Friday, May 31, 2013

Decline in Number of Toucans Affecting Brazilian Forests

You read that right: the decline in the number of toucans is affecting the composition of Brazilian forests. It probably wouldn't surprise anyone if there were a report that the decline in forested areas was having a negative impact on wildlife, which I suspect is true.

But in this case, a reduction in the toucan population is actually having an effect on the types of palm tree (juçara) that grow in Brazil. According to a report from NPR, here is what's happening. 

Toucans, because of their large bills, are able to eat large seeds from palm trees that produce them. They then disperse these seeds when they defecate, which allows palm trees with larger seeds to continue to flourish. 

With the decline in the number of toucans, there has been a relative increase in the number of palm tress which produce smaller seeds, compared to those which produce larger seeds. This is because smaller birds are able to eat the smaller seeds, so the trees with smaller seeds are continuing to propagate. In fact, palms with smaller seeds are starting to dominate the forest.

In other words, the decline in the toucan population is leading to a decline in the population of palm trees which have large seeds. 

OK, that's interesting, but.....who cares, and why does this matter?

According to the article, here's why it matters:

"it turns out that smaller seeds aren't so good. They dry up and die faster than big ones in hot, dry weather. And scientists predict that climate change will make parts of Brazil hotter and drier, so much so that the juçara may not survive."

It's easy to dismiss environmentalists as "tree huggers" or as idealists who care more about some obscure form of plant or animal than they do about human beings. After all, if humans never altered the environment to develop the land and build structures, we'd all be living in the wilderness. But at the very least, we should be aware of the harm that our development may be causing. 

This is a cautionary reminder of what can happen as we clear the land and its wildlife in order to develop it for human habitation and promote economic growth. 

As the article states:

"in this case, humans actually altered the genetic makeup of a wild palm tree population — in just a century, indirectly, and by accident." 

The take-away is that there are both expected and unexpected consequences to all of our actions, and in some cases, by the time we're aware of what those consequences are, it may be too late to do anything about it.

Update June 1:

Estadão has published an article (in Portuguese) which describes the issue in greater detail. The original article is from the magazine Science, but the full content is only available online to paid subscribers. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Scrabble® for iOS Now Available in Brazilian Portuguese

Electronic Arts has just issued an update for its Scrabble iOS app. The update includes full support for the following languages:

Brazilian Portuguese

When the app opens, you go to options where you can select which language you want to use for the menus, and by default, the app will use that same language for the game play. 

Features include a Scrabble dictionary in the language you've chosen, as well as instructions and feedback in the same language. This image shows the dictionary, with 2 letter words listed and a place to enter your word:

You can also view the words that have been played so far, along with their point value and a running total:

You can choose to play against the computer, or you can play with others online. If you play against the computer, there are four levels of difficulty from "iniciante" to "perito" which you select, as well as five game types, including "clássico" as well as games of 75 or 150 points, or 8 or 12 rounds.

You also choose whether or not to have the "profesor" monitor your game, as well as "melhor palavra," which gives you up to four "best word" suggestions during the game. This is especially helpful if you're staring at a set of letters and have no clue what to do with them. You can also attempt to play a word that you're not sure about, and if it's wrong, the game will simply inform you that the word doesn't exist in the Scrabble dictionary (it might still be a real word, it just can't be used in Scrabble). There is no penalty and no limit on attempting to play words, unlike in real-life game-play.

The "profesor" will give you feedback about the word you have just played. In this case, I played "gol," which the teacher said was "excelente," but then showed me how I could have earned more points by playing "larga" instead:

For Brazilian Portuguese, "ç" is the only letter that differs from the English alphabet, so you can play the letter "a", for example, as "a", "á", "à", "â", or "ã". 

The iPhone app is $1.99, and the HD iPad app costs $4.99 (prices as of Monday, May 27, 2013). The game is available from iTunes. 

Playing Scrabble is not the best way to acquire a basic vocabulary of high-frequency words, of course, but it's a fun way to flex your language skills. 

What I found as I played was that the game really made me do a lot of active thinking in Portuguese. I found that I worked to come up with a word, even if I wasn't sure of its meaning, that sounded like Portuguese, or that fit with what I already know about Portuguese word patterns. For all the times that learners have cursed the seemingly endless verb forms associated with every Portuguese infinitive, this is a big advantage when playing Scrabble. 

If you've played a lot of Scrabble in English, you'll also have to re-think the frequently used strategy of making almost any noun plural by just adding an "s". This works with many Portuguese words, of course, but there are also many words whose plural form includes other changes. 

You'll also have to forget most of the 2-letter English words that you've committed to memory, as they won't work in Portuguese. 

My verdict: Scrabble on the iOS platform is a relaxing way to immerse yourself in another language, and if you get tired of playing in Portuguese, you can always try another language.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Brazil Moves Towards Legalizing Gay Marriage

This is already an old story, but it's important enough that I wanted to include it here. As anyone who follows Latin American news knows by now, Brazil's National Council of Justice issued a ruling last week that paves the way for marriage licenses to be issued for gay civil unions in Brazil.

If this unfolds as expected, Brazil would be the third Latin American country to recognize gay marriages, along with Argentina and Uruguay, and the fourth in the Western Hemisphere (gay marriage is legal in Canada).

According to an article on the Huffington Post, "Fourteen of Brazil's 27 states so far have legalized same-same marriages." The Brazilian Congress has been dragging its feet on legislation which would legalize same-sex marriages, due in part to opposition from conservative evangelical representatives. 

This is an interesting, and in some ways unexpected, development from a country with a large Roman Catholic population and social norms which are sometimes conservative and sometimes permissive. 

While I was unable to find a recent quote from Dilma on the subject of gay marriage, she has opposed it in the past. Of course, if the matter is to be decided by the courts, then her opinion is just that: her opinion.

"Financial Times" Op-Ed Critical of Dilma's Economic Policies

An article in Estadão summarizes an op-ed in the Financial Times, entitled "Go-go to go-slow." 

The Financial Times commentary begins by reciting a list of encouraging recent developments in Brazil: 

1. Petrobras' $11 billion bond issue.

2. The $5.6 billion IPO of Banco do Brasil's insurance unit.

3. $1.4 billion paid by oil companies for exploration rights.

4. The appointment of Brazilian diplomat Roberto Azevêdo as head of the World Trade Organization.

5. Dilma's high popularity, which the Financial Times attributes to "full employment," and which the author believes will lead to her re-election.

So what's the problem? Well, according to the op-ed, it's all a façade. 


1. Brazil's economic growth for 2012 was about 1%, which puts it at the same level as the Eurozone. 

2. Inflation is "eroding consumer confidence."

3. There is a "sense of malaise" caused by a slowdown in investment.

The author largely blames Lula's consumer-driven economic model for these problems, the same model which he says has been continued by Dilma. He writes that this model has "exhausted itself." 

The op-ed is also critical of what it calls Dilma's heavy-handed centralized management style, which the author refers to as "bossy boots," apparently the British equivalent to the American phrase "bossy pants." (Are these phrases ever applied to men, or are they reserved only for women? I'm really curious, so if you know please leave a comment!).

While the author acknowledges that such centralized control is effective at controlling corruption, he also claims that it "slows process." (I think he may have meant to say that it "slows progress," but I don't want to put words in his mouth).

It was at this point that I started to read the op-ed more critically. It began to feel to me as if Dilma was being placed in a no-win situation. Corruption has been so entrenched in Brazilian politics for so long that it is almost always cited as one of the primary and most fundamental reasons for Brazil's failure to realize its full economic potential. This criticism comes from both Brazilians and outsiders, with Brazilians often more critical and cynical about their own government than many foreign commentators. Even Dilma's critics tend to agree that she has worked hard to root out and control corruption, while they may disagree about how effective her efforts have been.

So while the author of this op-ed openly acknowledges that Dilma's management style seeks to limit one of Brazil's biggest problems, he mentions it almost in passing, and fails to acknowledge the importance of this goal. 

He then goes on to write:

"Ms Rousseff has also consistently eschewed market-orientated reforms in favour of protectionism for preferred industries, and their lobbies: witness the coddled car sector. There is a lack of policy articulation, and follow through."

First of all, I don't like the word "orientated," since the word "oriented" is perfectly suitable and sounds better, but I'll let that pass as a stylistic choice. I do not believe that it's fair or accurate to state that Dilma's government has "consistently eschewed market-orientated reforms," and absent some supporting facts by the author, I am not willing to simply take his word for it. 

I do agree that Dilma's government has engaged in protectionism, for which it has been severely criticized by many foreign analysts.

The author supports his allegation that Dilma is guilty of "a lack of policy articulation, and follow through" by alluding to Brazil's under-developed infrastructure. It's widely acknowledged that Brazil's infrastructure is a huge problem which must be addressed, and the sooner the better, so I have no argument with that much. But the author contends that while there is interest from investors, "the regulatory framework is not properly in place that would allow the new infrastructure to be built." While he doesn't directly blame Dilma for this, the implication is clear. 

I'm in no position to know if the lack of a regulatory structure is really Dilma's fault. That is why it would have been very helpful if the author had provided even a passing reference to steps which Dilma could or should be taking right now in order to encourage infrastructure development. But no, there are no such specifics to be found. I find it hard to believe that even a "bossy boots" Brazilian President has the power to single-handedly enact the regulatory measures that the author favors.

The op-ed ends with these lines, which I found annoyingly vague: "Brazil has a great window of opportunity. Ms Rousseff and her government needs to make things happen while it remains open." The use of the singular verb "needs" for what I consider to be a plural subject (Ms Rousseff *and* her government) rankled right off the bat, but even more bothersome was the the notion that it's up to Dilma and her government to "make things happen." 

This contention, coupled with the author's apparent support of a strong regulatory system for infrastructure development, seemed inconsistent with his earlier complaints about Dilma's "bossy boots" management style, with its emphasis on a strong central government. 

If you want to criticize Dilma for being too heavy-handed, fine, but it's hardly logical to chastise her for that in one paragraph, only to come at her from the other direction later in the op-ed, implying that she hasn't been strong enough. I supposed the author may have meant to imply that Dilma was heavy-handedly inept and incompetent, but if that's what he meant, he should have said so. 

I was left with more unanswered questions than when I started reading, which certainly isn't a bad thing for an op-ed. They are supposed to make you think, and this one certainly did. But they're also supposed to provide at least some support for their conclusions, and on this front, I felt that the op-ed failed to deliver. 

Edit: I just read the only comment left so far (12:04 PM Eastern Standard Time, May 20, 2013) on the FT website, directly below the op-ed, and wanted to share it here exactly as it was posted:

"i'm amazed that such a lousy piece of journalism gets published at such respectable journal. while the editorial does bring up a few truths about brazil, it does little in terms of proposing an alternative or a solution, nor does it show any understanding of how things really work in brazil."

I think it's a bit harsh to call it "lousy journalism," but I was intrigued to see that the comment hit on some of the same issues that I raised in my critique. In fact, it made me feel quite moderate and calm in my criticisms. :)