The Infinite Blades Hypothesis

How many blades does your razor have?

If you’re a customer of one of the two leading brands and you’re on their latest products, it’s likely to be either four or five. Gillette and Schick (known as Wilkinson Sword outside the US) have been waging a razor war for decades, trying to take hold of a global industry worth about $25 billion a year. Gillette’s latest, the Fusion, has five blades; Schick’s Quattro has four, but the company also offers an upgraded five-blade version of a previous model, the Hydro (marketing a five-blade Quattro would make little sense, because quattro means four in Italian and their ads are built around a hand showing four fingers).

It’s a grueling fight, over which both companies spend billions each year in marketing and research. Just manufacturing the tools to build a specific razor may cost upwards of $250 million. It’s gone through the courts as well: Gillette sued Schick in 2003, claiming the Quattro was infringing one of their patents, but they lost. Nevertheless, Gillette still holds the lion’s share of the market.

Razors are prominent members of a group of products known as loss leaders. You might have noticed that the razor handle, which normaly includes two blade cartridges, is very conveniently priced. It’s basically free, to the point that the product has to be priced in such a way that it doesn’t become cheaper to buy razors handles just for the blades. This is designed to conquer you as a customer for the lucrative replacement cartridges, which are so expensive that they consistently rate among the world’s most shoplifted products, chiefly because of their value-to-size ratio. In other words, Gillette and Schick are willing to take a loss on the initial sale so they can reap the benefits from you later on.

But how many blades do you really need?
Gillette introduced the “safety razor”, so called because the blade is encased is such a way that it’s harder to cut yourself, back in 1904. It took them 67 years to add a second blade, in 1971. They then launched the Mach 3 in 1998 and the Fusion, with five blades, in 2006 (they skipped the four-blade generation because of patents). According to a tipically reliable Internet source, this creates a hyperbolic curve that will give us a razor with infinite blades sometime around 2026, but don’t spend too much time thinking about it. It’s interesting to note that in the early years, Gillette didn’t pursue a loss leading strategy: in fact, the razor was quite expensive. But King C. Gillette didn’t care because he had patents to protect his invention, so no one could sell cheap knockoff blades for his razor. Moreover, the blades themselves were made of carbon steel, so they would rust quickly: people were just forced to buy them frequently. Only in 1965, and after Schick introduced its own stainless steel blades, did Gillette finally make the switch, even though they had long held a patent on non-rusting blades.

But although Gillette has funded a number of studies that supposedly confirm the benefits of multiple blades, wether they actually produce a better shave is a matter of opinion. Two blades are good because the first raises hairs and the second cuts them. Additional blades could potentially just give you more nicks and ingrown hairs, depending on your shaving technique. Nevertheless, a six-blade razor is already on the market:

Not happy with just having six blades, the folks that sell this even put a shaving cream dispenser in the handle, making it just about the most ridiculous grooming item you can buy.

It gets trickier. You might have noticed that both Gillette and Schick also sell “power” versions of their razors, that use one AAA battery. It powers a tiny motor, similar to those used in phones for vibration, which supposedly facilitates the shave. The battery is included: Gillette gives you a Duracell, while Schick gives you an Energizer, the two top-selling brands in consumer batteries. Coincidence? No. Gillette bought Duracell in 1996 (they are now both owned by manufacturing giant Procter & Gamble), and Schick was bought by Energizer in 2003. When this happened, Gillette pre-emptively struck by launching a battery powered version of its Mach 3 razor, in late 2003. Schick quickly responded with a power version of its Quattro model. I am really not sure wether a vibrating razor is beneficial to your face, and Gillette has even been convicted for false advertising over this, but it’s interesting to note that both makers are selling you their own batteries, hoping you’ll buy more in the future (of course, while you’re forced to buy the correct blades for your razor, any battery will work, so brand loyalty is somewhat diminished here). If it all sounds exploitative, it’s because it is.

Another glorious field of application for loss leading is printers. Have you ever complained about how expensive ink cartridges and toners are? The reason they sound so expensive is that they cost a significant portion of the price of the printers themselves, which are sold at a loss. But if you buy the printer you’ll be committed to buying consumables, so manufacturers are willing to give you a bargain on the hardware just to rake you in. So, next time you’re out shopping for an ink cartridge or a toner, and you find it costs half your printer, at least you’ll know that the right question is not Why does the toner cost so much?, but rather Why was the printer so cheap?

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The Snooze Dilemma

Waking up is hard to do.

So, to snooze or not to snooze? Well, it turns out that snoozing, like many enjoyable things in life, is critically bad for you. And you shouldn’t do it. Here’s why.

First of all, waking up is hard because your body goes through a series of changes. While you sleep, temperature, heart rate and blood pressure all decrease, and you get high on serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter that explains why your bed feels so much cozier in the morning than at night. If you align yourself properly with your circadian rhythm, by waking up at roughly the same time every day, your body knows. And in the hour before alarm time, it starts to drag you out of that pit by warming up your metabolism. This is an ideal situation, and explains why you sometimes open your eyes just minutes before your designated wake up time. If, nevertheless, you’re still sleepy and hit the snooze button, this gets in the way of that natural reboot process, creating a chemical imbalance in your body, which is now pumping dopamine, the antagonist of serotonin. The end result is a befuddled mess. On the other hand, if you’re not getting enough sleep in the first place and you’re off your natural rhythm, snoozing might become irresistible. But in this case, you risk falling back into deep sleep, only to be ripped out of it nine minutes later. That works against every natural process evolution has devised to ease you out of sleep, and wreaks havoc with your metabolism. Also, it generally prompts you to just snooze again. And again.

In other words, snooze time is never good. Unfortunately, when you need to make that assessment you’re a groggy half-human who’d kill for sleep. But snoozing is not always a snap judgment: some people construct elaborate snooze routines with multiple alarms that start up to an hour before their actual wake up time, thinking that’s the only way they can make it out of bed. Instead, they just subject themselves to an hour of useless, fragmented sleep that does nothing to soothe their bodies.

But wait, why is snooze time traditionally fixed at exactly nine minutes? Apparently it has to do with standardized gears inside alarm clocks in the 1950s: the snooze cog had to fit with existing ones and it could be set at either 9 or 10 minutes. The choice fell on 9, because 10 minutes was thought to be enough to “fall back into deep sleep”.
Another explanation that I like better has to do with cheap electronic components: with a 9 minute snooze, a digital alarm clock only has to “watch” the last digit to know when to go off again. This allows for simpler circuitry to be devoted to the function, and ultimately makes the clock cheaper to make.

Resisting the temptation to snooze is not easy. It’s an interesting problem because it creates a conflict between your present self (“I want to wake up on time tomorrow”) and your future self (“I want to sleep right now”), a staple of behavioral economics. So, alarm clock manufacturers have learned about this and sell an array of devices that nudge you into waking up. The Clocky alarm, for example, lets you snooze once, and then literally comes to life, jumps off your nightstand, and finds a place to hide, all the while blasting an ear-ripping alarm sound. You’re then forced to go find it and switch it off.
The Puzzle alarm is even more taxing on your fragile, unstable cognitive functions: the moment it goes off, it explodes a jigsaw puzzle and won’t stop until you have correctly solved it. But honestly, I don’t think anyone actually wants to incorporate a ridiculous-looking, self-hiding alarm into their lifestyle: a week into using it your rational, present self will just go ‘what the hell’ and give up. By then you’ll either have learned the lesson or gone back to snoozing.

Still, the best anti-snooze alarm of all is, hands down, the SnuzNLuz. It gets you on your toes by making donations to political causes you hate, every time you hit the button.

Alas, it doesn’t really exist. It has a product page at Thinkgeek.com, but it’s nothing more than an April Fool’s prank. But, ThinkGeek has turned joke products into reality before, so you never know.

Perhaps the SnuzNLuz has taken a cue from Stickk, a website that encourages you to commit to a goal by setting up a financial stake. No wonder, it was founded by a group of Yale economists and it capitalizes on the fact that we are all instinctively loss averse.
If you want to commit to going the gym regularly, for example, you can set up a weekly attendance goal and create a contract; whenever you fail to report in, Stickk will send some of your money to an anti-charity of your choice (options include the NRA, the Pro-Choice Foundation, and the Manchester United Fan Club).

So, what should you do? At the risk of sounding obnoxious, you should really try to get enough sleep in the first place: chronic sleep deprivation is one of the worst things you can do to your body, as it impairs your cognitive functions, your memory and your learning abilities. And you should never snooze anyway, not even when you’d sell your soul for five more minutes. How? By understanding that under no circumstances, and in absolutely no way, snoozing is going to make your day any better. Yes, you’ll get that brief, blissful feeling of being wrapped into the sheets again, but you’ll pay the price. We’re not good at resisting temptation, even when we know that doing so will pay off, but it’s never too late too learn. People who can delay gratification do better in life.
You might just start by learning not to snooze.

The Death of Skeuomorphism

This is the Calendar app you find on iPads and recent Macs. 

It comes complete with fake leather and torn bits of paper, resembling the real object it’s supposed to replace. This is an example of skeuomorphism, an approach to design that recreates functional elements in an ornamental way. It’s used in physical objects as well: your car might have fake, retro-looking hub caps on its rims, and the rivets on your jeans are most likely just fakes covering the real, functional rivets underneath. But Apple has made it famous by incorporating it in its graphical user interfaces.

Apple’s obsession with skeuomorphism reaches into the tiniest of details. If you have an iPhone with iOS 6, launch the Music app and take a look at the volume knob:

If you tilt the phone on its axis, left to right, you will see the reflection effect on the knob change, as if it were a physical one. The gyroscope inside the phone is used to detect the motion. It’s nearly impossible to spot, yet someone at Apple went out on a limb to program this into the interface. Steve Jobs was a fan of skeuomorphism and Scott Forstall, the Head of iOS design, was a strong supporter. But there’s been an ongoing debate about this inside the company for some time.

Yesterday, Apple fired Scott Forstall. He’s taking the blame for the iOS 6 Maps fiasco, but the implications on graphic design are interesting. Guess who’s been appointed to replace him on the non-business end of his responsibilities? Jony Ive, Apple’s chief of industrial design. Now he’ll be in charge of designing not just the products, but even the graphical elements of the software that runs on them. Ive’s design philosophy is one of purity and simplicity: «We try to develop products that seem somehow inevitable. That leave you with the sense that that’s the only possible solution that makes sense», he says.

Wether you like the design of Apple gadgets or not, you must agree that it’s one of the key factors to its dominance. And the credit is all Ive’s. Before he came around, phones looked radically different. Computers were unappealing beige boxes. His first iconic creation was the original iMac, which came in a variety of bright colors and had a curious handle on top:Walter Isaacson notes in his book that is was “more playful and semiotic than it was functional”, and quotes Jony Ive on its purpose: «Back then, people weren’t comfortable with technology. If you’re scared os something, then you won’t touch it. I could see my mum being scared to touch it. So I thought, if there’s this handle on it, it makes a relationship possible. It’s approachable. It’s intuitive. It gives you permission to touch.
It gives a sense of its deference to you».

The design principles established by Apple now dominate technology, to the point that most other players in the field are very happy to just be copycats. This is most apparent on hardware, but software isn’t immune. Here’s the telephone icon from iOS:

It’s nearly identical, with very minor variations, on every other smartphone operating system, including Android. Somehow, Apple has decided that the telephone function must be identified with a white phone handle on a green background, and everyone else has just followed suit. Interestingly, it’s skeuomorphic and it refers to an outdated design for telephone handles. But while you’d be hard pressed to come up with a sensible alternative, does iBooks really need to resemble a wooden bookshelf?

Doesn’t this sacrifice functionality in some way? And why are most icons for voice recording shaped like either a classic studio microphone or an old tape, items that most people, especially youngsters, might have never seen in their lives? Skeuomorphism made a lot of sense when computers first came around: it gave people a quick way to grasp the functionality of otherwise obscure buttons or applications.
But do we still need that?

Given Ive’s track record in influencing the design of everyday things, it’s reasonable to imagine that he might apply the same mojo to UI elements. In other words, we may be on the brink of the greatest revolution in interface design since the inception of computers. Microsoft has just launched a new version of Windows that radically does away with the past and contains little or no trace of skeuomorphism. If Apple does the same they might become copycats themselves, but the impact of such a decision could resonate even more greatly.

The Plastic Brain of Taxi Drivers

What’s special about London taxi drivers? They have enlarged brains.

They’re not mutants. If you want to become a cabbie in London, you have to undergo a daunting test called The Knowledge. To pass, you must be able to plot the shortest route between any two of the city’s 25,000 streets, and point out any relevant landmark along the way (there are about 20,000 in all). Preparing for this mind-boggling endeavor takes three to four years, spent mostly driving around in a scooter with a map placed on the handlebars – remember that if you spot one in the city, it makes for a good story.

Fewer than 35 percent of applicants are granted a license, not surprisingly. What’s surprising is that London cabbies are responsible for disproving one of the longest-standing foundations of neuroscience: that the brain, unlike other organs, stops growing shortly after childhood and is incapable of spawning new neurons. A study conducted on 79 training cabbies had them undergo an MRI scan after three years of learning London topography. Their posterior hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with spatial navigation, was found to have acquired additional grey matter: it was, on average, 7 percent larger than before the training.

This phenomenon, the brain’s ability to rearrange itself and change its physical structure, is called neuroplasticity. It’s one of many reminders of how little we know about the human brain. Recent research from Sweden shows that this growth is linked to specific types of activity. This time, MRI scanners were used on interpreters learning a new language from scratch and comparing them to cognitive science students: while organs in the control group remained unchanged, over just three months the interpreters showed growth in the hippocampus (again) and in the cerebral cortex, which is quite understandably involved with language. This confirms previous research that revealed how bilingual children have superior brain functionality in some areas, and how being bilingual can delay the onset of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

It seems you can teach an old dog new tricks. But when it comes to the brain, not everything has a tangible effect. What about those Brain Training games, then? Nintendo and other companies maintain that by playing them regularly you can “keep your brain young”, citing dubious research. It’s a good marketing effort and by no means the worse kind of manipulation of science, but sadly it is not true. Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons dismiss the issue in their brilliant book, The Invisible Gorilla: «If you think that doing Sudoku will keep your mind sharp and help you avoid misplacing your keys or forgetting to take your medicine, you’re likely succumbing to the illusion of potential. Unfortunately, people who do more crosswords decline mentally at the same rate as those who do fewer crosswords. Practice improves specific skills, not general abilities».

In other words, what you get by playing Brain Training is that you get better at Brain Training. But there is a very easy way to improve your mental abilities, and it’s got nothing to do with puzzles. It’s called exercise. Engaging in physical activity increases production of a protein that keeps nerve cells healthy, giving you better mental skills. This has been proven by different studies on humans and rats, as you can read in this New York Times article, opened by a very odd illustration.

For both rodents and men, walking or running for just a few hours a week improves cognitive functions and, of course, physical fitness. And people who exercise actually have larger brains in later life. On the other hand, data reveals that sitting for more than three hours a day can shorten your life span by as much as two years. So, say goodbye to “Dr Kawashima” and get out of that chair. Your brain will be grateful.

The Paradox of Pleasure

Which would make you a happier person, winning the lottery or being in a car crash that leaves you paraplegic?

The answer to this apparently illogical question is, well, neither. Studies show that people who go through these radically different life experiences tend to revert, over time, to their previous level of satisfaction. Winning the lottery will send you to cloud nine for a while, but in a couple of months you’ll be back to where you started, no matter what you do with the money. Even more interestingly, ending up in a wheelchair will destroy you morale in the short run, but over the same amount of time you will again fall back to roughly the same happiness level as before the accident (psychologists call this your set point).

This rather disconcerting trait of human nature is called Hedonic Adaptation, and it was first studied in the 1970s, analyzing precisely the effects of lottery wins and debilitating accidents. Humans have an amazing ability to adjust to the hardships of life: that’s how people carry on after devastating losses and terrible misfortunes. On a more philosophical level, this also means that single life events, no matter how bad or good, do not necessarily alter our existence and might lead to very unexpected consequences. Winston Churchill, writing in his biography, remarked on this: «One must never forget when misfortunes come that it is quite possible they are saving one from something much worse; or that when you make some great mistake, it may very easily serve you better than the best-advised decision. Life is a whole, and luck is a whole, and no part of them can be separated from the rest».

This explains why people who go through terrible illnesses or other life-threatening events often sport a renewed outlook on life (think of how many times Michael J. Fox remarked that his life has been so much better since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease), but it also carries a few unwanted side-effects. It makes it really hard to find happiness, for instance: just like you get used to the bad stuff, you make quick work of the good things as well. This is the Hedonic Treadmill, a perilous exercise that takes the fitness away from your mood. Think of the last time you bought a brand new car: how long did it take before the excitement of driving it wore off? Don Draper put it best in an episode of Mad Men: «What is happiness? It’s just a moment before you need more happiness».

We’re not very good at understanding how we derive pleasure from things. For example, when you’re doing something you hate, like filling out tax forms, you’re always happy to take a break. But when you’re having a good time, you don’t want to interrupt it: nobody wants to get out of the hot tub to pick up the phone. But it turns out we’re dead wrong: separating yourself from a dreaded task makes coming back to it a lot harder, and gets you through the painful process of starting it again. But getting back to something good reignites the pleasure, leaving you with a greater overall satisfaction that cancels out the annoyance of the interruption.

It gets worse. You might think that when evaluating an experience, like a vacation, you rationally weigh all factors and take everything into account. In fact, we tend to judge experiences mostly on how they peaked and ended. This is called, not surprisingly, the peak-end rule and it’s vastly counterintuitive. To imagine this, think of taking a vacation to Hawaii for a week, in two different scenarios. In the first one, you nearly miss your flight because of traffic and, when you get to the islands, it rains for three straight days. But then a gorgeous sunshine comes out, you enjoy the remaining four days, and on the flight back you get bumped to first class for free, arriving home nice and rested. In the second scenario, you get upgraded to first class on the way to Honolulu and enjoy four days of fantastic weather, but then the rain starts. As you grudgingly step off the plane on the way back after having spent the last three days indoors, your find out that your luggage has been lost and you spend an hour filling out forms at the airline desk. Which of the two experiences do you think would leave you more satisfied?

Great psychologist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman coined the idea and conducted a famous study about this in the mid 1990s, focusing on the rather displeasing procedure of colonoscopy, in which a probe is inserted through the anus to inspect the bowels for tumors; the study investigated ways to increase the likelihood that a patient would accept a follow-up procedure in the future. Remembering the peak-end rule and knowing that the discomfort is felt mostly when the instrument is moving, Kahneman suggested that doctors leave it in for a few more minutes at the end, motionless, instead of immediately removing it. Patients treated this way rated the procedure as less painful, even though they had the instrument inside them for longer.

Fortunately, there are ways to fight back. How can you escape the hedonic treadmill, for instance? By buying experiences rather than objects. Research shows that spending money on transient rather than constant experiences will leave you with a much greater level of satisfaction. The memory of something you’ve done or learned can be revisited and stays with you forever, whereas the appeal of a brand new purchase soon fades away. So if you were undecided between that concert ticket and a new pair of shoes, you know what to do now. Happy memories.

The Sweet Side of Nobel Prizes

What is the best predictor of a country’s ability to produce Nobel winners? Chocolate.

Wait, what?
Yes, a study is promoting the idea that countries that consume more chocolate produce more Nobel laureates. It’s been published on a scientific journal by a New York cardiologist, who got the idea from his research into flavanols, a type of antioxidants that help keep the brain young. Since chocolate in rich in them, he tried to plot a statistical correlation between the taste for chocolate and mental prowess. Amazingly, he found it worked: Switzerland, the country with the highest per capita chocolate consumption in the world, has given birth to more Nobel laureates than anyone else. China, who has a modest appetite for it, just two. The only country that deviates from the plot is Sweden: the chocolate predictor allows for just 14 of the 28 Nobels won by Swedes. But you could dismiss that entirely on the understandable bias the Nobel committee might have toward fellow compatriots.

But wait, is this guy for real? Well, even though the study is clearly light-hearted, the numbers are sound. The linear correlation between chocolate consumption and Nobel prizes is 0.791, where 1 would be a perfect match. That’s a very high value for social factors, and it shoots up to 0.862 if you don’t take sneaky Sweden into account. (In statistics, this number is called the Pearson correlation coefficient. Another factor that measures the probability of chance mudding the results, the p-value, is even better: p<0.0001. The target threshold is p<0.05, and lower is better).

There’s more research centered around strange predictors. What can you use to estimate the level of corruption of a country? Tips. A study conducted by the Harvard Business School on data from 32 countries found that high rates of corruption and high rates of tipping (or ‘prosocial gratuities’, as they call them) go together. Why? If you consider a tip as a way to ensure good service in the future, that is similar, in a way, to a bribe. So, tipping and corruption might both stem from the same predicament and their correlation is statistically measurable (The Pearson coefficient in this study was 0.6).

One of the most fascinating statistical correlations I’ve ever encountered links rainy days to admission rates at a Canadian medical school: fewer candidates were accepted when the weather was gloomy.  We all know that weather affects how we feel, but the notion that you should try to sustain job interviews when the sun is shining takes the idea to another level. (The p-value in this study was a decent 0.042).

The real jungle of strange predictors is economy. Sales of various items are periodically linked to its health. The trend was started by Alan Greenspan in the 1970s, when he said he looked at sales of men’s underwear as an indicator of how the economy was doing.
The assumption is that refreshing your underwear lineup will not be your top priority if you have trouble making the ends meet.

In the wake of this, researchers have come up with many different ways to assess the current state of the economy. Take the Box Index, for example: it measures the production levels of cardboard boxes used to ship everyday goods like beer, toothpaste or cereal. When they plunge, it’s because sales are slow. But that’s boring, right? Much more interesting is the idea the the length of women’s skirts might be tied to how much money is going around. The New York Magazine calls it the Hot Waitress Index: the hotter the waitress, the weaker the economy. Why? Because they attract more business when the money flow decreases. Sexist all you want, but effective. There’s more very weird indicators, including the number of unclaimed corpses at the morgue (funeral services are not cheap), mosquito infestations (home foreclosures create favorable breeding grounds), and the cover of Sport Illustrated magazine. Business Insider has a list.

And since you’ve made it this far, I might as well ask you: what’s in the picture that opens this post? A chocolate fountain? Chocolate pouring from the Heavens? Nope. It’s a lamp.

It’s called the Nemo ChocoLite Lamp and it’s made by Italian furniture manufacturer Cassina. So don’t underestimate the power of chocolate on the human brain yet.

Heisenberg’s Television Principle

The Associated Press reported today that a new type of methamphetamine from Mexico is flooding the US. It is said to be “of the purest quality” and coming from “high-tech labs”. Furthermore, it has “a clearer, glassier appearance, usually with a clear or bluish-white color”. Bluish-white color? Hang on a minute…

The HuffPost has already sniffed the connection: it’s a bewildering idea, that some Cartel drug lord might be trying to play Heisenberg, the chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-artist from the fantastic TV series Breaking Bad. Someone was already selling ‘blue meth’, but it was just sugar crystals from a particularly avant-garde Albuquerque candy shop.

There’s a running debate on how TV and especially reality TV is affecting, well, reality. For example, on how series like Teen Mom or 16 and Pregnant are influencing the behavior of young girls. Regardless of how pregnancy and its consequences are depicted in these shows, the mere exposure and the power of social norms might have a stronger impact on viewers than the producers would expect.

Social norms can be used very effectively as an incentive toward desirable behavior. Consider the message you find in hotel bathrooms that tries to persuade you to reuse your towels. A study has found that people are 26 percent more likely to do so when the message states that most hotel guests reuse their towels at least once, as opposed to a general plea to consider the environment. Obama’s advisors used a similar tactic to entice voters to go to the polls in 2008, by spreading the word that a record voter-turnout was expected and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy (turnout increased by 5 million in the 2008 elections). You generally tend to do what others are doing. You don’t want to be the odd one out.

Similarly, if you tell a teenage girl that she shouldn’t get pregnant because a lot of her peers are carelessly doing so and ruining their lives, that’s probably not going to dramatically affect her decisions. Saying, however, that most girls in her school are taking precautions to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STDs is usually much more effective. A TV show centered around pregnant young girls gives that idea an aura of ‘normality’ that might have unintended effects. The psychology involved in how television modulates people’s behavior might be more subtle than you think.

People will act inadvertently badly under the influence of fictional stories. You don’t think a cute film like Finding Nemo would cause any evil, but after its release sales of clownfish briefly exploded due to thousands of kids nagging parents to take one home. Most were treated like goldfish and put in freshwater bowls (they are marine fish that require lots of care), where they would survive only a matter of hours. Some kids even intentionally flushed them down the toilet to set them free, recreating events from the film. But no matter how heartbreaking that is, dead fish do not stack up with pregnant teenagers and metheads.

Nat Geo is currently airing a show called Doomsday Preppers, about people who believe the apocalypse is nigh and are prepping for it, generally by stacking up massive amounts of foodstuffs and guns. They each have their own impending doom scenario (economic collapse, earthquakes, polar shifts, radiation, you name it), but it’s mostly irrelevant: they just want to invest every resource they have into preparing for the worst.

It’s easy to think that these people might have been influenced by the recent flurry of post-apocalyptic movies and series. This creates a curious recurrence: preppers may have been influenced by a TV show, and they now have their own, potentially influencing others. Mostly, preppers are extreme right-wing xenophobic hoarders who come up with a bullshit excuse for the end of the world so they can cave in to their fears and isolate themselves. And buy lots of assault rifles. What’s lamentable about Doomsday Preppers is that it doesn’t do much to instill the doubt that these might be dangerous, delusional sociopaths. Or if you don’t care for that, that it’s wiser to put your money into a savings account rather than buying boatloads of food and ammo. At least, after every segment, the world-ending scenario invoked by each prepper is properly debunked, but that doesn’t do enough to sway the balance of the show. I’m afraid it might be inspiring even more xenophobic hoarding.

Breaking Bad has endless artistic merits and I love it dearly. But it’s full of elegantly designed, sticky ideas about drug trafficking. It was just a matter of time before someone tried to turn them into reality.