On innovation, barnacles and Darwin

29 01 2008

Two weeks ago, while visiting the St Joseph Market in Barcelona, I found this thing that promptly caught my attention:

I thought: live “percebes”? WTH is a percebe? And why is this thing so expensive? Then I took a closer look:

Naturally, I googled it some time later, and found the following:

The percebe is a delicious, edible gooseneck barnacle. Seafood lovers proclaim the succulent lusciousness of its slippery, slurpable innards make percebes earth’s best-tasting seafood.

It didn’t sound very appealing to me, and I did not know what a barnacle was anyway. You know, when English is not your first language, barnacle is not a word that’s likely to show up in a casual conversation or in your ESL classes. Of course, I then googled barnacle and found that it was simply what in Brazilian Portuguese is known as craca. My immediate reaction was: What???!!! Some people eat cracas and say that’s the best-tasting seafood on the planet? It’s like my mother saying the best part of the chicken is the neck. (I never actually tried it, but I still don’t believe her).

All this googleness finally paid off, as it led me to find by accident that barnacles played a pivotal role in Darwin’s breakthrough evolutionary theory, as described in the book Darwin and the Barnacle (by the way, Google Book Search rocks!). According to Wikipedia, Darwin was the first to fully study and classify barnacles. No surprise there. I used to tease a friend of mine for studying the behaviour of sea urchins (well, they basically don’t do much of what regular folks call behaviour), but barnacles are even worse, as most of them spend their lives cemented to a rock and barely move. If I were to choose a species to describe, barnacles would probably be very low in my list.

What is really interesting in this story was that it took Darwin more than 20 years between formulating his theory and publishing it. He was a 50-year-old man when he finally published The Origin of Species. Contrary to Thomas Edison, who seemed to come up with new things every 5 minutes (come on, 1,093 patents in his name?), Darwin had one major innovative idea, and it took him almost a lifetime to develop it. But when he finally published it, it changed the whole history of life sciences.

Innovation comes in different sizes, packages and frequencies. I can only imagine a guy like Darwin working for a big corporation today and writing in his annual performance review: I’m almost there; I just need 12 more years to finalize this idea of mine. The other thing that caught my attention is Darwin’s independent thinking, and his openness to change his mind when faced with facts invalidating his beliefs:

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

He wrote that late in his life, and it’s refreshing to see that even after all his accomplishments, he was still keeping an open stance and an inquiring mind. How’s that for a role model?

Of moths and ferns: the Internet as a window to the past

27 01 2008

I’m home sick for 3 days now, and have been doing nothing but sleeping, coughing, surfing the net and thinking. Maybe thinking too much, as you can see below.

The Internet is typically regarded as a window to the future, a glimpse of things yet to come, showing what can be possible in the future. Recently though, there seems to be more and more evidence that it works in both directions. Things that were long forgotten come back to your attention, the Internet equivalent of finding the Death Sea Scrolls. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But when you browse YouTube and see Brazilian ads from the 70’s, find old soccer collectible cards, and get LinkedIn invites from folks you haven’t seen since the 8th grade, you can’t help but wonder if your whole life will be digitalized one day.

A few weeks ago, I googled my own name and found evidence of my previous life as a biologist: a paper I had co-written back in the early 90’s about the interactions between an epiphytic Brazilian fern and a moth:

Microgramma Paper

At the time, I used to think that my research was pointless and boring, but now I miss those days. Research work is tough, under-appreciated and sometimes lonely, but once you start getting results, it feels good to know you are contributing to the overall body of knowledge of humanity. One of my mentors used to say that science is all about creating little bricks that one day will be used to build walls and buildings. Cheesy but true. It’s also likely that some bricks will never be used, but you won’t know that up front. The fabulous pea plant experiments by Mendel were not recognized until way after this death.

All that led me to think about how our lives are shaped by decisions made every day, some small, some large. What if I had stayed in University as a researcher? Would I be bored now? Would I be famous (in the Academia world at least)? Both my sister and my brother-in-law are biologists and they seem to be very happy with the path they chose. In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to use my background as a researcher and a biologist in my IT endeavours. That would be really cool. Or maybe it’s time to cut on this NeoCitron tea.

Update: fixed the image link.

La Boquería: Barcelona’s Cool Market

21 01 2008

I did not have much time for sightseeing this time around in Barcelona. In my last day there, I followed the suggestion of a fellow IBMer and visited La Boquería, also known as Mercat St Josep. I couldn’t sleep past 5:30 am anyway, so I just had breakfast in the Calderón Hotel and left for the market.

This market is a great place to visit, especially in the early morning hours, while merchants are still getting ready for the day. Like many other markets in large centres, visiting La Boquería is a very sensorial experience. Unlike the ones I have been to before, the one in Barcelona has a large variety of fresh seafood, some of which I had never seen before. When I say fresh, I mean REALLY fresh: some of them were still moving.

Hopefully, next time I go to a tapas bar, I’ll know the difference between chipirones and calamares. And when I see barnacles on the beach from now on, I’ll check if they are the expensive – and weird – variety seen in the two pictures at the bottom of this post.


Flickr or Picasa Web Albums?

21 01 2008

While I like Flickr for its Web 2.0 approach to pictures, the limitation of 200 photos for the free account is a real hassle. So, for the time being, I’m switching to Picasa Web Albums. See my albums here:


10 Things I love about London

14 01 2008

This list keeps changing but this is what I have right now, not in any particular order:

  • “Look right” and “Look left” signs. Big life savers.
  • Traveling around the city in the double decker buses.
  • The long escalators in the tube stations.
  • Walking by the Thames on the South Bank pedestrian path.
  • The footy atmosphere on Saturday afternoons.
  • Mild winter temperatures (at least compared to Toronto).
  • Indian food.
  • Wagamama everywhere.
  • “Brilliant”, “Lovely” and “Bloody” used in casual comments all the time.
  • The cosmopolitan feel of it. Nobody seems to be a foreigner here.

London and rain

13 01 2008

I’m in London this week for a work-related event. This is my third time in the city, totaling 22 days so far, and I’m pretty sure I had rain in every single one of them. Not that it rained all the time. I can’t complain much, as I had my fair portion of no-rain too, especially this weekend.

The first 2 days here I actually spent in a hotel close to the Heathrow airport, so it was all work, no fun. This was the view from my Hotel window:

Heathrow from Rennaissance Hotel

On Friday I moved to a hotel in Central London (great tip from a fellow IBMer, Steve Cogan, I owe him a beer now 🙂 ), and tried to do 3 things I was not able to in my previous two visits:

  1. Watch a Chelsea game
  2. Go to Stonehenge
  3. Take a ride at the London Eye

I managed to do #1 and #2, but the London Eye is closed for maintenance until January 21. Hopefully next time I’ll have a better luck.

I have a huge backlog of things I’d like to blog about, including the football game and the trip to Stonehenge. For now, I’m just posting some pictures here. For the complete set, visit my Flickr page or my photos at Facebook.

London Eye
The London Eye
London - Big Ben
 The Big Ben
London Eye and Parliament

The Big Ben and the London Eye
London - Underground (Waterloo)
Escalators at the Waterloo Underground Station
London - Trafalgar Square
 Trafalgar Square
London - Chelsea vs Tottenham
Chelsea’s Stadium

London - Chelsea vs Tottenham
Celebrations after Beletti scored Chelsea’s first goal
 Salisbury Cathedral

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.