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

Out to Get You

In a Mad World, There Are
Jobs Only Psychopaths Can Do

They mesmerize you just like a spider would. And just as well, haunt your nightmares. There may be one among your dearest friends. The thought of you knowing a predator who may consider you no more than a prey, is as scary as wondering whether you may be one.
But now we know more than ever about psychopaths, through books, movies, and real stories. There’s a new understanding about their evolutionary role and they, gasp, may not be as fearful as society thinks they are. Or at least, not without purpose.
Whole sections of bookstores, or rather, on your favorite online bookseller, are about their pathology, traits, even theories as to why some of us have no empathy to peoples’ feelings, or pain, while others are just glad to marry them out of sheer awe of their personal power.
Of course, every one of these treatises starts by defining what a psychopath is, what it is not, and most important, what the hell is difference between them and sociopaths. By now, we’re all cognizant to such differences and mostly have a pretty good idea about what kind of compulsion drives them to do what they do best.
And what’s that, again? If you’ve said that it’s murder, you may not know as much about them as you thought you did. For, according to modern psychology, psychopaths come in a myriad of varieties and, even if you’re not particularly inclined to know the gory details of their mindset, you may at least educate yourself, just enough to, you know, get out of their way.
For despite all contemporary reassessment about what a predator is and what it does, there’s not much change in one basic reality: no one should get on their bad side. Just like sharks, you don’t want them to be extinct, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump in the water and swim alongside them.

There are now studies purporting to justify the valuable role psychopaths may play in society, what we can learn observing one, how successful some have become as captains of industry, about how some online games make you act just like one, and, yes, whether you are a closet murderer, but that you already knew about it.
Other research supposes what a psychopath would do – you see, just like Jesus -, in any number of situations. Or how badly the movies have portrayed them, even though you may kind of miss them when, and if, they finally meet their comeuppance in your favorite series. In fact, they’re ever present in popular culture.
And in real life too, of course, although it’s relatively rare when someone like Bernie Madoff gets caught. Behind the much patting in the back, there’s the shame of realizing that none of his victims anticipated what he was up to. And some of them genuinely thought they were best friends, up to the very, bitter end.
After all, remorse is not something that’s usually part of the palette of positive attributions some behavior psychologists believe psychopaths could teach us. But Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

What May Not Change for Brazil, Colltalers

A little over a week from the final month before the October 5 Brazilian presidential election, what’d been a relatively easy ride to reelection for President Dilma Rousseff has turned into turmoil after the shocking death of former Pernambuco State Governor Eduardo Campos.
But even as the fateful plane crash has moved some vital pieces on the chessboard of Brazil’s politics, the essence of the game is slated to remain pretty much the same, with seasoned players reaching out to their well-known bag of tricks to prevent neophytes to get pass the front door.
Campos was a distant third in the race, a curiously mild candidate coming from a combative political dynasty – his grandfather, Miguel Arraes, a charismatic former governor deposed and driven to exile in 1964 by the military coup, also died in the same August 13, nine years before.
As it happens in politics, Campos’s Veep, Marina Silva, a former environment minister in the Lula administration, has jumped in the pools since his death, and now threatens to take the incumbent to a second round, when presumably, her chances for winning may even increase.
The accident also caused another unexpected development in the race: the apparent derailment of the campaign of Aécio Neves, also a former governor with a famous grandfather, Tancredo Neves, and the candidate of former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s party, the PSDB.
Before going further, let’s quickly review the acronyms soup that characterizes Brazil’s party politics: Rousseff is a member of PT, the Workers’ Party, a dominant force in Brazilian politics even before President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was elected in 2003 for the first of his two terms.
He succeeded PSDB’s Cardoso, also a two-term president, who despite claims of having tamed the hyper-inflation or stabilized the real currency, of which nevertheless he was instrumental, will be remembered mostly for having presided over a period of political stability, a relief for a nation that was, and to some it still is, reeling from 20-plus hard years of dictatorship. Cardoso did usher back a better country to Brazilians.
His Brazilian Social Democracy Party has been the other major political force in the country politics, representing the upper elites, which once again are jockeying to regain some of the power they once enjoyed and have been somehow deflated by Lula’s brand of populism.
In reality, while both emerged from the old warhorse PMDB of dictatorship times, the PT has ruled with the same pragmatic zeal, and at times, spurious alliances with more conservative forces, that marked Cardoso’s years in Brasília. Beside scandals that singed both administrations, and those that also spilled over to Rousseff’s, both continued better attuned to their constituencies than to ideology and the old left-right signposts.
As a party perceived to favor corporations and privatization, flags tirelessly waved Continue reading

We’re Not Alone!

The Secret, Trillion Lives
Crawling In & On Your Body

The late Carl Sagan may have said, we’re all made of starstuff. But deep down, what we really are is a multitude of microorganisms, 100 trillion of them, some part of our natural physiology, but most totally foreign. We wouldn’t have lasted this long on Earth without them.
While cells are the bricks that form our bodies, even before birth, an ever growing, self-renewing, array of microscopic creatures call us their home and, gasp, may also call the shots about everything we think we are, from how healthy or moody, to when we’ll finally expire.
So much for freewill. This invisible trillionaire community, living of our so well washed and fed bodies, shelters charitable organisms, which allow us to survive what would’ve killed us in the past, and downright lethal pathogens, for which there’s no defense. And yet others are content to just control whether we’ll follow that new Twitter trend.
To learn about these entities, simple but formidable enough to erase a city’s population, is to find multiple new questions to every doubt we may clarify. It’s also to wonder how come a brainless, single-cell being can play such a complex role in the evolutionary ladder.
Notice that we haven’t mentioned viruses, so much in the headlines lately with the Ebola outbreak. But if bacteria can be foreign to us, viruses are totally aliens, as they have no cell or internal structure. All killing’s done with the thinnest protein layer and a string of nucleic acid. We’d let those dogs lie for now, if we could.
Bacteria, however, can actually be our allies, and our guts hold enough of them to actually defeat an alien invasion, as H.G. Wells‘ illustrated so well in War of the Worlds. Not for long, though, as we overuse antibiotics, which kill both good and bad ones, and give rise to a new breed of superbugs. Watch out.

Speaking of evolution, a step above, more complex and considerably larger, are parasites, which are tiny insects, still invisible to our poor eye sights, but very capable all the same. Nature is full of them, and now we’re also learning that some can be pretty clever, controlling bigger creatures. Including us.
There’s one, for instance, that once inside a bumblebee, can force it to become food for its larvae, not before digging its own grave, though. They called it a Mafia Bug, but you haven’t heard it from us. Curiously, such approach to domination is emulated by other, larger creatures, such as some kind of wasps.
The Pompiliadae, a.k.a. Spider Wasp, is so called for a reason: it poisons and paralyzes without killing a spider, drags it to its burrow, bury it, and lay eggs on top of it, so it will be eaten still alive by its larvae. Pretty horrific. Another wasp does something similar: it turns the spider into a zombie construction worker.
Well, you may say, at least it teaches it a marketable skill. Except that it also paralyzes the spider and lays its eggs, etc. Not a fate one would think dignified enough for anyone, but, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Ones They Pick, Colltalers

Young, poor, and black. It’s tempting to highlight these three stereotypes to qualify the brutal street combat going on in cities across the U.S. these days, pitting a growing contingent of the able and willing but disenfranchised and excluded, against a military style, armory-clad police force.
It’s also easy to characterize such violent confrontations, between unarmed civilians, picked individually or in group, against overly equipped law enforcement soldiers, as an escalation of anarchy, growing lack of discipline or downright disrespect for the law of the land.
Such gross simplifications, though, despite being trumpeted 24/7 by the mainstream media – a term that by now has all the derision of a slur -, can have not just a dehumanizing but also a deeply damaging impact on any attempt to access the roots of what’s going on in America, circa 2014.
Taken one by one, each of such characterizations holds some truth to explain the killings of innocent Americans within the homeland – and not in far away places, since those are not even part of the current debate. The same homeland which is often invoked with sacrossant zeal by those trusted to protect the law, when they happen to break it themselves. In the end, though, every stereotype fails to unravel the hidden picture behind the shootings.
By isolating factors such as age, social class, and race, be them as encroached and incendiary as they may, we risk derailing efforts to find context-based solutions, historical, social, and demographic elements that don’t easily fit in the soundbites fed us by the news cycle, and ultimately miss the point of what it is to be, nowadays, a citizen in the land of the free and home of the brave. Because that’s what should be at stake here.
What kind of society we’re building, what type of generation we’re forming, and even more important, what part of what this nation was build upon we’re willing to give up, in order to reaffirm dangerous ideals of supremacy and exceptionality, of power to the already powerful, and survival of the fittest to everyone else. For as long as we refuse to formulate these themes into the national conversation, we’re doomed to keep repeating ourselves.
Take age, for instance. It doesn’t pass even a relatively lax scrutiny, for along so many young lives befallen under law enforcement bullets in inner cities across the country, unfortunately another huge, and not so young, segment of the mentally impaired, the disabled, and the dispossessed, to mention but a few, have also fell victim of indiscriminate and institutionalized violence. So, that sort of yardstick simply doesn’t cut it.
Neither does the one about rising poverty, which indeed breeds fertile grounds for blood spilling and impunity, but could never per se shed light on explosive class confrontations, mainly because they, alas, haven’t yet taken hold in the U.S. It does a bit to explain the increasing sophistication of police weaponry, however, and we’ll get back to that flaming issue in a moment. For the purpose of isolating causes, though, it’s inadequate.
And finally, race, which is by far, the most assertive of such causes, as there’s no doubt left about it being the main trigger behind the killings of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, of New York’s Eric Garner, and way back when, Sanford’s Trayvon Martin (it feels like it happened ages ago, doesn’t it?), again to name but three. And of countless tragic incidents of profiling, Continue reading

Photo Retouch

Photographer Known For Essay
on Albino Family Dies in Brazil

The plane crash that killed Brazilian presidential candidate Eduardo Campos this week threw the country’s succession of President, and still front runner, Dilma Rousseff, into grief and turmoil. But it also may help us correct an injustice of sorts, in a completely unexpected way.
Along with Campos, eight other people also died: the two co-pilots, two political aides, a cameraman, and a photographer, Alexandre Severo, well known in Brazil for an essay on a rare multiracial family that counts both black and albino kids among its members.
As it turns out, Colltales had published a post on albinos last year, and included a photo of the Fernandes de Andrade family, taken by Severo. Except that his name was not mentioned on the credit of the picture, only Reuters’, its license holder, which is correct but incomplete.
Severo, 36, had already an established career when he portrayed the unique group in 2009, black mother Rosemere, and her two black and three albinos kids, all from Severo’s homestate city of Olinda, Pernambuco. Chances for that to happen: one in a million.
Actually, to prevent yet another correction, let’s say that those odds are estimates; we don’t have scientific data to support such claim. Nevertheless, there’s no need to estimate the challenges for such a poor group of Brazilians for it’s downright hard to even fathom what they go through every day.
As far as we know, the five are doing fine, but again, we have no data to back that up. So we hope, just like albinos do, that they are, and that health issues don’t get in their way to a fulfilling life. Also, that we all come to understand their condition and, more importantly, that our prejudices don’t hamper their right to be loved and respected.
That was the point of our story, anyway. But not of this one. For this is a due correction that we needed to make, and a sign that Severo’s work will outlive him and honor his legacy. In his short life, he managed to link his name to a theme of love and racial equality, almost as rare today as the genetic mutation that triggers albinism.
Tip of the hat to you, brother.
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* The Hunted

Round Robin

The Heavy Toll of
Making Us Laugh

The suicide of Robin Williams provoked a global outpour of grief and sadness, as the beloved comedian chose to end it all in such a brutal manner. Equally intense has been the dutiful warnings about the nefarious impact of long-term depression on any individual, even one whose special talent was to make everyone else happy.
But despite all the proper sobriety and legitimate hurt feelings we all felt about Williams’s self-inflicted demise, almost immediately after the news broke and even before we could process such untimely loss, there was already an army of ‘feeling-goods’ trying to make us ‘move on’ and not to dwell ‘too much’ on his death, and focus instead on his life work.
In one side, it’s an admirable effort, that of focusing on the person’s legacy rather than the circumstances of his passing, or even death itself, lest not reduce a lifetime of extraordinary humanistic accomplishments, into the demeaning mechanics of a final act. But in all that, there’s something else less noble apace, too.
It’s Americans’ seemingly pathological fear of acknowledging death that is troubling. For we tend to trample nature and fail to give the grieving process its due, rushing to bottle up and put a lid on any semblance of loss, in exchange for a quick return to normality, where we’re all happy ever after.
Such fear of feeling bad or appear ‘weak’ for showing emotions is rooted deeply in the culture, and can be traced back to the stoicism of pioneers and pilgrims who braved the vast land and tamed its formidable elements, to carve a nation out of brute force. Displays of vulnerability were simply not an option, then.
It extends to our familial ties and how we value the sole heroic dare over the community drive, the individualistic gesture instead of the search for consensus. It’s at the foundations of women’s oppression, as they must not only have to appear sensual and attractive, but also be perfect mates, good sports, and ruthless professionals, all done with 70% of the earning power of their male counterparts.

It’s infected our workplaces, with the emergence of the chief happiness officer, on duty 24/7, and a geek chorus of boss cheerleaders, always demanding a smile and an ‘upbeat’ attitude, whatever the hell that means on a Monday morning. We’d all better comply if we know what’s good for our paychecks; just look at that menacing pile of resumes, not yet tossed by HR.
And it gets under our skin every time we spot one more wedding notice on the Sunday paper, about the consorts’ rose happenstance and expensive ceremony, sealing their next average 10 years together. Don’t mention stats on divorce, domestic violence, nickel and dime betrayals, or vicious brawls Continue reading