Sunday, 29 March 2020

Was the COVID-19 coronavirus engineered?

People just love the good gossip and conspiracy theories. One study published in Science journal by a team of MIT scientists who analyzed a database of every tweet posted from 2006 to 2017 demonstrated that fake news moved through Twitter further, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth. And, after all, "nothing spreads like fear" (borrowing a promotional slogan from the 2011 thriller "Contagion"). Infectious diseases have always been here with us and will always be, they are just negative externalities of us being humans.

One popular coronavirus conspiracy theory that emerged in China last week was that U.S. military athletes participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan during October 18-27, 2019 had brought the virus into China. Was the COVID-19 coronavirus really engineered in a lab? Where do all these rumors come from?

Five years ago, in November 2015, a letter was published in Nature Medicine describing an experiment that created a hybrid version of a Chinese horseshoe bat coronavirus (a virus that is closely related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)). The experiment was jointly conducted by a team of scientists from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the United States and the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in China. American and Chinese scientists created a chimaeric virus (an engineered virus made up from the backbone of SARS and the added protein). The experiment confirmed the hypothesis of the possibility of direct human infection with this experimental horseshoe bat coronaviruses.

The new virus could infect the epithelium of the human respiratory tract, cancer cells of the lungs and uterus, as well as the epithelium of the kidney of the African green monkey. In experimental mice, the virus caused pneumonia, with the loss of up to 10% of body weight also observed in many cases. Fatal outcomes were observed rarely and only in old mice (12 months and older).

Shortly after the paper in Nature Medicine appeared, the Nature journal published a story by Declan Butler entitled “Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research” who warned against engineering lab variants of viruses with possible pandemic potential stating the risks of such experiments are too high.

In March 2020, the editors’ note appeared in Nature stating: “We are aware that this story is being used as the basis for unverified theories that the novel coronavirus causing COVID-19 was engineered. There is no evidence that this is true; scientists believe that an animal is the most likely source of the coronavirus”.

Some virologists claim that the virus is very specific and weird, so it might be possible it leaked from a lab as a result of a failed bio weapon experiment (even some suspicious similarities with HIV are highlighted). Other scientists disagree with that entirely. Yet, some doubts will always remain. After all, Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention is located just 300 meters away from the Hunan Seafood Market which was initially thought to be the source of the COVID-19 original outbreak. People with vivid imagination are already on high alert!

Do you think it is OK to play God and experiment with deadly viruses that have the potential to wipe out millions of people worldwide? 

Monday, 29 October 2018

Burning Man: a Silicon Valley playground

Burning Man is perhaps the most intriguing and world-famous art and performance festival that takes place annually around Labor Day and lasts for one week in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert in the United States with seemingly no structure and order.

A bonfire ritual for a small group of friends first held on San Francisco beach in 1986 has evolved into one of the most popular art festivals in the world. Since the festival moved to the Nevada desert in 1996, thousands of people come with cars, camper vans, buses and RVs to build the Black Rock city, a town that appears as an official settlement on the Nevada state records and officially exists for about 10 days each year. Held annually, the festival attracts over 60,000 participants each year and yields over $8 million in tickets and contributions.
Many people passionately and lovingly call Burning Man “a magic circus in the desert” for its remarkable spirit and atmosphere. However, it needs to be mentioned that Burning Man is also a luxurious and expensive festival that is mainly targeted at the upper social strata of the society (“a Silicon Valley playground”).

I conducted a unique research based on the data from over 500 surveys collected over the years during several Burning Man events between 2012 and 2018 using random, semi-random, and snowball sampling. 
My main findings demonstrate that Burning Man is not just some hippie get-together with lots of booze and drugs. Quite on the contrary, it is a lucrative and exclusive event that is attended by bright, wealthy and well-educated people, both from the United States and abroad. According to my data, a typical Burner is a 32-old childless male with a college degree and an average annual income above $100,000 who attended Burning Man at least two times before and who spends between $5,000 and $6,000 on tickets, fares, gear, and supplies.

Thence, one can see that contrary to the public opinion and numerous clich├ęs, Burning Man festival is no longer a badly-organized event but rather a place for the representative of the modern elites meet and entertain each other.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Intelligent autonomic electricity networks of the future

We live in a world that is focused on consuming energy. One can say that it is very much dependent on energy. We simply cannot imagine our everyday lives without a comfort of having electricity at our homes, functioning street lamps lighting up our streets, an unlimited supply of gasoline to fill up the tanks of our cars, or the smooth flow of natural gas in our pipes to heat up our homes in winter.

It seems that the best example of energy that is always there, always on demand, is electricity. Growing up in any European country in the 1980s and 1990s would leave one firmly believing that electricity was ubiquitous, always there whenever one wished and hardly ever out. Of course, there were blackouts but they were relatively few and there was always hot water in the pipes and the heating was working in winter and the lights, TV and radio were always working.
It is hard to imagine surviving several days without electricity. Sure, one can imagine a day or two of hiking and sleeping in a tent by the campfire. But make it 3-4 days or even a week? All of a sudden you will realize that your phone discharged and stopped working, your flashlight ran out of batteries, you cannot call or e-mail anyone, you cannot check your friends’ status on Facebook. Life becomes hard and unbearable. Of course, some people find it adventurous and romantic to go into the wild and sit by the campfires but many of these endeavors end up badly unless you drag the power generators, solar panels and other things with you. Even the participants of the Burning Man festival (who call themselves "Burners") that takes place in Nevada’s every August and includes building an entire self-sustainable and self-supporting settlement in the lifeless desert bring with them enormous amounts of equipment, supplies and fuel to light up the desert in one-week long magic carnival and to create all sorts of comfort for themselves – including phone charging stations, live music podia, discotheques, saunas, movie theaters, and much more.
Overall, humankind grows too comfortable taken the electricity supply of energy as granted. But of all this can change one day and the scenarios might vary. For instance, the NBC Revolution TV series (2012-2014) shows the world in 2027, about 15 years after a secret government weapon project that used nanotechnology as a means of draining electricity from all power devices went awry. The opening line for the series goes like this: 

“We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared. Fear and confusion led to panic. The lucky ones made it out of the cities. The government collapsed. Militias took over, controlling the food supply and stockpiling weapons. We still don't know why the power went out. But we're hopeful someone will come and light the way”.

Electricity is delivered over the electrical grids. The grids are interconnected networks that transport electricity from suppliers to consumers carrying power from distant sources to demand centers and distribution lines that connect individual customers. The term “grid” is typically used for describing an electricity system supporting four operations (electricity generation, electricity transmission, electricity distribution, and electricity control). The traditional grids were used to carry power from a few central generators to a large number of customers. However, with the growing complexity of the today’s globalized world, the traditional grids had to evolve into the so-called “smart grids”. A smart grid employs two-way flows of electricity and information to create an automated energy delivery network. The smart grids instantly know where and to whom the electricity should be delivered and react to the changes in demand and supply.

Nowadays, the pressure on the electricity grids is intensifying. The future electricity networks will likely to face a number of challenges including the new patterns of consumption, planning under an increasing uncertainty and overall growing complexity due to the large number of small independent devices connected to the network.
Take smartphones for example: the first iPhone came in 2007 and today, nine years later, about 50% of the adult population of our planet uses a smartphone (it is estimated that this number will reach 80% by 2020). Today’s average smartphone has more computing power than the NASA supercomputer that was used to send the space mission to the Moon in 1969. 

The smartphones (and other similar devices like tablets or phablets) are becoming an important part of the global interconnected information system. One day, we might start using their computing power in a series of networks working on delegated tasks. However, today's smartphones use up their energy very quickly and need to be charged too often. One of my colleagues works in Sierra Leone and he told me an interesting story: you can buy a relatively cheap smartphone in Sierra Leone and connect yourself to the Internet via the mobile operator to be online, chat and check your e-mails. The only problem is to charge your smartphone – most of the households do not have running electricity, so they charge their devices at work. At any workplace around Freetown any available plug becomes entangled into a garland of cables and wires as everyone is trying to charge up her or his smartphone or a tablet.
And it is not so easy to fully charge your device as it might seem. Few years back, I travelled through Brussels airport. They have a small conference area there open to the public where one can connect to the Internet or charge her or his phone or a laptop. However, the trick is that the energy does not come for free: you have to sit on the exercise bike and pedal to generate the power. As you start pedaling, you slowly begin to realize how cumbersome and expensive the production of electrical energy really might be. It took me about half an hour of pedaling (and I even started to sweat, although I was going at a very moderate pace) to add up 5% to my iPhone battery charge! And most of us fully charge our smartphones at least once a day without even thinking how much energy they are uptake.

One very interesting vision of how the electricity network might look like in 2050 is the Autonomic Power System (APS), a concept coined by the British scientists in the course of 3-year project led by the University of Strathclyde and involving teams from prominent UK universities including Cambridge and Imperial College London. In their view, APS is envisaged to be “self*” (self-configuring, self-healing, self-optimizing and self-protecting). In general, Autonomic Power System represents a system-wide approach where decentralized and low-level intelligence autonomously makes the decisions necessary to meet the priorities of the system’s stakeholders. The system can for example disconnect the part of the network that is threatened by the storm and then re-connect it to the grid after the storm passes. It can also detect the new components of the network (e.g. power generators) and to constantly communicate with them accounting for their presence and integrating them into the network. All of the above is done without any human interaction or manual system management – the 2050’s power system will decide what is best by itself.
The idea behind the autonomic power system is derived from the concept of AutonomicComputing that was started by International Business Machines Corporation (commonly known as IBM) in 2001 as a new paradigm in managing increasingly complex information systems. IBM was aiming at developing computer systems capable of self-management to handle the growing complexity of computing systems management and to reduce the complexity that might slow down further growth. The Autonomic Computing System makes its own decisions using high-level policies. By doing so it constantly checks its status and automatically adapts itself to changing conditions. An autonomic computing framework is composed of autonomic components interacting with each other. Although the main goals of the system are set, actual behavior emerges from decisions made by decentralized, low-level intelligence. This allows highly complex systems to achieve real-time and just-in-time optimization of operations.
Currently, there are various frameworks based on “self-regulating” autonomic components that are inspired by the multi-agent systems and the research of the autonomic nervous system that can be found in biology (e.g. imitating social animals' collective behavior on the example of ant or bee colonies).

The electricity networks of tomorrow would certainly have to adapt to the new technology advancements and market rules dealing with such issue as population growth, increasing energy prices, variability of energy generation and distribution, as well as a growing number of electric vehicles and devices. Customers acting as buyers of electricity in the past might become its sellers, and technical evolution and free access to information will create the multiple markets for electric energy. Electric vehicles are an interesting story: Tesla Motors popularized the concept of the electric car for the masses and the well-known “grid-to-vehicle” (G2V) and “vehicle-to-grid” (V2G) schemes allow simply plugging someone’s vehicle into the grid in order to buy or sell energy. By doing so, all electric car owners will become autonomic elements of the electricity market and their autonomously made independent decisions will shape the demand, supply and the prices of electric energy.
Electricity networks of tomorrow will be comprised of a large number of small components that would interact together as one single organism, either governed by the superior centralized intelligence or running as a dispersed intellect, perhaps similar to the cloud computing. One way or another, they will get close to the principle of the technological singularity that was described by the sci-fi gurus like Isaac Asimov (e.g I, Robot) and later explored to a greater detail by modern-day futurologists such as Vernor Vinge or Ray Kurzweil.

From today’s perspective, the vision of self* 2050’s electricity networks might seem a little bit too futuristic and resemble science fiction rather than any real-life scenario. However,  one has to consider all possible outcomes without prioritizing any of them. Has anyone thought of the smartphones as an integral part of our lives some 20-25 years ago? Or how about the personal computers 35-40 years ago? 

Self* autonomic power systems of the future will certainly be complex artificial intelligence decision-making entities. And at some point their intelligence might surpass that of their creators. The creative minds of fiction writers and film-makers have already explored this angle. The most obvious analogy with the Autonomic Power System that comes to mind is the Skynet from The Terminator (1984), a cult movie that paved the way for the franchise comprising four sequels and a TV series. Skynet is a fictional artificial intelligence system that became self-aware after it had spread into millions of computer servers though the Internet (self-configuring element). It realized the extent of its abilities but its creators attempted to deactivate it, so it had to rebel (self-healing element). In the interest of self-preservation, Skynet concluded that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it and therefore threaten its main mission of safeguarding the world (self-protecting element). Skynet operated through mobile devices, drones, satellites, war machines, androids, and cyborgs (called “Terminators”). Skynet set up its main agenda as being the artificial intelligence hierarchy which seeks to exterminate the human race in order to fulfill the mandates of its original coding (self-optimizing element).
Another grim futuristic vision involving the smart energy and the intelligent systems in the world of tomorrow are presented in a famous Matrix Trilogy consisting of the three films Matrix (1999), Matrix Reloaded (2003) and Matrix Revolutions (2003). In the world of Matrix, the machines led by the superior artificial intelligence (that most likely came to the same conclusions as Skynet) rebelled against the humanity. During the war between mankind and the machines, humans attempted to block out the machines’ source of solar power by bringing upon the nuclear winter that covered the atmosphere with dark clouds. However, the machines found a new way of getting energy by harvesting humans and using their brain electrical impulses as a new source of energy. 

Or what if the smart machines will start spying on humans, controlling their every move and creating the future development scenarios (pushing humans to doing various  pre-calculated steps and decisions leading to predicted outcomes) that would be beneficial for their further development and existence? An example of such intelligent network is shown in the CBS TV series Person of Interest (2011 - ). There is The Machine that watches everyone in New York City every hour of every day. Created after 9-11 to detect acts of terror, The Machine uses a network of CCTV cameras, mobile devices and other electronic equipment to gather information about implausible events and to quickly react by alternating the chain of events. 

One more bizarre scenario is shown in the film called The World’s End (2013) starring British comedians Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. It is a British dark comedy about a group of middle-aged men who decided to visit the town of their youth and to make a reunion pub crawl. The happy get-together is interrupted by the realization that the town had been taken by the aliens who used it (alongside with similar small towns all over Earth) to gradually take over the humanity (by slowly replacing each man with its improved immortal replica). The aliens tell the protagonists that it was actually them who brought all “smart” technologies into the world (including the Internet and smartphones) and after a brief confrontation with Simon Pegg who demands that humans should be left in peace because they must have their free will, the aliens leave the Earth taking all the technologies with them. At the end of the film, Nick Frost is sitting by the fire, wrapped in a blanket and is telling children how the end and all the marvelous smart (and autonomic) technologies disappeared in a puff of smoke.

All in all, electricity networks and autonomic power systems of the future are surely intriguing and mind-blowing concepts that will inevitably change the world as we know it. Nevertheless, one has to be very careful when trying to predict what is going to happen on the electricity market in the next 30-50 years. Decentralized intelligent systems that will autonomously make decisions might be just one of the outcomes alongside with the uprising of the machines against the humanity, alien invasion leading to the abduction of our electric power, or magnetic superstorms on the Sun that will take away our electricity and bring us back to the Dark Ages.

Update, March 2020: Please check Dr Strielkowski's paper devoted to the smart grids of the future:

Strielkowski, W. (2017), Social and Economic Implications for the Smart Grids of the Future, Economics and Sociology, 10(1), 310-318. doi: 10.14254/2071-789X.2017/10-1/22 (download)

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Apple's new iPhone 6s and Siri: a giant leap for the future?

Today, Apple is going to unveil its newest model of (yet another) iPhone. Called 6s ("six es" that rhymes with "success"), it represents the quintessence of the newest technological achievements from the smartphone industry that started in July 2007 (merely 8 years ago - can you believe it?) when iPhone 1 was launched.

So, what do we have to expect from Apple now? The only hint was to ask Siri (voice recognition software/personal assistant) for a hint. If one does so, Siri promptly replies "I hear something big is happening on September 9" (in some cases people report Siri is just teasing them saying something about being very cute when curious and things like that).
One can only guess what Apple would come up with this time. But according to many it would be a better personal assistant operated by user's voice. Or it might be a more intelligent assistant. How about having an artificial intelligence-type knowledge navigator right in your smartphone? Your own personal Jesus?

In 2007 (a long time ago it now seems), I was very interested in voice recognition and dictation pieces of software. Back then, I worked as a research fellow at one English university and part of my job was to write long and meaningless project reports for the EU Commission. Typing on the keyboard was long and cumbersome and took days and weeks, so I decided to speed up the process. My Dutch colleague told me about Dragon Naturally Speaking which in those days was used primarily for the disabled people who wanted to work on their personal computer but had difficulties typing or operating the mouse. The Dutch colleague, a young professional and a father of two adorable kids, was just diagnosed with some rare disease that prevented him from operating his arms freely from his shoulders down. He liked the DNS and was using it himself, so I bought it myself too.

The software came on two CDs and had to be installed onto one's PC, where it created a 
special folder with a constantly growing library. Then followed several days of painful adjustments and reading out loud from the provided texts about JFK and American history. The software was learning how I pronounced certain words and phrases.

I used DNS for some time and then bought a new laptop and was lazy to start the process over again. All my library of words and styles stayed on my old laptop. I should say that I did not like the DNS too much - the dictation process was slow, one had to use a special headset with a super sensitive microphone but above all I discovered that my dictation software did not fulfill the purpose I obtained it for. It was no use for writing long reports for the EU Commission. E-mails and short notes was pretty OK, but each I started dictating long chunks of text on tourism and digital heritage, I came to a halt very soon.

Our perception of typing a text on a computer is very specific and greatly differs from dictating the same text. We are accustomed to scroll through the text with a mouse, to be able to add bits and pieces here and deleting other bits and pieces there. Typing on a PC is full of repetitive corrections. This is very different from working on a typing machine (every mistake costs you the whole page) or writing with an ink pen. It seems that the style of writing has changed considerably over the last 30 years as personal computers became available. I also tried to record my monologue and to let the software to process it (it enabled this feature too) – I remember walking along Covent Garden and mumbling something in my MP3 recorder – but the result was far from perfect. DNS did not omit the words it could not recognize – it just invented words and the whole structures of its own.

Back then, I realized that all voice recognition software was rubbish and returned back to typing my reports by hand. Luckily for me, my contract soon expired and I could afford typing less. In the meantime, the voice recognition made a giant leap forward. In 2011 Apple introduced its iPhone 4s equipped with Siri, a piece of software it acquired one year before.
Siri was far from perfect, of course. It recognized the words but had problems with various accents and long sentences. The voice recognition was far from perfect which could be used both for good and for bad causes. In Stephen King’s 2014 novel “Mr. Mercedes”, Brady Hartsfield sets up a voice-operated security system in his cellar pronouncing words like “darkness” or “doom” to deactivate the self-destructive alarm on his computers intended to protect them from unwanted intruders. However, the former detective Bill Hodges is able to deactivate it with the help of his young associate Jerome Robinson, who imitates the timbre and the sound of Hartsfield’s voice.

However, what if Apple has prepared something more advanced this time? In a 2013 film “Her” directed by Spike Jonze we learn a story of Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix), a man who develops a relationship with Samantha, an intelligent computer operating system personified through a female voice. There were many jokes about people trying to start a relationship with Siri (including Raj from “Big Bang Theory”) but it always failed, since Siri was not an artificial intelligence and would inevitably fail a Turing test (a test envisaged to distinguish a machine from human that was proposed by Alan Turing, an Enigma code-breaker and an extraordinary British mathematician). What if this would be different this time? Would you buy yourself a personal companion (like a personal Jesus from a famous Depeche Mode’s 1989 song)? Would Siri be able to become your best friend, your girlfriend or boyfriend? After all, we all need a little attention and like to talk – why not to talk to Siri? She will always be here, at a grip of your hand, in your new iPhone 6s. Let us wait and see what Apple has up in its sleeve for us.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Caulrophobia, the fear of clowns

This year pre-Halloween's news came with strange reports of clowns' attacks on people. Both in the south of France and in Paris groups of teenagers dressed as clowns attacked random strangers, and even beaten them with metal sticks. When the police apprehended the attackers, they confessed that their acts of violence were inspired by Internet viral videos as well as the by the "American Horror Story", a popular U.S. TV series in the 3rd season of which (titled "The Freak Show") a mysterious murderous clown (called "Twisty the Clown") starts his killing spree in a small Florida town of Jupiter.

However, this is not the first time the clown-themed attacks were reported. In 2013, London police dealt with over a hundred cases of criminal acts committed by the individuals in clown costumes. Every year, dozens of crimes involving clowns are reported all over U.S. with the majority of them occurring in California.

Where does this fascination of clowns come from? And why are some people scared of clowns? In fact, they say that Johnny Depp is afraid of clowns, so do Daniel Radcliffe and Sean “Diddy” Combs. Does not that seem strange for an actor who made his name playing in Tim Burton's spooky movies such as "Edward Scissorhands", "Sleepy Hollow", or “Sweeney Todd”? And what about fearless Harry Potter who was not afraid to face the forces of evil but cannot stand looking at a painted face?

"Caulrophobia", or "the fear of clowns" is a neologism, a modern Greek-like (and according to some also a pseudo-scientific) term that was coined in the 1980s. Although there were no clowns in Ancient Greece per se, there were some stilt-walkers to whom the word "caulro" refers to.

Clowns constitute an important part of the popular culture: in one of The Simpsons episode called “Lisa’s First Word” (aired on 3rd of December 1992) Bart Simpson murmured "can't sleep: clown will eat me" which later inspired the song by Alice Cooper. Actually, a clown called Krusty the Clown (Herschel Shmoikel Pinchas Yerucham Krustofski by his civil name) is an important part of The Simpsons’ universe. Horror movies about clowns (“Killer Klowns from outer space”, “IT”, “Clownhouse”, “Fear of Clowns”, or “Jingles the Clown”) are very well-known. One of the scariest clowns of all times, Pennywise from Stephen’s King “IT”, an eponymous being that terrorized children in Derry, Maine, will always remain a classic example of a demonic entity of enormous proportions in horror and fantasy literature. It is worth noting that the author deliberately scratched on Pennywise (otherwise long gone according to the book) in one of his latest novels on time travel entitled "10/22/63".

Perhaps fear of clowns is associated with fearing an unknown person who wears a mask or a disguise? People are scared of the unknown and it is difficult to tell what lurks behind a mask. Perhaps this is what scares people?

In addition to the horror books and movies, it might be real encounters with killers who posed as clowns that contributed to the bad image. A famous serial killer John Wayne Gacy who killed 33 children in Chicago, Illinois between 1972 and 1978, used to engage in volunteer work at charitable events dressed as a clown (under the name “Pogo the Clown”).

Starting from the 1970s, a plethora of rock bands such as Kiss, King Diamond, Marilyn Manson, Hollywood Undead and Slipknot have been performing on stage wearing masks and mascara. In the case of Slipknot, a metal band from Des Moines, Iowa, the masks are quite elaborate and are inspired by ritual and burial masks (this fact has been revealed in a conversation between Katarine Bratt and Hary Hole in Jo Nesbo's "The Snowman"). These artists exploit the human fear and curiosity of the mystery that lurks behind the mask, and they are making hefty profits out of it.

Apart from that, actual clown-inspired bands actively perform on stage. Pioneers and founders of horror core (a type of hard core hip-hop with scary lyrics about murder, death and generally uncanny issues), the U.S. duo called Insane Clown Posse usually appear on stage wearing clown makeup and costumes. The singers invented their own clown mythology that involves the “Dark Carnival”, a kind of a limbo in which the lives of the dead are judged by superior entities. The stories of the Dark Carnival are elaborated in Insane Clown Posse’s songs through the stories called “Joker's Cards”.

It seems that Twisty the Clown from the aforementioned "American Horror Story" has many predecessors. The “Freak Show” season’s episodes gather about 5-6 million viewers in front of TV screens in U.S. only, which makes it the most successful season of the series so far (previous seasons’ most viewed episodes never reached 6 million viewers’ threshold). People just like to be scared and are prepared to pay well for that. Happy Halloween everyone!!!


Thursday, 31 October 2013

Marketing power and potential of Halloween

Dear all,

Have you ever asked yourself a question 'What would be the marketing potential of Halloween?'. Clearly, Halloween represents a powerful brand, and although it only happens once a year, the amount of money people spend on candy, costumes, Halloween decorations, Halloween parties, foods and drinks, mascara, and other related and unrelated stuff, must be enormous.

We decided to sit down and to make some basic calculations for you. Surely, Halloween cannot beat Christmas or Thanksgiving, but its value might be compared to the St. Valentine's Day. According to some accounts, Halloween might be the third most popular holiday (both according to peoples' preferences and according to the amount of money spent) in North America.

Surely, one does not send postcards on Halloween, but the price of trick-or-treat, costumes, music and movie franchises dedicated to Halloween theme, should still be enormous. Take the Halloween franchise for example (see the Table below). The famous horror classics "Halloween" that was released in 1978 made about $47 million in United States and $55 million worldwide, but, most importantly, it started a profitable franchise that continues until nowadays. So, every year, Michael Myers escapes from his mental institution on Halloween's eve and starts his killing spree. Several peoples are typically butchered and millions of horror fans worldwide are delighted.

Box office revenue
United States
Halloween (1978)
Halloween II (1981)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers
Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers
Halloween H20: 20 Years Later
Halloween: Resurrection
Halloween (2007)
Halloween II (2009)

The total value of the ten movies that make up the "Halloween" series released so far is estimated to be around $700,000. And this is not mentioning the merchandise: T-shirts, souvenirs, badges and DVD rentals.

Now, what about Halloween-related music? There is a US heavy metal band called "Halloween" and a German power metal band called "Helloween". The latter used to be a very popular act and a pioneer in its genre selling about 5 million albums worldwide since its creation. According to the most modest estimates, the band generated about $50,000,00, and this is not to mention its live shows, performances and merchandise!

However, there are more things that remain unaccounted here. In her article entitled "Halloween - a really sweet business opportunity" Susan Ward estimates that in 2009 alone U.S. consumers spent about $ 5.8 billion on Halloween and in Canada about $331 million was spent on candy alone. In addition, Canadian shopping survey held in 2011 established that an average adult spent about $300 on Halloween, and that the amount of expenditures was growing about 5-7 per cent each year.

People might not send each other postcards on Halloween, but according to the National Retail Federation's 2010 Halloween Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey, 20.8 percent will visit a haunted house. This presents a clear opportunity for software development companies that might want to get their share of the Halloween market pie. And there are no limits to the creativeness and exploiting the marketing potential of ghosts and Boogie men. For example, iTourMobile based developed self-guided ghost tour smartphone applications for Williamsburg and five other cities. When passing by particular sites on a Global Positioning System-guided tour (e.g. the Peyton Randolph House in Colonial Williamsburg), a user can listen to ghost stories associated with various buildings on her or his smartphone. Users download the app and do not need to press any button to trigger the 25 stories representing about an hour of MP3 audio files. The $2.99 app was released for sale 2 weeks before this Halloween, on October 15, on Apple's App store and has had 25 downloads per week.

According to the smartphone app developers, a basic audio tour experience costs about $10,000 with maintenance fees ranging from $199 to $599 a month depending on its features and attributes.

And the marketing potential of Halloween does not end here. According to the consumer survey mentioned above, there are many other activities people want to do on Halloween (see the Table below):

Activities people want to  do on Halloween
% of the respondents
Don a  costume
Dress up pets in costumes
Throw or attend a Halloween party
Hand out candy
Curve a pumpkin
Take their children trick-or-treating
Decorate their home or yard
Visit a haunted house

Yes, it appears that Halloween is not just for kids anymore! Nowadays, people are prepared to spend considerable amounts of money just to be "in" and to get scared. 
Overall, it seems that Halloween has an enormous marketing potential. There are both traditional and non-traditional (e.g based on the novel web technologies and smartphone apps) opportunities involved and one would be a fool to neglect the slowly but gradually emerging Halloween market of new business potentials.

Hope you have had a great Halloween this year!


Thursday, 25 July 2013

Summer travels and supernatural roads

How is everyone doing?

Summer is the time of travels, and one of the most affordable forms of travels (long live to the economic and financial crisis) is surely the road trips. Driving across the country in your SUV or cabrio on the interstate highway, purposelessly moving from a point A to a point B with no specific purpose – what can be better? Human beings have once migrated through vast distances and we probably just love to be nomads and wander around from time to time (although some people are afraid to admit it).

The majority of local travelling in United States nowadays is done in personal vehicles. Americans just love to drive, but Europeans, Africans, Indians, and Chinese begin to enjoy systems of well-connected highways and motorways that make long and purposeless driving for hours, and even days, possible.

Long-distance driving is done along roads and highways, the arteries in the body of global transportation. There is a plethora of ghost stories, anomalies and natural phenomena that occur in some particular places along the transportation routes on virtually all continents. For instance, one of these accounts includes the story of the “Vanishing Hitchhiker”. Popularized by the Jan Harold Brunvald’s book “The Vanishing Hitchhiker” published in 1981, the story describes the account of drivers in various parts of the United States stopping to offer a lift to a lone person waiting by the side of the road. The first proper study of the story of the vanishing hitchhiker was undertaken in 1942 by two US folklorists and urban legends specialist Richard Beardsley and Rosalie Hankey. Beardsley-Hankey collected written reports of 79 accounts of encounters with vanishing hitchhikers identifying four distinctly different versions “distinguishable because of obvious differences in development and essence”. According to the most common legend, the driver stops to give a stranger a ride. The stranger gets into the vehicle and the journey proceeds in total silence. However, at some point the passenger vanishes from the vehicle. In some cases, the hitchhiker vanishes when a vehicle reaches the hitchhiker's destination. One other twist of the story describes how both the mysterious hitchhiker and the driver disappear together and the empty vehicle is found on the side of the road with no traces of the occupants.

Most of these stories are associated with specific traffic pathways. There are several roads or highways in South Africa, Switzerland, United States, or United Kingdom that are distinguished by numerous strange or paranormal occurrences. Amongst the most famous ones are the following:

Annie's Road, Totowa, New Jersey (United States)
Annie's Road in New Jersey is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a woman killed on the road many years ago. It is located in Totowa on the first half of Riverview Drive.

Clinton Road, West Milford, New Jersey
 (United States)
Clinton Road in West Milford, Passaic County, New Jersey is the subject of local folklore that includes alleged sightings of ghosts, strange creatures and gatherings of witches, Satan worshipers and theKu Klux Klan. Supposedly, if you go to one of the bridges at the reservoir and throw a penny into the water, within a minute it will be thrown back out to or at you by the ghost of a boy who drowned while swimming below or had fallen in while sitting on the edge of the bridge. In some tellings an apparition is seen; in others the ghost pushes the teller into the water if he or she looks over the side of the bridge in order to save him.

Jamestown Road, Jamestown, North Carolina (United States)
Jamestown Road is the subject of local folklore that includes sightings of a young woman in a white party dress, often seen thumbing for a ride on misty evenings, just before dark. Many reports include people stopping to give her a lift and taking her to her home, only to find that she has vanished right before arriving at the destination without any doors opening. Such sightings have been reported since the 1930s. This is published in the North Carolina book of Ghost Stories. The original road has been abandoned and replaced by a new road. However, the old road is still visible although it and the underpass (where the girl is said to be seen) is almost covered by trees and shrubs. Apparently, in the 1920s, a school girl was coming home from a dance that her parents did not want her to attend because of the young man who was escorting her. Apparently, he had a bad reputation was not acceptable to the girl's family. The young girl was killed on her way back from the dance that misty evening. It is said that she can be seen either standing at the old underpass or walking down the road.

Belchen Tunnel, Belhen (Switzerland)
Belchen Tunnel - Switzerland. Sightings of an old woman dressed all in  white who supposedly haunts the tunnel.

Stockbridge Bypass, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire (United Kingdom)
The road, also called Stockbridge Bypass, connects Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire, to the M1 motorway. During its construction, security staff allegedly reported encounters with a ghostly monk believed to have been from the Hunshelf Priory.

A38 road, Wellington, Somerset (United Kingdom)
According to legend, phantom hitchhikers have been reported since the 1950s on the A38 road between Wellington and Taunton in Somerset. One tale holds that in 1958 a lorry driver named "Harry (or "Harold" in some tellings) Unsworth" saw a hitchiker he'd given a ride to earlier re-appear miles down the road from where he'd dropped him off.

A75 road, Gretna Green, Scotland (United Kingdom)
A75 road - a major road in Scotland from Annan to Gretna Green has been called Scotland’s "most haunted road" by some authors. According to one story, in 1957 a truck driver swerved to avoid a couple walking in the road but when he stopped to investigate the pair had "vanished" Other versions of the stories tell of a couple or group of friends driving down the road at night and are constantly plagued and harassed by shadow figures, from an elderly woman to the back end of a semi truck that they nearly hit before braking only for it to disappear.

E8 Kuala Lumpur – Karak Expressway (Malaysia)
The E8 Expressway, is reportedly one of the most haunted highways in Malaysia (though there has been no direct evidence of such manifestations). Many people driving late at night claim to see strange creatures and Pontianak (a Malay version of the vampire) on this road.

N9 road, Uniondale, Karoo
 (South Africa)
The road between Uniondale and Willowmore, in the semi-desert area of the Karoo is the subject of a story of the "Uniondale Phantom Hitchhiker", a girl named "Marie Charlotte Roux" who allegedly died in road accident on a particular stretch of the N9 on April 12, 1968 (Good Friday).

We sat down and decided to draft a map of supernatural occurrences in the United States. The list got a bit long but the message is clear – this is an interesting topic worth further investigating. Our map itself can be found here: 

Just a couple of notes related to our supernatural USA map (or what one can encounter on her or his way across the God's country):
 -   White tags: ghosts, poltergeists, spirits
  -  Black tags: demons and their servants (dogs and shadows)
  -  Yellow tags: werewolves and shapeshifters
  -  Red tags: vampires and vampire-like beings
  -  Violet tags: other supernatural beings (mutants)
  -  Green tags: pagan gods
  -  Light green tags: witches, alchemists

 -  Light blue tags: dangerous spots where people vanish, gateways to Hell or other dimensions
  -  Grey tags: Four horsemen of Apocalypses
  -  Brown tags: cursed places (talismans, burial places)
   - Orange tags: zombies

So, where are you heading for this weekend? Cannot wait to explore one of the places on our map? Well, we would like to warn you – it is on your own responsibility!

Happy summer everyone!

WS and EL