Curtain Raiser

10 Year-Stopping News, Colltalers

News headlines can’t describe what happened in the past 12 months. The more media organizations have become all but branches of a myriad of economic interests, the more what mattered most to people’s lives has been passed over for some celebrity salacious bit.
Nevertheless, most of those who spent 2014 a few hours awaken everyday, or night, know exactly what pieces of information really moved and impacted their lives. Humbly, we’ll attempt to line up those that affected us too, so later we can all compare notes.
We’re not innocent bystanders in this, and unwittingly, we play a part by choosing to tune in to the fake news report, instead of what truly depresses us. After all, we’re humans, and who could stand 24-hours of relevant information, right? It turns out, many.
More on that later, but first, let’s lay down some of the groundwork that helped us devise the Top 10 news stories of 2014, without sound too pedantic, or bias towards that pesky liberalism that seems to be always swiftly drowned in the spilled blood of reality.
Colltales is a U.S.-based site (weren’t you warned about pedantry?), so it’s unavoidable that the start point of this retrospective reflects it as much. But in the final mix of stories, those based here are but in the minority of the themes that dominated the past year.
Many of the headlines that mattered had enough of a balance of local and international flavors, exposing and changing for better or worse, the lives of many. Obviously events, not news, come first in shaping lives and perceptions about the world. But news worth reporting should carry enough of a punch to knock us out of our complacency, and that, dear readers, is what this list does.
Speaking of themes, they hardly change year after year, to be sure. War, crime, disease, poverty, prejudice, agony and hunger are constant features, along with tales of jubilation and the nobility of the human spirit. Somehow, the first part comes out easily and can hardly be contained within a 10-item list; the second, however, the ‘good news report,’ so to speak, is still a work in progress.
Finally, this list may comprise more than 10 stories, as it makes more sense to combine two or more of them under a common theme, even if they took place in different places and time, rather than strictly adhere to some uni-dimensional concept. Here it goes:
1.) U.S.-Cuba Relations – It may seem odd to pick the normalization of diplomatic relations between two nations to top our list, but this was in the making for half a century, and has huge implications both to U.S. internal politics and foreign policy, and to Cuba’s political and economic prospects. With Fidel Castro still alive, it’s an overdue but still surprising masterstroke by President Obama.
2.) Government Torture Reports – Yet another Latin American country, this time Brazil, joined the U.S. to make huge news around the world. Almost simultaneously released, both the Senate’s report on CIA interrogation methods, and the Comissão da Verdade’s dossier on the military dictatorship’s brutality, suddenly exposed in black and white the ugly realities of power left unchecked.
3.) Latest Bombing of Gaza – Incurring the risk that between now and the end of the year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ignites again (as some fire was again exchanged between them recently), the July campaign all but obliterated the strip, with hundreds of casualties as vicious and indiscriminate as ever. Continue reading

Nary a Christmas

The Worst (& Cutest) Little
Gift Some Forget Not to Give

For those still looking for that perfect gift, one that will save the holiday cheer, and prevent anyone from calling you a Grinch, we’re sorry but you won’t find your last-minute redemption in this post. For that, please scroll down, or, since we’re in a giving mode, go elsewhere.
Just hope you won’t settle for a particular kind people continue to give each other this time of the year: pets. It may as well be the topmost mistake, in the season’s long tradition of mistakes, right up with getting drunk in the office party, and wishing Merry Christmas to everyone.
One may feel tempted, though, and perhaps animal shelters share part of the responsibility for some of the disappointment such a gift usually ensues. During the holidays, those heartbreaking late night ads with sad-faced cats and dogs up for adoption are shown at an earlier hour, just in time to offer you a quick fix for guilty feelings.
Well, don’t fall into that trap. Even if you had to go to the kitchen to grab some tissue, missing the part where they say that these rescued animals need the safety of your home, not that of your siblings, you’re still not excused. After all, it’s not the poor things’ fault that you still don’t know your nephews’ names.

Thus, as they say somewhere, ‘nary a Christmas’ goes by without someone having the astonishingly misguided idea of bringing a pet to a family who hate cat fur, or what they do to the furniture, or simply can’t be broken into walking a dog three times a day. They’ll most certainly return the animal.
That’s often the beginning of their martyrdom and ultimate destruction. Like you, most people mean well when they think that giving a living, Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Abyss Stares Back, Colltalers

It could be said that it was a coincidence waiting to happen. Two major reports on government torture were published in the U.S. and Brazil almost at the same time last week: the Senate Committee’s Report on C.I.A.’s Use of Torture, and the report of the National Truth Commission (CNV) on human rights violations perpetrated by the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985.
It may not have been by chance, after all, since last Wednesday marked the International Human Rights Day. And in any case, both reports were expected, feared, and suffered delays and last-minute attempts to be kept under wraps until an unspecified later date.
But unlike annual surveys by organizations that track abuses, these two have the weight of being government-issued. The ‘comprehensive review of the CIA Detention and Interrogation Program’ was set up by the Senate in 2009, while Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former prisoner of the military, sent to congress the bill that created the CNV, approved in 2011.
The reports, albeit partial, incomplete, and heavily criticized, reveal nevertheless a similarly horrible picture of what happens when government power is left unchecked. Graphic descriptions of interrogation practices used by the CIA after Sept 11, and the Brazilian military during its reign of terror, can mine any confidence left on the ability of a security apparatus to heed by the law.
Chilling similarities – whose gory and horrendous details are all over the global media, mercifully sparing us the need to reprint them here – and differences aside, what these partial summaries represent is a step, however timid, towards accountability and redress of justice for hundreds, many of them certifiably innocent, who suffered and even perished at the hands of their butchers.
One notable difference: while the C.I.A. report names those tortured in the bowels of prisons located outside the U.S., acknowledging responsibility mainly by implication, the Brazilian one specifically names over 300 members of the security and paramilitary forces that did the generals’ dirty work, inexplicably leaving off many of the victims who were killed or disappeared.
That may be the result of the different attributions of both reports, but it also shows the pressure their authors endured to produce something that may serve as a foundation to further action. At the end of the day, it’s almost a miracle that they came out at all.
They were both overdue. Brazil remains one of the few Latin American countries still resisting a thorough investigation of crimes committed by the troops that stormed deposed democratically elected João Goulart in 1964, unlike Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, to name its closest neighbors. It even passed an amnesty law for those accused of torture, which the report now all but voided.
And since the terrible Sept. 11 events, a paranoid and, as it’s now clear, ineffective U.S. doctrine of ‘national security’ has pervaded all segments of society, restricting citizen rights and, as with the other dark titan of American security agencies, the NSA, building a surveillance network that continues, secretly, collecting information on almost every person in the country and abroad.
Curiously, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the committee, once ostensibly supported the NSA’s spying tactics – ‘it’s called protecting America,’ she said in January 2013 – only to backpedal when she realized that she too, and her staff, were being watched.
We’re seeing the same reaction again. Continue reading

Hands Up!

Washington Square Park,
New York City, 12/13/14

Once again, Americans of all colors and ethnic backgrounds stepped out and made a statement against police brutality, in favor of justice and the rule of law for everybody, and above all, in defense of black and minority people, disproportionally singled out by law enforcement.
They’ve carried posters and banners with the names of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and so many others, including Amadou Diallo, killed by New York cops over 15 years ago, and marched along the victims’ families, in yet another giant, peaceful demonstration.
Many lessons of civility and compassion were on display, many examples of courage and solidarity. This time, change must be expedited, and justice ushered by those entrusted with the people’s will. Their voices won’t be ignored, and their sacrifice won’t be in vain.
In the past few weeks, Americans have shown more determination to redirect this country towards social and racial justice than they’ve been in years. It’s now up to President Obama to validate these legitimate claims in the letter of the law, so we all can finally move the U.S. forward into a new era of civil rights for everyone. 

The Whale Report

An Albino, Granny & the
Lonely One, Plus an Arabian Pod

For residents of a planet covered by water, we know little about the sea, and arguably, even less about the creatures that live in it. Not even whales, the biggest of them, – a mammal like us, and a former land animal – we know much about. We should hurry up, though.
Centuries of whaling have cut down their population. Pollution and human habits may finish them off. Before that happens, though, you must learn about three unique individuals, and a very odd pod, still swimming the oceans and challenging all assumptions about them.
To be sure, it’s not easy to study animals who live in another element, plus, there are species so secluded and hard to observe in natura that our only hope to gather insights about them is when their carcasses wash ashore. We’re still to catch a live giant squid, for instance.
In fact, we’re so desperate to know more about whales that we’ve been studying everything we can grab from them: their songs, their breath, their earwax, their vomit, even their poop. Each has shed some light on their behavior, history, even their perception about our presence.
We know now that they can live up to 110 years, possibly more, and that they’re sociable beings. Thus many may have stored somewhere within their giant brains, the memory passed along from previous generations, of how we used to hunt and slaughter them mercilessly.
But even without that memory, they have plenty of reasons to fear and mistrust us. Right now, nine companies are lobbying to use seismic air blasts to look for oil and gas off the Eastern Seaboard, a practice that’s been found to be harmful to Cetaceans and marine life.
We can’t list here all the wrong things about that. But it does make the more urgent to introduce our guests today: a rare Albino humpback; an 103-year-young grandmother Orca; the world’s loneliest whale, and a group that’s been genetically isolated from all others for 70,000 years.

When Herman Melville wrote about the white whale that became Capt. Ahab’s obsession and ruin, he echoed centuries of fear about these giants. It also helped that Moby Dick was loosely based on a terrible event, the 1820 wreck of the Whaleship Essex by a sperm whale.
But Migaloo, a rare white whale that’s been pictured frolicking (and singing) around, is a humpback and has done nothing to inspire fear. Not the sole Albino out there, he’s the only one with no spots, though, and his gregarious personality has delighted those who’ve observed it.
Scientists know that it’s a male because it sings, and his name, the Aboriginal word for ‘white fellow,’ does him justice: at the estimated ripe age rage of 22-25, he’s still growing and may survive another half century. That is, if pollution, human presence, air blasts, etc, etc.

Marine biologists only realized Granny, a matriarch of a pod of Orcas that live in the Pacific, is the oldest known of her species because they’ve followed her, and her calf, Ruffles, since the 1970s, helped by her distinctive patches. She must have been in her 60s, then, they say.
To determine age is not an exact science (rings formed in their earwax offer a more precise picture), and it’s silly to link her to human events (oh, she was born before the Titanic sank, some said). Still, Orcas, also known as killer whales, have had a troubled history with humans.
Organizations such as SeaWorld insist in apprehend them for profit and entertainment, and ignore that they need the vastness of the ocean to thrive. Granny was spotted on an 800-mile trek within just a few days. Thank goodness she was born as free as she should be.

We’ve told you about 52 Herz, the whale who may never find a mate because her songs are sung in a much higher frequency of all other whales. We’ve known about this mysterious creature since 1989 but so far, have failed to capture her on camera.
Judging by her migration patterns, she seems to be a baleem whale, a species to which belong the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale, and the fin whale. But because

Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Shipping Problems Away, Colltalers

It’s one of the most surprising developments of an issue that’s been a source of contention and grief for the Obama administration: six Guantanamo Bay detainees are being sent to Uruguay, as part of an agreement with President José Mujica.
The move, a step towards closing the infamous prison, comes with its own set of hard-to-explain rationales. But it’s taken a small South American country to actually add a merciful note to a sore wound that has made the U.S. look terrible before the world.
For President Obama, who as a candidate had vowed to close the prison where alleged enemy combatants have languished for years without formal accusation, picking six out of the current 136 inmates is hardly a show of resolve for mending this wound.
Granted, to his defense, all attempts at bringing the accused to U.S. soil and judge them in the court of law, both civil and/or military, have been fiercely opposed by a spineless Congress, and a Republican party bent down on denying support to any of the president’s initiatives. Then again, he does share responsibility for at least having being so ineffective rallying his own party.
Also, shipping war prisoners, if that’s what they are, to other countries, under some kind of little understood diplomatic accord, does not exempt the U.S. from their ultimate fate. Or from coming to terms with the constitutional breach it allowed to last for over a decade, of having people detained with no prospect of due legal course or resolution of their situation one way or another.
Finally, what the ill-advised denial of due process for the accused of terrorism, and worse, force-feeding them against their will, may do is to guarantee bloody retaliations by those on the other side, besides compromising any outlook for peace. We’ve already seen the nefarious response to such practice in the increasingly gory, on-camera executions of journalists, citizens, and relief workers.
For President Mujica, the motivation for what may become one of the final acts of his term, couldn’t be clearer: himself a tortured prisoner of the military dictatorship of Uruguay in the 1970s and 80s, he said that it was a hospitality gesture to ‘human beings who have suffered a terrible kidnapping in Guantanamo Bay.’
One word about the intrepid but notoriously humble Uruguayan president: despite having been mocked Continue reading

Janus Caturday

So Long, Frank & Louie, a Cat
With a Heart in the Right Place

For all public appreciation of felines as the very embodiment of beauty, independence, and physical perfection, here’s one who was none of the above. No matter: Frank & Louie, the two-faced cat who died Thursday, beat all odds as the longest surviving Janus cat.
Through 15 years, he was never beautiful, only made it through his kittenhood with a lot of help from humans, and his physical disabilities forced him to adapt the best he could. But while most with his condition die young, he went on to the Guinness Book of Records.
Janus, the two-faced Roman god who lends his name to the congenital cephalic disorder, may or may not have anything to do with it, but instead of dying, this Animal Planet cat thrived and became a minor celebrity in his hometown, North Grafton, Mass.
Apparently, this two-named cat never let fame go to either one of his heads, and as far as everybody knows, he was a pretty loving pet. Thankfully, instead of becoming a sideshow as it’d have happened a century ago, with both animals and humans, Frank & Louie lived a normal life. R.I.P. kiddo.
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