Curtain Raiser

Heading Forward to the Past, Colltalers

We’re back to our miserable ways again, a steady, media-fueled, seemingly inexorable path to yet another war in a faraway land. As we all now know, this chain reaction always starts when ‘advisors’ are sent. Then come the air strikes and shortly thereafter, a full blown intervention.
Whether President ‘Hope’ Obama is to blame for lighten up the wick this time, or events on the ground in Iraq are simply too strong an allure to avoid an armed response, may be theme for countless books to be published in 20 years or so. For now, what’s clear is that we’re A-Go.
Which means that we haven’t learned zilch from our pass experiences, some of them still in progress. Afghanistan remains an open wound, Pakistan and Libya are germ-festering inflammations, and the situation in Ukraine and Gaza is far from coming to a peaceful resolution.
On the contrary, both Russia and Israel took quick advantage from falling off of last week’s headlines, to advance their questionable claims over neighbors’ territories. As the world can’t keep its focus on more than two or three conflicts at a time, they may be just being pragmatic.
And so is, for completely different reasons, the Ebola virus, which keeps thriving in poverty-stricken Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, spreading undeterred through entire regions. It’s killing both the sick and also the doctors and medical personnel engaged in treating them.
There’s no need to continue listing the well-know corollary of illnesses and pestilence sickening this world of ours. But the point can’t be missed, that yet another multi-billion war effort, and the certain loss of thousands of lives taken with it, can’t really be the solution to anything.
About that hope thing, and unfulfilled presidential promises. The election of Barack Obama has been the single, most unpredictable fact in American politics since, arguably, the JFK assassination (which may be revived once again next week, with the Warren ‘Single-Bullet-Theory’ Commission report’s 50th anniversary). After over 200 years of republic, the U.S. finally elected a black man to its highest office. Hooray.
His ascension from a bright but little known Chicago politician to a position to, first, challenge heavy-weights of the Democratic Party, and then take on the still large racist percentage of this country, was a historical, and unprecedented feat of far reaching consequences.
More than his race would imply, however – in what was likely done by design -, what the candidate Obama attracted was an earth-shattering mandate to heal the nation, reassert its democratic role in the world, and, yes, reassess social and economic priorities, race relations included.
It took less than a year for such promising mandate to start collapsing under the weight of a congressional body far removed from ideals of social and race equality, and the complexities and geopolitics of a world in constant transition. Plus a handful of poor decisions of his own.
But while cynics rushed to slap ‘I told you so’ all over our flatten faces, it’s a fact that most campaign promises rarely survive a few months in office, so this commander-in-chief is not alone in succumbing to serious shortcomings while transitioning from candidate to president.
Then came reelection (don’t worry, we’re not about to run an Obama inventory just yet, and we’re just about to get to the point), and, despite considerable nail bitting, the president’s win also put on a display his new-found pragmatic approach to the politics of the possible.
Some say that’s when we write the death sentence of our high humanistic aspirations for the future. Perhaps. But what’s puzzling now, when President Obama is not yet quite the lame duck he’s about to become in a year or so, is why he’s already showing a certain fatigue, and renewed willingness to get even closer to Pentagon hawks and the same warmongering politicians who’ve worked so hard to undermine his presidency.
That he’s now reasserting a similar rhetoric, that in the past led this nation to spill rivers of blood and sink billions into the warrantless Iraq war, only gives credence to the claims that the president has abandoned some of the principles Continue reading

Mission to Rio

‘My Schedule Is Full
For the Next 30 Years’

In a city Maubrey Destined, NYC, 2014like New York, you’re bound to run into someone like Maubrey Destined: a man with a dream and a meticulous plan to pursue it. But even with the many like him, in a place where eight million dream of reinventing themselves, we all could learn something from his quest.
The German-born Ghanaian-American 100-meter sprinter, who’s on a mission to make it to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio, shows to whoever crosses his path, that second acts not just happen in America, but often may turn everything that came before into mere expensive prep work.
The Maubrey Destined Effect, the first volume of a trilogy about his journey from Europe, to Africa, to the U.S., offers hints of his road map to succeed, but also candidly reveals his peripatetic travails and early crashes and run ins with brutal, and bruising, realities.
The 30-year old polycultural world hiker has already had a taste of what it means to be both a precocious prodigy, covered by the accolades of family and friends, and a serious candidate to early failure, with cops and drug dealers in hot pursuit. But whereas many simply drop out, Destined re-Christened himself.
Yes, the name was one of his first acts of reinvention, in a long and storied arch that’s turned Continue reading

Bloody Girdles

Things You Didn’t Know About
Gladiators, Vikings & Crusaders

As soon as football season kicks off the U.S., we’re once again fed a nauseating diet of war metaphors to go along with the game. All this talk about warriors, soldiers, and battles, has an upside though: it gets us to raid our files on that trio of mythical combatants of ancient times.
Far from unique on their intimacy with pain and blood, or the glory and virtue often associated with them, they’re still tickle our pseudo-anthropological bone. And as it turns out, there are new surprising discoveries that may indeed change, just a bit, our idea of them.
It may come to no surprise, for instance, that gladiators lived an extremely hard life. But a recent trove of skulls and body parts, uncovered in England, put yet another brutal twist to the fate of these brave slaves. And unlike contemporary beheadings by religions freaks, theirs were arguably bloodier.
You’ve always knew that Vikings had been all over Europe, either waging war or not-so-gently settling in foreign lands. But new research has shown that not just the contingent of female warriors, but also, casual texting, were both more numerous and common than we previously thought. Who knew?
And speaking of war and pillage due to religion strife, no other enterprise had a bigger role leaving a legacy of hatred and broken bones in their wake than the Crusades. Now we know that at least the armies of Richard I, the Lionheart, left something else behind too: feces parasites in a castle in Cyprus.
Perhaps the need to periodically update our archives helps us keep in perspective what essentially hasn’t changed in the past two thousand years: humans will be always busy training to crush each other, either to conquer personal freedom, to expand their cultural heritage, or to simply annihilate the followers of a different god.
Then as now, soldiers are sold a bill of lies, wrapped in promises of immortality and ribbons of reward. They will go for the gold and glory and return inside bags of bones, lives and names already lost before the cannons’ first strike. Centuries later, it may be up to us to dig them up out of the dust and study their predicament.

FIGHTERS WITHOUT AN ARMY
Gladiators, for as well trained and combat-ready they seemed in the second century C.E., were closer to today’s WWF than to Marines. Being slaves would prevent them from ever be armed and part of the regular Roman legionary forces, even though they did once rise up against their overlords, led by the legendary Spartacus.
Zliten Mosaic, Libya, 2nd Century C.E.But for all purposes, they were there to entertain the crowds and, eventually, gain if not freedom, at least steady employment. Two recent discoveries, in Vienna and London, add a bit more color to what’s known about these stage fighters: a gladiators school, the first found outside Rome, and partial skeletons from some 40 men.
The building in Austria clearly shows that gladiators were prisoners, living ‘in cells, in a fortress with only one gate out,’ according to archeologist Ludwig Boltzman. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Dignity Collectors, Colltales

If you’re an American resident, you may live in a household that owes $15K in credit card debt. If there’s a mortgage, its outstanding debt may be $150K. And if there’s one or more college students sharing your last name, then there’s another $33K each to be added to the bill.
Thus, without counting living expenses, just the fact that you live in the world’s richest country means that you’re also one of its most indebted human beings. No wonder that, amid a troubled economy, there’s a seemingly unbeatable business, reaping profits: debt collection agencies.
Now, the data above may be gathered via Internet under the grand total of 5 minutes or less. No need to add insult, reminding those who owe money how hard it is to even make it, either. There’s a crucial, invisible, component to this dire calculation, however, that most are unaware of.
And what average Americans don’t know about their own debt can actually ruin them, and it’s actually already doing it, stealthily. That is because, pinch your nose and hold your breath, no matter the amount that they owe, it has already being sold over for pennies on the dollar.
This devious aspect of consumer debt is the hidden side behind the moralistic rhetoric of Dickensian concepts such as ‘living within one’s means’ and ‘personal responsibility.’ For these are all sound and truthful only and for as long as those who owe money remain indebted.
The financial system, and in fact the entire economy, rest on the notion that debt is as much a factor of their liquidity as earned income and capital invested. But while for a government, the amount of debt is often an indication that it’s being used to build and provide infrastructure so to support the functioning of society, for an individual, such amount is indicative of his or her ability to receive more or less credit.
Contrary to concerns of the ultra-rich, it’s not a government’s highest priority to be debt-free, as long as it’s under a well-determined balance of spending and output. But for individuals, such condition is often the key to opportunities for material improvement and security. As it happens, unlike governments, one can’t issue debt to cover bills, so if you owe money, you need to pay it up, and fast.
Unfortunately, while a different set of rules applies to the wealthy, for the rest of us, falling into debt is often a condition that leads to even more indebtedness, and even social ruin. So we may struggle and skip meals to pay that bill on time, and not having to be burdened by higher rates.
That’s when that utterly non-productive but highly profitable industry comes into play: the collection business. Most people think that its job is to contact debtors on behalf of creditors, work some kind of plan, collect a commission for their service, and be on their way. Since there are plenty of people behind on their bill payment schedules, one would think that’s enough of a business. They’d be wrong, of course.
A debt collection agency’s main purpose is to purchase people’s debts, and they do so, legally, by pennies on the dollar. (To find out exactly how much less than the principal they’d pay for your debt is one of those Internet searches that will take way more than five minutes to know.)
But the moment they purchase your debt, you have, in practice, two creditors coming after you: that agency, and your original credit card company, or mortgage holder, or online gaming provider, or retailer of specialty bras, whoever you owe money to. While the agency may offer you a deal, your original creditor will most likely not, adding instead, a stiff rate and penalties for your non payment.
Now, at this point, while you scramble to sell stuff on eBay, or contact that distant relative/friend who owe you money, in order to come up with some to quench the monster, you debt is already on its way to change hands yet again. The agency that’s still sending you letters proposing you to settle, is also negotiating to sell that debt, again at a discount, to yet another agency, which may, you guessed it, come after you too.
You’d ask, how can this be possible, that one bill’s default has potentially generated two others, and you’re being charged the original amount even as third-parties are buying it at a discount? Well, it’s a loophole or it’s a way for the system to feed itself, even as it pressures you to stop feeding yourself, so to speak. Also, by now, you may be wisen up to the scheme and thinking, why can’t I buy my own debt for pennies too?
You can’t, as a matter of fact. Or you could, if you become, yourself, a licensed debt broker. We don’t know how are the job prospects on that market, so it’s up to you. Continue reading

Facedown

Twins, Dead Ringers & Lookalikes:
the Doppelganger & the Other ‘Yous’

You may have one of those faces. The other day, someone just saw your doppelganger walking down the street. You see people who resemble you all the time. But are we really all lookalikes, made of a relatively few number of templates, plus variables added as toppings?
The thought of not being physiognomically unique is quite unnerving, and as common as a pair of identical twins. We fancy that we’re one of a kind ever since we first recognized ourselves in the mirror. Mom told us herself. But then we meet our dead ringer and all bets are off.
One of the most fascinating phenomena of living species is the double birth, the twins, and in humans, identical ones have been source of inspiration and awe since prehistorical times, central to a number of cultural traditions, the embodiment of kinship and parallel lives.
They’ve also been the target of scientific curiosity, knowledge, and sick experiments. Identical twins, specially, are rare but statistically expected. In Brazil, however, there’s a whole town, Cândido Godói, full of doubles, in way higher-than-normal rates. Researchers have come up with a variety of possible causes for it.
One that immediately got an enduring currency is that Nazi ‘Angel of Death,’ Joseph Mengele, had something to do with it, since he lived and died in the 1970s in a nearby farm community, across the border with Paraguay. But that theory has been debunked and replaced by another, more in line with scientific data.

WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Twins do share a special bond, and seem linked in extraordinary ways to each other. Genes, naturally, explain their similitude and that among relatives, but it’s no less astonishing when that happens across generations, with grandkids being uncanny copies of their forebearers. Doppelgangers, and lookalikes, however, are another story.
All genetic research considered, it’s taken the work of a few photographers to shed an intriguing perspective into this subject. One captured strangers who look stunningly alike, while other linked recent pictures of people with their former selves, and yet another, combined faces of members of the same family.
Variations of the theme go further, using photo manipulation effects, for instance, to create a perfectly symmetric match of only one side of someone’s face split in two. Or trying to explain why some ‘complimentary’ personalities attract each other, based not on resemblance but on intuitive behavioral and genetic factors.
And then there are the case of celebrities, both contemporary, and those whose previous physical likeness have been somewhat spotted in pictures of the past. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Plastic Oh, No, Band, Colltalers

‘I just want to say one word to you. Just one word… Are you listening? Plastics.’ That was the career advice offered to Benjamin Braddock, in the 1967 movie The Graduate. If the word was just a joke then, almost 50 years later, it now defines our way of life and may point to our demise.
Its presence permeates almost everything considered essential to our living in this planet, plastic may also choke to death its lifeline, the oceans. Everyday, millions of discarded pieces of it reach the world’s waterways and join what’s an already incalculable amount of floating garbage.
In fact, in this past half century, we’ve seen how insidious plastic clogging the world oceans has become: it has been found everywhere, from vast extensions, forming giant invisible islands of flotsam, to deep under the Arctic seas, and out of dead seabirds’ bursted open stomachs full of it.
As part of our daily life, it’s also all over: in the computer where this post is being composed to cellphones, medicine bottles, to product packaging, food containers, to throwaway utensils. It’s almost discouraging to realize how hard it’d be for us do dig ourselves out of this lifestyle hole.
But perhaps not all is lost. Two of the more ominous of its uses may represent both a way out and a method to wean ourselves from such pervasive product: plastic bags and bottles. They both encapsulate extremes of our societal behavior and offer interesting metaphors to our way of living.
Take bags, for instance, banned this past week in California, which may be one of the most important steps taken against plastic pollution since recycling rules have been instituted in the U.S. A positive sign, indeed, that should ignite a chain reaction and lead to a nationwide ban.
Created solely out of convenience, these bags are utterly replaceable, and yet, have a level of adherence in all walks of life that would baffle social scientists searching for common habits shared by all classes. It’s, however, one of the most environment-damaging habits we could possibly partake.
So a ban, as it’s being pursued in New York and other states, and following some European countries, would represent a big step towards controlling ocean pollution, where they inevitably wind up, after decades in landfills. Would a ban also instill a reflexion on our shopping obsessions? Nah.
The other ominous use of polymers is even more ridden with the contradictions of our very own highfalutin approach to a natural lifestyle: bottles. Drinking bottled water became one the most terrible by-products of the ‘living healthy’ movement, one that added millions of tons of plastic to our already Continue reading