Archive for November, 2009

A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais

November 30, 2009
A Warrior's Life by Fernando Morais

A Warrior's Life by Fernando Morais

‘When the world fails to end in the year 2000, perhaps that will end this fascination with the work of Paulo Coelho.’ — Wilson Martins, literary critic, O Globo, April 1998

A knock on the door Saturday morning, and there was the postman with a parcel. My eagerly awaited biography of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, A Warrior’s Life by Fernando Morais.

My first thought was the size, A Warrior’s Life is the size of a large dictionary. But then could a comprehensive account of a life as eventful as that of Paulo Coelho be anything less?

We think of celebrities as larger than life, accompanied by an entourage of minders. Is this to protect the celebrity or to simply ensure that the public never gets the chance to get close enough to discover the emperor has no clothes?

In this Paulo Coelho is different. He actually engages with his readers. His blog is a two way traffic, his readers interact with each other. He conducts interviews on twitter.

Fernando Morais first met Paulo Coelho at Saint-Expéry airport. Here was this unassuming guy dressed in black on his own with a rucksack on his back.

As a journalist, I am used to accompanying international names and stars and imagined I would find him surrounded by bodyguards, secretaries and assistants. To my surprise, the man with whom I would spend much of the following three years turned up alone, with a rucksack on his back and dragging a small suitcase on wheels.

Fernando Morais was given unprecedented access to all Paulo Coelho’s archive material, a locked trunk containing his innermost thoughts, he talked to his friends (and his enemies), followed him around. The result, A Warrior’s Life.

To date the only biography of Paulo Coelho has been Paulo Coelho: Confessions of a Pilgrim a series of informal conversations with Juan Arias. A Warrior’s Life was therefore eagerly awaited.

So far I have dabbled, and A Warrior’s Life is ideal for dipping into. You can learn a lot just from the photos. This is just a sample of my dipping here and there.

Wherever Paulo Coelho goes on official visits, he is treated like a rock star.

Manual of the Warrior of Light inspired the 1998/1999 Versace collection.

When Paulo Coelho wrote a couple of pages for the Audi Annual Report, and they asked him how much he would like to paid, he said nothing, but he would like a new car. They shipped him a 100,000 euro black Audi Avant.

The venom with which critics in Brazil attack Paulo Coelho. A literary establishment, names no one has ever heard of. It is not only Brazil. I recall not long after publication of The Winner Stands Alone reading a couple of reviews. What had been written was complete and utter garbage.

But why I ask myself? I would not rank Paulo Coelho alongside Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy or Zola, I would even say not as good as Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Orhan Pamuk or Pascal Mercier, but that is not to say Paulo Coelho cannot write, far from it, he is a great writer, one of the best. Talking to friends who read his books, friends who do not read trash, they rate his writing highly. Which only goes to show you do not read what critics dictate as they are only talking gibberish.

I hate bad literature, it makes me inwardly groan. I enjoy the pleasure of well-crafted works. I have yet to read anything by Paulo Coelho that could be remotely described as bad literature.

The situation in Brazil was at one time so bad that a cartoon suggested that putting Paulo Coelho on the school curriculum would make the students more stupid!

And can it get worse? Yes, a student who wrote a thesis not critical of Paulo Coelho was attacked and accused of being his mistress!

Such is the antagonism towards Paulo Coelho, that a Brazilian delegation to Paris Expo made a point of not inviting Paulo Coelho, the best known Brazilian author. But this badly backfired as his publisher mounted a stand at the Expo with Paulo Coelho as the star attraction. French President Jacques Chirac made a point of warmly greeting Paulo Coelho, with the Brazilian First Lady who was accompanying him looking on. Chirac was to later to make him a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour, the highest award in France.

I was surprised at the extent Paulo Coelho scrutinizes his book sales, closely monitors the best-seller lists, almost to the point of obsession, especially as he is quite happy for books to be downloaded for free from Pirate Coelho. But then considering his background maybe not so surprising. For his first two books, The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, he and his wife Christina were out on the streets handing out flyers. Before becoming a writer, his background was that of a record producer.

I was shocked at the amount being spent to promote his books, and wondered was it necessary. Authors like Paulo Coelho spread by word of mouth.

Paulo Coelho is a best-selling author in Russia and yet in the UK he is virtually unknown.

He has four properties: an apartment in Rio, another in Paris, a converted mill in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where one of the rules of the house is that if you are a house guest you accompany Paulo Coelho on his daily walk, plus a mansion in the Middle East donated by a grateful admirer.

He has no secretarial or other help, just a cook, though he does have an agency that collects press cuttings, helps organise his itinerary when on tour.

The Fifth Mountain, the story of the Prophet Elijah had to be rewritten when more facts emerged about the prophet.

For reasons not known, the Infant Jesus of Prague has a special place in the heart of Brazilians. On a hippie trip across Europe, Paulo Coelho visited the infant Jesus of Prague and made a special request: ‘I want to be a writer who is read and respected worldwide.’ He realised he was asking a lot and ought to offer a gift in return. He looked up and noticed the infant had a rather threadbare cloak. He promised: ‘When I am a well-known author, respected worldwide, I will return and bring with me a gold-embroidered cloak to cover your body.’ In 2005 Paulo Coelho returned to fulfill his promise. He brought with him a gold-embroidered cloak made by Christina’s mother.

I was surprised how little of the biography focused on recent years, just the last few chapters. The bulk of the book is on childhood and the years leading up to the writing of The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, or what could be seen as the life that made the writer.

On his sixtieth birthday, Paulo Coelho sat down on his daily walk and wrote a letter to thank Fernando Morais for the work he had undertaken. At the time he admitted to many regrets at letting access to his archive material, but was pleased he had allowed the project to go ahead. His letter is published at the end of the biography.

Why am I writing to you? Because today, unlike other days, I have an immense desire to go back into the past, using not my own eyes, but those of someone who has had access to my diaries, my friends, my enemies, to everyone who has been a part of my life. I should like very much to be reading my biography right now, but it looks like I’m going to have to wait.

Even if I don’t recognize myself in your book, I know that there will be a part of me there. While you were interviewing me and I was forced to look again at certain periods of my life, I kept thinking: What would have become of me if I hadn’t experienced these things?

That was August 2007. Two years later, following publication, Paulo Coelho was to comment on the biography on his blog.

Still to read: childhood, incarceration in a mental institution (the basis for Veronika Decides to Die), sex, drugs and rock n roll, black magic and Satanic worship, imprisonment and torture by the military, life with Christina, meeting J, the road back to Catholicism, and much, much more. But I am getting ahead of myself. Hard as it will be, I am going to resistance temptation and will set A Warrior’s Life to one side, and look forward to reading it cover to cover over Christmas.

A Warrior’s Life is an absolute must for Paulo Coelho fans. But I would also recommend it to others who may never have read his books or maybe never even heard of Paulo Coelho, as it is a fascinating read and very well written.

I have registered A Warrior’s Life on BookCrossing, but this is one book that will not be travelling. It will have a permanent place of honour on my bookshelf.

Also see

O Mago

Paulo Coelho

Hurried Steps

November 27, 2009
Hurried Steps by Dacia Maraini

Hurried Steps by Dacia Maraini

“Our goal is clear: an end to these inexcusable crimes – whether it is the use of rape as a weapon of war, domestic violence, sex trafficking, so-called “honour” crimes or female genital mutilation/cutting. We must address the roots of this violence by eradicating discrimination and changing the mindsets that perpetuate it.” — UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon

“With hurried steps these women flee from pain and discrimination. Inspired by real facts reported by Amnesty International, the text is a testimony, an accusation, a gesture of solidarity and acknowledgement of all those women who are still prisoners of a forced marriage, of a violent family, of a hustler, of tradition or of age-old discriminations which are so difficult to overcome.” — Dacia Maraini

Written by Dacia Maraini and directed by Nicolette Kay, Hurried Steps had its world premier at the Mill Studio in Guildford on Thursday evening.

The performance by New Shoes Theatre is based on eight Amnesty International cases of violence against women. As the director was to say after the performance, it matters not culture, class or country, the violence is the same. And so the little vignettes showed, whether it was cultural violence against women in Muslim or African countries, or violence against women in the West in a domestic situation, or violence against women who are trafficked as modern-day slaves, the violence is the same, whatever the situation, it is violence against women.

The performance was unusual. Instead of enacting the little scenes, the actors, three women and two men stood behind music stands, but this was to make the drama even more powerful. And powerful it was. It left one numb.

Dacia Maraini who wrote the play has been a feminist since the 1970s. She wished to bring to a wider audience violence against women, and this play was her means of doing so. She asks that a discussion takes place afterwards on the issues raised, and after a short break, a discussion took place led by the director Nicolette Kay, together with a lady from Amnesty International and a lady from a local support network.

I will not cite the figures here, but the statistics on violence against women is truly appalling. Equally appalling is that such violence is tolerated.

Hurried Steps is a very powerful and moving drama. If you get the chance to see the performance by New Shoes Theatre, please go as you will not regret it. New Shoes Theatre are currently on tour in the UK with Hurried Steps.

The performance was to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.

Amnesty International are running a Stop Violence Against Women campaign.

A couple of days before I saw Hurried Steps I had been notified by Paulo Coelho of the launch by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the tenth anniversary of International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (24 November 2009) of the UN network of men leaders to combat violence against women. The network brings together politicians, activists, religious and community leaders. Members of the network include Brazilian writer and UN Messenger of Peace Paulo Coelho and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The next Amnesty event in Guildford will be a play on political prisoners at the Electric Theatre on Monday 14 December 2009.

Asia Floor Wage

November 24, 2009

The idea behind the Asia Floor Wage is to create a basic living wage across Asian countries. This is to counteract the race to the bottom by companies like Primark, who put pressure not only on individual factories but also on the countries where the factory is located. If the factory owners do not lower their factory gate prices, which translates to lower wages, longer working hours, then the buyers simply source elsewhere. Factory competes against factory, country against country, profits go up, wages and working conditions go down, or in other words the classic race to the bottom.

The Asia Floor Wage Alliance, a large coalition of unions and labour organisations spread across Asia, is supported in the West by trade unions and NGOs and anti-sweatshop movements such as Labour Behind the Label and War on Want.

The Asia floor wage, ie a living wage, should provide sufficient for food costs and non-food costs of a standard family of 2 adults and 2 children. The wage should be earned during each country’s legal maximum working week, though not above 48 hours.

Please support Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops


Asia Floor Wage

Stitching a decent Wage across boarders

Primark – the high cost of cheap fashion

Fruit of the Loom Campaign VICTORY!

No Logo

Gospel of Thomas

November 24, 2009
Fragments of a Codex found by a farmer at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945

Fragments of a Codex found by a farmer at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945

‘These are the hidden sayings that the living Jesus spoke and that Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’ — Gospel of Thomas

‘The disciple is not above his master, but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.’ — Luke 6:40

‘When somebody wants something, the whole Universe conspires in their favour. The warrior of light knows this.’ — Paulo Coelho

The Gospel of Thomas was found as part of the Nag Hammadi find in Egypt in 1945. Fragments had previously been found in monasteries in the Middle East. It had also been postulated that an earlier gospel upon which later gospels drew, codenamed Q, existed. Whilst not necessarily that document, Gospel of Thomas contains much of what was predicted for Q.

For many people, their first awareness of the material known as the Nag Hammadi find was the mention in The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.

Gospel of Thomas is radically different to the other gospels in that it is mystical, it also differs in that it is stripped of narrative and explanation, merely being the sayings attributed to Jesus, but in this raw form it has more power.

The sayings are closer to koans in Zen Buddhism, similar in form to many of the thoughts of Paulo Coelho or what is found in his Manual of the Warrior of Light. There appears to be a Far Eastern influence, though this is unproven.

As with Zen koans, the reader is to meditate upon the saying. From one person to another the interpretation may differ, there is no one answer, it is the act of meditation that matters.

As we see with

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

There is no ‘correct’ answer, the purpose is to force the mind into different pathways.

There are 114 sayings in the Gospel of Thomas. The first two sayings

And he said: Whoever finds the correct interpretation of these sayings will never die.

Jesus said: The seeker should not stop until he finds. When he does find, he will be disturbed. After having been disturbed, he will be astonished. Then he will reign over everything.

Seek and ye shall find. The sayings are hidden, that is waiting for their hidden meaning to be discovered, he who discovers finds enlightenment, discovers the inner truth.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not something we may attain in the afterlife, it is in the here and now, it is a state of mind, it is all around us and has been since the beginning of time.

Jesus said: If your leaders say to you: ‘Look! The Kingdom is in the sky!’ Then the birds will be there before you. If they say that the Kingdom is in the sea, then the fish will be there before you are. Rather, the Kingdom is within you and it is outside of you.

Unlike the Gospels Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, Thomas offers no explanation. It is for the reader to interpret and thus lies the path to immortality.

It is often stated that the Gospel of Thomas is an gnostic text. It is not. The confusion arises because it was found within a cache of gnostic texts.

Thoughts from a weekend conversation with my lovely friend Sian.

Top story The Religion Daily (Wednesday 27 April 2011).

Also see

The Gospel of Thomas

The Gospel of Thomas Collection

How to Know God

God is

Crossing the transition zone

Manual of the Warrior of Light

Primark – the high cost of cheap fashion

November 19, 2009
A trade free zone outside Primark in Cambridge

A trade fee zone outside Primark in Cambridge

Primark is at the opposite end of the fashion spectrum to Mango, Prada and Gucci. The clothes are cheap, dirt cheap. So cheap you can pick up a pair of jeans for less than a fiver. So cheap they are undercutting the charity shops selling secondhand clothes, though that in part is because the charity shops have gotten greedy and are ripping people off.

On my one and only visit to a Primark store it was easy to see why the clothes are cheap, they are of inferior quality. But then what do you expect when you pick up a pair of jeans for a fiver!

Cheap fashion comes at a high cost, a high human cost, a high cost to the environment.

Labour Behind the Label and sister organisations have highlighted the human misery behind the production of clothes for Primark, the long hours, the below a living wage wages, the sweatshop conditions, the use of child labour.

Primark clothes are so cheap they have become disposable items, wear once and throw away. A one way trip to landfill, as unless donated to a charity shop to be worn again, the mix of fabrics used and the method of manufacture make it impossible to recycle.

Politicians fiddle and diddle whilst the planet burns, like lemmings over a cliff we are heading into the abyss of an irreversible climate catastrophe. We have to make deep cuts in our carbon emissions, starting with 10% cut in 2010. We have to bring CO2 down to below 350ppm in the atmosphere if we are to have any hope of stabilising then reducing the global rise in temperature.

We tend to be so focused on transport costs, heating costs, that we overlook the embedded energy in the goods we make, the consumer junk we buy. A can of coke has roughly 2/3 of a kilowatt-hour of embedded energy in the can alone!

We buy our unwanted consumer goods, take them home where they become clutter, then throw them out. A one way trip to landfill.

Primark is encouraging wanton consumption. As a comedian joked recently on the News Quiz, visit the Primark buffet, all the clothes you can wear in a single sitting.

We have heard of Fair Trade, well how about a Trade Free Zone? A group of activist set up their stall outside a Primark store in Cambridge with Free Shop. Want cheap clothes, well come to our stall, we pile them up high and give them away free!

Please support the Love Fashion Hate Sweatshops campaign.

also see

Abercrombie and Fitch: A fashionista cult?

Paulo Coelho t-shirts from Mango

Gucci handbags

The Winner Stands Alone

A story to inspire all of us

November 18, 2009
Tererai Trent on Oprah Winfrey show

Tererai Trent on Oprah Winfrey show

‘When a person really desires something, all the universe conspires to help that person to realize his dreams.’ — Paulo Coelho

‘Any time anyone tells you that a dream is impossible, any time you’re discouraged by impossible challenges, just mutter this mantra: Tererai Trent.’ — Nicholas D. Kristof

‘My personal story is not about me. I think my story personalises the possibilities Heifer International offers to women and girls who are struggling to achieve equality and social justice.’ — Tererai Trent

Tererai Trent (pronounced TEH-reh-rye) was married off at the age of 11 to a man who regularly beat her, had less than a year of formal education (her father thought education was wasted on girls). Hardly the most auspicious start in life. Sadly the tale of many women in rural Africa. When Heifer International visited her village in Zimbabwe and asked what were her dreams, she wrote them down on a sheet of paper: study abroad, obtain a degree, a master’s degree, then a PhD. Most unlikely goals for a semi-literate African women, equally surprising that these gaols should enter her head, that she was even aware of a master’s degrees or doctorate.

What Tererai Trent found hard to believe was that the head of Heifer International Jo Luck had come to her village and was prepared to sit down in the dirt with them and ask them to express their dreams.

She went to work for Heifer and several Christian organisations as a community organiser. She saved every penny she could, undertook correspondence courses.

In 1998 she was accepted into Oklahoma State University, but she insisted on taking her five children with her. She feared that if she left them behind her husband would marry them off. Her husband would only agree to her taking them with her if he came too.

Heifer pitched in with funding, her mother sold a cow, friends and neighbours helped. She managed to raise $4,000 and set of to the US with kids and unwanted husband in tow.

An impossible dream come true, but the dream turned into a nightmare. She had no money, mouths to feed and a bone idle husband who refused to work but regularly beat her.

With no money they were forced to eat out of trash cans. She worked all hours to try and earn enough money to get by. The crunch came when behind with her fees she was facing expulsion from the university.

Luckily for her the local community and church stepped in to help her. She was found low cost housing. A sympathetic Wal-Mart employee would give her the nod and leave past sell-by-date food for her to pick up. Her violent husband was kicked out of the Sates and deported back to Zimbabwe.

Working all hours, she managed to get her degree on education in agriculture, then whilst she was working on her master’s degree, her husband returned from Zimbabwe dying of AIDS. Feeling sorry for him, she took him back and looked after him until he died.

She has now completed her dissertation on AIDS prevention in Africa for her PhD at Western Michigan University, whilst at the same time working as a programme evaluator for Heifer.

Next month she will be awarded her PhD. Finally she will be able to tick of the last item on her list, and yes, she still has the sheet of paper on which she had written her dreams. The list she had placed in a tin and buried in the ground. She would return, unearth her tin box and tick off her dreams one by one. She is now encouraging other girls to do the same, write out your dreams, bury then in a tin box so that they are not forgotten, then as your realise your dreams, return to your tin box, unearth it and tick off your dreams.

How many people are told their dreams are unrealistic, to forget them?

Tererai Trent is now the Deputy Director for Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation at Heifer International.

Maybe she is the exception not the rule.

In Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus established the Grameen Bank. He knew nothing about banking, but he did not let that stop him. He lent small amounts of money to people who needed it. People who commercial banks would not lend to. The only criteria was that they needed the money and the community would stand as guarantors. But only to the women as the men could not be trusted with the money.

The attitude Muhammad Yunus takes is if you can survive in the Third World on less than $1 a day, then you have amazing entrepreneurial skills. All you need is a little seed capital to succeed. And his faith in people has been justly rewarded.

I went to a very rough school. The people I used to know then are either dead or in prison. It was the sort of school where you carried a knife and knew how to us it. You were dumped into shit jobs. You were brainwashed into taking shit jobs. When asked what I wanted to do I said go to university. I was laughed at. But I proved them wrong.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is a modern fable. Santiago an Andalusian shepherd boy decides to follow his dream. He sells his sheep, with gold in his pocket, he travels across to Morocco. But tragedy befalls him on his very first day. He allows a stranger he trusts to run off with all his money, leaving him with nothing. The day before he had been a shepherd with a flock of sheep, that morning he had gold in his purse. Now he is left penniless in a strange and foreign land. Most people would have given up. Santiago sits crying in the square, but then he picks himself up, and thinks to himself, well I always wanted adventure and this is the start of a great adventure.

The universe conspires to help us realise our dreams. Santiago learnt to read the symbols, the language of the Soul of the World.

How many of us follow our dreams? How many of us bemoan our fate? The difference is there are those who grasp the opportunities life offers us, those who do not.

I am often called upon to help the less fortunate in life. I will help them to get back on their feet, but if it is tea and sympathy they are looking for, then they have come to the wrong person. For what I find in nearly all cases is that it is not that Fate has dealt them a bad hand as they would like everyone to believe, it is because they have failed to grasp the opportunities life has given them. Even when you give them a helping hand and point them in the right direction, rather than heed the advice given and help themselves, they would rather expend the effort on bemoaning how hard done by they are.

Next time someone bemoans their hard life and tries to tell you their hard luck story, tell them the story of Tererai Trent, hand them a copy of The Alchemist and suggest that they read it.

Special thanks to Paulo Coelho and Jane Stewart for drawing to my attention the story of Tererai Trent and Priya Sher for pointing me to the article on luck. And for my lovely friend Claire from Zimbabwe who was impatient to read what I was writing.


Triumph of a Dreamer

Half the Sky

Hope in a Box

Creating a World Without Poverty

Be lucky – it’s an easy skill to learn

10,000 hours

The Alchemist

From Berlin and Prague through Seattle to Copenhagen

November 17, 2009

If Berlin and Prague saw the birth of democracy and Seattle its coming-out party, then Copenhagen will see its coming of age.

1989 was a year of momentous change, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Velvet Revolution. Across Europe, country after country sought freedom and sovereignty. With the exception of Romania, the changes were peaceful, not a shot was fired, though the aftermath was not so pleasant with the violent implosion of Yugoslavia. It was not the politicians that forced these changes, change never does come from those in power, it was the people on the streets.

Ten years on the people took to the streets again, this time Seattle and the WTO was shut down. Talking to a friend from Bolivia who had shown footage back home in Bolivia of what was happening in Seattle, she said the Bolivians were amazed. Beating of protesters was the norm in the Third World, but in the rich Capitalist West?

As we commemorate twenty years on from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, the people are converging on Copenhagen for the COP15 climate talks. The demands are simple, the solutions many. We have to cut our carbon emissions. It can no longer be business as usual. Whilst the corrupt politicians fiddle, the planet burns. The message to Copenhagen is simple, it is the people who will decide the agenda, not the politicians. World leaders had better sit up and listen.

Also see

The day the wall came down

The Shape of the Table

Prague marks Velvet Revolution

The theatre behind the Velvet Revolution

Berlin and Prague through Seattle to Copenhagen

Climate rage

Copenhagen: Seattle Grows Up

The Shape of the Table

November 16, 2009

Loosely based on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, The Shape of the Table by David Edgar is set in a fictional Communist country in 1989 as the system collapses. First performed at the National Theatre in London in 1990, it was broadcast as a radio play on BBC Radio 4 as part of their 1989 season.

We start with protests on the streets as party and government officials meet to decide how to handle the next wave of protests: let peaceful protest go ahead, send in the thugs to beat them up, give the thugs live ammunition, call upon their fraternal neighbours to put down the street protests.

No option is to everyones liking. Riffraff and hooligans cannot be allowed to take to the streets, beating up the protesters will be picked up by the BBC, likewise shooting them down and it is possible the thugs will not obey orders, calling upon fraternal neighbours is no longer an option as they have made it clear they will not intervene.

It all goes badly wrong, bloody clashes with peaceful protesters, calls for investigations and reform. Party and government officials meet again. First Secretary says he cannot push through the reforms. This is agreed, and without realising it he has backed himself into a corner and is forced to resign.

A dissident writer is brought out of prison and cast as a go-between. Although the government and party has brought forward what for them is radical reform, the people on the street are demanding more, those for whom power is slipping away cannot keep up.

The play ends with the former First Secretary now in prison and facing charges of treason, corruption and misuse of office, telling the reformists that they are no different to him, that in a few years time the people will look over the barbed wire and will not be able to tell the difference.

Has anything changed?

The alternatives played out as the people took to the streets were played out in Iran this summer. The authorities chose repression and bludgeoned the people into submission, or at least cleared them off the streets, all played out to a world audience on twitter and facebook.

Neda became the face of the Iranian revolution. Slaughtered by the state, an innocent victim, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Twenty years ago, China chose the third option, the media was cleared off the streets, the People’s Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square and pro-democracy demonstrators were massacred.

In Chicago in 1968, riot police clubbed protesters at the Democrat Party Convention.

A decade ago in Seattle the police attacked protesters on the streets.

Last summer, police brutally attacked Climate Camp protesters at Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent.

At G20 in London earlier this year, police were heavy handed resulting in one man killed. Eight months after his death, mystery still surrounds the death of Ian Tomlinson, an innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A candlelit vigil will be held in his memory on 1 December 2009 outside the Royal Exchange by Threadneedle Street.

At Climate Camp this summer on Blackheath Common, the police changed tack, a softly-softly approach was taken.

COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen next month will be a measure of how far democracy has travelled. If Seattle was the coming-out party, Copenhagen is the coming of age. A diverse group of activists will converge on Copenhagen with one single demand, cutting of carbon emissions. One demand, many solutions. The aim at Copenhagen will not be as was successfully achieved at Seattle to shut down the proceedings but to open them up. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall, change will come from below, not be imposed from above. World leaders would be wise to listen.

When world leaders meet they travel to the venue in armoured vehicles, hide behind 12-foot high razor wire barricades, police club the people on the street. Terrorism is used as the flimsiest of excuses to authorise repression and lock people away.

Former Eastern Bloc countries who threw off the shackles of Communism are now under the EU yoke, they wanted freedom, to be sovereign countries, they have a long way yet to travel.

At the end of Animal Farm by George Orwell we have the pigs sitting down to dinner with men from outside. Animals looking in from outside look from man to pig and from pig to man and they cannot see the difference.

The Wall may have fallen in 1989, Communism may have collapsed, but we do not as yet have democracy. Politicians are puppets with global corporations pulling the strings.

Also see

1989 Day by Day

The day the wall came down

A sense of the masses – a manifesto for the new revolution

Civil disobedience

When tweets become spam

November 16, 2009

‘… following @guykawasaki suggestion repeat tweets …’ — Paulo Coelho, twitter

One metric which may increase our ranking on twitter is the number of tweets we produce, ie the amount of traffic we generate. The temptation therefore is to increase the number of tweets in a crude attempt to bolster our twitter ranking. A temptation to be resisted. Were we to do so we would reduce the signal-to-noise ratio, reduce the value, and worse could be seen as generating spam.

Guy Kawasaki has advised that we repeat our tweets. Were we to follow his advice and repeat every tweet, we would half the information content, decrease the signal-to-noise ratio, reduce the value and worse would quite correctly be seen as generating spam.

Repeating tweets should not be confused with re-tweeting, which is to enhance the signal-to-noise ratio and demonstrates our tweets have merit.

I have had followers where every alternate tweet is a repetition of the same tweet, worse, a stream that consists of a repeat of the same tweet! In the past I blocked these followers, now I block and report as spam. So be warned!

A reminder is ok, as is sending a tweet to multiple recipients, anything else is spam.

Special thanks to Paul Coelho, whose tweet of yesterday on following the advice of Guy Kawasaki to repeat tweets gave me the germ of an idea.


Can we rank twitter streams?

The art of the repeat tweet

Can we rank twitter streams?

November 13, 2009

‘Interesting article on twitter public. Thanks to you I am there.’ — Paulo Coelho, twitter, 12:19pm 11 November 2009

Can we rank twitter streams? What I mean by ‘rank’ is best illustrated by example.

I carry out a search on google for any of the following: Puerto de la Cruz, Guildford, Washingborough, Harry Parkins, Paulo Coelho. My first examples I am seeking information on place, if google returns information on flights, schools, football clubs, property for sale, then google has failed me. If I desired information on these topics I would add further key words accordingly. In my latter two examples I am searching for specific individuals, a veteran of WWII Bomber Command, a Brazilian writer. If google supplies different individuals, which may be what others desire on their search on these same names, then the onus is on me to refine my search with additional keywords.

How then can this work for twitter? The ranking we use with google has no meaning for twitter. Let us take an example.

A group of a dozen friends on twitter, each has around ten followers, chit-chat flows between them as would flow over a garden fence or down the pub. The group is an isolated network, ie no links external to the group. The group is not closed, ie their tweets appear on the public time line. Unless a third party stumbles across this network, no one would be aware of its existence. But even if they did, of what interest would they be other than to those students of social networks and micro-blogging? On the other hand the information flow within the network is of high value to the participants, that is why they participate.

Large number of followers is an indication of popularity, thus could be used as a ranking metric.

A crude measure at best. Every celebrity would have a high ranking. As does news sources, though I am surprised how relatively low at just over 27,000 is the excellent news source @bbcnews.

With around 50 followers I would fall way way down the ranking. It would be several times this figure, but I check out every follower, and unless they have something worthwhile to contribute, I delete them. If they are con merchants, flogging something, then I report as spam.

Numbers of followers grows exponentially. From 1 to 10, takes as long as from 10 to 100. The reason for this is if you have no followers, no one knows of your existence, with followers, more people know, the effect snowballs. Eventually though it must saturate.

If you wish to influence, to change the way society works and thinks, then it would be of greater value to have fewer followers who are themselves of influence, who in turn have followers of influence, than to be followed by the common herd, especially if followers of influence re-tweet your tweets all the way down the line.

Large amount of traffic, large number of tweets.

Celebrities tend to tweet all day about their meaningless existence. If I wanted this garbage I would subscribe to Hello and OK magazines.

I tend to avoid high traffic as it swamps out everything else. Or, it will have to have high merit. I will look at websites for example BBC News, Indymedia UK, but then I am being selectively in what I read. I look at @ClimateCamp, as they have high value, ie has merit, but I dip my toe in their stream, rather than subscribe as a follower. On the other hand I follow @airportwatch as they have high value but do not swamp me.

According to a Harvard study, around 10% of twitter users account for 90% of the traffic. The average tweet is less than one a month. Many users never tweet at all. I am one of the contributers.

My tweets are an eclectic mix of environmental information, philosophical musings, links to articles, links to pictures, quotations, re-tweets and chit-chat with friends.

Does a stream have merit? A measure of merit is are the tweets re-tweeted? My tweets are regularly re-tweeted, then often re-tweeted again.

Re-tweet can be seen as a signal-to-noise filter. It picks out what is worthwhile or of value from a twitter stream and thus enhances the signal-to-noise ratio.

Is there engagement, a dialogue, an interchange of views? Our network of friends would score highly, a celebrity merely broadcasts drivel to the mindless masses.

The Guildford Book Festival has a twitter account, but failed to make good use of it during the 2009 book festival. Occasionally during the book festival they would say what was happening that day. Comments to @GfordBookFest were rarely re-tweeted, unless from one of the invited authors (though my comment on this was at least acknowledged). A complete failure of engagement, no attempt to facilitate a discussion on the festival, which would of itself created more interest in the festival.

How many others users point to that twitter account? Another measure of the value of that twitter stream, cf a link to a web page or citing a reference.

Paulo Coelho is a Brazilian writer who has sold over 100 million books worldwide. First published over twenty years ago, The Alchemist has sold 20 million copies and recently celebrated two years in the New York Times best-seller list. Not surprisingly @paulocoelho has approaching 200,000 followers on twitter. He is regularly re-tweeted by his followers, some like parrots re-tweet everything they receive, others add value by adding variants. There is a dialogue and discussion, the traffic is two way. His twitter stream drives traffic to his blog, the blog drives traffic to his twitter stream. The blog is often more of a discussion forum. Paulo Coelho poses a thought or a topic, there is then a discussion between all participants. He has also devised a novel use of twitter, for interviews. Followers are invited at an alloted time to post questions, the first five in English and Portuguese he answers.

I recently heard a puerile discussion on twitter on the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4. The participants did not use twitter, had no idea how twitter worked.

Twitter and social networking came of age during the flawed Iranian elections this summer. Twitter, and to a lesser extent facebook, were used to organise street protests, to avoid trouble. The face of the revolution was Neda. The first I knew of Neda and her senseless slaughter, was when Paulo Coelho posted a video clip on his blog. This was a day or so before it was picked up by the mainstream media. Those who saw it on his blog, reposted, tweeted, what he had shown. It went viral and spread around the world. Following the Iranian example, activists are now making use of twitter, both to provide information and to coordinate actions. For weeks Neda and Iran were trending topics on twitter.

I was recently at a meeting with a surviver of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of twenty years ago. He spoke of how it had been erased from the Chinese collective consciousness and how important it was to keep that memory alive. He said the Chinese feared the internet, that there were more police patrolling the internet than patrolling the streets.

How therefore to rank twitter streams or twitter users? There are those who are trying. On the metrics I have discussed, our isolated network of family and friends would rank very high. They would agree with that ranking as they would value their network, but would it be of any interest to those outside of that network? Paulo Coelho would also rank very high, and for those who follow him they clearly place value on what he has to say, but would those outside his followers express any interest? Celebrities would rank low, even though they have a large following and often generate a large amount of traffic, for the simple reason they have nothing worthwhile to say and there is no engagement.

What we are trying to measure is influence and the numbers influenced, which may be via re-tweets. Influence does not directly correlate with number of followers or the number of tweets, indeed the higher the number of tweets the likelihood is the lower the signal-to-noise ratio, but these are factors to be taken into account. The ratio is likely to be logarithmic, that is going from one to ten followers has the same impact as going from 10 to 100 or 100 to 1,000. With the number of tweets and lowering signal-to-noise ratio, there must be some ceiling or saturation point that is approached.

What is your TweetLevel? Is it a meaningful measure?

For what it is worth the day before this article was posted tweetlevel gave me 34 and for comparison Paulo Coelho 73. I am advised to follow more people, to increase my followers, engage more, my trust level is pretty good. Maybe more interesting is how these scores vary over time. The danger of course is that people will tweet to maximise their metrics rather than because they have anything useful to say (always assuming of course they had anything interesting to say in the first place).

In reality not something to get hung up about. A bit of fun, nothing more. Rather like those machines you find on the pier where you grip a handle or place your hand on a metal plate and out pops a little printed ticket with your future mapped out. The value of any particular twitter stream is going to be what value you put on it, unless you follow like sheep.

Special thanks to Paulo Coelho, whose tweet of a couple of days ago gave me the germ of an idea.

Also see

how to measure ‘importance’ on Twitter

He’s also got a cat called Retweet …

The Winner Stands Alone

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