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).

Itu 400 – Part 4: Flickr Slideshow

2 02 2010

Well, today is the day. Happy 400th birthday!

more about "400 Fotos do cotidiano ituano", posted with vodpod

Itu 400 – Part 3: The land that Google forgot

30 01 2010

Google Maps still amazes me, even after all these years. It evolved from a plain online map to a full-fledged tool with niceties such as Street View and the ability to add your own location. If you live in Toronto, New York or Paris, you can’t help but expect that one day live images of your street will be available.

On the other side, if you live in a small city in South America, chances are that you won’t be that lucky. Here’s a snapshot of the satellite view of Itu in Google:

Itu, city core, Google Maps

As you can see using the red and green arrows as a reference, the map view and the satellite view are off by about 50 m. If you can read a bit of Portuguese, you’ll find that this map shows two city halls and, oddly enough, a campsite in the middle of the city! And if you ever lived there, you’ll spot many other errors in the map, with several points of interest with the wrong name or in the wrong location.

I wonder if a Street View of Itu will ever be considered by Google. Until that day comes, I’ll be helping them with my 2 cents: I’ve just visited their Local Business Centre and added my brother’s restaurant to it. After all, social media gurus told me that, if you are not Googleable, you don’t exist :-P

For my previous posts celebrating the 400 years of Itu, click here and here.

Itu 400 – Part 2: There are places I remember

23 01 2010

I’ve been late with my Itu 400 series posts, and, since February 2nd is around the corner, I’d better post at least a second installment. I fully realize that most people don’t care about a small town in the middle of South America, but the most liberating thing about having your own blog is that you grow comfortable about just writing to yourself. If you get any readers along the way, that’s a bonus, but not the reason to blog.

Itu has always been proud of its history: the locals often hold public events celebrating the imagery of times past. For Europeans and Asians, 400 years is like peanuts, but it’s not too bad for cities in the New World. I always enjoyed seeing how cities, like people, grow old and reinvent themselves.

We typically celebrate the Internet as the source for the latest and greatest, but its ability to give us a window to the long forgotten past is equally brilliant. As social media becomes more pervasive, we no longer need to rely solely on rare archives of some obscure museum curator to find rarities. That yellowish photo in your grandfather’s box can easily make its way to Flickr or your blog/twitpic/posterous presence, and suddenly be accessible to the world. For example, you can now find this great video of Itu in YouTube:

It’s a pity to learn that the city core was so preserved back in the 1960s and is a mix of old and new today. Most of the Portuguese-style colonial architecture houses gave place to modern buildings since then, so the opportunity to become one day a UNESCO World Heritage Centre is now lost forever.

During my last time in Itu, I took a few pictures of the old Itu archives and compared them to how those places look today:

Central Square

Rua Paula Souza

Taxi Service

Shortest Pedestrian Crossing in South America?

My elementary school

Looking at all these old pictures, I can’t help but think about Cinema Paradiso, one of my favourite movies of all time. The old cinema theatre is now a public parking lot. I didn’t take a picture of it, as it was a bit too depressing.

Cine Marrocos in its last days
Source: Cine Mafalda blog

On the bright side, writing this post I found that there is a director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso, with extra 51 minutes at the end of it! I watched this movie for the first time a very long time ago in some obscure film festival in São Paulo, and always had the impression that after the credits there was a very short scene with the adult Salvatore meeting Elena again, but after seeing the movie on DVD I thought it was some kind of urban hallucination I had. Now I know that at least I was not that crazy. Here’s a teaser for you:

See? Even if nobody ever reads this post, I think I already benefited from writing it. Now I need to find where to buy the DVD for less than the outrageous price at Amazon.ca (CAD$ 102.33 for a DVD? Seriously?).

Itu 400 – Part 1: small town, large ambitions

19 12 2009

If you are not from Brazil, you probably never heard about Itu. Itu is a small city about 100 km from São Paulo, known by many in Brazil as the city where everything is exaggeratedly big. Well, not everything. I was born there, so all the 1.67 m of me (5’6″, generously speaking) are genuinely from Itu :-) .

Of course, everything being big is a marketing ploy to attract tourists, started by a local comedian in a popular TV show in the late 60s. That notwithstanding, that meme was so sticky that even today people in Brazil still call anything too large as being “from Itu”. This is my son last month, amazed by Itu’s public phone:

Here are some other X-Large oddities:

Traffic lights

Popsicle ad and chair

Popsicle ad, chair and another phone

The list goes on and on: you can get pacifiers, combs, hammers, pencils, paper clips and even condoms (!) as Itu-sized souvenirs. But there’s much more to Itu than that (in my naturally biased view, of course). On February 2nd, 2010, Itu will be celebrating its 400th anniversary:

Countdown to Feb 2nd, 2010

Founded in 1610, Itu is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. I wish I could be there for the big party, but since I can’t, I’ll settle for writing a few more blog posts about this beloved town over the next 44 days.

Brazilian football: a disregard for the impossible

13 12 2009

(…) regional tournaments are not economically efficient, as small football clubs benefit from revenues without generating them, due to their lack of followers.

(…) to solve several problems in Brazilian football (…):

1. Reduce the importance of regional tournaments, which would include from now on only small clubs on a “promotion and relegation” system.

2. Integrate the national and international tournament schedules (…)

3. Solve the economic issues of football clubs, and consequently, the issues of Brazilian football as a whole.

If you thought the excerpts above were written by Juca Kfouri or some other present-day Brazilian sports writer, think again: they were taken from the first issue of the weekly news magazine Veja, published on September 11 (!), 1968:

Veja No 1 - Sep 11, 1968

Forty one years later, the administrative problems of Brazilian football are still pretty much the same. Despite of the perpetual mess that is the CBF (the national football association), or perhaps because of that, Brazil has won 3 more FIFA World Cups after that article was written, and has been a staple at the top of FIFA rankings since its inception.

As anything else in the world, the success of Brazilian football in the international arena can’t be linked to a single factor. The diversity and the size of the population, the tropical climate, and the popularity of the game across all social-economic classes, all played a significant role in the development of that sport in Brazil. That’s all nice and logical, but I would argue that chaos and uncertainty were no smaller contributors there.

Where else in the world you would find:

On the other side, football is not a conventional team sport. To win the FIFA World Cup in its current format, a team does not need to score a goal or win a single game in regulation or extra time. Chile qualified to the knock-out phase in 1978 with 3 draws, and theoretically could go all the way to the finals by the means of just winning on penalty shootouts. Furthermore, bad refereeing seems to just increase the interest of fans, to the point that football remains one of the few team sports today where modern technology is off-limits. I suspect this kind of logic is unfathomable to the typical sports fan in North America. If the sport itself is so counter-intuitive, maybe being disorganized, irrational and implausible end up being competitive advantages :-) .

Marissa Mayer, VP of Search Product and User Experience at Google once wrote:

Creativity loves constraints but they must be balanced with a healthy disregard for the impossible. (…) Disregarding the bounds of what we know or accept gives rise to ideas that are non-obvious, unconventional, or unexplored. The creativity realized in this balance between constraint and disregard for the impossible is fueled by passion and leads to revolutionary change.

I can’t think of a better description for the jogo bonito. Of course, being creative and fancy is not necessarily the road to success (Netherlands in 1974 and Brazil in 1982 come to mind), but from time to time, that passion for the unconventional gets us gems like these:

Note: This post was updated after its initial publication to add the screenshot of the news magazine and for clarity purposes.

Twilight: New Moon – Interactive Displays in Brazil

7 12 2009

I started writing this post a month ago, but stopped as I did not have access to the Internet while in Brazil, so pardon the taste of yesterday’s news here.

Unlike Bernie, I don’t have a teenager daughter, so I have just a very fuzzy idea about what The Twilight Saga is all about. But it doesn’t take a Roger Ebert or Peter Travers to know that it’s at least as popular in Brazil as it is in Canada and the US: its second installment ranked as the top box office in Brazil this year. Taking the subway in São Paulo 2 weeks before the opening of New Moon, it was hard to miss this eye-catching, vending-machine-like, err, device:

Twilight Interactive Display in São Paulo

Here are some more pictures, in case Twilight is your thing:

The main feature was the embedded camera, that allowed you to take a picture of yourself and edit it to transform yourself into a werewolf or a vampire. Your picture then became part of the gallery for all to see. No, I did not try it, or at least that’s what I claim :-) . It actually looked a lot like a very big version of an iPhone app, except that you could not shake it to start over. You could also watch movie trailers and download an app to your cell via Bluetooth.

The company behind it was a Brazilian “digital interaction agency”, Ginga. I know the explanation above is as clear as mud, so here’s their own video showing how it works:

How effective is this new media outlet? Hard to tell. But they used a 1.0 version of their displays for the first movie of the series, back in December 2008, and Ginga claims the following:

This solution was integrated with the whole digital campaign: website, banners, and a strong community created for the fans in Brazil.


Over 4.5 million people reached by the subway campaign over a month.

One of the top 10 box-offices in 2008 in Brazil.

Over 180,000 content downloads via Bluetooth.

Not too shabby, eh? Here’s the video of their first version (which, by the way, looks much more impressive than the second one):

P.S.: If you see me blogging next time about Hannah Montana, it’s a sign that the end of the world is coming.

Introducing my sister, “a síndica”

6 12 2009

In Brazil, the vast majority of the condo buildings operate as housing co-operatives, where one of the residents is elected as the head of the administration for terms of up to two years, a role known as “síndico”. It’s a true pain in the neck to be a síndico in Brazil, as the problems of all your neighbours magically become your problem too. But at least for one day every year, their hard work gets some recognition: November 30 is “síndico‘s day” in Brazil.

Much to my surprise, a few years ago I learned that my sister, Ana Cristina, was elected síndica of her condo in Curitiba. And re-elected once or twice since, meaning that she’s doing something right (or wrong, depending on your perspective).

I remember that, as typical teenagers siblings, we spent most of our time finding ways to annoy each other: one day she threw away my whole comics collection, the other day I dismantled her study desk with a big hammer. When the Schürmann family made the news in the 80′s by spending 10 years on a sailboat around the globe, I used to think: these guys clearly don’t have the sister I have, otherwise that trip would not last a week.

But aging makes us wiser (or more amnesic), and we get along very well now. And I was very glad to see her in the regional newscast last week, described as “having the Asian traits of patience and organization” :-P . (her part starts just before the 2-minute mark. Video is in Portuguese and not embedded, sorry…)

Old media, new media, and blackouts

21 11 2009

As previously seen in Biznology:

Social media is often compared with traditional communication vehicles such as newspapers, radio and TV as antagonists where the new replaces or challenges the old. The blackout in parts of South America last week showed a different side of this relationship: a symbiosis between radio broadcasts and microblogging. I was in Brazil visiting family and friends during that event and witnessed what a major power outage looks like in the era of social media and our increasing dependency on electricity.

As a matter of fact, I had the unusual, err, opportunity of being in two of the top five power outages in history: I was in Toronto when the Northeast blackout of 2003 happened, and in São Paulo during the Brazil and Paraguay outage last week. The one in 2003, of course, happened before the “broadcast yourself” era, with plenty of daylight left, so my major concern back then was finding a pub with cold beer and some food.

Last week, the blackout started at 11 pm, and most people had no idea of how widespread the problem was. Try to imagine a city like São Paulo, with 18 million people and 6 million cars in its metropolitan area, with no traffic lights on a hot summer night:

São Paulo during the 2009 Blackout – Photo by Andreia Reis, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

For most people in Brazil, the only source of information still operating was the good ol’ radio broadcasting. And, ironically enough, the major source of information for the radio stations was Twitter, as some cellular phone networks were still operating despite the outage. Through Trendistic, you can actually see the spike in Twitter with the use of words “luz” and “apagão” (“light” and “blackout”, in Portuguese):

The pop singer Madonna was in Brazil with her boyfriend Jesus Luz that same week, and inspired several tweets that night, the most common being along the lines of: “Blame Madonna for the blackout: she asked Jesus to turn off the lights”.

And if you were there too, you may want to buy this CafePress T-Shirt (“Blackout 2009: I twittered about it”)

Of course, as power was restored a few hours later, the other media channels started to catch up with the event, as can be seen in aggregators such as BlogBlogs. One of the interesting stories was that of a married man stuck in his lover’s house, as the garage door was power operated (article available in Portuguese only, sorry).

This fantastic video posted by Tiago Compagnoni in YouTube registered the whole blackout event is fast motion:

The next time I drop by WalMart, I’ll make sure to buy one of those hand-crank radio/flashlight combos, and perhaps some candles and matches too, just in case social media is not there to rescue me if I get (un)lucky a third time.

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Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better :-) . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!

Spelling Changes: Brazilian Portuguese

25 01 2009

I have a deep passion for my mother tongue: the spoken Brazilian Portuguese is musical, suave and deliciously illogical. In my first month living in Canada, while unemployed and looking for some extra income, I decided to teach Portuguese 1-on-1. In the first class, my student-turned-guinea-pig asked: “Why do you say ‘Eu moro no Brasil’ and “Eu moro no Japão”, but you use ‘Eu moro em Portugal’ and ‘Eu moro em Moçambique’?” There was never a second class, as both sides agreed they would be better off with me sticking to bits and bytes instead :-) .

While in São Paulo for the holidays, I learned that, as of January 1st, 2009, Brazil adopted new spelling rules for the Portuguese language. The changes are supposed to eventually be implemented in all the other seven Portuguese-speaking countries: Portugal, Angola, Cape Verde, East Timor, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Sao Tome and Principe. Granted, this list is no G7 club, but it’s worth to mention that Portuguese is the 6th language in the world in number of native speakers, way ahead of popular languages such as French, German and Japanese.

You can find more details about the spelling reform here and here. And test your knowledge here.

Not everybody is happy, as you can tell. In my case, it was as if my mother had just deserted me. In this case, it was actually just my mother tongue, but still I felt a bit betrayed after all those years learning when to use diacritics, accents and hyfens. Then I found that the Portuguese alphabet had grown to 26 letters, adding K, W and Y. As a kid in kindergarten it annoyed me that I could not spell my own name using the letters in the wood blocks. So it’s not only bad news after all.

It’s nonetheless disturbing that in today’s world a language can be officially changed by some kind of political decision. Trying to standardize the written language across countries is even worse: it’s like the Roman Empire trying to outlaw Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, Romenian or French. Languages evolve differently and there’s no going back. Just let it be.

P.S. -  If I could, I would add a song track to this post: Língua, by Caetano Veloso (full lyrics and sample audio can be found here).

Gosto de sentir a minha língua roçar a língua de Luís de Camões
Gosto de ser e de estar

E quero me dedicar a criar confusões de prosódias

E uma profusão de paródias

Que encurtem dores

E furtem cores como camaleões

Gosto do Pessoa na pessoa

Da rosa no Rosa

E sei que a poesia está para a prosa

Assim como o amor está para a amizade

E quem há de negar que esta lhe é superior?

E deixe os Portugais morrerem à míngua

“Minha pátria é minha língua”

Fala Mangueira! Fala!

Flor do Lácio Sambódromo Lusamérica latim em pó

O que quer

O que pode esta língua?

Back from Brazil – from home to home

19 01 2009

I’m back to Toronto after 3.5 weeks in Brazil. When I moved to Canada back in 1996, my intention was to go “back home” every 3 years, so that I could use the scarce North American vacation days to get to know other places. In the last several years though, due to various family-related events, my yearly allowance was mostly spent in São Paulo. Something changed in the 12 years I lived abroad. When I entered my Toronto apartment yesterday morning, it became clear that Canada now also feels like home to me.

My mother immigrated from Japan as a toddler, and my father left Korea in his early twenties. They never went back. My mother clearly enjoys Brazilian TV shows and finds NHK programming a never-ending bore. She craves leitão a pururuca, (yes, it’s visually disgusting, but believe me, it’s delicious) and coxinhas. Sushi and miso soup? Not so much. She is much more Latin-American than oriental, despite her Japanese descent. On the other side, my father never really blended in in Brazil, and had all but forgot Korea. I remember offering him a trip to Seoul a few years before he passed away. He politely declined, saying that the country he once knew no longer existed.

Sometimes I wonder if I fit any of those two models. While I miss Brazil badly, I know that if I ever move back there, I’ll miss Canada too. It remains to be seen if this is a win-win or a lose-lose situation, but whatever it is, it’s all I have.

Of course, my case is not unique. In this age when the movement of individuals and populations is in overdrive mode, the concept of what is a native and what is an immigrant has blurred. Increasingly, we are all just nomads with many places we call home.

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.

Santos-Dumont, The Wright Brothers and Innovation

17 07 2008

This is a post I wrote long time ago in my internal blog at work and decided to publish here too, as it seems to still be current

Unless you’re Brazilian or an aviation enthusiast, chances are that you have never heard about Alberto Santos-Dumont. Most people in the world would not hesitate in saying that the Wright brothers invented the airplane. However, some claim that “the only witnesses to the Wright brothers flights (…) were typically close friends and family”, while “Santos-Dumont made his flights in public, often accompanied by the scientific elite of the time, then gathered in Paris” (read more about it here and here). The picture above (from Wikimedia Commons) shows one of his flights in the Bagatelle field (close to the Eiffel Tower). PBS aired “Wings of Madness”, a good documentary about Santos-Dumont, last year. Here are some excerpts from the program description:

In the early 1900s, the most acclaimed celebrity in Europe, and arguably the world, was a fashionable, frail, Brazilian-born aviator named Alberto Santos-Dumont. (…)Tiring of balloons, Santos built the 14bis, an ungainly tail-first flying machine that nevertheless made the first powered airplane flight in Europe in 1906. At that time, the Wright brothers’s secret early flights were widely disbelieved, so Santos and his adoring public were convinced he was the first to fly. When Wilbur made his triumphant European tour in 1908, Santos had to face the terrible realization that the Wrights were the true pioneers after all. But just before his long slide into illness began, he designed an exquisite new airplane out of bamboo: the Demoiselle, or Damselfly. One of the classic aircraft of the pioneering era, it was the true forerunner of today’s ultralight planes.

An interesting aside from this discussion is that the Gartner’s hype cycle around emerging technologies was already in full display mode 100 years ago: Dumont went from the technology trigger all the way to the plateau of productivity in a decade and was very hyped for a while to the point that the local Dayton Daily News in 1903 stated that the Wright brothers were emulating Dumont (Orville and Wilbur lived in Dayton):

In any case, the true answer for the question “Who invented the airplane” is: none of them. Or better yet, all of them: Orville, Wilbur, Alberto and several others pioneers, all should be credited with the invention of the airplane. We tend to like simple answers, and so we just accept that Gutenberg invented printing, Thomas Edison the light bulb and Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. In reality, all inventions and findings in the world are composites of ideas and experiments run by several people. That’s why I strongly believe that our current models governing intellectual property are outdated and preventing us from unleashing the true power of innovation. Our copyright laws are way too strict, and patents many times are inhibitors, not drivers, for new inventions.

Note that I’m not advocating that all IP protection should be dropped. However, the big accomplishment that should be awarded is not the idea, but the execution. Ideas are cheap, good implementation is the real challenge. This concept applies even in the case of artistic works like music, movies or books. Just imagine what would happen if everything was governed by a Creative Commons-like license, where anybody, everybody could share, remix and reuse whatever they want. Often times we see songs that were very flat in their original recording to become masterpieces with some novel interpretation. If we lower the barriers, even disasters could be rescued. Can you improve on “The Godfather” I and II? Unlikely. “The Godfather
III”, on the other side, had some good ideas ruined by a few really lame ones. The potential for a great movie was there, but it was never realized. You’re just left wondering “what if”. Of course, movies are not that easy to tweak, but scripts are. I bet that the last three Star Wars movies could benefit from better writing.

It would be interesting as a social experiment to establish a 5-year moratorium on all IP-related claims and see what would happen: chaos and the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it or an explosion in innovation. At a minimum, this approach would help us to find out how much control is actually needed to foster innovation.

Sao Paulo and the street smarts of its crowd

6 01 2008

I’ve just come back from spending almost a month in São Paulo, Brazil. Every time I go there I take some time just to walk on the streets to check out new trends and enjoy the chaotic dynamic of the city. A few years ago, James Surowiecki argued in his book “The Wisdom of Crowds” that a wise crowd needs to have diverse, decentralized and independent individuals. I find that São Paulo really excels in those three areas (but this, of course, is likely a biased view):


This time around I decided to visit the local Immigration museum (Memorial do Imigrante), and was glad that I did it. Here are some pics:

Many people in North America don’t know that São Paulo was a very popular destination for immigrants in the early 20th century and is now home for about 100 ethnicities. The largest groups (including descendants) are Italians, Portuguese, Lebanese, Japanese and Jews, but you’ll find plenty of “paulistanos” with German, Armenian, Korean, Chinese, French, Spanish, Greek and Ucranian roots. And maybe even some canucks:


Sao Paulo is a really big city, the second largest in the world according to the CityMayors website (behind Seoul), and the 5th largest if you count the surrounding urban areas (behind Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai and New York). More than 18 million people live in its metropolitan area. Here are some pics I took from the top of the Banespa building:

São Paulo is a city made of cities. My wife was born and raised in São Paulo and she has never been to most of the places in the old downtown area until her twenties. Places like these ones:

The Banespa building and the Cathedral (Sé)

Teatro Municipal (kind of City Opera House)

Independent thinking

Here is a picture from São Paulo in the early 1900s (taken at the immigrant museum):

And this is a recent picture of the same street (from the Midia Independente website):

The provincial city from 100 years ago was gradually transformed in a city of millions of voices, tens of political parties and hundreds of urban tribes. I found amusing to see this book vending machine in the main subway station:

A close look reveals how eclectic the crowd is:

Where else would you find Linux and Excel sharing the shelf with Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Sherlock Holmes and tips on how to train your dog?

There’s a lot to learn from living in places like São Paulo. I wish I could have a rotating work assignment where I could live a couple of years each in large urban centres like Tokyo, Mumbai, Seoul, Mexico City, Beijing, Istanbul, Moscow and, why not?, New York. Those are all like living organisms, showing that, at a very close range, the world is anything but flat.


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