People died. Who cares?

Oh, look, an oil spill!Used to be, people complained that the news media were too fixated on death and disaster.

“Chief,” the cub reporter would say, “there’s been a shootout at the mall.” “Anyone dead?” would come the reply.

“Sir, there’s been a car accident.” — “Get any pictures of blood, corpses or solitary shoes?”

“Hey boss, the church is on fire.” — “It ain’t Sunday, there won’t be any people inside.”

Luckily, in our enlightened age, human deaths and misery are just, well, incidental. After all, we’re only harming the planet.

“Oil spill in Black Sea” read a headline last night on the CNN International news ticker. The station has been trumpeting Planet in Peril in big scary letters, with dark theme music and ominous lightning flashes, like some Frankenstein rerun, but this appeared to be real news. I wait to hear if the news is good or bad. It’s worse. It’s terrible. It turns out several ships ran aground in a severe storm in the strait connecting the Sea of Azov with the Black Sea, causing a fuel oil spill. Could be the worst environmental disaster in decades.

By the end of the report, the alert viewer will learn one of those colourful details that modern editors insist reporters insert, to add a just the right touch of fluffy emotion to an otherwise hard, factual, depressing piece. There, as an afterthought, and not even worthy of a mention in the later summary of the news, you learn about the fate of the sailors on the stricken ships: two confirmed dead, dozens missing.

After all, nobody really cares about manual labourers somewhere in central Asia who don’t even speak English. It’s not like they were Western tourists or anything. They don’t really count on CNN. Why headline the piece “Maritime disaster in Black Sea”, or “Sailors dead, missing in storm”, or “30 missing in half-dozen shipwrecks”?

That would be hysterical. Sheer sensationalist alarmism.

(A few more people have been confirmed dead since, and the human tragedy finally made it into the headline.)

Healthcare rhetoric shot down

The Carpe Diem blog has an interesting table confirming an argument Greg Mankiw recently made in an op-ed in the New York Times.

Standardised life expectancy

It is standard rhetorical fare on the left (and among foreigners who just love to find reasons to snipe at the US) to argue that private healthcare is worse than universal, socialised medicine, and the fact that raw life expectancy numbers in the US are lower than in more socialist countries proves this. Turns out the causes of lower raw life expectancy in the US are unrelated to the quality or accessibility of private healthcare, after all. If you account for the effects of premature death resulting from non-health-related fatal injuries, as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development does with its standardised life expectancy measure, the US comes out on top. Go figure.

(Via Greg Mankiw’s blog.)

Facebook: the decline begins

The rot has begun. Scarcely has Microsoft bought its slice of Facebook (over which I left), than advertising is starting to appear. Right there in the news stream; a large, glaring advertisement. This is what it looks like:

Facebook advertising

A few things are notable. Unlike the Facebook Flyers, which appear on the left-hand-side, very visible but without wasting space needed for the news stream, and unlike Google-style text ads, which are non-intrusive and take up little space, this advertisement appears slap bang in the news stream, where interesting updates from friends vie for screen real-estate even on a very large screen. I’d guess on a typical notebook screen or a mobile device it would take up a good proportion of the visible screen space.

It is disguised as a real update, as if a friend just posted some new photos. That’s devious and offensive. Magazines (credible magazines, at least), decline advertisements that attempt to appear like regular editorial, since this hurts the integrity of the publication. I were in charge of Facebook advertising, an advert that looks like a legitimate update would be declined.

It appears to be completely untargeted. Credit reports comprise one of the biggest categories of online spam. What next? Pump-and-dump share schemes? Invitations from hot babes looking for money, honey?

It is true that some other social networks — including Orkut in particular — suffer from spam problems, especially in group discussion forums. This is something they will have to combat if they intend capitalising on the discontent created by Microsoft/Facebook deal. But at least they don’t (as far as I’m aware) condone the spam. At least they don’t place the spam themselves, where it clogs up an already-cluttered news stream.

In all ways, this particular Facebook advertisement is offensive and sends a clear message of where Facebook is going: more clutter, more noise, less signal, less usefulness. It lacks even the minimal redeeming quality — unintentional humour about Yahoo! spam filtering — of this inviting offer I recently received:

Yahoo! spam