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Ralsina.Me — Roberto Alsina's website

Coffee and I

One of the most vivid mem­o­ries of my late child­hood was when my fa­ther fi­nal­ly let me to stay at his ta­ble in the Gran Do­ria café, when it was still lo­cat­ed in the dark bow­els of a galería in San­ta Fe's San Martín street.

I was maybe 12, and I had seen him sit there with a cor­ta­do while my moth­er went shop­ping with us, or while I went to one of those things kids go to (artis­tic ex­pres­sion class­es? Pup­petry work­shop?) and it was such a mis­tery. It was like a three hour hole in my dad's life of which I had no in­for­ma­tion.

What would he do there? Who did he talk to? Did he read some­thing? And al­ways there, at the ta­ble when I came back was an emp­ty small cor­ta­do cup.

I sus­pect that's when I start­ed lik­ing the idea of cof­fee. I was, of course, an in­vet­er­ate hot choco­late drinker (El Quil­lá brand, un­known be­yond that city, yet su­pe­ri­or in my mind to any oth­er­s), af­ter a long, long time of drink­ing warm sweet­ened milk. And I know I had tried cof­fee be­fore and hat­ed it, but of course, sit­ting there, I said "un cor­ta­do, por fa­vor". And boy was that thing aw­ful. I did not drink cof­fee again for twen­ty years.

I did learn to like tea, or at least tea with milk, and learned, in col­lege, to drink mate like a sponge. Bit­ter and strong as hel­l, the clos­est caf­feine de­liv­ery mech­a­nism to an IV drip, slow, weak and con­stant over hours. You have not re­al­ly been awake un­til it's 5 AM, you are on your third ther­mos, and it feels like 2P­M. It's like the wrong kind of pill in the Ma­trix.

But then I moved to Buenos Aires and I was alone. And drink­ing mate alone is like drink­ing Vod­ka alone, de­press­ing and dirty, so I start­ed go­ing to cafés and or­der­ing lá­gri­mas. A lá­gri­ma es like a back­wards cor­ta­do. If you get a big cup and put a lá­gri­ma and a cor­ta­do in it you will get a de­cent café con leche. It's a pa­thet­ic bev­er­age, on­ly fit for the emo­tion­al wreck I was at the time.

But it's a gate­way drink. And by 2002 I was drink­ing cor­ta­dos. And by 2006 I had my own espres­so ma­chine and was some sort of caf­feine Kei­th Richard­s, do­ing maybe 10 strong cups a day, buy­ing ex­pen­sive blend­s... and then I had to stop.

On Jan­u­ary 1st 2008 I woke up at 4AM with in­tense chest pain. I thought I was hav­ing a heart at­tack. I walked to the hos­pi­tal and it turned out to be gas­tri­tis. This hap­pened again. And again. Not of­ten, but once ev­ery year, then ev­ery six month­s, then ev­ery mon­th, then four days in a row. And I had to give up cof­fee.

It was hel­l. I was asleep all day and awake all night, not hav­ing my crutch to mod­u­late my sleep. I was grouchy, and an­noy­ing. I cheat­ed. But then I stopped.

Sor­ry dad.

The death penalty and other conspiracies.

Ev­ery once in a while, some­thing aw­ful hap­pen­s. And then some­one will say "the peo­ple who do that should get the death penal­ty". In­vari­ably, that is a stupid ar­gu­men­t.

Let's start by dis­pos­ing of the ob­vi­ous low blow: "if it hap­pened to your son, you would ask for their death too". To which the ob­vi­ous an­swer is, of course I would. And I would be push­ing for a stupid so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

If some­thing re­al­ly, re­al­ly bad hap­pened to my son, I would be suf­fer­ing, and in a state of vi­o­lent emo­tion and dis­tress. If I told you to jump off a bridge, would you? I guess not, be­cause you would no­tice I am at the edge of mad­ness and just told you that be­cause I am feel­ing that way.

Well, the same is true about a vic­tim's rel­a­tives (or the vic­tim him­self) ask­ing for a spe­cif­ic pun­ish­men­t: it's a re­quest born from pain and suf­fer­ing. And as a so­ci­ety, we should not de­cide our ac­tions based on te pro­pos­als of the ones al­most in­sane with grief. Be­cause we want to take the ac­tion that is bet­ter for so­ci­ety, not for a spe­cif­ic mem­ber of it. So, for­get about that ap­peal to sen­ti­men­t, be­cause while com­plete­ly un­der­stand­able, it is stupid, be­cause those griev­ing are al­lowed to be stupid.

An­oth­er failed ar­gu­ment for the death penal­ty is that it dis­cour­ages fu­ture crime. This has been shown not to be the case, be­cause sim­i­lar coun­tries or states with and with­out death penal­ty show no sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence on crime rates.

I sus­pect this is be­cause in many cas­es the crim­i­nal does­n't in­tend to ac­tu­al­ly com­mit the part of the crime that brings the death sen­tence (mur­der when rob­bing? The crim­i­nal want­ed to rob, not to mur­der) or he just would do it any­way (it's not as if child rapists ex­pect to have a nice time when cap­tured. They just do it as­sum­ing they won't get caugh­t, or de­cide it's worth it any­way).

And of course, the main rea­son why the death penal­ty is a bad idea is that it would be ap­plied by pub­lic em­ploy­ees. Do you trust the gov­ern­ment to de­cide how much to charge you in tax­es? No, you do it your­self, with an ac­coun­tan­t, and tell them how much to take. Do you ex­pect the po­lice to find a wal­let you dropped on the street? Do you trust the gov­ern­men­t's mail with re­al­ly im­por­tant pack­ages? Are you con­fi­dent about the gov­ern­ment fig­ur­ing out all en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues? Well, then why would you trust them to kill any­one they de­cide is a re­al­ly, re­al­ly bad guy?

The gov­ern­ment is a great idea for things noone else wants to do (high­ways), or things noone else should be do­ing (law en­force­men­t) but even in those cas­es you must al­low for them pro­vid­ing a crap­py ser­vice, and care­ful­ly use your in­put to lim­it what they can do.

The al­ter­na­tive is to as­sume that the gov­ern­ment has a huge ca­pa­bil­i­ty and com­pe­tence but has just de­cid­ed not to show it, which is per­haps the most amaz­ing part of most con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries.

The US gov­ern­ment can't kill Cas­tro, but can kill Kennedy. A gov­ern­ment can't keep the trains run­ning, but can fake a moon land­ing. And so on, and so forth.

I once read a book where they de­scribed an in­ter­est­ing sci­ence: Con­spir­a­cy The­o­ry The­o­ry. It's the sci­ence of study­ing what con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries peo­ple be­lieve in, to get in­sight in­to what they ac­tu­al­ly be­lieve. If you are in favour of the death penal­ty, then you be­lieve law en­force­ment does­n't make mis­takes, or that killing a few ran­dom peo­ple ev­ery now and then (be­cause they make mis­takes) is not a prob­lem. If the first, you are stupid, if the sec­ond, you are evil.

The worst leash is the one you don't feel: a random walk through a piece of metatextual string

Al­most noone likes to be tied down. That is sure­ly a non-­con­tro­ver­sial state­men­t. Of course, some peo­ple dis­agree (y­ou freak­s). But let's ig­nore them (f­reak­s) for a few min­utes, and con­sid­er the con­cept of ty­ing and ties.

I have spent many an un­pleas­ant minute try­ing to ex­plain to lay­men why there is a branch of math­e­mat­ics that has a for­mal def­i­ni­tion of what is or is­n't a knot. Usu­al­ly that is met by the usu­al eye­-rolling and com­ments of "y­ou stupid math peo­ple" and "it's ob­vi­ous" (but it is­n't). If you don't know what a knot is, and what is a knot, then you don't know whether you are tied to some­thing or not.

How can you know any­thing if you don't know what things are at­tached to you, and what you are at­tached to? Lit­er­al­ly, you can't know your­self with­out know­ing about knot­s, and how they bind you. Even east­ern prim­i­tives who did­n't know about the germ the­o­ry of dis­ease rec­og­nized the im­por­tance of this, and preached the need to de­tach your­self, to cut the knots ty­ing you to the ma­te­ri­al world.

Con­sid­er the sem­i­nal 80's sit­com, Fam­i­ly Ties. It's all about the at­tach­ment be­tween a boy and his mon­ey. And then the boy grows up, be­comes a writer, goes to the big city and gets drunk and does a lot of drugs, but it is al­so about how he feels at­tached to his fam­i­ly... and about how the kid wears ties.

Is it a co­in­ci­dence? I say it's im­pos­si­ble. Why is the clear­est sign, the ob­vi­ous in­di­ca­tor of be­long­ing to grownup so­ci­ety a piece of string that you tie? Be­cause oth­er­wise it would fall off your neck? Yes. But some­times an ob­vi­ous sym­bol­ism is ust an ob­vi­ous sym­bol­is­m. You tie your tie, and you tie your­self.

Why don't wom­en use ties? Well, be­cause they have not yet reached that epoch in cloth­ing. Ties are de­rived from Croa­t­ian Cra­vats and date all the way back to the 17th cen­tu­ry. but wom­en most­ly still dress like 16th cen­tu­ry peas­ants. If you look in re­nais­sance pic­tures, all men have purs­es. Lat­er, none of them do, be­cause they have a great mod­ern in­ven­tion, called pock­et­s. For some rea­son, wom­en are stuck in the pre-pock­et age of cloth­ing.

Here's a sim­ple ex­er­cise for het­ero­sex­u­al­ly mar­ried peo­ple: count the pock­ets on wom­en's gar­ments and on men's gar­ments. I (male) rarely can be found wear­ing few­er than 6 pock­et­s. If I were to dress in mod­ern clothes (suit­), I would have over 10 pock­et­s. Most wom­en's wear (ex­cept jean­s) has no pock­et­s. Or (jean­s) it's so ridicu­lous­ly tight that you can't use the pock­et­s. So wom­en use purs­es. But if you use a purse, you are ba­si­cal­ly giv­ing up a hand a cer­tain part of the time. Would you give up a hand 10% of the time to make a fash­ion state­men­t? I say if wom­en were to make that de­ci­sion con­scious­ly they would­n't do it.

So why is that? Beats me. So, while men use ropes tied to their necks to show ad­her­ence to so­ci­ety, wom­en are part­ly lamed for the same rea­son (not to men­tion the idea of buy­ing shoes that are pret­ty but hurt a bit when walk­ing). Goes to show that not all ties are vis­i­ble. Fol­low­ing these con­ven­tions are in­vis­i­ble or on­ly metaphor­i­cal­ly vis­i­ble ties. The lat­er sto­ics (much smarter peo­ple than the pre­vi­ous­ly men­tioned east­ern prim­i­tives: they had in­door plumb­ing) said things like this:

"Things not in our pow­er in­clude the body, prop­er­ty, rep­u­ta­tion, of­fice, and, in a word, ev­ery­thing which is not our do­ing. Things in our pow­er are by na­ture free, un­hin­dered, un­tram­meled; things not in our pow­er are weak, servile, sub­ject to hin­drance, de­pen­dent on oth­er­s."

Now, how much fun is it to say that ev­ery­thing you own is not in your pow­er. That the very pow­er you pos­sess is not in your pow­er. But they al­so said that you had two things that were the most im­por­tan­t: the will to get and the will to avoid. Those are the ba­sic tools of hu­man ex­is­tence. If you have the will to avoid pain, you can not buy painful shoes. If you have the will to get pock­et­s, you get pants with pock­et­s. And you can de­cide what you want to get or avoid by just think­ing. There is no se­cret.

2011

So, this is 2012. Looks a lot like the pre­vi­ous mod­el. On the oth­er hand, there are go­ing to be some changes around here. For starter­s, I am go­ing to post. I am go­ing to post ev­ery day in 2012. In this blog. Here. In 2012. 366 post­s. At least.

Of course, this is wish­ful think­ing, it's just a new year's res­o­lu­tion, and those are, like ev­ery­thing, doomed to fail, to cor­rupt them­selves, to fall prey to ra­tio­nal­iza­tion, lat­est vic­tims of en­tropy and de­cay. Then again, so am I, and so are you, and it makes no sense to dwell in the sure fail­ure to come, and in­stead I should fo­cus on the cur­rent vic­to­ry. This is the first day of 2012 and I am, in­deed, post­ing to­day.

So, just to con­tra­dict my­self, which I will do ev­ery time it may be more fun than be­ing con­sis­tent with that mo­ron I was in the past, let's talk about my past year.

Pro­fes­sion­al­ly, 2011 was a re­al­ly big change, in that I stopped work­ing on my own com­pa­ny and start­ed (ok, that was in Dec 2009) work­ing for Canon­i­cal. It has been re­al­ly great in many ways, and not so great in oth­er­s.

Great: I work with peo­ple I re­al­ly like and re­spec­t. The work it­self is full of in­ter­est­ing chal­lenges.

Not Great: I have com­plete­ly aban­doned my free soft­ware pro­ject­s, which are bi­trot­ting.

Great: I have had the chance to vis­it three con­ti­nents, and have awe­some ex­pe­ri­ences.

Not Great: I have heard my kid cry on the phone about how he miss­es me. This year I may trav­el a bit less.

Great: Fi­nan­cial se­cu­ri­ty for me and my fam­i­ly.

Not Great: If I had to grade my per­for­mance in a 1-10 scale, I may give my­self a 6. I have lacked en­er­gy, and fo­cus. I have been dis­or­ga­nized and lazy. I will try to im­prove.

Great: we shipped prod­uc­t.

Not Great: we could have shipped bet­ter prod­uc­t. I will do my part to make it bet­ter in 2012.

What else has been go­ing on i my life in 2011? Well, my health is worse. I am fat­ter. I have been di­ag­nosed with a hor­mon­al im­bal­ance which may ac­count for some/­most/all of it, and I will be start­ing treat­ment this month. This may al­so be to blame for part of my hy­per­ten­sion, and for my abysmal lev­el of en­er­gy the last cou­ple of years.

I have put my mar­riage un­der a big strain, which I hope I can re­vert in 2012, since I re­al­ly love my wife, and want to make her hap­py.

I will get my mouth fixed this year. If you know me per­son­al­ly you may know what that mean­s. I have aw­ful teeth. I have nev­er fixed them be­cause of a per­haps un­der­stand­able fear of hav­ing peo­ple put sharp things in my mouth. But I want to be able to smile to my fam­i­ly, so I will get it fixed. (BTW: you have not seen a hon­est, un­think­ing smile from me in about 15 years. Suck­s, I know.)

How will I be able to do all these things? I don't know. I know I may not. I sus­pect I will not. I ex­pect I will not. I will not. But I will try. I will do what I can, and take the fall for what I can't.

But right now, I am fo­cus­ing on lit­tle bit­s. I am post­ing in this blog. 1 day down, 365 to go.


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