Friday, February 22, 2013

We're All Victims of the Bully

Bullying is a very serious social problem, a matter of life and death since some victims are pushed to suicide and many others are damaged for life. Still, the solution is very far away – probably because bullying is rooted within our instincts, which our conscious minds have trouble reaching.

It's particularly alarming when children are bullied. That, the adults surrounding them should be able to deal with – but alas, they rarely manage to stop it. Instead, they often unknowingly partake in worsening the situation.

It's terribly evident in the TV documentary Bully (2011). The adults fumble when confronted with the problem, mainly occupied by claiming their own innocence. The children have no one to turn to. The most striking example of that is a scene starting at 28:30 into the film.

A school principal demands the bully and the bullied to shake hands, as if that would solve the problem. She even says that by the handshake they should let the thing drop. A good deal for the bully...

When the bullied boy is reluctant to do that, the principal immediately starts to scold him. Actually, she jumps to a bullying behavior.

“That means you're just like him”, she tells the boy, comparing his behavior to that of the bully.

“I don't hurt people,” he replies.

“By not shaking his hand you're just like him,” the principal insists.

“Like someone who pushes you into walls, threatens to break your arm, threatens to stab you and kill you?” the boy inquires with admirable guts.

“He apologized,” the principal replies, although that's not at all true. It was never even demanded of him. She continues: “And have you reported all that sort of stuff?”


“Ok, then it's been taken care of,” the principal immediately concludes.

“All of them said,” he continues, “even the cops told him to stay away from me – and he doesn't.”

“Right. Can you try to get along?” the principal insists, as if it's all up to the bullied boy. “I think you guys might be really good friends at some time.”

“We were,” the boy replies, “and then he started bullying me.”

From the scene quoted above, in the TV documentary Bully (2011).
Unfortunately, that is likely to continue, especially since the principal's dealing with it became very much like her sanctioning of it. The bullied was the one blamed, the bully could walk off without any consequences. Actually, it was like he was praised, while the bullied was condemned.

That's as frequent as it is absurd. The reluctant efforts from responsible adults are mostly focused at the bullied, not the bullies, as if the former are after all the real problems and somehow the causes. They are the ones moved away, if it comes to that, and they are the ones suggested to change their behavior in some way. So, what does it say other than that they are regarded as the causes of the bullying?

Parents often fail to be any substantial support, since they only rule that little cell of the family and its home. Therefore, they also tend to demand of their bullied child to make some kind of change. They feel helpless, of course, and therefore really don't want to know, although stating the opposite.

People want problems to go away. In the case of repeated bullying, that means they tend to compute that the problem will be solved if the one that goes away is the bullied. That's not something they would readily confess, but it's what their action – and lack of action – confirms.

When school officials and parents meet, they tend to find common ground in just that: wanting the problem to go away, and escaping blame. This is also evident in several scenes of the TV documentary. Parents blame the school and the school claims the problem to be insoluble – thereby blaming society as a whole, or mankind or whatever.

The bullied child is little but a hostage in this battle of blame, and sees no hope of ceasing to be a victim.

Bullying is always a consequence of the social commitment to conformity. Children and adults alike are expected to conform to the norm. Be like everybody else, in every way. Those that stick out are either praised or condemned, depending on the nature of their deviation. It comes down to the rude survival of the fittest.

When people stick out from the norm they are admired if they do so in a way that signals some kind of superiority. If it's interpreted as a weakness, though, the instinctual behavior of exclusion is triggered. We are animals and frequently behave so, although we fail to admit it. When our instincts are free to roam, they make us want to follow the ones we perceive as strong and desert the ones we see as weak.

The human condition is far from perfect, but it is possible to change tremendously, we've learned through history. The job's just not yet done, completely. Far from completely.

The flaw is not with those who stand out, but with all of us who continue to protect the instinct of deserting those who do. The bully is not the only one at fault. So is everyone unable to resist that malicious instinct. That's a lot of people – to some extent all of us.

No wonder, then, that the problem is unsolved. We must start by admitting where it lies. We must admit our blame. Otherwise we are unlikely to do any better than the principal quoted above.

We have to remember Voltaire's statement about tolerance, and we need to widen it. Not only should we accept and defend different opinions than our own, but the same positive tolerance should be shown other behavior and characteristics as well. Only to the extent we commit our society to tolerance will we free it from intolerance.

So, we have a long way to go. The only intolerance we should foster is one against intolerance.

As for most bullying, especially among children, it seems to stem from conformity and intolerance regarding gender roles. Boys and girls are expected to grow up to men and women, by which we mean that they must conform to the images we make of the genders. It's when children deviate from those norms that the bullying becomes the most severe and persistent.

This is easily explained by Darwinism and the survival of the fittest, which is a mechanism based on procreation, therefore on how males and females interact. Our instincts tell us that there's a war between males to be alpha males, and one between females to be alpha females. What that comprises may differ through time and from one culture to another, but the vicious force towards conformity is the same everywhere.

It's very important to understand that what the instincts dictate about gender roles is not necessarily relevant even for the survival of the fittest. Society and man's role in it change much quicker than instincts do, so they are not to be trusted blindly. If we don't question our instincts, they may very well lead to the extinction of our species. As for our gender roles, they have unquestionably caused a lot of suffering through the ages. They still do.

We need to rise above that. We can. We have defeated several other instincts in order to create a society closer to the ideals we agree about.

So, bullying is not an isolated problem with its particular solutions. It's a symptom of what we need to reform in society as a whole. The bullied is the canary in the coal mine, the first one to suffer something that's wrong and will take its toll on us all – if we don't listen to this warning and act upon it.

The TV documentary Bully can be seen here (with Swedish subtitles), but that's just for a few more days.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Quest for the Perfect Search Engine

Since the second half of 2012, the search results on Google have deteriorated. Single domains often dominate the first few results pages – especially, but not only, after the first ten results. Also, the relevance and quality of the  results have decreased. It got me wondering: What would be the perfect search engine algorithm?

What's happened to Google is easy enough to compute: In their effort to fight unwanted Search Engine Optimization (SEO), they've changed their algorithm without properly considering the effect for the user.

Google may have gotten rid of sites cynically constructed for the sole purpose of stealing top positions on the search results, but by doing so they also swept away links of high value to the users. Their result lists got a conformity that is quite disappointing, since it leads to a boring surfer experience.

They seem to have failed to consider a very simple mathematical fact: when one criteria is reduced, the others swell. Making one piece of the cake smaller also leads to the others getting bigger. Fewer criteria decide the result.

As far as I can see, there are three major criteria of importance in getting search results satisfying to the user: relevance, quality, and popularity.

Google also rewards websites for their size, and very much so. This is very strange because it has almost no relevance to the user. It may simply be a priority inspired by Google's own size. As the saying goes: Birds of a feather flock together. For the user, size is meaningless compared to relevance, quality, and popularity.

Relevance describes to what extent a website is about the subject of the search. A search engine algorithm decides this by evaluating search word frequency and prominence in URL, titles, texts, and so on.

Quality is the measure of how well the search subject may be treated. Of course, this is not easy to compute. What search engines evaluate are the links to the webpage in question – how many they are and the quality of the websites they come from. The latter easily becomes sort of a vicious circle, when websites thereby increase the estimated quality of one another in sort of a loop. Another way to go about it is to measure links from such types of websites as those with the edu suffix, newspapers, online encyclopedias, forums on the search word topic, et cetera. That, too, is uncertain and not necessarily relevant to the user, but what to do?

Popularity is the nirvana of our time, a more or less outspoken belief in things being better the more people favor them. That can indeed be questioned, although it has some relevance to the user. When we make our searches, we like to see what's the talk of the town regarding that topic. We want to see the most popular webpages about the topic in the listing, although we might not always feel the need to click them. Popularity can be decided by the number of visits to the sites. What the search engines also read is again the number of links to the site, like they do in the case of quality.

That's probably why Google already at its outset decided to put such emphasis on mapping links. They are relevant to two of the three criteria. But they are no guarantee for a pleased user experience, simply because behind most searches is a need for specific information, which is best measured by the relevance criteria. Unfortunately, it's also the criteria most exposed to malicious SEO – often to the point of the relevance being a chimera.

Now, if the three criteria are valued equally by a search engine algorithm (which is hardly the case with any search engine), it looks like this:

If the algorithm is changed, so that one criteria is given less weight, it will lead to the importance of the other criteria increasing. They automatically swell proportionally, according to their previous compared weights. For example, if relevance is diminished from one third to 10% of the cake above, quality and popularity will swell to 45% each:

As the diagram shows, what suffers the most is variety. Two criteria dominate completely at the cost of the third. So, the search results will show a conformity of limited value to the user. Even if many criteria are used, the result lists will swarm with those strong in the few weightiest criteria, as if nothing else mattered.

That's what Google did, when changing their algorithm in their aggressive battle against malicious SEO uses. The purpose might have been commendable, but the result may even be the opposite of the intent, since fewer criteria make methodical SEO easier.

So, what would be the ideal weight distribution of the three criteria in the eyes of the user?

No doubt, relevance is of primary important to any search engine user. We want information on the topic indicated by the search words we use. Any search engine unable to give us that in the results would be useless.

Next comes quality. We prefer search results filtering out nonsense and misleading sites that use search words to catch visitors but don't deliver the information requested. If this is not done to some extent, we would just drown in an ocean of spam, whatever we seek. Or porn.

Lastly, popularity has some bearing, depending on what we search for. Man is a social being, needing to be aware of what goes on in the minds of fellow men. That's why we give significant value to popularity. In a search on a topic, we would also like to have indications of how other people relate to the topic and what they are likely to find out about it.

In a diagram like the ones above, a user friendly division of the three criteria would be something like: relevance 50%, quality 30%, and popularity 20%.

When I look at Google search results, I see nothing of the kind. Website sizes are given huge values, distorting the results and contributing to cause plenty of links to just a few sites. That's a killer of variety right there.

Also, Google has become extremely depreciative of the most important relevance ingredient: the actual search words. Therefore, sites that have very little to do with the topic can get surprisingly high ranks, even when they are obviously all about something else.

Actually, I even see what seems to be a depreciation of the old Google credo: the links to the sites as a measure of their quality. Many top results lack significant numbers of links, even less if they are to be examined with some quality filter.

Instead, Google focuses more and more on popularity. The same old same old megasites appear again and again, whatever the topic and however substantially or superficially they treat it.

So, size and popularity – those are the new icons cherished at Google. Not very exciting. Since the biggest sites often have the most visitors and vice versa, it leads to a terrible conformity in the Google search results.

I think it can lead to Google's downfall, if they don't change this radically. Users get bored with this easily recognizable repetition in the searches, and start longing for alternatives.

And they do already exist. The closest one in the race is Bing (also the engine for Yahoo), which is very interesting to compare to Google. Especially with search words about which there is great competition to be on top, it's my experience that Bing gives more varied and interesting results than Google does. Often strikingly so.

If my impression is correct, it can quickly lead to an escalating number of users shifting their habits. And then they are not very prone to shift back. We may be reluctant to change our habits, but even more so to change them back. The past is not to be revisited other than by memory. If that's not where Google is satisfied to reside, it should rethink its quest.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Georgian Gethsemane

A friend and I were searching the web for versions of Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say) from Jesus Christ Superstar that might surpass Ted Neeley's from 2006. A mission impossible, but I happened to come across an adolescent getting quite near – on a Georgian Idol show.

The young man's name is Luka Zaqariadze and he won that season, to no surprise. He has passion and the voice to express it. That's a rare combination. He also does what is so rare in show business: he totally commits to the song and lives out the lyrics as well as squeezes the notes like the flesh of a lover in heated intercourse.

His version of Gethsemane still has some oddities in how he treats the words and the melody, probably stemming from his own very different musical and cultural background. But when he sings boldly about dying and being nailed to the cross, Luka Zaqariadze expresses the purgatory of puberty, which has no borders.

I had to check out his other performances, and there are several of them from the Georgian Idol 2012 season. Already in his interpretation of Gethsemane it's obvious that he has a metal heart. That also stands out in his version of Led Zeppelin's Since I've Been Loving You, which is true to a long-gone time when rock'n'roll was allowed to take its time and the musicians played themselves and their audience into a trance. Here it is, linked from his own YouTube account:

The way the boy makes himself one with the pain and longing at the core of any real rock ballad is breathtaking.

And how about his version of Sting's Desert Rose, where Luka Zaqariadze and the orchestra comfortably mix influences from several cultures, having lots of fun with it:

But he also performed songs that don't translate as easily to the rest of the world. I don't understand any word in the below song, but I imagine it must have local traditional roots. It seems that Luka Zaqariadze is enjoying it just as much as any power ballad.

But what's this kind of song doing in an Idol show? The same can be asked about all the long and elaborate performances above, involving a symphony orchestra and extensive instrumental passages. I don't recognize it from either the Swedish version of the show or the American one. But I love it.

If other Idol shows, outside Georgia, dared the same musical explorations, they would keep me awake and lusting for more. Both in Sweden and USA (many other countries too, I bet), music and the pure joy of it have been brushed aside by business, and by the myth upheld by television executives that the audience can only consume nonsense.

Were it not for the wonderful Internet, we would never ever get to experience anything other than what our national show biz executives wanted to stuff us with. The songs above would never pass through that needle's eye.

So, what will happen to Luka Zaqariadze? He won the Georgian Idol. In the history of the show, that's almost a death sentence. The winners rarely get anywhere, probably because their voting fans soon move on to performers of the next season. How quickly they forget...

I learned as a rock critic for a Swedish newspaper that artists who remain are the ones with their own material, songs from their own hearts and minds. Covers are little more than karaoke. They hardly make history. Even voices and expressions as intense as that of Luka Zaqariadze are doomed if they don't have something unique on which to apply their gifts.

I know nothing about the music scene in Georgia, but I doubt that it's very different on the above account. Luka will need to come up with his own music or he will be forgotten as soon as the next Idol season begins in Georgia. On the other hand, if he finds an inner source from which to fetch his future music, he certainly has the talent to be an idol for real, even outside Georgia.

I end with an irrelevant note. His name made me remember this sweet sad song, whether it's applicable to Luka Zaqariadze's situation or not: