Globo for Bobos: “Hot, Steaming Death in the Brazilian Bathroom!”

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We need a communications policy and an ongoing dialogue with the mass media that will guarantee that the sense of risk is proportionate to the actual risk. –Rio de Janeiro mayor Cesar Maia, December 2006

Lula should be IMPEACHED for criminal association with a narco-guerrilla group, the FARC! Just look! El Tiempo reports that Brazil is offering to let Chávez and FARC negotiators meet on Brazilian soil! –Rio de Janeiro mayor Cesar Maia, September 20, 2007

Electric schock: effect of the passage of a current of electricity through the body. Fatality may result from shocks of from 1 to 2 amperes and 500 to 1,000 volts. However, the effect of electric shock on the body depends not only on the strength of the current, but on such factors as wetness of the skin, area of contact, duration of contact, constitution of the victim, and whether or not the victim is well grounded. –Columbia Encyclopedia

Two initial impressions from my very first treks through Brazil remain vivid in my memory.

The first was my very first encounter with what at first sight seems like a prime candidate for the Darwin Awards — a black-comic Web site dedicated to

… honoring those who improve the species … by accidentally removing themselves from it!

Namely, the electrical showerhead, a gizmo that heats water just before it emerges to splash down — as the elderly gentleman you see in the segment shown above charmingly says — on your bald spot.

In a nation of extreme neatness freaks — the Brazilian instinct to bathe often really is a notable and widespread cultural attribute — that still lacks the infrastructure to support hot water heated by piped-in natural gas on a universal basis, this gizmo is found everywhere, from Popular Homes and Shanties magazine to some of the best hotels.

The first time I saw one, every instinct in my gringo body shouted that this was an insane idea, and I ask my wife, “So, how many people does this freaking thing kill every year in Brazil, anyway?”

“Good question,” she replied. “I have no idea. But no one I have ever heard of.”

It is a question that would be interesting to know the answer to, is hard to find solid sources on, and is a question that this Globo report on the death-dealing electric showerhead does not even bother attempting to answer. It is good enough for Globo to parrot the statement that “your electric showerhead COULD kill you.”

Which I think tends to corroborate what I always says: The contrary-to-fact conditional is the first refuge of an intellectually lazy, useless journalist.

Because my instincts were apparently off. We just had our local electrician in yesterday, in fact, to inspect our electric showerhead, and he gave me a very good “for dummies” rundown on the thing.

The second first impression came from reading a declaration by journalist Mino Carta, to the effect that Brazilian journalism, and especially Brazilian TV journalism, was among the very worst in the world. Just quackingly and abusively stinking-rotten bad.

But surely the man was exaggerating? I thought. Shrill exaggeration for effect being something of a national sport, I could see that much right off the bat.

But now that I have been testing the latter proposition in the NMM fact-checking and signal-to-noise measurement labs for several years now, I have to say, the Carta Hypothesis is looking more and more likely to be dead-on accurate in many, many cases.

Because when I say that TV Globo is viciously slanted and viciously stupid, I mean that it is viciously slanted and viciously stupid as a general rule, to the point where it is hard not to conclude that its vicious, slanted stupidity is a praxis deriving from a systematic Weltaunschauung. A method in its madness. See, for example

I hasten to add, as always, that Globo employs many, many professionals who are without any doubt eminently capable of doing better, and who know the difference between competent public-affairs journalism and Globo journalism all too well.

The problem is that those people do not get to run things. On which see also

This TV Globo news report — plucked more or less randomly off of YouTube — on the famous Brazilian electrical showerhead is, I think, another case in point.

It used to be very common to see U.S. local news stations pulling this sort of stunt in their station promotions — and CNN in recent has taken the gambit global:

“Can a common ingredient of your gradmother’s chicken soup recipe kill you stone cold dead where you stand? Tune in at 11 and find out the startling answer!”

The startling answer being: No, not really.

Hardly ever at all in the vast majority of cases. Perhaps in extremely rare cases, under freakish sets of circumstances. The risk is infinitesimal but real, and here is how to minimize it.

TV Globo regularly takes this New York Post-style sort of terroristic alarmism to new lows.

It is actually hard to know whether which came first — Rupert Murdochism or the Marinho-Lacerda school of gabbling propaganda. (Most likely, historically speaking, Marinho and Lacerda cribbed the techniques from Fascist Italy and Generalissimo Franco.)

Here, for example, Globo sets out to cover a perfectly legitimate consumer affairs story.

The IDEC in São Paulo, a local version of Consumer Testing Labs and the like in the U.S., tests a number of different electric showerheads. Their message, as far as I can reconstruct:

  1. Most of the models we tested were at least adequately safe.
  2. Four out of the seven models we tested had good or excellent safety profiles.
  3. One model, howver, was a Sino-Paraguayan design nightmare that puts the consumer at severe risk.
  4. We advocate stricter regulation and oversight of the industry’s adherence to technical standards to avoid letting such shoddy goods onto the retail shelves.

These people are true sons of Nader’s Raiders. My hat is off to them.

I have no reason to doubt, from listening to these people talk, that this kind of scientific and engineering testing and advocacy provides a valuable and intellectually honest public service to the consumer in Brazil, whose building codes and safety regulations are still evolving and a vast portion of whose population lives in an off-the-grid or irregularly hooked-up situation.

But does Globo accurately, fairly and completely represent their position, or cover the issue in an independent manner? Absolutely not.

First of all, and principally, there are two other parties to this controversy: (1) “The government,” which is being urged to regulate the industry more tightly — and what agency should be responsible for this, and what committee of Congress responsible for drafting such legislation — and the industry, in this case probably represented by ANEEL, the domestic electric gizmo lobby.

At a bare minimum, both of those parties should also have been heard from.

Secondly, the Globo voiceover on this story throws around a lot of factoids that I was simply unable to confirm from an hour’s worth of research on government, industry and academic Web sites.

Do 90% of such installations in Brazil really lack a groundwire? Says who? How do they know?
And if so, by how much does that increase the incidence of shocks requiring medical treatment?

You would think, or hope, that emergency rooms and ministries of Health might know such things. And so on.

What I did find from my very superficial research on the topic was that the principal issue with electrical showerheads in general seems to be, not safety issues, but energy consuption.

You even see The Science Guy there alluding to the energy-saving synergies that come with a certain design feature that he recommends consumers look for when shopping

Furthermore, it is interesting to see what steps ANEEL took to counter what it pretty clearly viewed as a gabbling hatchet-job on the electrical showerhead industry.

Among those steps: Creating a Wikipedia entry on the gizmo — its history, its design for safety, yada yada — to rebut in detail some of the glittering generalities thrown around here.

Because Globo simply refuses to grant you the right of reply until you have dragged them through years and years of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce-like litigation.

The industry rebuttal, of course, requires a separate fact-check of its own.

And if Globo Journalism Central had actually HEARD FROM THE OTHER SIDES OF THE ISSUE — goverment regulators and industry bodies — it might even have been in a position to provide such reality-testing. Instead of forcing me to do all that work myself.

On which more in a bit.

But mainly, I think, the “man on the street” interviews inserted a couple key points in this report are typical of a very fundamental assumption of Globo journalism.

One given voice last year by the anchor of the Jornal Nacional, William Bonner — it’s pronounced “Boner” — when he said, rebutting criticisms that Globo journalism dumbs things down intolerably, that his “average viewer is Homer Simpson.”

Boner understands exactly nothing about the wit and wisdom of The Simpsons of course — I am sort of an insufferable Comic-Book guy on the subject.

In an episode that pays homage to the film Charly, with Cliff Robertson — from the widely anthologized standard high school lit-textbook short story, “Flowers for Algernon” — we discover, for example, that Homer’s trademark idiocy is due to the fact that as child he shoved a crayon up his nose, which lodged in his brain.

Once the crayon is removed, Homer proves to be an intellectual giant.

As I often say, Globo is something of the crayon up the nose of the Brazilian public.

The sequence in this report in which a Globo reporter interviews an elderly, impoverished couple is a classic enactment of this attitude toward its viewing public.

Seu Domingo, ignorant old toothless peasant that he is, is fearful of the electric showerhead, and so continues to bath by ladling water onto his bald pate, as he says, using a household mug.

While spectators in the background are heard laughing at him.

Smugly, the report now informs us that this sort of ignorant, superstitious reacton is not necessary.

But herein lies the profoundly schizogenic character of the message transmitted here.

The report opens with a barrage of alarmist rhetoric that seems deliberately designed to terrorize the viewer into believing that their electrical showerhead CAN, or COULD, kill them.

Not just the defective model — which it does not name, or explain how it got released to the market (and how did they select and acquire these units, anyway?) — but electrical showerheads in general.

If of 7 models tested — and how many models are on the market, anyway? — 6 are adequate in safety terms but one could kill you, then electric showerheads in general COULD kill you!

Never mind that the principal thrust of the press release they are rewriting is seems to be that products with certain basic recommended features were found to be reasonably to very safe — and what set of industrial quality standards does the lab use to apply its ratings, by the way? — but that one product is incredibly badly designed and — one recalls the infamous Nader campaign that dubbed hot dogs as “miniature missiles of death” — “COULD kill you.”

(And by the way, according to the test lab, the voltage that could be produced by this faulty product is in the neighborhood of 15 volts. Or did I misread that? 150 volts?)

But the Columbia Encyclopedia — just to present the results of random google — says this about fatal doses of electricity:

Fatality may result from shocks of from 1 to 2 amperes and 500 to 1,000 volts.

With other variables involved, such as moisture and grounding and medical factors and so on.

So is the voltage shown on the meter here really a lethal dose? At what level of lethality? 100%? 50%? 25%? 10%? 10% would be bad enough, but still: What are my chances of surviving this ghastly apparatus of death, as a 45 year-old smoker in general good health otherwise?

The report does not reality-test the proposition.

[I went back to try to find the report in question on the IDEC Web site and could not find it.])

Now, transitioning from the “be very afraid” portion to the “balance” portion of the report, in which useful tips are dispense, the Globo reporter seems to mock the viewer’s fears as the exaggerated superstition of an ignorant peasant.

It is like that mildly sadistic old schoolyard prank:

— “There is a huge spider on your neck!
— Agggh! Where! Get it off!
— Ha ha! Made you look!”

Now, one of Homer Simpson’s most famous comedy shticks, of course, involves his trademark inability to learn from extremely painful experiences.

He is constantly sticking his tongue in electrical sockets or some such idiocy, receiving a cartoon shock that turns his whole body transparent, as in an X-ray machine, and screaming horribly.

He then repeats the exactly same behavior to see if it will happen again. He is a complete dolt, immune to the laws of Pavlovian conditioning to which real mammalian flesh, blood and nerves are subject.

Which an interesting caricature to bear in mind when looking at a study done on the electrical showerhead by the Brazilian Association for Promoting Awareness of Risk from Electricity, ABRACOPEL, one of those industry self-regulation and social responsibility organizations.

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Of some 86% who report that they have experienced electrical shock in their homes, 7% paradoxically report that they have not experienced an electrical shock in their home. Some 23% report shocks from household appliances, 22% from the electrical showerhead, 20% from changing lightbulbs, 13% from messing around in the fusebox, and 4% — I exaggerated in my video commentary on this point — from pulling a Homer Simpsons (carelessly sticking a metal object in an electrical outlet). About half a percent reported being struck by lightning — which seems like an awful lot, but then the weather here can be frightful. Some 11% report shocks from other sources.

I am not here either to defend or attack ANEEL or the manufacturers of these gizmos, mind you, but that study, if legitimate — and it at least includes a proper methodology statement on how the data was collected — does seem to support ANEEL’s contention that gizmos build up to proper standards are not any more dangerous than other electrical products.

And that its risks can be managed by taking precautionary steps that apply to any electrical equipment.

I need to check that out more thoroughly, but on the face of it, it seems fairly reasonable — and actually quite consistent with what our own electrician explained to us recently when we got a little anxious about whether our old electric showerhead was still safe to use, after we did some rewiring in our house.

In short, this seems to me like a textbook case of how NOT to report a risk story to the general public.

If you wanted to do a line by line analysis of the factoids and logic-chopping generalities presented here, you would have to spend days and days, because most of them are not even sourced. Nor is the man on the street who reinforces the point — “It can kill you!” — identified.

There, it strikes me, is your Homer Simpson.

If, as he testified, he has taken a number of shocks from his electric showerhead, and believes it to be extremely lethal, then WHY ON EARTH DOES HE KEEP ON USING IT? And how did he survive to tell the tale?

The whole incident reminds me not a little of that anecdote in Empires of Light: Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World.

Frantic to prove to the public that the Westinghouse AC electric method was a danger to the public, Edison hired a scientist to prove the point.

At a press conference, the independent scientist — the fact that he was working out of the Edison labs was merely a matter of professional courtesy, Edison insiste — applied AC current to some poor dogs.

Frying them but not managing to immediately dispatch the poor dumb beasts, which howled in agony.

As he ramped up the voltage for another try, and another, and another, the audience was so revolted that they called the cops and the ASPCA on the guy.

Which reminds of this point, from an essay on rhetorical appeals to pathos I read recently:

An example of a failed appeal to pathos was the attempt by someone from a pro-life group to get candidate Clinton’s attention during his first run for the presidency. Once, in a large crowd, he reached out to shake hands, and someone put a dead fetus in his hands. The attempt was to shock him into the realization that a fetus is a human being, but the result was to create a repugnance, not toward the person who had performed the abortion, but toward the person who had put the fetus in his hands. –“An introduction to pathos”

Not one to give up on ratfinking the competition to the maximundo, however, Edison evently lobbied, with success, to have the electric chair adopted as the preferred method of executions in New York state — again, with an eye to promoting the notion that AC generation was a deadly danger to the public.

A risk so profound that it could not be successfully managed.

History has not been kind to that notion.

Is there such a gabbling ratfink behind the treatment of this story?

I do not know for sure, but it was interesting to see a bunch of blogs, around the time this report aired, citing the exact same rationale in favor of solar water-heaters as a replacement for the electrical showerhead in publicly-funded popular housing.

Solar for life!

Electric for death!

A much better, and quitet legitimate, argument in support of the same point, however, seems to be the high energy consumption of the gizmo.

The industry-sponsored literature even concedes this point — a sign that sometimes the more competent among the flack corps are more intellectually honest than the hacks of the news media, down here in the antipodes.

And the promotional copy on a lot of the newest gizmos of this kind emphasize reduced energy consumption, I was noticing.

(My wife, a big fan of the latest green technology, is actually keen on a solar-powered water-heating and emergency storage battery-recharging system for our house. So we can stay on line during blackouts. Some neighbors down the street have it, and we have been chatting them up. But the tech seems prohibitively early-adopter expensive.)

It also reminds me of a Rand Corporation report on “strategic influence campaigns” I read recently.

The infowarriors — West Point is not in the habit of turning out Homer Simpson-style defense intellectuals — start right where they should, with the glaringly obvious:

Influence campaigns are highly sensitive to operational environments. Moreover, campaigns that do not take these sensitivities into account not only fail but are counterproductive.

The No. 1 “environmental sensivity,” ever and always: the need to understand just who the hell it is you are trying to communicate with.

In the initial phases of the Vietnam War, for example, the U.S. government distributed numerous pro-American pamphlets to little or no effect. Local populations ignored the pamphlets’ messages, primarily because they used inappropriate language and iconography. In contrast, during later phases of the Chieu Hoi (“open arms”) campaign, U.S. forces used defector testimonials—written and in-person—as part of their operations. The defectors understood the mind-set of the target audience (Vietcong forces), and face-to-face testimonials proved to be a more effective method of delivery than the pamphlets.

More effective, but not effective enough.

We did, after all, still lose the freaking war. The carpetbombing stick apparently spoke louder to the target audience, and pissed them off more, than the pamphlet-bombing carrot did to pacify them.

The most expressive sign of failure to observe this basic principle in recent years: That 2003 photo op with Paul Wolfowitz in which he is snapped wandering around Baghdad looking a campaign posters and crowing, “The democratic renaissance has begun!”

The poster he is looking at depicts Moqtada al-Sadr.

As it happens, I read Arabic, so I could read what it said.

What it said made me wince, then start laughing bitterly.

It became rather obvious to me at that point that we had somehow put a bunch of gabbling Moonie know-nothings in charge of the ship of state and were going to have to pay a heavy price for it. I think history is going to vindicate me on that prognostication, too. I feel really confident of that.

My point being that it often strikes me — the point is not original with me, but I want to testify to its verisimilitude — that Globo is addressing itself to a phantom, folkloric Brazilian public that has about as much to do with Brazil’s current social reality as the character of Jim in Huckleberry Finn has to do with the historical lived experience of the 19th century African slave diaspora along the Mississippi River.

(A friend of mine wrote a study once showing how Twain constructed Jim out of minstrel show stereotypes, then subverted them with moments in which Jim suddenly plays against type, producing startling moments in which we are forced to confront the hypothesis, at least, of his actual humanity.)

If I would help, I could give these people a quick seminar on Burke’s rhetorical triad and “scene-act ratio”– Who am I? Who am I talking to? What do I want to talk them into doing for me, concretely, in the here and now? —  if they wanted.

Reasonable rates.

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