Curtain Raiser

The Earth Moves; We Hurt, Colltalers

The mega earthquake that hit Nepal Saturday has already triggered a familiar set of obvious realizations, callous statements, and the usual few insights that could potentially make a difference going forward, but most likely will soon be ignored by all.
We’re sure that those who can help, will, and in fact, we wish to express our sadness and solidarity with the ones having their time of reckoning. But we can’t help it but see a worn out sequence of reactions about to play out as it has many times before.
As aftershocks and the search for victims continue, news coverage will be centered on the devastation and on calls for international aid in the weeks ahead, with the occasional proverbial digression about the unpredictability of natural disasters.
Not to be flippant, but one can be sure that there’ll be wall-to-wall reporting, dramatic rescue footage, and the customary show of human solidarity, which is authentic but fits a bit too snugly into the calculated media approach to this kind of tragedy.
And just as predictably, a few weeks down the road, news organizations are bound to switch gears, and divert our attention elsewhere – in all likelihood, to something tragic as well. For all but those directly affected by the quake, it’ll be a new morning.
For the Nepalese, of course, this darkest of the nights will remain just as bleak and insufferable for months and possibly years. Just as it happened in 1934, when the slightly more powerful Nepal-Bihar earthquake killed an estimated 17,000 people.
Casualties may be higher this time around. While it remains one of the world’s poorest countries, just as it was in the 1930s, Nepal’s population has swelled to 28-million people, almost six times what it was then, in a mostly chaotic and inordinate growth.
If there’s a parallel to Nepal’s quagmire it is, unfortunately, equally impoverished Haiti. The 2010 quake killed 200 thousand of its 10 million population, despite being less powerful than the one in Asia, and five years later, some parts of the country still look as if it it all happened yesterday. $10 billion in international aid has seemingly sunk in the open sewages of capital Port-au-Prince.
We’ll purposely skip over the aforementioned grandstanding we’re condemned to witness in times of grief and human misery, but let’s see what kind of non-obvious insights we can gather, without pontificating too much on someone else’s worst nightmare.
First, there’s the glaring irony that Mount Everest and the Himalayas, de facto drivers of Nepal’s economy, are also where a major earthquake seems to take place every 80 years or so. The giant mountains grow four millimeters annually exactly because of the unbelievable pressure between two tectonic plates under the Kathmandu Valley rubbing against each other for millions of years.
But that’s the inevitable part of the equation. Overpopulation, poor construction standards, and simply lack of urban planning, on the other hand, are at least technically, not as inevitable. Then again, considering the world’s current income distribution, Continue reading

The Third Rock

Why on Earth This Planet
Would Need Only One Day?

Let’s get this out of the way: I dislike Earth Day. It wasn’t always that way, but now some sort of sanctimony is definitely attached to it, and it gives me the creeps. So much so that I’m forced to write on the first-person, as if my opinion is even remotely required.
Still, I’m not knocking the merits of having a day, a focus to draw attention to what now seems more than ever a lost cause. After all, prior to its inception in 1970, the date had a noble origin, as it used to be celebrated as Arbor Day since the late 1800s.
But after 45 years, Earth Day means a lot of things that I despise about our species. And weeks before it, I always find myself wishing that the planet would react against all we’ve done to it, and get rid of us already. I’m sure it’d stand a better chance of surviving.
Not just this speeding piece of blue rock, but every other being living on it. For the more I read about depleted resources and long-term damage, regardless if by land or if by sea, the closer I get to capitulation: to hell with us and our self-appointed (and illegitimate) ownership title over Earth.
It’s your right to disagree, of course, and if the subject is threatening to overcome you with doubt and grief, feel free to join the parties set all over the world to mark the occasion. I hear that some people may even wear flowers in their hair, just like as it was back then.

But just a shallow skimming of environmental news from the past few years (not even an eye blink if you were a planet) is enough to give me a hangover and getting me back under covers for the day. What else can I say? somehow, sometimes, I just can’t handle it.
Have you heard of the very last male Northern White Rhino, that’s been under a 24/7 watch by armed Kenyan guards? Well, just ask how much those rangers make, and you may guess how much the rhino will last. What about the current rate of 100 African elephants killed a day?
Both species are being felled by the estimated $1 billion a year ivory trade, which also victimizes other animals, and produces absolutely no essential goods whatsoever. It only feeds vanity, luxury, and the stupid myth that it boosts male sexual prowess. Dignity, where art thou?

Just on cue, Elizabeth Kolbert won this week the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction with ‘The Sixth Extinction,’ which analyses in depth the role of mankind in the elimination of the largest number of species in the planet since the Dinosaur age.
That we’re driving so many species to extinction is clear to anyone not currently sponsored by the Koch brothers. But what’s staggering about this realization is that since the previous mass die-off, 65 million years ago, one of the last species to show up is already responsible to commanding the next.
In this terrifying context, it makes absolutely no sense for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

These Rights Are Our Rights, Colltalers

In less than two years since Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA documents revealing a vast, global network for citizen surveillance, orchestrated by the agency and aided by some of the biggest social media companies, the issue never stopped being red hot.
It’s getting even hotter with antitrust charges filed Wednesday by the European Union against Google, two cybersecurity House bills with major implications to individual privacy being debated this week, and the outlook for reauthorization of the Patriot Act in June.
On the surface, these developments may seem unrelated, but they’re part of a common, fundamental discussion over our stand as a free society. Or whether a shady government agency or private enterprises should have unrestricted to individuals’ personal data.
Since Snowden’s disclosures, it became clear that the NSA has engorged its ability to collect data on anyone around the world, with help from both powerful social networks and an outdated, faulty legislation. That, and of course, the widespread paranoia about terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11. No wonder that tragedy is often invoked whenever basic individual rights are about to be violated.
It goes beyond that; the false dilemma between security vs. privacy has been the preferred argument to increase government powers to spy on citizens’ private affairs. The whole concept of intelligence has been somewhat thwarted to privilege secretive, circumstantial gathering of information over the larger context of the civil right of individuals and groups to assembly and dissent.
That’s why the EU’s suit is commendable, as it addresses a nefarious side-effect of the Internet age: corporate access to personal data. Yes, it wouldn’t be possible for them to have such access if users wouldn’t have given them all for free, Continue reading

Kicking Tires

How We May Spend Our Lives
Before Something Else Happens

Socrates got it. A great number of scientists get it. Even Christians, Muslims and Jews often get it too. Most of what we do from the moment we wake up to the moment we go back to bed is a disguised effort to shield us from one thought: we’ll all going to die, regardless if in fifty years or right after we finish this anguishing sentence.
But cheer up; such desire of winning over the inexorable impermanence of our days on Earth may only lend meaning to our achievements as a species. From forming a family to building a tower, from writing books to curing diseases, we’ll all outlive our flesh and blood by the sheer reach of our deeds, and the ability to live on through our kin.
While our faith in the future is conditioned by what we choose to believe, either being the elaborate dogma of religion, or the unwavering pursuit of a notable life, we’ve been around the block a few times to know when such beliefs are enough to give our lives depth, and when such invisible power ceases to have any relevance.
It’s futile to complain about the brevity of our time here. Much wiser is to contemplate the miseries of the human body when it grows old and frail and sick. For our experience to last longer, we can always borrow that of those who came before, and turn them into our own shared Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Short Memory & Data Overload, Colltalers

The digital technology explosion has given a boost to the U.S.’s self-appointed ‘leader of the world’ role . But that’s been quickly undermined by the dizzying multiplication of means to capture information, which have far outpaced any ability of processing it.
This collision of mere data collecting with its purpose has also widen the gap between what needs to be historically kept, and what gives meaning and relevance to our collective memory. The past week may have further enhanced this disconnect in the U.S.
Take last Wednesday’s revelation, for instance, that the Justice Department and Drug Enforcement Administration secretly collected billions of calls, anticipating in years the NSA’s even more massive surveillance program that mirrored it. But they did not prevent 9/11 from happening.
Or the 150th anniversary, on April 9th, of the end of the Civil War – by sheer number of casualties, the bloodiest American conflict so far – and slavery, just a few days after the shooting and killing of yet another unarmed black man by a white policeman.
But the news cycle also offered another perspective, as to how society can turn to memory and information to either bastardize or change its future: the handshake between President Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro may have buried half a century of bad connections.
The digital revolution, continuously spitting gigabytes of pseudo-free information at us, gives us the illusion of knowledge and control, but it’s actually designed to cloud what we see, by simply dumping on us impossible amounts of encrypted data we have little use for. That is, if we’re not part of a rising elite of manipulators, who maneuvers and makes decisions based on just such an impossibility.
No matter how vast and particularly cruel an episode of massive loss or extermination, of ethnic cleansing or methodic murdering, may be, there’s always been the risk that beyond the few generations directed affected by it, oblivion and forgetfulness would set in.
That danger still exists today. While the reminder of the Holocaust, for instance, is now more accessible to everyone than ever, and its memory is constantly reinforced by historical account and even more data, many remain ignorant, or worse, doubtful of it.
But either before or since it, we’ve already experienced and forgotten the unspeakable massacre of millions or just a few dozen, with the same easy as we page through the Internet and find information about an ancestor. Most likely, we do it by specific agency towards it, or pure luck, rather than by the source availability at our fingertips. There’s a lot of data out there but it mainly blind us to it all.
Speaking of fading memory of atrocities, Kaname Harada, a 94-year old former pilot of the feared Imperial Japan’s Zero squadron, now spends his days telling new generations about the horrors of war. People in their 50s had no clue about what he’s been talking about. His mission is to fight the alarming signs that Japanese leaders are preparing to change the country’s pacifist constitution.
We offer that such insidiousness is more poisonous than forgetfulness, or death of everyone directly related to an event, which used to afflict those who came before. To some of the living today, the world’s only six thousand years old, just as bible fanatics would want everyone else to believe, and there’s no way that some contemporary conflicts are just perennial reenactments of medieval grudges.
This is the age of more available data that can possibly be processed, so we tend to deputize our memories to digital robots, which actually follow their own, separate agenda. The result is not that we lack the data, but Continue reading

The Standards

Songs That Make You Long For
What You’ve Hardly Experienced

For the generation that grew up during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, a lot of what it was determined to break free from was the placidity, conformity, and political conservatism of the U.S. in the 1950s. The rock’n’roll explosion only made that rupture more visible.
But there was a world that preceded it, marked by two wars, where ideological conflict, social hardship, and technological impact, helped shape a musical tradition that proved itself as one of the greatest cultural achievements of our era: the American Standards.
2015 may turn out to be a landmark year, as milestone anniversaries are bound to shed light on such a rich tradition and its main protagonists. Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, and Frank Sinatra, are just but three of such luminaries who would’ve been 100 this year.
And so would Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Les Paul, all giants on their own, whose association with early country, blues, and jazz insert them, permanently, into the mainstream of American music. But it was the deceptively lowly popular song format what helped usher the Standards into an art form.
To many, the addition of Eastern European Jewish melodies, the Klezmer and other Gipsy traditions, to rhythms and syncopations of African tribal beats, converging for two centuries to the U.S., was what created the two main streams of American music, Blues and Jazz. The Great American Songbook is a worthy heir to those two.
It was also a rare combination of a few generations of extremely talented composers and musicians, with race and immigrant blood running in their veins, that took advantage of a nascent record industry, and offered the perfect antidote to the bleakness and economic despair of the early 1900s in the just industrialized world.

Armed conflicts helped spread that sense of urgency – French songbird Édith Piaf would also be 100 this year – with vaudeville, music hall, variety theater, and a general cultural miscegenation of sorts, all fit snugly into 3-minute songs that encapsulated a badly needed sense of hope for the era.
Even though such gems were not exclusively American, it was in the U.S. that the genre thrived and produced some of the most memorable and enduring melodies and lyrics ever written in English. Then, they were supposed to be about escapism and romance. Now, they can be enjoyed for their distilled wisdom and artistry.
Which is odd, since those Tin Pan Alley composers were working overtime to meet an inflated demand for hits. But what their produced then, under pressure, now betrays none of the rush with which they were writing them at that time; the craftsmanship of some of these songs still has few peers compared with much of those that came after.
The songwriters created an alternative universe, where longing, redemption, and the allure of romance is always within reach, even when they refuse to concede the singer the grace of happiness and fulfillment. At times, the world these songs promise or allude to was the only world worth living for, even if only for a few minutes.

Lovers who wished to be reunited with their dears, warriors whose losses made them cry silently for the first time, common people who saw their world coming apart right in front of their eyes, found comfort in these lyrics that invite them to dance, to dream, and to remain hopeful for another shot at life.
Thankfully, the great majority of American Standards stayed clear of any exacerbated patriotism or xenophobic Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Talk’s Mightier Than Nukes, Colltalers

Only in these irrational, defense-dominated, paranoid-inducing times a peaceful agreement, which all but guarantees a commitment by a major Middle East player of not enriching weapons-grade uranium, would still be at risk of not being endorsed by the U.S. Congress.
For it’s been an arduous battle to get Iran to even discuss giving up its nuclear ambitions, while strife-prone Pakistan and India next door are allowed to keep their own programs alive, not to mention Israel, which remains adamantly against any such accord, period.
But so it’s the nature of foreign relations in our time, as they tend to belittle diplomatic efforts and overstate the efficacy of warfare. While the latter has been failing over and over, and costing lives and billions, the former is greeted with derision and given limited credence.
Despite such poor record controlling the ever growing, and unrestrained, aggression plaguing the region, the military defense complex and global weapons industry seem to always have undue influence over what ultimately prevails in that part of the world.
With their most staunch allies residing in the Republican Party-controlled American congress, there’s been already a call to arms for mobilization of the best lobbyists money can buy to undermine this latest attempt at finding lasting stability in the Middle East.
No one questions that a race to proliferate weapons of mass destruction would be catastrophic to the 200 million-plus living on that already gigantic powder keg. And that any prospect to prevent it from happening would necessarily pass through an Iranian accord.
So, apart for the well-founded but mainly emotional fears expressed by Israel, the only other major factor playing against a diplomatic solution in the region comes from the industry whose own raison d’être is threatened by just such a phase out of armed conflicts.
President Obama, who’s received praise for having kept at it when skeptics had given up on the cause, is already engaged in ‘selling’ the just-signed agreement to the world, as flawed Continue reading