Facedown

Twins, Dead Ringers & Lookalikes:
the Doppelganger & the Other ‘Yous’

You may have one of those faces. The other day, someone just saw your doppelganger walking down the street. You see people who resemble you all the time. But are we really all lookalikes, made of a relatively few number of templates, plus variables added as toppings?
The thought of not being physiognomically unique is quite unnerving, and as common as a pair of identical twins. We fancy that we’re one of a kind ever since we first recognized ourselves in the mirror. Mom told us herself. But then we meet our dead ringer and all bets are off.
One of the most fascinating phenomenon of living species is the double birth, the twins, and in humans, identical ones have been source of inspiration and awe since prehistorical times, central to a number of cultural traditions, the embodiment of kinship and parallel lives.
They’ve also been the target of scientific curiosity, knowledge, and sick experiments. Identical twins, specially, are rare but statistically expected. In Brazil, however, there’s a whole town, Cândido Godói, full of doubles, in way higher-than-normal rates. Researchers have come up with a variety of possible causes for it.
One that immediately got an enduring currency is that Nazi ‘Angel of Death,’ Joseph Mengele, had something to do with it, since he lived and died in the 1970s in a nearby farm community, across the border with Paraguay. But that theory has been debunked and replaced by another, more in line with scientific data.


WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Twins do share a special bond, and seem linked in extraordinary ways to each other. Genes, naturally, explain their similitude and that among relatives, but it’s no less astonishing when that happens across generations, with grandkids being uncanny copies of their forebearers. Doppelgangers, and lookalikes, however, are another story.
All genetic research considered, it’s taken the work of a few photographers to shed an intriguing perspective into this subject. One captured strangers who look stunningly alike, while other linked recent pictures of people with their former selves, and yet another, combined faces of members of the same family.
Variations of the theme go further, using photo manipulation effects, for instance, to create a perfectly symmetric match of only one side of someone’s face split in two. Or trying to explain why some ‘complimentary’ personalities attract each other, based not on resemblance but on intuitive behavioral and genetic factors.
And then there are the case of celebrities, both contemporary, and those whose previous physical likeness have been somewhat spotted in pictures of the past. Continue reading

Ungrounded

Threat to Our Dream
of Living Among Stars

In the concert of nations, Russia holds little sway. That is, if one discounts its nuclear stocks and storied past as a fierce competitor with world power credentials, its influence is now mostly regional. That’s not how President Vladimir Putin sees it, though.
So, despite all the hyperventilation about its imperialistic moves against its neighbors, which it never really ceased to control, and the phony indignation displayed by U.S. and Europe, the world doesn’t really care much about it. Except when it comes to space.
Specially, in what the International Space Station, that marvel of global scientific cooperation, is concerned. Aloft for over 10 years, with a steady stream of technological achievements to boot, the flying lab has done more to world harmony that many a peace talk ever could.
That positive outlook is what has been seriously challenged this week when the Russian president issued a not-so veiled threat to bar the launch of American satellites by Russian-made rockets, and even ban the use of the station itself by the U.S. after 2020, which, to be sure, is a qualified ruse.
The ISS hasn’t been projected to be fully operational much beyond that date anyway, and only recently its decommission got a reprieve, as the bitter reality that it’s been reduced to become the only game in town, or rather, space, has sunk in for nations still interested in exploring it, including the U.S.
Which is also at fault in the whole thing, for the record, and not for trying to upset Putin’s campaign to destabilize Ukraine next door. But because the U.S. has withdrawn much of that once unwavering support to its own space program since the last Shuttle left the assembly line.

WORLD, WE’VE HAD A PROBLEM HERE
After the great conquests of the 1960s and 70s, NASA, the agency in charge of firing up the imagination of Americans still starstruck, has frankly come up with mediocre plans to follow up the Apollo, the Hubble, the Shuttle programs, and even the ISS, of which it was a crucial contributor.
Instead, lacking the funding and epic ideas needed to go ‘to infinity and beyond,’ to use Buzz Lightyear credo (if you have to ask…), after folding the Shuttle program, NASA decided to count on the aging and unreliable Russian Soyuz rockets, to lift its ambitions to orbit. It couldn’t couldn’t work.
Why? Haven’t you noticed where they all land, and eventually depart from? You’re right, Ukraine. That in itself granted Putin a free ride, and power over the aspirations of millions of Americans who wished we still had a first class ticket towards the future.
The space card was bound to be played also when a misguided bet was placed on the market’s ability to carry our dreams aloft, on board 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

Amazing Zone

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

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

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

Seeing Through

New Invisibility Cloaks May
Hide More Than Cats & Events

If you roam this world, it’s very likely that there’s been a time when you wished you could’ve just vanished from the face of Earth. Maybe you owe money, did something despicable, or can’t possibly put up with what the Tea Party is doing with the American democracy.
There’s no shortage of reasons for getting away from it all. And while art and human imagination have contributed along the centuries to fulfill our longing for being physically oblivious to reality, there’s now a new powerful ally fast ushering us towards the void: science.
Several developments in the technology of bending light waves have brought us a bit closer, if not to the full monty of extreme discretion, at least to abscond a variety of subjects, that just a few years ago was possible only in movies and computer science.
From metamaterials, which interact with light and can been printed in large sheets, to a cylinder that doesn’t reflect microwaves, to even a combo of mirrors, lenses or tanks of water, cloaking devices seem to be the new holy grail to some scientists. Even if they have to make a cat disappear, like they did in Singapore.
By now, it’s easy to think that it may be all about smoke and mirrors, for some developments are truly fantastic. Such as an invisibility ‘time cloak,’ which can actually hide entire events by manipulating the speed of light in optical fibers. If it sounds heady, that’s because such a device is perfectly capable of blowing our minds.
In fact, when it comes to the quest for invisibility, it’s not just minds that are bound to be smashed. Think about how much the defense industry is investing in this research to grasp some pretty harry scenarios. And there’s also the practical side of being invisible, a prospect not to be rose-colored about.

SCI-FI & DREAMS OF SILVER SCREEN 
Fantastic literature and movies, of course, have been teasing us for years about the prospect of vanishing into thin air, and talking about Harry, it was one of that boy wizard’s early films that got a whole new generation on track to be mesmerized by it. Never mind the creepiness factor of lurking undetected in somebody’s room.
Cinema has contributed a huge chunk to our fascination, and the 1933 James Whale’s feature, The Invisible Man, may have laid down the rules Continue reading

Album Art

When Covers Rocked
As Hard as the Music

There has been many a requiem for the vinyl album. After a post-war apogee of the thick 78s, the 33 and 1/3r.p.m. record reigned supreme for 30 years. But its demise was swift, vanquished by the CD, which like replicants of the era, wasn’t built to last.
During its glory, though, it was a perfect conduit for the music that engraved hearts and minds of three generations. While the sound outlast formats, the albums’ art covers were the signposts pointing to the narrative of changes that their songs were about.
The names of the artists who created the jackets and sleeves of the soundtracks of the 1950s, 60s and beyond never became nearly as familiar as the superstars who came to dominate the age. Nevertheless, some of the work has arguably surpassed the content they were supposed to illustrate and complement.
Peter Blake, Alan Aldridge, Roger Dean, H.R. Giger, the recently deceased Storm Thorgerson, along with already established artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Crumb, were some of the outstanding creators of seminal works of contemporary art, for the packaging of pop hits they were designed for. That art, unfortunately, is no longer around.
Elvis, Beatles and Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Nirvana, Yes and Led Zeppelin, along with some notable jazz labels such as the Blue Note, have all benefited from the explosion of the art of album cover, and some of the era’s greatest hits are forever linked with the images that graced their albums. Some were controversial, but most were deeply inspiring.

END OF THE STANDALONE RECORD
Their downfall may have started with that shortest-lived of the formats, the Compact Disc, which arguably cut down on the space for art on the cover. When it went the way of the cassette tape, which it’s also buried, 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

Bones of a King

Royal Skeleton Under Parking Lot
May Force England to Revise its Past

The remains of one of England’s most vilified sovereigns have been positively ID’d as belonging to Richard III, who ruled from 1483 until he was bludgeoned to death in the 1485 Battle of Bosworth. But his particularly gruesome demise wasn’t the last indignity he suffered.
His almost complete skeleton caused an international stir when it was uncovered, buried under a prosaic parking lot in Leicester, and DNA tests only confirmed what many already suspected. Now starts an even more daunting quest: to restore his battered reputation.
It won’t be easy. After all, when he lost his life and crown as the last Plantagenet king, bringing the famed Wars of the Roses to a conclusion, he and his kin were replaced by the Tudors, who dominated and literally rewrote the U.K.’s history to suit their political interests.
Besides history, Richard III had also a circumstantial but powerful foe, to conspire against his legacy: William Shakespeare, who wrote a play with his name that rivals the historical record, and who, according to many, was himself not unfamiliar with the convenience of creating new identities.
Shakespeare helped to consolidate Richard’s image as a cruel and blood-thirsty despot, with a physical deformity to match his sadistic reputation. Left unsaid is the fact that such a well constructed composite would suit well the ruling Tudors’ aim at winning hearts and minds during the bard’s time.
There’s now a big discussion in England on how to go about restoring King Richard’s true place in history, more in synch with our own times Continue reading

Freaky Friday News

Stardust Wine, Witchcraft in Wales
& China’s Visit-Your-Elderly Decree

A Chilean winery is infusing its Cabernet Sauvignon with a 4.5 billion-year-old meteorite. A Welsh minister is concerned about a thriving witchcraft community stealing his congregation. And a Chinese law demands that citizens visit their elders often, or risk being sued.
Yeah, it’s that overstuffed file again, begging to get raided. Often, its far out contents of odd news and curious trivia deliver a surprising jolt of unexpected vitality to our day. Besides, our second option, the Quadrantids meteor showers, were a no-show this time around.
As it turned out, this annual shooting star festival first observed in Italy, in 1825, has been visible faintly in the West Coast, and way more vividly in Asia and the U.K. Let them have their fun. We’ll beat them in April, with the Lyrid showers, which are supposed to be twice as spectacular.
We’re not complaining, mind you. Last year may have been a terrible one for many, but it was not short of amazing sky gazing events, such as the Supermoon, and the once-in-a-lifetime Venus transit in front of the sun. More showers, eclipses and a couple of comets are also slated to grace our skies in 2013.
Back on the ground, though, things are no less amusing, if you abstract just for a moment the carnage in the streets, the indiscriminate pillaging of planetary resources, and the demise of the two New York football teams. For in the big scheme of things, the week was mercifully short and we’re not quite done with it yet.
METEORITES IN THE WINE
But where were we? Oh, that’s right, in Chile, where you can now kind of taste a piece of rock that fell on earth 6,000 years ago. Or so it’s the idea that Ian Hutcheon had, to combine his two main passions: Enology and Astronomy. In fact, he owns both the winery and a small observatory, the Centro Astrononomico Tagua Tagua.
It’s an unusual combination, but we wouldn’t bet you would taste it in Meteorite, the wooden barrel-marinated Cabernet Sauvignon he produces every 12 months, with the 3-inch meteorite inside. Even without owning the object, he found a novel way to attract attention to his winery, which just between us, is kind of a fad, really.
Apparently, the unidentified owner of the precious piece of rock that probably came from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter doesn’t Continue reading