Monday, March 31, 2008

The Troubled, Tainted Torch

The Olympic Torch, lit from the Olympic flame, commemorates mankind's acquisition of fire as a gift from the Greek God Prometheus, who stole the same from Zeus. Prometheus angered Zeus by tricking him into selecting a lesser offering from mankind. Zeus, realizing the deception, hid the fire to make it difficult for man to survive and prosper, until it was taken by Prometheus.

Over the years since the Olympics began in ancient Greece until its modern adaptation, the fire symbolized unity in prosperity for mankind. It also meant lighting the path to what is just and what is right, with the torch carrier being referred to as the bearer of the truth. Eleven women take part in igniting the flame representing the roles of priestesses in the ceremony.

In the 2008 Olympics, the torch is troubled. It arrived at the venue amidst tight security which denied even the Chinese citizens the privilege of seeing it land on their soil and witnessing the glory of this once in a lifetime event. The arrival was limited to a few thousand handpicked guests. In their effort to avoid the embarrassment of having to contain protests that would be seen worldwide, the Chinese officials have also succeeded in taking the flame away from the path of justice; and have dimmed the hopes of a people crying for their homeland and way of life. The torch is being hidden from the quest for truth, and used to illuminate a lavishly pretentious vision to conceal the inhumanity resulting from an insatiable obsession with dominance.

Politics, power play, manipulation and treachery have no place in an event such as the Olympics. Yet throughout the years since the1936 Berlin Olympics, the ugliness of these manifestations continue to grow in scope and scale. Even the men and women who dedicate themselves for their country's honor are unwittingly used in these events. Some are pressured into the idea that winning is the ultimate goal, not sportsmanship; and getting there at all costs predisposes doing things that are outside of legal methods, which further tarnishes the meaning of the games.

One can only imagine the kind of pressure that Chinese athletes endure as the Olympics draws near. Losing can create a psychological trauma they may never recover from, or may be eternally punished for, in some form or another. The flame must burn freely, and carried openly. It is the torch of truth, justice, fairness, and freedom. If the Chinese cannot carry these out, they do not deserve to receive the Olympic torch, nor touch it with their tainted hands.

Prometheus was punished by Zeus for the theft. He was tied to a rock where vultures ate his regenerating liver for eons until he was rescued by Heracles. He went through this ordeal and sacrifice for the benefit of man. Had he known this was how man would respect his gift and treat his suffering, he probably would have let mankind live in the dark forever.


Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ledger's Lethal Legacy

Death dealt a jarring blow in Hollywood for putting a sudden and abbreviated end to the career of rising star Heath Ledger. Today, it is firing up the publicity for this year's highly anticipated film "Dark Knight", and is at the core of the film's marketing activities. The mystery surrounding Ledger's passing has added an enigmatic dimension to the complicated character he plays in the film, which co-stars believe he poured his soul into. The role of "The Joker" was a personality whom Ledger described as "a psychopathic, mass murdering, schizophrenic clown with no empathy inside him whatsoever". Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker consumed him until he could figure out the motivations and processes behind the criminal's mind. The indelible performance of Jack Nicholson was another factor Heath had to contend with.

The portrayal of a deviously wicked character, who delights in subjecting his victims to painful deaths while menacingly taunting them in the process, can only be the product of a convoluted mind completely absorbed in the evil that he applies with unabashed glee. This is the essence of the Joker, a man who is totally blinded by hatred which becomes his reason for living; and where he finds an uncanny fulfillment in its full expression by way of revenge. The superb handling by Jack Nicholson of this role stands out as the benchmark performance for the characterization of the Joker. He effectively wiped out the previous actor who played the part on television, and became the quintessential villain for the 70 year old comic book classic, Batman. With the exception of Danny DeVito's Penguin role, Nicholson is regarded as the ultimate Batman archfiend.

The profound immersion of Heath Ledger in the same role has produced a chillingly demonic persona that is morbidly terrifying and disturbingly penetrating; and video clips used to promote the film never fails to elicit hair raising fears that people talk about after its short preview. The images stick to the mind as if the Joker has possession of some portions of one's mental faculties. Heath inhabits the character with such grim determination, creating a sense that one is witnessing the workings of the Joker. It goes beyond just being a great piece of acting, but a vision of a black and twisted soul that has ceased to be human.

There seems to be a unanimous agreement that Heath Ledger more than held his own against the performance of Jack Nicholson for the same part. Some have opined that Jack seemed to be having fun in the film, at times dishing out a giddy scene in the process. Ledger's creation runs into the same character vein but with a much deeper sinister intent. Co-stars have noted how he suffered sleepless nights in a role that he said seemed to be changing his own personality to match the character he plays. And it scared him. This is not Ledger's last film, but it will be his legacy as a great actor. The characterization is in the realm of the darkest recesses of man's capacity for evil, and Heath gave his soul to the role. This is his signature role, one that will be the basis of comparisons with future performances if he had lived. It's what probably killed him, but the choice was worse if being alive meant being the Joker.


Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mystery of the Mothballed Mozzarella

One of Italy's most prestigious and profitable products, buffalo milk mozzarella, may have been soured by the European Commission's finding that it is contaminated with cancer causing dioxins. A European embargo was being set against the product. The Italian government had no choice but to recall the contaminated cheese destined for distribution in the country and for export to the USA, Japan, and European countries. The question of what to do with 33,000 tonnes of mozzarella made from milk of 250,000 buffalo herds in a few Italian regions caused a crisis that spanned the cheese producers, dairy farmers, milk distributors, and the entire dairy industry, that roughly employs about 200,000 people.

Buffalo Milk Mozzarella is a ball of milky cheese cushioned in its own protective fluid. It is considered one of the finest delicacies in the world and a staple of Italian cooking. Of total production, only about 20% or less are exported. The problem of contamination has decreased sales by two thirds and some cheese makers have stopped operations altogether. The biggest worry of most food manufacturers is that the catastrophe will put Italy in bad light and damage the country's enviable reputation for high quality foodstuffs. Talk was already being made about the decline of "Made in Italy" products which is feared to snowball against the country's entire manufacturing capability.

The Italian authorities were however, uncharacteristically quick to isolate the origin of the problem. The Health Ministry said that the contaminated mozzarella came from 25 producers in the Campania region near Naples. They also found an immediate clue, the recent garbage crisis in Naples; and a suspect, the local mafia control of garbage disposal may have also dumped toxic waste in the area causing the dioxins to contaminate the air, water or feeds. This is all so convenient, and the usual suspects will be rounded up for questioning. With this isolation, the Italians also found a loophole in the European Commission's findings: that the dioxins were over the stringent standards but not excessive, and not enough to cause cancer unless mozzarella is consumed three 3 times daily for three months!

With this isolation and counter argument, the Italian authorities vowed to take additional steps to decrease the dioxin levels of the recalled cheese that originated from 105 other producers in regions outside of Campania. France has lifted the ban and the UK has declared no immediate risk to consumers. European Commission Health Ministry said that it was satisfied with the measures taken by Italy and the threatened EU embargo was not necessary. Japan meanwhile is conducting its own test from the freshly delivered batch it imported.

The swift solution, less than seven days from the time the finding was announced, has everyone smiling and happy. How much cheese was being produced in Campania, and why were they sacrificed? Are they politically at odds with the government or were they the only plausible excuse to save the rest? Will they get compensated for their cheese? If they are really the source of the highest levels of contamination, does not the argument about "non-excessive levels" used by Italy's Health Ministry include their output? Is there a trade off here somewhere? Will their products be repacked and mixed with those of other regions? Or will these be given to the mafia to distribute as an "offer no one can refuse"? Would this not be cheesy?

There is really no way to find out since the EC and EU member countries seem to have closed the issue and are satisfied with the agreements made. The Japanese test could be the remaining verifier of the truth, unless the guilty buffaloes come out and plead openly or simply drop dead. Italian authorities will not force a confession from any of these animals fearing they might call a strike and all 250,000 of them will refuse to be milked. If that happens, cheese producers will have to find another quick solution, but there are serious doubts if mozzarella made from mother's milk will taste as good.


Friday, March 28, 2008

Raul's Reign and Revolution

The citizens of Cuba have just entered the digital communication age, and are now poised to go crazy like the rest of the world texting messages using technological developments for social communications; including its attendant impersonal nature and secretive content that retards interpersonal interaction.

Since taking over from his brother Fidel last February, Cuban President Raul Castro's inaugural speech touched on easing some of the policies and restrictions imposed by his predecessor. Two weeks ago, a ban on a wide range of consumer electrical appliances was lifted, and more recently, he has allowed unrestricted use and ownership of cellular phones for Cubans. The service connection however, is to be paid in foreign currency which would limit use to wealthier Cubans.

Raul's daughter, Mariela Castro, who heads the government funded Centre for Sex Education, is attempting to get the Cuban National Assembly to adopt the most liberal gay and transsexual rights law in Latin America. The law recognizes same sex unions, inheritance rights, free sex change operations, and gender switching in their ID cards with or without a sex change operation. While supported by her father, the general attitude among Cubans regarding gays is that of an illness that needs to be cured. Much of Cuba is still homophobic but there is a recognition of the right of an individual to live their own lives. The label that Cubans born after 1959 associate with homosexuality is "ideological deviants", introduced by Fidel during the revolution. Gays and transsexuals have suffered much injustice because of this prevailing notion.

These reforms may remove some of the bitterness in the lives of Cubans, especially in cell phone use, but its cost will still be affordable only to a select few. The gay rights law may revolutionize Cuba's sexual politics but will do little else in addressing the country's economic problems. Cuba's economy is in shambles, a contribution from the US embargo. Its agriculture is a mess. Cubans are paid 400 pesos a month wages, equivalent to US $16, which is inadequate to maintain a decent living standard. Its dual currency (Peso for the Cubans and the Convertible to US Dollar Currency for tourists and foreigners) is an anomaly that must be overhauled. Their wages have to be converted to the tourist currency to be able to purchase goods that are 20 times more expensive.

There are at least 60% of the Cuban population who receive hard currencies through remittances from relatives in the US, or those who work in foreign factories. While cell phone use has been opened, internet use and travel restrictions remain strictly enforced. The changes that affect the daily lives of Cubans may be opening floodgates to a series of freedoms that may be demanded by its citizens. The power of instant communication via cell phones in mobilization for rallies, issue dissemination, breaking developments, news and/or intelligence gathering has been demonstrated several times throughout the world. It is faster and cheaper compared to the old printed manifestos.

Raul Castro must have devised some control for this or else he would be in too much over his head.The one thing that will remain constant and unchanged is the one party state system which will have the power to control everything else. As it is now, the reforms are only skin deep. Until an open Cuba, structured politically as a republican state with democratically elected officials and representatives of the people is in place, these reforms are mere decorations that cannot put more food on the table. These are decisions meant to elicit popularity, but it does nothing to feed its long starving citizens who hunger for freedom, justice, food, a better life, and a better Cuba. A country they can love, build, and be proud of.


Thursday, March 27, 2008

Please Pass the Peace

A good meal is one of the most pleasurable activities of man. It nourishes, satisfies, and puts man in a peaceful mood; where a smile and a gentler disposition is the result of a dish exquisitely prepared and elegantly served. This is an insight all chefs have known and all mothers throughout the history of mankind have been practicing. The lack of food due to natural calamities or war is always a tragedy; and seldom, if ever, was food used as an instrument of peace. Not anymore. People from either side of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are working together, using their best culinary traditions and their deadliest utensils- knives- not to stab nor kill each other, but to create fine meals for a food festival for peace.

These are chefs who belong to the Chefs for Peace association whose members are indifferent to politics, religion or color. They are aware that the distrust and absence of mutual respect between people of these different warring faiths is the fundamental obstacle towards moving forward in the peace process. They realize that culinary practices of Greeks, Turkish, Jewish and Palestinians have more similarities and borrow from each other; and it is in the interest in food and culinary opportunities that will bring people to experience coexistence, mutual respect, and living in peace after being long separated by partisan circumstances. The approach is Peace Meal but effective.

The Chefs for Peace was established in 2001 by an Armenian Christian Kevork Alemian, and the group now boasts of 45 chefs composed of Arabs, Muslims, Israelis, and Christians. The group chose Jerusalem as its base since it is the center of the three monotheistic faiths. They know that no authentic development can take place and no future for their children will evolve unless there is peace in the region. Their focus is on human relations using the common denominator of food and cooking traditions as a venue to communicate, understand and accept. They cook for peace, it is a concept of sharing meals rooted in biblical traditions of breaking bread together. It is share the stew, not shock and awe; it is live in peace not blown to pieces; it is merge and serve, not attack and surge.

This association of culinary professionals hold food festivals for peace several times in a month and are open to invitations from people anywhere in the world. They have yet to experience a failed cook for peace event. Politicians and peace negotiators can learn several things from these chefs, since what they've been cooking up for the last several decades have not been palatable to the Middle Eastern states and communities. The difference lies in both the ingredients and intentions. Using weapons of destruction will not build confidence but fear, and an intent to take versus an intent to share will surely be met with a hostile response. These will lead to a raw deal, not to a good meal.

Why this formula of the chefs hasn't dawned on the Heads of State of powerful nations and warring states is beyond comprehension. Perhaps the future of mankind will be saved if all heads of state were themselves cooks or chefs. Then maybe we can have better slogans like "Make soups, not nukes".As it is, the problem with these heads is that they only know how to cook up schemes that will further the interest of their friends and cronies; stir up wars in other countries through manipulation and intrigue and take advantage of the chaos for their own ends; and serve lies and lip service to cover their tracks. Somebody please pass them the peace!


Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Caged in a Chinaman's Chance

The Tibetan struggle for independence is facing a Chinaman's chance of success. This does not mean that the actions of Tibetans will be equated with China's current success. On the contrary, it means it has no chance to succeed.

The term "Chinaman's Chance" evolved into an insult or slur against the Chinese, caused by the devolution of the term's usage from its original intent. The historical context began during the California gold rush where Chinese laborers working for the railroad were sought for demanding jobs using explosives, but were paid half the salary of the Irish railroad worker. Yet they had to pay higher taxes, were barred from testifying in court for violent acts against them, were denied citizenship, and could be evicted from profitable property. These restrictions and injustices gave the Chinese a very slim chance, if at all, to succeed in America.

Ironically, the Chinese did make it in their own country, and are now arguably richer than the United States. The Tibetans, who are not Chinese, are at the receiving end of this centuries old phrase that once described their present invaders. Its derisive use against Tibetans is due to the fact that China sees Tibet as their own territory, where the Tibetan nomad tribes have settled without their assent. They are also determined to populate the territory with Han Chinese and wipe out the Tibetan culture, religion, tradition and practice by banning these in schools, and all other public fora. All development and opportunities are given to the Han Chinese and the Tibetans are regarded as the "coolie population" like the Chinese were in America. Even if the territory is theirs historically, they are powerless against China's military might and economic domination.

What country in the world today would dare go against China? What sovereign nation does not owe China substantial sums and where investments and economic growth are hinged on China's friendship and patronage? Might the world be witnessing the showcasing of China's dominance in the coming Olympics? Will controversial decisions and victories rear its ugly head in the summer games? Will referees and officiating favor the host? Will bribes and other dirty tactics covertly undertaken be the norm of the world's foremost sports event? Will the meaning of sportsmanship be changed to accepting the decision of judges even if these were called blindly or obviously flawed? Who would dare challenge China, France? That's hilarious. President Sarkozy is a joke even to the French.

The Tibetans are caged in this futile struggle to use the Olympics to wage their war of independence. Support will be weak and will consist of token diplomatic effort. It is of no significant economic, military, or political importance to the western powers to interfere in this sorry development. These are the critical realities that first world nations consider the most important. Humanity and the right to life, liberty, freedom, justice, equality, and the pursuit of happiness are mere rhetorics used to demonstrate that they have a conscience. They will state their sorrow but do little else.


The Trophy Trumps the Trip

The State visit of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to the UK is meant to prop up his sagging popularity amongst his countrymen, but it seems like he will be sidelined by the presence of his trophy wife, the former Supermodel Carla Bruni. Christie's Auction House has announced a day before the visit that it will sell nude photographs of Carla taken in 1993. The UK media has also used the State visit to reprint photos of Carla during her modeling period on their front pages.

This is English humor at work in its most contemptuous disdain for one they see as unworthy to be treated with all the trimmings of a VIP. By showing photos of his wife in the scantiest of clothing or none at all; the UK media, which did an extensive coverage of the romance, marriage and honeymoon of the Sarkozys, are pulling the curtains down and baring the couple in public as a spectacle comparable to the likes of Paris Hilton and Rick Salomon, or Britney Spears and Kevin Federline. No deference to Sarkozy as French President is being given.

President Sarkozy is attempting to build his prestige by reestablishing friendly, rather than mere cordial, relations with the United Kingdom. His recent statements about a possible boycott of the Olympics unless China settles the issues with Tibet has fallen on deaf ears globally. No one is taking him seriously. If this is the only western power that will openly support Tibet, then the Tibetans are better off without it. The Chinese may agree to a dialogue on the pretext of heeding Sarkozy's threat, only to laugh the Tibetans off the face of the earth, while looking at Carla's revealing photos.
His lovestruck image in France has so disenchanted his countrymen who see him as an immature fool infatuated with a centerfold.

His idea of a high profile personality is to hook up with someone well known, to enhance his own image. There's nothing wrong with that strategy as Prince Rainier did with Grace Kelly. However, Grace Kelly was respected, projected a well bred and decent character as well as a wholesome family background. Nicolas Sarkozy's choice was like looking for a blend of Charlize Theron and Angelina Jolie, then settled for Pamela Anderson instead.


Monday, March 24, 2008

Cory and the Cancer Curse

Twenty five years after the death of her husband, the former Senator Benigno Aquino; Corazon "Cory" Cojuangco-Aquino, the Philippines former and most reluctant President is facing a serious threat on her life with cancer of the colon. The news was released to media by her only son Benigno III and youngest daughter Kris. The country's yellow symbol of struggle, best remembered for challenging the powerful dictator Ferdinand Marcos for the Presidency; who braved the formidable machinery and political stranglehold of Marcos throughout the country to restore democracy, is now fighting a tough personal battle at this late stage in her life.

The former housewife who stayed in the background to support her husband's political career, was thrust into the forefront of the murky waters of Philippine politics upon the assassination of "Ninoy" Aquino in 1983. She was catapulted by wave upon wave of people who looked up to her as their hope for change and a better life. Her most important legacy was the restoration of democracy in the country. However, the social order that she knew based on her experience, and the movers of democracy that she was familiar and comfortable with, were of the elitist and oligarchic nature that became the pillars of her restoration efforts. The change she instituted was a return to the system before the Marcos tyranny took effect; a system that had built in diseases of corruption from where the corrupt martial law regime was superimposed.The seeds of martial law were deeply embedded in this old system.

After her term, her popularity and influence began to wane. Part of the reasons were the expectations left unfulfilled and the global influence she failed to capitalize on, such as debt repudiation. Also, her personal campaign for the retention of US bases, and her support for the Presidency of Gloria Arroyo through another People Power - whom she now opposes together with Former President Estrada - the one she helped depose to install Arroyo. The people have become wary of this method, and now see it as nothing but a power grab to hoist the ambitions of a few who do not want to spend so much, or who cannot wait, or worse, cannot expect to win.

Cory had the noblest of intentions, and was the most distanced President from the perks of power. However, the limits of her grounding in politics and governance hindered the critical decisions that could have benefited the country more. It is rather unfair that cancer should strike her down. Perhaps the struggles and humiliation she experienced during the martial law era, plus the pressures and impositions of the Presidency had weakened her resistance to the deadly cells of cancer. She epitomizes the restored Philippine democracy, where the Filipinos, who have struggled long and endured much suffering, were vested in a restored system that is currently being eaten by the cancer of corruption, from which there seems to be no escape, no hope, and no change.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rejoice in the Resurrection

A Happy and Peaceful Easter to All

The Thief with a Tantalizing Take

With the United States facing a recession, a lot of professionals are having difficulty earning a living, and perhaps are moving to Europe to practice their trade. In Italy, where a lot of bizarre social, cultural, and legal practices occur with nonchalant regularity, a hypnotist is on the loose tantalizing stores and shops by getting his shopping done without paying. In some cases, he withdraws money from bank counters without issuing a withdrawal document nor a card, and calmly walks away with the money.

Hypnosis is a trance-like state that resembles sleep but is induced by a person whose suggestions are accepted by the subject. In most of these hypnosis situations, the subject is almost always a woman. Is it because women are more susceptible to the suggestions of men? Does the process work better on women? Is there a ready receptacle in a woman's brain wave that openly welcomes suggestions from men?

The incidents in Italy involve a bank clerk who gave out nearly 800 euros to a man who quietly took the money and walked out. The cashier doesn't even recall the incident. But the CCTV camera caught a footage and showed her apparently hypnotized by the thief, believed to be of Indian or North African descent. The hypnotist also mesmerized supermarket check-out staff to hand over the money from their cash registers. The only thing they recall is the thief leaning over and saying "Look into my eyes".

So if you happen to be in Europe, don't talk to strange men with funny accents nor look into their eyes. Think of a boyfriend or lover who cheated on you or who hurt you, and have not had the chance to get even with him. Use that memory to counter any suggestion the beady eyes might make and angle your right foot with the steel tipped toes aimed in the center of his crotch. And as he says "Look into my eyes" with all the alluring temptations of whatever sleazy suggestion, give him a donkey's kick right where he would fold up and groan. That would shake out some, if not most, of his hypnotic skills. Then you calmly walk away.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Perils of Philippine Penitents

Since nearly five decades ago, the Catholic Church in the Philippines has declared that confession was the only route for the faithful to get their sins forgiven, but the persistence of penitents year in and year out continues to this day. The spectacle of penitents whipping themselves while being led by several marshals, walking the streets of a particular town in roundabout fashion from 12:00 noon to 3:00 PM, and then converge in the locale's Catholic church, lie flat on their bellies waiting to be blessed by the parish priest.

This practice of self flagellation involves only the men, who cover their faces and slash each others backs with shallow cuts, to let the blood flow and avoid clotting. Then they march in a specific slow cadence while turning their self made whips on themselves over their shoulders. The self flagellants are normally found in northern Philippines in the central plains. Penitents of this type have been with the Holy Week celebrations since the Spanish era, and have remained a fixture despite the Church's disavowal of its practice.

In the last 18 years, the spectacle of penitents took on a higher level when one penitent carried a cross and actually had himself crucified. This created a sensation which brought in tourists and documenters to record the event in the succeeding years. Last year, a penitent died of rabies when his back was slashed with an unhygienic knife. One hundred other penitents with him were treated for rabies. This year, a penitent who has been crucified every year for 14 years made his final appearance and last crucifixion. This annual event has been given a production scale presentation complete with costumes and props. It has become a Holy Week one time presentation for the townsfolk and tourists.

The Church has warned of tetanus infection from the implements used, swelling due to dirt and dust, and rabies. Their sins will not be forgiven and yet they could die and see only the futility of their sacrifice without seeing Heaven. The church however continues to bless them for their sacrifice which encourages their continuation. One wonders what sins would warrant wanting to be crucified for half an hour to receive forgiveness, and why are these sins repeated since the crucifixion goes on every year? Despite the sacrifice, the penitent may not truly be sorry since he never changed his ways, then why continue the blessing? Wouldn't it be easier to confess the crime to a judge and get a sentencing for lethal injection to save society from the sins he might commit that are so dreadful?

The more extreme practice of self-flagellation is said to induce altered states of consciousness for the goal of obtaining religious experiences or visions. Medical research claims this practice releases endorphines which can have such an effect. This is part of the penitents way of expressing devout worship. Over the years, one doubts if it is devoutly Christian or devoutly commercial, since foreign documenters have been known to pay for these spectacles. This is one reason why the number of men being crucified has also increased, together with the costumed cast.

They have been advised that forgiveness will not be merited, and they could die in sin; but perhaps the 3 hour drama that gives them the spotlight for a short period of fame and small fortune, would be sufficient to buy them a piece of Heaven for many months to come. Who knows, they may even get a Hollywood Oscar for Best Documentary Film. As for that religious vision, that can all be satisfied by San Miguel (St. Michael), the country's most popular and globally sold brewed beer. It's a vision of a cold drink after a hard days backbreaking load and piercing experience.