Happy New Year

Today marks the beginning of something amazing. I saw out 2010 in my living room at home, surrounded by my family and our close friends. There was champagne, lots of amazing food, and an air horn. It was fun, but it was mostly joyous as it marked the end of something else. Something that was horrific at times. Something that was (on occasion) lonely, painful, and somewhat miserable.

If I’m honest, 2010 was not a good year for me. Admittedly, a lot of good things happened, but I also let things get the better of me a lot of the time. The reasons behind this are irrelevant. I didn’t have a good year because like many people, I wallowed. I finished up with formal education (for now, at least) and expected the world to hand me a decent career and equally decent prospects, just like that. Why? I don’t know why. Maybe it was something to do with higher education’s repetitious but deserved routine of constant gratification. That’s just a shot in the dark; don’t read into it. However, expecting anything at all was my fatal mistake. It’s a mistake I wish no one to make in 2011.

A common term I hear bandied about is that if we’re down on our luck, we’re “owed something”. Whatever your religious or spiritual affiliation, we all have a tendency to mope when times are rough. To assert that we’re “owed something” is something quite special, however. What are we owed? All of our hopes and dreams coming true? Who owes it to us? Karma? Luck? Jesus? The FTSE 100 index? Also, why are we owed? What have we done to appease the powers that be, to warrant any reciprocation? A line from Fight Club, one of my favourite reads, comes to mind: “You are not the all singing, all dancing crap of the world.”

Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but the sentiment behind it is interesting. The world is so much bigger than any of us can anticipate. Our actions are so minuscule, and our problems so tiny, that in the grand scheme of things they appear almost insignificant. If anything, this places us all at an advantage. It is only when we know our station that we can work to improve it. If we really are this ‘small’, then perhaps that’s an indication that we need to work that much harder to get what we really want out of 2011, or of anything, instead of waiting for something positive to rush by and hit us in the face. For me, at least, this was a much needed kick up the proverbial.

I don’t wish to drag you away from your New Year’s Day any longer, but I hope that I have imparted something useful to you all today. Don’t waste 2011 by sitting around, waiting for something good to happen. We’re each wonderful, amazing people in our own way, and we all have the potential to make this the year when you get a job, find that special someone, buy that house/car/ring, start a family, or just learn to be happy. I promise you, 2011 will be a great year, because we have the power to make it so. Smile, take a deep breath, and just go for it. This time, we’re going to win.


Cartoon Characters on Facebook

Hello. I’m one of those annoying types who recently changed their profile picture on Facebook to quite a dashing image of Disney’s Robin Hood, in aid of the NSPCC. In the past few days, I’ve been called many things for participating in such a ‘campaign’. ‘Slacktivist’ was probably the most hurtful.

This has been 'me' for the past few days.

All around Facebook, fiery conversations have been popping up constantly, about how social media has made us apathetic about making a real change, and about how people laud over others that they’re being noble, when actually they’re doing nothing more than changing their profile picture to something nostalgic and cool. The word ‘bandwagon’ has been bandied around like nobody’s business. Still, I don’t think anyone should be criticised for participating. I want to stress that there’s a difference between doing something, and doing absolutely nothing.

These people who have changed their profile pictures have all actively done something, and made the first baby steps towards making a change. Whether this change is making a donation to the NSPCC, spreading awareness, or just cheering up their friends, there is definitely some weight behind this movement. I mean, without trying to garner too much hate towards those who simply enjoyed the exercise for its pretty pictures and memories of childhood yore, I thought the whole thing was a lot of fun. From Pinky and the Brain to Captain Planet, these profile pictures have been a much welcomed return to my youth. I’m a big kid at heart, which is probably why I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this, but I’m sure it made a lot of other people happy, too.

I’m no advertising expert, but everything I’ve learnt to date has pointed towards one thing. The key to successful communications is making people happy. While the NSPCC themselves have tweeted that they didn’t actually start the campaign all the profile pictures across the globe are sparking thoughts of children in need. On a base level, this is raising awareness of the cause, and the NSPCC’s public profile to a great degree, in a way that no amount of paid advertisements could buy. This campaign reeked of ‘grass roots’ in a way that captured the public’s hearts. It was cool. It was so cool. It was unlike any other charity campaign I’ve seen for a long time, and because of this, people loved, adopted, and nurtured it.

While all may not act any further than changing their profile picture, they must not be blamed for this. Marketing types can tell you that ‘share of mind’ on its own is a very valuable commodity. Even though the NSPCC had nothing to do with this, I’m sure they’re still grateful for the support. However, instead of moaning that no one really cares, and the world sucks, I think it’s best to take a different approach. Urge people to follow through on their virtual pledges, and donate even a small sum towards the NSPCC, or any organisation that supports children. I’m sure there are many people who have already done so, but we shouldn’t criticise people for not monetarily supporting the cause. These are people who wouldn’t have given issues such as child abuse a second thought last week. If they were able to be persuaded to change their prized profile picture on Facebook, I’m sure they can also be persuaded into putting one or two pounds towards a tremendously worthy cause.

Instead of complaining that this campaign doesn’t work, it’s up to us to make this work. This is a true grass-roots movement. Unlike other ‘professional’ campaigns, it lacks the impetus to put good wishes and a willingness to support a cause into action. Next time you log on to Facebook or Twitter, why not post a link to the NSPCC’s donations page? Why not share a relevant article relating to child abuse prevention, or child welfare? Failing that, why not just show your friends that you’re backing the campaign, with or without your wallet, and provide the positive reinforcement it takes to change minds, and change the world. We started this, and it is up to us to finish this. Today is supposedly the ‘deadline’ for the campaign, so let’s make it count, for the thousands of children around the world who are affected by child abuse daily.

Demo 2010: A mostly peaceful student protest.

Having just returned from today’s demonstration in London, I’m shocked but not quite surprised at the media coverage of the event, which is primarily focused on the violence that took place at Millbank Tower.

From what I saw, the march was a peaceful one. Arriving a little after the scheduled 11:30 meeting time, I was met by a huge throng of students stretching in all directions along Horse Guards Avenue. After a little help from some stewards, who pointed me towards the students who had come on the behalf of my former university, we stood around chatting, waving flags, and occasionally chanting slogans.

We eventually set off towards Parliament, moving slowly, but hollering our slogans passionately. As we passed Parliament, I saw that some students had decided to turn the march into a sit-down, which was nothing out of the ordinary. We then passed Millbank Tower, where a large group of students had gathered, with some protesters entreating us to stand, in solidarity, outside Conservative HQ. This was before anything got out of hand, and before any windows were broken, but ushers were still trying to get people to continue on with their marching.

After a while, we came to a halt in front of a large screen erected in front of the Tate Britain. On it, we saw a projection of NUS head honcho, Aaron Porter, shouting about something I was sadly too far from the screen to hear. From there, my small band of protesters I’d been marching with made attempts to double-back on ourselves. However, some were slightly scared by the raucous crowd circulating in the general area surrounding Millbank Tower. As a result, we decided to hang back for a short while, purchase some lunch, and then return to Horse Guards Avenue in greater numbers, joined with others from the same Students’ Union.

In a nutshell, that’s what happened, at least to us. A recurring thought amongst my peers was that there was no sense of elation when we reached the end of the march. The crowd petered out, with some protesters going home, and others going to board coaches to transport them back from whence they came. It wasn’t unsatisfying, it was just a little empty. So many Unions from across the country worked tremendously hard, along with the NUS and UCU, to coordinate today’s protest, and for what?

There are blogs emerging that advocate necessary action as opposed to “a dour rally like a ticker tape parade for the homecoming queen”, justifying what happened by claiming that some riotous response was to be expected. In my personal opinion, however, what took place was a bit rash.

While it is in the interest of students to draw attention, and perhaps make attempts in illustrating their ire towards the proposed fee increases, I don’t think that smashing bricks through car windows, and drawing on walls is the right way to garner such positive attention to our cause, and to bring about change. Believe me, I’m as angry as most about the proposed increases, and Nick Clegg’s colossal U-turn on his policy to abolish fees, but I think what happened today went a considerable way to undermining what thousands of well-wishing students set out to achieve.

Before you light your torches and get angry, let me explain myself. Most of those (at least in the blogs I’ve read) who claim that what happened at Millbank Tower was a just response, also claim that action on this scale was essential to possibly highlight students as a ‘force to be reckoned with’, who will accept nothing other than a complete reversal on economic policy, and the elimination of these preposterous fee increases. While it is necessary to make a bold statement, with something perhaps greater than a march, there are still a few universal truths we need to remind ourselves of. No matter how much we desecrate his party’s base, David Cameron will still be our Prime Minister at the end of the day. Nick Clegg will also remain our deputy PM, and will be sure to still behave as any other politician would do so in his situation. This is a sad state of affairs, at least on the behalf of students. Still, cry as we might, we are restricted within the confines of a system these men control. Rather than rebelling against it in the extreme, my suggestion is that we play ball.

Today’s march was meant to be an exercise in unity; a stand in solidarity to show that we, as students, can stand together, and be angry about spending cuts, and fee increases. However, by staging something like Millbank Tower, all we’re doing is showing the general public (who far outnumber us) that we’re a bunch of hoodlums who can’t follow basic instructions and simple marching etiquette. At the end of the day, it’s their money that will go some way, whatever happens, towards subsidising our degrees. I’d argue that it’s in our best interests to show that as a nation of students, we’re deserving of such subsidies, and ideally, towards a free education. If we had the general public on our side, the government would really be soiling themselves, as today was a chance to make people more powerful than any of us sympathetic to our cause. Sadly, that’s not what happened.

Imagine what the news reports would have been like if this would have remained a purely peaceful protest. Like, if any news outlets didn’t have any violent tales to spin out of proportion. I think I’ve made my point already, but please, do ponder this before you go to sleep tonight. What would tomorrow’s headlines have been if Millbank Tower had never happened, and what effect would this have had in rallying positive attention towards our cause? Riddle me that.

PETA’s 2010 ‘State of the Union Undress’ – A Strip Too Far?

I’ve always respected PETA for their work towards promoting animal welfare, and exposing the cruelty behind the meat and dairy industries. I am, however, currently reassessing my views, due to their most recent campaign to drum up support, based around a parody of America’s annual ‘State of the Union Address’.

Their ‘State of the Union Undress’ (WARNING: VERY NSFW) is a feature that’s existed for a few years, now. It is essentially a collection of videos which all involve a model standing in front of an American flag, in their underwear, talking about PETA’s work. PETA have always been provocative in their advertisements (something a quick Google Images search will reveal) but this really takes the cake. Interspersed with shots of a legitimate Congressional audience, to give the impression of a genuine Union address, each model takes it in turn to talk about PETA’s brilliant work, and how it’s essential to keep supporting them, whilst taking off their underwear.

You read that correctly. While these ‘spokespeople’ elucidate the need to keep supporting PETA through these ‘tough economic times’, they’re stripping down to their bare bottoms. The faux-Congressional audience claps and cheers, while the models make horrible puns about Americans needing to ‘stand to attention’, and what-not, and the resulting debacle is all kinds of horrible. I am, of course, speaking as a vegan with an active interest in feminism, but the ‘State of the Union Undress’ campaign makes me, dare I say, ashamed to be vegan.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that PETA are hoping, as I’m sure they have done with previous ‘State of the Union Undresses’, to create huge amounts of publicity and PR spin. I’m sure that this will happen, and they’ll be featured on all types of websites, and in all kinds of publications. It doesn’t matter that the majority of these will likely be men’s magazines and adult websites, as long as they’re getting the word out, right? Yes, people are going to take notice, but will the people PETA are trying to appeal to, who will appreciate such a calamitous publicity campaign, really be the people who will actually be likely to give a damn about animal rights, and issues of animal welfare? I worry for whoever is managing PETA’s marketing functions, who I’m sure is one of those docile souls who believes that anyone can be won over to any cause, as long as you grab their attention. The men (and possibly women) who lap this up won’t give a damn about changing their diet, just as any responsible types who PETA should actively be trying to appeal to will just shake their heads, along with the rest of us, and move on.

It really bothers me that PETA have frittered away what little credibility they had by making women expose themselves senselessly, in the name of ‘animal welfare’. No, scratch that. If they got these models to stand on a soapbox outside their local McDonalds and KFC stores, and asked them to shout, whilst fully clothed, about how animals are slaughtered for fast food consumption, that would be in the name of animal welfare. That would at least be an attempt at something that resembles trying to making a change. Instead, these women are on our computer screens, stripping for the benefit of what is probably a load of serial masturbators, trying to make them care about what they had for dinner, and what they’ll have for dinner tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, by appearing to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Well done, PETA, for what I’d probably commend as being the most ironic advertising campaign of the year. In a poor attempt to gain some publicity, you’ve successfully shown that you treat women the way most other people treat meat. You’ve also completely lost my respect.

Feminists, do leave a comment. I know you’re out there.

Paul the Psychic Octopus: HE’S STILL ALIVE!

I do not mean to alarm you, but we are all in great danger. A few days ago, the planet lost its only proven psychic being, known to us as as Paul the Psychic Octopus. Or at least that’s what the critics may say…

While there is already talk of the world-wide World Cup conspiracy to murder the psychic being, the general public has yet to realise that Paul is still very much with us. I’ll let you in on a little secret. By that, I mean I present you with INCONTROVERTIBLE PROOF that the two year-old cephalopod is none other than the very star-spawn of the destroyer Cthulhu!

Just in case you can't tell the difference, that's Cthulhu on the left, and Paul on the right.

Firstly, a little background. Paul, the ‘psychic octopus’ successfully predicted the outcome of all seven of Germany’s World Cup games, and also the outcome of the world World Cup final. Like many others, I was unwavering in my belief that there was always more to this magical sea creature than meets the eye.

Who is Cthulhu? I am aware that many of you may not know of the works of divine prophet and ‘science-fiction author’ H.P. Lovecraft. Essentially, Cthulhu is a land-faring, giant octopus type creature, who has the power to raze the earth of human life if and when he sees fit. Lovecraft knew the truth, and saw this coming. For more proof, look no further than the Cult of Cthulhu, which dedicates itself to prophesising Cthulhu’s return to this world, and its inevitable destruction.

Cthulhu currently lies dormant in the underwater city of R’lyeh, waiting for the correct time to strike. The trigger for this reawakening is unknown, whether it be World War Three, or simply an over-abundance of Boris Bikes. Suffice to say, we should all be very careful about everything from not relieving yourself in the sea, to doing everything we can to fight global warming, lest we disturb this mighty beast from his slumber. Still, I’m straying from the point, and this is all (pretty much) common knowledge anyway.

Anyone with even the slightest bit of knowledge of Lovecraft’s prophecies could easily see that ‘Paul’ was star-spawn; a child of Cthulhu, who simply got caught in the act. Appearing on earth from the farthest gulfs of space, star-spawn like Paul helped Cthulhu construct R’lyeh, before leaving their underwater sanctuary to exist amongst humans. Sure, Paul was somewhat foolish to remain in his original form, as it is widely documented that star-spawn possess transformative powers, but it is very unlikely that Paul met his end as a result of old age. By my reasoning, in an attempt to escape the limelight and prevent anyone from discovering his true identity, PAUL STAGED HIS OWN DEATH. I have no doubt that he is very much alive, either having transformed himself into something less conspicuous, or travelling to R’lyeh to await Cthulhu’s awakening with his star-spawn brethren.

DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE ‘PAUL’. Star-spawn may be only a fraction of the size of Cthulhu, but possess equivalent powers. They are highly dangerous, and can shape-shift at will. It is of the utmost importance that you remain vigilant, for Paul could be anywhere, or anything right now.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however! Spread the word about Paul, so the truth can be known. If we band together, we can surely find him, and stop him from reaching R’lyeh, which may cause unmentionable destruction if he manages to wake Cthulhu. WE CANNOT LET THIS HAPPEN. Alert your friends and family to the situation, and get the word out there. It is only with your cooperation that we can save humanity.

Go well, and be strong, for the end may well be near.

Market Research Surveys can learn a lot from RPGs

I’m sure at some point throughout our lives, we’ve all completed a market research survey. Surveys, generally, are a tool utilised by organisations or research agencies to find things out the public’s perception of something, whether it’s Wayne Rooney or wasabi peas. They’re handy because they’re relatively cheap to administer, compared to other forms of market research, and can easily provide some comforting numbers which say something about whatever product is being analysed.

Now, I’ve never been a fan of contemporary market research; surveys in particular. I do not profess to be a marketing expert, or a research buff, but there’s a growing trend of insurgency against the status quo of market research. Indeed, there are already a number of eloquent expositions of why market research doesn’t work, that are already out there. While (in my opinion), surveys don’t work, and are inaccurate, realistically, it’s sad to say that they’re not going anywhere fast. There are actions that can be taken, however, within the existing frameworks of market research surveys, that can serve to make such surveys more accurate. This is where RPGs (Role Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades, in case you were wondering) come in.

I’d like to start with a story. A couple of days ago, I filled out a market research survey. It was a cold, miserable day, and I was sad that I couldn’t go running. This all could have affected my mood, which could have understandably heightened, or had an effect on my responses to the survey I completed. There was one thing this survey was guilty of, though, which essentially forced me into giving inaccurate answers. This was poor research design.

Let’s break this down for a minute. A survey, generally, is a mass of questions that you answer about a certain product, or a certain product range, or market sector. Let’s say, for example, you were filling in a survey about chewing gum. Usually, at the beginning of every survey, there are a few verification questions that check that the survey you’re about to complete is relevant to you. It wouldn’t be far off the mark to assume that one of these verification questions would ask if you chew chewing gum. Personally, I have bought and chewed gum in the past, but don’t make a habit of it. However, in most cases, my answer would probably serve as an adequate response for the purposes of this survey. Getting past the verification questions would then trigger an onslaught of questions about every colour, shape, and flavour of chewing gum under the sun. In essence, I would be made to answer about chewing gum I had never used before, or had no prior experience with. If I am asked about how I would bring a certain brand of gum up in a friendly conversation, if I’m blatantly honest, I wouldn’t.

My own experience with surveys (I’m signed up to a service that e-mails me the things daily) has led me to believe that the common survey is all too linear for anything of worth to be derived from its results. Let’s return to my own survey I completed a couple of days ago, which coincidentally, was about chewing gum. If I state that I don’t chew a certain brand of gum, and have never purchased it, I don’t expect follow-up questions about how I think that certain brand of gum tastes, and what I think of that company’s transmedia communications, such as their Facebook or Twitter page. Really, I think that in order to yield more accurate results, the vast majority of surveys should alter the later questions in a survey, depending on the answers given to the initial, post-verification questions.

To me, this realisation stirred musings of a certain familiarity, about things that are a bit closer to home, at least for me. What I’m describing sounds like a recent (but not new) effort in RPG design, to construct varied, non-linear narratives, that change depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game.

I should explain myself. When I say that the movement is recent, developers like Eidos Montreal, who are working on the much-anticipated Deus Ex: Human Revolution, are waking up to the fact that the player, depending on the choices they make, need not see every single level built into a game on a single playthough. What we’re talking about is a branching level structure, which in itself is something has been around for decades, such is evident in the level structure of arcade classic After Burner, which shifts you to various levels depending on whether or not you achieve certain objectives as you’re playing. Games with multiple endings have also been around for a considerable amount of time, with the most apparent example to me being Silent Hill 2, some versions of which had 6 individual endings.

This isn’t about multiple endings, however. This is about a branching narrative structure embedded into surveys that alters what questions are asked depending on the answers given. For instance, returning to chewing gum, if I explain early on that I’ve never tried Wrigley’s Big Chew (TM) gum, I don’t expect any more questions on it for the rest of the survey. What would I know about this particular chewing gum that I’ve never even tried? Sure, you’re going to end up with less numbers at the end of the day, but at least these numbers are more reliable, than, say, quizzing a collection of old people on who their favourite Teletubbies are.

This isn’t to say for a minute that I’m agreeing that market research is either good or useful; I just can’t see things changing any time soon. I’m only trying to do my bit to make it less terrible.

Digital Narcissism and Physical Life

Watch this. It’s funny.

Did you enjoy that? I sure hope so! It’s a funny angle for Microsoft to be pitching their Windows Phone 7 handsets from, but it does sort of make sense, at least to me.

I was just reading a speech by funny-man and self-confessed Twitter addict Greg Stekelman, on the narcissistic implications of Twitter, which was ironically thrown my way, via Twitter. It’s a wonderful read, which makes you think about how social media, Twitter in particular, is affecting our behaviour. Stekelman himself admits to tweeting on buses about being on buses, and being very much detached from the physical world. This, I think, is where the above advertisement’s message comes in.

We all love attention, and we all crave it. It may be the main pull of social media, which is why we do things like Twitter, and tweet about how we’re, say, sipping tea at the foot of the Taj Mahal, or why we insist on putting up inordinate amounts of photos on Facebook of our holidays to Greece. We get it. Once you’ve seen one donkey, you’ve seen ’em all. Still, somewhere in this mad frenzy of social media production, we’ve forgotten about things like our families, our Tamagochis, and our dinner that’s burning to a crisp in the oven. That’s fine, though, because you can tweet about your dinner, and create a newfangled Facebook group in memory of how Skippy the Tamagochi filled up his digital cage with poop, and asphyxiated himself with his own faeces. Still, all that’s boring. Well, I’m sure it’s fine, really, but you can’t stop yourself from living your life because of it.

Stekelman, in his speech, talks about pre-tweeting. The act of tweeting in one’s own head, when you’re unable to actually tweet. It’s something we’re all guilty of, myself included. Still, it’s this media pre-production that can make us do stupid things, and stop us enjoying what’s literally in front of us, though some odd desire to document an event you’re experiencing so your following can experience whatever it is vicariously, through you, whether or not they want to.

Case in point. Last year, I went to see one of my favourite bands, Nine Inch Nails, on their farewell tour. Nine Inch Nails are great. I love them and their music a lot. Still, it seems to be that whenever I go to gigs these days, I always take a camera and snap away like a rabid tourist (when it’s allowed, of course) so I can upload these photos to Facebook, and prove to my friends that I attended a monumental show. In a way, this is good, because everyone who wasn’t able to attend the gig gets to experience it through my photographs, and they all think I’m very cool for sharing, and I get cool points, or whatever. The downside is that I have to experience the gig through the LCD screen on my camera, while I fiddle furiously with the manual settings to try and get a good shot of Trent Reznor’s beautiful face. All in all, documenting the gig in such a way had dampened my enjoyment somewhat. With this particular gig, it was weird. It was almost like I wasn’t experiencing it first-hand at all, but instead was experiencing a reproduction of the experience. It was a meta-experience. The result? Nine Inch Nails have now gone on hiatus, and I’m quite sad that I passed up the opportunity to go nuts in front of them, because of the prospect of digital props.

Learn from my mistakes people. Don’t let social media rule your life. As I’ve said many times in this blog, social media is a fantastic, wonderful thing, and I’m not knocking it. However, when it starts impacting on your physical life to the degree where you stop enjoying physical things, you have to do something about it.