Random Thoughts – Randocity!

How do I make my book a bestseller?

Posted in Amazon, author, best practices, novels by commorancy on September 12, 2019

teddy-bear-book-readAh, that age old question. How do you get anything to sell like wildfire? The answer is, it’s a complicated answer. This article assumes a first time published author. Let’s explore.

Going Viral

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Much of the reason anything becomes a hot seller is ultimately out of the control of the seller. If it’s a book, as suggested by the title, then there are a lot of situations at play.

Sure, the content within the book can make or break a book, but even if the book is the best written, best conceived story and offers entirely fresh ideas, that doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, nothing guarantees success of a book. What makes a book successful is luck (and lots of it) and being in the right place at the right time. You can control your words in the book. You can control where the book is sold. You can control lots of aspects of distribution, paper types (if printed) and so on. But, what you can’t control is how people will receive the book and, ultimately, how many will buy into it. That is a matter of luck.

There are some books that simply become ubiquitous in pop culture. There are others that simply fade into obscurity. There’s no way to know if your book will light the proverbial fire or be eclipsed by someone else’s book. You simply can’t know.

Planning and Control

When considering authoring a novel, there are formulas involved. Such formulas include how many words should be in the book, what genre the book belongs in, how many copies that you can print, how big the font should be in the book and so on. These physical book attributes are within your control. However, it’s doubtful that these physical attributes will play a part in whether book becomes wildfire. Oh, they play a part to be sure, but the biggest factor is still luck. Luck, for example, is entirely out of your control. You can’t force luck, you can only hope that lady luck looks down upon you and smiles.

Your book’s content does play a role in being a bestseller. Meaning, a poorly written, badly conceived novel has no chance of becoming a bestseller. The book content, as I said above, is within your control. What that means is that you need to write your book to the best of your ability and get help whenever your story goes beyond your means of control.

In other words, you need to write your book so that it at least matches the quality of most other bestsellers. No better, no worse. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it needs to be of a quality that at least gives it a fighting chance at becoming a bestseller. However, with that said, the pieces within your control do not at all guarantee (even if your novel is excellently crafted and written) success. Success of your novel is predicated on whether readers find pleasure in reading your novel and, more importantly, it resonates with enough people to start the viral wildfire.

Viral Wildfires

These types of wildfires can start anywhere. It could be as simple as Oprah Winfrey reading your novel and inexplicably plugging it on her show. It could be helped by having a 10 million viewer YouTube channel mention and review your novel on their channel. It could be a Twitter account with a huge following who incidentally reads and plugs your book on their channel. It could be all of the above.

With that said, you can’t force any of these viral situations. You can only hope they come to pass. They might, they might not. It all depends on your content choice, the situations and if your content resonates with the right set of people at the right moment in time.

However, you can’t write your content with that audience or set of circumstances in mind. There’s no way to know if your novel will be read by someone famous and plugged. Yes, it can happen, but you can’t be guaranteed this outcome.

Book Topics

If you’ve not yet written a book and you’re looking to do so, you should solidify a list of topics that you think you can spend many hours writing about. You have to like your characters for you to remain interested in spending many hours involved in crafting a tale around them.

Write what you know

In addition to writing about likeable characters, you should write about the things where you have knowledge. Sure, if your novel is about space travel, you might need to research such topics as the vacuum of space, exactly how cold space is and how fast it freezes objects solid, but you might also need to research the latest theories on space travel ideas. Of course, you can craft fanciful new propulsion systems that have never before been dreamed, but you might want to ground those systems in at least some measure of Earth physics. Bringing fanciful ideas back to the real is the way to make them seem genuine to the reader.

You’ll also want to determine your books genre, such as romance, fiction, non-fiction, historical, drama, comedy, etc. You can even write a memoir if you think it has some social significance to other people.

Audience

When crafting your manuscript, you’ll want to always keep your audience in mind. Don’t switch audiences in the middle of your book. If you begin the book assuming a general level of adult intelligence, stick with that. For example, if you’re using “big” words and phrases to describe your situations, don’t change halfway through the novel and start using smaller words and phrases. Your readers will notice. Stick to the formula in which the novel began. If you assume a certain level of adult reader intelligence at the open of the novel, stick through this all the way through to the end. Be consistent.

If your character is from the south with a southern drawl, maintain that character’s drawl throughout the novel. Don’t drop the drawl partway through and assume your readers won’t notice. Consistency in writing is the key to keeping the novel thoroughly readable throughout. It’s all about consistency. If you break consistency, it can break the suspension of disbelief and have readers walk away leaving half of the book unread.

How many words?

This is a question many new authors ask. How many words required for a novel is really all dependent on the chosen genre and how much it takes to tell a story.

If you’re writing a novel with 4 short stories, then your short story lengths will be far shorter than a full novel. A short story might contain as few as 7,500 words up to 40,000 words (on the very high side).

A Young Adult fiction genre novel can get away with as few as 45,000 to 55,000 words. However, a fiction novel targeted at an adult audience should contain at least 80,000 words up to 110,000 words. These are, of course, guidelines. Your novel could be much longer than this if you so choose. However, longer novels may turn off some readers (and publishers). Instead, you might want to break it into a multipart series and cap the words per novel. Then, begin writing a new novel in your series with any remaining story ideas that you have.

For children’s books (aged 7 to 12), the maximum number of words is 15,000 to 30,000. These books should be shorter.

For non-fiction adult genre novels, the number of words start with at least 60,000 words and go up from there.

To be considered by a publisher, your novel should have these numbers of words, depending on genre. If you’re unsure and you have an open dialog going with one or more publishers, simply ask them if the length is sufficient to consider publishing. If you get a rejection letter, you should read that carefully to understand what, if any, reasons for rejection are included. However, the publisher may not include any solid reasons.

Planning your Novel

It’s probably not a good idea to go into the act of actually writing a novel before you have story ideas and story progressions fleshed out. This means writing down your ideas, character names, situations and story arcs. You’ll also want to flesh out how you want your characters to grow, learn and what the ultimate goal is for your character. Are they on a path of self-enlightenment? Do they need to be taught a lesson? Do they need emotional guidance? How is their story going to progress?

Stories that are character driven are the most likeable and the most likely to go viral. Use your characters to drive the story forward. They are the ones who hold your story’s keys and who can unlock the story progression. Use characters to drive your story forward.

Imagination is part of this process, but part of it is using characters in ways to logically progress a story. For example, if your main character is a cop who upholds the law, it wouldn’t make sense for them to continually break the law at every turn and not feel remorse or guilt about doing so. Of course, rules are made to be broken, so perhaps that’s your twist?

Speaking of twists. Does every story need to have a twist? No. Stories can be told with or without a twist. A twist is great if it makes sense during a particularly revealing section, but it’s not required. The problem with twists is foreshadowing… which is a very subtle art. If you foreshadow too hard about events to come, people will see your twist(s) coming way in advance, which ruins the setup. If you fail to foreshadow at all, the twist may not have enough impact and may even seem confusing. Planning your novel for a revealing twist can be difficult. Planning is important here. But, so is….

Feedback

It is important to get feedback on your novel. Let someone read your novel and give honest criticism and feedback. If you include a twist, understand your advanced reader’s comments about that twist. You’ll want to know if they guessed it way in advance and, if they did, what you might do to tone down what led them to that conclusion early.

You want to remain in control of your reader’s thoughts about the characters and story all along the way. You don’t want them jumping to conclusions about your story in advance. Have the reader unfold the story as it’s written and don’t give them too much information that could lead their thinking astray or draw early conclusions. If you’re writing a mystery novel, you always want to keep your reader guessing throughout. In fact, you might want to squash any conclusions they might reach too quickly. That way, if your reader jumped to an incorrect conclusion, you can unfold the story and immediately tell them that their conclusion is wrong. Basically, keep the reader on their toes. Don’t let them second guess your novel’s conclusion halfway through the book.

Feedback is your answer. Let people read your novel in advance and be prepared to edit your novel in ways that reduce such conclusion jumping and improve the overall storytelling.

Wildfires and Bestsellers

Let’s return to original question that began this article. Luck is ultimately your answer. While you can write your best novel with your best situations, the novel may still fall flat with readers. Publishers understand this. Authors, likewise, need to understand this. You can’t know how the public (or critics) will respond to your novel.

Some of the best series didn’t start out as bestsellers. It took time for the wildfire to grow. The Harry Potter series is a good example. The first two novels did respectable sales, but it wasn’t really until the third novel released that the viral wildfire started. At that point, her books flew out of the stores with each successive release. It might take two or three entries into a novel series before such wildfires begin. Even still, there are plenty of novel series that do not get that level of attention. They do respectable novel sales, but they don’t get anywhere close to the magic of Harry Potter.

Don’t go into a writing a novel expecting a wildfire. Go into writing a novel to tell your story… to let other people read about your characters and situations. If it grows into a wildfire and becomes a bestseller, then all the better. But, don’t go in expecting this outcome. Instead, focus on the novel and in low expectations of sales. If it does better than you expect, great. If it doesn’t, you aren’t disappointed. You can’t force luck. It either strikes your novel series or it doesn’t. Because such luck is extremely rare and fickle, you can’t expect it. You can hope for it, a little… but with tempered prudence. Again, don’t go into your novel’s release expecting viral things to happen.

Amazon

A discussion about writing and selling books wouldn’t be complete without discussing Amazon. Sure, Barnes and Noble still exists as a brick-and-mortar book retailer. And, there are other physical book sellers to consider. But, Amazon can ultimately make or break your book single-handedly. It is such a large seller of books today that if you don’t leverage Amazon to sell your book, you can’t really make your book a success. Amazon is, in fact, critical to your book’s success. And, so is Amazon’s review system. Amazon’s review system drives its recommendation engine. You’ll want to encourage your readers to review your book on Amazon. Many avid readers need little prompting, but by getting more and more reviews, Amazon is more likely to recommend your book to its customers.

Apple is also a digital book seller, so you may want to leverage them, but to a much lesser degree. They aren’t nearly as big as Amazon, but your publisher should ensure all such digital book sellers like Google Books, Apple, Kobo (the remnants of Borders) and several other smaller digital sellers are supplied with digital copies to sell.

Having a publisher on your side is critical to ensure that your book is distributed as widely as possible. Only a publisher can ensure your novel gets the wide treatment that’s required for it to become a bestseller. Trying to self-publish, you simply don’t have the level of resources needed to make this a reality. A publisher does. This is why a publisher is important to your success.

A publisher will ensure your book is distributed not only through Amazon, but through all other necessary book outlets to ensure your book has the widest exposure and distribution possible to help your book achieve that coveted bestseller ranking.

Publisher?

Publishers are both a blessing and a curse. They are a necessary presence in the book industry. They help authors get their words into the hands of avid readers… readers who can then turn the book into a bestseller. Publishers help you refine your book’s content into the best that it can be, but they also ensure that your book will hit the shelves in all of the necessary places… both physical and digital.

The difficulty with publishers is not to get burned. Publishers will take a cut of your book’s profits to cover their expenses. Those expenses include their salaries, their office rents, printing of the book itself, advertising and so on. Getting a “book deal” means signing away some of your book’s profits to the publisher to help them stay in business. This means you’ll get far less profits from selling the book than you might realize. Oh, you’ll get some money for each copy sold, but don’t expect much. Most of that money goes back to the publisher to keep their lights on, offices open and staff employed. That’s the bane of using a publisher.

On the other hand, self-publishing means you get to keep 100% of the profits. But, good luck in getting your novel printed and into the physical stores like Target, Walmart and Barnes and Noble yourself. Getting that far would be difficult, if not impossible. That’s not to say you can’t self-publish, but don’t expect to get much industry consideration. Using a publisher, your novel may be considered for prestigious industry awards. Using self-publishing, those awards are almost always off of the table. Getting an industry award can help the viral wildfires burn hotter, thus getting even more copies sold. Using a publisher opens a lot of doors. Self-publishing means more profits, but less doors are opened in the industry.

Publishers are a known quantity in the industry and will do almost everything to see that your novel succeeds. For this investment reason, publishers are extremely picky on which novels and authors they are willing to represent. When they accept an author and their novel into their publishing house, they are taking a risk. That risk could mean an expensive failure. Because publishers want to reduce that risk as much as possible, they only accept limited book types and authors. What this all means is…

Expect Rejection

Publishers are rightly skittish. It’s expensive to publish, advertise and widely distribute a book throughout the country or, indeed, the world. Because of that risk, they only want the best books and the best possible prospects. This means that publisher representatives are extremely picky about what they will accept and when and how they will accept it. Randomly sending your manuscript to a publisher without advance notice, you’re sure to be rejected. In fact, they likely won’t even open the manuscript. Many times they won’t even send it back, even if you include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Instead, they’ll trash it without even opening it. They might or might not send you a rejection letter. If the manuscript was unsolicited, you may not even get a response.

For this reason, it’s a good idea to (once your novel is complete) reach out to publisher editors and determine if they’re interested in your manuscript’s content. You do this in the form of a submission letter. If a publisher’s editor shows interest, then you have an opening. This means you may be invited to send your novel in for review. It doesn’t mean they’ll accept or even read it all, but they might. Reading a full 65,000 word manuscript is not an insignificant amount of time. So, respect the editor’s time they are willing to give you. After all, they’re giving you the length of time it takes to read your book. More than likely, the publisher will reject your manuscript. Expect that you will be writing many submission letters and getting rejections. You’ll need to keep trying until you reach a publisher’s editor who takes interest.

Instead of reading your entire manuscript, an editor might request a detailed synopsis from you. A short description of your novel’s story to determine if it’s something they might have time to read and be able to add to their collection of currently published books. Do whatever the publisher’s editor requests, but don’t be willing to give away the farm. Sure, let them read your novel and give feedback, but know that they are human and as humans, they have opinions. That editor is only one opinion in among many, even if their opinion is that they don’t like your novel.

The Acceptance Rejection

If you get a bite from a publisher, take that as a small win. It doesn’t mean they’ll publish your book, yet. But, it is a hopeful sign. At least they’re talking to you.

Don’t be offended by the opinions an editor might offer you. Simply accept their advice for what it is. You may not agree with their assessment, but at least consider it. If you feel adamant that your book is already in its best possible place and changing it would ruin its current story, yet a publisher’s editor is asking you to make substantial changes in tone and story in your book, you might want to think twice. If you have conviction that your book is already the best it can be, then thank them for their time and move on to someone else. Choose a different publisher. However, you owe it to yourself to at least consider that editor’s advice.

For example, if they offer a suggestion to rework large segments to make the book have a larger emotional impact and potentially appeal to a broader audience, at least consider it. Don’t outright discard their advice. They’ve been in the business for a long amount of time, hopefully, and their advice may have some merit. But, as I said above, don’t fall into spending a large amount of time completely reworking your novel solely on the advice of a single editor… particularly if your rework of the novel doesn’t offer some level of commitment from that publisher. For example, if they’re asking you to rewrite a large section of your novel, you should ensure that the publisher will commit to publishing the book if these changes are made to their satisfaction. It’s a give and take situation. Asking for a time commitment from the author to rewrite should come with at least some strings attached to the publisher. Make sure you get those strings attached firmly.

If they give you advice and then offer no strings and expect you simply to make large changes without even the remote possibility of acceptance, you should view that request with a large amount of skepticism. This is ultimately the acceptance rejection. Instead, you should thank them for their time and suggest that if you do have time to rework the novel, you will resubmit it for review at a later date. Then, go find another publisher accepting manuscripts and submit your original manuscript there. Don’t make the changes to your novel unless you personally think that the suggestion(s) actually will improve the novel in substantial ways or that the publisher is on-the-hook to publish the novel contingent on making those changes. If you commit to making changes for them, they should commit to publishing your updated novel. Get that commitment in writing.

First Time Publishing and Contracts

As a first time published author, however, you are at a disadvantage. In addition to being a new author, a publisher may want to see how business shrewd you are. Sure, you can put words to a page, but can you negotiate? Publishers can take advantage of first time authors simply because the author is “green”. This means because you “don’t know any better” they could ask you to jump through hoops and still not publish your book. Or, they could give you such a small pittance percentage that it doesn’t make sense. Don’t fall into traps like this. If a publisher’s editor seems to be toying with you, but not actually providing any commitments for your novel, again, thank them for their time and move on. Don’t allow them to take advantage of your supposed greenness in the publishing industry.

Instead, use Google and try to learn as much about the protocols of getting your novel published as you possibly can. If they offer you a contract, read it thoroughly and understand your commitments to it (and the publisher). You don’t want to get trapped into a contract that has exclusivity clauses, pays you a pittance or requires you write 3 books over the next 3 years. If it took you 5 years to write your original book, being able to write a book a year may not be possible for you. This is why you will need to understand contract negotiation. You would then need to either strike that verbiage from the contract or modify it to allow you more time to write any further required novels.

Don’t let your lack of knowledge in publishing and contracts blind you to what the publisher is requiring. Maybe you aren’t even seeking to write further novels? Such a contract means you would be legally bound to produce those novels. Read contracts carefully and understand what they are asking you to do. If you can’t read contracts for  yourself, hire a contract lawyer who can decipher the terms of the contract to you and use that contract lawyer to draft alternative terms that work for you. The publisher may not accept the updated terms, but you can then move on without being bound to that publisher.

Payments

Make sure that any contracts you sign stipulate payment terms. More specifically, how often they will pay you your share of the profits from the sale of your book. Is it monthly? Is it whenever the balance reaches $100? Is it yearly? Is it quarterly? Make sure your payment terms are upheld in the contract. You don’t want to be left in the dark as to when the publisher may cut you a check for your share of the profits. You also need to make sure that the contract terms stipulate the ability to audit sales records from the vendors. Make sure you can call, write or log into a site that will give you updated numbers of your book’s sales wherever it’s being sold. You don’t want to be beholden to the publisher to provide you with accurate statistics. I’m not saying publishers are deceitful, but it’s not out of the realm of possibilities. Make sure you can account for your exact sales from the stores directly and correlate those sales numbers to the amount you have been paid during that period.

Accounting errors happen and you don’t want to be on the receiving end of an accounting error in the publisher’s favor. Nor do you want to have to turn around and sue the publisher for profits they have kept as a result of an “accounting error”. If you have direct access to each store’s sales data, this transparency keeps the publisher honest. They have to provide you with what you are owed. It’s on you to periodically audit and make sure you are getting what you are owed, but the data is there for you to review if you need it.

If you can swing a deal where the stores are paying you directly without going through the publisher, all the better. Middlemen can get in the way and can dilute your payments. However, it’s more likely the publisher will end up paying you the residuals (after they take their cut). You’ll have to negotiate your payments with the publisher and this should be done contractually, not through verbal agreements.

Luck

Coming back around to the original question once again, luck is the biggest factor in whether a book becomes a bestseller. Sure, the content is important. A publisher’s editor, yes, has read many novels and they usually know what story features are most likely to resonate with readers. However, that doesn’t mean that an editor is always correct. They could think that your novel is going to be the next Pulitzer novel, but in fact it barely makes a splash in sales. No one can know what luck has in store. This means that, yes, an editor’s suggestions might be spot on, but it doesn’t guarantee success. It can put the novel on a path towards success, but it can’t guarantee success. Nothing, in fact, can guarantee success of a novel. Luck is one of those fickle things that factors into pretty much any form of entertainment. Whether it’s a movie or a music CD, a video game or a novel. These are all subject to the whims, ebbs and flows of the general population.

If a topic hits at a very salient point in time, it can take the world by storm. Such lightning strikes are rare, but they do happen. For example, Star Wars, Harry Potter and, to some degree, the Marvel universe movies. These became popular by mostly sheer luck and by landing in the marketplace at the right place and the right time. Being in the right place at the right time isn’t something you can guess. It’s a matter of luck. A publisher can help shape your novel into a something that may resemble a bestseller, but it cannot guarantee that luck or, indeed, success. That still requires a certain amount of plain old dice-rolling luck.

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Did Toys “R” Us have to fail?

Posted in bankruptcy, botch, business, ethics, fail by commorancy on September 9, 2019

If you’ve read various articles including this Bloomberg article, you might come away thinking that all of what happened to Toys “R” Us began a decade ago (i.e., the early 00s). In fact, you would be so wrong… and so would Bloomberg. Let’s explore.

The 80s

Around 1981 or 1982, I worked at Toys “R” Us. Even at that time, Toys “R” Us ran a questionable business model. A business model that, I might add, even store managers recognized and thought was unsustainable. In fact, after having discussions with store managers at my store, I got an earful about how they thought that the chain would likely fail within a decade if they kept on using that business model. This was the early 80s.

What business model?

Toys “R” Us sowed the seeds of its own destruction at least beginning in the 80s, perhaps as early as the 70s. What questionable business model is this? The model chosen was to operate the stores in the red (otherwise known as losing money) through 80-90% of the year (aka, “90 in the red”). Then, the management hoped to recoup those losses in the final 1-2 months of the year during holiday season sales. It didn’t always work out.

While this model seemed to work to keep most Toys “R” Us stores afloat through the 80s and 90s, it served to keep the company from really turning a solid profit and, ultimately, led to the company’s massive debt load. What that model meant to the stores is fully stocked shelves every day of the year. This was readily apparent walking into any Toys “R” Us store. The stores were not only full, they were positively brimming over with the latest toys. This also meant putting itself into massive debt each year in inventory and then hoping to pay off that debt at the end of the year when most of the stores finally ran “in the black” (read, turning a profit for the year).

Keep in mind that many of the stores didn’t turn a profit, but so long as enough stores did, they could cover for the debt they had been incurred company wide, or at least so that was the idea. Even the store manager at my Toys “R” Us location could see the handwriting on the wall in the early 80s. This store’s business model was not sustainable and I was, even as an standard employee, told this by various managers. These managers didn’t hold back their thoughts.

Bloomberg, Fads and Sustainability

What Bloomberg got right was that even a decade ago, TRU’s debt load had put them underwater. What Bloomberg didn’t address was that this debt began almost 2 decades earlier of overbuying, followed by hoping that a “hit toy” would kick them over the profit line at the end of every year.

“Hit Toys” were Toys “R” Us’s hopeful thing. They needed that Tickle Me Elmo or Nintendo Wii or Lazer Tag or Cabbage Patch Kid fad toy to carry the chain into the new year with profit on the books. Throughout the 80s and 90s, there were a string of these hit toys practically every year. Fad toys which flew off the shelves and brought Toys “R” Us to profitability each year. It was a risky move for Toys “R” Us to bank on a hot fad each year, but there it is.

Unfortunately, relying on this kind of yearly toy fad to sustain a business every year was not only risky, it began to burn Toys “R” Us as these yearly fads began to die off by the late 90s. Even during mid-late 90s, these fads were much less intense than they had been just a few years earlier. By the mid-00s, these fads were practically non-existent. Sure, there were hot toys, but no where near the levels of sales that Tickle Me Elmo or the Cabbage Patch Kid fads offered to Toys “R” Us’s bottom line… particularly when Best Buy, Walmart and Amazon concurrently began diluting the toy profits of TRU.

These fading fads were responsible for killing other toy stores chains as well, such as Kay Bee Toys and even the once high flying, high end FAO Schwarz. These fading fads also left Toys “R” Us holding a huge mound of debt.

Walmart

While Walmart did usurp the title of top toy seller from Toys “R” Us, that’s primarily because Toys “R” Us prices were always on the higher side. Walmart did carry toys, but not all toys. If you wanted something you couldn’t find at Walmart, you went to Toys “R” Us and it was pretty much guaranteed they would carry it (even though it might be out of stock). Walmart didn’t even stock many of these. The toy section in Walmart was always small by comparison. Sure, you could find better deals at Walmart, but only from the toys that they chose to carry.

Walmart was also not very kind to collectors in the 90s. If a collector showed up to buy toys, Walmart would try to do everything to keep that toy item away from the collectors… sometimes even going so far as to banning them from the store simply for buying toys. Does it really matter whose dollars are buying an item? Granted, I wasn’t particularly happy that a collector had gone to Walmart to buy out all of the “good” stock leaving tons of “peg warmers” sitting around that no one wanted. But, that’s how toy collecting worked in the 90s.

The whole collector market kind of died off with the advent of places where collectors could buy case packs, like Entertainment Earth. Instead of having to rummage around Walmart at 3AM (when they stocked new merchandise), you could order a full case of figures, guaranteeing that you’ll get at least one “rare” figure. This meant that the once Walmart and Toys “R” Us shopping locations for collectors became a thing of the past. Collectors took their money online to buy cases and stopped buying at Toys “R” Us. Buying case packs is easier, more convenient and doesn’t require the hassles of dealing with surly underpaid Walmart workers.

Toys “R” Us Kids Grew Up

Kids of the 80s became collectors in the 90s and became families on the 00s. The once popular collector market throughout the 90s fell apart into the 00s because the collector market changed and Toys “R” Us failed to understand this important change. The collector market is (or at least was) also a huge market that kept Toys “R” Us afloat in addition to the end-of-year-fads. However, brands like Hasbro and Mattel didn’t grow with the collector market. Sure, Hasbro tried, but the toys they made were tiny improvements over their (sub)standard toys. Mattel also tried with its collector Barbies, but, again they failed to understand the critical quality needed for what collectors really yearned.

In essence, the toy brands themselves didn’t grow to provide what collectors wanted… which left Toys “R” Us mostly without collector money. However, collector brands did grow up for the collector market outside of Toys “R” Us, including Sideshow and Hot Toys brands. These brands are now considered the premiere collector “toy” brands for adult collectors. These “action figures” are some of the highest end, most expensive, most collectable toys out there, yet these are not sold at Walmart, Target or even Toys “R” Us (before they closed). Though, you can find them on Amazon via third party sellers. This is where Toys “R” Us failed to keep up with the kid-turned-adult collectors. Hot Toys figures cost anywhere between $150-350 per figure; a price point that collectors are more than willing to pay to get that level of craftsmanship. A price point that Toys “R” Us never carried. A quality that not Toys “R” Us nor Walmart nor Target ever carried.

While Toys “R” Us continued to sell these low-end toy products to kids, it failed to grow up and to sell high end collectibles to adults. Ironically, this runs counter to their jingle. The most prestigious type of collectibles that Toys “R” Us sold were the collector Barbies and McFarlane figures, offering price points at  $15-40. A price tag that cannot provide the levels of detail, paint jobs and overall craftsmanship that goes into a Hot Toys or Sideshow figure. Adult collectors want high end figures and Sideshow and Hot Toys fill that niche. Toys “R” Us management never recognized this growing trend.

“I don’t want to grow up, I want to be a Toys “R” Us kid”

This jingle is ultimately the rationale that appears to have led Toys “R” Us management down the wrong path. Instead of singing the praises of not growing up, the toy store should have realized that kids grow into adults; adults who still want to buy collectible toys, but who don’t want the junky, low priced Hasbro and Mattel versions. They want premiere brands like Hot Toys offering highly detailed, highly realistic, meticulously crafted and painted figures… not Hasbro’s now antiquated, poorly painted, robot-style 12 inch figures. You might give these cheap toys to your kids, but you wouldn’t display them in a display case.

This collectible market began with highly detailed military figures, but branched out into licenses with Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Warner Brothers and various other large movie franchise brands. Toys “R” Us failed to latch onto this market and, thus, failed to capture the once Toys “R” Us kid who had grown into an adult and now desires these highly detailed collectible toys. As kids grow into adults, tastes change and people want more sophisticated products. Hot Toys and Sideshow found that niche for sophisticated adult tastes. Yet, Toys “R” Us failed to recognize this niche.

If Toys “R” Us had realized this mistake and had added brands like Hot Toys to its shelves, it might have been able to entice the collector’s market back into its stores and pay down some of its debt. Every discount retailer has, so far, failed to realize the adult collectible toy market. However, this lack of foresight hurt Toys “R” Us the most.

Kid Tastes

Additionally, kids tastes have also changed as a result of brands like Hot Toys and products like the iPad. Kids don’t want want to buy Leap or other “toy” or “fake” tablets when they can ask their parents for the real thing. Kids also want the higher end Hot Toys than the poorly crafted Hasbro Ironman figures. While Toys “R” Us did begin carrying Apple products, the stores really thought of these more as a toy rather than treating them as something useful. Best Buy always treated their Apple section with the best possible displays. Toys “R” Us displayed its Apple tablets right next to random other tablets as though they weren’t anything special. I’m not even sure that I’d have felt comfortable buying an Apple tablet from Toys “R” Us. Not only did they have no one versed in this technology on staff, what they carried could have been 2 or even 3 generations old. Toys “R” Us just didn’t treat these products with the respect that they deserved.

As a result of kids changing tastes and higher levels of sophistication, kids really didn’t want much of what was in that toy store after a certain age. This meant that Toys “R” Us was primarily for kids of a certain age and below (probably 8-9 or younger). Even still, these ages were growing up faster.

Toys “R” Us Closure

Did Toys “R” Us have to close? Yes, it did. Without a management team capable of fully understanding the downsides of running its stores using the “90 in the red” model throughout the year (and failing to accommodate the changing tastes of adult collectors), the stores ultimately succumbed to closure. It was inevitable.

What tipped the scale, though, was 2005’s $6.6 billion leveraged buyout of Toys “R” Us by the KKR, Bain Capital, and Vornado Realty Trust; a purchase that saddled the corporation with at least $5 billion in debt, in addition to its already mounting toy inventory debt each operating year. There was simply no way Toys “R” Us could recover from and pay down that debt considering its interest each month.

In fact, it was this very same leveraged buyout that not only trashed Toys “R” Us, it also lost its original private equity investors at least $1.28 billion. Even these private equity firms were ignorant of Toys “R” Us’s “90 in the red” model. You’d think that between three different private equity firms, one would have had brain among them. I guess not. Toys “R” Us was not worth buying strictly because of that business model… and it was especially true when considering saddling an already debt overburdened company with even more debt. It was an insanely stupid buyout made more stupid because of the lack performing even the most basic of fiduciary responsibility. Those private equity firms got exactly what they deserved out of that deal. Make the wrong deal, get the wrong results.

If I had been sitting in the room when this buyout deal was being considered, I would have put the kibosh on that deal pronto. If managers of stores could recognize how badly Toys “R” Us was operating in the 80s, why couldn’t a bunch of suits at three different private equity firms see this before plopping down $6.6 billion?

Overvaluation

If anything, 2005’s TRU sale is a cautionary tale. There are way too many buyouts that are purchased at way too high a value. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. Companies worth maybe $500 million sell for $3 billion? It’s just insane the money that’s being overspent. Would you walk into Walmart and offer to pay $25 for a $5 tube of toothpaste? I don’t think so. So, why do these investors think it’s okay to spend $6.6 billion on a company worth maybe $1 billion at its best… and it was then likely actually worth much less considering the debt that it already carried. Its insane business model should have further reduced its value.

Could Toys “R” Us have been saved?

Probably not. At least, not with its status quo business model. But, it might have been saved IF Toys “R” Us had adopted a more balanced approach to its store sales and more sane merchandise ordering in combination with letting managers actually handle full store merchandising instead of relying on nice looking, but misguided corporate-standard planograms.

Only stock enough merchandise in a specific store that that store can actually sell. Let managers move stock around on shelves and place the merchandise in their store where it’s most likely to sell. Additionally, don’t send stock to a store where the buying demographic isn’t buying that type of merchandise. If Barbies aren’t popular in a particular store’s demographic region, send limited amounts of Barbies there. It’s a waste of money and effort to stock merchandise that doesn’t sell. One of Toys “R” Us’s biggest foibles was its cookie-cutter store approach. That meant it was sending the same stock to all stores regardless of popularity in that local store’s area. It also meant that it way overspent on toys that would never sell at certain stores. Eventually, they simply had to clearance out those toys. Each store’s inventory should have been customized based on buying habits of local consumers and by the local manager. Only the local store team knows what’s the “hot sellers” in their store.

Clearance merchandise is actually a red flag in the retail business. It means that, as a store, you way overspent on merchandise that you couldn’t sell. If you have excessive clearance merchandise, then your merchandise spends are way off. It also means that your buyer is overbuying stuff that isn’t selling. It means you need to rethink your buyer and it means your new buyer needs to rethink how much to spend on similar types of products.

One of Toys “R” Us’s other foibles was its inability to recognize and stock the “hottest toys” rapidly. If you send 5 of something to a store and it sells out in 10 minutes, you need to stock more of it and you need to do it pronto. Yet, it might take Toys “R” Us 30 or more days to get that merchandise back in stock. That’s 30 days of zero sales… sales that could have been had the next day and the day after that. Missed sales were one of TRU’s biggest problems. Having merchandise in stock that you can sell day after day is a huge win. Yet, if the corporate buyers don’t even know to reorder this thing again, the store is blind. This is why the next part was so important to improving TRU.

Instead, this toy chain should have let the local managers have autonomy via cutting merchandise from their store that isn’t selling and placing rush orders on the hottest toys. By letting the managers, you know, actually manage the store’s inventory properly, the stores could have cut costs and raised profits. The managers could have done this by buying more of popular hot sellers in that area, shuffling cold merchandise to other stores that can sell it and cutting non-sellers from the inventory. In fact, managers should have actually had access to every store’s inventory throughout the chain and when that item last sold there. If a particular item is selling hot in one store, but is completely dead in other stores, the hot item store manager should be able to request stock moved from the cold stores to their store. This way, managers could have directly moved inventory from store to store instead of placing orders for more stock, thus causing more debt. Only after the existing in-store inventory was exhausted should a new order need to be placed. The buyers from the chain should have endorsed this manager autonomy.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t a priority for the very rigid corporate run TRU. I could walk into a store in Texas and find specific toys always out of stock. Then walk into a TRU in St. Louis a week later and find twenty of them sitting on the shelf with dust on the top. If stores had been able to request the hottest toys moved from other stores, the chain could have saved a lot of money on new stock orders.

This change in business model could have drastically improved Toys “R” Us’s profitability throughout the year. It probably would have cut down on orders to toy sellers, but something’s got to give when you’re running a retail store chain. If the toy manufacturers had to suffer a little to let Toys “R” Us recover and be a whole lot more profitable, then so be it.

Unfortunately, TRU’s status quo model endured. Even if the leveraged buyout hadn’t occurred in 2005, Toys “R” Us’s fate was pretty much sealed strictly by is “90 in the red” (cookie cutter) mentality. It was only a matter of time before it succumbed to its own debt burden even if it hadn’t incurred a ton more debt after that poor sale. The 2005 unwise sale simply accelerated Toys “R” Us’s already looming demise.

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Star Force Book Series: A Review

Posted in entertainment, novels, reviews by commorancy on September 8, 2019

While Audible and Amazon both allow you to review individual books separately, they don’t really offer a way to review a book series as a whole. Let’s explore B.V. Larson’s Star Force book series.

SPOILER ALERT: If you wish to read this book series, this review may contain spoilers.

Book Style

Let’s start by how these books are written. Unlike many books which might jump back and forth between several unfolding story arcs between different characters, this book series is written entirely linear with a single story thread told to us in first person by the protagonist. Unfortunately, this linear unfolding is a bit detrimental to this series of books because there are a number of characters who could have benefited from having their own separate story arc. Seeing these events unfold separately from the main character’s story would have given us deeper depth into this universe and its series of unfolding events.

Instead, the author chose to focus entirely on Kyle Riggs, our protagonist of this series, and his specific circumstances, always from Kyle’s point of view. In fact, the book series is almost written as a fictional memoir… as if Kyle is recounting these stories from some distant future rather than being told to us “in the now”. This aspect was neither confirmed nor denied by the author. It’s simply left open.

Swarm

The Book Swarm starts the series. Kyle’s kids are killed by an unknown UFO when they are summarily nabbed by, then ejected from the UFO. When Kyle himself is nabbed by the same UFO, he is able to solve the riddle and remain alive. This is where the entire series sets its foundation for what comes in every later book… sort of.

Unfortunately, there were many missteps in this series along the way. Well, maybe not exactly missteps, but definitely missed opportunities to delve deeper not only into the Kyle’s psyche, but into the psyche of the machines (and ultimately “The Blues”). “The Blues” being the creators of not only the “nano” tech used to create the nano ships that killed Kyle’s kids, but they also created the “macros”. This one race of beings created the entire series of circumstances that set this entire series in motion… and imparts important technology to humanity that allows it to become space faring.

Kyle meets most of his important contacts in this first book including Sandra and Crowe. Other characters would make appearances later on and remain throughout the series. Some characters are killed for various sometimes unexplained reasons. Swarm is the foundation book that lays the groundwork for all that comes in the remaining 8 other “Kyle” novels.

You might be thinking, “9 total novels? I thought there were 14?” Well, kind of. Beginning with the novel Outcast (book 10), this is the first collaborative novel between B. V. Larson and another author. Usually when I see an extra author name on the cover, the lion’s share of work is likely done by the co-author, not the original series author. This means that beginning at Outcast, I’d consider this the beginning of a new series even though it continues with the same numbering scheme and is under the Star Force label.

In fact, because Outcast begins with Cody Riggs, the offspring of Jasmine and Kyle, at a point in the future when he’s “coming of age”, I’d consider this no longer about Kyle Riggs. His story is done and ended at book 9. For me, I consider the series actually complete at book 9. All books after 9 are intended to carry on in this universe, but with an entirely different cast of characters and years later… even though Marvin, the ubiquitous robot, is still at play and so is Kwan.

Let’s Get Started

With the above story groundwork laid, I can begin this review in earnest. One thing that irks me is when authors abscond with pop culture references in works without really giving due credit to any of the original creators. For example, the transport “Rings” in this novel are almost ripped off entirely from Stargate… and in particular, the Stargate SG1 TV series. Most notably, B. V. Larson’s use of not only the ring itself, but absconding with the idea that ‘Ancients’ created the rings, the exact terms used in Stargate SG1. Whenever I run into such references, I have to shake my head.

While I can’t begrudge B. V. Larson being a fan of SG1… hey, I’m a fan of that series too… I can’t really agree with using such blatant copying of ideas right down to the use of the same names.

Other such references include Star Wars, with Phobos… a moon-like space station with a “gravity canon”, in similar form to the planet killer weapon of the Death Star. These references are quite immediately apparent. Another pop culture reference includes the nano technology used throughout the book series. While B. V. Larson uses these nanites in specific ways to improve humanity, the technology was actually again ripped from both Stargate SG1 and Terminator 2. However, in SG1, the “nanos”, actually the Replicators, were enemies and could not at all be tamed and used from the betterment of humanity. The liquid metal described by Kyle always resonated with me in the same way as the T-1000 terminator in T2.

Kyle Riggs

Within this story, Kyle Riggs is our protagonist. He’s the one we are supposed cheer on. In some cases, his actions are worth cheering. In other cases, his actions are questionable and his motives are not explained. In fact, there are many ideas left unexplained in the series and we’ll come to that section of this review a bit later.

Kyle Riggs begins this tale as a computer science teacher turned farmer and ends this tale as emperor over the known earth… who then steps down and goes back to farming with his new kid, Cody, in tow. Basically, the book ends where it begins. In many ways, it’s a contrived tale that comes full circle. What happens between book 1 and book 9 simply fills in Kyle’s gap between these two bookends. That’s not to say that everything that happens between book 1 and book 9 is uninteresting, but know that if you delve too deeply into its meanings, you’ll definitely come up short changed.

Kyle makes his way from school teacher, to nanoship pilot, to nanotized warrior to colonel of the Star Force fleet. It’s a somewhat slow-ish progression predicated by the fact that we have no other character tales unfolding in the background. We can accept this series of events because we are not told of many other characters seeking similar opportunities in the flying fleet. When such characters do present such as Crowe, Kerr or Miklos, they are summarily and rapidly sidelined by all-too-convenient plot lines. In the beginning of this tale, there were hundreds of nanoships. There had to have been at least one other nanoship pilot capable of performing as well or possibly better than Kyle Riggs. We must, therefore, simply accept what’s happening at face value and not question this series of events at all. That Kyle Riggs was the “smartest” and “brightest” of the bunch was something we simply have to accept to buy into this book series. If you can’t buy this concept, then the books won’t work.

Kyle also acts in all sorts of odd ways throughout the run of the novels. At first, he’s a school teacher trapped in a ship fending for his life. He’s steadfastly against what these ships are doing and pro-humanity (and protector of all “biotics”). Later, he converts into a commander over Star Force… which conveniently more or less disappears until they can rebuild. He then changes his tune a bit. He’s still more-or-less pro-human whenever it suits his fancy. He’s brash, impulsive and reckless. He likes to show us that he’s in charge and that he knows what he’s doing. In fact, he tells us that he doesn’t know what he’s doing over and over and over.

This part was a little overdone. We get it. He’s unsure of himself, but he does whatever thing that seems most logical to him at the moment in time, which usually turns out okay. He’s an okay protagonist with a bit of a streak of meanness built-in. Granted, he is sour over his loss when the story begins, but he seems to quickly forget all about that.

It’s really odd, too. He never properly grieves for his kids, yet he goes way over the top when Sandra dies.

The Blues

During the run of the novels, there comes a time when “The Blues” deliver Kyle a dire warning. The Blues claim that Kyle and his team violated some fundamental universal law that you don’t create or link anything to the existing “ring” system or if you do,  you’ll face the wrath of the “Ancients”. Yet, the entire series ends out Kyle’s saga without having this event occur. Why even bring up large such a story event and then not even follow through with the thread?

Worse, the warning from the Blues is entirely illogical. Why? Because the Ancients would go after “The Blues”, not the humans. Why would the Ancients do this? Because “The Blues” gave the technology to the humans that let them hook anything to the ring. The Blues gave humans nanotech and brain boxes. These fundamental tools allowed Kyle, in turn, to create Marvin… who, again in turn, then created technology to hook into the ring system. It is, therefore, the Blues who are at fault for allowing additional things to be hooked into the ring system, not the humans.

Without “The Blues”, none of what happened in any of these books would be possible, let alone hooking up to the rings. The Blues are entirely responsible for the mess that occurs after their own meddling with the universe. It is the Blues whom the ancients would wipe, not humanity.

As smart as the Blues are, I was entirely surprised they couldn’t logically deduce this outcome. Yet, it doesn’t much matter after Kyle’s second bombardment of The Blues home world. A bombardment, I might add, that while it might be satisfying for Kyle, there’s no confirmation it actually did anything to the Blues. The only way to wipe out the Blues would be to reduce the Blues home world to star dust. We never get confirmation that Kyle’s second bombardment did anything at all. It just all ends with Kyle’s retirement from Star Force.

Untold Tales

In among what is spun in these books, there are a number of un-closed threads. Let’s explore some of these now:

  1. Fate of the Nanoship swarm — When the nanoships leave Earth because they have decided it is no longer of interest to them, they take their captive pilots and disappear. Riggs, however, manages to escape this fate, along with Crowe. Though, we don’t find out about Crowe until a bit later. These, apparently, were the only two nanoships convinced to return to Earth? The rest disappeared into the void and we only hear of them again once more in passing and then they are no longer heard from again. We assume them to all be destroyed, but I got the impression that there were many more nanoships that we never learned of their fate. This thread is left hanging.
  2. Crowe — After Crowe becomes “emperor” on Earth by using his nano factories to outnumber and outgun the planet, we are left with only questions. How did this happen? Why did it happen? Yes, Crowe was basically a scoundrel, we never get the full details of how this coup was accomplished or even why. We get a minimal tale from Jasmine, whose own personal agenda isn’t really known even at the very end. Yes, Crowe was a money hungry person, but was he the kind of person who would do what he was alleged to do on Earth? I’m not so sure. I was never even much convinced that he had taken the nano injections as he always seemed a bit too skittish about doing that. Yet, he manages to become Emperor? Out of sight, out of mind. This is a story that should have been told properly.
  3. Crowe as a Cyborg — Eventually, Crowe must have become nanotized (or cyborgnized) because he was able to fight a nanotized Riggs and survive. Still, Crowe seemed goldigging, but timid. This isn’t the worst part of Crowe’s tale. When Riggs comes face to face with Crowe to sign the peace accord much later, it turns out that Crowe was a cyborg. Wait.. what? How do we go from mindless automaton robots with limited human portions which mindlessly attack the Riggs pigs ships to thinking, speaking, walking, talking, fighting, rational human looking cyborgs? I’ll let the cyborgs that attack Riggs’s ships slide. Sure, the nanos might be able to create such an abomination with a limited brain box. I can see that. But, replacing a human being entirely with a cyborg? That story line came out of nowhere with entirely no explanation.
  4. Crowe escapes? — Assuming Crowe is actually smart enough to invent walking, talking cyborg clones… any cyborg created that appears like Crowe is merely a facsimile of Crowe. Not the real thing. Crowe was way too chicken to actually fight Riggs for real. Yet, at the time when Riggs fights cyborg Crowe, not once does this thought cross the minds of Riggs or, more importantly, Jasmine or even Marvin (who can see many, many steps ahead). Probably one of the biggest oversights in the book series.
  5. Marvin’s Progression — Marvin was created by Riggs from a data stream that was transmitted to his ship. He thought this transmission originated from the Centaurs. Later, we come to find that that wasn’t entirely true. In fact, Marvin surmises his own reasons for his existence. You’ll need to read the novels to know who and why it was transmitted, even though it was never confirmed. Anyway, Marvin acts in increasingly odd ways as the story progresses. At first, Marvin acts mostly like a computer. In the end, Marvin acts contrary to a computer… making decisions that are, in fact, questionable and problematic. Though, many of Marvin’s actions are questionable and problematic. I’m not entirely sure why Riggs really kept him around.
  6. Sandra — Sandra was Riggs’s love interest for most of the series until B. V. Larson decided it was time to kill her off. I’m not entirely sure the actual reasoning behind her death as nothing was really accomplished, nor did Riggs really mourn her in any meaningful way… unless you count getting drunk for months on end mourning.
  7. Cyborgs — This is a story that didn’t get told and also needed to. First, we see the mindless half machine, half flesh cyborgs that come attack Riggs ship and Phobos (the Blues death star). Other than being a somewhat convenient plot device that keeps Tolerance (the Blue aboard Phobos) occupied, the story of these things is never explained. Where they nano constructions? Were they some other tech that Crowe managed to get hold of? Where they something not from Earth? Riggs made a lot of assumptions about these cyborg drones that never got explained. Additionally, when Crowe turns out to be a Cyborg, we have no way of knowing if the Crowe cyborg was the same as or entirely different from what Riggs encountered in space.
  8. Macros defeated? — Were the Macros truly defeated? Time and time again, the macros showed themselves to be a resilient robot species. Sure, they may have had a base located on the dead sun that Riggs destroyed. But, why was it assumed that that was the only base that the Macros had?

Cody Riggs

At the birth of Cody, the series summarily ends seeing Riggs gallivant off to his farm (where the series started) and become a farmer again… never to command a space fleet again. It’s an odd abrupt transition for a character who was methodical about contemplating all of his options. While this section probably should have been under Untold Tales, I found it questionable to bring Cody’s tales into this series as a successor. This tale was about Kyle. When Kyle ended his reign, to me the series was over. Bringing in Cody to carry the torch just doesn’t work… at least not in Outcast. The Outcast book is all over the place and bungling in all of the most inane and trite ways. It tries hard to rekindle what we liked about novels 1-9, but it fails pretty tremendously throughout. While I found each of books 1 through 9 very worthy, even though they are completely told from a single point of view, I found book 10 hard to get through.

Book 10 is disjointed. It starts off on the wrong foot by killing Cody’s girlfriend as the first major event… an entirely unnecessary random thing. Yes, it brings in some measure of action right out of the gate, but it’s the wrong action. The opening action in Swarm at least made sense for the circumstances. The opening of Outcast didn’t actually make any sense. While Cody is Kyle’s offspring, why would anyone have put a hit out on a kid who hasn’t yet done anything? If anything, they would want to hit Kyle, not Cody. That would have been a more suspenseful book opener. Let Cody rescue his dad from yet another assassination attempt.

There were many ways this Cody series opener could have gone and still involved Jasmine and Kyle in more important ways. Instead, Cody’s first book is all about Cody and his first command… not at all about his family.

Ancients

While I have discussed this above, I want to reiterate how much this part of the series relies on Stargate for its premise. The “rings” are almost identical in complexity and functionality to Stargate’s gate rings… right down to them having been built by “Ancients” (a term used in both Stargate and in Star Force).

In books 1-9, “The Blues” warn Kyle Riggs of impending doom from the “Ancients” which, unfortunately as I said above, never materializes within these books. This to me was a huge miss. If you’re going to tease such a power exists in the universe, you should at least show it to us before Kyle’s retirement. I don’t want to see Cody deal with these ancient aliens. I want to see Kyle do it. It was warned on Kyle’s watch, it should be Kyle who handles it.

I’m also generally okay with limited uses of copying from other science fiction as long as you give a nod (in the form of credit) to the material somewhere. Perhaps naming Kyle’s ship “Samantha”. Just give us a nod to the science fiction universe from where you stole your ideas so we both know what you did, can agree to it, smile at the nod and move on. Without a nod like this, it just looks like theft of ideas… and worse, without credit, it simply looks like you can’t come up with your own original ideas. Sure, the transport ring system used in Stargate was an excellent transport device. But, so was the matter transporter in Star Trek. Why didn’t you use that, too?

If the use of the word “Ancients” was supposed to be the nod to Stargate, it failed. Don’t use an obscure reference when giving a nod. Nod by giving us a tongue-in-cheek reference to a main character such as Samantha Carter, Daniel Jackson, Teal’c or Jack O’Neil. Don’t use “Ancients” which makes your theft look more like a theft than a nod. Make us understand that the reference is intended towards another pop culture icon series. The use of the word “Ancients” doesn’t read as a proper nod.

Overall

Books 1 through 9 are decent reads with the exception of a few eye rolling passages here and there, a few logic errors and a few oddities that were included but never followed through. I’d give the whole series a solid 4 out of 5 stars.

If you’re into science fiction which relies heavily on concepts introduced by Stargate, then you may like the Star Force book series. If you’re looking for more original and cerebral science fiction content, you’ll want to keep looking. This is not the book series for you. The books in no way blaze a new, distinct trail in the science fiction universe. Instead, it retreads many older formulas in sometimes new, but sometimes tired ways. The story is mostly fresh, but the technology concepts have already been introduced by the likes of Star Trek, Stargate and Terminator. In these series cases, many times it was done better.

With that said, I’d call the series quits at book 9. Book 10 effectively starts a brand new series set in the same universe, except with Cody (Kyle’s son) at the helm. Cody is okay, but the author tries way too hard to fit Cody into the same mold as Kyle… to the story’s detriment. The setups in book 10 are contrived, unoriginal and, in many ways, juvenile. As I said above, because Cody is so young, the story just doesn’t read as genuine or fresh. It reads as forced. It also reads as a genre change from mature science fiction to young adult. To me, this genre change almost seems like a slap in the face to the readers. Anyway, why is Cody so gung-ho to follow in Kyle’s footsteps? Why did he want to board a starship and head to the skies? What was the urgent urgency of this decision? This wasn’t set up at all.

It seems to me that Kyle and Jasmine would have brought up Cody with ideals of staying on the farm and helping out there… not gallivanting off into the universe on a starship. Cody’s whole premise simply comes out of nowhere with no explanation. One minute Cody is in a barn with Marvin setting stuff on fire and the next minute Cody is aboard a starship heading off to new adventures. It seems to me that Kyle, as headstrong as he is, would have had something to say about that… but where are dad and mom? No where really. Jasmine only makes an inconsequential appearance, long enough to nurse Cody to health. Kyle doesn’t even really make an appearance. Book 10 starts out so weird and progresses to nonsense in short order.

My advice is to read books 1 through 9 and call it quits. Leave book 10 and the rest unread. If you really want to know what happens to Cody, sure go ahead. But, know that Cody’s stories don’t in any way tie into Kyle’s stories. They’re all new adventures in all new universes with all new friends and foes. Basically, with these stories, they’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater to start a new series starring Cody. Start and end with the “Kyle” books and you’re set. Only do the “Cody” books if you really want this additional post-story content.

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What’s wrong with Quora?

Posted in botch, business, california, rant by commorancy on July 28, 2019

QuoraYou might be asking, “What is Quora?” We’ll get into that soon enough. Let’s explore the problems with Quora.

Questions and Answers

Before we get into Quora, let’s start by talking about Google. Many people seek answers from Google for many different questions. In fact, questions are the number one use for Google. You don’t go to Google to seek answers you already know. You go there to search (or question) things you don’t know. Such questions might include:

  • Where can I buy a toaster?
  • How long do I bake a chicken?
  • How do I make Quesadillas?
  • What’s the value of my 1974 Pontiac T-Bird?

These are full text questions. And yes, Google does support asking questions in long form such as these above. You can also search Google by using short key words, such as “toastmaster toaster” or “pontiac t-bird” (no, you don’t even need to use the proper case).

These short form questions are solely for use at search engines. When seeking answers to long form questions both Google and other sites can offer responses to your questions. One such site is Quora. Another is Yahoo Answers (a much older platform). Even Google got in on this action with Google Questions and Answers.

Quora

Quora is a recent incarnation of the older Yahoo Answers platform. Even before Yahoo Answers, there was Ask Jeeves. Even Epinions, a product review site (defunct as of 2018), had many answers to many questions. Epinions, in fact, opens a bigger discussion around site closures and content… but that’s a discussion for another article.

The real question (ahem) is whether sites like Yahoo Answers and Quora provide valuable answers or whether they simply usurp Google’s ability to answer questions in more trusted ways. I’m on the fence as to this question’s answer. Let me explain more about Quora to understand why I feel this way.

Quora is a crowdsourced product. By that I mean that both questions and answers are driven by crowds of subscribers. Not by Quora staff or, indeed, Quora at all. Unlike Wikipedia which has many volunteers who constantly proof, correct and improve articles to make Wikipedia a trustworthy information source, Quora offers nothing but the weakest of moderation. In fact, the only moderation Quora offers is both removal of answers and banning of accounts.

Quora has no live people out there reviewing questions and answers for either grammar and mechanics, nor trustworthiness. No one questions whether an answer is valid, useful or indeed even correct. Quora doesn’t even require its answer authors to cite sources or in any way validate what they have written. In fact, Quora’s moderation system is so broken that when answer authors do cite sources, their answer might be flagged and removed as ‘spam’. Yes, the very inclusion of web site links can and will cause answers to be marked as spam and removed from the site. Quora’s insane rationale is that if there’s a web link, it must be pointing to a site owned by the answer author and in which the answer author is attempting to advertise. This stupid and undermining rationale is applied by bots who neither read the content they review nor do they understand that the answer author can’t possibly own Wikipedia.com, Amazon.com or eBay.com.

Indeed, Quora’s moderation is so bare bones basic and broken, it undermines Quora’s own trustworthiness so much so that when you read an answer on Quora, you must always question the answer author’s reputation. Even then, because Quora’s verification and reputation system is non-existent, you can never know if the person is who they say they are. But, this is just the tip of the troubles at Quora.

Quora’s Real Problems

Trustworthiness is something every information site must address. It must address it in concrete and useful ways, ways that subscribers can easily get really fast. Wikipedia has addressed its trust issues by a fleet of moderators who constantly comb Wikipedia and who question every article and every statement in each article. Even with a fleet of moderators, incorrect information can creep in. Within a day or two, that information will either be corrected or removed. Wikipedia has very stringent rules around the addition and verification of information.

Twitter offers a verification system so that celebrities and people of note can send information to Twitter to verify who they say they are to Twitter staff. You’ll notice these as little blue check mark’s by the Twitter subscriber’s name. These check marks validate the person as legitimate and not a fake.

Quora, on the other hand, has no such rules or validation systems at all. In fact, Quora’s terms of service are all primarily designed around “behaving nicely” with no rules around validation of content or of authors. Indeed, Quora offers no terms that address trust or truth of the information provided. Far too many times, authors use Quora as a way of writing fanciful fiction. Worse, Quora does nothing to address this problem. They’re too worried about “spam” links than about whether an answer to a question is valid or trustworthy.

Yet, Quora continually usurps Google’s search by placing its questions (and answers implicitly) at the top of the search results. I question the value in Quora for this. It’s fine if Quora’s answers appear in search towards the bottom of the page, but they should NEVER appear at the number 1 position. This is primarily a Google problem. That Google chooses to promote untrustworthy sites at the top of its search results is something that Google most definitely needs to address. Sure, it is a problem for Quora, but it’s likewise a problem for Google.

Google purports to want to maintain “safety” and “trustworthiness” in its search by not leading you to malicious sites and by, instead, leading you to trustworthy sites. Yet, it plops Quora’s sometimes malicious answers at the top of its search results. Google needs to begin rating sites for trustworthiness and it should then push search results to appropriate levels based on that level of trust. Google needs to insist that sites like Quora, which provide consumers with actionable information, must maintain a certain level of trust to maintain high search rankings. Quora having its question results appear in the top 3 positions of the first page of Google search based entirely on weak trustworthiness is completely problematic.

Wikipedia strives to make its site trustworthy… that what you read is, indeed, valuable, valid and truthful information. Quora, on the other hand, makes absolutely no effort to ensure its answers are valid, trustworthy or, indeed, even truthful. You could ask Google for the answer to a question. You might see Quora’s results at the top of Google’s results and click it. Google placing such sites in the top 3 positions implies an automatic level of trust. That the sites that appear in the first 3 results are there because they ARE trustworthy. This implicit trust is entirely misplaced. Google doesn’t, in fact, place sites in the top of its search because they are trustworthy. It places them there because of “popularity”.

You simply can’t jump to this “trustworthiness” conclusion when viewing Google search results. The only thing you can glean from a site appearing in Google results is that it is not going to infect your computer with a virus. Otherwise, Google places any site at the top of its ranking when Google decides to rank in that position. As I said, you should never read any implicit level of trust into sites which appear in the first 3 positions of Google search. Quora proves this out. Quora’s entire lack of trustworthiness of information means that Google is not, in any way, looking out for your best interests. They are looking out for Quora, not you. Quora’s questions sometimes even rank higher than Wikipedia.

Quora’s Answers

With that said, let’s delve deeper into the problem with Quora’s answers. If you’ve ever written an answer on Quora, then you’ll fully understand what I’m about to say. Quora’s terms of service are, in fact, counter to producing trustworthy answers. Unlike news sites like CNN, The Washington Post and the L.A. Times, where journalistic integrity is the key driving force, Quora ensures none of this. Sure, Quora’s answer editor tool does offer the ability to insert quotes and references, but doing so can easily mark your answer as ‘spam’.

In fact, I’ve had 2 or 3 year old Quora answers marked as ‘spam’ and removed from view because of the inclusion of a link to an external and reputable web site. Quora cites violation of terms for this when, in fact, no such violation exists. The author is then required to spend time appealing this “decision”.

Instead, its bots will remove reviews from its site based entirely upon reports by users. If a user doesn’t like the answer, they can report the review and the review bot will then take the answer down and place it under moderation appeal. There is no manual review by actual Quora staff to check the bot’s work. This work is all done by robots. Robots that can be gamed and sabotaged by irate, irrational, upset users who have a vendetta against other Quorans.

The answer takedowns are never in the interest of trust or making Quora more trustworthy, but are always in the interest of siding with the reporting user who has a vendetta or is simply insane. Users have even learned that they can game Quora’s robots to have answers removed without valid reasons or, indeed, no reasons at all. There’s no check and balance with the moderation robots or takedown requests. Quora receives a report, the answer is summarily removed.

Unfortunately, this is the tip of a much larger Quora iceberg. Let’s continue.

Which is more important, the question or the answer?

All of the above leads to an even bigger problem. Instead of Quora spending its development time attempting to shore up its level of site trust, it instead spends its time creating questionable programs like the Partner Program. A program that, in one idea, sums up everything wrong with Quora.

What is the Partner Program? I’ll get to that in a moment. What the Partner Program ultimately is to Quora is an albatross. Or, more specifically, it will likely become Quora’s downfall. This program solidifies everything I’ve said above and, simultaneously, illustrates Quora’s lack of understanding of its very own platform. Quora doesn’t “get” why a question and answer platform is important.

Which is more important to Quora? They answered this question (ha, see what I did there?) by making the question more important than the answer.

That’s right. The Partner Program rewards people monetarily who ask questions, NOT by rewarding the people who spend the lion’s share of their time writing thoughtful, truthful, trustworthy answers. In effect, Quora has told answer authors that their answers don’t matter. You can write a two sentence answer and it would make no difference. Yes, let’s reward the people who spend 5 minutes writing a 5-10 word sentence… not the people who spend an hour or two crafting trustworthy answers. And this is Quora’s problem in a nutshell.

Worse, it’s not the questions that draw people in to Quora. Yes, the question may be the ‘search terms’, but it’s not why people end up on Quora. The question leads people in, it’s the ANSWER that keeps them there. It’s the answers that people spend their time reading, not the questions.

This is the iceberg that Quora doesn’t get nor do they even understand. The questions are stubs. The questions are merely the arrow pointing the way. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. The questions are not the reason people visit Quora.

By producing the Partner Program, Quora has flipped the answer authors the proverbial middle finger.finger-512If you’re a Quora answer author, you should definitely consider the Partner Program as insulting. Quora has effectively told the answer authors, “Your answers are worthless. Only questions have monetary value.” Yes, let’s reward the question writers who’ve spent perhaps less than 5 minutes devising a sentence. Let’s completely ignore the answer authors who have spent sometimes hours or days crafting their words, researching those words for clarity and truthfulness and ensuring trust in each detailed answer.

It’s not the questions that draw people in, Quora staff. People visit Quora for the answers. Without thoughtful answers, there is absolutely no reason to visit Quora.

Indeed, Quora’s thinking is completely backasswards, foolish and clownish. It shows just how much a clown outfit Quora really is. Seriously, placing value on the questions at the expense of answer authors who spend hours crafting detailed answers is the very definition of clownish. That situation would be synonymous to The Washington Post or The New York Times valuing and paying readers to leave comments and then asking their journalists to spend their own time and money writing and researching their articles, only to give the article to the newspaper for free. How many journalists would have ever become journalists knowing this business model?

Qlowns

Whomever at Quora dreamed up this clownish idea should be summarily walked to the door. Dissing and dismissing the very lifeblood of your site, the actual question authors, is just intensely one of the most stupid and insane things I’ve seen a site do in its life.

Not only is the very concept of the partner program qlownish, not only does it completely dissuade authors from participating in Quora, not only does is it completely backwards thinking, not only does it reward question authors (which honestly makes no sense at all), this program does nothing to establish trust or indeed, does nothing to put forth any journalistic integrity.

Instead, Quora needs to ditch the question Partner Program and fast. It needs to quickly establish a system that not only rewards the best answer authors, it needs to enforce journalistic integrity on EVERY ANSWER. It needs to implement a validation system to ensure that authors are who they say they are. It needs to make certain that every answer author understands that they are in every real sense a ‘journalist’. And, as a journalist, they should uphold journalistic integrity. That integrity means properly researching sources and properly citing those sources. Yes, it’s a hassle, but it means that Quora’s answers will become trustworthy sources of information.

Right now, the answer authors are mostly random and low quality. In fact, most answers are of such low quality that you simply can’t trust anything found on Quora. Since Quora does not enforce any level of journalistic standards on the answers, there is no way anyone reading Quora should trust what any answer author writes. An answer may seem detailed, but in some cases they are pure fiction. No one at Quora ensures that answers in any way uphold any level of journalistic integrity (there’s that phrase again). It’s an important phrase when you’re writing something that people rely on.

Making a statement of fact for something that seems questionable needs to be cited with a source of reference. Show that at least one other reputable source agrees with your “facts”. That doesn’t mean that that “fact” is true. It’s easy for other reputable sites to be fooled by tricksters. This is why it’s important to cite several reputable sources which agree with your facts. I don’t want to dive deep into the topic of journalistic integrity or what it takes to validate sources, so I’ll leave this one here. This article is about Quora’s inability to uphold journalistic integrity.

Quora’s Backward Thinking

Indeed, the Partner Program’s existence confirms that Quora’s site importance is the opposite of journalistic integrity. Quora’s team values only the questions and the question writers. They do not, in any way, value the journalistic integrity required to write a solid, trustworthy answer. Questions are mere tools. They do not at all imply any level of trust. Here’s another analogy that might make more sense.

A question is simply the key to open a lock. A key is a tool and nothing more. You pay for the lock and key together. You don’t pay only for a key. Paying for a key without a lock means you don’t value (or indeed) even need a lock. You can’t lock anything with only a key. The two are a pair and they both go hand-in-hand. If you lose the key, you can’t open the lock. If you lose the lock, they key has no value. However, it’s easier and cheaper to replace a key than it is to replace the lock. This shows you the value of a ‘key’ alone.

Because Quora chooses to place value only the key and not on the lock, they have entirely lost the ability to protect Quora’s reputation and credibility. Indeed, Quora’s credibility was already in jeopardy before the Partner Program was even a twinkle in someone’s eye. With the Partner Program, Quora has solidified its lack of credibility. Quora has officially demonstrated that it is committed to valuing and paying only for keys and never paying for locks to go with those keys. That means the locks will be the weakest, most flimsiest pieces of junk to ever exist… indeed, the locks won’t even exist.

When you’re trying to secure something, you want the strongest, most durable, most rugged, most secure lock you can afford. You don’t care about the key other than as a the means of opening and securing a lock. Sure, you want the key to be durable and rugged, but a key is a key. There’s nothing so magical about a key that you’d be willing the shell out big bucks solely for a key. You always expect a lock and key to go together. You expect to buy both and you expect them both to work as a cohesive whole. If the key fails, the lock is worthless. If the lock is breakable, then the key is worthless. A lock and key are the very definition of a synergistic relationship. In the lock and key relationship, both have equal importance to the relationship. However, the lock itself is viewed by most people as the most important piece. Locks, however, become unimportant if they can’t secure the belongings they are entrusted to protect. Yes, you do need both the key and the lock for the system to function as a whole.

Likewise, Quora needs both the question and answer to function as a cohesive whole. In the synergistic relationship between the question and an answer, neither is more important in this synergy. Of the two, however, like the lock mechanism, the answer is the most important to the end user because it is what imparts the most information to the reader. It is what must be trustworthy. It is what must contain the information needed to answer the question. The question then holds the same functionality as a key. In fact, it is very much considered a key to Google. That’s why they’re called ‘keywords’ or ‘key phrases’. Using the word ‘key’ when in relation to a search engine is intended to be very much synonymous with a real life key you attach to a key ring. A keyword unlocks the data you need.

Valuing both the Lock and Key

Quora needs a rethink. If there’s any value to be held on data, both the key and the lock, or more specifically the question and answer, need to be valued as a cohesive whole. If you value the question, then you must also value the answer(s). This means revenue sharing. The question author will then receive the equivalent % of revenue that each answer author receives based on work involved. Since a sentence might take you 5 minutes to write and requires no trustworthiness at all, the maximum value a question author might receive would be no more than 10%. The remaining 90% of the revenue would be issued to the answer authors based on traffic driven to the site.

Let’s say that $100 in revenue is driven to that Q&A for the first month. $10 is given to the question asker… always 10% of total revenue. That’s probably a little on the high side, but the question asker did kick the whole process off.

Now, let’s say 3 answers are submitted for the question. Let’s assume all 3 answer authors are participating in the revenue program. The remaining $90 is then spread among the 3 answer authors based on total views. Likes might pump up the percentage by a small percentage. If one answer is fully detailed and receives 2.5k views in 30 days and the remaining two answers receive 500 views each, then the 2.5k views answer author would receive at least 72% of the remaining revenue (2.5k + 1k = 3.5k). 2.5k is ~72% of 3.5k. This means this author would receive 72% of the remaining $90 or a total of $65. The remaining $15 would be split between the other two authors. The more participating authors, the less money to go around per answer. Questions that receive perhaps 200 answers might see only a few dollars of revenue per author.

There must also be some guidelines around answers for this to work. Answer authors must be invited to participate in the program. If the answer author isn’t invited and hasn’t agreed to terms, no revenue is shared. Also, one word, one sentence and off-topic answers disqualify the answer from sharing in revenue. Additionally, to remain in the revenue program, the answer author must agree to write solid, on-topic, properly structured, fully researched and cited answers. If an invited author attempts to game the system by producing inappropriate answers to gain revenue, the author will be disqualified from the program with any further ability to participate. Basically, you risk involvement in the revenue sharing by attempting to game it.

This math incentivizes not only quality questions, but also quality answers. The better an answer is, the more views it is likely to receive. More views means more revenue. The better and clearer the answer, the more likely the author is to not only be asked to participate in the revenue sharing program, the more likely they are to receive a higher share of that revenue. The best answers should always be awarded the highest amounts of revenue possible.

Google vs Quora

As I postulated early in the article, does Quora actually hold any value as a site or does it merely usurp Google’s search results? This is a very good question, one that doesn’t have a definitive answer. For me, I find that Quora’s current answers range from occasionally and rarely very high quality to, mostly, junky worthless answers. This junky aspect of Quora leads me towards Quora being a Google usurper. In other words, most of Quora’s results in Google are trash clogging up the search results. They shouldn’t be there.

Unfortunately, Google returns all results in a search whether high or low quality. Google does offer some limited protection mechanisms to prevent malicious sites from appearing in results. But, Google’s definition of the word ‘malicious’ can be different than mine in many cases. Simply because someone can put up a web site with random information doesn’t automatically make that site valuable. Value comes from continually providing high quality information on an ongoing basis… the very definition of professional journalism. Now we’re back to journalistic integrity. We’ve come full circle.

Unfortunately, because of Quora’s lack of insistence on journalistic integrity, I find Quora to be nothing more than a mere novelty… no better than TMZ or the National Enquirer. I’m not saying TMZ doesn’t have journalists. They do. But, a rag is always a rag. Any newspaper dishing dirt on people I always consider the bottom feeders of journalism… the very dreckiest of tabloid journalism. This type of journalism is the kind of trash that has kept the National Enquirer and other tabloids in business for many, many years. It’s sensational journalism at its finest (or worst). Sure, these writers might aspire to be true journalists some day, but they’ll never find reputable journalistic employment dishing dirt on celebrities or fabricating fiction (unless they begin writing fiction novels).

Unfortunately, many of Quora’s answers fall well below even the standards established by the dreckiest of tabloids. The one and only one thing tabloids and Quora have in common is fiction. Unfortunately, the fiction on Quora isn’t even that entertaining. It’s occasionally amusing, but most of it is tedious and cliché at its most common. Think of the worst movie you’ve watched, then realize that most of these Quora fiction “stories” are even less entertaining than that. There may be a few gems here and there (probably written by professional writers simply exercising their chops on Quora), but most of it is not worth reading.

Worse, the trust level of what’s written is so low (regardless of purported “credentials”), there’s nothing on Quora worth extending a level of trust. Reading Quora for sheer entertainment value, perhaps that can be justified a little. Even then, most answers fall way short of having even entertainment value. Even the worst YouTube videos have more entertainment value. Full levels of trust? No way. Quora has in no way earned that.

Seeking Answers

Yes, we all need questions answered, occasionally. We all need to seek advice, occasionally. Yes, I’m even seeking to answer the question, “What’s wrong with Quora?” Of course, don’t expect to read any answers like THIS on Quora. Oh, no no no. Quora is very, very diligent at removing anything it deems to be anti-Quora in sentiment, such at this article. Anyway, if you choose to seek out Quora for this kind of information, Quora’s immediately problems become your problem. Considering all of the above, Quora is probably one of the worst ways of getting information. Not only can you be easily deceived by an answer author, you can be taken for a ride down Scam Lane. Trust advice from Quora with the same level of acceptance as you would from a 6 year old child. I’m not saying there are 6 year old children on Quora, but Quora certainly acts like one. Seeking Quora for advice means you could, in fact, be taking advice from 13 year old via a Barbie encrusted iPad.

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The Dangers of Social Media

Posted in advice, social media, tips by commorancy on July 12, 2019

digital-burglar-redSocial media as a platform can be a good thing, but it can also be dangerous. It all depends on how it is used. Let’s explore the dangers lurking on social media.

Social Media as a Platform

Social Media, as its name suggests, is social in nature. That is, it relies on crowds of people to function. Without crowds of people, social media wouldn’t actually be social in nature. Let’s first talk about a few social platforms and then we’ll move onto the core of this discussion.

Social media platforms include such sites as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Discord, Quora, YouNow, YouTube and even the older MySpace. Even such platforms such as Yelp, TripAdvisor, SoundCloud, WordPress and even news sites like DailyMail. Basically, any site that allows you to sign up and comment about what others are doing or saying, that’s considered social media. If you can create your own content on the site and which contains your own opinions that others can comment on, that is considered a form of social media. Some of these comment areas do not allow followers, but some do.

Social Crowds and Controversy

The one thing that has been born out of social media is controversy. Controversy comes in many forms including such topics as gun control, border crossings, politics, political views, LGBTQ, simple stupidity and, yes, racial issues.

Controversy is also what fans the viral fires. If you post something that’s considered a highly controversial topic, it’s very likely to go viral. The more controversial the opinion, the more likely it will go viral. The most controversial topics might even be picked up by news outlets like local TV news or possibly even nationwide news outlets like CNN, CBS, ABC, NBC or Fox News and made to go nationwide or worldwide viral.

Many people mistakenly believe that things go viral because social media subscribers make it go viral. Not exactly. Content goes viral because of its controversial nature, not because people make it go viral. Yes, it does take people to make stuff go viral, but a sufficiently controversial topic doesn’t need much help to spark the viral fire. Simply by posting such a highly controversial topic may be enough for that content to become the newest viral sensation.

Viral Degradation

In the beginning of social media, only the absolute most interesting information went viral. Today, social media has degraded from showing ‘the most interesting’ into ‘the most controversial’. That doesn’t mean that this controversial information is in any way ‘interesting’ or ‘good’. It simply means that it’s viral. By viral, I mean that far too many people share and re-share and re-re-share that content over and over. The more people who share it, the more viral it becomes. Viral doesn’t always equal ‘good’; though an ever diminishing percentage of these viral posts do have worthwhile content.

Viral fires typically die down over a 24 hour period. Sometimes less than that. Something that goes viral might take off and be heavily viral for 3 or 4 hours until ‘the next viral thing’ appears. It’s very much a quick up and down situation.

Because of the recent degradation in the quality of stuff that’s going viral, it shows that people’s tastes are changing from being more sophisticated to being much less sophisticated. This likely can be attributed to cost reduction of smartphone devices (and Internet services) which have allowed access to these apps by more and more people. This means that the ‘less educated masses’ of the world now have access to and can sign up for social media platforms directly on their phone with just a few clicks in an app store.

When phone devices remained at the $500-1000 range and only those devices connected to social media by folks with higher educations, the quality of what came out of social media was much higher. Today, because there are now $50-100 devices using lower cost Internet services (with increased rural coverage) and these devices can run Twitter and Facebook and other social apps, these devices have trickled down to the hands of the less educated of the world.

What does this all mean? It means that more and more folks around the world now have access to making comments on social media sites. As a result, there are now, more than ever, such problems as death threats. Whether those threats can be taken seriously depends on many factors… factors which you should let the police determine.

The Dangers of Social Media

Now we get to the crux of this article. Yes, it took a lot of build up to this section because it took all of the information above to describe why social media danger exists.

When social media began, people were urged to only friend people they actually knew. This suggestion was both prudent and entirely ignored. It’s prudent because friending people you don’t really know can lead to dangerous situations. That’s clear. However, in the resulting years since the birth of Twitter and Facebook, people have ignored that safety tenet. Instead, far too many people have chosen to friend everyone and anyone in hopes of obtaining a massive following.

With sites like YouTube and YouNow, designed to encourage unknown followers from around the world and whom you do not know, these followers typically follow you because they like what you have to say. Because of models like YouTube, people assume the same model applies when joining Facebook or Twitter… basically, just get followers at any cost. And yes, some people even begun to pay money to get people to follow them.

The difficulty with followers isn’t that they follow you. It’s that many of them are psychotic. It is estimated that 1% of the population has Schizophrenia and 3.5% of the population has some form of psychosis. The 2019 U.S. population is right around 329 million people. That means 11.5 million people suffer from some form of psychosis and 3.29 million people, in fact, suffer from schizophrenia. But, it doesn’t stop there. You can get followers from all over the world. The world’s population is estimated to be 7.7 billion. Not all of those people have access to social media, but a large enough percentage of that 7.7 billion do.

Let’s bring that down in size a little to a social media feed. If you have a following of 10,000 people on a social media site, that means that at least 100 people in your feed suffer from schizophrenia and at least 350 people suffer from some form of psychosis. Not all of these people are dangerous, but some are. It only takes one… and it’s guaranteed you have at least one in your following.

Psychosis and Social Media Celebrity

Having psychotic people in your following is something that you will need to consider whenever you post something to your feed. It is these folks who might take your opinion the wrong way and possibly even wish harm on you. Whether these folks are capable of actually performing harm on you is based on many factors out of your control. What is in your control, however, is what you post to your feed.

Posting controversial topics is likely to draw these folks out into the open to either heavily praise or condemn you for your statements. Some might even threaten your life with harm or death. The more controversial the topic, the more likely it is to bring divisive and, potentially, dangerous comments. If you discuss politics with an unpopular opinion, you’re going to get many fanatics who will come at you.

On the flip side, you also have the rest of your following who is likely sane. It’s not the sane people who wish you harm. The sane folks also won’t protect you, but they may help you defend your feed. However, those in your following who are sane are impossible to tell from the potentially insane… that is, until you start receiving extremely disturbing responses to your posts. Controversy does bring in followers, but it also draws out the psychotics. If you post something highly controversial, expect to draw out a number of psychotic people into the open… who may then attack you with words and possibly even threaten you.

Unfortunately, sometimes it’s way too late once you’ve already posted the content to withdraw it. Once something has gone viral, your content may even draw in even more psychotic people disproportionately to your following. Controversy seems to draw in psychotic people.

Trolls, Psychosis and Threats

Many social media site owners dismiss harsh, irrelevant, dangerous or threat comments as ‘trolls’. Some of these folks may be trolls, but being a troll doesn’t make the person harmless. You never know who is intent on harming you. If you receive a threat, you should always take that threat seriously. You should never dismiss a disturbing comment as harmless, particularly if the person seems to know who you are and where you live. If you receive a threat of a personal nature that even seems to know you and where you are, you should immediately contact the police with all of your evidence. It doesn’t mean the person is actually going to carry out the threat, but you can’t be certain of that.

Livelihood and Viral Dissing

There are likely many folks, probably even more than those listed as having psychosis as being borderline psychotic. What that means is that it might only take one thing to push a person over the edge… that thing might be your next post on your social media feed.

For example, if someone visits your home to service your dishwasher and knows exactly where you live, you should never, ever insult or in any way badmouth this person on your social media feed. Not ever! If that person is a repair person or a delivery driver or any similar locally operated profession, never ever photograph or video them in hopes of putting it on your social media feed to humiliate them. Don’t do this. You are asking for a world of hurt by doing this.

As soon as you do, you’re going to regret it in more ways than one. The primary way is that when this person finds your post humiliating them on your page (and they probably will), particularly if it’s gone viral, they (or their friends) can come back to your house and take action against you or your property. Be warned! Anyone who knows where you live is never a candidate for social media humiliation or harassment.

If you have problems with a local service, use Yelp to describe why their service was a problem, but only using professional words about the service itself. If a specific staff person did something to offend you personally, again use Yelp. Always keep it professional discussing only business reasons why it didn’t work out (what about their service failed you) and never humiliate or call out an individual person by name or show them on video. Only describe the service and, if you must call out employee behavior, call out the person by gender only (e.g., female cashier, pool guy, male pizza delivery driver, etc).

As another example, if you’ve visit a restaurant and the waitperson is exceedingly rude or bad at their job, you can write about that person in your review, but never name them. You can describe that employee’s actions, but only describe them by their actions. Only name names or describe the person to the management team of the restaurant chain and only in relation to your poor service. Never name names or post photos of such employees on social media! You can name names via direct message, private chat or via email to a management representative of the company, but never do it on open public forums for followers to see. If you so choose to photograph or video the person in action, don’t post that to your personal feed. You can choose to hand the video off anonymously to media outlets like the AP, Reuters, CNN or even random YouTube news outlets, but posting a video to your own personal social media feed allows that video to be traced directly back to you. This is never a good idea.

What does this have to do with livelihood? Everything. If you call out a person by name, their current and future employers can find this information online and take action against them. Current employers can fire them for “inappropriate” actions. Future employers can deny hiring or fire them later if found. You don’t want your content to be the downfall of someone’s career now or any time in the future. Why? Because, as I said, psychosis is a problem… particularly if someone is borderline. If your social media action causes someone to lose their job, they could come take that out on you and your family.

I’ll also point out that if you choose to fill your social media feed with controversial topics about businesses, you may find your own employer may not like these posts. Derogatory posts against businesses may backfire on your own employment. You should be exceedingly cautious when posting these types of posts into your social media feed. You never know when something you’ve put onto social media might have insulted your CEO, HR manager or even your boss’s best friend.

There’s no need to take that risk by…

Throwing Caution to the Wind

Buy vomiting up everything controversial you possibly can (simply to gain followers) about anyone and everyone you meet, you are putting yourself in very real danger. You never know who is reading your words and, even more than this, who might take action on those words.. perhaps even against you personally. Inciting people to do things is never a good idea on social media. At some point, there will be a Charles Manson-like social media personality who will incite enough people and then who will feign innocence that it’s just words on a screen. Yet, this person will have incited many people to do entirely inappropriate actions towards others. The police and the legal system will have to up their game to cover these inappropriate uses of social media. I guarantee you, this is coming.

However, that’s the most extreme example of using followers to do bad things. Most well meaning folks are simply ignorant of how dangerous their words and videos can be. If what you’re posting is considered a danger to national security, I can guarantee you the NSA will be at your doorstep ASAP. If what you’re saying, on the other hand, simply shows disrespect your local repairman in a very public and ugly way, you’re putting yourself and your family in very real danger. There’s no need for that when you can CHOOSE not to post such content.

You shouldn’t intentionally throw caution to the wind when writing social media posts. Sanity, intelligence and professionalism should always prevail. I do realize that controversy ‘sells’, but it also sells danger. If you choose to ignore this advice, then you must take the consequences of your actions even if that means someone puts you into the hospital or the morgue. Yes, it can and does happen.

Here’s another very recent example of a homicide of a young girl by a stalker after her stalker caught up with her after harassing her on Discord (and via iMessage). You’ll want to click to follow this thread through to Twitter and read all about this:

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Rant Time: Pinterest

Posted in botch, business, Random Thoughts, rant, reviews, social media by commorancy on June 30, 2019

pinterestPinterest is an image sharing platform using image ‘pins’, which should be interesting. After all, the word “interest” is in its name. You would think that before releasing a platform designed around relevance, the Pinterest team could actually design an engine capable of producing relevant and interesting images. NOT! Pinterest is one of the worst, if not THE worst platform, at displaying relevant ‘pins’ in your feed, not that Tumblr and Instagram are much better at this. Let’s explore.

Search Interests

One of the things that has vexed developers for a long time is how to show you stuff that’s actually interesting and, more importantly, relevant to you. Amazon and Google have done a decent, albeit not any anywhere near perfect, job of implementing such search heuristics, where the results actually offer some measure of interest and relevance to you based on the data they know about you.

This data collection, storage and mining issue is currently a point of privacy contention among many and is even in the news, but ‘search history’ is the primary means of showing you “stuff” that is actually of personal interest. The secondary method, which is less creepy and at least a bit more tolerable, is asking you directly for categories you’re interested in (i.e., sports, fashion, music, your age, single/married, kids, etc). Still, your search history actually contains the most relevant information about you as it’s recent and current. Unlike family relationships that can change (kids grow up, couples separate, graduate from college, move, get remarried, etc), search history implies a lot about your current situation and is way more up-to-date than explicitly given data that gets old even just a month or two after it’s given. Explicit offered data can even be based on lies, because some people roll that way.

As an example of recent search history, searching about baby related stuff (cribs, clothing, formula, diapers) might yield ads from Amazon, Target or Walmart selling baby goods. It only makes sense… and this is an example of ‘relevance targeting’. That is, targeting you with images or ads you have searched for in the recent past. Same for searching for wedding, bridal or other similar information. Same for searching for car buying. Search history is ‘in the now’ information that is clearly relevant to you “right now”. The “right now” portion of search relevance is key to a great relevance engine and to ad targeting.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work if you share a computer with multiple people; for example, you might have a family of four or have roommates in your dorm. In cases like these, your daughter might have searched for Barbie dolls and now you have a bunch of irrelevant (to you) stuff related to Barbie or toys or kid related items. The search engine simply can’t recognize who is at the keyboard. It currently can only attribute search results to a specific computer. Until search engines can identify who is at the keyboard with each search (i.e., facial or voice recognition), engines must identify based only on the computer itself (a limited recognition system). This is the reason voice assistants like “Ok, Google”, Alexa, Siri and Cortana are so important. Unfortunately, I don’t believe these assistants yet identify the voice itself. They only recognize the words spoken and translate that into text search.

Search relevance definitely isn’t perfect much of the time and doesn’t work at all when using a shared device. Using a shared device, I do get why ‘relevant ad targeting’ doesn’t work. However, if your device is solely used by you, then relevance targeting should work perfectly… or at least as perfectly as today’s targeting algorithms allow. Yet, for Pinterest, it doesn’t.

Pinterest’s Targeting Engine

Why discuss the above? Let’s illustrate exactly how Amazon and Google work ad targeting relevance. If you’ve searched for “men’s clothing” in the recent past, then Google and Amazon will insert these kinds of items into your ‘feed’. A feed is basically a place on the screen where ‘Recommended for you’ stuff appears.

Pinterest doesn’t use a ‘Recommended’ area, instead choosing to intermix it all together in one immediate and immense jumbled mess. If any dictionary needs an example for ‘cluttered’, Pinterest certainly works.

[RANT ON]

Like bread falling butter side down, so this rant begins. Pinterest has one of the worst designed, most sloppy, most cluttered, most inaccurate relevance engines in existence. In fact, I don’t even think Pinterest has a relevance engine. They seem to vomit up all random irrelevant garbage into your Pinterest feed based on who knows what criteria.

Worse, they then attribute that random spewed garbage to being ‘Inspired by’ (a form of ‘Recommend’) to a board you’ve created. I’m sorry. Wait.. what, Pinterest? How does a picture of a baby in a carryall at all relate to men’s fitness? Seriously, I’m a single guy. I am not currently in a relationship. How does a picture of a baby at all interest me or, more specifically, how does that picture of a baby relate to body fitness? Clearly, a baby is not the definition of ‘fitness’. That is, unless Pinterest is actually trying to promote pedophilia?!?

Worse, I also see pictures of fat hipped women that claim to be ‘Inspired By’ a board on men’s bodybuilding and fitness (no women in that board at all). I also see women’s hair styles flooding my feed claiming to be ‘Inspired by’ a board on men’s underwear. I see pins of women in wedding dresses. I see pins of women’s high heeled shoes. I see women wearing random fingernail polish and acrylic nails. These are entirely fashion related and I have not a single board or pin devoted to women, women’s fashion or, indeed, women’s anything. Not a single board. How can you possibly claim attribution of these completely random images to any board in my account?

I’m not against any of these topics. If I want to see them, I’ll go search for them and look at whatever pins are there by searching. However, I DON’T want them in my Pinterest feed. These pins have no place there.

It Gets Worse

From here, Pinterest’s relevance goes into the toilet (literally… yes, bathroom cleaners are there too). I get that Pinterest might think a single guy might have some interest in looking at the female form dressed or coiffed nicely. But, even if that’s true (and in my case it isn’t, at least I don’t want it in my feed), Pinterest insists on throwing all manner of completely irrelevant garbage into my feed.

It’s not simply limited to arbitrary women’s fashion, oh no no no, my reader friends. Pinterest insists on throwing Arabic writing into my feed… a language I not only cannot read, I also have no interest in. I’m sure that whatever is written there is fascinating, too bad it’s wasted on me by throwing it into my feed, an English speaking person.

It gets worse. For at least six months (maybe longer), my feed was entirely littered with page after page of all manner of tattooed body parts… just the parts. These included ankles, wrists, shoulders, backs, butts and torsos. Sometimes the tattooed body part is so close to the camera, I can’t even identify where it is. Worse, the tattoos are downright fugly. They looked like someone had done it themselves DIY at home. A few were professionally done, but many were so horrendous, who would even consider putting such a thing on their body? Anyway, I have no tattoos, have no interest in getting tattoos and don’t want to see tattooed body parts in my feed. I hadn’t searched for tattoos, so Pinterest didn’t get this ‘idea’ from my search history.

These tattoo body part pins were literally clogging up my feed. Nearly every image in my feed was of a body part. I might understand seeing a little of these images occasionally. As I said, it didn’t come from search. However, while I did have a fitness board that incidentally contained some men with tattoos, they were there because of their physique, not because of their tattoo. Pinterest doesn’t get it. It only saw a tattoo and then insisted that I might have some interest in tattooing my body… thus flooding my feed with body part after body part with UGLY tattoos. A completely wrong assumption, I might add.

Assumptions are, in fact, the prerequisite to search relevance. Unfortunately, Pinterest’s assumption engine is entirely wrong nearly 100% of the time. Just because an image contains a tattoo on someone’s shoulder, you can’t assume that to mean I want to tattoo my body and need help by flooding my feed with tattooed body parts. Wrong assumption, wrong results… or as the older computer adage goes, “Garbage In, Garbage Out!”

Pinterest Janitor

Here’s where it turns REALLY ugly. To clean up my feed, I had to play janitor. First, I had to spent valuable time going into all of my boards and clearing out ALL pins that had ANY tattoos in the image. Just gone… out of there. That helped a little, but only a tiny amount. It only helped a little because Pinterest’s engine had already ‘learned’ this ‘interest’ based on an incorrect assumption. Unfortunately, ‘unlearning’ learned stuff can he incredibly difficult… and, in Pinterest’s case, it is! Second, I had to spent time going through each new “tattooed body part” pin appearing in my feed, then following that pin through to the original account who pinned it… and then, you guessed it, block the account. That all sounds easy enough, but because of the way Pinterest works, it’s actually quite time consuming jumping from page to page and waiting for Pinterest to refresh each super long, image laden page.

I spent the better part of a week opening pins, going into accounts and blocking account after account after account. Blocking the account is the only way not to see these pins in the future (well, sort of… this is actually broken, too and I’ll discuss this next).

You’d think that a platform like Pinterest could figure out a way to wholesale remove an interest category from a feed… but you’d be wrong. Nope, there is no way to remove an interest (or should I say, exclude non-interests) from the feed. The only way to remove an interest is to, one by one, block the accounts producing the pins. It’s the only way. Even then, new accounts spawn all the time leading to brand new pins of the same old stuff recycled back into my feed… requiring even more blocking. It’s a never ending janitorial cycle.

Now, you might be asking, “Why not click the … (ellipsis) menu on the pin and report it?” I tried that. It doesn’t work. Reporting the pin as spam does nothing. The pins continue to show up. The only way to stop a pin is to block the account who pinned it. Even then, blocking an account has limited ability to even stop the problem…

When Blocking Doesn’t Work

You might think, once again, that blocking an account would block all pins by that account. Again, you’d be wrong. The only thing that blocking an account does is block pins created directly by that account. If a different unblocked account repins one of a blocked account’s pins, it can still end up in my feed. Repins via unblocked accounts allow pins through from accounts that are blocked. It’s not the pin that’s blocked, it’s the account. This is a huge heuristic mistake for a platform like Pinterest.

Even then, blocking an account doesn’t take effect immediately (or sometimes even at all). Pins that are already in your feed stay in your feed, even after you’ve blocked an account. I’ve blocked accounts and for several hours after continued to see that account’s pins in my feed after refreshing multiple times. A block seems to take up to 24 hours to actually take effect fully. Even then, I’m not entirely certain that blocking does much good because of repinning. Repinning is Pinterest’s version of Twitter’s retweet functionality. It allows any account to pin into their own account. Pinterest will then pull that pin out of that account and shove it into random people’s feed… even if the pin originated from a now blocked account.

Still, blocking an account doesn’t do anything to block Pinterest’s crap relevance engine. Even if I block account by account, Pinterest’s engine insists on filling my feed with all manner of random garbage similar to what was blocked.

Following Accounts

You would also think that by following other Pinterest accounts, Pinterest would be more inclined to show us pins by those accounts whom we follow. Again, you’d be wrong. While Pinterest does show pins by followed accounts in the feed, it also intermixes in accounts not being followed. In fact, I’d say that Pinterest tends to show more account pins not being followed than those who are being followed. Sometimes that may have to do with when those followed accounts are active.

For example, if your followed accounts haven’t been active in the last hour or two, then Pinterest still insists on filling your feed with pins (a feature that is entirely unnecessary). If those I’m following haven’t pinned recently, then show me a blank page. It’s fine if the page has no pins. I’d rather see no pins in my feed than a bunch of random garbage.

Anyway, when pins by accounts you are following don’t appear in the feed, it could simply mean they’re not pinning. Instead, your feed is being cluttered by extraneous random garbage. The trouble is, it is truly garbage and not at all relevant. The weird thing is, there is so much more relevant content on Pinterest that the engine never finds and places into my feed. I have to use Pinterest’s search panel to go find it. It’s this random irrelevant garbage that makes Pinterest completely worthless as a platform.

You’d assume that Pinterest would prioritize followed account pins over random pins, but again you’d be wrong. Pinterest has no interest in trying to make their engine more relevant. They’re simply interested in promoting random accounts’ pins into feeds, even when those pins make absolutely no sense for that particular user (i.e., image of babies shown to grown single men).

The Pinterest Idea

The idea behind the Pinterest platform has merit. Too bad Pinterest’s implementation is such absolute shit. Images can be incredibly powerful, particularly so when that image is actually of interest to the viewer. On the other hand, images shown to people who have absolutely no interest in that subject matter is a wasted opportunity to show much more relevant content.

Pinterest wastes its opportunities every single time you refresh the page. Instead of feeding me actual images of interest, I get images of high heel shoes, of wedding dresses, of women in wedding dresses, of women’s hair, of babies, of smokey eye makeup, of tattooed body parts. I even get images of dog food bowls, dog collars and of dogs. I don’t own a dog. I no have interests in any of that. Yet, image after image after image is shown. It’s entirely frustrating dealing with Pinterest’s garbage.

But, that’s not the problem. Pinterest gives us NO TOOLS to actually wholesale remove these uninteresting photos from our feed. We have to deal with them one by one. We have to block accounts one by one. Even after going through all of the hoop jumping of blocking and reporting and hiding, photos of similar content STILL appear in the feed… day after day. Sometimes even the same pin I’ve reported or hidden STILL appears.

Just when I think I’ve got a handle on my feed, Pinterest re-ups and I get a whole new wave of garbage in my feed. With Pinterest, you simply cannot win that battle of spam photos. It’s a trash platform designed to be trashy. I’m amazed that it even still exists. I’m even more amazed that anyone finds it useful.

The Pinterest Dilemma

And here we come to the point that matters most. This is why Pinterest fails. The platform fails because Pinterest attempts to ‘guess’ what it thinks you want to see. Instead of actually asking you explicitly for interest categories, it attempts to learn what you like by the pins you click on. Unfortunately, it goes even deeper than that. It learns what you like by what those whom you follow click on… and those whom they follow click on. It feeds crap to you based on the interests and clicks of others, not what you specifically click on. It assumes that because somewhere down the line, someone you follow clicks on pictures of babies, you must also want to see pictures of babies or a bridal dress. This “sixth degrees of separation” assumption is entirely wrong for a relevance engine and needs to be removed. Of course, Pinterest also makes wrong assumptions simply by reviewing your activity.

When reviewing your personal activity, Pinterest’s difficulty is, like the tattooed fitness guys, its engine guesses wrong nearly every time. Instead of Pinterest seeing a bodybuilder in a fitness pose with a great physique, Pinterest sees the image as simplistically as a “person with a tattoo”. It then makes the entirely wrong assumption that “tattoo in image = interest in tattoos”.  It’s a simplistic, unsophisticated kindergarten assumption. It’s such a basic assumption, only a child could actually jump to that conclusion. Even then, only a child would jump to that conclusion if the parent already had tattoos and invited over a bodybuilder with tattoos. Only then might a child associate tattoo interest.

Having a relevance platform make the wrong assumption and jump to the most wrong conclusion is actually the worst of all possible outcomes for a relevance engine. It then leads your entire results astray and leads to frustration by what’s presented… thus making the platform worthless. It also means that once your “learning” machine learns this entirely wrong data, it’s doubly difficult to “unlearn” it. As I said, “Garbage In, Garbage Out.” In fact, Pinterest has no way to correct these completely incorrect assumptions its engine has made.

Pinterest could fix this by asking direct questions about pins to understand if the assumptions it has made about a specific pin is correct. If the assumption is incorrect, it can “unlearn” a learned assumption. Better, simply ask us what we want to see in our feed and exclude all else. Also, give us exclusion features. See a pin, click to exclude all similar pins from the feed. Even then, Pinterest still needs to get rid of its association algorithm where it associates “women in bridal outfits” or “babies in bassinets” or “doggie treats” with “men’s bodybuilding”… which is probably entirely attributed to its completely incorrect “six degrees of separation” relevance idea.

With all of that said, Pinterest does offer a mechanism to stop seeing pins “Inspired by”, but that’s a sledgehammer approach. Using that feature is all or nothing. It will stop the garbage, but it will also stop relevant pins. This feature is poorly designed and implemented. It’s the wrong approach for a relevance engine. Instead, as I said, as Pinterest users, we need exclusionary features that look at the image and exclude all like-kind images from the feed. Unfortunately, Pinterest just doesn’t get it!

[RANT OFF]

Since this is not only a rant and also doubles as a review of the Pinterest service, I rate Pinterest a solid 1.5 ★ out of 5. Pinterest, you seriously need to get your act together.

If you enjoy reading Randocity articles, please follow, like and share the article on your social media feeds. If you have had similar experiences with Pinterest, I’d like to hear your feedback via a comment below.

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Spotting a Liar

Posted in advice, analysis, mental health by commorancy on June 15, 2019

pinocchio-knowsRecently, I’ve come across a book by Pamela Meyer entitled Liespotting: Proven techniques to Detect Deception released in 2010. Unlike Pinocchio, determining if a human is lying is quite a bit more complicated. While this is not the only book involving the topic of lie detection, let’s review Pamela Meyer’s visitation of this topic and of the act of deception itself. Let’s explore.

Lies and Deception

Let’s open this article by talking about Pamela’s TED talk. The difficulty I have with Pamela’s TED talk, which was apparently meant to simultaneously accompany and promote her book, was her seeming lack of expertise around this subject. Oh, she’s certainly knowledgeable enough… but is ‘enough’ really enough? It seems that her corporate America stint has led her to using these techniques to ferret out suspected liars from truth tellers. While that’s a noble reason to go into writing a book, it doesn’t make you an expert on the subject. I will fully admit now that I, like Pamela, am not an expert on the subject of behavioral psychology. Only a trained professional should be considered an expert on the art of detecting lies and detecting body language clues. I leave that to the experts. And even then, this art is so nuanced that detecting a lie could mean the difference between indigestion and actual lying.

The difficulty I have with Pamela’s book is that she focuses on trying to catch people in a lie whom are unwittingly using verbal and body cues that tell a different story. Her methodology suggests and implies that you’re planning to sit in a room with that person for potentially an hour (or longer) and have a conversation. Okay, so maybe ‘conversation’ isn’t the right word. Maybe the right word is ‘interrogation’. Or really, the correct word is probably ‘grill’.

If you’re planning on sitting in a room with a suspect grilling them for a lengthy period of time and asking all sorts of pointed questions, perhaps you can eventually catch someone in a slip-up or even multiple slip-ups. Even then, you have to question whether that ‘grilling’ methodology can really uncover a definitive measure of lying. Even more than this, is ‘grilling’ a practical methodology to employ in everyday use? Perhaps it is with your children if you’re trying to get to the bottom of who broke the lamp. But, would you ‘grill’ your friends? A co-worker? Your boss? No, this methodology is not in any way practical. Practicality aside…

In her TED talk, she discusses looking for ‘clusters’ during these question ‘sessions’. Seeing many telltale behaviors in a row may indicate deception. Though, is it really deception, is it fatigue, is it simply a person’s idiosyncracy, is it indigestion or is it, indeed…

Coercion?

The longer you sit with someone in a room interrogating them, the more it becomes about coercion. There’s a fine line here. While Pamela may not have called this aspect out, it’s a line that can easily be crossed when interrogating someone at length. At some point, you have to ask if the “cluster of mistakes” the person seems to be making is attributed to lying or coercion? With enough questions and time, you can actually get someone to confess to something they didn’t do simply because they wish to end the conversation and get out of there. Fatigue and boredom easily causes people to make mistakes, particularly when you ask the same questions over and over and over. Coercion, like lying, is part of human nature. In fact, I’d consider coercion to be the flip side of lying.

If you know the person and interact with them daily, you would know how they “normally” behave. You can then tell when they do, say or act in a way that’s somewhat off. If you’re talking to someone you don’t know, you have no idea of their personal behaviors… so how can you spot clusters of anything? Even then… if you think (and the key word here is “think”) you have spotted deception, what do you do?

Spotting a Lie…

is half the battle. The other half is what you choose to do with that information. Do you leave and go grab a pizza and beer and forget all about it? Or, do you confront the person? Confrontation is not likely to get you very far.

Pamela’s book seems geared towards brokering corporate business deals. I’m not sure exactly how useful her information would be in corporate business considering that the majority of corporate executives are not only pathological themselves, but many are also sociopaths and/or narcissists. Few CEOs actually care about their underlings. Additionally, C-Level anybody is not likely to sit long enough to be ‘grilled’. Perhaps they may be willing to submit to being ‘grilled’ under certain business conditions of duress. For example, if a CEO’s company is failing and there are millions of dollars at stake needed to revitalize a failing company, then they might be willing to sit through a grilling session by investors. However, they might not. So, again, I question out how useful her information might actually be in corporate America employed at an executive level?

Certainly, at corporate meetings and outings, executives put on a good face. But, don’t kid yourselves. They didn’t get to be a CEO without being some measure of ruthless and sociopathic. No, it also follows that most of these CEOs lie through their teeth when at corporate meetings. If they’re on a stage professing the latest greatest thing the company is offering, they’re simply telling you what you want to hear (and, more specifically, what they want you to hear). Personally, I’ve worked in many businesses where CEOs say things at a corporate events that, in fact, never take place. In fact, I already knew it was a lie the moment it was said. It’s not hard to spot when a CEO is lying to the company. Perhaps I’m being a bit too cynical here, but I don’t think so.

Another example, when the CFO takes the stage and begins is talk about finances, you can bet there’s information on his/her spreadsheet that’s not accurate, or indeed is not even there. This is the lie that corporate executives tell often. They want you to think the company is “on target”, is “doing well” and is “making money” even when things aren’t nearly that rosy. You simply cannot believe all of the “rah-rah” that corporate executives tell you at events. If you do, you’re extremely gullible. Nothing is EVER that rosy… or as another idiom goes, “There’s two sides to every coin.”

That not to say that all CEOs lie all of the time. But, they certainly are masters at withholding key information from the common folks in most organizations. Withholding key information is a lie, make no mistake. If a company insists on “transparency” in its business operations, you can bet that CEOs won’t apply transparency to their own business decisions. However, this is getting off into the deep end of the psychology of corporate business America. I could write a whole article, perhaps even a book, on this subject alone. For now, let’s move on.

Being Caught

You think you’ve caught someone in a lie? The question remains… what do you do with that information? Do you confront them? Do you walk away? Do you ask them for the truth? And, these are all questions, choices and decisions you’ll have to make for yourself. Knowing that someone is lying is entirely different from acting on that information. How do you act when you think someone is deceiving you? The answer to this question depends on where the lie happens.

If the lie is in your personal life and it involves a personal relationship, then only you can work it out with your partner. If your relationship is supposed to revolve around truth and trust, then it’s probably worth bringing it out into the open to discuss it.

If the lying involves a co-worker or boss at your company, then you have to make the decision how this affects your ongoing position at that company. If it’s a small lie that really doesn’t affect you personally, walk away and forget about it. If it’s a large lie that could easily jeopardize your position at the company, then you need to take steps to both protect yourself and distance yourself from that person. In this case, it’s worth having a sit-down with your manager and explain what you have uncovered and why you believe it’s a lie… bring proof if you can find it.

If it’s a lie that involves and may materially impact a business deal, this is difficult to offer a suggestion here as there are many forms of this which would require me to go off into an extremely long tangent and could significantly impact corporate legal agreements. In fact, maybe I’ll circle around to this topic and write an individual article involving corporate lying, legal contracts and business deals.

Deceit, Deception and Lying

With that said, I’d like to get into a little about the ‘whys’ of this topic and types of lies. Why do we lie? Two reasons: 1) To protect ourselves and/or 2) To protect someone else. Yes, that’s the primary reasons that we lie. Though, there is also a third category. The third type are those who are pathological. They lie because 1) they can and 2) because they find it fun.

Basically, there are two types of liars: 1) the ordinary liar and 2) the pathological liar. The “ordinary” liar is the person you’re most likely to meet in a lie. The ordinary liar is also more easy to spot. The pathological liar is less likely to be seen or caught. Don’t kid yourself, some co-workers are pathological liars… and these are the ones you need to completely avoid. Pathological liars will basically stop at no lie to get what they want. Many pathological liars are also ruthless sociopaths and/or narcissists, so don’t get in their way.

There are many types of deception, not just verbal lies. There is also deception by lack of information… or, what they aren’t telling you. Company executives are brilliant at this strategy. Withholding vital information from folks is the way they keep what they know limited. It’s also a way that many corporations choose to do business with customers. Lies sustain corporate America. In fact, you’ve probably been told a lie by someone selling you something… simply so you’ll buy that product or service. It’s not about what they are telling you, it’s about what they aren’t telling you.

Internally, companies also lie to employees. As an example, a company where you work may have rumors of “going public”. The executive team will not officially announce any information about this until it’s considered “official” and “unstoppable”. The difficulty I have with this process is that if I’ve been given ISO stock, I’m a stockholder. I should be kept informed of when or if the company chooses to IPO. Being left in the dark is not good for shareholders. Yes, this is a form of a lie. Withholding information from someone even if they have asked you pointed questions is lying.

Credentials and Lying

Here’s yet another type of deception… and it’s extremely prevalent in the self-help industry. Many people profess to have knowledge of things they do not. Again, Pamela Meyer is from a corporate business background. She does not have a medical or science degree. She can’t claim to have medical behavioral psychology training. Yet, here she is writing a book about this topic as though she does. Yes, she does carry a Ph.D. That means she has a doctorate of philosophy. That is not a medical degree… and even then, calling someone a ‘doctor’ who carries a Ph.D is dubious at best. The word ‘doctor’ is primarily reserved for those folks who are medically trained professionals and who carry, for example, a medical degree such as M.D., D.O. or even a D.D.S. These are folks who spent significant time not only in medical school, but have served at a hospital to solidify their medical training. For doctors licensed in psychology, that would be a Phys.D degree. Psychiatry is a totally different thing and is governed by professionals holding a Ph.D.

Carrying certain Ph.D. credentials in no way, by itself, qualifies you to write about psychological related subjects with authority or impunity. Sure, you can have an opinion on the subject matter, as we all do, but carrying a Ph.D doesn’t make you an expert. That would require medical training, and specifically, psychology related medical training.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t take some measure of psychology classes as part of her Ph.D program. In fact, I’m sure that her school’s degree program required psychology as part of its foundation class load. However, these college fundamental classes are simple basic introductory classes. These basic classes introduce you to the basics of psychology… such as terms and vocabulary with general purpose, but limited information. There’s nothing specifically introduced in these “basic” classes that would qualify anyone to be an expert covering the nuances of human behavior or teach them the detail needed to identify someone in a lie. These are all techniques that would most likely be taught in advanced behavioral psychology classes, usually only attended by students intending on graduating with a degree in and intending to practice behavioral psychology. Even then, you’d have to practice these techniques for years to actually be considered an ‘expert’.

That’s not to say that her time working in corporate America didn’t give her some valuable corporate life experience in this area. But, that still doesn’t indicate expertise in this field. And this is the key point I’m trying to make here. This article is not intended call out only Pamela Meyer. She’s used as a broader example here because she’s the most obvious example to call out. There are many forms of lying. Writing psychology and medical leaning books beyond your actual expertise level is considered disingenuous… or one might even say lying.

Even were she (or any other author writing about this topic) to have a Phys.D degree, I’d still want to understand exactly how an author had come to know this information (e.g., clinical work, working with the military, working with prisons, working with the police, etc). You know, show me years of training in and practice in this area. Even publishing journal articles, theses and dissertations in this area which have been accepted by medical publications would lend legitimacy to her ‘expertise’. Simply writing a book and having a TED talk doesn’t exactly qualify you as an ‘expert’. Though, maybe it does qualify you as an expert researcher.

Behaviors and Lying

One of the things Pamela does to solidify her credentials in her TED talk is open by discussing how “we all” perform these behaviors when we’re lying. That’s the perfect opening to get the audience to “relate to” you. After all as humans, we all occasionally lie. What’s more perfect than roping the audience in than with a blanket statement designed to make the audience immediately think she “knows what she’s talking about” simply because the information is “accessible”. Accessibility of information doesn’t make someone an expert. What she is, if anything, is articulate. Yes, Pamela is actually very articulate. However, being articulate, and I’m going to reiterate this once again, doesn’t make you an expert.

Expertise comes from training, research, publications and working in this specific area as your career choice for multiple years. She’s not a behavioral psychologist. Instead, she draws upon others works to help write her book… to flesh out those pesky details. This is typical of teachers and researchers and even journalists, not practitioners. This is the problem and the difference between the teaching profession and the doing profession. She’s a teacher, not a doer… so her advice in this area may or may not be helpful.

Lying is Rampant

One thing Pamela does get right is that lying is extremely common and seems to be more and more nonchalantly used today. We lie to our boyfriends and girlfriends. We lie to our spouses. We lie to our bosses. We even lie to our friends. The question isn’t that we lie, but to what degree. If the lies consist of the insignificant or “little white” variety, then these don’t matter.

The lies that matter are those that lose relationships, that tank businesses, that lose millions of dollars or even that cause someone to be killed. These are the lies that actually matter. Putting down the wrong information on the wrong patient chart may be unintentional, but it’s a lie that could get someone killed in a hospital. These are deceptions that where saying, doing or performing the wrong thing can get someone dead. Some might consider this a ‘mistake’, but I consider it a lie. It all depends on perspective.

What Pamela got wrong is that most lies don’t matter. Let me say that again. Most lies do not matter. What I mean is that if someone tells you they like your shoes, but in reality they’re hideously ugly, that’s a lie that is meant to help someone feel better. There’s nothing wrong in that. This is the ‘little white lie’.

Lying to a Walmart employee claiming you bought something there that you didn’t actually purchase at Walmart does monetary damage. Lying to an insurance company claiming damage or injury that doesn’t exist, that also causes monetary damage. Both of these actions are also called fraud. The lie is half the problem. The other half is proof of the lie. In Walmart’s case, if their computers were actually better than they are, they could look up the person’s recent purchase information and catch them in the lie. In the case of insurance fraud, there are private investigators.

And here’s another thing Pamela got wrong. Catching a person in the lie is enough. There’s no need to spend hours interrogating them as to “why”. We don’t need to know why. We just need to catch them in the lie. Hence, the need for private investigators who follow people claiming injury to insurance companies. The proof is catching them in the act, not spending time looking at body language and listening for verbal clues. Another phrase comes to mind, “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” It’s true, we don’t have the time to spend hours sitting in a room trying to get to the bottom of a liar. We need to get the proof that they’re lying and that proof lies (pun intended) outside of the liar. Proof is what matters in a lie, not a confession. A confession is great IF you can get it, but the proof is what tells you the person is lying, not their words or actions.

In law enforcement, getting a confession seems to be the “holy grail” out of a perpetrator. However, there’s no need to get a confession if you have proof that the person was there and did whatever he/she claimed not to have done. Considering that crime scenes can easily become tainted and proof dismissed due to ‘technicalities’, a confession overrides that red tape problem. Red tape is there for a reason, but many times it allows acquittal of someone who is actually guilty. Of course, red tape has nothing to do with lying and everything to do with law and policy.

If the person chooses to tell the “truth” and “confess” to whatever they had been lying about, that’s great. Obtaining proof is the key, not spending hours waiting on someone to squirm in just the right way only offering a possible 50% success rate. With computers becoming faster and more powerful and able to store more and more data about each of us (some of it voluntarily posted on social media), lying about certain things (DNA tests to determine relationship) may become impossible.

As detection technologies evolve and become faster, smaller and more portable, determining such information as paternity may become as easy as a cotton swab to the mouth and in minutes you’ll have an answer.

Lying has never been a crime

This subject heading says it all. It’s not the lie that’s the crime. It’s whatever the lie is attempting to conceal that may or may not be a problem. For this reason, you won’t find laws on any books that ban lying. If any legislation was introduced that actually attempted to enforce telling the truth, it would be met with much consternation (and, at least in the US, would be against the fifth amendment of the constitution — which this amendment says you have the right not to incriminate yourself).

Pleading the fifth, in the US, means that you do not have to talk to anyone about anything. Simply saying, “I plead the fifth” stops all questions regarding whatever matter is under investigation… at least when talking to the authorities. In some cases, pleading the fifth may, at least in the public eyes, make you seem guilty. If you aren’t willing to talk, then it is assumed you have something to hide… perhaps something that implicates you, thus making you seem guilty.

In the US, the tenet is, “Innocent until PROVEN guilty.” This only holds for official courts of law. In the court of public opinion, “Guilty until proven innocent” reigns. In the court of public opinion, there is no proof needed. Once you are seen as guilty, you are always considered guilty.

In a criminal court of law, the burden of proof is typically measured as ‘reasonable doubt’. The word ‘reasonable’ being the key word. It doesn’t take 100% proof, it simply takes ‘reasonable’ proof. ‘Reasonable’ is intentionally left subjective and vague and is up to any specific jury to ascertain what they consider as ‘reasonable doubt’. Indeed, some juries are sometimes confounded by the word ‘reasonable’ and rightly so. What is ‘reasonable’? The word itself means “to reason” or “decide” or utilize any similar thought process. But, what does it mean in a court of law or in legal circles? Juries are never comprised of legal professionals. Instead, they are comprised of people not in the legal profession and usually not professionals who might significantly impact the prosecution’s case. Instead, legal counsel typically appoints jury members who do not appear biased in either direction (toward or against the defendant) and whose profession is not considered a ‘conflict of interest’.

Civil courts offer a different legal standard. In civil trials, the burden of proof is “preponderance of evidence”. In a way, ‘preponderance’ offers nearly the same vagueness as ‘reasonable’. Both are vague terms meant to be interpreted by the jury at hand. In both criminal and civil trials, these terms are intentionally so vague as to allow juries to effectively make up their own rules under “reasonable” and “preponderance” when deliberating. This allows juries the leeway to consider some evidence and dismiss other evidence. It also means that, for example, a jury has 25 pieces of evidence, but only 8 pieces are solid enough to consider. Simply doing the math, 8 solid pieces of evidence is well less than 50% of the evidence presented. Is eight really enough? If those 8 pieces basically put the person at the scene and also shows that the person’s DNA was found at the crime scene and also that they were there at the time in question, then ‘lack of reasonable doubt’ and sufficient ‘preponderance of evidence’ has been established. From here, the jury should convict on whatever counts are listed for that evidence.

Note that ‘preponderance of evidence’ is tantamount to a phrase that more or less means, ‘overwhelming’ or more simply ‘enough’. The ‘preponderance of evidence’ phrase implies looking for ‘more than enough’. With ‘reasonable doubt’, it implies the opposite. The jury should be looking for ‘reasonable doubt’ or ‘not enough evidence’ to convict. In civil cases, juries (or a judge) would need to look for ‘preponderance’ (or more than enough) evidence to convict. Both result in the same outcome, conviction or acquittal. It’s just that the way the jury is directed to act is slightly different based on the legal phrasing of the burden of proof.

What that all means is that the ‘laymen’ folks who are chosen for a jury typically are ignorant of laws and legal proceedings. They are there because they don’t have this knowledge. They can then remain impartial throughout the trial by reviewing all of the evidence presented in a ‘fair’ and ‘just’ method. Yes, they can even use some of the verbal and body cues of the defendant to determine if they ‘feel’ his body language is indicative of lying, which could sway their view of ‘preponderance’ or ‘reasonable’. In civil trials, juries are reminded to rule based on “preponderance of the evidence”. In criminal trials, juries must rule based on “reasonable doubt”.

What does this all mean? It means that in a court of law, while you could use some of these lie spotting techniques to determine whether a defendant is telling the truth, what makes the difference is the evidence presented. The evidence is what catches someone in a lie… particularly when they don’t confess.

For this reason, legal court proceedings require burden of proof for juries to ponder during deliberation… rather than using hunches, intuition or gut feelings.

Local Friendships

Back at home, we don’t have to judge our friends based on vague legal terms. Instead, we have to use our own critical thinking skills. This is where you can use and apply lie spotting techniques (which, if you have noticed, I have not included in this article intentionally), to spot a friend, co-worker or boss in a lie. Again, it’s up to you what to do with that information once you spot it.

If lying or telling the truth is an important concept for you, this article might not make you happy. You should understand that lies are everyday things told to us by even our closest friends. If you get worked up at the thought of someone lying to you, you should probably learn to relax more. Lies are something told by many people every day. If you’re a bit uptight at learning this, you might want to forget all about this article and go on with your life oblivious. After all, “ignorance is bliss”.

We don’t have to use juries or law books to judge our friends. We use our instincts and common sense. If you add in a little behavioral profiling (yes, it is a form of profiling) you may be able to determine if that leg twitch or nose itch or eye glance or finger motion is a telltale sign of lie. As I said, most lies are insignificant in the grander scheme. Learning to let these things go or, as another phrase goes, “don’t sweat the small stuff” will let you remain a happier person. Nothing in life is ever perfect. Nothing. Not relationships. Not people. Not actions. You have to expect that anyone around you will not always do things for your benefit, not even your spouse. You have to be willing to understand this and compromise by ignoring these lies.

If a lie is something you can’t ignore, particularly a life changing event (birth of a child), then that’s where you must stand up and take responsibility for your own actions… or confront someone about their actions.

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Is Victor Victoria a sequel to Darling Lili?

Posted in analysis, film by commorancy on June 13, 2019

Having recently watched Darling Lili at Amazon, I’m of the mind that Darling Lili is, in fact, a prequel to Victor Victoria… or more correctly stated, Victor Victoria is a sequel to Darling Lili. Let’s explore.

Blake Edwards

Both Victor Victoria (1982) and Darling Lili (1970) are directed by Blake Edwards. However, it seems that Darling Lili didn’t fare well at the box office. This lack of box office appeal made sense based on the film’s material and tone, particularly in 1970. Let’s explore both films see what we can make of them.

Darling Lili versus Victor Victoria

Darling Lili is set sometime between 1914 and 1918 (World War I). If Lili Smith were 25 in Darling Lili, she would be close to 45 in 1934 (the year in which Victor Victoria is set). The ages mostly match up. Lili shows us that she is fluent in French, even being awarded a medal by the French government. Oddly, Victor Victoria is also set in Paris during 1934. These similarities in locale are uncanny.

Seeing as Lili is both an entertainer, actress and spy for the Germans, she loses her status as a spy by the end of Darling Lili, also losing her American boyfriend in the process. Having lost Bill at the end of the film, she spends her time between 1918 and 1934 living and performing somewhere (probably in France) ultimately landing in Paris destitute in 1934.

After no longer being a spy, taking on a new identity makes sense. She takes on the stage name of Victoria Grant, shedding the Lili Smith name that has all of her former spy baggage attached. This all makes perfect sense for how Victoria Grant ends up in Paris… since we get none of this back history information for Victoria Grant. Victor Victoria opens with Victoria already in Paris. The only thing we know of Victoria’s past is that she hasn’t “sung in 2 weeks” when Toddy mentions her audition at Chez Luis. This implies she’s been having a bit of trouble with steady work.

Lili (now Victoria) is already fluent in the French language, so staying in France makes a lot of sense for Victoria. Because Lili was already an accomplished stage performer and vocalist, it makes perfect sense that Victoria would also be a confident accomplished stage performer and vocalist.

Even the soundtrack score by Mancini in Darling Lili, including “Whistling in the Dark” carries a lot of musical similarities into Victor Victoria, such as “Crazy World”. It’s almost like Mancini picked right up with his musical thought processes during Darling Lili and carried them right into Victor Victoria… or it was intentionally requested by Edwards.

In one scene, Victoria even mentions her hypochondriac of an ex-husband who took her bankroll and ran. This implies Victoria was, at one point, married, but not to Bill.

Recycled

Some have argued that Edwards recycles his ideas across his films. Yes, in some ways he does. The bumbling detective scenario seems to be a hallmark in most, if not all, of Edwards’s films. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to you to decide. If the bumbling detective plot in the rain with an umbrella doesn’t get in the way of the main plot, I’m fine with it. It doesn’t get in the way of either Darling Lili and Victor Victoria. They add a little comic relief to the film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well in Darling Lili as it does in Victor Victoria… even though neither of these B plots actually do anything to advance the film’s stories.

Beyond the bumbling detective plot, there’s the basic premise that’s similar in Darling Lili and in Victor Victoria… an entertainer who falls in love with a charismatic tall-dark-and-handsome type. Both are a little bit dangerous (military vs mob). The twists in both films are different, however. Lili is a spy where Victoria cross dresses as a man. Even though the twist is different, the romance plots are mostly similar. Even though Victor Victoria takes the whole bedroom farce portion a whole lot farther than Darling Lili.

For this reason, it’s easy to see Victor Victoria as a sequel. After all, people do tend to fall into their old ways (both Lili and Edwards). Obviously, the war being over, she couldn’t be a spy in the same way. So, she goes for her next best thing… being a performer. Hence, becoming Victoria Grant to shed her old Lili Smith (or Schmidt) persona. It is 20 years later, after all… and her luster as an entertainer may have been waning considering her age. Having Toddy reinvent her as a man with the vocal abilities of a female makes Victor Victoria a charming tale and a logical extension to Darling Lili.

Remake or Sequel?

I’m sure that Blake Edwards was never satisfied with how Darling Lili performed at the box office. It seems he may have even taken it personally. It seems that when Victor Victoria hit his desk, he saw a way to remake Darling Lili and make it much better and a much bigger success. Well, he did that. But, he did so without actually remaking Darling Lili.

In fact, it seems he did it by making a(n unintentional) sequel to Darling Lili. Whether this remake was intentional only Blake Edwards knew. Perhaps Julie Andrews may also know whether Victor Victoria is intended to be a sequel to Darling Lili. Considering how well (or not so well) Darling Lili did, even if it were a sequel, Blake Edwards might not have wanted to make that information publicly known to avoid any possible backlash to Victor Victoria‘s box office receipts. After all, Darling Lili didn’t do well at the box office. No need to drag Victor Victoria down by being labeled as Darling Lili‘s successor.

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Mary Poppins: Who exactly is Bert?

Posted in analysis, disney, storytelling by commorancy on June 11, 2019

Mary PoppinsThis is one question that I’m sure many people have asked themselves after watching 1964’s Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. With the recent release of 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns starring Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, these questions resurface with Jack in the newest film. Let’s explore.

Bert and Mary

I’m focusing on the 1964 film with this article. I may write another article later that focuses on the new film… though, a lot of this applies to Jack in the newest film. I will briefly discuss Mary Poppins Returns in relation to Mary Poppins.

It’s clear, Mary and Bert know one another… and they know one another well. How they know each other is a mystery that is not solved in either of the films, but they have met numerous times based on their dialog, Bert’s clues and lots of hints from Mary. In this article, I will postulate a few things that might seem out of place, but if you think about it, you’ll realize that it isn’t that far out of place and may bring a sense of closure.

Somethings BrewingBert is the first person the audience meets in Mary Poppins. This isn’t an accident. The story starts off with Bert to show just how omnipresent Bert actually is. It also shows us Bert is a “free spirit” and does whatever he pleases, comes and goes when he pleases and shows up only when needed. On other other hand, Mary Poppins is the opposite of Bert. She is an extremely controlling and vain individual (magical or not). She always wants things “just so”. She has a very specific profession and sticks to it. If things are not exactly as she wants, she’s not happy. Bert, on the other hand, is happy simply to be there helping out whenever he can, and be around Mary.

Uncle Alberts PlaceBert even seems to know “Uncle Albert” when Mary and the kids visit him while he’s laughing on the ceiling. Bert is already there when Mary shows up. This is suspicious. If a magical uncle lives in the area, how would Bert know about him and where he lives? How did Bert find out about his most recent incident? From the dog, Andrew? If Bert talks to dogs like Mary, then he is the same as Mary. Bert has also been to see Uncle Albert before and has even had to talk Albert down before. Bert states that it took 3 days to talk him down a previous time. If Mary and Uncle Albert are related, as is heavily implied by the movie, and Bert visits Uncle Albert occasionally, then Mary and Bert are much more than mere acquaintances.

In fact, when Bert fake attempts to jump into the chalk picture with the children, Mary chastises Bert for making something simple into something complex. This implies that she knows Bert knows how to do it properly and is doing it intentionally wrong on purpose… simply so that Mary has to do it. Watch this scene again and you’ll see what I mean. It’s almost as though Mary expects Bert to show his magic off, but when he doesn’t she becomes frustrated with him. Bert manipulates Mary into using her magic instead.

Mary’s Powers

We all know that Mary has some form of magical abilities. Without this, she couldn’t do the things she does. The thing is, her being a nanny is a very calculated profession. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish as a nanny and goes about that activity in a very meticulous manner. Sure, she displays her magic in almost flippant ways, but she also knows she can gaslight people into believing they saw something they didn’t actually see.

What are the extent of Mary’s powers? We’re not sure and we’re never told. One of her powers seems to be the casting of obliviousness on humans. What I mean by this is that anyone around Mary either accepts what she does without question or completely ignores the things she does. When she leaves, she leaves so much doubt about what happened that even those who participated are left disbelieving. Both kids and adults are wrapped up in this spell. When she does something magical, the kids rarely question how or why, they just automatically accept it. Even some adults seem to fall under this spell. If they do question Mary, she immediately shuts them down by gaslighting that it never took place. After the first time, the children simply accept it.

We know what Mary can do. The bigger question remains, who is Bert and why is he there?

Bert’s Abilities

Bert is a chimney sweep, a chalk sidewalk artist, a musician and a kite seller (among other trades). He does all manner of jobs, but they’re all conveniently located within a few feet of the kids at all times. He’s almost never far out of sight. Being a chimney sweep has some benefits. After all, when Mr. Banks rips up the children’s nanny advertisement letter and he throws it into the fireplace, everyone thinks Mary is the one who retrieves the letter out of there. But, we know better. Bert, as a chimney sweep, did. He then reassembles it and gives it to Mary.

Even with all of this, there are many questions that need an answer. Let’s start answering a few based on the film. For Bert to know Mary as well as he does, including her signature “changing of the wind”, which Bert immediately identifies before Mary ever shows up, he has to have a considerable amount of time with her (or in some other way has acquired this knowledge). This change in the wind immediately signifies to Bert that Mary is on her way. To be that intimately knowledgeable about her calling card, he had to have seen it more than once, more than twice… in fact, more than a few times. You don’t recognize something like that having only ever seen it once. No, Bert knows Mary and he knows her well. Far too well, if I must say.

Bert’s Background

Bert and MaryHow could Bert know Mary that well? There are four possible ways:

1) Mary conjured Bert. If Mary conjured Bert, not only would he intimately know Mary and her ways, she would have conjured someone who would not only be smitten with her, she could easily become smitten herself. However, Mary’s callous lack of return of affection towards Bert potentially shows that she can’t return affection towards a person she has conjured. This point makes sense, but only to a point.

2) Bert conjured Mary. If Bert conjured Mary for the children, he would also intimately know Mary and her ways… because he created her. There’s an argument that could go both conjuring ways here until the release of Mary Poppins Returns. With Jack and without Bert, this throws a wrench into number 2… or does it? This one also makes sense to a point.

3) Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. This is probably the one that makes the most logical sense. This means that it’s possible that Mary enlists Bert to help her with the children and Bert is simply feigning ignorance to keep up Mary’s charade. After all, she gaslights a ton… why wouldn’t he?

4) Again, Bert and Mary are from the same magical realm. Instead, Bert enlists Mary to help with the children… and based on the way the movie’s story unfolds, I’m going with this situation, which I’ll support below. In fact, Bert seems a whole lot more omnipresent than Mary. When you watch the interactions between Bert and Mary, it almost seems like Mary is heavily observing Bert for just how to behave. Mary is often following Bert’s cues, not the other way around. This situation is the only one where Bert could be smitten with Mary and Mary not return that affection. She can’t because of a master / apprentice situation. Bert is the master. Mary is the “learning” apprentice. She can’t return that affection.

A master and apprentice relationship has been commonplace for many thousands of years. For Mary Poppins, it makes sense that she’s the apprentice and he’s the master. He stands in the background not only guiding the children, but also guiding Mary.

Rationales

If we follow rationale #1, then it would make sense from a Mary Poppins perspective. She conjures up Bert to help manage and keep track of the children when she can’t be around. Bert does a fine job of that. It also means she can make Bert do anything. That Bert pretends to be a chimney sweep or chalk artist lends credence to Mary having conjured him. In fact, nearly everything that Mary does is almost entirely a product of Bert’s prompting. When Mary jumps into the chalk drawing, this is Bert’s drawing and it happened because Bert actually wanted it. When the chimney sweeps begin their amazing dance number, it’s almost solely driven by Bert. When they visit “Uncle Albert” Bert is there to egg everything on… in spite of what Mary actually wants. This could mean that Bert might have conjured Mary. But, there are still things that don’t add up if we accept this hypothesis.

For rationale 2, if Bert is conjured by Mary, it doesn’t explain why Bert has self-autonomy that Mary can’t control. Mary is a control freak. For this reason, I don’t believe Bert is actually conjured and leads me to believe that Bert could have conjured Mary. Unfortunately, this circumstance too doesn’t quite add up. Mary also has self-autonomy that Bert can’t control. Based on this, I believe (and it actually makes the most sense) that Mary and Bert are actually from the same realm. Bert simply doesn’t show off his magic, letting Mary do that. This is part of the reason Mary plays coy with Bert. She knows what Bert is capable of, she just can’t let that cat out of the bag.

Bert never overtly shows his own magic. At least, he never shows it outright. Whenever magic occurs, it’s Mary who shows it off. However, Bert is always more than happy to participate in any activity that involves magic. In fact, he seems right pleased to nose himself into every situation where Mary creates a magical landscape and he never bats an eye. In fact, he seems to enjoy himself immensely when with Mary. He also heavily plays for Mary’s affections in these magical landscapes. Perhaps Mary and Bert cannot actually produce these landscapes without the help of children? That’s worth considering… and it could be why both Bert and Mary gravitate towards children instead of adults, as adults don’t allow them to utilize their magic in the same way. Mary and Bert’s magic is symbiotic with the children. They can’t utilize magic without the children.

Mary 1We know little about Mary’s realm or where it exists. It’s clear, Mary doesn’t live in the same realm as humans. Based on my suppositions above, I also believe that Bert is from that same realm as Mary. He can also perform magic, but he prefers to rely on Mary to perform it. Once Mary gets started, he adds his own touches onto it that Mary is unaware, can’t detect or simply ignores. The kids simply think Mary is doing it all, when Bert is actually contributing to the creation of the magic. In fact, Bert may actually be reinforcing Mary’s magic making it grander than it might otherwise be.

With that said, I also believe Bert performed many feats of magic all throughout Mary Poppins, including the “Step In Time” dance number on the roof. Bert performed that magic all on his own. It’s just that we were so focused on Mary and her abilities, we didn’t see Bert’s magic and we simply assumed it all stemmed from Mary.

Even at the end of Mary Poppins when Mary leaves, Bert also disappears leaving the kids solely to their parents. Otherwise, if Bert had remained about, the kids would have kept running back to Bert to talk about Mary. When Mary leaves, so does Bert. They’re a team, or at least they were until…

Mary Poppins Returns

How would any of this explain Jack in the latest movie? My thought is that Jack is Bert with a new name and new face. Bert can’t come back many years later looking exactly like he did without drawing suspicion. Mary can because she’s the one who’s known to be “magic”. Because Jack is autonomous (and probably Bert in a new form), I believe Jack is also from Mary’s realm. Whether Jack is Bert, I’m uncertain. If Bert has magic, like Mary, then he could remake his face in the same way Mary has in “Returns”. However, there are far too many similarities between Jack and Bert. It’s also possible that Jack is Bert’s son. Perhaps Bert decided not to join Mary on this trip? Perhaps Mary must always be accompanied by another from her realm as part of her sojourns to Earth?

This would make sense. Having two could keep things from going awry. If something Mary does goes a bit haywire, Bert or Jack could put it right and keep Mary, “Practically Perfect In Every Way”. In fact, that’s the reason I believe both Bert and Jack are in the stories… to keep Mary in-check… to ensure that the kids learn their lessons without injury and that magic is always kept in its place. For this reason, I believe Bert drilled it into Mary to always gaslight after any magic escapades.

In Mary Poppins, Bert almost seems to hand-hold Mary through most of the film… as if Mary is new to this whole thing. By Mary Poppins Returns, Mary had done this a time or two and Jack seems comfortable letting Mary do more of her own thing without him being there (i.e., the bathtub scene). Though, Jack still joins Mary in the biggest number in the film, like Bert did in the chalk drawing with Mary.

After all these years, it’s possible that Mary is now the master with Jack being her apprentice in all things magic. Jack seemed to contribute far less to Mary Poppins Returns than Bert did in Mary Poppins. So, the tables may now be turned for Mary. But, apparently, they must still travel in twos.

Bert’s Professions

Indeed, Bert shows us his many varied professions. In fact, I believe that was simply a ruse to allow Mary to do the things she needed to bring the children in line. Because the children have a less than pleasant life, Mary is there to not only get the children to do the things she wants (and that her parents want), she needs them to comply. The only way to do this is, like “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down”, this is how Mary treats the children’s home life situation. The ‘sugar’ is her magic, the medicine is her ‘discipline’. The song may be literal, but it very much has a double meaning. In fact, because Mary gaslights the children so often after her fantastical outings, it’s less about treating the children unkind and more about Mary’s understanding of Earth children. She can’t let the children continue to believe both in magic and that magic solves all worldly problems, particularly since she’ll be leaving very soon. They must be grounded and earthbound. While magic may be easy to Mary, Jane and Michael will never be able to perform it. Mary knows this.

In fact, Mary’s magic is simply the tool the kids need to get things done for themselves. It wasn’t that she was planning to teach them ‘magic’, but teach them how to survive in the their world and to follow their father’s lead. Mary was also, more or less, a sponge. She soaked up everything about the Banks household and then inserted magic when it was appropriate to bring the kids in-line.

Mary ArrivesAs for Bert, Bert exists as Mary’s facilitator, not a chimney sweep or chalk artist. These were all professions that were needed to aid Mary in her task. They came to exist because they needed to exist for Mary to do her job. For this reason, Bert might be seen as the orchestrator of the whole story. He may have even been the architect of it all… the person behind Mary and the whole reason the Banks children ended up with Mary. This is true because Bert is, among his many professions, also a chimney sweep… as I suggest elsewhere, how else might those torn pages have gone up the chimney? One might say that Bert started it all. After all, he knows Mary extremely well. He also seemed to know something about the Banks children and about Cherry Tree Lane. In fact, he seems to know way too much about Cherry Tree Lane… way more than a random chimney sweep should know.

Bert’s Unknowing Knowing

Bert pulled the wool over our eyes, but very gently. He seems friendly, kind and generous and also innocently naïve. As he rhymes in the park sensing Mary’s arrival stating, “he can’t put his finger on it”, this was all a ruse. He knew exactly who was coming because he asked her to come. Bert even breaks the fourth wall and begins talking directly to the audience… he wouldn’t even know that an audience exists without some form of magic.

As the story progresses, he intentionally steps out of Mary’s (or indeed, the children’s) way. He steps aside when Mary requires him aside. He brings the Banks family together with Mary. He draws her in. He’s the one who made sure the Banks children get what they need and are left “for the better”, after Mary’s departure. He sees to and orchestrates everything. While Mary comes and does what she needs to do, Bert makes sure it all works.

In fact, Bert has likely been on Earth a whole lot longer than Mary… watching the children, waiting, seeing if they were “worthy” and if they actually needed Mary’s help. Then, in their time of need, he calls Mary to them. Bert steps in when he needs to solve family problems and, of course, he also steps in when Mary performs ‘magic’, partially to participate, but partially to make sure it all works. Sure, that children’s nanny note went flying, but it is most likely Bert who retrieves the pieces from the chimney and then calls on Mary. We see the pieces go flying, but we don’t see who ends up with them. Sure, Mary carries the note in reassembled, but Bert retrieved it from the chimney. We know this because of the scene where Mary is no where to be found. Bert and the children are by the chimney and Michael is swept up the chimney, just like the pieces of paper. This was all magic from Bert.

With that said, Bert feigns ignorance so as to be just as genuinely surprised as the children when Mary actually arrives, but that surprise seems artificial. He also doesn’t question her manner of arrival, he’s simply happy she’s there (and Mary is happy that Bert is there). Indeed, he doesn’t question Mary’s ways at all.. as if he’s just as accustomed to and comfortable with her magic as is Mary. Indeed, it’s as though Bert already knows of Mary’s arrival in advance. None of this did the children or even the Banks parents suspect.

Bert and BanksIn one of the last scenes in the film, Bert is in the house talking to Mr. Banks after the rest of the sweeps have gone. This is an 11 O’clock number and scene. This is the scene that lays Bert’s cards all on the table.

In this scene, even as Bert has played his role of the lowly chimney sweep, there is an immense sense of wisdom and orchestration. Indeed, he even sings “Just a spoonful of sugar”, a song he couldn’t have known unless he had already known Mary. Or, even more likely, Bert taught that song TO Mary. Bert’s wisdom in that scene goes far, far beyond anything Mary displays throughout the entirety of this film. Bert’s wisdom implies that Bert is the person bringing this whole situation together and resolving it… that he’s the reason Mary is even there. This one seemingly innocent scene is the one that says Bert is why the Banks family (and indeed Mr. Banks) is in its current state. Mary is no where to be found in this scene. It’s simply Bert and Mr. Banks. It’s a poignant scene that says everything about exactly why Mary has arrived and who is behind it.

Bert is not only the puppet master, but he is content (and indeed wants it) to remain that way; to stay behind the scenes and gently nudge people when they need it. If Mary acts as the precipice, Bert acts as the hand to nudge people to jump into the unknown. Indeed, Bert is the person who made the whole situation possible… from behind the scenes.

In a way, you can liken Bert to the Wizard of Oz behind that curtain. Bert pulled all of the strings making it all possible. In the end, Bert is the one behind the curtain. We don’t get to know this definitively, but the key scene between Bert and Mr. Banks should have opened everyone’s eyes about Bert. Mary seems to be the pawn, Bert appears to be the puppet master. Both are there for the same reason. Both leave for the same reason. And yes, Bert is smitten with Mary. Mary can’t reciprocate because of their complicated relationship, even though they both want the same thing for the Banks’s children. In closing, it’s also entirely possible that Bert and Mary are siblings considering that Mary treated Bert as a brother throughout most of the film.

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