A Time to Meet: The Book

22 12 2010

The first “serious” book I read in my life was a Portuguese adaptation for young readers of “Sans Famille” (“Nobody’s Boy”), by Hector Malot:

Not the best choice in the world, I admit, but hey, I was 9 or 10, and was influenced by my dad and my sister, who were both avid readers. If they could read “Ulysses”, I could certainly start my reader list with the thickest book in that 50-volume “Youth Classics” collection. Silly ambition: to this date, that’s the saddest book I ever read, a 19th century precursor of “The Kite Runner”. Not for the faint of heart for sure.

After that, I have read my fair share of books until my early 20′s, but not so much since then. Professional life changed my reading pattern abruptly from “Animal Farm” and “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to “The C Programming Language” and “Design Patterns”. In retrospect, perhaps “Sans Famille” was not that bad :-) . In the last few years, my leisure reading has been pretty much restricted to vacation time. Back in the fall, instead of going for some new material, I went for more homey fare.

Even after all these years, my favorite book is one that I read for the first time in my teens: “O Encontro Marcado” (“A Time to Meet”), by Brazilian author Fernando Sabino:

Most people would probably find this a very average book, and even a disappointing one, as it does not actually have an ending, it just vanishes at some random point in the storyline. Note that I’m not saying that this is the best book in the world, I’m just saying it’s the book I liked the most: it has to do with a time in my life, and reading it again is a travel back on the memory lane. I usually see it as a Brazilian counterparty to Huckleberry Finn, with the difference that you follow Huck until his 40s.

Translating excerpts from the book to English to include in this post turned out to be an impossible task for my poor literary skills. Luckily, over the past weekend, while casually browsing the net, I found a company in South Africa selling a rare English translation of that book (by John Procter, published in 1967), making me buy my first paper book since I started using the Kindle and the iPad. I’m looking forward to seeing how good that version is. You can find some quotes from that edition in Wikiquote:

  • Dante would not have forgotten: they say that when Dante was a boy, he was asked: Dante what is the best food? to test his memory. Eggs, replied Dante. Years later, when Dante was a grown man, he was asked only: how? and Dante replied: fried. p30
  • Gide says the hell of this life is that between a hundred paths we have to choose only one, and live wih nostalgia for the other ninety nine. p51
  • Conmigo se hay vuelto loca toda la anatomía. ¡Soy todo corazón! p64
  • writers without books, poets without verses, painters without pictures p198
  • the circle of politicians which surrounded him–flatterers, eventual profiteers, chaged ideas and convictions like changing a shirt, followed the expediency of the moment. p245
  • The other passengers gazed at each other and there was established that silent solidarity of those who secretly hope to God that the plane will not fall. p264
  • Everything one sees is merely a projection of what one does not see, its true nature and substance. p315
  • I was going to tell you something very important. But it is so important I’d rather not say it. Only that which is not said is sincere… Only silence is sincere. The silence of someone who is sleeping, for example. How sincere is a sleeper! Sincere as a flower… It is in sleeping that everyone reveals themselves, because of the silence.

To finish this post, this is what the book author, who passed away in 2004, had written on his epitaph, attending his wish (and reminding me of the Benjamin Button movie):

Aqui jaz Fernando Sabino, que nasceu homem e morreu menino.
(Here rests Fernando Sabino, who was born a man and died a boy.)

If you get that, you get the essence of “Time to Meet”.

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Felipe Machado and Andrew Keen: Thinking outside the social media echo chamber

7 02 2010

Back in November, I had the pleasure of having lunch with Felipe Machado, multimedia editor for one of the largest newspapers in Brazil, and a former business partner in a short-lived Internet venture in the mid-nineties. The get-together was brokered by Daniel Dystyler, the consummate connector in the Gladwell-esque sense of the word.

Felipe Machado and Daniel Dystyler

Felipe is an accomplished journalist, book author and musician, and I deeply respect his ability to connect the dots between the old and new media. I actually often disagree with him: I tend to analyze the world through a logical framework, and Felipe relies on intuition and passion. That’s exactly why I savour every opportunity to talk to him. If you understand Portuguese, you may want to check his participation in “Manhattan Connection” (Rede Globo, 4th largest TV network in the world), talking about the future of media:

During our lunch conversation, Felipe mentioned Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur”, as a book that broke away from the sameness of social media authors. Coincidentally, I had read an article about that book the day before, so I bit the bait and borrowed the book from the local library the first week I came back from Brazil.

This may come as a surprise to anybody who knows me, but if you work in anything related to new media, social media, Web 2.0 and emerging Internet technologies, I highly recommend you read Keen’s book. Make no mistake: the book deserves all criticism it got – you can start with Lawrence Lessig’s blog post for a particularly heated discussion on the limitations of Keen’s arguments. “The Cult of the Amateur” is ironically a concrete proof that having editors and a publisher behind a book does not necessarily make it any better than, say, a blog post.

The reason I recommend a not-so-good book is this: Andrew Keen represents a large contingent of people in your circle of friends, co-workers, clients and audience – people who hear your social media message and deeply disagree with you. They may well be the vast majority that does not blog, does not use Twitter and couldn’t care less about what you had for dinner last night. They often don’t say it out loud, to not be perceived as luddites, but are not convinced that social media is making things any better, or Web 2.0 is something inevitable.

Those are the folks you should pay attention to. No matter how much you admire the work by Chris Anderson, Clay Shirky, Jeff Howe and others social media luminaries, you are probably just hearing the echo of your own voice there. You need to understand the concerns, the points of view and the anxiety of the Andrew Keens of the world toward the so-called social media revolution. Failing to do that will prevent you from crossing the chasm between early adopters and everybody else.

Reaching out to the members of our social network who are not in Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter can go a long way for us all to realize that the real world is MUCH BIGGER than Web 2.0 and Social Media (as I learned from Jean-François Barsoum long time ago).

Business Books: The cover vs. the core

7 12 2009

For a person who deeply loves Biology and keeps blogging about Darwin, I have to confess: I never read The Origin of Species, only parts of it. There, I said it. I actually tried to go through it a few times, the last attempt being via Stanza on my iPhone:

Stanza for the iPhone: Origin of Species

Heck, I haven’t even skimmed Origin‘s Cliff’s Notes (that’s just a figure of speech: there’s none, actually) so you can say that my knowledge of what Darwin said or thought is like second-hand smoking or back-seat driving: mostly hear-say. Some saving grace are those 5 years spent at University studying Biology. Furthermore, I would guess that most Biology students (at least in Brazil) have never seen a copy of Origin either.

On a smaller scale, many of us have a similar approach with business books. We have not read most of them – well except maybe Sacha did :-) , but we often have an opinion about them, typically based on indirect evidence.

I usually don’t go through the same book twice – life is short and time is at a premium, but I recently made an exception with The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) and The Long Tail (2006), two books that have been much maligned by supposedly championing the advent of new business models that never materialized or that failed to deliver at the promise.

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

Their respective authors even had faceoffs of sorts with the excellent Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink fame, one friendly, the other not so much. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Slate’s Book Club feature, you are in for a treat. It’s kind of The Next Supermodel for the written world. I know that doesn’t sound very enticing, but the series is really good.

The major problem I see with both books is not their content: it’s their covers. Both books are fairly balanced in their core and depict scenarios showing both supporting evidence and possible shortcomings for their arguments. But their covers are not as nuanced. Why the future of business is selling less of more and Why the many are smarter than the few, besides sounding like catch phrases written by the same marketing wiz, are hardly shy in the over-promising department.

My learning going through the re-reading process is that I have a much better appreciation for the content of these books now that they don’t have all the buzz around them. It’s like listening to popular songs from the past years after they fell in oblivion. You can more clearly see their actual merits and limitations, without being so influenced by the media. So, if you haven’t yet, give them a try, you may still learn a thing or two, no matter if you believe in their premises or not.

I can’t help but think that, if The Origin of Species was published today, instead of the dull sub-title The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, it would bring something like: Why everything you knew about life will change forever.

The Origin of Species, original cover

The Origin of Species, original cover (Darwin Online)

Meritocracy, Pauline Ores and the multi-dimensional IT Professional

30 09 2008

Yesterday, I started reading “Crowdsourcing: why the power of the crowd is driving the future of business”, by Jeff Howe. I did not actually buy the book, it was given to me as part of the attendee package at the IBM Social Media event I attended 2 weeks ago at Ogilvy & Mather.

The book has good insights, covering the emerging reputation economy, where, contrary to conventional economics, rewards are often not measurable by dollars but by the desire to contribute to a worthwhile cause or just the “sheer joy of practicing a craft” and get some peer recognition for that. I like this quote in particular:

Crowdsourcing turns on the presumption that we are all creators – artists, scientists, architects, and designers, in any combination or order. It holds the promise to unleash the latent potential of the individual to excel at more than one vocation, and to explore new avenues for creative expression. Indeed, it contains the potential – or alternately, the threat – of rendering the idea of a vocation itself an industrial-age artifact.

Many years ago, I had a manager who told me that he could not give me a good rating in my annual assessment because I had done 3 totally different things that year: started as a Unix Admin, moved to a Performance Engineering role, and ended the year as a developer. According to him, you had to pick one role and stick to it, as nobody could do more than one thing really well. Needless to say, I couldn’t disagree more with the previous argument. It would be ok if he thought that I tried 3 different things and didn’t do particularly well in any or some of them, but saying that nobody can do that, and recommending anybody to be a one-dimensional professional sounds very Fordist to me.

Some people ask me why I blog about apparently non-work related subjects, such as vacation trips, soccer, or Moleskine Art. I wish I could blog even more about things not related to Web 2.0 or social media or conferences. We all have multiple vocations. I know IBMers who are great photographers, parents, writers, cooks, graphic artists, actors, athletes and scientists, and there is no reason for any of us to strangle those vocations to focus solely in our current professional role. In fact, both our careers and our workplace can greatly benefit from being more multi-dimensional. As work becomes more virtual, global and dynamic, and the pace of change accelerates, we all need to be more like Da Vinci and Marco Polo than assembly-line workers.

Furthermore, Web 2.0 and Social Media are leveling the professional playing field. Two quotes by Pauline Ores (who is the IBM personification of Social Media Marketing) during the O&M event caught my attention:

1) In the Social Media world, the most powerful person is the one who shares the most.
2) Control in Social Media is like grabbing water: the stronger you grab, the less you hold. There’s a right way to retain water, but not by being forceful.

Disclaimer: that’s my recollection of what she said, so don’t hold her accountable for the exact words :-)

Not too long ago, knowledge workers had incentives to hold what they knew close to their chest, as a way of keeping their employability. The more they kept to themselves, the more their company and fellow employees would depend on them. This happened because the distribution of information was very inefficient, and the higher up you were in the food chain, the more channels you had to be known by others.

In the YouTube age, where everybody, anybody can broadcast themselves inside and outside of the firewall, the advantage of saying things from a higher hierarchical post had shrunk considerably. According to Howe, a meritocracy is now in place, where the only thing that matters is the quality of the work itself. If you believe you are the Subject Matter Expert in SOA, Internet Marketing, z/OS or Performance Engineering, you need to make evidence of that widely available. An increasing number of people won’t care much if your title says “The know-all see-all tech guru” or “Executive <something>”. If you know it, it should be made evident by the crumb trails you leave behind you. Your knowledge needs to be searchable and discoverable (not sure if those words exist, but you catch my drift).

Sacha Chua
is one of the best examples I see of that trend. I learned a lot from just observing her working habits over the last year or so. Ten years ago, a recent hire direct from University would be years away from being known and respected across the enterprise. By sharing what she knows and what she does to the extreme, she is arguably more influencial than others with many years of job tenure. This is not a generation Y thing, as I see her more as an exception than the rule even among her young cohorts, and there are many boomers and Xers like her at IBM and elsewhere.

The one line summary for this post: If perception is reality, you only know what you share.

Minor update: fixed a typo in the final quote.


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