Tell me what I want, what I really, really want

I love the idea that computers can tell me what to like. It seems logical that based on my existing preferences, a computer program should be able to suggest similar items. It's a major hook in online, shopping, of which I do more than my fair share. It doesn't always work in practice, though. Netflix, for example, promises to recommend movies based on the ratings I've given to movies in the past. And a good 60% of the time, their suggestions are ridiculous. For example, if you rent the last season of Arrested Development, and give it a hearty four stars, the next time you sign on, they'll suggest you add Growing Pains, the DVD to your list. Why? Because they were both on TV! And I LIKE shows that were on television. This is precisely the sort of mathematical and logics genius that kept me out of calculus.

Where it starts to get ridiculous, however, is that, apparently, if you rent a movie that has a gay character in it, then suddenly your recommendations fill up with movies about gay people. Because if you like gay people, you must be interested in watching movies about them. Exclusively. Thus, one of my most recent recommendations was an indie flick called Mysterious Skin, which floated - as Netflix picks are wont to do - to the top of my list and landed in my mailbox last week. Because, apparently, I like unflinchingly brutal and graphic films about pedophelia, teenage gay prostitution and rape. I can see that where they'd get that. My last two rentals, after all, were The Devil Wears Prada and Nacho Libre.


Amazon is always trying to recommend stuff to me too, along those lines. Sometimes I like the recommendations they offer up. I like the idea of knowing what people who like the same authors I do are reading. But sometimes I swear they're like, "That last book had the word 'the' in it, therefore you will love THIS book!" And it's something about elves and computer programming, you know?

Sometimes I feel like these computers don't even know me.

That said, I am having terrific fun with Pandora. The beautiful Kim Porteous introduced me to this website last year. It's like programming your own online radio station. You plug in the names of artists that you like and they offer you up others they deem musically similar. Sometimes it's alarming -- and mildly insulting -- to see what they think you'd like, but you can give each suggestion a thumb's up or thumb's down and help refine their suggestions. I've found some great new music that way and been delighted too when they served up something I love from two decades ago.

Best of all, you can share your radio station with your friends! So while you're at your computer, you can listen to Radio Julia and it's like we're together ALL the time. (Unfortunately, you can't vote on my station, so if they -- or me -- throw in something you don't like, you might be stuck with it.) And then you can start your own radio station and program it to play only songs that are musically similar to Ace of Base's I Saw the Sign. Or, you know, whatever.