Category Archives: English


A Blend of Ether and Chloroform Is Fueling a Silent Drug Epidemic in Brazil

While I say some words about the history of Brazilian funk, Douglas Celestino dos Santos keeps saying, “Yeah, I remember that.”

The producer lives in Cidade Tiradentes, in São Paulo’s far east side. He knows everything that happens in his hood. He was there when MC Dedê blew up on Orkut with 10 different profiles; when the “fluxos,” the funk bloc parties, took over the brick-walled alleys; and more recently, when loló, Brazilian slang for an ether-based aerosol drug, started to take over the minds and lives of Cidade Tiradentes’ youth.

Such was the case with his brother, Mahal Farouq, who died in December 2013 from abusing the drug.

“The doctors said it was cardiac arrest, but they also said it was because of loló. The death certificate listed the cause of death as cardiac arrest,” said Douglas, who’s aware of at least five other similar cases. But whether it’s because they’re underreported or simply unknown, the deaths caused by lança-perfume (another common name for the drug) don’t show up in surveys or studies, and haven’t caught much interest from the authorities. One of the few studies regarding the use of the lança-perfume calls it a silent epidemic.

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When the wells run dry, look for water in the sky

When I first meet Pedro Paulino in his office in Valinhos, 75 miles from São Paulo, he offers me a glass of water. “Here we have it!” he says, holding a seemingly unremarkable drink. The water didn’t come from the tap, however. Pedro pulled it out of thin air.

“Making water like this is easy,” he says, explaining how small machines can harvest moisture in the atmosphere and condense vapor into liquid. The real challenge, he adds, is making the water safe to drink. His startup, Wateair, works to do just that, and as cheaply as possible.

His tinkering comes at a critical time for Brazil, which is facing its worst drought in more than 80 years. Reservoirs are rapidly depleting, and the more than 20 million people packed into São Paulo are facing a “critical” water shortage, state officials said in August. The government is plowing ahead with multimillion-dollar emergency construction projects to replace vanishing supplies. Pedro, meanwhile, races in the opposite direction, scaling down and lowering costs on his existing models.

Pedro’s own life story is closely linked to water — or a lack thereof. He was among the first generation born in Brasilia, the capital city, which was built in 1960 over the harsh, dry savannah. At 17, he left for Madrid to study mechanical engineering and worked as a health care developer for Siemens AG. For the next two decades, he traveled the world searching for technology innovations, including stints in China and Israel, which have long faced water restraints. “Any tech person must think: I have to go where people faced this problem a long time ago,” he says.

When Pedro returned to Brazil, he used his acquired know-how to build his first Wateair in 2009 — just as the forces of nature and poor conservation policies conspired to create devastating water shortages.


Pedro and his brand new, yet stripped down version of Wateair.

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How Science Fiction Should Shape Finance, According to a Nobel-Winning Economist

Among all impossible fictions, the complete elimination of poverty is the one that is closest to reality for Muhammad Yunus. “We are so preoccupied with making money that we are not paying attention to the world,” he told me during a conversation in São Paulo. “We must redefine everything; bring poverty down to zero.”

Yunus was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The 75-year-old Yunus is the father of microcredit, the practice of lending small amounts of money to people living in extreme poverty. Beginning in a small village in Bangladesh, the method aided in the reduction of poverty in the south Asian country. It was formalized under the name Grameen Bank. Yunus calls the concept a “social business”—one that “operates for the benefit of addressing social needs that enable societies to function more efficiently.”

“In charity, money goes out and never comes back. In social business, the money comes and goes,” he said.

With an almost blind faith, the economist sees technology as a panacea. Cellphones can be vital allies for the maintenance of public health, and platforms such as Google and Facebook can be reinvented towards less money-grubbing oriented goals. “It’s like a car. It doesn’t go where it wants to. The driver is the one who guides it,” he said. “If he wants to go up a mountain, the car will do it; if he wants to go by the sea, the car will do it. The concentration of income will increase if technology continues to serve the rich and powerful.”

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Finally, a Use for Big Data: Cracking the Voynich Manuscript

The Voynich Manuscript might have been dropped to Earth by aliens; it might be a medieval cipher whose mystery outlived anyone who had the key; it also might be a prank and moneymaking scheme by some haggard rare bookseller. But whatever the book actually is, Brazilian scientists are pretty certain that the manuscript’s text—which is written in a language and alphabet only found in the Voynich itself—isn’t just gibberish. There’s meaning in there, and complex network modeling or other big data tools might crack the enigma that has thus far proven unbreakable.

Granted, the work led by Dr. Diego Amancio hasn’t yet told us anything new about the manuscript, which is named for the antiquarian who came across the medieval-looking book in 1912, Wilfred Voynich. A professor at University of São Paulo’s Institute of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, Amancio found evidence that indicates, at least, that the manuscript makes some sort of sense. Beyond just revealing the manuscript’s secrets, Amancio’s work may help to boost the intelligence of bots past the Turing Test, like the impressive or maybe unimpressive softwareEugene Gootsman, which famously sort of passed the test early this year.

“Our research has shown that the Voynich Manuscript presents a great deal of statistical patterns that are similar to those of natural languages,” says Amancio. Besides endorsing the existence of some meaning in the text, his conclusions fly in the face of many theories that treat this piece of work as an elaborate prank made by some old-school braggadocio.

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​Uber and Brazilian Taxis Are in the Middle of a Cold War

I did the math and it turns out I rode through 37 miles of São Paulo’s legendary traffic to come up with this story.

On the bus, I took notes while doing the classic transit dance amidst the constricted environment comprising of backpacks, wallets, seats and people. In cabs, all I had to worry about writing in my notepad and getting the cabbie his cash. And when using Uber, I had to think about even less.

It’s still a novel experience here in São Paulo: A few taps on my smartphone and a luxury black car with tinted windows showed up on the a street guided by a tie-wearing chauffeur. As a whole, the Uber package is an experience for customers, an ace in the hole for investors, and a fierce attack on the cabbies of which and every country Uber comes to—including Brazil.

“We’re not a livery company,” Guilherme Telles said, speaking in Portuguese, as if he was trying to rule out the common misconception that Uber Brazil actually owns and operates the cars it dispatches—instead, it charges independent cab drivers for being the middleman between driver and fare. With that, the young chief of operations for the company in São Paulo welcomed me to his office.

With his shirt sleeves pulled up and a passionate discourse not unfamiliar to Silicon Valley, he told me about the tool which, according to him, can solve one of the biggest issues of the traffic-snarled Paulista capital: mobility. “We have the technology, the resources, and the right people to tackle this,” he said.

In Brazil, the only option currently available is Uber Black, both in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The app premiered on the country in mid-June, giving me more than enough time to play the boss with one of Uber’s chauffeurs.

Besides showing up looking sharp with a beautiful sedan, they generally open the doors for you, offer you some cold bottled water, and use GPS. Except for that detail, I wasn’t all that accustomed to such pampering—not to mention being called “sir” during a typical conversation between driver and passenger.

Those driving for Uber knows that refined service is vital to stay on the job. At the end of each trip, the chauffeur gets graded by the passenger, and to stay at the platform they have to consistently get high marks.

“[The driver] must have have a score of at least 4.6 stars out of 5, around 92 percent approval. I deactivate anyone below 4.6. The secret is: Happy driver, happy user,” Guilherme told me. That led me to the chicken or egg dilemma: Are the drivers nice because they want to get good grades or do they get good grades because they’re nice? Well, when it comes to money, both reasons are valid.

The car and insurance for passengers’ personal injuries belong to the guy behind the wheel. The company has no contractual ties to the drivers.

The payment for each trip is charged directly on the passenger’s credit card registered within the service. Uber’s tax is the sum of the following items: The minutes the trip took multiplied by BRL $0.42 (US $0.18), kilometers ran multiplied by BRL $2.42 ($1.01), and an initial price of BRL $5.00 ($2.09). From that value, 20 percent goes to Uber’s piggy bank and the rest right into the chauffeur’s wallet.

That’s one of the few attachments between both ends. The car and insurance for passengers’ personal injuries belong to the guy behind the wheel. The company has no contractual ties to the drivers.

“Uber is a technological platform that connects passengers to drivers,” said Guilherme. That high-minded talk doesn’t always resonate with drivers or riders. The former, especially in the US, have pushed back against Uber’s cutthroat approach to its relationship with drivers, and in California, there’s a new association devoted to fighting for labor rights. Meanwhile, riders have criticized Uber both for its confusing surge pricing policies as well as safety and insurance concerns.

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