You say you want a revolution?

How would you change the world in 2010? We've never been more connected, at our fingertips are social networking services that can potentially broadcast your thoughts to hundreds of people, and maybe even thousands more you've never met. Surely this should herald a new era of activism, with causes spreading contagiously, rapidly exposing injustice and bringing it to the attention of those who can right it.

Or maybe not. Malcolm Gladwell has just written a contrarian article, arguing that whilst the inherently weak ties in social networks have the power to spread ideas, they can change very little. His argument is that revolutions require serious commitment, and that spreading the word is not the same as getting involved. And I agree.

Mass movements aim to use the power of social proof to win over uncommitted minds, by demonstrating that "we" are more numerous, and more passionate than "them". This can be very effective in a democracy, where winning over a majority of the electorate will award power to your cause via the ballot box. But what if you're challenging a much more powerful, deeply entrenched, and potentially violent establishment - like the theocratic dictatorship of Iran?

In the summer of 2009, there was a lot of wishing thinking about Iran's "Twitter Revolution". The "Green" national consciousness movement, so the theory went, was growing contagiously, sidestepping state media controls and winning the hearts and minds of decent Iranians one tweet at a time. Sadly, this proved to be a total myth.

The problem was, whilst the #iranelection tweets proved very effective at spreading the message of discontent, most of the audience wasn't actually in Iran, and so was powerless to affect events. Inside Iran, a study of archived tweets suggests that Twitter was primarily used to propagate news, rather than recruiting and galvanising strategically important individuals.

The difference between bonding and bridging is a pet subject of mine. Twitter is a bridging network of weak ties, whilst Facebook networks combine a few strong bonds with a much larger number of weak ties. Revolutions, however, require the steadfastness of the very strongest of bonds - where you know your fellow activists personally, and trust them with your life (in the case of Iran, literally).

Gladwell's argument is that if you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment activists need to arrange themselves into a hierarchy of ultra-strong bonds - which will maintain morale, keep discipline and allow the movement to act strategically. There is another factor though, which I was surprised he didn't mention, which concerns how change actually happens.

In 1989, revolutions swept through Eastern Europe. In each case, the revolution was preceded by popular protests, which grew progressively in size and militancy. The difference between Europe in 1989 and Iran in 2009 is that the army, sensing the popular mood, came out on the side of the demonstrators. Once the public knew the state's ability to suppress the movement violently was over, revolution was inevitable.

The lesson to draw from these successful, relatively bloodless (pre-Internet) revolutions is that fermenting a revolution requires swinging the key influencers behind your cause. These individuals are not journalists, or university professors, authors or movie stars - but the army lieutenants and police captains that give the orders to cadres of troops and paramilitary police. It is absurd to think that such individuals will be watching screens, ready to be swayed by a barrage of tweets. They'll be on the streets marshalling roadblocks, motivated by the fear of lethal retribution if their part of the line fails.

Place stone at A to capture black
The only way to influence such people is through the bonds that matter more to them than their chains of command. Perhaps their best friends, most trusted colleagues, or their wives, or sons or daughters. In this respect, fermenting a revolution is more like a game of Go. It is not about the number of stones you play (or friends or tweets you make). Instead, it is about applying pressure to key individuals. To truly win, you must surround those you seek to influence, and turn them to your side. Such is the wisdom of the ancients.

Fortunately, most of us will never need to risk our lives challenging a despotic regime, but the same principles apply to any intransigent opponent, (albeit with far lower stakes). For instance, how can a loosely assembled group of fans force out the disastrously inept current owners of Liverpool football club? Certainly not by tweeting, petitions or protest marches.

The lesson is to effect change, you need to find some way to win over the key influencers - in this case the banks who own the debt used to buy the club, and those who might be tempted to refinance it. You need to convince them that the incumbent owners are leveraged-buyout chancers and second-rate businessmen, and offer them an alternative they'll view as a better investment.

So, if you know anyone at the RBS's Bad Debt division, please give them a nudge. As for the rest of us, we'll just have to continue shouting our protests.
And cross our fingers.

How I discovered barefoot running

I am not a trendwatcher. Maybe more of a trendcoral; comfortably attached to a lovely rock, letting the cultural sea wash over me. My currents are carefully selected RSS feeds, rich in memes and intriguing new ideas, from which my polyps pick out interesting morsels, which I slowly assimilate to become more colourful. What interests me are not the current affairs of common knowledge, but the emerging concepts that people in disparate communities are beginning to talk about - ideas that are beginning to spread. Last year, several instances of one such concept floated past and tantalised my polyps: it went by the name "barefoot running".

Being a keen hiker, I knew about Vibram soles, so my interest was piqued when I read about their weird-looking new product called the FiveFingers - which was actually made for your toes - and which looked more like a comedy rubber foot than a shoe. The motivation, it transpired, was that walking or running barefoot was supposedly more "natural", and paradoxically less likely to result in injuries. I mentally filed that discovery away under "Intriguingly Crazy Ideas That Might Just Work". And went on to read something else.

Later that year, my polyps picked up the barefoot meme again, this time in Wired. So what prompted Wired to write about it? As so often with emerging ideas, there's a wellspring that unleashes the river, and in this case it seemed to be a recent book by Chris McDougall, called Born to Run.

When I looked into the book, the story became more interesting still. It seemed that going barefoot wasn't just a bunch of footwear refuseniks, it was a subculture. And one that had generated enough interest to keep the book in the bestseller lists for months. I was sufficiently intrigued to buy a copy, it turned out to be an excellent book, and I resolved to try it for myself. (I'm glad I did, but that's another story)

And as the idea spread, I began to see articles in mainstream newspapers. In July 2009, The Guardian was reviewing barefoot trainers and asking whether it was a craze or a fad. By October, the New York Times was reporting on the barefoot boom and summarising research into barefoot running published in recent Sports Science journals.

The barefoot meme continued to spread, it even became a metaphor. Going barefoot was cited as a zen habit - a minimalist way of living: of travelling light whilst remaining aware and present.

By January 2010, a study of barefoot running was published in Nature. Looking back at my Google Reader history I sense that once it became an area of legitimate scientific study, barefoot running seemed to gain a new level of media acceptability. Subsequent articles would discuss the pros and cons of going barefoot, rather than dwelling on its quirkiness, or pondering whether it was just a craze.

Perhaps then, this is how ideas form. They start with a few enthusiasts talking amongst themselves, which if popular enough, attracts a small subculture around them. As the idea spreads, community members start writing books and articles, some of which will be picked up by more general media and distributed to wider audiences. Until eventually, outsiders like us stumble across them...

The difference between Facebook and Twitter

Once upon a time, it was obvious: Facebook was that portal with your friends' personal profiles, whilst Twitter was that quirky stream of collective consciousnesses.

Now, Facebook is effectively a feed too. So are they just different channels? Although many Twitter clients can be configured to automatically post Tweets to Facebook too, allowing users to maintain two separate social networks (like work and play), I don't know many who actually use it that way.

Digging deeper, a recent study of the two social networks found that 87% of Americans knew about Twitter, and 88% knew of Facebook. Yet only 7% of Americans actively use Twitter, whilst 41% actively use Facebook. Worldwide, Facebook currently has over 500 million members, whilst Twitter has around 100 million members.

So why is Facebook so much more popular than Twitter?
Here the nature of the connections within each social network may hold the answer.

There's an idea within sociology called Social Capital, which seeks to measure the value of the connections in an individual's social network. The idea being the greater the quality of your social connections, the greater your productivity and opportunities. "It's not what you know, it's who you know."

Social network researchers refine this idea into two subconcepts: bonding social capital and bridging social capital.

Bonding (also called Closure) is the tendency of like-minded individuals to form connections amongst themselves. The community that emerges from these interactions is densely interlinked, and social proof and reputation become powerful forces.

Bridging (also called Brokerage) is the function performed by people whose relationships bridge across structural gaps in social networks. Brokers introduce people from previously unconnected social networks, and help information flow between disparate communities.

These concepts can be seen in this diagram, taken from Wikipedia. A densely linked community on the left, with a couple of brokers bridging the gap to a smaller community on the right.

Facebook is a bonding network, dominated by strong ties between friends and families. Whereas by encouraging weak ties, Twitter is designed to be a bridging network. Users can follow distant strangers, and high quality information can quickly spread between closed communities by the retweets of brokers.

Most social networks tend to contain many more bonds than bridges. So the reason why Facebook is much more popular than Twitter might be because, collectively, our urge to bond with friends is stronger than our desire to bridge with relative strangers.

On reflection then, it's probably best not to tweet about what you've had for breakfast; but it might make a friend on Facebook smile.

The Games of Life

First we were encouraged to buy. Then we were encouraged to contribute. Next: will we be encouraged to play?

A decade ago, e-commerce was the hot area for new startups. Once it became possible to buy almost anything online, the new new thing became contributing and sharing content. Now that field is pretty packed, what's next?

One interesting trend I've been following is the increasing use of game mechanics to drive user activity online. In some communities, points, leaderboards and achievements are being used to reward high quality contributions. Others are more competitive, with players motivated purely by earning new achievements.

At this point, you might be asking: why would anyone want to create a game around a service? For some, games are pastimes, fun distractions for idle hours. Why would a business waste time and money providing games that cost the players nothing to play? Personally, I can think of at least 4 motivations for game providers - educating players, capturing intentions, encouraging new experiences, and influencing behaviour.

Educational games sugar the pill of learning with an entertaining activity, a staple of schools for decades, you're bound to have played one. But recently a new breed has been created by activists seeking to virally spread a message through social media. One of the best examples is Darfur is Dying, a 2006 newsgame that puts the player in the role of a persecuted refugee. Such games aim to provide a thought-provoking experience that will propagate the message and perhaps even galvanise players into action.

Intentional games, by contrast, are more business-like. They involve a trade, with the player revealing their current intentions in exchange for some micro-reward. For instance, John Battelle talks about checking into a state of mind - a more explicit version of what we currently all do when we use search engines.

Experience games try to get players out of their homes and doing things they've never done before. Foursquare and Scvngr are good examples, where players are encouraged to explore their local environment, undertake new activities and discover things they've probably never noticed before.

Finally, behavioural games seek to encourage positive behaviour. The motivation here will be familiar to anyone who has read Nudge - the recent manifesto of libertarian paternalism. By way of illustration, see game designer Jesse Schell's excellent presentation on what might happen when games invade real life. And if you think that's far-fetched, just watch the hilarious EpicWin app trailer.

It's coming, after all, life is the ultimate game.

Remembering Istanbul

5 years ago tonight, Liverpool played AC Milan in the Champions League final. It was to be one of the greatest games of football ever played. This is what I remember...

Let me tell you a story of young team
Who were sent far away from their home
To fight for their fans in that country
And also the red folks back home.


It was half-time on a cold December night, and we were lost in a desert.
We needed to score three goals in the 2nd half against Olympiakos. The ruins of our season stretched before us like a barren landscape. Then when all seemed lost, two rookie strikers appeared and the captain conjured a wonderstrike.
And then we noticed something, faraway on the horizon, an oasis?

At the time, even our captain didn't believe the oasis was real, but we had little else to walk towards. When our thirst took us past Leverkusen, the oasis came closer. Then our brilliant general masterminded the improbable conquest of Juve and Chelsea's mighty legions. And so it was that one night in May we finally reached the lush oasis that had once seemed so impossibly far away.

We sang and stared longingly at its silvery surface, mesmerised by our accomplishment. But still it shimmered, unreal, like a figment of a half-remembered dream. One final act was required - that would distinguish glory from mirage.
We needed to beat AC Milan.

1 - Requiem for a Dream

They put them in a champions' division
Sent them off to a far foreign land
Where the fans swarm around in their thousands
And there's nothing to see but the sand.

Sadly I wasn't in Istanbul, so I would watch the game in the legendary Extra Time Bar in London. Obviously a lot of people had the same idea, I arrived 90 minutes before kick-off and had to queue to get in, all 3 floors were already almost packed to the rafters. This was not a place for the agoraphobic.

We watched Sky's pre-match build-up with growing anticipation, we had plenty of dreams and songs to sing. When the line-up appears there's a buzz of excitement as Rafa's attacking intentions are revealed. The Italians won't know what's hit them! Someone nearby starts humming the Ring of Fire, which spreads contagiously until everybody joins in.

We kick off amid a roar of noise, but Djimi immediately gives the ball away and fouls his man trying to recover. We can scarcely believe it when Maldini hammers in the resulting cross. Imagine a party, everyone's having fun, when the music suddenly stops and someone announces the host's mother has died. Our carnival atmosphere deflates like a runaway balloon.

A minute later our resolve has returned. Hands are clapped. Come on you Reds!

But Milan are making our limited attacks look pretty feeble, spearing balls into our defence left, right and centre. With Sheva and Crespo constantly threatening to burst past the last man, our previously rock solid defence now seems made of plasticine. Then from a corner Crespo has a free header - Luis Garcia clears off the line. Bloody hell!
Eyes are rubbed, heads are shaken.

By now the wheels had well and truly fallen off our attacking plan, and Harry Kewell limps off to be replaced by Vladi Smicer. Plenty of phrases spring to mind now, but 'strength in depth' is not one of them.

Our unimaginative attacking, with Baros marooned up front, contrasts embarrassingly with our opponents, whose midfield moves forward as a unit, with two quick outlets scaring us witless. Poor passing and lack of movement means the Reds can't keep the ball, and when Milan have it we're chasing shadows.

Worries increase when Kaka bursts forward, and plays through Sheva who finishes expertly. We breathe again when the sympathetic linesman gives us the benefit of the doubt and flags him offside. Nervous smiles all round.

Suddenly Garcia breaks into the box, and Nesta blocks it with his arm.
Expectant shouts! But no pen! With more Reds watching the Ref than Kaka, Milan sweep forward again, Sheva beats Djimi, squares to Crespo who couldn't miss even in a Chelsea shirt. Oh bollocks.

And it's all gone quiet over there.

With few tackles to worry about Milan move into exhibition mode.
Kaka slides a long pass behind Carra's despairing lunge - no flag this time - and Crespo chips it in with his first touch. Oh fuck.

On Sky, Andy Gray announces "Game well and truly over".
Around me there are no shouts of disagreement, just bowed heads.
Hundreds of red-shirted people stand silently about me.
It's like being at the Pope's funeral.

We had reached the oasis, knelt at the water's edge, bowed and kissed the silver surface... and tasted sand.

The half-time whistle goes, and our dreams lie in ruins.
Having come so far, we curse the mirage's cruel capriciousness.

With no Reds highlights to watch and plenty of adverts, most fans seem to spend the interval sending text messages. Here's a quick summary of what I received:
Fuck. Gutted. WTF! Screwed. Shit. Bollocks. All over.

Basically, we are dead.

2 - Testament to a Miracle

As we lay on the battlefield dying, dying, dying
With the blood rushing out of our heads, of our heads
As we lay on the battlefield dying
These were the last words we said...

"Remember Garcia's against Juve?" ... Oh yes.
"Carra against Del Piero!" ... Awesome.
"The Kop against Chelsea!" ... Oh mate.

At the interval the mood is changing from gloom to rueful resignation as drinks are ordered and memories are replayed.

It might only have been a mirage, but it had led us on a wonderful journey. It had made us believe such adventures were possible again. How lucky we were to catch sight of that oasis when we were stumbling so hopelessly in the wilderness.

Whilst the dream might be in ruins, we were here to support our heroes and 45 minutes of our season remained. We had our pride to play for. No one was leaving, the bar remained packed, but subdued.

Coverage from the Ataturk resumes, and news comes in: Finnan is off and Didi is on – we’re going to a back three, just like we did against the Greeks. Heads nod. Interesting.

But the 2nd half doesn't get off to an auspicious start. Jerzy spills a simple cross. Groans. Milan humiliated Barca 4-0 in the '94 final, and we're now battling to avoid the same shame.

But now there's something different about the Reds coming forward. Instead of isolated raids, now we have 6 men in enemy territory, with commando captain Stevie G at the front-line harassing the enemy. A bit of pressure and the ball begins to ricochet off white shirts. One chance falls to Xabi who rifles a shot just wide.
A consolation goal looks distinctly possible.

Our momentum is interrupted by another Djimi Traore mistake, Kaka bursts through and Sami brings him down just outside the box. Sheva blasts in the free-kick, but Jerzy pulls off an amazing late low save.

That was the tipping point, when everything changed.

From their corner we win the ball back. Didi and Xabi work it neatly forward before picking out Riise. He crosses - it's blocked, he tries again and Super Steve heads into the top corner. Get in!
We explode into noise; we've an hour's pent-up emotion to release.
Captain Fantastic pumps his arms, "Come on! Come on!" he yells to his troops. We need little motivation. "Oh when the Reds! Go marching in!" You know the words.

And we'd just started singing the Fields of Anfield Road when Hamann feeds Vlad on the edge of the box - and holy fuck - it's 3-2!
"Come on! Come on!" I scream at the screen. "This is football!"

We're at fever pitch now, strangers are shaking each other by the shoulders, geeing each other up, the noise is deafening.
"Come on! Come on! We can do this!"

Now the Reds really are working like lions and fighting like tigers.
We hustle the ball off a white shirt and flood forward again.
Baros backheels to Gerrard, and he's clean through!
But Gattuso hacks him down!
It's as clear a penalty as night follows day.
Bedlam breaks out as the ref points to the spot.

Xabi Alonso steps up amid a din of clapping, cheering and shouting.
Shouts of anguish turn into delirious cheering as Dida saves only for Xabi to hammer in the rebound.

3 goals in 6 minutes. What a comeback!
As one, our massive crowd is jumping, dancing, singing, yelling, embracing.
The place is in ferment. "Come on! Come on!"

And there's still 30 minutes to play. Next, Riise goes for glory.
Dida saves, but we shout out John Arne's song anyway. The carnival atmosphere is back. YNWA echoes around the stadium and into homes and pubs around the world.

But back come Milan, and disaster! Jerzy spills an easy catch at Sheva's feet. Amazingly Djimi gets back to clear Sheva's shot off the line!
Around me, a hundred voices sigh in relief. Shamefully, Djimi doesn't have a song of his own for us to sing, so a chorus of his name has to suffice.

But now Milan aren't finding it so easy any more. Didi continues to intercept their probing passes and harass those who venture too close.

It's end to end now, a classic Stevie G Hollywood ball finds Garcia, but he can't control it. 30 seconds later Jerzy hesitates, Sheva gets in behind and is about to square to Kaka to score, when Carra appears from nowhere to pick the cross off his feet with a last-gasp tackle.

10 minutes left, and the bar now looks like a marathon finishing line, a crowd of haggard looking fans in red Reebok jerseys, faces drenched with sweat. For a few minutes the Reds produce a bit of "Ole!" football and we can get our breath back.

Oh no! Here they come again, Sheva carves us apart - whoa! thank fuck - there's Carra with another brilliant slide tackle 10 yards out. From the corner Stam flashes a header across goal - Kaka gets a touch and we're almost solksjaered - but it flashes wide. I notice a lot of my fellow fans now have hair reminiscent of Doc Brown in the Back to the Future movies.

Injury time finishes with Milan in the ascendancy. We seem to have settled for extra time; maybe Rafa fancies our chances against Milan's tired old legs.

Mind you, by now those in Red shirts aren't looking too spritely either.
Our dynamism isn't helped by our inspirational captain having to play at right-back. But it's a wise move by Rafa. In the space of 10 minutes Super Steve saves enough of our bacon for a super-sized fry-up.

Out of the blue a long ball arcs over Traore, and Newcastle-reject Tomasson half-connects and slices wide. Ouch. This is torture.

After 15 minutes of mostly Milan pressure, Smicer collapses with cramp.
I know exactly how he feels.

The 2nd period begins with a few forays into Milanese territory, but we don't commit enough forward so Milan win the ball back easily and continue to dominate possession.

10 minutes to go, and Carra stretches to make yet another last-gasp clearance before collapsing clutching his groin. Worldwide, every Red holds their breath. Stevie G moves to centre-back until our hero limps back onto the pitch. A minute later, Carra stretches to make another crucial interception. What a hero.

6 minutes to go. And Pirlo almost breaks through but Didi blocks him just outside the box. It's now obvious that the Reds are knackered, and that we're not saving ourselves for a final minute sucker-punch cavalry charge. We'll defend what we have.

Then, in the 118th minute, all was lost.

Finally one of Milan's crosses makes it through, and Sheva's bullet header from 8 yards is brilliantly saved by Jerzy.
But the ball falls at Sheva's feet.
And I saw him fire in the rebound from 2 yards out.
Gutted, my insides lurched. We'd lost. After all that, we'd been solksjaered.

I can barely believe my eyes when the replay shows Jerzy throwing out a hand to deflect Sheva's shot over the bar. It's the most astonishing save I've ever seen. A true wondersave. Unbelievably against all the odds, we are still alive.

Our incredible reprieve lifts us and the superb Didi Hamann charges forward, and Vlad wins a free-kick in the very last minute. We sing Riise's song, hoping for a fairytale ending. But not this time.

The final whistle blows for one of greatest cup finals of all time.

Diego Maradona comments afterwards:
"Even the Brazil team that won the 1970 World Cup could not have staged a comeback with Milan leading 3-0."

3 - Coda

So, how confident were you?
Did you believe?

We were facing a team of superstars who'd already won this competition on penalties.
At the Milan fans’ end.
Against Dida, the penalty save expert.
And we'd missed 7 of our last 15 penalties.
Including one less than an hour ago.
So, no problems then.

Of the 22 players on the field, 21 look like they're eating lemons.
But one is wearing a wide grin and having a laugh with his coaching staff: Jerzy Dudek. Bizarrely, Carra runs over to Jerzy and starts waving his arms. We'd soon discover what that was all about.

Meanwhile in London the noise is back. We shake each other shouting 'Believe!', clench fists and kiss badges. Huddles are forming mimicking the players in the centre circle. All around expressions range from stunned, to petrified, to expectant, to manic.
Here we go.

Serginho steps up first.
And amazingly Jerzy begins to run through an aerobics routine on his goal-line! This obviously brings back bad memories for the Brazilian, who completely bottles it and puts the ball into row F.
We react with restrained cheers; mindful our lads are hardly penalty kings either.

Our first kick is Didi versus Dida.
In contrast to Jerzy, Dida looks like he's been turned to stone, a bloody huge stone mind you.
Didi missed a pen in Cardiff, but he's obviously been practicing with the national team, he puts his kick into the corner.
Gasps of relief.

Next up is Pirlo, a dead-ball specialist.
Now Jerzy's dancing on the line. Pirlo does the Aldo shuffle but chokes, Jerzy guesses right and saves his weak shot.
Our wild cheers segue into a high volume rendition of "We've got a Big Pole in our Goal!"

Next up is Djibril Cisse.
Seven months ago he was minutes away from having a foot amputated.
Now he completes the fairytale comeback by sending Dida the wrong way.
Now we're really celebrating.

Now it's Tomasson's turn.
He ignores Jerzy's impression of a man guiding in a jumbo jet and blasts it home.

Riise steps forward next.
We expect him to blast it, but the huge Brazilian goalie gets his fingertips to the placed shot.
Doh! Heads are slapped, hair is ruffled.

Kaka takes the next kick.
Jerzy does the Brucie homage wobbly legs routine this time. But Kaka ignores him and contemptuously knocks it in the top corner. Ooooh.

There are nervous gasps - we know the next kick is crucial one.
And up steps Vlad, for what is probably his last kick in a Red shirt.
Gerrrinthere! He secures lifetime cult hero status by sending Dida the wrong way.
After jumping up and down for a while we remind everyone in earshot that he's Czech, great and really good friends with Patrik Berger.

And so Sheva must score.
Our small huddle holds its breath.
Jerzy stretches, wobbles, then crouches…
The European Footballer of the Year drives it straight and hard...
Jerzy has already dived, but flicks out a hand...

How can I possibly describe what happened next?

Basically, the place went berserk.
Jumping, screaming, cheering and yelling.
An explosion of noise.
Then came the random hugging of strangers.
Then came the exclamations of achievement.
Then came the singing.
I can do the experience pathetically little justice.
You had to be there.

What a night.

We'd created a legend, and several hundred million around the world witnessed it.
We saw Stevie G kiss the Cup, and found the dream was real after all.

Lost in Patagonia

Five years ago today, I embarked upon an adventure.

It wasn't until my bus dropped me off at a bend in the road in the middle of Patagonia, and I was the only one to get off, that I realised this wasn't exactly a tourism hotspot.

Now I really had left Gringoland, that tourist-friendly urban face of South America. This was the real Patagonia: a land of soaring peaks and glacial gorges, raging rivers and impenetrable forests, howling storms, desolate plains and lustrous lakes. The uttermost end of the Earth.

I began walking, past the last artefacts of human habitation - the odd ramshackle hut and rusting farm machinery. My only living companions the seemingly feral groups of cattle that weaved their way between the beech trees. Before long I'd reached a river crossing, where pleasant gurgles mingled with the ominous buzz of mosquitoes. Sudden stabbing pains indicated an involuntary blood donation to the local ecosystem, despite layers of repellent that made me smell like an incident in a chemical factory.

By late afternoon I reached the campsite, or rather I reached a sign with a picture of tent and the word 'Campo'. But no tents. Maybe my fellow campers were just behind me? So I occupied a desirable riverfront location and
waited for company. None came. I crawled into my sleeping bag wondering: is this trail closed? Or have I got lost?

Doubts grew the next morning when I awoke to the sound of hooves. I opened my tent to find a gaucho (cowboy) outside, mounted on a gigantic brown horse.
He looked agitated. Hespokeveryquickly. In Spanish. I think.
I smiled dumbly, "Lo siento, yo no comprendo."
He wore the exasperated familiar to parents of small children everywhere and repeated his question a bit louder. But he might as well have been explaining how differential gearboxes work. I was baffled. And slightly concerned that what he might actually be saying is: 'Get off my land'.

Tension rose. I noticed the pistol on his hip. Suddenly, a breakthrough! A word I recognise; he's looking for his cows! And I point him towards the nearby creek. He beams happily and canters off to find his charges. Leaving me to wonder why locating cows was never discussed in any of my S
panish classes.

I packed up and hit
the trail again. This time the direction was up. Several hours and an ice-choked pass later, I was sitting on a precipitous ridge beneath the titanic basalt turrets that give Cerro Castillo - 'Castle Mountain', its name. From my rocky throne I surveyed the glacier and the raging river far below. My own private Patagonia. Population of my kingdom: 1.

That night I camped beneath the mountain's formidable walls. It was colder here, more exposed, with only wind-stunted trees for shelter. By dusk the skies were battleship grey and the wind was gusting, but I easily fell asleep inside my sleeping bag's warm cocoon.

At midnight, my cosy tent became a haunted house. I awoke in absolute primeval blackness, a shrieking wind battering my flimsy walls as the tent-poles creaked and groaned. And then the rain came. I finally fell asleep and dreamt of a galleon in a storm.

By dawn, it was obvious the tent was one strong gust away from catastrophic structural failure. So much for a lie-in. I packed hurriedly, made myself weatherproof and quickly dismantled the tent before the weather did it for me. I had breakfast hiding amongst stunted bushes. The glamour of adventure tourism.

My way out involved a treacherous climb over boulders slick with rain, high above a mesmerisingly beautiful turquoise laguna. The final icy pass was so slippery it resembled walking up a bobsleigh run.

At the top I drank in the view, on the other side I looked down a precipitous scree slope.
It was very steep. It reminded me of That Slope, the one I recklessly mountain biked down in New Zealand. The one where I learnt that when crashing, it's always best to try to steer into something soft.

I consulted my guidebook, hoping to find mention of a secret shortcut or a magic doorway to a taverna with an open fire, but it was unequivocal: descend the scree to a bare rocky ridge. No mean feat, the gale-force wind and loose scree underfoot conspired to make me wobble like a jelly in an earthquake. And it was a long way to tumble.

Despite being wind-blasted by rain, hail and grit, and several heart-stopping slips, I reached the ridge, where a new problem became apparent. Out here, there wasn't much to distinguish path from wilderness, and I was relying on the presence of cairns. Unfortunately, the cairns were becoming ever more tumbledown, until now they had become indistinguishable from random trailside rubble. My trail had petered out and my only map looked like it had been hand-drawn from the space shuttle through

Lost in the sheeting rain, with team morale dipping, I crouched behind a boulder for an emergency chocolate break. Despite the water dribbling off my nose, I was soon laughing at the ridiculousness of my situation.
What's that?
The chocolate must have granted me superpowers; beyond - I saw footsteps in the mud, heading down the valley. I decided to follow.

The footsteps led down to the treeline, and into a dead end. There, the footsteps became random and erratic. I recognised this pattern: it's called being lost. I looked around nervously, half-expecting to find skeletons of long-lost backpackers.

Good sign: no bodies; if they got out - so could I. Now too tired to climb back up the valley, my rudimentary map did 'suggest' that somewhere in the spooky misty forest ahead lay a path back to civilization. So be it.

The subsequent log clambering, stream wading, mud squelching and bush-bashing were exhilaratingly terrifying. Each footstep was taking me deeper into the wild, either I found this path, or I was really, really lost.

What was I doing here?

When I finally stumbled across that lonely trail 20 minutes later, I'd found my answer.
I was writing a new scene in the screenplay of my life.
I threw off my pack and celebrated ecstatically.
Make sure your life makes a great movie.

You have no influence: how to use it

Where do policies come from?

Does a sweaty government minister abruptly wake in the middle of night exclaiming "We must do this!". Or are they contrived by a panel of senior politicos as they draft their election manifesto? Or perhaps the cabinet has a suggestion box, and every week one is drawn at random to be enacted. Or maybe a conversation on a Mediterranean yacht is transcribed into a memo a few days later, and then amplified into draft legislation by a gaggle of mandarins eager to impress their boss.

It's a serious question - where do the ideas that come to shape our world actually come from?
The public - or the political elite? Which would you prefer?

Consider the recently launched Robin Hood Tax campaign. The basic idea was elucidated by Yale academic James Tobin, who proposed adding a levy on currency transactions to deter speculation. That was 1972, since then the idea has marinated and evolved in the minds of various economists. Some governments have even talked about enacting it into law, but only if everybody else does it.

So where do policies come from? Say you think the Robin Hood Tax is a great idea, how would you get it into law? Perhaps one day you'll find yourself on a sunny yacht with the Lord High Chamberlain, you get on well, you have a chat, he likes the cut of your jib, he just loves your new idea... a few weeks later, it's on the order papers.

But more than likely, you're outside the inner circle. It's a small world, but not THAT small. You're still too many hops away from the high and mighty. No waterside pow-wows for you. Know your place, citizen.
Most individuals have no influence.
And yet, collectively, individuals have huge influence. Together, we elect governments.
So policies come from us, after all?
Not quite.

Voting in an election is like choosing which door to walk through. One door might be safe and sturdy looking, one might be slick and slimy, another might be downright scary. You pick your door and enter. You do not get to position and decorate your own door. Slightly inflexible, but them's the rules.

So how can you use your choice to further the prospects of something you believe in? For instance, you could ask your prospective MP if they will support the Robin Hood Tax. If they say yes, vote for them. If a majority of your fellow constituents agree, you have your representative. If not, no-one really cared. It must have been a half-baked idea anyway. Get over it.

So there's two challenges: first, you've got to convince the majority of your fellow electors this is an issue worth caring about. Talk about it. Individually, tweets and blog postings are insignificant, they won't change the world, but they might get your friends thinking. Who might mention it to a relative, who tells their partner, who...

The second challenge is holding your representative to account once they're elected. Here again, social media can help. If they renege, ensure every mention of their name is accompanied by #RHTliar, let your fellow constituents know they've been betrayed. These days politicians are very sensitive about their personal brand; they know if it's sullied, they'll be out of a job.

And if, collectively, you can get enough of the MPs to keep their word... job done.

Social media offers you the chance to say to politicians:
We'll decide on the ideas, you just implement them.
If you want it to, it might just work.

All your opinion are belong to Us

The BBC's Virtual Revolution documentary contained a fascinating relation: the Chinese government pays a massive astroturfing army to massage public opinion on Chinese blogs and message boards. They're known pejoratively as "Wu Mao Dang" - 'the 50 Cent Army' - because that's what they're paid for each pro-government posting they make.

That's the carrot. Here's the stick. A blogger called Tan Zuoren started asking questions about why so many schools collapsed during the Sichuan earthquake. A lot of Communist Party buildings survived. Shoddy building standards? Backhanders? He was jailed for 5 years yesterday. Don't ask questions, comrade.

A friend suggested, in the spirit of Swift, that the Chinese should outsource their astroturfing to the American public. The US could then pay back its foreign debt, 50 cents at a time...

The Power of Ridicule

In the aftermath of the July 2005 bombings, a friend and I discussed the appropriate response during the course of an afternoon's walk. We were unanimous. They could only be one response to such an outrage! A SITCOM.

We reasoned a security clampdown would be counter-productive. It would only frighten the public and glamorise the bad guys. No, prevention is better than cure. And so we thought the best way to stop young angry men from becoming suicide bombers would be to make the very idea of martyrdom ridiculous. Make the protagonists not shadowy villains, but hapless clowns.

We never penned our sitcom, after all, we were technologists not screenwriters. Fortunately, a group of far greater minds - Chris Morris and the writers of Peep Show - had the same idea. The result is a film called "Four Lions", recently premièred at Sundance. It is jihad as farce. Great work.

You can write essays on the folly of established religion. You can deliver impassioned speeches. But you'll never be as awesomely subversive as an episode of Father Ted. Belief can not be denied. Only ridiculed.

You may say: comedy is just bourgeois chatter. But how many satirical programmes are there in Iran, or China? Satire can't topple governments, but it still has the power to influence. That's why they ban it.

Postscript. One day, an angry old preacher tells a young lonely loser of the glory and heavenly gratification that await him in martyrdom. But our message got to him first. And he laughs in the old man's face...

Snow Joke

Transport chaos again in London today. Snowmaggedon? Not quite. Just a few hours of snow flurries, and a centimetre or two on the ground. But the train operators weren't taking any chances, pre-emptively cancelling most of their services, and introducing an 'emergency timetable'. The fragility of British transport infrastructure is a personal bugbear - but never mind, I'm sure "the market will fix it". At least this excellent Transport Chaos mash-up made me laugh.

What makes a message go viral?

The New Scientist has investigated, appropriately enough, by running an experiment. Through their article I stumbled Judith Donath's paper on "Signals in Social Supernets", which has a good explanation of why people are so keen to share things they didn't make themselves. (And that impulse to share is stronger than any fear of the law).

My professional life involves the study of social networks, and speaking from personal experience, I agree with Donath's explanation. Basically, it's about social proof. About demonstrating your position in the information food chain. You're In The Know. The truffle pig. Quality is scarce, but your effort filters and aggregates it. Sharing is, indeed, caring.
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