What happened?

Six months since I last wrote here, and the world is now upside down. It is not like it was not already messed up before, but this is a whole new level of mess… There are so many things going on, and so many things crossing my mind, that I find it hard to make sense and organize it all. So forgive me if this text is all over the place.

A bit of context if you are reading this too far in the future. The world is now 5 or 6 months in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This is a highly contagious virus that causes a respiratory disease named COVID-19. For more on the topic, you can google it. There is, of course, a wikipedia page about it. The story told in the future about this depends on how we deal with it now. Only you, future person, can know what came out of it, but I must say that, for some of us people of the present, things are not looking good.

I started checking the news again since I am working from home and things are calmer on my side. Big mistake. It feels surreal. I end up asking myself “whaaat??!!” way too often. Here are a few recent headlines, just FYI:

In hindsight, we can hardly blame the virus alone for this chaos. We have put ourselves in this situation, it was a long time coming, and the health crisis is only making our problems more evident.

What happened to knowledge?

For starters, there was a *lot* of skepticism about the seriousness of this illness. In spite of all the warnings of the WHO, scientists, and epidemiologists, decision makers were still dismissive, thinking the studies were alarmists, and these scientists were an “opposition” of sorts. Maybe because mortality rate is not at 50%, and people are not visually sick, it was easy to look to the other side. Then, when things started to look bad, many decision makers put their faith in untested drugs, irresponsibly advertising them and encouraging distribution in hospitals. Even with no evidence that it would work, and a lot of evidence that it had serious side effects.

In my opinion, this is a result of two things: (1) a general distrust in science (e.g. climate change deniers, anti-vaccine movement, flat-earthers); and (2) an enhanced sense of entitlement for an opinion on each and every subject. Obviously these two things are not completely independent, but I think it is interesting to understand how this has come about, and ways to alleviate it. It seems people are unable to critically analyse information, and discern trustworthy sources. I don’t blame them. We can find literally everything on the internet nowadays disguised as reliable information. In a world where everything is true, each person picks their own truth. But you see, science doesn’t really work like that.

what happened to social security?

This reluctance to accept the studies was not a mere opposition to science. There is a very real and practical reason behind it: the economy. You see, all the studies indicated that, in order to curb the spread of the disease and prevent the collapse of health care systems, we needed to reduce gatherings, be more isolated and avoid contact with others. Now, people won’t stay at home because we politely ask them… Governments needed to take action. First thing to close are schools, then shops, then public spaces, and so on. Or at least that was the recommendation. The thing is, some people can move their business to home office, but a big number of people cannot. And with people at home, they don’t buy, they don’t travel, they don’t spend. And that means a lot of business lose income, which means they cannot pay their employees, which results in bankruptcy and unemployment. No government wants to deal with this problem, this is all very familiar, so why would they force business to close and the economy to slow down?

When have our lives become so dependent on an economy running and business working properly? Are we willing to continue this way? I mean, it is quite fragile as we can see now. Peoples’ subsistence depend on them having a job, but not all people have jobs all the time. So what happens when they don’t? That is what a social security system is for. We can compare the social impact of this pandemic in countries with high and low social security to see what a difference this makes. Of course this is hard given all the other factors, but it might be educational in any case. What cannot happen is for decision makers to look away so much because supporting the citizens in a time of need is just not possible (or not a problem they want to handle).

what will happen to us?

A(n optimistic) part of me wants this to be a lesson, that we look at it critically, find our weak points as a society, and fix them for the next emergency (let’s face it, another one is bound to happen sooner or later). The two topics above are simply things that worry me more, but I am sure there are all sorts of other problems that have become really obvious (like international collaborations, access to health care, inequality, to mention a few). A (realistic) part of me is hopeless that this will happen, specially when I see people so eager for things to “get back to normal”. Once again, we fall prey to our urgency and move forward in leaps and bounds (or as we say in Portuguese, aos trancos e barrancos).

About data

I have recently watched the documentary The Great Hack, which explains the Cambridge Analytica scandal: how they used a great amount of data from facebook to spread biased and fake messages and influence the outcome of Brexit and the US presidential election of 2016. The film focuses a lot on the role of big data-owning corporations such as facebook, google, or amazon (the usual suspects). It hints towards holding these companies responsible for what people do with the data they collect, and sort of portraits them as “evil”, but perhaps too much [1]. It also blames the technology and the “algorithms”, whatever those are. In my opinion, this is a very shallow analysis of what is actually going on, and I think they got it all upside down. Let me break down this problem into three parts.

The technique

People that do not understand what is going on behind the curtains of recommendation algorithms tend to see the spread of targeted manipulative information as an extremely bad thing (which it is), and how music streaming services that suggest music that you like as an extremely good thing (which it is). I am no expert in recommendation systems myself, but I know enough to know that the principles behind these two tasks are basically the same. So blaming and prohibiting the technique itself will mean that a lot of wonderful things we have today will no longer be available. And a huge field of research, which can be used for good, will go away. I don’t think this is a good direction to follow…

The data

Our data is being collected all the time. I know that, you know that, everyone knows that. It is because of this data, and the techniques, that we can talk to our phones, that we can search for a photo by a keyword, that our watches can measure our steps, and many other conveniences that make our lives today very comfortable. The corporations that collect and use the data to develop these wonderful things know how this is sensitive information, and how everything should be super anonymized if it is supposed to go into the hands of others (such as researchers).

In the case of Cambridge Analytica in particular, I think Facebook has actually little blame on this [1]. The story plays out like this. A researcher at Cambridge University developed an app and provided it to Cambridge Analytica. The company, in turn, used this app to do a survey and people had to agree that their data was going to be used for academic purposes. It turns out that, because of the way facebook was designed, the app also collected data from all the friends of the person taking the survey. Now, I think this is a serious design flaw, and whoever saw that, the researcher or whoever was working on this at Cambridge Analytica, should have at least informed facebook about it. Instead, they have exploited this to get all the data, and kept quiet. Needless to say, there was no “academic purpose” there. So facebook’s fault is this design flaw. They have openly apologized for that, and implemented more strict privacy rules (GDPR) since then. However, it is not fair to place the responsibility of how others used this data solely on them.

These big data companies tend to be already protective enough of their data. Ask any researcher that needs data how hard it is to get a fraction of what they have. So it is not like facebook is completely irresponsible and is just allowing anyone to tap into their pool. By the way, the researcher who developed the app was actually a consultant for facebook. Which makes me even more suspicious why he wouldn’t report such a breach in the first place.

The use

This is the crucial point in my opinion, and the point that is most overlooked. The problem, in the end, was not the existence of data or fancy techniques to process it. The problem is how this framework was used. And it is not like it was used for a super novel thing. The data was used for propaganda, and propaganda has been around for centuries. And people warning about the dangers of propaganda have also been around for a while now. For example, this quote from Everett Dean Martin: “Propaganda is making puppets of us. We are moved by hidden strings which the propagandist manipulates.” is from 1929. 1929!

The problem this time is that we had propaganda on steroids. Because of the amount of data Cambridge Analytica had, and the ability to quickly analyse it, they could provide the most targeted and efficient advertisements. If you think about it, this is the dream of *every* advertisement agency. Now, does that mean we should forbid propaganda? Well, I lean towards yes, but I also admit that there is a thing such as good propaganda [2]. So we should not discard it as an activity altogether. One could say propaganda/advertisement [3] should not be biased, but isn’t that an inherent characteristic of it? When people are trying to sell something (a product, an idea, an image), they kind of have to be biased towards that thing.

So what is it about the Cambridge Analytica case that bothered so many people (myself included)? I have had this lingering feeling that it crossed a line. But which line? After thinking a lot about it, I suspect this line is ethics.
First of all, these people were using exaggerated messages, sometimes blatant lies, to attack the opposition. Attacking the opposition is a low blow of desperate people, specially in politics [4]. This is a dirty move which I find disgusting. You want to advertise yourself? Fine. Show off your advantages, don’t hit the adversary. That makes me very angry.
Secondly, this was targeted to influence people on important decisions, which ideally should be taken with the minimum amount of bias. The only way people are going to start to think critically, is if they have to in order to form an opinion. If they are bombarded with information from only one side, it is brainwashing. I can see why a politician or government would think this is a good thing (“I know what is best for the people, I am just making them realize faster”). However, if you stop to really think about it, this is a disservice for the society as a whole. It simply creates citizens that follow the herd, and are lazy to think for themselves [5].
At this point, one possible solution would be to forbid advertisement related to elections and any issue that would affect society as a whole. Honestly, I think this would be a good thing, and it could solve many problems we face today in a democratic process (not only the one presented here). But I need to think more about this one.

Ultimately, this whole situation is much more complicated than portrayed in “The Great Hack”. There are fundamental problems that we have been facing for many years now, it is simply exacerbated by the effectiveness of a new method. The issue, as I see, is not the method in itself, but the fundamental problem of advertising/propaganda. Where do we draw the line of good/acceptable propaganda, and unacceptable one? Who should be responsible for regulating this? As usual, there is a whole area of study about persuasion, advertisement, etc. As usual, we will only pay attention and try to solve it when things explode and it becomes obvious that this is the problem. We never learn…

[1] And I hate Facebook…
[2] Government funded campaigns for vaccination, anti-tobacco, more exercises, etc.
[3] I am using the two words interchangeably, since it is quite debatable what distinguishes one from the other. In Portuguese, for example, there is only one word to describe what would be two different things for an English speaking person.
[4] 11 years ago, this was an issue in the election of a mayor where I come from. I wrote about here (in Portuguese), after hearing an admission that, still today, makes me furious.
[5] For example, do you think I just thought about all of these things at once? It took me weeks thinking about the documentary, discussing it with other people, and researching, until I formed this opinion (which could be changed in light of new information).

About handmaids

I was visiting a friend recently and she happened to have a copy of “The Handmaid’s Tale” at her place. I had heard about this book before, and my friend also recommended it, so I decided to read. I finished it surprisingly quickly… Not only because I needed to give the book back 🙂

If you have not read the book, don’t read this post further. Go read it and make your own opinion about it.

The language is easy and the story kept me interested. Not in a Sherlock Holmes kind of way, where we are eager to find out who committed the crime, but in an Alice in Wonderland way, where we just appreciate the surreality of the situation. Except that it is not such a nice and fantastic world, but a scary post-apocalyptic one.

The story takes place in a near-future totalitarian state, which is (apparently) at war with neighbors, and follows a nuclear disaster that left a lot of the land unusable. As with any novel about a totalitarian state (such as 1984 and Brave New World), the lack of individual freedom is the focus here: everyone has their role in society pre-assigned, and no deviation is possible, specially questioning or going against the status quo. Different from the aforementioned books, this one focuses in particular on the role of women in this dystopian society. There are three “classes” of women: the wives, the child-bearing, and the cooks. Men should have at least one of each class (with some exceptions). The story is told from the point of view of one of the child-bearing ones. She contrasts her previous life (not too different from the lives we lead today) with the current one, the training she had to go through, and the struggles to maintain her sanity. She “belongs” to a “commander”, a seemingly high-ranking official, who, at some point, breaks the protocol and starts to have a more personal relationship with the protagonist. This is hardly the main point of the story, but I found one of these interactions particularly interesting. In the excerpt below, the commander attempts to justify the new imposed system on women:

We’ve given them more than we’ve taken away, said the Commander. Think of the trouble they had before. Don’t you remember the singles’ bars, the indignity of high school blind dates? The meat market. Don’t you remember the terrible gap between the ones who could get a man easily and the ones who couldn’t? Some of them were desperate, they starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone, had their noses cut off. Think of the human misery.

He waved a hand at his stacks of old magazines. They were always complaining. Problems this, problems that. Remember the ads in the Personal columns, Bright attractive woman, thirty-five… This way they all get a man, nobody’s left out. And then if they did marry, they could be left with a kid, two kids, the husband might just get fed up and take off, disappear, they’d have to go on welfare. Or else he’d stay around and beat them up. Or if they had a job, the children in daycare or left with some brutal ignorant woman, and they’d have to pay for that themselves, out of their wretched little paychecks. Money was the only measure of worth, for everyone, they got no respect as mothers. No wonder they were giving up on the whole business. This way they’re protected, they can fulfill their biological destinies in peace. With full support and encouragement. Now, tell me. You’re an intelligent person, I like to hear what you think. What did we overlook?

Than Handmaid’s Tale (Chapter 34)

Indeed, when put this way, it is almost tempting. What a relief it would be to become suddenly free of all these struggles. Not worrying about looking pretty, having the “right” body, face and behavior… Not worrying about finding someone to start a family with, if it will work out or not, if you would be able to raise your kids properly. Rationally speaking, the system guarantees all basic human needs, for all humans. So we see how this would make sense in the head of very pragmatic people.

But very important things were overlooked.

The main character replies: “love”. To which the commander rightfully argues that love might just be something fabricated and imposed on us, as something we *should* feel and how marriages and families work. He points out the fact that arranged marriages were common, and work out just as well.

But in both situations there is a more fundamental principle which is overlooked: freedom. Whether you choose to get married by love, or because your family has found you a suitable partner, the important part is that you *choose*. You choose your partner, you choose the clothes you wear, whether to use make up, have plastic surgery, go to the gym or on a diet. You choose to go out on a date, or ask someone out. You choose to stay married, or to get a divorce.

Or better, you have the impression that you choose.

This situation has got me thinking about the difference between things we choose, and things we think we choose. Unless you live alone in an island isolated from society (in which case you would not be reading this), there are certain expectations about you. This may come from your upbringing, your peers, your friends, and even yourself. Many times we simply internalize these expectations, and live up to them without ever realizing it. Here is a silly example of how this can come about. I recently reorganized my wardrobe and realized I have a disproportionate amount of pink tops. It is by far the most frequent color. Now, do I like pink more than the other colors in particular? Not really… As a girl, I am of course _supposed_ to like pink, and this is how I suspect these tops came about. Some were gifts, admittedly, but maybe half I bought them myself. Since then, I have been more aware of my behavior when I can choose between different colors of the same item. I noticed that my instinct is to invariably go towards pink/purple. Is this because, deep down, I just really like pink, or is it because I was raised always having a lot of pink stuff? I strongly suspect it is the latter…

My feeling is that many people (including myself) make choices according to what is expected of them, and not according to our true selves. These can be as simple as the color of clothes, or as complicated as your career, relationships, values, religion… The problem is that, if we are not true to ourselves, we end up with clothes we don’t particularly enjoy wearing, or worse. Recognizing what is you and what is imposed on you is not an easy task, but it is one worthwhile spending some time on, as this means a lighter and more authentic life.

Facebook and Banks

Just read this article: Facebook in talks with banks to expand customer service

First of all, banks do not need facebook to help them improve customer service. Anyone who has ever interacted with a bank can give a handful of suggestions that would be useful and not involve a social network or another corporation getting access to customer data. I know I did my share of filling in “feedback forms”, but these seem to go to a black hole. Instead, banks would rather collaborate with the company that has been the center of a big privacy scandal for the last year. What could go wrong? ¬¬

Second, any decent bank has a chat service for customers, usually in the bank’s website. If American banks do not have that, it is because they are in the stone age of banks. Yes, they are.

Finally, facebook may have access to the account information of some users but will not use that for “advertisement or anything”. Sure, sure…

About the world

When I was finishing my masters and deciding where to go for a PhD, I did what every student in my position would do: ask around for advice. I talked to some of my professors that did do a PhD to find out about their experiences, where they went and so on. Being a theory oriented person, I could see more attractive opportunities in Europe other than the US, and the programs looked very different (from the duration, style, tuition, etc.). When confronted with these options, I got almost unanimously the same argument:

The quality of education in the US will be better, it is a longer phd but you will leave with more opportunities and more knowledge. It will be expensive, there will be sleepless nights, you’ll have no vacations for a long time and will kill yourself to work, but it is worth it. In Europe things are much more relaxed and you will do a lot of tourism. Sure you’ll end with a PhD, but much less worthy.

I found that somehow strange… This was not too great of a case for the US, nevertheless they wanted me to go and sacrifice some years of my life for a title. Suffice to say that I did not apply for any positions in the US… In the end, I got a position in Vienna, Austria, and that’s where I went to.

Looking back, having finished a PhD in Europe and understanding better how the American programs work, I sort of see their point. I am sure you see it as well, so I will not go over that. My intention here is to say what they have not told me (maybe because most or all of them had got a PhD from an American university). Given the choice, I would *never* exchange the years I spent in Vienna and Paris for a PhD from an ivy-league school in the US. Here’s why.

I moved to Vienna alone. It was the first time I was living outside my parents’ house and I started big: other side of the world in a country whose language I did not speak. I not only had to learn how to manage my own life, but how to manage my life in a society completely different from the one I was used to. And do a PhD on my spare time. In trying to adapt, I started looking at life differently. Suddenly answers like “that’s the way things are” or “it’s just how it works” stopped making sense because here I was at a place where things were not like that and, guess what? Everything still works! (Even better sometimes…) The opportunity to travel a lot (Europe is really very small… and a bunch of different countries are just a 3-hour flight away) has contributed to that feeling. Everywhere there was something curious, something different, a new unsaid rule that everyone followed. And as we try to fit in, we test different behaviors on ourselves, and realize that many “defaults” we have can be changed to something that works better, or to something that is more “you”. It is interesting the moment you feel more at home at a place that is completely different from the one where you were born, simply because that is more in line with your values. I feel like those years were a deconstruction and reconstruction of myself, and I feel much more comfortable in my skin today than I did 6 years ago. Hopefully this will only get better with time 🙂

Sure I did learn a lot scientifically as well, and I did get a PhD, and a job. My professors might think that I got lucky. (I think so too). But even if I hadn’t got a position, and was unemployed in Vienna today, still I would not change a thing. I am a resourceful person and I could get a job eventually, even outside academia. What I have learned and how much I have grown during this experience is beyond any career-oriented measurement of success.

You might argue that the same would happen if I had moved to the US, but I don’t think so. We know too much about them. We get their music, movies, series, news, culture… From what I know, life would not be so much different from the life I had before. Also, I have lived in the US long ago. Back then, I did not realize all the nuances and particularities I noticed last semester, when I was living there for a few months again. Since we know so much, it is a hard place to feel like an outsider. Maybe it will be more comfortable, but less eye-opening.

What I want to show now, specially now, is that going to the US does not have to be the ultimate dream or the best/only choice. The world is a big place, and great opportunities are available everywhere. We just need to remember that opportunities should encompass employment *and* life as well.

About obesity

I am taking the opportunity of being at CMU for a semester and attending a course on behavioral economics and public policy. Behavioral economics is a topic that caught my attention a while ago and it’s been interesting to see it under the lens of public policy. The course is quite American-centered, and being a non-American (or “alien”, as the government likes to call me) makes it only more interesting. I am trying to understand what is the mindset, what is the “normal” around here, and I am still in awe every now and then. It’s a good state to be in. But anyway…

Today in class the subject of obesity was briefly mentioned. It is seen as a public health problem, and we were studying ways (read, public policies) to motivate people to loose weight. But that’s treating the symptom, not the cause. I like to treat causes, seems more effective. So, for the reasons why obesity is a problem, it was mentioned: decrease in food prices (specially unhealthy food), lack of time (arguably not true, we just suck at time management), sedentary lives, working parents and larger portions (why America? why??). We might add dining out and drinking soda like crazy to that list, as discussed here. Fair enough. These all look like reasonable reasons for a less healthy diet and consequent increase on obesity. Then I had an epiphany: those reasons are not America-exclusive. People are more stressed everywhere, both parents are working everywhere, sedentary lives are everywhere, cheap fast food and soda is available everywhere. So what creates this enormous demand for big portions of deep fried chicken in America specifically? [1]

Unfortunately I do not have an answer for that. What I know is that the unhealthy eating seems to be an acceptable thing. I never saw so many ads for food as I see it on TV here. Really. If you are ever in the US and have a chance to watch some TV, do it. Even for half an hour. It is an interesting experience (not only because of the food ads). I have the feeling that one in every three ads is about food. And not healthy food: fried chicken, giant burgers, 2 feet (~60 cms) pizza, a burrito stuffed with three types of different melted cheese, pancakes made with buttery croissant dough, chocolate cookies filled with more chocolate and marshmallows… you name it. Ironically, another third fraction of the commercials are dedicated to medicaments. As if it is not enough to bombard people with ads for greasy and processed food, they go to the next level and actually *scorn* healthy eating. Just take a look at this or that. Americans, do you have any idea how absurd it is to have an ad like that? This should have never ever been approved!! I would boycott Domino’s if I ever ate there.

I am not sure if these ads can be counted as a cause or effect of obesity, it is a chicken-and-egg problem. What I know is that regulating such things properly will do no harm, but only good [2]. It’s a no-brainer. On top of motivating people to loose weight, how about cutting on the temptation for eating in the first place?

[1] As a side note, Brazil is also not the healthiest country around. And I lived there, and even so I cannot explain what happens… Seems to be a cultural thing (that needs to change!).

[2] Regulation is needed when people lack the common sense and allow such horrendous ads. Unfortunately, those that make regulations are also people.

About questions

I used to think that people, in general, had problems when it comes to asking questions. What was my surprise when I recently realized that, in fact, we also have problems in *getting* questions! Given the important status questions have for the exchange and construction of ideas [1], it is really a shame that we both don’t like to ask questions or receive them.

You might be very familiar with the feeling of holding back a question because you might sound [insert here whatever adjective works best for you]. But being asked? Yes. It turns out that instead of listening a question as it should be, i.e. just a question, we add our own interpretation to it and reply (or not) to that. We see questions as criticism, as challenges, as disagreement… but have you ever thought that it might be, in reality, *just* a question? (In spite of what your biased self might “notice” about language, tone, etc.)

Try that for a while. Get rid of your prejudices and take the questions as they come. You will see life becomes much much lighter. Answer sincerely (even if it means saying “I do not know the answer”) and ask sincerely (even if you think it’s a [same adjective as before] question). You will notice how communication improves, how it is possible to have an argument without it getting to your head and how everyone feels less intimidated. It’s good all around!

And if it just so happens that someone does have an ill-intended question, you can see the disappointment in their eyes with your honest answer 😉

 

[1] I must leave here a special thanks to my classmates from grad041, who taught me the importance of argumentation, and that friendship is independent of agreement. There are very few circles where questions are so well received as with these people 😀

(inter)nationality

Three seemingly unrelated facts have caught my attention this week (maybe motivated by an e-mail that arrived just in time). It got me thinking about the nationality business again. Strong nationalist feelings never made sense to me. Maybe it is because I am not exactly proud of my origin country, maybe because I have moved and traveled so much that borders cause more hassle than help, but there is something about nationalism that I just don’t get. I thought that, at least in academia, we would be better than that as our community is highly international, but these events make me think otherwise, unfortunately.

The first thing that happened was the release of results of Marie Curie projects. This is organized by an European funding agency, it is open for anyone to apply with a project to be developed at a host institution somewhere in Europe. I applied for France, to follow-up on the post-doc I have until November. It was not accepted, sadly, but that’s another story. The interesting thing was the e-mail I got from the French branch of this agency. It mentioned very proudly that France was the second country in terms of number of approved projects, being only behind the UK. Being a Brazilian researcher applying to work with an American coordinator, nothing made less sense than counting my project as “French” only because it just so happens we are both in France. I know a French researcher that applied for a project in Germany, a Russian researcher that applied for a project in Austria… By the way, the whole idea of this grant is to move people around, so you cannot apply for a country where you have lived in for more than one year in the past three years. So most applicants for an institution in country X are not actually from X. How do you consider a project being from one country or the other like this? Worse, you create a fake sense of pride for the people that happen to be in their home country, and prejudice against foreigners. The foreigners that contributed for that count in the first place.

I am applying for another thing, a permanent position this time, at Inria in France. There is a document with many many sections to fill in, and at some point they ask us to list our publications. The subsections for the publications are split in “International Journals”, “Reviewed international conferences” and then “National Journals” and “Reviewed national conferences”. What do they mean by international and national? Is national French? Is national a conference or journal that have the name of a country in the title? If I am in France and publish a paper in a workshop organized in Brazil by a Brazilian university, is this international? On top of not being clear, the division of publications into national/international suggests there is a difference of importance between these two types of events. I do not know any conference or journal that restricts submissions based on the nationality of authors (also because authors usually are from different countries) so there should not be a difference of importance based on this criteria alone.

At this point one might think that the bureaucrats are to blame. They are the ones organizing reports and templates for applications, and they are the ones that think of boundaries between national and international. The researchers are aware of the nonsense of this distinction, and are only interested in the development of science for the sake of the human kind. Right? Well… here I am at a workshop in France, which is being streamed for three locations, whose invited speaker was German and gave the talk in English, but the rest of the talks are being given in French! The guy talking now has even the slides in English, but he is speaking French. If the invited speaker was talking in English, would it kill them to give a talk that he (and I) would understand better? Sigh… I am not a native English speaker, but this language made it possible for me to get where I am, so I have no problem in using it if it is enabling a better integration of the people in the world. Franchement…

In spite of all that, I don’t feel like an outsider. On the contrary, the outsiders for me are people who give so much importance to the nationality question, and I feel sorry for them. If they have some kind of prejudice against me because of where I am from, it is really *their* loss, because I am awesome xD

About Black Friday

As I was idly browsing the internet at the airport today, I came across a piece of news from BBC that got my attention. The title read: “Police issue Black Friday warning to retailers”. What has the police got to do with it? Apparently, during last year’s Black Friday, at a supermarket chain in England, there was such a great chaos between customers that the police had to be called. Mind you, these are people fighting over TV sets, computers or stereo systems.

If you live in a happy world and has no idea what I am talking about, then I give you two choices: (1) stop here and go on being happy or (2) continue reading and become a little less happy and a little more disappointed on human kind.

You decided to continue, I admire your courage.

Black Friday is one Friday in the end of November (presumably after Thanksgiving — yes, it’s an American thing, surprise, surprise!) when retailers give ridiculous discounts (50, 60,… even 90% off) on their products. So far so good… kinda. But when people hear crazy discounts, people apparently go crazy themselves. Black Fridays are characterized by long lines in front of shops, with people arriving as early as 3am, the chaos inside shops, with people filling up their carts with whatever only because it might be sold out on the next 5 minutes, and eventual arguments between customers over who will get that last washing machine at 70% off. Things can get pretty ugly, as some videos show.

The news at BBC only briefly explained the situation, and the fact that the police asked stores to be better prepared, and then went on saying that the concerning supermarket chain decided not to participate on Black Friday this year and what would be the consequences for their Christmas sales. As if this is the thing we should be focusing on… For me this is like saying, yeah, there is this war somewhere and a bunch of people are dying, but let’s see how this affects the missile market. Granted, it was BBC Business… What else can you expect? I cannot avoid the disappointment though.

First of all, I am disappointed at people (big news) that became so much consumerist as to reach this point of savageness (is this a word?) for getting products they don’t actually need. Only because they are on sale. How often do you need to change your TV set, mobile phone, mp3 player, headphones, laptops, tablets, screen projectors, suitcases, refrigerators, toasters, and so on? The new rule seems to be: as often as new models are released (or maybe half that frequency, which would still be too much, in my opinion). And companies many sure of having brand new stuff for you every year. They need the revenue, keep the economy active and the money circulating and everybody is happy, right? Wrong! I, for one, am not happy at all, and I have a feeling I am not alone.
Have you ever thought where your unused gadgets end up? Maybe you are lucky to have a big enough house, with a basement to dump all the stuff for now. But in the long run, your space will end, as it is finite, or you have to move. Then you might have a garage sale or sell some things online, but by then, a big part of it will be so undervalued (mobile phones that cost as much as 300 euros 2 years ago can be bought by 30 euros today) that it is not worth the trouble. You will throw most of them away, polluting the environment with all the silicon, lithium, plastic and a bunch of other crap that will take hundreds of thousands of years to decompose. Ok. Maybe I am being unfair. Maybe you are a pseudo-ecological person that takes your useless stuff to the next electronics’ recycling center. You know all the silicon, lithium and plastic are still there, right? People at these centers will separate the materials to facilitate recycling, a process which itself consumes energy and other resources. If you were really ecological, you would not have accumulated so many useless things in the first place.

My second disappointment is with the news itself, a narrow-minded article that makes a silly economical analysis of shops adhering or not to Black Friday and misses *entirely* the bigger and more important picture. I don’t mind BBC having a business section. I mind that a huge newscast corporation, responsible for shaping the opinions of millions of people, has an article saying how Christmas sales are affected by Black Friday and does *not* have an article discussing the more worrying consequences of such event. Consequences that will only be felt after a few years, on the climate, nature and society itself (if you think about it, 10 years ago is not that far and already so many things have changed), and not on next month’s profit. Why are these fundamental questions not worthy of a front page news? Do newspapers have an agenda? Or are they simply run by people that don’t care? Or is it too disturbing? I am sure there are competent people out there, thinking, researching and writing about the important things. Where are these people? Why are they not writing articles for the BBC? You really should…