Darwin: blogging and twittering in the 19th century?

26 01 2009

The Evolution RevolutionYou will be hearing about Darwin a lot this year, as 2009 marks 200 years of his birth and 150 years of “The Origin of Species”. Regardless of what you think about Darwin the scientist, there are lots to learn from Darwin the man.

Last summer, I visited “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first time I saw him not as a naturalist, but as a person. You still can catch the exhibition till April 19 in the Natural History Museum in London, renamed “Darwin – Big Idea” (see the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll find there).

The handwritten notes and letters caught my attention immediately, as they ranged from the deeply scientific (the famous “I think” sketch with the evolutionary tree) to the trivial and mundane (Fanny Owen, Darwin’s first girlfriend, asking “Why did you not come home this Christmas? I suppose some dear little Beetles kept you away!”).

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post wondering what it would be like if folks like Darwin, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King had blogs. I didn’t imagine back then that Darwin actually had the next best thing available to him: a notebook, a pen, and the discipline to write almost daily about whatever crossed his mind.

Darwin left a huge written record in books, articles, notebooks and more than 14,000 letters. Looking at them, I can’t help but see the similarities with the Social Media tools we use today. See for example one of his notes aboard the Beagle:

Darwin Manuscripts

I can almost see a “Powered by WordPress.com” at the bottom of his entries 🙂 .

If you keep digging, you’ll find also his journal:

Darwin Manuscripts

If only he had Twitter and GPS, eh? I would follow him for sure.

Bad jokes aside, I find fascinating that you can know so much about a person who was born 200 years ago. It’s been said that “thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time”. Darwin was doing that back in 1822 at age 12!

So, if you think you know Charles, take a look at the “10 Fun Facts About Darwin” at Neatorama.com. You’ll find that not only he described plenty of new species, he ate several of them too, including armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. And that he once wrote that a wife was “better than a dog” for companion. Not exactly the most romantic thing to say about your significant other, but geeks will always be geeks, I guess.

If you want to learn more about the man, I highly recommend BBC’s “In Our Time” Darwin series, and also Darwin’s Legacy, a lecture series from Stanford University at iTunes U. You won’t be disappointed.





Enterprise Blogging Inhibitors: writer’s block, making a fool of oneself and lack of feedback

26 01 2009

This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote for my internal IBM blog back in April 2006. It shows its age, but it may still be relevant for folks starting to blog inside the corporation.

When I ask colleagues at IBM why they don’t blog, or why they don’t blog more often, the most common answers are “I don’t have  time”, “I don’t know what to blog about” and “no one cares about my thoughts”. In a survey I ran 3 years ago, not even a single respondent mentioned writer’s block or fear of making a fool of oneself as blogging inhibitors.

Many of my fellow IBMers are quick-witted, bright and have plenty of good ideas. They are typically well-read, inquisitive and very open to hear other people’s opinions. Most of them are good writers too, and they would probably be good bloggers. However, many of them don’t blog. There’s this somehow unfounded idea that blogging is going to take a lot of time and effort. Some of them even started a blog, but stopped after a while. They got discouraged by the number of daily hits in their blogs or by the low number of comments their early posts generated or by the time they spent just to write a few paragraphs. Or they just don’t know what to write about on a frequent basis.

If any of the readers of this blog is wondering whether or not to start blogging or resume blogging inside the enterprise, here’s my take on it. Don’t forget that we are all learning, so take it with a grain of salt (as you should do with anything you read). Also, you’ll find lots of – sometimes conflicting – advice out there on how to blog effectively. Be confident that you’ll eventually find what works better for you.

  • Don’t liken enterprise blogging to writing an article for a magazine. In blogs, you can afford to disclose unpolished thoughts out there. Writing them actually may help you to structure your ideas, and sharing with others may enrich a reflection you had only as a raw piece of clay inside your brain, as others may have a common interest on the topic. So, while your post may not be getting you a Pulitzer Award any time soon, it may actually trigger a good discussion with others in your company. I see blogging more like chatting in a bar after hours (minus the drinks and the hangover) than giving a lecture to a demanding audience.
  • Approach blogging like reading and writing e-mails, with the advantage that there’s no serious harm if you skip reading some posts from time to time, and that nobody ever expects you to reply to blog entries. It’s something you do at a best effort basis. Time-box the time you spent reading and writing blogs to, say, 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week. Or just harness your interstitial time, blogging whenever you have a few minutes to spare. As you get used to doing it, you’ll become more efficient. Remember, don’t approach it as one more task to squeeze into your already busy schedule. It’s a learning and networking venue where you get a lot accomplished just by dedicating 15 minutes a day to it.
  • Be aware that many in your company will consume your internal blog via an RSS reader. This means that even though people are reading your blog, the hit counter may not show that. Also, as it’s the case with most blogs, expect a very low comment-to-post ratio at least at the beginning. Some of your interesting posts will not necessarily generate any comment, even though people are paying attention. I found over the years that some of my “comment-less” posts were actually “dogeared” by some colleagues, proving that the number of comments is not necessarily an indication of whether or not readers found it relevant. Most days, like many others blog addicts, I skim through all posts in my feed reader. Whatever you write about, you’ll have the attention of a fair number of readers for at least a few moments. Therefore, make sure the title of your blog entry and its first few lines give a good idea about what you are writing about.
  • Blogging is a 2-way street. If you blog but you don’t read other people’s blogs, you may not “get” it. Reading internal and external blogs actually is crucial for you to REALLY understand why blogs are not the same as newsgroups, instant messaging or social networking web sites. As you start commenting on other people’s blogs and observing how some topics generate more interest or discussions, you’ll probably have a better understanding of the dynamics of this media. You’ll also establish your own network of bloggers who are more attuned to your own interests and area of expertise. Make sure that you reply to comments when appropriate, showing your appreciation for other people’s time and effort. It’s pretty much like going from high-school to University: it takes time to adapt to this new environment.
  • At first, you may not want to limit yourself to a single theme. Some of my favourite blogs talk about a wide variety of subjects: technology, working environment experiences, “fluffy” stuff, latest news, photography, parenthood, jokes. The proverbial writer’s block only happens if you see yourself as a writer with a theme or a deadline to meet. If the whole world is “in scope” for your blog, and you are just “chatting”, not “authoring”, you’ll probably start having a backlog of things you may want to blog about. I’m not suggesting that you blog about things that are too personal all the time, but variety is a good thing. Keep in mind the “virtual watercooler” analogy: in real offices, you do talk about things that are not strictly work-related sometimes, and that helps building rapport with your colleagues.

In my first Social Media presentation ever, back in 2006, I mentioned that Charles Darwin wondered many times if it was worth it to publish his ideas (note that some scholars dispute this as a myth):

Darwin feared putting the theory out in an incomplete form, as his ideas about evolution would be highly controversial if any attention was paid to them at all.

I keep imagining how many good ideas are left private just because people feel afraid of making a fool of themselves. As I said before, everybody has something to say, and nobody says brilliant things all the time. What if Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Gandhi all had blogs where they could share their reflections with others? It takes ideas to generate ideas, so just let you ideas out: many of them will probably be soon forgotten, but a few good ones may florish and persist (if you are not familiar with the concept, you may want to read about memes). Innovation is most often just a way of aggregating independent ideas into a new cohesive structure.





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 JapĂŁo”, 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 SĂŁo 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: LĂ­ngua, 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 profusĂŁo de parĂłdias

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 Ă  mĂ­ngua

“Minha pátria Ă© minha lĂ­ngua”

Fala Mangueira! Fala!


Flor do Lácio Sambódromo Lusamérica latim em pó

O que quer

O que pode esta lĂ­ngua?





Government 2.0: The smarter planet initiative and Obama’s inauguration speech

21 01 2009

Yesterday at 12:00 noon EST, several parts of the world came to a standstill to watch Obama’s inauguration ceremony. It felt pretty much like a FIFA World Cup game in Brazil. I found interesting that, at 12.01, the White House site published a blog post entitled “Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov”., written by Macon Phillips, who has the revealing title of “Director of New Media for the White House”. Macon wrote:

Participation — President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that. One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

We’d also like to hear from you — what sort of things would you find valuable from WhiteHouse.gov? If you have an idea, use this form to let us know. Like the transition website and the campaign’s before that, this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you. So thanks in advance for your patience and for your feedback.

That’s promising, but still a 1.0 approach: online forms are very 1994. I’m looking forward to see what they mean by “new features”. I would expect to see a conversation that’s more transparent than e-mail and forms. Something like the very cool service provided by debategraph. If you never heard about it, I highly recommend a visit now.

In 2008 we saw a major surge in interest in Government 2.0 in Canada. I spent a good part of the year working in Ottawa, and also speaking in events directed towards all levels of government. However, just by visiting the publick websites of federal and provincial government agencies, you won’t see much of a change yet. I really would like to see that changing from interest and words to action, and I hope 2009 is the year we see that happening in Canada and around the globe, and the White House site will certainly be a major influencer, one way or the other.

Other fact that came to my attention is that this is the first time “digital” is mentioned in an inaugural speech. This is not surprising, as the term was not widely used 16 years ago, but it was not accidental either.

This is an excerpt from Obama’s speech:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

The words above seem to align nicely with this piece IBM published yesterday in the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times:

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between the imperatives of energy, transportation, infrastructure, security, commerce, the environment and more. But in an ever-more interconnected world, these vast, complex systems are no longer separate from one another. They are now interwoven and interdependent. Which is good news—because the solutions we develop for one system will ripple across many others.

Those solutions are possible because we now have the tools to literally change the way the world works. Computational power is being put into things we wouldn’t recognize as computers: phones, cameras, cars, appliances, roadways, power lines, clothes. We are interconnecting all of this through the Internet, which has come of age. And we are applying sophisticated analytics to make sense of the world’s digital knowledge and pulse.

As we look at investments to stimulate our economies, we have a lot more options and can get a lot more bang for our buck. We can ask ourselves: Do we want an airport, or a smart airport? A highway, or a smart highway? A hospital, or a smart hospital? We can think about new industries and societal benefits spawned by a smart power grid, a smart water system, a smart city. About how innovation across all these systems will multiply the number of new jobs and spread new skills.

Similar to what I said before, while I find the two excerpts above inspiring and encouraging, nothing has been done yet, so it’s still not time for celebration. But we certainly need a vision and charisma to not get lost during the execution, so the first step was a good one.

Update: I forgot to mention, but the White House blog does not seem to allow blog comments either (please let me know if I missed how to do it, other than sending emails). That’s also very web 1.0, I hope them to open it up a bit, by allowing at least moderated comments there. Not a 2-way conversation when only one side has the mike.





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 SĂŁo 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 leitĂŁo 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.