Monday, 9 June 2014

Sink fast

I recently moved to Berlin, and while escaping to a foreign land may sound like a stressful process, for me the logistics have been fairly simple. 

My friend had arranged the flights and accommodation for the first part of our trip, and once we arrived he took responsibility for getting us around and dealing with the local people (his German is very good, you see). Everybody speaks English in Berlin, as it happens, so I could have gotten by. All the same, I was nestled comfortably under his wing. 

It wasn't long before I began looking for work as an English language teacher, and I planned to go out alone to visit employers in person with my CVs. I wrote the address and contact information of every language school I could find, and used Google Maps to plot the point of each one. I then took a snapshot of the routes between them and uploaded it to my phone. 

I would be able to see the location and street name of every destination I was going to visit, along with the fastest route to them. I estimated the whole journey would take roughly two and a half hours. I would wake up early. I was totally prepared...

It was two o'clock by time I escaped my apartment. Using an ingenious pulley system, I was able to slide beneath the shutter covering our front door without the use of our lone front door key, which had been taken by my room-mate. (Our apartment was once a bakery, in case you were wondering.)

A minor hiccough, I thought, but if I stick to the schedule I'd still have more than enough time to complete my rounds. 

First stop, the questionably named “Copy Con” to print my CVs. According to Google Maps' traffic indicators the trip should have taken a mere seven minutes had I left on the night I researched it.

It took 90 minutes. What a difference a day makes.

I produced ten washed-out CVs. The gentleman at the counter told me the cost of my printing in English (which he guessed was my mother tongue, based on all the English I was speaking). His friend laughed at him. The cashier looked at me and said “'one euro fifty,' that's how you say it in English, right?”

I said “perfecto”. This wasn't English. Maybe I was jealous that he could speak a foreign language and I wanted to throw him a curve ball? Maybe I thought I was speaking German?

Maybe it was 4pm and I wanted to do a little bit of a cry somewhere? 

I carried on. Reaching my next destination took no time at all, I was there within fifteen minutes. Now we're cooking!

However, instead of gazing up at the grandieur... the spectacle... of ExploreEnglish's cutting edge language building... I was in fact looking at a man selling nuts from a cart.

No problem, I'll just give them a quick call and make sure I have the right address.

They had no address. ExploreEnglish was one guy, giving English lessons, from his apartment, in Düsseldorf.  

I felt a sincere temptation to become mildly frustrated and dare I say, disappointed by my experiences...

I had spent all of my money on flights and accommodation and food. I had only one friend in Berlin. I was living in an apartment that only received WiFi in two rooms, one which my friend had won in a coin toss when we got the place, and the other (which I am typing this in right now) is a hallway. I had to re-watch several episodes of MacGyver just to let myself out of the front door. 

I was sleeping on a mattress in a dining room.

I was cold every night. 

Our apartment had no spoons.

But, somehow, I wasn't disappointed. Or frustrated. I wasn't angry or upset.

I was happy. I was almost blissfully happy. 

I had been stressed, I was exhausted and sweating. I had been uncomfortable and embarrassed talking to blank faces in broken German, asking why they could only print in Schwarz und Weiss.

But it was invigorating. I learned more vocabulary on this one day than any other - that's the honest truth. I learned bus routes and where I could buy tickets. I learned how to ask for food to take away. I learned to make sure the job I wanted definitely was available and definitely wasn't in Düsseldorf. I learned a whole bunch of stuff that I never would have learned if I hadn't have braved it alone. 

I didn't hand out any CVs. I didn't visit eight language schools. I visited one old man, struggling to stay conscious while selling salted almonds in the sun. But after this embarrassing mistake, where I found myself on Berlin's Gaza Strip dressed like a lawyer, I called the other offices which I had planned to visit - something I should have done hours previously. None of my prospective employers were willing to see me on that day. However, a few were interested in me... they said I should maybe stop by next week... have a chat.

Even if I screw it up again next time. Even if I lose my way and feel embarrassed. Even if, even if, even if...

I discovered more in one rough, lonely, lost day, than two weeks in my bubble. I can live with screwing up again.

You will always remain in the shallow end of the pool if your feet never leave the ground. The sooner you sink - the sooner you'll swim.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

The Moon Bears or Such Magnificent Cruelty

I recently found out about something that I wish I hadn't.

Even at my lowest, I can usually convince myself of how important difficult life experiences are. How that it is only through my struggles that I can come to understand my fortunate existence, and how they deepen my subsequent happiness.

On this occasion, the clouds stretch far too wide, and the sunlight is far too faint for my hopeful eyes to see a silver lining.

I recently found out about something that I wish I hadn't.

Now I'm going to tell you what it is...

The Asian Black Bear - also known as the Moon Bear after the milky, crest-shaped tuft of fur on its chest - is a species of bear native to eastern Asia. Moon bears are tree climbers, living in hilly or mountainous regions and are capable of balancing on two feet, like us.

Here is a picture of a moon bear:

Standing Moon Bear

Unfortunately for moon bears, they naturally produce a type of stomach bile that is very valuable in Asia, most commonly used in Chinese medicines. There are dozens of synthetic and herbal alternatives to bear bile (many cheaper and more effective), nonetheless it is a highly prized commodity and sourced in a number of areas across China and Vietnam. The practice is known as bile farming.

To extract bear bile, one of the following methods is employed:
[These are taken directly from the journal of Chinese medicine website.] 

1. Latex catheter
A narrow rubber pipe is embedded under the skin, and surgically attached to the gall bladder. The farmer then extracts the bile through the pipe which exits the skin at the top of the bear's thigh.

These "old-fashioned" latex catheters were largely phased-out in the mid-80s, as the catheter became easily clogged and it was therefore not an effective extraction method. Subsequent modification to this technique saw the introduction of the metal jacket.

2. Metal jacket
A rubber pipe is connected to a fluid bag inside a metal box, which is attached to a metal ‘jacket’ tightly holding the box in place under the bear's abdomen. The bile drained through the rubber pipe is emptied every two weeks by the farmer.

In addition to even greater levels of discomfort and pain, the metal jackets – which weigh over 10 kilos – also cause massive hair loss and painful irritation over the bears' bodies, as they are never removed. Designed to restrain the bears, sharp metal spikes poke into the bears’ necks to stop them bending their heads, and straps and strips of metal restrict their limb movements.

Metal pins, hooks, and any and all makeshift devices are crudely inserted directly into the gall bladder to hold the catheter in place. This is almost always done by unqualified people in conditions ripe for infection.

3. Metal catheter
Varying in length from 5 to 7.5 inches, a catheter is surgically implanted into the bears' gall bladder, allowing the farmers to milk the bears daily. During milking, the bears are enticed to lie flat on the bottom of the cage in order to feed from a low tray, thereby allowing the farmer easy access to the bear's abdomen and catheter.

Often, a metal "crush" (a metal grille) is lowered on top of the bears to force them to remain flat until the farmer has finished the procedure. In many cases, the farmers have never bothered to raise the crush bar, and Animals Asia has rescued many bears in cages with crushes rusted permanently into the lowered position, pinning the bears flat to the bottom of the cage for what is, evidently, many years.

4. “Free-dripping" technique
In recent years, Chinese bear farmers have introduced a new, so-called humane, "free-dripping" method of bile extraction. This method uses no catheter, but sees a permanent hole, or fistula, carved into the bear's abdomen and gall bladder, from which bile drips freely out.

During this type of bile extraction, the bears are tempted by food or honey water to lie on the bottom of the cage, while the farmer forces an insanitary tube into the gall bladder; this breaks the membrane that has grown over the hole, and allows bile to flow directly into a bowl beneath.

The damage caused by bile leaking back into the abdomen, together with infection from the permanently open hole is as bad, if not worse, than the older style methods and subsequently there is still a high mortality rate on the farms.

5. "Fake-free dripping" technique
In 2005, Animals Asia discovered a new technique of bile extraction being tested out on the bears - "fake free-dripping". Rather than a fistula, or ‘hole’, in the abdomen, the farmers now insert a permanent, perspex catheter into the fistula, which is almost impossible to see unless the abdomen is shaved and examined close-up. This new technique is against China's current regulations on bear farming.

Due to all the various procedures they are subjected to, the farmed bears’ livers and gallbladders become severely diseased, and the bile collected contaminated with pus, blood, urine and faeces.

Bears in Vietnam are subjected to a range of procedures. All are caged, but unlike bears on China’s farms which are ‘tapped’ for the bile, in Vietnam bears undergo crude surgery to remove bile from their gall bladders every few months, leaving infected wounds, which often lead to death after three or four such operations.

Today, the bears usually have their gall bladders punctured with long needles, which then "siphon" off the bile via a pump into a bottle. In this method, the bears are sedated - usually with ketamine - restrained with ropes, and have their abdomens jabbed repeatedly with four-inch needles until the gallbladder is located. Continuous puncturing of the gall bladder often leads to bile leakage, and a slow and painful death from peritonitis.

Caged Moon Bear

Thus the typical moon bear life sees them confined to a coffin while their stomachs slowly bleed and infest, or are repeatedly stabbed (often both). Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated, and suffer from multiple fatal diseases and malignant tumours. Their heads swell. Their limbs deteriorate. Their mental state becomes fractured from their inability to move, their aching open wounds, and their loss of a natural environment and family. They chew their paws in pain and distress. (If their paws even remain - many bears lose limbs when they are originally snared). When a moon bear is no longer useful for bile extraction, it is either left to die, or slaughtered for its paws and gallbladder.

Some bears are imprisoned in cages as cubs and never released.

They cry, naturally.

Before I continue, I would like to take a brief, but ultimately necessary detour to review the conditions of battery hens:
[This has been edited for length from Wesleyan Animal Rights Movement]

Battery hens are kept in windowless sheds, cramped in long rows of stacked cages containing an area less than half the size of a sheet of A4 paper. They have a wingspan of nearly 3 sheets of A4.  Battery cages have sloping wire floors that prevent a hen from sitting, sometimes causing their feet to grow around the bars leaving them immobile and starving to death. They also have wire walls in which hens often get their head stuck, leading to the same fate.

Male chicks, who are of no value to the egg industry, are immediately killed. They are either tossed into garbage bags, left to suffocate or to be crushed, or are macerated in high-speed grinders. For the female chicks, after birth they are kept in out buildings for about 20 weeks until they enter their cage where they remain, without exception, until they are a year old when they are killed. They are often kept in the dark except at feeding times.

Battery hens are housed in flocks up to 1,000 times their natural size, and are unable to establish a social hierarchy normal to free flocks. The size and nature of the cages prevents hens from spreading or stretching their wings. They are prohibited the basic natural instincts of perching, scratching, roosting, dust-bathing, and nesting quietly. They are thus caused to become aggressive and attack other hens.

To reduce cannibalism among frustrated hens, a blade or laser is used to remove up to two-thirds of their beak. Some hens die from shock; others may feel lifelong pain or suffer from a permanent reduction in feeding. Evidence suggests phantom limb pain, and tumours form in the damaged tissue of the amputated beak stump. 

Battery hens suffer from feather-loss, blisters, tumours, foot and leg deformities, osteoporosis, Fatty Liver Syndrome, Swollen Head Syndrome, heat stress, mash, mould toxins, mouth ulcers and many other diseases. Veterinary care is non-existent, as individual hens are considered cheap and expendable. Critically ill birds are thrown onto "dead piles."

I am so utterly incapable of effectively conveying the degree to which these practices upset me. Animals are starved, slaughtered, tortured, suffocated, crushed, dismembered, and castrated because they can produce a profit. Because their skin looks nice. Because they taste good.

How curious it is that the word humane, to be human, is used to describe kind acts, when human beings are the only species capable of such magnificent cruelty.
What you do with this knowledge is up to you. Should bile farming ever come to a close, the moon bears will not realise that we have saved them; we will never receive thanks. One day, something somewhere will cease being tortured. And that's about all.

Despite my belief that this disturbing issue is impossible to ignore, the fact that the practice even exists tells me that I'm wrong - I already know most people reading won't give it a second thought.

If nothing else, though, I'd like you to tell a friend about it. Just tell another person about bile farming. I think somebody might like to know.

One last thought.

Battery hens are kept in their torturous conditions for an average of 42 weeks.

Every second, of every day, for 42 weeks.

42 weeks... 

Moon Bears are caged for up to 20 years.

Tortured Moon Bear


Monday, 30 December 2013

Image'ing all the people

Social media marketing is becoming an ever more visual creature. While the likes of Pinterest, Instagram, and Snapchat provide a terrific outlet for agencies to create unique and imaginative content, consumers are also hard at work on their behalf, sometimes without even knowing it. 

Images uploaded to social media sites can declare a person's interest in a product, similar to the way likes, tweets and comments can. Snapping selfies with your favourite brand of ginger biscuits isn't just providing a visual treat for your admirers, it's supplying a business with a nice free endorsement. What if the PR professionals could measure and analyse visual data, such as who is discussing what picture of which brand, as effectively as they can measure text?

Enter Curalate, the "only marketing and analytics suite for Pinterest and Instagram." Like other analytics tools, Curalate allows users to discover, track and measure engagement with their products and services. The twist here is that instead of crawling through URLs, keywords and hashtags, Curalate can automatically discover which people are posting about a product, even where the product is not explicitly mentioned.

Sure, there are other analytics tools for Pinterest, but Curalate is touting an unparalleled "pixel level" of visual identification (i.e. it can spot a "pin" in a haystack) and has gone to great lengths to ensure interaction with consumers is as intuitive as possible. 

Marketing agencies currently making use of Instagram and Pinterest are likely to be familiar with the almighty power of consumer engagement. Thankfully, the Curalate dashboard allows companies to dive straight into their fans' conversations and start interacting. This is a business win/win: The punter receives a lovely, personalised message from their favourite T-shirt designer, and their friends can see how cool and hip Hertfordshire Skull Apparel Ltd really are! (Though, if they existed, appearing "cool and hip" might be a big ask!) 

The PR and marketing implications of this tool are huge. Social media "scientist" Dan Zarrella argues that Facebook photos create more comments, likes and shares, than videos, links and text do. Combine this with Shareaholic's blog that states Pinterest "outpaced Google Plus, LinkedIn and YouTube combined" for share of referral traffic for businesses in February, (and beat Twitter in a straight head to head) and it seems that understanding the target market in this visual sphere will become invaluable to marketing agencies in the future.

The power of the written word is waning. A mere declaration of fondness is incomparable to the marketing effectiveness that a humble smartphone shot can hold. Is the writing on the wall for, er... writing?

Probably not. But shared images are becoming valuable currency, and Curalate can count what is being spent. And, if nothing else, it's providing businesses with yet another way to "cu-relate" to their consumers.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

SEO is bigger than SEO

Process of SEO

When prominent search engine resource SEOmoz retired their name, it struck me as a sign of the times. Moz, as they are now known, had built their reputation around the importance of SEO techniques and analysis. So why did they amend their title?

Though a number of reasons have been cited, the association of 'search engine optimisation' with a narrow set of ageing practices is clearly something they wanted to avoid.

The times they are a-changin' (sang Dylan, on the subject of online marketing. He was so progressive...) and it's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a high web-ranking, or at least high end-user engagement, based on traditional link building alone.

The SEO practices of old are still viable, to some extent. (Although search engines have curbed blatant exploitation of their algorithms, they are yet to safeguard against lack of integrity.) I suspect there are countless examples of articles created solely to boost search rankings that offer more interesting content than those without such an intention. But how long can we continue in this vein?

As of the last few years, ranking factors have come to be less concerned with keyword, domain and link data and more with "offline data potential". "User and usage data". "Brand and social graph signals".

Search engines are forever becoming more sophisticated. All the keywords, tags and headings that were once oh-so-important can lose value against our will. This is the transformative landscape marketing agencies stand upon. To survive this evolution, marketing and PR companies are having to rely less on keyword research, and more on audience research.

Ask yourself "who is our market?" And "where are they consuming content?" Target your material at them and their influencers with more than just links and text alone. Produce webinars, podcasts and videos. Offer free tools and resources. Create appealing content which will attract an authentic audience, and then connect with that audience. Generate the kind of material that consumers want to link and share organically.

The (admittedly brief) content marketing ideas outlined above are easier to suggest than to implement, and will not befit all businesses or marketing strategies. Tried and tested SEO remains a foundation that should not be overlooked. But as time moves on, it is growing more important that this remains a foundation, and not an end goal.

Moz weren't casting aside SEO when they removed it from their name as much as they were accepting it as part of a larger set of practices. "SEO is bigger than SEO", they said. It's just one aspect of effective online marketing that now encompasses a whole range of services. Services which can escape the clutches of restricting engine algorithms.

Change is coming, and the result of this inevitable development of the search engine will be greater writing, higher customer satisfaction, and more traffic to creative businesses. Change is coming, but why wait for it?

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Embarrassment on the bus

It began when my ten pound note was blown off the driver's dish and onto the floor...

I exclaimed "shoot" and it sounded a bit like "s***". An old woman gasped. (It might have been a hiccup, but it occurred curiously close to my supposed profanity.)

I sat at the front. There was a bottle rolling along the floor. The scene looked something like this:

Bottle on a bus

The bottle hit a young girl and she pretended it wasn't there. "Just pick it up," I thought. It continued its journey and bounced against my foot with a perceivable thud. I followed the girl's hollow lead.

I've actually never been on a bus that swayed quite like this one, it was smoothly tilting left and right. The tricky Dr Pepper bottle tumbled forward against an old man's sandal. He looked down at a forty five degree angle. That was all.

I couldn't get it off my mind. Why did I care? Why did I care so much about this damn bottle?

It's weird, I think it's just because it was litter. It was litter on a bus, and litter should be picked up. Everybody could see it, choosing victims, but nobody wanted to be a hero. Who was next in line to be humiliated by a mischievous bottle clinging to their boot?

Me, obviously. I was the one panicking and it had sensed it the little git. I could feel passengers staring down the bus as it lay next to me. The scene looked something like this:

I thought a woman said "are you gonna' pick that up, son?" but she actually said, "yeah, it was a big gash down his arm" to her friend.

Dr Pepper travelled on towards a tough looking woman - face like a burst soufflé. It didn't even get close, she practically jumped off her seat to pick it up and put it in the 'take your free newspaper' basket.

Problem solved? Not exactly. How was I going to enjoy the rest of my journey knowing there was a Dr Pepper bottle in a basket designed for newspapers?

"You know what, Scott? Don't worry about it," I thought, beginning to see sense. "Someone is going to get off one stop early today..."

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Embarrassment at the Bus Stop

Bus Stop Embarrassment

I learned to drive just to avoid the embarrassment that comes with public transport...

I guarantee it's not just my own social ineptitude that results in these awkward experiences, I've seen it happen to others too. Once, while on a bus which was stuck in traffic, I watched an old lady lean forward to see what was causing the hold up. She had been sitting on one of the those folding chairs near the front. She leaned just far enough to let the seat creep silently back to its native position, before she found a new seat, on the bones of her arse.

On another occasion, my mother clutched a man's hand for the entire journey believing it to be the hand-railing.

I do my best to narrow the opportunity for these conditions, but it's not cost effective to park in the city while I go to work. Instead, I must ride the cold morning bus with the rest of the chumps, and something uncomfortable usually happens...

The most recent example of this being my attempt to flag down an uncharacteristically fast moving coach which was bounding towards me. As I threw my hand into the air to catch the driver's eye, I launched a stream of glistening coins out in front of me. I then stood aghast as the number 58 to the city centre rested snugly on top of them, a sleeping dragon guarding a golden egg.

I still had enough change to pay my fare, as it happens. But in the commotion, between picking up the remaining scraps and smiling awkwardly at the girl staring, I had put it back into my pocket.

Which pocket? Well, who knows? It all happened so fast.

To add insult to injury, I was the first to arrive at the bus stop and consequently first to climb aboard (punctuality be damned) to meet the anxious and disappointed looking driver. (He looked like a man who didn't have a very nice personality on account of him not having a very nice family, but this was purely conjecture.)

I asked for the city centre and placed a pound coin on his tray - the only coin I had retrieved. A pound has never looked sadder.

The driver grimaced.

I rummaged through my pockets in search of further remuneration, navigating the wiry traps of my headphones, and managed to touch upon a pleasantly thick, round surface. I withdrew it triumphantly, only to discover it was a ten pence piece.

"How much is it?" I asked.


"Oh, one-eighty is it? I thought it was one ninety five?" An unhelpful rebuttal.

I began thinking that, contrary to popular belief, buses are on a schedule, and I was causing a hold up as I fidgeted and patted. My pockets were grandparents, withholding money I rightly deserved.

Success! A pound coin!

Nope, just another ten pence piece. Strange how ten pence can feel like a pound when you're desperate.

The driver's eyes bore down on me. Glum zombies sat unimpressed (as if the job I'd made them late for even mattered). I was sweating, distressed. "Check the back pockets again, Scott." Still empty.

Like a cruel fairground game, my pincer fingers were failing to hoist a prize. But then, as my hand squirmed through my ever tightening pocket, a real, honest to goodness, British pound coin appears at my fingertips. Relieved, I handed it over and scampered to the back of the bus.

The girl I'd smiled at earlier was on my mind as I slumped in my seat. I didn't like her. As sure as I was going to blog about this, she was going to tell all her friends about the funny man who threw all his money under a bus.

I'll throw her under a bus.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Interesting feedback on boiler repair service

As a call centre worker, you have to learn to enjoy the little things...

The excited laugh of an older woman when she's presumed to be half her age. An answer phone message featuring a crude Dolly Parton impersonation (Mrs Peters wasn't working 9 'til 5 as a sound-alike, that's for sure).

Discovering a name like 'Titshaboner'. 

It will probably come as no surprise to learn that life in the call centre can be very dreary. But, on a rare occasion, a person's response makes me want to keep my job forever.

Case in point. I was gathering feedback from a lady about her recent boiler repair. She'd had a lot of nice things to say about the way in which it was dealt with, and halfway through my survey I quizzed her on the attitude of the repairman who serviced it.

When I came to ask "why were you 'very satisfied' with his attitude?", what was her response?

"Because he was pleasant"? "Because he was efficient"?

No. Her response was "because he wasn't abusive"


Because he wasn't abusive? Because he wasn't abusive?

Because he wasn't abusive.

I feel like this lady's expectations regarding boiler repair people are uncommonly low. Honestly, you've had to have some bloody miserable experiences when you've praised a workman's lack of abuse. Who the hell has been doing jobs at her flat? Is she at one moment reporting a faulty oven fan, and the next being chained to the radiator?

I wonder if she'd be surprised to learn that very few boiler repair people actually are abusive to residents. Or have I just been incredibly lucky with handymen my entire life?

Across the nation, are housewives bound and gagged before the engineer fits a new Sky Box? Maybe you can't get a leaking tap sorted without the plumber pushing you down the stairs first.

"Can I make you a cup of tea or anything?" - Tenant.
"Yes please, you fat horrible turd. Milk and two" - Worker.

The poor woman, no wonder she was so eager to complete my questionnaire - probably thought I'd torment her with nuisance phone calls if she resisted.

I probably would have. All in a day's work.