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A clever agent asks: Would you like to undergo a full-body pat-down by an agent or a quick and easy body scan in our machine?

The body scan, please.

File this under a nice reframing of a new and potentially scary technology.

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1) At the salad bar, you don’t have to reach far for the broccoli, but you do have to for the shredded cheese. The chicken can be back there too because you’re likely to reach for it anyway.

2) For every food offered at the salad bar, you have to use tongs instead of spoons to move it to your plate. (Except, perhaps, for the asparagus if it’s not sliced.)

3) When you’re ordering off a posted menu, the fried chicken and fries are buried in the middle of the list while the oven-roasted turkey is at the top and wilted greens are at the bottom.

From two new papers in the Journal of Decision Making (pdfs for 1) and 2) are here, and 3) is here).

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Anyone faced with picking a paint color faces choice overload, but that’s a common feature in many industries. It’s why that choice overload happens in the first place. Reports the NYT:

To avoid confusion, paint companies almost never retire old colors or reuse names. So customers must wade through an ever-expanding universe in which colors multiply and become less distinguishable. Benjamin Moore, for example, offers 3,300 colors. Valspar, which sells its paints through Lowe’s Home Improvement stores, has 3,500.

Imagine if car companies, consumer electronic manufactures, or fashion houses worked this way. Relative to other industries, it’s cheap and easy for paint color creators to keep old products on hand. But you have to believe in the long tail theory to think this is smart.


American Airlines recently changed its boarding process from one that fills the plane from back-to-front to one that “randomly” assigns boarding groups to people sitting in different rows.

“You definitely will not have 24 people in four rows boarding at the same time,” said Scott Santoro, director of airport consulting for American Airlines. He said studies have shown that the random seating process reduces boarding times 5% to 10%.

The Assn. of Professional Flight Attendants disagrees. It contends the process has created “complete chaos” among passengers, forcing attendants to spend more time preparing the plane for takeoff. The attendants are irked, it says, because they are not paid for the extra time needed to load the plane.

One of the major studies supporting a change in boarding procedures is a 2008 article published in the Journal of Air Transport Management. There is actually quite a lot of sophisticated modeling of airplane boarding with various strategies like “Rotating Zone,” “Reverse Pyramid,” and “Flying Carpet.” (Background on all of them is here). The research is based on mathematical simulations in which people are assumed to behave like Econs. Assuming airline customers eventually learned about the purpose for random boarding and some of the early chaos died down, it’s still not clear it’s the right strategy.

“Our data confirms that pure random boarding is faster,” said Sandy Stelling, Alaska Airlines’ managing director of airport services. “However, we determined the negative impact, measured by our customers — elite Mileage Plan members and non-elites alike — was not worth the small gain in time.”

Airplane boarding isn’t quite as elegant as the models make it.


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1) Google’s PowerMeter is dead. Long live Google’s PowerMeter. Thoughts on why it didn’t take off here.

2) Choice overload at a young age. (See page 4 and markers)

3) Morningstar on “The Benefits of a Financial Nudge

4) FICO scores for medical adherence?

5) Early prognosis for tax receipt. It doesn’t much change how Americans feel about paying their taxes.

6) The Winner’s Curse in its most basic form: Spending $28 for a $25 gift card as part of an Ebay auction.

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Prius owners.

Snapshot, the usage-based automobile insurance program, offered by Progressive calculates rates based on three criteria that are largely out of a driver’s control. Mileage traveled, time of day you drive, and speed of braking. That last category is an opportunity for Prius owners, old and new, to showcase the habits they’ve picked up while paying attention to the car’s feedback display. Among Prius drivers, the display has sparked changes in driving behavior out of a concern for saving gas.

“Once you start making fuel consumption more visible, you have something that comes to the forefront of people’s minds instead of lurking in the background,” said Sarah Darby, a researcher who studies energy feedback technologies at the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. The monitors “show the consequences of your actions,” she says. “This gives you feedback that alters actions, and encourages you to try and improve things.”

In the Prius and other hybrids with energy displays, drivers can see what specific actions mean for their mileage. In some ways, it is like children learning to color in between the lines, with the teacher standing over their shoulders. Aggressive acceleration after a stoplight — that’s bad. The monitor will show mpg going down. Suddenly slamming the brakes — also bad. Coasting to a stop — good. That tactic lets the engine shut down, saving gas.

Looks like insurance rates could be an added bonus.

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Snapped across from the Huntington Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia. Hard to tell what’s more human – the sign or its parking lot placement?


One of the many possible answers the Magic 8-ball can give its inquirer is “Ask again later.” A few years ago, the Illinois inspector general applied that idea to help protect children in the state’s child welfare system. No word on a tip of the cap to the Magic 8-ball. (From NYT op-ed).

The Illinois inspector general found that a failure to identify parents’ mental health and substance abuse problems was a common feature in child deaths. Harried caseworkers who had to substantiate a complaint of abuse or neglect didn’t have enough time to thoroughly investigate whether drug addiction and mental illness were involved. When state forms required them to choose yes or no in those first hectic days, they chose no — and often no one came back to help the families. So the inspector general urged the state to give workers another option, one that would indicate a need for continuing assessment in these in-between cases.


Straight Talk, the pre-paid cell phone company, plays up the good feeling you’re going to get from a saving a few bucks on a cell phone plan (even if it’s not going to affect your total wealth much). It ain’t going to be this good, though.

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Speaking to a group of Northwestern University marketing students, Yum! Brands Chief Public Affairs Officer Jonathan Blum shared the story of recent Taco Bell promotion flop that shows the difficulty the chain has had turning social media into a viable business model. Said Blum: “We haven’t even been able to give away the food, never mind figure out how to sell it online.”

Over the course of a year, the number of friends on Taco Bell’s Facebook page rocketed from 500,000 to 6 million fans. Sounds great. Then, in the middle of an ongoing unflattering lawsuit about the quality of its beef, Taco Bell decided to offer those 6 million fans a free taco — no strings attached. They didn’t need to buy anything. They were already Facebook fans, which means they had already paid the very minor costs of “liking” Taco Bell. It was an offer from a company that Blum says wanted to tell its fans, hey, come and get a free taco.

Two hundred thousand people did. Almost 97 percent on passed on free grub they supposedly “liked.”

Cases like that explain why the bulk of Taco Bell’s marketing budget goes to television (and some radio) ads. Social media remains a small part of the budget because the company hasn’t figured out how, in Blum’s words, to use it to “make the cash register ring.”

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