The Witching Hour

Mad as a Hatter
& Not a Cat in Hell

Hallow Talk

Dolls, Dummies & Porcelain Gore: the
Unsinkable Allure of the Talking Dead

Most people would never admit it, but there are no two ways about it: we like Halloween because it’s creepy. We like the gore associated with it, the scary stuff, and the lure of death, breathing coldly upon our neck. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.
What’s curious in American culture, however, is that even talking about death and the departed and what happens to decaying bodies and what we’re supposed to tell our child about their deceased relatives remains taboo for the whole year, except on October 31.
We use the children’s still unguarded approach to the world as a perfect Trojan horse of an excuse for peeking into the depths of our dark corners, where fears reign supreme, and the sun never shines. And tell everyone that it’s all for their own good.
But heaven forbid if they’re to inquiry about the finality of death, or the possibility – fiercely denied by billions but ever and again confirmed by all the evidence anyone can come up with – that this is it, there’s nothing beyond the Big Sleep, and one’d better making it count while it lasts.
Somehow we entrust the wee ones with undauntedly facing the most terrifying recesses of our psyche, while at the same time disenfranchising them from developing a critical mind about, say, coma, or embalming, or cremation, or rigor mortis. No wonder young people put so much currency on material things these days.
Whether this cheap thrill of vicariously exposing children to dread towards the unknown, which we all share throughout life, just so they get use to feeling frightened and learn how to deal with terror at an young age, is of any psychological value is up to discussion.
But what we, grownups, get out of Halloween is so much more rewarding to that part inside us that enjoys being spooked that all damage it may inflict on tender minds seems negligible. After all, we tell ourselves, soon enough, they’ll have to handle all of that on their own.
We have no problem assuming it whole heartedly that we love this day. Even if memories of spending those hot (South Hemisphere) days of our youth at cemeteries, visiting families and friends who went before, are not our particularly favorite recollections.
We still treasure that we did the time, and remember the smells of fresh flowers and sweat, mixed with a faint scent of recently dug up graves still encrusted deep in our brains. Not quite like the Mexicans, who actually party and camp at the gravesite on the Dia de los Muertos, but still a day to honor all souls, specially the ‘finados.’
So we could now proceed to tell rehashed tales about ghosts, goblins, strange apparitions and odd Jack O’Lanterns, stories about unexplained occurrences supposedly told to trustworthy people, rumors from the friend of a friend who’s heard an eerie chime echoing somewhere, perhaps even a dead celebrity sighting or two. We’d rather not, however.
As usual, we’ll divert, digress, er, depart from that general theme and find our own niche to mark the date. We’ll focus, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Brazil Gives Dilma a New Run, Colltalers

After one of the most contested elections in at least 12 years, Brazil has chosen to reelect Dilma Rousseff, of the Workers’ Party, for a second term as the country’s president, in a show of support for the continuity of its current political course.
But even with this win, Dilma emerges from this election bruised and battered. Allegations of financial scandal in the state-run oil giant Petrobrás reached very close to home, since she was part of the company’s board and, as president, is de facto, in charge of it.
For the world, even though it was feared by some in Washington and Wall Street, because of her sharing the populist tinges of her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, her reelection may represent little since even that role remains largely unfulfilled.
In fact, Dilma didn’t have to feel pressured to impose a new direction for her economic and growth policies, not any more than simply listening to a large segment of Brazil’s middle class, which spent great part of her first term complaining of her lack of commitment.
She could’ve as well heard and paid more attention to the massive street rallies that market the two major sports competitions that the country hosted, both of the national passion, soccer: the Confederations Cup in 2013, and the World Cup, this past summer.
But despite a few spare-of-the-moment measures, she failed to heed the clamor of dissatisfaction and pretty much continued to pursue the same priorities set still during the Lula administration. Dilma, to be perfectly blunt, hasn’t marked her term in office with much to distinguish herself from him, and lacking his popular appeal, has failed to convey even a timid idea of a caring leader.
On the positive side, however, her party, known as PT, can be credited to scoring some victories for the country’s extreme poor, with social programs that remain among the most effective and pragmatic to restore at least some semblance of class balance in a country marked by gargantuan social problems. For good or worse, such programs may have been exactly what guaranteed Dilma’s reelection.
Either because there was too much fear that they would represent an unjust income distribution, based more on class than on merit, or because they do represent a threat to the familiar mix of power that has ruled Brazilian politics for decades, these programs in general, and the Bolsa Familia in particular, have been prone to attract the most vociferous voices pro and against them of all PT’s policies.
The Bolsa, roughly translated as Family Allowance, provides zero-to-low income families with a stipend, which is conditioned to a series of assumptions, not the least among them, that household school-age children perform satisfactorily in class, and that the adults enroll in the few government-sponsored technical apprenticeship programs available in their county.
Despite being by far the most vilified program among PT’s social initiatives, it has been credited to lifting a considerable segment of the very impoverish citizenry, which has turned, to no one’s surprise, into the bulk of the party’s constituency in the northeast of the country.
The most serious criticism of the PT’s majority rule, though, has been about ingrained corruption in its ranks. Chief among them was the vote-buying scheme that became known as the Mensalão, which dragged members of Lula’s cabinet and some of his most trusted political operatives into a multiyear inquiry and ultimately jail. But the commander in chief managed to be spared from any role in the fiasco.
Despite allegations of improper handling of public funds, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment, no inquiry proved Lula’s involvement. To this day, however, his party can’t seem to shake a reputation of cover ups and attempts to mute those who accused it of criminal acts.
For Aécio, this election marked two catastrophic and mostly personal defeats: not just he failed to Continue reading

War Lord

Women May Lead Our
First Mission to Mars

For some three billion years, Mars looked all but dead, despite misplaced expectations astrophysics had about it all along. Now, as if acting on cue, it seems to be having a renaissance of sorts. Even a comet has paid a close visit to it last week.
Besides the two rovers still soldiering on its inhospitable surface and atmosphere, NASA plans to thoroughly explore it, with a possible human landing sometime in the next two decades. A number of international satellites are also on its orbit.
But despite its allure and beauty on our Zenith, Mars has had a problematic and somewhat disappointing history all along. It closely tracked Earth’s own development for at least a billion years, until something went terribly wrong and, by the time we showed up, it’d gone completely astray. A kind of recovery may be in the works, however, as some believe that life may have come from there.
Lucky us, disaster struck the red planet and not to the blue one. While a climatic inferno wrecked havoc on Mars, it didn’t take long, in astronomical terms, for Earth to bloom and become simply the most beautiful and friendly place in the whole wide universe.
That we act uncaring and downright abusive to this paradise is a matter for another time. The fact is that Mars has attracted so much attention that one wonders whether ancient people were up to something when they nominated it as God of War. Or hasn’t anyone heard the words ‘permanent’ and ‘war’ uttered so often together lately?
There was once a famous German astrologer that was so dedicated to find links between the influence of the Zodiac’s heavenly bodies and the human psyche that whenever a planet would be in evidence, she’d point to a corresponding ‘impact’ it’d have on us.
Thus, when the Pioneers and, later, the Voyager probes sent back those stunning images of Saturn, in the 1970s, she immediately related the event to the era’s economic recession, lines at gas stations in major Western cities, and so on. For her, it all had to do with the celestial Lord of the Rings’ particular charm.
Whether she too was on to something still depends on what one believes, but there’s no question that she was very much in synch with the Greek Pythagorean concepts of Astrology, once considered a science, to which Ptolemy formulated additional precepts. Egyptians and Romans concurred to that school too.

NASA has been preparing a potential crew to make the trip to the Martian steppes, and even if we still lack the proper transportation to do it, a number of endurance experiments have been conducted with small groups of people. Another team has just started a six-month period of isolation in Hawaii, for instance.
Many ideas have been floated about what such a hazardous trip would consist of, including the possibility that it’d be a one-way ticket journey, meaning that the pioneering astronauts would not necessarily come back ever to Earth. A daunting prospect, indeed, but one that may have its takers.
Experiments in dieting, self-renewed sustenance, revolutionary farming techniques, even rigorous psychological training to prevent the crew from becoming overwhelmed with boredom, or worse, have followed. A variety of styles in new spacesuits are also in the works, from Barbarella to Buzz Lightyear, with all the bells and whistles that not even Ray Bradbury had dreamed of.
The latest of a long series of hypothesis and proposals to maximize a trip to Mars represents a novel idea and has a particular appeal to at least 50 percent of humankind: the possibility of sending a crew of mostly, if not solely, women to Mars. One assumes, on a round-trip basis, though.
The proposal is surprisingly not new, as NASA did consider sending a woman as the first human in space, an idea whose time was then still to come, but that now may be just ripe. The rationale has little to do with gender politics and a lot with caloric intake and preservation.

For such a long, perilous, and expensive journey – a price tag has been conservatively estimated to be about $450 billion – weight becomes a serious consideration. And a woman’s body does weight less in average than a man’s, consumes Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Misappropriating the News, Colltalers

If you want to be remotely informed about what’s going on in the world, do yourself a favor and do not watch any of the major 24-hour news channels this week or ever. For a truly educated view about our times, you may have to do a little research of your own.
In fact, a half hour of what passes as news these days is enough to completely misinform you. Most of what you see is not news and what’s going on around us remains as under reported as it used to be before modern communications became so prevalent.
These two pieces of gratuitous, and mostly unsolicited, advice may run counter all you’ve heard about the need to stay current of global affairs, pay attention to the issues that affect you life, and be able to hold a coherent conversation about your place in this world.
It’s particularly regrettable, and even dangerous, to the young, assigned to be news cognizant by their well-meaning teachers. So much hearsay and opinion disguised as facts can pose a risky proposition when handed to minds still lacking a fully developed critical vein.
In the long run, however, it’s our own collective loss, as such a massive mix of hysteria, conjecture, assumptions, and celebrity gossip, has quite a deleterious effect on society’s psyche, to the point of saturation, or worse, feelings of complete impotence before reality.
But mind you, there’s more to it than a pure drive to raise ratings and advertising dollars, which is the business model of all contemporary mainstream media outlets. Beyond that, there’s also a Machiavellian manipulation of people’s expectations and attitudes.
Joseph Goebbels comes to mind, as even the choice of headlines, concocted for maximum efficiency either at pulling heartstrings or emptying pockets, has the built-in ulterior motive of forcing your eye to the effects and diverting your attention from the causes.
It’s all designed to maintain control over people’s impulses and to clamp down on their arguably innate willingness to seek the truth. Along the sheer monetary value of turning masses into herd, there’s the allure of power, of being atop the heap, dictating what’s next.
Before we get too preachy, though, let’s do some housekeeping and admit, right upfront, that Colltales and million bloggers alike, also have a shared responsibility in blurring the frontiers between fact and opinion. And if anything, Continue reading

The Have Nothings

Ten Bullets in the
Chamber of Inequality

Thousands of bloggers worldwide are posting stories about inequality today. Oxfam International has partnered with the annual Blog Action Day to boost a global discussion on glaring social contrasts affecting 7-billion plus of your fellow beings. Wherever you are on Earth, you know exactly what that’s all about.
We’ve chosen a popular format, the Top Ten List, and the world’s most powerful country for context. Far from comprehensive, however, no number of bullet points can explain why the haves have accumulated so much more than the have nots. Here’s what we’ve come up with so far.
BUDGET CUTS – Americans have yet another reason to be startled lately: the Ebola virus which, even if not quite the epidemic the media has been painting it, it’s still enough to worry. National Institute of Health’s Dr. Francis Collins offered a sound theory for why we’re having such a hard time controlling its spread, and treating the infected. Development of an Ebola vaccine has been hampered by years of budget cuts for scientific research. If it’s happening with the health scare du jour, picture what’s going on with more basic research, on illnesses affecting many more people. Funding for war, on the other hand, has continued to grow. That’s inequality.
FEDERAL JOBS – When politicians want to sound competent, they talk about balancing the budget. But it’s never implied what that really means: firing teachers, cops, firefighters, postal workers, i.e., those who serve the majority in this country, their families and children. With less of them having a decent paycheck to live on and provide to their own, more of us have to do their jobs ourselves, in a vicious cycle that only affects the middle to low classes. Since the rich can afford to hire private help, that’s inequality.
CONGRESS SALARIES – Last time the government was shut down, most of its activities were kept to a minimum, if not in a temporary freeze. Except salaries taxpayers pay their representatives – an average of $174,000 a year, never mind housing, living expenses, and the best health care available. Since the median American household income is $50,000, that is, my friends, inequality.
WEALTH RATIO – Speaking of it, a widely accepted way to measure it is the wealth to household income ratio. Now, according to a Credit Suisse report, it’s the highest it’s been since, wouldn’t you know it?, the Great Depression was about to crush America. Even the bank thinks that can’t be good. In ‘other’ news, the richest 1 percent now owns 48 percent of all the world’s wealth. We know, we were only focusing on the U.S. but just couldn’t help it. Mainly because, you guessed it, it’s inequality too.
WALL STREET EARNINGS – Which brings us ‘home,’ to the gilded realm of financial institutions, the same ones that brought the world to the brink of collapse with their 2008 excesses. As it turns out, they’re all doing quite well, thanks for not asking. In fact, the earnings season that’s just started may be one for the books, but it’s OK if you see, say, JPMorgan Chase, the biggest one, posting a $5.6 billion net income, and feel a little queasy. They literally broke the bank, got a taxpayer bailout, no CEO went to jail, and now are posting quarterly earnings in the billions; those folks sure know how to party in Lower Manhattan, and that, you working stiffs, is inequality.
CORPORATE TAXES - As one of the 243 million U.S. taxpayers, you know that the probability of being audited is not negligible: the currently understaffed IRS has called back only about two million Americans to explain their taxes, in 2011, one of its lowest numbers in years. But if you were one of what the Supreme Court considers people too, a big corporation, chances are, you wouldn’t be called at all. That’s because many of them don’t pay taxes. Even those that do, like Boeing, DuPont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, GE, and Dow Chemicals, of their combined profit realized between 2008 and 2010, each American got back the grand total of a penny in taxes.
WOMEN’S EQUAL PAY & RACIAL GAP – One can argue that structural and systemic flaws can often be a bigger factor in denying every citizen his or her due in society than race and class. But the fact that a woman still earns 77 cents for every dollar a man makes, doing the same work, and unemployment, imprisonment, and illiteracy, are higher for African-Americans is simply too overwhelming to ignore. While the wealth gap between white and black families nearly tripled from $85,000 in 1984 to $236,500 in 2009, according to the not-too-trusted Wikipedia, if you’re black AND a woman, things are even bleaker. A recent report cites bigger barriers to accessing care and healthy lifestyles, higher infant mortality, and fewer insured among both black and Hispanic women compared to whites. That’s a double yummy of race and class conspiring against the new majority of Americans. And that’s inequality. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Debate of Little Substance, Colltalers

Poor old Chris: since the 1960s, he never seems to catch a break. Every year a new spark adds flame to the bonfire and demotion of the Columbus legacy lore. From intrepid conquistador, ‘first global man,’ to the greatest agent of ethnic cleansing in modern history.
In truth, debate over the discovery of America (actually, what’s now Bahamas, but never mind), 522 years ago yesterday, is now more nuanced, and his legacy, a bit better understood. Seattle, though, couldn’t wait: Oct. 12 is now Indigenous People’s Day.
That it rarely falls on that particular day (as a movable holiday, it’s marked on the second Monday of the month) is not the point. The movement to turn it into a celebration of the millions of natives who perished when the Genovese landed in the Caribbean island has gained momentum worldwide and other places are expected to redefine the day according to a new understanding of that.
Revisionism aside, though, political correctness not always work on hindsight and often tends to turn a well worn tradition into an incoherent travesty, with no bearing either to the historical record or justice to the figure itself. In the case of Columbus, however, it makes sense reassessing the myth, add context, and reestablish a narrative that may serve a higher purpose.
Despite Seattle’s early move, though, today will likely proceed as planned, following a familiar pattern of most American holidays: parades, political grandstanding, shopping, and B-B-Qs. And time off, of course, which for many won’t even be part of the bargain.
This year, the official story was assailed from the left field, by a respected discipline, unrelated to the controversy: underwater archeology. Last May, a team of ocean explorers thought they had found the shipwreck of Columbus’s flagship, the Santa Maria, off the coast of Haiti. If further studies would confirm it, this could revive the dog-eared holiday with a fresh paint of wonder.
But it wasn’t to be. U.N. investigators have proven that the carcass was of much more recent vessel. Copper nails, found at the site, were exactly the ones sinking the theory for good, since at the Italian mariner’s time, shipbuilding would use iron nails, not copper.
More: at least one historian, American-Portuguese Manuel Rosa, is now questioning even the belief that the Santa Maria ever sank. To him, the ship was hauled onto the Haitian shore, used to house sailors left behind by Columbus, and later, burned down.
Even if neither of these findings relates to the ongoing cultural and political revaluation of the sailor – who supposedly lost his way to ‘the Indias,’ and the lucrative spice markets of Asia, but found a spanking new world – globalization and its woes certainly has.
What was expected to be the end of border wars and the creation of a global market of all goods produced by mankind to benefit all corners of the world, with free trade and exchange of knowledge and riches among all, became another nightmare of even greater contrasting realities between the mega rich and the miserably poor. Worse: it’s accentuated a hundredfold racial and ethnic hatred.
The arrival of Christopher Columbus to a new continent – strangely not named after him, Continue reading