Bieber Boober — Printing money with Twitter

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Eastern_Bluebird-27527-2Do you ever have this happen to you…. Just when you think you know something, you learn that you know nothing?

This morning was such a time. As I was browsing through the news stream, eventually coming to Yahoo, I caught one of Yahoo’s silly sensational headlines, leading me to an article about Mr. Justin Bieber.

Just so I am clear, I am no fan of Justin Bieber, who I broadly categorize with Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus (whose real name, by the way, is Destiny Hope Cyrus — just in case you thought parental stupidity could not reach new heights) and the slew of other fairytale teenage singers who are struggling with their perpetual teenage angst until well into their 30’ies — probably justifiably so, since their parents, in my view, robbed them of their childhoods in their search to prove that their children were gifted.

Justin Bieber versus Olivia Wilde

The nexus of the latest Bieber controversy was a scolding tweet by Ms. Olivia Wilde, reacting to yet another Bieber attention-seeking six-pack display, which I will relay in full (and, as usual I apologize in advance for the the wording… I simply quote the facts):

“Bieber, put your fucking shirt on. (unless you lost all your shirts in a fire in which case my condolences and please purchase a new shirt.)”

Hilarity ensued, of course, with her tweet being reposted ten million times (actually 9,665 times at the time of this posting.)

Personally, I think that the Twitter missive would have been more funny if Ms. Wilde had dropped the fire bit and written something like “unless you lost your shirt” instead, implying financial ruin, and left it at that, but I recognize that in the Twitter-verse subtlety is a losing proposition. Also, of course, poking fun at Mr. Bieber with economic arguments might be self-defeating since — I suspect — his net worth exceeds that of Ms. Wilde by a not inconsiderable factor.

It is a bit of a mystery why Ms. Wilde, herself a bit of an arrested-development, angst-ridden, attention-seeking young adult who was probably robbed of her youth when she married at 19 years of age, thinks that she can take the moral high-ground and beam her scolding down on Mr. Bieber.

Lest we forget, Olivia Wilde is a mere nine years older than the Mr. Bieber, and has a track-record of wearing body-hugging, midriff-showing, and nipple-exposing outfits for the purpose of, yes, showing that she has the stuff. How exactly this dress-code, augmented, for Chrissake, with nude of near-nude movie and GQ shots, is morally superior to the shirt-dropping of Mr. Bieber, I don’t get.

Certainly, Ms. Wilde is no stranger to dropping her shirt — and everything else, in fact. In Alpha Dogs, for instance, she is romping in a rather seedy hotel room, and now it would appear that her artistic side has compelled her to suggest a skinny dipping scene in Drinking Buddies, the latest Joe Swanberg improvisational flick, with Jonathan Crow of SXSW reporting that Ms. Wilde told Mr. Swanberg, that:

“I think I need to take my clothes off.”

Her behavior may come down to some sort of cleverly induced trance, for, as Ms. Wilde says:

“After you improvise for a while you can’t remember what you’ve done. It’s so instinctual; it’s flowing out of you. It almost feels like you blackout.”

You know, I don’t know. It seems fishy to me. A lot of actors appear to be able to improvise without proposing that they go streaking (witness, for instance the full body of Woody Allen’s work, which, although massively improvised, seems to have somehow avoided having the actors spontaneously drop their clothes.) And, for that matter, if the purpose of improvisation is simply to make it more real and Ms. Wilde’s view of real is that it includes the need to strip down, in some sort of very disturbing return-to-infancy way, why is Mr. Bieber’s continuous very real stripping wrong?

Perhaps, Mr. Bieber ought to retort by twittering to Ms. Wilde to keep her clothes on. Period.

Regardless of her rather unstable soap-box stand, however, Ms. Wilde might have touched a nerve, and, so, the world had the opportunity to get a glimpse into Mr. Bieber’s psyche when he unleashed a virtual rant on Twitter, most of which we will mercifully ignore, except one piece that is simply too precious:

“I understand it is part of the job to be judged…but judge me on the facts, judge me on the music, and be careful of the judgement u pass. but know this…im only judged by one power, and i serve him.”

So, Mr. Bieber, who would probably have been better of just ignoring the jabs about his desire to lose his shirt, made an — in tennis parlance — unforced error, implying what exactly? That he is a disciple of a deity? That he does it all not for money, but rather to advance the cause of his god? Is he threatening his followers? I don’t know, but it sure sounds wacky coming from a guy who appear to have a passion for fast cars and large entourages.

On that note, Ms. Wilde’s real name appears to be … wait for it… Cockburn!!!! How Mr. Bieber could miss out on the opportunity to exact his revenge using this tidbit is beyond me. Perhaps he really is aspiring to a better life.

Anyways, I digress….

The long-tail economy in Twitter

What is amazing is that Ms. Wilde has 813 thousand followers on Twitter, which means that 813 thousand people across the globe, equivalent to the population of Alask, by the way, actually think that she has something important to say.

But that is not all. To my great surprise, Mr. Bieber has the highest following of anyone or anything on Twitter, having amassed an amazing 35 million followers, meaning that 35 million people across the globe actually care to listen to him. No — I did not check to see if the Pope follows Mr. Bieber.

I am not a fan of Twitter, but then I appear to not be a fan of most things that everyone else seem to think is pretty cool. However, I do understand the direct and indirect business reasons for someone like Mr. Bieber to be on Twitter (as well as, of course, the narcissistic reasons, which I am pretty sure weighs in heavily.)

What I don’t understand are the followers. In particular I don’t understand them given that it has been pretty common knowledge (thank Paris Hilton for this) that a lot of Twitter traffic is sponsored. Why exactly would you ask for commercials to be sent to you? I mean, it is one thing to turn on the TV or read a magazine and see Mr. Brad Pitt prostituting himself, but it is something entirely different to ask NBC or GQ to send me all ads including Mr. Pitt. In fact, it borders on creepy.

In 2012 Jorg Ruis from The New Web (TNW) actually went ahead and bought one of these sponsored quasi-spontaneous twitter ads from Paris Hilton (or, more correctly, from her people,) and, being a good web dweeb, he, of course, wrote about the experience on a blog:

Last week we found out that Paris Hilton was offering to send out a sponsored Tweet, for $3,000. My first instinct was “That is hilarious!” and I showed it to a few people who also all laughed about it. Usually you have a good laugh about it and then continue with your ‘real’ work. We thought we’d use it as an experiment, and we actually bought one. ….

According to Google Analytics, the tweet brought in 2,652 visits, with 75% of them being new, and 85% of those visits bouncing. Given that it was more new visits than usual, we were surprised to see that the bounce rate stayed roughly the same.

The stats from BuySellAds, where we bought the tweet, showed numbers that were considerably different. As of the time of this writing, they’re showing 6,008 clicks of the link. The only thing that we can figure, to account for the difference, is the impact that may have been had by using link-shortening services.

So was it worth it? Well, that really depends on what you’re trying to get. If we consider an 85% bounce rate of the 2,562 confirmed visits that we tracked via Google Analytics, that means that up to 15% of those visitors continued to stay on the site or perhaps purchased a ticket. If they had indeed all purchased a ticket to TNW Conference 2012, there would be no question whether or not it was money well-spent.

If we have indeed gotten a touch over 6,000 visits, then we paid about $0.50 per click. When you’re talking awareness, I suppose that’s not a bad cost, but a decently-titled and interesting post on TNW can easily drive that kind of traffic in a day, rather than a week.

Now, assuming that the tweet at hand took 30 seconds to type and send, then Ms. Hilton’s Twitter time is worth a staggering $360,000 per hour — or something like 50 thousand times the minimum wage. Multiply that earnings power with a Twitter population that is five times the size (Ms. Hilton has, I think, something like six million followers,) and you can easily see why Mr. Bieber is busy Twittering away. I oversimplify the economics, of course, but you get the point.

At $360,000 per hour, by the way, Ms. Hilton’s compensation handily beats the hourly income of Ms. Rockefeller from her — ahemmm — work at PepsiCo, which at $4,736.84 per hour was not shabby. Perhaps Ms. Rockefeller’s people should call Ms. Hilton’s people to get some pointers.

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Generals — Assisted Seppuku and Suicide

Seppuku – Suicide by Jill Kelley’s hand

SeppukuWashington Post reported today that General John R. Allen would be retiring.

As you may recall, the Pentagon’s Inspector General quite recently determined an investigation had concluded that General Allen had not violated military prohibitions against conduct unbecoming an officer in his communications with the apparently scheming (for what purpose, exactly, we will probably never know,) ingratiating quasi-seductress and so-so-socialite Ms. Jill Kelley in spite of these communications having been described as racy and flirtatious.

Generals and Generals
This posting refers to no less than four real-life generals and one fictive general (spoiler: General Jessep in A Few Good Men). Only two of the real-life generals, however, are military generals, although that does not make the other two real-life generals less important.

The general that we refer to here, the Inspector General for the Department of Defense, heads up the Department of Defense Inspector General function, the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense in matters of Department of Defense fraud, waste, and abuse. She (it is currently a woman) has sweeping powers of investigation and is nominated by the President of the United States and confirmed by the United States Senate.

Later, we will refer to the the United States Postmaster General, the Chief Executive Officer of the United States Postal Service, whose office, as the Post Office Department, is older than both the United States Constitution and the United States Declaration of Independence and whose office until 1971 was a cabinet post. In 1971, the Post Office Department was re-organized into the United States Postal Service, a special agency independent of the executive branch, and was stripped of its cabinet role and its all-important part of the succession chain for the office of the President of the United States.

In a previous posting I have written about the Allen affair, which followed the Petraeus affair, the scandal of General David Petraeus, the former boss, or Shogun, if you like, of General Allen, and involved, again, Ms. Kelley. In my musings I complained that the military failed to take the opportunity to discipline General Allen, for, what was without a doubt, inappropriate behavior by a four-star general.

Mr. Rajiv Chandrasekaran of the Washington Post has reported that General Allen’s supporters:

… have described the investigation as overblown, arguing that Kelley had sought to ingratiate herself with several generals who have served at the U.S. Central Command headquarters in Tampa and that Allen’s responses to her, which involved words such as “sweetheart,” reflected nothing more than friendship.

Nothing? I hardly think that a four-star general referring to a flirtatious military groupie as sweetheart amounts to nothing more than a platonic friendship. Moreover, regardless of terms, for a four-star general to allocate any amount of time to a groupie is simply unacceptable.

Ironically, I had expressed my hope that General Allen would would follow General Petraeus’ example and commit seppuku, and he did — sort of… Well, no he didn’t. It’s complicated, really.

Evidently General Allen quit his job, securing, of course, his considerable pension and — I guess — enough of his honor to ensure that he get a cushy consulting gig with one of the lobby firms or the many, many companies that does business with the military, citing his wife’s health problems (an auto-immune disorder, I think.)

In my view, General Allen should have committed public seppuku immediately upon learning about the Petraeus affair, since he should immediately have realized that he was bound to be caught up in the slipstream of his boss’ strange three-way with Ms. Kelly and Ms. Paula Broadwell. That would have been the honorable thing to do, would have saved the military the expenses related to the investigation and his subsequent pension, and, most importantly, would have sent a signal that this kind of behavior is inappropriate for a career military man.

Actually, had General Allen been a traditionalist, he would have committed oibara, the traditional act of committing suicide at the death of one’s master, immediately upon learning about General Petraeus’ act of seppuku, but even I think that this might have been to ask too much.

We will probably never know what went down between Ms. Kelley and General Allen, but if it is anything close to what it looks like, turning around and attempting to resign without taking blame for the disgrace that he has brought on himself, the military, and his family is a strange act, bordering on cowardice — something that should be inconsistent with an old-school warrior such as General Allen. Using the wife as a shield is downright disgraceful and, to me, severely disappointing, since I had hoped that General Allen would raise about it all, much the same way that the fictive General Jessep did when he furiously declared “You can’t handle the truth!” in A Few Good Men.

We will never know, I think, whether the Pentagon and General Allen entered into a great bargain, whereby the Pentagon exonerated General Allen in return for his subsequent — after an appropriate interval — resignation, but one could certainly be excused for thinking that would be the case. If it was, then this is completely unacceptable behavior by the Department of Defense and the military, wasting tax-payer money and failing to set an example that appears to be needed.

To me, the bottom line is that the fact that General Allen allowed himself to end up in a situation where he could be disgraced is enough that he ought to have been dishonorably discharged, and if I had any doubt about this point, then this doubt was removed when he served up his wife’s illness as a get-out-of-jail card. Shame on him. At least General Jessep, who committed an act that — in my view — was less dishonorable — had the grace to go down in flames, rather than hide behind his family circumstances.

By the way, I think it is about time that Congress or the Federal Bureau of Investigations investigate Ms. Kelley. Whereas, as far as I know, no United States four-star general of the United States armed forces have ever been killed by enemy fire, Ms. Kelley has managed to kill off two in a very short time-span. As a minimum, we ought to find out what other officers she has been ingratiating herself with and offer these officers an opportunity to commit seppuku.

Suicide by FedEx’s and United States Congress’ hands

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe United States Postal Service, handily aided by the United States Congress after extensive lobbying by FedEx and UPS, has now entered into the next stage of its slow, systematic suicide.

As I wrote about in a recent posting, the United States Postal Service, an essential service and a corner-stone of democracy in much the same way that voting stations, public schools, public services, and libraries are, have slowly, but surely been maneuvered into a position where it now finds itself on the brink of extinction.

In my posting I wrote:

The emphasis of the lobbying [by FedEx in particular] has been on (1) ensuring that the postal service appear unprofitable through legislative change, (2) shifting the highly profitable business from the postal service to FedEx, (3) collecting as much money as possible from the postal service:

  • A decade of legislative changes have laid the foundation for piecemeal privatization of the postal service — most notably the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006, requiring the postal service to prefund the health care benefits of future retirees — a burden not shared by government agencies or private enterprises, causing the postal service to swing to significant loss, including a $8.5 billion loss in 2010, and a $5.1 billion loss in 2011.
  • The postal service is required to use outsourced services for transportation, technology, and support, in spite of the fact that audits released by the United States Postal Service Office of the Inspector General has revealed that it would be more cost-effective for the postal service to perform these services itself. FedEx is the leading provider of such service to the postal service, collecting, for instance, $1.3 billion in year 2010.

CNN, which may be slow, but eventual will get there (unlike the early 90’ies where they could be relied on to get there first,) finally found it worthwhile to point this fact out, with Jennifer Liberto reporting that:

The key culprit for the Postal Service’s woes has been a 2006 congressional mandate requiring it to pre-fund healthcare benefits for future retirees. The USPS has been borrowing billions of dollars from taxpayers to make up for the shortfalls.

Unfortunately, the United States Postmaster General, Mr. Patrick Donahoe, has now fallen into the trap of responding to the lobby-driven congressional frenzy through cost savings — initially by stopping Saturday deliveries.

Although this approach may seem reasonable in much the same way that reducing social, firefighting, and police services would to an anarchist or sociopath, it will, of course, only accelerate the bleeding out as it will surrender the very important Saturday delivery market to FedEx and UPS, driving customers away, and further divert funds away from the United States Postal Service.

The real answer, of course, is to get rid of the pre-funding mandate — a measure that is uniquely imposed on the United States Postal Service; to start charging junk-mailers reasonable rates; and to stop working with FedEx and UPS, its direct competitors. The most meaningful measure, immediately swinging the United States Postal Service from red to black, would be the immediate reversal of the pre-funding mandate, but that, unfortunately, would require politicians to stand up to the avalanche of lobby money — something that just ain’t going to happen.

So, the United States Postal Service does what it has to do, slowly draining its top line in order to reduce its bottom line. And, so, the postal creed, inscribed on the wall of the James Farley Post Office in New York City, will soon need to change to:

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds — but lobbyists and United States Congress will

Of course, this annoyingly truthful inscription will only be temporary. Soon the illustrious James Farley Post Office, two full city blocks of eight acres of prime real estate in western Midtown Manhattan, will be named the Trump Pavilion, when Donald Trump and his daughter “saves” the historic building the same way they are saving the Old Post Office Pavilion in Washington, D.C., also prime real estate, by turning it into a hotel.

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In the 11th hour — connecting the Great War and modern virology research

Today is November 11th, also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, or Armistice Day. On this day in history, 94 years ago, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I — also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars — ended.

The Great War, which resulted in a staggering nine million soldiers dead and 21 million soldiers wounded, ended, as it started, with a stroke of a pen. It ended with Germany’s signature being placed on an armistice document in a railroad care outside Compiégne in France, and, although triggered in the summer of 1914 as reaction to an assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia, it really started with the sign-off by the German General Staff on the Schlieffen Plan in 1905.

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

The Schlieffen Plan — Failed assumptions

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, French territories for almost 200 years, it was clear to Germany that relations with France would be problematic and that war with France was likely.

When relations between France and Russia strengthened after Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, a decisively aggressive person with a clear agenda to raise Germany’s status to that of a world power, became German Emperor and King of Prussia in 1988, Germany had to face the political and military reality that the expected war with France would involve a war with Russia as well, leading to the dreaded two-front war scenario.

After Britain and France in 1904 entered into the Entente Cordiale, a normalization of the relations between the two countries, the military reality for Germany was quite clear, and Emperor Wilhelm asked Count Alfred von Schlieffen to devise a plan which would allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts. The plan was drafted throughout the year 1905 and would be revised numerous time, including a most significant revision by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Count Schlieffen’s retirement from the German General Staff.

The basic idea behind the plan, an annihilation of the French army first, followed by a shift of operations to Russia, second, rested on two key assumptions: (1) that the French and their Western Allies would be a lesser threat that Russia; and (2) that Russia’s mobilization would be sufficiently slow, at least six weeks, and that the Russian threat could be contained by Austria-Hungary until such time that the German army could shift its focus from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. As such the plan called for 91% of German troops to be allocated to the Western Front, and expected that France would capitulate in 42 days after which the highly capable German army, which was of such high quality relative to the Russian army that it did, in fact, make mince-meat of a numerically superior Russian field-army in the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, would shift its concentration of forces to the Eastern Front and decisively beat the Russian army.

As it were, both assumptions were false. The French army, supplemented by the elite British Expeditionary Force — consisting of battle-hardened veterans who had learned a lot about trench warfare, the effect of massed defensive rifle fire applied by highly trained marksmen on an opposing force, mobile warfare, and asymmetrical warfare during the Boer war — would be no push-over, and Russia mobilized in record-time and quickly made gains on the Eastern Front, effectively threatening Berlin from the outset of the war. The rest, as they say, is history.

The BEF — Harbinger of things to come

From a military historic standpoint, the very first run-in with the British Expeditionary Force, starting August 21st, 1914, is notable in that it gave the German army its first indications that this war would be different than any conflict before then, with the British army assuming lightly dug in positions at Mons in Belgium and pouring high volume of precise rifle fire on German soldiers who, in perfect accordance with a hundred years of tactical doctrine, attacked en masse over terrain devoid of cover in something that amounted to parade ground formation.

The riflemen that were members of the British Expeditionary Force, an entirely professional force consisting of long-service volunteers, equipped with the excellent .303 Lee Enfield bolt rifle fitted with an easily loaded ten-round magazine, were trained to pour out fifteen rounds a minute, hitting a man-size target at 300 yards, and were capable of putting down effective fire out to a range of 1,000 yards. And at Mons they did just that, pouring such volume of fire on the advancing German line that German intelligence concluded that each battalion of British infantry was equipped with 28 machine guns, when, in reality, primarily out of cost considerations, each battalion was allocated only two machine guns.

The object lesson about the significance of prepared positions and massed fire that would be taught by the British at Mons would eventually be accepted as de rigueur by all combatants in the early and middle stages of the Great War. However, in 1914 the German army, which had learned its latest and most significant lesson of modern warfare in 1866 in Saxony and Bohemia, a full 30 years before the British learned their latest and most significant lesson in South Africa, was assuming that the most important factors for winning wars were not training in fire disciplines, application of modern firepower, defensive protective positions, or attrition, but, rather, speed of mobilization and speed of concentration.

In the Western theater, the Schlieffen Plan called for rapid double envelopment, executed through a gigantic right hook. This double envelopment, inspired by execution of the Carthagian army under Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C. against a superior Roman force, avoided a frontal assault on the bulk of the Allied’s forces, instead using a flanking maneuver to get on the sides and the rear of the armies, with the farthest right side of the hook reaching all the way to the English channel and down through the South of France.

The British army, consisting of 75,000, or so, men and being outfitted as an expeditionary force, was deliberately placed in a guarding role on the left flank of the allied defensive line, an area thought to be non-critical, primarily because it was considered to be a weak force unable to stem the full brunt of the German onslaught. In reality, with the German army attempting to exercise the right-hook double enveloping maneuver, reaching the English Channel before swiping back into Southern France, under Paris, the left flank became the most critical part of the early part of the war, and, ironically, it would be the British army’s superior application of firepower combined with the Belgian army’s spirited static defense that weakened the right-hook sufficiently to cause the German army to ultimately abandon the double envelopment part of the Schlieffen Plan and, instead, swing east towards Paris.

This break allowed the French and British armies to mobilize and concentrate their troops in one critical battle along the Marne River, the First Battle of the Marne, in which the German army would be forced to first retreat 40 miles in order to avoid encirclement and destruction, and, then, to dig in and engage in a war of attrition, which it could not possibly win with the Russian army engaging it on its Eastern front.

Wrapping up the Great war

Technically, what went into effect on 11th hour of November 11th, November 1918 was a ceasefire, which was agreed to at 5:20 in the morning, and the two sides was still at war until Germany entered into the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919.

Coincidently, the last allied soldier to be recognized as having been killed in the Great War, was an American, Henry Gunther, who was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while bayonet-charging astonished German troops who, like Mr. Gunther, were aware the Armistice was nearly upon them. The last reported German casualty occurred after the armistice was in force, when a German lieutenant went forward to inform approaching American soldiers that he and his men would be vacating houses that they had been using as billets, and was shot dead by the American soldiers, who had not been told about the ceasefire.

Thomas Edward Lawrence

From the Great War to Sir Sykes to the Spanish Flu and to Sir Sykes again

I was reminded of the Great War not just because of today’s date, but also because I yesterday watched the remastered version of Lawrence of Arabia, a master-piece of movie-making and the crowning achievement by director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel.

The movie deals with the Arab Revolt and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the Great War (mostly a campaign against the Ottoman empire, an ally of Germany) — in particular the decisive attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and the involvement of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, the eponymous Lawrence of Arabia, in the Arab National Council.

Sir Mark Sykes

The connection I made was rather subtle, and came about when I reflected on the early deliberations by the British, French, and Russian of how key parts of the Arab peninsula would be divided into spheres of influences and control among themselves after the cessation of hostilities, ultimately manifesting itself as the establishment of the secret Asia Minor Agreement in 1916.

On the British side, the agreement, also known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement, was master-minded and negotiated by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, a character every bit as remarkable as his contemporary T. E. Lawrence, and the sort of person that only the British Empire’s Foreign Office — a remarkably efficient organization — and hundreds of years of nobility could create.

Sir Sykes would die in 1919 while in Paris in connection with the peace negotiations, a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which, in a severe twist of fate, would enable a remarkable connection through to modern history.

The Spanish Flu — not so Spanish after all

Today, the Spanish Flu is little thought of by most of us, but it cannot be underestimated. This remarkable influenza pandemic — spreading across the globe from January 1918 through 1920 — killed a conservatively estimated 20 million to 50 million people and possibly as many as 100 million people, amounting to up to 3% or 6% of the world’s population, thereby easily dwarfing the killing efficiency of the armed forces during the Great War. To understand the spread of this pandemic, consider that an estimated 500 million people, a full third of the world’s population in 1918, were infected at some point or another during the pandemic and the only recorded instance of a major region in the world that did not report an outbreak was the island of Marajo in Brazil’s Amazon River Delta.

Spanish_flu_death_chartAlthough it has been difficult to determine an epicenter for the Spanish Flu there is broad agreement that the pandemic was linked to the incredibly increase in global interconnectivity that the Great War prompted and was directly related to the exceptional high concentration of multi-ethnic groups in relatively small areas. In fact, one theory by a British virologist team from the reputable St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Royal London Hospital almost certainly identified a major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples in France as the center of the pandemic, while some historian has identified Fort Riley in Kansas, a major mobilization and training center for the United States army, as the epicenter. In a sense, the Spanish Flu may have been the very earliest and one of the most lethal unintended consequences of globalization.

So, the Spanish flu did not, in fact, originate in Spain. In fact, the name came about because of aggressive censorship during the Great War. Whereas wartime censorship by the belligerent nations successfully managed to initially minimize or suppress information about the scope and lethality of the illness in their home territories, papers were free to report on the effect of the pandemic in Spain, a neutral country, and, therefore, the initial impression was that Spain was particularly hard hit and that Spain was the epicenter of the outbreak. Somehow, through almost a century, the name has stuck, although, of course, a more correct name is 1918 Flu Pandemic.

It is difficult to wrap ours head around how fast moving and lethal the pandemic was, but we can try…. Overall, the disease killed approximately 20% of those infected, as opposed to the usual flu epidemic mortality rate of 0.1%. For the United States, for instance, the death count exceeded 500,000 over a period of approximately two years, which, of course, is an enormous number of fatalities incurred at an enormous speed (as a reference point, this number is on par with the total number of United States fatalities attributed to all warfare by the United States through the 20th century — a period of 100 year) and caused the population count to become negative in 1918 — the only time when this has happened in the 20th century. Moreover, if we population adjust the fatality count, the fatalities would in year 2000 have numbered between 1.5 million and 2 million, approximately the population of Alaska, Delaware, and the District of Columbia — combined.

However hard and fast the United States was hit, it pales next to Tahiti where 14% of the population died in only two months and Samoa where 20% of the population died a similar period.

Sir Sykes’ Coffin

Because of the exceptional lethality of the Spanish Flu and a very real concern that influenza strains can be cyclic, there is an ongoing medical investigation of the pandemic, frequently involving exhumation of its victims. And, so, Sir Sykes would in 2008, again, be expected to play a significant role in human history, when, 88 years after his death, his body was exhumed. Sir Sykes remains were of particular interest because it was known that he had buried in a lead-lined coffin, and it was thought that this lead-lining might have served to preserve Spanish Flu viral particles, which could be critical for the development of a defense against similar future pandemic (if this seems like a far-fetched possibility, consider that the Spanish Flu became a human infection through a mutation from the now infamous H1N1 avian virus.)

Since there are only five extant samples of the Spanish Flu virus in the world, Mr. Sykes was poised to return to fame. Unfortunately, however, Sir Sykes’ coffin was found to have collapsed from the weight of the soil over it, and, although samples were taken, the exhumation did not yield the results hoped for.

Memorial and Reflections

So, tonight, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2012, I will be lighting a candle in memory of not only the millions of soldiers who died in an around the trenches of the Great War, but also for the many more who died from the Spanish flu, for T. E. Lawrence and for Sir Sykes. In doing so, I will reflect on war, pandemics, globalization, and the unique and disproportionate roles that singularly minded individuals have played throughout history.

As a motorcycle rider, I will also reflect on T. E. Lawrence’s rather silly death in a motorcycle accident in 1935 in the English country side, seemingly an unsuited end for someone who had traveled the world and avoided certain death on several occasions.


dot.SUB — The smallest things are often the hardest

Socrates

I am on a quest to question most things I know. Since I am not Socrates this is probably an insurmountable task, but that does not stop me from trying.

I am interested in continued learning and have realized that a key component in mastering this discipline is to be willing and able to alter the small, fundamental assumptions and ideas that have been around so long in the rattlebox that I call my brain that there is a very real risk that they are getting to be ingrained and are impacting upon other assumptions and ideas, effectively reducing my ability to make objective and sensible decisions.

As an oncologist would perhaps put it, it is neccesary to surgically remove the tumor before it metastasizes.

One such ingrained small, fundamental assumption is that the creation of subtitles and transcript, i.e. the act of subtitling — if that is indeed a word, is easy. Over the years, I have found myself growing increasingly irritated over the timing and precision of subtitles and transcripts — mostly based on the assumption that transcription and subtitling is easy.

I am sure you see where this is going….

To see how hard transcription and subtitling really is, I went to dot.SUB, an online translation, subtitling, and transcription service that is crowd-based, and transcribed a video using the tools provided.

To make it easy for myself I picked a fictional TED speech by the, equally, fictional Peter Weyland, which is characterized by (1) being short (3 minutes and 9 seconds,) (2) being a monologue, (3) being given by Guy Pierce (in a quasi-American accent) with excellent enunciation (no Mike Jagger here,) and (4) being reasonable accessible from a grammar and vocabulary standpoint.

In other words, I cheated — tilting the complexity of the experiment in my favor.

Guess what? It was incredibly hard. First I found that the actual transcription, i.e. the capture of the words spoken, was very hard, since I had no experience being dictated to. But that was nothing compared to the exercise of getting the timing right when I had to break the transcription into segments. Oh Boy! A second here or a second there makes all the difference in the world for subtitling and determines almost entirely whether or not a video is enjoyable.

I also learned that even if you tune out on the subtitles your subconsciousness will pick up on the timing being off or a word incorrectly transcribed, and weirdly such subconscious error-handling will detract from the overall enjoyment of the video.

So, in summary, mission accomplished… Any assumption that I have had about the creation of subtitles and transcript being easy has been obliterated. This is, in fact, very hard stuff. If you doubt me, try it… dot.SUB is waiting for you. I dare you!

Before I move on to the next thing… Here is the final transcribed video (courtesy of I don’t really know who, probably Ridley Scott, the director, 20th Century Fox, or TED, I am not sure) by way of YouTube (don’t forget to turn on closed caption by hitting the red CC button and choosing dotsub captions:)

Once you have watched the movie, enjoying, no doubt, my handy-work, you should play it again, activating YouTube’s automatic closed caption feature by hitting the red CC button and choosing automatic captions. That is good for a laugh every time (look for Disney to be introduced at 1:04, and the statement that “sales are nothing short of greatness” at 2:33)

Here is the complete transcript:

Subtitles courtesy of Per Jacobsen

T.E. Lawrence, eponymously of Arabia, but very much an Englishman, favored pinching a burning match between his fingers to put it out.

When asked by his colleague, William Potter, to reveal his trick, how is it he so effectively extinguished the flame without hurting himself whatsoever, Lawrence just smiled and said, ‘The trick, Potter, is not minding it hurts.’

The fire that danced at the end of that match was a gift from the Titan, Prometheus, a gift that he stole from the gods. When Prometheus was caught and brought to justice for his theft, the gods, well, you might say they overreacted a little. The poor man was tied to a rock as an eagle ripped through his belly and ate his liver over and over, day after day, ad infinitum. All because he gave us fire, our first true piece of technology.

Fire. 100,000 BC: Stone tools. 4,000 BC: The wheel. 9th century AD: Gunpowder. Bit of a game-changer, that one. 19th century: Eureka! The light bulb! 20th century: The automobile, television, nuclear weapons, space craft, Internet. 21st century: Bio-tech, nano-tech, fusion and fission and M-theory — and that was just the first decade.

We are now three months into the year of Our Lord, 2023. At this moment in our civilization, we can create cybernetic individuals who, in just a few short years, will be completely indistinguishable from us.

Which leads to an obvious conclusion: We are the gods now.

For those of you who know me, you will be aware by now that my ambition is unlimited. You know that I will settle for nothing short of greatness, or I will die trying.

For those of you who do not yet know me, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Peter Weyland. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to change the world.

Are you up for the challenge? If you decide to try out subtitling, I would like to hear from you. Also, if you have gone through the process of having to complete reset your expectation, unsettling years of ideas or assumptions, I would like to hear from you.

Feed the starving transcriber

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And Now for Something Lighter — Nah, not really

I have received some comments — ex channels — proposing, I think, that a more Hemingway-like approach to writing could be applied to my blog.

The answer, of course, is NO!  While writing in short, declarative sentences worked well for Hemingway, works well in popular fiction, is required in movie dialog, and clearly is the de rigueur in blogs whose length are capped at 200, or so, words, I think it drags blogs into a sphere of ignorance the same way on-line “news” sources such as Yahoo is being dragged into a sphere of irrelevance through its application of mindless top-ten lists with sensational headings  — something that I will write about in another posting.

Hemingway – shotgun style writing

Just to clarify, my view is that although short declarative sentences, à la Ernest Hemmingway’s shotgun style of writing, have a sharp and caustic quality, they tend to drive unsubstantiated monologue, rather than promoting reflexion and dialogue.  Let me make the difference clear by answering the question of why the chicken crossed the road as Hemingway:

Me: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Ernest Hemingway: “To die. Alone. In the rain.”

Funny? Yes, in a sardonic way.  Substantiated?  No.  Inviting and making you stretch yourself?  No.

Let’s try it with Niccolò Machiavelli:

Me: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Niccolò Machiavelli: “So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue?”

Not as funny, sure, but far more interesting, I think.

My personal preference is to blend Machiavelli’s reflections with Hemingway’s dark humor and just a touch of Hemingway’s staccato — along the lines of Jacques Derrida’s deconstruction.

Me: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Jacques Derrida: “Any number of contending discourses may be discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD!”

Since I am conducting this grand blogging exercise with a certain amount of transparency, sharing my somewhat experimental approach with the reader at almost each and every turn, I did take the time to update my About section to — briefly, I hope — explain why you should not expect short, declarative sentences to be the communication form of this blog.

Warning — Profanity filled rant zone ahead

For reasons that are not totally clear to me, the style comments that I received made me think of movie rants.  Actually, let me correct that…  I suspect that the connection is that I see movie or TV dialog is a steady buffet of short, declarative sentences, and I think that a consistent feeding of this buffet over 75 years or so has resulted in a dumbing-down of all form of literature, with short, declarative sentence usage leaking into fiction, non-fiction, news, synthesis, and analysis.

Movie rants interests me because I find them funny and because they ought to be able to violate what I will call the declarative sentence paradigm of scripts, but, as a rule, I think, do not.  To lighten up the overall mood of this blog, let’s look at some rants (while trying to avoid falling into the trap of creating yet another mindless top-ten list.)

By the way… language and views that may be considered offensive are part of parcel of a good rant, so, if you are up-tight about the use of curse-words or the airing of views that conflict with your own, please stop reading right… now….

A Sales Rant and an Interview Rant

Sales Rant

First, here is a relatively short rant related to high pressure sales — always good for a laugh — mixing profanity, hypothetical questions, and insults with good, old-fashioned chest-thumping by a alpha-male:

“You see this watch? You see this watch? . . .

That watch costs more than your car.  I made $970,000 last year.  How much you make?  You see pal, that’s who I am, and you’re nothing.

Nice guy?  I don’t give a shit.  Good father?  Fuck you!  Go home and play with your kids.

You wanna work here, close.  You think this is  abuse?  You think this is abuse, you cocksucker?  You can’t take this, how can you  take the abuse you get on a sit?  You don’t like it, leave.”

I am cheating a little bit here, breaking the rant into smaller paragraphs to increase readability, but you get the point.

You will note that although the rhythm of this rants makes us feel like this is quite a mouthful, it really is just a series of short declarative sentences, strung together and continuously accelerating.  In fact, the length and cadence of a rant can deceive us into thinking that it consists of complex and deep thoughts, when, in fact, it is simply the rapid-fire application of short, declarative sentences, with an occasional hypothetical thrown in.  Consider, for instance, this — very, very long — interview rant about holding out for a job that is just a little bit more meaningful:

“Why shouldn’t I work for the NSA? That’s a tough one, but I’ll give it a shot.

Say I’m working at NSA. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. So I take a shot at it and maybe I break it.

And I’m real happy with myself because I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and 1,500 people I never had a problem with get killed.

Now the politicians are saying, ‘Send in the marines to secure the area’ because they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, getting shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number was called because they were pulling a tour in the National Guard.

It’ll be some guy from Southie taking shrapnel in the ass. And he comes home to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, because he’ll work for 15 cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile my buddy from Southie realizes the only reason he was over there was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price.

And of course the oil companies used the skirmish to scare up oil prices so they could turn a quick buck. A cute little ancillary benefit for them but it ain’t helping my buddy at 250 a gallon.

And naturally they’re taking their sweet time bringing the oil back and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long until he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic.

So my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the job interviews, which sucks because the shrapnel in his ass is giving him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starving because every time he tries to get a bite to eat the only blue plate special they’re serving is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State.

So what do I think? I’m holding out for something better. Why not just shoot my buddy, take his job and give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.”

Long, eh? Funny? Yes. Carrying a message? You bet. Open to a discourse? Nope.

“Don’t Push Me, ‘Cause I’m Close to the Edge” Rants

The above interview rant is calm in its rage, and that, of course, can be scary, but sometimes you just feel pure rage, and calmly laying out the facts simply does not cut it.  How about, for instance, the frustrations and associated rage that we feel when we encounter bureaucracies — such as car rental companies — attempting to steal our precious time:

“You can start by wiping that fucking dumb-ass smile off your rosey, fucking, cheeks! Then you can give me a fucking automobile: a fucking Datsun, a fucking Toyota, a fucking Mustang, a fucking Buick! Four fucking wheels and a seat! . . .

And I really don’t care for the way your company left me in the middle of fucking nowhere with fucking keys to a fucking car that isn’t fucking there. And I really didn’t care to fucking walk down a fucking highway and across a fucking runway to get back here to have you smile at my fucking face.

I want a fucking car RIGHT FUCKING NOW!”

Now that is scary.   Let’s see this done in a much shorter form:

“Listen, you fuckers, you screwheads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. A man who stood up against the scum, the cunts, the dogs, the filth, the shit. Here is a man who stood up.”

Pure Hemingway!  Funny? No, not really.  Scary?  Yes.  Entertaining and carrying a message? Yep.

A More Cerebral Rant

That’s about it, but since I don’t want to end on a note of despair, let’s look at a rant that breaks the rules that seems to be governing rants, having at its center-piece a sentence with complexity and the implicit requirement for a broad understanding of historical and global context.  Don’t be deceived by the opening sentences… they are intended to lull you into a false sense of security.

“Holly, I’d like to cut you in, old man. There’s nobody left in Vienna I can really trust, and we’ve always done everything together. When you make up your mind, send me a message – I’ll meet you any place, any time, and when we do meet old man, it’s you I want to see, not the police.

Remember that, won’t ya?  Don’t be so gloomy.  After all it’s not that awful.  You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”

Clearly, it can be done. There is still hope for us all.


Two Movies — Two realities

I saw two somewhat unusual movies over the last week: Romantics Anonymous, a French/Belgian flick about.. well… romance in a chocolate factory setting, and Pillars of the Earth, a (long) TV mini series about the building of a cathedral in the middle ages at the time of the Anarchy – based on a Ken Follett novel.

The subject of cathedral building in the middle ages has interested me for a while, so that explains why I picked up the DVD – in spite of generally thinking of Ken Follet as a bit of a hack, and Romantic Anonymous was chosen as part of an ongoing quest to become more familiar with the increasing amount of strong quality French language movies that are being produced today.

Overall both movies were entertaining, but what was remarkable to me is how they both broke the mold for screenwriting in a similar manner.

They both violated the scene setup rules (which is not, I think, a surprise for the TV mini series, but a bit of a surprise for the French flick, which has a normal motion picture running time.)   Moreover, by motion pictures standards they were relatively inexpensive productions, but the sacrifices and trade-offs inherent in not expending $100 million on a production, which does, of course, show in the final product, did not take away from the stories.

The saint and the devil

The Saint and the Devil – © 2012 Copyright Keith Evans and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License

More interesting, however, is how the TV miniseries, by virtue of focusing on the construction of the cathedral, is virtually void of good, honest, decent people… All the main characters are severely flawed, ranging from the psychotic killer, who hates for the sake of hating, to the dreaming builder, who is willing to do anything, including dismissing his adopted child, so as to maximize the chance of being able to continue building the cathedral.  So everyone is flawed and mostly as a result of ambition or – oddly – the desire to do good.

In contrast, in Romantics Anonymous there are no bad characters.  In fact, there is no instance of a bad action taken by any character at any time.   No one speaks badly about anyone, nobody schemes, and – generally – everyone is just nice.   Moreover, there is no death and no maiming of animal, for instance, and – believe it or not – no cursing.   When I reflected on this fact I struggled to remember another movie where this was the case (even Local Hero, the de-facto go-to feel-good movie, has scheming and plotting.)

The juxtaposition of these two movies really started me thinking.   Both breaks the mold (as you may know, the rules for acceptable character mix in movies are quite rigid)  and one does so by making everyone flawed, while the other one does so by making everyone more or less flawless.   I suspect that there is a learning lesson here about rule-breaking and succeeding in business.

On a side-note, the constant scheming in the Pillars of the Earth, resonates with a belief that I have that good people, for reasons to do with the perception of anonymity, sometimes — or often, as it may be — do really bad things, and that large enterprises are frequently hampered solely by internal struggles.