Credit Card Isolationism

October 21, 2008

Sometimes it feels that there’s a conspiracy to keep U.S. citizens from leaving the country or even wanting to. In addition to the obvious news media blackout and cultural isolationism (e.g. denying entry visas to world performers), there are passport processing delays, sky-high airfares, a weak dollar, and now… our credit cards don’t even work in Europe.

A year ago in France I had no problem except at train ticket kiosks. But two weeks ago, I was able to use my Citibank Mastercard at only three vendors during a one-week visit. And those had to be convinced to try. I called Citibank and a helpful supervisor explained: Europe now requires all credit cards to have a chip (a gold square embedded in the plastic card) and a pin. These are credit, not debit, cards, and you securely enter the pin at the point of purchase. (The supervisor said she wasn’t informed of this issue until customers started calling in.)

A Boston Globe article and this other good article confirm that I am not alone.

The Citibank supervisor searched her list for a card with a chip and pin that I could get, but found none. According to the Globe article, there won’t be any for a while:

“It would be costly to change all the transaction terminals in the US,” says Don Rhodes, director of risk management policy at the [American Bankers’ Association], “and right now the industry doesn’t seem to feel the level of fraud justifies it.”

Great. To the already compromised reputation of American travelers, we can now add “backwards” and “unable-to-pay”. I wish I could threaten these credit card companies that we travelers might just get used to life without credit cards. But I’d be lying. I want one, and I want it to work everywhere I go.

Addendum 10/22/08: Here’s a more detailed article in the Globe about the debate over the costs and benefits chip-and-pin card deployment. Why can’t the credit card companies offer U.S. consumers chip-and-pin cards with the magnetic strip without immediately updating the U.S. transaction terminals? When in the U.S., the magnetic strip is read, and when in Europe, the chip-and-pin is read. The cynic in me suspects there is no good reason for not doing this, while the idealist in me looks forward to a good explanation, which I will share should I come across it.


After an intense and fun week at Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco, I played dumb yesterday. Slept in a meadow at World’s End, and capped off the day with “Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay“.

I LOVED “Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle” – watched it five times. Not only were the jokes hilarious, the entire movie flowed like a well-choreographed dance. Guantanamo Bay was, unsurprisingly for a sequel, lame. The experience revealed two disconnects that I feel like noting.

1) A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times leaves you wondering if he liked it or not, but clear that he saw something of substance in it. The movie was not good (though not unenjoyable), and it lacked substance. That indicates to me that Mr. Scott hedged, reluctant to dismiss the film outright for fear of being uncool, or perhaps to compensate for his publication’s having neglected the brilliance of White Castle (lackluster “review” — or, rather, plot summary — here). Or both. Disconnect #1.

2) When Neil Patrick Harris first appeared on the screen at the Harvard Square theater, I hooted, confident that I’d trigger a hearty response in the pleasantly energetic audience. But no. Silence. I’ll admit that I first thought this told me something about the uptightness of Harvard students, who appeared to predominate. But then it dawned on me that if my memories of Doogie Howser are hazy, theirs don’t exist. That NPH currently appears in the sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother,” is unremarkable, according to my 17-year-old cousin (and aforementioned silence). Disconnect #2.

So “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” has college-age humor, cameos for thirtysomethings, and an ancestral mystique that gets it top-level press. All the right ingredients to get us in the theater door and help the movie do what sequels do best: Make more money without having to make more ideas.

A few weeks ago I stayed with friends in Santa Monica. I covered a lot of ground in a short period of time.

This travel-log cata-logs the shops, restaurants, parks, and other things I encountered, some of which you might want to encounter too, if you live there or visit.

I attended Edward Tufte’s “course” on information design a few weeks ago. The hundreds in attendance were clearly hungry for answers to the problems of everyday life. (It reminded me a bit of the time I saw Sri Sri Ravi Shankar when my friend tricked me into it by failing to correct the natural assumption that a Ravi Shankar at a performance hall in Washington, DC, would be bringing his sitar.) Tufte stokes their hunger by titling his events “Presenting Data and Information: A One-Day Course Taught by Edward Tufte” and by styling himself as professor-guru. He holds “office hours” during breaks. He does not invite questions from the audience, nor does he acknowledge those that are occasionally blurted out anyway.

I sat between a guy who designs machines that cut steel, and a woman who works in medical informatics for a hospital. They wanted to learn how to make their presentations better. Instead, they learned that the Napoleon took his soldiers on a death march through Russia and that Boeing engineers were afraid to sound the alarm when astronauts’ lives were on the line.

Ok, I’m being a little snarky. I actually have a lot of respect for what Tufte has done. His beautiful books are full of examples that show the artistry and breadth of information design. But his course is little more than a book tour that participants get to pay to attend. It’s fun, but it’s not a course.

Tufte spent a little too much time on a pet idea of his called sparklines, “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics.” Actually, they’re pretty cool. Sparklines at RetailMeNotMy only concerns were that they pack *too* much information into too small a space, and in the wrong information intake context. If I’m in a text-reading rhythm, will I — or can I even — break that rhythm, switch to a graphics-reading mode, and then switch back again? I wasn’t so sure, though I remained open to the possibility.

When I got home that evening, I did a bit of online retail therapy to wind down. As ever, I visited RetailMeNot before closing a purchase. And there I saw sparklines, used perfectly.

I’ve never quite understood why a coupon code with a 30% success rate would work for me, and why one with a 90% success rate wouldn’t. I still don’t understand it, but with sparklines, I get a better picture of that strange phenomenon. Because I can see where in the sequence the successes and failures are, I also have a better sense of which coupon to try first. That appeals to my desire for efficiency in the service of optimum discount achievement.

What I like about this usage of sparklines is that it doesn’t break my rhythm. On RetailMeNot, I’m not in a fluid text-reading mode. I’m scanning the page and evaluating several different color, graphic, numeric, and textual indicators to decide which coupon code to try. In that context, the sparkline graphic fits right in.

Now, enough about consumerism. Can sparklines save the world? (At a discount?)

The day after I posted this essay on Yelp’s four-star leanings, I was reminded that Yelp, like all online communities, has its darker side.

While researching that previous essay, I came upon the listing of one of my all-time favorite stores. Filled with home decor, jewelry, and clothing, it’s the kind of gift shop where the gifts often end up being to myself. I’ve been there many times, and the owner has become a friendly acquaintance. I would have expected five stars — or four stars at least ;-) — but it had 3.5. Something was off: some reviews were simply untrue, even if one accounts for subjectivity. So I wrote my own review.

Soon after, I was wandering Boston’s North End, and inevitably made my way to this store. When I entered, the owner walked over to thank me for the nice review. I asked her about the bad ones, and a cloud descended. You know when you’ve been singled out for negativity and you don’t know why? You know that feeling of being misunderstood but not wanting to sound defensive or petty? That cloud.

For said reasons, the owner didn’t go into details. Basically, someone created multiple Yelp profiles and used them to bring down the store’s ratings. This reviewer also sent harassing messages to other reviewers and the owner herself. The owner said she contacted Yelp repeatedly, but the negative reviews remain. Knowing that it’s one person, and that this person has targeted other businesses as well, is little comfort to this store’s owner. Not only is it devastating to encounter unwarranted hostility, she worries about her store’s online reputation and, she said, her own personal safety.

We all know the Web is full of bad apples. Nothing new. But early on, we wrote this off as the downside of online anonymity. Now, Web pundits talk about how we are leaving anonymity behind, that our online and offline personas are merging into one, “authentic” identity (think Facebook).

But online identity is rarely verified. There are still fakers, and there are freaks. Young people are particularly vulnerable, as we know. But so are seasoned pros, like this blogger and these law students. Add some Google grease and the effects can be rough. Reputation management is a buzzphrase because real reputations are affected by online activities.

No one has figured out how to completely shield against the bad apples and the gamers, not even eBay. So while Yelp is not alone in hosting a community of good and bad, it could set itself apart by innovating ways to care for it. It’s not an impossible problem. It is irresponsible to invite people into a forum and then not moderate it well. And Yelp knows its power. The Business FAQ has some interesting moments, such as a warning not to “lash out” at negative reviewers or risk “vigilante justice” and a link to a First Amendment protection site for business owners considering a libel suit.

The conclusion from the previous post still holds: Online ratings systems can be useful and fun, but take them with a grain of salt. And, as in real life, trust the people you know more than those you don’t.

The other day, a friend asked if I knew anything about Aqua, a restaurant in San Francisco.

My response: “Don’t know it, but I’ll bet it gets 4 stars on Yelp.”

Sure enough, it does. How did I guess that? Because nearly everything I’ve searched for gets four stars on Yelp.

Of course, individual reviews vary. But I’ve always been curious about why listings in many star systems end up with nearly the same average rating over time. With Yelp, I became curious as to why these averages are so high. Looking first at the individual reviews, I saw some psychosocial reasons for this. The site encourages positivity by allowing you to tag other reviews as only Useful, Funny, or Cool. A typical search result on than once I’ve been tempted to write a review just to call someone else’s Really Dumb.) Reviewers sometimes compensate for a lackluster review with a higher number of stars. Some examples:

– “I’d easily give this place a 3 star [sic], but it gains one star for being the only place to get Sushi in Lincoln Square.” Four stars.

-“Not sure how the hostess sleeps at night with that gigantic stick lodged up her ass.” Four stars.

-“[T]he “scone” was so dry you could sand paint off the walls.” Four stars.

-“I have to say that the drinks I ordered were BAD. My Margarita was so sour and bitter that I had to return it. The vodka tonics must have been made with grade Z tonic water as it tasted like dirty soda water. I won’t even get into the dirty martini.” Four stars.

(Forgive me for taking these clips out of context, but it’s more fun that way.)

The prevalence of positive reviews might also be due to the site’s social networking element, which displays your (ostensibly) real name next to your reviews. Some of these people also get together in person. Do you really want to be the jerk who got all negative over an overcooked burger at the struggling mom-and-pop?

I initially surmised that many in the Yelp community had had those empowered childhoods where criticism was considered demoralizing.* But as I dug further into the reviews, I became impressed by their thoughtfulness. Which suggests another bias: People on Yelp — and elsewhere — tend to review places they like. Farhad Manjoo provides some supporting evidence so I don’t have to.

And yet, individual reviews are not the only cause of high average ratings: Yelp has built the bias into its search engine. At the category search level (e.g. sushi, bars, or salons), “best match” is a weak concept. Lots of results will be highly relevant to a search for sushi. So, what’s the secondary sorting logic? A combination of most reviewed, highest rated, and other special sauce criteria alluded to by a Yelp exec I once spoke with.

When you privilege the most reviewed, highest rated businesses, what happens? Logic indicates that the more reviews there are, the more likely things will average out… and in a community that evaluates matters of high subjectivity with a skew towards positivity, four stars is where the average will land. (Interestingly, All Songs Considered’s now-defunct Open Mic area had anonymous ratings. The song ratings all migrated to a similar average, but they landed more in the middle of the scale.)

In addition, the most reviewed will become more reviewed because they appear more often in the top search results, while the less reviewed will continue to lag. Weirdly, the result of this power law distribution is that Yelp falls behind the coolhunters. If Acme Grill had a moment in the spotlight 6 months ago and got tons of reviews, even when its popularity dies down, it will appear higher in Yelp search results than a newer, hipper thing. People will be more inclined to review it, and the situation is perpetuated.

I’ve long relied on word of mouth and online reviews to make purchase and entertainment decisions. When review communities first reached critical mass on Amazon, they paralyzed me. I treated any bad review, even when among other good ones, as a veto. By now, however, many of us have learned how to extract what’s useful. I’ve also come to understand that reviews are not just useful for consumers, but fun (and cathartic) for the reviewers to write. That said, Yelp does have a lot of influence, for better and worse. So it’s important to remember that a Yelp star is no Michelin (that’s not entirely a bad thing). And that all stars should be taken with a grain of salt.


*There are likely other variances as well. Geographic, for example: People in the Washington, DC, area seem to me more faux polite than those in New England.

Last week, I watched the “60 Minutes” segment about chain restaurants and the growing pressure by New York health officials to prominently display calorie counts.*

My mind turned an ashamed eye back to a Starbucks in Washington, DC, which fed me a small mocha frappuccino a day for an entire, hot summer. Urban legend has it that a frappuccino has ‘as much fat as a Big Mac.’ I never motivated to research this until now… <researching>… actually, the small one isn’t as bad as that. Phew. Apparently hyperbole goes both ways in the Obesity Wars. But I’ll stick with tea.

Back to “60 Minutes”. Lesley Stahl accuses a calorie count board hanging at a Wendy’s of being “drab and easy to miss.” From what I saw in the video, that seemed a bit unfair. True, the text is small. But there’s lots of stuff to show (which is probably why the Starbucks site is very interactive).

From the show’s online summary:

[A Wendy’s spokesperson] says that because Americans love to customize — adding cheese or extra mayo — providing accurate information is nearly impossible… [He] showed 60 Minutes a Wendy’s menu board that lists the combos.

He then showed Stahl what it would look like [with calorie counts]: a dense, cluttered board, with tiny type. “Obviously … no one can read it. And you would have to see this from eight feet away,” [he] explains.

“Let me see. This is absurd. Oh my gosh,” Stahl remarks.

Seeing the board, I saw an information design problem. A problem for:

Edward Tufte.

As far as I know, Mr. Tufte has never tackled this. How would he — or any information designer — present calorie counts in a way that is accurate, comprehensive, and easy to read at a glance?

Would it change how people order? Would it change how they eat?

In other, more dramatic terms: Could good information design fight obesity? (Has it already, in supermarket labeling?)

*The logic that targets the chains is a bit bizarre, according to “60 Minutes”:

The calorie labeling in New York would not apply to “calorie Meccas,” like Chinese restaurants, delis, and fancy French bistros. The chains were singled out because they already publish nutritional information about their food…

Would I want to be confronted with calorie counts wherever I eat out? No. Would I want to know, when choosing where to eat, that the worst of the offenders had been banned? Sure. For example, while it would be naive to trust that the FDA vets everything, there’s a reason it exists.