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.

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)
‘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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Curtain Raiser

The Slick Charm of Oil Spillers, Colltares

When a barge carrying almost a million gallons of marine fuel oil collided with another ship in Texas Saturday, spilling oil from one of its tanks into the Galveston Bay, it barely registered with the wall-to-wall Malaysian plane disappearance slash Russia’s Crimea annexation coverage.
Although those are indeed news worth covering, albeit not breaking at the moment, the risk of becoming oblivious to oil spills can’t be overstated. Specially when even minor ones, like this one appears to be, still have the potential to disrupt irreparably the local environment.
Besides, they should always at least remind us about the Big One: the BP-caused Gulf of Mexico crude oil spill of 2010.
In fact, a funny thing happened about that disaster, a.k.a. the Deepwater Horizon explosion, the worst in history by most accounts: despite having killed 11 people, and a still unknown but surely staggering number of marine species, having caused permanent damage to that once pristine coastal environment, plus destroying another unknown number of local fishing business, it really didn’t affect much the oil industry.
In the sole measure that counts for the world’s five biggest oil companies, profit in 2013 reached $93 billion, helped by a combination of tax exemptions and loopholes that allow them to duck costly liabilities in case of mismanagement and, yes, oil spills.
BP, which is one of those five, is a typical, if somewhat pathetic, example of how it all works. After a U.S. government Sept. 2011 report found its unit, Macondo Prospect, guilty of operating a defective well, it was fined almost $5 billion and ordered to set up an estimated $20 billion fund for compensations, besides losing its fat licenses to operate in the gulf, in what should have been a tight lid case of crime and punishment.
Surprise, surprise. After four years, and the fund reportedly having cost the company twice that initial amount, not all compensation claims have been honored and much of the gulf states’ fishing and tourism Continue reading

Marble & Heavenly Bodies

Michelangelo’s Grocery
List & the Finger of Galileo

What if future generations would wind up knowing famous people not for what we celebrate them for, but for something entirely unexpected? What if, in the big scheme, that’s what’s all about, or rather, how would you like to be known a century from now?
Michelangelo Buonarroti and Galileo Galilei, whose mastery of arts and sciences summarizes much of mankind’s greatness, may be safe from such a vexing fate. Nevertheless, recent news about them did make us wonder, over 400 years after their time.
When Illinois-based weapons maker ArmaLite outfit Michelangelo’s masterpiece David with an assault rifle, it committed not just an indignant act of vandalism for profit, but also insulted four centuries of enlightenment and aspirations to transcend our destructive nature.
Almost as offensive to any human who’s ever contemplate the size of the universe, let alone Galileo‘s memory, was a National Science Foundation study, that found that one in four Americans, or some 80 million of us, simply doesn’t know that the Earth orbits the Sun.

It’s very likely that both ArmaLite and those millions of our fellow voters remain unaware that Michelangelo died 450 years and a month ago last Tuesday, exactly three days after Galileo was born, both in the same region known today as Italy. Or even what greatness we’re talking about here.
After all, it’s really a coincidence that they were joined by such a happenstance of date and place. But it’s no casual fact that they both defined their age and set the standards to all others that followed it, in ways that still resonate with our world today.
And it’s a bit petty to castigate people for caring little whether Michelangelo’s art makes us a bit more deserving of the wonders of our own time, or that Galileo’s telescope introduced us to the stars, from which we inherited the dust that makes up our bodies.
But times, alas, are no longer open to wonders and enigmas and marvels of the physical world. While the Renaissance bred geniuses like Galileo and Michelangelo, and they, in return, doted us with their indelible foresight and imagination, we got used to ignoring every star above us, as the song goes.
We seem content to juxtapose the sublime with the abhorrent, like David with a gun, and relish on the comfort of long discredited beliefs, like placing the Earth at the center of the universe. No wonder they Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Brazil Looks Back in Anger, Colltalers

There’s a verse in the Brazilian national anthem that it’s one rare unanimity nowadays in Latin America’s largest economy: everybody seems to hate it. That’s because it may, arguably, underscore a bit too uncomfortably how the country feels about itself, irking everyone to no end in the process.
After meandering about its newly gained independence from Portugal, and natural geographic beauty, the hymn hits a markedly less inspired second stanza, with the loosely translated turkey, ‘Eternally laying down on splendid cradle,’ in Joaquim Osorio Duque-Estrada’s overtly symbolistic lyrics.
It drives Brazilians mad, specially now, that the whole country seems seething with unprecedented anger towards government, politicians, the quirks of its budding democracy, and even with itself, as the also unprecedented period of economic growth seems to be waning. And that without having made much of a dent on Brazil’s ingrained structural foes, appalling income distribution and, once again, historically endangered middle class.
It’s a strikingly bleak picture for a country about to host the world’s biggest sport event, the World Cup, in just three months, and a major Olympic games, two years after. Perhaps almost as depressing as it also looks that it’s been to its reelection seeking president, Dilma Rousseff.
After some of the biggest street protests took it by storm last June, rallying against the cup itself, which is already a radical action for a soccer-crazy population, some of the same political currents are getting ready to stage them all over again during the games. And that won’t be pretty.
While last year’s mass rallies were linked to a smaller (and cheaper) soccer competition, the Confederation Cup, which Brazil won to the relief of many, this time, if such rallies hit a similar pitch under the glare of the whole globe, the consequences may have more serious implications.
Many are not waiting for the kickoff to take place, and public discontent with the way the Rousseff administration managed the massive investments the games attracted, and how little of it has or ever will trickle down to the great majority, has never been so high and potentially explosive.
Much of this anger is directed at Rousseff’s Workers’ Party, in power for almost a decade, and since embroiled in the same corruption schemes, graft allegations and downright fraud as many previous, right-leaning, administrations had been. From PT, as it’s known, though, more was expected.
Take Jose Dirceu, for instance, one of PT’s main leaders, a man who during the military dictatorship of the 1960s became a symbol of the student opposition movement and was imprisoned in 1968 for conducting ‘subversive’ activities, who marked his 68th birthday yesterday, behind bars but for a more prosaic, and deeply demoralizing reason: he was found guilty of leading the vote-buying scandal known as Mensalão.
The scandal, which has seriously tarnished the party’s image of probity, Continue reading

Body Building

Corpse Raiders & the
Market for Spare Parts

The FBI is investigating an underground network of human organ sales. Greece has been accused of illegally allowing the ‘harvesting’ of the heart of a dead U.S. Marine. And there’s suspicion that a black market is now a rising global reality. What’s going on?
Welcome to the brave new world of what you don’t like to think about the future. The flip side of modern medical research, which is developing ways to grow and regenerate cells, organs and limbs, is the gruesome traffic of body parts, with or without consent.
Guess who is more vulnerable to selling their bodies (not that way, you perv) for what can never be enough? the poor, naturally. Some would even say that, before its ban, the sale of human blood was a common form of earning cash for skid row denizens everywhere.
Well, even those heartless souls who’d invoke such a grim precendent are finding the mechanics of this new trade too much to stomach. But abstracting the heavy ethical implications, we may not be too far of such a nauseating prospect, in this age of everything has a price.
Not that everyone who could eventually afford such revolting trade would do it, let’s be clear. Morals have no particular attachment or relation to material wealth or lack thereof. Still, it’s unlikely that such a gruesome market would be able to flourish cash free.
Because, face it, money and privilege are the obvious candidates to at least entertain such a possibility. But before we go to far down this rotten route, let’s praise the less Frankenstein-tinged use of medical technology which has, in reality, made great strides.

For over 100 thousand Americans, the prospect of a brand new industry focused on developing organs and other ‘components’ of the human flesh and blood machine from stem cells, for instance, is not just exciting, but a source of hope for a radically better life.
Research into nursing cells that will grow to build different organs is far advanced, and has fortunately crossed the phony moral threshold of religious concerns. Demand is overwhelming, which shouldn’t surprised anyone: the U.S. needs more than any other country fresh new organs.
The reason: war, of course. In fact, a considerable percentage of Veterans returning from tours of duty – courtesy of the Pentagon and its steady shipment and deployment of American troops all over the world – are in desperate need for limbs and reconstructive surgery.
As it turns out, restoring at least partially their physical integrity is the relatively easier stage of their lifelong rehab process. And medical Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The War on Those Bearing Witness, Colltalers

Another war, another renewed threat to the journalism profession. News that reporters covering the Crimean conflict got beaten up last Friday, by Russian militiamen supporting the takeover of the Sevastopol Ukrainian military base, are just the latest of a rising and deeply disturbing trend.
In fact, news scribblers who take chances at trenches of what’s happening to reveal what otherwise no one would ever know, have been under siege as much as the multiplication of armed confrontations around the world seem to be reaching numbing levels of carnage and complexity.
There’s no need to place the plight of journalists above that of those caught in the crossfire, the refugees, the children, even those who signed up to bear a weapon and go after the ‘enemies of their country,’ as any conflict is frequently sold to those who enlist. But even if misery for all involved goes on, regardless whether there’s someone to report it or not, public awareness is arguably the most needed step to be taken in order to stop it.
In other words, it’s hard to feel sympathy for those massacred in the name of who knows what’s today’s word of order, if we don’t know who they are, how they’re getting crushed and, as it’s often the case, how their reaction to their predicament resembles one’s one family, son and daughter.
Just to extend the Russian fodder, that particular country and region has been rife with threats lately not just to journalists but to, you guessed it, gays, as the recent Sochi games offered an unvarnished look into the ongoing persecution of people who don’t fit the official behavioral mold.
The analogy between gays, for what it’s perceived as a challenge to so-called ‘family values’ (which are never shy of enforcing prejudice and genocide, when it comes down to it) and reporters, for what they ‘shouldn’t’ be reporting, is not without purpose. Both groups face daily threats of violence and mortal danger only on the account of their mere existence, a frightening notion that should put on the highest alert the whole society.
We could go on and on about the witch hunt against gays and basic freedom of expression in far reaching regions of the world, Africa being the most blatant example of a newly minted institutionalized persecution against people for their sexual choices, and against those who dare to report it.
But the stinging reality is that it’s in contemporary U.S. that one finds some of the most glaring attempts at curbing constitutionally-sanctioned press freedom, with a shameful record in increased Continue reading

Late Supper

A Food Fight We
Are Born to Lose

There are many incomprehensible and cruel things about capital punishment. Perhaps no one is more ironic than the last meal, offered to the death-chamber bound. Then again, depending on the circumstances, nothing tops grabbing a bite at a crucial moment.
There are memorable meals and those that people gather from a dumpster. There’s the soldier’s ration, and the Bring Your Own Food kind of dinner. Many have had enough and are now morbidly obese, and then there are the millions who simply won’t eat anything tonight.
To have and to have not is the great divide that sets apart the thoroughly satiated from the miserably famished, regardless their personal merit or scale of necessity. In the end, hunger is not equal to food shortage, but the failure of having it shared equally among all.
Between the tasty top, where superstar chefs and molecular cuisines pamper the palate of the powerful, and the bleak bottom where the next meal is less certain than death by starvation, swims the still majority of humans to whom food time equals to conviviality and fun.
Unrelatedly, William Duffy had a valid point about a soldier’s ration, on his book Sugar Blues: both Alexander armies and the Vietcong had similar sweet-free diets. For him, that could help explain the mighty of the ancient Greek and the resourcefulness of the ragtag, tunnel-dweller troops that defeated the world’s most powerful military forces.
Going back to the state’s dreadful habit of sending citizens to oblivion with a full stomach, someone with a twisted sense of parallels may say that a soldier’s meal may be also his last. Sadly, that was the case for the condensed-milk addicted Green Berets who in 1960s never made it back home from the jungles of Southeast Asia.

As it turns out, even at the last supper, inmates are not usually known for exercising a philosophical restrain and order frugally what will hardly stay in their systems for long. Most will order what’s the best on the menu, even though that coming from a jail’s cafeteria, is setting the bar not too high anyway.
Ted Bundy ordered the steak; Timothy McVeigh stuffed himself with ice-cream. John Wayne Gacy had chicken, shrimp and strawberries, while less-well-known Victor Feguer was the only one not too have too much of an appetite, in which we can all relate in some way: he had a Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Other War We’re Losing, Colltalers

It may be a tad premature, but it’s fair to consider the Affordable Care Act President Obama’s signature accomplishment, one on which he’s invested most of his two terms advocating and defending. It was his greatest political gamble but also one with the biggest potential dividends to his legacy.
On the environmental front, however, the president’s record is dismal, if not downright disastrous, having shown an inconceivable lack of resolve and political will. Two recent major developments may not just overshadow that legacy but also undermine his accomplishments.
First, about Obamacare. It’s still a work in progress, warts et al., or it’d better be, but its beneficiaries can be already counted in the millions. It’s also short of the free universal care citizens of most western societies enjoy, and far from the effectiveness of other comparable government initiatives such as Social Security and Medicare. But as far as government policy is concerned, it has its heart in the right place and it’s bound to be improved.
That being said, the really startling fact about Obamacare is how it became one of the president’s few moments of clarity and forward thinking. From the start, there was the idea, the needed steps to be taken, and minimal political unwavering to accomplish it. And he did go through with all of it.
No other crucial issue he was confronted with got that kind of personal commitment from him. And arguably, no other one stands to be greatly enhanced by future administrations. Not the same luck greeted his timid initiatives towards job creation, curbing Wall Street, providing for Vets, etc.
One may argue, yeah, but the Republicans, Congress, the Koch Bros., the Washington establishment, even former officials of his administration who went on to work as lobbyists, stood firmly on his way, preventing most of his initiatives from even making it to the floor. Who are we kidding here?
Take an issue such as immigration, for instance. The current set of bills, slated to be once again sabotaged by the GOP, happens to have a lot of leftovers from, you guessed it, Republican administrations (from Reagan all the way to George W.) in it. And it’s still dead on the water.
Consumer rights? Wasn’t this administration the first to undermine the person it had groomed to lead a federal agency, Elizabeth Warren, the moment she starts showing some willingness to bite? That she now stands as a rock in Hillary Clinton’s presidential shoe is just rope for another hanging.
One can go on about an ‘economic recovery’ that leaves out some 20 million Americans from its calculations, an increasingly powerful oligarchy of wealth individuals dictating self-benefiting policies, a hesitant foreign policy that seems to know only two instances, state of pre-intervention or full-blown war, and at the end of a nauseatingly long pipe of missed opportunities, there’ll still be a president unsure about what to do next.
That brings it all back to that polluted, industry-controlled, profit-driven, vision-challenged environmental front, which’s also about rusty pipes and fatal leaks, of chemical and radioactive waste spills and an Continue reading

Play Dough

But Why Didn’t They
Call it The Big Pizza?

The world would laugh, if it’d even care, about the little idiosyncrasies New Yorkers seem to invest themselves with so much passion one would think that the fate of humankind is squarely pinned on them. Case in point: pizza, local fast food extraordinaire.
Now, we know, would it kill us to exercise restrain and abstain from such prosaic subject? We’re not above it, though; yesterday, when we were cold and short of cash, it seemed like a good idea. But fear not, for we approach the beast with utmost respect.
For even for pizza there’s a certain way of eating it, if far from solemn, that denizens of this great cesspool are proud of mastering early on. And then there’re all the wrong ways to be ashamed doing it. Just ask the Mayor, who was caught eating the holy dough with fork and knife.
Anathema, nothing less. After all, the whole combo of flour, cheese and tomato sauce may have been invented in the old country ages ago, but the slice and the ‘fold and eat with your hands’ maneuver have been both trade-marked right here, on the streets of the five boroughs, just like steaming manholes and yellow cabs.
What? You have a problem with that? No one should be surprised if many an argument has flared up or settled down over a steaming pie, and for that dwindling minority with a pocketful of change, nothing is as affordable and substantial than a 4am slice by the curbside.
But alas, not even pizza is that New Yorker, and as with many other city-by-the-river staples, it’s been appropriated by the world, many times over, gritty, warts et al. Perhaps one day we’ll all be talking about pizza like we do today about the old Times Square. But we digress.
We’re living in other times, that’s for sure, even if equally lean. Definitely diminished slant on little localized treats, though, as they plan on printing a pie in space and making a slice last longer than a heat wave. Never mind us old farts, for kids are unlike to mourn the demise of such a 20th century food relic.
Big Apple? Who were they kidding? So, fine, it was supposed to evoke the original sin and all that, besides looking a bit more photogenic in tourism ads. But the likelihood of seeing someone eating apples on the streets of New York was never bigger than spotting a kangaroo at a subway stop, or a beret-wearing mime.
Although we’re sure those have also been spotted somewhere around Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

An Industry’s Sagging Ethics, Colltalers

Among the many negative factors compounding the harrowing conditions faced by garment workers around the world, one that particularly stings, stinks and stands out is the fact that teenage shoppers in big urban centers, the biggest consumers of their wares, are mostly oblivious to their plight.
The staggering socio-economic abyss dividing the two groups, wider than most segments of the chain of production, can obviously explain, at least in part, why that’s so. And so can an arguable rise in the alienation towards social causes currently experienced by the American youth, specially.
However, given that both groups share a statistically close age bracket, it’s almost baffling that this occurs with a generation that puts almost as much credence on the way they dress, and the brand-awareness they sport, as on the way they see and want to be perceived by the world.
From child labor to slavery, from unsanitary conditions to hazardous workplaces, where risk of being electrocuted or crushed to death is just another punch on their usual 12-hour shiftcards, this industry is long due to a radical departure from the 1800s lock and chain dungeon where it now rots.
While dominating and controlling the economy of countless impoverished nations, it successfully peddles its goods to a deep-pocket demographics that couldn’t show awareness about its brutal business model even if their collection of expensive, Made in China, Nikes would depend on.
Then again, those who do not partake neither the age group nor a particular bias towards attire, are often reminded to not make assumptions about how much credence youth place on anything, these days. It does sound like yet another reason for the gloomy aging to speak ill of sprightly ripe.
Regardless, a spate of catastrophic events related to the garment industry in the past few years should give pause even to the callous of spirit or the politically unmoved, right? Maybe. But it all could lead to yet another global high-horse cavalcade charging to a land of further indifference.
Only when the master puppeteers behind such appalling snapshot of the consumer society we all share and love, circa 2014, come into full glare, though, that we’re forced to confront our twisted allegiances about the issue (never mind how bad we really want that new faded-blue jeans).
And wouldn’t you know them? Walmart, Sears, Gap, Target, Urban Outfitters, J.C. Penney, and many others, including outfits linked to stellar names such as Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, have all been in either side of this trade quagmire: as part of its aggravation or solution.
We probably wouldn’t be talking about this now if it hadn’t been for the tragedy of Rana Plaza, an eight-store building in Bangladesh, that Continue reading

Nuke’s for Nuts

Nun’s Jail Sentence Indicts
Risky Bet on Nuclear Power

How much of a threat is an 84-year old nun to a multi-billion dollar facility that’s been enriching weapons-grade uranium since WW2? Why, a lot if it’s run by a join venture of two government defense contractors that are embroiled in a $22 billion award dispute.
Enough also to sentence Megan Rice last Tuesday to nearly three years in prison, allegedly for breaking and vandalizing the facility, but most likely for her long and distinguished career as a pacifist, critical of the U.S.’s production of weapons of mass destruction.
It was only the latest scuffle between an anti-nuke activist group, in this case, Rice and two other peace protesters, and powerful recipients of fat government defense contracts, Babcock & Wilcox Co. and Bechtel Group Inc., that’s been the currency of the American option for nuclear power.
The disproportional sentence was slapped on the fearsome threesome after they exposed serious security flaws at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Y-12 National Security Complex, by staging a two-hour occupation of a $500 million storage bunker, which they splattered with red paint and scribbled with anti-war slogans.
Such scandalous ‘crime’ of trespassing seemed more important to U.S. District Judge Amul Thapar than what the act was supposed to call attention to: that a plant producing a lethal compound, capable of wipe out a small country if ignited, would be so poorly guarded that an elderly person could easily gain entry.
Thus, the recent tradition of shooting the messenger, never mind the message, that the Obama administration has been particularly keen in pursuing, got another notch up the yardstick. And for now, let’s not even get started with how unsafe uranium processing has been since, well, Hiroshima.
Y-12 was part of the Manhattan Project, and thus, its history arc can be traced back to the bombing of the Japanese city, that effectively ended the war but also opened a scary can of radioactive worms, all the way back to Japan’s 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.
Between those two brackets, there was Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, plus a dozen frightening misses. Although we haven’t yet reached critical mass, at least in number of casualties, there’s been one constant related to nukes since their inception: the world holds its breath whenever they malfunction.
In fact, behind all the spin and justification those with invested interests in nuclear power are always ready to invoke, there’s a consensus that such technology remains a monster that, once Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Short-Sighted Sex Assault Bill, Colltalers

The most recent proof that the U.S. military seems incapable of prosecuting cases of sexual abuse within its ranks was on display again last week. Lt.Col.William Helixon, the Army’s lead prosecutor in the sexual assault court-martial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, has quit.
His resignation is a de facto derailment, at least from now, of the case against Brig.Gen. Jeffrey, who’s accused of having an extra-marital affair with an unidentified captain under his command, who also claimed that she was forced to perform sex acts even after she’d ended the relationship.
Reportedly, Lt.Col. Helixon wasn’t convinced enough of the woman’s sincerity, which is typical of sexual crime cases, when the accuser has to endure suspicions that the claims are fabricated, while the accused’s rarely prosecuted. The case may also put an end to her professional career.
To many, though, the prosecutor may have been afraid of where the case could lead to, and represent to his own career, an issue at the heart of two competing bills, sponsored by Sens. Kristin Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill, being considered by Congress since November.
On the surface, they are pretty similar. They both finally address the ingrained culture of sexual assault in the military, a fact that albeit heavily tilted against women, has also its smaller share of male victims. This is but a single case, by the way; there were over 20 thousand in 2012 alone.
The crucial difference is that Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal would’ve have independent military prosecutors pursuing sexual allegations, instead of members of the victims’ chain of command. Of course, the Pentagon and many lawmakers oppose it and may support Sen. McCaskill’s more hierarchy-mindful version. Her bill may prevail and be voted as early as this month, but the Sinclair affair just shows how wrong its approach is.
Similarly to what happens in the civilian population, but even more exacerbated in the military, rape is never about sex, but power and subjugation. Understatement aside, it’s a brutal, damaging, and long lasting mechanism to impose control and crush dissent. It’s been used as weapon of war since humans have been around, and is still used to settle ethnic and tribal disputes in far corners of the planet.
That it happens in the U.S. military, the world’s most powerful army, though, and not nearly taken as seriously as it should, is just unacceptable. The organization has been dragging its feet to pursue Continue reading

Crossed Pollinators

Bee Friends Ask Lovers of Roses
& Chocolate to Help Save Colonies

A number of environmental groups have chosen this Valentine’s Day week to remind everyone in general, and lovers in particular, that the massive disappearance of bees continues on but, as far as we now know, it can still be halted.
Their timing is appropriate. This mostly shopping holiday, treasured by precious few but still feverishly cheered by many, is a major sales day for roses and chocolate, and neither will be around for the taking for too long, if pollinators are to die off.
As a matter of fact, nor will human folk, if Albert Einstein was right in his grim prediction. Whether the quote is apocryphal or not, $30 billion worth of U.S. crops face the catastrophic threat of not surviving many more winters without enough bees to assure their pollination.
If that happens, it wouldn’t be for lack of warnings, just like climate change and the annual extinction of countless flora and fauna species. The ongoing tragedy of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been quickly intensifying, is a result of yet another man-made folly.
To be sure, there’s not one single cause. But what was initially blamed solely into infections caused by the Varroa and Acarapis mites, has now pointed to the conclusion that for many should’ve have been obvious all along: neonicotinoids, a lethal class of pesticides.
Used for years on corn, soy and other crops, they may not kill bees directly, or other insects that are part of the chain of pollination crucial for the survival of any crop, for that matter. But the way they act is just as damaging, entomologists say.

Between the varroa mite, now considered one of the most contagious insect viruses on the planet, and a profit-busting industry of pesticides, hope for bees is quickly dwindling. If consumers stay quiet, that is. That’s what many environmental organizations are seeking to reverse.
When neonicotinoids began showing up in bee pollen, a team of Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Snowden May Come to Brazil, Colltalers

Amnesty International joined this past week a global push to convince the Brazilian government to seriously consider granting asylum to NSA contractor turned whistleblower Edward Snowden, or at least to provide an official reply to his December passionate letter seeking shelter there.
The organization is now part of an eclectic mix of privacy advocates, grassroots movements for government transparency, community activists and a wide array of political leaders the world over that sees merit in Snowden’s request, and possible benefits for Brazil, despite the likely downsides.
If President Dilma Rousseff may wonder, why Brazil?, the fact is that, among all world leaders affected by Snowden’s revelations of NSA widespread spying on their personal and national affairs, she may be the one whose biography most closely tracks his current woes.
For she’s now that rare elected president whose past as a political operative put her at odds with a dictatorship; the one that ruled Brazil in the 1960s, kept tabs and reportedly tortured her, deeming her a ‘subversive.’ So she would be in a unique position to understand Snowden. Or not.
A lot has happened since the end of the military rule in Brazil, in the middle of the 1980s, and as the country enjoys an unprecedented high global profile, it’s possible that many a hawk on her corner would be advising her against welcoming a man the U.S. is so invested in throwing into jail.
When Snowden, who’s been granted temporary asylum till August in, of all places, Russia, released to the public documents showing how the NSA has enjoyed for years unrestricted power to gather intelligence in any way it sees fit, including spying on law-abiding citizens, he single-handedly ignited an overdue debate over the limits between a state’s security interests and the constitutional right of individuals to their own privacy.
The discussion gained momentum throughout the world and weakened the agency as the documents also clearly showed that much of such intel gathering hasn’t provided meaningful breakthroughs in the so-called war on terrorism, and instead, has been spent on industrial espionage.
That a U.S. agency has been so focused on uncovering foreign government and corporate secrets, something definitely not in its job description, was the one reason invoked by President Rousseff to cancel a U.S. visit in October: Brazil’s Petrobras, as it turned out, was also a NSA’s target.
That, and the disclosure that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cellphone, among others, had also been tapped, caused a Continue reading

The Blunder Games

When Olympic Ideals Boil Down
to Saving Dogs From Being Killed

There hasn’t been any shortage of despicable reasons to abhor the Olympic Winter Games starting today in Sochi, Russia, but its Organizing Committee has managed to win the prize for the cruelest of them all: it ordered a hunt to kill the city’s stray dog population.
And it’s one bid that may’ve been actually completed by the eve of the opening ceremony, unlike the athletes’ village and the visitors’ transportation hub, both still under construction, and running and potable water at some of the press corps’ hotel accommodations.
Add to that too a hostile climate towards gay and basic civil rights, appalling conditions faced by laborers, many still unpaid and some already deported, and a general menace lurking about the games, after countless threats of terrorism made by Vladimir Putin’s political opponents.
This Olympics were to be his crowning achievement after 12 years of unquestionable power over everything big and small in the Russian society. It’s shaping up to be, however, a gigantic blunder that has cost billions of dollars, even if so far, not many (human) lives. Let’s hope that it keeps that way.
Everything about this exercise of self-aggrandizing has gone counter Putin’s ambitions, and one would expect, may serve to undermine his steel grip over Russia. It wouldn’t be a bad result for such arrogant enterprise, if that actually happens. History, though, usually proves us wrong.

To be sure, the problem of stray dogs in big metropolis around the world is not a monopoly of Russia, even when considering those in the streets of Moscow, for example, legendary urban features. Not long ago, bankrupted Detroit had to face a similar problem, with thousands of dogs wondering its neighborhoods.
There, animal organizations, mostly non-profit, plus a sympathetic population have come to the rescue, and many famished canines have found homes and suitable shelters, according to reports. But the problem persists, as efforts to educate people about sterilization and other measures take time until producing palpable results.
Elsewhere, in cities like Rome, Paris and Rio de Janeiro, passionate debates about what to do with strays and feral cats and dogs continue Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Turn of France, Colltalers

If a country has exercised such a cultural sway over the U.S. throughout the centuries, it’s been France. A hundred years ago, Paris, still called then the City of Light, was refuge and headquarters of an engaged generation of American artists, who melded revolutionary ideals into their work.
So it’s very disturbing to see the turnaround happening to France in the past several years, that has seen a rise in anti-Semitism, along with a political-motivated exasperation with foreigns in general, and blacks and arabs, via former colonies in Africa and the Middle East, in particular.
Even though Americans per se are not considered immigrants, but go by the euphemistic ‘expatriates,’ it’s not lost to anyone how this repeal of the ‘other’ has spread out to immigrants, and its similarities with cultural stereotypes born and bred in America that may be used as reference points.
France is not alone in sharing this xenophobic wave with most of Western Europe, where once again, the politics of the day has conspired to blame immigrants for the woes of their misguided economic policies. Chief among the scapegoats, of course, are the Jews and the Roma.
They represent ethnic brackets, from top to bottom of the social spectrum, with a world of diversity, multiculturalism, fractioned faiths, and traces of tribal and medieval religions in between. In the background, sits French military past as one of the world’s mightiest colonial superpowers.
It all coalesced during the 20th century, when most of those former subjugated nations came into their own, through wars of independence, and were able to exercise their right to become second-class citizens in the land of their former oppressors, with whom they share language and culture.
The culmination of the kind of ideological wars waged by conflicting political directions, with liberals, minorities, students and workers allied and doing battle against forces of the establishment and the military, happened during the great global mass movements for peace of the 1960s.
Art has been an integral part of this process, with esthetics movements closely tracking the two world wars. Careers were forged and Continue reading

Floating Enigmas

Adrift at Sea, Ghost Ship
Carries Crew of Cannibal Rats

Most eerie accounts of ships lost or found abandoned, without a shadow of life aboard, fuel nightmares and horror tales. Take the Mary Celeste, for instance, whose missing crew left all possessions and jumped out of her in a hurry, on a clear night in 1872.
The Lyubov Orlova cruiser, though, belongs to another category of fright: the life left behind is not human but feral. Rodents with sharp teeth run around breeding and eating each other. As they carry on their blood bath, the ship drifts towards the North Atlantic.
The Russian-made vessel is only the latest to be cast adrift, but unlike memorable cases in the past, the fate of her last crew is well known: unpaid by the owners, they all left her at a Canadian harbor, where she remained until she broke lose during a storm.
Penniless and prosaic, or lucky as some would put it, the fate of the Lyubov Orlova crew diverges from accounts of many a ghost ship, found empty, or lost forever and possibly sunk. At least they lived to hopefully find new employment, or another line of business.
Those who manned other legendary ships, however, were never to be seen again. Besides the Mary Celeste, there’s the Caroll A. Derring, with its 1921 swashbuckling tale of possible pirates and the Bermuda Triangle, and the Zebrina, found empty in 1917, with likely hints that the war had come on board.
But just before we lose perspective, the worst possible nightmarish scenarios notwithstanding, nothing at sea can be more terrifying than a shipwreck, both for its potential for unredeeming loss and ability to strike fear into the hearts of sailing souls. Neither has any ship disappeared with a large crew so far. Knock on wood.
And no nautical tragedy encapsulates a higher confluence of fears associated with high seas than the wreck of the Essex in 1820, with its horrific tale of a giant whale hitting it twice, and survivors resorting to cannibalism. The episode inspired at least one masterpiece, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, published 30 years later.

Giving its primordial existence, though, the vastness of the bodies of water that interconnect and divide our receding lands do instil an inordinate amount of irrational fears and spikes in our fright bones, in diametrically ways that terra firma represents hope and redemption when it’s finally within reach.
Thalassophobia is, in fact, one of the arguably most primeval fears for humans, more intense than even the fear of heights. For our inadequate bodies, not made to soar above the clouds or breathe underwater, can still better avoid the former, whereas to drown, one Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Time for Serious Housekeeping, Colltalers

The bloody revolts in Egypt and Ukraine; the bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan; the testy peace talks on Syria; killings and prejudice in the streets of Africa; the unrest in Brazil. The world in 2014 hasn’t gone much far from exactly resembling the world in 2013.
For heaven’s sakes, even the Pope’s ‘peace doves’ were seized and probably slaughtered yesterday by a crow and a seagull – presumably the kind that lives away from the sea – right after he blessed and released them from the Apostolic Palace window to the stunned St. Peter’s Square crowd.
But little if any of such incendiary foreign policy issues will be mentioned tomorrow by President Obama, at his State of the Union address, a mostly pro-forma tradition that has hardly any impact on the country’s year ahead. It’ll be, nevertheless, a crucial speech for the president.
Most likely he’ll focus on two major challenges facing Americans today: the widening inequality gap, which contrasts with the official rhetoric about the future, and the very role of the government, as the scandal of NSA spying on citizens continues to mine our trust on his sincerity.
To be fair, as of today, the U.S. has put some distance from the terrible consequences of the Great Recession of 2008, and economic indicators have indeed pointed to a slow but seemingly steady recovery, depending on whether one agrees with the way such numbers are computed.
And the president’s bound to reaffirm his commitment to human rights, even thought his tame lectures on the importance of reliable intel against terrorism clashes with the reality that, despite its growing budget and de facto free reign, the NSA has failed to produce palpable results.
But as a nation with such a vibrant history of political independence, and defense of individual freedoms, whose constitution is modeled after Greek ideals of equality and the pursuit of happiness, the U.S. today seems closer to a backwater republic whose citizens simply gave up hope.
Despite such glowing economic indexes of recovery, a cross-section of some 40 million Americans remain jobless, homeless, uneducated and

Continue reading

Amazing Zone

Amazon’s Mind-Altering Tales:
Nazis, Condoms & the Internet

Just on the account of its gargantuan scope and staggering diversity of species, the Amazon Rainforest has inspired some of our most intriguing posts. But today’s three surprising stories may stun even the most seasoned admirer of that grand green extension.
Cue in the Ayahuasca, its ancient hallucinogenic medicine, and suddenly, tales are not about flora and fauna, but in a way, about basic human feelings, such as love, hate, and the pursuit of communication among distant peoples, otherwise known as being online.
Not that deforestation has slowed down by that much. Or that assassinations of local defenders of the forest has subsided, or being punished by law. And since we’re at it, the jungle’s prospects for the future have not become any less forbidding either.
On the other hand, we could, as we’ve done often, highlight some of the amazing lives and works, native communities and positive deeds, that perform daily their mostly ignored task of fighting to preserve if not the whole forest, at least its indomitable spirit, to our grandchildren and their own kids.
It’s just that we can’t resist bringing you something not usually associated with the environment and wild life and indigenous peoples, all worthy causes for discussion and multiple posts, intrinsically connected with the forest. Not today, anyway.
Instead, let’s contextualize these elements alluded to by the headline, as signs that perhaps one can take the civilization out of the forest, and it’d all be just fine. But try to take the forest out of civilization, and one may be left with the bitter sum of its worst vices.
The good thing about it, spoiler alert, is that out of three, two of said elements are somewhat positive, for one may represent an economic force of transformation, and the other, well, it simply failed, and that was an excellent thing. About the Internet, however, the jury’s still out.

Among the many advocates, some already savagely gunned down, and others still soldiering on, despite life threats and the oblivion of society at large, the shadow of Chico Mendes, murdered 25 years ago last month, still deservedly dominates the conversation about preservation of the forest.
Chico, as he was known, was a rubber tapper and union leader, whose life work was involved in creating sustainable means of survival for the people of the jungle. His assassination helped call attention to the plight of many who, like him, had the courage to fight for a shared, positive view of the future.
We mention rubber because Brazil’s experienced two powerful production booms, one in the late 1800s, and then during WWII. But with widespread commercialization of synthetic rubber, produced from petroleum, the boom went bust, and the Amazon never recovered economically.
Still, production of natural rubber from latex continues in a very small scale, thanks in part to Chico’s efforts. Now there’s a small factory Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Enemy at the (Internet) Gates, Colltalers

This was supposed to be a short, clear-cut newsletter about the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision last week to throw out federal rules preventing broadband giants, such as Verizon, from creating tiers of Internet accessibility, effectively killing so-called net neutrality, the ability of anyone to access the Web equally.
The ruling, a defeat for the Federal Communications Commission, may in fact mark the end of cheap, high quality Internet service for those without deep pockets. If it stands, it’ll determine that you may continue to access Nike’s Web site, or Google’s almost immediately, as you do now, while visiting Colltales, for instance, will take a big chunk of your day; you may find yourself back in the days of buffering…buffering… buffering.
Which is indeed unfortunate and not only to our unwaveringly loyal readers, but to all who still believe the Internet is and should remain a basic right to every citizen, just like to it is access to clean water, electricity and gas services, if you live in a minimally organized society.
Thus, free speech advocates and civil rights organizations around the world are fully mobilized to fight the ruling and prevent big corporations from turning the Internet into the kind of shameful cable services we all love to hate, where you don’t get to choose what you get but still pay a lot for it.
A deeper look into the issue, however, shows that, as it was formulated, the FCC’s regulatory stance concerning Internet providers was hardly defensible, as it insisted, back in 2002, that Internet giants were not utilities, like landline phone companies, or carriers, like telecoms, but ‘information service providers,’ a special classification in line with the financial interests of the providers themselves, not the customers.
That definition, essentially, is what turned net neutrality such a fragile concept, from a judicial and regulatory point of view, since the FCC has no authority to impose the same restrains on information service providers as it does over carriers and utilities. Hence, Verizon’s victory.
Before we dig further into what this all means, let’s just clear the air about why fighting for open and equal access to the Internet for everybody is so important, and not just a ‘first world problem,’ as it’d be easy to characterize it. The reality is that the power of such access has already proved to be instrumental for many progressive global movements, regardless of their result or consequence. The Arab Spring is but one recent example.
Plus, wirelessly or via satellite, even impoverished nations without a reliable electrical grid can theoretically benefit from Web access, the NSA spying and malignant malware creators notwithstanding. As the Continue reading

Man Made

We Build Automata So to
Mend Our Broken Dreams

‘We’re not computers, Sebastian, we’re physical,’ says Replicant Roy Batty to the brilliant but emotionally stunted genetic designer J.F., in Blade Runner, after he asked Roy and Priss to ‘do something.’
We’ve been asking these quasi-beings that we create to ever so closely resemble our own likeness, to do things for us since at least the 300s BCE, when mathematician Archytas built his steam powered dove.
From that first artificial bird to today’s wonders of modern animatronics on the screen, and Japanese robots all around, we’ve built a hefty utopian timeline of artificial bodies, made of assorted materials or other body parts. No wonder, they also litter the stuff of our nightmares.
Designed to obey, first, then to go where no human could possibly survived, as Philip K. Dick envisioned, we seemed to have this immemorial angst of beating god at his own game and develop a more faithful companion than our own kind, only to get frustrated, if they’d grow too loyal, or killed, if they’d turn on us.
Fictionally, of course. Even though we should’ve known better by now, we still pursue a variety of traditions of supernatural beings doing things for us or to us, creating and destroying our world at will, acting just like summarized versions of the supreme invisible deity billions believe controls our every move on this planet.
From the Golem to Godzilla, from Adam to Frankenstein, we’re transfixed by the thought of being capable of creating or even conceiving another animated body, made of mud or plastic, that could sooth our desperate loneliness in a vast, totally indifferent universe.
It could as well be that we’re just bored, or no longer can stand any of the other 6,999,999,999 bodies cramped and imprisoned in this tiny rock, swirling steadily but completely out of our control, and dream of Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Back to the Middle East, Colltalers

Welcome back, friends. You find us trying to make sense of three breaking news stories that may be intrinsically connected: Iran’s agreement to scaling back its nuclear program, the death of Israel’s former PM Ariel Sharon, and the 12th anniversary of the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The first step of the gargantuan agreement set in November as a textbook diplomatic breakthrough, hits the ground a week from today, with Iran beginning to reduce its uranium stockpile and, effectively, taking measures to get out of the business of producing nuclear weapons.
That’s part of a six-month ‘interim’ that should lead to the lifting of economic sanctions that have crippled the Iranian economy for decades. Three, to be exact, as there hasn’t been anything close as to what the five U.N. Security Council nation-members, plus Germany, have achieved in Geneva.
So it’s ironic that Sharon‘s 8-year coma has ended in death, just as Israel seems the most isolated and mistrustful of all interested parts in the accord. After all, with an ill-advised 1982 Lebanon invasion, Sharon may have unwittingly powered the most belligerent pro-Iran group, Hezbollah.
Even before his burial today at Negev, the debate over his legacy had already flared up, ranging from his ‘Bulldozer’ nickname, for a military-mind, whose main goal was to expand Israeli borders at any costs, to his efforts to reach out to moderate Palestinians to accept his conditions for peace.
Which brings us to the third part of this equation, that of the Guantanamo extrajudicial detention camp, which still holds three Iranian nationals, among its 155 captives, mostly not yet charged with any crime, some being forced fed to prevent hunger strikes, and all in miserable conditions.
Despite President Obama’s campaign promises to close the facility, which at one point held up almost a thousand prisoners, the camp became a judicial black hole, a catastrophic institutional limbo, that Continue reading

John & João

JFK and Brazil’s Military
Coup, Set in His Own Words

When we wrote in November about the exhumation of João Goulart, the Brazilian president deposed by a 1964 military coup, and the spooky coincidence of that happening on the 50th year anniversary of John Kennedy’s assassination, we didn’t know half of it.
But now the audio of a meeting at the White House with Ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon, on Oct. 7, 1963, confirms what has already been suspected for years: that JFK had openly considered the possibility of supporting a military intervention in Brazil.
The audio containing the bombshell revelation was released recently, without transcript, by the Kennedy Library, and became part of Italian-born Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari‘s 4-volume exposé of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil for 20-odd years.
The U.S.’s likely role is pivot to A Ditadura Envergonhada (The Ashamed Dictatorship in free Portuguese translation), and permeates Gaspari’s Archives of the Dictatorship, an extensive documentation and analysis of the time, now on the Internet and slated to be published next month.
In a wider context, the books join the effort of segments of the Brazilian society to understand and come to terms with this dark period of its history, still relatively untapped by historians and, not Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Time Ripe to Do Right, Colltalers

‘We’ve done this for 51 weeks in 2013, sending Colltales editorial commentary to our friends every early Monday.’ That’s how we’ve started our Newsletter last week, in what became the first part, the first six months of the year, of a retrospective of some of the themes that dominated 2013.
Picking it right up where we’ve left it off, by July the revelations about NSA spying on common citizens, which is well above its stated purpose, had started to take hold of the national debate, and challenge the Obama administration’s intentionally dismissive tone denying them any merit.
By dispatching its minions to occupy media outlets with a rhetoric centered on a global manhunt for Edward Snowden, the government, through the Justice Dept., tried to divert what had become obvious: that the leaks were an intolerable violation of U.S. citizens’ constitutional rights.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, made history by declaring the Defense of Marriage Law, and its ugly clones, unconstitutional, effectively opening the way for same-sex weddings nationwide, which was great, but failed voters miserably, by striking down a key Voting Rights Act component.
The results showed right away as many southern states moved to restrict access to minority voters, in what’ll be another attack on our electoral process going forward. Back to spying, the nightmarish reality of the existence of a parallel court system in the U.S. was finally confirmed.
We’re in shaky ground when hopes rest on August, and it wasn’t any different this time, as the SEC finally took an almost unknown bond Continue reading

The Ungiven

A Year in the Life of
a Turncoat Saying No

I did it. Or rather, I did not. First, let’s take exception and write this post in the first person, lest no one else take the fall for my unspeakable acts of omission, negligence, and absolute lack of empathy: I have refused to make end-of-the-year donations.
I don’t mean once, or twice, or heaven forbid, three times, but have deleted all desperate emails, coming from all corners of the world, for my urgent help saving individuals, communities, natural resources, ideas, or for Ebenezer Scrooge’s sake, the whole planet.
Worst: not so secretly, I actually enjoy receiving these last-minute solicitations from such noble causes, vainly nursing the obnoxious idea that, somehow, just having been chosen to receive them is a sign of my superior humanitarian condition, and public acknowledgement of my own goodness.
Feeling so overwhelmed by such displays of goodwill towards my potential to add a savior’s hand to a worthy fight or effort, towards the betterment of mankind, I go to self-centered lengths of congratulating the face in the mirror, for being so gifted and touched by, no question about, a divine inspiration.
Except that I didn’t. Methodically and systematically, I’ve treated them all like spam, and as the quests for help intensified towards the end of the year, December being the very apex of the marathon of sign-ins and petitions, I matched it all with equal intensity by sending them all to trash.
Never mind what came in through regular mail, tons of envelopes stuffed with free addresses and chances to win duffel bags, stuffed animals, bumper stickers, badges to be displayed showing my allegiance, that I judiciously took care of, tearing it all apart with bare hands or scissors.

I did it without a second thought, and even now, I’m not sure I regret having done it so. After all, they all seemed to be addressed to someone with way deeper pockets than mine, and a bigger heart too, willing to go out of the way and having finger cramps just signing checks or providing credit card numbers.
It all did look as if they were not talking to me, but someone higher up in the big hierarchy of the good giving and the well willing. So, fine, I did feel a bit pressured to perform my very best, and obviously, failed miserably, for otherwise there wouldn’t be reasons for a post like this.
So, I said no, and now I’m saying, I’m sorry, ACLU, AFSC, Alaska Wilderness League, America’s Wolves, Amnesty, AnimalHaven, ASPCA, Audubon, Bird’s Nest, Care, ColorOfChange, Common Dreams, Covenant House, Earthjustice, EEF, FoodBank, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Heifer, and HOPE.
I sincerely apologize League of Women Voters, LGBT, MADRE, Media Matters, Mercy Corps, Mother Jones, Native Americans, Nature Conservancy, Oceana, OpenSecrets, OWS, Oxfam, PETA, PFAW, Pro-Publica, RootsAction, Save the Rainforest, Sierra Club, Smithsonian, Solar & Wind Power, Truth Out, UNICEF, UN Refugee Fund, Union of Concerned Scientists, Utne Reader, WIN, Working Families, and WWF.

Plus, my deepest regrets for not having heeded the appeals of an assortment of local charities, housing organizations, hunger programs, Continue reading

The 2,000 Year Old

A Wife & Christianity as a Hoax,
Highlights of the Year in Jesus

Off-the-beaten-path news about Jesus are hard to come by. But there’s been at least a couple in the past year, that in the unlikely event of being proven true, could shake the very foundations of his church and recast the entire religion built after his death.
Since it’s that time of the year again, whether you like it or not, to rehash stories about his official birthday today, why not retell instead those odd tales, about a supposed wife and Christianity as a possible hoax, along with a few others not easily dismissed.

Before getting into those two highly spicy arguments, which despite having been given short shrift by religious scholars, had their share of intriguing historical research to back them up, let’s do some housekeeping about four other interesting news about the carpenter of Nazareth.
The latest one is the Naked Jesus discussion (we tried to warn you). Just a few months into his papacy and the Franciscan Pope Francis’s inkling for restoring the church’s empathy for the poor has ignited all sorts of disconcerting ideas about religion and, grasp, Christ’s sexuality.
Invoking art scholar Leo Steinberg’s research into the pictorial representation of JC in Renaissance paintings, a recent Lee Siegel story frames the pope’s open attitude towards gays and the dispossessed within the Franciscan order’s very own credo, ‘follow naked the naked Christ.’
Like the Renaissance masters, to present the naked body of Jesus was the proper way to express his own humanity and contempt for material goods. His nudity, thus, was to be perceived as more authentic and pure than the copious and expensive paraments worn by church bishops, priests and officials.

It’s an idea that has been dormant, and socially all but absent, from religion as we know it, as the Vatican, for instance, is closer to a powerful political organization than whatever Jesus’s followers had in mind. And sexuality remains a taboo as it was during the Inquisition.
Comparatively, research into the historical figure and places he may have inhabited have advanced at a more pragmatic pace, albeit most of Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Tales From a Troubled Year, Colltalers

We’ve done this for 51 weeks in 2013, sending Colltales editorial commentary to our friends every early Monday. At one point, the Newsletter fused with the weekly Curtain Raiser, so now everyone receives it too. That’s why we’re doing something different today and next week.
Out of four or five these monthly ‘letters from the editor,’ we’ve picked the ones that best encapsulate each of the 12 30-odd days in the life of this planet, circa 2013. Despite such arrogant quarterbacking, what emerged was indeed a full picture of a time one hopes was not completely lost.
We’ve started off the year already fearing for President Obama’s lack of environmental resolve (which continues), as the oil and gas industry set strong footholds on his policies. As a result, fracking for gas and the Keystone oil pipeline are now all but at an official ‘go’ for this administration.
In January, we’ve laid our best hopes for the president’s second term, as well as traced parallels between Brazil’s Lula, and the late Venezuela’s Chaves, and their oversize role in reshaping Latin America, but the main theme of the month was one to also dominate the year: whistleblowers.
We were still six months away from Edward Snowden’s crucial NSA revelations, but the looming trial of Pvt Bradley Manning, later, Chelsea Manning, and wholesale persecutions of a variety of whistleblowers by the administration, got us to seriously doubting the president’s sincerity.
Immigration was, and still is, a fundamental issue that’s been handled by a coalition of self-interests and racism. As they fail in February to reach a fair agreement, the now-profitable U.S. prison system had everything to celebrate from such indecision: jails have been full of illegal immigrants.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday prompted a meditation on the role of leaders bringing about change, but the unexpected meteor that hit Russia brought everyone back to the same sobering page: to errant sky rocks, we’re fair game and the whole civilization may be just another hit away.
That sinking feeling that we’ve been lied to got aroused once again with Continue reading

Chico Mendes

The Rainforest Man & the
Hands That Dealt His Fate

At 6:45pm, 25 years ago this Sunday, Chico Mendes headed to his backyard to take a shower, in Xapuri, at the heart of Brazil’s Amazon state Acre. As he opened the door, he was shot point blank and met the fate that he’d already been telling everyone it’d be his.
He’d turned 44 a week before, and still envisioned a bright future for the mythical land where he was born, became a community leader, and ultimately fell as the most recognizable face of the forest and its native peoples’ struggle. He also knew who was coming to kill him.
“I always survive,” said a 78-year old man after being run over by a car in nearby Rio Branco just this past Dec. 5. No one would have paid much attention to him, though, if he wasn’t Darly Alves da Silva, found guilty of having ordered the hit on Chico, executed by his son. And that, yes, he’s been free for years now.
He could be referring to the fact that he made it to such an advanced age in a region where life expectancy is officially set at 72 years old. Or for surviving the accident itself. But he could as well be bragging about the botched criminal process that failed to keep him and son in jail for more than half of their 19 years sentence.

Chico is gone, although many say his cause continues to thrive. It’s hard to say: according to even the most conservatives stats, deforestation of the Amazon, although diminishing at a steady rate, is still hovering just below 15 thousand square kilometers in annual average, since the time he, unlike Darly, still walked among us.
As with most dead leaders, the growth of his global stature increases as more time passes since his demise, and much of the essence of his struggle tends to be glossed over in favor of a more benign, heroic but virtually impossible to attain, public image. That’s how the system works to undermine those who challenge it.
By sanitizing his accomplishments as a combative labor activist, who dedicated his life not so much to preserve the forest per se but to defend the people who live in it, and who he represented politically, the coverage about the 25 years of his death will be probably dominated by rousing but empty speeches by those who failed him.
For one of the saddest things about Chico’s tragedy was that in Dec. 9, 1988, he named his assassins in an interview to Jornal do Brasil, and even give the reasons Darly and his brother, who was never convicted, would invoke to have a contract on his life. Sad also because the interview wasn’t published until the ill deed was done.

Despite his serious accusations against them, for being responsible for some 30 killings of rural workers, no action was taken until a global outcry ignited by his death practically forced the Brazilian justice Continue reading

Best Byes

Sendoffs, Farewells
& the Far Side of 2013

In many quarters of the globe, the departing year had its fair share of kooky dishes, strange brews and no small amounts of heart burn. Just like the number that hitched the millennium over 300 days ago. Much of it is forgettable, but some are worth revisiting.
In no particular order, and little if any sense, we’ve collected some of these gems for your consideration. You may come out nurturing the feeling that somehow you’ve missed a lot, but not to worry: just enjoy it like it’s your second and very last chance.
A mechanic’s invention to help safely suck babies into this world. A presidential party favor that the host, a former spymaster himself, graced his powerful guests. From brew to brick, to bricks made of blood, beer has certainly had a grip over the year.
From Bowie in space to cats on a subway track, 2013 was also a year of tearful animal goodbyes, and the two leading the bunch out of this world were unquestionably a special breed: a polar bear with a severe case of neurosis and a pig, with a weakness for booze.
But what on Earth, you may ask, have these far out events to do with anything or even each other? All we can invoke in defense of stringing together such insane chain of recollections is that each and every one of them was a rare gift, squeezed among the terrible headlines inflicted on us throughout the year.
After all, we’re sure that you’re being bombarded everywhere by that kind of recollection, and how we’ve reached yet another notch downwards, for all we’ve done to the planet and to each other, and for the lot we didn’t even consider doing to redeem ourselves.
End-of-the-year lists have this way of making us all feel so guilty and miserable that if one checks one, all the others get checked as well. Thus, as we struggle to find ways to wrap up the proceedings, we also humbly aim at bringing some vain comfort to our sore readers who’ve been through a lot.
So has The Remains, a band with a heartbreaking story that reunited last June after a 47-year hiatus. In 1966, they went into a 14-city tour, opening for a quartet from England. But while The Beatles’ last live performances are the stuff of legend, they wound up in Gowanus, Brooklyn, recollecting. Life’s definitely not fair.
Talking about the 1960s, another legend that will fold coming Dec. 31, is the Volkswagen bus, icon of summers of yore, and if we’re calling it Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Rule Confirms the Exception, Colltalers

With much fanfare, a timid segment of the Dodd-Frank financial reform of 2010, the so-called Volker Rule, has finally been approved by U.S. regulators, ‘only’ five years after Wall Street’s recklessness finally caught up with reality and drove the world economy into a ditch.
We won’t display here our poor academic qualifications to gauge the reach of the measure, but according to government officials, it’ll ensure that banks no longer practice what’s known as proprietary trading, i.e. trading for their own gain, even if against their clients’ needs. Yeah, right.
As in most legislation passed in response to the financial collapse of 2008, which taxpayers’ were forcibly enlisted to salvage, the rule’s terms and potential efficacy curbing an entitlement culture of gambling with somebody else’s money may trip into confusion even the most earnest of those same taxpayers. That may be by design, but you won’t find anyone admitting it. At least not before calling you a ‘financial illiterate,’ i.e. a moron.
In the real world, of course, little of that will improve life for working stiffs, who’re busy getting low balance warnings from their banks and have no way of knowing, or no longer care to bother checking, how much of the fees they’ve been charged line a CEO’s compensation package.
On paper, the rule does require financial institutions to be yearly reviewed for compliance, but when it comes to how many ways speculative trading can be packed to look like needed profit-generating strategies demanded by shareholders, we all know what that paper is good for.
The Volker Rule, named after a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, doesn’t fare well even in the grandstanding front. To properly illuminate the myriad of obscure measures taken since the crisis hit, a litmus test of sorts has emerged: how many big heads landed in jail. Again, we know that score.
Thus, no matter how much patting in the back goes on in Washington, Continue reading

Train of Moths

A Pictorial Travelogue
of a Fatigued Wanderer

Commuting freezes time the same way traveling can extend it. But while the starring at fast moving surroundings can hold the anticipation of wherever one’s about to get to, destination is not really the point of commuting, just getting there and coming back.
So you update your reading, or most likely fall asleep. Traveling short distances repeatedly has a numbing effect on the mind. But whether time’s wasted, or enhanced, commuting may offer you a whole lot of things but won’t give you the option to abbreviate it.
It’s a way of cutting through a million life stories happening outside your window, that you can’t or won’t care to attend, either because most last just a few seconds, or are simply not that interesting. Commuting is a lesson on indifference about the world around us.

Yet, a lot of us spend an obscene amount of time committed to it, squeezed into it, indifferent to it, day in, day out, going back and forth, in a Sisyphean task we come back to repeat as often as required, till that blissful day we’ll simply stop doing it. Oh, what a joy that’ll be.

Being on a set schedule also breeds an odd wish from deep inside that still sleepy mind of yours: that nothing ever happens to it. You’d rather not talk, hate if someone sits close and, knock on wood, dread the possibility a maniac lurks on the loose, or a faulty track lays ahead.

So you move to this secret limbo, the kind that combines the alertness of a ninja with the moroseness of an angry monk, ready to spring into Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A No Good Bali Package, Colltalers

By most accounts, the 159-nation World Trade Organization conference that ended Saturday, in Bali, Indonesia, hasn’t accomplished much. And that ignites yet another round of scrutiny about the WTO’s own relevance as a moderator with regulatory power over international commerce.
For despite approving measures that will lower even more barriers and potentially increase global trade in some $1 trillion dollars in the near future, the crucial issue of agricultural subsidies failed to gain traction and was all but disavowed by the wealthiest and biggest food exporting nations.
At its core, the issue boils down to whether big multinational corporate farms, which produce close to 50% of the food the world consumes and control much of the land where it’s produced, regardless of country, deserve to continue receiving multimillion dollar government aid packages.
On the other side of this equation, sits a myriad of small farms, still crucial to local economies throughout the developing world, which are being squeezed out of global trade, plagued by unfair competition from the big boys, and diminishing resources for a viable model of subsistence.
Thus the ‘Bali Package’ is more like a workable primer of the state of current global trade, as it prioritizes the lowering of trade barriers, so countries with the muscle to increase food exports can also optimize profits, while leaving intact the issue of fairness of competition for small farmers.
The hopes of anti-poverty groups and food sovereign advocates were dashed when the WTO meeting chose not to press on steps that would increase environmental protections, improve farm labor regulations, and reaccess the organ’s role in boosting measures to reduce global hunger.
In the end, it was a victory for big corporations such as Monsanto and Tyson, and government policies of food-producing countries that focus on their agricultural goods-dependent economies and trade policies, regardless of the miserable conditions on the ground where they’re produced.
The irony of it, and believe us, there’s always some kind of cruel irony to be added whenever these expensive multi-country bodies gather, is that the meeting took place in Indonesia, a notorious ground of some of the world’s worst labor violations, including child labor e other abuses.
Just as Southeast Asia’s largest economy continues to contract (it reached its slowest pace of growth in four years, partly on its misguided protectionism policies), population growth in and around it is not expected to slowdown any time soon from its current over a billion people.
That obviously means more mouths to feed, and more pressure on the region’s assortment of fragile democracies, semi-restrictive regimes, and generally tumultuous politics, with strong undercurrents of religious fundamentalism and the threat of military radicalism still reeling from its recent past.
Such explosive mix keeps busy both environmental and human rights organizations, as well as a not negligible continent of geopolitical hawks that use the argument to successfully lobby for more armaments and inflated military defense budgets everywhere (specially, of course, in the U.S.).
There were, however, modest advances arduously pushed through during the WTO meeting, such as some temporary protections for food Continue reading


World Cup Groups Set, a Weary
Brazil Braces for the June Kickoff

The last regulation act before the start of next summer’s World Cup in Brazil took place yesterday: the tournament’s group drawing and first round schedule. It was pretty much one of the few things that happened on schedule. All else is far from running as smooth.
In fact, all six stadiums being built or redone for the games will miss the December deadline, despite staggering costs (and so far, two casualties). Thus, if one could name a single thing that, for sure, will be doing its part, even if all else fails, that’d be the ball.
But apart from that, an engineering feat named Brazuca, Brazilians remain weary about this tournament, despite their now proverbial, and much manipulated, passion for ‘futebol,’ and of course, that it’s taking place in their land. Not many more reasons to celebrate, otherwise.
In June, dissatisfied with the way billions of dollars were being spent with the cup, while a decrepit network of hospitals and chronically underfunded schools were left to rot, hundreds of thousands took to the streets in mass rallies not seen since the 1980s, when similar crowds effectively ended 20-plus years of military dictatorship.
Such dissatisfaction continues to brew, and by the time the ball starts to roll, pent up anger may be virtually impossible to contain. Some expect that a Brazil win could quell such feelings. Others are not so sure. In fact, while many think a win would be great, nice and all that, there seems to be a better sense of proportion this time around.

Feeling they’ve been taken for a ride, which is reflected in every aspect of FIFA’s fingers on the setup of the games, from the way the competition is being sold to big wig sponsors to ticket prices, prohibitive to most locals, organizers may not have a clear idea what’s coming on their way.
The case of last month’s spectacular collapse in São Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, of the multi-million dollar, overbudget stadium that’s to host the cup opener, which killed two workers and caused significant Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Black Heart of American Retail, Colltalers

Among the terrible things that have been assailing that now all but unattainable American dream, starvation by retail, by which the industry’s been quickly getting to be known for, is arguably one of the stingiest and most cruel. Specially at this time of the year.
No longer working long and hard hours, in two, sometimes three jobs, with hardly any sleep to reboot and, underneath it all, a growling empty stomach, is enough to sustain oneself, feed the family, and protect the kids, even without getting into health care.
As once again depressing hordes of bargain hunters have trampled each other on Black Friday, in an annual crass display of consumerism, a couple of things became ever clearer across America, none of which is the irony that these ‘little people’ are the ones footing the bill of economic recovery.
What all this rush to mass purchase goods, mainly done by children in China and Bangladesh, have brought to the fore with particular intensity is that many of those standing from dawn to dusk, ready to serve, are depending on social programs and even on the charity of other employees to eat.
Also, that no matter how many piles of low quality inventory they help push out of the stores, their meager salary won’t be compounded by any archaic notion of a merit bonus system, or even a reliable contract that would include benefits. After the sale is over, so will be their extra hours.
But the biggest stain in the labor contract workers have been stuck with in present day U.S. of A. is the staggering, widening, obscenely humongous gap between what the big chiefs of the retail industry are making and what millions of peons who work for them see on their paychecks.
And no other company reflects more acutely such a divide as Wal-Mart, the country’s largest retailer, and the world’s second biggest company, which is still synonymous with the opulence and callous lack of empathy routinely sported by the children and family of its founder.
Even though the Waltons have only one of its own in the board, there should be no doubt about who controls it, and where does such Continue reading


A Holiday Combo
& a Smashed Comet

It happened before and, if you’re not in a hurry, it’ll happen again. Good luck with that, though. And good luck with one of the most loaded of the American holidays, both celebrated and vilified for its special brand of family time, the kind that often verges on murder.
Thanksgiving, which after Thursday, will only conflate with Hanukka again in the year 79811, is being called Thanksgivukkah this time around, in what Wikipedia insists is a portmanteau but that’s not for reasons we’re sure our illustrious readership knows so well.
As if eating overfed, extra-hormone stuffed, hardly a bird at this point at all, turkey were not enough, we’re already feeling lazy and not up to the task to add yet another exquisite commentary to the joyous occasion (for some, naturally, not the turkeys).
After some three years, we did accumulate a nice share of posts on the subject, which we’ll proceed to lay on your plate, as you try to ignore the grand debate on healthcare and how ‘that Kenyan is ruining this country,’ while at the same time trying not to call attention to your text messaging.
Feel free to jump in with congratulatory asides and additional servings of praise for our foresight, which will only require a few tweaks, perhaps a dollop of the salsa du jour for flavor, and a few minutes in the microwave. Just like the leftovers you’re sentenced to have for the next several days.
For there’s little about this holiday that’s new and fresh, and this year particularly, the pickings are indeed slim. You have your White House sanctioned turkey pardons, the appalling conditions consumer-bound poultry is handled in this country and the need to raise them more humanely, and the multitude of well-intentioned souls who decide to go vegan at this time of the year out of sheer disgust.
But there’s something else going on, that may be important for astrophysics and scientists: a comet is about to zip by, head and tail, the sun. ISON, as it’s known, has been so far a disappointment all on its own, though. Earlier reports that it’d offer a stunning sky show have been greatly downgraded since.
Thus there’s little hope for you but to dive yourself among your family and friends, and hey, it doesn’t have to be a drag. In fact, you should Continue reading

Cold Turkey

A Bird With Multiple Names, Two
Countries & Some Holiday Mash

This was supposed to be the definitive post on why turkeys are called turkeys, what they have to do with Turkey and Peru, and why would anyone care about it.
Instead, it turned out to be just another holiday stupor, a tipsy search on the Internet and a million half-funny comments on why no one seems to have a clear idea.
So, risking making the article almost shorter than its headline, let’s just cover the highlights, while we check the oven and get properly loaded before the guests have parked at the curb.
Americans (including William Burroughs) hold Thanksgiving very dear to their hearts because the holiday is based on a historical folktale and, to this day, it’s still a family gathering by excellence in ways religious dates could never be.
Granted, at this point in time, it’s no longer all about the turkey. Aunts have various dietary needs. Some care only for the sweet potatoes and cranberry jam. And children became vegan and will have their own Tofurkey.
The cooking frenzy that used to animate families of yore have since lost much of its luster with the advent of live football and the Macy’s Parade on TV.
Besides, arguments usually ensue even before all relatives have arrived Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Polluters Change the Subject, Colltalers

After the chaotic two-week U.N. conference on climate change ended in Warsaw, it was hard to know whether the event has caused some permanent damage to the overall movement of awareness about the issue, or it was simply the most disastrous meeting of its kind ever.
Marked by a heavy presence of coal, oil and gas industry lobbyists, and hosted by a nation whose own energy policies tilt heavily towards coal, and that halfway through it, dismissed its own environmental minister, who was chairing it, no wonder the conference ended Friday with a massive walkout of progressive environmental organizations. They hardly had a chance to squeeze a word in the deliberations anyway.
Deemed a failure by those who’ve spent decades trying to drive home the point of man-made causes for rising of global temperatures, and its consequent disastrous impact of higher ocean levels on millions living near bodies of water, the event was also compounded by an ongoing dispute.
While the Philippines picks up the pieces left by Typhoon Haiyan, counting its dead in the thousands and the costs both human and material in the hundreds of millions, the issue that neither this nor any other natural disaster is bound to settle is that whether such storms are a direct consequence of climate change.
Which is really irrelevant to everyone involved, but the tabloid media, which tends to trivialize and reduce the matter to a few bombastic, easily dismissible statements, or for those who are truly engaged raising awareness and battling powerful interests that want to mute it.
For everyone else, including victims, the discussion is beside de point. Which, at least in the case of the compromised media, may be by design: picking the element that can be easily lost in grandstanding diatribes, and leaving out what’s more revealing: the sea levels rise.
More on that later, but first let’s make the point that whoever thought that big numbers and human devastation would be enough to make governments and the public opinion jump into action, is clearly losing the argument. We’ve grown numb and, so far, hopeless at loosening the grip of big corporations on the issue of man-made climate change, either by misinformation campaigns, and/or the power of sheer money.
The U.N. conference was just another sample of how this discussion has Continue reading

Alt-Pace Makers

Green shoot in the desert - growth in adverse conditions

When Simple Gadgets
Solve Complex Problems

Every once in a while, we choose to focus on small, alternative branches of scientific research, dedicated to our survival on this planet as a radically different, more benign species; works of wonder highlighting the ingenuity of the human spirit… Just kidding.
We do, however, come across examples of brilliant ideas, of simple but effective ways of overcoming the appalling conditions faced by billions, depleted of the most vital needs, such as breathable air, drinkable water, and a reliable charger for their cellphones.
The curious thing is, these inventions are all around us, and many seem interconnected, as if the same drive to develop a greenhouse in the middle of the desert, irrigated by desalinized seawater, also brought about a bottle that does all the desalinization on its own.
From a sterilizer that draws its power from the sun, to a shirt that can turn into a battery. There’s also ways that may enable manholes to charge electric cars, and yes, a cellphone charger powered by another bottle, actually any bottle. If there’s a want, there is a wheel, or something to that effect.
For now, though, we’ll restrain from reporting on the latest uses of body fluids as an alternative way to fossil energy. Yes, you’d be surprised about how much there is out there to report. Almost as much as what’s been generated as we speak. But we’ve done that before, so we’ll leave it for another time.
If there’s one common denominator of all these ingenious contraptions is that they’re deceptively simple but reach out to the needs of millions. While we agonize whether our stay on this planet is still viable, without detonating it first, some are busy making amendments with humanity and treating nature as an ally.

How can you grow food in the middle of the Sahara? Try using saltwater, wind and solar power, and some new technologies and you’re halfway there. The curiously named Sahara Forest Project has done just that, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Giant Learns Humility, Colltalers

It may have been its easiest step in a steep climb, but Brazil’s National Commission of Truth has finally gathered the headlines around the world its mandate deserves: the body of João Goulart, the last democratically elected president deposed by the 1964 military coup, was exhumed last week.
No results as to whether Jango, as he was known, was poisoned to death in 1976 in Argentina, or died of a heart attack, are expected any time soon.
The exhumation, which may turn out to be merely symbolic although still powerful enough to ignite similar probes, may mark a turning point for Brazil, in ways that would surprise many and with a strong possibility for resetting the country towards a more enlightened future.
For the past decade or so, news about Brazil have been mostly of an unrestrained optimism about its economic prowess, potential for becoming a world leader, peaceful nature of its people and other jargons of political propaganda that hardly convey the complexities of the country’s inequalities.
Lately, though, such rosy assumptions have been assailed by doubts as to whether Brazil’s staggering social challenges and ingrained corruption of its political elites may be finally catching up with the news. There seems to be a new momentum to question such arrogance when there’s still so much to be achieved.
Ironically, it had to be the fears that a looming economic downfall may yet again undermine the country’s aspirations that may have bred this new sense of humbleness, in which the search for answers in Brazil’s history may be one of the most reliable strategies to restart it anew.
For among Latin American nations that went through a brutal wave of military coups, political assassinations, torture, disappearances of union and student leaders during the 1960s onward, the largest and arguably most economically successful of them all has been slow at probing its past.
While many argue, callously, that the military rule didn’t reach there Continue reading

Dead Presidents

Exhumation of Brazil’s João
Set for Month of John in the U.S.

It’s just a coincidence, but as the U.S. President John Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago this month spawned the mother of all conspiracies, the exhumation of João Goulart, Brazil’s last democratically elected president before the 1964 military coup, is indeed spooky.
We’re not making light of what’s pretty much one of Brazil’s first attempts at exhuming its own past. Goulart’s death in Mercedes, Argentina, on Dec. 6, 1976, has been the subject of popular suspicions that he was poisoned, not felled by his heart, ever since.

After all, the dictatorship that had deposed him was at the peak of its most ravaging efforts to eradicate from the national memory his leftist legacy of populism. Plus, less than four months earlier, his predecessor, Juscelino Kubitschek, had also died in mysterious circumstances.
Earlier this year, the National Truth Commission, which has a mandate to probe human rights violations during the military rule, said it’d been Continue reading