Curtain Raiser

The Streets of Aleppo & America, Colltalers

As the Charlotte, N.C., police finally released the disturbing videos of Keith Lamont Scott’s killing by a cop, we inch ever so close to an explosive, nationwide boiling point. Lethal racial profiling and tragic police misconduct are just the right matches to lit up this fire.
The issue is likely to dominate today’s first debate of presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. It’s understandable if it does but it shouldn’t. Race relations should be definitely approached by the two candidates. But they should mostly clash over something else.
Specifically, what’s happening almost six thousand miles from Washington, DC, in Aleppo, Syria. Given their already expressed opposite views of racism, we’re bound to waste our time hearing empty soundbites about it. Considerably harder is to discuss foreign policy.
For on race, Trump’s malodorous mix of violence incitement, misplaced blame, and self-aggrandizing will likely crush Clinton’s policy proposals, however well thought out they may be, even if half the audience remains awake to hear them. It’s a sure score for the Don.
Not so with Syria and the daunting task of articulating an intelligible plan of action, without mentioning the myriad of factions, sects, tribes, external powers, and naturally Daesh, before being interrupted by a news-challenged moderator. But it’s a land whose queen is Clinton.
In fact, that’s her chance for scoring some informative points – granted, mostly with the already cognizant – when speaking of Middle East and Asian conflicts, as long as she doesn’t engage in pontification, lecturing, or offering what may be perceived as some prefab formula.
It’s hard to picture Trump sustaining even a brief of the situation on the ground up there, even if he resorts to phrases of dubious effect. For several months, there hasn’t been a single instance where he showed knowledge about Syria, and the whole region for that matter, besides declaring that he would bomb the hell out of everybody. As if it’s not already happening. Then again, the bar with him is set very low.
Even her detractors admit that Clinton knows personally most of the world leaders in power today, and some Continue reading

Rooms to Grow

Storm-Bred Magic Mushrooms
Can Improve Your Personality

Unlike what almost 100% of politicians, celebrities, and people way more famous than you may believe, there is a living organism that’s much bigger than them all: it’s a 2.4 miles across mushroom and it resides in the Blue Mountains of Oregon.
But maybe because it’s over 2,600 years old, and despite being called honey fungus, there’s nothing sweet or mushy about this creature. It’s still expanding, killing every plant on its path, and it’s covered by the carcasses of hundreds of dead trees.
Then again, it’s a mushroom. You know, that very peculiar life form that can feed you, get you high, or poison you to death, and whose multitude of varieties are freaky enough to sprout from soil (or a cow’s pie), or grow on the very flesh (or nail surface) of your body.
But not that humongous creature, which tests showed that it’s a single individual, and that seems happy to preside over a national park in Oregon. Maybe being simply the earth’s largest living being is enough, thank you very much.
But as a plant species, fungi are not always so scarily dominant, and research is being conducted about the ability of some varieties to break down heavy pollutants, and even clean up dirty diapers, no matter how powerful the digestive track of your absolutely adorable baby may be.
In fact, they’ve been adapted for use in almost as wide a range of applications as there are species, from a Mushroom Death Suit, suitable to usher the body decaying process at burial, to a compost for packaging and furniture that could one day replace plastic and other non-degradable materials, to future uses in the auto industry.
Thus, it was almost inevitable to learn about two relatively surprising properties these at times beautiful organisms may have in store for all of us, free for the taking and all related to that special kind, so dear to so many, the magic mushrooms: they are abundant after storms and they may be actually good for you.

As it turns out, then, hurricanes like to leave something else on their wake, besides mayhem and destruction: plenty of psychedelic mushrooms.  Of course, to many people, that particular kind of hongos is exactly what the definition of mayhem and destruction is meant to be. Perhaps.
Or it’s just a freakish way of nature to compensate those living in high-risk areas: to give them a break in the form of a trip to their own mind. As long as they can come back sane and sound, they most likely would appreciate the gift, if given a taste. Philosophically speaking, maybe.
The phenomenon was first observed after Hurricane Irene‘s passage in the New York metropolitan area, in 2011. What was then a rare and mildly intense storm – not nearly as lethal and devastating as the following year’s Hurricane Sandy – did seem to have made some folks wide-eyed happy afterwards, according to unconfirmed reports.
It gets better. As it goes, the magic kind also improves your general well being, according to research conducted (more)
Read Also:
* Mushroom Car
* Nothing’s Wasted
Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

A Pardon to Move Us Forward, Colltalers

‘Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud and abuse of authority in government.’ That’s on the platform that candidate Obama signed on to become U.S. President. And one of the biggest broken promises of his tenure.
Now a campaign seeking presidential pardon to Edward Snowden, the man whose actions resonate with everything the president once sworn by, only to have his administration label him a criminal, may become one of the most important issues of his final months at the office.
To The Guardian, Snowden made a passionate plea for his case. ‘It’s clear that in the wake of 2013 (the year a trove of documents he publicly disclosed showed the NSA’s widespread surveillance of individuals, regardless of any legal proof or court-issued permission to do so), Congress, the courts, and the president all changed their policies,’ with no ‘evidence that any individual came to harm as a result.’
The campaign, led by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, counts as supporters Sen. Bernie Sanders, Daniel Ellsberg, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Black Lives Matter activists, and other civil rights movement luminaries.
Support from Ellsberg adds historic context to the drive. In 1971, he brought to light the top-secret Pentagon Papers, which showed how the government was deceiving and manipulating public opinion to support the then already lost Vietnam War. The disclosures earned him the wrath of the Nixon administration, and he was prosecuted under the 1917 Espionage Act, the same that’s been used against Snowden now.
Two years later, charges were dismissed as baseless. Ellsberg avoided prison time, but the ordeal all but destroyed his military analyst career. His revelations, though, helped end the war, and he’s now the co-founder of the respected Freedom of the Press Foundation.
While support for a pardon to Snowden has been steadily increasing, two important, or rather, decisive, parties remain unmoved: one is the outgoing president, who has been conspicuously mum to the public clamor. The other is his possible successor, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Before that, a quick aside. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange has taken a strong stance against Clinton, but there’s no sign that if her opponent, Donald Trump, wins, life will be easier to whistleblowers like him. Or Snowden. They both have a better shot with Democrats here.
To many, President Obama has little to lose by pardoning the person who introduced into a global conversation about privacy, the disturbing notion that intel agencies can and do track our every move, with little need to show justification to do so. The president’s legacy could actually be enhanced by the move. Without it, on the other hand, Snowden has no realistic chance of getting a fair trail in the U.S.
The obvious precedent is Chelsea Manning, of course, the former Army soldier who disclosed to WikiLeaks a trove of mostly diplomatic cables that shed some light on the inner workings of second and third-tier levels of diplomacy, and profoundly embarrassed the government.
It did not cause any proven harm to agents on the field. But to Manning, the consequences were catastrophic: she was convicted by court-martial in 2013 to 35 years in prison. Continue reading

Second Variety

Designing a Creature
That Will Hunt Us Down

Animatronics research is making so many strides lately that soon Disney theme parks won’t need actors donning smelly Mickey customs to scare the living hell out of little children. Robots will be able to do just that, and more, in their place. Bad news to actors, of course.
Androids may be close to pounce on you on your vacations, out of malfunctioning or pure evil, but the real scare may be other fields tapping into their sophistication. The military, for instance. Something to be expected, for sure, but still no less disturbing.
It didn’t happen overnight, but suddenly pop culture is saturated with the idea that a dawn of the automaton is imminent, even sooner than the one of rotten zombis. And while trying to keep apace with the expectation, science is landing us on some tricky territory.
Call it a land of opportunity, as announced on Blade Runner, or the brave new world of old Aldous Huxley. Say that Philip K. Dick had it all figured it out, or that religion created the original Other, in the form of invisible beings who exist to serve, or curse us to death.
Just don’t say you were not forewarned. For if you give it a thought or two, what with super population, and income inequality, and all that can spoil your dinner, who really needs yet another cast of dependent beings to keep even more people out of things to do?
That assuming that they will remain dependent, and existing to the sole purpose of fulfilling our every whim. Because if they don’t, and turn into our lords, there’ll be no point for ‘I told you sos,’ specially if we’ll all be their slaves, tethered to some infernal contraption.
So yes, by now you may’ve gathered that we are kinda excited about Westworld, the upcoming TV series inspired by the old Michael Crichton movie. And that this is a shameless attempt to flag the insane human desire to play god to manufactured creatures, all the while deflating our own expectations.
For however good the series turn out to be it’ll probably pale in comparison with Second Variety, an 1953 P.K.D. story, or even the considerably downgraded 1995 movie based on it, Screamers. That’s when the concept of self-run machines has been taken to just about the threshold of everyone’s nightmares.
After all, we’ve been trying to build them, either by faith or ingenuity, since time immemorial. The more we see them embodied albeit pixelated, the closer we get to fully realize their feasibility. We’ll embrace them and run for our dear lives, all at the same time, while technology will, once again, overcome our moral ambivalence.
Thus these related posts below, about Artificial Intelligence and robotics, the two fields whose merge will at last produce what already appears inevitable: creation of an artificial but sentient being to run amok exactly the way we’ve been dreading all along. Just like we told you so. Speaking of theme parks, enjoy the ride.

Not Human

Humanoids to Replace
Body Parts, Not Maids

Mankind’s ancient dream of creating automatons that can stand in for us, when our bodies no longer function properly, got a bit closer to reality not long ago. Thanks to research developed at Brown University, two stroke victims, long unable to move or speak, managed to control a robotic arm solely with their minds.
The good news couldn’t come anytime sooner: just a few days earlier, a Tokyo-based robotics developer team had announced the creation of a highly interactive, and disturbingly human-like, pair of buttocks, that responds to touch and stimuli. To be honest, the robotic butt got us thinking where on earth was this kind of research going.
In a way, it all comes full circle, you see. The development of humanoids, capable of simulate emotions and be responsive to sound, sight and touch, has been making great strides, specially by Japanese engineers. Sometimes, their extreme similitude to humans is quite frightening and one is led to think of Blade Runner-type of nightmarish visions of the future.
At the same time, albeit running in a parallel track, research on artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is also well advanced. The combination of these two fields, so far only partial, does suggest that reality is tracking closely the visions that science-fiction authors had conceived long ago.
To be sure, what’s been studied at Brown diverge fundamentally from research on androids, even though they both follow the same principle: to emulate the human ability of combining thought-processing with physical acts.

But whereas at Brown, the practical applications are already evident, the objectives of research into the development of humanoid robots lack clarity, for except in the case of slave labor, is hard to imagine why (more)
Read Also:
* Man Made
* Hallow Talk
Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

Native Brazilians’ New Woe, Colltalers

There’s another concern related to the ouster of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, aside weakening of democratic institutions, end of most social programs, and widespread feeling of dread about the political process: increased vulnerability of the country’s indigenous peoples.
The issue has been highlighted by the uproar about an official press release of the Summer Paralympics, currently taking place in Brazil. On it, the games’ organizers unwittingly gave credence to an old, unsubstantiated claim accusing a Brazilian tribe of infanticide and other crimes.
Explaining the choice of Iganani Suruwahá, who has cerebral palsy, to be a Paralympics torch bearer, they stated that her mother, Muwaji, fled their Amazon tribe to prevent the child from being killed due to her disability. But they offer no proof about the story’s veracity.
Also not mentioned is the fact that the claim was made by the Evangelical missionaries who adopted mother and daughter. And that there’s a concerted effort, by Brazilian messianic religions, to pass legislation to regulate what they see as indigenous ‘pagan’ customs and practices.
Two of the most articulated political groups in the Brazilian Congress, both intimately involved in the dubious Rousseff impeachment process, are the so-called Bible block, and the ‘Ruralistas,’ big land owners who’ve been Brazilian indians’ traditional, and powerful, enemies.
During the impeachment, faith-controlled Brazilian media routinely showed pastors praying for Rousseff’s demise. But at the end of the day, they did way more than that: besides voting Continue reading

Double Intuition

On Their Minds, 9-11
Happened Before 2001

After fifteen years, the tragic imagery of Sept. 11, 2001, has taken deep roots into the collective psyche of our era. It became a visual metaphor to every nightmare bred out of fear of terrorism, even as countless acts of extreme violence have followed that crispy, blue-sky Tuesday in America.
Even more intriguing are depictions of exploding planes and buildings that art and pop culture have produced before 911. Two works are particularly impressive: a sculpture by New York artist Michael Richards, who was killed that day, and a painting by British Willie Gardner.
Wisely ignoring conspiracy buffs, who like to dwell in a made-up reality with even more odds staked against us, it’s still possible to appreciate the intuition that led these two black artists to conceive works of such haunting, and premonitory, quality, while sharing not much else in common.
To be sure, anticipation, and the ability to eerily foresee a world not quite here, are integral to creative expression, even when that’s not exactly the author’s intention. Also, it’s not unusual for life to emulate what art, and public sensibility, had already made possible to conceive.
After all, we breathe the same toxic, over-saturated environment, suffused through ages by human interference. And our brains are specially biased to see a connected world that does not exist outside our skulls; life happens independently of our will or whims.
The fact that the two works are not in the same level of artistic sophistication is irrelevant too. Richards was a rising talent, who perished when his studio was crushed by the destruction of the Twin Towers, while Gardner, who died in 2010 and only dabbled in art as an amateur, was thousands of miles away.
Read Also:
* No Pics
* Flight, Interrupted
* Quantum Leaks

There’s no record that either one was imbued of any anticipatory penchant. They simply created something out of a vision whose meaning they’ve taken with them. But that something inevitably tickles our minds, still eager to find significance, and sense, in that despicable tragedy.
Yes, there were many others for we are particularly good at inflicting progressively horrifying terrors onto each other. And we could be talking here about the victims, or the evildoers, or any number of the cliches that have piled up about that day. But we’re glad we have Richards and Gardner to memorialize instead.
Every year, we promise not to add anything to the meaningless cacophony of 911’s moaning and complaints. And every time we break our vows. It’s just as well. Art and reality are often unexplainable. We’re doomed to face terror over and over in our lifetimes. So at least, let’s try to do it with fresh eyes.

Curtain Raiser

A Forgotten Riot & Goodwill, Colltalers

It’s Labor Day in the U.S., so people may take it easy, as hard as that may be nowadays. It’s also the unofficial end of the Northern summer, a time to barbecue, and a few others things. What it is not is what 80 others countries celebrate on May 1, rather than today.
That’s a curious historical diversion. What’s considered the inspiration for today’s date happened in Chicago, 130 years, and four months, ago: the Haymarket Riot, when police ended a union rally for the eight-hour shift by killing and maiming scores of people.
It may sound harsh a description but the May 4, 1886, gathering in support of striking workers had been peaceful until the cops showed up. The riot inspired organized labor around the world to set up a date that’d memorialize the dead and the workers’ cause for fair laws.
In an all too familiar turn, four protesters were convicted and hanged for conspiracy a year later. Soon after, though, laws were passed imposing limits on the length of a day, and week, work, along several other rights most people enjoy even now, thank you very much.
Thus, even though Labor Day in September is as far as resonating the history of the movement as the month is from May, it still offers an opportunity to meditate on the decline of worker unions in the U.S., and how that impacts, or not, the upcoming presidential election.
While a separate date betrays the early attempt to drill holes in the unity of the emerging labor movement, it now sheds an uncomfortable glare on the so-called ‘American exceptionalism.’ The arrogance of the concept is so ingrained on the American psyche, that few see it at the root of our isolationism, and another reason why, labor-wise, we may be experiencing a backslide to a dark, pre-labor laws era.
Over 50 million workers are now freelancers, or as the ‘new economy’ calls it it, independent contractors. To employers, this growing pool of available hands, found outside the constraints of Continue reading