On Simone Biles, and being OK with being a loser

There’s been a lot of talking about Simone Biles withdrawing from several events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (maybe all, the events are under way as I write).

And of course, a lot of ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY chit chat on social media. Well, here’s a couple of ABSOLUTELY UNNECESSARY POINTS from me too.

Point one: a message for all of those commenting on how right she is, that having everybody talking about you is extremely stressful, and that all of that attention can lead anyone to dark places, et cetera…I mean, you do realise the irony yeah? ‘People need stop talking about her’, says online white knight talking about her. Genius.

Secondly: the message that accepting your weakness is the sign of being a winner is intrinsically wrong. If you withdraw you do not win; if you do not win you are not a winner; if you are not a winner, you are a loser. I mean, it’s not that hard.

Rather, the point ought to be: it’s OK to lose. Back to my point about the lesson I learnt from Roberto Baggio. It’s OK to not be on top of the mountain: if you are second, you are second, and it’s fine: do not take that silver medal off your neck in disgust (as I’m seeing in football quite too often). It’s a great achievement indeed! But at the same time, do not think that you are a winner: you lost, it’s fine, you can accept it, and try harder, if you want, next time. If you don’t want to, it’s fine as well.

There’s so much stigma around not being the number one, it’s sickening. Leave the poor girl alone, she didn’t feel like competing, there’s someone else who’ll be the winner here, it’s fine. Just leave her alone. What I hope for her is, she’ll manage to be OK with being a loser.

On Roberto Baggio and accepting failure.

Roberto Baggio was not the greatest footballer of all times. Let me say it straight away: many nostalgic Italians, very used to magnificent defenders and goalies, but mediocre forwards, consider him in the top 10 ever at least – they are just wrong. I understand them, but cannot objectively agree. However, this is only partially important in this context. It is only because I do not fall in the category of those compatriots of mine for whom Baggio was a saint, and the lesson he taught me has little to do with football.

Nevertheless, he was very good – for a couple of years surely among the top. He single handedly dragged a quite boring Italy to a boring final of a boring World Cup in 1994. I remember risking being chased by a few angry relatives of mine because 12 YO me was supporting Brasil – I was a sucker for their game, and patriotism is very alien to me, what can I tell you.

Netflix Italia know that Italians will always fall for their football heroes, or maybe we simply don’t have good film makers anymore, so they produced Il Divin Codino, a film on Baggio’s career. The film will come out in a couple of weeks, and will probably not deserve any awards. But as I was watching the trailer yesterday, a thought struck me: in spite of not having a loving, admiring connection to Baggio, and being quite sure that the film will be poor, my perceived experience is, and unconsciously always has been, enriched by his story. With a lesson that I cherish more than most, and quite literally changed my life at a certain point:

It's OK to fail.

Roberto Baggio was young, handsome, rich, and controversial. Controversial because he was always too smart for football interviews; controversial because in spite of being a superstar, he now lives in the countryside and very rarely appears on TV; he was controversially a Buddhist in a very Catholic nation; he chose to move to Juventus from Fiorentina, causing riots.

The whole nation really saw him as a God back then. Italy does not consider football as a mere fitness and sportsmanship exercise: we are closer to Brazil than to England in this sense. People pray to their saints if their team wins, cause riots when their footballers join other teams, and quite often physically clash with rival fans. In a poor country, football is seen as a relief, rather than an exercise (and this is known and used by many a politician, panem et circenses right?). When Italy did win the World Cup in 2006, it was the best of their life for many people. So imagine the status that carrying the national team to a final would give you. You own the country. Were it not for the constitution, people would vote you for king.

So a mediocre team of a peripheral country makes the final, in conditions of incredible heat and not-so-much-interest by the American locals. Facing Brazil’s Bebeto and Romario, Cláudio Taffarel, Dunga: a very strong side, though admittedly not the best Brazil ever. Italian manager Sacchi is not loved by the fans, the team’s play was always quite lacking. But Baggio sparks all of the few lights that led to an unexpected final.

The match itself is VERY boring. The interesting part is boring itself, by design: penalties. A moment embedded in all of our minds, ask any Italian.

A fallen God. Roberto misses his chance for eternal glory as a footballer. He also misses the penalty by quite a bit – a really ugly one indeed. He seems to want to overdo it, by smashing it in the top corner. Almost like wanting to send a desperate message of hope to the team, but missing. What makes this story interesting though, is that he does achieve, somehow, eternal glory as a person, a human representation of all of us. People never ceased to love him. He was ever humble, before and after the fall. He is just a person, who did not let his immense talent take over him. A person with a simple side and a rebel side, with talents and flaws. Like anyone.

After the World Cup, Baggio kept playing, maybe his best years, in smaller teams. He played amazingly in Brescia, and to this day his team mates are very frank in saying how they could not believe they were playing with that icon. They also could not believe the level of game they were witnessing day in, day out. Pep Guardiola, another legend, played with him for 1 year or 2. I want you to watch at a couple of minutes of this video: Guardiola introduces Baggio to Lionel Messi. To contextualise: Guardiola is (probably) the best football manager of all times; and Messi is (probably) the best footballer of all times. Now, see how Guardiola speaks of Baggio. Like a teenager with his poster on the side of the bed. So much so, that both Messi and Baggio look a bit embarrassed.

Thinking about it, Baggio missed penalty taught me that even the best can fail. It's OK to fail, to stay human. Indeed, it's a requirement.

Baresi, another legendary but less flashy football giant, also missed his penalty that day: he’d miraculously recovered from a severe injury only to make the final, his appointment with history: the images of him unapologetically in tears after the loss are, again, embedded in our nation’s collective mind.

I don’t like the idea of having idols at all, and neither Baggio or Baresi are. But I do think that there’s a lesson to learn from their tears after the missed penalties. Even the best will make mistakes, and you, too, are allowed yours. It’s OK, the world will go on, and you will be alright. You are a victim of the general idea that you must race, you must succeed, no matter the consequences. You might lose happiness, but at least you won the race, is what society lead us to believe. You must build a wall of money and success around you, is the zeitgeist.

In the grand scheme of things, a penalty kick that would have created happiness for 60 million people can still go wrong: and you know what, it’s alright. And if that is OK, you can afford to not make your life a first-place-or-death race, don’t you think? You can be a hero, or not: you can be whatever you want to be, and you are still special.

-isms, part 1: the ‘whoever your favourite human being is’ paradox

There’s been some (but not enough) talking in Italy, in the last week, because not one, not two, but three different shows on national television (Rai) were based on the trope ‘sexual assault that was faked by the victim’. Many associations complained, but the conversation never really broke through to the really ‘decisional’ areas of politics (say, the parliament, or any of the major parties). But it’s always the woman’s fault isn’t it. She was wearing a tight skirt, is the point. She was drunk, is relevant.

One of the reasons why I left the country in the first place is the somewhat backward culture when it comes to inclusion: diversity is still not seen as a resource. Of course, I reckon that the cultural and historical factors change immensely between English-speaking countries, and Italy. I mean, we did try colonialism in the last century, but slavery was a major factor only millennia ago (this might be superficial, I reckon, if we consider the internal slavery systems present in Capitalism, which rely on enslaving based on class, rather than other -isms. However, this is not a topic I’d wish to explore now). This could probably be a reason why the convo re: skin colour is not really felt in Italy: we are indeed prone to evaluate one’s worth from the colour of their skin, but that’s not even the real problem-the real problem is that we barely talk about it. Blackface is not really a thing, in Italy-we don’t see the problem with it. I did not myself. It’s much more heartfelt here, for historical reasons. Don’t get me wrong, racism indeed exists in the UK, but it’s fiercely contrasted by the media, for instance. It’s part of the conversation. People of all walks of life supposedly are allowed any jobs. It’s not the same in my hometown.

The same goes for sexism: I can see sexism here, and I could see it back in Italy too. The difference is, over there it’s not even part of the conversation. The numbers are incredible, like everywhere else for that matter: 21% of women have been harrassed in some form *. Like, I’ve had 5 girlfriends in my lifetime, at least one of them has been harrassed sooner of later: quite cringy uh.

So I thought I’d start writing something about the topic. As ever, this is more to track moments in time, for myself, than for an actual audience.

My starting point about all -isms is what I call the Leonardo da Vinci Paradox (or the ‘[insert your favourite incredible human being here] paradox’, whatever): Leonardo lived during the Renaissance, let’s say around 1,500. In that period, the access to advanced studies, a meal to go back home to so that you didn’t have to gather or hunt it yourself, freedom, rights, contacts, and what we now consider basic privileges, were only granted if you were:

  • Man
  • Cristian
  • European
  • White
  • Adult
  • Cis
  • Hetero
  • Landowner/rich
  • I might be forgetting points but you get the gist

This would ridiculously diminish the possibility of someone finding themselves in the condition to skill up so much that they’d paint the Ultima cena, or anticipate flying objects by centuries, or advance anatomical knowledge, etc. Now let’s assume that there are as many women as there are men, in the world (it’s actually more than that). Let’s say 50/50%. Were women allowed the same life as men, we’d have had not one but TWO Leonardo’s; TWO Einstein’s; TWO Newton’s; TWO Laplace’s. Can you imagine where we humans would be in that scenario?

And what if we also included non-white people? LGBTQ+? What if we did not value one religion as a necessity to study at our schools (and this is still the case in many countries, including Italy, including the kindergartens (!!))?

So this is to say: the idea that women having more rights will hurt men, is laughable: not only will it not hurt men, but it’ll be actually beneficial. Working towards respecting other people no matter what, is more important than we realise.

Imagine the wonderful things we could do, if we could all study, and travel, and work, and do with our bodies as we please.

BTW, if you know the Italian language, or are learning it, Il Post is THE ONE AND ONLY online resource you should read: many mainstream newspapers are bog roll at best

Soundtrack:

Ten years ago, I created a fake Facebook profile: a story of algorithms and bubbles

Image by (the amazing) Mark Fishbourne @ Marketoonist

Leaving Facebook made me happy.

I am not the kind of person to try and proselytise others, but I have to confirm what many say, that leaving public social media – as opposed to private social media e.g. Whatsapp or Telegram – made me happier, gave me a lot of time to do more useful stuff, and made me generally less angry, thus I cannot but recommend it.

But this is not a story on how I’m better than you because I don’t have Facebook. This is a story about what I call bubble bias, and better scholars than me call Filter bubble.

Let’s start from the beginning: who we are is heavily determined by the situation we grew in. If I was born a couple hundred miles more to the South, I’d not be Italian; I’d not be European; I’d speak another language; my family’d not be Catholic. My whole system of beliefs would be different: religion, politics, what I love in people surrounding me, what I despise of people I don’t like…everything.

Besides proving the deeply loaded argument that all knowledge might be inherently biased, at a lower level one can deduct it as the cause of some issues when it comes to the web, which is our field of interest here. All that we see around us, both off- and online, is served to us based on things that we already like. You know when they say ‘get out of your confort zone’? This is why. If you don’t, you’ll always listen, talk to, and be surrounded by voices that agree with you: this will lead you to the false belief that everyone agrees with you, thus you must be right.

Confirmation bias, and algorithms

We are bombarded by information. Every second, the stream of it to which we have access is absurdly big: that’s also why our attention span is decreasing with time, as we don’t have the time to process each datum that our senses throw at our brain. Among all of this information, we are selective: we must be.

But there’s another level of selection that most people (the general public) is generally not aware of: the means we use to feed our brains (Google, Facebook, Twitter, most modern online newspapers, etc.) operate an active selection of what info should reach us. Their algorithms work like this: Enrico liked/clicked on/dwelled on X, thus I will provide him with as many things I can find that are similar to X. The better the algorithm (and their quality is nowadays based on how good their AI is), the better the results that will be tossed at us. The better the results, the more money they make, based on their monetisation model.

So algorithms decide what we see, and we decide what the algorithm should show us; in a recursive pattern, we will see the same info, the same sources, more of the connections that share their views with us, and so on. This creates a bubble around us. We are biased, everyone around us seemingly agreeing with what we already believe.

Needless to say, this is a big problem with modern society. I blame it on the lack of political intervention on the web, which’s been left largely lawless for thirty years now. It’s not up to the citizen, nor to private companies, to limit functions or impose regulations. So, back to my fake Facebook account.

It’s over 10 years old, I set it up in the context of buying links for SEO purposes. So my avatar has had a 10 years long life. During this period, purely for fun, I gave to…him? it? mmm…I got in touch with people I’d never get in touch with, followed a football team that I don’t support, liked movies and series I know nothing about, and so on. I needed my person to look real, have friends and interests. In order to do so, I thought it’d be easier to get into the populist world. I follow populist politicians and local authorities of the place where my guy ‘lives’; I ‘go to’ events at the most popular clubs in the area, follow DJs and other relevant stuff. I am as much a bland sheep as I can think of. So basically my guy is a superficial jerk.

And I noticed something: after ten years following Salvini, all of your feed will be univocal; FB will propose people in the ‘people you might know’ section, who are all like that. Only, for them it’s real. They invite him to groups and pages, always of the same kind. They comment each other, making a lot of noise with dozens of comments per day. They fund civil movements of hatred, racism, and populism. They befriend accounts of clearly fake horny pornstars who want to have sex with them. They comment on their pics, drooling. It’s just a few people, I don’t spend too much time on my guy to expand his network, but they are clearly very connected with each other. They confirm each other’s ideas as a dog chasing its tail.

It’s mesmerising: I have this secret perversion when I’m bored, to log my avatar and see the madness that surrounds him. At first, I couldn’t believe what people would post: if it was my own old FB account, I’d never be reached by that! People who truly believe that the pandemic is caused by Obama; people who propose that Italy should split in 6 macroregions, joined in a confederation; flatearthers (remember the one final argument against the Flat Earth Theory: if the Earth was flat, cats would’ve pushed everything off it already. Checkmate!). I’d have no exposure at all, if it wasn’t for my avatar.

My perversion is being able to escape my bubble: not only does it makes me feel good about myself (yeah I need confirmation, sue me), on the other it’s interesting to see things that, otherwise, I’d never see.

Soundtrack:

You read most of your data wrong

Most of your data reading is wrong, and there’s little you can do about it.

It is extremely common to find evidence to corroborate our pre-existing view of the world: it’s a natural part of how your brain works, called Confirmation Bias.

Ergo when you happen to find data that confirm your suppositions, you should question it double as much.

In spite of being aware of this, and having spent some time studying the issue, I am fully aware that I do this all the time: as said, there’s not a lot that we can do about it, so I guess that being aware is the best (only) way to approach it.

You know those motivational shitposts on Social media, one of the things people like the most (and that’ll get you a lot of interactions). Like ‘shoot for the moon and you’ll succeed’ or ‘successful entrepreneurs wake up at 5 am!’, implying that if you wake up at 5, then you’ll be in their number.

No you won’t.

It’s MAYBE just going to increase your percentage of possibility of succeeding, and by a very very small, if not risible, margin. I can bet good money that the ratio of rich people who do get up at 5 is very similar to the ratio of non-rich people who get up at 5. Exactly like the ratios of rich and non-rich people who do not get up at 5. The argument:

‘Elon Musk gets up at 5; Elon Musk is a billionaire; therefore, waking up at 5 makes one a billionaire’

is absolutely fallacious: indeed, Elon Musk is also a South African, and I know quite a few South Africans who are not billionaires, as far as I know.

There are going to be other factors with a much stronger influence, for instance, let’s guess, aehm, being BORN RICH. Now that’s a game changer. Only, you don’t want to believe it: it’s much more satisfactory to think that becoming a billionaire is as easy as getting up at 5.

But if I want you to like/share/subscribe, I’ve got to give you something don’t I? And I cannot just tell you ‘be rich’. And make no mistake, that kind of post is but clickbaiting, nothing more.

I do not mean to say not to get up at 5: in fact, I do. But I do that and several other little things to feel happy about myself, and proud of what I do, which is my vision of success. If it’ll make me rich? I don’t think so.

Soundtrack: