International Astronomy and Public Events in Rio

August 8th, 2009

The first two week of August find Rio de Janeiro the host to the International Astronomical Union’s General Assembly, an international meeting that takes place every three years in some city in the world.  Brazil isn’t a powerhouse in astronomy, but there are some world-class departments in the courty and some very good scientists.

It’s a bit strange to see people I know from the States and other places in a professional context walking along the streets of Rio and asking for advice about where to stay, where to eat, or whatever.  Astronomers stand out in their own special way compared to typical tourists, for better or worse.

And everyone got this not inapporpriate email yesterday:

As in any big city we have problems with robbers, for this reason and since the weekend is coming, we would like to recommend you some important warnings:

-Do not walk on the beach at night,
-Do not visit Santa Teresa neighborhood and Tijuca National Park without atourist guide,
-Do not visit any Favela,
-Wherever you go, carry with you a copy of your passport instead of the original one,
-Take your electronic devices inside your bag,
-Use only taxis (cabs) or metro (subway) instead of public transportation,
-In case of a robbery, please, do not react.

Thank you in advance and have a nice weekend.

National Organizing Committee

Wise words.  I break a couple of those rules regularly, although I shouldn’t.

I am not giving a talk, but am presenting a poster (the science fair for adults part of the meeting).  I procrastinated and wanted to make some last-minute updates.  It’s finished, but not printed.  I’ll have to print it as early as I can manage Monday morning and hope I’m not too late to the meeting.  Posters will be up all week.

The professional portion of the meeting is, alas, closed to the general public.  The talks are aimed at professionals, as are the posters, so no one is missing much here.  There are some big astronomy exposition being advertised locally, and there is a listing for public astronomy events if you’re interested.

Edit:  Here’s the sign that is up around Rio right now.

Embracing Brazilian Poetry

August 2nd, 2009

A friend sent me links to a website called Embracing Brazilian Poetry, a blog to help foreigners embrace the modern Brazilian poetry.  He in particular suggested one poem with a decidedly adult theme: United of the Dick on Four.  The Brazilians are more sexual open than most, and I think this poem reflects that, so click through, enjoy, and embrace your inner Carnaval.

I’m kind of partial to this one:

I’ve carved an X on you heart: Marquei um X no seu coração

Xuxa was once a innocent actress and poet until the day she decided to become Satanist. From a lovely blond girl, she was then known as “The queen of the short”, being “short” an obvious reference for those who live underground.
Apart from what our foreign readers must think, Coffin Joe isn’t the most influential Satanist artist in Brazil. As soon as she gave her heart to the Beast itself (whom she refers as “the animal”), Xuxa became unprecedentedly prolific and creative.
This next piece is the first piece of this new age on Xuxa’s poetry. In it she surrends to her new-found faith and speaks about her new experiences, exalting her condition and inciting her readers to join too.
It is also the first and most famous case of subliminar message in brazilian poetry. In the first lines, and later on the poem, she mentions X X X, which in portuguese is spelled “XIS”, being, in reverse: “six six six”.

Here are the opening lines:
I’ve carved an X, an X, an X on your heart
So you’ll never forget me
You’ll never forget me, i promise so.

Back in Brazil and Travel Tips

July 27th, 2009

I just returned from two weeks in the United States where I ran Launch Pad, a workshop I founded to teach writers the basics of modern astronomy.  It was beautiful summer in Laramie, Wyoming, with long days of sunshine.  Apparently I returned to Porto Alegre in the middle of a cold snap, and it was below freezing over the weekend.  I bought a second portable heater yesterday and now have at least two tolerable rooms.

But onward to the travel tips.  This may seem obvious to folks living in Brazil long term, but once you get an RNE (registration number for foreigners) you qualify as a resident and can use the same lines in immigration that the Brazilians use.  I always saw how they were better attended and faster to go through, and my last two times back I should have used them but wasn’t sure I qualified.  Well, I realized that I did, and was through the lines in Rio faster than ever before.  Doubly blessed, my luggage was also waiting for me.  Sometimes that can take 45-60 minutes.  My connection was a little tight, two hours from international landing to domestic take off, but I wound up having time to kill.

I flew TAM to Porto Alegre from Rio, with a brief stop in Florianopolis (same plane).  They serve little hot sandwiches for snacks, and you get one for each stop, which was fine since I didn’t eat in the airport.

One other travel tip regarding frequent flyer miles, which seems to work for my main program (Delta) and perhaps others.  I now have about a quarter million unused miles in my account, and nearly always get automatic upgrades on my domestic flights (e.g. Denver to Atlanta), and once on an international leg to Rio.  I’m only a Silver Medallion member, the lowest elite level, but the sheer quantity of miles seems to play a role in getting the upgrades.  I’ve read this before, but I’m seeing it in my own traveling.

Natural History Discoveries in Brazil

July 10th, 2009

Not all the international news about Brazil is racy or salacious (e.g., about this soccer player hooking up with that slut, that soccer player hooking up with these transexual propstitutes, etc.).  Brazil is a large country with a rich and diverse environment.  At times it’s hard to remember I’m not in North America, living in a city in the less than tropical south of Brazil, but this is the country of the Amazon.

First, from the Amazon, apparently a new monkey has been discovered.  I’m a cryptozoology buff, and discovering new large animals in the world is cool.  It’s not actually a very large animal, or very large monkey, but it’s still pretty cool.

More cool to me is the discover of fossil evidence for a large predator, an armadillo-like crocodile from 90 million years ago, that used to terrorize smaller critters in the area of ancient Sao Paulo.

Proof that Obama is Brazilian

July 10th, 2009

Follow this link to see.  You will be convinced.

The Carrot or the Stick?

July 6th, 2009

Americans have a thing we say about trying to convince people to do something.  You can use the carrot (a reward) or the stick (a punishment).  I don’t know if there is the same saying here or not.  Many things are the same in Portuguese, but not everything.

Any way, Brazil has the carrot.  Restaurant “Cenoura” which is Portuguese for carrot, at least in Porto Alegre.  It’s specialty is pasteis, small deep fried pies filled with things from meat to, well, carrots.  Also sweets.  There are a number of different chains specializing in these cheap foods and they’re pretty good, with lots of different flavors and sizes.

Brazil does not seem to have the stick.  Not when it comes to deodorants, anyway.  I’ve found stick deodorants in the past in Rio, in bigger stores, sometimes.  I recently had to buy new deodorant and all I could find this time was roll ons.  If you want the stick, bring it with you or have a look at the biggest stores you can find and know where you can find it when you run out.

Science Fiction in Brazil

July 2nd, 2009

Brazilian science fiction writer Jaques Barica has written an article concerning Brazil:

Optimism in Literature around the World and SF in Particular, part 5: Brazil, “the Country that Could Have Been and Maybe Will”.

Brazilian SF has always been pessimistic. Worse yet, in many occasions it has been ironical to the very idea of future. The 70s and early 80s, the “age of lead”, as we call it, because of the military dictatorship on course, were marked by the publication of some classic dystopian novels, like “And Still the Earth” (originally Não Verás País Nenhum, or You`ll See no Country) by Ignacio de Loyola Brandão. A decade later, when cyberpunk finally arrived in Brazilian bookstores, it quickly grabbed readers and writers alike because, well, Brazil IS a cyberpunk country. And as the original punks would say, there’s no future.

He, however, goes on to explain that Brazil seems to have made some optimistic changes in terms of technology and a more positive outlook:

For example, 3G networks are used in public web-based long-distance education programs. Computer games (like Civilization) are used in many schools to teach history, political science, administration, etc. Indigenous tribes use the web to preserve their cultural heritage. Almost-forgotten languages are available online, as well as ritual dances.

Another example: Brazil has cars running 100% on alcohol since 1979. Total-flex cars are sold since 2003, a technology developed by Brazilian engineers. Brazilian alcohol comes from sugarcane which has lower impact than corn alcohol. The blend commonly called E25 (that is, 25% of alcohol and 75% gasoline) is the standard of Brazilian gasoline. Brazilian energy comes mostly from hydroelectric power plants and there are projects to build fields of wind turbines in the country’s Northeast.

But Brazilian science fiction (SF) hasn’t caught up with that spirit yet, he contends.

Interesting article for me to read as I’ve learned about Brazil living here, and contrasting that experience with my life in the United States, growing up with science fiction and becoming a writer.

Bite Me With Dr. Mike in Brazil

June 24th, 2009

I already have gotten a little trouble with friends because of Mike in Brazil (a porn site online featuring sex with Brazilian girls in Rio).  I won’t supply a link.  Find it if you want.  “Mike” isn’t me!  At least not often enough…

But there’s a new Mike in Brazil on TV, and he’s a scientist with a PhD like me, too.  He’s got a TV show on the Travel Channel in the United States.  He travels the world, apparently, finding critters that bite.

Ugh.  And it’s not porn!

Bite Me With Dr. Mike.  The first episode features Brazil.

I thought this would make a good post to explain something that I think many Americans don’t appreciate.  Brazil is not one giant rain forest, or stripped rain forest.  Lots of it looks like the United States, with cities, trees, grass, birds, dogs, cats.  Some of the species are a little different, but most places aren’t swarming with monkeys (a very few are), and there aren’t giant spiders crawling through the windows.

Parts of Brazil are remote and wild, just as in the U.S.  Dr. Mike could go to the Everglades and be eaten by mosquitoes (and I once saw a show about a place in Texas where a cow was killed by mosquito bites), or to any of a dozen wild places full of biters.  Brazil probably has more this way (if Alaska is excluded), but people who watch the Simpsons may think that monkey fling shit from every street corner of every city here.  Anyway…

Here’s a preview of the episode:

Ouch!  And Texas has its fire ants, so again, interesting, but not that different.

STD Testing in Brazil

June 22nd, 2009

I thought I had written about this months ago when I had the experience, but apparently I didn’t.

There is likely more than one way to do this, as there is in the United States, at a range of prices.  I can describe my experience but not that full range.

Anyway, my back when my ex-girlfriend moved in with me, she encouraged me to get tested.  I hadn’t been tested in a while so that was a reasonable request.  I missed a chance to get free HIV testing when I was back in the U.S. in November/December and figured I’d just do it in Brazil.

So, you want a “urologist” for this in Brazil.  My ex-girlfriend looked one up on the internet for me, not too far from the apartment (I live near a hospital which also has nearby medical offices and clinics), and we made an appointment.  I didn’t have any symptoms of anything and the brief visual inspection (fun) was also fine.  The doctor prescribed tests for five STDs that don’t necessarily show symptoms and are serious (several varieties of HIV and hepatitis).  The office visit was $R200, a price which included a follow-up visit to discuss the results of the tests.

The prescribed tests were to be done at a nearby clinic and involved both blood and urine tests.  This turned out to be another $R260.  My poor Portuguese led me to believe the original $R200 included everything.  I could have had free HIV testing on AIDS Awareness Day back in the U.S., but I wound up paying $R460 in Brazil in the end for my clean slate.

The test results were made available via the internet, and that was easy and convenient at least, and with everything negative there was no reason to return to the doctor.

Anyway, it’s my understanding the doctors in Brazil are good but that there’s a two-tiered system similar to the U.S.  That is, expensive quality private care and then free or cheap hospital and clinic visits with long waits and less personal service.

A PhD Defense in Brazil

June 19th, 2009

I had the privilege this week of serving on the PhD committee for one of my collaborator’s students, who is also a friend of mine.  I have served on a few PhD committees back in the U.S., and went through the process myself when I got my doctorate in astronomy.

How PhDs are awarded differs from university to university and country to country.  Within a country, the differences are few.  From country to country, the differences can be large.  For instance, I understand that in Belgium the student gets to bring along advocates for the work and can direct all questions to them and need not answer any at all personally.

In Brazil, the process is similar to what I’ve experienced in the United States.  I wrote about defending a PhD thesis elsewhere.

There was one big surprise.  After the hour-long presentation of the thesis, normally the public is excused and the “grilling” (sort of an oral exam given by the committee about the thesis topic to ensure the PhD candidate knows their stuff) then commences.  Well, in Brazil that part is public, too.  It was a surprise to me!  Seems like it might be more stressful, but I can see pros and cons to this approach.  In any event, we went for another 2.5+ hours, almost 4 hours in total, and most of the public attendees trickled away as the clock ticked on.

It didn’t take so long because of problems, but simply because many scientists like to hear themselves talk.  I try to keep this in mind, and that the exam is about the student and not me.  Luckily 2-3 of my questions were asked before I got my turn at the end, so I was able to keep my contribution in check.

Oh, the presentation and the questioning was all in Portuguese, so recognizing that my questions had already been addressed was great for me.  I followed a lot, especially the talk since I knew the topic and could see pictures and read words on the powerpoint presentation.  I had to ask my questions in English.  Just not enough of a technical vocabulary.  Everyone at the the PhD level in Brazil is expected to speak English, and do, so this was fine.

Oh, one final fun thing.  The topic of the PhD involved black holes.  In Portuguese a black hole is “buraco negro.”  Here is the awful way I remember how to say that.  I just think of Barack Obama, as “buraco” is pronounced similarly to “Barack O.” and then I need to remember that negro is pronounced differently than in English (with the “neg” in “negative”).  If Obama were white, I would probably have a more difficult time remembering this term.