Pop Sensibility

Popular psychology theories illustrated through musical examples and other half-baked ideas.

Child Economics 101

monopoly money

Childhood. The closest to Zen simplicity most of us get in our lives. Or at least that is what our nostalgia-infused memory tells us. Truth is, children have issues of their own. Petty problems by an adult´s standard perhaps but, nonetheless, problems that trouble their young souls. Kids spend their lives in an environment not unlike an all-inclusive resort where they don’t have to pay for anything; but where the service staff has to be convinced with very solid arguments each time they want something. This happens because kids don’t have money. But they cannot be classified as being indigents either because they are not supposed to handle money. Such dilemma presents them with the previously described awkward situation of having to ask somebody else for every single material urge they have. In all truth, the only medium a kid has to acquire any sort of personal property is in the form of a gift. That is why Christmas and birthdays are most important when one is a child: those are the only predictable occasions when one can acquire desired personal items.

The rules and regulations of commercial operation are radically different in the world of children. That is why kids will ask you “Who gave you that?” whenever you show them something they find appealing. Not “where” did you get that but “who” gave you that. Such information has value for them because the person who gave you the coveted possession could present them with a similar item. When asked the above question the adult will wonder for a moment and usually reply something in the lines of “I don´t remember” or worse: “No one, I bought it myself” –which is a despairing answer for the child as it arises the money issue once again–. Kids are like Cubans: they have a financial embargo. And they need to work their way around that to acquire personal property.

The kafkian bureaucracy of dealing with parents to get things can be extremely frustrating for the child. A kid sees the TV commercial for some hot new action figure and runs to the old man to make him cough up the big bucks. And also walk him to the toy store that very second, which, conveniently enough, he knows exactly where it is –kids get lost on the way from the water shore to the family beach umbrella but can find the toy store with a blindfold on, in the middle of a blizzard–. Oh, the innocence. And the kid really believes he can pull that off. That he can actually convince his father to drag his grinded corpse on a trip to the toy store and buy a ridiculously overpriced piece of plastic right there and then. Father has the slippers on. Kid fails to read the subtext in that. Put some shoes on, man! The store closes in twenty minutes. We can still make it if we run! Father mumbles something about going to the store after the kid bathes and eats dinner. Naively enough, kid buys into that and gets screwed like a champ.

When I was ten years old I won a gold medal in a skiing competition. My grandfather was quite proud of me and decided to reward my accomplishment by letting me choose anything I wanted. Back then I was quite fascinated by a small hand held pocket TV I had seen somewhere and I decided I wanted one. I wasn’t sure where to get such item –mind you, the year was 1990 and we were in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Portable mini TV sets didn’t exactly grow on trees here– but I assumed household appliance stores would carry such item. Besides, I had an adult at my disposal to drive me around and foot the bill. An unparalleled opportunity. A Golden Ticket, if you may. We took a cab and went to the nearest such store. No luck. Another cab ride to the next store. Nothing there. One more, near downtown. Nope. Try that place. What, mini TV? No way. Go check there. Missed again. Grandfather getting tired. And cranky. Myself, desperate and power-drunk. We have to pursue the quest to its last consequences! One salesman suggested some place in the outskirts of town. Let´s go! What are we waiting for? Grandfather hit the brakes right there and then. Ended up returning home empty handed with the promise of another excursion to find the mini TV on the following weekend. Needless to say, that excursion never happened.

As any other social group, kids are consumers. But as consumers, they are poor. Dirt poor. Well dressed indigents is what they are. Their meager means of acquisition barely allow them to buy some candy and a piece of gum. At most. Adults will condescendingly handle down a few coins and some low denomination currency sprinkled with words of wisdom regarding the benefits of saving. Saving, my socks. What do you expect me to buy saving five bucks a week, more candy? At this pace I’ll be able to buy that Lego pirate ship when I’m 80.

Children tend to associate with their peers in social circumstances to pull resources together, much like adults do in natural disasters, war events or hippie communities. I have a bucket, you have a shovel. Let´s build a sand castle together. You have the He-Man action figure with battle staff, I have a Skeletor. Let´s play. Oh, no! The robot´s batteries are dead! We need to get the batteries from something else! A simple situation by an adult´s standard where the logical solution would be a quick trip to the store to buy new batteries. Not in the world of children. Kid doesn’t have keys to leave the house by himself and he doesn´t have money to pay for the batteries either. Tough spot. Therefore, the solution is getting the batteries out of Dad’s shaving machine. Children are scavengers: something else they share with hippies and refugees. Fish for loose change in Mom’s coat pockets, hunt for batteries in household appliances. Dad will get mad if he finds out we took out the fresh batteries he just bought for his shaving machine but that´s the way things work in the world of children. Angry and unshaven Dad will confront us later on about this but that was the only available solution at the moment. Fred Nietzsche said something about children being dead serious when they are playing and if you have any recollections of your own childhood then you know how truthful that statement is.

I remember a particular Christmas as a child, when I finally received the remote controlled police car I wanted so much and the ensuing horror after realizing that batteries were not included in the set. Grandpa´s eyes sparkled as he disappeared for a moment and came back triumphantly with the batteries from his flashlight. The enjoyment of the present was greatly diminished by the fact that the batteries were almost dead and the police car with its flashy lights and siren wasn’t exactly at its top form but Dad promised we would get new batteries the next morning. Yeah, right.

Kids get a raw deal. Imagine being stuck in their position: You live in a society where money is the only currency and medium established to acquire anything and you, as every other targeted consumer group, are constantly being bombarded by advertising designed to make you want things you don’t have. You do your part: stay quiet, keep your clothes as tidy as possible, eat your greens, brush your teeth, go to bed at nine but you don’t receive any sort of financial compensation for it. And no one in their right state of mind would hire you to do an adult´s work. Nobody hires kids as accountants. Or physicians. We know some places in Asia hire kids. And those places are conveniently close to the places where most toys are manufactured too so that would seem to be rather convenient scheme for the child: Available work in close proximity to the toy factory. But that situation has a whole new set of issues and implications that the kid would probably fail to foresee if presented with such a career option.

Eventually, children grow up and gradually gain financial strength of their own. From a piece of gum to a summer house in a process so painstakingly slow that you hardly notice it. A process so disheartening that you never really stop fearing that something will go inexplicably wrong when asking for a bank loan or paying for something with a credit card. As if the person in front of you will see that you are still a child in disguise, deny your request and send you back home in tears. Such financial turmoil remains the everyday reality of the child. Lucky for us, our nostalgia-infused memory is kind enough to make us remember childhood as a haven of Zen simplicity. Yeah, right.


Online tailored suggestions curb serendipity

Serendipitous Search

An article I read a few months ago stated that Google has designed its new campus in Mountain View in a way that promotes “casual collisions of the work force” which, in turn, is supposed to induce the all elusive serendipitous moment and generate unexpected ideas.

While I´m not so sure that you can actually engineer serendipity by designing a building because there is nothing unexpected about a building -at least not more than once- and because the people who populate it tend to repeat the same patterns, I certainly applaud the idea behind this and I applaud Google´s intentions to encourage its employees imagination. This is a great policy for companies everywhere and it demonstrates, once more, that Google is at the forefront of entrepreneurial innovation and creativity.

However, there is a key area where I believe Google is not encouraging creativity but doing the exact opposite and it’s in its core product: the search engine. Efficient search results are tailored by nature: a search result specifically tailored for my request will produce the specific outcome I expect. If I search for “scrambled eggs recipe” I hope to find recipes on how to prepare scrambled eggs. So far so good. But, if everything else is tailored as well, then you get cocooned inside a net where new ideas are rejected in favor of “contextually relevant suggestions”: tailored ads, tailored suggestions, tailored YouTube video suggestions, tailored ads inside my Gmail account, etc. Each one of these things is chosen to reflect our personal online profile and ends up shaping a considerable chunk of our Internet landscape in the form of a finely tuned mirror that throws our interests back at us. And by suggesting the same kind of things that I searched before, Google is forcing me to repeat myself all the time. Yes, I get it: If I like this I might like that as well. If I make a search for scrambled eggs recipes I might feel inclined to click on the ad that sells frying pans. But this technique, while brilliant for marketers, is terribly bad for the chance encounter and is terribly bad for the generation of new ideas. Google (and social networks in general) are a huge Confirmation Bias Bubble for each one of us. I never get to bump into anything new anymore. Or at least not nearly as much as it used to happen 15 years ago, when things weren´t so tailored.

Despite expressing the exact opposite in every possible medium, creativity is not a feature that companies want their consumers to have because a creative consumer presents the company with challenges that cost money to solve. Even the most innovative of companies, like Google, are extremely conservative when it comes to letting the consumer take a bit of control. Here´s an idea that won´t get picked up: Google should foster creativity by curbing itself a bit. Yes, I know this is quite an absurd thing to ask to the biggest Internet behemoth but, if it really cared about ingenuity and creativity outside of its own walls then it would restrain a bit from trying to over-tailor the user experience and let randomness take over a little more. How could Google do such a thing without risking its immense market share? Here´s another idea: I never quite understood the use of the “I´m feeling lucky” button. It´s just a button that takes you straight to the first link of the search results. What´s the use in that? Maybe Google could replace that button with a new one called “Serendipitous Search” -or something catchier- which, if pressed, would present us with a slightly less tailored search result. How slightly? You would be able to control the percentage of randomness with a slide bar that appears while holding the button. What would be the advantage of this button? You would come across things that wouldn´t have occurred to you in the first place: unexpected findings that could lead to new ideas. And the slide bar would control how far from the original search the new results would be. That way Google could maintain all of its tailored suggestions without crippling its discovery potential for the user.

Exactly how would this button work? Imagine you make a search for “vacation rentals in Nebraska” and you give it a 5% random search result on the slide bar. The engine would search for results that have a 95% match with the query. Instead of giving you a result that reads exactly “Vacation Rentals in Nebraska”, it might give you a search result in the possible lines of “Vacation Rentals in Colorado” or “Moonshine Bootlegging in Nebraska”. Sites with similar content tend to share its more relevant words so it wouldn´t be a problem for the search engine to determine the hierarchy of the words that could deviate percentually from the topic. Sites for “Vacation Rentals in Nebraska” will probably repeat the words “cabin”, “woods”, “kayaking”, “all inclusive resort”, “mountain view”, etc. (in case you are wondering: No, I´ve never been to Nebraska). So the search engine could choose to exclude a 5% of those repeated words. That way you have a functioning search engine that can throw you back the exact result you are searching for or it can also suggest new ideas that you hadn´t considered. If we define Serendipity as the generation of an unexpected idea born out of an unrelated and unrequested event, then this is the way to engineer it on a huge scale.

If you don´t feed your mind with new ideas every once in a while you can become quite repetitive. Lucky for us, Internet is a great tool for discovering new things. If anything, that potential should be made even more accessible than it already is. Google´s global popularity is so big that it probably wouldn´t be a gross overestimation to say that any modification in its user interface would entail a slight change in the way people use the Internet. And if that change fosters the generation of new ideas then it should be welcomed with arms wide open.

Is the Internet making us all nerds?

Vintage nerdsAs shallow as the above question might seem, it does hold a valid inquiry about the way our lives are being transformed by the web. In the following lines I will try to explain how and why I believe this might be happening:

Obsessive interest in niche subjects was once a major sign of nerdiness but it is now regarded as a normal byproduct of the World Wide Web in our lives. Internet is a great enabler of almost everything we want to know about anything. We spend hours fumbling around the Net, diving in hyperlinks, mesmerized by the infinite sub-topics and ramifications of our personal interests displayed in the multiple windows we open simultaneously. Maybe we didn’t need so much information on the giant isopod or the personal life of our favorite artist or the different kinds of premium shaving cream but we ended up engulfing it all because of its irresistible availability. The amount of information we absorb thanks to this extreme readiness is comparable only to the amount of information people considered nerds used to consume in pre-Internet times. Does that make us nerds?

Maybe the difference is that nerds would go to more extreme lengths to learn about the things that interest them than someone else would. Being a nerd before the digital Internet became widely available was hard work. As a music nerd myself –I think the official term is music geek- I used to spend all my pocket money on specialized magazines and CDs to get all the content I desperately craved for. I dedicated time and energy to pursue my interest -time and energy that I subtracted from other activities like hanging out with friends, playing sports or having a girlfriend- and achieved a degree of knowledge and passion for my hobby that no one else around me shared. In the process I also discovered that knowing too much about seemingly irrelevant topics and having an enthusiastic opinion about them isn’t politically correct. I can still remember the awkward looks people around me gave me when I talked passionately about a rock concert and I can’t help but feel ashamed of myself for actually letting those looks get to me. Confidence gained with maturity took care of that issue but even if it hadn’t, the Internet would’ve allowed me to remain at heart the same socially impaired teenager with too much energy to burn on music trivia without having to suffer those looks ever again. Adapt or die was it? Not anymore. It doesn’t matter how obscure your interest is, you’ll find thriving communities of like-minded people online. You can remain as eccentric as you wish because Internet allows and even encourages this type of behavior.

I changed. I’m not a full blown nerd anymore. But when I get online I can’t help but fall back on my old habits. Quite possibly, if it wasn’t for the Internet these days I wouldn’t spend so much time reading and looking up stuff on Melville-era whale ships or Brutalist architecture or whatever hot topic is on my current personal agenda. But I do because it´s right there for the taking. I don´t know if this artificially generated curiosity is the same as the genuine deep interest nerds have in things but it does generate a similar conduct.

Additionally, as it turns out, information gluttony is not the only geek-associated quality that the Internet fosters: it also makes us spend a lot of time staring closely at screens which, in turn, damages our vision: A typical nerd problem. Same with bad posture. And isolation. And spending more time inside than outside. So, in a way, we really are all becoming a bit nerdy ourselves thus, diluting the very things that used to set nerds apart as a social tribe. A sign of this is the current perception of nerds being truly mainstream for the first time in History. These days it’s ok and politically correct to be a nerd. Although nerds have been a part of pop culture for quite some time now this is the first time they are genuinely accepted not as the outcasts but as a respected and even desirable social role in our world. And the reason for this is that, quite simply, nerds aren’t so different from the rest anymore. Not only because they can be extremely successful or because they have embraced the more general culture but because the opposite has happened: The rest of the world has engaged in traditional nerd activities, thus, making nerds more mainstream.

Internet was invented by nerds. It has their codes, their language and its architecture fosters the development of nerd associated structures. It was an extension of their way of life into the realms of interconnected computing science and for a short while it was their almost exclusive stomping ground until it became accessible for the rest of us. So it´s just logical that, as when you start playing a particular sport you start acquiring its particular habits, when you incorporated the Internet into your daily routine you started acquiring some of its creator´s habits as well.

The Mechanics to Accomplishing Stuff.

math chalkboardIn Math there is always a formula to arrive to a particular resolution. Any given result can be explained through a formula: a sequence of commands that leads to a resolution. There is always a certain sequence of actions that leads to a certain specific –and logic- outcome. No matter how difficult, any logical outcome can be achieved if the right moves are made. The problem lies in knowing exactly what those moves are. Some resolutions are easier to achieve and the sequences of actions that lead to them are multiple and less rigid. But some outcomes are more difficult to accomplish and the necessary moves to get to it are less clear.

I know what I need to do to get me a cherry ice-cream or to go to New York on my next vacation. The required steps are easy and predictable. But I don’t know what I need to do to –say- get rich in the next year. The steps required to achieve that outcome are more complicated and much less clear. As with everything, I have a few ideas and a general concept of the course of action I could take but I don’t have a 100% effective map that will show me how to get rich in the next twelve months. Man, I wish I had that map. And a few others as well. I guess you do too, huh?

Because, even if it’s not written down, there is a map to every possible outcome. Whether you know it or not, there is always a formula to arrive to a given result.

If I make a call to a millionaire and I say certain things I can get him or her to donate me a million bucks, right? There is always a combination of actions (or words) that does the trick. Do I know what to say to this supposed millionaire to make him graciously cough up the big bucks? Nope. But there is a combination of actions and words that would produce that result –legally, of course-. There is a formula. I just don’t know it.

In Math, when you have the result but not the process, you can do the whole operation backwards or you can search for formulas that produce the existent result. In our life we usually employ the second approach. I know that I want to eat a cherry ice-cream from Haagen Dazs. In order to achieve that I could go to the supermarket, buy one, return home and eat it. Alternatively, I could go to the 24/7 drugstore which is closer than the supermarket and also sells Haagen Dazs.

But if I wanted to use the other mathematical method I could analyze the whole thing in reverse. I picture myself eating the ice-cream at home. What happened before? I got home from the drugstore. What happened before that? I looked it up in the proper aisle and bought it. What happened before that? I got to the drugstore from my home.

Same result, different approaches. Maybe if one doesn´t produce the desired outcome, the other one will. Or maybe not but at least it’s a different way of looking at the problem and that always helps.

I’m not saying anything new here. This is what we all do. This is the mental process we follow when solving a problem, decomposed to its main basic ingredients. Words and concepts dictate how we form our thoughts. If we can rearrange and experiment with words and concepts, then we can experiment rearranging our thought process and seeing what kind of results we get. We tend to use the same paths all the time, both physically and mentally, but when we change our routines we always gain something new.

Inciting love makes you responsible for it too.


This statement has more of a “moral” application than a real one and it will probably not find many adherents but I still think it holds some truth. Make up your own mind about it. I felt like turning into a bit of a righteous p… for a while and the following words are the result.

Encouraging love in a person makes you equally responsible for those feelings because you are co-responsible for their generation. You cannot simply walk away from somebody just because you don’t feel the same way about him or her anymore. If the other person still has deep feelings for you –and provided he or she is a good soul and in no way a threat to you- you have a moral duty to cope with those feelings too.

A friend of mine told me sometime ago the details of a break up he went through with an ex girlfriend. Quite simply, he ran out of love for her. But that wasn’t her situation: She was still very much in love with him and so, the actual break up was very hard on her. When they got together to talk and he told her how he felt she started sobbing quietly and said: “What am I supposed to do now with all these feelings inside me?” That hit him. Hard. And he deserved every bit of it. He had no small role in the generation of those feelings of love inside her. He had nurtured those feelings and encouraged them when they were a happy couple and now that the flame of love was gone for him, he simply turned his back on her and on all the feelings he was equally responsible for creating.

At some point in our lives we all do things like the one my friend did. And that is not right. We are all very sensitive when it comes to ourselves but we fail to act up when it comes to the feelings we are actively responsible for co-creating in others. And that is not right. If there is such thing as a “Moral Etiquette” then this type of behavior is very bad moral etiquette. The fact that we all do it at some point or another doesn’t justify it.

I did this same thing to a girl I dated quite a few years ago and I deeply regret the way I acted. I feel ashamed of myself for letting her down and letting her cope with all those feelings all alone. A couple of years after the break up I wrote her and said I was sorry and she –supposedly- forgave me. But that doesn’t erase the pain I caused her. And I am truly sorry for it.

It doesn’t matter if you are better off each other. It doesn’t count that you are hurting too. It’s not true that “That is the way things are”. That is selfish pseudo-psychology bullshit. If you are so certain that you are doing the best for the both of you then explain yourself and don’t quit until the other person sees eye to eye with you. Don’t quit until the other person feels the same way about it as you do. You owe it to that person. Only then, when those feelings are resolved for the both of you, you’ll have the moral right to walk away.

When you get together with someone you both need to agree on that decision. But there is no need for the both parties to agree for a break up to happen. If only one of you wants to break it up, then it’s official. Why is that? That is because sometimes we are instinctively selfish and not all instinctive impulses are good and right. Moral and instinct need to have a proper balance within ourselves. And when I say Moral I mean it in the sense of the obligations we have with the people that act genuinely right towards us and the people we have actively pursued and convinced to invest emotionally in ourselves.

You don’t just walk away from the mess you created. Emotional maturity means also being responsible for the feelings you actively generate and encourage in others. We are not used to doing it but we should definitely step up and deal with it.

Can years really fly by faster each time?


Remember when you where a kid and holidays seemed to last forever? When a year was a huge amount of time? Doesn´t time time seem to pass by faster since those days? Is it because of the fastening pace of modern life? Is it the Zeitgeist of our time? Where does that sensation of years flying by come from? Do years really fly by faster each time? How can that be even remotely possible?

I believe two factors account for this sensation: One of perception and one of a physical nature. Let´s start with the perception one:

When you are a little kid, say, a seven year old kid, one year is a huge amount of time because your entire existence is comprised into just seven of those time units. And you probably don’t remember much of the first three either so you are left with just four lousy years as a time frame to compare the rest of the time units out there to. People tend to compare everything to themselves. Either consciously or unconsciously, they compare everything to their own recolections and the measures that are familiar to them.

Holidays where amazingly long when I was seven years old. But when you have lived a number of years you realize three months is not that much time. Or at least not as much as you thought it was when you were seven. And each time one year is added to your age, that time unit ends up representing a smaller percentage of your life. As with everything, the more you have, the less it means. Each year seems less than the previous one because of that same reason: It represents a smaller chunk of your life each time one is added. Same happens with months, days, etc. You don’t think much of one year when you have already lived quite a few and neither does your subconscious.

Now, for the physical factor:

Your metabolic rate slows down as you get older. The metabolic rate and the heart determine how fast your internal “engines” work. This includes your brain and the way it processes everything.

A film camera works as a perfect analogy here: When you reduce the number of frames per second you have a film where things seem to move faster. When your brain slows down over the years, the process is similar to the film camera. Everything seems to move faster each time because you don’t process the received information as fast or as efficiently as you used to. The deceleration of the metabolic rate slows down your brain which, in turn, slows down its perception, thus making it seem as if time is progressively speeding up.

People get used to faster things really, well, fast. The evolution of home computers is a perfect representation of how seamlessly we adapt to faster systems without almost noticing it. I got my first computer in 1992. It was a heavy, limited and slow piece of equipment but to me it was just great. The word processor really speeded things up from the typewriter, and many other functions that where performed through other devices are now almost unthinkable without the aid of a computer. The next model I got was a huge step forward both in functions and in speed. The difference was mind blowing at first but I quickly got used to it and deemed it normal. Same happened with the next upgrade.

Remember what Internet connection was like 15 years ago? I had a 56 kbps telephone modem which used to take forever to download a single image. And it was ok. Actually, it was nothing short of amazing and I didn’t think it was slow; it was the way it was supposed to be. Then I got cable modem and the difference was huge. The few times I had to revert to using a telephone modem I would get very impatient and couldn’t figure how I was able to stand such a slow system in the past. Same process happened with the next upgrade. And the next. We get used to higher speeds so fast that we almost don’t even notice it. Even if it happens in big steps, like the ones we experience when we upgrade our Internet connections.

Because of our very nature it is impossible for us to appreciate in real time this deceleration process we experience. Actually, it would be really scary if we could see or even perceive ourselves slowing down and the whole world speeding up. It would feel like dying because that’s exactly what this process is all about. Thankfuly, we only think of it as some sort of distant, philosophical sensation. But we do aknowledge it. Most of us can agree that time does seem to be moving faster each day. We are aging machines with a faint perception of our own obsolescence. We are slowing down as the world is speeding up.

I recently learned that I belong to a generation called “xennial”. A link between the -analog- X generation and the -digital- millennial generation. I am old enough to have grown up using analog technology and young enough that I was able to adapt to the coming of the Internet and embrace it fully.  I am old enough to be quite familiar by now with this feeling of time slipping away faster each day and I am young enough to expect -and pretty much ignore- the ever fastening rythm on almost everything around me. I want things to happen faster but I am somewhat aware of time speeding up.

I don´t know if there is a name for this collective perception of time speeding up as we grow older. Or if there is a more solid explanation for this phenomenon than the one I attempted here. Maybe there´s even a cognitive bias to explain it. Maybe not. But it does happen.


Why Latin Americans vote the way they do?

AmericasPoliticsAs an Argentinean who has historically voted against peronism –the biggest political party in my country and usual winner of every election- I’ve always looked at U.S.A. with a healthy dose of jealousy over its political system and the serious thought its people –at least seem to- put into their vote.

Compared to us, North Americans seem to be quite skeptical and empirical when it comes to choosing a candidate. They meditate on what that person has done in the past and if he or she has fulfilled the promises they made. They get to face them in open debates and challenge them in real time to test their reflexes and ideas. They don’t just blindly vote the same party every time for ideological reasons and they certainly don’t seem to have that kind of “unquestioning loyalty” which is demanded of peronist voters in Argentina by their leaders. Unquestioning loyalty requires, well, exactly that and it’s a precious commodity to have if you are an elected politician without many regards for a healthy democracy. That way, if the ruling party has done a disastrous administration, it can still win the next election because its voters are supposed to show their faithfulness to the party by voting for them again. Astoundingly idiotic, yes, but that’s the way it is in Argentina and that’s the way it is in most of the other Latin American countries.

Nothing of what I’ve just said is new to anybody from outside Latin America who has taken any interest in the matter. I, for one, am sick of seeing North Americans shake their heads in disbelief at the incomprehensible decisions most Latin Americans make each time they vote because I’m even more frustrated at it than they are –You think this is bad? I have to live here! – And it only seems to get worse each time. Political activism in Argentina, Venezuela and several other countries is encouraged by the ruling parties but always in the form of militant activism. That is to say, unquestioningly loyal to the party and with absolutely no personal opinions that might actually challenge the views of their leaders. Latin American populist party followers are required, above all, not to think for themselves. And as their national economies deteriorate, thus creating a growing and genuine popular discontent, the ruling parties try to simulate public support by exhibiting and relying on their zombified militant activists.

 This Sunday Venezuela has a chance to turn things around and make it better for their citizens. After years of booming oil prices that should’ve translated into welfare, infrastructure, jobs, education and more liberties for their countrymen, Venezuela has the third highest inflation rate in the world, constant shortage of basic products of every sort, harassment of free press, prosecution of independent minded judges, less liberties for the citizens, a bigger gap between rich and poor and a frightening crime rate.

If elected, Nicolás Maduro, the former vice president of the late Hugo Chavez and current candidate for his party is going to continue the same government policies that have driven Venezuela for the last 14 years to its current state.

If you ask me, I think Maduro will win.

What is the voting logic behind such an outcome? And why is the voting logic of Latin Americans and North Americans so different?

U.S.A. has a nicely balanced bipartisan system with Democrats and Republicans, which can be categorized as Left Wing and Right Wing parties but we, in Latin America, have a much more disorganized arrangement. We have Right Wing parties, Left Wing parties and Left-Left Wing parties. The Right Wing parties would represent fairly well U.S. Republicans. The Left Wing parties would represent a leftier version of Democrats but –usually- with all the greed and crookedness that is commonly associated with Republicans. And the Left-Left parties are closer to the old U.R.S.S. ideals of socialism than anything else. To a Latin American voter, U.S.A. has no real Left Wing party. To him –or her- Democrats represent a sort of “Center” wing with a few left sided stands like immigration policies and same sex marriage.

By the above composition it´s easy to see that overall Left Wing supporters are a pretty big majority down here. And at least in Latin America, Left Wing politics have a deeper ideological component than Right Wing politics. Therefore, their supporters are more inclined to vote based in ideological arguments rather than purely technical ones. Or at least they do so in a bigger percentage than Right Wing supporters do.

Loyalty to a party is never a good idea for a healthy democracy. It forgives things that shouldn´t be forgiven and it generates messianic and corrupt leaders. The Heart is forgiving. The Head is not. While Latin American Left Wing voters continue to follow their hearts more than their heads elections will continue to produce inadequate leaders for the region.

Are you really hipper than your folks?

are you really hipper than your folks

I look at my Dad and I can’t help but think he’s a bit dated. He’s a smart man and all but when it comes to subjects like religion and politics he has a much more conservative stand than I do and he also seems to be less open minded regarding aesthetical opinions and new ideas in general.

You can always date the moment a person stopped growing by how old his aesthetical opinions and his stands in life are. The moment someone stops caring about new things, be it technology, art or different perspectives and points of view, the individual stops growing and “freezes” in time.

Pop music is like carbon-14 dating for people who have parked into a more conservative state of mind. My Dad is a huge Beatles fan. Specially John. And Paul. And George. Ringo not so much.  He says The Beatles are the greatest rock band in the world and everything that came after has nothing on them. I don’t think there is a single artist or whole record made after, say, 1980 that he really likes. He also thinks Picasso is crap. And that goes for the rest of modern art too. I would never even dare to make him listen to Aphex Twin -whom I believe to be the closest there is to geniality in electronic music- or show him a Basquiat painting. He’s perfectly happy with his Beatles and Van Gogh. And that is the moment he froze up in time. 1980. Not to say that Mr. Gogh was riding the wave back in 1980 but that is the aesthetic my Dad chose to settle with. Same happened with his pop music. Hearing Woman or Watching the Wheels instantly throws me back to my earliest childhood memories of weekends at home when Dad would play those songs on the stereo. As far as I can tell, that is the last “new” music he liked.

But that doesn’t mean that I am a more “modern” or open minded person than he is.

What determines how open minded a person is, how modern are his perspectives in life, is the leap he took from the previous generation. Leonardo Da Vinci would probably frown at the ideas of universal vote, same sex marriage and punk rock music but nonetheless his notions and concepts were such a huge step forward from his parents´ and probably a much bigger leap than the one you took from your folks. Therefore we can say that, despite having the upper hand on the particular subjects pointed above, you are less modern and less open minded than Leo, a guy who bought the farm almost 500 years ago.

Yes, I have more progressive views than the ones my Dad has in many subjects but if I put myself in his shoes, I realize his views and opinions are a huge step forward from the ones his father has. Not sure if the leap he took from my grandfather is bigger than the one I took from him or not. And yet I can’t help but think that I am way more progressive, modern and overall cooler than he is. But then again, we probably all feel the same about our folks, don’t we?

Religion is an artificial conscience.

PatchSuperstition comes from ignorance. What this means is that what mankind doesn’t understand it mystifies. Example: Thousands of years ago, our ancestors thought fire was a divinity. Now we know fire is nothing but a chemical reaction between substances. Here’s another example: Hundreds of years ago folks thought the earth was flat and its mass was sustained by giant turtles. Now we know better. Yet one more example: Decades ago the origin of the universe was a complete mystery, but since then, with the Big Bang theory -the actual theory, not the sitcom-, more powerful telescopes, the Large Hadron Collider and all the other scientific discoveries we are getting closer than ever to discovering the origin of the Universe.

Leaving all the political intentions of religion aside and the fact that the very concept of “God” reeks of humanity –otherwise how can such a typically human idea define the terms of existence for the entire universe?- religion is quite simply the evolution of superstition into a more complex system to organize itself. Its only power resides in the things mankind can’t yet explain. As we unveil the mysteries of the universe this field of influence gets smaller and more abstract each time. The current argument in favor of religion is the supposed existence of a Superior Power that manages the universe and is responsible for the perfection of nature. Truth is, nature doesn’t need any kind of Superior Intelligence to tell it what to do. Everything happens as a consequence of something else and that is it. There’s no Higher Power that separates us from the animals. We are what we are solely because of the blind selection process of evolution.  Out of the thousands of fishes that came out of the water, eventually a few managed to breathe, and in the same way some mammals survived through the ice age, some monkey learned to beat other monkeys with a club, some caveman learned how to make fire, etc. Evolution is nothing but a sequence of events in a given timeline. There’s no particular scheme to it and it’s not a particularly brilliant system either. Out of millions of tryouts, errors and repetitions, some fish actually got to the point were it could breathe in dry land, some little rat got deep enough under a tree as to cape the weather, etc.

Truth is, all you need to become God yourself is time. If you could live a couple hundred million years instead of a lousy hundred you could place some water inside a Petri dish, let it sit for a few million years, watch it become a bug colony or a jelly fish or some other life form and voilà, you have achieved the exact same thing God has.

But don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying God is a bad thing. Or religion, for that matter. At least not in every case. Not to mention the fact that religion is an artificial conscience and as such it has prevented an unthinkable amount of terrible things from happening, we’ve all seen desperate people turn to religion and God in search of comfort when tragedy strikes. And we’ve all seen people find peace in the knowledge that their loved one is in a better place or some form of explanation to help them come to terms with tragedy. And in the end, if it helps them overcome grief and sorrow without harming anybody else, it is a good thing. Be it an emotional void or a knowledge void, God is what we use to fill it.

Why Technology cripples Creativity.

Old Creativity VS New Creativity

The evolution of mankind is inherently associated with the evolution of its technology. You can’t have one without the other as they are co-dependent. This means that if we want to evolve as a species we have to develop the technology to help us do just that or otherwise we would still be dying in our thirties of a bad flu or a dog bite. Point being: We need technology to evolve. The thing is, not every single outcome of this situation is good. Here’s an example: Have you noticed a certain lack of musical geniuses in the last hundred years? Some people might say “Well, that’s because music geniuses have migrated to other styles, like rock n´roll”. Really? The Beatles are great and all but are they as great as; let’s say, Beethoven or Bach or Mozart or Vivaldi or Debussy or Schubert or Wagner? I know this is getting dangerously subjective but, really? Also, have you noticed how mankind has gotten lazier in the last sixty years? This is even more obvious than the above. People give up on things disturbingly easy these days. Have you noticed that? As much of a great thing technological evolution really is we have to accept it has a few downsides. The following reasons are the main suspects:

1. Industrial Revolution –in some ways- is to blame.

One of the main characteristics of the Industrial Revolution was the birth of sub-specialization. The division of knowledge and human abilities into small cells in order to maximize every single person’s potential for a specific task and fasten up the whole process. Up to that point in history each person had a craft and knew all there was to know about it, from start to finish. A shoemaker knew how to select the raw materials, treat them, cut the pieces, make the strings, holes and soles, how to sew them together and every single aspect of the shoemaking process. When the Industrial Revolution came along the shoemaker’s job was divided into a series of small chores done by a different person at each step of the process in order to make the whole thing faster. Now, instead of one craftsman who knew how to make a really good pair of shoes in one day we had twenty fellows who knew just one step of the process each and could collectively make twenty pairs of shoes in one day. The resulting product wasn’t as good as the one delivered by the shoemaker but it was done faster and therefore, more capable of complying with the growing demand. This method was translated into every single aspect of the human knowledge. Science, arts, and all kinds of crafts were subdivided into small cells of expertise. Musicians started diving into more specific compositional styles and stayed in narrow niches for the rest of their lives becoming masters of their highly specialized –and therefore obscure- trade. The chances of a Leonardo Da Vinci or even a Richard Wagner appearing in our days are extremely unlikely because of this same thing. The figure of a wise fellow who mastered countless trades and combined them all to come up with something new was replaced by group of individuals which are most efficient within their own small areas of expertise.

2. Too many possibilities wear you down and distract from the goal. 

The technological evolution of the past two hundred years has broadened the specter of possibilities in every single aspect we can think of. Were we had one tool to perform a certain task now we have twenty to do that same thing with slight differences amongst them. The problem is, possibilities tend to distract one’s attention. When you only have one tool to do a certain thing there ain´t two ways about it, you either get to it or you don’t. Same happened with music. The excess of possibilities distracts the artist. In the times a musician only had a violin or a piano or even his own voice at his disposal there weren’t other elements to distract his attention from the composition itself. Melody, harmony and rhythm –the core of any music piece- played a much more important role than now.

When I was a young kid I used to record my songs in a little tape recorder and only one instrument could be taped at the time. I had to play the recorded tape in the home stereo and dub myself on the little tape device singing or playing on top of the home stereo reproducing the previously recorded tape. The resulting mix was awful as it contained all the overlapped layers of ambient noise including cars honking, phones ringing and such but the truth is, when I had to go to such lengths to record my songs I was much more prolific and enthusiastic than now that I have all the technology and fancy equipment I want. The lack of resources and possibilities made me concentrate in the few tools I had and make the most out of them instead of worrying about my possibilities, as there weren’t any. When you see how primitive the equipment the Beatles used to record their music was compared to all the modern gadgets we have today it makes you realize how much they did with so little. And when you go back even further and you see how Mozart did so much more with so much less, you start to realize that there’s a certain pattern to it: The more, the less. The more stuff you have at your fingertips the less you end up doing, creativity-wise.

From time to time you hear somebody saying “Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci or Mozart were alive today, the stuff they could do with all the modern technology at their disposal”. I’m not so sure about that. I’m not so sure Mozart would’ve come up with all that brilliant music if he had had to choose between a thousand musical styles and a million sound textures each time he came up with a tune.

3. Getting lost in the quest: Technique has to be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Modernism, post-modernism, serialism, polystylism, minimalism, post-minimalism, post-classic tonality, new simplicity, holy-minimalism, spectralism, new complexity, conceptualism, concrete music, experimental music, and so on, this styles all started as quests for something other than itselves. And it’s always a great thing when you come up with something unexpected and make a whole new style out of it but at some point you should either resume your quest for the original purpose or try to come up with some sort of musical work that gives a real meaning to the new style other than just a few musical compositions whose main goal is quite obviously to showcase the new musical style rather than actually use the new technique to create a relevant and meaningful piece of music.

There’s a reason why there isn’t as much great music composed in the serial technique as in earlier classical tonal one and it’s not just because the latter has been around for a longer time but because the tonal technique has been used as a means to an end rather than an end in itself -as the serial technique has mostly- and that is because when the earlier classical tonal technique was the only way to make music people didn’t have to spend so much time worrying about the different possibilities and means they had in order to make music but just get on to it. The sculpting of the sound in itself through different mechanical processes is a great thing but while this is supposed to be a just a tool to aid the artist it usually ends up being the most relevant aspect in the artwork, which in turn, ends up becoming just some sort of showcase for the newly found sound.

4. The abuse of technology in your daily activities is crippling your abilities.

It is a known fact that doing math exercises helps your mind process information more efficiently, playing chess improves your spatial, numerical and administrative-directional abilities, musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word and countless other activities help us exercise, train and develop our mind for infinite things in ways yet unknown to us.

Over the years, technology has relieved us from many repetitive, mechanical, tiresome and time consuming chores. It does make our life easier. It prevents us from doing the small things in order to concentrate on the Big Stuff. But at the same time, all these little activities are what exercise our minds for the greater things. To put it more boldly: Leaving aside absolutely all of the menial tasks to concentrate in the important stuff is as stupid as a professional marathon runner staying in bed all day in order to save stamina for the big race. By preventing our brain from doing the exercise it needs we are atrophying countless abilities we might not even know we have.

Also, on a more personal note and as a byproduct, all this technology that makes my life easier and avoids me from having to perform all this small tasks has spoiled me rotten. It’s a universal truth that when things get too easy you don’t feel like doing them and I don’t know about you but that’s something that happens a lot to me. When the core of your work has to do with inspiration and coming up with new stuff all the time you really need to stand on your feet and engage in mentally stimulating activities. As Nietzsche said, all truly great thoughts are conceived while walking. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must take a stroll around the block each time you need to do some thinking it means that good ideas usually come up when you are already stimulating the brain.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m not so sure Leonardo da Vinci would’ve come up with all the brilliant things he did had he lived in this day and age. His mad skills would’ve been seriously crippled by the lack of mental exercise, his decisions would’ve been compromised by the endless possibilities we are presented at each step of our modern life, and he probably would’ve ended as some sort of child prodigy who lost his thunder somewhere in his teens or worse.

There’s a tendency in human nature to underestimate the truly important quantum leaps that take place in our day and age and only deem as valuable the ones that happened in the past. This is because it is impossible for the masses to grasp a concept that is ahead of their time. Simultaneously, as someone said, no one wants to be a part of a generation that ignores another Van Gogh so we hurry to praise individuals who aren’t really worthy of such, just in case; and fail to recognize the ones who are really worthy of praise. This exact same thing has been happening over and over again since ever, actually. So, you might say, maybe it is not that there are no more geniuses but we don’t recognize them till fifty years after they are dead. Let me say again: Really? I think we should’ve seen at least ONE Ludwig Van in the last fifty years, don’t you? And, while I´m using musicians as an example because Music is a field I can speak with a certain degree of knowledge about, this also happens in every other field where Creativity has a significant role.