May 31, 2015

Crime, Oscar Pistorius, World War II Bombers: Topics for South African Readers

Every now and then, I glance over the search terms people use to find Joburg Expat:


Clearly, a lot of people landing in my domain have already heard of my blog and use its name as a search term, which is kind of flattering. Others are finding me because, apparently, they are tired of purchasing their clothes hangers from a street vendor and would prefer a no-hassle online retailer starting with "A" to conveniently ship them right to their doorstep.

What I've written about Amazon and Starbucks in South Africa (or, more correctly, the lack thereof), South African schools, and, curiously, weaver birds, ranks definitely among the most-read content of my blog. Seeing such a list, at first glance, confirms you in your belief that these are the topics you should write about most often, because clearly they are leading your future readers to you.

At least that's what I used to think, until my son urged me to read a book about mathematics he had just read and loved, How Not to Be Wrong (read my Goodreads review here). I was captivated from the first page, which takes you right back to World War II, a favorite topic of mine. A brilliant mathematician and Jew named Abraham Wald, forced to leave the University of Vienna and emigrate to the United States at the outset of the war, was tasked by the American government to apply his statistical knowledge to the problem of the vulnerability of allied bombers to enemy fire. Bomber losses were heavy and everyone agreed more armor needed to be added as protection, but as it made the aircraft heavier, it needed to be applied strategically to those areas of the plane most in need of protection.

Returning airplanes had been studied extensively and the heavy concentration of bullet holes all over the fuselage suggested that more armor on the fuselage was the way to go. Not so, said Wald, in a sort of breakthrough event for statistics. The armor needed to go where the bullet holes WEREN'T. What he had hit upon was the so-called "survivor effect." In only counting the surviving planes, they weren't counting all the bullet holes, and certainly not the ones that mattered. Since all the planes with a bullet-riddled fuselage seemed to have returned just fine, one needed to count the absent planes, i.e. the ones that DIDN'T return. Further analysis confirmed what Wald knew to be true: bullet holes in the engine were the deadliest ones. Clearly, that's where more armor was needed! Seems obvious in hindsight, but it was groundbreaking then, and it saved real lives.

I love this story, and I love that I found a way of writing about it. In a way, looking at which search keywords have led people to my blog is skewed by the selfsame survivor effect. If I want to attract a wider readership, I will have to look at the search terms NOT leading people to my blog. The ones that AREN'T on the above list.

I can readily think of one: "Crime." Who doesn't think "South Africa" and immediately has the word "crime" enter his brain, together with grisly images of people held up at gunpoint, coupled perhaps with brutal police beatings and mobs throwing burning tires around fellow humans in a xenophobic frenzy?

Don't get me wrong, I don't want to tell the world what a dangerous place South Africa is. Plenty of folks already do that. Rather, I want people who have read this elsewhere to come to my blog for some perspective on it. People, who like me will take a second look and hopefully see the full picture, THEN decide whether they could see themselves and their families living there.

What else should I be writing about? For readers already IN South Africa, there is an easy way to find out. I consulted Google Trends and learned that I should write about

Oscar Pistorius,
South African National Elections,
Julius Malema,
Corruption,
Ebola,
how to whatsapp,
what is bigamy,
what is neknomination,

not necessarily in this order.

Please excuse me now so I can read about what the hell neknomination ist.

On someone else's blog.