Thursday, December 31, 2009

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Marxist Love

"Assume man to be man and his relationship to the world to be a human one: then you can exchange love only for love, trust for trust, etc. If you want to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you want to exercise influence over other people, you must be a person with a stimulating and encouraging effect on other people. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression, corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return – that is, if your loving as loving does not produce reciprocal love; if through a living expression of yourself as a loving person you do not make yourself a beloved one, then your love is impotent – a misfortune."

Karl Marx
Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Obama: Old Wine In New Bottle

As I observe the moral implosion of the Democratic leadership, I keep thinking of an essay by Noam Chomsky commenting on the Clinton presidency. In the 1996 essay, titled "Old Wine in New Bottles: A Bitter Taste," Chomsky expands on Paul Krugman's assumption that "bad ideas flourish because they are in the interest of powerful groups." In this case, Krugman was talking about international economic development and specifically about New Zealand; but Chomsky extrapolated this conclusion and applied it to corporate capitalism in general.

In a way, Chomsky's insight presaged Naomi Klein's "Shock Doctrine," and today, it is easy to see how Obama is simply continuing the regressive policies systematized by Clinton, and put on hyperdrive by Bush. In the essay, Chomsky restates Krugman's conclusion by saying that "the "bad ideas" may not serve the "expressed goal," but they typically turn out to be very good ideas for their proponents." The current health care reform bill is a perfect example of such bad ideas.

The left is understandably dismayed at the form this health care bill is taking, but if we look at its unfolding under the prism of Chomsky's and Klein's analysis, we can see how, in the end, it is all according to plan. Sure, the "realists" will tell you that this is the best thing we can get in the current climate, but their thinking is predicated on an old dichotomy that sees the Democratic party leadership in opposition to the Republican leadership.

Unfortunately, such dichotomy is all for show and nothing more. And all we really need in order to expose the theatrical aspect of this purported opposition between the Republican party and the Democratic party is the following picture:

This is not a portrait of people who disagree with each other. This is the portrait of five masters of the universe showing unity of mind and purpose.

Returning to the health care bill and Chomsky's analysis, he goes on to point out some regularities in the policies imposed by international capital onto unwilling populations around the world, the first being that:

[T]he designers seem to come out quite well, though the experimental subjects, who rarely sign consent forms, quite often take a beating.

The current health care bill will do just that: let the designers (the health insurance companies) come out quite well with the government mandating 30 million new customers to purchase unregulated products from a cartel of colluding private corporations. In this case, we the people are also one of the "rare" examples where we did sign a consent form in the form of a ballot. Unlike other countries around the world who have no say in what the World Bank tells them to do, we actually put the people who are screwing us, and the rest of the world, in charge.

The fact that the current bill does not guarantee any real form of competition in the health care system brings me to another point that Chomsky makes later on in the essay:

Free market doctrine comes in two varieties. The first is the official doctrine that is taught to and by the educated classes, and imposed on the defenceless. The second is what we might call "really existing free market doctrine": For thee, but not for me, except for temporary advantage; I need the protection of the nanny state, but you must learn responsibility under the harsh regimen of "tough love." Those in a position to make choices typically adopt the second version of free market doctrine, the one that has been a prerequisite to development, so the historical record suggests, though not a sufficient condition for it.

This is not only what is happening now with the health care bill, but also what has happened with the TARP bill and the rescue of big banks. The common term would be corporate welfare, or corporate socialism, or corporatism (can you say, fascism?). Maybe, but you get the point. International corporations are getting their way in the world, and while until Clinton the American people where under the assumption that this system also benefited them, now it is clear that those days were simply a rehearsal for what is coming to pass now.

Once these bait and switch techniques have been refined in New Zealand, Latin America, Africa and such, they can be applied to the much more sophisticated western populations. And so, today we see Obama and the Democrats touting this health care bill as a great thing, when they can't even look at the camera with a straight face because they know that this will only drive more people into bankruptcy and destitution. Matt Taibbi has done a great job in this regard by exposing Obama and the Democrats in "Obama's Big Sellout."

This type of attitude of our political class goes also to show their hubris. The Democrats believe that working people and progressives have nowhere to turn to, and thus they are confident that no matter how bad they behave, people will eventually hold their nose and vote for them as the lesser of two evils. As Chomsky points out:

[D]emocracy is a nuisance to be ignored as long as possible, and that free enterprise means that the public pays the costs under various guises, bearing the risks if things go wrong, while profit is privatized. And in pursuit of these ends, decision-making is to be transferred as much as possible from the public arena to unaccountable private tyrannies, and "locked in" by treaties that undermine the potential threat of democracy.

AIG bailout, anyone?

This is exactly what is happening today, and while under Clinton it was still under most people's radar, and only perceptive people like Chomsky and some other few could see it, today is all done in the open, by dangling the specter of Depression in front of the American people. In the meantime, we are in a Depression; at least those of us who live in the real world. The real unemployment is probably close to 20% since the government, from Clinton onward, has been fudging the figures to the point that they are meaningless. The term jobless recovery is also something that is becoming an euphemism for the government bailing out the rich while letting everyone else hanging out to dry.

In conclusion, Chomsky's essay shows us how Clinton then and Obama now are simply new bottles for the same old wine. And if this wine tasted bitter in 1996, now it makes people want to puke. That's why people are getting mad, and throwing things at the likes of Bush and Berlusconi, or why there are clashed in Copenhagen as I write. People are sick and tired of vampire like corporations sucking them dry and they are speaking out. For this reason, while things seem to be going from bad to worse, and even though the political process is deadlocked, I see hope for the future. Not the Obama empty promise type of hope, but the hope that people are once more taking their destiny into their own hands as it happened during the Vietnam war.

On this, I'll leave the last word to Howard Zinn, who on Bill Moyers last week so eloquently said:

[T]hink for yourself. Don't believe what the people up there tell you. Live your own life. Think your own ideas. And don't depend on saviors. Don't depend on the Founding Fathers, on Andrew Jackson, on Theodore Roosevelt, on Lyndon Johnson, on Obama. Don't depend on our leaders to do what needs to be done... [P]eople should defy the rules if they think they're doing the right thing.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Charlie Banacos

Yesterday, I was saddened by the news of Charlie Banacos' passing on December 8. I studied with Charlie in the nineties for three or four years; first, in his studio on Abbot St. in Beverly, MA, and then, after moving to New York City, by correspondence. Charlie was one of the most inspiring mentors I've had in my life. His wealth of knowledge, his positive energy, and his humbleness were some of the traits that made him a truly exceptional teacher. Those who wanted to study with him had to sign up on a waiting list that could last from two to five years.

I guess I was lucky because I only waited about one and a half years before getting Charlie's call. Since then, I assiduously studied with him regardless of the fact that, in the beginning, I was a full time college student pursuing a dual major in Composition and Performance. The last summer break before graduating, I had the chance to stay in NYC for a couple of months and even then, I commuted eight hours roundtrip so that I could get my weekly half hour lesson with him. That's the type of mentor Charlie was. Wether you were Mike Stern, Jimmy Earl, or a college senior like myself, it made no difference to him, and he treated you as if you were his best and favorite student.

Charlie was also a treasure trove of stories and anecdotes, both about famous jazz musicians, other students, and teachers around the Boston and New York area. Every time I saw him, he always had some funny or interesting story. For example, one day he told me this story about Miles Davis calling this sax player he knew, because he was looking to start a new band after his hiatus in the late 70s. The sax player, incredulous that Miles Davis would be calling him, hang up on Miles thinking he was some kind of prankster. After a couple of tries Miles miles gave up and that was that. Today, many years after studying with Charlie, I still find myself relaying some of his stories to my own students.

These are some of the reasons why I am so grateful for the years I spent studying with Charlie, and also why his passing is a great loss for the jazz community at large. He was such a dedicated and indefatigable educator that sometimes I wondered if he was burning his candle from both ends. Once, I remember him telling me about how he would wake up every morning at 4 am and write music until 9 am, the time when his first student of the day would show up; from then on, he would teach for the rest of the day, sometimes until 9 or 10 in the evening only to repeat the same routine the following day. When I asked him how many hours of sleep he got on average, he'd say four, five hours at the most. Needless to say, I was amazed by the fact that someone who worked so hard and slept so little could always be so upbeat and energetic every single time I saw him, or every time I heard his voice on the cassette tape we used to exchange once I switched to snail mail lessons.

This positive, upbeat, and restless personality was probably one of the reasons why Charlie's students, including myself, were so fond of him. People would literally travel hours, and sometimes days, in order to study with him, wether it was by car, by train, or by airplane. Not for nothing, Charlie was already a legendary figure within jazz circles during his lifetime, and most of today's up and coming jazz musicians have either studies with him, or with one of his students. Simply because of the sheer number of people that have studied with him over the decades, his legacy is poised to grow exponentially in the years to come. I believe that some day, not so distant into the future, people will remember Charlie Banacos as the man who single handedly revolutionized jazz pedagogy in the 20th century.

Rest in peace, my friend and mentor.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Save the Puffers

The puffer fish, in all its varieties, is one of my favorites. The porcupinefish is one such variety and it is very common in the Caribbean. No matter how many times I come across one, I can't help pausing and look for as long as it will let me before swimming out of sight. Turtles and eagle rays also have the same effect on me. Maybe it's because of the puffer's wide eyes which we, as humans, are genetically programmed to associate with infants in order to trigger our nurturing instinct. Or maybe it's because they seem so gentle and cute with their ET-like face.

One of the peculiarities of the puffer fish is its natural defense mechanism. Its body, is covered with spines, and whenever it feels threatened, the fish will suck in sea water and fill itself up until it turns into a balloon. As it does this, its spines become erect because of the body's surface tension and so, once puffed up, the fish will resemble one of those medieval spiked iron balls which would look pretty menacing to anyone who has ever seen one. Granted that the puffer fish is not made of iron and thus it wouldn't hurt anyone (with the exception of those puffers that have venomous spines), but its predators don't know that, and fish in general are not known for their intellectual acumen.

We humans, who possess such intellectual acumen, have figured out that the puffer is not really as menacing as it looks when puffed up. This is unfortunate from the puffer's perspective because some uneducated divers, and some uneducated snorkelers and aquarium owners alike, will simply try to trigger such a defense mechanism for their own amusement. Aside from the cruelty of a behavior that is tantamount to torture - just imagine a Kong like creature scaring you to death for its own amusement - the puffer's defense mechanism is not without drawbacks.

The main drawback is the fact that the puffer fish can only puff itself up so many times before it exhausts itself and dies. That's right, just think of a bee's stinger. The bee's stinger is a defense of last resort and the bee will sting if, and only if, it feels it has no other option. This is because the bee is aware, somehow, that when it does utilize its ultimate weapon, it will die as well. Sort of like: "I know I will die, but I will hurt you as much as I possibly can before I do."

Even though the puffer's defense mechanism does not have the same one-time-only finality of the bee's stinger, it still is the weapon of last resort in the puffer's arsenal, and because of the risks involved, this mechanism is reserved only for staving off an imminent threat. Like all animals when they sense danger, the puffer fish will first try to swim away first and will only resort to puffing up if and when it feels it has no other way out.

All in all, the puffer's puff is like the emergency brake on a subway car, or on a train, with its big red handle and its big red sign saying "Emergency!" Nobody in their right mind would pull that handle unless it was a real emergency - even though I am sure everyone has had the temptation of pulling it just to see what would happen. But aside from the few obsessive compulsive people or the remainder reckless ones, most people will not pull on the lever because of the predictable negative consequences - some people will get hurt, and the perpetrator will receive a substantial fine.

So the question is: why is that people who are smart enough not to pull on the emergency brake in a subway car just for kicks, will carelessly trigger the puffer's defense mechanism given that this could cause the fish's death? I have already hinted on the most likely answer to this question earlier in the blog, which is that I believe that people are simply unaware of the potentially deadly consequences of forcing a puffer fish to puff up too many times. So, it's not so much that people are mean but, simply, that they are ignorant; and this goes to show that ignorance, sometimes, makes people do some pretty mean things. I am sure that if anyone knew the unintended consequences of molesting a puffer fish, people would not do it.

For this reason, and per suggestion of my always inventive friend Laura, I have decided to start raising people's awareness on this issue. This blog, in its own little way, is the first step in what will hopefully evolve into a Don't Scare the Puffers campaign (the name is still a work in progress; feel free to make suggestions). Hopefully, with a little more awareness, people will refrain from molesting such a beautiful creature and will do what every properly trained diver is supposed to do: look but don't touch.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Without Today

Without today
I could not be
But today is
And so am I
Happy birthday

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Life Is Love

Recently, for some reason, I've been feeling as if I am surrounded by pessimistic people, who believe that the world is full of hate and that mankind is doomed because of it. Whether it's people I know, some talking head on TV, or a blog, I keep coming across predictions of thermonuclear war, global warming, or some other man made catastrophe. Many of the arguments I hear are based on fear: if we don't do this, some thing will happen, and if we do that, some other thing will happen. And while the reasoning behind this may be to fire up a sense of urgency, I believe that for many people, fear is ultimately paralyzing.

Even though I agree that there is a lot to be cynical about in this world, I have come to the conclusion that we would be better off if we weren't afraid so much, because if we look at life in terms of love and hate, at the end of the day love trumps hate hands down. I understand that what I am about to write will sound corny to some, but it is my way of countering these feelings of doom and despair which are so pervasive nowadays and which sometimes can put us in a state of paralysis instead of motivating us to act.

To start, I'd like to put whatever negative thing I can think of under the single umbrella word hate. For example and in no particular order: war, murder, usury, deceit, greed, fear, and jealousy, can all be considered pretty hateful things. For this reason, we can say that most things that people consider to be despicable, are in the end some expression, or facet, of the same hate.

Lets take this a step further and find a noun that can best symbolize hate. Personally, the first word I come up with when I think about hate is death. More specifically, the type of death that is directly and purposefully caused by another human being, such as in the case of premeditated murder or war; in other words, the type of death that is preventable and unnecessary.

Now that we have found a word to symbolize hate, can we find a word to define its opposite, love, that is equally and transcendentally powerful as death is? Life, you got it. And this is the gist of my argument: that love is life, and that life trumps death hands down.

And how is that? Well, just look around.

Life surrounds us: people, animals, plants, you name it. We actually have to constantly fight in order not to be run over by other organisms, be it other people, weeds, pests, or bacteria. Basically, every life form on earth is in a constant struggle to preserve itself and this fact alone, I believe, should be enough to prove my point.

Like life, love will fight to exist and affirm itself and it will grow in a desert if there is even a single a drop of water; it will flourish in the darkest depths of the oceans as long as there is some kind of chemical reaction to support it; and if unable to thrive, it will hibernate for eons until it can find the conditions to germinate once more.

So, next time someone tells you that there is too much hate in the world and that humans are doomed because of it, just ask them to take a look around and truly pay attention. And this is not to say that the world is the way it should be and that we should do nothing to alleviate people's misery. On the contrary, if we believe that love is life, we must affirm love in our daily lives by refusing to fuel the hateful cycles that create so much suffering in the world.

Because if life is love, then all aspects and acts of love such as compassion, respect, nurturing, and empathy are life. And if love is life, then all aspects of life such as birth, growth, and survival should be seen as acts of love. Ultimately, the simple fact that I am still here writing this blog, and that you are still here reading it, is proof enough that hate, thus far, has failed to overcome love.

But even if we do end up extinguishing ourselves with some foolish or careless act of hate, life will eventually take root again. If not here on earth, it will somewhere else in the universe; and if not in this universe, it will in some other universe, if we are to believe the most recent multiverse theories. In the end, and regardless of our fate as a species, life's enduring resilience is a testament to how powerful, obstinate, and patient love can be.

Life is love.


They are some of the most fascinating and mesmerizing creatures. I particularly love the way they change color as they change their luminosity, and how they float effortlessly by gently waving their undulating fins.

Last October I was lucky to encounter a pair of extremely friendly squids in Bonaire, and this allowed me to shoot some very good close-ups. The fifth picture in this series is my favorite.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Horse-Eye Jacks

Every time I look through my Bonaire pictures, I keep pausing on this one for some reason. Maybe it's the red reflexes in those big eyes, or maybe it's the fact they are going for something but we can't see what it is.