Sep 10

This I Believe

I believe that the key to happiness lies in a continual search for knowledge and improvement without an end goal in mind or a fear of failure.  The former condition is difficult because of its subjectivity and reliance on a personal drive that seeks to find incentive in the journey when it is absent from the destination.  Similarly, the latter condition is difficult because it, in part, forces a bigger-picture view even of this sort of small, accompanying system.  The result is a mind that is primed for action and creation, while its formation is attributed to open-mindedness to the extent of explicit effort towards manifesting this philosophy.

Though my experiences thus far in life have been relatively lacking in the most essential forms of this sort of creativity, my attempts at achieving this expansion of knowledge have sometimes brought me to questionable circumstances where this evaluation and prioritization of learning has served to strengthen my belief.  A recent example was an experience I had in the beautiful country of Cuba this past May.  During a traditional cannon firing that occurs nightly in remembrance of the nation’s independence, Adarsh and I were approached by a Cuban man as we were discussing the future of the Cuban economy (in English).  Having just arrived in the country only two days before with no conception of what life within Cuba was like, my first thought when he asked whether he could have a word with us afterwards was that I had said something completely wrong and the government would be coming after me.  After all, is it not true that such seems to be the definite case in the other countries that we associate with Cuba’s political state: China, North Korea, etc.?  Even so, a brief consideration of the issue from the perspective of this philosophy on learning convinced me that the ideal procedure would be to play along and attempt to improve my understanding of the culture through my communication with him.

Following the ceremony, he asked if we would like to join him for drinks.  As part of a school group, this wasn’t a reasonable option for us, so I, on the spur of the moment, gave him the name of our hotel and agreed to meet him the next morning for breakfast.  While both my and Adarsh’s initial reactions were excitement at the possibility of having a great cultural experience, this quickly faded into worry and then paranoia.  Adarsh seemed to have become attached to the possibility that John, this guy, was going to make us smuggle drugs or attempt to kidnap us.  Over the course of the next two hours of the evening, we argued this point in Hindi: whether this sort of “risk” was worth it for the sake of the knowledge that he could help us gain that we couldn’t access via other avenues.  It is highly likely that the real effort I put into this was crafting this argument and standing by it.

Fortunately, the end result was exactly what I would have hoped it would have been with this philosophy: John discussed with us the truly controversial political issues that we were interested in, and did nothing worse than defeat us in games of chess.  He stood for the message that it is often necessary to sidestep fears, risks, and the general concern that is instilled in us for the sake of effective learning.

Sep 09

The Great Internet Slowdown

If you woke up tomorrow, and your internet looked like this, what would you do?

Imagine all your favorite websites taking forever to load, while you get annoying notifications from your ISP suggesting you switch to one of their approved “Fast Lane” sites.

Think about what we would lose: all the weird, alternative, interesting, and enlightening stuff that makes the Internet so much cooler than mainstream Cable TV. What if the only news sites you could reliably connect to were the ones that had deals with companies like Comcast and Verizon?

On September 10th, just a few days before the FCC’s comment deadline, public interest organizations are issuing an open, international call for websites and internet users to unite for an “Internet Slowdown” to show the world what the web would be like if Team Cable gets their way and trashes net neutrality. Net neutrality is hard to explain, so our hope is that this action will help SHOW the world what’s really at stake if we lose the open Internet.

If you’ve got a website, blog or tumblr, get the code to join the #InternetSlowdown here:

Everyone else, here’s a quick list of things you can do to help spread the word about the slowdown:

Get creative! Don’t let us tell you what to do. See you on the net September 10th!

Sep 09

First Sentence of The Crying of Lot 49

Paraphrase: Upon her return from a Tupperware party with disappointing fondue with too much kirsch, Mrs. Oedipa Maas heard that Pierce Inverarity, an ex-boyfriend who had once been a Real Estate mogul in California, had designated her as the executor of his large will.

Oedipa Maas’ name, introduced nearly immediately in the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49, represents both the skewed morality that will define the actions of the characters in a post-modern piece and the cause for this.  Her first name, obviously, is clearly derived from that of the Greek hero Oedipus.  Being known for his unintentional fulfillment of a prophecy that determined that he would kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus represents the unconscious actions that society can force a person to complete against their will.  Oedipa’s last name, Maas, serves to provide the context to this in a modern society by referencing the consumerism and constant push for more everything that is deeply instilled in the minds of most citizens.  Just as Jack Gladney of White Noise believes that all paths lead to a fear of and the unavoidable truth of death, it seems that Oedipa, too, represents a similar philosophy in which negative or immoral actions are an inherent accompaniment to this journey.  On one hand, the tone that Pynchon uses to describe Oedipa and her actions here is highly informative in that it constantly digresses to address connected memories and ideas, such as the brief anecdote about Pierce Inverarity’s spare time.  On the other hand, it attempts to use a very personal, stream-of-thought style, for example through the correction of executor to executrix.  In combination, it is clear that the tone of the book will likely follow this system, resembling an unrehearsed, albeit excellently worded, monologue.  In terms of word choice, it is further clear that Pynchon aims to achieve the former stylistic element in part by being as specific with certain words as possible.  The first example of this has already been mentioned, being the specification of executrix as opposed to executor to describe Oedipa’s new job title.  However, the further description of Pierce’s assets as “numerous and tangled” serves to create a very clear idea of the state of these assets, both physically and perhaps philosophically from the perspective of the outsider.  Though this language does serve to make the writing very direct, it is clear that virtually everything being referenced has distinct connotation and philosophical meaning, creating a very clear image of the society which Pynchon aims to analyze.

Sep 08

What is SoCent?

Akshay Chalana

Dr. Macaluso

Ethics and Entrepreneurialism

8 September 2014

What is SocEnt?

Being a hub for social innovation, Seattle is home to a very strong branch of the international group Social Venture Partners.  SVP’s goal is to seek out Social Entrepreneurs, business owners who are running companies or organizations that concern themselves with social impact just as much as or even more than profits, that are effectively having a positive impact locally.  Having done this, they connect these entrepreneurs with investors or donors that also hope to have this sort of innovative positive impact.  Some of these ventures seek to positively impact various disadvantaged populations, such as homeless people or various minorities.  Others aim to provide services to more ordinary citizens of the region by connecting them with opportunities to easily have a positive impact or by providing them with information or resources to become a more aware and active citizen.  While some of the specific problems that they address are addressed through proven, analog solutions, many of SVP’s favored organizations and companies take an innovative approach to these difficult problems by applying new technologies and ways of thinking to them.  The example which I will discuss is a perfect example of the methods in which new, innovative research, is being applied to an enormous problem with the hope of solving a problem for which top-down solutions have not achieved nearly enough by attempting to address it from the bottom-up.

Hippocampus Learning Centers is an organization based throughout India which receives funding from the Unitus Seed Fund, a seed fund for social innovation run by one of SVP Seattle’s most prominent members, Will Poole.  The problem which HLC aims to address/solve is that, though India has a high nationwide primary school enrollment rate (around 96%), the sort of education that is provided by the government schools that serve rural areas is not nearly effective enough to provide the pathway out of poverty that education is meant to.  The problem being faced here is fairly unique in the context of India’s state of development, as the problem in many similar areas is much simpler: a simple lack of the needed infrastructure.  Rather, India’s problem is, in many ways, similar to the problem of ineffective urban schools that charter schools are aiming to address in the United States.  However, considering a recent study by the World Bank, HLC hopes to narrow their issue to what they describe on their website as the fact that “by the time poorer children in many countries reach school age, they are at a significant disadvantage in cognitive and social ability.”  Of course, the solution to this problem is providing access to a service that is much rarer than schools themselves in rural India: pre-schools.  In 104 schools in small villages “across the districts of Mandya and Davangere,” HLC has established extremely low-cost centers that provide exactly this service to children between the ages of 3 and 6.  To address the greater issue of education, HLC also provides an after-school program to primary school students that accompanies their school curriculum with a more innovative system that better serves to maintain their cognitive levels.  Finally, the provide the tertiary service of training teachers in order to provide local women with jobs and better equip them to provide an adequate education to the students at the low-performing government schools where these women will teach.

Of course, on a basic level, the solution that HLC presents is certainly analog in that it’s simply providing a secondary level of infrastructure, as innovative and effective as this may be.  However, the innovation going into this project goes well beyond this.  The most effective aspect of this innovation is the assessment method that HLC has developed, dubbed STEP.  STEP asses students each month on a four point scale, ranging from starter to tentative to excellent to par-excellent.  Once these levels are identified, teachers use technology to identify specific problem areas on which to work with students.  This sort of customization of education better serves to help students achieve academic success than virtually any other method.  Respectively, these students are better equipped to make it out of the trap of poverty that exists in India, and solve the greatest problem with HLC aims to solve.

Sep 06

(Reflection) Commerce in the South Kirkland TOD

Bartell Drugs

The Bartell Drugs at 4th and Madison in Seattle gives a good example of what one in this sort of development would look like

With the primary renters of the apartments being built in the South Kirkland Transit-Oriented-Development projected to be in the age range of 25 to 34 years old, the three necessary businesses that would be most ideal to locate in the retail complex below the apartments would Projected Renters in Region by 2014be a coffee shop, a Bartell Drugs-style convenience store and pharmacy, and a technology boutique, so to speak.  The data on which this statistic is based is drawn from GVA Kidder Matthews’ Market Analysis of the South Kirkland TOD for the King County TOD Program, in which data is provided both on the renter population in the King/Pierce/Snohomish Counties in 2009 and the projected change by 2014.  The resulting data is summarized by the graphic to the right.  The first business, likely in the form of a Starbucks, not only serves to fulfill the expectations that its prominence in social media and popular culture creates, but further serves the professional needs of the sort of renters in the specified age group that would be seeking out public-transit-oriented housing by providing the ideal modern meeting space.  Beyond this, it also serves as an ideal source for the sort of snacks and beverages that commuters that utilize the Park & Ride are seeking both in the morning and in the afternoon.  The presence of a convenience store is a necessity in any housing complex for the purpose of providing basic living supplies, and, primarily for the aforementioned target renter audience, easy access to alcohol.  The combined presence of a pharmacy serves especially to serve another prominent renter demographic: seniors who take advantage of the Senior Affordable Housing which is also planned to be included in the complex.  Of course, for commuters as well, this provides the same service that Duty Free Stores in airports aim to provide: a last chance to easily access these basic supplies along one’s commute before reaching a
home which is potentially farther from such a convenience store.  Finally, any sort of technology boutique (I can’t think of too many examples, besides, say, an Apple or a Microsoft store) would especially serve this 25 to 34 year-old range.  Though many would argue that this sort of facility is more oriented towards even younger consumers, I would argue that the money that our given age range has access to makes them a much better target, considering their similar attachment to technology.  Not only does this aim to provide easy access to another vital facet of modern life for this demographic, but it also aims to add to the general positive experience of living in an area built with such modern intentions in so many other ways.  Overall, this particular example primarily serves the future residents of the complex, but the others and any other potential ideas could better address the needs of other community members who utilize the development, such as the aforementioned commuters.


Jul 09

Cuba 2014: Day 3

This morning began with much anxiety, as we were not at all sure what to expect from John. He showed up slightly early to meet us in our hotel lobby.  We started off with small talk about our visit to Cuba and what we had thought, then he presented his real reason for coming. He had wanted some supplies and money. Of course, having already talked to him some and seen him end up coming halfway across the city to meet us again, I felt obligated to fulfill his requests, especially considering his commitment to distribute the supplies among his community. I ended up giving him 5 CUCs and $15 US, along with a box of mechanical pencils, a couple bars of soap, and a small bottle of shampoo.  In repayment, he wrote up a list of places to see in Havana and promised to come back that afternoon to play chess.


The first places we headed was the San Francisco de Asis Square, home to the eponymous convent. Though this convent no longer serves its original purpose, it is the venue for many chamber orchestra performances today. The Garden of Mother Teresa adjacent to it houses another beautiful Greek Orthodox Church.


San Francisco Square once served as the dock onto which African slaves were unloaded and auctioned off.  Water was supplied to these ships through Havana’s impressive system of aqueducts.


Upon exploring the Garden of Mother Teresa, one of the first things we came across was the burial place of the ashes of Carmen Montilla, a Venezuelan painter who had sponsored the restoration of a colonial building across the street from the Convent into an art gallery.


Aside from the garden, the square is also home to a world-renowned sculpture titled The Conversation. Adarsh and I spent several minutes debating its meaning. A further sculpture found in the square is of Frederic Chopin, which, despite there being no connection between Chopin and Havana, is meant to indicate the dedication the city has to the arts and their greatest contributors.  Also along San Francisco Square is the Cuban Chamber of Commerce, atop which sits a statue of Mercury, the patron god of trade and commerce.


Our meeting place was a statue outside the Convent of el Caballero de Paris.  El Caballero was a well-spoken country man who was jailed in Havana after being falsely accused of theft. He spent many years in jail before he was acquitted, during which he went insane.  Upon being released, he became the best known vagabond in the city, who would wander around offering wise sayings, particularly to those who tried to give him money (he never accepted it), and was loved by the entire city. Thus, he is memorialized in this statue, along with the superstition that rubbing his fingers or his beard being good luck.


Our next stop was la Zanja Real: one of the oldest aqueduct access points in the city.  This system brings in water from the Al Mendales river.


As we continued towards the workshop school where we would do some volunteer work, Adarsh and I noted that increasing tourism has gotten involved with a positive feedback loop with increasing privatization of small restaurants and boutique hotels.


First thing in the workshop school, we saw some works that had been restored by the students. The most prominent of these was a large piece of a sand mural that once again depicts and recognizes 19th century intellectuals. Mirelys didn’t know who it was of, but her first guess was Abraham Lincoln.


Before meeting any of the students, we met the head of the school, who told us some basic information about it and answered our questions.  The most basic information is that, being a technical and professional school, students are between the ages of 17 and 23, and matriculate mostly to government positions in restoration, or, more recently, private contracting positions.  The reasoning behind the former of these ages is that the minimum labor age in Cuba is 1970.  The socialist system for employment means that only those who are needed for the projects being completed at any given point in time are given jobs.  Thus, though all students have the opportunity to learn the subject which interests them, admissions consider the quota which the school is expected to fill of newly trained restoration workers.    Each new year sees 200 new students from around 900 applicants.  Studies last 2 years.


The most popular areas of study at this school are Mural Restoration and Masonry, but for women are Plaster Work, Wall Painting, and Archaeology.  Not only is study here free, but students get paid 250 pesos for the work they do on restoration projects.  Funding for the school is primarily from the Cuban government, but is also often provided by NGOs from Brazil, Belgium, and Spain for work on restoration that potentially involves their history.  The newest school in this system was sponsored by the Spanish government.


Despite the focus on providing graduates for the government’s quotas, graduates have training that is diverse enough to get them a job in virtually any sub-field of restoration.


The first workshop we saw was that of masonry. In the buildings that are restored by these students, the materials used are identical to those used in their original construction, excluding the replacement of iron with copper due to the climate.


Our next stop was the workshop for furniture restoration.  All this restoration is done in recycled wood of the same tone and color as the original.  Unfortunately, some pieces are so complex that they can’t be completed in the term of any given student, so the process is further slowed by the cycling of students.


Our final stop in the workshop school was an actual ongoing project which is slated to be turned into an art gallery.  We learned a bit about the history of the house, such as the fact that its original drainage was made from ceramic and that the well in the back is also part of the restoration project, then helped repaint the walls that had been stained by the rain, and cleaned off muddy roofing shingles.  It was fairly entertaining to try to communicate with the students with whom we were working at first, since we hadn’t yet had much experience, but it was fun. It was a bit surprising that, despite the fact that they had all taken English classes for at least 6 years, none of them were really able to speak to us proficiently in the language. Nevertheless, I was glad to have been put in the group that I had been because of the fact that the other groups didn’t really end up having work to do and just talked.


Heading back towards La Plaza Vieja, we got to see some of the successful past projects of the Workshop School, as well as a sculpture by Favelo of a naked woman holding a giant fork and riding a giant chicken. No one knows exactly what it’s supposed to mean, so I’ll leave it up to your interpretation.


Our lunch before free time was in a brewery known for its non-alcoholic malts.  We drank these (which were delicious) and are hamburgers.


Our first stopping place during free time was Carmen Montilla’s art gallery, which ended up being closed.  Thus, we headed back to Plaza Vieja, where, after deciding that entrance into the Planetarium and Cámara Oscura was too expensive, we went to the coffee shop at the corner which is known to have some of the best coffee in Cuba.  I ordered of Viénes, a great cocktail of coffee, cream, and a few different spices.


Afterwards, we got ice cream from a very pro-America seller named Alex, and ended up walking away from the square in search of art. On the way, a random guy who we later learned was named Roberto shouted in Spanish at us that he could take us to the Cathedral Church. Being busy with my ice cream, I left Trevor and Adarsh responsible for figuring this out.  Of course, being the shy people that they are, this meant that we ended up following him, even though neither of them were able to converse with him properly.


Since we had already seen the Cathedral Church, we asked him to take us to the Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Ernest Hemingway used to stay and write in Havana. There’s a room dedicated to him now, where the original typewriter and desk he wrote at are kept. It is also home to a variety of photos of him in Cuba with different personalities like Fidel Castro, between the years of 1928 and 1938.  He received many telegrams at the hotel notifying him of his winning of the Nobel Prize, copies of which are also stored in the room. The medal itself he donated to the Cuban National Sanctuary in Santiago de Cuba, where he owned a house that is still maintained.


From Hemingway’s room, we were advised to check out the rooftop terrace above. With beautiful views of Havana, it was fun to do so and chat with Roberto about Cuba’s economy. He told me that Cuba has a large number of exports (explaining the deficit in the supply of products manufactured nearby), but these are inconsistent in that few countries are able to develop official economic relationships with Cuba thanks to the US’ embargo.


Our final stopping place with Roberto was the Floridita Restaurant where Hemingway used to drink and write. It is known as the birthplace if the daiquiri.  Unfortunately, since it is still in full operation, we were unable to go inside. The walk back was spent discussing a variety of issues. We discussed race in Cuba and the perception of the police. The latter was particularly sparked by his being pulled over by a police officer for touring tourists without a proper license. He was almost fined 500 CUCs, but fortunately didn’t end up having this happen to him.


Upon returning to the hotel, I briefly began a game of chess with John before we had to get together to write up questions for the college students we soon met. This game ended up being one of the best I’ve played recently, though this was likely because it was the first I had played in a long time.

If my conversation earlier with Roberto hadn’t been informative enough, the answers we got to the questions we posed to the graduate students that we spoke to at Café Madrigal were even more so.  Café Madrigal, according to our itinerary, is “owned and run by film director Rafael Rosales,” and “is housed in a beautiful colonial mansion with the walls lined with captivating artwork.

Once again, before this, we were divided up into groups by Spanish capability.  My table spoke entirely in Spanish.  The person we spoke to was a 25-year-old woman named Rocio, who is a professor of Italian at the University of Havana.  To begin with, she assured us that Cubans don’t hate Americans.  It is true that they resent the American government for what it has done with the embargo, but they view it as an independent entity from American tourists.  Of course, tourists bring money to the country, which is never a bad thing.  This, in turn, brought up an interesting situation which John had discussed earlier.  The people earning the most money in Cuba are those who aren’t employed by the government (as most people are: the government commits itself to provide a job for anyone who comes to an employment office), but rather those who’ve signed contracts with the limited number of private foreign companies that operate in Havana, primarily hotels.  These contract positions include dancers, singers, performers, etc.  Besides them, the wealthiest Cubans tend to be artists, who can sell their artwork to local and foreign collectors for far more than a government salary could provide.  Perhaps the greatest reason for all of this is Cuba’s dual-currency system.  1 CUC, the convertible currency that tourists use, is worth 25 CUPs, the local currency.  Thus, any sort of transaction done with foreigners is much more profitable than those done in the local currency.  This also meant that we faced the opportunity of getting very cheap goods that were priced in CUPs when we paid with CUCs (which equate to 1 USD, but have a 10% service charge at Cuban exchanges, because of the embargo).

The next thing we discussed with Rocio was travel.  She spent a couple months in Italy after finishing college, so as to better solidify her knowledge of Italian.  However, this sort of travel is very difficult, as the embargo makes the acquisition of visas all the harder.  Few countries have embassies in Havana, as compared to, for example, the various places where embassies exist in the US.  Furthermore, passports can’t be sent to the US to acquire visas, thanks to the embargo.  The biggest problem, though, is that the vast majority of Cubans simply can’t afford it.  The aforementioned government salaries that most people survive on (besides the monthly rations that every citizen receives) are far to small to provide for such provisions.

Our next point of discussion was the feature of our lives that is likely the most important for our existences: the Internet.  With technology in general being well behind the rest of the world in Cuba, Internet access is highly limited.  Furthermore, it is quite censored by the government to prevent citizen access to pornography, violent content, and anti-Cuban material.  Thus, access to media is facilitated in a very interesting fashion.  A select few who are able to get Internet access get online once monthly and download all the latest TV show episodes, movies, and music through various pirated sources.  After putting these onto USB drives, they either sell these or distribute them in “clubs” which have paid membership to consistently receive these.  This is why one of the primary things that Cubans ask foreigners for is USB drives.

Eventually, Ms. Fox got Rocio talking about family dynamics in Cuba.  The first thing that Rocio said was that she would never want to marry a Cuban man.  Apparently, they have absolutely no sense of chivalry, and thus, the idea of servility to husbands still exists.  Nevertheless, Cuban women today have many rights that women in many developing countries don’t.  They are free to divorce their husbands easily, and thus this is something that is quite common.  Rather than marrying a Cuban, Rocio hopes to marry a foreigner, likely a South American, who is working in the country.  She doesn’t want to leave Cuba, though, as a number of people we spoke to do; she loves her country.

Some more about family dynamics: very few Cuban families have more than 2 children.  This is, in large part, thanks to the great struggles that the early 1990s and late 1980s posed for the people of Cuba, known as the Special Period by the government.  An enormous crash of the economy meant that virtually every citizen of the country lived in extreme poverty.  Rocio described her family’s experience of having very little food and no amenities, like toothpaste.  Thankfully, this time period is gone.  One of the great contributors to its elimination was the legalization of tourism in 1998.

At this point, we briefly returned to the topic of economy.  As mentioned before (I believe; I began writing this post while I was still in Cuba nearly two months ago), one of the great exports of Cuba is doctors.  The impressive medical schools which have been recognized as prestigious even by former US presidents produce doctors of immense skill.  Unfortunately, this doctor exchange (often for gasoline) means that the quality of doctors left within Cuba is lowered.  As such, its actual medical system doesn’t measure up to the skill of its most talented medical students.

Returning to social issues, we questioned Rocio about some of the major issues in the US today.  The primary one here was gay marriage, which was a particularly large issue in Washington when it was recently approved by referendum.  As it happens, Fidel Castro’s daughter, Mariella Castro, is herself lesbian.  Throughout her adult life, she has been working towards bringing gay rights to the table in Cuba, making it an open issue.  The problem is that Cuban culture, as most South American countries, views it as a taboo issue that doesn’t warrant government discussion. Therefore, less than being faced with opposition, the issue simply isn’t being discussed.

We also asked Rocio about race as an issue, to which she responded that it, too, wasn’t one.  This, of course, was negated by the black rap artists who we later visited in Regla.

One of the final issues that we discussed was governmental structure.  Of course, with the single  [communist] party rule, there are no elections.  However, there are still parts of the government concerned with citizen issues and well-being, and these represent citizens on a much narrower, smaller-scale level.  Each block chooses a representative, who in turn participates in a Congress that chooses representatives for a larger city area.  In turn, after one or two more repetitions, this creates a highly representative (in terms of location) government that really addresses local issues, rather than being concerned, as American politicians are, with national perception and involvement in issues that may have money in them, but are of no concern to the area which they represent.

All in all, this was a great discussion over a great Italian meal, which has kept me thinking for the months between then and now.

One would think this would be enough for one day, but our tour group had even more planned.  We walked back into Old Havana, to el Azote de Dulce Maria (Dulce Maria’s rooftop).  Dulce Maria is a professional Rumba dancer who offers lessons to any who come to her place.  She and her assistants made us mojitos before teaching us how to dance Son, Salsa, Rumba, and a few other types of Cuban dance.  The live music was incredible, and we were some pretty great dancers!

Upon returning to the hotel after this, we were absolutely exhausted, so we went straight to bed.

Jul 08

Cuba 2014: Day 2

We lost 4 today. They showed up late to our morning meeting and weren’t allowed to come to Salvador Gonzalez’s workshop/gallery, Revolution Square, el Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and Old Havana. Besides that, today was really interesting in general.


The first was defined by Salvador Gonzalez’s Santería-influenced art. Santería is one of the four major religions in Cuba, being Afro-Cuban
20140518_142649723_iOS20140518_142640817_iOS (descended from cultures ranging from Senegal to Angola).  Another of these four is based on beliefs from Benin.  Though these beliefs were apparent in the subjects of some of his murals and paintings, they were beautiful nonetheless (see below).  Our tour guide described Santería’s influence on Cuban culture with an example of his college professors having him write his name over theirs whenever he said anything particularly diffident, and put it in the area above a refrigerator. This sort of religious superstition seems to define lives in many South American cultures, as similar Inca beliefs remain strong in Peru.


Besides Gonzalez, there were a variety of other artists displaying work in the gallery. One artist with whom we talked uses a press to create ink pieces from metal and plastic carvings.


Our next stop was the Revolution Square. Facing a statue of José Martí upon a tall pedestal on one side, the square faces large metal sculptures depicting the faces of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.  Besides these people, this square further celebrates the first Cuban Revolutionary War, which lasted from 1868 until 1878.  It was started by Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, a very rich man who, upon freeing his slaves, organized them to fight for the independence of Cuba from Spain. A large reason for this was the fact that all second-generation immigrants to Cuba, whether from Spain or from Africa (white or black), had come to be known as Creoles, who were looked down upon by much of the population.  This war was lost to the Spanish, though fighting lasted after de Cespedes’ son, Oscar, was captured and held hostage by the Spaniards, eventually being killed. Thus, de Cespedes was unable to establish Cuba’s independence or ban the slave trade in the country, but he managed to declare himself the father of the his Cuban supporters, and the president of the area he did manage to liberate (though not the entire country).  The result of this was a political philosophy known as regionismo, where concern wasn’t given by much of the public for the independence of Cuba as a whole, but rather only of specific areas.


Though this detriment to political development existed for a good 2 decades, a second Revolutionary War was started in 1896 by José Martí.  Besides being a Cuban National Hero and Apostle for doing this, he was also an international known genius, who published the popular children’s book La Edad de Oro, and the poem on which José de Fernandez’s song Guantanamera was based.


A final statue that can be found in Revolution Square is of Camilo Cienfuegos, another political genius who was known as something of an advisor to Fidel Castro.


Our next stop was El Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which was a headquarters for the Italo-American Mob in the 1930s and ’40s, and another place where Ernest Hemingway stayed and wrote.  It is also home to a number of cannons from the Cuban-Spanish-American war.  On the way, we passed the Habana Libre Hotel, which was an old Hilton that was turned into Fidel Castro’s headquarters during the war for independence.  We also passed the Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor, where parts of the film Fresa y Chocolate, an early piece about anti-homophobia, were filmed.


Throughout its history, Havana has changed hands many times. One of these primary changes was when it was re-acquired through payment to the British government by the Spaniards.  One of the most visible results of this was the construction of metal lighting fixtures in central Havana from these old cannons.


After lunch, for which we had pasta, pizza, flan, sweet potato, and tapioca pudding, we headed to La Plaza de Armas.  One of the notable structures was el Templete, a small temple in front of which lie statuettes of pineapples. Upon explanation, we learned that the pineapple is known as the queen of Cuban fruits and represents hospitality.


On another side of la Plaza de Armas stands the 2nd oldest fort in North America: La Real Fuerza.  This fort was home to Fernando Desoro and his wife. Upon being killed while abroad, she spent 5 years waiting for him in a tower, honored by a metal statuette of her as a part of the weathervane atop this tower. She remains a symbol of the city of Havana.  She’s known as la Giralda, and is found on all Havana Club labels.


Our next stop was the Presidential Palace, which now serves as the City Museum. Besides housing 65 colonial governors, it served as the Havana City Hall during the first half of the 20th Century. One of its residents had a significant beef with loud noises because of his daily post-lunch naps, so he had the brick road replaced with bricks made from the very dense Acana wood.  The palace itself is built in the Baroque style with Moorish and Southern Spanish colonial influences demonstrated by the complex stained glass and tile work found inside. There is a large statue of Christopher Columbus in the main courtyard, and many historical artifacts, ranging from clothing to horse carriages, in the adjacent rooms.


Our final stopping place before ending our walking tour was the Cathedral Square, home to the Cathedral Church.  It is thought that this is one of the locations where Columbus’ remains were stored, along with Nicaragua, before being sent back to Seville.


Nearby is another very important historical site: La Bodeguita del Medio.  This was one of the bars where Hemingway used to drink in Havana, and is known as the birthplace of the Mojito.


Our final stop before returning to the hotel in preparation for dinner was the market in Old Havana. Despite being a tourist market, this was an interesting opportunity to talk to Cubans about their experiences. We had an extended conversation in English with one shopkeeper about the MLB.  Aside from that, I purchased several paintings for my friends and family, and experienced the uniquely Cuban methods of hawking goods consisting of unusual respect for consumers and an amiable attitude.  It was quite refreshing to witness this after the offensive behavior of both vendors and beggars in Morocco.


After briefly returning to the hotel, we took off for the Spanish fort across the river, and a restaurant where we ate dinner.  We listened to live music and I drank pineapple juice and ate smoked pork loin.  It being Adam’s birthday, the band called him up to play him “Happy Birthday.”


Our final stop of the day was the Spanish fort itself, the biggest fort in North America.  The first sight we saw here was the lowering of the flags. Half the soldiers who participated in this ceremony wore long, white wigs.  This was an interesting reflection of their perception of their history and to recreating it as it was, despite distinct differences with the society that exists today in Cuba.


While we waited for the cannon firing at 9:00, we explored the fort.  We saw the church, with various remains of historical figures.  We shopped around for gifts for Adarsh’s parents, and saw some of the more unique souvenirs of this trip. Just before 9:00, we headed up to the top of the fort, where we watched the actors march up the ramp holding torches, and proceed to complete a ceremony involving dancing before lighting the fuse to the cannon.  As we were waiting for the cannon to go off, a guy standing in front of us who we later learned was named John asked if we would like to have a small conversation afterwards, after hearing Adarsh and me debate the Cuban economy.  We told him afterwards that we would be unable to go out for drinks with him, but that he would be welcome to come by our hotel the next morning.  Of course, Adarsh ended up spending the rest of the night trying to convince me that doing so was a bad idea, and that chances were that he was going to ask us to smuggle drugs for him or help him get out of Cuba.


The cannon firing itself was pretty cool, albeit loud.  It was quite an interesting tradition considering the contempt I had expected the Revolutionary government to have for the legacy of Cuba’s colonial era.  Following this, we simply returned to the hotel and went to bed before too long.

Jul 08

Cuba 2014: Day 1

Alas, many months late, I have gotten to posting these journal entries that I wrote.  As it happens, I ended up losing all but a few of my pictures when my iPhone was wiped during an update a week ago.  Therefore, though I had intended for much of this to be illustrated, it isn’t.  I was in Cuba between May 17th and 25th, 2014.

Today was a day of travel: we flew from Vancouver to Toronto, and from Toronto to Havana. The flights were great; I watched Her, Pacific Rim, and part of The LEGO movie. Arrival in Havana was interesting, if a bit unnerving. Customs and Immigration were very efficient and cordial, though rather reserved and, if I may say, paranoid (perhaps this is just my perception of the socialist police state American media makes Cuba out to be).  Adarsh compared the airport to airports in India, but I noted that it was much cleaner and quieter.


Overall, the little of the country I’ve seen thus far has been rather more developed than I had expected.  I was particularly impressed by the timers at each stoplight. People seem more liberal than I had worried, and than the airport officials had made me worry by their behavior. Our tour guide noted that everyone here is nice, greeting you wherever you go and such. Once again, this almost seems like something of a government-enforced façade to hide the resentment I would expect many to feel for the luxury with which we live in comparison,


Once again, the hotel officials were highly cordial, once again seemingly giving off an aura of fear of us as Americans.  Live music and large crowds out in the streets, even past midnight, encourage me as to the culture which I am anxious to discover.

Jun 10

American Identity

American Identity is characterized by a constant search for success, as defined by society in opposition communities, rather than the individual, thus resulting in skewed perceptions and high rates of dissatisfaction.  The recent situation that I would cite as background for this would be a story on This American Life about American living in Paris.  One of the major differences that one of the subjects detailed was the idea that in France, as in much of the world, there isn’t nearly the stigma associated with work that exists in the US.  People are expected to work hard, but are never expected to put in excessively long weeks, overtime, inconvenient hours, and more practices that are considered to be the way to get ahead in the US.  On a larger scale, both The Bell Jar and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven reflect on this idea from a more conflicted, internal perspective.  The irony that defines the images of success in both is characterized by the fact that main characters in both seek escape, even from an internal position, from the images of success that are imposed upon them and which often get modified before the time they reach them.  For Esther in The Bell Jar, success has become such a subjective idea that she is rarely able to identify what her perception of it is.  It is certainly defined for her in certain ways, but the varying expectations for her lead to internal conflict about this, and eventually drive her insane.  She seeks to escape these expectations, and in deviating from the ordinary image of success in this, she is driven in an even worse direction (I’m thinking of Marco).  Similarly, all the characters in Alexie’s set of short stories seek or recognize success as escape from the reservation.  Many characters, such as Adrian, see this path as defined by following along with certain consistent minority images, or simply that which they’re given the opportunity to excel in: basketball.  On the other hand, there are some characters, like Junior in “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show,” who actually follow through with the general American idea of escape: college.  Yet the interesting thing about all of these characters is that they all return home, having, in some capacity or another, failed the different goals of success as characterized by education, integration, or so on.  Esther returns home from New York, the city of opportunity, greatly confused by her recent past and the possibilities for her future, and is driven insane by being driven to this point.  It is apparent that the American expectation for great things of great people has pushed her to a point where, on one hand, she is unable to escape the boundaries she has faced, and on the other hand, is not sure where to go.  The land of opportunity confuses her by offering too much opportunity while not giving her the opportunities she seeks.  Similarly, Junior Polatkin faces a similar situation when he returns to the reservation from college: he has plenty of opportunity, but the variety of these combined with their attribution as uncommon for Native Americans forces him to attempt to disassociate himself with this American identity and attempt to reidentify with his American Indian heritage and the advantages that the community poses for him.  Both characters realize that a core part of being part of American society is following through with your potential, even if it isn’t what you want yourself.  Therefore, failure to be able to do so leads to elements of insanity or retreat (perhaps the former is an internal example of the latter), and disassociation with that part of one’s identity.

Jun 10

Language and the Human Condition in Catch-22

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller is a literary work which is known to be based in the satire of the structures which existed at the time of WWII and the subsequent periods of the Korean and Cold Wars.  By most, this satire is seen to fulfill the purpose of generating and memorializing anti-war sentiment by demonstrating the irrationality of the effort and the conflicts of interest existing throughout.  Of course, with war, at many points in history, being the defining characteristic of humanity, it is easy for this piece to be considered a satirical reflection on the human condition, particularly, as Philip Toynbee puts it in his review “Here’s Greatness–In Satire,” as “the object of Mr. Heller’s outraged fury and disgust.”  Heller’s achievement of this end is primarily through his use of language, through which he both manages to demonstrate Modernist styles and display language’s capability to be obfuscating, a theme through which he also addresses some aspects of the rationality in the novel in terms of self-perception from the perspective of the said human condition.

The clearest example of the mentioned obfuscation by language is the novel’s namesake: Catch-22 itself.  It is described initially by Heller stating, “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.  Orr was crazy and could be grounded.  All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions” (46).  Now of course, in Heller’s modernist style of using layers (like ogres) to add thickness to his language, he goes on to repeat the final part of that description in a variety of increasingly confusing terms.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that this catch and its description lay rooted in two distinct perceptions of the ridiculousness of the human condition.  The first would be, of course, the misuse of language to oppress.  While Catch-22 is official enough to legitimately prevent grounding, there’s the idea that Heller discusses in his interview above that “Yossarian is convinced that there is no such thing as Catch-22, but it doesn’t matter as long as people believe there is.”  This entire concept parodies the core human idea that language is the basis of advanced function, and that, though belief can inspire and dictate in the greater perception of life, it often shouldn’t be a system against one’s own interests.  This belief that has been reinforced to a point beyond existence on paper was created as a protection and an enforcement that would’ve supported the greater cause, but has become a trap that prevents escape.  Much like religion, Heller makes it out to be exactly that: a self-developing object that serves primarily malicious interests.

The secondary aspect of the human condition which is addressed by Heller is the idea of insanity contrasted with rationality.  The language of the catch itself makes there out to be a clear distinction, leaving little to no room to consider the subjectivity of this concept.  That, too, is an idea that is mocked by Heller out of disgust: that the human system, through its consistency, encourages consideration from no more than a single perspective, maximally reducing subjectivity.  This consideration is expanded by the fact that the evaluation of these characteristics is often from a perspective which would distinctly be considered incapable of accurate evaluation, such as Major Sanderson, a psychiatrist who seems more troubled than his patients.  The irony that Heller presents is such that perhaps the true perception would be that insanity has no core form in which it exists, and that perhaps any form of the human condition could be considered insanity from one perspective or another.  While insanity is characterized as the desire to fly into combat in this novel, the sort of inconsistent belief that is characterized by Catch-22 could just as well argue that insanity would be not wanting to do so for the sake of patriotism and moral righteousness (perhaps the realistic perspective of actual WWII soldiers).  If rationality is characterized by a desire to fail to serve one’s national interests by not flying missions, is perhaps rationality perhaps a desire for death in some other way (falling to the Nazis – the war certainly wasn’t won at this point)?  If not death or sex, what is the aim of the human condition?  Or is, perhaps, the human condition characterized by an inability to realize this, hence the reference to it being a condition?  In grappling with these concepts, it is clear that the parody by Heller is driven by an element of disgust, considering the willingness to violate core beliefs and morals in the aim of creating something of an anti-hero as a symbolic figure of rebellion.

A direr perspective presented by Heller in his analysis of the human condition is with the consideration of Snowden as the keeper of the secret of life.  In many ways, his interaction with language truly represents how, at its most obfuscating, this core human feature serves to remind us of the true basis of the human condition: that this condition is not a matter of intrinsic difference or uniqueness as contrasted with the rest of nature, but rather a matter of misconception of this sort of difference.  Snowden’s reduction to the point of being unable to say anything besides “‘I’m cold'” (437), and Yossarian’s subsequent inability to respond with any words besides “‘There, there'” (437) indicate the uselessness of human language at its core.  The human condition seems to be demonstrated to be the fact that our unique capabilities have no purpose when the end is near or when they are most needed.  His secret as “Man was matter… The spirit gone, mane is garbage… Ripeness was all” (440) seems to put this ideal into words by referencing the idea that the human condition is really the same as the condition of all else in existence: as temporary and part of an ongoing cycle.  Analysis may be an advanced capability, but it does not characterize the species as different on any notable level.  The contrast of the discovery of this “secret” with the seemingly useless aims of a variety of the characters in the book (Colonel Cathcart and his Saturday Evening Post, Colonel Sheisskopf and his parades, etc.) aims to make the extremes show the existence of such a skew in worldview in a way that it is recognizable to all and visible as an object to change.  If not written solely out of disillusionment, Heller must have at least aimed for this possibility.

The human condition from a modernist perspective is parodied by Heller by showing both extremes of the obfuscation of language.  He contrasts the overuse of language to a point of transcendence and the skew of belief with the incapability for language to be used effectively in dire situations to demonstrate that the human condition is not indeed defined by any sort of consistent systems, and that indeed the “condition” that is referenced is an issue of perception.  Language may, at various points in time, bring humans to a point of seeming uniqueness in their environment, but it does not isolate them from it, no matter how hard they try to achieve this.

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