Sunday, December 16, 2007

Adding another billion to the web

Michael Geist wrote an excellent piece about the consequences of adding an extra billion of users to the net, doubling its current size.

Some quotes:

With more than a billion internet users worldwide doubling that number, which should happen within the next decade, will obviously have a profound effect on the network, technology, the computer software industry, access to knowledge, and our environment.

Understanding the effect of another billion internet users starts with considering the origin of those users. Although some will reside in North America, Europe, and other developed countries that close their domestic digital divides, the majority of the growth will undoubtedly come from the developing world.

Countries such as India and Brazil should add another 200 million internet users, while the fastest rate of growth is likely to come from Africa, which is starting from a much smaller base.

The next billion will differ in more ways than just geography. Most new internet users will not speak English as their first language, which should lead to increased pressure to accommodate different languages within the domain name system.

Moreover, many new internet users will have different cultural and societal views on hot-button issues such as online free speech, privacy, and copyright. As they demand a voice in global policy making, those users will help shift the policy debate.

The message of the Internet Governance Forum was that the next billion is an enormously positive story. A tale of improving economic condition that will allow for much broader participation in the communication, culture, and commercial opportunities most Canadians now take for granted.

As we welcome the next billion, we must recognise that they will do more than just use the internet. They will help reshape it in their own image and with their own values, languages, and cultures.

I agree 100% with Geist in this piece. He seems to have expressed, exactly in writing, my thoughts on the subject. I think that a lot of the people to come online are not going to just sit and read. As I have said before, we are tired of other people speaking on our behalf (And quite probably I am committing the same mistake right now, as there's no 'we'), with misconceptions and prejudice of how what it is like living in a developing country. We are tired of the homogenizing trends that impose certain ways of life or the fake diversity endorsed by others. One that refuses us the right to mutate, blend and change our culture, as we are supposed to keep our native cultures alive and in good health.

Geist is right. This additional billion will bring a lot of needed variety of viewpoints to the web. That will shut some mouths of people babbling nonsense from their cozy homes. People that say that we must get food and then get education. People who ignore the fact that you can improve yourself even while you are half-starved. (As did Marie Curie) and that improving can lead to not been hungry anymore, even if your education stops. In ten years the Internet is going to be much more rich, diverse and interesting, and that change is not going to be only due to further developments in web apps and mash-ups. In fact, I foresee that some of the most interesting technological changes in the Internet in the decade to come are going to be actually driven by this cultural diversification and that this is going to be a huge market opportunity.

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

Nature releases genome papers under CC license

Papers about genome sequencing of several organisms, published in Nature, are now under a CC license instead of being accessible only to subscribers. According to Nature:

Although Nature and the Nature journals are built on a business model funded by subscribers and other sources of revenue, various initiatives have been implemented to enhance the accessibility of the research papers published in these journals.

They have long been freely available to researchers in the 100 or so poorest countries through the World Health Organization's Hinari initiative and others like it. Machine access is being enhanced by the open text-mining initiative of the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) ( Preprints of original versions of papers can be deposited in arXiv ( and Nature Precedings ( without compromising their acceptability for publication. And final authors' versions of papers can be deposited in PubMed Central and other public servers from six months after publication. Authors retain copyright of their work, whereas NPG retains the licence to publish it.

Once more Nature shows its commitment to Open Access when it does not hurt its business model and its progressive attitude towards copyright. Publishers like Elsevier could learn a lot about Nature.

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Nature editorial about Venezuela: Critical optimism

This week's Nature issue features an editorial piece about the situation of Science and Democracy in Venezuela. The editorial is balanced and hopeful, an accurate analysis of the strengths and flaws of Venezuelan science, not all of them fault of the government, sadly.

Nature 450, 922 (13 December 2007) | doi:10.1038/450922a; Published online 12 December 2007

Venezuela's way ahead

The opportunities currently opening up for Venezuelan science should not be squandered.

The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, suffered his first electoral defeat for a decade on 2 December, when he unexpectedly lost a referendum on constitutional change that was supposed to cement his powers and accelerate socialist reform. The opposition was spearheaded by protest marches of hundreds of thousands of students, along with their professors. But the left-populist president, for all his flaws, has broadly supported universities and scientific research in Venezuela.

Chávez sees himself as the leader of a socialist revolution, modelled on the egalitarian ideals of Simón Bolívar, the Caracas-born general who led the liberation of much of South America from Spanish rule in the early nineteenth century. Chávez has nationalized major industries, including the oil companies, and has increasingly distanced Venezuela politically from the United States, its largest trading partner. Rapid economic growth has been sustained by the rising price of Venezuela's oil exports.

The Venezuelan president, while openly confronting the oil companies and other national élites, has taken steps to keep academics on his side. Like army officers, Venezuelan professors can retire at the age of 47 and receive generous pensions for the rest of their lives. Not everyone takes this up — but a sizeable fraction of the 33,000-strong academic workforce do just that. Professors also have the right to choose their own students. Their tendency to choose from the upper middle class may explain some of the student protests against Chávez's socialist government.

On the other hand, measures have been taken to strengthen the universities. In 2001, the government created a Ministry of Science and Technology, which distributes grant money on a competitive basis. And in January 2007 the Organic Law of Science, Technology and Innovation (LOCTI) came into effect, requiring Venezuela's 7,000 largest companies and commercial enterprises to pay a fraction of their annual taxes directly to universities and public research institutes. Overall public and private spending on science has quadrupled, to US$2.5 billion per year, the government says, reaching a very respectable 2.1% of gross domestic product in 2007.

As a result of these measures, some academics say, the Venezuelan science system is suddenly receiving more support than it can sensibly manage. Companies are investing in research projects as they see fit, without a proper system for evaluation of the proposed work. The government is now evaluating the first year of the work supported by LOCTI and must then find ways to channel more of the money into the most promising projects.

Obvious national research priorities range from infectious-disease research and rainforest ecology, to engineering and environmental problems related to oil retrieval. One problem is that few departments at Venezuela's 50 or so universities have sufficient staff and equipment to perform internationally competitive research. Another issue is that many professors are not especially interested in doing original research, as regular publication is not necessarily rewarded with promotion. Making research a prerequisite of a successful academic career — which should not end at the age of 47 — is the key to making Venezuelan science more productive.

Plans also exist to turn the country's premier research institute, the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research in Caracas, into a full-blown research university. This will help to produce qualified and motivated graduate students who can take Venezuelan science forward. The institute should have enough income from public and private sources to set up new centres in the Andes, the Amazon region and in the oil-rich state of Zulia in northwestern Venezuela — all of which need to raise their research profiles.

The referendum result has raised hopes that Venezuela's democracy will outlive Chávez, and build on some of his genuine achievements. The advent of stronger science at Venezuela's peripheries, as well as in its capital, is one legacy that could prove invaluable.

A mostly accurate summary of what's going on here. But some statements are ambiguous or inexact, as this claim: "Professors also have the right to choose their own students. Their tendency to choose from the upper middle class may explain some of the student protests against Chávez's socialist government.". This can mean several things, as the automatic admission into university that the children of professors enjoy (but also the children of administrative and maintenance staff), and also the right of professors to select the people that is going to research at their labs, but , isn't it like this everywhere? As far as I know, head researchers of labs are entitled to be quite selective about hiring new staff and admitting students (grads and undergrads, as here in Venezuela also undergraduate students need to do a thesis) all around the world, not only in Venezuela. And of course, this might explain some but by no means all of the opposition to Chávez among the students.

Despite coming from the working class and having strong liberal convictions (I call myself an Anarchist), I cannot stand this government, even if I am able to recognize its achievements. I hate its contempt and hate breeding, I despise its incompetent ministers on their posts by their loyalty to Chávez rather than by their skills, I am outraged by its rampant corruption and lack of attention to real problems, I am amused by its babbling in international politics and its messy diplomacy. And many of us, no matter from which social class, are also against much of this government. In fact, most of the students at my lab come from working or middle-low classes.

Now there are scholarships for grads and undergrads, enough money to live a decent life and now many of us are not emigrating now, despite the awful political situation, where you are a traitor or a puppet of the US if you disagree with the government and despite the insecurity, that can kill you or your loved ones. I had at least two offers to go abroad and several potential labs where I could apply also, in good universities, but I am also staying too. I am not a patriot, but I want to make things different, and it is easier to change something here than in a foreign country. Here in the developing world many things are yet to be done and there is a huge market of unmet needs, we must develop cheaper and faster ways of doing things, of delivering health care, diagnostic systems, informatic solutions, drugs for our particular diseases, obtaining varieties adapted for our soil and weather conditions. There is plenty to be done, there is money to do it (as long there is market for oil, so we must hurry up), even if for the long term things do not look so bright, as there are no permanent posts for young researchers and getting into the university is very tough. In my particular case there is also a key element: Creative freedom. Being able to put some ideas in practice and try to make them bloom is worth staying here, and when those projects involve also Open Sourcing physical technology, all becomes more exciting and worth the risk and annoyance of many factors we have to deal with daily. However, not all are motives for joy as political opinions are sometimes checked in order to get access to grants and sometimes the design of science policy is made by people who lack even the most basic scientific education. Many of the holy cows, who get funds and produce nothing, are still getting money, unexplainably and many of this money is being invested in juicy salaries rather than in research, as no single paper or patent has come from certain labs whose heads ear 15 times more than the scholarship of a grad student.

Here (In all Latin America, not only in Venezuela), in a not so competitive and developed environment as the US or Europe, a cooperative approach for building technical infrastructure makes sense, and bound to entrepreneurship could make a difference and allow that finally scientists are able to create their own start-ups and live from what they do, without having to enter into the university or getting hired by a company.

We the young scientists must try to overcome the flaws of our predecessors, which sometimes include intellectual dishonesty as I have seen in person in conferences for lay people, where data is obviously flawed , by supposedly top scientists from my university. We must work harder, we must not only publish but also build actual solutions for our many problems. The stakes are high, the work is hard, the task is huge, but I think that modern world gives the tools we need to fix things, to finally develop our societies and economies, to become more and achieve what previously was beyond our dreams. Open Source and networking are powerful forces and can be used in collaboration with new technologies to create collaborative environments where creativity, cleverness and joy will arise, where people are free to invent and explore, making profit, solving unmet needs at affordable prices and doing what they like. Is possible a better life than this?

Yes, that sounds too good to be true and does not account for the effects of the political situation, but if our technology is good and useful, then no matter what the policy is, it will be used, spread and will be adopted. Gene splicing itself does not depend of politics, and now with the possibility of outer funding, less than ever, even if a proper science policy is very important.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned. Interesting times are coming, and not only in Venezuela.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Children accused of witchcraft are killed by American style Christian fundamentalists in Nigeria

This totally revolting and shows why we must stand up and fight religion. Fight every superstition, spread skeptic ideas. Not all religious people are like this, fortunately, but the fact of believing that blind faith is good and that inquiry is bad, can easily lead to this monstrosity.

These children are victims of "pastors" who abuse them and live from the naivety and cruelty of their fathers. Worse is that these pastors are not that different from a lot of local (and American) pastors, with their insistence in the reality of demons.

Things like this make me sick, but also painfully aware of the necessity of helping to the coming of a better society, of the utility of educating people and trying to get the youngsters into critical thinking. The West was no better 1000 years ago, but now we know how to change things, we know how education can improve things, we know how technology can help people. Hopefully this won't last much time, if public outrage spreads and Nigeria is pressed into doing something (But they also have oil, so they might be not pressed at all). Please, reader, share this video and make that happen. Let's try to help these poor children, one of them could be a developer of key solutions to some of our current problems in the future. We are at risk now, we cannot allow to waste any more ingenuity, our survival as species is at risk.

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Panama: Mandarin part of school curriculum

Whether we like it or not, China is rising, and some countries are beginning to acknowledge it. Now Panama, whose Canal China is the biggest user, will make Chinese mandatory on its schools. I have ambivalent feeling, as I like the more diverse world that we are heading to, but I am very concerned about China's lack of respect for human rights, its ruthlessness and authoritarianism.

However, this is a sure sign that the Empire of the West is weaning. I am not fond of the US, certainly, it has behaved on a way that has caused too much grief around the world and it still does. But no one can assure that China will do better. And no one who had ever had the power has abstained from using it, so maybe for now the cycle won't be broken, but certainly the future is holding a lot of uncertainty and new political actors might arise. Maybe it won't be so gloomy for HR.

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