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These are some of my translations of Spanish articles on a variety of IT and management topics that I think may be of interest to English speaking readers and that I do for fun. Personally, I think that there is a wealth of good and interesting writing in Spanish, and I hope to share this with my English speaking colleagues.

I have been wondering how to introduce a Comments section to this blog, but didn't want the trouble of managing the almost obligatory spam on my server. Here I am introducing an alternative: Gabbly. As an experiment only, I will be reading the Gabbly chat attached to this web page. To participate, click on the following link:
Gabbly Chat for Zenit Translations.
Just don't expect a real time reply as I am out and about for much of the time.

Go to the Index, or read the last 8 articles below:

Robotic Consciousness

Translation of “la consciencia no es una propiedad de la materia, es simplemente un proceso” (consciousness is not a property of matter; it is simply a process) by Raúl Arrabales published in Tercera Cultura on 15 December 2008.


Raúl Arrabales is assistant lecturer in the computing department of Carlos III University in Madrid. He specialises in artificial consciousness and has set up a web site exclusively to consider this topic:

Although Arrabales is a robotic consciousness specialist, this interview is mainly directed to understanding human consciousness. He refers to Edelman and Tononi who address the neurological origin of consciousness and supports the collaboration between psychologists and neurologists to explore the issue. He characterises consciousness as a non-enigmatic process - it is not necessary to invoke new laws of quantum physics to understand it - and he believes that the day will come when mankind will design conscious machines.

Roger Corcho

Tercera Cultura: What is consciousness? What is the best theory or model that in your opinion explains this phenomenon? Will we be able to materialise subjective experience? What is the theory that in your opinion has come closest to explaining this phenomenon?

Raúl Arrabales: In the first place, in Spanish we distinguish between two different meanings of the word 'consciencia'. On one hand, this word refers to the immediate knowledge that one being has of him or herself, but on the other hand, it also refers to the capacity that human beings have for judging between good and bad [as it can be translated into English as consciousness or conscience]. In fact, this second meaning refers to the metaphorical voice that tells us that we have done wrong.

My field of investigation focuses on the first concept, that of self-awareness. In fact, consciousness covers a multitude of related concepts. From this point of view, we can consider consciousness as the effective integration of various mental abilities, such as attention, feelings, the meaning of I, taking decisions, imagination, empathy, etc.

As regards the scientific study of consciousness and the models attempting to explain it, I would like to highlight two points that I think are relevant. In the first place, I believe that we still do not have a satisfactory theory that gives a complete explanation about what consciousness is and how it is produced. In the second place, although there are various hypotheses trying to explain consciousness, I do not believe that their approaches are exclusive or that they are necessarily in competition. In reality, each hypothesis approaches specific aspects of the consciousness phenomenon. What is clear, however, is that some theories have been more successful among the scientific community studying consciousness. Here we can distinguish between two types of theory: the psychological and the neurological. An example of a psychological theory is Baars' Global Workspace theory. This theory uses the simile of a theatre play to explain consciousness. This explanation is only a metaphor that helps understanding about what consciousness is, but does not provide any indication about how it is produced in humans. By contrast, the neurological theories are focussed on searching for existing mechanisms in the central nervous system that give rise to consciousness. A relevant example is Edelman and Tononi's Dynamic Core hypothesis that tries to explain how the neuronal connections of the thalamocortical loop give rise to the perception of consciousness. In general, there is consensus among neurologists that the thalamocortical loop is key to the generation of consciousness.

I believe that the current trend is to unite high level explanations proposed by psychological theories and hypotheses regarding low level neuronal substrata that support them. In fact, studies on consciousness always imply a multidisciplinary effort and I don't think it would be right to cite one particular theory as giving the best explanation. It is more likely that collaboration between technical, theoretical and empirical disciplines will turn out to give a satisfactory answer in the long run. We should also not forget that the sciences of computation and artificial intelligence can be especially complementary in clarifying some aspects of consciousness.

Regarding the materialisation of subjective experience, I assume you are referring to the construction of machines with subjective experiences. Here, the difficulty lies in that the main characteristic of subjective experience is something that is not material. From my point of view, it is a process. Therefore, the proper question to ask would be: is it possible to artificially reproduce the process giving rise to subjective experience? Or in other words, Can we create a non-material mind in a machine? This question is related to the so-called "hard problem" of consciousness, which asks for an explanation in scientific terms of something that is not physical and that cannot be demonstrated by the classical scientific method. In order to study any phenomenon in a scientific way, it is essential that it can be observed by a third party. However, subjective experience falls outside this restriction because it is not, in itself, composed of physical parameters. Only I can access my own subjective experience; a scientist cannot observe it (observing an output of a brain scanner is not observing subjective experience). There is no other alternative than to believe what I say about my subjective experience. By chance, we ourselves can act as if we were scientists of consciousness and observe our own subjective experience by the technique of introspection. But to give a final answer to the question of whether it is possible to reproduce non-material subjective experiences in machines, I think that it is possible. In fact, computer programmers are accustomed to creating non-material entities starting from conventional hardware. A programme, when it executes in a computer, becomes a process that is non-material but executes on a substrate constructed on a core of silicon chips.

TC: It seems that the model for designing robots is the human being. The aim is for machines to substitute for humans in many areas and to make human work more efficient. Will there be conscious robots one day?

Raúl Arrabales: Obviously in the field of robotics the model to reproduce has always been the human being. However, owing to the fact that this is a huge challenge, ambitions have been temporarily curtailed to take other simpler animals as a model. Currently, due to the latest technical advances that have been achieved, it seems that we are returning to the original challenge of humanoid robots, but their cognitive capacities are still at a fairly rudimentary stage. I personally think that we will be able to construct conscious robots but it may be that the consciousness experienced by these robots will not be like our own. In fact, I think that the artificial consciousness of a robot should be adapted to the type of work it must undertake. Subjective experience and feelings are not required for soldering things on an assembly line but these capacities may be crucial for a social robot helping older people.

TC: The philosopher Víctor Gómez Pin claims that artificial intelligence is an illusion, that there is no such thing, while neurologists, such as Adolf Tobeña consider that intelligent machines are already with us. What is your point of view? Which opinion seems to be mistaken and what would you say to expose the error?

Raúl Arrabales: These days, the term Artificial Intelligence is used to designate a well established field of scientific investigation but one which is only 50 years old. I think that the concept of intelligence should be considered as the capacity of a being to survive and adapt to the environment in which it finds itself. I have no doubt that the property of intelligence can exist in a machine. The level of intelligence that can be developed by different entities in accordance with their design is something else. When we speak of intelligence and of consciousness, we often talk in absolute terms. But I prefer to talk of qualitative levels or quantitative measures (although establishing these measures may be complicated). So I agree that today we do not have machines with the same intelligence as a human being, but we do have machines with some intelligence. I think that we have machines with the intelligence of a mosquito, for example. One of the objectives of artificial intelligence is to equip machines with intelligence similar to that of humans; for this the capacities of common sense and imagination are required. The problem is that today we do not have machines that are capable of successfully confronting new situations in complex environments, but we do have automatic learning implementations that are capable of learning and generalising in some controlled environments. For example, we have artificial intelligence systems capable of automatically detecting harmful intrusions into computer networks.

TC: What does the term computability mean? How is this notion used to reject the possibility that a machine can become conscious? Do you think it will be necessary to resort to new laws of nature to understand consciousness and therefore to design conscious computers?

Raúl Arrabales: Some investigators equate the human brain to a computer because, just like a computer, it receives inputs, processes them (that is, computes) and finally produces an output. But the brain produces something more than just a physical output (behaviour). It also produces what we know as a subjective experience. The problem is that the concept of a philosophical zombie is a priori possible from the purely scientific point of view. A zombie is a thing that processes the inputs of the senses and produces an adapted behaviour but has no subjective experience at all. How do we know that a person feels something when they cry out with pain? It could simply be a programmed response in the brain, just like a robot could be programmed to say, "Ow!" when a pressure sensor is activated. What normally happens when we see a person cry out in pain is that we infer that they feel pain in the same way that we would feel pain in the same situation. That is, "we put ourselves in their place" and feel empathy. However, if we see a robot cry out in pain, how do we know that it is really feeling something? In this case, we cannot establish an analogy with ourselves because it is a completely different machine. Does this mean that it is not possible for a robot to have subjective experience? The key lies in knowing if the subjective experience is produced by the specific biological substrate that human beings have. Some researchers, such as Penrose and Hameroff, argue that subjective experience is produced by quantum phenomena that take place in the microtubules present in the neurones. If this was the case, then we could only build conscious machines using quantum computers that reproduced these types of processes.

In fact, I think that it is not necessary to resort to quantum mechanics to understand consciousness and that we can create conscious processes in machines by considering only the known laws of nature. I see consciousness as a specific process in execution. For me, consciousness is not a property of matter; it is simply a process.

TC: There have been some trends, such as strong Artificial Intelligence, that have extreme points of view about intelligence. Do you think there is any basis for such theories?

Raúl Arrabales: In reality, strong AI aligns with the original objective of the subject of AI itself: to create machines that are as intelligent and as conscious as humans. What happened is that the objectives had to be relaxed due to the false expectations that they had created. We have realised the tremendous complexity of this task, but that does not mean that this branch of AI has been abandoned. In fact, in the last few years we have been witnessing a resurgence of this hard branch of AI materialised in the two lines of Artificial Consciousness and General Artificial Intelligence. Personally I think that they are fields that deserve exploring further to determine the effective limits. What I am sure of is that there is no basis for claiming that strong AI objectives are not reachable.

TC: Do you think that the educational potential of computers is being fully realised? What could be introduced into schools to make learning more effective? In the past, rich families could hire tutors for their children, who received personalised and efficient education. Can computers fulfil this role in a more democratic way?

Raúl Arrabales: Of course, these days it would be a pity if the potential of computers were not used to a large extent in education. Information technologies in general are an excellent tool for improving education. Neither teachers nor students should reject such powerful tools, especially as they are now available at low cost, at least in the developed world. As with all tools, the work of the teacher is to show students how to make the best use of them. In the future we can expect teaching robots, which will present a much more natural interface for education.

TC: According to Varela, a nervous system is not an information processing system because, by definition, information processing systems require clear inputs. Can you explain what he means?

Raúl Arrabales: I would rather say that a nervous system is an analogue information processing system, where the information received from the senses can take continuous values. By contrast, a conventional computer is based on digital circuits where the inputs take discrete values. No matter which way we think about the term 'processing', in both cases information is being processed and outputs are being generated.


Richard Feynman, his diagrams and his bongos

Translation of "Richard Feynman, sus diagramas y sus bongos"  by Salvador Ruíz Fargueta published in La bella teoria on 06 October 2008.

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the most brilliant and original physicists of the 20th century. With an unlimited curiosity towards natural phenomena, he made important contributions in various fields of physics and was also an excellent lecturer, capable of transmitting his passion for science. His intuition was extraordinary; he always sought to tackle physics problems differently from other people and wanted to present the known problems in ways that were far removed from the well trodden paths.

To review Feynman's contributions to physics is to cover most of the physics of the 20th century. He opened new areas in fields such as quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, condensed matter, interactions and elementary particles, non-linear physics and quantum information and computation. To this long list, one could also add his pioneering role in quantum gravity and in the so-called nanotechnologies. He received the Nobel Physics Prize in 1965, shared with J. Schwinger and S. Tomonaga for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Apart from this, these three scientists demonstrated how to address quantum and relativistic studies of systems with electrical charges, such as electrons and positrons, in their interaction with electromagnetic fields. But Feynman's method perfectly illustrates his talent. Where his colleagues wrote long mathematical formulae, Feynman drew, literally, the physical processes that he wanted to investigate, from which diagrams he was able to perform calculations using precise rules. Currently, the use of Feynman diagrams, or variants of these diagrams, is the standard procedure for making calculations in many and various fields of physics.

Feynman's excellence as a communicator is a topic all to itself. Many of those who attended his classes and talks remember the fascination that Feynman exercised over the audience, something that seemed to be in tune with his melodramatic character. For Feynman, the classroom was a theatre and he the actor who had to maintain a sense of intrigue while he was talking of physics and writing numbers and formulae on the board. He used to prepare his classes and talks with this intention, as if they were classical theatre plays, with an introduction, development and conclusion. His passionate way of speaking about physics made him a popular lecturer; many of his lectures were transcribed and published in book form and even some were recorded for television.

Feynman gave classes only to final year and doctoral students with one single and important exception. During the years 1961-2 and 1962-3, he have a physics course for first and second year students which became one of the most famous physics courses ever. The classes were recorded, transcribed and published under the title "The Feynman Lectures on Physics" in three volumes and they are still published and translated even today.

Feynman's love of bongo playing is also very well known and further demonstration of his extrovert character. His friend, Ralph Leighon, wrote two books with the anecdotes that Feynman used to tell during weekly meetings they held to play together. The two books, whose original titles are "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman" and "What do you care what other people think?" are still published today and sell well. Feynman loved telling interesting stories in which he often played an important role.

Universal popularity came following his participation in the commission investigating the Challenger accident in January 1986. The space shuttle exploded soon after takeoff and the live televison transmission of the accident amplified its social impact. A good half of the second book of anecdotes is devoted to this participation. Going much against the president of the commission, who wanted to control the whole process, Feynman conducted his own investigation in his own way. He soon became convinced that the problem was that the rubber joints sealing the fuel tank could not withstand the low temperatures at the moment of takeoff. He decided to make a demonstration of this during one of the public sessions of the commission. The attending journalists broadcast his speech and the whole world understood the cause of the accident. As a consequence, Feynman became a popular icon and soon T-shirts began to appear in the shops with his diagrams.

In the words of his colleague Schwinger, Feynman was an example of someone who "liked dancing to the rhythm of a different drum". The laws of physics can often be formulated in many ways, seemingly different at first glance, until mathematical work demonstrates that they are identical. Feynman used to say that this was a mysterious fact that no one understood, and in it he saw the reflection of the simplicity of nature.



On 22-Nov-2007, Benjamí Villoslada won the first prize in the hacker short story competition run by the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC). His friend and colleague Ricardo Galli, translated it from Catalan into Catillian Spanish and I am translating it here into English. These two hackers are responsible for the web site meméame, the Spanish equivalent of digg.


[Translation of pOwned! by Benjamí Villoslada as translated by Ricardo Galli on 22-Nov-2007.]

The hacker in the black T-shirt with the "there's no place like" logo was sure: he had a serious security problem. He knew this when the girl in the T-shirt with coloured stripes, eight to be exact, asked him for his digital key at the key-exchange event at the close of the free software conference.

He saw the colour of her eyes before he saw the eight colours of her T-shirt. They were so dark he could hardly make out her pupils. He looked for them because he was inquisitive by nature. It only took a couple of seconds for him to realise that she was also staring at him, with tenderness and, feeling disturbed, he looked away. The hacker in the black T-shirt would never have dared to look her in the eyes deliberately to impress her; he was not confident enough and was shy. But this had happened by chance. It was he who was impressed and he knew that he would soon be at risk of a serious security problem. He returned, without too much success, to the subject of the digital key.

"Do you want to see my ID number to check?" he asked.

"I don't want to see it."

"But when I write to you, you will not know if it is me, or someone else."

"I'll know."

"OK, at least show me your ID card."

"I never carry it. ID documents are only good for destroying privacy."


"If I write to you, you will know it's me."

While saying goodbye to the girl with the T-shirt with coloured stripes, he took her wrist to read the time on her digital watch. It was 10:26 PM.

When the hacker in the black T-shirt returned home, he signed all the GnuPG keys that he had collected and continued downloading his e-mail. A ciphered message came in from 8colors. GnuPG told him that the signature was trustworthy. The message only contained an attached file, which he saved on his disk to check that it was an image:

nil@fenix:~/tmp$ file 8colors.png 
8colors.png: PNG image data, 278 x 348, 8-bit/color RGB,

He could open it with the display program. He didn't even have to load an editor like The Gimp into memory to see the image. He saw ten very dark eyes in two rows: four on the first row and six on the second. He could only distinguish five pupils. From bottom to top and from right to left, the second pupil indicated a 2 in binary, the fourth an 8: the first row added to 10. In the bottom row, the second pupil indicated a 2, the forth 8 and the fifth 16. 2 + 8 + 10 = 26. It was her.

He replied to the message, “on Thursday I'll be at the install party in Can Majoral. See you there?”

The hacker in the black T-shirt with the "there's no place like" logo was a man of few words. He could express himself much better in code. His friends, mates and acquaintances, none of them hackers, told him that he would end up alone, fat and alienated. But he was sure he wouldn't. He would soon find someone who would be able to appreciate his code. He wasn't a metrosexual, but a codisexual. He was convinced from the time he had made a free interpretation applied to himself of the sapiosexual entry in

"I want an incisive, inquisitive, insightful, irreverent mind. I want someone for whom philosophical discussion is foreplay. I want someone who sometimes makes me go ouch due to their wit and evil sense of humor. I want someone that I can reach out and touch randomly. I want someone I can cuddle with.

I decided all that means that I am sapiosexual."


He had had a couple of experiences but all had ended in a security problem. He was afraid that this would happen again with the girl of the T-shirt with coloured stripes, but he had said he would be at the install party in Can Majoral. It wasn't a formal appointment, but if it were, the 'pupils code' was a huge indicator for two sapiosexuals. Or codisexuals; it was the same thing.

The hacker in the black T-shirt with the "there's no place like" logo couldn't keep secrets from the person he loved. So, when the girl in the T-shirt with coloured stripes, not seven, nor nine, but exactly eight, gazed at him again, with tenderness, he told her that he loved her, and to prove it, he gave her his root password. It had happened again.

Fool's Gold

Fool's Gold

[Translation of El pirita by Alfredo de Hoces published in Despacho101 on 11-Jan-2007]


All year they were telling us that the company was sailing with the wind. All the graphs showed rising trends: more clients, more turnover. And also more work: that is why they were always hiring more sales staff. Every ten or twelve days we saw new faces, although it seemed to me that they were the same mugs with different ties. That suit, that laptop, that aggressive smile, the hurry, the repetition of the same platitudes on the phone, that insufferable tone of “this is of vital importance” in every email. The one who always wore a pink tie had written to us a few days ago to tell us that we had to change the font used for the name of our company in the email program. Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning that Hitler was on the point of developing the atomic bomb was written in a less angry tone.

What we engineers could not understand was why, in spite of the magnificent financial results of the year, they had drastically reduced the December bonus. We were all expecting to get an explanation at the meeting. It was yet another of those never-ending meetings during which they told us how great we are and what great dicks we had. Pink Tie hadn’t been talking for ten minutes and I was already completely fed up. I started day dreaming, my mind wandered and I remembered the story of the iron pyrite.

In the first two or three years of school, no child did anything. We were nothing, just like blank canvas to be scribbled on. Generally, we just kept quiet and watched each other. Over time, each of our personalities began to take form: many kids began to act, to express themselves, to differentiate themselves from others. One made us laugh, another sang, another ran faster than anyone, another jumped higher, another made sharp observations about things, another always gave the right answer to the teacher’s questions. There was one kid who could lick his own nose, another who could spit out of the window and hit the building over the way, even one who had read a whole book, without pictures, and appeared to enjoy it. Our identities were being formed.

Other kids kept on not saying anything and looking at the others. No one talked about them: we talked about those who stood out in some way. To stand out was good: many people knew your name, smiled at you, said hello to you. Now you were no longer a blank canvas; you were something. Something beautiful, or perhaps something original, or maybe simply something; but you were something. And you were recognised for it. Sometimes you were awarded a pat or a furtive kiss, and then you felt something big that you didn’t begin to understand, but every single one of your cells seemed to be crying out, “We are getting on OK, here, mate.” The survival of the species was at stake.

One day I was approached by one of those kids who was always looking and never said anything. I didn’t know his name. “Look,” he said mysteriously. He took out a piece of golden metal from his pocket and held it out to me. I stayed looking at the tiny golden ball for a few seconds. It was grubby. The kid’s fingers were grubby too. I raised my eyes: his face was also grubby. He looked at me very seriously and spoke to me in a low voice, as if he were revealing a hugely important secret.

“This is not gold,” he paused, “It's iron pyrite.”

He was motionless for a few seconds and then he returned the grubby little ball to his pocket. He looked at me, arched his eyebrows and went off with a smile. I remained thoughtful, suspecting something. I didn’t know what iron pyrite was: I supposed that no one at seven years of age knew either. But this kid knew. He had a piece of it. He had to be a silly prat.

I didn’t ask his name; I wasn’t interested. For me, that anonymous kid became Iron Pyrite. Sometimes I would see him in the school playground. He was always showing someone his grubby little ball; some kids seemed interested, taking the ball so they could look at it close up, passing it from one to another. Then they returned it to Iron Pyrite who wore a smile of self-satisfaction.

It took me a while, but at the end I came to some conclusions. Iron Pyrite also wanted to stand out, but he neither ran faster nor jumped higher than anyone else. When he showed you that little ball, you automatically thought that it was gold. He told you that you were wrong. Oh, I could have sworn that it was gold, you would say. And if you were wrong and he right, then he had to be cleverer than you. You were a student who, after school, would go home to eat bread with Nutella and watch Sesame Street. Iron Pyrite was picked up by helicopter and he went with his parents, who were scientific adventurers called Thomas and Linda, to explore the Amazon. In one of their many adventures, they had got lost fleeing from the fearsome Potiguara tribe (liver eaters), had swum across the Orinoco and jumping over fresh water crocodiles and sharks, they hid in the volcano of the dark tarantulas, where by chance they found the entrance to the cave of the green scorpion. At the end of that dark cave they spotted a golden glow. They crawled over the ground silently so they would not awaken the mutant bloodthirsty bats and reaching the end of the cave they bumped into the scorpion, who was three metres long. Just then, the volcano started to erupt. Thomas grabbed hold of the enormous green sting and Linda jumped between the claws of the scorpion and ran in the direction of the gleaming golden seam. One of the walls opened up and started to spew incandescent lava. Linda glanced quickly at the wall, but filled with renewed courage, returned to the golden seam. It seemed as if she was about to get there, when suddenly, a voice shouted, “No, mum, no! “Its iron pyrite!”

Linda came out of her trance and the three fled at top speed, pursued by a river of lava and the giant scorpion. They jumped down an unexpected hole and fell down the crystalline waterfall into the deepest part of the lake of the bloodthirsty leeches. Now, on the banks of the lake they pulled off the leeches and smiled peacefully while the evening fell over the jungle. “But how did you know that it was iron pyrite?” Linda asked her son. He looked at her, arched his eyebrows and walked away in silence towards the gathering darkness.

Iron Pyrite seemed to hint at all this, and people seemed to believe him. I thought that he was no more than a silly prat who carried a ball of dirt in his pocket.


Pink Tie continued talking about motivation, effort, sales strategies, “It is a difficult market and everyone wants a slice of the cake. It is a race, and we have to come first.” Suddenly he looked at us very seriously and posed a question, “In this race, who do you think will take away the smallest piece of the cake?”

Silence. Suspense, curiosity. “The last,” someone whispered. Pink Tie smiled wryly, waited a few seconds and said in a low voice as if revealing a very hugely important secret, “The second,” he said and paused. “In this race, the second will take away nothing.”

More silence. Expressions of surprise. “But I could have sworn that it was gold," I seemed to hear.

“We are very good. But we have to be the first.” He concluded.

Then came a similar kind of guy but with a green tie and made us look at a ton of graphs on the screen while he lectured us about the success of our product. Suddenly, he switched off the projector, gave us a smile of complicity and said, “I have to confess something.”

I thought he was about to say, “I am the bastard that reduced your bonus.” People looked at him with puzzled expressions.

The guy sat on the edge of the table and crossed his legs, letting us see one of his socks. He breathed deeply and said, “We are very much hated as a company.”

A pause. My God, who would have thought it? This is the end! We thought we were the cat’s whiskers! But we are finished, we are on our way down from the top to the dole queue!

“Yes. Although you may not believe it, they hate us,” he paused. Our competitors hate us to death. They hate us because they dream of getting where we are today. And when they arrive, we will no longer be there; because we will already be much higher.”

He smiled at us and arched his eyebrows. People clapped. He walked away slowly away towards the darkness.

I felt that we were still in the school playground. But something had changed: it was we engineers, hired because we ran faster, jumped higher, read entire books, and answered all the questions correctly; now we were silent and looking at each other. Those who stood out now were the silly prats with their little balls of dirt.

They had reached high, very high. They had overcome sharks and tarantulas, had killed the fearful green scorpion and had succeeded in taking away a good piece of the gleaming golden seam. The only problem was that the company had not realised that the golden seam was only iron pyrite. They had bought it thinking it was gold and had paid for it with our Christmas bonus.

While we were leaving the meeting hall, I felt something big, very big. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but every single one of my cells seemed to be crying out to me, “We’re not doing so well here, mate!”



Lifelong Learning

Lifelong Learning

[Translation of Educación Permanente by Germán Machado published in Libro de Notas on 17-November-2006]

I haven’t accepted a leaflet on the street for a long time. I am not counting those that are delivered to the house, but one of those they hand out. I systematically avoid people who hand them out. If I am walking on the pavement and see someone handing out leaflets, I calculate my time until they are occupied with someone else and then pass by, avoiding them. I have even gone to the length of crossing the street to the other side to avoid young men or women handing out brochures promoting massage parlours, restaurants with gourmet menus, take-away pizzas, shoe warehouses, half-price jeans...

It’s not that I look down on the people that do this type of work. Not at all. They are only earning an honest living. I don’t want to take their leaflets because I don’t know what to do with the paper afterwards. I don’t like throwing litter on the ground. I think it’s wrong. During the course that I took in the summer on the Protection of the Environment and Social Cleanliness, they taught us to be very careful with what we do with waste, all waste.

In our city, anyone can understand my problem; you can walk for block after block without ever finding a litter bin. Those put up by the council are generally broken or full to overflowing. Usually, when I am given a brochure I end up by keeping it in my pocket and then I have to get rid of it at home, or in the office, depending on which direction I am going. In any case, it’s a bother. That’s why I haven’t accepted a leaflet on the street for a long time.

Today, however, I got one. The young lady who was handing them out took me by surprise. I didn’t see her first. When I reached the corner, she turned on her heels and fired at point blank range, “Take one”, she said. She held out her hand at the height of my chest, and in her hand was the leaflet.

I was on the point of rejecting it. I was going to say no, thanks, I don’t need one, I was given one recently. But the girl smiled sweetly, full of confidence that I was going to take it. And I took it.

I kept the leaflet in my pocket and when I reached the office, and before throwing it in the waste paper bin, I thought I would take a look. It was advertising a course for Advanced Mobile Phone User.

The leaflet said, “Become an expert mobile phone user in just one month. Make calls. Receive calls efficiently. Send text messages. Use voicemail correctly. Block and unblock the keyboard. Store and find names in the directory. Find out everything that you can do with a mobile phone. Expert trainers. Places limited. Diploma on passing the final examination. Courses start on the 10th of each month. Timetable: Tuesdays and Thursdays from 18:00 to 19:00”.

At the bottom of the leaflet was the address of the college. It was just around the corner from the office. There was also a telephone number to ring.

* * *

It’s the 9th of August. The course is going to start tomorrow. I don’t know why, but I thought it wouldn’t be a bad idea to add another qualification to my curriculum: Mobile Phone User. Obviously, I have to get a mobile phone first, because I don’t currently have one.

The leaflet doesn’t say that you have to have a cell phone to take part in the course. It also doesn’t mention the fee, nor if you have to have any previous experience before enrolling. I will call to ask, and then I'll decide.

I sat down at my desk and quickly completed the work that I had for the morning. When I had a few moments free, I called the college. The woman on the phone was very pleasant. She explained that it wasn’t necessary to have previous experience. That it was useful to come with your own phone. She said that the cost of the course was twenty pounds. I have do decide quickly because the course starts tomorrow and there are only three places left.

I spent the rest of the morning thinking about whether I should or shouldn’t attend the course.

I would have asked Mariella, my office colleague and the boss’ secretary, if she wasn’t in such a bad mood.

First thing that morning the boss made a comment to Mariella that she thought was out of place. I prefer not to pester her while she is angry. I’ll have to decide what to do on my own.

I begin to think about it: the timetable is convenient as it starts half an hour after I finish work. I don’t have any problems with the money; last month I saved enough to pay for the course and I will even have enough to buy a mobile phone; if I decide to enrol, of course.

* * *

At lunch time I went out to eat at the burger bar. As I was walking there, I saw a shop selling mobile phones in the same block. The shop had been there some time, but I had never paid it any attention. I remembered something that I learned on the Management of the Visual Environment course that I did last year. They had explained that you only pay attention to those things that have caught your attention to before. That’s true. Since this morning my attention had been directed at mobile phones and for this reason, now, I saw the shop selling them that I had never noticed before.

I stopped to take a look in the window. There were all sorts of mobile phones. I went in and asked to see some that weren’t too expensive. I bought one. The girl who sold it to me offered to explain how it worked. I told her it wasn’t necessary, that she shouldn’t trouble, that I was going to find out for myself. In short: I had decided to take the course.

Before returning to the office, I went by the academy to enrol.

The academy was in an old building where they give different types of courses: Computing, graphic design, electronics, communications and so on. I went in. The girl who had answered the telephone before was in the reception. I recognised her by her voice. I learned how to recognise people by their voices when I did the Recognising People by Visual Appearance and Tone of Voice course a few years ago.

When she saw me come in the girl greeted me kindly. She asked me what I wanted. I explained that I had phoned earlier that morning to enquire about the Mobile Phone User course and I had decided to take it. “I have come to enrol”, I concluded.

She was delighted and told me that I had to fill out an enrolment form. Once we had completed all the formalities, and she never stopped smiling, she congratulated me on my decision. “Welcome”, she added, while she handed me the enrolment certificate.

* * *

Today is Thursday, the 10th of August. I start the course. The trainer is young and smart. He knows how to look formal while dressed in casual clothes. The impression he gives his audience is of a modern and clever person. I take note. He exactly matches the definition of “young thinker” I learned about in the course on Semiotics of Presence and the Art of Dressing Well, a quick course of the many I did before attending the Voluntary Work and First Aid Workshop for a term more than three years ago.

The first class was entertaining. It was a typical introductory class. The trainer made all of us talk about ourselves. Some nine people, mostly adults. Then, elegantly and with a certain air of superiority, he described the objectives and the programme for the Mobile Phone User Diploma.

In order to calm the anxieties that are common in these types of short and intense courses, the trainer explained very clearly how the final examination would be conducted. “There will be four exercises", he said. “The first, to make a call; the second, to answer a missed call; the third, to add a number to the directory of the device; the fourth, to send a text message. It won’t be very difficult,” he concluded.

The class was more practical than theoretical. It progressed at a light-hearted and brisk pace, even though it was interrupted by the ringing of various phone tones, which erupted chaotically and uncontrollably among the giggles of the students.

At the end of the first class, I already knew how to switch on and switch off my mobile. I had chosen a Schubert symphony as the ring-tone. I had also learned how to re-charge the battery, which I do at night before going to bed.

* * *

The month of the course flew by. There was a lot of work to do in the office and at home I spent hours doing the exercises that the trainer set every Tuesday and Thursday. I found it easy to learn everything that he taught in class. I don’t want it to sound like boasting, but after a month of intense work, I think that I really have become an expert mobile phone user.

Mariella, who this month seemed much happier, was my best ally. She answered my calls and replied to my text messages each time that I was doing those exercises.

Right at the start, Mariella noticed that I had bought a mobile phone. “What do you want it for?” she asked. “You never talk to anyone.” I explained to her that I never talked to anyone because I didn’t have a mobile phone and this is precisely what I wanted to correct.

During office hours, Mariella spends the whole time sending and receiving messages. I think this is why the boss made the comment that upset her last time. In spite of the threat that the boss might reprimand her again, we practised in the office, sending messages from one desk to the other.

She was quite pleased about the bond that we were forming. “Our bond,” Mariella used to say. She often used to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the different mobiles that came on the market. Also, I also think Mariella was happy because when we started practising, I gave her a top-up card for her mobile. It was the least I could do, considering the trouble to which she would go, answering my calls and messages each time. Calls and messages in which we said things like: I’m over here, I’m going, I coming, I’ll see you in a moment, bye.

I didn’t say anything to Mariella about the course that I was doing. I only told her that I needed to practise. I don’t think it's right that just anyone should be able to do a course and then compete with you when you present your curriculum for a job. Today we are allies and good colleagues, but if tomorrow we have to compete for a promotion in the company, she and I will be fierce enemies; this is what I learned in the Business Coaching and Setting a Good Example course that I did a few years ago. Time will tell.

* * *

Today I will be doing the end of course test. It’s the 7th of September. Thursday. If everything goes well, today I will get my Mobile Phone User Diploma. MPUD, as the trainer calls it. I'm not at all nervous. But I asked to be let out of the office a half hour earlier so I can practise a little before the test.

* * *

It’s an individual test. The course trainer and the General Coordinator of the academy, a woman who looks ambitious but is very friendly, are at the examination table.

We go in one by one. When my turn comes, I am completely calm.

I go into the room. The trainer greets me and asks me if I am ready. I have my phone switched on in my hand. I answer affirmatively. To start, he asks me to add his phone number and that of the General Coordinator to my phone directory. He dictates them to me. I complete this task rapidly. When I finish, the trainer is encouraging, “Good, well done,” he says.

Then he asks me to call the General Coordinator. I do this with ease. While I am talking with her, he calls my phone. It appears as a missed call on my machine. When I finish talking with the General Coordinator, he asks me to retrieve the missed call. I do it. Meanwhile, he sends me a text message.

I didn’t say this before, but this allows me to make a little digression: something that we all noticed and commented on in the class is the speed with which the trainer plays his thumb over the keyboard. The amount of text that he can write in just a few seconds in incredible. I doubt that any of us will ever be able to beat him at it.

So, when I have recovered his missed call but haven’t yet answered it, Schubert plays on my phone telling me that I have a text message. I read it. It is the message from the trainer. It tells me that this is the last test, and asks me if I am satisfied with the results of the course. “Reply in three words,” is the instruction at the end of the message. I reply with my thumb, neither too quickly, nor too slowly, “I’m very satisfied.” And then I push the SEND key.

The trainer’s phone rings, telling him he has a message. It’s my message. The trainer reads it and responds immediately. Now my phone rings. I read the message that has just arrived, “Congratulations!” It says. “You have passed.”

The General Coordinator at the other side of the table stands up and congratulates me. She holds out her hand. The trainer does the same. When I take his hand, I feel the callus on his thumb in the palm of my hand. It’s course, corrugated, alphanumeric.

I thank the trainer, using the technique I learned in the course on Negotiation and Good Manners that I did while finishing my A-Levels. The General Coordinator fills out the diploma, a form embossed with the logo of the Academy. She writes my name and the qualification I have achieved: “Excellent”, she scrawls in a handwriting style that seems a little inadequate for the occasion. She signs and gives the diploma to the trainer for his signature. Then they give it to me. When I leave the room, the trainer calls the next student.

Feeling very satisfied and on the point of leaving the Academy, I delay a while in the hall. I have my mobile phone in a holder attached to the belt of my trousers. I am passing through when the Academy secretary gives me a leaflet. Smiling, she explains that it is a course for Fax Users and Telephone Switchboard Operators that starts next week. She warns me that not many places are left, but she will reserve a place until Monday as the students of the Mobile Phone course have preference.

I thank her for her consideration. I tell her that I will think about it, and I leave. Now in the street, with the leaflet in my hand, I mentally review the sheets I have attached to my curriculum, to which I will add the diploma that I have in my other hand. I ask myself if Mariella will have a Fax User diploma. I doubt it.




[Translation of Humillante by Juan José Millás published in El País on 10-Nov-2006.]

Anyone who is not as thick as two short planks knows that the “security” measures introduced this week in airports are folly. Nothing is more insecure or humiliating than going through an anti-metal arch, barefoot, holding up one's trousers under the ironic and suspicious gaze of a guards in uniform. Security at this price is only a cost. The problem is where to protest, because if I have understood it correctly, this is a “European directive”; meaning that we don’t know exactly who is the paranoid individual who came up with it. A German takes charge of light switches and passing through an airport is the responsibility of a Belgian. According to them, it is all very reassuring. Declaring that it is a “European directive” is tantamount to saying that it is a decision made by God; not a bad metaphor as God has always, in all cultures, been the instigator of fear, shock, punishment and persecution.

Despite appearances that we are living in a secular society, we have never been so religious. Now our God is Allah, because it is due to him that this regulation has fallen from the sky on our heads like a cloudburst. This is not my insight, but that of an official in Terminal 4 in Madrid airport with whom I shared my consternation. He asked me not to blame the PSOE, the PP, the CiU, nor the new three-party government in Catalonia. He said I should blame Allah. If we didn’t want God, we now have a double helping. If we were truly secular and democratic, no State would dare to humiliate us with such religious practices.

At the moment we have to pass through an archway, semi-naked, with our boarding cards in our mouths balancing the trays in which we have obsessively arranged our sacred objects according to their densities. That bit about the 100 millilitres, believe me, is of little importance. The problem will be when they won’t let us pass through security with the whole of our brain mass. Or with quantities of intelligence above those permitted by the European directive or by Allah. Perhaps these restrictions have already come into force without our being aware of them. No right-thinking society would swallow such a dictum. Religious fundamentalism has won the war.

Entrepreneurs And "Intellectual Property"

Entrepreneurs and “intellectual property”

[Translation of Los empresarios y la “propiedad intellectual” by Ricardo Galli in Ricardo Galli, de software libre, published on 10-Nov-2006.]

In a few hours I will attend a round table discussion Entrepreneurs facing up to the new forms of intellectual property (in the University of the Balearic Islands, conference room, 18:15). As I only have a few minutes to make my introduction, I have decided to do something that I have never done before: to prepare and read a written speech. I am cutting and pasting it below.

Round table:  Entrepreneurs facing up to the new forms of intellectual property

The title of this round table discussion is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. I am referring to the phrase “intellectual property”, which as well as being contradictory causes confusion and is, in a sense, extremist in its nature.

“Ah... here is the old hippy radical communist," some will think.

Yes, I know that Lenin and Trotsky existed, I have read about them in history books and especially in Wikipedia and the Internet. But in this case, if you will forgive my boldness, I am going to use arguments that sound more like capitalist or free market thinking.

In saying that the definition of “intellectual property” is contradictory, I am not saying anything new. Thomas Jefferson, one of the founding fathers of the US, whom no one would take to be a communist, said it first. By quoting him I hope to avoid the condescending smiles that any advocate of free software would expect to see if they tried to argue for these ideas.

Jefferson said to McPherson in a letter in 1813:

If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea, which an individual may exclusively possess as long as he keeps it to himself; but the moment it is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.

That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation. Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property.


I said that the idea causes confusion. The term “intellectual property” not only transmits the false perception that ideas by their nature have “owners”, but it also leads to concepts and laws that conflict with each other.

So, few people distinguish the difference between copyright, or the rights of the author, and patents, which are industrial secrets and registered trade marks. All of these are put in the same bag to simplify the debate and to make it possible to abuse the words, “to steal”, “thief”, and “pirate”.

If only Mr Jefferson could hear us now! Especially knowing the history of his country. The US was a “pirate” nation, for more than 100 years, until well into the 20th century. Walt Disney is one of the star products of this “piracy”. Hollywood is another: a meeting of North American "pirate film makers", agreed to set up shop on the distant west coast to avoid paying for Edison’s patents,.

A historian could assert, without fear of being contradicted, “How much culture and business has been generated by the copying of ideas!”

Copyright and patents are distinct laws and concepts. Copyright means laws that assure the author a monopoly over the manifestation of his ideas. Patents represent a monopoly on ideas applied to the manufacture of a product.

Software is automatically protected by copyright. Another myth is that the movement for free software is fighting for the abolition of these laws. This is not true.

The objective of the free software movement is not to eliminate all forms of copyright. Richard Stallman found a way to use these laws for an objective that is opposite to that for which they were originally created. Instead of assuring an author’s monopoly, the GPL licence uses copyright laws to assure that the programme is always free: this is the concept of copyleft.

Within the free software community, there are a variety of opinions and we do not have one set of definitions or proposals for the copyright laws. Our objective is something else: that every user of a computer programme can enjoy four liberties that we consider fundamental: freedom to use the programme, freedom to improve it or correct errors, freedom to give a copy to a friend and freedom to distribute the improved copies.

These ideas are not new and they are almost the same as those that the modern scientific world abides by. They have been operating from the time of Newton and have enabled an enormous growth in the technological marketplace.

If the laws of copyright allow the development of programmes and assuring these user freedoms, we do not have any problem with those laws; we have already found a way to take advantage of them for our ends.

The problem, which is now emerging and which we are complaining about, is the creation of new copyright laws that are becoming more and more draconian. That which originated as a regulation for industry has turned into laws that interfere with private activities and turns almost 100% of the people who use a computer into putative criminals. This has never happened before in history. And to justify this, appeal is made to the “free market”; what an enormous contradiction!

These increasingly restrictive laws can make it impossible for a normal person to live their digital life using only free software and at the same time avoiding breaking the law. I am referring to tangible and current cases: for example, we are not able to view our DVDs or listen to our music unless it is with a proprietary software player of a specific brand.

For this reason, I said that “intellectual property” is also “extremist”.

If Thomas Jefferson or Adam Smith emerged from their graves and could see what is happening now, they would think that the world has turned up-side-down; that the modern capitalists are those bearded hippies in jeans and that the communists are those suited gentlemen lobbying the politicians...

Did I mention that Bill Gates was in Brussels meeting with Charlie McCreevy, the European commissioner for the Internal Market and Services?

But I should return my focus to free software and business.

Another of the widely believed myths is that free software must be free-of-charge. This is not the case. Developing free software costs money, but nothing prevents people earning money for developing it, or for selling it at the highest possible price.

It is not for me to teach business people how they should do business; they know the problems better than anyone. Each one takes the decisions that they believe to be for the best.

I believe that the fundamental problem of the last few years has been that computer professionals have assumed that the only way of making money from software is by “selling licences”. So, the typical kinds of questions that one can hear are:

If I sell my programme [Translator's note: as opposed to a licence to use it], and anyone can use it. What will I live on?

This is such a topical and false question that I am going to answer with a comparison:

If you become ill and go to a doctor, whether in the public health service or private, and you or the state pays for treatment, and you are cured and you spend the rest of your life enjoying good health and during this time the doctor gets nothing from you. What will doctors live on?

The same reasoning can be extended to any other profession, engineers, architects, lawyers, economists, teachers... and I ask myself, “What is so special about software developers”? Are we show business stars? Why do we now want society to make it possible for us to live like Enrique Iglesias or David Bisbal?

Just as it is easier to win the football pools than to become an Enrique Iglesias, so it is easier to win the Christmas lottery than to earn a fortune selling software licences. The statistics demonstrate this.

Some 95% to 98% of programmers work and draw a salary developing software for internal use within their organisation. The majority of this software may be considered free because it complies with the four freedoms. On the other hand, the vast majority of companies selling software don't do it selling CDs in jewel cases in El Corte Inglés; they do it selling services.

Services is the key word.

This is the direct influence of free software in companies developing it or making business with it. They should be service companies, and the amount they charge should depend on the price that the market is willing to pay.

Having free software also has an important collateral effect: It liberates this service market. Now it is no longer possible to maintain a monopoly that is inherent in the market of proprietary software. Customers can appeal to any other company or programmer to modify the programs that they bought from third parties. The success of such companies will be based on their competence, quality and prestige.

Is this not pure competition, capitalism and the “free market”?

But I don't want to finish without making one last point.

All the indicators of the “software industry” for the Balearic Islands and to a lesser degree Spain, put us at the tail of the developing areas of the world, including countries like India and some regions of Brazil and China.

What has brought us to this situation? Free software? Or a proprietary software market of huge monopolies? As a society, should we defend the status quo or take advantage of the alternatives and opportunities that would enable us to change this situation?

I believe we have an enormous and very tangible opportunity. The free software market has been growing continuously over the last 10 years. The barriers to entry are very low and thanks to free software, we are only a few man-months away from being able to implement any kind of solution without having to negotiate or ask permission from any body.

Software is available to all, equally, under the same conditions. We need only to depend on our own decisions, the risks that we are prepared to face and above all our knowledge.

This is why we, and especially teachers and researchers, often say that knowledge make you free.

The Commander

The Commander

[Translation of El Commander by Alfredo de Hoces García-Galán published in Despacho101 on 20-Sept-2006.]


Antonio described the plan for tomorrow while we were enjoying our drinks: we were going to fly in a light plane from Axarquia airport to Almeria. The pilot would be Mr. Peckam, a seventy year old English gentleman who had bought the plane in pieces and had assembled it himself with a screwdriver. Put like this, the plan didn't sound very appealing; I could already see the Guardia Civil clearing the Herradura beach of my body parts. The fruit of Mr. Peckam's labours had four seats; Toni was also coming along for the ride. We resolved to drain our glasses and go to bed immediately so that we would be alert the following morning.

“Welllltheeen, shlee you tumorra, mate,” I said, five rounds later.

I went home, took off the silly Forges cartoon mask from my face and got into bed to dream of Heath Robinson aircraft, multiple brain lesions and fourth degree burns. A little later, the alarm went off.


I went out to have breakfast with Antonio. Two orange juices and two ham sandwiches later I was still none the wiser.

“So how is it that he took out all the gubbins from the plane and rebuilt it? Look, an aircraft isn't like a lighter which either needs fuel or a flint...,” I said to Antonio.

“Don't worry about it, mate. Mr. Peckam was an engineer.”

Ah, so that's all right then! Some choice moments from my ten years as an engineer passed in front of my eyes: inspired analysis, brilliant design, pompous presentations, shed-loads of documentation, self-confident smiles, impeccable coding, exhaustive testing and, in the demo, the client enters a user name and password and puff! Null Pointer Exception and back to the cubicle with my tail between my legs. Another demo flop! But as a Null Pointer corresponds roughly to the connection between the con rods and the crankshaft in an aircraft, then how confident would you feel...

“If he wears a tie then I'm going to start running without looking back,” I said.

Toni picked us up in his car. We reached the aerodrome in a few minutes, got out of the car and waited at the end of the runway for the plane to arrive.

At any moment, I was expecting an old cronk to appear from behind the hangars, trembling and hippety-hopping and leaving a trail of nuts and bolts behind it to the shriek of rusty gear wheels, smoking rockets and horn blasts with the music of La Cucaracha. The propeller would fall off and a charming old geezer Harpo Marx look-alike would come out of the cabin, replace the propeller, smile at us with a look of nothing-untoward-has-happened-here-has-it and would invite us to get in with a couple of blasts of his hooter.

Minutes passed and I mentally rehearsed my last words to my loved ones. How many texts would I be able to send during a free fall from the sky? Some phrases came into my head from nowhere. “Just to let you know that I loved you even though I was always a silly bugger,” and “goodbye, thanks for everything and please never let my dog feel lonely,” things like that.

Then The Commander (this is the name Mr. Peckam had given to his creation) appeared, gleaming. On the outside it looked like new. But this was only the external appearance. What worried me was the implementation.

Mr. Peckam got down from the plane and greeted us warmly. Antonio made the introductions, “Toni, Alfredo, this is David Peckam. He doesn't speak much Spanish.”

“I have started to learn now,” he said in Spanish.

Well bugger me! I had given up learning German at twenty-four because I thought it was already too late.

David's eyes gleamed intelligently. His expression was bright, deep, courageous and positive. When looking at David, age became a mere technical issue, a number written on a sheet of paper somewhere. There was nothing in him that is normally associated with what is known as the “third age”.

We went to the bar while David filled up with fuel and made the routine checks on the plane. I went straight to the toilet, took a look at myself in the mirror and seriously considered clearing off. I pulled the chain and abandoned that option.


David came into the bar: the moment of truth had arrived. We finished our coffees and returned to the landing strip. Everything was ready for take-off. We got into The Commander.

The plane began to move slowly. We headed along the runway. David made a series of last-minute checks. He checked the lights, adjusted the controls, confirmed that the doors were properly locked and told us to tighten our seat belts.

“Are you ready?” he asked us.

I turned to look at the runway. It seemed to go on forever. I felt as if the whole of my life was in front of me. And between it and myself, fear. Then my mind cleared. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and said to myself, “This is the time to throw caution to the winds. I want to fly.”

“Ready,” I said.

Antonio and Toni raised their thumbs. David gripped the controls. We rolled along the runway, faster and faster. The Commander started to vibrate and roared majestically, like a great tiger just before jumping on a fire. I clenched my teeth. My heart beat faster and faster.

Suddenly, all the power bottled up inside The Commander was set free. The wheels left the ground and we started to ascend. We cheered David and clapped with enthusiasm. We were in the air, fear remained behind on the ground.

David's actions showed astonishing skill. He consulted the flight plan, adjusted our course and then took his hands off the controls.

“It flies by itself,” he explained. “I only have to make an adjustment now and again.”

Of course it flies itself. Once you've had the balls to take off. That's life. Life starts when you overcome fear.


We were tracking the coast. We laughed and enjoyed the views. Up here, the sky and the sea fused together; the horizon was something we had to imagine for ourselves. I tried to make it out among the clouds, to have some kind of mental image. In the end, I gave up: this way was much more beautiful.

From time to time I turned to look at my friends. We were talking to each other without saying anything; it was enough to look at each other and nod gently. We were all immersed in the same sensation. It's very rare that two spirits are really in the same place and here we were, four of us, sharing a single smile.

In a little over half an hour we were flying over Almeria. We started to descend. It was a clear August afternoon; the light of the sun rested gently on a greenish sea, minute ants ran along the roads, a cruise ship lay at peace in the harbour. Life continued on its pleasant journey and we were floating on soft and gentle stillness.

David landed smoothly. While we were rolling down the runway, I realised that were were not on some tiny aerodrome. When we got out of The Commander we saw an Iberia jet take off.

We went inside the terminal and walked between the luggage belts. A number of workmen dressed in boiler suits and reflecting jackets were loading suitcases and there we were in swimwear and flip-flops with towels over our shoulders like holiday-makers. We went down a corridor and as were were just about to go out of the exit, a security officer stared at us with eyes like two white plates.

“Hey! You! Where do you think you are going?”

“To eat as much lobster as we can, officer”

He took us to a window and made us fill out some paperwork. We went out into the street and took a taxi. “To the beach bar, please!”


The lobsters tasted of the sea, of summer and of victory. A salty breeze slipped through the window, a breeze tasting of damp sand, of old wood lapped by waves, of bits of fish, of seagulls. We emptied cool golden jars of beer and chatted excitedly.

Between mouthfuls, David told us about his life. He was born in 1941 in England, became an aeronautical engineer, he worked there for a while and then they sent him to the Middle East. We listened with special attention as he told us about how after fourteen years in Kuwait he had to leave, shitting bricks, on the day of the invasion.

They say that after retirement comes a crisis. On the day that he retired, David went to Germany with his good friend Ian Whittle, son of Sir Frank Whittle the inventor of the jet engine, to buy himself a light plane. After that, he came to live in Spain (in a house in the mountains without a phone line), he dismantled the plane and took two years to re-build it as The Commander. A few months ago he completed the circumnavigation of Spain with it.

“Now I'm thinking of buying a boat, but before that I want to spend a bit of time in the Sahara,” he told us.

“In the Sahara? But aren't things a bit fucked up over there?” said Antonio.

“Life is for living; if you crash, pick up the pieces and start again.”

I have tattooed that phrase on my brain by repeating it so often in my mind. The day I forget it I am sure something horrible will happen to me.

After a leisurely lunch we went to the beach to enjoy the sun. We didn't have much time because we had to return in good light (David still didn't know how to fly in the dark). We sprawled on the sand and talked about girls. David was a widower; his wife had died of cancer some years ago. That cut him up badly at the time. He then put the pieces together again.


We landed in Axarquia at twilight. In the hanger, Margaret, David's lovely companion, was waiting with nice cold beers. We called a toast and sat down to drink by the last rays of the sun.

Sitting in the hangar, the minutes passed slowly. Taking a look at The Commander, I couldn't help thinking about myself, about how at my barely thirty years of age I sometimes feel old, done, spent, unable to take off. How ridiculous! The next time I feel like that I will pull myself apart and rebuilt myself piece by piece: here a bit of sun, there a bit of sand, a coat of salty breeze and sea mist, a blue evening spiced with good memories.

We drank slowly as the night fell around us. The sky slowly filled with stars, the cicadas began their timid songs, and life started anew.

The horizon fused into the dusk.

To David Peckam, Antonio Maldonado and Toni Gutiérrez.
With them it is easy to face the future.

Espero que mi versión ha capturado un poco el espiritu del original.


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