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Wednesday: October 11, 2006

Something Wrong with the Algorithm?

Filed under: — site admin @ 9:13 PM GMT-0500

When I searched for ‘Torless’ on Overstock.com just now, I got two hits: the Criterion DVD of Volker Schlöndorff’s Young Törless, and the Penguin translation of the Musil novel on which it was based. When I clicked on the latter, I was given a list in the right margin headed “Customers who liked this also liked:”. So what did they like?

  1. One jazz/blues album: The Bosses (Big Joe Turner and Count Basie).
  2. Three French movies from the last decade: Un Air de Famille, The Taste of Others, and With a Friend Like Harry.
  3. Two Hank Williams III albums: Straight to Hell and Risin’ Outlaw.

A rather heterogeneous list, you may think. How many people are interested in Hank Williams III and contemporary French cinema? Actually, I am. If one more French movie (The Closet) were added, the list would be exactly what I ordered from Overstock a week or so ago, my first order from them in the last year. Either Overstock is trying to fool me into thinking that Young Törless is exactly the book I want, or their algorithm is faulty. Most likely the latter: it looks as if I’m the only visitor to their website who has so much glanced at the Törless book lately, so they were forced to give me back my own preferences as the only ones on file. Then again, when I went back to the same page for another look, I got five more recommendations, none of them even remotely enticing. Judging from the titles (G-Spot, Caramel Flava, Candy Licker, Taming the Beast, and Discipline) and the covers (look ’em up yourself), the five paperbacks they were pimping are all soft porn or worse. Perhaps some day Overstock (and Amazon) can come up with some genuinely useful recommendations, omitting both the titles I’ve already paid good money for and the titles that I wouldn’t want to own even if they were free.

P.S. It gets worse: I clicked on Taming the Beast, which was even fouler than I expected, and was recommended Great Women of the Old West, a how-to book on consensual sadomachism, and a 32-page illustrated biography of Gerald Ford aimed at 3rd- and 4th-graders.