Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Opaque – the Dining in the Dark Experience

A complete black screen
(This is what the restaurant must look like from the inside)

Some people never cease to amaze me! I used to think I had crazy ideas, but this one sure is inspired. In about three locations in California, people now have the option of dining in a pitch-black atmosphere in a restaurant called Opaque. The waiters and waitresses are mostly blind or sight-impaired. You will be led by them into a dark room where you will be served and where you eventually (try to) eat your food.

What is the point of it all? Good question. Your sense of taste will be heightened as you will not be distracted by what the other person is wearing or doing. You can focus on the food and on the occasional frightened and freaked out comments of your friends or the faceless noise coming from the sea of voices all around you.

You will probably, no definitely, spill food and water, wine, beer all over yourself, so don’t wear your best suit or clothes. It will be hard to give your neighbor or the person opposite you a taste of your delicious dish as you will have a hard time finding their mouth. And be careful of not poking your own eyes out with the fork and knife.

Despite all of this (or maybe because of it) I would be thrilled to try it out one day given the chance or opportunity! Not the best idea for a romantic date (unless it is a "blind date" or you don’t want to see eye to eye because you got something to hide), but it is definitely out of the ordinary. And just for that reason, count me in!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Diogenes, Leader of the Pack of Dogs

A sign prohibiting dogs to urinate

It may not be widely known that the word “cynic” originally means “dog” in Greek. So next time you encounter a cynic you can freely call him a dog or any other word along the canine lines. The origin for that label is quite simple, the cynics, in particular, Diogenes, "lived like a dog."

Supposedly, Diogenes lived in a tub, ironically probably very rarely washed himself, urinated and defecated wherever it pleased him and dressed in tattered rags. His philosophy was that people have grown corrupt, that they take themselves too seriously and disassociate themselves from their animal nature.

The cynics rejected social customs, believed them to be arbitrary, nothing but meaningless rituals reeking of hypocrisy. Diogenes famously was caught masturbating in public and claimed that if only his hunger were that easily satisfied, by simply rubbing his stomach, how simple would life be!

His contemporary philosopher Plato called him a “Socrates gone mad.” It was true that Diogenes was Socratic in his rigorous manner of questioning morality and accepted norms, by not taking anything for granted, yet obviously he overstepped the line. Socrates did not live in filth to prove his point, but Diogenes had no scruples or any concern of what others might think of him. In his time, he must have been indeed every dog’s best friend.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Hostel vs. Anatomy: The Dangers of a World Devoid of Ethics

Poster of fleshless skull with protruding eyes from German horror film "Anatomy"

Both movies, Hostel and the German production entitled Anatomie, are generic, commercial and rather predictable slasher / horror movies that include gore and violence. Yet they contain an interesting element that separates them from other movies of the genre; surprisingly, they offer food for discussion and reflections about science and human nature.

Hostel is probably the better known, and it has been released to a wider audience. The plot is relatively simple: Young tourists traveling in Europe get caught up in an unimaginable evil scheme where rich people pay for and delight in torturing and eventually killing unsuspecting foreign tourists.

The original idea here is that although one may be horrified about people paying for torturing others with sharp devices, there is a dark hideous part in each of us that may silently, unwittingly accept this premise. According to Freud, we have unconscious desires like wanting to hurt others or to commit evil deeds, which make up the "id" and are “censored” by our executing ego. Given certain circumstances, humans can act like uncontrollable beasts, as war-torn environments, extremist ideologies or situations, such as the cruel inhumane treatment of the Nazis, or cases of consumption of human flesh for survival have demonstrated in the past.

What Hostel shows is not only that given the opportunities humans can perform terrible, unspeakable deeds, but even worse, that they can take delight in them! It is similar to the so-called rush that serial killers purport to feel when killing another person. The fact that I can imagine and accept the premise and scenario of the movie is the most terrifying part of it, and I have heard that tourism in the region has dropped after the release of the movie. A similar feat had been reached by Spielberg with Jaws where many people grew hesitant to go to the beach in fear of shark attacks.

Anatomie is a similar film, but it takes a different angle. A young promising female student goes to an elite university in Heidelberg and finds out that they have a secret "operating" society, an offshoot of the Freemasons called the anti-hippocratic society. In fact, they use living people for live experiments and as such are able to gain more knowledge about human anatomy.

The leader of the group explains that by outlawing such procedures, the Ethics Committee has been counterproductive making advances in science more difficult and cumbersome. In a purely utilitarian perspective, what is the worth of a few individuals versus scientific breakthrough knowledge from which all of humanity would benefit and prosper?

There is an interesting point at debate here. In the past, religion had forbidden any kinds of dissections, whether of humans or of animals, so most philosophers and physicians tended simply to use logic to explain these processes. It was only later through the use of dissections that we have learned not only how animal bodies work but by extension these facts were applied to humans.

There is no doubt that the Ethics Committee puts limits on certain practices deemed immoral in order to protect human rights. And I believe that the research professor in the movie has a point finding these regulations restrictive and constraining for his branch of science. Yet the frightening part about this movie is that such unethical practices and treatments have really existed and continue in our day and age. For another chilling and more realistic treatment of the topic, one only needs to watch The Constant Gardener to understand the modern implications, how pharmaceutical companies used Africans as guinea pigs for scientific experiments, for example.

As can be seen, Hostel gives us a glimpse of our dark nature, whereas Anatomie shows us a utilitarian world where scientific advance is costing people’s lives. Now that is what makes these movies truely scary!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Can animals think? What about my cat?

Picture of three cats with one kitten sticking out its tongue

(Darwin is the big sleepy-eyed one with the attitude)

I would often watch my cat Darwin strolling along or rubbing himself against me and ask myself, can animals think? I know with the certainty of experience and close observation that animals do feel pain and pleasure. There is no doubt about it, and Descartes was wrong to claim they were mere automata. But whether they have the ability to think is another matter.

Obviously, they would not have the interior monologue we do but might be able to think on a more instinctive wordless manner. I do believe, however, that they reason. They can relate two events to each other, distinguish cause from effect, and be capable of learning.

My cat Darwin knew that it was forbidden to bite my toes. And he usually wouldn’t do it unless he was upset with me for not letting him out. He would bite me and quickly run off and hide. Similarly, whenever he committed a misdeed, for example, when he broke our mirror, he would hide under the bed or under the sheets and not show himself for quite some time. This to me shows not only the awareness of a wrong deed but also an anticipation of punishment (although we rarely punished him and when we did, he would only find himself locked up in one of our rooms for a short amount of time).

Obviously, when you call their name, they respond. Darwin would almost always come, no matter where he was or what he was doing; sometimes sleepy-eyed and grumpy, he would give us the this-better-be-important look hoping he would gain something from it, either a caress or, even better, some savory paw-licking food bits.

What amazed me the most though was when my wife felt cramps in her legs, he came and gave her a paw massage at the afflicted spot. And he stayed with her for the rest of that day, not budging from her side. He would also pick up on mood swings; when my wife was depressed, our dear cat would feel the blues as well. Yet whatever one might say or think about animals, I am always astonished how intelligent these living sentient beings can be!

For a rap video including all my cats, please click here.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Peter's Gate

Beautiful view onto a heavenly lake
Suicide Bombings in Heaven? Computer Background Checks in Paradise? Peter, the security guard with a rifle at the gates? Do they have cable in heaven? You better believe it! This story was previously published in the Truth Magazine, July 2006. It was based on world events and partly on my experience working at a Mexican university in Oaxaca.

Peter’s Gate

“Sorry, to be so … anal, but these days one cannot be sure enough,” Peter said, as he picked up the phone to call one of the angels. He briefly explained on the phone that there was need for an IBC. “Yes, I know. He forgot his badge,” he spoke into the phone. Then there was a pause. He nodded occasionally saying “uh-huh” and stealing glances at the young man who was waiting for a response.

Finally, Peter hung up, and addressed the young man with an encouraging smile, “No worries. They should be here in a minute.”

The man scratched his head and looked down at his shoes.

“So,” Peter said, “you must be new to the area.”

“Yes, that is correct,” the man replied curtly. After a short pause he added, “Two weeks.”

“Ah, I see,” Peter smiled and stroked his long white beard in contemplation. “You see it’s really indispensable to have your badge with you. At all times!”

“I know. I am very sorry for that. Won’t happen again. I promise.”

“So, you decided to go down there…take a peek so-to-speak?” probed the ever-curious Peter. The man grimaced and nodded quickly. He seemed to feel very self-conscious at the moment. Peter, with over two thousand years of experience had seen all types of people come and go, from all age groups, economic standings, ethnicities and backgrounds. Many were indeed afraid and quite perturbed at first, often sallying out at night to see their lost loved ones. The majority of them found it hard to accept that the game had come to an end, especially when it happened to them at a younger age. The man must have been in his middle or late twenties, speculated Peter.

“You still miss the old life, don’t you?” Peter added, slightly adjusting the rifle that was slung over his shoulder.

The young man’s eyes welled with tears.

“Now, now, one gets used to it. I mean, thank God that you are in these parts, you know. I mean, the other place is much, much worse, of course. No security whatsoever, high crime rates, and unbearable heat! But I can see that you are a good-hearted person. And I have seen many pass through here, ever since I was appointed gatekeeper. I mean the decisions are made above, ha, but I am sort of like a secretary and a guard. So, tell me, young man, what quarter you’re staying at again…I mean what was your religious conviction, for example?”

“Atheist,” he said, blushing quickly.

“Ah, don’t worry. It is a very, very common trend these days. Since…what’s his face…the French guy…RenĂ© or something. Or was it Voltaire? Man, my memory is going.”

He paused for a while attempting to retrieve the name, but only managed to conjure up the face of a Frenchman in a long frockcoat and frills on his sleeves. He brushed his thoughts aside with a quick motion of his hand. “Ah, whatever! Anyhow, our security measures had to be increased in recent times. That nonsense of terrorism has taken its toll even up here. Everything that happens down there…it has like a ripple-effect…you know, when you throw a stone into a pond…and we get to feel some of its vibrations up here…Part of the whole free will issue…let’s-see-what-they-will-do-next kinda deal … You see, my desk over there?”

He pointed with his finger. “I got the latest newspapers there. Herald Tribune, Der Stern, Le Monde, The Vancouver Sun, Die Zeit. Got to keep up with the times, that’s what the Big One said in one of our weekly meetings. Yes, I mean, can you believe it, we had our own shoe-bomber some time ago. It was quite a scene.”

The young man was fumbling in his pockets and kept glancing through the electric, iron gate to see if somebody was coming soon.

“Yeah, it was nuts,” Peter continued. “Suicide bombings even in heaven! Can you imagine that! Will they ever stop and find peace? Can’t really blame them though… Strong unshakeable convictions and lots of suffering…feel sorry for them. Ready to die twice over… for their nation, their religion, what have-you. Young ones, too. Mind you, not all of them are inherently evil…You see all these things with badges and IBCs, that is Identity Background Checks, is relatively new. In the old days, we didn’t have computers either. It’s great, technology and all ... don’t get me wrong. Human kind has made some incredible strides. Really incredible, I say. We even got cable here…well in the office only. Residents are sheltered from it, though they get access to the cinema, quality foreign movies with subtitles…once a week…every Sunday. I’m sure you’ve noticed…Anyhow, I sometimes go through long spells of nothing…you know the majority of people get sent to the quote unquote other place. The abode of the evil brother. Yeah, anyways, we got cable all right, but none of the…what you call it there…pornographic channels. No, those are not allowed. Playboy is it or, the one that has the planet’s name…Uranus? No, Venus. That’s it. And also no Fox Network. Strictly forbidden.”

“Are there many … attacks here?” the young man suddenly asked.

Peter shook his head. “No, not since we buffed up the security measures. Many have tried to get in using fake names and personalities, forged IDs etc… Yeah, I really don’t know what’s happening with you people these days. We haven’t had this much confusion since the days of the crusade. Actually, I must say it’s getting kinda worse. For that reason, we divide people up, as you may have noticed, by their beliefs and ethnicities etc. Don’t want any brawls here, nor hatred or hard feelings, especially considering that people are supposed to be here for all eternity and such. That often causes friction, you see. Quite a few times, they find out something about the other person and get into fights. We have even had soccer rivalries extend to our parts. Anyhow, the Christians and the Jews and the Hindus and the Muslims have their own restricted areas, as you may note. The others we find rather more…how should I put it…flexible. We found that Buddhists and atheists, including scientists, get along quite well indeed.”

Some brightly colored birds flew around on the other side of the gate and the young man watched them attentively. The air was quite humid that afternoon, and vapory clouds were rising. You could hear a waterfall in the distance. With his sweaty palms, the young man grabbed on tightly to the piece of folded paper in his pocket.

Soon enough, the angel in a white bathrobe showed up, looked the young man up and down, asked him some personal questions while double-checking the responses to sheets of paper in his blue folder, then personally frisked the man and gave Peter a go-ahead nod.

“Welcome back, young man. Next time don’t forget your ID, OK?” Peter said in a playfully reprimanding tone.

The angel and Peter engaged in chit-chat while the young man made his way to his quarter. He breathed a sigh of relief, as the notes on how to make explosives had passed by unnoticed through the gates of Heaven.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Grocery Shopping Spree - Mexican Style

Family going grocery shopping

Wednesdays have become our weekly shopping routine. It is on Wednesdays that fruits and vegetables are on sale at one of the Mexican supermarket chains, Chedraui, and so we have decided to make it our official grocery shopping day. Surprisingly, it is not something I frown upon, but quite to the contrary, I actually look forward to it!

Maybe it is because on this particular day in the week, we stock up on our items, and I can buy the necessary groceries, yet there is something strangely soothing about the whole process. Although I am a staunch enemy of shopping in general, and it bores me to death, grocery shopping has become a form of entertainment and relaxation to me.

My wife and I have our own preferred areas. We divide most of our chores; when it comes to groceries, I am usually the one responsible for limes, cucumbers, and peanuts. Those are, if you will, my areas of expertise. I have learned how to pick and select juicy limes - there are strangely no lemons in Mexico only green limes – I roll them in my hands, and basically assess them. Experience has taught me that the prettiest, completely green limes are not to be trusted. They may look beautiful on the outside, but lack on fluids in the inside. And juiciness is important as I use limes to make either lime-onade or eat them with cucumbers, my other responsibility.

Every once in a while I need to stock up on coffee. That is another mystical experience. First off, although the coffee section is relatively small and lacks variety, I enjoy the smell that the packages still manage to emit. I imagine my mornings, especially lately my vacation mornings, when I make myself my batch of coffee and enjoy it with breakfast or with a book.

If you are ever in Mexico, or if you are simply curious and want to try Mexican coffee, there are two regions that I mostly recommend. The best coffee for me comes from Oaxaca; the other, a close second is from the region of Chiapas. People always rave over coffee from Veracruz, and although I love the state of Veracruz - its people are probably the best of all Mexico - their coffee, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired.

The worst coffee I had was apparently made in the European tradition, but tasted of, and I am not kidding, cigarette butts! Another one, where my curiosity could not resist, and for which I have saved up because it is rather expensive, is Kenyan coffee. It is not as overwhelming and mind-blowing as I hoped it would be, but nonetheless, I am looking forward to my next cup tomorrow morning.

After filling up our cart, - and for some reason it always fills up despite our weekly ritual - we look for a cash register. The principal criterion is that the baggers, usually seniors, be male, as we had had our share of disagreements with the female baggers. I find that senior women, at least in Michoacan, are grumpier and more verbally aggressive than their male counterparts who are much friendlier and much more tolerant. All we ask for is big bags, not the flimsy small ones they usually want to get rid of in the first place, and a more or less even distribution of our shopping items.

After which, we check the receipt and almost always there is a mistake or two. We get overcharged. It is surprising how one-sided the procedure is; it is never in our favor. Why it happens beats me as it is all scanned and computerized. It must come down to human error, or, I hope not, human deliberation.

The best one was when instead of watermelons they put chicken, and four kilos of chicken cost much more than the same amount of watermelons. Then we go to a customer service section, as the cashier is not authorized to do any changes. We have always ended up in the right about our complaints so that customer service returns the amount they owe us.

Finally, we leave, asking for a taxi ensuring they do not overcharge us by giving them our own calculated quota to our destination. If they disagree we take another cab, but mostly they deem our price both reasonable and fair.

(At this point, I am aware that it may seem we are on the stingy side, but that is not entirely true. Mexican groceries are not that inexpensive, especially when you are earning Mexican pesos. On the other hand, I hate it when people try to take advantage of us. I may be a Canadian foreigner, but I am rather familiar with the Mexican way of life.)

In the cab we often engage in conversation with the driver and then get off at our apartment. As such we make our way back to the comfort of the home after another day of shopping, looking forward to the same ordeal next Wednesday.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Youthful follies? : The Dangers of Extreme Passion and Ideal Romanticism

Half-naked Angel shedding off her second wing

A few days ago on the news there was a young man who was hanging from an overpass threatening to jump into oncoming traffic. I realized that although it had the appearance of a suicide attempt, it was more a desperate call for attention. The young man survived with broken bones.

As for the reason of his act he stated to the paramedics to tell "so-and-so" - the name of a girl - to please come and see him in the hospital. The “deed” had been done for her because she had spurned his love or something along the line. I simply laughed and thought to myself, what an idiot!

But about ten, fifteen years ago I would have reacted otherwise. I probably would have applauded his decision; I might have been inclined to consider such a thing myself. Whenever I fell in love with someone, it would be wholeheartedly, passionately, even, maniacally. There is no one else but the beloved; no one would be able to replace her; not physically being with her equaled death; no, it was even worse, death at least offered some kind of oblivion, a respite from throbbing pain. I used to be a hopeless, incurable romantic back in the day.

So what has happened since then? Have I lost my idealism, have I turned into one of those bitter people who deny love, who equate it with heart frequencies, emotional cell responses, and levels of serotonin in one's brain? Or have I wisened up and become more realistic in my outlook of love and life?

It is a difficult question. Perhaps we simply grow out of it, becoming fatter and more and more disillusioned with life. But far from it in my case! Yes, I have gained weight, but I am happily married and love my wife to pieces.

I have perchance grown more cynical over time, but that is, I think, an automatic reaction; it might be the physical aging process or the accumulation of so-called experience. Either way, while I decry such desperate actions of unrequited love as foolish, deep inside I must confess I feel sympathy and compassion for that young man. It is not the voice of reason talking, but the muted voice of relentless and restless bubbling passion buried deeply in my breast.