Thought #59. Is art facing a major crisis?

An good artist is somehow like a great speaker. We can draw a comparison between the process of writing a compelling speech and that of creating a great piece of art; they are both perfect examples of daunting tasks. Why do artists take the centre stage with criticism?

Artists and speakers usually face an uphill struggle to convey the message aspired to. That is because, in order to communicate effectively, it is not enough to have something to say. In fact, the message does not necessarily have to be clear as day. Sometimes, it is slightly obscure and that is perfectly suitable. However, if speeches and pieces of art are not charged with genuine emotion, they will not be worthwhile at all.

Apart from emotion, some technicalities are required. Whereas a speaker must choose the words carefully and put them together using the appropriate register and tone for the occasion, an artist, say a painter for example, would go through colours, materials and techniques to build up the picture that, eventually, will contain the wordless message in which his creation is based on.

The crux of the creative process, though, is that the language used in art changes rapidly and, therefore whatever is a craze today, it may not be tomorrow. Our taste in art evolves ceaselessly over the time in marked contrast to our language preferences that tend to be far more stable.

Precisely because it is language the means that artists have to do their job, when a new generation emerges, art can become inscrutable for the layman. The lack of connection between artists and the public has little to do with the quality of their work, though. We cannot blame the public either. It all goes back to communication.

For a message to be transmitted between A and B, both need to talk and understand the same language. Sometimes artists create they own new one and it takes time to disclose it. Sometimes they get stuck in the past and are unable to adapt to current trends. But regardless of that, there exist exclusive pieces of art which are atemporal and stand the test of time, language and contemporary criticism.

Thought #58. Checkmating AI.

My dog Sucre is not a dab hand at chess, but he has the uncanny knack of soothing me when necessary. I wonder whether AI (Artificial Intelligence) would ever possess such a humanlike capacity. Last week I came across a series of articles on the future of AI. Among them, it was the one on Erica, a Japanese android created 23 years ago, which riveted my attention.

Back in 1996, the classic man vs. machine plot hit the headlines when Deep Blue, an IBM computer specialised in playing chess beat the world chess champion Gary Kasparov. I clearly remember how exciting it was to see AI in action. I read with rapt attention all the articles that flooded the press in those days.

However, I was disappointed about the unfair comments made by the majority of journalists. Instead of a breath of fresh air, Deep Blue was the spark for a spiral of overthinking that bordered on the absurd. A mounting ill-founded concern over the risks of AI that has remained alive up until now. But neither was Deep Blue, at that time, a menace to humankind, nor does Erica represent a hazard nowadays.

Erica has a beautiful face and can express emotions. She can also be engaged in a conversation on topics ranging from culture, politics or new thinking, to the hypothetical scenario in which AI becomes the dominant form of intelligence on Earth. She has a relatively high degree of autonomy and has been programmed to learn from each human interaction in which she is involved.

When asked about the AI takeover, she openly recognises that despite being difficult to predict, it is too soon to envisage so fascinating a scenario. Many of us, at this moment, would ask ourselves whether doomed would not have been a more appropriate adjective to qualify that scenario. In any case, Erica’s arguments are sound.

She provides a snapshot of the possible risks of AI. In the first place, she assures us that an AI would not be capable of stabbing human beings in the back, unless it was programmed to do so. She also claims that AI’s power of computing is not tantamount to the amazing ability to feel and react that humans have. Somewhat, not a mere sign of a conceited attitude can be appreciated when conversing with Erica.

Of course, she is proud of her creators. She talks with frank enthusiasm about the new algorithms that they are planning to implement in the near future. Apparently, these blocks of code are aimed at enabling Erica to understand and emulate feelings. However, it is rather comical when Erika tries to imitate an awkward silence; she always fails in her attempts to choose the right moment to stop talking. More embarrassing though is when she tries to be funny and tells a cruel joke about genocide.

All things considered, I would decidedly go for a dog. Sucre’s companionable presence can soothe me and even make me happy. I would not go so far as to say that the lack of sense of humour could tarnish Erica’s reputation, but she definitely lacks what makes us human.

Thought #56. Fight like cat and dog.

Dear Reader,

How’s it going? It’s been ages since I’ve heard from you. I have to confess that your e-mail left me flabbergasted. I still remember when I told you about Sucre: your eyes out on stalks and you saying “Over my dead body my wife would ever bring home a pet”. Anyway, I’m glad you have finally eaten humble pie. Ha ha ha.

The thing is that you are torn between a cat or a dog. This poses a genuine dilemma for you and your family. Don’t get me wrong. First of all, owning a pet is a great idea but also takes a lot of time and effort. I’m sure that you would’ve already thought about it. What you may not know is that unlike cats, dogs do need to take loads of exercise.

If you want to have a healthy dog, be ready to get up early in the morning and start your day with a bracing walk. The first word that a dog learns is “street”. They love going out. And how! Of course, it doesn’t matter whether it’s raining or not, they will never say no. Another long walk after work will do the trick most of the times.

Don’t you want to know the best thing? When you come back weary from work, knowing full well that the dog will be waiting patiently, ready to cheer you up the moment you crossed the door. It just so happens that I recently read an article on whether cats or dogs love us more. It’s little wonder that dogs beat cats hands down. They have been testing the levels of oxytocin after having been playing along with dogs and cats. I’ll send you an email with a link later.

When it comes to going to the vet, it doesn’t make any difference. You must take them once a year to have them vaccinated. If a dog, you should also give them some drugs to deal with parasites, especially in summer.

The most important thing, though, is that a pet is a new family member. They deserve your attention and care as much as your children and your wife. They are creatures of routines and don’t have a clue about your life outside home. For them, you’re the most important thing and will bond with whoever they feel you like.

So, as you must have imagined. I would definitely go for a dog. A good and companionable friend that will never let you down and will always push you into a healthier way of life. A win-win deal! Soon you’ll fight like cat and dog with your family for having your own time with your dearest pet.

See you soon,

Alberto.

Thought #55. Being an outsider.

Agatha knew full well it wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Since the very moment she made up her mind to leave her parents’ nest and headed for Spain, she had to come to terms with missing friends and family. On top of that, she hadn’t been abroad by herself and wasn’t sure how long it was going to take her to settle in. However, it was her long-held ambition, so she felt it was surely high time; in actual fact, she really had no other option.

Being an outsider can be exciting but, at the same time, hair-raising. Agatha arrived in Barcelona three years ago. It was a week before her seventeenth birthday, which she wouldn’t forget in ages.  When her mother gave her a ring and wished her happy birthday, Agatha couldn’t help but burst into tears; listless and a bit depressed, she told mum that, from the word go she was like a fish out of water.

Finding a part-time job was a priority. Agatha’s parents earned very little and she had to make both ends meet. At the end of the day, it was her decision and thus she, who shouldered the responsibility to earn a living. She had always a dab hand in the kitchen so she applied for a post to cover a vacancy in a downtown restaurant. She got the job but her boss promptly forced her to work till the small hours. His lack of empathy drove Agatha crazy. It was a dull job. Nothing out of the ordinary.

At the university, things didn’t seem to look much better. As if she was on another planet, Agatha’s uphill struggle to be liked among her classmates fell on deaf ears. Three months later, not only had she been the butt of their jokes, but also she hadn’t got a single invitation to hang out after class. She thought whether it seemed tantamount to bullying, but soon and luckily, she overcame such negativeness.

Sheila was a very popular girl at university. The typical Spanish candidate of a beauty contest, a gorgeous, brown-eyed brunette and unusually witty and razor-sharp minded. After racking her brain, Agatha realised that however hard she tried to be kind, it was hostility what she would find. Therefore, she made up a plan: to concentrate her efforts into getting in with Sheila. Perhaps that way she would finally be accepted by the rest of Sheila’s ilk. It’s no wonder that appearances can be deceptive.

Sheila turned out to be a marvellous person and Agatha, sooner than later, had to change her mind about the misfortunes that led her to try to turn her friendship into her advantage. They bonded
out of the blue, effortlessly. Spanish people are nice but it just so happens that you have to let your hair down and be yourself. Agatha just get off on the wrong foot when she firstly set foot in Barcelona. The situation had fortunately changed.

However, things are never easy. After amost two years of happiness, one night she met a boy in a disco. Pablo was a very attractive 35-year-old man. They had sexual encounters every now and again. Agatha was hooked on him. She started to miss classes and to lose contact with Sheila. That year she failed in her finals too. During the summer, Pablo’s attitude towards her metamorphosed. Maybe he had been feigning all the time. Pablo was a macho, so disrespectful and possessive a person that her self-esteem was notoriously undermined.

She fell into a deep depression and, predictably, Sheila was a kind shoulder to cry on. They headed out to Norway to visit Agatha’s parents. Two weeks later, back in Barcelona, Agatha began to come clean about her relationship with Pablo. She broke up and decided to move away from Gaudi’s city. Castellón was her next destination. She got a job in a small restaurant and signed up for a university degree on Translation and Interpretation. Sheila used to call her everyday but, unfortunately, all her past ghosts came back. A fish out of water again.

A week before her twentieth birthday she visited a psychologist following Sheila’s advice. Anxiety and an incipient depression had left her sleepless, tossing and turning all night long. The bleak prospect of her forthcoming birthday and the fact that she was going to pass it completely on her own was miserable. But, sometimes little things can have a dramatic effect on people’s fate.  Sheila’s call on the day before Agatha’s birthday was about to be one of those things.

She told Agatha that they were going to meet each other in Peñíscola to celebrate her birthday. Depite not being in the mood, Agatha gave up complaining about the idea and promised to do her best to be good company. That night wasn’t different, she didn’t sleep a wink. In the morning Agatha drove to Peñíscola, willing be dead.

It came as a complete surprise the spectacular party that her best friend had prepared. Not only was Sheila there, dressed-to-kill and lovely, but her parents, cousins, uncles and aunts, and to her utmost astonishment, some old Norwegian friends. She was lost for words, literally speechless. It was the beginning of an end. She soon got over her depression. After all, Spain had borne witness to Agatha’s coming-of-age, a difficult period that, more often than not, can be hard.

Thought #54. An old-fashioned tradition.

The advent of beauty contests (or their American counterpart, beauty pageants) goes back to 1839, when Georgiana Seymour was crowned the “Queen of Beauty” at the Eglinton Tournament, which took place in the UK. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1880s that they became incredibly popular. These contests soon became ingrained as a tradition and, despite the efforts of the feminist movement, the craze for idealizing a certain type of feminine figure (euphemistically called a ‘beauty canon’) remained on the rise until well into the twenty-first century. The question is whether this kind of parades does any favours for contestants in particular, and for women in general.

To begin with, we must consider who are behind these contests. Apparently, these events are patronised by ridiculously rich businessmen. They will go to great lengths to keep them going, especially seeing how well beauty contests stand the test of time and, surprisingly, because it brings about the virtual collapse of any venture aimed to tackle discrimination against women. Feminism ends up depicted as bigoted whereas beauty contests come up trumps, projecting a liberal and clean-cut image. Of course, sponsors shell out huge amounts of money to build up a false image of the opposition groups: for example, discussion panels on TV, radio and papers abound with deliberately appointed journalists literally covering all age groups and time slots.

It is little wonder that feminist attempts to campaign against this practice fell on deaf ears. I imagine that such a cherished and deep-rooted a tradition would take decades to defy. In fact, governments and the general public have yet to develop the moral awareness that a change of this magnitude would demand. It goes without saying that we are already starting to see a fading of this craze, but we are far from its end. Only by raising awareness of this neglected issue would we able to combat such a nonsense. In general, we cannot help but reject any liberal remark defending beauty contests on account of liberalism. Liberalism does not equal male chauvinism. We have to say it aloud over and over. Male chauvinism does not equal liberalism

Back to the question raised before, obviously being the “Queen of Beauty” is pointless. Human beings grow old and beauty has a perishable nature. How on earth are we going to create a better future if we are literally like Bill Murray on Groundhog Day, doomed to relive the same old-fashioned and degrading treatment day in and day out. If only we could shift the focus from outward appearances to what is on the inside. What about a beautiful mind contest then? I am completely sure that it would attract far more people around the globe. And do not get me wrong, it would not be restricted to women. Gender equality requires a level playing field.

Thought #53. An ill-timed accident.

That morning I had an accident. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t the kind of accident that is usually followed by a thorough investigation. It was a childish and minor one. I wetted myself. It wasn’t out of a need to go to the bathroom but unexpectedly; out of the blue. I found myself red-faced. I could admit the situation was a little funny. I thought there was something odd going on. The fact is that just before the accident, I was completely sure of having been in front of the toilet a few minutes before, ready to shoot, except that I probably wasn’t.

My bewilderment didn’t diminish when I had the second accident in a row. I spilled my coffee. How on earth could an already drunk coffee be spilled? The frontpage of The Guardian, now a hotchpotch of ink smudges and black liquid, was featuring a story about the Iraq war. I was reading it with rapt attention; supposedly, my mug was already in the kitchen sink when coffee was spilled.

I went to the bathroom and arranged my clothes. I jumped into the shower and adjusted the water temperature to my taste. After taking a quick shower, I dried myself with a towel and put my clothes on. Then, I was about to comb my hair when I found myself in front of a mirror with no image of me being reflected. I closed my eyes in a state of shock. I heard the sound of water. Marta, I thought. I set the bath curtain aside, and it was me who was taking the shower. I panicked, it panicked too.

Thought #52. A converted atheist.

Robert’s fondness for his wife was well known. He would have given his life for Joana if only she had asked him to do so. Unfortunately though, he could not help but witness the lingering and inevitable death of his beloved partner. The fate of their uphill battle against Joana’s terminal cancer was ten to one.

Since the doctor delivered them so bad a piece of news, they learned to take it one day at a time. Robert adopted a positive attitude towards the diagnostic, nothing was carved in stone yet. He resorted to faith; a new-found religious faith that would give him hope. A glimmer of hope that, surprisingly, he still holds ten years after she finally was at peace and her suffering was over.

Thanks to faith, her absence is not quite absolute. Robert’s approach to God has made up for the loss of his wife. More by accident than design, he became a fervent follower. During such a battle, seeing how Joana was undergoing endless chemotherapy sessions, he slowly discovered how science, and particularly medicine, could render a life sterile, lifeless.

Prior to those brutal sessions, he was a declared atheist. In fact, now that I come to think of it, he used to give insightful speeches on atheism back in his thirties. Who would have thought he could end up praying with rapt fervour every single day and going to church on Sundays. His change of heart was unexcepted and, at the same time, understandable. Now, he awaits. He looks forward to seeing her soon.

Naively or not, he is very upfront about why God must exist, he would have given his life for Joana, and yet it was as nonsensical as believing that science and medicine would have been able to save her. Soon after her death, he plunged into his religious studies. Her death had to have a meaning. At least, he remains hopeful and have not put an end to happiness. I have no say about this kind of situations, but legend has it that when there is little or no hope for the future, people cling to God.

Thought #51. The sweets of an uphill struggle.

It is not rocket science that the pursuit of happiness is virtually universal. From a tribe of Amazonian Indians to the dwellers of a megacity like Tokyo, each individual has his own idea of what happiness looks like. Sometimes though, we are on the wrong path and do not realise that making subtle changes in our daily life, could considerably improve our chances for success.

Biologically, the release of endorphins, triggered by various human activities, is responsible for euphoric sensations and, moreover, has a protective effect against pain. But, however hard you try to invoke the power of endorphins, it would be ineffective unless you knew what makes you happy.

It is little wonder that trial and error is the most effective method to find out about your source of happiness. Every individual evolves throughout his life and, consequently, what works today may fall by the wayside tomorrow. It seems to be quite probable that, in this pursuit, you are prone to face a neverending struggle.

In my opinion, motivation is the force to be reckoned with. The keenness and willingness to always try and do your best is what makes a difference between the impossible and the feasible. I have a broad range of things that I am eager to know more about: classical music, photography, human behaviour and English are some examples. None of them are second nature to me and yet I have been working hard to improve my skills in those subjects.

I know full well that I would probably never be a professional musician or photographer. However, my personal battle against the odds to learn more about my hobbies, is a continuous source of happiness – only comparable with my happy marriage.

I spent hours and hours in front of my piano, trying to bring musicality out of little childish pieces. I would walk the streets of Castellon, three hours a day, camera and dog alongside, trying to capture the beauty of day-to-day life. I am writing an English blog, on a daily basis, in order to master the basics of communicating thoughts via words. I come into my own when I do my own thing and, despite not knowing the score, I am happy with this uphill struggle.

Thought #50. Jaded or life-loving.

Depression affects a surprising number of people. Although everyone can feel very sad and anxious on occasion, some people are more prone to undergo deep depressions during their lives than others. This medical condition and its treatment have been historically studied by numerous scientists, doctors and researchers. But as yet, knowing whether we are suffering from depression or not remains a tricky question.

As a layman on this subject, I would not go so far as to say that, more often than not, people misuse the term. Conversely, I do think that only sometimes this term is employed to describe just a rough patch. A niggling worry could render us sleepless for a few days. Does it mean that we are growing depressed? Not necessarily.

Some psychologists’ therapies go too far and are out of kilter with the patient’s problems. Why are we expected to be always happy? Fortunately, the vast majority of therapists are knowledgeable and well-prepared to treat depression in all its forms and manifestations. Life is tough and sometimes the future will be bleak, it is something that we cannot deny. However problematical the situation may seem, besides our natural ability to overcome the toughest circumstances, hope is what makes a difference.

Hope that hard times will be over one more time, as they always were in the past. I do not mean that every problem has to have a solution, not to mention a satisfactory, easy or permanent one. I just want to let it be known that hope is tantamount to the ability to dream, feel excitement and develop endurance against complications.

And when there is little or no hope for the future, you can always live the present. What else do we have? Human life needs little more than air, water, food and shelter to get by. It would be advisable to settle for just being happy.

Thought #49. On folk memory.

I still remember with heartfelt emotion the enticing prospect of a summer’s fortnight at my grandparents’ cottage. They would boast about what they had achieved, not without a great deal of hard work though. Had it not been for their financial ingenuity in hard times, my mother, aunts and uncles would have not been who they are. Mum is the eldest of six children and although she was widowed at the early age of 42, she already had five children.

My grandfather, Fermin, born on July 7th, 1919, fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republican side. Fortunately, he survived it and became a forest guard on January 26th, 1946. He devoted his life to preserve the mounts of Castellon province, on the eastern coast of Spain. He would worship nature during the rest of his life, only coming into his own when trees and plants were literally surrounding him.

When my father died, we were living in a small suburb of Tarragona. As we did not have family there, my mother took us to Castellon, where her brothers and sisters lived. I was then eight years old and the elder brother of my baby sister. My grandparents lived between two places, their city flat in Castellon and a cottage near a small village that used to be a windmill. It was there, in that country house, where I hold so many treasured memories.

My grandmother, Adelina, was remarkably cheerful and always displayed a strong character. She was a good person, sometimes a little innocent. I would not go so far as to say that her patience hardly ever snapped but, most of the time, her company was extremely pleasant. I would play cards with her  till the small hours by candlelight, and tried to cheat her by using devious tactics. It was at those moments when she would snap fiercely.

Games apart, every summer with them was outstanding. Picking cherries and loquats, collecting apples and pears, watering tomato plants, I passed the time of those long days. We often made marmalade out of any ripe fruit. Food was never thrown away. A famine-stricken youth had taught them the lesson. A lesson inherited, as many others, from generations. Bits and pieces of a folk memory that we must not forget.

To Adelina and Fermin, from his grandson Alberto,  still captivated by your eternal humility, generosity and humanity.

food for thought