Repetition

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Poem
-Novica Tadić

He turns the pages of books
And examines the poems there
Saying my god
All this has already been written

On this day that is meant to be a paean to love (even if it’s the most commercial farce of the year), all I can think about is hate.

I felt relieved, almost smug, if deluded, to believe (did I ever really believe?) that we lived in a time (or were closer to living in a time) beyond petty hatred and discrimination based on things like skin color or religion. I have never been able to understand the existence of this kind of hatred, the crippling inferiority and fear that it betrays. But then I have watched as suddenly all the closet racists, xenophobes and other bile-filled hate zealots became empowered to voice their inner hatred, perpetrate great violence openly – as late as 2017. Is this the new normal?

No, there is nothing new or normal about it.

Most stunning (but is it really stunning?) of all is realizing how deeply racist and – worse – fearful – people are – people I never would have imagined being racist, xenophobic or anti-Islam show themselves to be. I suppose I have been a hopeless fool for imagining that things were anywhere near being otherwise. In my current state of mind – the February doldrums – I only seem able to see the very worst. I can’t let this pull to defeatist gloom win – but my god, the pull is strong.

But please never be dishonest enough to believe there will not be more Trumps—maybe many, possibly worse—until this country properly reckons with racism and white supremacy. This president isn’t an original; he’s just the most recent proof of America doing the same thing over and over again and pretending not to want the same result. Trump is the vast measurable difference between what America claims it wants to be and the truth.”

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

Acknowledging Humanity and Love

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“Love is not a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.” – Fred Rogers

Mr Fred Rogers on love

Mr Fred Rogers on love

It’s no secret that I am a hater. Or at least a surface hater. That is, I am impatient, don’t like crowds, don’t like slow drivers, don’t like the people at the store who block the entire aisle or wait until their huge cartload of groceries is fully checked before getting out their debit card, or people who treat motorway onramps like that is the best possible place for viewing the scenery (i.e., going slow and not accelerating to the speed at which they need to go to merge). I don’t know why I am in such a hurry – but I just can’t fathom why other people are so myopic and inconsiderate – they go slowly (fine) but do so it seems largely because they think they are the only people in the store, on the road, in the world. Thus, I go through life a wee bit irritated, and I cope with this by making my little hate lists, or ranting briefly but not very seriously, about my annoyance. And then it’s done.

(I have never really met anyone who understood this – but when I did, I knew I met my match.)

Apart from this, I tried very hard today to keep things off the hate list. It was the most gorgeous day – warm, sunny, really indicative of why I live here. I had to go out to do a lot of errands, and I am not the biggest fan of Sunday driving in the country, particularly when the weather turns nice, Norwegians come to Sweden in droves – and worse yet, Germans and Dutch will soon arrive. But I kept my cool for the most part. I almost got mad in the grocery store because an old man kept getting in my way. But, despite not interacting with him, I tried to view him in a different light. He seemed to have gone to the store just to get out for a while – and in the end selected carefully and bought himself a bag of loose candy (which all Scandinavians seem to live for). Then he drove himself away at a snail’s pace in an old, original VW Bug. I had passed by the car in the parking lot wondering to whom it belonged (I was parked across the parking lot and had to put my groceries in the car and return my cart and somehow still ended up finishing before this old man got to the car). Once I saw him drive away – slower than slow – it was impossible for me to hate him. He probably owned that car since it was brand new (or at least that is how I like to imagine it). Imagining that he fired up the old car just to go get candy on a Sunday!

This shift in perspective was quite conscious – and although we did not, as I said, interact, acknowledging his humanity made a difference. When I got home, I stumbled on an article that reinforced the same underlying themes. We all follow unspoken social rules and don’t generally make eye contact or strike up conversations with strangers – and I must say unequivocally that this is almost an absolute in Sweden. This article, however, examines some evidence gathered by behavioral scientists who contend that interactions with strangers improve our mood – maybe first by forcing us into a “pretend friendly” mode – but usually by the end of the encounter, the pleasantries and positive interaction has created genuine positive feelings.

“One of the perks of being a behavioral scientist is that when your partner does something annoying, you can bring dozens of couples into the laboratory and get to the bottom of it. When Liz tested her hypothesis in a lab experiment, she discovered that most people showed the “Benjamin Effect”: They acted more cheerful around someone they had just met than around their own romantic partner, leaving them happier than they expected.

Many of us assume, however, that our well-being depends on our closest ties, and not on the minor characters in our daily lives. To investigate the validity of this assumption, our student Gillian M. Sandstrom asked people to keep a running tally of their social interactions.”

Another point is hard to gauge in my current environment; I just had a conversation about this with a colleague the other day. The seeming social taboo of acknowledging strangers you pass in the street (here in Sweden). (I have encountered exceptions but it is usually because something happens requiring conversation, and then you can’t get them to shut up.)

“Simply acknowledging strangers on the street may alleviate their existential angst; and being acknowledged by others might do the same for us.”

When I lived in the US, it was common courtesy to acknowledge someone passing you on the street while walking past. Maybe not in a big city but certainly in small to mid-sized towns. I never liked it much, but I made eye contact, said hello. It was so ingrained despite my dislike for it that I continued to do it after I moved to Iceland – but quickly learned to stop because I was looked at as though I had said something deeply offensive or threatened the other person. I have comfortably filed right into the sheep herd here in non-confrontational Scandinavia – sometimes it’s sad but it’s how I have always been (as a shy person). I have always relied on other people (and you could always rely on Americans – or even other members of my family, who fall far afield of anything resembling shyness) to make the first move.

Whatever the case, the casual can be difficult to deal with but I am actually a pretty sensitive, shy and loving person somewhere underneath. And when I do love I really love – whether that is a love for my friends, a partner or a cause. I become fiercely protective of those people and things. And, like the Mr Rogers quote above explains, I love actively – it is a constant state of accepting – I may not accept or like everything someone does, but that does not change that the love I feel is unconditional. I also love myself unconditionally, and sometimes that means that even if I do love someone, it is healthiest to move them out of my life – but even that won’t put conditions on how I feel about them. Their role just shifts.

It is all very complex but at the same time strikes me as very simple – whether it is accepting and even embracing the idiosyncracies of strangers in public places and seeing them as more human or loving and accepting those closest unconditionally.

Fear and Love” – Morcheeba

Fear can stop you loving/love can stop your fear – but it’s not always that clear.

Uniting Power of Hate – Ouagadougou to Timbuktu

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When I was an insolent adolescent, my father, in a period of midlife-crisis-enlightenment-seeking, went through a New Age phase, in which he adopted a New Age guru who walked him through past life regressions, chakra balancing and, perhaps his favorite activity of all, chanting. It was an awkward and transitional time, probably for everyone involved. During this hazy period, my father decided to try to address my permanent “Oscar the Grouch” take on life:

Dad: “Erika, why are you so hateful?”
Me: (rolling eyes, sarcastic tone) “Gee, I don’t know”
Dad: (enlightened tone) “Well, your mother and I could teach you some neat things.”
Me: (rolling eyes again) “Like?”
Dad: (even more enlightened) “Like… how to chant!
RAHHHHH-OHHHHHHM!

Check it out – “Nasty Dan” from Johnny Cash visiting my dear Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street! “Say, aren’t you Johnny Trash?” “Cash. – Have a rotten day.” “Wow, there goes my kinda guy.”

So, the hateful thing goes back a ways. While I won’t go so far as to say that I seriously hate anyone or anything, I readily admit that I am easily annoyed and enjoy sarcasm and complaint a great deal. I derive joy from this kind of casual and idle hatred and dismay/disdain. It is not often that I meet kindred hating spirits in the world; that is, people with sour attitudes who find something to dislike about almost everything but who still actually are quite sweet people who find a lot of things to like and even love as well.

I don’t look at my attitude as sheer, unproductive negativity the way many do – I think of myself as a realist and sometimes a pessimist. It’s hard to live in the world and see reality without rose-colored glasses and not be a bit pessimistic at times, even if there are always rays of bright sunlight here and there. This approach and attitude has been polarizing and divisive at times and has brought about the demise of a few friendships (and I won’t pretend that that didn’t hurt).

On rare occasions I met up with people with almost as dark a view on the world, with as many complaints and who reveled in sharing complaints, with similar dark senses of humor, with similar misanthropic and impatient tendencies. But I had never quite met my match until now. My heart – be still, dear heart – has been stolen by someone who told me that he makes mental lists of all the things he hates while he is walking to work.

Sigh.

I once advised a girl who had had rather iffy relationships and made iffy relationship choices to stop accepting and settling for stale crumbs and to only accept the “the whole cake”. I knew I had my whole cake already – but when I heard about this hate list – and knew that the person behind it could also laugh about all the annoyances on the list, I knew I had the icing on the cake as well.

All this is not to say that I think real, visceral hatred and anger is healthy. I don’t like to waste energy or in-depth thought on any of it, which is why I think it’s great to make a mental list or voice the little complaints here and there – it is a means of just letting them go and moving forward. Save the real anger and hatred for bigger stuff – the major injustices in the world. The sexism, racism, abuse and all the other real travesties. I mean, yes, a group of people walking side-by-side taking up the entire width of a sidewalk is really damn annoying and virtually impossible to get around without running into road traffic, but it’s not the end of the world or particularly destructive.

It’s a pick-your-battle kind of war, really. One man in my … sphere of influence (haha – I make myself sound so mesmerizing!) complained heartily about racism and racial stereotypes, and how he is so tired of them he might just move back to Africa one day so as to not hear these things any longer. And I thought, yeah, but I suspect you will hear different stupid things in Africa and maybe get Ebola. Okay. Probably not – that’s just one of my ignorant attempts at being funny. (I had been watching the news and saw that Guinea is facing its first-ever Ebola outbreak.) My serious point was that it makes little sense to abandon an otherwise comfortable life just because you don’t want to hear things that are unpleasant to live a less comfortable life and probably just hear a different set of annoying generalizations. Of course, I don’t have to bear the weight of racist (inadvertent or otherwise) commentary all the time, and it may well feel much more powerful and daunting than just being “unpleasant” to someone exposed to it all the time.

Naturally all of this made me think once more of the elusive idea of “Africa”. Mostly because I talked to someone about African place names that sound foreign to our western ears, and for example, as children, we scarcely know that they are real places – they sound so exotic that they could be figments of someone’s phonetically rich imagination. Timbuktu came up a lot when I was a kid – and when I ask people these days what they associate with the word “Timbuktu” now, they rarely name a place, mention Africa or – heaven forbid – mention the country of which it is actually a part (Mali). Same goes for Ouagadougou (capital of Burkina Faso). When I mentioned “Burkina Faso” to my mother, she too just said, “I don’t know what that is.”