Self-distraction

Lately I have noticed a disturbing behavior of mine – I have difficulties focusing on a single activity from start to finish, without interrupting myself with other tasks. This is not just a typical example of procrastination, which I have discussed to exhaustion with countless friends and acquaintances. Because, although procrastination may take the shape of interrupting (what should be) the main focus by smaller distractions, what I am talking about is something different.

For example, if I’m reading an online news article that requires my attention for longer than 3 minutes, it is only very rare that I end up working my way through the entire article without interruptions. These interruptions may be anything from clicking on links found in the article or looking up a related topic; to checking out that recipe I will need later tonight or responding to a not very urgent e-mail that I received a couple of hours ago. In other words, the distractions may or may not be related to the original activity. What happens is that I end up in a state of undesired multitasking, where I am switching between 3 or 4 unfinished tasks. Since none of the tasks receive my full and continuous concentrations, I end up spending much longer total amount on time on each one of them. Or even worse: some tasks may even be completely forgotten, only to be found by coincidence hours or days later.

A psychologist or psychiatrist (what is actually the difference?) may be tempted to diagnose this behavior with all kinds of letter combinations, but since I trust myself to be mentally very sane, I am happy with just pondering over the causes and problematics of this type of behavior – and how to avoid it. I think the source of the problem lies in the ever-increasing number of stimuli that we get exposed to every day, making it difficult to choose on what to focus. We are overwhelmed with information in which we want to engage and take part, but simply don’t have the ability to decide what is most important to us.

With important I do not necessarily refer to actions that are in fact useful, self-developing, or even necessary. Life is and should be full of time-wasting activities – I don’t believe in an efficient life. But I do think that it is important to have something to devote oneself to, something to progressively become better at. Whether that something is photography, science, cooking, or rock balancing is up to oneself to choose; but in times when our exposure to other people’s interests are literally everywhere, finding one’s vocation may (paradoxically) be difficult.

This was actually one of the reasons me and Gonçalo decided for our three challenges, now almost a year ago. It makes me sad to realize that I haven’t improved much during this time, but as long as I’m aware of this behavior, it should not be impossible to change.

Does any one remember the handstand?

The purpose and themes of this blog have drifted a lot since I began writing ten months ago. But two days ago I was violently reminded of the good old handstand challenge, when Gonçalo sent me a video of him performing an almost perfect handstand in the style we challenged each other to learn.

I admit that I haven’t been working much on my handstand since November or so, but with Gonçalo’s sudden punch in my face, I have my motivation back.

To be continued, and followed up!

More on Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA)

By popular demand (= one person), I will write a bit more about the place where I am supposed to spend the majority of my awake time here, namely Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA).

Entrance hall and coffee room for poor law students in the Faculty of Law.

Entrance hall and coffee room for poor law students in the Faculty of Law.

To be a bit more precise, my campus is the so-called Ciudad Universitaria, which is beautifully located right by the river in one of the (in my opinion) nicest areas of Capital Federal (which is a more accurate name for the city of Buenos Aires). There are also a couple of other campuses belonging to UBA, including the Faculty of Law (Faculdad de Derecho), which is housed by a very impressive building in the Recoleta neighborhood.

Like I mentioned in the previous post, despite its incredible location, Ciudad Universitaria is really a fantastic example of how to destroy something beautiful. The university buildings (knows as Pabellon 1, 2, and 3) are among the ugliest university buildings I have ever seen – this said by a student who started his university career in the not very charming Arrhenius Laboratory at Stockholm University.

Rubik's cube times 2.

Rubik’s cube times 2.

Don't be fooled by the light, this building is best viewed in pitch-black darkness.

Don’t be fooled by the light, this building is best viewed in pitch-black darkness.

Colorful banners, ranging in political views all the way from left to left.

Colorful banners, ranging in political views all the way from left to left.

Nevertheless, the placement of the campus has a pretty interesting history. As told by my Argentinian study mates (Bullshit et al.?), Ciudad Universitaria was originally planned and placed as an isolated part of the city by the military dictatorship, to keep the students under control. Students were considered a threat to the government in power. Indeed, the universities were and still are very politicized, which becomes incredibly obvious from all the banners and flags hanging from the balconies inside the university buildings – usually with left or far left messages.

Graduating master students are tested for potential revolutionary behavior before their release from isolation.

Graduating master students are examined for potential revolutionary behavior before their release from isolation.

Although students are not anymore seen as a threat to the government, the campus is still rather isolated, and relatively difficult to access – especially by foot or bicycle. The highway separating the campus from the rest of the city can only be crossed by foot via one single, narrow bridge. The only other option is to make a 5-10 km detour along the riverside, which sounds nice for the visitor, but is not very convenient for the every day bike commuter. It also happens to be so that some less well-meaning people have recognized this limitation, and use this narrow bridge as a good opportunity to rob commuters and passers-by. Or as my lab mate put it: “I was stopped on my bicycle by a guy with a gun, and we agreed that it would be best if I offered him my wallet”.

The horrible view students have to put up with since the beginning of their isolation from the polluted city. Reminds me of the British sending their most feared criminals to Australia – another of those horrible places on our planet.

The horrible view students have to put up with since the beginning of their isolation from the polluted city. Reminds me of the British sending their most feared criminals to Australia – another of those horrible places on our planet.

The beauty and the beast

The beauty and the beast

One of the most beautiful locations in Buenos Aires is dedicated to the ugliest university buildings I have ever seen. But since I work inside the building, I generally see only the beautiful view of the river.

Thanks to my big bro for stitching together this panorama.

A BsAs recap

Time for a small photo session from Buenos Aires. Don’t expect anything artistic – my photography skills don’t even stretch past managing a compact camera. Nevertheless, BsAs is a quite photo friendly city for people who know photography. You can for example check out my former flatmate Camilo’s Flickr page here.

Nature meets city in BsAs.

Nature meets city in BsAs.

One of my first observations after my arrival in BsAs was that traffic and pollution are unescapable parts of life here. Coming from a city that in comparison to BsAs may be considered a village, where nature is never far away, this was indeed something that bugged me. However, I have slowly started to discover oases around the city that have challenged this. Most notably perhaps, is the big urban park called Bosques de Palermo that covers around 400 hectares in the Palermo neighborhood. A beautiful area with lakes, rose gardens, running tracks, and well maintained forests, kept purely for recreation. The only similar park I can think of is Central Park in New York City, or Kings Park in Perth.

Although it may seem so from my blogging, I am not in BsAs only for enjoyment. Or let’s phrase that differently: I am not here solely to discover parks and relax. Because, so far I do in fact enjoy my time in the lab – a lot! The project is interesting, I am allowed to work independently when I want, but people are always there for me if I need help. Those who know about my experience with The Witch at IST, will understand what I mean when I say that the atmosphere in this lab does not for a second compare with that at Técnico.

Whiskey helps improve the atmosphere in the lab.

Whiskey also helps improve the atmosphere in the lab.

Friday afternoon lab bonding: cockroach hunt in the computer mouse.

Friday afternoon lab bonding: hunting for cockroaches in the computer mouse.

But life is of course not only “gold and green forests” (Swedish saying). For example, not speaking (much) Spanish often makes me feel quite left out – during lunch breaks at university, as well as when I hang out with my Colombian friends. On the other hand, this is a choice I have made myself. I could just as well engage in more CouchSurfing events, or join gatherings for international students – or for that matter have stayed in Sweden where I wouldn’t have any language barriers to break. But people who know me, know that this is not the way I roll. And slowly but surely improving my Spanish helps me stay motivated. In fact, I know far more Spanish after one month, than I knew Portuguese after five months.

Malaka

Is it a coincidence that the colors chosen for this Greek-sounding shop are blue and white? I should add that I didn’t want to find out what goes on in there…

Brave New World

Tonight I finished reading the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Originally published in 1932, it was (back then) the author’s vision of a future society, some hundred years later.

I cannot really say that I enjoyed it, for a couple of reasons. One being that I was rather unconcentrated for most of the book. Secondly, the language was somewhat archaic, making it difficult to read. But – ironically enough – the main reason was that many of the ideas of the author do not seem very strange to us today. A bit exaggerated maybe, but not far fetched. In other words: the author did a very good prediction job!

Nevertheless, there were two chapters towards the end (Ch. 16 & 17) which alone made the book worth reading. Here, a young man from the “uncivilized” world meets the president of the “civilized” world. This leads to a very interesting, and still today very current, discussion. Here is one interesting excerpt:

“The optimum population,” said Mustapha Mond, “is modelled on the iceberg – eight-ninths below the water line, one-ninth above.”

“And they’re happy below the water line?”

“Happier than above it. Happier than your friend here, for example.” He pointed.

“In spite of that awful work?”

“Awful? They don’t find it so. On the contrary, they like it. It’s light, it’s childishly simple. No strain on the mind or the muscles. Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for? True,” he added, “they might ask for shorter hours. And of course we could give them shorter hours. Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them.

(The soma mentioned in the last paragraph is a happiness drug distributed to the citizens of the civilized world, as a means of self-control. The rest of chapter 16 can be read online here, as well as the rest of the book.)

This discussion relates very well to a documentary series I have been watching lately, called The Century of the Self (which can be watched for free via Vimeo here). Incredibly disturbing, but remarkably interesting. I will most likely get back to this again, once I have watched the last two episodes.

Genuine openness and friendlyness

After a relatively slow start here in BsAs in terms of doing things and meeting people, I am slowly beginning to expand my social network. So far mainly with Colombians, but since I started working in the lab I have also met many Argentinians. And I can only say that it has been a long time since I’ve been in a country where so many people are so genuinely friendly as here.

Unless there is a clear language barrier, there seems to be no such thing as a conversation barrier. People happily greet, curiously ask, openly talk, and laugh – and conversations never feel forced. Most people are also very inviting and offer their help for whatever they may think of.

Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time in the Mediterranean countries in Europe to make a comparison, but so far Latin Americans are far more open than any country I’ve visited in Europe. Funny enough, I was told the other day by a Colombian friend that the Argentinians – although very nice – are not quite as welcoming as the Colombians. I can only imagine how overwhelmed I would be in Colombia!

But I should add that being European surely helps, as it is relatively exotic for them. And the people here cannot for their life understand why a European would want to come to South America for a master’s thesis in biology…! Personally, I do not regret it for a second.

How many kisses?

A small but very common confusion that arises when visiting new countries and cultures is how to greet people, and how this changes depending on how well you know this person.

Being brought up in Sweden, I come from one of the extremes. We shake hands with new people, regardless of the gender, and thereafter it’s depending on how often we see each other. If it is daily, we usually do nothing more than just say hello. If it’s more seldom, handshakes dominate between guys (with an occasional hug if we are really good friends); whereas intergender and girl meetings usually mean hugging. Most importantly: we don’t cheek kiss! This last fact leads to very awkward situations (for both parts) when greeting people from cheek kissing cultures. But mostly, it gets very uncomfortable for a Swede; kissing is simply too intimate.

Having lived abroad for some years now, I’m finally getting used to the kissing, and it comes (almost) naturally. Then comes the next confusion: how many times do we kiss? And which side to start? The French have solved at least the first problem by making a nationwide cheek kissing map. Apparently the numbers range from one to four. Confusing enough. Portugal, Switzerland, Italy, and Cyprus seem at least to be homogeneous in their kissing.

So far, however, I have only very rarely seen men cheek kissing – until Argentina! Here it is just as common among guys, as it is among/with girls. And when I say common, I mean daily. Here, kissing is an every day procedure. Twice. When they meet, as well as when they part. And if there are fifteen people in the room, there is no cheating allowed. You make the entire round of kissing.

Ironically enough, this has been one of the easiest places for me to adapt to, kissing wise. Since it is a must, without exceptions, there is simply no doubt. We kiss.

As long as the person is an Argentinian, of course.

The Prophet

A good friend of mine (we can call him animal) recently set up a new blog which I would like to advertise. Although he does not reveal his true identity, I can hint that he is Portuguese and is not known as Gonçalo – at least not among his friends. Another good clue is that he rates life events as gains and losses in experience points.
He recently also turned out to be an exceptionally skilled prophet. Perhaps his large devotion to Machine Learning has paid off?
Anyway, his blog can be found here.

Settling in

After a three weeks long apartment hunt I have finally managed to find a place to stay, at least for the next couple of months. I didn’t have to move very far though, which means I can easily keep in touch with mis amigos y amigas colombianas from my former flat.

Finding an apartment was much more challenging than I first expected, at least with my needs and wishes. If one fancies living with and getting ripped off by a 60-year-old grandma, the housing market is like a smorgasbord¹. But finding something that combines a good price, location, and atmosphere is far from easy; and the few places that do exist go like hot cakes.

But now the apartment stress is gone for a while, and I live with an Argentina who so far seems buena onda. But I will certainly miss my former apartment and flatmates, and I will be forever grateful to Camilo for giving me such a good start in BsAs.

¹ Originally smörgåsbord, one two Swedish words that have made it into the English dictionary. The second one being ombudsman.