Curtain Raiser

Things We Don’t Understand, Colltalers

The struggle to wrap our minds around multiple, escalating conflicts in the world today can trick us into embracing questionable assumptions, so to cut corners and arrive quickly at a deeply delusional position: that of being the ones dolling out judgement and decisions over the lives of millions.
As unsustainable as such a stand is, is the growing list of things we simply can’t understand. We’re not talking about big themes here, hunger, poverty, even war. Humbly, we’d like to focus today on only three of the many baffling things that we have no grasp of in contemporary America.
We don’t know how can a movement exist for a new armed intervention in Iraq, given not just what’s already happened but what’s actually happening in that scorched region. Second, we have no clue how come polls point to a GOP victory in the November elections, regaining the Senate and keeping the House, when the party’s been in the wrong side of history lately in pretty much every conceivable modern issue.
And, lastly, we confess our ignorance of what made the Obama Administration endorse the use of air guns for seismic exploration of oil and gas in the Atlantic, preparing the way for drilling off the Eastern seaboard, considering the proven damage these blasts cause to marine mammals and, for crying out loud and for the one hundredth million time, our urgent need to stop prospection and use of petroleum-based fuel for energy.
Admittedly, these three, almost randomly selected issues, pale in comparison with what’s going on Gaza, for instance. We’re watching hopelessly killing and destruction verging on genocide, arguably smaller in scale but not unlike what we unfortunately grew used to seeing happening in Africa.
We could be talking about Boko Haram’s relentless campaign of terror in Nigeria and even across the border, specially against women as they’ve just kidnapped the wife of Cameroon’s vice prime minister, which is still horrible but surprising, considering their usual slant towards teenage girls.
Or Ukraine, Russia, Syria, Afghanistan. Never mind war, what about the Ebola outbreak in Serra Leone and surroundings? Under such rationale, whatever our self-delusional fancy strikes, offering our take about every issue known to man, is fair game. But we can’t subscribe to any of that.
Further into this digression, that’s why our choice of themes is as unpredictable as events randomly develop, so not to preach and also to pick our fights as we go. That is, if you can even call it a fight the act of just writing about what goes on around, within the safe confines of one’s secluded cave.
Back to those three puzzles, how can we even discuss another intervention in Iraq, after spending a decade wrecking the country, spilling the blood of over 4,400 Americans, plus hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, besides maiming a combined several hundred thousands, and wasting close to a trillion dollars in costs, by conservative estimates? All to see the ancient conflict between Sunnis and Shiites to be reawaken over and over again.
The invasion of Iraq, based on lies concocted by the Bush administration, its media cronies, and an at least one unquestioning ally, the U.K., was a tragedy not just in terms of human and material costs, but also for squandering the brief world support the U.S. got after the 9/11 attacks, and taking away for good the now discredited perception of us always picking the moral side of human rights and the rule of the law on global issues.
It’s also infuriating when a ghoul such as the previous U.S. vice president, who promoted a criminal, self-serving agenda on behalf of a nation too stunned to act on its own volition, reappears now, unapologetic as ever, craving for the bully pulpit he once occupied with particular cruelty.
Speaking on not being on the human side, how can a number of polls indicate with such conviction that in the midterm elections, the Republican Party is set to regain  Continue reading

Who’s the Ass Now?

But They Blow Up
Donkeys, Don’t They?

When news broke in Gaza that the Israeli army had blown up a donkey, claiming it had been loaded with explosives by Hamas, it’s likely that few thought much of it. After all, way before Jesus got to Jerusalem mounting one, animals have been butchered for the sake of humans.
But for reasons that have little to do with biblical tales, and a lot with the way life cheapens at the sight of a gun barrel, a disturbing poignancy about such a minor casualty refuses to remain unnoticed, at least for those not concerned about their immediate survival.
That’s us, if you wonder. For while some may say that exposure to horror, to too much blood and gory, desensitizes and freezes our empathetic bones, we too refuse to swallow the brutality, however common, if only to vainly assert to ourselves that we haven’t gone completely numb. Not yet, anyway.
Horses, a better regarded member of the family, have had big roles in wars, of course, dutifully used to transport, terrorize, conquer, and run away from whatever human tragic folly is at hand. And so have elephants, camels, dogs, birds, pigs, rats, dolphins, and sea lions. All forced to slave and soldier on even where humans fear to tread. By the way, cats apparently refused to be enlisted.
But jackasses, or mules or burros or jennies or, well, you get the gist, despite their lower ranking, have been used mainly for work, not to be treated as bomb mule, pardon the pun. They have in fact this almost beatific status among impoverished communities around the world, to which they serve and are vital.
Asses are smart too, according to Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Speaking of Known Evils, Colltalers

The two brutal events that have seized worldwide headlines this past week – the newest flareup in the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the downing of the Malaysian commercial airline over Ukraine – have visited their victims with the prospect of a lifetime of grief and regret.
To everyone else not directly involved, however, even a qualified analysis of these tragedies can become a minefield of self-important punditry and rancorous radicalism. To navigate such a path with a minimal sense of justice and impartiality is simply no longer an option.
The magnitude of these events have also the ability of covering up, even if only for the duration of a 24h news cycle, all other tragic, ongoing miseries festering around the world, from the street trenches of Aleppo, to raging firefights in Kabul, to the Central American refugee children crisis in the U.S., to widespread hunger, poverty, and environmental woes that won’t fail to exact their grim tolls, just because we aren’t looking.
After all, it is all too human to prioritize our attention, and set sights on a few targets at a time. That doesn’t exempt or redeem anyone from the objectionable crime of dozing off or zooming out of the catastrophes all around us, so to get some sleep, literally or figuratively.
But even invoking the word human seems out of place, when you think about the ferocious shelling of Gaza, incited or provoked as it may have been by the Hamas or the Israeli extreme right, or to count among the victims of Flight MH17, dozens of children and important AIDS activists.
That’s when tragedy crushes our tenuous grip on reality and reaches out to a realm of pure, unjustifiable and hopelessly irredeemable terror, and any attempt to make sense out of ruthless fate or shameless political motivation is not just utterly naive, but also absolutely abhorrent.
We can’t avoid rushing to judgement based on the emotional jolt we all felt upon learning that some 300 travelers may have been blown out of the sky by mistake, at the very least, or because of some downright evil calculation. Nor can we stop ourselves from jumping at possibly the wrong conclusions when picturing people running for shelter in Tel Aviv, or trapped in Gaza, with no way to hide from the raining bombs.
Taken apart, however, these two sources of incredible heartache gracing our thoughts today have little in common, beside their complexity and deep roots. And, obviously, the apparent lack of any short term solution in the horizon, which signals to their long lasting endurance.
To avoid jumping at rushed conclusions about Israel and the Palestinians, one needs to look farther back into the past. It’s hard to pick a breaking point, though, Continue reading

Fallen Boys


Where Children Are
Killed & No One Cares

The original, moving tribute to Ahed Atef Bakr, Zakaria Ahed Bakr, Mohamed Ramez Bakr, and Ismael Mohamed Bakr, ages 8 to 10, killed by Israel’s shells at Gaza, was done by Israeli artist Almir Shiby.
We took the liberty of including the heartbreaking picture of the grief stricken father of one of the boys, taken by Hosam Salem. If nothing is done to stop this carnage, we’re all guilty by association.

Curtain Raiser

Joy & World Woes By the Cup Full, Colltalers

The monthlong 2014 World Cup, which closed in Rio yesterday with Germany’s victory over Argentina, had its fair share of ecstasy, agony, fulfillment and heartbreak. As it goes, it also reflected, with frightening accuracy at times, the troubled and deeply divided world we all live in.
For even before it started on June 12, it’d already collected a number of ominous signs revealing more than its organizers, Fifa and the Brazilian confederation, would like us to see, about brutal realities hidden just behind the exuberance of the game of football in modern times.
Good and bad, the cup will leave lasting impressions, as any event of such magnitude, memories to recollect, lessons we’d better not forget, and an index of sorts for some of the most nefarious and persistent ills of our age.
Displays of racism, homophobia, neo-nazism, evidence of social exclusion in game attendance, ticket fraud, corruption of national confederations, violence in and out of the field, it was all out for anyone to see.
As the host, Brazil led the charge, and last summer, as the warm-up competition Confederations Cup was in progress, Brazilians staged the first massive rallies since the end of the military dictatorship, in the 1980s, in protest against Fifa and the government’s preparations for the cup.
By then, it’d become clear that in the five years since Brazil had been chosen to host both tournaments, huge investments supposed to fund them and flood the economy had already been diverted. On the ground, the only palpable sign of their influx was in the construction or rebuilding of mammoth stadiums, some of them in cities without a team in the Brazilian soccer league, and, it was found later, mainly funded by taxpayer money.
So where was their money? asked thousands of citizens. It’d certainly not gone to Brazil’s decaying infrastructure, hospital facilities, or in the building of much needed schools. Such an explosive realization, which served as the trigger for the rallies that ebbed and flowed up to the World Cup this year, got then a temporarily relief, relatively speaking, as Brazil won the Confederations. Now that it lost the big prize, it’s all up for grabs again.
When a group of German black-faced fans showed up for the game against Ghana, or another one ran into the field with a Nazi SS tattooed on his body, their intentions were clear. And so were chants of ‘monkey, monkey,’ and a homophobic call from Mexican supporters during other games.
Brazil’s social inequality was also exposed during the cup. Critics pointed to high price tickets as one way to keep the poor out of the stadiums, and for the predominance of white Brazilians attending the games, in higher percentages than the social and racial mix of the nation’s demographics.
Such social divide was at display in the ‘silent army‘ of garbage pickers, hired by the organizers to collect and sort the average five ton of garbage generated by every game. As hundreds of thousands of Brazilians already make a living out of ‘mining’ landfills, in a country with few recycling programs, their presence was considered a positive one, even if it doesn’t cover up for the inherent indignity of the have-nots’ lot in life.
Another black eye that may be credited to cup organizers is the alleged elimination of stray dogs from the streets of some host cities in Brazil. Just as it happened in Sochi, Russia, the Humane Society has received reports of the animals being ’rounded up and removed,’ no one knows to where.
But the biggest scandal that broke during the games has been the allegations that a company partner of Fifa, Match Hospitality, was running a giant ticket scalping scheme, worth a few million dollars. Brazilian authorities arrested its CEO, Raymond Whelan, who promptly escaped custody and is now the target of a police manhunt. Despite denials, Fifa is expected to answer to an official investigation into the ring.
Fifa is also involved in two other somewhat revealing matters: the suspension of the Nigerian team from international appearances, until the government reinstates the entire soccer governing staff that it fired for poor performance in Brazil. And a copyright dispute with giant Hispanic broadcast system Univision.
In both instances, lack of sensitivity and the zeal protecting its interests were typical. In the case of Nigeria, despite the expected venal government truculence, it’s hard to find winners in the decision, since the players are the ones ultimately punished by it. As for Univision, well, that’s big enough of a corporation that certainly doesn’t need us to take its side, regardless of who has the most rights over the labor exercised by, again, the players.
It all sounds minor, compared to what Fifa has been accused by community groups, from supporting the displacing of thousands to install its ‘Fan Fests,’ Continue reading

You May Cry Now, Argentina

Germany Beats Messi & Co.,
Takes World Cup #4 to Europe

Mario Goetz came out of the bench to score one of the most beautiful goals of the tournament – and certainly the most meaningful – to give Germany a win over stunned Argentina and its thousands of fans, who simply can’t believe how close they’ve got and still lost it all at the end.
It happened at the 113th minute of July 13th, for those keeping track of that sort of thing, and it did establish the Germans as the best football squad in the world. To Argentina, and Messi in particular, the 28 years wait for a third championship just got extended, and new questions will surely arise about his performance with the Albiceleste.
World Cup 2014 LogoIn a typical final, tense, nervous-wrecking, and unpredictable, Germany prevailed at the precise moment when the Argentines seemed to be getting psychologically ready for a penalty shootout. A number of misses throughout the game did corroborate such assumption, which obviously, proved to be tragically misguided.
For everything they’ve done during this World Cup, and for the extensive, ground-up efforts they’ve invested in soccer at home, the Germans more than deserved to win. Such efforts contrast dramatically with the almost chaotic state of the sport in many South American nations, including Argentina and Brazil.
Just so not to wrapped up this quick review with the mention of the hosts, Germany has won everything they’ve set to win in this cup, not just for the sheer discipline and rigor of their style of playing, but also by the sportsmanship they’ve displayed on the field and outside of it, as witnessed by the local press and through social networks.
They were exceedingly dignified and gentle with those they’ve defeated (everyone on their path, by the way, and you know who you are), and one of the teams that committed the least amount of faults too. So much for nice guys finishing last. Good job, Germany, we all have a lot to learn from you.

Continental Divide

Argentina Faces Germany
For World Cup Supremacy

So it comes down to this: two equally storied world class soccer nations will decided on the field of Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, which one is the best World Cup team, version 2014. They’ve both been there before and either Argentina will add its third title or Germany its fourth.
No matter how many errors referees have made throughout the tournament, or whether this or that result was or wasn’t fair. As it happens, the competition does tend to pick the best teams, and it’s no coincidence that either one of these two has reached the final.
World Cup 2014 LogoThey’ve also met before, splitting decisions in 1986, when Maradona lifted the trophy, and 1990, when Germany got it back, coached by former champion Beckenbauer. Apart from that, the Albiceleste has a chance to equalize the record between Europe and South America wins, now standing at 10X9.
It’s out of the question to pick a favorite. Germany, with its fluid style and a lethal strike line of Muller, Klose, Kroos and Ozil, may hold the numeric edge. But with the world’s best player Messi in top form and seeking his first championship, all bets are off and Argentina may be the one to come on top.
A word of caution to the 3.5 billion expected to watch the final today: these games are not very entertaining and tend to be a context of wills and skills, with the former often prevailing over the latter. Nervous of steel and the methodical search for the opponent’s weak spot are what usually carry the day.
All one should hope for is a couple of goals right at the start, to set the pace to an urgent, feverish pitch. That should get things going fast and ignite the explosive passions we all have come to expect from football. It’s also what turns it into a beautiful game.
If that happens, it’ll be a fitting tribute to the fallen hosts of the tournament, Brazil, who burned their tickets to the final, but so many times before have gone to faraway lands and conquered somebody else’s castle. Just what Argentina and Germany plan on doing today.

The Final Insult

Netherlands’ Three-Punch
Knockout Finishes Brazil

The last possible achievement of the Brazilian national team, in the World Cup ending in Rio, was rudely snatched away by the Dutch: it gave Brazil yet another beating, 3X0, and once again left millions of fans, and a cast of players saddled with shame and sadness.
There were no redeeming qualities in the Seleção’s last stand, thoroughly trounced by a superior squad. The same that’d failed to defeat its biggest rival, Argentina, which will be playing the final against Germany. Brazilians do brace for the worst possible scenario.
World Cup 2014 LogoOnly in nightmares the country that so ambivalently embraced the cup, would have envisioned such a possibility of not being present at the big closing game, and also watching its neighbor stand a decent chance of being crowned right in its own backyard.
The Brazilian team now bidding farewell has amassed a miserable catalog of catastrophes in this edition. In a record for a semifinal game, it lost to Germany by the largest score in its history, suffered the most goals in a single tournament, and handed to them two coveted prizes: the most wins and the top scorer, Klose. More than a record, this looks like a rap sheet.
It’s now is expected to enter a long, dark night of disappointment and pain, as a new generation of brilliant players, as well as a new direction for its soccer model, will have to be nourished and nurtured long before it’ll be able to compete as an equal against other, better organized, teams. Would its five championships be next on the auction block?
Or, if you must, the beatings will continue till every point is driven home. It surely won’t happen next week, next year, and probably not even in the 2018 edition of the World Cup, in Russia. In the meantime, a little humbleness would go a long way, and it’d be useful to stop calling Brazilian football the best in the world, at least for a while.

The Forgettable Game

Brazil & Netherlands,
Would-Be Champions

Some say it’s a match for honor, but it feels more like the game to save face. Every World Cup has one of these, and every four years, it serves only as the place and time to stage the deflated feelings of 22 men whose dreams were destroyed way too close to becoming reality.
As they drag themselves to fulfill a commitment, only the die-hard and the emotionally nearsighted will believe that there’s any purpose at stake. The Dutch may have been there one too many times, and Brazilians always equated third place to a shot at being last.
World Cup 2014 LogoNevertheless they will soldier on, bless their bleeding hearts, and many a time it’s been an entertaining clash. Something to do with nothing being worth anything any longer, or really, the last display of their fighting spirit, triggered by sheer sportsmanship.
It’s doubtful that anyone in the Netherlands takes the sobriquet, ‘best nation to have never won the cup,’ with any sense of pride. Which is a pity because they really have earned it. And this time they did started it all with a bang, thrashing the world champions, Spain. It was downhill from there.
As for the Brazilians, oh they’re still hurting alright, still reeling too much to care. The moving pictures that circled the world, of fans copiously weeping after Tuesday’s massacre by Germany, are still too fresh in everybody’s mind for them to be able to wipe the slate clean and put up another battle today.
The agony that both teams endured throughout the tournament will surely last even longer, as an entire generation of brilliant Dutch players will be retiring soon, and a whole set of assumptions by Brazilians about themselves, pulverized for good, will have to be replaced by a more realistic vision for the future.
Let’s hope, though, that at least for half an hour, players will rediscover the joy of football just for the sake of its beauty, and produce if not drama, then at least a few great moments to remember. After all, it’s the last time anyone will see them playing together as such. So it’ll be fitting for them to create a dignified farewell.

Have a Ball

The World Cup Next
Door & From Far Afield

Brace yourself for withdrawal symptoms; it’ll be all over in just a few days. Even after all agony, nail biting till none was left, and much cursing at the TV, one can’t help it but start anticipating the crush of the end, which is nigh. The World Cup has spoiled us rot.
It may not have been the same since Team USA bowed out. It’ll be hard to see the whole U.S. so completely taken again by the explosion of cheers, jeers and untimely heartbreak, flags galore and packed bars all around. But we’re not quite done yet.
World Cup 2014 LogoWhat a difference a few cups have made. From 1990, when the sole network showing the games would break, American football style, for commercials, to now, when U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard was rumored for a possible renaming of the Reagan Airport, in Washington, DC, it feels almost like another country.
The Super Bowl would never command such an arrested crowd, but this is nothing new around the world. Even in the middle of sparsely populated regions, in public plazas and shantytowns, by desert nomads and war refugees, people still found the time to watch the games.
In Europe, such gathering by the thousands rivaled in numbers big mass rallies, but the comparison must stop right there: while those taking the streets to demand social change may get beaten, football fans risked only disappointment. Thank goodness, no hooligans to report so far. Good riddance too.

For sure, not all is like a sweet block party, plenty of cake and no guns allowed. While those are now rare in America, the World Cup still feels like an extended holiday. Disgracefully, our team won’t be at the final, but even if yours will, you’re unlikely to be spared from feeling empty either, coming Monday morning.
Thus enjoy it while it lasts. Heaven knows that people in Bagdad, in Gaza, in Damascus, and in Mogadishu, Continue reading

National Tragedy


Germany Humiliates
Brazil at Home: 7X1

To say that this was a loss would be an insult to all teams that have lost during this and previous World Cups, despite fighting their hearts out and carrying their nations’ hopes. To say that it was about Brazil is also unfair to the great German squad. It was their win to celebrate.
But what did happen on this sad afternoon in Brazil was that reality has finally caught up with the Seleção Brasileira. Not just for what it’s shown during the tournament but for past decades of completely lack of preparation from the ground up, to protect its soccer traditions.
World Cup 2014 LogoFor since it has won the World Cup only 12 years ago, not a single Brazilian club has climbed the rankings among the world’s best, despite a few wins in the Intercontinental Cup, and the state of organized sports in Brazil has only got even more appalling, from the foundations of its business model to the very own field of games.
In fact, to watch a regular Brazilian league soccer game has become one of the most unpleasant and dangerous experiences for the fans, as well as a pathetic display of incivility, with so many illegal tackles and ugly bumps, to disgust even the most fervent supporter. And the state of the stadiums only enhances such perception.
So guess what team had the record number of faults in the World Cup? Even though it isn’t alone in allowing its players to fake injury to gain benefits from the referee, Brazil has been a shameful adept of the brutality on the field, and arguably the serious injury Neymar suffered was an involuntary payback by the Colombians.
The league is also one of the unfairest, forcing well supported teams to compete, and play, in under par fields all over the enormous country, for great part of the year. Many a time, a club simply refuses to be downgraded to a lower division, using political influence and the courts in lieu of the lack of quality of its soccer.

INGRAINED UNACCOUNTABILITY
Brazilian clubs also fester with mismanagement, corruption, traffic of influence, and behind-the-scenes deals with empresarios, who treat promising players like commodities and reap considerable, and mostly unreported, wealthy out of trading them to foreign leagues.
Finally, for a sport that mobilizes obscene amounts of money, club management in Brazil is mostly a cash and carry structure, with no accountability even as it’s supported by taxpayer money. Fans have little saying on the financial decisions of the clubs they support.
So, no wonder that when Brazil was chosen to host the World Cup, the first thing that was done by the Brazilian federation, CBF, was to map where the games would be played, not on the basis of infrastructure or tradition, but according to political favors owned and paid back to local bosses.
No wonder either that some of these extra multimillion dollar stadiums (at least three) that were built for the competition went over budget and will probably slowly decay Continue reading

The Pre-Final

Brazil & Germany Play
for a Place in History

So they meet again. After having never played each other in the World Cup for roughly 70 years, they made the 2002 final in Japan, with Brazil getting the best out of it. It’s taken Germany 12 years to have another crack at writing a new chapter on their competing legacies.
While for the Brazilians, that memorable night in Yokohama represented the apex of their soccer supremacy, winning a record fifth time the cup, for the Germans, there has never been a better chance than today to erase its bad taste with a victory in their opponent’s turf.
World Cup 2014 LogoThe two teams with the most wins in the competition, however, meet now under completely different circumstances. After all, this World Cup has shown a German squad with the usual resolve and efficiency, and a Brazilian one, plagued with all sorts of doubts and near misses.
While Germany has won with authority all but one of its games in the previous rounds, Brazil’s struggled to find its center, barely surviving false starts, penalty shootouts, and the catastrophic loss of its main player, Neymar. So at least on paper, the odds are in Germany’s favor.
But, without getting into that oft-told tale of science and the bumblebee, as many a Brazilian would love to remind you, in football, as in life, the best not always finishes first. Or whatever they’re telling each other as we speak, in order to keep their wits about it. For more, read below.
The vagaries of making predictions is that, even when one gets it somewhat right, it’s usually due to factors that were unknown at the time of the prediction. Stating the obvious, both teams are perfectly capable of delivering the fatal blow to each other, so we won’t be crazy to guess the winner.

Finger-Crossed Nation

With Due Respect to Germany,
If Brazil Loses It’s All Our Fault

Just about now, some 200 million Brazilians are deep into their strategic planning for Brazil vs. Germany, the game in Belo Horizonte that will define the World Cup’s first semifinalist. They are not, however, concerned about partying or commiserating afterwards.
They’ll instead be carefully deciding exactly what outfit to wear and just about every other detail related to the viewing experience, down to repeating everything they did during Brazil’s past wins. Make no mistake about it: whatever happens, they’ll feel responsible for it.
World Cup 2014 LogoThat’s how viscerally Brazilians try to take ownership of sorts over fate, when it comes to their national football team, even though for everyone else, it’s just a purely human, vain attempt to feel in charge over something that’s essentially out of anyone’s control. Good luck telling them that, though.
For that’s entirely in line with a nation that, until a few years back, used to be know for the biggest concentration of Catholics in the world, outside Italy. Such assumption sounds now as hollow as long ago demoted definitions of Brazil as a ‘racial democracy,’ or the ‘country of the future.’
The hidden truth about that old cliche was that, even as most still call themselves Christians, Afro-Brazilian cults and their deities, brought to the land by slaves, has always exerted a stronger pull over the faithful and whenever Jesus wouldn’t hear them, the Orixás would come to rescue. In doubt, most would worship both.
On top of that, since the 1970s, there’s been a dramatic increase in Messianic Evangelical faiths, that’s slowly taken hold of Brazil and now has enormous consolidated power over all aspects of society, from media ownership to political representation, which translates in massive wealth to its preachers.

TILL PRAYER (& MACUMBA) DO US APART
Using an appropriately religious expression, they’re ‘all united in faith,’ or something, anything, that will make them believe that devout ardor beats the basic randomness of nature, the one that presides over polls results, pregnancies, and of course, games of football. Somehow, these two forces always collide.
That is, unless there’s corruption, traffic of influence, and downright theft playing a part too. We honestly doubt though that it has any sway over the final stages of a competition of such a magnitude as the World Cup, however hard some may try to imply that it does. Then again, who knows?
But cliches about Brazil’s mysticism and the passion of its people for the game are but a small part Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Rise of Backward Thinking, Colltalers

There are many positive things the world identifies with America currently under attack within this country. Voting rights, citizens surveillance, separation of church and state are but a few hard-fought principles whose status as the law of the land is at risk of being demoted.
And just as a lot of ground has been covered towards civil and gay rights – enduring sources of inspiration around the globe – other fronts of backward thinking, such as opposition to public vaccination, have been opened lately, conspiring to undermine America’s beneficial influence.
For anyone who can look beyond today’s news cycle, and with a healthy ability of holding two or more thoughts at the same time, the concerns are clear: just as the brutal backlash against gay rights in Africa has been credited to a defeated minority of American religious zealots, dwindling here but influential in there, any threats to civil rights in the U.S. sends a message of intolerance and radicalism to the rest of the world.
It’s long been established that Americans’ perception of themselves is at serious odds with reality for at least a few decades, and one wonders if we are finally catching up with the fact that this nation has gone way far from the old ideals of land of opportunities and peaceful intent.
To be fair, much of this reactionary pull has been triggered by new geopolitical realities of the 21st century beyond the realm of control and reach of the U.S. But that does not exempt it from responsibility, and one could argue that recent foreign policy decisions have indeed added to it.
As glaring economic inequalities continue to breed an emergent dominant class, with deep pockets and influence in high places, even a bastion of America’s balance of power, the Supreme Court, has been hijacked by special interests and became biased towards the wealthy and the powerful.
In fact, many credit what’s now derisively referred to as ‘the Roberts Court’ as being instrumental in rewriting the rules and ridding them of any semblance of equanimity, at times, displaying a grotesque sense of justice, as when it eliminated protections of abortion clinics, for instance.
By ostensibly engaging in an one-side religious and ideological drive, the court has lost almost all credibility as the interpreter of the constitution, at a time when Congress fails to legislate anything for the common good, and the Executive acts as if it’s been locked out of the house.
Speaking of the White House, there’s indeed a widening gap between President Obama’s civil rights rhetoric and his own administration’s actions. Nowhere such contradiction has been clearer, and what side is really coming on top, than what concerns the defense of NSA’s spurious practices.
Despite new revelations, predating even Edward Snowden’s leaks, about indiscriminate surveillance of Americans and unlawful spying on foreign officials, aside the wholesale witch hunt of whistleblowers and investigative journalists, the agency continues to enjoy the president’s confidence.
But what is the most troubling about the political struggle for the hearts and minds of this nation, is that much of the debate is not about ideas but ideology, not about what’s scientifically proven, such as man-made climate change, but how it’s been sold and accepted by the American public.
Thus, for every serious study about the nefarious effects of global warming, glacier melting, extreme weather, and their impact on food supplies and Earth resources, there’s a biased, energy industry-sponsored fake counterargument, receiving equal media time, as if they were equivalent.
It seems obvious that the debate about gay rights in the U.S. is now over: the people – everyone, really – won. The right for anyone to live their lives according to their own sexual orientation has been approved by the immense majority of states and it’s on its way to cover the whole nation.
So why losers of this battle are finding new fertile grounds abroad, disseminating an ideology of hatred that’s at the roots of the violent repression of gays in several African countries? Wouldn’t it be for the fact that religion, as a political force, is still playing an oversize role in this country?
For if a company can deny health coverage based on the beliefs of its owners, not on the right of employees to receive coverage, Continue reading

Brazil Hurts


Thanks for the Memories
& Get Better Soon, Neymar

When it happened, few thought it was more than theatrics of a player whose skills with the ball are at par with his street smarts: minutes from the end of Brazil’s win over Colombia, Neymar got hit by Juan Zuniga’s knee, in a collision that fractured one of the striker’s lower back vertebrae and ended the World Cup at home for him.
World Cup 2014 LogoIt was a brutal shock for the #10 and for the Brazilian team which, to many, had already been placing too big a responsibility over his shoulders. And it happened just when the Seleção needs to pull itself together to face 3-time world champion Germany on Tuesday. In all fairness, the extremely painful but not career-ending injury, was a high price for Neymar to pay for a victory in which he was barely a factor.
Still, his absence may be a gap too large to fill. Brazil is now confronted with a dilemma that almost no one saw coming: either to overcome the odds, warts and all, and quell the virtually impossible expectations of a whole nation, with two final, redeeming victories. Or find comfort (and the perfect excuse) in falling for the circumstances, and to a worthy adversary.
In either case, both Brazil and Neymar will lose, of course, just as football in general, and this cup in particular, will miss the brilliance of a James Rodriguez, from Colombia, or of a Cristiano Ronaldo, from Portugal. Regardless; at 26, Neymar should be in top form for the 2018 games in Russia. Once again, Brazil will surely count on him. Till then, so long, get well, and thanks for the wonderful moments.

Fearsome Foursome

Europe & South America Pick
First World Cup Semifinalists

France and Germany, former champions, open the quarter finals today in Rio, to decide which is the first European team to move ahead.
World Cup 2014 LogoThe Germans, who won the last of their three cups in 1990, have had their share of travails but get to Maracanã Stadium with an intact killer instinct, as far as striker Muller is concerned. Also, as the core of this team has played together for at least four years, their collective will and tradition to overcome challenges may be a tough sell for the Blues.
France, which since its own win in Paris, in 1998, has been a shadow of its former glory, seems to have reawaken a fighting spirit badly misused in 2006, and completely lost four years ago in South Africa. For the French, this has been Benzema’s cup to win, and he’s a serious contender to the tournament’s top scorer.
Brazil and Colombia match skills for the first time in the World Cup, in Fortaleza. As with the Europeans, there’s no favorite to move forward.
The Colombians may have the edge, though, for their exuberant style of playing and the skills of 22-year old James Rodriguez, who leads the board of the competition, with five goals. He may as well have the game of a lifetime today. With a superior record than the hosts so far, there’s no lack of confidence that this may be their time to shine.
Brazilians, however, are under so much pressure that some of them cracked after narrowly beating Chile on penalty kicks, last week. Even a psychologist was called, supposedly for last-minute counseling. But a team that counts with its own 22-year old, Neymar, simply can’t be underestimated. It may be just a matter of getting him the ball.

The Scream Is Over

The Biggest of the Little Guys
Gets Bounced Off the World Cup

The World Cup has always been a lot of things to a lot of people. In fact, for millions of Americans, there could hardly be anything more important happening this Tuesday than the game that Team USA was playing against Belgium in the Brazilian city of Salvador.
But the cup is a brutal place for underdogs. Despite its cathartic explosion of goals, already exceeding previous editions, it also has a predatory taste for heartbreak. Thus when Lukaku scored and kicked out the U.S. from the tournament, millions of dreams were crushed.
World Cup 2014 Logo copyThe unprecedented crowds that overwhelmed bars, clubs and eateries throughout the States were absolutely sure that this was not going to be Belgium, even if it was Tuesday, and cheered and screamed and dared to imagine victory until what felt like a sucker punch in the gut.
The deafening silence that followed the referee’s final whistle would moved to tears even the hardest Neocon, or those known for despising beggars and Greenpeace activists. The 2X1 score was even more disappointing because, as it’s often the case, the U.S. was so close to tying it, so close to overwhelming it.
It wasn’t to be. Not that this is unfamiliar territory for the only major nation on the planet that calls football soccer, where the great majority still prefers to follow its insulated brand of league sports, and whose notion of a global ball competition involves exclusively its Northern neighbor.
There’s no need to act so sourly about Jürgen Klinsmann’s choices. After all, the current cycle of sunspots is also not what it’d been cracked up to be, scientists say. So if even the billions-old shiner can afford an off cycle or two, so can Clint Dempsey and his mates. And so can we all.
Which doesn’t mean that Team USA’s ride wasn’t thrilling, as it’s been for at least three consecutive World Cups, and that they haven’t given their very best, which it’s also been the case for the longest while. Then again, you can say the same about pretty much every ‘little’ team that never makes it to the final.

EVERY BIT A FLAMING TRAIL
For there hasn’t been a single case of a fragile team winning it all in this almost century old tournament, including the big guys, when they play a notch below their historical best. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Myth of an Endless War, Colltalers

There was a common denominator in most stories about the 100th anniversary this past Saturday of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination, by a Serbian teenager, which sparked the beginning of World War I a month later, on July 28th, 1914: few can point exactly why it happened.
The war that’s only identified as the first now because it was followed shortly after by the second, turned Europe into cinder, killing over 8 million and wounding another 20 million, and changed forever the continent’s inner borders, while erasing entire empires from its map.
As it was not restricted to Europe, it’s ironic that such grim milestone happens just as pressure for a third military intervention in one of those countries it indirectly ‘bred,’ Iraq, is being rehashed by Pentagon and congressional hawks as the only response to recent events on the ground.
More of Iraq in a moment, but the killing of an arguably useless heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which would not just pulverize that powerful empire within years, but take with it Europe’s political stability, continue to puzzle historians for the sheer destructive power that its 4-year carnage unleashed. Also for the profound and still very much open wounds that it inflicted within the core of some of the region’s key nations.
Chief among them, of course, sits Germany, which unlike the empire, was still standing when it was finally defeated in 1918. Many see that humiliating defeat setting the ground for its renewed nationalist drive to dominate Europe politically, which caused the even more catastrophic World War II, and the horrendous ‘final solution’ it devised to accomplish its hegemonic goal.
As wars usually ignite long dormant racial hatred, the depressing division of the continent’s booty that followed the end of the first one only aggravated the same old intolerance among the ancient ethnicities that form present day Europe, and may be again fueling contemporary conflicts.
Except for the crucial difference that such conflicts are no longer being fought on European soil, the same old enemies continue doing battle in most of the Middle East, Asia, and north of Africa, with not coincidentally some of the most ancient nations fighting the newest ones, ‘tailor-made’ after the war to serve the Western powers’ interests that created them. Sadly, at the end of the day, most of the blood spilled was wasted.
Thus the question about WWI may be not so much why it started, and got so viciously out of hand, but at what ends and to whom it ultimately served. What separated then the few countries that declared war on each other, from the dozens that got involuntarily involved, may be more or less the same factors that keep them apart today, and a quick look at their GDPs goes a long way to show which ones are the real winners.
The causes for the war that pretty much determined the existing political organization at the time the baby boomer generation was born were by then almost irrelevant, for a much sharper conflict, in terms of reason and effect, was already taking place by then: the WWII.
As for the ancient conflicts mentioned, if anything, history has proven that they will remain active as far as the only way for those with power to intervene is if their own underlying economic interests are at stake. Once they decide to step in, there’s usually only one possible outcome that they’ll pursue relentlessly, even if that involves quickly losing sight of the needs of those that called upon them to mediate in the first place.
Speaking of Serbians, the relatively recent conflict in the Balkans in the early 1990s may serve as a good example. Continue reading

South American Duels

World Cup 2014 LogoWorld Cup Enters
Its Unforgiving Stage

Chile X Brazil

Alexis Sanchez has an oversize task on his shoulders, as Chile will try to beat Brazil at home, and reverse a bitter history of three World Cup final defeats, including one in Santiago, in 1962. As for Neymar, this may be his most defining moment yet, to either send Brazilians home or on to the next thriller.

Colombia has been beating all odds and may accomplish today what none of its previous national teams have done: getting to the final eight. For Uruguay, on the other hand, only a victory will erase the huge bloody stain left by its serial biter, Luis Suarez, who may never play another World Cup again.

Rant & Cave (in)

A Brazilian’s Irrational Fear of
Argentina Winning the World Cup

They’ve called Porto Alegre the Argentine capital. As my love-hate for that city loses its balance, I can only muster, SHAME! Worse, they said it’s all the color blue’s fault. CHEATERS! I know who’s behind it: Big Red Internacional, who always dreamed of owning the color of the sky.
The game against Nigeria was the perfect excuse to do so (to humble us again, the cretins). While they took over the city, only to stage one more of their wins, we were being told that the old, vicious, healthy Brazil-Argentina rivalry was being called off, at least for now.
World Cup 2014 LogoThen there are those claiming that cheering for Messi is rooting for beautiful football, and that in the end, it’s all for the common good of South America, you know, hermanos and all that. They don’t fool me, magnanimous phonies; I know what they’re after and it’s not the brotherhood of man.
It’s all done to mortify us, Grêmio supporters. The blue-covered Beira Rio stadium on TV, which thanks to ‘Colorado‘-lover President Rousseff, (there you go, Dilma-haters), has usurped the cup games from the Grêmio Arena, it gave me a funny knot in my throat. Not many red shirts amidst that iced blue sea.
Well, I didn’t spot a striped jersey of the ‘Musketeer‘ one either, even thought some Southerners do consider themselves more ‘gaúchos’ than ‘cariocas,’ which is how the Hispanic networks used to call them little Canaries (they’ve stopped now, it seems). Again, no one use the bird’s name for the Brazilian team anymore.

A TAINTED FEELING LIVES ON
I too was an Argentinophile once, at least culturally, up to the time of their military coup. But a lot of what I still admire about the ‘Platenses,’ Piazzolla, Borges, the pain of lost souls, have always been a cherished part of me, way more than the Carnival in Rio. Now, wear the shirt? I’d rather get lost at La Boca.
I’d wear the Netherlandsbeautiful blue jersey, though, or even Ivory Coast’s. (Funny that I used to like the Santos FC white uniform, but I think it was religious coercion then.) All the blue I’ve always loved never included the Alvi-Celeste, the one that battered us so badly through the years.
Specially when worn by that evil genius, dark soul Maradona. Again, rooting for him is like rooting for football, et al. I don’t sell myself that cheap. It just makes me jealous, of course, not of them having had him and having Messi now. But for me being absent while the Dutch cover in orange Portinho, which is also how no one calls Porto Alegre anymore.
I’ll live, though. Too creaky to turn down my deep-seated ‘principles.’ No, not humanity, universal love, or goodwill toward human brotherhood. I’ve traded those a long time ago, probably in exchange for some instant and temporary thrill. Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Amazon’s Losing Game, Colltalers

There are many Brazilians who either couldn’t care less about the World Cup, or don’t even like soccer or sports in general. And then there’s Nilcilene Miguel de Lima who’s neither; marked to die by the enemies of her Amazon activism, she’s simply too busy trying to survive.
Earlier threats had failed to faze her. But she was finally forced to go into hiding, after her home was burned down, her dog killed, guards sent by the Brazilian government to protect her ran away frightened, and at least three of her fellow campaigners got shot in cold blood.
Even for someone who’s been wearing a bulletproof vest for over two years, and whose almost Quixotic quest – to prevent loggers and ranchers from seizing land from small holders, subsistence communities and indigenous tribes – takes place thousands of miles away from the cheers and attention Brazil is attracting from the world, there has to be limits. You may say grimly that hers is already a dying breed.
And unless Brazilians dedicate equal passion to the preservation of the Amazon as they do to football, her lifetime work, as that of her forebears like Chico Mendes, will remain unfulfilled, a gargantuan task that seems at odds with the country’s rush towards development at all costs.
The connection to Chico, the rubber tapper leader who was murdered in 1988 for his activism defending the world’s biggest Rainforest, has a lot of resonance to Nilcilene, as her father worked alongside him in their native Xapuri, Acre, and she saw firsthand the toll such activism can exact.
Just as the Amazon is vast, so is its complexity and the variety of initiatives designed to protect it, or at least, preserve it so to safeguard it to the future. And for each new project that advances just such a notion, there’s a multitude of powerful interests running against it, from big landowners, including Brazilian and international corporations, to growing demand for its natural resources, and an increasingly political expediency at play.
Also, the forest being shared by eight other nations with their own needs for expansion and development, the task of coordinating an effective preservationist Continue reading

Cold Cups II

The Fan Who Sold His Honor & the
World Cup Coach Who Can’t Drive

Even if Fifa were a model of probity, which recent allegations have shown it clearly is not, or street rallies against its costs had cooled off with the start of the games, which they haven’t, the World Cup in Brazil has already provided a whole plethora of political drama.
From the multicultural bleachers to the quarrels over refereeing, from the quality of the grass drainage to antiaircraft artillery on civilian buildings, matches and goals have been thrilling, for sure, but what’s going on beyond the pitch may as well upstage it all.
As Brazilians protest the money bacchanal, brokered by Fifa and funded by its mega sponsors, and the competition heats up with record goals and relatively few surprises so far, one wonders whether there’s even space on the coverage for anything else. As it turns out, we make room for just that sort of thing.
For appalling mistakes committed by field officials are as much a part of the game as its players’ cheap theatrics, and with all certainty, will remain the theme of late night, heated discussions over tears and beers for years to come. It’s what’s not so obvious, though, that we’re most interested.
Thus, while that Barcelona star may be executing a perfect curvy free kick, out of sight and in the middle of a sea of multicolored tribute jerseys, someone may be giving a whole country a black eye, or a sympathetic one, by just flicking their wrist. At times, cameras may capture the moment but mostly, they may miss it.
And, just as life itself, the so called ‘teaching moments’ go beyond the walls of these temples of football, or through another march against high ticket prices on a street nearby. World Cup-related news, not so breaking but weird just the same, may be happening right across from the stadium, atop some apartment building.
The reach of this tournament may have a surprising sway both at the confluence of sports and morality, and as far as some court decision across the ocean. Coming July 13, regardless of who’ll lift the trophy, we’ll have gone through a common experience of such a planetary scale that each of these stories may count as much as the goals scored.
And you may thank your lucky shirts for we’re skipping altogether anything about the tragic Nigeria blast, that killed several people (in a replay of Uganda four years ago, remember?) or the Mexican drugpin who got nabbed by the Feds after he bought a ticket to the World Cup… on his own name. Smart.

GREED & CIVILITY AT THE STANDS
Speaking of most Brazilians, they may be fighting the good fight against corruption, but apparently José Humberto Martins is yet to get the memo. Last week in Natal, he was one of the thousands wearing a plastic poncho during the rain soaked Mexico vs. Cameroon game.
According to his own account, at some point, he was approached by a drenched tourist who offered to buy his cheap garment, unaware it was on sale for $14 elsewhere at the stadium. Not one to let the chance to make a buck pass, torrential pouring notwithstanding, José agreed to sell it on the spot: for $200!
The good name of soccer fans everywhere was rescued from the mud the following day, though, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Time to Hit Fifa’s Fiefdom, Colltalers

By now, everyone knows how soccer aficionados get carried away with the game, from the players’ theatrics on the pitch to the fans’ fervor on the stands to the seemingly endless shouts of ‘goaaaaaaallll’ everywhere. That’s our excuse for such a hyperbolic title, anyway, and we’re running with it.
But along with everything already expected from the World Cup taking place in Brazil, there’s the renewed discussion about who owns the game and why, or rather, how come an opaque entity such as Fifa came to control it and has managed to reap profits from it on the scale of a small nation.
Such discussion has reached a feverish pitch this past week when the international federation that acts as a regulator and monopoly of global football quietly cleared the way for its president, 78-year-old Joseph Blatter, to stand for another term, his fifth, and possibly beyond that.
Thus, just as its supremacy over all things soccer has remained unchallenged for over a century, Fifa’s also showing that it’ll keep doing its business behind closed doors just like any secretive and unaccountable corporation, which in fact it has become. But perhaps change is on the horizon.
In fact, serious allegations have been raised against Fifa this time around, including claims of match fixing, corruption in the way it grants nations the rights to host its cash cow, the World Cup, and even the way it ignores public outcry against its methods, as it’s been the case of the protests against it in Brazil, favoring instead a collection of deep pocket sponsor corporations and acting only according to its own monetary interests.
Fifa stands to make $23 billion in Brazil, according to Forbes, from revenue generated by TV ads, billboards and sponsorships. It’s a staggering leap compared to the $3,65 billion it made four years ago, in South Africa, according to its own figures. As the magazine puts it, that’s equivalent to the seventh largest business in the world, behind oil giant BP and ahead of Japanese Toyota. That much money can only attract even more greed.
That’s arguably the worst part, that the majority of national federations has supported this system in exchange for a piece of the pie, which can be colossal and served throughout the year. Not coincidentally, such federations are also private and unaccountable, so whoever is not part of the club, is out of luck. That naturally means Brazilian taxpayers, who will spend a gargantuan $13 billion footing the bill to organize the event.
The two most unsettling corruption charges against Fifa concern a possible link with a match-fixing ring, that may have influenced results in international friendly games leading to the 2010 cup in Africa, and the granting of the 2022 edition of the tournament to Qatar.
In both cases, a pattern of secrecy and the behind-the-scenes Continue reading

Heart & Ball

Soccer Bumps
& Best Practices

Sudden cardiac deaths increase during the World Cup, according to studies published before the 2010 tournament in Africa. But some may beg to differ and the wisdom of such studies could be er compromised upon learning what happened to one of the researchers, a long distance runner.
The International Journal of Cardiology reported then a 77 percent spike in heart fatalities, while The New England Journal of Medicine found emergencies to be 2.66 times greater during a cup than before or after it. ‘Beta-adrenergic-blocking’ drugs are recommended to prevent such untimely fate.
Which was, nevertheless, exactly the fate met by the aforementioned researcher (name undisclosed). Despite being in top shape, he collapsed and died suddenly in one of his daily runs. Guess who found his lifeless body? Two smokers, who were leaving a soccer game and probably lit up another one before calling for help.
So if you think you could use some downers, by all means, go ahead and help yourself. You may then watch the 1958 World Cup final, minus the stressful twists and turns of that crazy teenager named Pelé. But if you rather shoot yourself in the arm than miss the final in Rio de Janeiro, you’d better listen to Branco, another Brazilian World Champion, class of 1994.
Branco Scores Against the Netherlands, 20 Years Ago July 9th, Dallas, U.S.The defender, who scored a crucial goal for his side against the Netherlands, told the press that his son was conceived in the U.S. during that cup. According to the sage, “sex is good for you, it relieves tension.” Amen to that, Mr. White.
So it may be time to put aside the research papers and wish you’ll be one of those lucky blokes who’ll die, heart-pumping hard, either when your team is winning or in the sack. Tell no soul but some say that’s what happened to soccer-loving Peter Sellers. Whatta boy.
__________
* Edited from post originally published on June, 14, 2010.

Cold Cups I

Fads & Ads Compete for
Another World Cup Score

Once the ball starts rolling in São Paulo tomorrow, not everything will be about football. It hasn’t for over a year now, if you’ve been following the street protests in Brazil, as it hasn’t ever been about the game only as long as, well, Fifa remains in charge.
Thus, as much attention will be paid to players’ skills as to their ability to sell wares with their bodies, attire, and hairstyles. Cynics may even say that what’s at stake is not who’ll win the World Cup, but which sportswear company will sell the most: Nike or Adidas.
Increasingly, what soccer stars wear and endorse has indeed driven revenues of sport and designer goods, along with their personal tastes for tattoos and haircut styles. We can’t really end this sentence without mentioning David Beckham, the retired British player.
But while Becks has the physique of a natural born model, and his commercial appeal is only enhanced for his pop-star turned into stylist wife, many others have distinguished themselves for personal choices so ugly esthetically speaking, that they become iconic just the same.
Case in point: Brazil’s Ronaldo Nazário’s hairstyle at the final of the 2002 World Cup in Japan. He scored all the goals and his team won the trophy, but that ‘triangular island’ of hair on top of his otherwise shaved head captured more than its share of advertising’s prime real estate.
No wonder it leads the New York Times Hairdo Hall of Fame now. But enough of your hair, what about shoes, Imelda Marcos? My, haven’t you heard, dahling? red is the new black. Or orange. Or any color but black. We should’ve heeded a certain pontiff’s personal taste; just saying.
A FORMER POPE’S FASHION FANCY
As it turned out, we greatly underestimated ex-Pope Benedict and his exquisite choice of foot attire. He was only foreseeing the future, you see – the one presided over by current soccer-crazy Pope Francisco – when flaunting the most famous pair of red shoes this side of Dorothy.
Now in Brazil, word is that every soccer star worth his fashion endorsements will display a pair of colorful shoes, sometimes one for each foot, matching jersey or hair die optional. And the crowds have gone wild over them. Black shoes? Only if you’re a referee.
Purists may decry this lack of substance that threatens to take away the sport’s very own vitality in the name of fads, which by definition and unlike soccer legacies, are not built to last. But there’s no denying: athletes have been selling wares since way before Beckham sported a Mohawk. Does anyone remember Colombian Carlos Walderana’s do, at the U.S. World Cup in 1994? The Hairdo Hall of Fame surely does.
For footballers themselves (and here we stop a long-running fancy of misnaming an American ballgame and give back the name football, at least during the month-long tournament, to soccer as it’s already known by billions around the world), it’s more than an extra income. Many have turned their Continue reading

The Horse’s Mouth

Ridiculous Predictions
for a World Cup Winner

So everyone and their second cousins have their own system to fathom what’s by definition unpredictable: who’ll win the World Cup. Obviously, only a certified fool would risk squandering what’s little left of their personal street cred by offering their own stupid guesses. Here’s our certified fool’s stupid guesses.
As with any completely unscientific research worth its dirty test tubes, a credible-looking set of predictions has to have some semblance of a rationale animating the proceedings, along with its mostly random elements of pure insanity. That’s why we’ve added the always reliable, and certainly ancient, Chinese horoscope.
Completely arbitrarily, we’ve created a point rate system by attributing an order of relevance to each team’s credentials: the number of World Cup wins, 1.5 point each, home advantage, 0.5 point, continental advantage, 0.5 point, reigning champion status, 1 point, and 1 point for each year the team won under the Year of Horse, which is the Chinese sign for 2014.
In 19 editions of the cup, the number of wins has been a consistent indicator of success; single winners won only three times. Hosting has equaled six victories. Europe and South America have split championships and, in South Africa, Europe took the lead.
Reigning champions have won twice in a roll only two times, but this was our way of tempering with the system, and add value to Spain’s current status. 2014 marks the seventh World Cup under the ‘influence’ of the Horse, the seventh sign of the Chinese horoscope (whooo, drum roll and all that).
This year’s sign was the same for 1930 (Uruguay Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Heartbreak & Immigration Dreams, Colltalers

Last week’s pictures of the appalling conditions that hundreds of children, who crossed the U.S. border illegally, face at an Arizona holding center may stop for a full minute the juggernaut of obliviousness and draconian tactics that has marked immigration policy by current and past administrations.
After that moment under the spotlight, though, despite all outraged and semi-heated debates over the issue, chances are it’ll return quietly to the back burner of political expediency, the control of a quasi-vigilante mindset and, ultimately, the corporations running the border’s jail system.
For the immigration debate seems stuck in the mud of faulty assumptions and a questionable moral compass. Short of compassion and integrity, any attempt at reforming it is compromised by grandstanding and ulterior motives. Pity those who still believe in the founding ideals of this nation.
The photos, published by a conservative Website, had the obvious intent of indicting the Obama administration over its treatment, or lack thereof, of illegal immigrants. But that could backfire and serve as an indictment also of the Republican Party as it has consistently fight the issue from making progress in Congress. They did it again last month, blocking efforts to offer residency for those who came here as children and joined the military.
And before we move on to other aspects of what has become a moot issue in American life, that of people who, despite living, working or fighting for this country, or even being born here, are still considered aliens, most of ‘Mexicans’ coming to the U.S. are not from Mexico at all, but mainly from Central America. In fact, immigration from the south of the border country has been drastically reduced in the past decade.
Also, even if it’s painful to see unaccompanied kids being thrown into the gruesome detention centers at the border, the issue shouldn’t depend of pulling heartstrings, as if we’d care more if they’re children. No immigration policy can be serious if it ignores the tightly wound familiar ties of many Latin American societies, and the economic realities that force parents to send their young to brave such a brutal trek to the U.S.
Conservatives all over, however, do share a trump card on their criticism of President Obama: the over two million undocumented immigrants who have been deported under his watch. And who, for the most part, unlike the administration’s claims, were honest, law abiding citizens.
Perhaps no other issue, with exception that of the prosecution of whistleblowers or the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, show with more clarity the profound disconnect between the president’s arresting oratorical talents, and the devilishly pragmatic approach of his administration’s policies.
At times, it seems as if Obama, the candidate, is still on the campaign stump, arousing us with his libertarian ideas, tolerance, and all that, while Obama, the president, has been more often a leader of continuity, meaning, preserving many of the restrictive and unfair policies that preceded him.
Such schizophrenic appraisal of the president who went through an unprecedented political bashing for pursuing an outstanding, albeit imperfect, piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, and is committed to bring all active troops home, although not soon enough, may sound itself unfair.
But it is not too farfetched when it comes to immigration reform, even though enacting the overhaul of such a wide reaching law, which just like the Obamacare, will have long lasting impact on American society, is no task for a single man, even for the admittedly most powerful one on earth.
It is, however, a task that will have to be tackled better than it’s been since the times when promoting immigration was a condition to fuel progress of this nation. It’s ironic that a country that rose to the top of the world on the backs of its immigrant force, now can’t find ways to address the issue, without involving xenophobic fears, arming to the teeth its border patrols, or providing business to a corrupted private jail system.
We’re halfway through 2014, and over 140 thousand have already been detained at the Rio Grande Valley. Most of them will spend months of idle imprisonment, waiting to get deported, Continue reading

The Whirled Cup

Five Bullet Points On Brazil

& a Split-Decision to Strike

World Cup 2014 LogoYou may not know this but to most past World Cup hosts, the occasion was for national joy and jubilation, if not much for settling social scores. Brazil, though, is not buying into that placid template: in case you haven’t got the memo, Brazilians are actually angry.
They may have a point. But apart from all disturbing news about the (poor) preparations for the world’s biggest sports event that starts next week in São Paulo, here are five curiosities that go from the promising to the ‘peculiar’ to the far out.
We’ll get to them. But about that anger and the unsettling news: yes, it’s all true. The most expensive World Cup in history may turn out to be, arguably, the turnaround for Brazil’s dreams of being perceived as a global power, capable of handling its moment in the spotlight with composure.
A quick review of the staggering numbers shows that Brazilians are paying between $13 to $18 billion for the right to stage the games, but most of it has been invested either in riches that will quickly evaporate from the country, coming August, or will rot in some stadia built in the middle of nowhere.
Over 200 thousand people have been displaced to accommodate infrastructure projects for the cup and for the 2016 Olympic Games, also to take place in Brazil, according to a Mother Jones infographic, but many of such projects may not be finished for the opening kickoff, or may remain incomplete forever.
Discontent with the way funds have been diverted from needed and more permanent works, and public perception that President Dilma Rousseff hasn’t been fully cognizant to how Brazilians feel left out of the big party, have taken the country by storm and may only get louder during the cup.
In fact, she does seem less concerned about them than how the massive street rallies critical to what was supposed to be a celebration of Brazilians’ passion for the game, will impact the estimated one billion worldwide, expected to follow the month long competition.
But even as those problems have been called out over and over, and may be inseparable from the games this time around, it doesn’t mean we’re not working hard to provide you with some interesting alternatives to experience it all, insights that may be unique to this particular edition. And here they are:
1. THE WALKING STEAD
Talking about the opening kickoff, few know that, technically, it won’t be given by a human foot. Or it’ll but not exactly how one’d expect it. If all goes well, on June 12, a paralyzed person will walk on the field wearing an exoskeleton created by Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.
The technology behind the mind-controlled full-body suit has the potential to revolutionize mobility for millions of people. It’s not the first time that robotics is applied this way, but it still scores a kick in the arse of common indignities associated with being handicapped.
No word yet on who’ll be walking towards the middle of the Arena Corinthians and, with a thought or two, command the suit to help the foot kick the Brazuca. But you can bet your soccer shoes that, for many around the world, it’ll be as historical as the tournament’s winning goal.

2. WELCOME TO FAVELA INN
Some six million soccer fans are expected for the games, the last of them probably on their way in as we speak. But so is a severe hotel room shortage, with prices upwards of $380 a night to boot. So what choices a late comer has to rest their tired bones and avoid crashing in some godforsaken public square?
What about a shantytown? For a bargain $30, one can find a place to stay in one of the thousands of tiny houses, cramped together like jigsaw pieces, in one of Brazil’s hundreds of favelas, conveniently located in most state capitals and often with a much better ocean view than many a pricy hotel.
After all, this is a country where the so-called informal economy Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The 10 Thousand Too Many, Colltalers

All the justified indignation (and some phony righteousness too) about the scandal of treatment, or lack thereof, of U.S. veterans by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, and the resignation of chief Eric Shinseki, has obscured an almost equally scandalous piece of news: President Obama’s speech last week about his decision to keep 9,800 troops in Afghanistan, even as combat operations will be officially over at end of this year.
We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s make something clear: life for U.S. Vets won’t improve with Shinseki’s exit, and not just because his 5-year tenure started already halfway through the wrecking the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was exacting on armed active troops and reserves.
On the contrary, his term was marked by his low key, straight talk personality, and his commitment to the wounded and the severely impaired being shipped from those hellholes by the planeload, and dropped on a daily basis at the doorstep of the VA system.
Neither was ever in question his under-reported behind-the-scenes struggle to tackle a task that proved each day bigger and more complex, by the sheer numbers of its caseloads, and the ingrained bureaucracy the agency’s inherited from past administrations.
In the end, for all attempts at curbing corruption and streamlining workflows, it was all too much – at one point, the simple task of digitalizing files got so vast that it became ‘easier’ to store them under lock and key than to transfer them – and staff began the undignified job of hiding files nationwide, manipulating numbers to appear efficient, while desperate former combatants languished and many died for lack of care.
As for the ‘phony righteousness’ mentioned above, consider that some of the same warmongers who led us to the unjustified tragedy in Iraq, and kept pressuring for troop increases in Afghanistan, are now the ones to lay the blame for the VA scandal on President Obama.
Not true, of course, but at this point, that’s besides the point: partisan fervor never lets facts get in the way of the ‘small government’ motto. Thus slashing social programs and administration jobs comes first, even if they wind up hurting veterans’ ability to seek outside help for their woes.
That being said, it’s worth noticing that the VA’s annual budgets under President Obama have risen 78%, to $65.9 billion, according to White House figures, even as Defense spending did not. For comparison, the entire U.S. military budget is set to be over $756 billion through 2015.
That doesn’t bode well to Shinseki’s leadership style, as many have pointed to his inability to seek specialized, tech-savvy outside help, choosing instead to preserve trusted ranks until it became clear that his position was unsustainable. His resignation may’ve come a few months too late.
But the root of the problems the VA is facing is set to remain in place even beyond 2015, and for that, not even if we’d had years of preparation, and a twice as big budget, there could be possibly a way to handle the harrowing task of tending to increasing rows of sick soldiers.
The reason why many are skeptical of the president’s assessment is Continue reading

Out of This World (Cup)

Ecstasy to a Precious Few

& Agony for the Rest of Us

Time to face the inevitable: to pick a wrong team and bet the farm that your dreams won’t go south. In about two weeks, the World Cup will kick off in Brazil and the host, plus 31 other nations, will spend a month chasing a soccer ball through grit till glory.
Two will book a ticket to the July 13 final in Rio, and out of some 400 players expected to step on the grass, they may count with one or two of a group of eight outstanding talents to fulfill, or deflate, the hopes of millions of their comrades.
The history of this tournament may as well be written by the feet of Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Argentina’s Messi, Spain’s Iniesta, Brazil’s Neymar, Italy’s Balotelli, Netherlands’ Robben, France’s Ribery and Chile’s Sanchez, or by the drive, team work, and ultimately sheer luck of everyone else.
The cup is capricious, though, and make a hero out of some unknown buck, instead, who’ll score that untimely goal, make an unlikely play, and provide the fleeting moment of suspended time when the ball succeeds in kissing the net. Between that kiss and the stadium explosion that follows it, lives the world’s most popular sport.
Short of divining who’ll be the winner, we once again embark on the vain exercise of establishing what we know, hoping that what we don’t, doesn’t bite us on our behind. In fact, it’s our duty to toss the dice and look ahead, despite all reasoning to the contrary.
A Colltales reader wrote so sensibly that ‘even the worst teams in the world have their faithful, and emotionally, masochistic followers.’ But if asked, one wouldn’t get such a straight assessment of their own misery, but all sorts of rational and, really, no nonsensical arguments to the contrary.
You won’t get a straight assessment about the outlook for this cup here either. Rather, I’ll switch to a single voice, so to allow myself to be entirely partial, deeply biased, and at times, completely irrational. You may get some useful hints, though, at least about how this game turns temporarily insane half of the world’s population.
WISHING UPON A STAR OR TWO
For starters, let’s get something out of the way: not to dismiss world champions Spaniards, but they have already peaked and, as last year’s Confederations Cup final has proved, they’re beatable. I’m not wishing for Brazil to cross paths with them again, but there are a number of teams that can knock them out early and often.

Talking about aging squads, if this cup were in Europe, Germany would be a natural fit to take it all once again. But for the fact that they strive under hard conditions and this group of players has been performing at its best for several years now, I’m not sure in the whole it still remains a suitable match to younger teams, though. Or to the grind of their own group, which in any case, they’re expected to win.
Italy and France are two tiresome mysteries too, but for radically different reasons. Piro & Balotelli notwithstanding, the Italians seem a fatigued bunch, and their schematics on the pitch will be hardly effective against the more agile contenders on their way. France, on the other hand, is a mystery because it’s failed to renew itself, since the sorely missed times of Zidane, headbutting and all.
In fact, the bureaucracy that took hold of European national teams, in opposite to their vibrant clubs, is baffling. Or anyone thinks that Belgians, Greeks, Austrians, Russians and the Swiss have something up their sleeves to shock the world? Puzzlingly, such lack of enthusiasm is echoed by the Africans, too. Long ago, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, specially, used to be a refreshing sight. Now they seem er European. Something happened on their way to the big leagues.
The malaise had already defeated the Dutch four years ago, but a former French colony, Ivory Coast, may hold some promise of Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Left to Be Occupied, Colltalers

There were almost no positive things left from the 2008 financial crash caused by an out-of-control banking system. Not the least among them was the shameful impunity the culprits for the crisis have enjoyed ever since, unlike millions of working stiffs left to foot their multibillion unpaid bills.
But to this day, the Occupy Wall Street movement stands as the sole earnest popular reaction to the millions of lost jobs and the hundreds of thousands of broken families, due to the worldwide systemic failure the crisis ignited, while not one major chief of industry did time for their crimes.
However, as the roots of the quasi-bankruptcy of the economy remain pretty much in place, and banks and financial institutions have already multiplied profits to levels even higher than the pre-crisis period, the OWS has had a hard time even remaining relevant.
Before writing an obituary of the revolt and indignation against the dominance of the financial industry over all other productive segments of the economy, though, it’s instructive to dig a little bit into the likely causes that doomed the movement’s momentum, and why it’s failed to galvanize a wider swath of contemporary society, both in the U.S. and abroad, despite the clarity of its message and legitimacy of its opposition to the status quo.
For those following it closely, the most glaring of such causes has been its adamant refusal to narrow goals into a political platform, a not out-of-place concern, given the trappings and compromises inherent to the trajectory of any movement priming itself for possible electoral contention.
Another argument was about the ambiguity OWS’s briefed recognized leaders fell about, well, leading, and/or exercising some sort of political housekeeping, so to articulate its transition from a series of passionate and engaged street rallies to a muscular opposition party in the making.
This quixotic refusal, albeit noble in essence, singed the movement with the sophomoric watermark that routinely brands and undermines political ideas, hindering its ability to dialogue in equal footing, and work together, with other progressive forces of the left, which, let’s face it, was the only side of the political spectrum willing to embrace a movement staked against bankers and powerful financial interests.
And there’re those who see the OWS’s own rejection of traditional political models of resistance, right from the early discussions taking place at Zuccotti Park, as the crucial decision that doomed the movement’s long-term viability and its status as a progressive incubator of new ideas.
Obviously, such flaws in the OWS’s strategy going forward were Continue reading

The Woes Cup

Eleven Fouls in Brazil
That Deserve a Red Card

Among many overinflated sobriquets Brazilians attach to their passion for soccer, ‘the country of futebol,’ which is how the game’s know there, has some truth to it. The only team to have won five times and never missed the World Cup has something to do with it.
But another cliche about football makes sense too: the saying that it’s evolved only within the pitch. For all the exuberance and sophistication of Brazil’s game and culture, beyond the green rectangle, everything else may be as rot as a political dynasty of a banana republic.
Yes, Brazilians are crazy about the filigranes and the curve kicks, the euphoric pass and the gravity-defying goal. But about what it takes to make a street play into a tool for social change, not so much. It’s not their fault, but then again, to some extent, it most surely is.
As many sleepless aficionados agonize about the chances for the national team, the Seleção Brasileira, of winning it all, for a growing segment of the population, the cup won’t change anything, or bring an iota of relief to the daily grind of a still underachieving nation.
Thus we prepared another seleção, of mainly old foes that always stand in the way of Brazil reaching its potential future of land of opportunity to its citizens. To make it instructive and have some fun with it, we associated each of these ‘players’ to real positions in a soccer team.
Defenders, middle-fielders and attackers will be surely engaged during the cup and beyond, doing what they’ve done for ages: preventing fair play, a level field, a clean slate and a win for all. They’re the formidable enemies of Brazil, whether or not it wins the trophy.
One last thing about that: no one knows why Brazilians care so much about the World Cup. The fact that it was chosen to host it for the second time goes way beyond settling old scores; by the looks of it, it’ll be another sad miss, regardless of any magic that Neymar & Co. may bring to the fore.
THE 11 PLAYS TO LOSE
Let’s start with the goalkeeper, Maracanazo. That’s how Brazil’s first national soccer tragedy became known, when it lost the final of the 1950 World Cup to Uruguay, at Rio’s Maracanã Stadium, then the world’s biggest, a disappointment five world titles haven’t erased.
Playing defense, familiar foes: Crime Play has always been there, committed by underpaid cops and gang members; Pollution Kick was raised by untreated sewage, carbon emissions, and lack of infrastructure investments. It’s also related to Traffic Jam, a big player in Brazil’s cities, always ready to clog arteries.
Sex Tourism has for too long been Brazil’s dark side of its supposedly upbeat culture. The fear is not about the socially aware sex workers, but pedophiles and child predators, expected to descend in mass and incognito to Brazil. A dirty and despicable player.
Middle fielder Lethal Accidents has been responsible for a dozen deaths of workers at World Cup construction sites, and it’s wreaking havoc in Brazil’s rising, and invisible, illegal immigrant demographic. Unfortunately, safety and decent labor conditions are still aliens for the current building boom.

FROM MIDDLE TO THE END
Attacking midfielders Blackwater Pass and White Elephant are an odd pair. The infamous U.S.-based war contractor group has been hired by the already truculent Brazilian police and one may expect widespread tragic clashes with civilians. By the way, have you seen the new Robocops to be deployed during the cup?
White Elephant will dot the land as totems to excess and absurd expenditures. Brazil’s building, or reforming, 13 venues, or at least five too many, according to those who saw what happened in Greece, after the Olympic Games: built in cities without even soccer teams, they’re destined to turn into skeletons.

The attack of this team is unlikely to play the jogo bonito associated with the Seleção. Take Cost Overrun, for instance. The most expensive World Cup in history will set Brazil back over $13.7 billion, an amount enough to have put together the Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Walk in the Tolerance Side, Colltalers

The march to legalize gay marriage in the U.S. and step up efforts to protect the individual’s choice of living according to his or her sexual orientation has finally sped up and may’ve reached a point of no return. It’s arguably one of the few reasons Americans still feel very proud about this country. As a cause, it has raised our compassion and empathy toward each other almost like no other, turning lofty aspirations for equality and respect into a pragmatic tool of change. Which is just as well, as we need this renewed sense of community if we’re to successfully tackle the challenges of our age. As a all-encompassing movement, sheltering the full spectrum of the human sexual experience, the fight for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights has extrapolated its ‘minority’ confines to serve a larger purpose, recognizing and embracing with no bias all segments of the American society. We did have come far in the four-decade-plus since the Stonewall riots. Saturday’s 10th anniversary of the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, and the Obama administration’s consistent engagement with the movement, are but just two testaments to such winds of change. But before we start patting each other’s backs and breaking the self-congratulatory champagne, we’d better understand that if this fight for equal rights is making strides in rich Western societies, it’s far from packing much of a punch, or bringing change, throughout impoverished regions of the world. Sexual oppression, as a leverage for power, has always been associated with rampant ignorance and religious intolerance. For hundreds of millions of people, trapped in medieval living conditions, it remains the rule of the land, exacting a brutal toll as a crushing weapon for domination and control. It’s not a bad proposition to serve as a paradigm of hope for those around the world who, beside having to endure absolute miserable odds stacked against them, have an extra layer of hardship in their lives merely for being what they are. In consequence, many have had their very core of individuality violently teared out from them, physically and psychologically, as despicable traditions of sexual mutilation continue to be enforced. There, as in dwindling pockets within more organized societies, the need to claim one’s sexual identity, however ‘different’ or ever evolving it may be, is still a threatening but empowering torch for whole communities, not just for those brave enough to set the pace and become pioneers. Or martyrs. For at the end of the day, it should no longer be about what each one is or feel comfortable being, but how we’re willing to use our diversity to build a better common good. In other words, there’s urgency for the gay rights movement to reach its maturity because the whole world needs to mature along with it. The angrier people’s sexual preferences make dictators and warlords and bigots all around, the better this world is bound to become. Ultimately, it’ll be a coalition of what’s still inadequately called ‘minorities’ – sexual, racial, agnostic, and whatever else is out there challenging the repressive status quo – what may help turn the tide against the most serious ills of our civilization, our unmitigated ambition as a species, our wretched ways of treating each other and the planet, the bottomless greed of a receding few for exploiting till the last drop of blood the goodwill of the majority. Among the many tangential, but highly relevant, issues making the gay rights movement an inestimable asset to society at large has been the fight against AIDS and the still ongoing struggle to develop better drugs and, ultimately, the cure for HIV infection. Even though it’s not quite as visible as it was in the terrible 1980s, when it affected a mostly middle class, highly educated demographics, it is still a fight mainly led by the movement. Much has changed since then, including the battleground: instead of the glaring discos and jet set lives of artists and entertainers, it’s now mostly localized in huge stretches of poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America, with women having become the tragic carriers of the virus. That’s not fault of their own, of course, but since they are the main providers in much of these regions, and rape is an integral part of the Continue reading

Ungrounded

Threat to Our Dream
of Living Among Stars

In the concert of nations, Russia holds little sway. That is, if one discounts its nuclear stocks and storied past as a fierce competitor with world power credentials, its influence is now mostly regional. That’s not how President Vladimir Putin sees it, though.
So, despite all the hyperventilation about its imperialistic moves against its neighbors, which it never really ceased to control, and the phony indignation displayed by U.S. and Europe, the world doesn’t really care much about it. Except when it comes to space.
Specially, in what the International Space Station, that marvel of global scientific cooperation, is concerned. Aloft for over 10 years, with a steady stream of technological achievements to boot, the flying lab has done more to world harmony that many a peace talk ever could.
That positive outlook is what has been seriously challenged this week when the Russian president issued a not-so veiled threat to bar the launch of American satellites by Russian-made rockets, and even ban the use of the station itself by the U.S. after 2020, which, to be sure, is a qualified ruse.
The ISS hasn’t been projected to be fully operational much beyond that date anyway, and only recently its decommission got a reprieve, as the bitter reality that it’s been reduced to become the only game in town, or rather, space, has sunk in for nations still interested in exploring it, including the U.S.
Which is also at fault in the whole thing, for the record, and not for trying to upset Putin’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine next door. But because the U.S. has withdrawn much of that once unwavering support to its own space program since the last Shuttle left the assembly line.

WORLD, WE’VE HAD A PROBLEM HERE
After the great conquests of the 1960s and 70s, NASA, the agency in charge of firing up the imagination of Americans still starstruck, has frankly come up with mediocre plans to follow up the Apollo, the Hubble, the Shuttle programs, and even the ISS, of which it was a crucial contributor.
Instead, lacking the funding and epic ideas needed to go ‘to infinity and beyond,’ to use Buzz Lightyear credo (if you have to ask…), after folding the Shuttle program, NASA decided to count on the aging and unreliable Russian Soyuz rockets, to lift its ambitions to orbit. It couldn’t couldn’t work.
Why? Haven’t you noticed where they all land, and eventually depart from? You’re right, Ukraine. That in itself granted Putin a free ride, and power over the aspirations of millions of Americans who wished we still had a first class ticket towards the future.
The space card was bound to be played also when a misguided bet was placed on the market’s ability to carry our dreams aloft, on board Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Time for Congress to Show Some Spine, Colltalers

As the NSA backpedaled on its policy banning current and former employees from referring to leaked news by ‘unauthorized’ sources, a bill going through our do-nothing Congress, the USA Freedom Act, aims at restoring some judicial accountability for the agency and give us back our privacy.
It won’t be enough, but it’s already a step forward in what’s been mostly a tale of outrage against the NSA’s widespread spying on the lives of common citizens, here and abroad, and the Obama administration doubling down and reaffirming its questionable security-at-all-costs credo.
All the while, Edward Snowden, the man responsible for igniting a new sense of awareness about what intel agencies really do with taxpayers money, and how insulated they’ve become to pressure from the civil society, remains caught up in a legal limbo and self-imposed exile in Russia.
Despite receiving the Sam Adams Integrity in Intelligence and the Ridenhour Truth-Telling awards, or being instrumental for the Pulitzer and the Polk awards granted to Glenn Greenwald and Laura Pointras, the two journalists who published his revelations, Snowden continues to languish outside his country of birth, wondering if he’ll ever regain his full rights as a citizens, before his visa at the convoluted nation expires next month.
There has been, in fact, talk about his return to the U.S. to ‘have his day in court,’ in the words of National Security Advisor Susan Rice. But several issues may conspire against him having the chance to justify his actions before Americans. Chief among them, the Justice Department, which may intervene and prevent him from even talking publicly, Continue reading

Kicking the Cup

Cheap Comparisons
& Annoying Gestures

The World Cup in Brazil starts in little over a month and, while been plagued by protests, construction delays, worker fatalities and unsurprising fears that the only winner will be Fifa, the world soccer federation, no one doubts that it’ll succeed in the final.
How well, though, both to its host and to lovers of the game, is not nearly as sure. The world’s most popular sport has changed, not always for the best and, again unsurprisingly, money is now a major destabilizing factor.
We’ll dedicate part of our coverage (what do you mean we shouldn’t? we’re crazy too, you know?) to these and other factors, and try to keep up the level of interest in the game with our own take on its beauty and its ugliness. It also helps that we’ve been there before.
Even if the tournament’s last edition, four years ago in Nelson Mandela’s South Africa, was arguably almost uneventful, there were plenty of thrilling stories, drama and, of course, goals to lift our spirits (and ultimately, break our hearts) to write about, before, during and after.
Thus, just as record five-time winner, and second-time host, Brazil announced its squad for the month-long competition that starts June 12, along with most of the other 31 teams, we kick off our own coverage with a little intro, to set the tone and themes for the weeks ahead. Enjoy.
CLICHÉS & CLUTCHES
One of the most painful, unimaginative and plain dumb clichés applied to soccer is to call it a religion, the Church of Maradona in Buenos Aires not withstanding. Or a passion. Or, for that matter, to use war metaphors to characterize it, by comparing teams to armies, and players to warriors.
But as once a young musician compared rock and roll to religion, to dire consequences, I’m about to go on a limb here and express what’s already in most people’s minds: soccer is more popular than religion. There, I said it.
All it takes is to count the number of people who’ll be watching the opening ceremony for the games to, for example, any given Christmas Midnight Mass at the Vatican,  the exquisitely dressed Cardinals all around and the full regalia of the Michelangelo-designed guard uniforms, regardless that the new Pope is not expected to wear the former’s gender-bending red shoes.
Or let’s forget all about pomp and ceremony. What about the opening game between the host and Croatia? Or Friday the 13th’s rematch of the 2010 final, between current champion Spain and the Netherlands? Or any other game Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Bibi’s Bid for Supremacy, Colltalers

As the U.S.-led world cuts its teeth trying to grasp Russia’s next move in Ukraine, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues quietly but resolutely pushing his agenda of power consolidation, with a repertoire of deft moves and elaborate games of public opinion maneuvering.
When his Likud party opens its long-delayed convention Wednesday, it will happen at the end of a two-month string of victories for Netanyahu, masterfully disguised as concessions to the party’s hard-liners, which include the repositioning of some of Israel’s most transcendental issues.
On the outside, everything seems to have fallen into place, to his ever so casual advantage: the collapse of the latest round of talks with the Palestinian Authority, dragging the Obama administration’s two-state proposal pretty much to the gutter, the president’s once-again tacit support of the Likud’s policies, even the party’s internal negotiations that delayed the convention from March to now, it all seemed unrelated and/or pure luck.
But for those who’ve been following, a bit longer than Secretary of State John Kerry’s own tenure, the quagmire of the Middle East puzzle, of which whatever happens between Israel and the Palestinian people may determine the direction of the several regional conflicts surrounding the two, almost nothing if ever that has occurred for the past two thousand years in that part of the globe has happened by chance.
And for at least four years of those millennia, no matter what happens, things seem to always improve the stability at the top and personal biography of only one person: Netanyahu. But, curiously, things have a way to hide his role, as if all else around him, his party’s radicals, Israel’s electorate, even the Palestinian Authority to some extent, are somehow conspiring to force his hand, and he’s innocently caught in the middle.
Take the collapse of the peace talks, at least for now, on the surface brought about because of an agreement signed between the two main Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to set the stage for an interim government and general elections.
The PM took the ideological position, and let’s face, dangerous Continue reading

The Aitch-Old File

Human Horns, a Hell of a Hornets’
Nest & the Holmdel Horn Antenna

With a letter as its leitmotif, there’s no telling where this post may lead us. Some people growing horns for years? Check. A hornet’s nest built around a wooden head? Check. We just weren’t expecting to learn about the cosmic microwave background radiation.
Or the a raging argument over how to pronounce H in the English language. But how to get to new places if we only tell old stories? Above all, here’s another post for librarians and archivists to hate; how are they supposed to file it under? Down the hatch?
But let’s get to this business of hating the haitch, as pronounced with the H of hot temper, instead of the fluidity of an amicable turn of the tongue, as The Guardian’s David McKie would ardently prefer it. McKie himself has admitted, though, that the muscular way may have the winning hand.
Apparently, even the ‘haitchers,’ he notes, pronounce the letter as an Aitch when it sits between two indifferent words, but it’s doubtful that anyone is willing to concede doing so in the circumstance. Still, the last word should be granted to the British writer, if only for caring enough.
After all, who’d have the elegance of thinking about a letter, as almost invisible as the H, as one more ‘apt for trouble in nightclubs and service in Iraq?’ And if the debate seems too byzantine, you may take it to publisher Effinghan Wilson who, in 1959 wrote a whole little book about letter.
You wouldn’t find a Wikipedia reference about it, though. Suffice to mention that, however his kin may feel about that, as the, what else, Hornet noted on his 1868 obituary, his firm was ‘known throughout the world as one of the foremost houses in the publishing trade.’

ONE FLEW OVER THE HORNET’S NEST
When white Anglo-Saxon protestants use the self-celebratory acronym to define their disappearing species, the notion that a powerful insect, with a venon and a wing-battered soundtrack to match it, can be even remotely compared to them is at best, laughable, and at worst, deeply insulting. To the bugs, of course.
Wasps, after all, are colorful, diverse, independent, and capable of great beauty. Well, if you think about the pain that both groups can inflict, perhaps. But the comparison should stop even before that annoyingly preppy brand of self-serving individualists walk into the sunset. Not the bugs, of course.
Another thing hornets are masters, and Wasps are not, is the art of papermaking, from the pulp made of pure, selected pieces of wood fiber, collected from an array of sources in your backyard, if you have one, all the way to the exquisite labyrinthine contraptions that served as their dwelling for the warm months.
The example above, for all the pretty freakish aspects to it, perfectly capable of scaring the bejeezus out of the most intrepid garden spider, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Black & White & Muddy All Over, Colltalers

Just when two stirring issues, deeply relevant for the U.S. going forward – income distribution and government-sponsored surveillance of common citizens – were getting some traction in the prime real estate of public debate, another one, supposedly from the past, reared its ugly head: racism.
Apparently, America can’t help it getting constantly muddled up and overwhelmed by the racial divide, no matter how many historical steps forward have been accomplished, and how in the Supreme Court’s fictitious land of racial equality, racism has all but being completely conquered.
Far from it, as the court itself and last week’s two shocking public statements have highlighted it so well. So much for a country that has finally elected, and reelected, an African-American as president. Sadly, such toxic discussion is not ready to be coralled within the academia just yet.
The brutal reality is that this is not only fiction but a cruel tale of failed expectations and betrayed ideals, where black and other so-called racial minorities lag behind in major indicators of income, education, and social promotion, or simply languish in record numbers in overcrowded jails.
What’s fast becoming known as the Roberts court, with all the nuanced punch of a racial-profiled stop-and-frisk police harassing of an unarmed black teenager, was the one to fire the opening salvo of the week, with its Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action decision.
In it, it went along with Michigan in denying college and university applicants the right to invoke race in their applications, one more state to strike down the Civil Rights-derived legislation that allowed President Obama, for one, to even consider applying to an Ivy League institution.
The Roberts court simply reused the same mold it did last July, when it also took a swipe at yet another piece of the 1960s’ civil movements legacy, the Voting Rights Act, employing the same infuriatingly disingenuous rationale that ‘our country has changed,’ the racial divide is no longer, etc.
All that this process of dismantling the few treads supporting an already tenuous balance of race, and its close cousin, class, has managed to do so far Continue reading

Spilled Expectations

A Site Flags the Unpunished
& the Wonders of What’s Next

The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst in U.S. history, coincided with Colltales’ birth four years ago, and helped establish both the site’s green credentials and its status as a breaking news destination. A bittersweet landmark, for sure, but a landmark all the same.
Over 1,300 hundred posts later, increased readership and considerable growing pains, Colltales remains a source of constant renewal. As for the state of the environment at the gulf and BP, the corporation responsible for the spill, the news are diametrically opposed.
Despite company and official claims to the contrary, recovery of marine and marshland life, and cleanup of miles of severely impacted coastlines continues to lag. Very unlike the record profits posted by the British giant concern since the April 20, 2010 disaster.
In fact, BP has been spending a large chunk of such profits fighting claims by individuals and local businesses affected by the spill, even though the Obama administration had forced it to put up a $20 billion compensation fund for the victims of its mismanagement.
As it turned out, what happened was an accident only by definition. Long before (and, sadly, ever since) the aging equipment used to pump oil out of the gulf, that sub-contractors operate for BP and other companies, is still highly vulnerable to tragic events just likely.
The defective cement supposed to seal the well feeding the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was already under much more pressure that it could handle, a government report found out, and when it failed, it caused the rig to explode and sink, claiming the lives of 11 workers.
Far from an ‘accident,’ what happened was a tragic confluence of predictable negligence and cost-cutting measures by BP and its partners, Transocean and Halliburton, resulting in the record spill of an estimated 4.9 million barrels for three full months, until the well was capped in July of 2010.
By then, the devastation to wild life and local economies was all too apparent: massive numbers of birds perished, entire micro ecosystems went into disarray and a still unknown number of marine animals were wiped from waters washing the beaches of all five gulf states.

A HOLE TOO DEEP TO FILL
As it’s becoming a habit when it comes to corporate crimes and malfeasance, despite a tacit admission of guilt and heavy dollar-figure penalties, no one went to jail. It took BP less than two years to go back to profitability, while many local business simply folded.
The event also marked one of the saddest and most ironic Earth Days in its now forty four year tradition, and
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Curtain Raiser

Not Here to Amuse Us, Colltalers

Animal welfare organizations are celebrating this week’s decision by the U.K. to ban the use of wild animals in circuses, effective at the end of next year. England thus officially becomes the 10th country to do it so, following a mixed bag of nations with hardly anything in common.
Some, as the Netherlands, had done it as early as 2008, while others, like Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Paraguay, Slovenia, Greece and Cyprus, only prove that no nation needs to be in the now reduced G7 bloc, or even have a booming economy, to take sensible steps towards animal well being.
The ‘dark horse’ of this list is China, which despite having shown tolerance to widespread animal abuse and cruel practices, surprised the world three years ago by enacting a ban. Critics say that, unlike rules preventing government criticism, for instance, such ban is hardly enforced.
That doesn’t undermine the fact that even within an authoritarian regime, animal welfare is still a cause worth debating even by those who do not consider it to be of the same gravity as human rights violations and free expression, to name but two other serious issues.
In fact, how we treat animals in itself is a not entirely separated issue from what we deem inherent qualities of being human. How we relate not just to other species, but to the natural world and the planet has the potential to inexorably tilt the needle towards the whole range of cruelties we associated with ‘the beast,’ and definitely away from our noble pursuits of equanimity and justice to all living beings. Which, in any case, is just an abstraction.
But we digress. The debate over why we use animals to our own entertainment is as offensive now as it used to be in Roman times, when the Caesars perceived its potential (as in Panis et Circenses) to divert the masses’ attention from their own misery, and thus keeping them content and satisfied.
It was certainly used before for similar purposes, but despite 20 centuries of civilization, the history of the modern circus is one of abject exploitation of the physically handicapped for entertainment, no moral consideration given, and that includes cruelty towards the most vulnerable, wild animals.
There seems to be a growing tide towards considering any kind of imprisonment and bounded conditions towards animals, with its implicit lack of consent, the same way we already view it if it’s being done Continue reading

Racy Meals

Our Next Course May Need to
Add Bugs & Invasive Species

Not to spoil your appetite but with millions threatened to die of starvation — never mind the records amount of food we’ve been producing — and climate change squishing us and one another, away from any bodies of water, you may not like what’s for dinner.
Indeed, the main source of nourishment of tomorrow’s meal may be something you’re used to squash yourself: insects. And if you’re not up to the crunch, and by flies, have the means to turn down that protein, do everyone a big favor and go after some invasive species.
Any way you slice it, our meat and grain industry won’t cut it. Since stomachs are made to be filled, let’s hope that, rather than dirt and junk food, we develop a knack for recycling and regurgitating what we’re so used to toss. Bless our prophets, the dumpster divers.
To be sure, many already survive on a diet rich in crawling critters and hairy creepers, and one can tell by the way we say it, how deluded we still allow ourselves to be. But the time will come when we’ll learn or starve, and for the majority, it may be as simple as that.
It’s one thing, though, eat what dwindling forests still have plenty to offer. It may take guts to pick one up and swallow it whole, but with time, anyone can be a forager. It’s an entirely different affair, though, for those living in the cities, just like most of us.
Again, we hope your stomach is strong, but that disgusting creature that just moved its antennae and scurried up behind your sofa will have to be on the menu. Along with the fat subway rodents and the unsanitary geese that no longer migrate away from that fetid city pond.
That’s when grown men will cry like inmates, to no one’s sympathy, and children will dispute with feral pets the scraps of civilization. Just like the increasing millions of landfill dwellers, we may need to engage into a higher survival gear, so the pickings won’t be slim.

CRUNCHY DELIGHTS
The first two, arguably most important things anyone needs to know about eating bugs is, one, that it’s good for the planet. And two, that you may be already eating them, without knowing it. That’s not the case, of course, of indigenous peoples in pretty much all continents, who’ve been eating them from time immemorial.
Ants, locusts, beetles, worms, crickets, water… boatmen (we’re not quite there yet), flies and even stinkbugs, are central to all the protein
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Curtain Raiser

A Markdown Democracy, Colltalers

Two major events, apparently unrelated but whose timing reeks of surprise and irony, have framed the past week: a U.S. Supreme Court rule, which struck down crucial restrictions to the role of money in politics, and a presidential election in Afghanistan, which has come to a peaceful close.
It’s indeed surprising that the first-ever democratic transfer of power, in a country where the American-led 13-year long ‘war on terror’ has turned into one of the most violent places on Earth, has concluded with virtually no incidents of violence, despite a seven-million-voter turnout.
And there’s no shortage of irony either, considering that the court’s ruling, which effectively eliminates limits to the total amount of dollars donors can give to candidates, parties and political groups, happens in the land that aims at being a bastion of democracy and of the will of the common people.
We’re, of course, paraphrasing with abandon constitutional notions about representative power and a self-attributed role of guardian of democratic principles, which have both served us well when it comes to reprimand and discipline countries that, in our view, are threatening to stray from them.
That’s our new, self-inflicted moral vulnerability, though, acquired as recently as a decade or so ago, when we engaged in the unjustified Iraq war. And it’s been only the most visible tip of the iceberg, as critics and U.S. haters, most of them of our own manufacturing, won’t stop pointing it out.
But there was one thing America used to do well, despite all contradictions of its foreign policy, racial divisiveness, obsession with power, and the ingrained self-assurance that some rules didn’t apply to itself: its nurturing of a political process that did work as an equalizer for over a century. Among great U.S. presidents and political leaders, there were also many ‘John Does,’ who rose to power by the sheer power of the popular vote. And guess what? while many faded to obscurity, some actually remained relevant, and others became actual standard bearers of citizen excellence. We take exception here to name at least one, still living and still increasing his stature as a world class statesman: James Earl Carter, Jr.
Mentioning Jimmy Carter is never out of context, given the role the U.S. now seems unsure how to play, for he’s the only president not to deploy American troops anywhere, and whose Nobel Peace Prize years after leaving office is as relevant now as President Obama’s was far too premature.
What the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission rule, which some have called a Citizen United 2, has just determined is that the wealthier
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Grace Under Rain


The World Cup starts in June in Brazil, the country that has won it five times, the most of any other. Three of such conquests are fully owned by Edson Arantes do Nascimento, Pelé, the game’s top scorer and, arguably, the greatest player who’s ever played it.
Back in the 1960s, as a wee fan I got a taste of his magic and seized that memory as one of my most precious. Four years ago, I’ve committed that virtually indescribable experience to words and now, I’m sharing it with you as a personal tribute to Pelé. Enjoy it.

As he walked off the field, head down, oblivious, the crowd jeers turned into cheers. He waited until they grew louder and finally acknowledged us like the king he already was. It took him a second and we were all his forever.

Pelé, football’s greatest player, had come to my hometown to play against my team. The rough first half had just ended, with no fancy plays or memorable greatness. Just another mid-week league game, in a cold and unforgiving winter. No other redeeming memory to speak of.
But no ordinary knight was among us that night. And he acted the part with style.
Sport fans are rude, raw, irrational the world over. Crude emotions always trace them, but civility is left out at the turnstiles. Just like at the Parthenon: Christians and pagans crowd the pit but to the beasts belongs the hour.
The land of the “jogo bonito” is no exception in this world of unbounded brutality. The exquisite touch of skills, the artistry with the ball have their own bizarro mirror reflected at the bleaches, all screams and cursing and obscene gestures to match.
Let’s not get into the urine-bag throwing at random, the foul smelling bathrooms, the fights that break at chance between rivaling factions. And the slurs throw at women, let’s just not go there.
In such a cold and raining Wednesday, as only a place too close to Antarctica can be, 30 thousand or so of us were braving elements and
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Curtain Raiser

What Brazil Can’t Forget About March, Colltalers

There are a few facts both baffling and predictable about Brazil, as it marks today the 50th year anniversary of a military coup that deposed democratically elected president João Goulart and, for over two decades, controlled and terrorized every segment of its society.
One is how little public awareness exist about the dictatorship’s impact on the nation’s psyche, still jolted by irrational fears and an almost bipolar drive to earn the world’s respect, and on its institutions, which went through a forced, across the board and humiliating, overhaul, in order to survive.
Other is how surprisingly ignorant most Brazilian seem to be about the nefarious legacy left by a regime that had no constrains about persecuting its political enemies, destroying in the process the dream of building a free society that the optimism of the late 1950s in Brazil warranted.
That promise was interrupted for 21 years, and some say, remains unfulfilled, despite a number of democratic institutions having been built since the 1980s. One thing about Brazil’s recent economic boom and present turmoil is that it’s exposed the huge vulnerability of such institutions.
Lastly, another startling fact about the military rule in Brazil is the virtual impunity of those accused of having taken part in the widespread torture and murdering of regime opponents. Some of these voices are still present in the national debate and remain adamantly unapologetic.
It’s to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, a former guerrilla and the country’s first woman in high office, the merit of facilitating the creation of the Truth Commission, dedicated to investigate the dictatorship’s crimes, and that’s been the sole organ to do so, despite almost 30 years since the last general headed back to the barracks. It remains in the open whether it’ll gather enough evidence leading to persecution of notorious torturers.
Such complacence and nonchalance towards its recent dark past has hurt Brazilians in more ways they seem willing to admit. In fact, indignation against what such past did to Brazil is the single greatest theme absent in the massive street rallies throughout the country’s biggest cities.
Issues of corruption, self-serving politics, widening income gap, police violence, education and health, are all commonly invoked, and rightly so, in large demonstrations that often turn violent. However, the Military’s public image remain unscathed, and, worse, the fallacy of its alleged benign role as neutral normalizer of society struggles, which is not even constitutionally correct, is often invoked as a solution to end the ‘anarchy.’
Thus a whole generation may have not been taught what really

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Forty Seven

The Legendary Tower of David, in Caracas (Iwan Bann) Click for Video

Twin Baffling Towers &
a Prefab Random Number

The 47What links two unfinished skyscrapers, an unjustified fervor toward a two-digit number, some touches of sci-fi lore, and a whiff of a possible hoax? why, an infamous famine, lots of greed, and gumption to find conspiracy in everything.
Thus, there’s the year 1847 in Ireland, then a tower in Venezuela that became the world’s tallest slum, another in Spain said to have been built without elevators, and a still unexplained drive towards making the number 47 the sum of all values.
In the age of the Internet, anything has the potential to become a ‘proven’ fact, a sinister possibility, a malevolent hoax, and the stuff dreams are made of, all rolled into one big scheme of beliefs, hollow at the center, and devoid of a shred of evidence.
Its face value, though, can at times emulate a deeper meaning, and lend purpose to many an empty life, just like a lie, even without ever adding to the truth, still gathers enough zest of it to shine like a fake diamond and fool just like anyone.
We happened upon the number 47 by chance but were never impressed about it. Even before arching back to the 19th century and the luck of the Irish, its only feeble connection with those buildings was how many stores they both carry up the sky.
But then came the ‘official society,’ the conflicting prefab theories by Trekkies and Douglas Adams buffs, an inordinate amount of mumble-jumble, and the likelihood, always present, that some lunatic fringe group is laughing out loud about it all.
It’s possible. It wouldn’t be the first time we were the butt of an inside joke. But stepping over sleeping beasts is also part of life, and while some cheerfully spend time concocting ways to amuse themselves, many more have to climb up and down 47 floors.
The Intempo Tower, in Spain (Jamie Condliffe)
QUOTE-UNQUOTE MINDS
‘Forty-seven is the most commonly occurring two-digit random number.’ That’s how a Website dedicated to it defines its appeal. Just like that. The ‘proof’ presented is almost as flimsy: ‘the extraordinary number of times the number 47 occurs in factoids.’ We’re done here.
It’s far from the truth, of course. In fact, it’s doubtful that any mathematician would concur to such a bombastic affirmation. Then
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