Wednesday, June 2, 2010

An overdose of awesomeness

I have been silent for a really long time, but many things have been going on in my life. LavaAmp, my project of a pocket sized thermal cycler, has thrived and now we have a prototype. Currently I am in Boulder, Colorado, at the Unreasonable Institute, a training program for social entrepreneurs. This has been sponsored by more than 50 people from several countries, who believe in our project, in our vision of a world where DNA tests are accessible and ubiquitous, where biotechnology is democratized, available for local applications, rather than controlled by a few labs and even fewer corporations.

This is a letter to my supporters, the ones that are making possible this dream I am currently living in. Now I am even more globally connected, astounded of how empathy, love, compassion and friendship can be delivered with a click, how a difference can be made with a stream of bits.

Dear Unreasonable supporters,

As I sit to write this, I am filled with tons of emotions. An
increased gratefulness to you, my friends and supporters for making
this possible, an increasing awe to be among such great personalities,
that it seem will shape the future and make a difference for millions,
and a bit of uncertainty of what will happen during this, my
unreasonable summer. I am at the same time exhausted, but happy and
expectant, exposed to so many new ideas, worldviews and people,
learning, evaluating our achievements and improving our pitch.

This is only my second day at the Unreasonable Institute, but I feel
like what I have experienced and learned is densely packed in these
scarce hours, filling my brain and senses, already changing parts of
me. Of course, I do not agree with everything I am taught, it is in my
nature to be skeptical and questioning, but the mere exposition to
unfamiliar points of view gives me new ideas and arguments, enriching
my mind, adding diversity to my inner life. The part that I accept
nurtures me and teaches me, wisdom filling previously blind spots,
increasing my awareness. The distilled experience of our mentors
helping me to polish the presentation of our venture, this, our joint
dream of accessible diagnostics and democratized biotechnology.

I have some good news for you: I was selected as a TED (Technology,
Entertainment, Design) Fellow, and I will travel to Oxford, England,
to attend and speak at TEDGlobal 2010, a prestigious conference packed
with top people in their areas I
will go to England for a week, and while I am there, LavaAmp's
co-funder, Joseph Jackson, will be here in Boulder, experiencing the
atmosphere of the Unreasonable Institute and learning how to make a
better company that will be able to make an effective impact in the
world. I am attending to TED because your support gave me the courage
to apply and try to get in, because you knew that this vision is not a
mirage or a delusion, but the seed of something greater, potentially
life changing for millions of people.

I want to thank you yet again, even if truly there are no words in any
human language to express what I feel, this joy an expectation that
overflows my being. Were if not because of you, this would not be
possible and LavaAmp could be yet another discarded dream in the land
of the what-ifs. Success is not certain and the road ahead is long and
bumpy, surprises and unexpected trouble will arise, but knowing I am
not alone will make things easier. I appreciate that you have made
this possible. I think I have an overdose of awesomeness, and yet,
this is only the second day, I repeat to myself. The summer is still
young and full of promise. I will do my best so your contribution to
this is not wasted, so that in the future you can be proud of
supporting LavaAmp and know you were able to make a difference in a
key moment. Thank you, again and again.


Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Total Fertility Rate Vs GDP per capita

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Monday, November 2, 2009

Violent Video Games banned in Venezuela

I have been silent for a long time, busy with lots of stuff. Finally I finished my thesis, doing much more than anybody expected, my start up got some funding and developed a prototype device (more about that on another post). Life has been hectic, but despite that, I have found the time to write about the terrible situation that is going on here in Venezuela. Fortunately, Xeni Jardin, from BoingBoing, agreed to publish the following piece there, and it got a very good feedback.

Here it is the latest attack on our freedoms, an attack that to me is extremely painful and personal. I vow to never, ever obey this law.

Last Thursday in Venezuela, a new law criminalizing "violent" video games and toys was approved by the National Assembly.

The law scapegoats gamers for the obscene levels of violence in our country (see below), and goes to extraordinary lengths to criminalize gaming, to the point of holding out long jail terms to people who buy the wrong kinds of games.

It's no joke. Last year, on a trip to the US, I was able to buy a Nintendo DS for my brother, and a puzzle game that deals with using weapons to defend the fish stock of penguins in Antarctica, Defendin' de Penguin. Early next year, when the law kicks in, bring such a game could land me in jail for 3 to 5 years, for importing forbidden violent games, as the penguins use snowball guns to ward off walruses, foxes (in Antarctica? OMG think of Biogeography!), polar bears and the Yeti.

The law is just the latest nail in the coffin of Venezuelans' right of dissent and broader civil liberties. A pitiful attempt to blame video games and toys for the widespread lethal violence in our country, instead of a defective judicial structure, systemic corruption and governmental (purposeful?) ineptitude to deal with the problem.

I am 26 years old. Ever since I can remember Venezuela has been a very dangerous place. Every year the body count seemed to climb higher than the previous year. Being on the streets after dark, especially in the big cities, became a little bit more dangerous with each passing year, no matter who was in power or how high prices for our oil rose.

I believed it was just a fact of life. Then, ten years ago, Hugo Chávez came to power promising change at every level, promising a new, less corrupt, wealthier, safer society. Most of my friends and family voted for him, to register their contempt for our traditional politicians, because they wanted justice and a decent country.

Ten years later, we are indeed wealthier, thanks to a feverish oil boom, but the country's also falling deeper into debt, issuing bonds and getting loans even from the despised Capitalist tool that is the IMF, and printing money like there's no tomorrow, while our electric system collapses, many staples are hard to find on store shelves, our hospitals are rotting and corruption and crime are still getting worse.

The official position is that crime is a byproduct of poverty and inequality. The official numbers say that poverty and inequality have decreased dramatically so, how is it possible that today we have one of the worst crime rates in the entire world? Our murder rates are among the top five in the world. Barinas, the rural State where Chávez is from and where his brother is governor, has the highest kidnapping rate in the world. (The governor's reply? People are kidnapping themselves to make the government look bad.) And if you live in Caracas today, you are at substantially higher risk of meeting a violent death than if you live in Iraq these days.

One thing is clear: either crime is not caused merely by poverty and inequality, as the murder rates in Bangladesh seem to confirm, or the government has not reduced poverty and inequality as much as it claims (as a glance to the barrios of Caracas seems to confirm). Or perhaps both.

Either way, the government has proven grossly incompetent at protecting its citizens. The pseudo-socialist clique that governs us plainly cares much more about protecting its own members. Recent press reports show that more cops in Caracas are devoted to protecting politicians and their families as body guards than to roaming the streets, and let's not even talk about crimes carried out by the police. Amid all this, the authorities seem to spend what limited resources are at the justice system's disposal on criminalizing dissent.

Venezuelan chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega has repeatedly argued that having the wrong opinion (a.k.a. "publishing information that may destabilize the government" or "causing a perception of impunity through the press") should be made a crime punishable with 10 years in jail. After recent protests, she has put student protesters in our worse jails because they spray-painted walls, and detained dozens labor movement protestors without trial for months on end for what amount to political crimes.

While Venezuela burns, our authorities are busy criminalizing those who protest, rather than those setting the fires.

Let's put this in perspective. Last year, we had almost 14,000 deaths due to crime, out of a population of about 27 million people. Let's round it up to 28 million, and make some calculations: If Bangladesh had our murder rate, there would be 125,000 murder victims there every year, if the US had our murder rate, we would be talking about 150,000 deaths due to crime, if Japan had our problem, there would be 60000 Japanese dead due to crime every time our pretty planet goes around the sun. If China and India had our levels of violence, we would get rid of 1,100,000 people every year.

The numbers of death due to violence do not seem so big in Venezuela due to our smallish population, but this a serious problem that is only getting worse after almost 11 years of Bolivarian rule. The number of people mugged, assaulted and robbed are much greater than that. Some relatives of mine have been shot and stabbed, most of my friends have been robbed at least once, and I had to jump from a bus in motion to avoid being robbed a month ago, in Mérida, where I live, a university town that not so long ago used to be relatively safe. In Valera, where my parents live, it is unwise to go out after 9 in the streets, and after 8:30, it gets really difficult to find public transportation.

So, will the government correct its strategy, accept that we have a huge problem that has to be solved ASAP and will follow its rhetoric and work along the communities to tackle crime (Death penalty and traditional top-down approaches won't work)?

No. Instead, it will blame the gamers for the problem.

Yes, we are to blame, because we cannot tell fantasy from reality and because video games make us violent, morons who will throw people out of cars just like in Grand Theft Auto and kill them, because even though games come with ratings, just like movies, I, an adult citizen, cannot be trusted to use them wisely.

This law makes selling video games to anybody actually worse than giving real guns or cigarettes to a minor, or even forcing him or her to work, as you get less jail time and lower fines if you do any of those things.

I have to be protected from them, so I don't go into a killing spree. (If I were so impressionable, I would not be writing this, I would have swallowed completely the huge amount of propaganda they feed to us). Our Parliament, instead of addressing our real needs, behaves like the bunch of escapist, authoritarian demagogues they are, imposing their decrees on us, because they are know they are right, and those of us who dissent, surely are rich elitist bastards who hate the poor, traitors who hate Venezuela and work for sinister, evil and shady foreign powers (If you follow American politics, this attitude should ring some alarms to you).

Surely a government that calls itself Socialist would have corrected a gross mistake by previous administrations: our marginal tax rate for the richest citizens is 34%, which is less than what the American marginal tax rate was when Bush gave tax cuts to Donald Trump and Warren Buffet. One would think that after ten years of Socialist government focused on the poor and against the evil rich, the fiercely egalitarian Venezuelan MPs would have found the time to increase the taxes of the hated rich to the same level of such boring, bland, flavorless, countries as Finland, New Zealand, Sweden or Canada.

Instead, they have been too busy forbidding video games, porn (2 to 6 years in jail for filming porn, as it goes against "good customs" and family) and human genetic engineering (The law is written in such an imprecise language than creating Human Recombinant Insulin could lead me to jail), while our president befriends murderers, genocides, golpistas (coup makers, like Gambia's president Yahya Jammeh), and tyrants and giving them replicas of the sword of Bolívar, The Liberator.

Our president also claims that despite shutting down 34 opposition radio stations based on administrative technicalities, despite the constant harassment of dissident cable stations, and criminalizing of protests, this is the country with most Freedom of Speech in the whole world, the same thing that Silvio Scumbag Berlusconi said about Italy and pretty much what American jingoists, immune to facts love to say, "America is the Freest Country in The World", despite America's sickening incarceration rates and its aversion to cognitive liberty.

Venezuelan authorities' record on cognitive freedom is also laughable, with our authorities making wild claims about super marijuana (provided by the evil Colombians) that causes Alzheimer, and banning Family Guy from the air because it promotes the evil liberal American attitudes to drugs.

Most likely, not that many people will end up in jail due to the anti-gaming law. But it could easily be used to coerce, to extort and to pressure people who find themselves on the revolution's shit list, to make you feel powerless, like a criminal, to make you ashamed and scared.

Laws here get enforced selectively, but when the government issues so many laws criminalizing so many behaviours, sooner or later you are going to break one, so you better be well behaved and, above all, you better not criticize the powerful. If you do, they'll go through your hobbies... and when they do, they're bound to find something they can use against you.

Another possibilities is that they may be trying to target cybercafés and Internet services for those who lack net connection at home, as Counter Strike and other on-line games are a big source of revenues for cybercafés. In any case, even if individuals don't go to jail, stores won't sell games anymore.

Whichever explanation you favor, what we have here is just another brick in the wall, another piece of a strategy to slowly but surely build a legal wall against political dissent, even as our society goes to the dogs.

This situation is painful to behold. Even if I barely game at all these days, I am a gamer at neocortex. I spent countless hours solving puzzles, riddles and fighting monsters in dungeons. I rescued Toadstool many times, only to be told that thanks, but my Princess was in another castle, later I joined Link and rescued Zelda from Agahnim and Ganon, using the Master Sword and the Silver Arrows. I got the Zantetsu sword and cut metal, I summoned Ifrit, Odeen and Behemoth. From Dragoon, I became a Paladin. I sneaked on Big Boss' fortress in Zanzibar and stopped doomsday with Solid Snake. I fought along a Double Dragon trapped on a Final Fight, using my Killer Instinct in a Mortal Kombat in which only the greatest Street Fighter would come alive. I was Linked to the Past by a Chrono Trigger, my Soul Blazing, as I lived my Final Fantasies, Wandering from Ys, arriving to a Lagoon, to learn about the Secret of Mana, and finally understood that there is Ever More to life.

These games are a cherished part of my life, they helped to shape my young mind, they gave me challenges and vastly improved my English, opening the door to a whole new world of literature, music and people from all around the world. What I have achieved, all my research, how I have been able to travel even though I'm always broke, the hard work I've done to convince people to fund a start up for cheap biotech for developing countries and regular folks, none of that would have been possible hadn't I learned English through video games.

Now, thanks to the tiny horizons of the cast of morons who govern me, thanks to the stupidity and ham-fisted authoritarianism of the local authorities, so beloved of so many liberals, my 7 year old brother's chances to do the same could be greatly impacted.

Even if my parents could afford to buy a NES or a SNES when the times were good for us, we could not afford to buy games, so I played Mario a lot. I used to go to game parlors and play, made friends there, speaking not only about swords and crystals, combo breakers and special attacks, but also about AI, the future and technology, about that mysterious thing called the Internet (I met a girl who tried Compuserve!) and about nuclear war.

Fifteen years later, my little brother lives in a world where the scarcity of games can be bypassed with the right tools, where mod chips and special cards allow him to emulate really old games on newer devices, where he needs to learn the basics about hacking if he wants to fully use his Nintendo DS.

Yesterday I was explaining to my little brother how any computer could in theory, emulate another computer, and how that made it possible to play really old games (Older than him!) on his DS. I was explaining what a terminal window and a program were and how I converted videos to a format that his DS can understand. And he was thrilled, his eyes lit with pleasure, technology was a bridge that got us closer. If we blindly follow the copyright and video game forbidding laws, we won't be able to do this anymore, and he will stop learning as much as he could gaming and hacking, finding his way to talk to machines to get them to do what he needs.

But I won't obey, I will be an outlaw gamer, and I vow to teach him as much as I can and as much as he is willing to learn, as early as possible. I refuse to give up my rights to a government that is commanded by Vuitton clad jerks asking sacrifices from us, I refuse to stop gaming because a bunch of control freaks tell me that I will become a killer and that the wonderful games that enriched my childhood are psycho factories.

If I get fined for writing this (Article 13, promoting the use of violent videogames), so be it. If I go to jail because I carry roms in my hard drive or in an R4 card for my brother, next time I return to the country, so be it. But I'd rather go to jail than betray the gamer culture, partially responsible for making me the person I am today.

Enough is enough, and I am fed with this government of morons, pretending to be socialist while living a luxurious lifestyle, paying very little taxes and plundering our oil money. This is a travesty, a pacifist government who gets loans from Russia to buy rifles, tanks and missiles, whose official motto is "Fatherland, Socialism or Death", whose leader calls other people subhuman, and constantly speaks about war. A socialist system that offers lower taxes than Bush for the rich people, that gives no-bid contracts to Chevron Texaco, a progressive govt. spreading lies about marijuana and promoting a new law that requires education on breastfeeding for our girls, but no education on reproductive freedoms, a system that promotes sovereignty and dignity micromanaging my life and telling what I have to do, what I cannot do and stepping on my rights to mind my business as long as I do not harm anybody else.

The only thing more puzzling to me than liberals being eager of supporting this, is that social conservatives hate him despite his strong family values, opposition against vice and low taxes for the rich.

Now, that games have been outlawed, I am an outlaw, but there is hope. My brother is learning that sometimes being an outlaw is the right thing to do, that some laws are not fair and must be opposed and that breaking the law does not makes you a bad person.

That is a hard thing to explain to a seven year old, but now he understands it really well. I do not know if he will ever become a hacker, but he is already a rebel and a happy mutant.

More links about the situation in Venezuela:

Caracas Chronicles

The Devil's Excrement


El Libertario (In Spanish, Anarchist News)

Radar De Los Barrios (In Spanish, complains from the people living in the slums)

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Thursday, June 25, 2009

On the effect of patriotic propaganda

A study released recently compared the attitude of people to cultural differences before and after listening to patriotic music and found that:

"(...) preliminary findings showed that the patriotic songs had a negative effect on the participants, as shown through their responses to the survey's questions about other cultures and diversity. The patriotic songs made the participants close-minded and prejudiced.

"Once they were in a patriotic point of view, they were less empathetic," Alvarado said. "They didn't put themselves in other people's perspective."

Interesting analysis of the effects of propaganda, however, I am a bit skeptical that a single song in a controlled environment can do that much.

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Princess Hijab and the complexity of cultural remixes

I think my brain melted a bit trying to understand and react in a coherent way to Princess Hijab.

She is a guerrilla artist/protester/ad buster that 'hijabizes' advertisement. She, a self defined 'insomniac punk' claims not to be a Muslim and do what she does just for the sake of artistic expression. And I am torn here, as I think that the burqa is hideous, demeaning, a symbol of male oppression. But, I can see also how it can be a part of one's identity, a definition of self, an act of provocation, rather than an imposition. I do not approve it, but in no sane society should women dress according to my or any man's thoughts.

The French government wants to forbid the burqa, and even if I would like to see that, I cannot support such measure in good conscience, it should not be state's business to tell people what they cannot wear. Why don't they actually ask to the women that wear burqas why do they do it? Coercion is not the solution here, I am afraid. Which one is it? I am not sure, but if somebody finds happiness inside a burqa, who am I (o Sarkozy or De Gaulle) to oppose to that?

Meanwhile, Princess Hijab is there, mocking us, protesting, calling our attention and making us reflect on our internal contradictions, transgressing the boundaries of cultures, mixing them, defying our preconceptions and clear-cut opinions. I am not sure whether she is beautiful, but what she does is. Go on, beautiful provocateur, épater la bourgeoisie.

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Saturday, June 6, 2009


I just finished a consultancy that paid nicely. And about to finish the Neverending Thesis, I will start paid work in July. Finally I can say I am economically independent. It took a long time and several attempts, but I am glad I did it finally, thanks to my efforts. Things might change, but I can live for a few months without fear.

Thanks, mamá. You have always believed in me, even more than I have. Thanks to all the friends that so many times supported me, bought me lunch and gave me advice. Without them, I would not be here, at the beginning of a new, unknown, but exciting path.

And yes, I am not a patriot, but the song suits my mood right now, my own mind nation of my own. Time to start the foundations of the First Distributed Republic?

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Missing Picture: Chávez and Vargas Llosa

I corrected Chávez' picture from the ISHR campaign to represent what happened yesterday.

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Hilarious Campaign: Powerful men afraid of (computer) mice

Satire is a powerful force, indeed:

This campaign was created for the International Society for Human Rights, a very deserved mock to such powerful rulers who are so afraid of letting other dissent. They have made another against Chávez, but I do not put it here, since I do not think that Chávez' abuses related to the Internet are in the same league (not yet? He is getting his paws on cable TV now) than the ones made by these two jerks. However, you can find them here.

However, Sarkozy and some functionaries from the Australian government besides Colom from Guatemala should be mocked like that or worse.

Hat tip to Alberto de Francisco.

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Are you a dick? Musings on El Vergatario

I started to read this comment about the so called 'Penis Phone' and I decided to write a post about it, since the translation is not really good.

In Venezuela, when a person is vergatario/a it means he or she is astounding, impressive, qualified. In a different way than English, to be called un güevo or un pipe does not means you are a dick, it means you are a highly skilled person. When I was a child, playing Mario and watching others go through the most difficult levels, it came natural to say to the player !Eres un güevo¡ literally: You are a dick! So the 'penis phone' is not only a non accurate translation, it lacks the context to transmite that here, to be called a male reproductive organ is a good thing (Being called a dickhead, however, is still an insult).

A mixed capital company, Chinese-Venezuelan, designed and built the thing, supposedly the cheapest cellphone in the world, even if I do not believe it, such thing would be in China, not here, but it has MP3 and WAP. I have bought cheaper stuff in the US (no MP3 or WAP, however).

That is one of the amazing things going on these days here, sadly, at the same time with all the crap. For a futurist, these are exciting times, the interaction of developing societies and technology is fascinating to witness, like street peddlers selling 8 Gigabytes flash drives in Cúcuta, the Colombian town across the border.

But, be warned, John Varley already made a prophecy:

'In five years the penis will become obsolete'

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Exchange rate

I messed my numbers in a flame war about Venezuela this morning at BoingBoing. I claimed my grad salary would be less than a dollar daily, at black market rate (which shall remain unnamed here). Is much more than that, closer to 4 dollars daily. I counted only what would have left after paying the rent and picked up a wrong number for the rate.

I apologize for messing the numbers, and since the post was closed, I write it here. However, it does not change the nature of my argument.

Stumble Delicious Technorati Twitter Facebook