Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 20.2.18

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.

  • So, Spain's Luis De Guindos was indeed appointed deputy chairman of the ECB yesterday. Being tainted with corruption clearly doesn't matter.
  • Talking of which . . . It's not only the USA which has big problems with Russians. But, sad to say, the main man - a friend of Putin - has scarpered back to Moscow.
  • Visiting Madrid some time? Here's something on the tapas culture there.
  • For the more adventurous, here's The Locals's latest list – Things for thrill seekers to do around Spain. Who don't include me.
The EU
  • Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, could not have been clearer. “There is no place [for financial services],” he said in December about a future trade deal with Britain. “There is not a single trade agreement that is open to financial services.” Technically, he was right. No trade deal incorporates a fully open arrangement on financial services. But he omitted one important detail. Until 2016, EU officials were locked in the most complex set of trade negotiations ever attempted, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to harmonise standards between the US and the EU. Brussels was pushing hard for a deal on financial services. It was Washington that said no. Two years ago, the EU was begging for a deal with one of the world’s largest financial centres. Today, it claims a deal with the other is unworkable. Mr Barnier did not lie, but his omission reeks of hypocrisy. Which doesn't go down well in the UK, of course.
The UK
  • For those very few interested, here's Richard North on the impact of EU regulation on the UK meat industry, starting many years ago. There's actually a small Spanish element to this saga. Needless to say, Dr North has some harsh words for the hapless David Davis and other Tory hard-Brexit 'fantasists'.
Nutters Corner
  • Republican Steve Lonegan, who’s running to represent a New Jersey congressional district: We need prayer in schools to prevent future mass shootings. Because they've certainly been proven to work todate, I guess.
Followed closely by . . .

You Couldn't Make It Up
  • At the weekend aRepublican Congressman delivered a bagful of thoughts and prayers to Donald Trump, presumably as a response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida. One commentator as cynical as I am pondered whether this will be the most Republicans will ever do to prevent future school shootings. 
Social Media and Politics
  • True debate on social media is increasingly rare. Instead there is a process of perceived transgression and punishment, normally because an utterance by a person in one silo has come to the outraged attention of the inhabitants of another. . . . What Russia sought to do in America is not so different from what Trump himself succeeded in doing, whether there was collusion or not. Nor is it so different from what all parties are gearing up to do in the UK. Effective politics no longer needs to reach across to the other side, or even to the other side of the dinner table. Instead, it recruits cults and tribes and sets them loose on each other, letting all its bitterest battles be fought by compulsive keyboard warriors. Brave new world.
  • Talking about the media . . . Below is an article by Stephen Pinker on the nefarious effect of its ubiquitous negativity. Some have claimed he's being more than a tad Panglossian.
  • Here's the BBC on something which has featured large in our local press recently - Spain's first lesbian (and homosexual?) wedding. Way back in 1901.
  • Well, the Franco family certainly has cara. Or cheek. Pressured to give the Pazo de Meir├ís back to the state – or, more accurately to the Galician government – they've said they'll sell it for €8m. Apparently the 6 of them aren't happy enough with the €5-600m they already have. Thanks, of course, to a murderous grandfather. As I've said, bad genes. In some societies they'd be ostracised.
  • So, the world – or at least the UK - has learnt once again that when you combine poor women and rich, powerful men, you get sex. In truth, as I learnt when when working in a poor country aged only 19, the men don't have to be rich and powerful. They just need testosterone and a little cash. 
  • Less philosophical is this TED talk on the origins of the anti-fake news movement.
  • The Baftas . . . I wonder how long actors have to work on their hair before it looks like mine does when I get out of bed.
Today's Cartoon


The media exaggerates negative news. This distortion has consequences. : Steven Pinker

Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will make us think that it is

Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse and oppression. And it’s not just the headlines we’re talking about; it’s the op-eds and long-form stories as well. Magazine covers warn us of coming anarchies, plagues, epidemics, collapses, and so many “crises” (farm, health, retirement, welfare, energy, deficit) that copywriters have had to escalate to the redundant “serious crisis.”

Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is.

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where a war has not broken out”— or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different timelines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before; now, seconds before).

Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

The nature of news is likely to distort people’s view of the world because of a mental bug that the psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman called the Availability heuristic: people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind. In many walks of life this is a serviceable rule of thumb. But whenever a memory turns up high in the result list of the mind’s search engine for reasons other than frequency—because it is recent, vivid, gory, distinctive, or upsetting—people will overestimate how likely it is in the world.

Plane crashes always make the news, but car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Not surprisingly, many people have a fear of flying, but almost no one has a fear of driving. People rank tornadoes (which kill about 50 Americans a year) as a more common cause of death than asthma (which kills more than 4,000 Americans a year), presumably because tornadoes make for better television.

The data scientist Kalev Leetaru applied a technique called sentiment mining to every article published in the New York Times between 1945 and 2005, and to an archive of translated articles and broadcasts from 130 countries between 1979 and 2010. Sentiment mining assesses the emotional tone of a text by tallying the number and contexts of words with positive and negative connotations, like good, nice, terrible, and horrific.

Putting aside the wiggles and waves that reflect the crises of the day, we see that the impression that the news has become more negative over time is real. The New York Times got steadily more morose from the early 1960s to the early 1970s, lightened up a bit (but just a bit) in the 1980s and 1990s, and then sank into a progressively worse mood in the first decade of the new century. News outlets in the rest of the world, too, became gloomier and gloomier from the late 1970s to the present day.

The consequences of negative news are themselves negative. Far from being better informed, heavy newswatchers can become miscalibrated. They worry more about crime, even when rates are falling, and sometimes they part company with reality altogether: a 2016 poll found that a large majority of Americans follow news about Isis closely, and 77% agreed that “Islamic militants operating in Syria and Iraq pose a serious threat to the existence or survival of the United States,” a belief that is nothing short of delusional.

Consumers of negative news, not surprisingly, become glum: a recent literature review cited “misperception of risk, anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others, desensitization, and in some cases, ... complete avoidance of the news.” And they become fatalistic, saying things like “Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help,” or “I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.”

Relentless negativity can have other unintended consequences, and recently a few journalists have begun to point them out. In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome:

Trump was the beneficiary of a belief— near universal in American journalism—that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s going wrong.” ... For decades, journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root. .. One consequence is that many Americans today have difficulty imagining, valuing or even believing in the promise of incremental system change, which leads to a greater appetite for revolutionary, smash-the-machine change.

Bornstein and Rosenberg don’t blame the usual culprits (cable TV, social media, late-night comedians) but instead trace it to the shift during the Vietnam and Watergate eras from glorifying leaders to checking their power—with an overshoot toward indiscriminate cynicism, in which everything about America’s civic actors invites an aggressive takedown.

It’s easy to see how the Availability heuristic, stoked by the news policy “If it bleeds, it leads,” could induce a sense of gloom about the state of the world. Media scholars who tally news stories of different kinds, or present editors with a menu of possible stories and see which they pick and how they display them, have confirmed that the gatekeepers prefer negative to positive coverage, holding the events constant.

That in turn provides an easy formula for pessimists on the editorial page: make a list of all the worst things that are happening anywhere on the planet that week, and you have an impressive-sounding—but ultimately irrational—case that civilization has never faced greater peril.

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