“La semana más fria del año”

It is cold here in Buenos Aires for the moment. So cold that the news are headlined with titles like “The coldest week of the year”.

Winter cold

And yes, those temperatures are in degrees Celsius, not Fahrenheit.

I know everyone is now expecting me to compare with the winters in Sweden. But since I already did that when I spent the winter in Portugal, I’ll make the comparison to Lisbon instead.

The weather is actually very similar to that of Lisbon, with the difference that summer temperatures can sometimes reach up to 50°C1, which I don’t think happens in Lx (correct me if I’m wrong). But one thing that I have here which I definitely can’t say about Lisbon, is a heated apartment. While my room in Lisbon was often colder than outdoors, and at times made studying at home impossible, the situation here is much better… at least as long as my flatmates don’t leave the balcony door and kitchen windows wide open.

My main problem here is instead that my current room doesn’t have any windows. Studying in my room therefore means entire days without any daylight. On sunny days (which are still in majority here) this can be almost as discouraging as an ice-cold room. At least, the final result is the same: me ending up at some sunlit café nearby:

Café photo

1. After having looked this up in Wikipedia, I realize that this is not exactly true. The highest temperature ever recorded in Buenos Aires is 43.3°C, in 1957. Instead, the rumors of temperatures up to 50°C are probably relating to the apparent temperature, or heat index. Due to the high humidity, temperatures around 30-35°C can feel like 45-50°C. However, this should be the case in Lisbon as well, since its location near the Atlantic ocean makes it a very humid city. But then again — in Lisbon one can at least cool down at the beach from time to time. Here in Buenos Aires one can only dream of swimming in the river…

Follow my thesis writing on board

Whereas my thesis submission deadline is slowly but steadily approaching, my writing progression has so far been stably and surely stagnant. But this has to change pronto, or else I can say “bye, bye” to my plans of traveling around Argentina in September.

The most difficult part is to get started. Another struggle is to already early in the writing process get a good overview of exactly what it actually is I want to write. If not, chances are that I will spend a lot of time writing some sections, only to realize later that I will have to rewrite (or even delete) them, since they won’t fit with the “final product”.

To avoid this from happening, I’m going to try using an online whiteboard to create a mind map over my project, to which I can pin both text, comments, and images. However, instead of a classical mind map with a fixed center, I’ve decided for a slightly different structure, where I’m branching ideas and text from a content timeline.

I’m not sure that this approach will be successful, but nevertheless my progress can be following on my whiteboard by clicking here.

Forbidden birds

Among other things, this blog also serves as a way for me to document my travel experiences and things I come across. Therefore, once in a while I post things that is of no interest to anyone but me. This is probably one such example.

A couple of weeks ago I read a short but touching story in Spanish, hanging on the wall in a small parilla near my house in Palermo. Since I knew I would otherwise completely forget about it, I took a photo of it to get reminded of it some other day. That other day turned out to be today.

The story is called “Pájaros prohibidos” (Forbidden birds) and was written by Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano during the early years of military dictatorship in Uruguay, which lasted between 1973–1985.

I apologize to my non-Spanish speaking readers; Google Translate may be your friend.

Pájaros prohibidos

Eduardo Galeano

Los presos políticos uruguayos no pueden hablar sin permiso, silbar, sonreír, cantar, caminar rápido ni saludar a otro preso. Tampoco pueden dibujar ni recibir dibujos de mujeres embarazas, parejas, mariposas, estrellas ni pájaros.

Didaskó Pérez, maestro de escuela, torturado y preso por tener ideas ideológicas, recibe un domingo la visita de su hija Milay, de cinco años. La hija le trae un dibujo de pájaros. Los censores se lo rompen en la entrada a la cárcel.

El domingo siguiente, Milay le trae un dibujo de árboles. Los árboles no están prohibidos, y el domingo pasa. Didaskó le elogia la obra y le pregunta por los circulitos de colores que aparecen en la copa de los árboles, muchos pequeños círculos entre las ramas:

—¿Son naranjas? ¿qué frutas son?

La niña lo hace callar:

—Ssssshhhh.

Y en secreto le explica:

—Bobo, ¿no ves que son ojos? Los ojos de los pájaros que te traje a escondidas.

Learning from other people’s mistakes

One comical thing about studying a new language while also interacting with native speakers in a language in which they are not fluent, is that you soon start noticing patterns in the mistakes they make. For instance, native German speakers will often say “we meet us at five” instead of simply “we meet at five“. And you might think a Swede asking you “How much is the clock?” is interested in buying your watch, but he’s most likely only trying to ask you what time it is — the Swedish way.

The funny thing is that I’ve come to realize that one can actually take advantage of these mistakes when learning otherwise difficult and “illogical” expressions in a new language.

Take for example the English sentence “Do you want me to buy you a ticket?“. Literally (but incorrectly) translated into Spanish, I would write “¿Me quieres comprarte una entrada?“. However, this does not make much sense to a Spanish speaker — in fact, the closest meaning would be rather the opposite.

Instead, the correct translation is “¿Quieres que (yo) te compre una entrada?“. This is a sentence structure I couldn’t really get my mind around to say naturally, as it is so different from the English equivalent.

But as I was studying Spanish on the bus on my way home from university this evening, it struck me that I’ve heard this sentence structure before — even in English!

The literal translation of the correct Spanish sentence above is: “You want that I buy you a ticket?“. As grammatically incorrect as this is in English, this is how a native Spanish speaker would naturally express it.

Since I’ve heard this (incorrect) sentence form so many times when speaking English to native Spanish speakers, it barely sounds wrong to me anymore. But more importantly, by thinking of how a Spanish speaker would say it in English, I can easily figure out the correct way of saying it in Spanish.

We are all a bunch of psychopaths

Targeting and portraying the pharmaceutical drug industry as evil, manipulative, scrupleless, profit-driven monsters is one of the easiest ways to get people (often with absolutely no knowledge in, biology, medicine, or pharmacology) to engage in the most bizarre conspiracy theories1 — while the same people would not hesitate for a second taking a drug they have been prescribed by a medical doctor.

I am completely against taking drugs of any sort, unless it’s absolutely necessary. As far as I can remember, last time I used any type of medical drug was around 15 years ago, when I was prescribed some sort of antihistamines to treat an allergic reaction — ironically enough caused by another drug, namely Aspirin.

However, this aversion against medicine is not of conspiratorial origin, nor do I see the pharma industry as a great evil. The market is indeed profit driven, but rather than thinking that this is a drive without morals, I see it as an inevitable side-effect developing in businesses with extremely tough competition, enormous developing costs, and strict regulations.

Nevertheless, the strive for profit is by no means unproblematic, and one example of this is the industry surrounding psychoactive drugs and how it has impacted treating and (perhaps more importantly) defining mental illnesses.

Starting from an anecdotic and personal perspective, it seems to me as if giving mental diagnoses on any person who differs only slightly from the “norm” has become more and more common. This occurred to me a lot during the last years of my mother working with children daycare. Suddenly, a large number of children were getting diagnosed with God-knows-what Capital Letter Combination to explain their overly intense (or unusually calm) behavior. And along with these diagnoses, usually came prescriptions or at least advise to start medicating the children — often with the argument that such medication would help the children concentrate, learn, and function better in groups.

In other words, parents were encouraged to treat their 4-8-year-olds with psychoactive drugs that will significantly change fundamental biological processes in the brain — namely how signal molecules in the brain (neurotransmitters) are released and sensed. This in an organ (the brain) so complex that science is still not even close to understanding it.

Meanwhile, most countries in the world limit the availability of otherwise legal drugs (e.g. alcohol) to minors, with the argumentation that consumption by underaged may severely affect brain development.

In a very interesting article reviewing three different books on psychotherapy, phychoactive drugs and the emergence of mental illnesses is discussed in depth. Is it really so that people are constantly getting more depressed? Are mental problems really a growing problem? Or is it the definition of mental problems that is changing? And if so, does pressure from the pharmaceutical industry have anything to do with this development?

A very interesting read, which I can highly recommend to anyone interested in psychotherapy:
http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/jun/23/epidemic-mental-illness-why/

1. Other privileged targets are banks. And just as well, the same people turn to banks for keeping their savings and getting their bank loans.

Paranoid, worried, cautious, or just plain ignorant?

While the vast majority of Argentinians only have one thing on their mind for the moment, behind the scenes the country is struggling against time to prevent another debt default by the end of this month.

Argentina has gone through many economical crises, including the default in 2001. Without knowing much about neither national economy, nor what it means to go through a severe crisis or a default, I have to admit that I am a tad bit worried about how a default might affect me.1

I might be ignorant, I might be paranoid, or I might be worrying for nothing, but having heard about the frozen bank accounts, street riots, and sky-high inflation surrounding last time’s default, I am a bit cautious with how I’m spending my money right now.

When I asked my Argentine co-workers about their opinion yesterday, they made me feel a bit stupid about worrying over these matters. It’s as if they are so used to the instability of their economy and politics, so that a debt default is nothing worse than bad weather on your summer holidays — it’s not necessarily something you wish for, but you’ll just have to deal with it.

I will, however, hold on to my Euros as tightly as I can, as they would pay my ticket home in a worst-case scenario.

Call me paranoid.

Edit: International Business Times has a good article on the matter.

1. Of course, I also worry for the Argentinians and my friends down here, but since there isn’t much I can do to help them, I can only make sure that I save my own skin first.

Argentina FIFA World Cup champions 2014!

Following yesterday’s World Cup victory against the Netherlands after penalties, the Argentinians took to the streets to celebrate as World Cup Champions 2014! Crowded streets and squares with people singing, dancing, jumping, cars honking, and everyone celebrating the World Cup victory for several hours!

Now we’re with excitement waiting for the the real final this upcoming Sunday, when Argentina take on zie Germanz.

Can’t imagine what the city will sound and look like if Argentina wins that.

Good politicians

I’m not much of a blog follower, but one blog that I’m actually following on a daily or even hourly basis is Cornucopia by Swedish blogger Lars Wilderäng. He discusses a broad spectrum of topics, but mainly writes about political, social, economical, and environmental issues — often with a both critical, provoking, and controversial tone. Although I do not always agree with his opinions, he has an impressive ability to argue around subjects that are seemingly far from his professional background, usually with arguments well backed up by references and statistics.

Yesterday he wrote a general post (in Swedish) about politics, politicians, and power, and I would like to quote him on something that emphasizes my dislike for politics, and especially for politicians (freely translated from Swedish):

“Unfortunately this is the dilemma of Liberalism — a person who dislikes suppression of other people won’t pursue a career in politics, which is based upon suppression and compulsion. It doesn’t matter that politicians picture themselves as good people — it is suppression to dictate through taxes and laws how other people should live their lives. It is always easier to fawn over people to gain votes, by promising to suppress any given group of people in the society by compulsion.

We can only dream of real virtuous politicians, who every morning ask themselves — how can I increase people’s freedom further today — what laws can I abolish, what taxes can be revoked, what regulations can be torn, what authorities can be closed?”

Personally, I don’t like politicians. I do find politics interesting overall, but since most politically active and interested people I’ve met are nutcases overly convinced by their political ideology, I have a strong dislike for politicians. Perhaps it’s due/thanks to my science background, but I am very careful with expressing my opinions as facts, and always keep in mind that there are two sides to every coin (and six to every die1). This is especially true when I’m arguing around matters that I don’t have any educational training in. The problem is that among our (i.e. Sweden’s) politicians, relatively few have actually even completed a university degree. To then see a populistic, overpaid, and ideologically brainwashed politician speak with conviction about why his politics2 is best for the country’s future makes me want to throw up.

On top of that, having lived in countries where corruption among politicians is widespread3 has devalued my faith in politicians even more. And speaking to the Argentinians, they have since long given up hope. It becomes a Catch 22: no-one cares, since they know nothing will change. Nothing will change, since no-one cares.

1. Since I know this word can lead to confusions: die is the singular form of dice.

2. Or rather, why the opposition’s politics is complete rubbish. Because politics in Sweden is more focused on pie throwing than to argue for their own ideas… presumably because it’s easier to convince voters that an opponent is wrong, than that oneself is right.

3. Here I obviously refer mostly to Portugal and Argentina. However, I don’t necessarily think that the politicians here are more prone to corruption than in Sweden or Switzerland. I just think that the transparency of our social systems make political corruption more difficult. Corruption is still there, but it just takes different shapes — or waits for the opportunity to be unleashed.

To make a mountain out of a molehill

Att göra en höna av en fjäder

How many hours of prime time public radio broadcasting can be dedicated to discussing a football game? If you are in Argentina — countless hours it seems.

Living in Argentina, it is close to impossible to not notice when their national football team is playing. If nothing else, you will notice it by the dead empty streets, temporarily closed stores, and occasional screams, curses and yells from balconies.

But although I am myself very interested in the World Cup, I sometimes think that the football interest goes to the absurd. Today we have been listening to public Argentinian radio for over five (5!) hours, and during this time the moderators have constantly been talking about Argentina’s game against Switzerland — which happened yesterday! A game which has already finished; a game which by now should have been analyzed with minute precision down to every molecule of Messi’s right foot; and a game which was anything but impressive from Argentina’s point of view.

I am honestly not sure whether I wish I understood more of what they are saying, or if I’m better off not knowing.