30 November 2007

"We were so good I don't get why we lost"

4 años de gobierno sin aumentar ningún impuesto

(Post-election advertising poster for the outgoing government,
almost identical to posters used in the campaign to boost
the government party candidate, who lost anyway.)

Reporter: "[Governor] Jorge Obeid said he'll leave you [enough] money to pay salaries and bonuses to the public employees in December, 200 million pesos from the anti-cyclical fund, 80 million from the public works fund, and 300 million for ongoing works, adding up to 1,400 million. What do you think?"

Governor-elect Hermes Binner: "That we're going to have to pay for a lot of advertising."

29 November 2007

Countdown starts

39 days
till vacation
I'm designing a small website for a firm that organizes conferences and marketing events. It's a little business and they only need some static content online to show their potential customers, so it's short work. Now why do I get these things at the end of spring and not, say, during the coldest part of winter, when I'd be happy to stay coding indoors all the time, a cup of hot tea on my desktop?

Anyway, the job is good for some extra cash, and I'm going to need that cash. I'm going to a palyndromic place in January and, though I initially planned on taking 2 weeks off work and staying 12–13 days, I've been wondering it might be better to use the full 3 weeks I have available and just stay there until I have to go back or run out of money, whichever comes first (my travelmates so far agree with me). Neuquén City is not specially touristy, I reckon, but as you go west towards the Andes and into the Lake District the tourist traps multiply, and since the place is stunningly beautiful, everything is bound to be priced for Europeans.

The events firm guy says if the website comes out OK, he'll hire me to do small portals for three upcoming events early next year. In the heat of summer, alas, but I can't afford to reject Mammon's advances for the time being. I intend to do some more travel during the long Easter + Memorial Day weekend (March 20 to March 24) so I need to save up.

As December approaches, the usual end-of-year gatherings are being planned already. I've just rejected an invitation to attend my office's end-of-year dinner; I have no quarrel with the people in my office but the party is quite plainly a farewell party intended celebrate the administration of my outgoing boss (I can't name him, but the hierarchy goes approximately Governor — Health Minister — my boss), so all sorts of people I don't know or care to know will be there, and there'll be speeches and toasts: the horror!

I'm counting the weeks and days left this year. November I've felt as very, very long, for good reasons mostly, but I want it to end, and I want the December holiday madness to go by as swiftly as possible.

28 November 2007

Almost tobacco-free

Good news for us fresh air breathers: non-smoking regulations are respected in most places in Rosario. Research conducted in May, in 34 enclosed public sites (bars, restaurants, pubs and universities), showed that 87% of them had a very good air quality, and that smoke-free rules were kept. The remaining 13% are mostly nightclubs, where controls are non-existent and self-restraint has apparently not caught on. People also smoke in university rooms during class.

I'm surprised at how people have become accustomed, in a matter of months, not to smoke in enclosed spaces. In a country where flaunting the law is done so casually, the degree of common courtesy shown by smokers even in places where no serious control is to be expected is astonishing, in a good way. Other people I've spoken to feel the same. This has to have an effect on the habit. Former chain smokers are now choosing to stay chatting with their families or friends at the table when they go to a restaurant, and only occasionally pop outside for a smoke.

The bit about the universities is depressing, though. I can more-or-less understand that you can't go around a nightclub telling people to put out their cigarettes — not in Argentina, not in the environment of most clubs. But in a classroom? And the worst offenders, I'm told, are the teachers. Of course, once the prof has lit up a cigarette, the students are likely to forget the law as well.

It's been a while since I last heard complaints from smokers. From time to time some politician or editorial journalist tries to make an issue of the alleged "freedom to smoke" that is being suppressed. But the dire consequences predicted by doomsayers ("People won't go to places where they're not allowed to smoke! The economy will collapse!") haven't materialized, and plain citizens who smoke are not demonstrating in the streets. Smokers by and large aren't mad at the law; if anything, a few I know are relieved — they don't want to quit but they've found a way to control their addiction.

I once heard a good analogy used to refute the "right to smoke" claim, even supposing secondhand smoke weren't an issue. Your right to smoke a cigarette next to someone in an enclosed place, the argument went, is about the same kind of right you have to let out a fart. Maybe it won't hurt anybody, maybe it's not anyone's business, maybe you should have the freedom to do what you want with your own body — but nobody else wants it around, and you're just nasty by forcing it on the rest of us.

26 November 2007

Culture and fun weekend

It's a good thing that you can have a culture weekend any time here in Rosario. On Friday I was alerted of an exhibition of photos by Joaquín Chiavazza, a photojournalist of the old La Tribuna newspaper: stunningly well-done black and white pictures from the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were people all dressed up at the then-popular horse track, with horses racing past the camera; images of car and bicycle races, no longer held in the city; picturesque traffic accidents, milkmen and their horse-pulled carts, women in a queue outside a school, waiting to vote for the first time...

This was at the Bernardino Rivadavia by Plaza Montenegro, and I'm told the rest of the photos (many more) are on display at the Museo de la Ciudad, which is not so conveniently placed, but I have a month to check them out (some samples online).

Then on Saturday I went again to the Museo Estévez. I think I didn't explain this before, so just in case, I'm doing a photo workshop there. The people of the museum are trying to expand their activities, and this includes extending their guided tour from the inside of the museum to the surroundings. The Estévez building is possibly the oldest house in Rosario that remains in more-or-less its original condition, and it's located in front of Plaza 25 de Mayo, the main town square of old, so just by walking around you're treading on the very historical core of Rosario. The Estévez decided to join this activity with a photo workshop with a downtown area theme. They'll collect pictures and do an exhibition of a selected group in April 2008.

So we walked a few blocks and learned a few bits of history and took some pictures. I had this nasty problem with my camera's memory card again, which seems to be unfortunately common, judging from the hundreds of complaints I've read about in web forums. Sony must have the worst quality control system in the world. So I took out the card and used the camera's internal memory. It's very weird, this thing when you can't capture any really good image even if you walk around shooting without concern for the space left in your card, and then when you have room for only a dozen shots, you get a few very satisfying pictures.

A punto de
Cyclists near the stairs leading to the Flag Memorial

On Saturday evening there was a free show by El Choque Urbano at the Flag Memorial. El Choque Urbano are a group of guys who make percussion music using industrial objects, à la Stomp or Mayumana. Their budget's limited compared to Stomp, but they make up for it with very good acting. The show began at sunset before a crowded Flag Memorial courtyard, and lasted about two hours. I sat there with some of the Rosarigasinos and a few thousands of other people and enjoyed it very much.

Choque Urbano

Choque Urbano

I need to tell you that I'm madly in love with the Sony H7's hyperzoom. I was like 100 meters away from the stage and I could see El Choque's guys quite clearly. I took a lot more video but I was fearing the battery would die at any moment, and then at home couldn't be bothered to wait for it to upload on my faltering DSL connection.

We had a late dinner after the concert, and there was much rejoicing and dark beer and coffee and then some more coffee. I staggered back to the bus stop and got home at about 4 AM, where I promptly collapsed, only to wake up six hours later to prep an asado for a couple of friends. This kind of full-day fun marathon used to be easy for me to endure. I'm getting so old...

23 November 2007

Blackout count: 3

The Power Supply Fluctuation Watch recorded a new event yesterday. Blackout #3 of the 2007/2008 season has been assigned the name Carlos. It began with minor drops of voltage just after sunset, followed by recovery, and ending with a large loss of voltage that lasted until the morning.

In other news, the outgoing government of Santa Fe led by Governor Jorge Obeid continues to appoint scores of its own officials, political allies, and friends and relatives of the governor, his cabinet, and influential former governor Carlos Reutemann, to high-ranking vacant posts in the public administration, the judiciary and the Provincial Power Company (Empresa Provincial de la Energía, EPE).

Sorrento power plant
On a related note, EPE workers and managers, despite being extremely well-paid, haven't had the time or the ability to repair the Sorrento thermoelectric power plant (located in the northeast of Rosario), which supplies 160 MW to the grid. After a terribly bad summer last year, Sorrento has been out of order for the last ten months, and though it was supposed to resume working in December, further repairs will push the date to early February, after the worst part of summer is over. The head of EPE, governor Obeid's cousin, was not available for comments.

EPE is said to have serious shortages of personnel in certain areas, while others are overpopulated by (or were just created especially to harbour) unqualified people appointed there in violation of regulations just because they have family or political contacts in the management. Wages paid by EPE are legendarily high. The company will close 2007 with an estimated AR$90 million deficit, double the figure of 2006, and will have to be asisted with government (i.e. taxpayers') money.

Since the Front for Victory lost the election in September, the provincial government has been cutting supplies to its public offices, and the quality of its services has gone downhill. This hasn't prevented the government party to advertise itself using the same posters that appeared during the campaign — huge colour prints boasting "4 years of hard work, without raising taxes". The Peronists seem to be determined not to leave a single coin, a single spare printer ink cartridge or a single made-up vacant post on their way out, and are turning the judiciary and the (formally) independent control offices into a minefield for the next administration.

Boy, this will take years to fix...

22 November 2007

Bye bye Japanese

I had my last Japanese class yesterday, or rather, my last day, since there was no class, only a test. It was fairly easy. I was left with the impression that an exam you can pass without studying is not such a good thing in the long run. But there won't be a long run for me, since I'm leaving Japanese school.

Though there's a last class on Friday, I won't be there. I was invited to a theater performance where a friend of mine participates and I wouldn't miss it. When I started Japanese, and up until last year, skipping class for something other than illness would've been unthinkable for me, but I grew a bit tired of it this year, and I also freed myself of the sense of obligation to attend.

As I said to my sensei, I began studying Japanese not because I wanted to go to Japan (to visit or work), not because I loved the culture, but simply because I liked the language, and I promised myself I'd leave as soon as it became work rather than fun.

Well, that finally happened, and here I am at the end of the road, at least for now.

I still feel a bit as if I was an ungrateful person. The Japanese Association has been like a second home for me since 2004. I met several of my best friends there or in connection to people there. I started a brand-new part of my life there. Literally and figuratively, I learned anew how to read and write. I was involved with the community whenever I could. But I was dodging hints of being "a part of the community" all this last year, probably because deep inside I didn't feel in the right place already.

Leaving means I won't see some people (not friends, but nice people, neighbours in a way) that I've seen and talked to every week for years. It also means throwing away a full year of study (since it takes three years to prepare for the next international proficiency test, and if I decide to try in the future I'll have to start over), and it probably means I'll be forgetting a lot, quickly, as soon as I stop practising the language on a regular basis.

A great part of the reason why I don't wish to study Japanese anymore is the schedule and the whole orientation of the subject towards the supreme goal of the JLPT. These tests (numbered from the 4th to 1st level, the 1st being the last and hardest) have certain requirements regarding the number of words and kanji combinations you must be acquainted with. Yonkyuu (4th level) should be a piece of cake for anyone who has bothered to follow classes. Sankyuu (3rd level) needs more dedication, but nothing out of the ordinary; I had two regular Japanese classes a week (3 hours total) plus supplemental weekly classes (1½ hours), practising with old exams, during the second term.

Nikyuu (the 2nd level JLPT) is a lot harder, and in my opinion it should not be undertaken by anyone who doesn't intend to devote a lot of their free time to it. At the 3-hours/week rhythm I was doing, nikyuu requires three years of study, and although you learn many useful expressions, a great part of its requirements consists of memorizing a long list of complicated specialized terms and hyperformal words borrowed from Chinese, and an equally long list of kanji combinations, codifying those specialized words and others you'll never use in actual conversation (such as "[hormone] secretion"). A classmate of mine who's been having his own doubts summarized it well: at this point we're not being taught the Japanese language — we're just being trained to pass the nikyuu.

I understand that a certified Japanese school must do this. You can't have students learning words incrementally in a natural way, in conversation and reading, because it'd take ages. If you want to learn Japanese your own way, you need to get a group of Japanese speakers (native or not) and chat and share notes informally. You won't learn the kanji you need to read a newspaper or a book, and you won't be able to write nice compositions and speeches using the florid, homonym-crowded, unnecessary Chinese-imported jargon that Japanese seem to love.

Thanks to one year of training for nikyuu instead of learning usable Japanese, I can say and read in kanji form the terms "blood pressure", "ticket-checking gate" (as in the metro/underground) and "global warming", but I still don't know the words for "tile", "tray" or "coat hanger".

I'm not through with languages, though. I think next year I'll be taking up something else — something easy, like Arabic or Russian. Heh heh.

21 November 2007

The future of the abortion issue in Santa Fe

Abortion is illegal in Argentina, and due to a clear intrusion of religious belief in the Constitution of 1994, it cannot be made fully legal under any circumstances without causing a flood of judicial injunctions, unless you change the Constitution itself. But at least you can start by not treating women who abort like murderers.

This hot potato was grabbed by Miguel Ángel Cappiello, currently the Secretary of Public Health of Rosario and soon to become Minister of Health of Santa Fe, yesterday. Cappiello publicly said that he thought abortion should be decriminalized and that, for starters, women who go to public hospitals to be treated by complications of induced abortions will never again be denounced to the police. The law is unclear in this respect, since although abortion is illegal, the physician who deals with it has the right and the obligation to keep the professional secret. The physicians surveyed support Cappiello.

The platitudes of those who claim to be "on the side of life" started right away, of course. It seems as if Cappiello had suggested that mothers should be rewarded for ripping their babies apart or something like that. Unfortunately, the most influential members of the medical and legal establishments tend to be fanatically Catholic wealthy old men who have never seen or spoken to a poor woman forced to raise a child she didn't want, so they feel perfectly fine speaking of the embryo's "right to life" as if this abstract concept superseded any other consideration, and worse.

The minister-to-be is sure to apply the same measures in the province that the Socialist administrations in Rosario have been applying for years regarding contraception and planned parenthood, so abortions should decrease. Santa Fe has the means to reduce unwanted pregnancies, including an appallingly high rate of teenage pregnancies, but the government has done nothing serious about those. Although the current lame-duck governor Jorge Obeid is a left-wing Peronist (one who had ties with extreme leftist Peronists in the 1970s), his power is based on the establishment of Santa Fe City: the reactionary rich Catholics who've been really in charge since the 16th century. Current Health Minister Silvia Simoncini is just a deputy of those higher powers (and an awfully incompetent minister, too). They're going away on December 10. Good riddance!

18 November 2007

Rosarigasinos into the woods

We the Rosarigasinos went to do a photographic tour of the Bosque de los Constituyentes last Saturday (follow the link for more pictures, and try Flickr too). In case you haven't been following, we're a group of local photo freaks... er, amateur photographers, and we do these tours every month.

Queremos entrar

Constituyentes are the people who draft a constitution, and bosque means woods. The place was an environmentally damaged area and a no-man's-land in the northwest of the outer urban ring of Rosario, where the Ludueña Stream crosses beneath Circunvalación Avenue. It's a bit difficult to get there without a car and some courage, but now there's at least something to look forward to: 260 hectares (2.6 km²) of forest, plain and water, which took a lot of work to turn into a working ecosystem. They did it in the 1990s; people set fire to the woods several times, and there were other problems, but the place seems to be doing OK now. The trees planted there will reach maturity, according to the official brochure, in 2040, but there's a lot of life there already: pines and eucalyptus, several species of birds (kiskadees, lapwings, plovers, and others I couldn't identify), water turtles, and snails.

Cabeza de tortuga

Aves en el Ludueña

There are llamas as well! They were so out of place in this place, but it turns out they were brought in when the zoo closed. (There was a lot of debate when the municipality decided to close down Rosario's zoo. We're the only large city in Argentina without a zoo, and though the state of it was appalling, they could've tried to improve it instead of sending the animals away.) We tried to get close to the llamas but they didn't like it very much; the males came forward with threatening looks, and that was it.

Estoy en llamas

I didn't think the tour was a good idea at the beginning, because it was so complicated to get there and because you have to get a permit to enter. I hate bureaucracy and I have no contacts, but fortunately other people in the group did, so after an exchange of emails and faxes and finally a personal phone chat with the head of the municipal park department, we were told it was fine for us 20 or so photographers to visit the woods for a couple of hours. There was nobody to guide us, as promised, and we overstayed a bit too. So much for bureaucracy! I'm glad to say nobody did anything ecologically irresponsible like lighting a cigarette or leaving plastic wrappings on the ground.

After the tour we grabbed something to eat at the patio de comidas of the Carrefour supermarket, and then we went home to rest for the night — since it was the birthday of one of the guys and we were having an asado. We were lucky the horrible storm that was forecast didn't materialize, or rather, it did but then vanished.

Se viene la tormenta

This is the first time we celebrate like this. As I said to the group, we've definitely moved ahead from being just an Internet-based photographers' group and picture repository to a group of people, colleagues, friends, or whatever you prefer to call it. I'm immensely grateful to these guys who have so casually turned into friends; if I were to sum up the brightest aspects of this year (yes, it's that time already) I'd surely place the Rosarigasinos at the top.

15 November 2007

Anniversaries and natural rhythms

Today's the anniversary of the Hail Hell. On November 15, 2006, a storm with hailstones big as golf balls brought Rosario to its knees. The effects are felt even today. You can still see its marks in some cars, whose owners could not or would not repair, and the hysteria that ensues every time hail is mentioned in a weather forecast as a slight possibility shows that people haven't forgotten.

I've always said that having a car is like having a child. A very dumb child who never grows up and demands constant attention and lots of expensive food and gear. Some actually treat their cars as they would treat their children (or better). A car will never learn to avoid hail, and so people who can't be bothered to walk ten blocks every morning and choose to clog the streets with their cars are doomed to be always on the alert, so they can run to their little babies and put them under a roof if the need arises.

(If you think the above rant is a personal digression of mine aimed at specific people, you're right. But it may apply to you, so think about it. For the most part a car is not needed for everyday activities here in the big city. You know that.)

As befitting the anniversary of a weird weather event, today's weather is also messed up. There's not a cloud in sight and no hail is possible, but the morning looks and feels like it was June instead of November. I've never seen a mid-spring season like this, with temperatures falling below 10 degrees Celsius as soon as the sun goes down. Yesterday, though the sun was blasting, it was cold and windy even at noon. Half the people I know (including myself) caught a cold or something worse last week.

Up until a few years ago, there used to be a certain day in the year (it could be September, it could be October) when your mother said "Well, kids, let's take all the warm winter clothes out of the drawers and off the hangers, fold them and put them away neatly in the closet's top drawers which you have to use a chair to reach. We'll take them down next year when the cold season comes. We won't need any of it until March." Such a thing is impossible today. We live by cold fronts and heat waves today — no seasons.

14 November 2007

Bird photography

I'm doing all sorts of experiments with my camera, now that its memory card is working fine. Having a 15× zoom has opened up my field of possibilities. Following the principle that if you paid a lot for it you should use it a lot, I'm taking the camera with me every day and trying to get pictures of things I couldn't picture before, such as birds perched in high branches or just looking around for bugs in the ground.

Pájaro en el jacarandá

I'm not a bird fan, really; I can't relate to those little, expressionless beings like I can with mammals. But they do make for good photos, when they stop moving. (This city is just a big little town and people in the street eventually get to know you, and I fear that soon they'll recognize me at once as the guy who walks stealthily and mutters "why can't you stand still, you damn bird!" every time his prey suddenly decides to move.)

Since the only alternative would be shooting stuffed birds in a natural history museum, I can live with those little feathered devils. And they do sometimes manage to be expressive in ways that resemble us higher lifeforms.


Sparrows, doves, ovenbirds and kiskadees make up the bulk of urban species here. I haven't been able to go on a field trip looking out for birds and other wild animals, so mine are all urban specimens. Some (like sparrows) are clearly accustomed to human presence. Others (like kiskadees) seem to flee as soon as they have you in their line of sight, unless you're very far away. These take a lot of zooming power to get a decent picture.


I may have a chance to picture a wider variety of wild birds soon, as we're going on a photo safari to a woods next weekend.

13 November 2007

Something smells rotten in Argentina

Just a few quick notes on politics.

Every time you see the Presidenta meeting with industrial moguls and businessmen to reassure them that the next administration will support them, I get this uneasy feeling that this cannot be good for us, the ones who actually work.

Conversely, every time you hear the leaders of industry and finance praising the economic continuity promised by Cristina, I cannot help but think that the power cards have been dealt, the players are already on their places, and, once again, we the people will just be watching from the outside. And serving the drinks.

I also think that, after being a lefty for most of my adult life, the scandalous displays of mob-like behaviour on the part of unions and government will end up turning me into a supporter of typical right-wing police repression. Did you see what happened yesterday before the Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires? I mean, except the part where the policeman beat a defenseless demonstrator with a stick, most of the violence came from the union guys, and then they did an incredible show of victimization, as if they'd been Gandhi vs. the British Empire.

When a union leader can decree a strike that will cripple nationwide public transport for a day, without consulting with the workers at all, it's not a good sign. And when a president can call (has to call?) the top union leader to get him to cancel the strike, and everything's "back to normal" in a couple of hours, that's a terrible sign. Realpolitik is messy, but this is just plain wrong.

When a president tolerates a radicalized ecologist group blocking international roads and making ominous threats, and speaks for his country saying "you've backstabbed our people" to the president of a neighbouring friendly country because said country won't put up with our bullying anymore, that's a horrible thing to happen, especially if citizens stay silent.

When the president of your country makes friends with a president that is well on his way to become a dictator for life, and who gladly consorts with a guy who denies the Holocaust, believes Israel should be erased from the map and is producing nuclear weapons, that's not a good thing. One should pick one's friends carefully, because from outside one's always associated with their faults.

Something's very wrong and it seems like no-one here is reacting.

11 November 2007

Rosario BlogDay 2007: a half-review

My review of Rosario BlogDay 2007 will have to be short because I was only there half the time (you'll learn why soon). As usual in all events here in Argentina, things started rolling about an hour later than scheduled. Fortunately there were also two breaks scheduled, one in mid-morning and one for lunch, so the organizers just cancelled those to compensate.

I checked myself in at the entrance, and I was given a heavy full-colour catalog of tech products, a large spiral notebook with hard cardboard covers, and a very nicely designed ballpoint pen. That was my first hint that this was a marketing-oriented event, and I wasn't wrong. In any case, however, this wasn't a problem.

First of all came Pablo Mancini, founder of Argentonia ("Specialists in virtual worlds"), which markets commercial spots in the Argentine section of Second Life. I really don't get the idea of people spending real money to buy virtual money in order to set up avatars of themselves and their own businesses in a slow-moving virtual environment populated by geeks, but — to each their own.

Mancini spoke long and well about the Web 2.0, and how the situation has changed with respect to, say, 6 or 7 years ago. At that time, he said, the idea that anyone with an Internet connection could produce and distribute content, even quality content, through free or low-cost mechanisms, was revolutionary. Today, such independent production of multimedia content is taken for granted, and we must focus on the creation of contexts for sharing those contents. He reviewed RSS feeds, emerging blog communities, NetVibes, Feevy (so far an upstart), and other technologies, and showed us an interesting map of connections between blogs.

There's a core of high-traffic blogs that everybody ends up linking to directly or indirectly, but there are also semi-isolated circles of blogs linked to each other that deal with topics that are not so popular, and which Mancini found to be the most interesting — I'd say, the exotic places, or the odd ones out.

Then came a shorter lecture on an example of a virtual campus, by a guy who worked in the government of Buenos Aires Province and a few other places. He discussed the old paradigm of the school as a hierarchical structure where fixed schemes of knowledge are conveyed through a rigid structure from the top down, and how this has isolated the school from the real world, where knowledge is being produced all the time and we've become accustomed to sharing it horizontally. Nice ideas, except of course only applicable to private schools for upper-middle-class children (i.e. useless in Argentina except as an experiment).

The last part I saw was an exposition of the PrevenBlogs programme. It's a municipal implementation of a plan to get students involved in the prevention of AIDS and the promotion of sexual health. After the grownups spoke, a few highschool kids went on the stage and explained what they'd done, how they told their parents about it, and how everybody took it. They were serious and hilarious at the same time ("refreshing" is the appropriate cliché to use here). Among their creations was a blog showing how to put on a condom and encouraging its use — Usen el fucking forro ("Use the fucking rubber"). The kid in charge noted that the title was chosen "because they told us to use our peers' way of speaking". Amen.

And then I had to go. It turns out that, when I bought my camera, the memory card had a few problems. I changed it once, then again, and then again. The last time I got one that was even more wrecked than the others. Just as I was leaving the Second Life lecture at noon to get some fresh air and maybe something to eat, the card just died on me, apparently losing all the pictures I'd taken. I could almost feel my sanity blowing up in pieces right there. I went home, had lunch, and got myself a recovery program. It was marvelous. I'd looked for similar programs but they were all crippled shareware versions; this one was fully-working freeware.

The program started looking for files in the card, and sure enough the pictures were still there, although a few were corrupted. I breathed. The program continued doing an intensive search and recovering files until the battery died. Surprise surprise, I recovered a hundred pictures taken in July by a couple with kids vacationing in Mendoza! I swear I was about to go blind with anger. Long story short, I took the card to the shop and somehow managed not to kill the salesman while I told him: "You tried to pass a used card for a new one. I don't want anything else from you. Just give me back my money." Sure, he said unblinkingly. I took the money, left for downtown, and got myself a brand new card in a serious electronics shop. I won't trust MercadoLibre's vendor qualification system ever again.

Well, at the cost of a few dozens non-memorable shots, the nightmare is over.

08 November 2007

Retentive government

Papa K is raising the export tariffs for grains again. I think export tariffs (not import — export) are a unique phenomenon in the world. Here we call them retenciones, which means retentions. The idea behind not calling them taxes is that the government is not just keeping money for itself, but retaining a part of the "excess profit" that the farmers make thanks to the internationally high prices of commodities and the locally high exchange rate. This "retention" theoretically keeps local prices in check and discourages producers from selling all of it abroad and leaving the local market unsupplied (is that a word?).

That's the theory at least. In truth, what happens is that the farmers, even with a 35% tariff deduced from their sales abroad, are getting filthy rich, while screaming all the time at the top of their lungs that they're desperately poor, and that the big bad government is snatching away the bread from their children's mouths. So desperately sinking into poverty they are, they've been increasing their crops and setting higher yield records every year since 2002. One of these days I think I'll wake up and see my garden turned into a soybean field.

Soybean field, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina
Soybean field in Buenos Aires Province. Original image by Alfonso.

One assumes that, if selling abroad with such high tariffs were no good, then the farmers would stop doing it. The local market is not big enough for soybean and sunflower, but then we do need other stuff. Like tomatoes and potatoes, for example. And beef and milk. You can't have cows munching on expensive high-yield pesticide-resistant transgenic soybean, can you? (Soybean is displacing other crops, as well as cattle farming. It's also displacing natural forests, and is being planted in soils that will quickly deteriorate. See "Argentina: la cuenta regresiva para el granero del mundo" [via Pehuen.org, in turn thanks to Chileno].)

The government is keeping a lot of money that it wouldn't be getting if it weren't for the high exchange rate. If the price of the dollar in pesos went down, the national state would be deprived of much-needed funds (in fact, the fiscal surplus would evaporate), and the farmers would also get a lot less in local currency. Since it's the government that props up the dollar artificially, the perverse scheme at work is transparent. The government and the farmers yell at each other while they support each other at the same time.

I don't have an ideological problem with export tariffs, like many of their critics. I think they're perfectly fine. They should be better implemented, probably, but they're not wrong per se. The rules are not the same here as in developed countries. In a country with a weak currency and a very small and underdeveloped local market, without export taxes, it makes financial sense to screw your own and sell abroad. And if the product has little to no added value, better yet, in the short term. Oh, farmers do have to invest a lot these days, but they're not advancing technology, they're just using top-notch off-the-shelf tech to seed, care for and harvest million of tons of plants. (Argentina builds and exports very fine agricultural machines, too. That's the way to go.) Retenciones make producers think twice and pay a little attention to the local market. In the case of soybean, which is not a local staple, tariffs should serve to stop farmers from turning the whole country into a massive monoculture field.)

The problem with the tariffs is that all that money ends up in the national state's coffers and doesn't go back to where it came from, or to where it's needed most. The crop-producing provinces get nothing for their efforts, and the other provinces (typically poorer) don't see the money of their rich cousins redistributed. Instead, the money funds the government's grandiose public works scheme (plus bribes for the minister in charge and overpriced items for his friends who win the bids) and its political machine.

Last Friday, the government sent AR$140 million (~US$44M) to the municipalities of Greater Buenos Aires, to be used at the discretion of their mayors. Legal (thanks to an obscenely dependent Congress who allowed the budget to be modified freely) but fishy. The GBA has been ruled by these robber barons and virtual mafia bosses since ever, and it was them who gave Cristina half the votes she got (many of which, for all we know, were bought and paid for). The GBA surely needs those funds, being the metropolitan area with the worst quality of life in the country, but it's obvious they're not being used to make life better for the residents. This week Papa K also sent AR$80 million to some provinces. You'll also remember, surely, how K cut ribbons of dozens of public works in various states of completion throughout the campaign.

This is the usual way of favouring your loyal servants before an election, and rewarding them after it. And it's possible only because the national government has a lot of money to spend, while the local governments have little. Santa Fe is among the provinces most harmed by this. Export tariffs are not redistributable by law like other national taxes, so our province, which produces and exports a lot of the country's grains and vegetable oil, is subject to the whims of the national government. Since Santa Fe is comparatively rich, however, it can (politically) afford to be fairly independent of those whims, and it's been punished for that. The new Socialist government, we hope, will protest more than the obedient Peronist one we've had for the last four years.

05 November 2007

The cogs of the political machine

An Al-Jazeera video showing how politicians buy votes from the poor through punteros (middlemen), how they manage to confirm that those votes were actually cast, how much they pay, and how politicians hire people to fill their meetings and cheer for them... No less sickening because we've always known this is so.

04 November 2007

Bloggers in Rosario

My brother was just browsing the morning (dead-tree edition) news and he ran across an article about Rosario BlogDay. What do you know: D for Disorientation and Vista Rosario have appeared in La Capital! D for Disorientation is an oddity, says La Capital, a Rosario-based blog in English, while Vista Rosario is one of the many photoblogs in the city.

La Capital, Señales, 4 November 2007

The article in the newspaper supplement Señales also mentions Rosario... antes y después, a collection of old and new pictures of Rosario (old black and white photos of urban landmarks paired up to present-day pictures of the same), compiled by my fellow Rosarigasino, Facundo, and El Mundo Como Yo Lo Veo, by Lisandro, yet another photo-colleague — who sometimes reviews tech devices or other blogs, but usually stirs controversy with his takes on pseudoscience and superstition.

Friday's post (Bloggers outside Buenos Aires) received a couple of comments that I want to note because, they made me realize (once again) how far this blogging thing can go... JMO (an Argentinian, I guess) writes telling me that he found me via my brother's role-playing blog, and Melch from the U.S. tells me he'll be staying in Rosario for a couple of months (and not in BA, in part, I understand, because of my post). I've been found like this by a number of people and now even the big old-fashioned ink-and-paper media are paying attention to the local blogosphere and to what we citizens have to say. It's a nice feeling.

02 November 2007

Bloggers outside Buenos Aires

I've talked about the disproportionate representation of Buenos Aires in the media and its projection in the international image of Argentina. Prompted by a comment by Pieter, I'll revisit that topic and I'll add to it. Pieter says that from the point of view of the outside world, Argentina seems to consist of BA and nothing else, and specifically noted that Argentine English-language blogs are all porteños, with the exception of moi, and there seems to be not a single blog based in Córdoba.

Now Rosario has an active Spanish-language blogosphere, and I although I'm the only blogger here that writes his own blog in English, I know that others can and do contribute in English in other forums. On the other hand, I haven't really searched for Córdoba-based blogs, but I haven't run into any yet. Now Córdoba was a center of culture before Rosario even existed as a handful of mud houses, and is still a vibrant university town, a major touristic area, and an industrial power, with a population around 1.5 million, even larger than Rosario's. (We rosarinos consider ours to be Argentina's "second city" for other reasons besides mere population, but we have no quarrel with the cordobeses.) I don't see how there could be no bloggers there.

Not only that, but for the most part nothing from the "interior" of the country appears in the Argentine blogosphere (for an international audience, that is), again, with the exception of this blog (see e.g. the Argentine blogger section of Bloggers in Argentina). References to Rosario, Córdoba and other large cities are almost nonexistent, save for Mendoza — which in turn is pictured as merely a huge winery with some pretty snowy mountains in the background. No mendocino, that I know of, is blogging in English from/about Mendoza.

I have no idea if people in Córdoba and Mendoza have the sort of local pride that we have here in Rosario. I don't see why they wouldn't. If they don't make themselves known, if they don't advertise themselves, talk about themselves, and refuse to yield to the unfortunate circumstance that all major media are based in Buenos Aires and believe it to be the Axis Mundi, then they'll continue to be under- (or mis-) represented.

For ages we were told (we're still told) that we were pathetic countryfolk trying to mimic Buenos Aires' sophistication, but I don't think that's true anymore, if it ever was. The large cities of the so-called "interior" are sophisticated (enough, at least), prosperous, quieter, safer, and cheaper to live in than Buenos Aires. We need to make those things known, not just to attract expats and tourists, but to establish the principle that Argentina can be truly federal, and multicentric.

As an aside, all the people I know who've recently gone to BA for tourism, family or business tell me the capital is quickly becoming an unlivable place: prices are a rip-off, traffic's crazy, people seem always in a hurry, crimes are commonplace, and horrific poverty is always visible next to the consumerist fever of these days, in the midst of a thousand new luxury towers and the shiny shopping malls. I know what poverty looks like from up close, but on my last trip to BA, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw the shanty town just beside Retiro, which is turning into something bigger than a mere villa miseria and more like a favela. My brother recently went to a town just outside BA, in the conurbano, and said that, for all the wealth of the capital, its suburbs reminded him of Africa: poor, rotten, rusty and crumbling. It's not that Rosario doesn't have that — it was the sheer scale of it that made such an impression on him. For all the faults of our local governments, they've never let things turn into such a nightmare.

I realize this is a very short explanation that veers off the main issue and I need to write a bit more about the causes and effects of Buenos Aires' dominion over the rest of the country, and its current problems. I don't know if I'm capable, but I'll try... when I have the time.