An Unusual Request for Help

Readers of the Whatever, I need your help! I have to verify a very unusual thing, and if you’ve bought Old Man’s War from Amazon at any point (or just even put it into your shopping cart), perhaps you can aid me in my hour of need.

It all began yesterday, when Kari of sent me the following message:

Attached is a screenshot of Amazon’s recommendation for my purchasing pleasure – when I clicked on a link which would supposedly tell me why this amazing artifact was recommended to me, well, the screenshot pretty much says it all.

Draws some interesting corollaries between book-buying habits and other habits… I’m not sure how I feel about this one.

You’ll have to follow the cut see what it was that Amazon supposedly recommended, because, well… you’ll see.

This is what Amazon supposedly recommended.

The recommendation is apropos to this Whatever discussion of Amazon’s new Sex Toys shop.

Naturally, I assumed that this was simply some clever Photoshopping, so I wrote Kari back thanking her for the picture, which I said was the best thing anyone’s sent to me ever. She replied:

Now, if I hadn’t already admitted that I still have your book on my wishlist instead of happily digested in my head, you might wonder why I continue to probe… but I gotta ask – do you go into detail about prostate issues in older men in combat or something?

Suggesting, of course, that she didn’t actually Photoshop up this baby. So I wrote her back:

You’re not seriously telling me that this is a real Amazon alert.

Kari responded:

As God is my witness, not only will I never go hungry again, but this is what popped up. No pun intended. I sent to my SO and he recognized your name from reading your blog (he lurks there) and told me I should let you know about it. An author friend of mine came back insisting it was a hoax, too. But no, it’s still there – if I go to Kari’s Store, then look under the Recommendations column and click on Health and Beauty, I get the attached.

And now this has gone from the realm of the best thing ever sent to me to just about the best thing ever, period, end of story. Because it suggests that someone at Amazon reads this site, and also has a wicked sense of humor.

People, I don’t think Kari’s lying here, but I need — need — independent third party verification of this thing. I’ve gone ahead and put Old Man’s War into my own Amazon shopping basket, and clicked my own personal recommendations set to include their Health category and their Beauty category, and I’ll be going back to see if I can replicate Kari’s findings. However, if you’ve already bought Old Man’s War from Amazon at some point, and have those categories already set for recommendations, well, if you wouldn’t mind going in and seeing if there’s a butt plug suggested for you because of my book, I sure would appreciate that.

For the record, I cannot personally recommend the SeaKap medium-sized black butt plug, as I’ve never, you know, tried it. However, I invite the SeaKap folks to peruse my Guidelines for Publicists.

Also, while I have no opinion one way or another on the butt plug, I would suggest that, should you purchase both Old Man’s War and the toy in question, that you don’t use the two in conjunction. Seems to me that either of these objects should engage your full attention. Moreover, I refuse to be held responsible if you do not heed my advice and attempt to use the two in some ill-advised biblio-anal play. And that’s all I’m going to say about that. To contemplate it any further would induce images that not even CIA-strength industrial brainwashing will ever get out.

But about that Amazon recommending thing: Let me know, folks. Because, damn. If this can be verified, it doesn’t get much funnier than this.

Update, 6pm: The actual programmer of the window that features that recommendation above chimes in the comment thread. Look for Mike A.’s comment at 2:11pm, 9/18. 

43 Comments on “An Unusual Request for Help”

  1. I don’t think it was someone at Amazon exactly. I do believe this is one of those “internet” pranks perpetrated by someone that read your previous entry related to Amazon Sex toys and attached a recommendation…possibly when they made a SeaKap purchase. Anyone can make a recommendation connecting any product that Amazon carries to their purchase. I could be wrong…but I don’t think it could have happened any other way.

  2. It recommended the Balance Bar Complete Nutrition to me.
    I’ll check later and see what else it comes up with.
    Though it did invite me to buy a Glitter Touch Gold Personal Massager because I bought a portable bluetooth keyboard for my Palm Tungsten….

  3. Only thing Amazon will recommend me in the Health & Personal Care category is the Balance Bar Complete Nutritional Food Bar. They do recommend that because I bought Old Man’s War.

    Better MRE’s through Yougurt, Honey, and Peanuts?

  4. Dane:

    “I don’t think it was someone at Amazon exactly.”

    It’s possible it happened your way — I don’t know too much how the Amazon rcommendations happens. Regardless, it’s pretty funny.

  5. Nope, I put OMW in my basket and didn’t get recommendations remotely like the, uhhhh, thing that you suggested above. But boy, I just woke up and had a good time reading your entry…

    There are two possible explanations (out of many others):

    1) It’s a really clever prank.

    2) uses different kind of heuristics for each person’s recommendations. More specifically, as a CS student I’d say they did something like:
    – Your recommendations = your past purchase history + your current additions to basket

    So basically, whoever that person alerted to you about the…interesting…recommendation must have had a very different purchase history part of the equation, so that’s why she saw this and you and the rest of the commentators didn’t. is not that stupid. :-)

  6. I was able to replicate something very similar. I have four recommended products under Sex and Sensuality, including the “Glitter Gold Slim Line Lady Finger Mini Massager Vibrator.” And why? Because my wish list contained “A Briefer History of Time” by Stephen Hawking.

    Obviously their algorithms for sex recommendations are overreaching.

  7. I only got recommendations for military SF.

    I’m not sure how far back Amazon’s “memory” goes, but I read Susie Bright’s blog, and have wandered through her list of recommended sex toys at Amazon in the past. But, today, it only suggested books.

  8. Mark Siegal writes:

    “Obviously their algorithms for sex recommendations are overreaching.”

    It’s interesting that that are tying in sex toys to books at all frankly. And, of course, if they are doing so via algorithms, that the one paired with my book is one I wrote about on the Whatever. I am, if that is indeed the case, what are the odds?

  9. I lurk here all the time. I bought Old Man’s War from Amazon a while back after Elizabeth Bear recommended it to me, so I went and checked. The number one recommendation tied to Old Man’s War was the Balance Bar, but under that was a list of five odd things they recommended to me, Astroglide and a 100 piece variety package of Condom Man Condoms being the standouts.

    Since the only things I ever buy from Amazon are SF&F books and music, I find that more than passing strange. I can’t wait to see what they tied to Hammered and Scardown.

  10. Hi-
    Thanks for a great read! I am really looking forward to your next one. I bought mine from amazon, went there this am, and they recommended the condom party pac.
    I would think that, knowing what a data mining site Amazon is, that nobody would buy sex-anything from them.
    On a side note, I recently wrote Shelley, no reply. I know that she is probably insanely busy, but have you any news? She would know me as that man on the coast of maine. She was great fun to read. E mail me if you would like. Thanks again!

  11. Checking my recommendations turned up a similar oddity – Astroglide Personal Lubricant was recommended because I supposedly purchased a Eureka upright vacuum cleaner. I didn’t actually purchase the vacuum, only put it into my cart in order to see the price.

  12. It recommended a bunch of books by an author I really don’t like (whose name I don’t mention here because he might read this and I don’t want him to be sad). I’m not sure whether this was better or worse than the butt plug, but it support the idea that these Amazon recommendations aren’t very accurate, if nothing else.

  13. Um… No, this has never been recommended to me. I did get a plethora of iPod recs after I bought a Creative MP3 player.

    Mostly it recommends books that, inexplicably, I’ve already bought. Not only that, it keeps recommending I buy MY book. (Dear Mr. Bezos: I wrote the book. Buying it would COST me money. If you recommend it to others, it might MAKE me money. And you. Try to use that when doing the math. PS: You recommended me the butt plug, but not a blow-up doll based on prior purchases? After I bought all those Vicki Handricks books? WTF, man?)

  14. I got all sorts of weird recommendations – bondage restraints – lol! but no butt plug. And I’ve only bought books, music and – aha! camera accessories from them. Mighty odd algorthim they’re using.

  15. The Balance Bar Complete Nutrition was the first thing on the list, the butt plug the second. Amazon has some verra interesting heuristics going on there. Eureka and Astroglide? Sounds like a match made in heaven.

  16. As the aforementioned Kari’s SO, I can verify that this indeed does come up in her Amazon recommendations. I was dubious too. But it’s there. In all its prurient glory.

    Personally, I’d love to see Pat Robertson’s recommendations page.

  17. THANK YOU!!!
    As a history I sick and tired of hearing people defending the South!! Few, within the profession are perpaired to speak the truth by stating that the civil war was caused by slavery. The issuse of States rights from the beging of this country( I am working on a Master’s of early American/Latin American Studies) has been about slavery and the South’s right to own slaves.
    Keep your chin up and keep fighting!!!:) Truth has to be told. Thank You!
    Dorothy Jean Hamilton

  18. Hmm. There’s something fishy going on with that Glitter Gold etc. Vibrator. Amazon recommended it to me because I bought The Complete Far Side. This seems like a rather disparate selection of goods to all be linked to this particular vibe. Is Amazon secretly selling the rankings in their recommendations system, or is this vibe just really popular among Scalzi fans?

  19. I picked up the book at release via and the health and personal care section gave me nothing scandalous. Don’t those recommendations come from an analysis of someone’s purchases? So this attachement would only be valid if OMW was the only thing this Kari ever bought off of amazon? I’ve bought a ton of books ranging from Dragonlance stuff to O.S.Card to you…but I bought a bunch of baby products for my nephew so I get a ton of diapers recommended to me, for example.

  20. As the guy who actually programmed that window in the screenshot, I can say that I’m not totally surprised that there was a (weak) relationship between those two items (the butt plug and Old Man’s War). Both are linked from your blog and some customer behavior as a result of that built up a relationship between the two. I probably shouldn’t say much more about our algorithms, so I’ll leave it at that.

    We’re constantly working on improving our algorithms, and since the Health & Personal Care was a recent addition to our recommendations area, amusing (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) things like this will probably show up from time to time, at least in the short term.

    I’m a regular reader of Whatever, and I was a bit surprised check my Bloglines list this morning and see something about my job. :) I can assure you that that recommendation was not a result of someone at Amazon’s wicked sense of humor.

  21. Interesting Recommendation

    It’s not everyday I see a blog post about something I work on. I opened up Bloglines this morning to see John Scalzi’s latest post about a sex toy recommended because of his book. I always have a hard time…


    Well, since the grunts in OMW have all these new improved super-bodies with limitless stamina, it only makes sense that they’d need a new, improved generation of, uh, “machinery”.

    Though I suspect it’s just cuz you did the post on Amazon selling “machinery”, and people happened to look on OMW war then, the enslaved computer-demons or whatever Amazon uses linked the two.


  23. Mike A:

    Thanks very much for the insight, to the extent that you were able to provide it (I understand about the need not to talk too much about the guts of one’s work).

  24. Well, I didn’t get the buttplug, but I did get the gold glitter vibrator and anal douche! Sadly, they were recommended because I had rated Neal Stephenson’s “The Cobweb”, not because I put OMW in my cart.

    Butt plugs for Scalzi and anal douche for Stephenson… Maybe MZB would give me feather boas and/or whips?

  25. OMFGLOL!

    Next thing you know, tools to facilitate cat sodomizing will be popping up in tandem with OMW. You know…when Amazon’s Health and Personal Care algorithms start intertwining with their Pet Supplies database.

  26. Reading Mike A.’s explanation, this reminds me very much of the phenomenon on Debian mailing lists where some random person walks into -devel and asks for:

    – the sheet music to “Duelling Banjos”
    – to be removed from “Callwave” (some sort of telephone answering service, I think)

    Of course, the list has nothing to do with either. But it is archived on the web, and the archives score very highly on Google, so the erroneous requests end up there, which leads to more random people searching for one of these things, and thinking that perhaps the list’s email address is a good place to ask…

    Of course, the sheer bizareness factor has made these things a sort of Debian in-joke, which makes the threads go on longer (or even get started by real Debian people who need a break from hacking), which causes more archived messages… you get the point. :-)

  27. (Whoops. John, it seems that actually submitting a comment adds BR tags, but previewing it does not, which led me to mistakenly compensate by adding my own…)

  28. Yes. This is why I note “Preview will not show paragraph breaks” in the text of the comment form.

  29. Seems like Amazon’s algorithms are more capable than one would have thought. To find your blog, check for links to Amazon, then weight the Amazon item for use in recommendations is more data mining than I would have expected. Makes you wonder what they could accomplish if they were malicious.

  30. I haven’t been recommended for any sex toys at all (clearly I buy boring things), altho’ after I told it I owned OMW, it also said I should try the Balance Bar Complete Nutritional Food Bar, Yogurt Honey Peanut (15 Bars).

    But in odder recommendations, because I own the Daily Show’s America book, I was invited to try the Rayovac Reading Light: Pillow Light, the Remington MS3-1700 Titanium 3 MicroScreen Ultra Rechargeable Mens Shaver, and the Panasonic ER411NC Nose and Ear Hair Groomer. It’s all about the grooming, baby.

  31. No worries, Steve, I have none as well. I prefer to think it’s that Amazon realizes that I’ve already reached the summit of all things sexual and sensual, therefore recommending anything to me would be like offering shooting tips to Michael Jordan. It’s a lovely delusion, and I suggest you try it!

  32. “Both are linked from your blog and some customer behavior as a result of that built up a relationship between the two.”

    Hmmm. So someone ( or > 1) reads this blog, and they’ve bought OMW. And when Meester Scalzi linked the plug as a joke, that one-or-more person(s) went ahead and bought one?

    Or maybe it’s just because they browsed it, and had bought OMW?

    Or Amazon is actively scouring the web for product relationships. Which would be cooler. o_O

    Or some combination of all of this. Either way, pretty interesting, and painfully funny.

    I wonder why they’re letting those items be recommended at all. Maybe off of other items from the same, ahem, category… but I’d be a little annoyed if kids were browsing through Amazon on my computer and where faced with “Hey! You should buy the Analblaster Ribbinator 3k, since you picked up Teen Titans V1!”

    Could be a little akward. And not because of the Teen Titans DVD, either.

    But, seriously, I could see people being really bothered by this. (?)

  33. Now, now. Mr. Ringo’s said some very nice things about OMW, and as far as I can tell, he and I have substantial reader overlap. I’m inclined to think well of him.

    (Indeed, it appears I have quite a bit of “Baen Bar” readership; I know they’ve discussed OMW over there.)

  34. Okay, I’ll fess up. It’s all my fault.

    See I went and bought OMW and then every sex toy that Amazon sells. The book got sent to my house but all the sex toys were sent as a gift to James Dobson. If any man needs a butt plug, it’s him.

  35. Amazon makes tons of money selling sex toys which is probably why it showed up. They are pushing sex toys funny it came up for reccommended!!

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