Friday, August 04, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 4.8.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Usual Thursday HT and thanks to Lenox of Business Over Tapas for some of these items:-

Life in Spain:-
  • One of the world's richest men is visiting a small village up in the Galician hills this week. Where there are many very large houses and even an airfield. The wealth comes from businesses in Mexico and rumour has it that the very first one - back in the 1920s - was a dominant position (pun unintended) in the prostitution business. As it was called back then. Probably something like Sex Therapy now. Anyway, you can read more on this here(Spanish) and here(English).
  • Some 'academy' owner was quoted yesterday as saying that studying for an oposición exam was akin to a full time job - you had to stick at it for 6 hours a day. Six hours! You can't be serious! How about the 10 I used to do 6 days a week?
  • The EU and Madrid still have their horns locked over the dreadful Modelo 720 law of 2012 on overseas assets, specifically on the eye-watering fines for the slightest delay or mistake which the EU have declared prima facie illegal. Needless to say, Madrid is - shall we say - dragging its feet. Forcing Brussels to consider its next (impotent) move. Someone recently suggesed that no €1,500 fines for a delay have beenimposed. Believe me, this is wrong. Though the process might be in suspense. Such is the (ironic) slow speed of the Hacienda in doling out fines for tardiness, you can't be sure that silence means anything at all. 
  • Until not so long ago, Spain's child abuse age threshold was 13 but it was increased to 16 in last year's hardening of the Penal Code. But it's still only 13 if there is consent. If I understand things correctly.
Some very good news for we/us Brits . . .  The French say our accent - when we're trying to please them by speaking in their tongue - is (at 23%) second in sexiness only to that of the Italians at 40%. The Spanish came 3rd with 18% but the Germans only managed 3%. Which struck me as surprisingly high. Only joking, Dagmar!

Readers Sierra and Eamon have told me of 2 more energy make-up bills here in Galicia, each accompanied by a letter which Eamon rightly describes as gobbledygook. None of us has any idea of how all the differing sums are calculated. And Sierra had me laughing out loud with this comment that only in Spain would a bill be stated to 6 decimal points. To give a specious appearance of accuracy, in my long-held view.

Facebook Below this post is a Guardian writer's illuminating column on my bête noire.

Finally . . . . If you haven't yet heard of the The Great Ogodugu, he might be coming to your Inbox soon. Here's an abbreviated version of an email I received this morning. I'm guessing he's Nigerian: After being in relationship with Markiss for 7 years, he broke up with me. I did everything possible to bring him back but all was in vain . . .   So I mailed the spell caster and he told me that everything will be okay before 3 days. . . . . My ex called me . . .  I was so happy and we started living together happily again. So now I help people by referring them to the only real and powerful spell caster  . . . . who is different from all the fake ones out there. Anybody could need the help of the spell caster. I know what I would do if I could cast spells . . .

Today's cartoon:-

Facebook says all I want is babies and caviar.  What else does it think it knows about me? 

 Every advertisement you see on the internet says something about you, gleaned from your online habits. You can find out what – and do something about it

Why does Facebook keep pushing pregnancy tests on me? Who do they think I am? Are you a woman in your mid-20s, perchance?

As a daily Facebook user at the peak of my fertility (well, I assume; its data-gathering hasn’t got that specific – yet), my feed is full of advertisements for Clearblue and its competitors. One called Natural Cycles appeared a few days ago because it sought to “reach women aged 18 to 45 who live, or have recently been, in the United Kingdom”. You might say it’s casting a wide net.

Advertising is one of those areas in which the internet, and Facebook in particular, wears its unsettling insights on its sleeve. Just about every ad you see online says something about you, your habits, interests and desires, as gleaned from the hours you spend pootling around the world wide web. They’re so bespoke as to be utterly unobtrusive – until you see how someone else’s feed differs from yours.

A few months ago, I was complaining to a friend about how Facebook had joined the chorus of “have your babies young” that I sparked by turning 26. In terms of demographics, he is 19, lives in Melbourne, and prints his own bootleg T-shirts with Liz Phair and Lana Del Rey on them. He looked completely bemused – then a light of recognition dawned: “Oh, I get a lot of ads for floatation tanks,” he said.

Whatever Facebook’s pushing, it’s possible to find out why by clicking on the arrow on the top-right of any sponsored or “suggested” post, and then then “why am I seeing this?”

The same data is displayed at, painted in brush strokes so broad as to be comical – think proper, Picasso-tries-a-face Cubist. Mine suggests I am interested in entrepreneurship, beaches, smoking as a treatment of meat, watercolour painting, women’s rights, Royal Caribbean International cruises, parties, and something called “botargo” that I understand to be a sort of salted relish made of fish eggs and pressed into rolls. (Correct me in the comments, my fellow botargo-lords!)

The REM fan’s were even further off the mark, though he is admittedly a less invested Facebook user. His interests in food, in their entirety: Food. Takeout. Salt. Among those in lifestyle and culture: wildfires, televisions (plural), toxicology, day, wonder (emotion) and Don (honorific).

At first I found the crudeness of these approximations somewhat comforting, given how much is made of tech companies’ precise and nefarious data-mining. What dirt could Zuckerburg have on me if I’m defined in his eyes by my interest in ichthyology?

Twitter and Google’s insights were more accurate but also more generic, flagging me as a fan of all kinds of culture, news and “general info”. I did not see myself reflected back at me in my 75 “Interests From Twitter” (accessible under Settings, and Your Twitter Data), nor in the PDF document I was sent listing the handles of the advertisers marketing to me – all 23 pages of them.

If I had a rather laissez-faire approach towards my personal data, it was because I was given the sense I had control over it. That same Ad Preferences page on Facebook presents you with the ads you’ve interacted with, the information that’s informed them, and whether or not your engagements with brands are served up to your friends as a vote of confidence (“Elle Hunt likes botargo”).

There’s even an option, currently in testing, to hide advertisements that relate to two topics: alcohol and parenting.

The requests for permission and the potential for personalisation may give you a sense of agency, but the reality is it’s so piecemeal as to be negligible. Even giving you the option to review your data is a bit self-serving of the platform: by correcting its understanding of your interests (“are you still interested in ichthyology?”), you’re making yourself an easier target.

Facebook’s and Google’s user guides are the friendly face of their advertising services, specifically simplistic so as to be accessible to people of all levels of tech-savvy. Whether or not it’s by design, the effect is reassuring. The apparent transparency gives you the illusion of control over your data and what companies do with it – the true extent of which no one really knows except them.

In May it was revealed that Facebook had touted its ability to identify teenagers at low moments to advertisers, reminiscent of its infamous 2012 experiment in manipulating its users’ emotions. The same month, it was fined €110m (£94m) by the EU for misleading the commission over what it was able to do with WhatsApp users’ data once it took over the messaging service in 2014.

When Facebook has appeared disingenuous about its intentions in the past, it’s no wonder we might not take it at its word. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1000 US adults, conducted early last year, found that 28% did not trust Facebook with their data “at all”; 34% said they did not trust it “much”. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 45% were “not at all confident” that social media sites’ records of their activity would remain private and secure.

But nothing screams “breakdown in trust” like a public denial of spying. In June, Facebook felt moved to formally reject an academic’s speculation in the Independent that it was listening in on users’ conversations through their smartphones’ microphones so as to show them relevant ads. 

Of course, Facebook can access the microphone, but only for specific purposes, and only if it’s been granted permission – but the wherewithal seems enough for the theory to be floated on social media whenever an ad seems a little on-the-nose.

One Twitter user referred to “the toothpaste test”: mentioning it in conversation with groups of friends, then asking them to look for ads about it. “All saw ads.” (If none of us ever see an online ad for toothpaste again, you know who to thank.)

The coincidences across Facebook and Instagram, like being swamped with ads for probiotics after a passing mention of them on chat, are easier to explain: Facebook owns Instagram. I get pregnancy tests there, too.

But the platform’s eye of Sauron extends far beyond its own stable. For as long as you’re logged on – and quite possibly when you’ve logged out, too – Facebook can see virtually every other website you visit. This 2016 list of the 98 personal data points it uses to target ads to you is eye-opening reading.

It’s hard to overestimate just how significantly advances in targeting have changed the game of digital marketing, and even electioneering. I won’t begrudge you for having better things to do, but it is edifying to read material geared for the other end of the equation: advertisers.

Facebook’s how-to guide for businesses explains how one might market to a “person who likes cooking but doesn’t own a home and/or isn’t a parent”; so put into practice, that ropy list of stock images suddenly points to a powerful tool.

When social media is so often experienced as a mundanity, a distraction, or back-to-back photos of strangers’ dogs, it can be easy to forget that we’re the product being sold. But why should any thinly-disguised marketplace need to know something so personal as your relationship status, or favourite honorific?

We’re able to access only the tip of the iceberg of our personal data, but we might as well do what we can. 
  • Review your privacy settings. 
  • Turn off every option and refuse every permission you can.

Facebook calls it “managing ad preferences”. On Twitter, it’s “personalisation”. It might be presented as being for your benefit, but make no mistake, it’s a token gesture – no one benefits more from this exchange than they do.

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