Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Poisoned Pen

In every town there is one critic that with a reputation for ruthlessness, possessed of an acid pen that can find nothing good in the world of the arts. New careers are gleefully smashed and that critic feels a quickening each time some new talent cries out.

My first career was in small business, and though I have worked for giants, I've had a few toy ventures on the side. We all want some success that is "us." I have a sensitivity for small businesses, and most marine products vendors and manufacturers are, in the scheme of things, tiny.

A few days ago I submitted an article to my editor; the closing sentence of the e-mail stated that "so-and-so is not going to be happy with me." I had bashed his product a bit. I didn't say it was bad. I explained that my test was in fact, a bit severe... but that other products had passed. I explained the product did no harm. But in spite of the fact that this man and his customers believe the sun rises and sets on his product, I could find nothing significant to recommend it. So I didn't. And my editor told me not to worry about it.

We have five choises when grading a product, and a product can be more than one of these.
  • Best Choice
  • Best Budget Buy, reserved for products that are cheap and work.
  • No comment given
  • Not Recommended, reserved for products with significant flaws
Awarding Best Choice and Best Buy is always pleasant, particularly when a product surprises you with great value. I can think of some fuel additives, vent filters, holding tank treatments, sanitation hoses--the list is long--where awarding top rating was a pleasure. They were impressive product, doing more than I expected. There are always some products in the middle of the pack that are still a good value that just don't merit a recommendation. Sometimes I feel bad about that. I hope they take it as a suggestion that they look more closely at their competition and improve. We all need to strive.

But I never enjoy awarding Not Recommended, not even when the product has manifest flaws. Did I miss some virtue? Why would anyone bother to bring something useless to market? Unfortunately chandlery's shelves are filled with products that simply don't work. Cleaners that don't or that are over priced for what they do. Fuel additives that make corrosion worse. Mildew treatments that don't work as well as common chemistry. Things that are cheaply made, not worth carrying home. I wish that the West Marines and Defenders of the world would help by kicking some of the junk to the curb, but they sell whatever people will buy, though they must know that some of the fender-holders and clothes pins and fuel additives are complete rubbish. When I give a Not Recommended rating, I really mean it.

I hate that in addition to boosting up the innovators, I must shine a bright light on non-performers that so often tell a convincing story. Some take their lumps with quiet dignity. Some have told me that their products "can't be tested in the laboratory" or even simply that it "can't be tested." But they have testimonials a plenty, they say. Never mind other passed the tests. Often the biggest names cry the loudest assuming we are a group of non-technical tinkerers, surprised when we can back-up our findings with a better understanding of the engineering and chemistry behind their product than they have; a bunch of babies, they should test their stuff better and not rely on a big name. And of course, some of the big names are good.

And even when I make recommendations that I am completely sure of, there can be distortions. 
  • A "great review by so-and-so," proclaims the add. Only I didn't review that product.
  • A "rave review," only that review was for a different product, not everything they make.
 Sometimes I'm told the writing is dry, lacking enough opinion and personal judgment. Can you not understand why? Science needs to be dry, even when it cries out for opinion and theorizing.

So I moderate my poisoned pen, while I still call em' as I see em'.


I really wish I could have given concrete examples. But not in this context.

Not every product that claims a "great review by so-and-so" is telling the truth; sometimes that review was for only one product they make, while the others are useless.

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