Adventures of a foreigner in the south of Brazil.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Staying awake on Easter Island

Easter Island is a rather nice place in the middle of a lot of ocean. Very nice people, good climate and let's not forget the statues. The food is also very good, south sea style with lots of local fish. But how does one stay awake after that sudden change in climate, coming from the continent? Me, I'll try coffee or, to be more specific, an espresso after lunch.

And here comes the snag: There is no espresso on this island. It is on the menus, you can ask for it, even plead. You can describe it and negotiate an agreement about the size of the cup. You will always, really always, get a normal-sized cup of filtered coffee that tastes like somebody's already had it. With a slight tang of something burning. Served with a big smile. I do feel a bit like Parzival, who, upon entering this sacred isle, unbeknownst insulted the guardian of the holy bean. Salvation awaits on the continent.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Summer time

There's as of last Sunday only 3 hours difference between central Europe and Brazil, keep in mind when calling.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Brazilian radio

The average Brazilian radio programme has many admirable qualities. One of them is - alas -  that you can listen to it. I am driving an average 45 minutes a day to work. And back. Along the ugliest road known to humankind. Zoom in. Here's me, pressing the button on the radio. Skipping an average of 8 or 9 channels with advertisements. Another with Gaúcho music. The traditional music is swell if you like Bavarian folk. Then there's a channel with a guy called Soapy Sam who whines about Jesus. In the most sickly sanctimonious voice I've ever had the misfortune to listen to. Time to briefly wonder why in the country with the highest homicide numbers through fire arms world-wide nobody has shot him yet. Just my bad luck, probably.

Go through all channels twice or thrice. Then, there's the one channel that has music. From the 80s, and it's always the same 3 or 4 songs. Good ones, but after a few days of driving even the Dire Straits start to sound like nails on a chalk board. I've been here for more than a few days.

Then there are radio comedy shows. Well, I assume it's comedy. People are laughing, unless they brought donkeys in and shoved some raw ginger where the sun don't shine. The principle is fairly easy. Every 30 seconds somebody in the show says an incredibly funny word, such as "mattress", in a squeaky voice. Then he (or she, as the case may be) starts to bray hysterically and repeat it a couple of times just to make sure everybody understands just how funny a mattress is. Everybody else - that's 3 or 4 more guys - starts repeating the word and braying hysterically, too.

The show then proceeds like this:
  • Funny dude: Mattress. hahaha. MATTRESS. MAAAAAATTTRESSSSS!!!!!! hahahahahhaha. HAHAHAHAHA.
  • Everybody else: MATTRESS. MAAAAAATTRREEEEESSSS!!! HAHAHAHAHA!!!
That can easily go on for five minutes or more.

And the lesson? Don't try to beat the radio. The radio beats you. Every time.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Friday, July 25, 2008

VoIP and Security (aka governments may snoop on skype)

It appears that there is a backdoor in skype that allows interested parties, such as governments, to snoop on your calls. That hardly comes as a surprise in a closed network that has been trying very hard to resist all scrutiny of its encrpytion and security mechanisms. If true - and that seems to be very likely - it is still dishonest business practices.

So...how to defend against it? Drop skype. Discontinue its use. There are a number of applications out there that use open standards and protocols such as SIP/RTP and IAX. The call is of better quality than skype calls, too. There are free phone registries and calls and video can be encrypted. In short, you can have better quality, good security and actually even better convenience without skype at all.

Here's how:
  1. Register with an SIP service, such as Free World Dialup. That will give you VoIP telephony, dial-in/dial-out, and an online registry. There are many more out there with various service offerings. Google will help.
  2. Get a VoIP softphone. Often providers will offer freely downloadable software; there is also open source software available on the net. For Linux you can use software such as Twinkle (with built-in encryption). Twinkle and some others should be available through your distribution's installer.
  3. If your software has built-in encryption you should enable it (in Twinkle this is in the profile under the security tab, enable ZRTP). Alternatively get Phil Zimmerman's zPhone that encrypts your connection for a number of applications and providers.
  4. You're ready to roll. Your VoIP number will look similar to sip:123456@myvoipproivder.net. Give your number to your friends, maintain your application's buddy list for greater convenience and chat in privacy.
And if you're a webcam freak: That also works. Not every application has it but some do.

Remember: This whole thing is independent of application and provider. It's one network. It's an open standard. You pick what you like, your friends pick what they like and it works. If you'd like to get my numbers feel free to ask. And don't expect me on skype.

For your other instant messaging needs I would strongly recommend a Jabber client such as Psi, since the Jabber protocol also features end-to-end encryption and is completely open. One of the more well-known Jabber services is offered by Google. Here, too, software and provider do not matter, and fred_flintstone@gmail.com will be able to have malcolm_x@someotherprovider.com on his buddy list, chat, send files etc. without any problems.

The setup takes a few minutes each, call it half an hour in total if you've never done it before. So if you value your privacy: What are you waiting for?

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I saved Brazil

Truly, I did. Sort of. Well, I did save the Brazilian economy. All right, I did not. But I did save the roots upon which the Brazilian national economy is founded. That is, I got officially ripped off. Again. If you read that other post you will know that a bit more than a year ago I had to redeem the national debt on account of not having with me a very much superfluous piece of paper any kid could fake when entering the country. If you have not read it imagine an old chewing gum wrapper with a stamp on it.1 Meanwhile I have traveled far and wide, over sea and mountain, and I have left and entered Brazil many times. For almost a year without my proof of redemption as apparently the payment had been successfully registered.
A few weeks ago I entered again, and....

For easier perusal I will call the two officials Herby and Frank. As far as I know these are not their real names. They did not look like Herby or Frank.2

(Herby) "There is a fine registered on your name."
(Me) "Oh no, would that be this one year old thing for not having my chewing gum wrapper with me?"
(Herby) "Exactly."
(Me) "But that was paid a year ago. Look at my passport! I've been in and out of the country many hundred times."
(Herby) (calls Frank)
(Frank) "There is a fine registered on your name."
(Me) "Oh no, would that be this one year old thing for not having my chewing gum wrapper with me?"
(Frank) "Exactly."
(Me) "But that was paid a year ago. Look at my passport! I've been in and out of the country many hundred times."
(Frank) "But it is registered here and that means you have to pay."
(Me) "I see. Since I paid already, can I get the money back?"
(Frank) "I'll register it in your passport and all you have to do is go to the Federal Police when the clock strikes midnight and wave all your receipts while walking around the reception widdershins and reciting Hail Mary. Then they will return your money."

I have not walked widdershins around any reception desk at midnight and the proud nation of Brazil still has my money.3 Sometime in the future when I have steeled myself I will try to get my money back and risk the downfall of the Brazilian economy. For now, let it be known far and wide that it was I who saved it.


1 Of inferior quality.
2 I do not personally know anybody called Herby or Frank but if I did they would look different.
3 May it rip off many other foreigners and forever prosper.4
4 It is, after all, only polite to bestow good wishes as the occasion arises.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Music, the other way round

I accidentally came across Max Raabe & the Palastorchester performing Britney Spears' "Oops, I did it again". Synchronized to the original video. (Which I had to watch over and bloody over again doing physical therapy after a meniscus rupture years ago and I'm still trying to forget all about it.) I recommend to watch it and to not, under any circumstances whatsoever, consume any liquids at the same time.

In order to properly enjoy that I recommend to first watch one of their "taking the piss out of the 20s" performances, such as "Kein Schwein ruft mich an". It helps to speak German,

Sunday, March 16, 2008

New photos

from Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile are online.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

German constitutional court declares trust in integrity of information systems a fundamental right

Today the German constitutional court has declared trust in integrity of information systems a fundamental right. Thereby blocking the German government that got more greedy and voyeuristic by the day, surpassing Orwell's wildest nightmares. In doing so they created a new fundamental right, far more extensive than 25 years ago, when they did so for the last time. Again, the constitutional court remains about the only public institution I feel inclined to trust. The history of the constitutional court is a history of limiting the power of government and strengthening individual rights. It has also been the only official body that has ever driven family politics, by forcing the government through constitutional considerations and legal decisions.

This is a fundamental decision of historic dimension.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Saturday, February 09, 2008

How not to bring money into Brazil

In two words: bank transfer. There is, on the international side, Moneybookers, which is a very reasonable option. On the other side there are Brazilian banks that engage in daylight robbery.

I recently tried a transfer of 400EUR to Brazil with Moneybookers. The exchange rate on the stock exchanges for EUR/BRL was 2,59 on the day of the deposit.

With a (big) Brazilian bank involved the calculation looks like this:

  • First you get cheated on the exchange rate: 2,49 instead of 2,59 (3,9% charge)
  • Second, there is a charge for an incoming international transfer of 105 BRL.
  • Third, there is yet another fee of 3,79 BRL for the currency exchange, on top of the exchange rate cheat.
  • Moneybookers fee 3,50 EUR. This is the only reasonable part of this affair.
In addition to that I have to physically sign and deposit a document confirming I'm not up to anything illegal with the dosh.

That means from EUR 400 I end up with BRL 887,89, which is an effective exchange rate of 2,22 or a 15,6% charge on the Brazilian side alone.

If, conversely, I pull the money out of an ATM I get the market rate plus a 1,5% charge on the European side (a tad more than Moneybookers), saving roughly 14% on the transfer. Given that document I have to bring to the bank after a transfer there is not even more legwork for getting the money into the account.

So ATMs it is from now on, and I have to say that for a genuinely modern banking system like the Brazilian one this kind of barriers for international operations is stick-in-the-mud, backwards and ridiculous.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The nature of evil

I just came across an interesting essay on the nature of evil by Andrew Bernstein.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Visa made easy

Being a foreigner I occasionally have to prolong my Brazilian visa. It is done now. And I have to say the whole process took a mere six months. I shall from now on use the approximate age of the universe as my reference for bureaucratic processes here. With that in mind six months is but the blink of an eye. No time at all, really. After only three months I got a pink slip from the Ministerio de Justicia to confirm that I am currently in the process of visa prolongation. It is illegible, but official. I can pass borders with it. While the passing borders bit is not guaranteed by law in practice it works well.

After the prolongation has been officially published the new visa has to be registered again with the Policia Federal. In return for the pink slip, two ugly photos and another set of fingerprints you get black fingers, a stamp in the passport and another protocol slip. Indeed, that very same flimsy piece of paper. To be renewed after 3 months, and this time I may just cut my own stamp from a potato.

In theory I get a replacement, a plastic identity card. It's paid for, too, together with the visa application. All this is done in Brasilia.
Now it appears that two years ago there was some scandal about corruption related to this and these days there is still no material for printing available. The exact cause-effect chain eludes me. Mind you, passports are printed locally and quickly, and they have better security features, too. It's just foreigners who get the run-it-through-the-capital treatment that doesn't work.

You, dear reader, are left to draw your own conclusions about this happy state of affairs. Me, I'm going to get some transparent tape to fix this slip up so it doesn't fall apart within the next few weeks.