Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Viral Lynx

Did you ever wonder what makes a post or web page go viral? After a little research I still don't know (and I'm not sure anyone else does either), but there are a few common themes. First, don't plan it. Next, be controversial. Finally, make people laugh, cry, or groan. You can learn more about creating viral sensations here, here, and here . . . or at least get some advice and opinions, if you aspire to Internet fame.

A data guy from Moncton got me thinking again about things viral. His snowblower ad, innocently posted on Kijiji last Wednesday, had been viewed 342,465 times as of Sunday. You can read his story here, and his blog here.

Attainment of fame isn't necessarily synonymous with attainment of your original goal, and most of the responders to Mr. Cho's ad had little interest in his snowblower. Success comes in many flavours though, and Mr. Cho has opportunities now that wouldn't have been possible pre-Kijiji. The sale of his snowblower ended up being a sideshow to his entry into the sensational world of cyber celebrity.

I have my own microscopic experience with unintended popularity. Last March I posted a photo of a lynx, along with my usual diatribes on things that interested or aggravated me on that particular day. For some reason the search engines took notice, and the post now gets regular visits from around the world. While it isn't viral, it did climb rapidly to the top of my "Popular Posts" list, and it's amusing to think of someone in Turkey, Croatia, or Indonesia searching for lynx photos and finding my peripheral edge of the universe blog. They don't hang around long, but in some ways, traffic is traffic. Except that my goal isn't to merely generate traffic, nor is it to become a leading voice for World Lynx Advocacy.

Smart marketeers study the things that turn our cranks, and harness them into ad campaigns that they hope will go viral. They appeal to our interests to expose us to their products. I've had fleeting thoughts of plastering every post with lynx photos so that the throngs searching for wild feline photography would be exposed to the wide world of firefighting as well. Perhaps this mass exposure would translate into swarms of new volunteers, and truck loads of added budget money. Or maybe people would continue on their merry Internet meanderings without giving us a second thought. If furry faces start appearing on my blog for no apparent reason, you'll know the experiment has started.

Here's the conclusion, at least for me. Things that go viral, like iPhones in blenders, and witty snowblower ads, all share one unifying factor that drives their promulgation: it costs nothing but a few minutes to view them.

Supposing I managed to dress a lynx in turnout gear and teach him to hold a hoseline (without getting my eyes clawed out, or having PETA dynamite the fire hall). I could post the video on Youtube and undoubtedly get thousands of hits. It might even go viral. Now that I had the world's attention, I could slip in a message about volunteer firefighting . . . and when people found out about the hard work, no pay, and sleep-deprived nights they would fall off the bandwagon faster than rats fleeing a sinking ship. And we would be left with the crazy, dedicated, select few. Just like we are now.

You can read about one of my attempts to make an idea go viral here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

It's a Small World After All

The world continues to get smaller, at least for those who use social media. What used to be six degrees of separation is now 4.74 degrees, according to a study done by Facebook

I can see how this advance in friendliness could be useful as a political tool. Think of it. A friend of my friend knows a friend of Stephen Harper's friend. If you are like me, and need help visualizing abstract ideas - and this is really abstract - here is a diagram.

Of course this assumes that Stephen Harper, and everyone in between, has a Facebook account. Assuming that they do - and assuming that I can figure out which of my friends' friends knows Stephen Harper's friend's friend - just think of the possibilities. "Hey Friend, can you message your friend who knows Stephen Harper's friend and tell him to ask his friend to meet with me and my friend so we can discuss funding for the fire service over a friendly cup of coffee?" Facebook just became a warmer, fuzzier place.

There's a lot hanging on this theory, so I did a little research. While I couldn't find that our First Minister is accepting friend requests, I did find his page, which you can visit and 'like' if you so choose. 67,320 people had already done so when I visited, which sounds like a lot until you do a little more research and find out that over 16 million Canadians are Facebook users.  That means only about .004% of Canadian Facebookers are fans of Stephen Harper's page. It's even less impressive when you dig a little deeper yet, and find out that an onion ring has over 162,000 fans.

I shouldn't be so harsh. Upsala Fire Department page only has 34 fans. But then, Upsala Fire Department isn't the leader of a majority government that manages the affairs of a G8 country. But if it were, I doubt that it would spend (almost) a billion dollars on a G8 summit, when there are small fire departments still driving 30 year old trucks.

Wow. I should research the degrees of separation between a light-hearted discussion about Facebook, and a political rant on perceived federal fiscal madness.

To get to the point (and there was a point) we have more tools at our disposal than ever before to accomplish the things we want to accomplish. Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can be among those tools . . . but we have to figure out how to get people's attention. The fact that an onion ring can garner more support than the Prime Minister shows that Canadians have a quirky side. If we bore them, they will 'unlike' us in droves.

Tim Labelle talks about firefighters' aversion to things political in his recent column at FireRescue1. While I don't believe we all have the stomach or the need to be politically active, we can all contribute to raising our profile. The bottom line is that people care about things that interest them. If we can interest them, they will care. Social media doesn't make people care (as Upsala Fire Department has proven) but it can be a tool to spread the word about things that people care about.

Perhaps it's time to start selling onion rings.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Word Wizards

Good news! Pizza is still a vegetable. It's odd that I hadn't known that it ever was a vegetable, but nice to learn that I can count it toward my daily veggie quota instead of beets and turnips. I should add that pizza is a vegetable as defined by the US Congress with regard to school lunches. Minor detail.

It brings to mind a maxim my parents used when we were kids: if you call a sheep's tail a leg, how many legs does it have? I only fell for it once, and was swiftly informed that sheep only have four legs, no matter what you call their tails.

It also reminds me of the time I tried to convince my readers that messy-desk people (like me) were more efficient than organized, neat-desk people. It's still true, by the way. Click here.

Lastly, it brings to mind a book I just finished reading for the first time: George Orwell's 1984. If you've never read this famous classic, I don't blame you. I doubt that a darker book has every graced the shelves of bookstores. A key theme was that the Party owned truth. If the Party said it was true, then it was true regardless of fact or history.

Here's the point. Words are powerful if used skillfully . . . for good or evil, for truth or deception. I doubt that anyone believes that pizza is a vegetable, but a handful of frozen food lobbyists convinced a handful of Congress men and women, who convinced the House of Representatives that it was, and legislation was passed that will boost the frozen food industry. Millions of dollars are made and lost daily by words, depending upon how they are used.

Words alone aren't enough, however. Words are to language what flour is to baking. Flour is the main ingredient of baked goods, but the sugar, spices, milk, and other ingredients give the cake or bread or muffins (or pizzas) their personality. Language is the same way.

Words are dry and dusty by themselves. To make literary cake, or verbal muffins, or linguistic pizza, you have to blend ideas together with emotions and feelings and passion. You also have to know your audience's likes and dislikes. Lobbyists know that US Representatives don't care as much about pizza as they do about votes.

We need to learn from the pizza story. Firefighters are plain speakers, which isn't bad, but politicians haven't paid much attention to the unleavened bread we've offered them.

"We need decent equipment."
"Help us with recruitment."
"Why can you spend a billion dollars on a G8 summit, but can only afford to give us crumbs at election time?"

Perhaps we need to bake them a verbal black forest cake to get their attention.

As disappointed as I am that one of my favourite foods is not a vegetable (legislation notwithstanding) I am encouraged by one thing: if the US House of Representatives can be persuaded that pizza grows on vines, we can persuade Parliament Hill that firefighters are the very core of public service . . . and that they need to care more about us.

Time to recruit more language chefs.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shotgun Approach

Politics isn't my forte, but I have written a few thousand words on the topic, and I will undoubtedly write more when the urge strikes again . . . usually around election time. You can read some of my thoughts on the topic here and here.

Paul Combs takes a shot at politics once in a while too, but he does it with deadly accuracy in the form of artwork. Click here for his latest masterpiece. They aren't kidding when they say a picture is worth a thousand words. Click here to see a gallery of his artwork, and here to visit his web site.

Speaking of words, my next Spontaneous Combustion column will appear in the February issue of Firefighting in Canada, instead of the January issue of Canadian Fire and EMS. You may not care, but I did on October 31st, which was the day the switch was made . . . and which also happened to be two days before the deadline for the January column.

I am usually at least mildly panicked when I feel the hot breath of a deadline on the back of my neck, especially if my mind is still as blank as the computer screen, but this time I was strangely calm. I had an irrational feeling that a thousand words would magically find their way into a semi-orderly arrangement on my screen within 48 hours, no problem. It may have been delusional, but it was at least peaceful delusion.

So when editor Laura King emailed a suggestion that the column be run in the February issue of FFIC - with a writers' deadline of December 6 instead of November 2 - I decided it must be Karma. Or perhaps Laura was a mind reader and knew I was helplessly stuck in literary lala land. Or maybe it was just a happy coincidence. Regardless, the switch gave me breathing room to corral my recalcitrant thoughts into a semblance of order, and the February column looks more promising by the day.

The birthing of a new article always amazes me a little. A week ago it didn't exist. A few days ago, it looked like someone fired a dictionary out of a shotgun . . . words and phrases splattered across an MS Word document like graffiti on a boxcar, only less artistically. A few hours of cut, paste, delete and rewrite (which I affectionately call "slash and burn"), and it's almost ready to launch. Saying it "just happened" would be like saying the stork brings babies, but I'm still not sure I understand the biology of writing.

One thing for sure, writing, like most things including firefighting (and babies), starts with passion.

Speaking of passion, I saw this as I left my parents' place today.

It's a path of water across the frozen lake by their house. My 86 year old father is a passionate fisherman, and when he saw a patch of open water on the other side of the lake, he had to break across in his 17 foot canoe for one last fling before winter.

There's passion, and then there's fanaticism.

To finish off with something at least partly connected to firefighting, Intel Labs has produced a ball-shaped electronic gizmo that can be rolled into a burning structure to take readings of important data like temperature, oxygen levels, and chemical levels, then send them to a smart phone so firefighters can know what they are getting into before they enter. Click here for an article and short video on the "fire ball."  You can read my musings on other gizmos here.

The great thing about blogging is that you are allowed to write like you fired a dictionary out of a shotgun.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


A person in pursuit of money or power or fame doesn't select firefighting as a career path. At least not for very long. Plenty of other professions serve those ends without causing one to be awakened at 2:00 AM to muck around in turnout gear. Firefighters may want money, power, and fame, but our chief motivator (at least in the beginning) is a desire to help others.

It's this altruistic side of the firefighter that views red tape and liability as nuisances that impede the pursuit of our calling. We are solution driven people. Our goal is to get to the scene, fix the problem, and get home. When someone tells us we can't do this or that because of policy, or because it's litigiously risky, it drives us nuts. That is, at least until we become fire chiefs. Then the world starts to take on a different colour.

As a small department chief that pulls his fair share of hose, my firefighter perspective is alive and well, but I also see the legal hazards that hang like a guillotine blade over our heads. In May of this year I wrote a post about these sometimes conflicting viewpoints of pragmatism and prudence. Here is an excerpt:

I've been a fire chief for just over fifteen years now, and I believe I am finally beginning to think like one . . . or at least I'm developing a dual personality of sorts. The practical, caring, Firefighter Jekyll in me is sometimes challenged by the cautious, liability-minded Chief Hyde. We arrived at the scene of a grass fire last week to find a young man walking his dog within a few feet of a very obviously live hydro line. The firefighter side of me said, "He's an idiot, but I'm glad he didn't get fricasseed." The chief side of me said, "Get that idiot out of there before he gets fricasseed and someone says it's my fault." 

You can read the rest of the post here.

It turns out that Chief Hyde wasn't too far off the mark. A New Jersey fire department was found to be 60% responsible for injuries suffered when a man stepped on a downed hydro line in his home driveway . . . which means they are responsible for 60% of 20 million dollars. You can read the story here.

Even without knowing all the details, the New Jersey story is different from my story, but we did both leave downed hydro lines unattended. In my case, I faced liability issues whether I stayed or left. The incident was about 10 km outside of Upsala, which was close enough to be considered our back yard if it caught the bush on fire, but far enough that I would be in serious trouble if something burned at home while I was away with our only pumper. But such are the issues we face out here in the boonies.

On a similar topic, and in keeping with my love of analogies, I compared the volunteer service to a panda bear in a post last month that was reposted on the Fire Within blog. If you haven't read it yet click here.

The bottom line: right and wrong choices are not always as clear as day and night. Sometimes they are a foggy, dusky gray colour that only turn black or white after we've made an irreversible decision.

Firefighters might not be in hot pursuit of money, power, and fame, but there are plenty of folks out there that are . . . and you can be sure they've got their microscopes and scalpels ready to dissect our motives and actions when the opportunity arises.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The proper time

It seemed like the ultimate statistical conundrum. What if we were paged at 01:15 hrs on November 6, and then again exactly an hour later (after the official change back to Eastern Standard Time). The second call out would also be recorded at 01:15 hrs on November 6 . . . even though it happened an hour later. Such an occurence would be inconceivable in the mathematically rigid world of chronological record keeping.

I was nearly convinced that the problem was unsolvable until Erinn suggested that I would simply write "EDT" or "EST" after the notation to clarify the proper chronology in the annals of dispatch history. Come to think of it, busier departments deal with this issue every year at the fall time change. Only fire chiefs that live on the peripheral edge of the universe (who have never been paged during that one-hour time period) even give it a second thought.

Speaking of time-related puzzles, the village of Upsala lies in Central Time Zone, but we operate on Eastern Time because most of our business is done in Thunder Bay. This can cause complications even without the convoluted spring-forward, fall-back shenanigans we play twice a year. All points west of Upsala lie firmly in Central Time Zone, but I record our calls in Eastern Time regardless of direction. I had a mildly heated discussion once with a police officer about our page out and arrival times at a fatal crash. My notes just didn't jive with her notes. Fortunately one of us finally figured out that she was running on Central Time and I was running on Eastern.

On a semi-related topic, I'm told that many years ago a municipality near here chose not to adopt Daylight Savings Time because they thought messing with daylight might cause the tomatoes to ripen more slowly. Council's discussion of the matter is reportedly recorded in all its paradoxical glory in the archived meeting minutes.

To finish off this downward spiral to incongruity, John Lennon's tooth just sold for $31,200.00. If I ever become famous, I'll have to remember to will my teeth, hair, and fingernails to my kids so they'll have a rainy-day fund in case times get tough.

I'm not quite sure how a supposed firefighting blog digresses this far into absurdity.

In an effort to redeem myself, here is a post by the Fire Critic that gives a short history of Firefighter Close Calls, and the Secretlist. Check out the Firefighter Close Calls Facebook page here. I've been a Secretlist subscriber, and a Billy G admirer for a lot of years, and my respect for this fire service icon increases the more I learn about him. I wonder how much his teeth will be worth in fifty years.

To finish off on a sane, normal note, check out volunteer firefighter Jennifer Mabee's blog over at Firefighting in Canada. A new perspective from the volunteer service is always welcome.

You may not find volunteer firefighter teeth on the auction block in fifty years, but life would not be the same in 80% of Canada's landmass without them.

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