this point, he could go either way.  The thought of committing a federal crime is scarier than shit to him.  On the other hand, he would be defending Angie’s honour.  That proves irresistibly appealing to him, and he has no intention of getting caught either.  No ass-bound federal tracker could catch him, not when he’s in the ether.

“You know, Sa’id,” he says, trying to stall.  “Claude is right about the INS and all.  You got the NSA to worry about yourself, you sure you want to do this?”

“Fuck it, man.  And fuck them too.  They’ve been breathing down my neck for years, they should be sucking on my ball sack now.”

Angie is still looking at him from behind those dark glasses.  He feels her penetrating gaze slicing deep trenches through his forehead and eye sockets.  “What the hell, I’m in.”

“Alright,” Angie says.  He thinks he sees a smile forming.  He wishes he could see her eyes.  Oh God, let her be excited, he prays.  If she’s excited, it means there’s still hope of getting her spread eagle on his keyboard.

An hour later, they’ve drunk their coffee and tea and eaten their biscotti and muffins.  When they’ve discussed all other matters, Angie says good-bye to Tania, Claude, Tommy, Zuhair and Lynette, leaving her with just her co-conspirators.  This is best, Prad reasons.  The less they know at this point, the better.  The thought makes him gleeful.  Being part of something conspiratorial just feels so… exciting!

“So where is this going down?” Sa’id asks.

“Well, for security reasons, none of us should be using our home computers.  Plus, I want us to be in communication range of each other.”

“Internet café?” Chu recommends.

“Better, the Puget campus computer lounge.”

“Public internet provider, we’d need an anonymizer,” Sa’id says.

“Not a problem, we all know where to find those.”

“Don’t you need a student ID to get in there?” Prad reminds her.

“I got a friend at Puget,” Angie declares.  “They’ll get us into the student lounge, Tuesday night at midnight.  Nobody but on-line gamers and a few keeners are up that late, so we’ll have the run of the place.  Likely, no one will take notice and they probably won’t care if they do.  Colleges are full of anarchists.”

A shared laugh, leaving only one question.

“What about security?”

“You mean how do we get past the congressman’s ICE?”  Angie looks at Prad.  Those are supposed to be Sa’id’s specialty, but considering his background, he can’t be caught making those.  And Prad knows he’s just as good, he’s beginning to suspect Angie knows it too from the way she’s looking at him.

“I’ll work something up,” he declares.  “Dangle’s trackers won’t know from which direction I came from.  I’ll be like a sniper in the jungle. Pop! Pop!”

He holds an imaginary rifle and squeezes off a few rounds at his imaginary enemy.

“Okay, shut up.  So it’s agreed, we’ll do it from Puget next Tuesday.”