The Roberto Selbach Chronicles

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Category: Politics

Retreating back into my bubble

A few months back I decided to try and burst out of my bubble. I then decided to follow some public figures from all sides on Facebook and Twitter. On Facebook this is particularly weird because you’re forced to like the page. So it tells the world “Roberto likes Mrs. Public-Figure”, which is sometimes undesirable.

Still, I wanted to see what both sides of the political spectrum were saying. Also, I consider myself a centrist so I expected to agree with everyone on at least something.

Anyway, my town suffered a terrorist attack a couple of days ago and as soon as the identity of the suspect became known, the media started drawing conclusions based on who he “liked” on Facebook. That got me thinking: someone will eventually go through my social media and conclude I believe in X because I “like” Y on FB, even though I may only “like” Y because I want to be informed and not because I necessarily agree with them.

There are also reports that US Border agents now require people to provide social network credentials so that their political leanings can be attested. Regardless on my personal opinions about this, the fact is that someone with access to my FB account can quickly draw the conclusion that I lean this or that way because of the pages I like, even though I liked them only to be informed.

I then realized that it’s time to give up on my bubble-bursting experiment. I “unliked” pretty much every public figure on Facebook.

Is it really as bad as it looks?

Hi, I have a question

Do you ever not?

“Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Leonardo DaVinci? I’m proud of you. Go ahead.

Thank you. I’ve been reading all these horrific news stories about the Olympic games and Rio…

Oh that. Yeah, I’ve been getting asked that question regularly lately.

Is it really that bad?

Yes and no. There is a lot of sensationalism out there. But it’s bad and, at least to us Brazilians, not at all unexpected because Rio is widely known as a hellhole among us.

Years ago, when the games were announced, most of us in Brazil expected the worst. Rio is widely perceived by Brazilians as a hellhole.

I spent a whole month there once because of work and it left a strong mark in me. I’ve seen people being mugged, a dead body was left outside my hotel one night, I was in the middle of a shooting between rival gangs, and — crème de la crème — one day some big shot drug trafficker was killed in jail and what followed was, to me, surreal. The city is beautiful though.

What happened?

All thoughout that day, people kept telling me about the news of this guy who got killed. I could not care less, to be honest. But at the end of the day I finally understood when I tried leaving the office and people said I was nuts. I wasn’t allowed to go because the drug gangs issued a curfew on the city.

A. Curfew. On. The. City.

At times like that, commerces close their doors all over the place and the police completely disappears.

That’s insane! How is anyone safe during the games?!

Well, here’s where I point out that it’s probably not as bad as you’d think.

Wait what

Hold on. First of all, it is not in the gangs’ interest to attract international attention. They already have full control over the city, the police, etc. It’s in their best interest to wait the games out and then continue with business as usual. I doubt there will be problems with the drug traffic.

Second, there will be 50,000 security personnel there. FIFTY THOUSAND. And again, it’s in the powers that be’s interests that foreigners have a good time there. It will suck for people from Rio who will be hounded by the police and the army, though.

Just a couple of weeks ago the Brazilian Congress passed a special law granting de facto immunity to members of security forces who happen to commit crimes against civilians during the games. It’s going to be fun.

Wait what? Immunity

De facto. What the law does is transfer the authority of judging these cases to militaty justice. In practice, it means immunity. And the reason for the law was exactly to allow the police and the army to trump people’s rights in order to keep the peace. It’s so very Rio.

And terrorism?

Yeah, I don’t know. As we’ve seen these past weeks, you don’t need much to kill people. A rental truck is enough. So yes, there might be something. Then again, 50,000 security personnel. I’m guessing there might be easier targets out there. In short, I don’t know but I don’t think the risk is high enough to worry about it.

What will be horrible is already happening and mostly hidden from foreigners. It’s the human rights abuses against the poor. That to is very Rio. They’re make every effort to hide the poor and prevent them from being seen, no matter the cost. Thousands have been forcebly relocated already.

And in the end, what for? The city (and its people) won’t come out better after the games than before.

It’s depressing


Godwin’s Law is anything but

I’ve got many gripes with the internet, I’ll admit. One of those is the overuse of Godwin’s Law. Actually, it’s a double offence because not only people overuse it, but this Law is anything but.

But let’s start with the misuse. I posted a while ago to Facebook that I had finished reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and I mentioned how scary it was that a place right in the heart of “civilized” Europe could have fallen to that madness so quickly. A small discussion formed with some people until one of my geek friends commented something to the effect of—

Let’s stop this because Roberto already Godwinned in the original post!

You see, us geeks are good at that: repeating some meme without thinking much about them.

But that’s how I see “Godwin” being used all over the place. A discussion killer. And the discussion did get killed, unfortunately. It’s like Godwin’s Law says “if someone mentions Nazis, the discussion is over” but that’s not what the “law” says—

As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Hitler or to Nazis approaches 1.

Which is actually true. Just like—

As an online discussion continues, the probability of a reference or comparison to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves approaches 1.

Obviously, as a discussion grows, the probability of referencing anything will approach 1! Here’s Godwin himself back in 2008 about his “law”—

Although deliberately framed as if it were a law of nature or of mathematics, its purpose has always been rhetorical and pedagogical: I wanted folks who glibly compared someone else to Hitler or to Nazis to think a bit harder about the Holocaust.

I find it ironic that his little experiment for making people think harder about the Holocaust is now used as a tool to avoid mentions to it.

You see, I get where Godwin was trying to go. You see glib comparisons with the Nazi all the time and yes, they suck. But going from that to making one of the most defining moments of the last Century completely off-limits is preposterous! Nazi comparisons are often valid and should not be avoided, especially by misusing an old usenet meme.

Again, His Godwinness—

Still, I sometimes have some ambivalence about the Law, which is far beyond my control these days. Like most parents, I’m frequently startled by the unexpected turn my 18-year-old offspring takes. […] When I saw the photographs from Abu Ghraib, for example, I understood instantly the connection between the humiliations inflicted there and the ones the Nazis imposed upon death camp inmates—but I am the one person in the world least able to draw attention to that valid comparison.

Avoiding comparing things to something as defining as Nazi Germany is an arbitrary limitation that makes no sense.

That’s not to say that all Nazi comparisons are valid. There really are plenty of dishonest Nazi comparisons out there, such as this one, by an American governor—

We the people have been told there is no choice. You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.

This because the Supreme Court of the United States had upheld a law that represented the first steps of that country in following the rest of the civilized world in providing its citizens with basic healthcare. Healthcare! Oh the evils of that Gestapo!

But it’s unreasonable to expect people to completely ignore a huge part of our history in hope that dishonest governors won’t make silly comparisons, which they’ll do anyway.

Why can’t people buy newer cars in Argentina?

This is part of a series of posts about Argentina and the City of Cordoba. These are little facts I wish I knew about before I came here as an expat.

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Cordoba, Argentina, was the amount of old cars going around. And I’m not talking about 10-year-old cars, I’m talking about 30 years or so!

You can really find some rarities such as the Citroën 3cv happily racing around town all the time. As a consequence of all that, you can also find a disproportionate amount of cars stalled on the streets, people trying to do something under the hood. It’s really amazing how many broken down cars you’ll see every day.

Citroën 3cv

I used to wonder why that was. Now I understand.

There is no credit in Argentina. Well, technically there is, but it’s so expensive that it’s as if it doesn’t exist. That’s why people normally need to buy stuff with cash upfront. Cars, of course, happen to be expensive and most people can’t save enough to buy newer cars like that. The same is true for several other goods, but cars happen to be the most visible symptom.

From time to time, coincidently around election time, the federal government creates some credit program. These programs are temporary and limited in the number of people who can apply.

And then there’s a second problem—informality. In order to avoid taxes and benefits, most companies hire people either with no documentation or with phoney pay information, e.g. if someone’s salary is, say, $1,000, the companies would register the employee as being paid $250 instead, thus being able to pay less taxes.

And thus even with those government credit programs, most people can’t even qualify as they can’t show enough income.

Why do things take so long in Argentina?

Coincidences have a way of catching one’s attention, haven’t they? Yesterday I was riding the bus home with a colleague from work. I was telling him how my life here wasn’t perfect because I couldn’t buy a car. It turns out that I would need to hold a national ID card (called DNI) to purchase a car. Actually, one needs to obtain the DNI to do pretty much anything like opening a bank account. Interestingly enough, you need the DNI for small, simple tasks like ordering cable TV, phone lines, Internet access, etc, but one can easily buy a house – or many houses – without the DNI.

The process of obtaining the DNI is simple. If you’re a citizen, your parents will have used your birth certificate to get your first DNI, which is mandatory from a very early age. Over the years, you are required to update your DNI when you reach certain ages (8, 16, 25, if I’m not mistaken) and everytime you change address. All you need is the original DNI and some address verification and you’re done. If you’re an expat like myself, you need your passport, your resident visa, and some address verification. Again, very simple. You go, apply and wait for the document to be ready. And that’s where the problem resides… in parts of the country, the DNI takes years to be ready. Even in Buenos Aires, it can take more than one year for your DNI to be ready for pick-up.

Now how could such a simple and yet much needed document take so long to be manufactured?

So there I was, talking to this colleague about all of this. He told me that when he had to change his at 16, it took two years. And he’s a national. He told me it’s usually because government workers don’t have the incentive to work harder. He’s probably right, as this is the case everywhere else in the world. Still, this might explain why a simple document can take 2-3 weeks to be created, but not years. When I stepped out of my ride, I bumped into a girl who lives in our building. She told me she was frustrated because she had lost her DNI a couple of years back and the new one wasn’t ready yet. She had just went to the Identification Office to check. Coincidences… I then told her about my story and she told me so other tales of horror and I shared some of my own, like when I needed a document notarized and it took a month to do it. And that was it.

Fast forward a day.

My wife is currently having classes and she asked me to get her a textbook she needs. I went to this bookstore on my way to work. I strolled into the store and worked my way to the textbooks section and quickly found the one my wife needed. I picked it up and headed to the checkout, content that I wouldn’t have to hunt for the book in other stores. I held the book and the cash in my hand. “I’d like to take this” I told the lady at checkout, who in turn looks around and goes “Did you pick a number?”

What. Fucking. Number.

“What number?” I asked, confused. She then pointed me to this little thingamajig near the entrance. “I’m sorry, I don’t get it…” And then she half-mockingly explained to me that I had to pick the number and wait my turn for a salesperson to help me. “But I don’t need any help. I have the book and the money right here!”

No use. I had to pick a number and wait for one of the two saleswomen to call it. So there I was, holding the book I wanted, with the cash to pay for it, standing by the checkout – where the lady was doing nothing by the way – and waiting for someone to “help me.” In any half-civilized place our business would have been over by now. The store would have made money and I would be on my way to work. Simple.

Twenty!!!!!!!” shouted a lady. It was my number. So I went to her – looking pissed, I’m sure. I told her I’d like to please take this textbook. “Oh, certainly!” So she goes to a computer terminal and asks if I’m paying with a credit card. I wave the cash and say “efectivo” to make sure she gets it. Then she asks what the book is for. For reading, duh! I tell her that it’s for a course, then she types something and asks which school. “Lady, sorry but all I want to to take this textbook with me. I have the cash right here. I’ve had both the book and the cash in my hands for like 15 minutes already. All that’s missing is for that lady at checkout to get the money so I can get out of here.” And yes, I was pissed and I didn’t really sounded friendly and half the store was staring at me. She said apologetically, “I’m sorry, but I need to register who purchased the book and where it will be used.”


“Lady, seriously, I don’t want to give any more information. I want to buy this book and that’s it. You either take my money or not. Your choice. Just let me know so I can get out of here.”

The whole store was following our exchange. Everyone surely thinking that I was the mean foreigner who’s going to explore them and steal their water (it’s a local thing.) She told me to go to the checkout I had been to 15 minutes earlier. The lady took my money and asked if I wanted a receipt. D-U-H!

So I realized it has to be a cultural thing. Bureaucracy is so entrenched in their lives that they don’t even realize it anymore. They just think it’s the best way of doing things. The problem I had to get a document notarized is a perfect example. I went to a notary, who then notarized my document. It took two days, which is already ridiculous, but still… the problem is that after he notarizes it, he has to send the document to the Notary Guild Office so that they in turn can verify that the notarizing notary was in fact a certified notary and that the notarization was correctly notarized. I am not even kidding.

Argentina has a lot of great things. Things that I actually love. But in terms of bureaucracy, it’s really, really a mess. And the very people have been “infected” by it so that they are bureaucratic at heart. It’s actually really sad.