Is there no end to the degradation of the Trivago woman?

The first time I saw her, I thought she was remarkably pretty, but felt that it was a pity that she was so badly green-screened onto an image of a hotel room. I also wondered if it was effective advertising. I don’t think people generally like to be lectured at.

Incidentally, the company has made many country-specific versions of the advertising. I’ve seen the German and Italian ones, both presented by men. Perhaps they thought that Germans and Italians would especially resent being lectured at by a woman. Although the Germans have had a lot of experience of it. I haven’t seen the American version — also male — but I hear that it’s widely loathed.

Anyway, for the UK one they’ve had her do several versions of basically the same ad, but dressed differently. I can’t say for sure, but I’ll be they don’t make the male actors do that. Then there was one where there was a mosaic of her repeating the ad in about 30 different costumes.

But now there’s one where they’ve dressed her like Shirley Temple and made her tap dance. A grown woman.

(Incidentally, I’ve tried their website and never found a better hotel deal than on the main booking ones.)

The Wheeled Avenger

Steed's BentleyJohn Steed is forever linked to his vintage Bentleys and Rolls Royces, at least in the classic period of The Avengers. In one very early episode he drove a Triumph Herald, and at the end, in the New Avengers, he had a number of contemporary cars; that is, late 1970s ones. But let’s not think about that.

Emma Peel drove a Lotus Elan, the quintessential small, British sports car. Or to be more Emma's Elanaccurate, two Elans, the first white; and the second grey in the black-and-white episodes and light blue in the later colour ones. Apparently, Diana Rigg had to learn to drive for the part, but she always seems very competent, although some chase sequences are obviously speeded up.

When Diana Rigg left the show, new producer John Bryce made three new programmes with Tara King, conveniently played by his girlfriend, Linda Thorson. The programmes were rejected by the company and never shown, although some footage was salvaged to make a later episode. In that one, Tara drives a Lotus Elan +2, which was a derivative of the original Elan as driven by Emma Peel, but stretched to fit in two useless rear seats and remodelled (uglified) at the front.
In that episode, Steed’s elegant vintage vehicles were inexplicably replaced by a modern AC 428. That car was built on a modified AC Cobra chassis, with the Cobra’s huge 7-litre Ford engine, and an angular GT body, designed and built by Frua in Italy. Only a few dozen were ever made. It must have been a monster: an American muscle car built in Britain and Italy.
Tara's AC
When John Bryce was sacked and the original producers called back to restore order, they shot a hand-over episode with both Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson. In this one, Emma Peel didn’t drive, but Tara King got the AC, and sanity was restored by giving Steed back his 1926 Bentley.

But part way through the series, the AC was retired (or sold perhaps, it was probably very valuable) and Tara got a Lotus Europa; I think it must have been the ugliest Lotus ever made. I particularly dislike the ‘solid’ rear of the cabin: makes it look like a van.

Tara in the Lotus Europa

If I could choose any Avengers vehicle, I’d be tempted by the big AC 428, but I think I’d pick the Lotus Elan. Preferably with Emma Peel in it.

Paloma Blanca

Miami ViceThe nineteen-eighties is a period sometimes referred to as “the decade without style”, or “the decade with no taste”. Even if you didn’t live through it, you can still snigger at the shoulder pads in re-runs of ‘Dallas’ or ‘Dynasty’ or the rolled-up jacket sleeves in ‘Miami Vice’.

And Crockett’s jacket was usually white. Cars were white. Stilettos were white. Abba dressed in white.

I can’t remember exactly when taste and sanity returned, but nobody wants to go back there, not even the fashion industry, notorious for lack of ideas and recycling old styles.

But over the last year or so, I’ve noticed a return of white cars to the roads. New ones, so clearly deliberately chosen by their proud owners. (If you’re buying second-hand, colour is a less important consideration. I’ve never liked mine much — a very pale metallic bronze.)

In some people’s minds then, a white car is not crass, vulgar and tasteless, as everyone agreed after the eighties. Improbable as it seems, they think it’s cool.

It bugged me. I kept asking myself how a proportion of the population could miss the obvious fact that white is the epitome of tasteless colour choice for a car. Who was to blame?

Eventually, I worked it out. It was Jonathan “Jony” Ive.

He designed the first iPods and iPhones. Yes, they were white, but they looked amazing compared to anything else on the market and were beautifully made. They were far more expensive than the competition, but some people like that. The device becomes a status symbol, and the whiteness a kind of trademark. The accessories were white as well. It can’t be a coincidence that Jony Ive began his career designing toilets.

Of course, iPhones and iPods aren’t necessarily white any more. (In 2008, the last, cut-price batch of the iPhone 3 was BLACK.) But it’s too late. The curse of the nineteen-eighties had been forgotten, by some people at least. They buy white cars.

If It’s Free, You’re Not The Customer — You’re The Product

(Some) journalists are celebrating The Onion, the satirical web newspaper, becoming an incredible 25 years old. If you ever needed to give the lie to the myth that Americans don’t do irony, read The Onion.

Some articles and captions are funnier than others, but when they hit the mark, they hit it hard. One of the recent ones mentioned today was “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’s VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning.”  — purportedly from the Managing Editor of (purportedly a serious news website).

Spam advert You will read that article, I’m sure, but the gist of it is that web publishers don’t care about anything but clicks and views. As The Onion puts it, “All you are to us, and all you will ever be to us, are eyeballs. The more eyeballs on our content, the more cash we can ask for.”

The “cash” comes from advertisers, of course. Since they’re giving away their “news” for free, pays for itself, and possibly even makes a profit, from selling ads. Likewise, Facebook is an advertising company. Google is an advertising company. Twitter is an advertising company. Even The Onion is an advertising company, I assume.

shoes advertI say “I assume”, because I’m not qualified to judge, given that I never see advertising on the internet. I don’t mean I ignore it; it literally doesn’t appear on my screen (or phone). Ever.

It’s pretty clear to me that the model the web advertising industry has in mind is that of television ads. You know, they interrupt your programmes and you don’t have any choice, but you put up with them in order to get the free television content. (Or, if you’re a Sky subscriber, the content you’re paying for.) I suppose the majority of, say, Facebook users think of the ads on their computer screen in exactly the same way, but, actually, the internet doesn’t work like that.

Marlbro advertA web page isn’t like a television programme, streaming from broadcaster to your box, with adverts inserted. A web page is more like a menu. Your computer is supposed to say “Yes, I’ll have That. And some of That. None of That. And hold the ads.” But, normally, it just orders everything on the menu. Though it doesn’t have to.

You might think that mighty technical wizardry must be required to stop the ads, or else everyone would be doing it, but it’s really very, very simple; and I don’t know why everyone isn’t doing it. The exact details depend on what your system and browser are (Linux and Firefox for me) but there’s a solution for every situation. You might do an internet search for “adblock”, or read the Wikipedia article  for more information.

Babycham advertThere was once an American television executive who claimed that viewers were “stealing from the company” if they skipped past adverts on recorded programmes. Am I being immoral by reading The Onion, without ever seeing their advertisers’ material? Certainly, if everyone started skipping the ads and the advertisers knew, The Onion would have to either go out of business or start charging for access.

Apple advertAnd similarly, every other web newspaper, forum, social site, media sharing, searching, storage, small ads — everything which offers a “free” service paid for by advertising. (eBay would survive, because they already have a business model which involves (gasp) charging fees.)

It would be a huge change to the spirit of the internet — people are used to getting stuff for free — and surely there would be resistance. Certainly, the sites which have changed to a payment model, such as The Times newspaper, have struggled to achieve profitability, although in an ad-free world, The Times might not be competing against free news of the quality and quantity that exists today.

I think the positives outweigh the negatives. wouldn’t have to lead with Miley Cyrus. (Maybe. Today’s Times paid-for web issue has Ms Cyrus on the front page.) The replacements for Facebook and Google wouldn’t have to be so creepy about collecting personal information to sell. You would have a legal right to get the service you pay for. Oh, and a lot of advertising executives would be out of work. Surely that’s an upside.

Walk The Walk

high-heels dotsAround the turn of the year, probably a slack news period, a scientific publication got an unusual amount of news coverage. No, it wasn’t the discovery of a new boson, or a habitable planet circling a nearby star. This one was titled “High heels as supernormal stimuli: How wearing high heels affects judgements of female attractiveness” []

I’m always envious of researchers who can make a living carrying out such work. I remember one study which measured the amount of bare flesh in a nightclub and compared it to the owner’s fertility cycle. That one showed that women do show more skin during the most fertile time of the month, but only if they are in permanent relationships, but out without their partners. You can draw you own conclusions.

Still, you have to be sceptical, particularly if there is a claim of some evolutionary origin of a particular behaviour. That’s almost always stretching the evidence much too far, and anyway, human behaviour is too complicated for a neat just-so story.

That thing about high heels though. It’s an issue which has perplexed and slightly embarrassed me for years. I’d already guessed the same conclusion as the authors of the much-reported paper: that the high heel effects some kind of “supernormal” sexual signal. That is, biological systems seem to work on the basis of “if X is good, then XX is better”. Research (mostly on animals) has shown that exaggerating a stimulus, even well past the point of naturalness, can generate a heightened response.

high-heels graphBut it’s not clear exactly what factor is in operation. The research paper was investigating walking, and reported a “shorter stride” and “increased rotation and tilt of the hips” for high-heeled as opposed to flat shoes. From my own observations, I’d add that the static posture is different as well, all the way up to the shoulders; and the silhouette is changed subtly. Which of these things –some? or all? –change our perception?

I say “our” deliberately. In the research, both men and women rated walkers in heels more attractive, even though they were only seeing a pattern of light spots on the joints of the subject. A different set of viewers were found to be twice as likely to guess that the walker in flat shoes was male, even though all subjects were actually female.

So I guess it’s settled. Heels do something to make a woman more feminine and more attractive. It’s not surprising that they are the only item of apparel to be consistently “in fashion” for hundreds of years.

high-heeled sandalI think it was Sigmund Freud who came up with the concept of “fetishism”, where sexual attraction derives from an object, rather than a person. The liking for high heels was well-known in his time, and his suggested explanation was that we experience our first sexual feelings before we can even walk, when we are crawling around among the ladies’ feet, and henceforth always associate sex with Victorian buttoned boots. But Sigmund was like that: he just made stuff up without a shred of evidence behind it.

I’m not old enough (honest) to have seen high-heeled buttoned boots as a baby, but now I think they can be quite sexy. And other high heels too. That’s the source of the mild embarrassment which I mentioned at the beginning, because if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that some kind of transference has occurred in my brain. The shoe itself, completely separate from the wearer, triggers a response.

I’ll quickly point out that it’s only a little response, only a mild dose of fetishism. I’m sure a brief internet search would reveal sites showing a complete obsession, although I suppose that’s true of practically everything. Anyway, I don’t judge. Sexual attraction is never based on logic or good sense in any of us.

Killing The Goose

It’s an old trick, and an obvious one. When making a television programme whose likely audience will be composed of nerdy, adolescent males (of any age), put a pretty woman in it.

Philippa ForresterPhilippa Forrester was “the girl” in the BBC technology programme “Tomorrow’s World” (nerds again) in the 1990s, and was squeezed approximately into a black leather basque to host the UK version of “Robot Wars”. The sexy look was important, but had to be balanced by a cheerful, non-intimidating, girl-next-door personality. Nerds frighten quite easily.

Originally, “Scrapheap Challenge” was presented by the producer and originator of the show, Cathy Rogers, but normality was restored after the first few series with her replacement by a “model and actress”, Lisa Rogers (no relation) to play “the girl”.

Don’t get me wrong. The female presenter in these kinds of programme isn’t usually portrayed as stupid or ignorant. A giggling bubble-head wouldn’t work at all. The idea is to have someone that the nerds will idolize, and the idea that she might be able to discuss gear ratios or gaming tactics is part of the package. I say “idea” because it’s theoretical, obviously. Nerds are scared to talk to girls.

“Quest”, a free UK channel from the makers of the Discovery Channel for those of us who won’t pay for the Discovery Channel, is currently showing a mix of repeats of “Mythbusters”. Some of these go right back a decade or so to the first series when there were only the two male presenters, but there are also later ones where the producers had obviously got with the program and added women to the team.

For myself, I had a tiny television crush on Scottie Chapman who appeared in the second and third series. Scottie didn’t exactly fit the pattern I’ve been talking about, because she was actually a real engineer and mechanic, and attractive but not girly, with tattoos and a no-nonsense attitude. I guess that might mean that I’m not a true nerd, or I’ve grown up a bit, or something.

Mythbusters' Kari ByronBut when I was 17, I’d have been totally in love with Kari Byron, and even now I have to acknowledge that she’s very cute. This time the nerd chemistry is absolutely spot on: Kari is pretty, and girly, but gets her hands dirty with the experiments and is able to discuss intelligently what is going on.

The other day I wanted to check out a detail from the show and, via the usual internet search, got to their website and did my business. While I was there, I just happened to notice a set of Kari photo galleries. I JUST HAPPENED TO NOTICE, DAMMIT! I mean, that is completely to be expected. You’re playing to the nerds. Nerds like the girl, so give them photos. Stills and publicity shots from the programme set.

But you know how show business works. That isn’t enough. So there is a personal Kari website, and fan sites, and forums, and blogs, and interviews. And inevitably, glamour photoshoots. And that was where something went wrong. A shoot for FHM where the art director or the stylist or photographer or whoever knew exactly what a beautiful woman looks like. That is, exactly like every other woman in magazines.

Hair, makeup and clothes (or lack of) were done, and probably digital retouching afterwards, with the result that she doesn’t even look like the same person. Bland, anonymous “beauty”; and whatever that thing is that makes the nerds love her: they missed it. By a mile.

Soapy Bubble

Not so long ago when I was shopping, I accidentally bought two Radox shower gels. I say “accidentally”: they were on special offer — two for the price of one, or bogof if you prefer. Please do.

Usually, I’d just buy the supermarket’s own brands, because it’s only soap, isn’t it? Why pay for Sara Lee’s enormous advertising budget? (They also own Felix, Chock Full’o’Nuts and Wonderbra, by the way, and well over 100 other heavily advertised brands.)

shower girlBuy in haste; repent at leisure. Radox Refresh smells like pine disinfectant, and Radox Active smells like grapefruit, an odour that has always reminded me of urine.

I had previously noticed that my usual shower soap was alleged to come “with natural extracts”. I suppose the alternative would have to be unnatural extracts, although I’m not sure exactly what that would mean.

A careful perusal of the long list of ingredients (I’m nerdy like that) revealed “magnolia biondii extract” about half-way down. Since the ingredients have to be listed in order of quantity, that must mean that there’s a very small amount of magnolia in it.

Which is very slightly worrying. There’s a popular misconception that “natural” equals “good”. That’s why they have “natural” on the front label, and all the chemical names in tiny writing on the back. But if you think plant extracts are good for you, try some nice belladonna tea or henbane beer.

The main ingredient of most commercial soap products is sodium lareth sulfate. There was a ridiculous urban myth about it circulating on the Internet recently, but in fact, it’s been tested to death, and it’s 100% safe. And 100% unnatural. That magnolia extract, though. Is it good for you? Does it do anything at all? I just don’t know.