Saturday, July 30, 2005

Barra do Jucu and Vitoria, Espitito Santo; Porto Alegre

Janet and I spent wonderful week in Barra do Jucu, Espirito Santo, with our friend Lillian DePaula at her house near the beach. Her daughters Carmen and Joanna were visiting and her father, Paulo, lives next door, so we were actually hosted by three generations of a remarkably charming and engaging family. I went into UFES (Universidade Federal do Espírito Santo) with Lillian a few times (primarily to use the internet) and met many of her colleagues, including several translators in her group. One day, Janet met with a group interested in indigenous translation (the Núcleo de Pesquisas em Tradução e Estudos Interculturais). Paulo invited us to join him on a visit to the Teatro Carlos Gomes, a grand old theatre where we saw a performance of "Historias da Gente" by his friend Mercedes Pilati. Paulo seemed to know everyone. He also knows this section of old Vitoria very well and gave us a quick personal tour before the performance. On another day, Lillian took us to the Penha Convent, from which we had a spectacular view of this spectacular city (pictures coming). In Barra do Jucu, we were introduced to Kleber Galveas, a remarkable man who has a gallery of his paintings, over 100 types of fruit tree and a good telescope at his house. On a beautiful clear night he braved the mosquitoes to show us Mars and Jupiter through the telescope, and to identify alpha and beta Centauri next to the Southern Cross. We bought two paintings and brought home a collection of his writings.

Porto Alegre, where the Brazilian Symposium on Bioinformatics was held, was cold! The most southern major city in Brazil, at the height of winter, gets down into the forties at night, which would not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that the conference room we used did not have any heating (I understand; a heating system is probably not a good value if it were to be used only a few days a year). The city itself is very large and appears to be quite industrial. Yesterday, we visited the market in the center of the city, next to the docks. It was remarkable in many ways, one of which was the existence of at least six places selling erva mate. Each had dozens of varieties, in bins and in bags. Most were a rich green quite unlike what I bought at the Maryland Co-op. I would have bought some, but I didn't know which to choose. We did bring back a few chimarrão and associated paraphernalia. Our hosts from the conference took us to restaurant where we sampled beer in the local style (chopp). It was a nice conference, about which I'll probably say more elsewhere.

Friday, July 22, 2005


I spent an enjoyable week in Brasilia while Janet attended the Society for Conservation Biology meetings. It was a special pleasure to run into Eduardo Eizirik, a former student who appears to be doing extremely well in Porto Alegre. Brasilia itself was interesting. There is a political crisis underway, and I was struck by the observation that Brazil still has real news on television. Brasilia has a large middle class. We shopped at a huge store called the Extra Hipermercado which rivals anything that Wal-Mart has come up with (I note that Vitoria, where I am now, has a genuine Wal-Mart Superstore). Brasilia is a city, like Houston or Miami, made for the automobile, but the main roads have no overpasses and few lights, so it is easy to get stuck going in the opposite direction and most turns get made at the numerous rotaries or "retornos." With the exception of one major detour due to a traffic accident I enjoyed tooling around in our rented red Fiat and ended up putting almost 500 kilometers on the car without leaving the city.

I loved the weather in Brasilia, which is much like California this time of year (warm and dry during the day but cool at night), especially in comparison to the weather in Recife last year, where it rained most of every day the week that I was there. I was also fascinated by the southern tropical skies. The sun moved from right to left across the sky during the day and was well to our north at noon. Although it was actually less directly overhead at noon than the sun is now in Maryland, it shot up quickly in the morning and met the horizon directly in the evening. The full moon, in contrast, passed almost directly overhead, just a little to our south. Our friend and host David Oren took me out one night and pointed out the Southern Cross, which I had never seen before.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Why boycott Exxon? Note to the oil industry: we might trust you if you stopped lying!

On Sunday morning (July 10) the phone rang and someone asked me to participate in a poll. I was asked the usual demographic questions, what TV I watch (none) and what I read (just about everything). Then, I was asked whether I remembered specific advertisements (no). Finally, I was asked, for each of several oil companies, whether I thought they were doing a good job, whether I trusted them, whether they cared about the environment, etc.. What became clear to me is that I don't trust any of them on anything. The reason is that they have all signed onto what can only be described as a bald-faced lie: that the jury is out on global warming. So far as I knew, no oil company had registered its dissent from this statement. I felt sure that they are all lying, and I don't trust any of them.

Of course, there is a sense in which all science is unproven. Maybe the earth is flat, maybe the sun orbits the earth, maybe God created the world on the 23rd of October, 4004 BC, maybe I don't exist, maybe you don't exist and maybe Bill Clinton has been a faithful husband. However, by any usual and reasonable meaning of the words "shown" or "established", global warming due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases has been shown to be an established fact. So long as the oil industry continues to lie about that in a completely up front, in-your-face way, why should we believe them about anything? Why should we believe them about their activities with regard to human rights in Nigeria, Myanmar or Ecuador? Why should we believe them about oil reserves? The fact that somebody was paying for the poll I participated in, and the fact that oil companies are paying for the ads whose effectiveness was being measured, tells me that the oil industry cares about being believed. If so, I have a piece of simple advice. Stop lying.

It's been five days since I got that phone call and I finally had some time to check my facts. While the position of the industry as a whole is very clear, and very objectionable, there appear to be real differences among companies. "Even though it believes that more research is needed" (quoted from here, which is dated 1998) Shell's own web site on climate takes a very realistic tone ("We believe action is required now to lay the foundation for eventually stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere in an equitable and an economically responsible way.") and Shell presents responsible science at several places on its web sites (e.g. here). On the other hand, a search for the word "greenhouse" on the Exxon web site yields no hits at all and environmental groups have announced a boycott of Exxon/Mobil in particular (Google news), in part because of their Orwellian efforts to influence not only public opinion but also government policy (Google news). The poll made me aware of my ignorance of differences between oil companies and the boycott made aware of some of those differences. I'm glad to have had the chance to investigate, and I will be boycotting Exxon.


Saturday, July 09, 2005

Fireflies in July

There is something wondrous and meditative about walking through my neighborhood near dusk this time of year. You never know where to look for the next flash of a firefly, but they keep on coming. It's a bit like the Leonid meteor shower. I noticed more of them before dusk than after, but later on they seemed brighter, and the crescent moon and Venus made a nice show for the walk back.