The Undreamed World

Forget Exoplanets. Here’s
the Ninth, the X & the Quirky

When things get rough on the ground, we can always look up. Seven and half billion currently trudging along on this big rock can take solace that the universe is vast and beautiful and always available. It’s also uncaring and violent, but we won’t get into that today.
Part of this soothing feeling is because we don’t know what’s up there. Astronomers wonder if there’s an undiscovered giant orbiting the sun. And another Earth-sized one. And a quirky object too. Or none of the above. We learn a lot by simply not knowing much.
But it’s fun to wonder. Or is it? The cosmos is so disproportionally big that no single mind can wrap itself around it. Large but short of infinity, it baffles and ignores us, while we dream on. Or have nightmares about it. It doesn’t care, but to us, it’s the stuff of, well, you know.
Heard about Nemesis, the sun’s evil twin? Or the identical Earth hidden behind the sun? Both are reasonable guesses, but their currency can only be exchanged at an imaginary box office at the end of the galaxy. One of them is actually a sci-fi movie plot. We may find out some day, but math will probably get there first.
The breakthrough era of exoplanet discoveries and look-alike solar systems has nothing on such suspicions. They date back to the 1800s, when hot-as-the-sun disputes drove many an even-tempered scientist to near madness. Math always gets there first. But even after a century, we’re still way too far behind.

Planet 9 has been orbiting the slumber of astrophysicists since they first studied the solar system. Something massive has been disturbing Earth’s siblings practically from the universe’s inception and wild youth, back in 2016 minus 4.6 billion years ago. Maybe we’ll find out what.
Mankind owes Percival Lowell the hunt for this ninth planet. His calculations missed the giant but led to the discovery of Pluto, 15 years after his death, a century ago last year. But Pluto can’t explain the orbital disturbances, and that likely doomed it too.
In 2006, the International Astronomical Union downgraded it to dwarf planet, giving grief to many. That left the spot #9 empty, and astronomers have a hunch that its next occupant resides in the area beyond Neptune, a kind of suburbs of the solar system, if you’d insist.
But we may be still years away from direct detection. After all, those outskirts lay at least 300 times farther from the sun than the Blue Planet, and whatever lurks there it’s simply too hard to spot from our backyard. But we might. Just hold off the welcome B-B-Q for now.

Taking about burbs, the Kuiper Belt, an area fraught with debris possibly left over from a planetary explosion, and from where most comets come out shooting, may be the neighborhood of yet another unknown object. But this time, it’s of a cozy, Earth-sized scale.
Astronomers suspect that it’s the source of disturbance of the Belt’s 600 objects they’ve been monitoring. Considerably closer to us, and much smaller than Planet 9, it’s been nicknamed Planet 10, but not everyone wants to be quoted on that or even is on board about it.
The scientific community has a healthy skeptical attitude about new claims, specially something they may missed for so long. Humans love a thrill, however, and the spectacular discovery of a new planet (more)
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* Gatekeeper of Outerspace
* Heed My Leaps
* Worlds Away

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Curtain Raiser

The Cons of War & Trade, Colltalers

A debate worth having these days is whether geopolitical hegemony is still determined by a country’s arsenal, or its ability to dominate global trade. As battle lines are no longer defined by traditional 20th century ideologies, a new, more accurate yardstick may be needed.
In this context, the U.S. is becoming ever more identified with the power of its weaponry industry, high firepower and outrageous profits, from a state of permanent worldwide war. And China is retaking a spot that it may have held in antiquity: the world’s de facto largest economy.
Our contemporary history gets a fresh appreciation under this new dichotomy. The threat of conflicts for global dominance may not be triggered by traditional Left-Right ideological sides, but by local, trade and territorial disputes, with equal risk for out-of-control escalation.
The impact of such a tectonic shift in world relations has yet to be determined, of course. But we always seem to be on the verge of a military strike by the U.S., even if solely to prove a political point. And China, when it finally re-calibrates its commercial balance, may realistically bring the world to its knees, just because it may find important to flex its industrial might. Both possibilities, albeit scary, are perfectly plausible.
That old values, dating back from the republican French Revolution, no longer fit the dizzying complexity of geopolitical and economic relations that marks the world today, packs no great surprise. But the consequences of going back to a new Colonialism, where countries are invaded so to grant their invaders’ territorial advantage, or to a widespread Discovery Era-style trade wars, are downright unpredictable.
It’s instructive to take just such possibilities for a quick spin, in the light of some news that may have gotten lost in last week’s shuffle.
First it’s the absolutely sobering news that the Iraqi city of Mosul was retaken from Daesh’s control by Iraqi and U.S. forces, which gave no one reason for jubilation. The human cost, the civilian death toll, cruelty of combatants, and the carnage left behind are beyond staggering.
Similarly to what happened a few months ago in Aleppo, when the guns were finally silenced, everybody and everything was lost, including reason and morals. As it signals the way wars may be fought, what happened in Mosul confirms two major certainties about today’s geopolitics: there will be more just like it; and weaponmaker stocks are bound to break records, making their investors very rich indeed.
These are powerful arguments for defense contractors and warmongers to be bullish about what everybody else with a conscience is sick about it: the business of endless war is now an acceptable national economic model. Thus, there’s no end in sight for the Afghan war.
To contrast all that, China reporting last week that its GDP grew 6.9% in the second quarter of this year, gives many some solace, as it’s certainly better news than anything else coming from Asia these days. No small feat to feed and employ the world’s Continue reading

Bad Manor

The Kid, the Maid
& the Phony Blind

The telephone rang and blew my cover.
I was dreaming, oblivious to the final days of my vacation at the turn-of-the-century Inn where I was told George Washington had slept at. Most of the seasonal guests had already left. The maid, whose family had been keeping the place in pristine conditions for decades, had changed the laced sheets of the Victorian bed and was running around tiding things up.
Who knows what made me decided to play blind? My second-rate performance began on a whim and before long I felt liberated for not having to see where I was going (since she was making sure I wouldn’t hit anything).
Halfway through it I was fully committed to fool the tormented soul, as she charitably whispered advice so I wouldn’t break my skull open against the 1900s bookcase. That being a dream, I should be exonerated of any malfeasance, I thought.
Ah, what a joy to pretend I was heading straight to the antique console full of crystal glasses and fine china. I could see her cold sweat running, imagining that at any moment I could smash the priceless artifacts and drive her family out of business. Some daft footwork helped the devilish intent to grow even deeper within me.
As I directed my blank gaze to the window, I basked on the sound of children voices playing on the manicured lawns surrounding the cottages and the manor house. Autumn was at its peek. The sound of unseen birds racked my rapture. I was truly elated.
Then the phone rang and my 8-year old woke up — I’d forgotten all about him. The poor thing had been sick all morning, and had fallen asleep on an exquisite century-old rug. As he sat up crying, he tells me that the sudden ringing had had a perverse effect on his track: he’d soiled his pants profusely. Still weeping, he also threw up, projecting the half-digested Continental Breakfast out of the makeshift bed I’d prepared for him. Even before he told me that, though, my nostrils had already sounded the alarm.
I immediately broke out of character and ushered him towards the bathroom, a long and excruciating way from the living room. We rushed through the bedroom as fast as we could but he still managed to let another copious wave of vomit to land on the fluffy pillows. And another one followed suit, caking a Federal-style trunk.
When he finally sat on the toilet bowl, I turned back to see the thick, smelly track of organic waste that lined the floor from the foyer to the bathroom’s door.
As I feared such a pious old lady could turn into a murderous rage, I was glad to wake up.
(*) Originally published on Mar. 28, 2011.

Curtain Raiser

Lula May Fall but Brazil Can’t, Colltalers

Very few people in Brazil could’ve honestly claimed they didn’t see it coming. When the still immensely popular two-term former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was sentenced last week to nearly 10 years of prison, to be appealed in freedom, almost no Brazilian was surprised.
For the opposition, which for 14 years has been consistently crushed by Lula and his Workers’ Party, the PT, in polls, popularity, and global stature, it was the exhilarating culmination of a process that also included the spurious 2016 impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff.
Neither her ouster nor Lula’s condemnation were based on solid proof. But that also doesn’t come as a shock to a weary citizenry still reeling from the young democracy’s painful learning curve it’s been living through since the end of the 21-year military dictatorship, in 1985.
And, in yet another fact that doesn’t disrupt sleep for the 200-million plus population, most of those who orchestrated the thinly-disguised political coup, not just have criminal evidence weighting against them, but also remain in power. Corrupt, unpopular, but still in charge.
Needless to say, the mood of this once briefly proud nation is currently very dark indeed. Given that the coalition of right-wing parties, powerful broadcasters, influential religious and land-owner groups, is running a quasi-tight ship, it’s unlike that mass protests will avert such fast back-to-the-past curse. As the economy returns to appalling 1970s and 80s performance figures, Brazil is bracing for a long penumbra.
As it stands, the political elite in power has effectively achieved what it was long seeking: the neutralizing of Lula’s candidacy for next year’s presidential election – of which he’s dominating the polls as a front runner – and crippling any chances for PT to become a contender again.
Brazil, which has now stepped down from the express train it’d boarded in the early 2000s, which raced past the 6th-largest economy position in the world, can no longer claim the status of interlocutor of Western nations in global affairs or even leadership atop the G20, Brick, and Mercosur groups. Diminishing foreign investments and technology budgets will likely restore Brazil’s role as a merely agricultural producer.
The 2007 discovery of huge offshore oil deposits, which even before being explored, gave Brazil a powerful economical leverage tool, and placed it closer than ever to fully oil independence, Continue reading

The Deep End

* Large and small Websites are participating on July 12 in a Day of Action to preserve Net Neutrality, a free, open, and accessible Internet to anyone. The Federal Communications Commission is threatening to turn it into a system where cable and communications companies are gate keepers, that dictate prices and speeds to everyone else.
* That would be the end to Colltales and millions of sites, including those that serve as lifelines to billions, who depend on them for self-expression, to speak the truth to power, and to communicate with the world. Make your voice heard and fight for the democratic right of access of everyone to the World Wide Web.

Diving With Spiders 
In the World Wild Web

The wonder about the Internet is that it’s still expanding at an incalculable rate, and it remains defiantly free and democratic, despite all attempts at controlling it. So there’s no embarrassment to admit we’re far from grasping even a fraction of its multi billion-plus sites.
But as vast as the Web may be, it is but a shallow dip into its depths. To dive unprepared into the bowels of what’s known as Deep Web, is not advisable. Unreachable by search engine spiders, it’s like falling into an abyss, and like the ocean, it can crush you.
It’s not enough to Google ‘dark net’ in order to get to it, but it does bring up a staggering number of links. And that’s a start for a glance of the Deep Web which is some four to five hundred times larger than what’s available to everyone: about 6,500 terabytes compared to the meek 20 terabytes you can all access to. As for what’s in really in there, it’s another matter.
Close to 500 billion of that numbing figure are of sites you’ll probably never be admitted to, and as you’ll find out, nor should you try to. That is, unless you’re absolutely sure about what you’re getting yourself into. Consider that a fair warning.
Of course, not all that info is really relevant to the lives of the majority of people. But if you really need to be granted access, and there are ways to get it, what you’ll find is way more reliable data that you’re used to be fed by a regular search. A lot of it sits inside directories, under specific topic-driven searches, though.
Despite the benign imagery used to invoke the differences between the regular Interweb and the Deep Web – fishing through the surface of the ocean as opposed to deep sea fishing – there’s not much that’s benign about this bottomless well of info, and many may find themselves, well, out of their depth while searching it.
That’s because traditional search engines have standard (more)
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* It Blogs the Mind
* Spinning World
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Curtain Raiser

Cheap Gas Isn’t Worth It, Colltalers

While many were transfixed by yet another appalling Trump’s mini world tour, other two, equally relevant, and inevitably related events took place: North Korea’s test-launched an intercontinental missile, capable of hitting the U.S., and the U.N. adopted a nuclear weapons ban treaty.
But as serious to our future as the new nuclear strike toy at Kim Jong-un’s disposal is, there are other issues failing to get due attention. Take hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for instance, and how it’s driving profits, cheap gas, and widespread quakes and groundwater contamination.
Because it lowered natural gas costs – when conveniently ignoring the environmental impact it causes -, fracking has been the last hope for a still rich but increasingly uncompetitive fossil-fuel industry. Specially because its decaying infrastructure, and traditional investor bias, have been easily repurposed for the new approach. But fracking is neither ‘clean energy,’ nor competitive in the long run against renewables.
Behind the propaganda, which is heavy on job creation assumptions, and neglectful about the toll on natural resources the procedure causes, other factors may be critically overlooked about the rosy natural gas picture. An example is the number of wells dug to extract it, which since 2011 has been increasing at a much greater rate than production, according to a recent EcoWatch study based on government research.
That means that, as gas output growth remains steady, more land has been compromised by its extraction than ever, at a rate that surpasses even the oil industry boom of the 1930s. And the well-paid jobs, advertised by the American Petroleum Institute to grow to ‘two million by 2040,’ are heavily dependent on high-level college education or specialized training, two areas chronically afflicted by low investments.
The most visible risk related to widespread fracking is the increased occurrence of earthquakes, a fact that the industry goes to great pains to divert public attention from, without much success. A 5.8 temblor in Montana, last week, was the strongest in the region in over 60 years.
It’s no wonder that Montana, the Rocky Mountains, northern states, and other regions have experienced ‘induced seismicity,’ i.e., man-made quakes. They are all within the expanding ground zero for fracking operations, which the Trump administration’s energy policies favor.
Only the industry’s minions deny that the injection of massive amounts of water and chemicals into the shale, and consequent re-injection of the liquid waste into underground storage pools, Continue reading

Some Girls

When Medieval Badass Ladies Had
to Crossdress to Survive the Times

It’s unlikely that they’ve ever heard of each other. Or imagined they’ll be featured together on an obscure blog post of the future. Yet, these remarkable women left a mark for their sheer independence and fiery personalities. (And for being luckier than doomed heroine Joana D’Arc.)
Ching Shih ruled the Chinese waters. Caterina Sforza almost killed a pope. As a man, Catalina de Erauzo was a warrior. But like Chevalier d’Eon, she was actually a lady. These fab four may have had to kill or bed many men. Some did it both. But none owed their outstanding reputation to any of them, or had to take what they didn’t choose.
Gender does say something about the foursome, but not all. Yes, they all led bloody lives, and many perished on their wake. But the odds they’ve faced for not being male, and having to conceal that fact, turned them into formidable characters who rose high above the fray.
Besides the ever present foes of women’s right to independence, such as religious zealotry, class barriers, and society prejudice, they had to survive typical Middle Ages threats, such as the Inquisition and burning at the stake. No wonder they were all sharp fencers (swordswomen?).
They’ve achieved more than most, and their lives did rewrite the rules of was expected from women, then or at any time, regardless the body count. Theirs were partial paybacks for what many of their gender didn’t live long enough to collect, despite earning and deserving it.

History books tell that Ching Shih was a prostitute before reaching command of the Red Flag Fleet. That she only climbed to the top through murdering the powerful pirate Zhèng Yi, who kidnapped her as a whore and made her his wife. Only to be betrayed, etc. History books were probably written by a man.
In fact, she expanded the fleet and redefined how it’d manage its riches, and did so out of a keen business and strategy acumen. And unlike most male pirates we’ve know of, she negotiated a pardon for her and her charges, who all retired with a comfortable keep. She died at the ripe age of 69.

Much briefer, if no less intense, was Caterina Sforza‘s life. Infamous too, thanks to no other but Machiavelli himself. He wrote Cesare Borgia-based ‘The Prince,’ so it’s not hard to guess whose pope she had a rift with, and came out singed by history. Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo de Borgia, was Cesare’s dad and his own patron.
She did bury a few husbands, but the anecdote that survived Sforza was that she exposed her pregnant belly to the sword of an enemy: Go ahead, she said, slay my baby. I can make more. Whether (more)
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* The Flow
* First Ladies
* The Other Half of the Sky

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