01 October 2014

The Water Crisis is Getting Ugly

The water crisis is getting ugly in Brazil. Here in Uberlândia the municipal water supply is getting
quite low, and aside from people being asked to cut back on usage, there are reports of some rationing taking place. As most houses here come equipped with water tanks that fill automatically, most households have a day's supply even if water from the street is shut off.

In São Paulo, the largest city in South America, the situation is much worse.  The reservoir there is down to a mere fraction of total capacity, and in fact they are already operating on the technical reserve. Photos of the reservoirs look more like verdant valleys than lake beds, with cows grazing and trees growing where there should be hundreds of meters of water standing. In one recent news report I heard that even with two years of normal rainfall, São Paulo's reservoir will only reach half of total capacity. That's assuming the drought ends, which is uncertain. Another report on TV has explained how deforestation in the Amazon has led directly to the drought conditions now being experienced in south-central Brazil.

For more on conditions here in Brazil, check out the following from DW. It describes in vivid detail how the crisis is impacting farmers and fishermen in particular.

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We Could Use Some Rain

29 September 2014

Algar's American Dream

Algar, a company based out of Uberlândia, just keeps making news. These days I'm seeing more and more news articles online in both languages about this company. A recent article in ISTOÉ (in Portuguese) is particularly noteworthy as it reports on Algar's ambitious "American dream." I thought it would be useful to the wider world if I were to translate some highlights from that article to share here.

The article begins by describing Algar's humble origins in the Brazilian Midwest, centered particularly in the "Minas Triangle" region around the city of Uberlândia. This relatively small company should not be underestimated, however. As the current CEO of the company,  Luiz Alexandre Garcia. puts it:
"We operate in a global market. To compete, we need to be where our customers are." 
ISTOÉ goes on to elaborate:
Since last year, the technology services arm of the group, Algar Tech, operates with offices in Colombia, Chile and Argentina - the last two were included with the acquisition of Asyst, specializing in technical support services, for R$103,000,000 (about US$42688993) in November of 2013. Now, Algar prepares to enter the largest market in the world: the United States. "It's a natural path," said Jose Antonio Fechio, president of Algar Tech.
"If we want to have a global presence, we need to be present on the American market." Plans are to start an operation in Florida, probably in Miami, focused on selling consumer service in Portuguese for multinationals operating services in Brazil. To take the name Algar beyond the hills of Minas Gerais, Garcia plans to invest R$2,000,000,000 (US$828,263,800) in the technology and telecommunications arms by 2018. Besides these markets, the group operates in agribusiness, the aviation industry and controls the network of resorts Rio Quente. Part of the funds can be used for new acquisitions.
Algar's big plan is to expand into the U.S. market by focusing on supporting Portuguese service for multinational companies operating in Brazil. My concern for Algar's strategy is twofold. First, Brazil's economy is not clearly out of the woods yet. Despite the boom years centered around 2006, the country's economy is now reportedly in a recession. Business growth will continue, though it may be slower that could be desired. It's uncertain whether international investment in this market will expand at a rate making such a venture in the U.S. worthwhile. Secondly, Brazilian Portuguese is spoken by over 200 million people, yet that doesn't change the fact that it's the 6th largest language in the world. Supporting a less significant language group in a faltering economy is far from ideal. 

Then again, I do believe that Brazil continues to have a great deal of unexplored potential, and that there's a genuine possibility that things can turn around for the better in the next few years. Additionally, Algar has done quite well over the years, first biding its time and maintaining its autonomy while other major businesses were nationalized, then expanding as new opportunities presented themselves with the return of democracy. Algar has shown a certain savvy with its expansion efforts within Brazil over the past couple of decades.
According to Luiz Alexandre Garcia, who is the grandson of the founder of the group, Alexandrian Garcia, seeking customers outside the Triangulo Mineiro was, from the beginning, the strategy to boost revenues for CTBC (now Algar Telecom). The customer service area was the way found to bring connections to the carrier network in the late 1990s. Since then, with the emergence of broadband and later of cloud computing, the opportunities multiplied. Last year, sales for Algar Tech were approximately R$750,000,000 (US$310,842,187). The total Group revenue was R$3,800,000,000 (US$1,574,933,750). For someone who is discovering the world, however, this is only the beginning.
It will be interesting to continue watching this company find its way forward in a tricky but promising national market and challenging global environment. 

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28 September 2014

Sunday Assembly: Beyond Happy-Clappy

Sunday Assembly virtually exploded onto the scene in January 2013, seemingly taking the world by storm with its "godless" approach to church-like activities. Some, like David Breeden, have rightly noted that religious humanism has been doing this for quite a long time. The difference now might simply be in the philosophy and approach. Rather than focus on ideology and lectures, Sunday Assembly tries to be like the "happy-clappy" Christianity co-founder Pippa Evans knew in her youth, before she became an atheist.

With the motto to "live better, help often, wonder more," Sunday Assembly tries to focus on the positive. It really isn't even an "atheist church." Instead, it's what I recently referred to in a tweet as "nontheistic happy-happy-joy-joy." People from any perspective regarding faith and religion are welcome to take part, only with the understanding that there will be no mention of God. Therein lies what I consider the first potential weakness (although arguably also a strength) of Sunday Assembly.

Consider the following from the Sunday Assembly FAQ:
There are so many exciting things about life. Stars, chocolate cake, love, dreams, tunnels, Greek mythology etc. Sunday Assembly is about finding these things that we can all share.
"Greek mythology"? Suddenly I'm wondering...would it be acceptable for someone to read from Greek mythology at a Sunday Assembly gathering? If so, would it also be acceptable to read from the Bible? I tend to suspect that the answer to the former would be "yes," and the latter "no." The Bible remains a dominant cultural influence in Western civilization and it's possible that many in attendance would be put off by its inclusion at a Sunday Assembly. At the same time, there's a distance from Greek and other ancient mythologies outside of the Bible that would allow their use. However, is that really right?

My doubt is whether it's best to allow the length and breadth of literature and culture to be included as sources of wisdom or just good stories, or else to close the canon in a manner of speaking, keeping out that which might offend the sensibilities of some. Perhaps there's an answer for this from Sunday Assembly, or maybe it's just too early to expect anyone to know how to approach the question.

A second area of concern that comes to mind is that life is hard. My late father often said this in gentle sarcasm whenever someone in the family complained too much for his liking. "Life's hard." The trouble is that for some, life is indeed very hard. There are parts of the world where parents watch their children die of preventable illness or starvation, and where children are left orphaned and defenseless when parents die. There's hunger, war, disease and heartbreak. Even in the developed world, you don't have to live long to know someone close who dies. Suffering and death shadow us as long as we live.

Sunday Assembly encourages looking on the bright side. Indeed, it isn't all misery, and there's much good to see, experience and share in this world. Sooner or later, though, the group is going to need to figure out how to deal with pastoral issues like divorce (and not from a legal perspective, but in terms of emotional consequences and support) and death. Will the group simply borrow the language of humanist funerals, or create its own? Will there be Sunday Assembly chaplains, wedding officiants, etc?

The challenging business of day in and day out real life needs to be embraced by Sunday Assembly.

Everything I've written here is from the perspective of a friendly outsider (though I'm helping Sunday Assembly Detroit with its social media). There is no Sunday Assembly where I live and I depend on online sources for information. What I've said here is, therefore, definitely not intended as negative criticism or implied to hold some authoritative insight. It simply seems to me that these are matters that Sunday Assembly will need to address as it continues to grow throughout the world. I welcome comments from those involved who can "fill in the blanks" for me, explaining how these issues and other challenges are being approached. I think Sunday Assembly has a bright future, providing wise decisions continue to be made.

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