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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Vestiges of Life: Blogging and Tweeting

18 12 2010

Last week, four different people from my post-IBM world told me in person that they read my blog regularly. While tempted to reply, “do you mean that abandoned thing that’s collecting virtual dust somewhere in WordPress land?”, or “oh, you are that one weekly hit I get in the stats”, I actually feel that I’m the one missing a lot by not blogging, even if nobody else ever reads a line of it.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Bamboo Raft”, with the high hopes that the posts here would be “floating around freely through places and thoughts”. Then, as always, reality sets in, and I found myself blogging very rarely over the last 2 years. Looking back, there’s a clear pattern where the blogger in me wakes up every 6 months or so with a renewed intent of doing it more often, as you can see in “Blog, Interrupted” and “The Bamboo Raft is a submarine”. This post is probably just the latest installment of that series. In my attempt to rationalize my poor blogging and twitter efforts, I’m resorting to a common theme here at this Raft: calling Darwin to my rescue.

Darwin and gradual change
Parody of the Shepard Fairey Obama poster
by Mike Rosulek (Feb 2009)

One of the main arguments used against Darwinian evolution is that the fossil record shows no evidence of the gradual transformation that is supposed to take place according to that theory. The counter-argument, of course, is that circumstances that allow fossilization to occur are extremely rare. Thus, trying to understand the history of life on Earth based solely on the fossil record is like trying to understand the original version of “The Brothers Karamazov” when you know only a half-dozen words in Russian.

As you can see in the diagram above, the fossil record does not register every single event that took place on Earth. That’s for computer logs:


Computer logs: definitely not like the fossil record

Over the last 5 years or so, several folks referred to blogging, then Facebook, then Twitter as tools that allow people to write their autobiographies in real-time. Some people are actually very good at that. Some have even been logging actions and thoughts ages ago, using the ol’ and good pen-and-paper. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau kept very detailed journals that resemble to some extent Facebook status updates or tweets, and used those to feed their more formal work. I love this excerpt from “Autobiography in Real-Time: The Journals of Emerson and Thoreau”.

Emerson used his journal, as Thoreau used his, primarily as a means of facilitating more finished work. It was where he both developed ideas and stored information; it was a place where entire phrases and sentences—sometimes even entire paragraphs—were preserved until the appropriate time for their removal and transfer into essays and lectures. But that’s not to say that there aren’t moments here that are not entirely fresh. Actually, all of it’s fresh. It’s the essays that are borrowed from recyclable material, and there are, of course, plenty of readers who would prefer to receive their Emerson in this form. To call these journals unselfconscious or uninhibited would be to demonstrate a severe misunderstanding of their circumstances; but to call them spontaneous and unimpeded would not be. At their best—at their most mature and august—they are Emerson’s stated alternative to the meek young man in the library—they are “Man Thinking.” The same goes for the journals of Thoreau, too, of course. These are two men of unsurpassed perception and eloquence who made it their life’s mission to look and see, and then to record and share what it was they saw.

As I’m light-years from having “unsurpassed perception and eloquence”, my blogging and tweeting objectives had to be much more modest. Instead of running a play-by-play narrative of what I do and think, I’m settling for just capturing vestiges of life: random glimpses of what’s here, there, and everywhere. Like this Toronto scene that caught my attention Thursday morning on my way to work:

Glenn Gould statue holding a Calla Lily in front of the CBC building

Thus, I see my irregular social networking activities as the fossil record of a regular person’s real life. It’s incomplete, uneven and full of gaps, driven more by serendipity and entropy, and less than by direction and discipline. A bamboo raft may, after all, be an appropriate name for what this blog has become.





Twitter and Politics

14 12 2010
Election night crowd, Wellington, 1931 

Image by National Library NZ on The Commons via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology on Nov 9, 2010:

Back in the summer, I wrote a pair of posts about Social Media and the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, and Mike Moran talked about reaching your audience during that big event. Well, one can argue that elections and politics can generate passionate discussions that rival or even surpass those by soccer fans, and last much longer than the 30 days of the popular tournament. Following a Twitter list of World Cup players is entertaining, but a list of actual head of states can give us a unique glimpse on how diplomacy is shaping up in the Social Media space. If you want to know which heads of state are using Twitter, how active they are and their following/follower patterns, you came to the right place.

In the past month, I had the unusual experience of being in Brazil during the first round of the general elections (October 3), then back to Toronto during the mayoral election (October 25) and the second round of the Brazilian presidential elections (October 31). On top of that, the US midterm elections were a hot topic around the globe last week, making it almost impossible for me to ignore politics for the last 6 weeks or so. Naturally, politics is a hot topic, and not one that I’m particularly keen in discussing in this blog. Having said that, I find fascinating to analyze the social media layer that is permeating the political scene globally.

Inspired by a TechCrunch article on Twitter diplomacy prior to the G20 meeting in Seoul this week, I used the @davos/g20 list curated by the World Economic Forum as a starting point to visualize how the heads of state are using Twitter. Being from Latin America, I supplemented that list with a few other verified accounts to have a better view of regional politics as well.

I tend to write long and convoluted posts, but in this particular case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words. So, instead of a navigating the troubled waters of political analysis, I’ll just leave you with a number of visualizations covering different aspects of the Twitter social networking dynamics among this very select group, courtesy of my niece, Gabriela Passos, who’s visiting me this month.

Some points to consider when looking at these charts:

  • They don’t show a complete picture: there might be more heads of state using Twitter, but I preferred to use a curated list from a reliable source as my main reference
  • The number of people followed by these accounts is relevant in at least one subtle, but important way: you can only send direct Twitter messages to people who follow you. By following a large number of Twitter users, these leaders open a private channel that may reveal interesting insights that they would not have access to otherwise.
  • The number of Tweets shown below is a historical cumulative total as of this writing, a metric that favors early adopters. A more interesting metric would be the frequency of tweets over time, but this would be too time consuming for me to get. I bet there will be some online tools covering that aspect some time soon.

The first infographic shows how active each of these head of state Twitter accounts are. It’s interesting to note that @whitehouse (1.8 million followers), @PresidenciaMX (150 thousand followers) and @Laura_Ch (11 thousand followers), despite being order of magnitudes apart in the attention they get, all tweet a lot. On the other side, @JuliaGillard, Prime Minister of Australia, only has 166 tweets, but a considerable number of followers.

Number of Tweets
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

The second set of charts reveals the followers / following pattern. France and Turkey tie on the low end, both of them not following anybody at all, while @Number10gov and @BarackObama follow over half a million people.

Legend for Twitter charts below
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

North America (Canada, U.S. and Mexico)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010


Central and South America (Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Europe (UK, France, Russia, Turkey)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Oceania (Australia), Africa (South Africa), Asia (South Korea)
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

Finally, the last diagram shows that, even among the head of states, you following your peer is not always reciprocated in kind. Cristina Kirchner, president of Argentina, follows a considerable number of her Latin American colleagues, but only two of them follow her back.


Cristina Kirchner follows / followers
(c) Gabriela Passos 2010

One interesting side note: Seeing my niece creating all these infographics by hand, it became painfully clear to me that, despite all the efforts to develop better Social Networking visualization tools (Mashable has a good list here), we still have a long way to go to get the most from the information hidden under the surface in Twitter and elsewhere in the social media landscape.

After seeing the finished product, you can’t help but conclude that politics is but one more area where social media (and Twitter in particular) has become the place for activity that would have happened elsewhere, and has spawned activity that would not have happened at all.





On Leaks, Privacy and Social Media

13 12 2010
Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

As previously seen on Biznology:

Last week, we learned more about world leaders and diplomacy than some of us would care to know – with revelations about Gaddafi and his nurse being the front-runner candidate for the most TMZ-like material made available, courtesy of Wikileaks. All the buzz and panic that ensued following the release of the US Embassy diplomatic cables motivated a colleague of mine to ask me: are social media’s mantras of transparency, information sharing and digitization of conversations, relationships and activities saving us or are they dooming us all?

Even though Wikileaks have been called “social media journalism” by some, the seeds that enabled their model were planted much before the age of Twitter or Facebook. Clay Shirky had already stated in his book Here Comes Everybody:

(…) in an age of inifinite perfect copyability to many people at once, the very act of writing and sending an e-mail can be a kind of publishing, because once an e-mail is sent, it is almost impossible to destroy all the copies, and anyone who has a copy can broadcast it to the world at will, and with ease. Now, and presumably from now on, the act of creating and circulating evidence of wrongdoing to more than a few people, even if they all work together, will be seen as a delayed but public act.

A clever Venn diagram was circulated over the Internet in late October, suggesting that nothing in the Internet is actually private. The picture below was based on that diagram:

“A helpful Venn diagram” – derivation work

I would argue that the Internet is not the culprit either. I still remember a good friend of mine saying in the early 1990s: “the only things that are really private are the ones you never shared with anybody”. Thus, a Venn diagram depicting privacy vs. the Internet would look more like this:

A relatively recent case of private information leaking to the general public corroborates that point-of-view: Tiger Woods’ challenging year started with verbal accounts of marital infidelity and a phone voice message. No email, no tweets, no Facebook status updates took any part in it. In fact, the now number 2 golfer in the world has finally turned on his Twitter account, seemingly to restore his public image. Ironically enough, by checking the Wikipedia entry on this subject, I learned that Woods and his former wife own a 155-foot yacht called Privacy!

Any concern that by adopting social media practices a company or person will be more vulnerable to this kind of exposure is not well supported by actual evidence. By adding transparency to conversations, relationships and activities, the use of social media may actually contribute to reduce opportunities for doing the wrong or the hidden thing in the first place. Furthermore, it puts you on the driver seat – the remaining question being how much of a good driver you are.

Perhaps we are taking ourselves too seriously here. To keep all this in perspective and also for a good laugh, I highly recommend you to read Julien Smith’s post, All social media experts “are actually the same person,” Wikileaks documents reveal. Here’s a sneak preview:

“Paul from Miami,” as he is identified in Wikileaks documents, appears to be the source of an entire industry of Twitter experts who seemingly give the same advice and yet somehow all have over 20,000 Twitter followers each. (…) Meanwhile, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange suggested more bombshells might be on the way. Speculation was rampant that “SEO experts” and “marketing gurus” might also all be sourced from a single individual, or worse, be “Paul from Miami” as well. Paranoia is on the rise.

Anyway, this is Aaron from Toronto, who I promise is not the same person as Paul from Miami, but on the Internet, I guess you would never know.

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Unskewing the Web: Curators as filters

11 12 2010
Sieves (40/365) 

Image by prettyflower via Flickr

As previously seen on Biznology:

This is my final post on the skewed Web. In the early days of Web 2.0 awareness, much was said about the new —now old—Web being all about participation: in the age of User-Generated Content, everybody and their mother became a publisher, leveling the playing field. An independent blogger could potentially be more influential than a New York Times columnist, and the role of editors in identifying and promoting relevant content would be seeing their last days. What was unclear back then was that social media was not only lowering the barriers for content creators: it would eventually enable a new breed of editors, the social media curators.

In my previous post, I cited Clay Shirky’s assertion that the Internet did not bring us an information overload problem: we just needed better filters. However, the wholesale online sieves, like Google Search and Digg, created a different kind of problem, a giant global echo chamber, where we all were becoming collectively dumber. An online world dominated by page rank and skewed crowdsourcing had the potential to dethrone TV as the ultimate idiot box.

As some of you may know, my academic background is in Biology–thus my frequent comparisons between life sciences and social media in my posts. Conservation Biology advocates that Biodiversity “is essential for the maintenance of vital ecosystem services, and ultimately for human survival”, and that we all need to focus on the conservation of all species, not only the cute ones. E.O. Wilson, renowned biologist and Harvard Professor, stated in his book “The Creation”:

“The pauperization of Earth’s fauna and flora was an acceptable price until recent centuries, when Nature seemed all but infinite, and an enemy to explorers and pioneers. (…) History now teaches a different lesson, but only to those who will listen. (…) The homogenization of the biosphere is painful and costly to our own species and will become more so.”

Likewise, the health and long-term viability of our knowledge ecosystems is dependent on diversity of ideas and opinions. Online content curators are playing an increasingly crucial role preserving that diversity beyond mainstream. But despite all the talk around online content curation, there’s still a long way to go.

Online content creators are well-served today. Gone are the GeoCities and “home page” days, where you pretty much had to build everything from scratch or rely on professional help to generate content. You can go fancy and rely on a Content Management System, or just open a Twitter account and go crazy, 140 characters at a time.

Online content curators, on the other side, are still poorly served. Robert Scoble has recently compiled a list of “The Seven Needs of Real-Time Curators”. One of my favourite online content curators, Bernie Michalik, uses a variety of social media channels to highlight interesting things he finds daily both in the core and in the fringes of the online world. However, very few of us are keen enough to write elaborated blog posts or to create neat websites about fringe subject matters. Most of us tend to only go for the quick and dirty: a quick retweet, or a shortened URL or a Facebook link, resulting in somewhat cryptic, hard-to-consume messages like this one:


Every time my wife sees my Twitter stream, full of messages like that, she says that it looks geeky and uninteresting. And she is right. Thankfully, a number of websites and apps are starting to make the online content curators’ life easier, the same way it happened to online content creators several years ago. Even Twitter and Facebook have recently made efforts to add a layer of translation, rendering links to photos and videos to more attractive thumbnails or embedded players.

The iPad app Flipboard give us a glimpse of what is coming. This is a snapshot of how the tweet above is rendered in Flipboard:


The newspaper format and the rendering of the actual content (as opposed to just showing a shortened URL) goes a long way to make tweets more consumable.

Social Media tools play a crucial role in lowering barriers to entry, allowing more people to become online content curators, and enabling diverse content to be easily absorbed and propagated. By avoiding the extinction of diverse ideas, content curator tools will increasingly become instrumental in preserving our global online knowledge ecosystem, a.k.a. our collective intelligence.

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