Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally

Dilbert
There’s an economic principle known as the rule of fungibility that states a commodity is equivalent to other units of the same commodity. For example, a litre of gasoline is the same commodity regardless of the brand or source. A bushel of wheat is the same regardless of the country. Ten dollars is ten dollars whether presented as a single bill or in smaller denominations. These are fungible items.

But fungibility doesn’t apply to language. Words do not have an absolute base value, but are rather weighed in their context, and their source. A street thug telling his pack followers to “Kill the bum” is very different from a sports fan shouting the same thing at an empire during a baseball game. Context is everything.

If a neighbour comments, “Taxes in this town are too high. They are killing jobs, hurting homeowners and bankrupting businesses,” it’s a complaint. A fairly common one from a taxpayer. One person bitching to another is lightweight, regardless of the truth of that complaint.

Put it in a letter to the editor, and it gains weight because others read it and may start discussing it. It gains traction.

Put it on social media and you can engage people in discussions immediately and share the comment with people outside your own borders, creating an image of the town for outsiders: don’t move there, don’t start a business there, because taxes are too high. There’s no work there.

It can quickly become damaging to to whole community.

If the media says it in an editorial, it’s bulks up. Even though the media does not necessarily represent any more voices than the editor’s sole view, media still has a patina of authority for most readers.*

And when that editorial gets put online, like the social media comment, it not only spreads the idea, but it helps build – or deteriorate – the community’s reputation for outsiders.**

Continue reading “Not All Words Are Equal, or Used Equally”

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What the Future Holds

BBC FutureIn researching my latest book, I’ve been reading about predictions for the future: what will happen in technology, science, politics, government and medicine. It’s pretty fascinating what some see coming at us for the next 10 to 100 years. There are some ideas that had never occurred to me. And many predictions which never came true.

(The image at the left is from the BBC Future website. Click the image to go to the site or here for a larger version.)

I’ve always been fascinated by “futurology.” Especially what our past thought of the future, and whether or not any of it came true. Back in 2006, I wrote about a book I had in my library:

In 1936, an MIT professor name Dr. Clifton Furnas wrote a book called “The Next 100 Years.” Among his predictions for the distant future were hydro corridors, synthetic vitamins and antibiotics. Within a decade, all of those things were already commonplace. He dismissed the fledgling television as a fad with no practical application. Within two decades it would become the most popular form of entertainment in the world.

I look at “here’s what the future will bring” books on the shelf today and think each one is a product of hubris more than insight.

Who could have predicted the Internet and its importance to our daily lives more than 10 years ago, aside from a few prescient science fiction writers like John Brunner (The Shockwave Rider)?

Continue reading “What the Future Holds”

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Narrative and free agency in game design

World of WarcraftAs a former World of Warcraft player, I can attest to how compelling it is to play an immersive, massive, 3D role-playing game. Acting out scenarios in a fantasy world is more involving than merely reading a fantasy novel. You get addicted to being part of the narrative, to swinging the sword instead of just reading about it.

Just as when you’re reading a good novel and can’t stop turning the pages, you keep playing to see how the next chapter/adventure/scenario plays out, especially when you don’t always have to follow the script.

It’s not so much about the gameplay, as much as it is being part of the story. Well-designed games compel you to continue playing through a combination of action, puzzle solving, rewards and group activities.

WOW is an MMO – massive multiplayer online game – set in a fantasy world that draws much of its substance from Tolkein and other fantasy writers. Many of the role-playing games (RPGs) follow the pseudo-Tolkein model, but most follow paths laid out in fantasy literature (i.e. characters and novels by Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft or more modern writers).

WOW is, of course, not the only game that offers that sort of setting, but at eight years old, with about 12 million subscribers, it’s both the largest and longest-lasting of them. It thus becomes the yardstick for measuring any other game in the genre. None of its competitors – Rift, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings,Star Wars, etc. – have a fraction of the players.

RPGs owe their ancestry to a small box set of rules published in 1976, called Dungeons and Dragons. Written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (whose name subsequently disappears from the list of authors in later printings), it essentially created the standards for fantasy role playing that are still in use today.

This is documented in great detail in Jon Peterson’s 700-page tome, Playing at the World (his blog is here). It was reading this book that got me thinking about game design again (and to dig through what few old wargames and rules books I have in the basement…).

In his introduction, Peterson identifies “freedom of agency” as one of the key components, “as much a necessary condition for inclusion in the genre of role-playing games as is role assumption.” The ability to make choices of action, of goal, and behaviour are central to a compelling game. In the Wired interview, linked above, Peterson defends gaming,

“…not as fads or disposable products of pop culture, but instead as a legitimate part of intellectual history, heirs to a tradition that stretches back centuries and involves many great thinkers and innovators.”

Which is similar to what I’ve been writing about for a few decades.* Gaming, at least in the simulation-style games, is not merely a pointless pastime, but rather an intellectual exercise.

Computer games have both redefined entertainment and set the bar for hardware and software development. Games are incredibly demanding of computer resources compared to, say, a spreadsheet. Consider the processing required to keep track of dozens, even hundreds of players who are interacting in 3D space in realtime, plus all of the geography, terrain, in-game trades and purchases, combat, weather and environmental effects. And to keep everyone in the game fully informed of all the events, locations and activities of their characters, pets, party members, resources, movement paths, mail… it’s a stunning amount of work.

Beyond the coding, there are some basic components any game needs to be successful:

  • Clearly defined purpose and goals;
  • Challenge;
  • Identifiable opponents to overcome;
  • Reward for accomplishing goals or overcoming challenges;
  • An understandable and accessible board geography where the game is played;
  • Clear and concise rules.

RPGs add other elements to create that immersive experience, including:

  • Connecting story/narrative;
  • Character choice, advancement and development;
  • Consequences of actions or behaviour;
  • Alternate races (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.);
  • Role assumption (taking on the persona of a character in the story);
  • Free agency (the ability to move and act independent of the script);
  • Believable fantasy, alternate or futuristic world environment;
  • Clear sides with which the races align and which have competing goals.

Computer games have additional components:

  • Good graphics and visual appeal;
  • Good AI (artificial intelligence) and NPCs (non-player characters);
  • Believable environmental interactions, simulated physics and effects;
  • Appropriate sound (and sometimes music);
  • Interactivity with NPCs, environment;
  • Social activity (in MMOs).

Some RPGs (i.e. Fable, Witcher, Fallout 3), have more complex “consequences” built into decision making within their games. Certain choices – such as attacking or stealing from non-player characters (computer-controlled NPCs) or how you answer their questions – affect the way others relate to your character. How well these mimic actual social or personal behaviour is debatable. Mostly they seem to me merely designed to add chrome to role assumption. In some cases, they don’t really affect the game or quests.

Since these are solo games, rather than MMOs, you can usually save your game before you make a choice, then replay it with a different choice if you don’t like an outcome. That tends to dissipate the suspension of belief necessary for immersion.

I don’t include “fun” in any of these lists because fun, like beauty or taste, is subjective. Players will gravitate to the games that provide the highest entertainment value for their own interests and aptitudes. I, for example, never found WOW’s battlegrounds “fun” but always enjoyed questing and exploring (solo and in parties). Others eschew the quests for the PvP combat in the battlegrounds.

Can the storyline absorb the players sufficiently, for long enough to suspend belief, deeply enough to make you care about both the characters and the action? It depends on how well the narrative is scripted. A good storyline has to be crafted as carefully as a good novel and needs to generate a similar emotional response.

Clearly, however, game narrative is very different from a storyline in a book, since choice is a key element in gaming.

Quests can also be seen as ‘micro-narratives.’ In many games, the plot or story is merely a shell that contains numerous micro-stories presented as quests. Sometimes these are dynamic, so that the nature or goals of quest B depends on how or how well you accomplished quest A. However, the shell story needs to be coherent so players don’t simply feel they’re moving from one mini-game to the next for no reason.

A lot of games fall down with thin stories, pointless quests (collect X eyeballs or Y spleens), and predictable A-to-B-to-C plots. And too many depend more on action to move them along rather than plot or participatory narrative (i.e. Diablo III).

Patrick Holleman, on the Game Design forum, writes,

“…the difference between traditional games and videogames is that videogames have a world in which everything about the game, except for controller input, takes place. This world is created, controlled, and sometimes populated by continuous and discrete artificial intelligence. The player is a guest in that world, the central participant in its mechanics. Even still, the world is usually not driven by the player; it is the designer’s world, and should be studied as such.”

Holleman also asks, “…whether or not videogames are similar enough to traditional narratives that we should study them the same way.” In response, he adds,

“To begin, it makes sense to admit that some portions of videogame narratives are exactly like books; the player reads them without interacting except to turn the ‘page’. Some narrative segments in videogames are exactly like movies; the player watches them without doing anything except pausing and unpausing. No decent videogame is entirely like movies or books. A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.”

Interactivity is essential, but is not synonymous with narrative. Ernest Adams, writing in “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers,” said,

“Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power.”

In that same article, Henry Jenkins writes,

“You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity… Most often, when we discuss games as stories, we are referring to games that either enable players to perform or witness narrative events – for example, to grab a lightsabre and dispatch Darth Maul in the case of a Star Wars game. Narrative enters such games on two levels – in terms of broadly defined goals or conflicts and on the level of localized incidents. “

Immersiveness also depends heavily on how much free will the player has, and the ability to write ourselves into the script. In games like Diablo III, the action is very linear and with little flexibility for explore or act outside the proscribed plot and territory. These games have little immersive value (and, at least with D3, little replay value, either). Others, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, combine limited freedom with scripted activities and plots.

Morrowwind, Skyrim and the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 provide a generally freely roam-able world, and in some cases, the ability to attempt quests well beyond your character’s level (some MMOs offer this, as well).**

While few solo RPG games offer such significant free agency, it is the hallmark of most MMOs. Holleman writes,

“World of Warcraft is another game heavily dependent on the depth and persuasiveness of its world; it has the benefit of being an ever-expanding world as well, with content updates and expansion packs. The first time through the game tends to be the best, from a narrative perspective. The structure of the quests (tasks with completion rewards) that guide gameplay are heavy on exploration, but often a bit short on variety, i.e. collect 10 quest items, for the millionth time. What makes these quests and dungeons compelling—at least the first time through the game—is that they are driven by a strong, interesting setting.”

Because RPGs have a character-building ladder system, the reason many players don’t explore the MMO environments more fully is usually that their characters are graded too low to survive in higher-level zones. Some sort of safe passage is sometimes offered (i.e. roads where hostile NPCs don’t patrol), or sometimes swift transportation is available (riding or flying mounts in WOW) to encourage more exploration.

Most MMOs have graduated zones for each race. These offer playable regions challenging for characters within that given range, such as levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. You play your character in a zone until it levels up to be able to enter (and survive in) the next zone. Each zone has level-related quests to fulfill to aid your advancement.***

Completing all available quests is also part of the achievement ladder. Players are encouraged to complete all quests in all zones, regardless of their level. The problem with this system is that, in many MMOs, when your high-level character enters a low-level zone (for example, for another race), the quests are ridiculously easy but yous till want to complete them. On the other hand, quests are designed to get players to explore the entire zone while questing, which increases the sense of immersion.

Where most games have a defined end (in RPGs, usually the defeat of a final boss character), MMOs are often open-ended: they can be played after the characters have reached their highest level, accomplished all available quests and defeated all the boss characters. Usually such activities are social: group raids, battlegrounds and dungeons outside the formal narrative and questing lines (essentially making them into fantasy variants on the FPS-PvP line of gaming). It’s also possible to create new characters and start again from level one, often choosing a different race, type/class (warrior, priest, hunter, etc.,) or even alliance.

As the goal of game design, immersion is difficult to achieve: it depends on the interaction of several factors, as well as the independent activities of players outside the scripted narrative. It’s an interesting challenge that, so far, no single game has managed to meet fully, but it’s always interesting to examine the results.  ****

~~~~~

* I started wargaming in the mid-1970s, bought a computer in 1977, and by around 1980 was writing a regular column on computer games for Moves magazine, as well as writing articles for contemporary programming magazines. I wrote about computers and game design for several magazines in the 1980s including Antic and ST Log, and published a column on technology in Canadian newspapers for a decade from the mid 1990s, which often looked at game developments.

** First-person shooters (FPS) like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor usually combine scripted scenarios with open or semi-open gameplay in a small environment. Very few have a fully open environment (Far Cry, however was one).

*** Level grinding is when you rush through all the available quests solely to get your characters up to a reasonable level of strength to be able to use powers or traits unlocked at higher levels, and then to engage in multiplayer activities like dungeons and raids. It’s common in WOW to see level 60-80 characters doing level 1-10 quests to complete their achievement ladders. For the lower level players, this can be frustrating as you watch a higher-level character blaze through an area, taking quest items or killing quest characters with ease, forcing you to wait for them to respawn. Guild Wars 2 has a different approach. When the player’s level is higher than the zone, that level is reduced in that zone to make repeat and collective quests competitive. A level 35 character, playing in a 1-5 zone, will play at level 3-5. Weapon and armour strengths are decreased accordingly. This is somewhat offset by the character’s accumulated buffs, unlocked skills and so on, so it is easier but still a challenge. This heightens the immersive value of GW2.

**** One of the things in WOW that, for me, detracts from immersion is the cartoonish style of characters and buildings. Games like Rift and GW2 have tried to make the player feel less distanced through more realistic graphics and animation. However, none of them are up to the detail or lifelike characters we see in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. Some licence must be allowed, of course, for fantasy races and characters.

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10,000 words too many

Scribble, scribbleBeen working the last two-and-a-half months on my latest book for Municipal World. A bit of a challenge, actually – trying to combine marketing, branding, advertising, public relations and communications topics into one coherent yet succinct package has been difficult. There are so many things to say, so many areas to cover, that brevity often escapes me (there are those that say it’s always that way with me…).

I’ve been reading about three dozen books on the topics, and an unknown (but very high) number of websites and white papers on the same subjects. I have almost 2GB of PDF files printed from or downloaded from the Net related to the various topics in the book.

Whatever royalties I get from this book will have to go back to paying for the other books I bought from Amazon and Abebooks. And I still have a half-dozen titles in my cart I hoped to get next week… they’ll join all those other books piled around my computer with little sticky notes like colourful tongues, marking pages with quotes I want to add or ideas I want to ponder (and include). I am glad Susan is a tolerant, loving person, who puts up with my habits and obsessions.

There have been some really interesting areas of research – too many, actually; some very distracting – the psychology of persuasion, the changing nature of PR and public affairs, the historical development of media relations in the last century, ethics in marketing, lobbyists… but most of all, the new emphasis on storytelling as a vehicle for content. That has really caught my attention (so much so that I also got an audio course on storytelling from The Great Courses to listen to as I walk my dog…)

Not to mention the books and reports about metrics, demographics, psychographics, design and video. Books from the earliest of Bernays’ writing (1923) to recent marketing gurus and professors (2012) clutter my floor, my tabletop, and bedside. If nothing more, my bibliography is comprehensive!

Altogether too much time spend reading and not enough in writing and editing. I tend to do that – get engrossed in the topic and absorb it through as many sources as I can. Well, I eventually got my book into rough shape – 50,000 words of it by mid week. Took 2-3,000 out Friday, relentlessly hacking away the excess. Probably do that many again this weekend.

As a result, I’ll still be about 10,000 words over the expected limit. If a typical 8.5 x 11 page of writing has 500 words, that’s 20 pages too many. Sigh. How and what to cut? Big decision the next week, because the first draft is due by month end.

My knowledge of the business of PR and marketing has gone from modest but practical to broad and philosophical, bolstered by come intriguing science about human psychology and what motivates consumers. Lots of new insight into social media and how it has changed PR, too.

Wonder how much of it I will be able to actually use. Not much before my next book has to get started (my fourth book for MW is due this summer), I expect.

Actually I’ll probably take a short break between books to declutter my workspace, and maybe get back to reading a few off-topic books I’ve been holding off in order to cram for this work. Maybe I can donate a few of the read books to the library. And just maybe I can put some more time into a novel I started on last year. And of course, there’s always this blog… and my stories….but I do love to write….

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The other conspiracy theories….

Red Queen and AliceAfter writing about the nonsensical “chemtrail” conspiracy theory and its tin-foil-hat brigade believers, I amused myself by reading up on some of the other conspiracies-du-jour on the internet. And no, I don’t mean your garden-variety secret-mushroom-farm, PRA dome, lobbyists-and-rec-facilities, aliens-in-disguise-running-the-library, Eddie-Bush-is-falling-down, Scoop-is-working-for-the-town or other local conspiracies. I mean real conspiracies: meaty stuff shared by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of wingnuts. Maybe millions…

Wikipedia – gotta love that site, even though it may be a conspiracy itself (see below) – has a list of popular conspiracy theories. Now it’s not a full list (there’s not a single mention of a mushroom, but a search for “mushroom conspiracy” on Google produces nearly 3,000 pages, and 1.92 million without the quote marks – but curiously, mushroom conspiracy collingwood produces 2.04 million…), but it has oodles of entertaining conspiracies to pursue.

Anyway, back to Wikipedia:

The list of conspiracy theories is a collection of the most popular unproven theories related but not limited to clandestine government plans, elaborate murder plots, suppression of secret technology and knowledge, and other supposed schemes behind certain political, cultural, and historical events. Some theories are meant to cover up the accusers’ own schemes, such as Holocaust denial.

Conspiracy theories usually go against a consensus or cannot be proven using the historical method and are typically not considered to be similar to verified conspiracies such as Germany’s pretense for invading Poland in World War II.

Got that? Unproven. Keyword here. Okay. Scroll down the page to “paranormal” (aka wiki-wacky wingnut) conspiracies. Click on “evil aliens.” Opens to a page about “reptilians.” Now if you thought chemtrails made Scientology look smart, the reptilian conspiracy goes well beyond into  the loony tune zone:

According to British writer David Icke, 5- to 12-foot (1.5–3.7 m) tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system, now hiding in underground bases, are the force behind a worldwide conspiracy against humanity.[7] He contends that most of the world’s leaders are related to these reptilians, including George W. Bush of the United States, and Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom. Icke’s conspiracy theories now have supporters in 47 countries and he frequently gives lectures to crowds of 2,500 or more. American writer Vicki Santillano ranked the notion that “Reptilian humanoids control all of us” as one of the 10 most popular conspiracy theories.

Reptilian HilaryPopular, of course, doesn’t mean smart. Or logical. Or even sane. But David Icke clearly has some brains: he makes money off this silliness. He sells his ideas, including through a premium membership on his website. Non-subscribers have to put up with the annoying Google ads and invitations to join to get to only a portion of the tin-foil-hat stuff. Icke’s stuff is a treasure trove of nuttiness that encompasses a wide range of weirdness. Be prepared to spend at least an hour reading his stuff and giggling aloud at it.

So I can guess Icke’s reasons for promoting this silliness (money is a powerful motivator). But what motivates the people who follow him or who have spun off their own theories from his? What motivates the self-described “Nibiruan Council“?

Welcome to the official site of the Nibiruan Council, a multidimensional off-world council whose members are connected to the people of the planet Nibiru and the Nibiruans’ ancient ancestors, the 9D Nibiruans.

The Nibiruans’ mission is to prepare humanity to take their rightful place in the greater galactic community. The Nibiruans are especially interested in assisting starseeds and walk-ins. Multidimensional ascension tools along with an accelerated program for DNA recoding will prepare them to be the teachers and wayshowers needed today. Jelaila Starr is the Nibiruan Councils’ messenger and channel. Through her articles, workshops, and lectures, the Nibiruan Council’s message has touched the hearts of many people around the world inspiring hope and understanding.

Or the Alien Nation?

The reptilian and other entities, which are manipulating our world by possessing “human” bodies, operate in frequencies between the Third and Fourth densities. These are referred to as “hidden spaces and planes unknown to man”, in the apparently ancient Emerald Tablets, which I quote from in “Children of the Matrix”. For simplicity, I refer to this “between world” in my books as the lower fourth dimension.

It is from here that they police our vibrational prison – the Matrix – and seek to addict and restrict us to the dense physical senses. This world was once far less dense than it is today and the “fall” down the frequencies, caused by the manipulation of incarnate consciousness and DNA infiltration, has made it so much more difficult to maintain a multi-dimensional connection while in physical form. We are now in a cycle of change when the vibration of this “world” will be raised out of dense physicality and return to where it once was. In doing so, the reptilians’ ability to manipulate our physical form will be removed and this is why they are in such a panic at this time to prevent this shift from opening the vibrational prison door.

The reptilians and other manipulating entities exist only just outside the frequency range of our physical senses. Their own physical form has broken down and they can no longer re-produce. Thus they have sought to infiltrate human form and so use that to exist and control in this dimension. They chose the Earth for this infiltration because it most resembles in vibration the locations from which they originate. These reptilians are addicted to the dense physical “world” and the sensations it offers and they have no desire to advance higher. Their aim in this period is to stop the Earth and incarnate humanity from making the shift from dense physical prison into multi-dimensional paradise.

A conspiracy theory explains an event as … an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public. Wikipedia.

Conspiracy theories aren’t new by a long shot. They’re as old as humankind. I’m sure there were residents of Nineveh, 2,600 years ago, meeting in dark storerooms to mutter “Ashurbanipal is a secret agent for the Egyptians.” But in the age of mass media, these conspiracies gained a lot more traction than they ever had because they could be shared among millions with ease. And they have become a lot stranger and less believable than ever. But that doesn’t seem to deter the True Believers.

Rational Wiki has a longer list of conspiracy theories, but even it can’t cover the sheer number of conspiracies that have erupted online over the last two decades (although you have to read about the conspiracy that a Yiddish secret society is using Wikipedia to dominate the world!).

There must be a thousand different paranoid right-wing conspiracies about President Obama’s health care plan alone. Hell, Obama himself has generated a gazillion truly astounding conspiracy theories, including that he visited Mars as a teenager (really…)

List25 has a list of (you guessed it) the “top 25” conspiracy theories. Frankly it’s a bit thin, and lacks any links or proper explanations. But it does include the “phantom time” conspiracy, which is so entertaining you should look it up. This conspiracy says 297 years of history between 614 and 911 CE (the early Middle Ages) never happened. Instead, these dates were added to the calendar by historian conspirators who faked all the artifacts. ‘Nuff said. have fun: it’s on par with UFOs and Bosnian pyramids.  Spoiler: Skeptoid debunks it.

After the shooting of children in Sandy Hook, “truthers” (a pejorative for conspiracy theorists who call their wacky ideas “truth”) developed a raft of conspiracies around the tragedy that ranged from there-was-no-shooting to the-government-killed-the-children-to-take-away-your-guns. More than 40 YouTube videos claiming to expose the “”Sandy Hook hoax” had more than 100,000 views. YouTube is a godsend* for “truthers” (and self-alleged “psychics” who share the same level of truthiness…)

Time Magazine has a list of ten of the top conspiracy theories, most of which are pre-internet doozies most of us know and have waded into:

  • The JFK Assassination
  • 9/11 Cover-Up
  • Area 51 and the Aliens
  • Paul Is Dead
  • Secret Societies Control the World
  • The Moon Landings Were Faked
  • Jesus and Mary Magdalene
  • Holocaust Revisionism
  • The CIA and AIDS
  • The Reptilian Elite

The internet has allowed every fruit loop to publish online and garner an audience of starry-eyed idiots. Who needs critical thinking when you have the internet?

Since the vaccination conspiracy doesn’t show on the Wikipedia list, I did some searching and was able to pull up hundreds of wingnut pages in which vaccinations are blamed for all sorts of improbable acts and evils, usually perpetuated by the anonymous, secretive but authoritarian “government.” For example, this site warns (comically but very sincerely):

…the government places miniscule tracking devices in these vaccinations. These tracking devices act as beacons for various satellites. In this way, similar to the technology found in controlling airplane traffic, the government knows where we are at all times. Indeed, it is unclear how much information is provided in these beacon devices… As new technology has developed over the years, the need to vaccinate each and every one of us has become more creative, particularly with older citizens. Enter the Flu Vaccination. The flu vaccination has provided a perfect way for the government to implant updated beacon devices, particularly for those individuals who recieved vaccinations fourty or more years ago, whose beacons may not have had the benefit of various technological advances. These vaccinations are also used for experimental weapon purposes as well. The government not only implants various forms of biological and chemical warfare within the citzenry for experimental purposes, but also for mind control techniques, such as implanting specific types of criminal or anti-social behavior — also for warfare experimental purposes. In conclusion, the vaccination process has provided the government with a convenient way not only to plant beacon devices within the entire citizenry, but also to test experimental warfare and mind-control techniques.

I know, I know. It’s hard not to guffaw. But vaccination theories are dangerous, not just foolish: they are killing people gullible enough to believe that it’s safer not to vaccinate your kids or yourself. Despite hundreds of children’s deaths from measles in Pakistan (there were 306 deaths from measles in 2012 alone), one woman has written a book encouraging children to delight in the joys of this and other potentially lethal childhood diseases.

What will she write about next? The fun of polio? Happy meningitis? The delights of diabetes? This anti-vaccination stuff is seriously DANGEROUS.

If you want to read how insidious this particular stupidity is, just spend a few minutes on Google. Look at the list of madness a search for “vaccination conspiracy” produces. One site associates vaccinations with fracking, cannibalism, GMO foods, government education, nuclear power, fluoride and cancer. All at once. This is really scary, not fun. It’s worrisome that these people can not only vote, but can own guns and are not locked away in institutions.

And that’s just part of the problem. People who willingly delude themselves about one bit of bizarre pseudoscience like chemtrails or homeopathy** will usually swallow the rest of the conspiracy Kool-Aid and accept pretty much all of these wacky ideas wholesale, just abandoning all common sense and critical thinking. It’s a stunningly short jump from believing governments are vaccinating everyone through airplane exhaust at 25,000 feet to believing reptiloid aliens are masquerading as humans and running governments.

For example, the author quoted above isn’t done with vaccinations. He links these vaccine-inserted nano-beacons with highway building projects, information technology, West Nile virus, supercomputers and the CIA:

Indeed, although states are replacing water pipes, they are also, unknowingly, installing millions of miles of fiber optics and other receptor cells. As discussed earlier, these wires are used to monitor everything, sometimes as a backup to satellite system monitoring or to more specific monitoring strategies to fill any gaps of satellite technology…
The West Nile Virus, or other types of viruses with different names, will likely “spread” to other parts of the country. This will prompt public outcry — which is manipulated by the media — for more sprayings…
The partnership between this unnamed drug corporation and the United States Military continues.
In the late 1940’s, the government created a supercomputer, known as Ergo9. Ergo9 was used, in conjunction with various satellites, to spy on the Russians….

Uh, I hate to break your bubble, Mr. Fruity Loop, but the first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched in October 1957. The USA didn’t launch its own satellite – Explorer 1 – until 1958. The first reconnaissance satellite was not launched until 1962, (GRAB).

This site also seems to be the source for the Ergo9 reference, which gets repeated on a few other paranoid conspiracy-theory sites, but hasn’t grown legs. Yet. These things require time to gestate into full-blown ludicrosity – even though Ergo9 is almost as daft as the local “Rick-owns-your-mortgage-and-your-car,” “Elvis-is-still-alive” or “pro-wrestling-is-real” conspiracies. Spoiler alert: supercomputers weren’t invented until the 1960s when Seymour Cray designed the first one. The small-building-size Eniac computer of 1946 was hardly a “supercomputer.”

Most of the conspiracy theory sites are a mashup of the bizarre, the curious, the angry, the paranoid, the gullible, historically and factually incorrect, and the stupid.They’re often based on either misunderstanding or misrepresentation of facts. Particularly the angry. The amount of vituperation is incredible. People writing about these conspiracies get angry and then angrier as they cobble their theories together.

And it’s not just the Tea Party supporters who walk the conspiracy trail into the deep woods of angry paranoia (although illiterate, right-wing Christian fundamentalists seem particularly prone to them – just Google the Westboro Baptist Church wackos). It almost seems infectious. Once you believe in one impossible thing, you start to believe in them all, from mushroom-farm conspiracies to vaccinations-implant-homing-beacons-for-the-government to reptilians-are-masquerading-as-municipal-councillors…

Alice laughed: “There’s no use trying,” she said; “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was younger, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll: Alice in Wonderland.

Although these crazy conspiracies give the rest of us a fair bit of entertainment, we can’t ignore them just because they are ridiculous: some of these crazy, deluded people are in government (or plan to be). Some of them are already among policy makers and bureaucrats (for example there are creationists in government, even holding on the US Congress Science Committee!). Can you imagine people who believe in vaccine conspiracies getting appointed to a ministry of health? Or someone who believes in chemtrails getting onto a national research council board?

It could happen. That’s just one reason we have to push more rationality, critical thinking and plain common sense online. Let’s keep debunking and ridiculing this stuff so that it doesn’t get any further grip on the gullible among us.

~~~~~

* What would an atheist say instead of “godsend”? Are there any good but secular synonyms that carry the same sense? Imaginary-deity-send doesn’t quite cut it. Words like blessing, miracle and, manna carry a religious sense, too. Calling something a stroke of luck or windfall suggests it was mere coincidence, which godsend does not mean. Have to think about that… Apple lovers probably use Jobs-send…
** This is also true of those who believe in so-called psychics, palm readers, astrologers or faith healers. Once you believe in the paranormal, you’re doomed to misunderstand and mis-appreciate science. You’ll start believing in creationism and all sorts of codswallop, like phrenology, homeopathy, numerology and other crackpot ideas.

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The chemtrail conspiracy nonsense

Chemtrail conspiraciesScientists need not apply for membership in the Chemtrail Conspiracy. In fact, scientists will probably be booted out for even walking on the same street where the meeting is being held. That’s because scientists would shine a light into the utter darkness of this nutty conspiracy. According to Wikipedia:

The chemtrail conspiracy theory holds that some trails left by aircraft are chemical or biological agents deliberately sprayed at high altitudes for purposes undisclosed to the general public in clandestine programs directed by various government officials.[1] This theory is not accepted by the scientific community, which states that they are just normal contrails, as there is no scientific evidence supporting the chemtrail theory.

Okay, so does it make sense to you that millions of people are involved in some bizarre worldwide conspiracy that involves every level of government, the military, the medical community, meteorologists, scientists AND private industry in numerous countries simultaneously, and not ONE has ever become a whistle blower? Not ONE has ever gone public with PROOF?

As Skeptoid notes,

Like all conspiracy theories, chemtrails require us to accept the existence of a coverup of mammoth proportions. In this case, virtually every aircraft maintenance worker at every airport in the world needs to be either part of the conspiracy, or living under a threat from Men in Black, with not a single whistle blower or deathbed confession in decades. Or that for all the thousands of traditional media outlets around the world that have the resources and willingness to do solid investigative journalism, not a single one has dredged up as much as a single provable fact that this isn’t just a self-inflicted mass delusion?

Come on – this chemtrail stuff is so wacky it makes creationism and Scientology look smart. But hey, silliness was never a barrier to joining the tin foil hat brigade:

Due to the popularity of the conspiracy theory, official agencies have received thousands of complaints from people who have demanded an explanation. The existence of chemtrails has been repeatedly denied by scientists around the world, who say the trails are normal contrails. The United States Air Force states that the theory is a hoax which “has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications.” The United Kingdom’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has stated that chemtrails are not scientifically recognized phenomena.

In case you wonder where all those folks who believed in the Mayan apocalypse have gone, look no further. They’re filling the internet with more pseudoscientific-conspiracy drivel about how the government is trying to sterilize you, pacify you, experiment on you, make you sick, control the weather, vaccinate you, infect us with nanobot implants, fight global warming, cause global warming, geo-engineering, or make us mindless slaves to the New World Order – or maybe a combination of them, since no two conspiracy theorists seem to agree on WHY anyone would do this (let alone how).

But the wingnuts are True Believers even if what they believe in is clearly outside the realm of common sense:

So here we are in 2012 and the level of verifiable evidence of Chem Trails and their effect on humanity is staggering, and as more of us become more sophisticated , more awake , more expanded in our ability to see the larger picture , we are starting to put the pieces of the puzzle together as to “Why” they are doing this.

The reason of course is money , profits, and control , so nothing new here, just more sophisticated control mechanisms to manipulate markets, food sources and ultimately the ability to produce food. It turns out that the main reason for the development of weather modification , Chem Trails, HAARP , is to create a situation that puts normal crops at a sever disadvantage through droughts and other extreme weather.

Every expert in aviation and, weather must be in on the cabal, because they only make statements about how ludicrous the theory is:

Experts on atmospheric phenomena deny the existence of chemtrails, asserting that the characteristics attributed to them are simply features of contrails responding differently in diverse conditions in terms of the sunlight, temperature, horizontal and vertical wind shear, and humidity levels present at the aircraft’s altitude. Experts explain that what appears as patterns such as grids formed by contrails result from increased air traffic traveling through the gridlike United States National Airspace System’s north-south and east-west oriented flight lanes, and that it is difficult for observers to judge the differences in altitudes between these contrails from the ground. The jointly published fact sheet produced by NASA, the EPA, the FAA, and NOAA in 2000 in response to alarms over chemtrails details the science of contrail formation, and outlines both the known and potential impacts contrails have on temperature and climate. The USAF produced a fact sheet as well that described these contrail phenomena as observed and analyzed since at least 1953. It also rebutted chemtrail theories more directly by identifying the theories as a hoax and denying the existence of chemtrails.

I suppose people who can readily believe that crop circles are alien messages, aliens crashed at Roswell, or that flu vaccines cause autism, can believe in chemtrails. Once you start drinking the pseudoscience Kool-Aid, it’s hard not to drain the glass and ask for more.

Here’s a quote from one of those crazy Kool-Aid drinker sites:

So, what is the REAL reason for the spraying?

There are 3 reasons:

1) To change the electrical conductivity of our atmosphere so that scaler weapons such as HAARP in Alaska will work. These microwave weapons can be used in conjunction with chemtrails to control the weather, also to trigger off earthquakes and tsunamis.

2) For population control to cull the human herd: weather control = crop control= people control via contrived food shortages such as the huge drought currently driving small farmers out of business in the midwest.

3) Monsanto has a hand in the chemtrails conspiracy, as they have a patent on a genetically engineered seed that will germinate despite the changes in Ph from all the aluminum oxide being sprayed on us, while heirloom seeds are increasingly not germinating.

Agenda 21 is Behind the Chemtrails Conspiracy

This is by design. The 10,000 pound gorilla in the room driving all this genocide is UN Agenda 21, a 40 chapter blueprint for population control which I have read in its entirety. The UN officially considers farming and ranching to be “unsustainable” so I would like to see Weston A. Price Foundation join forces with the bipartisan coalition against UN Agenda 21 that has sprung up nationwide.

Ah ha! So it’s the UN behind it all, out to destroy good ol’ capitalist Mega-Farming (as opposed to good ol’ capitalist Mega-Pharm, which some say is also behind the conspiracy). I’ll bet the UN paid the aliens to make the crop circles, too, and drive the investigators wild!

The Skeptoid notes,

Wow. Where to begin. I read a fair amount of skeptical, paranormal, and conspiracy web sites, but I don’t recall ever reading so much vituperation, anger, and name calling as when I read a few forums discussing chemtrails. If you’re not familiar with the term, chemtrails are what some conspiracy theorists call aircraft condensation trails. Most of them don’t believe that conventional contrails exist, and that when you see one, you’re actually seeing a trail of mysterious airborne chemicals sprayed from the aircraft. Those who do concede the existence of contrails often claim subtle differences in appearance or behavior between a condensation trail and a chemical trail.

Chemtrail theorists, of course, have their own “experts” who contradict their opponents’ claims to debunk the chemtrail nonsense. Of course the chemtrail “experts” are not disadvantaged like their opponents, by having university degrees, years of experience, tons of reliable testing equipment or by not being on any meds or recreational drugs. Mostly they’re people who spend the majority of their time online reading other conspiracy sites and then linking up to form a collective of incredible gullibility.

Dave Thomas –  a physicist and mathematician, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason and a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (a lethal combination for an Illuminati shill if ever I saw one) – wrote in a piece about this nuttiness:

Kennedy assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theorists are mere pikers compared to “chemtrail” buffs. You will rarely find a more virulently self-deluded group, anywhere.

The Skeptic Project notes the conspiracy association between alleged chemtrails and the bizarre, but equally delusional morgellon’s disease:

Conspiracy theorists are avid anomaly hunters. Whenever they find something they immediately fail to understand, they try and weasle any correlation they can to fit their beliefs. … to the conspiracy theorist, anything other than what the government tells them will have to do. … The reasoning goes like this. Chemtrails are being sprayed everywhere, morgellon’s disease is still a mystery, therefore chemtrails cause morgellon’s disease… Conspiracy theorists have a long laundry list of secret tactics that Big Pharma and the government utilize to reduce the population. And this list gets so long and ridiculous. Vaccines, AIDs, chemtrails, fluoride, food additives etc. … conspiracy theorists continually ignore and deny any historical or scientific facts that don’t fit in their worldview. Denialism at its finest.

The Rational Wiki is equally snarky about these conspiracy theorists:

Chemtrails are an alleged conspiracy by which cranks claim that aircraft contrails are a form of chemical dispersal through which the government is attempting to poison people from above. This is a relatively recent conspiracy theory, having been first discussed around 1996, and is still going strong despite the evidence for the conspiracy being laughably lacking.

The Rational Wiki goes on to describe some of the homemade remedies these wackos have dreamed up to combat their imaginary chemtrails:

There are an intrepid group of people who have discovered the secret to removing chemtrails: vinegar. There are numerous groups dedicated to it, and despite the obvious stupidity of it all, they seem to believe it. The trick is as follows; simply evaporate a certain amount of vinegar each day in order to disperse clouds and chemtrails and to clear the skies. Depending on how crazy the person proposing this can be, the volumes range from a few litres per day (mixed with extra water) to simply spraying it into the air from a bottle. Yes, that’s right, people believe that clouds and chemicals at 20,000 ft can be dispersed and neutralised by spraying a couple of millilitres of dilute acetic acid in their back yard – presumably the patches of dead grass you can see in the videos these people produce are just a coincidence. For those who can’t quite afford the increase in energy bills associated with boiling 5+ litres of water a day for no reason, other advice includes simply tipping it onto asphalt to let it evaporate naturally. Complaints from neighbours about the smell aren’t usually mentioned.

Vinegar? This site recommends sulfur as a “detox strategy.” Nah – wear magnets and rub yourself with magic crystals. Works just as well.

The nutbars who believe in chemtrails have, on the other hand, done us considerable good by spawning numerous sites, wikis and blogs dedicated to science, reason and critical thinking to contradict this nonsense. We can always use more sites dedicated to logic, science and reason, even if the nutbars never read them.

The Contrail Science Blog is one such scientific site, and offers a good lesson on contrails throughout history, opening with this:

The chemtrail conspiracy theory seems to frequently misidentify ordinary contrails as “chemtrails” – some kind of secret spraying program. This theory comes in many flavors, and there’s a large number of things people bring up as “evidence” to support this theory. I’ve tried to gather all the debunks of this evidence in one place here, for easy reference. This is a work in progress, and will remain on the front page here as I expand and refine it. While the title of this post is “How to Debunk Chemtrails”, the actual debunking depends on what version of the theory needs debunking. There’s a variety of common claims, and variations on those themes. The best approach is to debunk the individual claim (such as: contrails only last a few seconds), rather than trying to debunk the entire theory.

The author clearly and eloquently explains that contrails are condensation, but not like your breath:

Condensation trails from a jet can last for many minutes, even for hours sometimes. So why is there this difference? Why do jet contrails sometime persist, but your breath condensation quickly evaporates? The difference is because a contrail freezes. It’s really that simple. Contrails form at -40 degrees Fahrenheit (which is also -40 Celsius), or colder. At that temperature the tiny drops of condensed water will instantly freeze. Once frozen they can not evaporate. They also can’t melt, as it’s -40. They can however fade away through a process known as “sublimation” – where a solid turns into a gas.

Why anyone thinks releasing anything at 25,000 or more feet would be effective is never answers. Ben Radford, of Skeptical Inquiry notes,

There’s also the question of what possible purpose the contrails (er, chemtrails) would serve. As Bob Carroll notes in The Skeptics Dictionary, “Any biological or chemical agents released at 25,000 feet or above would be absolutely impossible to control, making any measurement of effects on the ground nearly impossible. . . . Such an exercise would be pointless, unless you just wanted to pollute the atmosphere. And where is the evidence of the illnesses being caused by these agents?”

Alas, conspiracy buffs have no answers for these fundamental questions. It’s easier (and much more fun) to just sit back and wonder what secret government experiments we are being exposed to that “they” aren’t telling us about.

Of course, governments are denying that they are doing anything nefarious. One pro-conspiracy site (and not just chemtrails, but a whole bevy of them) loudly proclaimed, “UK Denies Evidence Of Widespread Illegal Chemtrail Aerosol Operations.” The story opens (and this really will make you chuckle):

Following the submission of a report, backed by over 20 signatories from diverse backgrounds, detailing widespread illegal and unacknowledged aerosol spraying from aircraft, UK agencies have ignored or denied the significant data it presented. Copies of the report were sent to UK Greenpeace, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), The Royal Air Force, DEFRA and, sometime after, to the UK World-Wide Fund for Nature, challenging them to investigate the data themselves. Four responses were received and all of them have denied the basic science presented in the report, which was backed up by the clear evidence.

Duh – of course they will deny doing something that NO ONE is doing. And funnily enough, reputable organizations backed by REAL science all call the “basic science” of the claims are mere balderdash. But nonetheless, the report adds with refreshing lack of logic:

It is therefore clear that a wide range of people are aware that the spraying is going on, and basic science proves it is really happening. The question has to be asked, then, how do we proceed and obtain answers to has authorised this spraying and what is its purpose? …The research of many people and the report I compiled proves the issue is real, even though we don’t know who is responsible for the spraying.

We don’t know who isn’t doing this, but they must be doing it because they claim not to be. Gotta love that thinking. Or not thinking. The article concludes by calling for

Anyone who has an interest in protecting our environment should be looking at this issue and asking questions. The official responses I have received so far have done nothing, realistically, to refute or correct any of the data or overall conclusions I included, disturbing though they are.

The official responses could never convince anyone who enters with the mindset that the officials must be lying and covering up. And the conclusions are, well, yes, disturbing – but only in your own rather delusional mind. Why would anyone interested in protecting the environment want to expend energy protecting it from imaginary threats? There are enough real threats to it without worrying about these hoaxes and hobgoblins.

In response, the armies of conspiracy wingnuts have assembled a barrage of doctored images and videos, fake “experts” who can barely string together noun and verb into a sentence, and ominous musical overdubs, doctored photographs, fake “experts” and egregiously stupid pseudoscience to present a chilling image of ongoing government-sponsored terror that features nanobots, secret government agencies, massive collusion by millions of people worldwide, the New World Order. Gosh, no wonder the Mayan apocalypse was sloughed aside for this stuff.

So debunking this nonsense it isn’t exactly a debate… more like a carnival game. Whack-a-mole comes to mind. Sigh. Some days I am convinced the internet is just making us collectively more stupid. Other days that’s the good news…

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More Machiavellian Misquotes

Face palmMachiavelli today is known to many by sayings that aren’t actually his; pseudo-quotations or mis-attributed sayings that appear on slovenly, un-moderated, un-verified websites that do an enormous disservice to everyone by their very existence.

These sites seem to feed one another, because find one misquote on one of them and you’re sure to find it parroted without even the slightest effort to verify it, on all the rest. Since these sites are predominantly about ad revenue, it’;s little wonder they are so poor.

Most people are unable to discern the wheat from the chaff ion these sites in great part because few can actually lay claim to actually having read him (The Prince, let alone The Discourses or his other works). And from that stems several misconceptions about what he said and didn’t say (and the same goes to every other author and philosopher so frequently misquoted on these sites).

Machiavelli did not write, for example, ‘the end justifies the means.’ It is a modern condensation – and a considerable simplification – of an idea expressed in The Prince. However memorable it is, he had a lot more to say about politics and the behaviour of rulers than that one line.

Machiavelli was just being a realist. He certainly was not a hedonist like Aleister Crowley who wrote,

“Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.”

These so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors.

Machiavelli wrote that the effect of a ruler’s actions mattered more than the deeds themselves, as long as the end was good for the state. That has been boiled down, in modern times, into “the end justifies the means.” But this shorthand removes it from the all-important context that makes sense of his words (taking things out of context and using them for your own, bizarre ends is quite common on the internet).

Nor did Machiavelli write, ‘Never to attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,’ in The Prince. That may be paraphrased from The Discourses, Book III: 40, or Book II: 13. It is more likely to derive from an entirely different source: The Art of War by Sun-Tzu. This misquote is popular on those faux-quote sites, but it isn’t one of his maxims. I wrote about that mis-quote last year. It still irks me to see it online today.

In the comment following that previous post, I wrote about another popular – and very wrong – internet meme attributed to Machiavelli: “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.”

That line was actually said by US Republican Newt Gringrich, and is taken from a 1991 interview printed in the LA Times:

Such jabs don’t faze Gingrich. “I’m not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it,” he says. “Of course people are going to resent that.”

Other things Machiavelli did NOT say include the following pseudo-quotes taken from various, inaccurate, un-moderated and never verified, quotation sites online. I spent a couple of hours yesterday poring over my texts to search for them, just to be sure. It’s tricky because there are so many translations available, but anyone who has actually read any of them will recognize fairly easily what is and is not his style:

  • “Politics have no relation to morals.”
  • “It is double pleasure to deceive the deceiver.”
  • “Entrepreneurs are simply those who understand that there is little difference between obstacle and opportunity and are able to turn both to their advantage.”
  • “It is not titles that honor men, but men that honor titles.”
  • “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
  • “Before all else, be armed.”
  • “The more sand has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.”
  • “History is written by the victors.”
  • “One should never fall in the belief that you can find someone to pick you up.”
  • “God creates men, but they choose each other.”
  • “Princes and governments are far more dangerous than other elements within society.”
  • “A prince is also esteemed when he is a true friend and a true enemy.”
  • “He who blinded by ambition, raises himself to a position whence he cannot mount higher, must thereafter fall with the greatest loss.”
  • “War is just when it is necessary; arms are permissible when there is no hope except in arms.”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”

Got that? Machiavelli NEVER SAID any of those things, yet all appear on many online quotation database pages. They cause me a face-palm moment to even read them (more on my Machiavelli book site and learn what he really said: ianchadwick.com/machiavelli/addenda/appendix-b-machiavellian-misquotes/)

Unfortunately, there are many who will get fooled into thinking these are real quotations from Machiavelli and other authors. But these so-called quotation databases are rife with errors, mis-attributions, mis-spellings, grammatical and punctuation errors; enough that even a casual read should give anyone pause to doubt the veracity. These sites are as reliable to literature as creationism is to science, without being as funny.

These egregious errors exacerbate the bad education people get from the internet; they also speak volumes to the increasing gullibility of web users who will accept clearly mis-attributed lines with the same ease they will believe magnets cure arthritis, crystals are magi, flu vaccinations cause autism and other quackery.

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Is Tar Baby the new N-Word?

Wikipedia imageAs far back as I can recall, the term “tar baby” was a metaphor in common political parlance for a “sticky situation.” It has no racial meaning in that context, any more than saying “honey trap” or “sticky wicket.” Both have similar, but not synonymous meanings. But in the last decade, “tar-baby” has become the new N-word on the political stage.*

The tar-baby theme is common in mythology from many cultures (referenced, for example, in Joseph’s Campbell’s groundbreaking work, Hero With a Thousand Faces). It represents an apparently attractive situation that traps the beholder and, once you embrace it, the harder you struggle to break free, the more you become stuck in it. I’ve used the term in such a context in several blog posts. But recently, when I was accused on Facebook of using “racist” terms by mentioning a tar-baby situation, I was taken aback, and felt I had to disagree. And do some research.

In 2009, the use of this term in the House of Commons created a mini-cyclone of comment about allegedly racist terminology used in the House. As the blog Unambiguously Ambidextrous, notes:

A controversy erupted in the House of Commons today after Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, used the term “tar baby” in response to Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff’s decision to back away from Stephane Dion’s unpopular carbon tax policy. I have to plead ignorance on the etymology of the noun, as I have always been more familiar with the pejorative.

“On that side of the House, they have the man who fathered the carbon tax, put it up for adoption to his predecessor and now wants a paternity test to prove the tar baby was never his in the first place,” said Poilievre.

This was followed by MP Ralph Goodale’s objections to the term and asked Mr. Poilievre to apologize for the usage:

“In addition to being a pejorative term, which might well prove to be unparliamentary, the parliamentary secretary might consider that there are many authorities both in this country and many others that consider the term racist,” said Goodale.

Stephen Taylor provided a list of references to similar non-parliamentary uses of the term in his blog, none of which seem to have have generated the same storm of controversy. Clara Rising, writing in 2002 about collective religious consciousness, called original sin, “a cultural Tar Baby implacable and immutable, as infinite and as unavoidable as eternity.”

Back in 2006, then-governor Mitt Romney was taken to task for using the term “tar-baby” in a reference to a piece of problematic infrastructure. As a Time Magazine writer commented about the subsequent uproar:

So, is use of the term today a case of insensitivity? Or is the controversy caused by political correctness gone amok?

The latter, I suggest. True, I might not be as sensitive to it as Americans. I don’t live in the same political-racial-social milieu as most Americans; while racism exists in Canada, it is not nearly as overt in our multicultural nation.

In the USA, “tar-baby” has been used as a pejorative (and sometimes as a term of affection). Racial politics are so highly charged among our southern neighbours that it is a treacherous undercurrent in American political dialogue. As the Colorado Springs Gazette noted in this editorial:

Racism in the political sphere today has become so insulting that it makes “tar-baby” seem benign.

Even if mild, a white person calling someone of African-American heritage a “tar-baby” is considered a racist slur, and I can appreciate the sensitivity of the use. But surely there’s a difference between labelling a person, race or group with a term and labelling an issue or situation.

Just as an example, calling a woman a “honey trap” is very different from labelling a common tactic in espionage a honey trap. If I call a woman a bitch, it is very different from calling a tricky shot in golf one. Clearly context matters.

Would there be an issue if we used the metaphor of the “tar-wolf” (from James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee)? Would anyone be accused of slinging racist slurs against aboriginal First Nations people by talking about a “tar-wolf” situation? The two stories are almost identical, aside from the difference between the character molded from the tar. Both the Cherokee and African-Americans shared at least one disreputable part of US history:

If these two stories sound remarkably similar, it is no coincidence.  Before the Cherokee were relocated to Oklahoma in 1838, many were plantation owners and owned slaves.

In the heated cauldron of American politics, or in the adversarial arena of the House of Commons, people are constantly looking for ways to attack opponents for any reason, regardless of the validity or strength of the attack. Unfortunately, this also creates a situation of apparent wrongdoing by making it a focus of media attention. The perception of  racism can create the reality in the public mind that it is there, regardless any logical argument that it is imaginary. Words themselves, no matter how innocently used, become their own tar-babies.

The Denver Post commented on this flap in the US:

The notion that referencing African folklore reveals inherent racism against those of African descent is bizarre.

True, the tar baby has been fundamentally misunderstood by various illiterate racists. In their ignorance of the folklore, such bigots think the term applies specifically to a black person. For example, the late comedic genius Bernie Mac wrote of being called a “tar baby” as a child. But surely we ought not let ignorant racists push us to obliterate cultural knowledge of important African folklore.

This raises the question: where does the reference come from? The Denver Post points out a bit of the history:

“Tar baby” comes from African folklore. Congressman Doug Lamborn used the term to refer to the debt-ceiling negotiations, not the president. And the nationwide smear campaign against Lamborn follows the left’s typical path of character assassination and guilt by association.
In his book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” Joseph Campbell writes of the “celebrated and well-nigh universal tar-baby story of popular folklore.” Campbell refers to scholar Aurelio Espinosa, who in the 1930s and ’40s gathered hundreds of examples of “the tar-baby story” from around the world, varying in detail but all about getting stuck in something.
In America, we know the story best from Joel Chandler Harris’ “Uncle Remus” stories of the 1800s. But Harris did not create these stories. Instead, he took (some say stole) them from slaves, who brought the stories with them from Africa and adapted them orally.

What’s ironic is that Chandler’s stories were not seen as racist until more than a century later. They were originally treated as they were meant: records of African-American folklore.** As Wikipedia notes:

The animal stories were conveyed in such a manner that they were not seen as racist by many among the audiences of the time. By the mid-20th century, however, the dialect and the “old Uncle” stereotype of the narrator, was considered politically incorrect and demeaning by many African-American people, on account of what they considered to be racist and patronizing attitudes toward African-Americans. Providing additional controversy is the story’s context in the Antebellum south on a slave owning plantation, a setting that is portrayed in a passive and even docile manner. Nevertheless, Harris’ work was, according to himself, an accurate account of the stories he heard from the slaves when he worked on a plantation as a young man. … Many of the stories that he recorded have direct equivalents in the African oral tradition, and it is thanks to Harris that their African-American form is preserved.

Wikipedia has a lengthier list of antecedents, including Cherokee and African folk tales, and mentions one researcher who identified 267 variants on the tale in world mythology.

The New Republic took up the debate, noting in 2011 when the term again raised its politically-charged head:

…the word around the blogosphere, most articulately phrased by David Sirota at Salon, is that Lamborn was using coded language: “[T]he comment reveals how various forms of racism are still being mainstreamed by the fringe right,” as Sirota has it. But before making that judgment, we must ascertain: Is tar baby actually a racial slur?

Certainly not the way the guys before Lamborn were using it. A notion that they were passing a quiet signal to racists is awkward, given the decidedly non-black topics they were discussing. Need we entertain the possibility that Romney was telegraphing a subtle signal to bigots in a discussion of a highway project? Was John McCain preaching a coded message to a racist base in a comment about divorce procedure?

In those instances, a simpler analysis works. Language is all about metaphor, and it is useful to have one to refer to objects or topics that ensnare one upon contact. It’s why the Bre’r Rabbit story the expression traces to has had such legs—as well as why cultures worldwide, including African ones, have equivalent folklore characters. Thus a reasonable analysis is that people reach for this useful metaphor, within the rapid and subconscious activity that speaking entails, unaware that some consider it to have a second meaning as a slur.

As little as I respect the Republicans or Harper’s Conservatives, I doubt they would be deliberately and provocatively racist, and, like my use, meant the word as a powerful metaphor that still resounds in popular culture. John McWhorter, at the New Republic, added:

I submit, however, that to a large extent, those who feel that tar baby’s status as a slur is patently obvious are judging from the fact that it sounds like a racial slur, because tar is black and baby sounds dismissive. And here’s the crucial point: that, in itself, is a reality that cannot be denied.

Part of the human propensity for metaphor is that we make semantic associations, which drift and reassign over time. As such, it’s not the most graceful thing to refer to a black figure as a tar baby, and it was quite gracious for Lamborn to apologize. However, to assume Lamborn knew the word was a slur and was passing a grimy little signal to his base is unwarranted here. It is the kind of reflexive and recreational abuse we revile when it comes from the other direction (i.e. Obama as a “racist”).

Tar baby is one of those intermediate cases: The basic meaning is the folkloric one, while a derived meaning, known only to a segment of American English speakers (and to many among them, only vaguely) is a dismissive reference to black people.

There will be gaffes with expressions like these, upon which, in a sociologically enlightened society, apologies will be necessary. However, to insist upon the moral backwardness of the apologist is logically incoherent in reference to this particular term, and as such, less sociologically enlightened than it may seem.

Sounds like a racist slur? Should we not judge a thing by more depth than a bad first impression? There’s a conversation in Woody Allen’s movie, Annie Hall, in which Alvy Singer (played by Allen) is complaining about what he (mis)hears as an anti-Semitic remark by a TV executive:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

Which the audience recognizes as both comically over-sensitive on Alvy’s part, but also as a wry comment on how things get misconstrued so easily. Such is the situation with “tar-baby” today. Except not all of the audience seems to get the joke.

The Denver Post editorial concluded:

The irony is that “tar baby” has become its own tar baby, and we’re all getting stuck in it. Several media outlets reviewed my detailed blog posts on the matter, and all involved stole time away from addressing the nation’s pressing problems.

Yet there’s a reason the tar baby folktale has spread through so many cultures. It teaches us something important and universal about human nature. And that’s precisely why we ought not sacrifice the African tar baby story on the altar of political correctness.

I agree with that last line. Metaphors are powerful and memorable because they speak to something larger than just the words. Most come from storytelling and in a few words they encapsulate the entire tale – the characters, the events, the moral. The Colorado Springs Gazette suggests what I don’t believe is a reasonable solution:

Let us all stop saying “tar-baby,” for sure. For using this phrase, Lamborn will pay. He is mired in a controversy that will get worse as he fights against it. But let’s keep perspective. Relative to the racial hatred and insensitivity that permeates political rhetoric of the past and present, this should be far from a major-league scandal.

What next? Will we stop saying “slow but steady wins the race” because it comes from one of Aesop’s fables, and it might be seen as a slur against Greeks? Stop using “the boy who cried wolf” because it might be derogatory towards shepherds? Stop using the “good Samaritan” parable because it might be seen as a pejorative against Palestinians (today’s Samaritan ancestors)? Where will this nonsense end? Will we abandon all of our powerful language and chuck metaphors out the window out of fear someone won’t understand what we’re saying?

Better instead to get our head out of the politically correct sand learn to recognize the context of a metaphor. Stop treating it like a convenient one-size-fits-all racist slur that fits your preconceived political notions, and start thinking critically instead.

~~~~~

* Yes, I know “tar baby” is really two words, but calling it the new N-phrase has no cachet. N-word has a life of its own, larger than mere counting or vocabulary.

** Uncle Remus stories were still popular when I was growing up in the 1950s, and I saw Disney’s 1946 cartoon version (Song of the South) on TV that decade. Even as a child I was able to see the racial stereotypes and exaggerations. Uncle Remus tales were still available in school libraries, too, sometimes alone, other times in compilations of folktales.

Read the tale here. I wonder why the briar patch metaphor from the second half of the tale does not evoke similar revulsion among the politically correct guardians.

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The Useless Web

Useless web sitesWe all know Wikipedia is not always accurate, and sometimes biased. We all know that most internet quotations are wrong attributed or misquoted. We all know that the Web is full of useless, trivial pap like “psychic” hot lines, astrology, creationism and Ann Coulter. Plus it’s replete with the shallow: salacious gossip, celebrity skin, innuendo, pornography, political extremism, angels, UFOs, crop circles, anti-vaccine advocates, religious fundamentalists – the intellectual-nourishment equivalent of a  box of greasy fries and a sugar-laden soft drink.

But they are content-rich, compared to the truly useless material collected on The Useless Web. Well, maybe not Ann Coulter. She’s still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured. Even the colour of Kim Kardashian’s latest shoes are more relevant to the real world than anything Coulter has to say.

If you really want to waste a whole lot of time exploring the pointless edge of the internet, beyond Ann Coulter that is, go to the link in the previous paragraph and click away. Be prepared: you will be sucked in. It’s hard not to see just one more…

But it’s not alone. true to the meme-like nature of the internet, others join in pointing out the pointless. For example, Pointless Sites and Pointless Web Pages (don’t bypass the older site list either). Some, like I-Am-Bored.com seem to pile on user-submitted links of varying levels of worthlessness into their pages.Others, like House of Geekery and Makeuseof.com, compile lists of uselessness, with some pointless commentary to muddy the waters. Useless added to useless equals…? Right.

Ann Coulter is still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured.

Other aggregators of non-utilitarianism include 15.com, Squidoo.com, Ambitweb.com, About.com, the Daily What, Splitsider, PCWorld, Digital Trends (and check the video for the Japanese World Cup, linked below the list!) and many more.

Useless doesn’t mean they are not artistic, however. Some are outright brilliant (check out www.xkcd.com/1110/ for an example of weirdly wonderful useless).

Okay, so it’s a waste of time. But it’s an entertaining waste of time, so not entirely without merit. Some people apparently have taken to studying these sites with all seriousness. Know Your Meme has a short history of them, deferring intellectually to them as “single serving” sites (a long list of such sites is here). Codehesive tracks the story of a single, single-serving site.

Jason Kottke wrote about this phenomena back in 2008, and coined the term. Since then it has entered the language age even made its way to Wikipedia.There’s even a single-serving site webpage generator.

But don’t get stuck in the intellectualizing. When you have ten minutes to waste, just go back to the top of the post and find the first link. Click and enjoy. Don’t think too hard about any of it. Just celebrate the useless.

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Gambling: money and statistics

gambling cartoonNo, I’m not going to write about the morality of gambling.* I’ll save that for another post. This is about money. And numbers.

I attended the OLG four-community presentation in Wasaga Beach, Tuesday, and it got me thinking about what gambling means to the economy, what it means to the government, what effect it might have on things like growth and recession. It also made me wonder how governments became addicted to gambling revenue, but that, too, is for another post.

I also found some of the statistics presented interesting enough to do some extrapolation, which I’ll get to at the end.

What does gambling contribute to our economy? Well, the OLG and the province always like to tout the benefits: the OLG paid more than $2 billion profits into provincial coffers, in 2011. They’ve given more than $34 billion since 1975. That’s an average contribution of $149 per person in the province per year. OLG’s plans are to build that payment to the province up to $3.3 billion by introducing more and newer forms of gambling.

On a very basic level, that looks good. After all, at least some of that money would have had to come from taxes instead, so it can be seen as a user-pay system, or a self-tax system. Of that $2 billion last year, $120 million went to the Trillium Foundation, $10 million for Ontario Amateur Sport, and $41 towards problem gambling programs.

That’s an interesting ratio: four times the amount given to develop sports is given to treating the problems created by gambling. A point not missed by the audience.

The OLG made that profit from revenue of $6.685 billion. That’s a far more intriguing number. It’s just over one percent of Ontario’s GDP in 2011. As a former business owner, seeing a 33% profit margin is impressive. Extrapolating, it suggests OLG plans to increase net gambling revenues to almost $10 billion if the ratio remains the same. It will do this by expanding gaming sites, adding internet gambling, allowing bingo halls to run more games – making more gambling available to more people more often.

That doesn’t sit too well with me. The same people who won’t let grocery and convenience stores sell wine and beer because it might corrupt someone, will make gambling so ubiquitous it will be hard to avoid tripping over a slot machine (real or virtual). Online gambling will offer easy access, 24/7 from your home. Play in your jammies until the early hours. All you need is a credit card. Makes me wonder if the goal is to make gambling mandatory some day in the future, like taxes…

What happened to the rest of the money the OLG took in?

Online gamblingAccording to the OLG’s annual report, operating expenses were $4.975 billion. Of that, $1.835 billion went to payouts to lottery and bingo winners. Commissions ($648 million – this, I assume, was paid to operators ), marketing ($300 million – the amount paid for advertising is 7.5 times the amount paid to help problem gamblers), interest ($32 million), payments to the federal government ($228 million) and amortization ($226 million) gobbled up another 1.43 billion. Paying for the OLG and its 18,000 employees is one of those expenses. Six thousand of those employees got bonuses, too – $11.6 million worth. Not a large slice of $4.7 billion. Horse racing got $345 million; host municipalities got $92 million and First Nations got $117 million.

It almost looks like the OLG is on a drunken giveaway spree, handing out the bucks to everyone except, of course, the gamblers. Nice of them to give us back some of our money, though.

Who doesn’t want to get free money? That’s the attractiveness of hosting a casino: all you need to do is nod your head, zone some land, then sit back and watch the money roll in. Suddenly flush with cash, the town’s taxes plummet, everything gets rebuilt, new sports facilities sprout, downtown gets renewed, sidewalks rebuilt, streets paved with gold and the local politicians get halos.

Well, maybe not.

As an aside, based on media stories, all three seem worried that their slot machines will be removed from the tracks when the agreement ends, sometime in the next year.

The OLG presented the audience with examples from Hanover, Central Huron and Chatham-Kent: all three communities have an OLG money machine in a racetrack. Hanover has 130 slots; Clinton (Central Huron) has 123, and Hanover (Chatham-Kent) 130. All three are currently questioning whether the slots will remain in their raceways with the OLG’s new strategic plan. In 2011, Hanover received about $800,000; Central Huron $641,000 and Chatham-Kent about $700,000. Exuberant endorsements from their mayors, we were told.

Assume we could get, say, $1 million per year as a host community. That translates to just over 2% of our annual municipal budget. Minus, of course, what we would pay to our neighbours as per the memorandum of agreement we signed. We might end up with 1% of our budget as “free” cash. Does this mean your taxes won’t go up? Nope. The extra money would likely end up going to infrastructure improvements and maintenance required by the extra traffic, maybe to extra policing costs too.

Gambling and drinking cartoon
Even if we kept it all for ourselves (as one councillor has suggested), and damn the rest of the region, is that money enough to make us want a casino? If I’m going to sell our municipal soul, I think I want a bigger slice of that pie for the town. As Faustian agreements go, we’re not getting much from our side of the bargain.

Besides, we might think we’re agreeing for “just” 300 slots, but the OLG said it could expand the site’s licence to other games anytime in the future. The demographics change when you have other types of gambling, but I didn’t hear anything to suggest the town will have a say in that expansion.

If the cash doesn’t move me, the opportunity to create 80 to 90 jobs in the area is more attractive. Any job creation is welcome, but I get an uneasy feeling these aren’t the “quality” jobs some folks are expecting.

From what I understand, many of these jobs would be similar to what the hospitality industry already offers – janitorial, serving, cooking,security, valet parking, landscaping, counting cash. Whether these (non-union?) jobs would pay better than the hospitality sector or offer any benefits would be up to the private operator. They aren’t government jobs: the OLG won’t be running these new casinos.

Will a private operator pay more than $10-$12 an hour for someone to sweep the floor and polish the slot buttons? I wouldn’t expect so. Any new jobs are better than no jobs, but my passion to create more McJobs is somewhat less. Would you like fries with those casino tokens?

Back to the money. According to the OLG, the net revenue from adults to the gaming industry in Ontario is $459 per year. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but that’s money that doesn’t go directly into the economy – it doesn’t create jobs outside the gambling sector. It doesn’t buy anything from local merchants or restaurants. It goes directly to the government. Well, okay, two thirds goes to the OLG and its minions, and the remaining third gets into public coffers.

Most economists measure consumer spending as a yardstick to whether we are in or out of a recession – it’s called the consumer confidence index. See here for the Canadian index. It’s a simple measure of consumption – consumers who are confident in the state of the economy buy more stuff. Recessions happen when that confidence falls to a point where we stop buying and start hoarding (okay, it’s one reason; there are others, but it’s a big part of it).

A strong consumer confidence report, especially at a time when the economy is lagging behind prevailing estimates, can move the currency markets quickly. The idea behind consumer confidence is that a happy consumer – one who feels that his or her standard of living is increasing – is more likely to spend more and make bigger purchases, like a new car or home, leading to a stronger domestic economy and consequently a stronger currency.
Source: www.investopedia.com/walkthrough/forex/advanced/level8/consumer-confidence-index.aspx#axzz29kZLXgcV

Gambling cartoonIs gambling measured as consumption? Does the money pushed into slots contribute to the level of confidence? Is gambling measured in the index? I can’t find anything online to suggest that it is. So rather than spending that $459 on, say, a new TV, a shelf of books, a library of DVDs, new skates, skis or a bicycle, a purebred puppy, teeth whitening or any other goods and services – this money is spent on gambling. It bypasses the usual consumer channels. Gambling doesn’t add to the consumer confidence, even though the money is still flowing out of consumers’ pockets.

Yes, there is trickle down and spin-off – some of the money goes to suppliers, some to wages – and thus some gets back into the general economy. But how much? How much just ends up fattening the bank accounts of the operators? I don’t know, but clearly it’s not as beneficial as if it were all spent in a retail store.

Would $6.7 billion have a positive effect if it was spent in retail instead of gambling? Of course, but overall not as much as you might imagine. It’s about 4% of Ontario’s total retail sales (2011 figures). So it would help, but wouldn’t change the world. A few hundred people spending an extra $459 each every year in a local business could make a real difference to the local economy.

As a personal choice, I’d rather buy that shelf of books from local bookstores than pump quarters into a noisy metal machine and walk away with nothing. At the end of the day, I will have something to show for my money, not to mention many more months, even years, of enjoyment from the books.

It strikes me that putting the money directly into the economy helps buoy consumer confidence (thus the economy) better than spending it on gambling, and it might help keep us on the farther side of a recession. The OLG’s own statistics show that Ontario’s gambling revenue didn’t seem significantly affected by the last recession, so gamblers apparently don’t seem to feel the need to hoard as much as consumers when the economy tanks.**

Let me wind up with some thought on statistics. According to the OLG’s own estimates. 3.4% of Ontario residents have a “severe or moderate” gambling problem. In Problem Gambling in Canada (see footnote), the authors quote a 2005 study of Ontario residents by Wibe, Mun and Kauffman, that has a higher number: 5.8% are “at risk of gambling problems,” 2.6% have “moderate problems” and 0.8% have “severe problems” (the latter two combine to make the 3.4% OLG mentions).

We have around 21,000 people in Collingwood. At 3.4%, we expect to have more than 700 people here with “severe or moderate” gambling problems. Another 1,218 (5.8%) are “at risk”. That’s about 2,000 local adults for whom gambling is or may be a problem. These are your friends, relatives, neighbours. That concerns me. These are the people most likely to be found in a casino that’s in our back yard – especially during the week when there are fewer visitors.

We have about 16,000 adults 18 and older here. That means about one in every eight adults who may have or who have a problem with gambling. If the government was to allocate funds to problem gambler programs by that percentage, they would have to spend more than $250,000,000!

Add in about the same number of people from Wasaga Beach, and more from Clearview, Springwater and Town of the Blue Mountains, and we have more than 5,000 people in our immediate vicinity who either have or are at risk from gambling problems. That’s a lot of people in our region who may find a casino an irresistible place to spend their money.

I just don’t see 5,000 people lining up at the problem gambling office to voluntarily disbar themselves from the irresistible urge to push quarters into that hungry metal mouth, while others shove past them to get at the seats they vacated. I guess they’ll still be able to enjoy the province’s online gambling sites, when they are launched. The government may not want you in the casino with your bad habits, but it still wants your money, and won’t even mind if you play in your jammies.

~~~~~

As you might gather from the above, I am less than enthusiastic about having a casino here. I’m still open to debate and to having my mind changed, but it has to be a lot more compelling an argument than what I’ve heard to date.

Worth reading: Public Affairs 101 on gambling
The Walrus: story on Alberta’s gambling
Stats Canada report on gambling, 2011
The Social Effects of Gambling

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* In the book, Problem Gambling in Canada (Tepperman and Wanner, Oxford University Press, 2012), gambling is identified as a learned behaviour; like smoking, like watching TV, playing sports or reading. Adults often become gamblers because of how it is portrayed in family or social situations. Because gambling is legal, it gets advertised in mass media, making it appear on the same level as consumer goods and entertainment, banks, and music concerts. From buying lottery tickets to trips to Las Vegas, how gambling is perceived in the home affects how children will develop as adult gamblers; just as children brought up by smoking parents are very likely to become smokers themselves.
** While this was also noted in the UK, in the USA, the pattern seems different. Overall the US gaming industry lost about 5.5% revenue during the recession, with New Jersey reporting a 13% drop from casino revenue. How much of that was caused by an increase in online gaming or in the general increase in gambling opportunities as more and more states legalize it, is unknown. Also, the US was hurt more by the recession than was Canada.

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Does product placement run the viewing experience?

Product placement in 24I was watching recent episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock and Strike Back, this week, and towards the end of last night’s show, I wondered, again, why it was British TV shows were generally so much better than American TV.

Why did do most British dramas seem more realistic, the characters more believable, the sets less artificial? Yes, having a longer tradition of acting, script writing and production plays into it. A robust public broadcasting system that doesn’t have to cater to corporate tastes or duck sticky political issues is another reason. So does not catering to pop fashion trends and using actors and actresses who look like real people (a trend slow to come to fashion- and celebrity-obsessed American culture).

Perhaps, I thought, it’s also because every scene is not liberally peppered with product placement. British shows look more natural and less like set-piece advertising. Viewers are not as often distracted by what are often clumsy and obvious product positionings.

To be fair, in the past decade, American TV has improved remarkably thanks to well-written and well-acted series like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, The Borgias, West Wing, The Newsroom, and 24. I’ve been impressed by many new series – I even liked the uneven, meandering and ultimately unsatisfying Lost (despite some intriguing threads, it failed to fulfill the promise of its first season).

Before The Sopranos, it was pretty much a given that British TV was light years ahead of similar American efforts. Acting, sets, and writing were generally far superior in the British shows. But that has changed and American TV programming – at least from producers like Showcase and HBO – has shown welcome improvement.

At the same time, the quality of American popular TV has fallen into the lightless abyss of self-described “reality” shows replete with thuggish, greedy garbage pickers, unwashed swamp dwellers with bad dentistry, barely literate truck drivers and bottom feeding, irrelevant Jersey-ites. That these have replaced such classic series as M*A*S*H and All in the Family merely underlines the paucity of creativity in American pop TV. And anything that was once launched as a documentary channel (Discovery, National Geographic, History) has descended into trivial silliness with trite, shallow lifestyle pap instead of meaningful content.*

American film, too, has continued its downward trend, riding the wave from grand spectaculars like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia towards the trough of cookie-cutter CGI-driven action films, teen coming of age, predictably violent and ugly slasher flicks, and flaccid, tired comedy films. Yes, there are still good films being made – Avatar was brilliant, Michael Clayton was thoughtful and well-written. The Jane Austen Book Club was a thoughtful romantic comedy. But they are the exceptions, not the rule.

But I digress. I was writing about whether product placement has a role in how viewers appreciate a TV program or movie.

Before February, 2011, product placement was actually banned on British TV. That changed last year, although not without challenges:

The Church of England and doctors’ leaders have opposed the move, saying it could damage trust in broadcasters and promote unhealthy lifestyles.

Even so, there are significant, stringent restrictions on product placement:

Under Ofcom regulations, broadcasters must inform viewers by displaying the letter ‘P’ for three seconds at the start and end of a programme that contains product placement.
The telecoms regulator has said any placement must be editorially justified and not unduly prominent.
It will not be allowed in news, current affairs or children’s programmes – or for alcoholic drinks and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.
And it will continue to be banned for BBC shows.

Get that last one? Even when allowed on commercial channels, England’s public broadcaster will not be allowed to have such placements. Interesting.

Audi on Strike BackOn Strike Back (a Sky production), I noticed the make of the car in one scene – an Audi. And I noticed that the Mercedes Benz logo on a truck had been rather obviously and clumsily (to me) removed (leaving a circular hole in the rusty grill). The shot of the Audi from the front prominently displaying the logo on the grill was pretty blatant. Was this product placement or simply the use of an actual vehicle? The angle of the shots suggests to me the former. However, this page shows numerous, recognizable brands and logos on other vehicles used in the show, so it’s open to debate which were placements and which were simply used for realism.

But in Sherlock (a BBC production), I did not notice any particularly obvious product placements. I tried to see what sort of computer and phone Sherlock was using, but it wasn’t evident. Products appear as they would in real life – logos and brands might be seen, but are not a focal point of any shot. It takes some work to identify anything. But looking at the database of vehicles used in TV and film, I see several brands that are easily recognized. Sherlock should be free of paid product pacement, however, since it’s a BBC production, so one assumes they were used for realism, not profit.

I can’t say I can recall any product placement in my favourite British shows – Doc Martin, Darling Buds of May, Coupling, Downton Abby, Inspector Morse, All Creatures Great and Small, As Time Goes By, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers… so many I can’t recall all of the British shows I’ve watched. None ever struck me as commercial, however. In fact, many British shows actually provide the full 60 minutes per hour of programming – not the 40-odd minutes we get here – because they aren’t interrupted by advertising.

(Sidebar: On average, Canadians watch more than 25,000 TV commercials annually… and there are no limits on the amount of time a broadcaster in Canada can use for ads vs content.)

But does seeing a brand or model you know make a show more or less realistic? Is it realistic to show generic, unbranded products like computers or cars? Or does it contribute to a sense of distance from reality, a detachment from the story?

Product placement on American TVDoes it make the product more or less attractive to be seen on TV? I watched all eight seasons of 24 without once purchasing a Dell laptop. And despite the numerous placements of Apple computers in TV and film, I never bought one of their laptops. In fact, when I bought a new laptop last year, I didn’t look at either manufacturer – I chose one based on price, features and some online reviews. And the fact that the local seller had it on sale.

Although I don’t watch TV shows like the amateur hour contests shown in the image above**, the clumsy product placement of Coke cups doesn’t impress me. In fact, it makes me wonder if their votes are also for sale. Judges should be impartial and product placement in front of them is clearly a signal that impartiality is open to question. Seeing this would definitely affect my viewing experience negatively.

Does product placement spoil or interrupt the viewing experience for others? While I say yes it does if it’s blatant enough to be noticed, according to one poll on YouGov most viewers don’t notice:

Product Placement Doesn’t Spoil Viewing, Claims the Public
Of those surveyed by YouGov in July 2011, 59% said they did not have a negative experience of product placement and claimed that it made no difference to their viewing experience. 33% of those polled disagreed that product placement advertising negatively impacts the integrity of a TV programme.
The poll also showed that young audiences, aged 18 to 34, were the most likely to form a positive impression of product placement, with 25% of those aged 18 to 24 stating their brand perception would become more positive if seen in a UK TV Programme.
So despite it being early days for product placement on UK TV, these positive reactions show it could prove very lucrative for brand advertisers.

But people are aware of product placement, says another poll:

A YouGov poll, taken at the end of February 2011 shortly after the decision was made, found that over one third of respondents had no idea what product placement was. However another poll, taken in July 2011, found that nearly three quarters of respondents (72%) knew what product placement was, with nearly half (46%) stating that real brands placed in TV programmes can make them seem more realistic.
Since February 2011, there have been less than 20 examples of product placement advertising in UK TV programmes. However, despite a slow start, the product placement market in the UK is estimated to be worth up to £120m in the next five years. Adele Gritten, head of media consulting at YouGov, said: “There appears to be a gradual acceptance taking place as people see product placement more and more. We’re all consumers of brands, and as long as placements aren’t too overt, it’s very realistic for us to experience the same household brands in the programmes we watch.”

Ofcom's product placement logoOf course the actual number of people surveyed in either poll isn’t mentioned in these news pieces, so one can’t give a lot of credence to the reports until those numbers are produced. After all, 59% of six people is irrelevant.

The other question this issue raises is about how blase consumers have become to advertising: have we been numbed by so many ads that product placement is invisible to the average viewer? In which case, those megabucks being spent on product placement are being wasted and advertisers need a new venue. Maybe even a new paradigm.

So does product placement make a difference? I don’t know. I do know that my own perspectives and prejudices will affect how I see a product or brand in any context. Just like if I see someone smoking on TV or in a film, it causes me to disassociate from the story and make a mental judgment of the character. If I see someone sipping a soda, I do the same (both negatively affect my viewing experience). But seeing a blender brand? Or a washer brand? It doesn’t affect me. I probably don’t notice it unless the placement is clumsy and too obvious. See a guitar brand? A ukulele brand? A tequila brand or anything else I might have some interest in? I might pay more attention, but it doesn’t sway my consumer soul one way or the other. At least consciously.

Product placement may be good business for marketing companies and good revenue for film and TV producers (look up the value of product placement in the ad-dense James Bond flicks). But I question whether they have significant impact on consumers today, aside from distracting us from the storyline.My advice: look for ways to engage the viewers, not simply try to seduce them.

~~~~~
* Looking at today’s listings (your local lineup may be different), I see the following depressingly craptastic shows scheduled for Saturday evening viewing (this partial list doesn’t include the paid programming and infomercials like “Hair Loss News: More Hair in as Little as 4 to 6 Weeks: running on Fox): Storage Wars, Showbiz Moms & Dads, The Real Housewives of New York City, Pick a Puppy, The Great Food Truck Race, Pawnathon Canada, Canadian Pickers, Pawn Stars, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Paranormal Witness, Parking Wars, Love It or List It, Dumbest Stuff on Wheels, Keasha’s Perfect Dress, Impractical Jokers, 1 girl 5 gays, SugarStars, Billy the Exterminator, 30 Seconds to Fame, Cheaters, Punk’d, Buy Herself, World’s Worst Tenants, Cash Cab, Tabatha Takes Over, Celebrity Style Story, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Anna & Kristina’s Grocery Bag, Rescue Mediums, Party Mamas, Caught on Camera, Baby First Club, Marriage Under Construction, Swamp Wars, Styleography, Style by Jury, Oh So Cosmo, Fashion Hunters, The Hunks, Playboy’s Coeds and others – more than 800 TV channels and half this drek is repeated over and over, not only on channels, but back to back in time slots.
Thank the gods for CBC, TVO and PBS, which still continue to give us content. Unfortunately, we cannot get BBC America on Canadian networks – we are instead forced to get the generally unwatchable and crass BBC Canada which mostly replays Mike Holmes and HGTV shows, surrounded by dreary “reality” restaurant shows: Jamie’s Meals in Minutes, Restaurant Makeover, Jamie’s Food Escapes, Food Inspectors, Kitchen Nightmares, and so on. BBC Canada is an embarrassment.
** My ability to withstand TV commercials grows less every year. By the second ad, I’ve started to fidget, check the Blackberry for email. By the third I’m surfing to other channels looking for content. At the fourth, I’ve muted the TV and am playing the ukulele parked beside the sofa. More than that, and I’ve lost interest in the program entirely, and have either changed channels, or picked up a book.
We don’t watch a lot of commercial TV for the simple reason of the increasingly longer ad clusters. I will buy a season of a recommended show on DVD, and watch it without ads, however. I would consider a PVR to record shows only if it could edit out the ads and save the result to a DVD or USB drive. As I understand it, the PVRs available from Rogers do not have these necessary features.

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Why does anyone need PR?

Flavius AetiusFlavius Aetius. Only a handful of scholars know who he was. You can look him up on Google, but 1,500-plus years later, not many people will find him memorable, nor will they care.

On the other hand, I’ll bet everyone reading this post knows who Attila the Hun was. Or at least you recognize the name, even if you aren’t really familiar with his history. It’s either an insult or praise to be called “right of Attila the Hun” these days, although Attila would not have understood the reference.

Attila’s reputation as a warlord still resonates, 1,500 years later. But his contemporary, Aetius, is mostly forgotten. Yet both men were very similar. In fact, they knew each other in their youth and were likely friends for a while.

Both were born on the “wrong” side of the Danube – barbarians in Roman eyes. While his father was a Roman solider “of Scythian extraction,” Aetius spent many formative years in the court of the Visigoths and then the Huns, a ‘hostage’ under Attila’s uncle, King Rugila. In exchange, the twelve-year-old Attila was sent as a child hostage to the Roman court of the western Roman emperor, Honorius.

Aetius learned firsthand how the Huns lived and fought. After he was released, he even led a large army of Huns during one of the numerous battles of succession between competitors for the position of emperor (in 425 CE). He became the military commander in Gaul and conducted many successful campaigns as general, trying to keep the empire intact, including one in 436 CE when he used an army of Huns to subdue the Burgundians. He was elected consul three times.

Meanwhile, Attila had risen to become the sole ruler of the disparate tribes of Huns, uniting them for the first time under one ruler, and was winning his reputation as the “scourge of God” through a series of violent campaigns against the eastern Roman empire, mostly in the poorly-defended Balkans. Although he terrorized a lot of inhabitants and razed many minor cities along the borders, Attila’s military actions were not as serious or as damaging to the eastern empire as he would have liked. He failed to take Constantinople, twice, although he did force the city to grant him tribute.

Attila’s successes were in great part due to the Western empire stripping the armies from the east to fight the Vandals, who had conquered the Roman colonies in Africa, taken Carthage, and were eyeing an attack through Sicily into the Italian peninsula. Without armies to oppose him, Attila was able to ravage the Balkans with little to stop his rampages. The Vandals, by the way, were not stopped for long, and sacked Rome in 455 CE (under their leader, Genseric, another name that has mostly fallen through the cracks of history into the obscurity below).

Both Aetius and Attila were accomplished rulers and military leaders with a string of successes during their lifetimes. And when they met on the battlefield, in 451 CE, it must have seemed to many as a clash of titans. In fact, the battle of the Catalaunian Plains is considered one the the pivotal battles in the late Roman Empire:

This is considered as one of the most important battles in the history of Europe and Christianity, since if Attila conquered Europe, he could destroy the Roman cultures and potentially annihilate Christianity…

In 450 CE, Attila decided to attack the Western Empire, taking a path through northeastern Gaul with his Huns and a motley collection of some less-than-enthusiastic vassals – Gepids, Ostrogoths, Rugians, Scirians, Heruls, Thuringians, Alans, and Burgundians. He was initially successful, and even more terrifying to the inhabitants than he had been in the east.

Aetius, meanwhile, was busy cobbling together an army from a variety of allies, including Franks, the Burgundians, Celts and Visigoths. They moved in front of the Huns at Orléans, and rather than fight, the Huns turned away. Aetius gave chase and caught Attila near Catalaunum (modern Châlons-en-Champagne).

So here we have the battle of the century. If Attila won, there would be nothing to stop him and his army from rampaging through the last bastions of the empire, right to the Atlantic Ocean, and into the heart of the peninsula to sack Rome itself. If he lost, Attila’s reputation as the feared and powerful leader of the unstoppable barbarian horde would be forever damaged; he would be forced to retreat in disgrace.

And guess who won? Aetius. The Huns were driven back across the Danube, and, with his reputation as “invincible” in tatters, Attila’s alliance broke apart (the Ostrogoths even went over to Rome). Attila returned, and raided northern Italy for a year or so, razing some towns, causing damage but not having any real strategic success. The eastern Roman emperor meanwhile decided enough was enough, and had sent his armies into the field to defeat the Huns Attila had left behind.

Attila retired from Italy in 452, intending to turn against Constantinople one more time. But he died in 453 CE. After his death, the Hunnish empire fell apart at the hands of squabbling successors. They disappear from history shortly after Attila’s death.

Aetius, meanwhile, was criticized for allowing the Huns to escape, although he probably wanted to preserve his army to fight the bigger threat of the Vandals. His remaining army wasn’t large enough to crush Attila’s Huns in Northern Italy, and simply kept them from getting too far south. The “last of the Romans” was murdered by his emperor, Valentinian III, in 454 CE.

Aetius, say some scholars, saved the Roman world. Yet I’d bet dollars to doughnuts not even one in ten people know who he is today. Attila’s “brand” remains strong, and his mythology is still great. Why?

Leadership Skills of Attila the HunPublic relations. That’s why Attila’s name still survives. Attila has had better media coverage than Aetius. PR is all about maintaining and fortifying reputation.

And that’s the value of PR. There are books about Attila (including The Leadership Skills of Attila the Hun, which, according to at least this review,has some serious mistakes about Attila’s actual history: “He led his Huns to bring German and Slavic nations under control, defeat Rome and Constantinople, triumph over the lands of Asia, and then conquer Africa. Taking over the world is the ultimate challenge for just about any leader or manager, and barbaric Attila seems to have accomplished it with poise and grace.” Perhaps that just points to how well Attila’s brand was grown and expanded into mythology since he died.*)

Poor old Aetius. The man who defeated Attila and saved the empire – at least for a few more years – is a minor character in the annals of history, mostly forgotten and ignored. His name was never used to frighten children, nor is it ever used today in some political analogy. No one seems to have written books using his leadership skills as a model for modern management.

That’s what happens when you don’t have good PR to save your reputation.

~~~~~

* That muddled history seems to be the reviewer’s, not the book author’s.

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Conducting a survey about a casino

Last night, Collingwood Council debated a motion about a possible casino in Collingwood, made by Counc. Joe Gardhouse that read,

WHEREAS the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (“OLG”) has requested individual Municipalities to respond to their RFP not later than November 16, 2012;
AND WHEREAS Collingwood has been identified as a potential host site for their Gaming facilities expansion within the C-7 zone;
AND WHEREAS the potential monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood are significant;
AND WHEREAS this opportunity deserves and requires Municipal due diligence and public input as required by the OLG RFP;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED THAT Council of the Town of Collingwood instruct Staff to identify suitable locations and/or zones for the potential gaming site not later than October 15, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council schedule a Council/Public Information Meeting regarding the potential economic and social impact to the community not later than October 30, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT an opinion survey/poll or other public forum be conducted to include a cross-section of citizens and businesses for their feedback on the gaming facility expansion to be completed not later than November 12, 2012;
AND FURTHER THAT Council shall notify the OLG of the Town’s position by not later than the November 16, 2012 deadline.

This was broken up into four motions – one about locations (defeated),the survey (passed five-four; I was one of those against this step), the public meeting (unanimous) and the notice to OLG (unanimous).

(The Whereas preamble statements were not voted on. I would have taken exception to the statement there there are significant “monetary and ancillary benefits to the taxpayers and businesses of Collingwood” had that discussion happened. What about the detrimental effects? What will they cost us?)

To put this in context, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Commission (OLG) has identified this general area as one of the preferred locations for a new casino (basically a warehouse with 300 slot machines – Georgian Downs has 1,000, Rama has 2,500). Collingwood is one of four regional municipalities that signed a memorandum of agreement (MOU) this summer to collectively support a casino in Wasaga Beach, if the Beach wanted one. The Beach would share the revenue with its neighbours in return for our support.

Statistics cartoonThis motion essentially suggests Collingwood would ignore the MOU and apply on its own for a casino without the regional sharing or cooperation. If Collingwood was to get the casino, I would argue we should still share the profits with the other consignees, because to do otherwise would not be honourable.

Let’s look at what’s involved with the survey Council approved last night.

We want to get 400 qualified answers (a qualified sample for a population of 20,000 with 0.95 confidence level is 378. See www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm. Our population with part-time residents is closer to 25,000 according to our staff estimates, and we get many visitors, so I’m rounding up a bit to simplify the math below.

An unqualified response is worthless. And a smaller sample is equally worthless because it reduces the validity of the results. We need a good level of confidence in the results to determine if they actually reflect the community’s wishes.

But what part of the community is bring asked? The respondents need to mirror our own local demographics. What if 75% of respondents are between 18 and 25, and the majority of that group wants a casino… is that more significant that if the remaining 25% unanimously reject it? How do you weight the results?

We also need to know in advance what’s the bar for acceptance or rejection? 51%? 60%? 66%? 75%?

What if it’s a 50-50 split? What is the criteria for saying yes or no? Is a simple majority enough (50% plus one) to decide either way?

We didn’t get into that, last night, but it is a significant topic for heated debate. And we can’t proceed to a decision without having established the criteria.

Someone with experience and education will have to design the survey – establish the methodology, then create the many questions necessary to qualify and quantify the results. You need a professional pollster to do this, probably someone with a university degree in statistics or public relations. It can’t be handed off to someone without at least some experience in poll and survey design and in data analysis.

Demographics cartoonStaff and council will have to be interviewed first to determine the appropriate methodology, the nature of the questions, the sort of result expected, the community profile, etc. And then the designer will need to get final approval for the proposed questions. So say at least a week for the design and interview phase.

Someone will also have to design a template for recording the answers. This is probably the easiest part: we could either buy pre-packaged survey software. We could have a staff or contract person code a rather complex, large Excel sheet, too, or an Access database template.

Based on my experience with Excel and database programming, that shouldn’t take more than four or five days once the questions have been compiled and approved. It’s quicker to purchase something and just enter the questions, and let the software crunch the numbers as they get tabulated. That might reduce the time for the template preparation to a day or two.

Let’s also assume the time per person to identify a potential candidate from a tax list or phone book, call them, ask them the qualifying questions to be sure they are in the target audience (not children, not employed by the municipality or a spouse of such an employee, or are employed by the OLG, are residents not visitors, own or rent property in the town, etc.), ask the necessary demographic questions (age, gender, income bracket, marital status, employment status, etc.), and then ask the actual survey questions is 10 minutes per person.

That’s not very long – about half of what professional pollsters usually allocate per call.

Add another five minutes per person for the caller to fill in the forms on the computer, check the person off the list, record the data in the paper record and so on.

That’s a mere 15 minutes per person now. That may be reasonable time for a survey of this sort, but it leaves no margin for error or contingencies.

There’s no leeway for wrong calls, for answering callers’ questions, for explaining the nature of the survey when asked, hangups, busy signals, no responses, pens running out of ink, computers crashing, invalid respondents, etc.

StatisticsThat’s 6,000 minutes to get 400 qualified answers: 100 hours. At the average 7.5 hours per day, that’s 13.33 days non-stop. Let’s give the caller and extra 1.7 days over that period as contingency for unanswered calls, bathroom breaks, talking to staff and supervisors, making photocopies, getting pens, making backups, getting a coffee… say 15 days minimum for one person, non-stop, to get a reliable sample with any statistical accuracy and validity.*

Four working weeks total time so far. Assuming, that is, there are no delays, and nothing goes wrong, that the washrooms aren’t busy, pens don’t run dry, and there’s no lineup at Tim’s. Plus a week to prepare the survey.

Obviously we want it sooner than that, so let’s triple the number of workers to get it in one week: three people working non-stop for five days, calling residents, asking questions. Again, no contingency or leeway has been allocated – we expect 100% efficiency.

Then, once we have our 400 qualified respondents, we need someone to collate the responses and produce a report on the answers, breaking down the responses by the demographic criteria (are you a full or part time resident, are you currently employed, age, gender, family income bracket, etc.). And get it printed for council and staff, and make a public presentation to council. We may be able to get the report in a week after the survey has been completed, if we push hard.

That report and analysis will require someone experienced in statistics and demographics to analyse and break it down; maybe we can use the same person we used to design the survey.

So we’re at a minimum three weeks from the design stage to the final report, and no time or effort wasted in between. We need at least three full time staff and one professional pollster/statistician/report writer to do it in three weeks.

Who will we use to do the calling and which professional statistician will we get to write the report?

If we use staff for the calls, who trains them and how long will it take to train them? Which three people on staff have at least one week of uninterrupted time they can dedicate to this? (If we do have staff with that much free time, I want to raise this at budget time!)

Let’s say we also want to ask a qualitative, not quantitative question like, “Why do you think a casino would be good (or bad) for the town”? Something that requires more than a simple yes or no answer. That would add another several minutes per caller to take and record the answer. My time estimates above are very, very conservative, by the way. As it says on www.dobney.com/Research/MR_basics.htm:

In terms of cost, most market research is charged on a time basis plus a management/design fee. If you took a general face-to-face population study of 1000 people. You might allow 15 minutes for the interview, 20 minutes finding/contact time, 10 minutes for processing each questionnaire – so 45 minutes per interview or 750 hours of time (100 days), on top of which would be added time for questionnaire design, production and dispatch, interviewer briefing and management, creation of tables, analysis and presentation. Typically on a straightforward survey these elements should add about 15-20 days, although at a higher daily rate.

Can we use internet polls or Facebook instead, as Counc. West suggested? Sure – if you want the results to be entirely meaningless, and statistically and demographically worthless – simply a pointless “feel-good” exercise that gets trashed and humiliated in every media. It would be just as accurate to check the Magic-8 Ball for an answer as to conduct a typical online poll.

(You can read my personal comments on the validity of internet polls here: www.ianchadwick.com/blog/are-internet-polls-valid/ )

T shirtWe could hire programmers to write a secure website that has login and authentication controls on voters, and some data collection and analysis programs. We would still need to have qualifying questions and poll questions written by a professional to be sure people’s responses were valid, and someone equally qualified to write up the report later. It would add time to the exercise and what’s to guarantee that we will get the necessary number of qualified responses within the time frame before the deadline? None.

Or we could simply buy the services of one of the many online survey companies to collect and collate the data for us. We still need the professional to design the questions and create the final report. The disadvantage here is that to get a qualified response in an adequate sample may take months, because there is no incentive for users to complete the survey. Plus we’d have to advertise and promote the survey site to try and get residents to visit it. Radio ads, print ads… the costs keep mounting.

Whatever we chose, it will cost us in both time and money to achieve anything meaningful. To get those results before we have to make a report to the OLG (Nov 16) is unlikely.**

So I ask what I asked last night: does anyone have the slightest inkling of how much will this survey cost the municipality and how much staff time will be put into it? What if it cost taxpayers $50,000? $60,000? Or more? Will it be worth the money?
~~~~~
* Say one in two people who answer the phone proves to be unqualified (i.e. a child or non-resident) and it takes five minutes to determine that and do the paperwork to record that call. That would add another 2,000 minutes to the total time to get 400 qualified respondents. Or 33.33 hours (another 4.4 working days). If only one in four is unqualified, but one in four is a no answer or busy signal (1 minute to record this), then it would add 22.8 hours or just over three days of work.
** I have already expressed my opposition to the process – I believe we should follow through with the MOU and support Wasaga Beach’s bid to be the host community.

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Are internet polls valid?

Internet pollHow valid are internet polls? Are they credible for making serious or significant decisions, or merely as general – even vague – indicators of intent? Are they equivalent to paper (and phone) surveys?

No. At least that’s what many experts say. Yes, they can be cost-effective, and good tools to engage the community. But like online petitions, they seldom have sufficient controls that restrict access to the relevant respondents. Anyone with a basic knowledge of how the internet works can easily bypass the limited security and vote numerous times. Often all it takes to get another vote is deleting cookies in your browser tools. More sophisticated users can create voting bots that automate the process.

Time poll hackedYou can read many articles on how to easily hack polls and cheat them. Some poll hacking is actually quite entertaining and imaginative, like the hack of the 2009 Time poll on the most influential people. The point is that polls are vulnerable to a variety of techniques. As one programmer noted about the Time poll:

“I took a look at the process of voting with a very basic set of tools on Firefox: Firebug and LiveHTTPHeaders. What I found is that when you submit the rating, it calls another page and passes a key, the rating, and the poll information through the URL to the page, like so:
http://www.timepolls.com/contentpolls/Vote.do?key=eba3a55e955bc93ade4fc820649cde04&rating=9&id=1857552&pollName=poy2008
Theoretically, then, you could hit this page as many times as you wanted with any rating you wanted, and drive up a candidates’ score. Though one would expect that Time would have figured that anyone could game the system, it’s easy for a programmer to forget that what they don’t intend for public viewing may still be visible, and that they always need to check to ensure that the data they expect is the data they are getting.”

Generic online polls are easy to create and many are free – this makes them attractive to businesses, media and political groups that don’t have the resources to do phone or door-to-door surveys. How many of these instant polls are actually mining participant data can’t be determined, but you have to expect the companies to get some return for a “free” service. Some media clearly use polls not as a count of anything specific, but rather as a measure about how engaged people are on an issue – and how much attention they are paying to that particular media’s coverage of it.

As one Australian study concluded,

“…online polls cannot be considered as an alternative to using paper based surveys. The independent sample t-tests results obtained for the questions administered using a paper based survey and those through an online poll showed that in the majority of cases that there was significant difference between the means. The implication is that online polls cannot be used to survey a cohort of people replacing the more costly paper based survey.

Online polls and surveys are generally open to anyone with an internet connection. Similar to clicking the Facebook “like” button, most online polls simply count clicks, but don’t qualify them by demographic – gender, region, sex, age, income or anything else that might matter. While some may believe 12 and 13-year-olds should be able to vote for any issue, they are not really old enough to appreciate the many facets of any political or social issue. But how do you tell if a vote was cast by a child or an adult?

Unless you have qualifying questions that ask personal information to identify the participant as belonging to the target demographic you need, you can’t distinguish between valid and invalid votes. That makes them all invalid.

Everyone on Facebook knows that the count of “likes” is irrelevant because Facebook lacks a corresponding “dislike” button to provide balance. Without that, the number of likes or followers has to be measured against Facebook’s almost one billion subscribers. Having 1,000, even 100,000 “likes” is a small percentage of the total possible. But even with millions, you have no way of qualifying those “likes” by any meaningful categorization. Yes, Facebook can do it, but they’re not giving the important data to users free. Besides, when it comes down to it, “likes” may make the user feel better and more popular, but they don’t add up to much else than self-importance.

It used to be the count of page hits that people boasted about. That quickly ended when website owners started putting “counters” on pages that faked the numbers, or started with high numbers. To get a real picture of website use today you need sophisticated tools like Google Analytics that identify time spent per page, whether the page was visited by a search bot or a human, whether the user went to other linked pages within that site, the search terms used to land on that page, etc. Online surveys without that sort of statistical analysis are much like the old page count numbers of the 1990s.

Some online petitions and polls even allow the same person to digitally “sign” or vote more than once. Some petitions allow participants to be “anonymous” to others (which clearly defeats the purpose of a petition as a tool of democracy). Again, that opens questions about validity and credibility. Anonymous online comments or petition signatures have no credibility in the democratic process.

Because these petitions invite comments, it’s not uncommon for people to use them as sounding boards for comment and griping, rather than for their intended purpose of gathering support for a particular position. Bitching about the state of government may be stress-relieving, but it is not relevant to the petition and dilutes the intended message.

Any online petition has to be carefully combed for duplication and repetition of names. Even once these are winnowed out, how can anyone determine the age or location of the signatory unless that information is required when signing and provided as part of the presentation? How do the presenters insure the remaining names are valid in respect to the subject of the petition? This is one reason why paper petitions still have considerably more validity than online ones.

Crazy pollsI have voted in online polls and surveys about American politics and presidential races. I’m a Canadian so my vote, my choices should be meaningless, yet there were no qualifying questions posed to restrict access to Americans of voting age. What if the Chinese government took a serious interest in the American presidential race and used US online polls to sway the results towards Chinese goals? Why not? If a poll by one of the two parties asked whether the US Army should be disbanded, wouldn’t it be in the national interests of, say, Iran, China, North Korea, Russia or Syria to push the poll numbers up towards yes and get that onto the candidate’s platform?

Could US policy be shaped by such polls? Not yet. At present there’s a good level of skepticism about online polls among politicians and their strategists. Making a claim that “70 percent of Americans want to disband the army” based on an internet poll would be not only incorrect, but stupid.

Similarly, if we run a poll asking if school should be two hours shorter and we get 12,000 yes votes, and 3,000 no, should school boards seriously consider reducing school hours? What if you found out 11,000 of those yes votes were cast by students under the age of 18? Would that affect how the poll was perceived by educators and administrators? Of course. Qualifying data is always necessary to validate the results.

Have an opinion on something? Anything? There are

On Sodahead, a popular opinion site, here’s the latest series of polls you can vote on, taken from the front page:

Do Father-Daughter Dances Promote Gender Discrimination?
Arnold Schwarzenegger Releases Book Trailer: Are You Interested in Reading His Memoir?
Will J.K. Rowling Find Success Beyond ‘Harry Potter’?
New Studies Cite Stronger Link Between Soda and Obesity: Do You Drink Soda?
KFC Closes Restaurants in Pakistan Amid Protests: Should U.S. Retailers Get Out of the Middle East?
Is Vogue Featuring Domestic Violence On Its Cover?
Which Show Are You Rooting for to Win the Emmy for Best Comedy Series?
Are Celebrity Video Games Awesome or Annoying?
Which News Anchor is Least Likely to Lie to Viewers
What were you most excited to leave behind after high school?
Do You Multitask at the Movie Theater?
Does Kanye West Have a Sex Tape?
Are These GPS Shoes Wonderful or Weird?

Perhaps it’s just me, but whenever I visit this site, I keep asking myself “Who cares?” Were these questions created by bored 15-year-olds? Any number of irrelevant, pointless, puerile polls are available online to people who want to express an opinion, but face it: the results aren’t going anywhere because NO ONE CARES about the results. They’re just there to make you feel engaged, let off steam, and think you’ve contributed to something.

For any opinion poll to be valid, it needs to meet certain crucial scientific criteria, including sample size. Most online polls don’t meet any serious selection criteria at all, which means they’re simply for entertainment, like horoscopes.

What is a valid sample size that gives a result meaning? One percent? Ten? Twenty five? What is the effective sample size for, say, Collingwood, with a population of 20,000?

Let me quote at length from an answer on how polls have to be conducted and what sort of sample size is relevant:

You have a two part question – but you didn’t realize it. The question, which you asked, is: “What should my sample size be for this test?”

If you go to the Sample Size Calculator website (www.berrie.dds.nl/calcss.htm), you can find this:

The parameters you are setting are:
1) Population – the number of people in the world who will be seeing your website. Let’s assume that your population is “everyone in the world.” So, if we use a very large number, say, 1,000,000, we will calculate the maximum sample size needed.
2) Confidence – this is how sure you are going to be that the results of your sample reflect the true population. The higher the number, the larger the sample size. This is the “certainty” of the results. Customarily for most marketing work, 95% confidence is ample. The default in the website is set at 0.95.
3) Margin – This is how much error you are willing to allow. If you allow 5% error, that means that in a sample size of 100, if the results are 50 clicks, the true number of clicks could be between 45 and 55 clicks. This is the “precision” of your test. The small this number, the larger the sample size.
4) Probability – this is the value of the result you expect to get. For instance, if you expect to get 50 clicks out of 100 views, this value is set at 0.5. Of course, most of us don’t know this value. But the good news is that setting it at 0.5 yields the largest sample size. If the number of clicks is 20 or 80, the confidence increases for the same margin or the margin decreases for the same confidence. And this is a good thing.

Sample size, of course, determines cost of the test. In your case, this is time. If we use the parameters of a population of 1,000,000 with 95% confidence for 5% margin of error with a probability of 50%, then the sample size is 385. For a 1% margin, it’s 9517. You are at about 1.45% now. That means that you are within 65 of the true population result. Additionally, assuming the number of views are pretty close, this means that if the results of your test can tell the difference between the two websites as long at the results are different by more than 65.

The second part of the question – that you didn’t ask – is how do I determine if the two results are really different. For this, you do another test – a Chi-squared test. You have a hypothesis that the two results are the same versus the alternative that they are different. For the test, we look at the observed values versus “expected values.” Expected values are what we’d get is we added the total clicks for both tests and divided by total views and then multiplied by the views for each:

3760/9060 = 0.415
Expected values
4550 * .415 = 1888
4510 * .415 = 1872

Divide the difference of the expected values squared by the expected value and add the two values:

(2010 – 1888)^2/1888) = 7.883
(1750 – 1872)^2/1872) = 7.951

Sum is 15.834. Using a Chi-square table like at: http://www.richland.edu/james/lecture/m170/tbl-chi.html

If we set our confidence at 95%, we use 1 – .095 = 0.05. Our degrees of freedom are calculated by subtracting 1 from the number of proportions in our test: 2-1=1. So, for 95% confidence, we test the value of 15.834 against 3.841. Since 15.834 is larger, we reject our hypothesis that the two results are the same and accept the alternative hypothesis that they are different – with a much greater than 95% confidence.

So, as Nelson (nelsonm) stated in about 20% of the space, you’re done. Looks like version A is the best with a greater than 95% confidence.

Using the sample size calculator mentioned above, here’s what I calculate for a reasonably accurate survey for Collingwood. Based on a population of 20,000, a confidence level of .95, margin of .05, and probability of .50, the minimum sample would be 378 to get a reasonably accurate assessment.

That’s a fairly small number. But how can one determine the numbers to be punched into the various parts of the equation? What’s the confidence level, margin of error? Change the margin of error to 0.01 – a mere 1% error of margin – then you need a sample size of 6,491. Which number do you change to account for duplicates, outside (irrelevant) votes or votes made by children?

And let’s not be fooled: online polls can be and have been the target of special interest groups who want to express their own agenda. Election polls are particularly vulnerable to this sort of nefarious activity.

Journalists have to be particularly suspicious of online polls. The National Council on Public Polls (NCPP) provides 20 questions a journalist should ask about poll results. Among these is:

How were those people chosen?
The key reason that some polls reflect public opinion accurately and other polls are unscientific junk is how people were chosen to be interviewed. In scientific polls, the pollster uses a specific statistical method for picking respondents. In unscientific polls, the person picks himself to participate.

In other words, self-participation is unscientific. A bit further down the page, it notes,

But many Internet polls are simply the latest variation on the pseudo-polls that have existed for many years. Whether the effort is a click-on Web survey, a dial-in poll or a mail-in survey, the results should be ignored and not reported. All these pseudo-polls suffer from the same problem: the respondents are self-selected. The individuals choose themselves to take part in the poll – there is no pollster choosing the respondents to be interviewed.

Governments cannot govern by poll. That’s not leadership. But attempting to govern by internet poll is not merely foolish but potentially dangerous. There is little if any way to determine the source of the votes. You might as well govern by magic ball or coin toss.

So when I read a statement like, “A community poll has shown that 7 out of 10 residents support the one community centre concept” I have to ask, who did the poll, where, when and how was it conducted? That statement turns out to be based on the results of an Enterprise-Bulletin online poll, which had approximately 200 results – 200 unqualified, unscientific results. As pointed out in the quote above, a sample size for Collingwood to get a reasonable assessment of public opinion would be at least 378 QUALIFIED votes. Qualified means a resident or taxpayer, of majority age, who understands the question being posed.

Ipsos-Mori research
Who conducts the poll and who provides the results is also important. Voters on the left don’t trust polls produced by voters on the right and vice versa. Some media are trusted to be objective, others – Fox and Sun News, for example – will always be suspected of having a bias towards their particular political slant. And the majority doesn’t trust the government to accurately and objectively present figures.

My final point has to do with the questions themselves. Asking “Do you like ice cream?” is asking for a general personal opinion and really doesn’t need more choices than “Yes, No, Sometimes.” A more specific question would be, “Do you like butterscotch ice cream?” Ice cream manufacturers are not going to change their business plans based on these rather vague questions, however. They might pay more attention to a question asking participants to select from a list of flavours not currently made, but one which they would like to see available.

Asking “Should we build a new town hall?” is an iceberg question: it hides a larger mass of questions below it: “What will it cost?”, “Will it raise my taxes?”, “Who will benefit?”, “Why do we need one?”, “Can the old town hall be refurbished?”, “when will it be built?,” “where will it be built?”and so on. Participants need answers to all those hidden questions before they can properly answer the seemingly simple question posed about building a new town hall. Otherwise, the answers on that poll are essentially meaningless.

A more reliable question might be, “Should we build a new town hall on the western side of town away from other municipal services, if it will take five years, disrupt some municipal services during construction, cause intermittent road closures, raise your taxes by 10% a year, have it located at the edge of town, result in hiring more staff, and incur greater operating costs when it opens, despite staff recommendations that we just refurbish the old one?”

Even that doesn’t include all of the factors necessary in the decision making process: what to do with the old town hall, should local contractors get preference in the tendering process, will there be local jobs created, can we get support funding from other governments, is the building “green” or LEEDS certified, do we have to buy or expropriate property, is the site currently zoned for it?

Most of all it doesn’t answer the biggest question: why do we need one now?

Perhaps, if you can vouchsafe that the participants in your poll have all paid close attention to the debate about building a new town hall, that they have attended council meetings to watch the debates, have read all the staff reports, have listened to the treasurer expound on the financial implications, have read and watched the local media to gain insight and understand the differences of opinion – they might be able to answer “Should we build a new town hall?” without further refinement. Good luck finding enough people in that category to fit the necessary sample size to validate the results.

Even if you could find such a group, the results can’t simply be reported in terms of yes and no votes. Demographic breakdown of the results is important, too. Politicians should be told the geographic location of the participants (how many west-end participants voted no compared to the east-end, for example), their age groups (are working parents more in favour than retirees?), gender, whether they live in town full-time or part-time, whether they own a vehicle or use public transit to get around town – all become parts of the decision-making milieu.

Most internet polls are merely for entertainment purposes. They harmlessly allow us to believe we are being engaged and are participating in the process, and they make pollsters happy to receive the attention. They are, however, not appropriate tools for making political or social decisions unless they are backed by rigid, scientific and statistical constraints.

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