Maurren Higa Maggi, Golden Girl

22 08 2008

This morning, Maurren Higa Maggi became the first Brazilian female athlete in track and field to win an Olympic medal, in great and dramatic fashion: gold in the long jump with a mark of 7.04 m, just 1 cm above the second place, the 2004 champion Tatyana Lebedeva from Russia. Here’s what made the whole difference:

Guess which one is Maurren’s foot :-)

A short video about her career is here.

The video with the medal ceremony was in YouTube for a couple of hours, but it’s gone now.

There’s one advantage in being from a country with very few gold medals: when you do get one, it’s so special that’s hard to describe :-) .

You can google her name and find all about her in the news, so I just want to highlight the facts that made this my favourite story in this fantastic edition of the games.

  • Maurren was born in Sao Carlos, a city where my sister lived for many years, so she makes the Olympic dream something much closer to my reality than Phelps, Kobe Bryant or Usain Bolt.
  • She’s a dedicated mother and mentions her daughter Sophia in every interview: she apparently positions herself as mother first, athlete second.
  • She went to sports hell twice and came back: favourite in Sydney 2000, she got injured during the qualification round and had to quit the competition. In 2003, she tested positive for the steroid clostebol, and was sanctioned with a 2-year suspension. She claimed a doctor had applied a healing cream containing the substance to a cut she received during a hair removal process, and was cleared at the national level but not by the IAAF.
  • She was so upset with the occurred that she shut down, and could not even hear about training again. Her father said that in one occasion she stormed out of the house and drove her car away just because somebody suggested she could go back to training.
  • At that time, she lived the glitz of another sports: she married then Brazilian Formula One driver Antonio Pizzonia – father of Sophia – and went to live in Monaco. It’s interesting to notice that her Wikipedia entry mentions Pizzonia, but Pizzonia’s entry ignores her, even though she’s been arguably much more successful than him. They are not together anymore.
  • Asked if, at 32, age would be an issue to win the medal, she reportedly said: “I’m not afraid of that. Heike Drechsler won the Olympic title at the age of 35, so everything is possible,” she said.”
  • Contrary to many Brazilian athletes competing in Beijing, Maurren has a Brazilian coach, Nelson Moura, who’s also the coach of Panama’s Irving Saladino, who won the men’s long jump competition Tuesday to claim his country’s first-ever Olympic gold. The two athletes live and train in Sao Paulo.
  • I’m not sure about her heritage, but I would guess by her last names that she’s got some Japanese and Italian background. It was funny to hear in the Canadian broadcast people calling her “Maggie”.
  • Sophia told Maurren after the win: “I wanted the silver medal, mom!”




The Olympics and Power Law Distributions

22 08 2008

I find amusing all the discussion around ranking countries in the Olympics Medal Standings based on the overall total or the number of golds. This may be relevant for China or the US, as holding the top position is a strong statement in world sports dominance. In the case of Brazil and Canada, as of this writing, it may mean a jump from #26 to #16 and from #17 to #13, respectively, on the stands, which may look like a big deal, but in a cold analysis, you’re just seeing a Power Law distribution effect, the math pattern behind the long tail.

When you are in the long tail, you’re merely comparing peanuts. One extra gold medal may make you go up several positions, but a jump from 40th place to 20th does not mean that you improved 100%. Using the gold-medal-first rank, Brazil was #52 in Sydney (2000) and #16 in Athens (2004) and Canada #21 and #24. The variation there does not mean that those countries became much better or worse in a 4-year span. It just means that they both are in that majority where sports excellence is the exception, not the rule. Nothing to be ashamed of.

Our brains are used to normal distributions and linear relationships and we tend to interpret logarithmic relationships in a linear way. I remember a speaker making a joke about a supposedly dumb statement by a US presidential candidate around the lines of “silly person was astonished to learn that half of the US population was below average in performance criteria X”. The underlying assumption was that “average” always marks the middle point of a distribution. Of course, that only occurs in perfectly normal distributions, with mirrored tails on both ends.

Inspired by Clay Shirky in his excellent book “Here comes everybody”, I plotted the medal stands and got the following curve:

The speaker above was probably thinking about median, not average. Start paying attention to published stats around you, and you will notice how often numbers are over-extended, converting subtle differences in absolute rankings. I think I mentioned this in a previous post: numbers don’t lie, but they can easily mislead.





Biznology: The challenges of being a guest blogger

6 08 2008

Some time ago, I volunteered as a guest blogger at Mike Moran‘s Biznology Blog. My first post was published yesterday, along with an introduction.

That post was actually due two weeks ago, but I had zero to offer by then. The major constraint in my blogging activity is to allocate time to write, but this time I was experiencing a bit of a writer’s block.

I have no shortage of things I’d like to write about in my own personal blogs, even though I’m well aware that most of those topics will go by unnoticed. That’s actually what I like about having personal blogs: I don’t feel bad even if nobody reads a post of mine there, as I ultimately use my blog as a personal reflection tool, so a long tail of one – me – is good enough for what I want to accomplish.

Writing for a group blog is a bit more challenging. I haven’t contributed to The Orange Chair blog for a long time, but my guilty feeling is somehow lessened by the fact that it’s still an experiment, a work-in-progress – at least that’s what my id tells my super-ego. Bernie, Sacha and Jen (co-bloggers at the Orange Chair) may not be as forgiving :-) .

Writing at Biznology felt different though: It introduced the fear of failure to the process. Mike Moran’s blog is well regarded in the Internet Marketing space, and somehow I felt that I had to write something at THE Mike Moran’s quality level, and naturally I couldn’t do that. After days of procrastination, I realized that this is also a learning curve, and decided to publish something that I did not find to be good, but it was a necessary stepping stone for me to get where I want to be. Take a look at it if you have some time. Hopefully I’ll get the hand of it as I go.





Accent reduction and the Brazilian way of speaking English

3 08 2008

Almost 10 years ago, I took some courses on accent reduction at IBM. If you know me in person, you must be thinking – that didn’t work, I still can’t understand you :-)

In fact, I don’t think my accent is any different now, but the course was good to raise awareness on the English words Brazilians have the most trouble with. I’ve lost count of how many times I heard fellow Brazilians saying something like “people from China/Korea/Japan/India/Russia have such a hard time learning how to speak English, I can’t understand what they say”. There’s a subtle prejudice in that line of thinking that most people don’t realize.

One of the instructors in the accent reduction course had a good explanation for that. Imagine 3 people: John, a native English Canadian speaker, Ana, and Wong. Both Ana and Wong have been living in Canada for 5 years, learned English as adults and speak their respective mother tongues at home. Ana is Brazilian and Wong is a Cantonese-speaking Chinese. John understands most of what Ana and Wong say, but occasionally misses things here and there during a conversation. The same can be said for Ana and Wong towards John. But Ana has a hard time understanding Wong and thinks that’s because his English is not very good, as she can perfectly understand Carmen and Adrian, her Colombian and Romanian colleagues, speaking English.

Of course, one possible explanation is that Wong’s proficiency in English is not that good. But often what happens is that they all speak English equally well – or equally poorly – from John’s perspective. But Wong’s flavour of English is very far from Ana, Carmen and Adrian. Clear as mud, eh? Here’s what I mean, in a picture:

One can make a credible case that Portuguese, Spanish and Romanian are all Latin or Romance languages, and English is heavily influenced by Latin – arguably 60% of the English vocabulary has its roots in Latin – so it’s ok to assume that Asians would have more difficulty with English than we do. I agree that’s probably easier for a Portuguese-speaking person to learn a workable English vocabulary, but accent is a different story altogether. Cantonese has much more phonemes than Portuguese, so in theory Wong could be better equipped to notice the many nuances of spoken English.

Here are some of the English language traps Brazilians – including me – have a particular hard time with. I added links to Dictionary.com in case you want to check the pronunciation (you have to click on the gray audio icon).

1. Vowels
bat (morcego), bet (apostar), beet (beterraba), bit (pedaço), but (mas) – they all sometimes sound the same, so you have to rely on the context to tell what’s being said. Particularly embarassing is when I try to say “sheet” or “beach” without blushing everybody in the room :-) . There are many other cases: sheep and ship, super and supper, man and men, etc.

2. T
The letter T in English sounds a bit different from Portuguese with a discreet sibilant sound, but it’s definitely not like “tch”. So, it’s common to have Brazilians pronouncing “tea” like “chee”, and “two” or “to” like “chew”. Think Herbert Vianna from Paralamas do Sucesso singing “Uma Brasileira”: One more time. That’s a good “t”.

3. Assuming similarly spelled words are pronounced alike
Nike does not rhyme with Mike. Nike is pronounced Nai-kee.
Other examples of tricky pairs are:

4. Voiceless Consonants
This is a very peculiar thing in Brazilian Portuguese. When we say “pneu” (tire) we kind of pronounce an “i” between the p and the n: “pineu”. The same happens with “cacto”, “subtrair”, “gnomo”: we say “cáquito”, “subitrair” and “guinomo”. For example, pay attention to Chico Buarque saying “subtraída” in “Vai Passar”. English is full of voiceless consonants, and we tend to do the same when we say things like cryptography, dogma, verdict and others.

Naturally, I’m completely overextending myself here, so please correct me if you noticed anything wrong on what I said above. I remember a roommate of mine from Peru telling me in Portuñol: “Yo no comprendo como tantos Latinos viven dos, tres anos en Brasil y no aprenden a falar português”. I may as well be doing the same in this post. Also, there are plenty of Brazilians who speak English very well, and English itself is spoken in different ways around the globe, so my observations can’t be generalized. When I say “we”, I actually mean “those Brazilians who, like me, are totally inept to speak English well”.

One problem in learning English in Canada is that most people are too polite to correct me, so I probably say things the wrong way all the time without realizing it. You would be doing me a big favour by correcting me, so please don’t be shy. I promise I won’t be offended :-)

Updated: Added a reference to “beach” – thanks Alan!

Updated again: I forgot to include one important item to the list above:

5. Intonation.

Brazilian Portuguese has much less variation in the way we speak. For example, we typically say a very soft, flat “Congratulations”, the same way we would say “Parabéns”. In North America, when you say “congratulations”, you can almost see all the whistles & bells, a festive cake with 1000 candles and the clown parade that go along with it. If you say anything that way in Brazil, people will think that you are trying to sell them something expensive.








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