A Forest of News

I’m about halfway through the book The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb which is very generally about surprise events that are inappropriately rationalized with story lines after they have happened. Taleb does not find it difficult to write in a very personal style that wanders off in tangents for paragraphs or even just phrases at a time. One such tangent (and something that he refers to in numerous snide personal comments) is how it is useless to read or watch the news, that live streams of reports about an event in progress are useless for understanding what is occurring and why- one must wait to read it a book or magazine where the entire storyline can be represented.

For the past several years I have woken up early enough to have an hour free before needing to get ready for work and have spent it reading through a selection of news websites and more lately various blog posts that have accrued throughout the past day. About half of the blog posts that I receive are about economics or finance and can vary between a paragraph in length to several dozen screens. Post the crash from 2009 through to 2010 these were a fighting ground between different theories that were built up and torn down by the participants while the rest of us watched and learned in fascination. These days while some posts still look to the big picture others spend most of their bandwidth on the daily market moves or bits out of the world press- more about the trees and less about the forest.

I’ve decided to try Taleb’s advice and have been reading books and magazines in the morning. The Economist in particular is something that I’d moved away from reading all the time and its return has been a delight since it takes the issues of the week and only gives analysis to those events that aren’t just part of the normal daily variance. Reading other magazines with larger articles such as The Walrus has meant that I am not going through as many different topics as before, but I also walk to work thinking about one issue in a much more meaningful way that I would have.


Misleading Media Lines

This week on CBC Radio’s The World at Six they ran a sequence of stories about India and how it is now an “economic juggernaut” of the world (Powershift). I think that the series was okay and anything that helps people understand what is going on in other parts of this planet is welcome. However, the first day’s program was fun of example of how certain facts, while completely true, have entirely different meanings when they are placed in different contexts.

In talking about the growing middle class there was a short story about a modest house costing over a million dollars in the middle of the city. Because this story came directly off one of how more people had money it made it seem that the city was perhaps bursting at the seams of people with cash to spare. The truth, which can be found in the fantastic book Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser, is that India’s cities have fierce laws limiting the heights of buildings which force an expansive population to live at a much lower density that others in the world. This limits the available housing close to the centers and with such a restrictive supply the demand from rich people can be much less to see the same price rises as in other places. It isn’t wrong to cite this as an example of a richer population, but it isn’t being completely honest with those who won’t understand the context.

Another “fact” that was talked about throughout the series was that the English speaking nature of so many in India was bound to be a huge benefit economically. While I have read this many times I have never seen proof that this casual thought was anything but. The Philippines have been saying this for ages and yet are poorer than many of their immediate neighbours. If it were true then how is it that Ghana is not doing better than it is with its English speaking and close proximity to Europe? It would be nice if reporters were able to question just a bit more or at least caution the listeners that these are things that are thought and are not proven facts.