Movie Mind Games: Does manipulating our expectations make movies better? (1 of 3)

Illustration by Sean Nyffeler of Popcorn Noises fame

We spend a lot of time gobbling up media. We want to do fun stuff, and we want to do stuff on the cheap. Such is life in a stagnant economy. One of my go-to, quick and dirty ways to choose one option over the others is to figure out the cost per hour for each of my options, and then choose the one with the lowest cost per hour. 1

Here’s a quick summary of the cost to consume different types of media, shown in ascending worst-case dollars per hour 2 3:

  • Podcast – free – As long as I have iTunes and an internet connection, I can get just about any podcast free of charge.
  • News online – free – Yeah, the NYT has a pay wall now, but they don’t have any news I can’t get for free somewhere else.
  • Video games – $.03 to $1.25 – Angry Birds, Madden, NCAA: they all take so long they end up being really cheap by the time we’re through with them.
  • Books – $.25 to $2 – This one obviously depends how fast you read, but a good old paperback can go a long way on short change.
  • MP3 albums – $.3 to $4 – The trick with MP3s is to find them on sale. The Amazon MP3 store runs sales all the time.
  • Movies – $.50 to $5 – Movies tend to run the gamut because there are so many ways to get them. Prices vary pretty widely from Redbox to IMAX.

Almost any way I slice it, movies are one of the most expensive pieces of the entertainment pie. Looking back at my personal habits over time 4, it’s pretty obvious that I’ve been moving to cheaper and cheaper options over time. This wasn’t a conscious decision, but I have been purposely reducing my spending over the past few years, and I’ve obviously accomplished that by buying cheaper media.

Consuming media isn’t just about being entertained as cheaply as possible 5; I want quality entertainment. It’s not as simple as just consuming some type of media–I also have to figure out which examples of a given type of media to choose. If I’m listening to podcasts, how do I decide which ones? How do I find good books to read? How do I decide which movies to see in the theatre and which ones to rent? How do I know which ones to avoid altogether? The easy answer is recommendations. The trickier answer is expectations.


Over the past decade, recommendations 6 have gone from an informal give and take to a very sophisticated marketing tool, employed by giant companies to boost sales. Amazon, Netflix, Apple’s App Store and many other companies rely on recommendations to keep customers coming back for more. “Recommendation Engines” have become a closely guarded secret and a competitive advantage designed keep customers from switching to a competitor. I’ve bought hundreds of items on Amazon, and I like the recommendations it provides based on my previous purchases. If I start shopping at another online vendor, I’ll have to start over from scratch to get new recommendations. That would be a lot of work, so I’m likely to stay with Amazon for quite a while unless a competitor offers something significantly better or Amazon totally drops the ball.

Many of my social interactions revolve around either sharing recommendations or comparing opinions on different media. For as long as I can remember, I’ve frequently asked friends what they’re into: “Seen any good movies lately?” or “Have you heard the new Girl Talk? How is it?” For almost any kind of media, I have at least one friend who’s practically on speed dial in case I need new recommendations.

I also make a lot of recommendations. I love it when a friend tweets, “Looking for some good books to read this summer. Any suggestions?” It takes me a few questions to figure out what kind of stuff they like, but once I zero in on their preferences I can usually recommend several titles that I can almost guarantee they’ll like. The same goes for music, movies, podcasts and TV shows. Part of being a maven 7 is that I’ve always got a solid cache of information ready to share if someone’s careless enough to open the door for me.


The flip-side to recommendations is the expectations they create. If a friend of mine, let’s call him Morris, has successfully recommended 10 documentaries to me without any stinkers, then I expect his next doc recommendation to be a good one. If another friend, let’s call him Les, has recommended five documentaries for me, and all of them have been terrible, then I expect his next recommendation to be terrible and I’ll eventually just stop listening to his recommendations altogether. If Morris and Les both make recommendations to me at the same time, I can safely choose Morris’ recommendations because I expect them to be better. With each recommendation Morris and Les make, I can reevaluate their recommendations as a whole to determine how much weight I’ll give to either recommender in the future.

This is also true for recommendation engines like those at Amazon and Netflix. If Amazon starts recommending stuff that I hate, I’ll take that into account in the future and begin lowering my expectations for the stuff they recommend. Eventually I’ll just stop buying stuff they recommend, and that may remove the exit barrier I described earlier so that I’m comfortable going to another company and starting over from scratch.

There’s a feedback loop of recommendations and expectations. With each new good recommendation I get from a friend, the higher my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. With each bad recommendation I get from a friend, the lower my future expectations will be that the stuff he recommends is worth my time and money. Eventually, I will learn to anticipate exactly how accurate my friends’ recommendations will be.

Recommendations and expectations are part of an adaptive framework wherein each future recommendation carries the weight of all previous recommendations. This feedback loop is only useful if I compare my actual experience to my actual expectations. 8

Utility-Hours Per Dollar

Before I can compare outcomes to expectations, I need a way to objectively measure my general satisfaction with any particular piece of media. Dollars per hour is a good metric to figure out the cost of consuming media, especially if my biggest concern is keeping a budget. It helps me measure efficiency. I might say, “Well, I’ve got three bucks left in my entertainment budget this month. I might as well stretch it as far as I can. What’re my options that are three bucks or cheaper and provide the most entertainment time?” But I’m not just looking for any old media–I want the good stuff. I need a way to account for both efficiency and the relative enjoyment offered by something. Enter this new thing I’m creating called “Utility-Hours per Dollar” (UHD) 9. The UHD allows me to normalize things so that I can compare apples to apples. Yes, going to see a movie in the theatre is really expensive ($5 per hour), but what if it’s the most fun thing I could possibly do with five bucks? That has to count for something, right? Sure it does.

I calculate UHD like this:

  1. Find the absolute cost (in dollars) of the media I’m looking to buy.
  2. Estimate how long (in hours) it will take to consume. 10
  3. Subjectively determine its utility 11on a 10-point scale (1 is for awful stuff, 10 is for incredible stuff).
  4. Multiply the utility number by the number of hours.
  5. Divide that number by the cost, rounded to the next highest dollar. For free stuff, use $1 (not $0). 12 13

For those who like a tidy formula, here it is:

  • UHD = (Utility * Hours) / Dollars

That’s it. Here are a couple examples 14:

  • A really bad movie at the theatre would be $10, last 2 hours and provide a utility of 2:
  • 2 utils * 2 hours = 4 util-hours
  • 4 util-hours / $10 = .4 UHD

  • A pretty good album that I buy on Amazon for $8 might give me 20 solid hours of listening at 6 utils:
  • 6 utils * 20 hours = 120 util-hours
  • 120 util-hours / $8 = 15 UHD

A UHD near zero sucks. A UHD that ends up in the double digits is pretty good. Stuff with a UHD in the mid-to-high double digits is pretty great. Using this metric, I can figure out my most cost effective, enjoyable option for entertainment.

Our trusty UHD chart–we’ll see this again later

UP NEXT, in Part 2: How we all use UHD to decide what to buy, and how we sometimes ignore UHD altogether. [Click here to view the entire piece as a single page.]

Apps! What’s on my iPhone?

A lot of my friends are getting iPhones now, and they often ask me for app recommendations. When the iPhone 4 came out in 2010, I wrote up a list of my favorite apps and emailed it over to my friends who were new adopters. I’ve updated it a few times since then, emailing the latest version to the latest adopters. After a few iterations, I realized it would be easier to just put it online so I can update it when I find new stuff and so anyone can get to it.

There are many sites that will review and recommend apps, so what’s unique about this particular list? It’s what’s on my phone right now. And since friends tend to cluster around common interests, it makes sense that friends want to know what other friends are using.

You should know that I have a thing about never rarely paying for an app. I don’t know why. It’s almost irrational and my friends always give me crap about it.  That being said, this is good news for you – I will recommend a bunch of excellent apps that will cost you nothing, and I try to identify apps as “(Free)” whenever possible.

I didn’t include everything (but most of the stuff on my phone right now is listed here). I’ll try to format this so it’s easy to read…

I organized my phone as follows (using folders):

  • Home screen is all the stuff I use most frequently
  • Second screen over is folders of stuff
  • Third screen over is a few more folders and other random stuff that I don’t know where to put

In my dock, I keep Messages, Phone, Mail, iPod.

Stuff from first screen that’s not Apple default stuff:

Dropbox – (Free) Awesome file sharing software that’s free. You have to sign up for an account, but then you get 2GB free storage. It’s awesome and convenient.

Pandora – (Free) I’m sure you know about Pandora. Pretty great, and it got moved to my home screen after iOS4 made it possible to stream music while doing other stuff.

NPR News – (Free) This app let’s you stream NPR shows (my favorites are Car Talk and Planet Money).

Facebook – (Free) I think it’s the top rated app. Useless if you’re not on FB. – (Free) Very handy for quick reference. I use it a lot when reading DFW. But it also comes in handy in general conversations (turns out, “contemplative” has several pronunciations – the app was the final nail in the coffin in a debate with a friend, who had never heard it pronounced “con-TEM-pluh-tiv”).

Skype – (Free) Obvious. Currently allows free 3G calls over Skype. So, basically free VOIP. Awesome. Also rumored to be adding video calling soon.

Twitter – (Free… see a trend here?) This is the official Twitter app and I like it best of the free ones. It used to be a $3 app called “Tweetie” (which is what I still use on my Mac).

Stuff in folders on my second screen:


IMDB – (Free) Want to know when a movie was released or whose cameo was on that episode of Scrubs? This app is great for finding movie and TV info quickly.

Wikipedia – (Free)

bing – (Free)

SoundHound – (Free) Another song-search app. I’ve never actually used it.

Yahoo! – (Free)

Wikipanion – (Free)

Shazam – (Free) This app is AWESOME – it listens to music and tells you what the song is.

Zillow – (Free) Good use of location services to tell you what houses are on the market, recently sold, etc. around you.


AP Mobile – (Free)

Pokernews – (Free)

Pulse News – (Free) Sort of an RSS reader and aggregator for iPhone. Aggregates news feeds visually and has a pretty slick interface that lets you move through several sites and recent articles quickly.

HuffPost – (Free)

NYTimes – (Free)

Economist – (Free)

Instapaper – (Free) Let’s you mark articles and web pages to read later. A pretty handy way to flag stuff that you want to read, but don’t have time right now. Also good for saving stuff to read for when you may not have an internet connection.


Yelp! – (Free) Great app for food reviews and finding stuff near you.

OpenTable – (Free) Lets you make reservations at local restaurants via iPhone.

Restaurants – (Free) Nutrition info for a lot of restaurants (occasionally talks me out of getting unhealthy stuff, but usually just reminds me how terrible I eat).

UrbanSpoon – (Free) Search for food near you using type, price and location variables.

epicurious – (Free) Helps with grocery shopping, recipes, etc.


eBay – (Free) – (Free)

Fandango – (Free)

Mobile Card – (Free) The Starbucks app that I use as my Starbucks card. Shows current balance, how many stars I’ve earned (for my Gold Card – 15 stars means I get a coupon for a free drink), and can be used to pay with my card in lieu of the actual card.


Evernote – (Free) This is a pretty powerful service that I haven’t gotten into yet. It’s on my list, and I’ve heard really good things about it. It’s cloud-based and lets you upload notes, photos, URLs, etc., for easy organization and accessibility.

Glyphboard – (Free) Web app that lets you copy/paste special characters.

Dragon Dictation – (Free) Voice recognition app that converts speech to text.

Boxcar – (Free) A notification aggregator (a single app that can handle notifications for various services like email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.).

Opera Mini – (Free) Web browser.

Atomic Lite – (Free) Web browser.

PixelPipe – (Free) File transfer assistant to help get media files posted to social media sites.

Flashlight – (Free) Pretty straightforward app that just turns your phone into a light so you can see in the dark.


ETrade – (Free)

Discover Card – (Free)

Fidelity – (Free)

Bank of America – (Free) – (Free) Cool financial planning, analysis, tracking tool. Aggregates all of your financial accounts into one place, shows total net worth, value of savings, cash on hand, etc.

Yahoo! Finance – (Free) For reading news and checking stocks.


LinkedIn – (Free)

fring – (Free) Video chat and IM client.


ScoreCenter – (Free) ESPN.

Sportacular – (Free) Yahoo! Sports. – (Free)

NBC Sports – (Free)

FOX Sports – (Free)

CBS Sports – (Free)

Local Info

Layar – (Free) Funky augmented reality app that uses the rear-facing camera to overlay local businesses, restaurants, etc. on screen.

AroundMe – (Free) Helps to find stuff that’s nearby.

MapQuest – (Free)

skobbler – (Free) Turn-by-turn navigation app.

Now Playing – (Free) Find movies, check Rotten Tomatoes scores

The Weather Channel – (Free)

WeatherBug – (Free)

The Scoop – (Free) New York Times app that tells you all of the NYT’s favorite stuff to do in NYC – restaurants, shows, etc.

LivingSocial – (Free) Daily deals and coupons.

Groupon – (Free) Daily deals and coupons.


Gorillacam – (Free) Camera app with timers, anti-shake, etc.

Chromacam – Developed by a friend of mine. ALlows some pretty cool photo tweaking like emphasizing a single color in a photo that’s otherwise B&W.

PS Express – (Free) Photoshop app for tweaking and editing photos.

Instagram – (Free) Social networking, photo sharing and editing.


Netflix – For managing my Netflix queue and searching for new stuff, also lets you stream stuff over 3G. Netflix account required

YouTube webapp – (Free)

NPR Music – (Free) NPR frequently has free previews of soon-to-be-released albums, and you can get a lot of cool, NPR-exclusive live shows by different bands.

Flixster – (Free) Lets you look for movie times and get Rotten Tomatoes scores for movies that are out.

RunPee – (Free) Tells you when good pee break opportunities are coming up in movies so you don’t miss the action.


Kindle – (Free)

Barnes & Noble eReader – (Free)

Bible – (Free)

Apple (actually, the Apple trademarked symbol, thanks to Glyphboard – see Utilities above)

All the standard apple stuff that comes on the phone that I pulled from my homescreen (this is just personal preference, obviously)

Remote – (Free) Awesome app that lets you control iTunes on your PC/Mac from your phone over WiFi – super duper awesome for DJing a party at your house or something b/c you can change playlists, volume, songs, etc. from your phone even if the stereo isn’t in the room with you.

Apple Store – (Free)

iBooks – (Free)

iMovie – good for editing the sweet 720p video the iPhone 4 can shoot – cost is $5

Games I don’t have many. I just kinda download random stuff that’s “on sale” as “free” temporarily. I’m a game troll. Well, my friend Jesse tricked me into buying some games and now I have tons of them (the iPhone is a really good gaming platform). Most of the games I’ve bought are $.99.

Angry Birds – Evil pigs have stolen the birds’ eggs. The birds try to defeat the pigs by being fired from a slingshot. It was game of the year for iPhone in 2010

Peggle – Puzzle game sort of like Snood, if you remember that.

Osmos – Puzzle game where you’re some kind of blob and you try to absorb other blobs before evil blob(s) absorb you.

Cut The Rope – Puzzler where you try to get the frog the candy he wants. You cut ropes strategically to help the candy get to him.

Poker 1-on-1 – A friend of mine developed this with another friend of mine. The game’s intelligence has been designed and improved with Vanessa Rousso’s help. It’s a fun app that teaches heads-up poker and helps kill time.

Tiki – Puzzle game where you’re trying to destroy blocks on the screen without allowing certain blocks to fall over.

Cat Physics – Puzzle game where you have to figure out how to get the ball of yarn from one cat to another.

Plants vs Zombies – Technically a “tower defense game”. Really, really fun and pretty addicting – one of the more popular iPhone games.

The Creeps! – Also a tower defense game. You gotta’ keep the baddies from getting to the sleeping kid. Really fun and addicting, also pretty challenging and well worth $.99 just for the time I’ve gotten out of this one.

Trainyard EX – Another puzzle game that will strain your brain. You’re trying to lay track so that the colored trains can find the appropriate color-coded station.

Paper Glider – (free) Good for killing time. Keep the paper glider in the air as long as possible.

Cover Orange – (free) Physics-based puzzler. Strategically drop the boxes, barrels and wheels to protect the oranges from the nasty raincloud.

Fruit Ninja – Sort of like skeet shooting, only you’re destroying fruit with a sword.

Tiny Wings – My current addiction. It’s like Paper Glider meets Angry Birds.


FCC Broadband Test – (Free) FCC app for testing the speed of your data connection.

Speed Test – (Free) Another one to test your upload/download speeds.

myWireless – (Free) Monitor data usage, billing, etc. on AT&T.

Mark the Spot – (Free) Allows you to report trouble spots in coverage where you drop calls on AT&T.


TripIt – (Free) Travel organizer. Helps keep track of itineraries, etc.

RunKeeper Pro – (Free) Fitness and run tracker.


GateGuru – (Free) Tells you what stuff is near you in the airport so you can find good food, etc. with reviews.

TripTik – (Free) AAA app for finding good local tuff while traveling.

WordLens – (Free) Augmented reality app.  You hold your phone up so it sees text on a sign or something, and it translates the text in real time.  The app is free, and you pay $5 for a language pack (ie, Spanish to English).  It actually works and I expect it to get a lot better pretty quickly as people use it.


Google Mobile – (Free) Sort of a catch-all for Google. This app contains several Google apps like Gmail, Calendar, Buzz, etc.

GoogleVoice – (Free) If you have GoogleVoice, you should get this app so you can use it on your iPhone. It’s basically free call forwarding to wherever you are.

Translate – (Free) Translate words into other languages.

Shopper – (Free) Uses the rear-facing camera to identify products to make price comparisons and locating substitutes easy.

My phone is Jailbroken, so I also have a few Jailbreak apps that I’ve downloaded from the Cydia Store.


MyWi 4.0 – Lets me use my iPhone as a mobile hotspot using my 3G connection.

My3G – Some apps are specifically designed so they’ll only access data if the phone is on a WiFi network. Specifically, anything over 10MB will trigger the WiFi-only restriction. This app removes this limitation.

SBSettings – (Free) Gives me a quick way to access common settings with one or two taps/swipes (as opposed to several). Some settings I change a lot are BlueTooth On/Off, WiFi On/Off and Airplane Mode On/Off.

MobileNotifier – (Free) Far and away the best notification app I’ve seen for iPhone. It usurps the native iPhone notifications with a sleek, easy-to-use notification system that makes a lot more sense than the native solution. Hopefully Apple will work something like this into iOS5.

Stuff on third screen (random stuff):

Mirror – (Free) Uses the front-facing camera as a mirror – you never know when you might find something in your teeth.

Constitution – (Free) For quick reference when I’m wondering “is that constitutional?”

FindiPhone – (Free) Apple made this free with version 4.2 of the iPhone software.  You can set it up online at – you can find your iPhone if it’s lost or stolen.

HeyTell – (Free) Like text messaging meets voicemail. You can push a button and send a quick voice message to other HeyTell users.