Partial Recall

Memories of the Future, or    
What We Forget to Recollect

Guess what? It may be a good thing that you can’t remember what they’ve told you about your memories. As it turns out, you don’t have to be a savant or try to associate facts with objects, or colors, or smells. It won’t hurt if you do, but either way, it won’t make much of a difference to most, in the big scheme.
Some exercise their recalling skills like a muscle. Others picture things as if in a photograph. People either struggle to remember or choose to forget. And yes, there are those geniuses. But if you’re none of the above, no reason to despair; it’s been quite a while since we too gave up all hope of ever finding that extra set of keys anyway.
We could save some time and say that science has no clue, but that would be an over-simplification. The more researchers dig, the more distractions they find, affecting how we remember things, produce memories, and even adopt somebody else’s recollections. One thing is for sure: some people are really prodigies recalling details of the past.
How we deal with our memories is, of course, highly personal. We strive to portray our private history as an accurate and favorable reflection of who we think we are. But much conspires against such a seamless narrative, the first thing being exactly that: the narrative.
To tell the story, we need to make sense and fill in the blanks, the details that reality, or memory, not always provided. It’s also disturbing to come across someone who has a different take on the same events. But that’s exactly what siblings and spouses often do. Not to go overboard here, but that’s why we sometimes hate them so much.

THE WEATHER ON FEB. 23, 1955
How do you call someone who didn’t walk until he was four, couldn’t button up his own shirt, had trouble with even the most basic motor skills, had an average 87 I.Q. and, nevertheless, could recall every single weather report going back over 40 years? a Rain Man, or his birth name, Kim Peek, to whom the term savant was defined.
When he died in 2009, he’d become worldwide known, thanks to his portrayal by Dustin Hoffman in the 1988 movie. And yet, even with such a gifted actor at the helm, the film barely scratched the mystery of what it means to be someone with such an astonishing mental ability and yet living inside a mind of a tween.
Many others with similar uncontrollable talents have been known by science. But there’s a new breed of ‘recallers,’ as we’d call them, who’re functional human beings, unlike Peek and other savants, according to NPR reports. University of California at Irvine memory researcher James McGaugh, for example, has been studying 11 of such individuals. Many are in the autistic spectrum of Asperger’s Syndrome.
They’re no better than anyone else at performing standard memory tests, such as repeating back lists, though. What they excel at is recalling, in piecing detail, events of their own lives. A person in the group could recall, for instance, an assortment of things that happened on a particular day more than 30 years ago, just because that’s when his football team lost. Is that also why you remember ‘that’ so vividly?

EXPERIENCE VS. NARRATIVE
The research itself, which involves brain scans and a thorough psychological evaluation of the participants, breaks new ground into the study of how we remember some things, and completely forget others. In a recent Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman discussed yet another approach to tackle the complex subject.
The founder of behavioral economics finds a distinction between our ‘experiencing selves’ and our ‘remembering selves,’ and how we often fail to fully appreciate either of them. (more)
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Seen From Above

Pictures of Earth at Night From
Space: Stunning Beauty & Concern

Watching Earth from 199 miles up has changed how we see ourselves, our cities and the planet, thanks in part to photos taken from satellite and by the astronauts at the International Space Station. As they’re staying ever longer up there, aerial photography has greatly improved.
All that these recent photos have in common is that they’re all night pictures, but boy, aren’t they striking. They’re also surprisingly revealing and instructive about what’s going on down here. Hopefully, they’ll become valuable tools for raising awareness and change.
Credit should be given to NASA which, despite its current shoestring budget, still manages to wow us with some of their ongoing projects. One such program is the Earth Observatory, which is a comprehensive six-month study, using high-resolution night images of Earth, to ‘gain insight on human activity and poorly understood natural events.’
The now little government agency that still can often works in conjunction with other scientific research teams, such the National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA, as well as the European Space Agency. The ISS is also an integral part of such programs, as it orbits through different patches from satellites.
Whereas the Earth Observatory is a set study, the astronauts are free to photograph Earth following their own instincts. And photograph away they do, to stunning and quite meaningful results. Whether they direct (more)
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* Up, Up & Away

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Running on Fumes

The Scent With Power to
Make You Dream Or Run

Some of us like perfumes. Others, stink too much (you know who you are. Maybe). Some use one to cover up the other, to widespread annoyance. And yet, for all we know, the primeval sense of smell may be the scent that has saved our species from extinction. Maybe.
The odor spectrum is radically split into two realms: one transcends us to heaven, if not to sweet remembrances of the past; the other tosses us into the very bowels of hell, all gagging included. But without rot wafts, we wouldn’t know how appreciate so much a whiff of lavender.
Or to breathe into a room full of old books. To some, that’d be the one to bottle and carry around at all times. Humans are partial to jasmine, to myrrh, and to citruses, too, not just to the primeval smell of milk or food in general. Our taste for pleasant smells is its own reward.
A familiar smell can stop people on their tracks, and thrown them into deep reverie. Often, a memory floods the mind even before it can recognize what triggered it. Similar to an old song, a scent can transport anyone to an elusive mix of recollection and comfort feelings.
No wonder the sense of direction has been linked to the nose. It’s where scientists found traces of magnetite, a crystal we share with birds. Of all the places we stick our noses in, or point them to, guessing correctly which is the way back home can be a life saver.

FOR A FEW SCENTS MORE
We should also thank the stars for the nose to point forward and far from what’s better left behind (and unsaid). But either for a matter of survival, as when one smells a fire, or a rat, or for sentimental reasons, it’s hard to imagine organisms depleted from such crucial ability.
But some people are, either by accident or freak of nature. And most are doing just fine, thank you very much. So there you have it, how lucky you’ve been and hardly noticed. And don’t go around saying that nobody told you: you just have. You’re welcome.
Within the vastness of what flares the wings of our nose (beside anger and derangement), two traces are particularly close to us: body odor (you knew it was coming); and city smells. Each or combined, (more)
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Punctuation Wars

The Comma World of
Grammar Vigilantes

‘Language is a source of misunderstandings,’ wrote Antoine Saint-Exupéry. He’d surely have elaborated it further to indict the written word too, but probably wanted to keep the sentence short. Knowing the risks helped him avoid mix-ups by a discriminating use of punctuation.
Many a wrong diacritic, though, fell an incautious scribe. Among them, behold the common comma, tricky hook known to trip phrase and auteur alike. Lives and reputations have been ruined by its misuse, and to misjudge the pause literally sucks the air out of the communication.
Isn’t it why they’re often referred to as accidents? Don’t dare tell that to a philologist, who’d be capable of stuffing your pretty face with quotation marks so thick, soon you’d be spitting your own full stops to the matter. And you thought you English teacher was mean.
Speaking of which, native English-speakers tend to look down on accents used in the most languages, as unnecessary pomposity. They don’t know how easy they have it. Those marks are in fact as vital to meaning as words themselves, and you may forget to use them properly at your own risk.
And unless you want to get into a fistfight, it’s also advisable to never, ever, say to a grammarian that punctuation need not to apply to emailing, texting, and/or tweeting. As Michael Skapinker put it, in one of his FT columns, social media and short messages do not protect us from misunderstandings.
SPLICE, YOU COMMA CHAMELEON
He was referring to a recent Maine court case worth thousands of dollars, won due to good comma placement. For often, you may think that being tired, frustrated, slightly drunk and ready to hit the sack, excuse you from adding a fifth comma, just before the ‘and.’ Don’t, we beg you.
Let’s be forgiven only once about this, two full sentences shouldn’t be separated by just a comma, as in this case. There’s simply not enough pause, critics of the Splice comma say. But on the prior graph, you’d be in Oxford comma jurisdiction, as the lack of that fifth messes all up the meaning.
It’s all a tad less than thrilling, you’d say, lacking fun and games quality, until somebody sues, that is. For ages, (more)
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Out to Get You

In a Mad World, There Are
Jobs Only Psychopaths Can Do

They mesmerize you just like a spider would. And just as well, haunt your nightmares. There may be one among your dearest friends. The thought of you knowing a predator who may consider you no more than prey, is as scary as wondering whether you may be one.
But now we know more than ever about psychopaths, through books, movies, and real stories. There’s a new understanding about their evolutionary role and they, gasp, may not be as fearful as society thinks they are. Or at least, not without purpose.
Whole sections of bookstores, or rather, on your favorite online seller, are about their pathology, traits, even theories as to why some of us have no empathy to peoples’ feelings, or pain, while others are just glad to marry them out of sheer awe of their personal power.
Of course, every one of these treatises starts by defining what a psychopath is, what it is not, and most important, what the hell is the difference between them and sociopaths. By now, we’re all cognizant to such variances and mostly have a pretty good idea about what kind of compulsion drives them to do what they do best.
And what’s that, again? If you’ve said that it’s murder, you may not know as much about them as you thought you did. For, according to modern psychology, psychopaths come in a myriad of varieties and, even if you’re not particularly inclined to know the gory details of their mindset, you may at least educate yourself, just enough to, you know, get out of their way.
For despite all contemporary reassessment about what a predator is and what it does, there’s not much change in one basic reality: no one should get on their bad side. Just like sharks, you don’t want them to be extinct, but that doesn’t mean you’re ready to jump in the water and swim alongside them.

THE BLURRY WISDOM OF POP CULTURE
There are now studies purporting to justify the valuable role psychopaths may play in society, what we can learn observing one, how successful some have become as captains of industry, about how some online games make you act just like one, and, yes, whether you are a closet murderer, but that you already knew about it.
Other research supposes what a psychopath would do – you see, just like Jesus – in any number of situations. Or how badly the movies have portrayed them, even though you may kind of miss them when, and if, they finally meet their comeuppance in your favorite series. In fact, they’re ever present in popular culture.
And in real life too, of course, although it’s relatively rare when someone like Bernie Madoff gets caught. Behind the much patting in the back, there’s the shame of realizing that none of his victims anticipated what he was up to. And some of them genuinely thought they were best friends, up to the very, bankrupted end.
After all, remorse is not something that’s usually part of the palette of positive attributions behavior psychologists believe psychopaths could teach us. But (more)
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In a Relative Way

100 Years of the Einstein Theory
That Jump-Started the Modern World

Most of the technological wonder mankind grew accustomed during the 20th century, and is still the basis of contemporary life, was not yet in place when a 36-year-old Albert Einstein published his General Theory of Relativity, after a decade of feverish research.
Despite its far reaching concepts and complexities of its precepts, the theory became both popular and enduring, dismantling old assumptions and challenging scientific thought. Its astonishing accuracy has also proven resilient and still ahead of our time.
In fact, along Max Planck’s Quantum Mechanics formulations, Relativity is arguably one of the most comprehensive – despite its gaps – explanations of natural phenomena since Isaac Newton published his Law of Universal Gravitation, over 220 years before.
It guaranteed Einstein immortality and, even if indirectly, the 1921 Nobel of Physics. While only a few could elaborate on its implications, the theory‘s appeal lies on the simplicity of its outline, and almost direct impact and correlation to our world.
Although most of us couldn’t explain gravity to save our lives, many have at least heard about how massive objects, such as (more)

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Silly Males

Gary Drinks Gas, Georgio Loves
Rugs, But Huug, He Just Laughs

Pardon our Sanskrit, but here’s another stream of WTF stories. Our files are always bursting with these little gems of human drama we often know not how to dispose of them, and easily grow attached to what they’re about. So let us skip the obvious, the cheap shots and the mean spirited, lest not be us, someday, the object of similarly deflating jeer.
One thing is for sure: we’ve never heard of a 12-step program for gasoline drinkers, a habit made even more lethal if one smokes. Then again, the nefarious Cigarette Man of X-Files fame, is actually a devout waterskiing champ. Who knew? If you like to be stepped on, why not bring your own, favorite rug to help others do the job? Just don’t laugh at that Dutch man: he can’t help it if the joke’s on him.
Perhaps it’s Fall’s arrival, which always catches us off-guard, or the foolishness of pondering about water in another planet. Both concepts are as difficult for us to grasp as climate change: we know both are facts of life, and yet we’re not ready to book a trip to Mars, nor are we prepared to say anything inspiring about winter around the corner.
THE HUMAN LIGHTER
We hear that some people drink too much. That’s a club we got expelled out a long time ago, and are still sore about. Not in our wildest (more)
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After the Flood

Katrina or When Climate Change
Collided Against the Racial Divide

They called for help but it never came. As the nation witnessed entire counties drown on TV, the president refused to cut down his vacations. The storm turned the Big Easy into one of the hardest places on Earth to survive. And a compromised recovery would be short and flawed and unequal.
They promised to rebuild but more than lives, personal belongings, and memorabilia got lost in the flood. Gone was also both New Orleans’ patina of a supposedly racial democracy, and yet another national lame excuse to deny climate change.
As it goes, both were currency during the Bush administration in the immediate post 9/11 era, when his government acquired immense powers to avenge, in a phony cowboy way, the open wounds of American society. Katrina, thus, was far from a ‘natural’ disaster.
The government that sent to the U.N. an honored but misguided black Secretary of State, to justify the Iraq invasion with manufactured evidence, had also promoted an energy policy based on fossil fuels that’s now directly linked to the climate deterioration of the planet.
A policy that, while lining government officials’ pockets, from the VIP down to close allies in the industry and oil-producing countries, has been instrumental for an explosive growth in the destructive power of storms such as Karina, and the wild fires now raging in the West Coast.

WHY THEY WERE LEFT BEHIND
Despite our first black president‘s usual brand of shinning rhetoric and optimism about the future, the state of race relations in this (more)
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Honey, We’ve Shrunk the Bees

The Unbearable Silence of
Disappearing Pollinators

Be quiet for a moment. Can you hear it? Probably not, but it’s not all your fault. The sound that is missing is the buzzing of billions of bees, that have been disappearing at an alarming rate lately. And the deafening silence from most people, who remain aloof to all of it.
They’re up to a rude awakening, however. Managed care of honeybees, used to pollinate a third of U.S. foods, is on the verge of collapsing, in synch with the insects’ own collapse because of, you guessed it, our own doing. And the proposed solution won’t be enough to stop it.
Consider the Obama administration’s plan, announced this week, to counter a 42% loss of colonies reported last year by U.S. beekeepers. It’s been greeted with dismay by environmentalists because it doesn’t address the key factor that may be single-handedly causing their demise: a new class of pesticide.
Neonicotinoid insecticides were developed by Shell and Bayer as a milder alternative to other pesticides. Instead, soon enough they too became linked to even worse environment effects, top among them, the honeybee colony collapse disorder. That’s why their use is already restricted in European Union nations.
Thus, it’d be logical to expect that the EPA, underfunded as it is, would be charged with controlling and enforcing its phasing out, given the alarm sounded by apiaries. Not so fast, apparently; despite a year worth of petitions to ban neonicotinoids, the new proposal simply ignores it.
But it’s not all bad. Even critics cite the restoration of seven million acres of bee-friendly areas, lost to urbanization, as a positive step included in the plan. It’ll all depend on the bees, however, since as it happens, they seem now prone to get addicted to other sources of sweets. In that case, we’re all doomed.
Or not. Many doubt that the eventual disappearance of bees will bring about such an apocalyptical scenario. They think it’s too melodramatic. Then again, they don’t usually care for fruits. Or vegetables. Or, what the hell, nature. Neither they see a problem when dolphins die, so you do the math.
We could do without so much sweets (or repeats, for that matter) but we do value the fruits and veggies undocumented immigrants and their families work their asses off to bring to us. So if not for the birds and the bees, then at least for the humans who may be breathing neonicotinoids too, let’s say it’s time.
It’d be dumb to discard the stunning beauty by which pollinators and specially bees grace this world, on behalf of our pedestrian mores. Between them and us, it’s hard to say which is the clear favorite. And speaking of repeating ourselves, here’s a post we’ve published over a year ago on the subject.

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

A number of environmental groups have chosen Valentine’s Day week last year 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. That 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 Continue reading

Partial Recall

Memories of the Future, or    
What We Forget to Recollect

Guess what? It may be a good thing that you can’t remember what they’ve told you about your memories. As it turns out, you don’t have to be a savant, or try to associate facts with objects, or colors, or smells. It won’t hurt if you do, but either way, it won’t make much of a difference to most, in the big scheme.
Some exercise their recalling skills like a muscle. Others picture things as if in a photograph. People either struggle to remember or choose to forget. And yes, there are those genius. But if you’re none of the above, no reason to despair; it’s been quite a while since we too gave up all hope of ever finding that extra set of keys anyway.
We could save some time and say that science has no clue, but that would be an over-simplification. The more researchers dig, the more distractions they find, affecting how we remember things, produce memories, and even adopt somebody else’s recollections. One thing is for sure: some people are really prodigies recalling details of the past.
How we deal with our memories is, of course, highly personal. We strive to portray our private history as an accurate and favorable reflection of who we think we are. But many things conspire against such a seamless narrative, the first thing being exactly that: the narrative.
To tell the story, we need to make sense and fill in the blanks, the details that reality not always provides. It’s also disturbing to come across someone who has a different take on the same events. But that’s exactly what siblings and spouses often do. Not to go overboard here, but that’s why we sometimes hate them so much.

THE WEATHER ON FEB. 23, 1975
How do you call someone who didn’t walk until he was four, couldn’t button up his own shirt, had trouble with even the most basic motor skills, had an average 87 I.Q. and, nevertheless, could recall every single weather report going back over 40 years? a Rain Man, or his Continue reading

Ailurophile, Caturally

Cats & Their Subtle Ways
of Taking Over Our World

The Internet may be the realm of cats. But Japan has been their unofficial land for 15 centuries. Out of its over 6,800 islands, 11 are felines-only places. There, as here or everywhere, an endless stream of news about cats seems to be always pouring. Our duty is to report them. Hey, it’s their world; we just work here.
For sure, they’ve been around way before catching rides on sixth century Chinese boats. And before Egypt and Tibet and New York City threaten to suit us for misrepresentation, they’ve occupied every pore of society, from houses to cafes, from offices to retirement homes, and the very social mores of our age.
The opening of Life of Cats, a two-part show of the Hiraki Ukiyo-e Collection‘s of cat woodblock prints by Edo-period artists at New York’s Japan Society, presents the perfect opportunity to jump at such an omnipresent, furry, and ever so gracious, subject. The heavy-handed commentary is ours, of course.
The exhibit of almost 200 prints, some popular, others very rare, covers the influential 17th-through-18th centuries period, through works by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, Utagawa Yoshiiku, and many others, depicting cats in a variety of settings and situations, both playful and thought provoking.

Divided in five sections – Cats and People, as People, and versus People, Transformed, and at Play – the selections, from the most extensive collection of ukiyo-e prints in the world, offer a journey through pre-industrial and pre-urban Japan through the mid 1800s and beyond. It’s complemented with modern artwork.
In surprising, evocative scenery, the felines are shown as companions, stand-ins for humans, threatening, and just plain child-friendly playful. The technique allows to exquisite detailing and implied hidden contexts, expertly told as stories by the shows’s curator, and Japan Society Gallery’s director, Miwako Tezuka.

HOME & OFFICE PET COMFORT
Back to contemporary times, Japan’s arguably where the cat cafes first sprouted, but it’s in no way the sole sanctuary Continue reading

Western Omelet

Freeze Eggs, Pick the Time &
Get Pregnant. Any Questions?

There are many reasons why a woman would choose to freeze her eggs. Career is often invoked, albeit it’s also overrated. Beyond the pros and cons of such decision – and they are indeed many -, getting there has its own hefty share of potential risky turns.
Health, emotional state, peer pressure or economic status, it all may affect a woman’s drive to maternity. But whereas social bullshit, or technology shortcomings, may be unavoidable bumps, there should be no other role for her mate, if she’d happen to have one: to shut up and pay close attention.
There’s a rush, among Western societies’ elites, to plan life as if following a recipe, with measured servings of duty, pleasure, adventure, and comfort, healthy assumptions, and invested decisions, all supposed to offer a well balanced meal of experiences and zest.
But life hardly follows such prescription. Rather, its messy development assaults even the most pampered among us, pushing most of everyone to engage on an endless chase after what’s next. Along the way, sense of purpose and grasp of reality may get lost.
To a woman it’s also entrusted a double-weight task, as her body is claimed by all sides as support to their own survival. Thus, all festering assumptions and expectations, both onerous and false, about what ‘nature’ expects from a female. Needless to repeat, nature has nothing to do with it.
As women wrestle control over their right to procreate whenever they find it fit, technology has kept apace, offering an array of valuable tools. Despite society’s self-serving obscurantism, the women’s struggle for self determination has become template to a whole range of human rights issues.

PLANNING FOR AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Choice is still denied to the majority of women living outside the bubble of industrialized societies. But even for the privileged few, such tools don’t come cheap. And the decision is as wrenching and grief-prone as any responsible parenthood step can be. Maybe more.
In statistical terms, most women in the world live in squalor conditions, with no running water or power, and are in charge of kids, lovers, and relatives. Many are enslaved or paid a fraction Continue reading

You Say It’s Your Birthday

The Day You Were Born:
Good to Party, Good to Go

It didn’t take too long for this one to get spoiled too. As much as one looks forward to it, according to a recent study, your own birthday may be a health hazard to you. But as you simply can’t stay clear from it, as you’ve wished pretty much since your 30th came and went like a night thief, there’s not much point in such a research, now is there?
And here’s another finding making people wonder, wasn’t anything else worthier finding? When it comes to births, not all days are equal and some produce more Americans than others. Now just imagine that, in old times, anyone armed with these two sets of data could become a king, an oracle, or at least, save themselves from a nice bonfire put up to send them off, birthdays be damned.
Both researches, as rigorously scientific and statistically sound they may be, may cater only to the kind of data-consuming lonely heart, who spends days uncovering hidden clues in newspaper articles and revels in writing passionate letters to the editor. We know it well, because we could be as well just like them. But this being another zany post, we’re running with it.
A word to the weary, though. Our brain is trained to see coincidences, even when statistically, what’s coinciding may be just an inevitability. Also, with help from computers to crunch and cross reference astronomical amounts of data, even the science of statistics can be misleading, by predisposing the researcher to see trends where there aren’t any. For more on that, read again the second sentence of this graph.
It’s never too much to add too that this kind of study may have a built-in self-fulfilling predicament in it. Impressionable minds are prone to seek clues for the ‘right time‘ to act upon deep-seated resolutions. Then again, their breaking point may come at much less Continue reading

Mad Beverages

Gatorade With Flame Retardant
& the Brew From Christmas Trees

Imagine that there’s proof that America’s favorite football drink, Gatorade, is loaded with a dangerous substance. Surely the NFL would jump against the prospect of its faithful fans to be gulping something so toxic, and take steps to ban the stuff, right? Well, not really.
We’ll give the C word a rest after this, but what’s the deal with beer made from Christmas trees? Despite being popular with ancient Scandinavians, who would drink it to prevent scurvy, and certainly for entertainment purposes too, it never really caught on ever since.
We’ll discuss these two crazy beverages in a minute, but let’s open today’s proceedings talking about the other way around: the not so excitable world of sobriety. As it turns out, there’s a surprisingly adverse effect caused by less alcohol consumption, at least in the business world: clients spend less.
Come again? According to a Douglas Quenqua story on the NYTimes, there’s an almost insidious prejudice about non-drinkers. The little secret about it is that sober people may be perceived as untrustworthy, and even not very good at executing that killing trade.
It’s a gross misrepresentation, to be sure, akin to mistrust by some abstemious about those who can’t seem to function socially without a cocktail glass in their hands. But the focus of the story is the possible cultural pressure in the business world toward drinking, specially if a crucial sale or a key contract needs to be signed.
And yet, a walk through midtown restaurants at lunch hour may convince anyone that fifty years, and not merely 15, have passed since people used to drink at least a glass of wine spritzer, when sharing lunch with clients or colleagues. Three-Martini power lunches, then, Continue reading

Dear John,

You Are Me &
We’re All Together

The other day, when 400,000 people marched in front of your New York City home, I couldn’t help it but think how much you would’ve enjoyed seeing so many taking the streets for a cause – this time to fight Climate Change – just like you, marching against the war.
It also helped that it was the International Peace Day, but what was particularly poignant about Sept. 21st was to realize that many in the crowd had probably been there before, on a cold December night of 1980, to mourn your assassination on the steps of the Dakota building.
You would’ve been 74 today, and almost certainly, equally as engaged in progressive causes as you were some forty years ago. And that’s what makes us so sad, that we can no longer hear your voice, and how much the crowd misses the guidance of people like you, and Pete Seeger, to name a like-minded artist.
The fact is, even at that time, such head-first dive into political activism and explicit protesting was not what many musicians considered the best way to go about seeking change. Bob Dylan comes to mind as another influential star who, like many of your contemporaries, was just not into singing songs, carrying slogans, and parading for peace.
But while they may have been a tad too concerned about the impact that an explicit anti-establishment attitude would’ve had on their careers, you were simply not in the same level of showbiz calculation. To you, it seemed only natural to be part of what the people in the streets were protesting about, warts and criticism notwithstanding.

And there were a lot of put-downs about your over-exposure to the media, your peace and bed-in campaigns, your stunts which, to a small segment of the intelligentsia, were perceived as opportunistic and self-promoting. Never mind that your efforts, as off-the-kilt as they were, became somewhat effective.
In perspective, all that fiery anti-war poster and newspaper ad placing, your tireless advocating and support of people such as Angela Davis, John Sinclair, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and others, are now an inextricably part of the historical record about mass movements that helped put an end to the Vietnam War.
You should’ve seen how many young, high-school kids were there too, possibly making that beautiful Sunday Continue reading

Curtain Raiser

The Climate Alarm Went Off, Colltalers

The U.N. Climate Summit, which starts tomorrow in New York, is a last-ditch effort by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to engage governments and corporations in the climate change issue. It’s also a way to prevent next year’s official conference in Paris from turning into a complete fiasco.
Thus, just in case the urgency of the matter is lost to those decision makers, thousands have marched yesterday in major cities around the world, to demand action and pressure political and corporate leaders, who so far, have shown an appalling, less-than-enthusiastic response to the crisis.
As the decision to call up the summit has been criticized by many, for giving equal footing in the conversation to both governments dedicated to increase environmental protection rules, and well-known polluters, it may also put the spotlight on both parties’ true intentions. Just as the rallies, which were organized by climate organizations, seemed to have underlined a powerful message: we, the world, will be watching you.
And the U.S., as usual, has an oversized role to play, if it chooses to do so. Or should we say, a lot of catch up to do, since the Bush administration decided, in 2001, to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol, an already timid agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Whereas measures such as carbon capture or increased taxation were also on the table, overall, the protocol did have its shortcomings. But the U.S.’s rejection opened the floodgates and gave tacit approval to the fossil-fuel energy industry to boost even more oil drilling in pristine regions, and ramp up coal prospection, ultimately giving rise to highly pollutant new technologies such as fracking.
It’s been since a costly game of hide and seek by American officials, both from the Bush and Obama administrations, as the oil and gas industry continues to dictate the nation’s energy policy, and investments in alternatives remain plagued by partisan gridlock in the U.S. congress.
Speaking of costs, Ban Ki-moon’s has emphasized that policies with a minimal chance of being effective have to be backed by hard cash. The richest among the 125 nations Continue reading

We’re Not Alone!

The Secret, Trillion Lives
Crawling In & On Your Body

The late Carl Sagan may have said, we’re all made of starstuff. But deep down, what we really are is a multitude of microorganisms, 100 trillion of them, some part of our natural physiology, but most totally foreign. We wouldn’t have lasted this long on Earth without them.
While cells are the bricks that form our bodies, even before birth, an ever growing, self-renewing, array of microscopic creatures call us their home and, gasp, may also call the shots about everything we think we are, from how healthy or moody, to when we’ll finally expire.
So much for freewill. This invisible trillionaire community, living of our so well washed and fed bodies, shelters charitable organisms, which allow us to survive what would’ve killed us in the past, and downright lethal pathogens, for which there’s no defense. And yet others are content to just control whether we’ll follow that new Twitter trend.
To learn about these entities, simple but formidable enough to erase a city’s population, is to find multiple new questions to every doubt we may clarify. It’s also to wonder how come a brainless, single-cell being can play such a complex role in the evolutionary ladder.
Notice that we haven’t mentioned viruses, so much in the headlines lately with the Ebola outbreak. But if bacteria can be foreign to us, viruses are totally aliens, as they have no cell or internal structure. All killing’s done with the thinnest protein layer and a string of nucleic acid. We’d let those dogs lie for now, if we could.
Bacteria, however, can actually be our allies, and our guts hold enough of them to actually defeat an alien invasion, as H.G. Wells‘ illustrated so well in War of the Worlds. Not for long, though, as we overuse antibiotics, which kill both good and bad ones, and give rise to a new breed of superbugs. Watch out.

MAFIA BUGS & ZOMBIE SPIDERS
Speaking of evolution, a step above, more complex and considerably larger, are parasites, which are tiny insects, still invisible to our poor eye sights, but very capable all the same. Nature is full of them, and now we’re also learning that some can be pretty clever, controlling bigger creatures. Including us.
There’s one, for instance, that once inside a bumblebee, can force it to become food for its larvae, not before digging its own grave, though. They called it a Mafia Bug, but you haven’t heard it from us. Curiously, such approach to domination is emulated by other, larger creatures, such as some kind of wasps.
The Pompiliadae, a.k.a. Spider Wasp, is so called for a reason: it poisons and paralyzes without killing a spider, drags it to its burrow, bury it, and lay eggs on top of it, so it will be eaten still alive by its larvae. Pretty horrific. Another wasp does something similar: it turns the spider into a zombie construction worker.
Well, you may say, at least it teaches it a marketable skill. Except that it also paralyzes the spider and lays its eggs, etc. Not a fate one would think dignified enough for anyone, but, Continue reading

Round Robin

The Heavy Toll of
Making Us Laugh

The suicide of Robin Williams provoked a global outpour of grief and sadness, as the beloved comedian chose to end it all in such a brutal manner. Equally intense has been the dutiful warnings about the nefarious impact of long-term depression on any individual, even one whose special talent was to make everyone else happy.
But despite all the proper sobriety and legitimate hurt feelings we all felt about Williams’s self-inflicted demise, almost immediately after the news broke and even before we could process such untimely loss, there was already an army of ‘feeling-goods’ trying to make us ‘move on’ and not to dwell ‘too much’ on his death, and focus instead on his life work.
In one side, it’s an admirable effort, that of focusing on the person’s legacy rather than the circumstances of his passing, or even death itself, lest not reduce a lifetime of extraordinary humanistic accomplishments, into the demeaning mechanics of a final act. But in all that, there’s something else less noble apace, too.
It’s Americans’ seemingly pathological fear of acknowledging death that is troubling. For we tend to trample nature and fail to give the grieving process its due, rushing to bottle up and put a lid on any semblance of loss, in exchange for a quick return to normality and the happy ever after.
Such fear of feeling bad or appear ‘weak’ for showing emotions is rooted deeply in the culture, and can be traced back to the stoicism of pioneers and pilgrims who braved the vast land and tamed its formidable elements, to carve a nation out of brute force. Displays of vulnerability were simply not an option, then.
It extends to our familial ties and how we value the sole heroic dare over the community drive, the individualistic gesture instead of the search for consensus. It’s at the foundations of women’s oppression, as they must not only have to appear sensual and attractive, but also be perfect mates, good sports, and ruthless professionals, all done with 70% of the earning power of their male counterparts.

THE DICTATORSHIP OF HAPPINESS
It’s infected our workplaces, with the emergence of the chief happiness officer, on duty 24/7, and a geek chorus of boss cheerleaders, always demanding a smile and an ‘upbeat’ attitude, whatever the hell that means on a Monday morning. We’d all better comply if we know what’s good for our paychecks; just look at that menacing pile of resumes, not yet tossed by HR.
And it gets under our skin every time we spot one more wedding notice on the Sunday paper, about the consorts’ rosy happenstance and expensive ceremony, sealing their next average 10 years together. Don’t mention stats on divorce, domestic violence, nickel and dime betrayals, or vicious brawls Continue reading

Spilled Expectations

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

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

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

BIOLOGIC SCAFOLDING
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

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

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.

THE RACE IS ON
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

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.

TOMB & CRUCIFIXION
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

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

Land Specks

Pop Up Isles, Sinking Atolls &
Havens for Snakes, Cats & Spiders

An unforeseen consequence of rising sea levels is that it puts a dump on that idyllic idea of retiring to a tropical island. Somehow the thought of waking up at its highest peak, with just enough time to hold your breath doesn’t have the same ring that it once had.
It’s a silly dream anyway. So when a 7.7 earthquake shook Pakistan last week, leaving over 500 dead and thousands homeless, in a nation already periodically visited by tragedy, only a heartless optimist would see the birth of a new island as a silver lining of sorts.
And yet, there it is, a 100 feet by 250 feet speck that’s now dotting the Arabian Sea. A rough, cracked piece of the ocean floor, pushed up by methane to 60 feet up above water. Almost like a natural monument and tribute for those who had to go for it to rise up so violently.
As you probably gathered by now, that’s our theme for this evening: islands, those mysterious orphans of continental drifts, giants underwater, tall enough to reach high above the waves, and yet frightfully tiny, once at the surface, always at ready to be swallowed by the vastness around.
They’ve been a surprising copious leit motif at Colltales, having graced these pages half a dozen times in less than three years. Perhaps its their endless diversity, or often violent origins, what pulls us towards them. Or that they can be placid and inhabited only by bugs Continue reading

Whistle Blown

Truth Telling Costs
Manning His Freedom

The military trial and conviction of Pvt. Bradley Manning, for revealing classified information about the U.S. intelligence and armed forces to the public, marks one of the darkest moments in the history of democratic dissent and freedom of the press in this country.
His verdict and sentencing today to a possible maximum of 136 years in jail, have shaken all progressive forces fighting for individual rights in the world, and chipped even further the U.S.’s already tarnished image of the land of the free and home of the brave.
Even before being convicted of 19 offenses, including five counts of the WWI relic Espionage Act, Manning had already spent three years in solitary and brutal confinement, and had the grand total of just one chance for speaking his version of the facts to the public.
Despite having been justly acquitted of the unfounded charge of aiding the enemy, the trial most certainly ended the 25-year old’s hopes of ever regaining the right to tell the American people what he saw in Iraq, apart from the shocking videos and cables he’s passed along to WikiLeaks.
But as we grieve over the personal sacrifice that this young idealist was willing to go through, in order to reveal some of the behind-the-scenes actions of the corporation he once joined out of pride and honor, we’re also sure his courage will outlast the secretive establishment that now is sending him to the gallows.
We may not hear again his voice for a long time, even if that was never his intention to begin with. But someday his example will be honored just as many a fine American has in the past, who like him, sacrificed everything but in the end, were vindicated by history.
Bradley Manning is not a traitor, neither he lied or risked his freedom for personal gain. Unlike many of his accusers, his actions will be remembered perhaps as the first steps of a great turnaround of hearts and minds in this country, to put an end of this endless cycle of wars and intimidation of those who oppose them.
The trial of Pvt. Manning is a complete denial of everything that the U.S. has stood for over two centuries, as a nation of laws and still the inspiration for millions of oppressed and unjustly persecuted people around the world. And as such, it will never represent the real aspirations of the American people.
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* Shooting the Messengers

Red Shift

One-Way Ticket to Ride
From Earth to Her Twin

One thing about the planned one-ticket, privately-financed, volunteer-driven trip to Mars is that, for the first time in history, someone will actually be dead for all effect and purposes, and still in contact, albeit limited, with the living.
That’s right: the willing crew for this journey to the nonreturnable will cease to legally exist on Earth and be as physically unavailable to us as the departed. And yet, still capable of holding a conversation with those they’ve left behind.
Of course, this can’t be the calling card for such an enterprise, which will rest on a lot of showmanship and just plain convincing to attract the kind of hardy human being willing to undertake it. On the contrary, to call it a trip to death would immediately kill the hard on of every science aficionado, who’s been dreaming about getting to Mars since they were born.
It’s only fitting that such a proposition is not the least attractive to the touristic inclined. Part of the allure of traveling to faraway places is the promise of returning and flooring everyone you know with enviable tales that will forever separate you, who’ve gone somewhere, from them, who’ve remained behind.
For the record, such adventurers (almost 80,000 candidates at last count) are applying to visit an Earth-wanna be, the red twin of our blue planet who, just as a problematic sibling, simply wasn’t successful at some critical stage, and whose evolutionary arc went terribly wrong at some point.
While Mars failed at developing the ability of harboring life, at least as we know it, fell behind and it’s now a giant inhospitable desertic rock, Earth is still thriving. Which is sort of ironic, because our own piece of rock could use some solitude and even a bit less of the human imprint, if it’s to survive in the long run, but that’s another story.
So the one-way trippers striving to live and perish in a lifeless landscape, would also enter the realm of the deceased, but with the extra plus of being able to communicate with this world, something that has eluded the dead since, well, the beginning of time, psychics notwithstanding.

THE DNA OF DAREDEVILS
There will be other pluses, to be sure, and for the adventure-bent, this is what the expression ‘thrill of a lifetime’ was designed to convey, despite being now sadly equated to cliche and hyperbole. Just don’t include on that the dietary rigors and small indignities they’ll have to endure just to keep up with the basic needs of their humanity. Enough said there.
It’ll also be, by far, the most dangerous journey ever attempted by an earthling, who may not even get to Mars alive, as the lethal effects of Continue reading

The Heat & the Mordant

New Ways New Yorkers Find Bikes,
Mosquitoes & Flip Flops Annoying

If you live in this city, you’re bound to be a five-borough complainer. And if it’s about the weather, in itself a subject capable of making a screeching whiner out of even the most pious nun, any unexpected change is greeted here with grinding teeth and clenched fists.
That’s how last week’s heat wave brought together three predictable features of the season to an unhealthy boil, as this fair town bubbled with nasty epithets galore and vituperative profanities thrown at flying biters, fatigued riders and unwashed walkers alike.
For even though there aren’t many redeeming qualities about mosquitoes who show up uninvited at outdoor cookouts and private cocktail functions, they should be expected to be an integral part of this town’s ‘gorgeous mosaic.’ Still, thank goodness someone always finds a new way to get rid of them.
As for New York’s tardy entrance in the row of world-class cities with a liberal tilt towards biking, as with everything else here, it got kind of complicated. And many blame Mayor Bloomberg, a man who’s yet to see a corporate logo he doesn’t like, for turning this green idea into a factory of another kind of green for its sponsor.
On top of that, or rather, underneath it all, there are those distraught by someone else’s exposed toes, which let’s face it, after a few miles of accumulated street grime, are indeed an unflattering sight. But to drive pedestrians to loudly make deleterious observations about each other’s personal hygiene? Who knew?
It’s all part, of course, of the unduly sense of entitlement and delusion shared by Manhattanites and their kin, who wish to believe they preside over whatever happens around, and have no qualms saying something about it; the do-you-have-a-problem-with-that? kind of attitude that we all so dearly embrace and like to brag about.
As we approach the zenith of the season, baking sidewalks and sweaty subways included, we thought that now would be as good a time as ever to, what else? complain a little about things we have absolutely no Continue reading

What’s the Point?

The Quotable, the Abbreviated & the
Exception All Vie for the Apostrophe

We should’ve seen this quote-unquote quagmire coming, one would’ve guessed. Some obscure government agency, with a surprisingly slasher’s appetite for apostrophes in geographic names, has banned its use for 113 years, with only five meager exceptions.
Such discriminative zeal has driven self-appointed ‘punctuationists’ to many exclamation marks, preceded by a ‘W,’ a ‘T,’ and a ‘F,’ no dots included. But it’s not even new: the Web already ignores it, and it’s more commonly misplaced than a comma or a semicolon.
But before we get to the latest fracas, let’s review these landposts that can guide or derail communication. In language, music or measure, either written, for breathing or clarifying pauses, they may as well be the edge we still have over the droning of robots and computer-generated speech. But we may have already lost that one.
We mentioned the comma, for instance, fully aware of how dear they’re to linguists and grammarians of almost all tongues. It’s actually amazing how such a small curvy mark can originate so many treatises of its use, praise from academics, and frustration by students, and we’re not even getting into the pompously named Oxford comma.
Then there are the marks that some languages like so much as to place them in the beginning and the end of a sentence, as the Spanish does with the exclamation and the interrogation points. With the added sophistication that they appear upside down, on their second time around. Such a twisted Latin passion, you may wonder.
Albeit often laid at the feet or side of letters, no punctuation above the mores of our times, helping contract full sentences and complex meanings into a few strategically arranged typos. Or go the other way, and get spelled out as a word, as in the case of the arguably most disconcerting of them all: the slash.
Thus, much more could be noted about these ‘accidents’ on the road to understand each other, or completely miss the point. We’d rather Continue reading

Safe Arbor Clauses

Three About Trees &
a 5,000 Year Old Truck

Buddha sat under one. Sumerians have crossed oceans on ships built with them. Many species disappeared, or exist only in old depictions, paintings predating the modern era. Yet defying all odds, trees still grace our world, and stun us with their girth, height, and vigor.
That’s why a man in India has planted whole forests of them, and the Brazilians plan to count those in the Amazon. Now, as the world’s biggest trees continue to grow, according to botanists, an editor at NOVA begs new architects: please, stop placing them in skyscrapers.
In New York City, where the latter thrive, though, trees are subjected to more mundane afflictions of street life, such as dog pee, rusted chains, and cigarette butts. That’s why the Treedom Project is halfway through a quest, which ends May 26, to ‘liberate them’ from such indignities.
But without being the cradle of ancient trees, or having a forest to call its own – never mind the woody wilderness of upstate New York – the city is still home of one of the gems of modern urban green architecture: Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s Central Park.
Carved and carefully planted at the heart of the city, it’s a wonder that neither its 800 acres plus nor its incredible variety of species haven’t felt to the axes of powerful real estate moguls. If the park’s been the setting of a few bloody crimes, it’s also been the very reason many a resident haven’t yet lost his or her mind.
Still, for all their majestic and soothing presence in Manhattan, no Central Park tree comes close in age to Methuselah, a fittingly-named truck which, by some accounts, is the world’s oldest. The bristlecone is said to be 4,844 years old, a thousand years older than any other on Earth, and it’s been living all this time at a pine forest in California.
The good news, at least if you’re a tree, is that many of the big species are still growing, just like what you’d wish your mind were doing right now. A Humboldt State University research team found that 3,200-year old giant sequoias, for instance, actually grow faster later in life than in their ‘teenage’ years, when all they’ve got is a few hundred summers imprinted on their rings.
One of nature’s best recordkeepers, trees can report back to us our entire walk on this planet, better that we ever could. They may not Continue reading

Furry Tales

Rats vs. Nukes, Stray Cats vs.
Florida & a Dog Lovers’ Bacteria

For thousands of years, no other trio of animals have been so close to us. Whether you love or abhor their company, most of us have at least one funny story to share about a rat, a cat, or a dog we’ve met. But behold, for furs always fly when one fails to recognize their own stripes.
Some stories may start with a flamboyant set up: so a rodent, a feline, and a canine walk into this bar and… We’d rather tell you about the environmental bent of Japanese rats; the furious fight over southern feral cats; and a bacteria type that only people who love dogs carry.
To be sure, that’s not a threesome that you’re used to seeing mentioned in the same sentence either. Except, maybe, as the title of some obscure flick. And cats’ undisputed dominance of the Internet, viral video division, is inversely proportional to our own aversion, or general failure to fully understand, rats, mice, and the vermin attracted to our provisions since immemorial times.
With dogs, though, it’s another story, one that usually invokes feelings of companionship, loyalty, and not a small penchant for being subservient to our most spurious interests. It all points to our bottomless guiltless ability to subjugate animals in order to prevail in our daily grind against our own species.
If we could, for a moment, see the natural world through unbiased eyes, perhaps we’d have the clarity to recognize that having been bestowed with a sense of moral, we’re the first ones to betray it. And all other living beings are muted witnesses to our nefarious sense of supremacy and self entitlement.

RATS HATE NUKES
The final and sad toll of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, which struck Japan’s Pacific coast in March of 2011, was close to 16,000 dead, with thousands more injured and officially missing. To that, one may add now a few rats, unsung heroes of an ongoing battle between environmentalists and government bureaucrats.
Along with death and destruction, another scary consequence of the catastrophe was the meltdown at three reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant complex provoked by the tsunami. It not just disabled the plants, but to this day it’s still generating radiation to Continue reading

Spring Quickens

Colors Are Bright But
Critters Are Crawling

We’re deep in the age of freaking out about nothing, while getting numb about what screws us up. If that sounds hyperbolic, take Spring’s arrival in the Northern Hemisphere, and its annual rites of wonder and obsession with sights, smells, colors, and specially, crawlers.
Yes, along with flowers and the birds, the music in the air, and the light afternoon breeze, there’s no end to the sheer terror of being touched not by an angel but by a bug. And there are plenty of them. We give you three of the most distinctive: cicadas, snails and cockroaches.
It may be hard to grasp why city folk is so terrified about the prospect of being covered by these minute aliens, utterly different from us, and yet, way more necessary to the natural world than our stinking behinds, but what’s really over the top is the language with which they’ve been greeted in the media.
‘Billions of Cicades to Swarm the East Coast.’ ‘Giant African Snails Invade Miami.’ Or ‘Roach Infestation Disables Greyhound Bus.’ Note the use of superlatives, of ‘enhanced,’ albeit cliche-ridden, imagery, all documented with detailed pictures of the little monsters in all their otherness and difference.
It’s all true, of course, even though that we are the ones who’re invading them, or at least causing them to multiply and seek refuge in our dwellings. Pollution, climate change, pesticides, it’s all our own doing, really. And the inclusion of roaches here is because, let’s face it, there are simply very few places on earth they won’t show up.
As for those who blame the media for all the alarm, let’s keep in mind that both language and imagery come from or are based upon the greatest compendium of advertising horrors we’ve ever known: the bible. That’s where such fears can be tracked to, plus the gory flair that pious writers, such as Dante Alighieri, have added throughout the years.

So when locusts showed up in city-size dark clouds over the Middle East, last month, that creaky mother of all qualifying cliches of news coverage trudged right along with it: ‘biblical proportions.’ Followed, of course, by words such as ‘plague’ and ‘apocalyptic.’ Never mind that the phenomenon, however its disturbing look and destructive power, has been happening since, well, biblical times.
It doesn’t matter. We’ll freak out about it all the same. War, poverty, hunger, slavery, exploitation, disease, all of which also playing leading roles in the gospels, seem to have somehow lost Continue reading

Curb Your God

As Religion Tightens Grip on the
Military, Americans Grow Agnostic

Religious fundamentalism is on the rise within the U.S. armed forces, a recent paper argues, with support of high-ranked officers. The issue has concerned defenders of the constitutional separation of church and state, given the military’s sway over the government.
It also goes against the trend observed in the American society at large, which indicates that a greater than ever percentage of the population now considers themselves non-religiously affiliated. At least, 46 million Americans told that much to a Pew research study.
The discrepancy can be added to the overall disconnect between the military community, which in over a decade has been thrown into two unpopular, and vicious, conflicts, and the rest of the American society, which seems oblivious to it. It’s unclear, though, whether this tug of war benefits either side.
The truth is, as the Pentagon reinforces its grab of a huge percentage of the U.S. budget, and resists attempts at accountability and change, it also grows apart from the mainstream of U.S. society, more concerned about income disparity, unemployment, hunger, and social inequality.
On the other hand, the rise of religious fanaticism and so-called messianic faiths has been linked around the world to deterioration of social conditions, impoverishment and its consequent gearing off education-based knowledge to ‘magical’ thinking, and the literal teachings of the bible.
No wonder during the campaign to the U.S. Presidency, Republican candidates have tried to outdo each other in blaming higher education for the lack of ‘fundamental values,’ which may be roughly translated into repeating dogmas about the natural world first formulated over 2,000 years ago.
That an institution that has been waging an expensive set of wars with such a low approval and understanding from the general public has also been accused of discriminating against sex minorities, and turning a blind eye to its widespread culture of rape and violence against women, is only another expected component of such a toxic mix.
But the fact that that same public, not quite cognitive to the interplay between military spending and depletion of social programs, has been increasingly turned off by the church’s policies towards those so-called sex minorities, should be actually considered a sign of evolution. And Continue reading

It’s Fly By Us

Spectacular Meteor Blast Over
Russia Steals the Asteroid Show

Something stunning happened while half of the world was sleeping, and a lot of people were waiting today see an asteroid’s close encounter with Earth: another spaceball showed up unexpectedly and exploded over Russia, showering thousands of flaming debris over the frigid land.
So much for the D414 and its rare extreme proximity; it got completely upstaged by a yet to be named heavenly body, smaller but with much better performing skills. Which also managed to injure some one thousand people, cause considerable material damage, all captured on several video recording devices.
As its pictures go viral, fingers will probably be pointed to those who got us all worked out for another underwhelming event, which almost no one watched. Considering the lethal potential that a crash like the one in Russia could’ve had to life on Earth, what was once again displayed was our utter lack of preparation.
But there may be a (burning) silver lining about this blast, as its forensics gets in gear in the months ahead. Besides of including a massive collection of debris over a large swath of inhospitable land, it may likely serve as a testing ground and offer precious clues about its nature, hopefully to the point of helping us get ready for the next.
The fantastic images of the event may also serve as stand in for another event that also happened in Russia, a century and five years ago: the explosion of an object over the gelid forests in the banks of the Tunguska river, which flatten an estimated 80 million trees over an 830 square miles area, according to Wikipedia. Now back to our regular programming.

Burning Rocks
Checking Us Out

Imagine that at some point today, you’d be walking outside and look up, and out of the thin, blue, chilly and beautiful blue sky, an office building would zip fast by you. Picture that it’d be high up but close enough that you could see its windows, and even a set of desks or two.
Now, never mind that it’d be bigger than a plane. You probably wouldn’t be too worry as to whether it’d crash on Earth, because, well, it simply didn’t belong up there, in the first place. But if it were an asteroid instead, that would certainly be your first thought.
We say that because, as it goes, there’s a piece of rock the size of a small building crossing the skies somewhere above the planet, and if conditions were just slightly different, you’d be able not just to spot it but to watch it crash and, yes, it’d probably be the last thing you’d see on this life.
The asteroid, 2012 DA14 will be zooming by us at about five miles per second, which is really fast, and closer to the ground than the satellites that told you about the weather this morning. It won’t hit us, though, NASA says. In fact, you most likely won’t even see it go by.
Still, it’s a considerable piece of rock, 150 feet across, with power to destroy a whole city, if it were to crash over our heads. The impact would create a charred wasteland in every direction to hundreds of miles away from it. Ah, and again yes, it’d probably kill everyone and everything on sight.
Even with NASA’s diminished budget, and an almost universal neglect about the threat these lethal travelers can represent to life on Earth, we’re finding out that Earth’s traveling through a shooting gallery of Continue reading

Blowing in the Wind

Selling Air Bottles, Flying With
Bacteria & Hiring Fake Protesters

As the climate changes and pollution rises, people and corporations scurry to seize positions on all sides of the wind energy debate. While it’s getting harder for humans to grasp a breath of fresh air, it’s just fine for bugs and bacteria, flying in upper layers of the atmosphere.
But even the threat of chocking to death might mean opportunity. Thus an entrepreneur in smog-filled China is selling bottles of air, while a mysterious company would give $20 to anyone who’d show up in Midtown Manhattan, to rally against wind turbines.
Just when you thought that there’s not much going on around you, right? At least not with the air, this constant soothing ghost of a breeze that envelops and kisses our skin ever so gently, but that it’s also the fastest element to mercilessly kill us, whenever it’s short or absent.
Then again, we’ve been stuffing it with some much dirt and soot, chemicals and heavy metal particles, heat and all sorts of flotsam, since at least the Industrial Revolution, no wonder we seem to be reaching critical mass. For millions, the act of breathing in itself is an all-consuming activity.
Billions are routinely spent to support industries and human activities that have a brutal effect on the environment. It’s now a cliche to call it our ‘addiction to carbon fuels,’ but the fact remains that man-made pollution it’s the single greatest factor wreaking havoc with earth’s climate.
THE BUG & BACTERIA EXPRESSWAY
But not all is garbage circling the planet, of course. A couple of years ago, a study found out that millions of moths and other bugs travel regularly overnight at some 60 miles an hour, which is faster than many birds migrate. Just like windsurfers, they seem to follow an internal Continue reading

Seen From Above

Pictures of Earth at Night From
Space: Stunning Beauty & Concern

Watching Earth from 199 miles up has changed how we see ourselves, our cities and the planet, thanks in part to photos taken from satellite and by the astronauts at the International Space Station. As they’re staying ever longer up there, aerial photography has greatly improved.
All that these recent photos have in common is that they’re all night pictures, but boy, aren’t they striking. They’re also surprisingly revealing and instructive about what’s going on down here. Hopefully, they’ll become valuable tools for raising awareness and change.
Credit should be given to NASA which, despite its current shoestring budget, still manages to wow us with some of their ongoing projects. One such program is the Earth Observatory, which is a comprehensive six-month study, using high-resolution night images of Earth, to ‘gain insight on human activity and poorly understood natural events.’
The now little government agency that still can often works in conjunction with other scientific research teams, such the National Geophysical Data Center, NOAA, as well as the European Space Agency. The ISS is also an integral part of such programs, as it orbits through different patches from satellites.
Whereas the Earth Observatory is a set study, the astronauts are free to photograph Earth following their own instincts. And photograph away they do, to stunning and quite meaningful results. Whether they direct Continue reading

Mad Beverages

Gatorade With Flame Retardant
& the Brew From Christmas Trees

Imagine that there’s proof that America’s favorite football drink, Gatorade, is loaded with a dangerous substance. Surely the NFL would jump against the prospect of its faithful fans to be gulping something so toxic, and take steps to ban the stuff, right? Well, not really.
We’ll give the C word a rest after this, but what’s the deal with beer made from Christmas trees? Despite being popular with ancient Scandinavians, who would drink it to prevent scurvy, and certainly for entertainment purposes too, it never really caught on ever since.
We’ll discuss these two crazy beverages in a minute, but let’s open today’s proceedings talking about the other way around: the not so excitable world of sobriety. As it turns out, there’s a surprisingly adverse effect caused by less alcohol consumption, at least in the business world: clients spend less.
Come again? According to a recent Douglas Quenqua story on the NYTimes, there’s an almost insidious prejudice about non-drinkers. The little secret about it is that sober people may be perceived as untrustworthy, and even not very good at executing that killing trade.
It’s a gross misrepresentation, to be sure, akin to mistrust by some abstemious about those who can’t seem to function socially without a cocktail glass in their hands. But the focus of the story is the possible cultural pressure in the business world toward drinking, specially if a crucial sale or a key contract needs to be signed.
And yet, a walk through midtown restaurants at lunch hour may convince anyone that fifty years, and not merely 15, have passed since people used to drink at least a glass of wine spritzer, when sharing lunch with clients or colleagues. Three-Martini power lunches, then, Continue reading

The Last Apollo

The Sept. 18,1977 Voyager Picture

The Day We’ve Returned From
the Moon & Never Went Back

It was 40 years ago today when the Apollo 17 splashed on the Pacific Ocean, at 2:25pm, and mankind was grounded for good. There’d still be, of course, the Shuttle program, now gone, and the still going Hubble Telescope and the International Space Station.
But as Eugene Cernan, Harrison Schmitt, and Ronald Evans left the Moon, few on Earth thought that half a century would pass before we may be back.
Why trips to the Moon are not as common now as we once envisioned, is a matter for contention. But the most likely explanation may have to do with the very reason that put us there in the first place. For all the talk about the human dream of flying among the stars, what triggered the Space Age was the Cold War.
In fact, the development of rockets and the technology that made possible for us to keep a permanent crew in the Earth’s orbit has a lot to do with the race to build weapons, no matter how bitter that realization tastes for those who’d wish otherwise. That doesn’t mean that it was all a waste, either.
For a glorious little while, the space race did upstage our war mongering, and became a beauty on its own right. It inspired and Continue reading

The Daily Planet

Superman Joins Spidey
in the Unemployment Row

The biggest villain any superhero worth his or her cape has to contend with is boredom. So writers who maintain their alt-world keep topping themselves with ways to sustain their relevance in such unfazed times. Often, their realm comes close to bursting into our sad sack of reality.
What just happened to Clark Kent is typical. With the doom and gloom surrounding the print industry’s outlook, even the most unflappable reporter has to adapt. So he’s quitting his newspaper job and becoming, of all things, a blogger. Like we need any more competition.
He probably has a better shot at succeed than poor Peter Parker, who lost his own job at the Daily Bugle two years ago and recently got evicted from his landmark address in Queens and moved to Brooklyn. Yeah, right. Have you seen how much rents cost in Williamsburg lately?
Right there, it’s a sign we’re talking about fiction: in our unglamorous but inescapable day to day life, chances are, the next stop after Queens would be Newark, or Hackensack, New Jersey. But at least in Brooklyn, Spider-Man will be closer to the Superhero Supply Shop, the newest depot for all things hero in the city.
For the record, the two legends share an elaborated costume, a will to do good, and not much else. Superman was born in the throes of WWII and the A-bomb, a break-neck solution for the terrifying prospects of that time. Spidey, on the other hand, is the offspring of the more cynical and self-deprecating 1960s.
Clark Kent’s alter ego has been nothing but an intoxicating but soothing mix of naivete and power, always at the ready to help the little guy. Apparently, after a stint as a patriot and champion of the ‘American Way,’ he’s now back at being just your regular, faster-than-a-bullet, Continue reading

Lies & Weight

The Stomach as a Storage Space
& Other Tales of Medical Wonders

The popularity of the gastric bypass procedure, combined with the economic crunch, has produced a curious by-product: restaurant discount cards. For those of lighter body complexion (not our fault, not our fault) and exercise-as-diet proponents (not our type, not our type), the trend does provide a moment of reflection.
But we won’t touch that, are you kidding? Whatever rocks your boat (without sinking it), we’re all for it. Besides, much more impressive is at least two other things doctors have done lately with the abdominal cavity: they’ve used it as a storage space, or forgot things in there.
Before we get to that, though, let’s just say something about the obesity crisis that’s been going on in this country, its possible deep psychological causes, and why it’s so hard for some to lose weight, while absolutely unnecessary for others to go through it: blah blah blah, and this and that, and so on and so forth, plus taxes.
With that out of the way, the number of bariatric surgeries in the U.S.
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has recently plateaued, after an initial surge in the middle 2000s. Seven years ago, the procedure was performed 170,000 times, according to a medical trade group, but now it’s done at an annual average of 113,000, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Both the gastric bypass and the laparoscopic modalities of the surgery can be complex, but complications have fallen since the horror stories of the early 1990s. The costs to the health care industry remain Continue reading

Multicolored Honey

More Bees Are Choosing Sweets
Over Pollen, This Time in Europe

It seems that everyone and their nannies have a theory about bees these days. And while there’s concern about the steady decline of colonies throughout the world, and what it may represent to us, there’s also an alarming trend for making them poster bugs for the apocalypse.
To viruses, cellphone towers and autism, all possibly connected factors to such decline, according to self-appointed experts, add now the bees’ recently-acquired taste for leftovers from the production of sweets and syrups. It’d happened in Brooklyn, and now it’s happening in Alsace.
Then as now, they followed a predictable, if damaging, pattern: instead of heading to flower fields and fruit trees to pollinate them, a function they’ve been fulfilling for ages and that’s vital to our own subsistence on this planet, they’ve been taking detours to local artificial-making sweet factories.
Two years ago, bees cultivated in Brooklyn, New York, by independent apiaries, began producing a red, overly sweet, metallic-tasting type of honey that puzzled producers and consumers. As it turned out, they were raiding the dejects area of a local Maraschino cherries plant, instead of going for the green areas elsewhere in the borough.
In France, their blue and green colored honey was just traced back to a biogas plant processing waste from a M&M chocolate factory in the Alsace region. Even though the honey produced is not toxic, it’s not particularly pleasant tasting nor has any value in the market either.
The solution adopted in Europe mirrored the one taken in 2010 by Brooklyn producers and their neighboring food factories: to make sure that all waste is secured and well insulated from the bees’ now corrupted tasting buds. It also took some effort to ‘reeducate’ them to get back to the natural stuff.
But, naturally, not before some apprehension from those who track bees, for their environmental role and benefits, and hyper-ventilation from those who simply like to see signs of damnation of our species Continue reading

Flight, Interrupted

When Glass Towers
Become Bird Killers

If you never liked modern architecture, and the shiny, glass buildings that have been popping up all over lately, we’re about to add a killer argument to your cause: they’re also killing birds. Not just a few of them; some 100 million to one billion a year, only in North America, according to estimates.
Now a global effort by architects, ornithologists, environmentalists and bird watchers is trying to find ways around it, before our own bird-dependent species begin to suffer another consequence of our expansive lifestyle. Like few other threats, this one can, indeed, cause our extinction.
If you live in a big city like New York, you’re probably facing at least one such tall skyscraper right at this moment. There are many reasons why they’ve become so ubiquitous, not the least of them, because they are weather-adaptable, allowing optimum light exposure and saving lots of energy consumption.
Due to marvels of contemporary construction, they can also be built relatively fast, and may serve to both housing and office space, often, combining the two. It’s a devilish irony then that, after finding lighter and more environmentally-friendly materials, builders ran into such a disheartening problem.
Going back to the Big Apple, construction of big glass towers has reached a feverish pitch, and one group of buildings stand above all others, for what they mean to the city: the ones that are rising at Ground Zero, some already receiving their first tenants, and the tallest of them all, World Trade Center 1, slated to be completed in a year.
Like the doomed Twin Towers they’re now, at least physically, replacing, Continue reading

School’s In

The Quirk & the Beauty of
A Vanishing Classroom Trio

As millions of children (reluctantly) return to school this week in the northern hemisphere, many will be familiar with what they’ll find in class: laptops, the smart whiteboard, LED displays. What they probably will have no use for are pencils, erasers and chalks, first grade staples of bygone centuries.
Those who grew up mastering their use may be now more concerned about incontinence and memory loss, but artists still rave about these relics. For them, the smell, taste, and feel of those things are indelibly connected with the wonders (and miseries) of childhood, and should not be missed. But alas, we’ve already seen people declaring their love for the smell of computers.
We consider those, who’re already fully immersed in the high-tech realm of interactive learning, children of privilege, to be sure. They’re still in the minority of school age kids throughout the world, where most would be very lucky if they could have a decent breakfast when they get up in the morning, let alone a class to attend.
Our priorities as a society are indeed screwed up, and deep in slums and miserable places of this Earth, one can still find a HDTV or a multitude of iPhones. But we remain hopeful that at least some of the good aspects of living in the future will eventually trickle down and find their way to the kids.
So back in the printed book-free environment of today’s rich schools, preteens are already masters of the digital world, at easy with complex software, and ready to access our whole civilization at the touch of a key. Still it’s too bad they will do it without having ever smelled graphite or eraser crumbs, or heard that cringing-inducing sound of chalk tracing on a blackboard.
So before we all forget what many have never learned anyway, about pencils, erasers, and chalk, let’s get a primer on some quirky facts Continue reading

Juicy Fruit

Vanishing Seeds & the Fine Art of   
Eating & Blowing Up Watermelons 

There was a time when every fruit had seeds, and finding ways of getting rid of them was part of the whole eating experience. Not anymore. Most of what we now eat are clones, but, unless you’re a farmer, you wouldn’t know it by the way they look, taste or feel. 
Ever wondered how they do it with watermelons? Read on. In fact, there’re surprising ways for eating this mostly sweet-water summer treat. Or blow them up, as you’re about to see. Who said the fun is gone, since you no longer can spit out the seeds on your friends?
Talking about that, we must disclose that long ago, we indulged ourselves making fools of people, with a simple-mind kind of ‘parlor trick,’ we used to carry up our sleeves. It’s a miracle we never got tossed out of parties and bar mitzvahs, for we certainly deserved it, but some folks stopped speaking with us ever since.
Many of you may already know it, it’s called Trip to the Beach. It’s so devilish simple, and yet, people used to have the hardest time trying to figure it out. That, of course, made us incredibly full of ourselves, Continue reading

Aroma Holiday

Space Smells & the   
Scent of Being Human

Will the odor of outer space ever be defined? For fifty years, astronauts have been at loss to precisely describe this overlooked angle of interstellar travel, or even tell us whether it’s good or bad. And at least for a while, those who took a hike out there are the only ones capable of offering us any clues about it, as no one is about to follow them anytime soon.
Something utterly unthinkable here on Earth, to be sure. Our sense of smell is a crucial part of how we, and every organism, experience life and, as it turns out, even plants sniff each other. While some inscribe the nose within the sensual realm, others link the olfactory sense to youth or old age. As for us, we couldn’t live in a world without the scent of old books.
Compared to other species, though, our own capabilities in this department are rather meek and limited. While every animal could theoretically find their way through life by using only their noses, we have a considerably harder time when deprived of any of our senses, smell included. Pheromones? Quantum physics? we’re yet to even find out where or how come about either of them.
Some studies show that a few among us do have a ‘nose for directions,’ and point to a few inconclusive studies about the amount of iron inside the tip of our nose. We honestly couldn’t tell. Most of us would like to think of ourselves as natural GPS masters, but the reality is that we act exactly like bugs coming out the woodwork, Continue reading

The Red Market

Trading or Self Expression:
The Body as a Battleground

Those who praise the virtues of poverty in the world today are of two kinds: either mystic, religious leaders, living on the premise that, never mind the way things are now, they’ll improve someday, even, or specially when, you’re dead.
Or they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about.
THE BODY AS TRADING MARKETPLACE
Either way, it’s hard to fathom the horror the underground human organ market represents. And how it’s thriving, you bet, in the most miserably poor communities of the world.
As disease and self-indulgence wrecks havoc wealthy societies, demand for healthy organs has increased tenfold. Government-run public health systems, struggling with chronic lack of donors and staggering budget cuts, can’t provide transplants fast enough for those who need them the most.
Waiting lists put together by big city hospitals and medical Continue reading

Weight & See


The Stomach as Storage Space
& Other Medical Tales (Part II)

This is the conclusion of a two-part post about weight loss, medical wonders, and the business of being healthy or sick in the U.S., circa 2012. For Part 1, click here: Lies & Weight. For the complete post, click here: Lies & Weight (2). Enjoy.

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It’s about time that food portions served at restaurants and delis across the U.S. get cut in half. Thus, a trend set by bariatric surgery patients may, hopefully, be extended to the rest of the population, or according to cynics, those who can’t afford to be fat. Or can they?
The cruel irony is that obesity hits the hardest Americans at the lowest income bracket, who simply can’t afford to buy better quality food. So chances are, they will be hardly affected by the trend.
It’s still worth the effort, though, if out of the whole discussion, a new consensus may emerge about our relationship with food. In the meantime, would you like another slice?
YOUR PERSONAL STORAGE PLACE
We don’t mean to sound gross, but there’s a lot of stuff that can be found, taken out, or be left in, once someone’s abdominal cavity is sliced open. Mostly benign or necessary, if it’s up to experienced surgeons. Every once in a while, though, along comes someone with a crazy idea, that makes the whole medical establishment scramble to explain, why it hadn’t been thought about it before.
Jaimie Hilton, a former Miss Idaho, was just one of those lucky cases. She was the recipient of a revolutionary procedure that may have saved her cognitive ability, no less. Hilton had a terrible fall in June, while out in the ‘great outdoors,’ and hit the back of her head.
The accident caused her to stop breathing, and hadn’t she been airlifted to a local hospital, she wouldn’t have survived. Not in one piece anyway. While still unconscious, she underwent a long surgery to drain her swelling and bleeding brain. To do that, doctors had to remove some 25 percent of her skull.
And now comes the impressive part: in order to preserve the piece of bone until the pressure on her grey matter would subside, they literally Continue reading

Lies & Weight

The Stomach as a Storage Space
& Other Tales of Medical Wonders

The popularity of the gastric bypass procedure, combined with the economic crunch, has produced a curious by-product: restaurant discount cards. For those of lighter body complexion (not our fault, not our fault) and exercise-as-diet proponents (not our type, not our type), the trend does provide a moment of reflection.
But we won’t touch that, are you kidding? Whatever rocks your boat (without sinking it), we’re all for it. Besides, much more impressive is at least two other things doctors have done lately with the abdominal cavity: they’ve used it as a storage space, or forgot things in there.
Before we get to that, though, let’s just say something about the obesity crisis that’s been going on in this country, its possible deep psychological causes, and why it’s so hard for some to lose weight, while absolutely unnecessary for others to go through it: blah blah blah, and this and that, and so on and so forth, plus taxes.
With that out of the way, the number of bariatric surgeries in the U.S.
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has recently plateaued, after an initial surge in the middle 2000s. Seven years ago, the procedure was performed 170,000 times, according to a medical trade group, but now it’s done at an annual average of 113,000, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Both the gastric bypass and the laparoscopic modalities of the surgery can be complex, but complications have fallen since the horror stories of the early 1990s. The costs to the health care industry remain relatively high, at $1.5 billion annually. It’s way less expensive to simply exercise and regulate one’s diet, but apparently not everyone thinks that these can be done by everybody.
Although we disagree with the view that obesity can be equated to race and sexual orientation, for example, as a target for public discrimination, there is indeed a small percentage of purely health Continue reading