Reviews, Darned Reviews, and Statistics

A friend recently pointed me toward an article entitled, “Users who post ‘fake’ Amazon reviews could end up in court.” I’ve known for a long time that some authors do pay to get positive reviews for their books posted. In fact, some authors stoop to paying for negative reviews of competing works as well. Even though the actual technique used for cheating on reviews has changed, falsifying reviews is an age old problem. As the Romans might have said, caveat lector (let the reader beware). If there is a way to cheat at something, someone will most certainly find it and use it to gain a competitive advantage. Amazon and other online stores are quite probably fighting a losing battle, much as RIAA has in trying to get people to actually purchase their music (see Odd Fallout of Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) for a discussion of the ramifications of IP theft). The point is that some of those reviews you’ve been reading are written by people who are paid to provide either a glowing review of the owner’s product or lambaste a competitor’s product.

Of course, it’s important to understand the reasoning behind the publication of false reviews. The obvious reason is to gain endorsements that will likely result in better sales. However, that reason is actually too simple. At the bottom of everything is the use of statistics for all sorts of purposes today, including the ordering of items on sales sites. In many cases, the art of selling comes down to being the first seller on the list and having a price low enough that it’s not worth looking at the competitors. Consequently, sales often hinge on getting good statistics, rather than producing a good product. False reviews help achieve that goal.

I’ve spent a good deal of time emphasizing the true role of reviews in making a purchase. A review, any review you read, even mine, is someone’s opinion. When someone’s opinion tends to match your own, then reading the review could help you make a good buying decision. Likewise, if you know that someone’s opinion tends to run counter to your own, then a product they didn’t like may be just what you want. Reviews are useful decision making tools when viewed in the proper light. It’s important not to let a review blind you to what the reviewer is saying or to the benefits and costs of obtaining particular products.

Ferreting out false reviews can be hard, but it’s possible to weed out many of them. Reviews that seem too good or too dire to be true, probably are fakes. Few products get everything right. Likewise, even fewer products get everything wrong. Someone produces a product in the hope of making sales, so creating one that is so horrid as to be completely useless is rare (it does happen though and there are legal measures in place to deal with these incidences).

Looking for details in the review, as well as information that is likely false is also important. Some people will write a review without ever having actually used the product. You can’t review a product that you haven’t tried. When you read a review here, you can be sure that I’ve tried out every feature (unless otherwise noted). Of course, I’m also not running a test lab, so my opinion is based on my product usage—you might use the product in a different manner or in a different environment (always read the review thoroughly).

As you look for potential products to buy online, remember to take those reviews with a grain of salt. Look for reviews that are obviously false and ignore them. Make up your own mind based on experiences you’ve had with the vendor in the past or with similar products. Reviews don’t reduce your need to remain diligent in making smart purchases. Remember those Romans of old, caveat lector!


Review of Paper Towns

The movie Paper Towns, like the book Paper Towns (by John Green), is geared toward the teenage market. This review is about the movie, of course, but from what I’ve read online, the book is just as interesting and I may eventually get a copy. The name of the movie comes from the practice that cartographers use to prevent copyright infringement—adding fake towns to a map so that anyone copying it will likely copy the fake town as well (making it easy to prove copyright infringement in court). The term can also refer to planned subdivisions that fail to materialize for various reasons. The idea is one of being completely fake.

The reason the movie is so interesting is that it asks a particular question that few movies bother to ask, “Who am I?” It seems like an obvious question, but many people never ask the question once in their entire lives. They seem to fly through life on autopilot and never quite realize the amazing potential they have. After Margo’s (Cara Delevingne) boyfriend proves untrue to her (and she takes the requisite revenge) she’s faced with the overwhelming sense of being fake—of being made of paper, just like the paper town she inhabits with all the other paper people who go about their daily lives never questioning anything. I’m focusing on this particular point because it’s all too easy to miss in the movie.

It’s important to remember that this is a teen movie, so it contains the splash of nudity and overwhelming concentration of drinking that these movies tend to contain. The message is lost a little because of the emphasis on teen activities that seem like both a waste of time, but also a necessary passage to adulthood. I wouldn’t say that the amount of near nudity and drinking is absurd, but it does get in the way of an otherwise meaningful movie. I think they could have easily toned things down a little and produced an even better movie as a result.

The movie does seem to avoid drugs (at least from what I could tell) and the amount of foul language is kept to a real minimum. I applaud both choices as being in good taste. If the movie had gone down this road to any significant degree, I probably couldn’t recommend it, despite being a great movie otherwise.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it focused on one girl’s realization that she’s going nowhere quite fast and needs to do something about it. As usual, the synopsis for the movie is misleading and the trailer is even worse. Quentin (Nat Wolff) has a major role to play, but it isn’t as Margo’s sidekick. Like Margo, Quentin is stuck in a rut and needs to ask what makes one happy in life. Again, it’s a really important question because everyone knows someone who totally abhors their occupation, lives with a spouse they detest for the kid’s sake, and generally has a really rotten life. Here is a kid who is starting to head down that road, but is intercepted by Margo who gets him to think again. The movie makes the point that life is to be enjoyed, that work really shouldn’t be, and that relationships should be fun.

Most teen movies I’ve seen are truly mind candy and not very good mind candy at that. This movie could easily fall into the mind candy category too if it didn’t ask those important life questions. It really does have something of value to offer the discerning audience. For everyone else, well, there is the semi-nudity and drunken parties to enjoy. If you haven’t seen Paper Towns and would like something to think about for a while, you really do need to see it and be prepared to watch with your mind open and your creativity in gear.  I highly recommend it.