The conversation I never had: a belated Valentine’s Day tale

15 02 2011

In the early 1990′s, I was just starting in my first real job at Unisys in São Paulo, Brazil. One of my first assignments was a visit to the data processing centre of a government agency, an impressive facility in the outskirts of São Paulo:

 


PRODESP Processing Data Centre in Taboão da Serra, São Paulo, Brazil (Source: Google Maps)

The person giving the tour was proudly describing the place as state-of-art, from the façade made of concrete-based frames that ensured efficient protection from sunlight, to the internal sound-absorbing panels that allowed you to have a private conversation standing a few meters away from the next person. Many years later, I learned that the two architects responsible for that project were Pedro Paulo Mello Saraiva and my future father-in-law, Setsuo Kamada. It was quite a surprise to me back then, but a bigger one was still about to come.

I married Setsuo’s daughter in 1999. As it’s common among new comers to Canada, our wedding ceremony was at the Toronto City Hall. It was a simple but unforgettable event in our lives, and my in-laws came from Brazil to attend it, along with a close circle of friends.

Sadly, in 2005, he passed away, and I still sorely miss his calm demeanour, his wisdom and his never-ending pursuit of knowledge. An accomplished architect, he was a bit of a geek at heart: I recall him trying out solar panels much before they were fashionable, and was an early adopter of webcams, digital photography, and one of the first people I saw to connect his cable TV to a computer. I used to have these long conversations with him about everything from biology to technology to world cultures to language oddities.

Roughly two years after his death, my wife and I were spending a few days in São Paulo, when she accidentally found this postcard, sent by him to my mother-in-law in 1974, while on a long work trip to North America:

 

The message, in Portuguese, reads:

Toronto, May 27, 1974

Dear Y.

The United States, not so much, but Canada, I would like you to get to know. One day, we will come together. Be sure about it.

Setsuo

It took him 25 years to fulfill that promise. In 1999, he finally came back to Toronto for the first time since writing that card, to attend the wedding ceremony of his only daughter with lucky me. In the same place depicted in the postcard, the Toronto City Hall.

It was mind boggling. That is the conversation I never had with him that I’ll regret forever. That postcard for me will always be the definitive Valentine’s day card.





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.





A little bit less wise now

10 07 2010

Swelling not too bad yet, but eating kind of sucks

After years of procrastination, this morning I underwent dental surgery to have two of my wisdom teeth removed. The two upper ones are still somewhere there, so hopefully I can still claim to be half wise. Last time I had a tooth removed I was barely a teenager, and, being in Brazil, had never heard about the Tooth Fairy at the time. If I only knew I could profit from all that pain…

I obviously took pictures of them and my gums after the procedure, but those photos just reinforced the idea that some things are better hidden in your personal hard drive rather than shared in Flickr, Facebook, TwitPic or WordPress – you’ve been spared from seeing very graphical images :-P . Having said that, it’s amazing what you find about the little buggers in Wikipedia:

Wisdom teeth are vestigial third molars that human ancestors used to help in grinding down plant tissue. The common postulation is that the skulls of human ancestors had larger jaws with more teeth, which were possibly used to help chew down foliage to compensate for a lack of ability to efficiently digest the cellulose that makes up a plant cell wall. As human diets changed, smaller jaws gradually evolved, yet the third molars, or “wisdom teeth”, still commonly develop in human mouths. Agenesis of wisdom teeth in human populations ranges from practically zero in Tasmanians to nearly 100% in indigenous Mexicans. The difference is related to the PAX9 gene (and perhaps other genes).

At least that makes me feel a bit less primate now :-)

After the surgery, I slept for most of the day because of the anaesthetics, and now am sleepless and craving everything I can’t eat. My dreams of surviving on Haagen Dazs ice cream and Lindt chocolate for the whole weekend were shattered: anything cold, hot or too sweet are still painful to ingest, so my mental motivation to finally go for the surgical procedure is now gone, and blogging here became the fall back alternative.

My small consolation is that this whole ordeal was not as painful as watching the complete meltdown Brazil had in the second half against the Netherlands in the FIFA World Cup last week. That one will take at least 4 years to heal.

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The bamboo raft is a submarine

7 06 2010

It’s been two months since my last post – here at The Bamboo Raft anyway: I have written three posts as a guest blogger at Biznology and another one internal at RBC in the meantime. Life’s been busy. It’s ironic to think that the times I don’t blog are exactly when I have most to blog about. One of my favourite cartoons from a long time ago had this couple in the top of a mountain, looking at a fantastic sunset. The husband (boyfriend maybe?), while trying to take a picture of it, was saying to his significant other: “I can’t wait to be back home, get the pictures and see how beautiful this sunset was”. I suspect that even to this day, the vast majority of the key personal milestones, achievements and failures go mostly unblogged and untweeted. Perhaps we were too occupied to bother writing about it, or things were too personal to share. In my case, I confess, it was mainly a case of just being lazy.

It’s not that that the Bamboo Raft was totally inactive. It was just submerged. The little time I spent writing in the last few weeks actually went all to this ancient form of communication called email :-P . Some of my Brazilian friends and I have this tradition before every World Cup of writing our guts out about this passion that’s football (soccer). I love doing it, but our conversations are likely too hard core for anybody else to put up with in our picky attention to details and endless debates on anything remotely related to the beautiful game. Things like:

  • How a mathematician calculates the odds for a team to win the World Cup?
  • Are lefties bad in penalty shoot-outs?
  • Does the coach really matter in a 7-game tournament?
  • What are the oddest names / nicknames in the history of World Cups?
  • Are Zinadine Zidane and Mr. Spock identical twins?
Mr. Spock and Zinadine Zidane

Mr. Spock and Zinadine Zidane

As you can see, sometimes NOT using social media may be a good thing.





Winter weekend getaways

21 02 2010

Canada is a great place to live, and I have thoroughly enjoyed my 13+ years living in the Great White North. But I confess that the winter months still make me homesick, my sun-deprived self always demanding some sun rays and a vacation down South between December and March.

This year, however, a mid-winter vacation was not possible, so we overcame our cryophobia and decided to spend two 3-day weekends up North in Muskoka in February. Both mini-vacations went so well that I’m considering going for these cold getaways much more often from now on.

The first trip was to a place facing the beautiful Oxtongue Lake, just a few kilometres from the Algonquin Park West entrance:


Oxtongue Lake in Ontario, Canada

It was a weekend with clear night skies, no wind, cold temperatures and a full moon:

Frozen Oxtongue Lake under a full moon

The picture above is a bit crappy, but the actual experience of walking on the frozen lake covered by snow under a full moon was memorable. The snow absorbed the sounds and reflected the moonlight, the lack of wind and proper insulation made the night walking pleasant and a very unusual sensorial experience overall.

Also unusual was barbecuing under the snow:

Hummm… Picanha BBQ…

Best of all, we had the tobogganing hill for ourselves for most of the weekend:


L trying solo tobogganing for the first time

And then doing it all by himself

Last weekend, we went back to Muskoka, this time close to Sparrow Lake. It was not as secluded as the other place, but it was good to try a variety of winter sports. The hotel offered free gear rentals for skating, cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and curling. It was the first Winter Olympics weekend, and L was very excited in trying stuff he was seeing on TV:

First time donning skates


Snow-shoeing


Cross-country skiing

Saying that I have two left feet for winter sports is an understatement. I excel in being bad in all sports, but there’s no word to describe my performance (or lack thereof) with skis or skates. Hopefully, L will not inherit my total ineptitude to brave snow and ice, and his newly discovered interest on winter sports will last beyond the Vancouver 2010 games. For the first time ever, I feel almost sad that the end of winter is already around the corner.





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?).





Harry and his bucket full of gibberish

27 12 2009

I’m experimenting with Posterous, and this is my first cross-post (I tried to automate it but didn’t work):

Many people say that English is one of the easiest languages to master, as grammar is relatively simple, you don’t have to learn accents, and verbs are typically limited to a handful of variations. True, but English also happens to be a very tricky language when it comes to pronunciation. In Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, German and Japanese, you can learn how to pronounce most words just based on a few rules. In English, that’s rarely the case: “go” and “do”, “cough” and “though”, “over” and “cover” are all pronounced very differently, notwithstanding their spelling similarities.

But if you learned English as an adult, nothing compares to listening to songs and trying to figure out what they are all about. Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong were probably among the few singers I could understand without any kind of supporting material.

My son loves watching “Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs”. I’ve been watching that with him for months now, and the only thing I could get from the opening theme was actually the part where they say “Harry and HIs Bucket Full of Dinosaurs”!!! I tried to turn the closed captioning on, but nothing came out (not sure if it’s a broadcasting issue or wrong TV/cable setup one).

Today, that mystery was solved as I found this captioned version of the theme in YouTube:

How on Earth am I supposed to understand this song??? You probably need a degree in both English and Palaeontology to grasp the just of it. I can’t wait until my son is 7 and starts teaching me English.

Here are the lyrics, if you also have a pre-schooler and, like me, need a cheat sheet:

Stegosaurus, Pterodactyl, Tyrannosaurus Rex
Scelidosaurus, Apatosaurus, Triceratops is next
Taury, Patsy, Sid and Trike
Pterence, Steggy, what a sight!
It’s Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs
To get on board the magic ride
All we do is jump inside
With Harry and His Bucket
His bucket full of dinosaurs!

Update: The title of the post had a problem (it became “401″), so I changed it to something more meaningful and applied some minor edits.





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…)





Blog, Interrupted

6 12 2009

A few weeks ago, in a phone conversation with Marcelo Martins, he jokingly commented on the poor abandoned state of this blog: “the ‘Bamboo raft’ has drifted away, and is now in the middle of nowhere” :-) . Indeed.


Photo by Flickr user elieme, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic

But this silence was not due to the lack of inspiration: it was a mix of being busy, adjusting to a new work routine, and plain laziness, of course.  A year after blogging was proclaimed passé by Paul Botin, I still feel the urge to blog several times a day, even knowing that there’s a good chance that nobody is listening (or reading it). I blog, therefore I am sounds right to my ears, even in a Twitter world.

Following the lead of Bénédicte Delachanal, who’s been good in her one blog post every day quest this December, I decided to steer this raft back to the civilization (or to a handful of readers, more precisely). And seeing a new post by Jennifer Okimoto in my reader today after months of absence was just the extra push I needed :-) .

As the delusional Buzz Lightyear would say: To infinity, and beyond! (crossing fingers here hoping that all this euphoria will take me at least till the next blog post).





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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The mysterious case of the missing headphone is now solved

15 08 2009

In my previous post I wrote that my son found a way to hide really well my old Sony headphones, and therefore I had to buy new ones. I just came back from golfing and dining with friends a few minutes ago and got the news from my wife that the headphones resurfaced while I was away. They were inside this thing:

If you have kids, nephews or nieces, you probably know this is the fancy Fisher-Price potty, which:

  • Plays 4 royal tunes as a reward!
  • Converts to a sturdy stepstool!
  • Can be used on a grownup toilet seat!

And apparently can also be used to hide Sony headphones.

I guess I should consider myself lucky that at least he didn’t use the potty for its default purpose during the week.





The Circus and le Cirque

7 08 2009

Over the long weekend, my wife and I took L to see the Shrine Circus at the Centre Point Mall in North York.

Looking at the kids on the back of this elephant was a trip down the memory lane:

Despite all the controversy around the use of animals – a Twitter search for that event will return at least as many protests as praises – I have to admit that one of my earliest and fondest memories as a kid is playing with a lion cub in some anonymous circus, duly recorded in a badly preserved picture (I’m the one on my father’s lap):

The last time I’ve been to a traditional circus – i.e., excluding the Cirque du Soleil – I was a 9-year-old living in the same city I was born at. I vividly recall my friend Drausio petting a camel and getting sprayed with drool all over his face – no picture of that, unfortunately :-P , and no relationship with the delicious camel drool Portuguese dessert, or “baba de camelo”.

Back then, having a circus coming to our city was a big deal, as the only other mass entertainment available for kids was to watch old movies on Sunday’s matinées. Old is an understatement: I actually remember going to a black-and-white Tarzan movie featuring Johnny Weissmuller. Most Disney cartoons didn’t get distributed beyond the large cities, but you don’t miss what you never had, so I have no complaints there. The pluses of growing up on the countryside outweigh by far the constraints – in my naturally biased view, of course.

Not much changed since: the Shrine Circus 2009 show was not very different from the ones I used to see so many years ago: no high-tech involved, just the artist, the act and the public, all frozen in time and space. Hopefully I’ll be proven wrong here, but I think I just saw the last few breaths of a dying art. I quoted Evan Solomon (CBC) a few months ago saying that “when a new technology comes, the incumbent never dies: it simply goes after deeper efficiencies”. The innovation pipeline does not always work like that, as typewritters and the telegraph can attest. Radio, TV, movies, games and the Internet all fragmented the entertainment space in formats that are more easily consummable, forcing live performances to go after deeper efficiencies.Thus, circus performances will live on through the several forms of Cirque Nouveau, but somehow the amateur spirit is gone as shown in this Wikipedia excerpt:

Cirque expanded rapidly through the 1990s and 2000s, going from one show to approximately 3,500 employees from over 40 countries producing 15 shows over every continent except Africa and Antarctica, with an estimated annual revenue exceeding US$ 600 million. The multiple permanent Las Vegas shows alone play to more than 9,000 people a night, 5% of the city’s visitors, adding to the 70+ million people who have experienced Cirque. In 2000, Laliberté bought out Gauthier, and with 95% ownership, has continued to expand the brand. Several more shows are in development around the world, along with a television deal, women’s clothing line and the possible venture into other mediums such as spas, restaurants and nightclubs.

I used “amateur”, but the precise word is “mambembe” – no idea on how to translate that from Brazilian Portuguese. So, in the mambembe spirit, I’d like to conclude this post with this very amateurish video with my favourite circus song:





A Benjamin Button tale (kinda)

21 06 2009

My first three weeks at RBC were interesting and, err, intense, firehose-drinking type of intense. Due to the nature of my projects I think I won’t be able to blog much about them here, but I’m still planning to blog regularly about other random things, so stay tuned, regular readers of “The bamboo raft” (yes, I’m talking to both of you, Bernie and Bénédicte).

My plan to restart blogging this weekend practically went belly up when my Bell Sympatico service started misbehaving on Friday, with my connection dropping every few minutes or so. Blogging offline was never my forté, as I sadly admit that not having immediate access to stuff like Twitter, Wikipedia and Dictionary.com breaks my rhythm.

So let me (re)start with a post loosely themed on Father’s Day. Three weeks ago, my son found this very old photo of me, taken when I was a 4-year-old:

He looked at the picture a bit surprised, then pointed to it and said out loud: “Ootash” (that’s how he calls himself).

I tried to explain, “No, that’s daddy’s picture when he was almost your age”. He vehemently disagreed, “No, Ootash”. There was no way on Earth that I could convince him that it was not him there.

Then I showed him this picture taken during my first week at IBM, back in 1996:

- “This is also daddy, many years ago.”
- “Não.” (that’s “No”, in Portuguese)
- “Yes.”
- (laughing) “Nãããão.”
- “Then, who’s this guy?”
- “I don’t know.”

After some more digging, I found these two pictures that clearly show why my friend Alexandre Neves says that a paternity test will never be required for “Ootash” and me. The one on the left also shows that my taste in clothes has always been top-notch.

Skip three weeks now. Yesterday, I was talking to my mother in Skype and, despite the frequent disconnects, I managed to tell her the story above. When I showed her my IBM picture, she commented: “You were so thin and elegant! And where is all that hair?”

Suddenly, finding that “Dont Go Bald”, “Bald Products” and “Bald People” are all following me in Twitter didn’t feel so bad anymore. Can that Ed Ulbrich guy help me here? :-)

An almost belated Happy Father’s Day to all dads out there!





Leaving IBM

19 05 2009

Some of you may have noticed that I’ve been very quiet over the last month in all the social media channels I normally hang around. I could use the standard excuse and just say I was busy – and I was *really* busy in the last few weeks, including several speaking engagements and trips to Ottawa, Nice (France) and St Catherines (Ontario). However, Twitter pretty much ruined that easy way out, as nobody can honestly say that they don’t have time for writing 140 characters (despite what Jennifer Aniston thinks). The real reason for my silence was that I was going through some soul searching about what I really wanted from my career and after much consideration, I decided it was time for me to leave IBM and try something new.

As I still need to understand better the social computing guidelines for the company I’ll be joining, this post will focus instead on the company I’m leaving.

IBM has my undying admiration as one of the few truly global companies and a great place to work. I thoroughly enjoyed my 12+ years there, and owe much of what I know and what I am to the people I interacted with, IBMers and clients alike. IBM is not just a logo, a bunch of buildings, some hardware / software platform or a services methodology. IBM is this ever-evolving organism whose strength comes mostly from the diversity and reach of its people, and the capacity of reinventing itself.

Before joining IBM, I thought every IBMer would be like the PC guy from the Apple ads, but with blue suits. Once you get to know the real IBMers, you’ll find that the PC and the Mac guys are as real as Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger. Over the years, I had the privilege of meeting geologists, biologists, physicists, architects, athletes, musicians, writers, actors and philosophers, whose titles in their business cards – “Developer”, “IT Architect”, “Business Analyst”, “Partner”, “Project Manager” – could mislead you to think they are one-dimensional beings.

The excerpt below, from Jeff Howe’s Crowdsourcing book, describes well IBM’s main asset: diverse and geographically dispersed people, connected by technology and purpose. By embracing social media, “I‘m By Myself”, like the IBM typewriters, became a thing from the past.

“(…) Each one of us possesses a far broader, more complex range of talents than we can currently express within current economic structures. In this sense crowdsourcing is the antithesis of Fordism, the assembly-line mentality that dominated the industrial age. (…) Contrary to the foreboding, dystopian vision that the Internet serves primarily to isolate people from each other, crowdsourcing uses technology to foster unprecendented levels of collaboration and meaningful exchanges between people from every imaginable background in every imaginable location”

Thus, I just wanted to conclude this post with my deep gratitude not to the abstract concept of IBM as a company, but to each person in the huge IBM crowd who I had the fortune of interacting with in the Web 2.0 collaboration spaces or in offices around the globe. Thank you all and keep in touch.





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?





Flashback: Hawaii Superferry questionnaire

15 12 2008

Back in September, I went to Hawaii for a week with my family, and we decided to go from Honolulu to Maui by ferry. It’s a slow trip compared to taking a flight, but worthwhile especially if you are traveling with kids.

Hawaii Superferry

As you approach the boarding lanes, a Hawaii Superferry employee goes through the standard procedure of checking your vehicle and asking you questions about what you are taking with you. Even though you are hopping from island to island in the same state, the procedure resembles crossing the border with a neighbouring country or boarding an international flight, which makes sense in today’s world, and also for environmental reasons. So both sides engaged in this somewhat flat but polite conversation that goes like this:

“Are you carrying any firearms or ammunition?”
“No.”

“Are you taking any domestic animals with you? Any livestock?”
“No on both accounts.”

“Do you have any flammable materials in your baggage?”
“No.”

“Any plants, seeds or soil?”
“Nope.”

“What about human bones?”
“No. Wait. What???”

I know that there must be a reason for the question, some historical precedent or technical legality justifying it. But I can’t help but wonder if anyone was ever caught in the process. “Human bones? Hummm, let me see. Hey sweetheart, are those bones in your bag human?”





Moleskine art

23 09 2008

About two weeks ago I was having major troubles uploading pictures from my trip to Switzerland to Flickr, and went through a painful cycle of deleting everything and uploading the whole batch again. Unfortunately, during that process, I lost some nice comments people made to the deleted photos, including one by Susan Rudat, who commented on this picture taken in Bern:

Bern

I visited Susan’s photostream in Flickr and I felt like a new world just was revealed to me. I had never heard about it before, but found that there are several artists, like Susan, who create wonderful art in Moleskine notebooks. Her work is copyrighted, so I can’t add samples here, but I encourage you to take a look at some of her sets, such as Places and ‘skine color. Simply awesome.

(Susan, if you ever read this entry, I would like to suggest you publish a sample of your work under a Creative Commons license, so that others can spread the word around what you do.)

I’m obviously not in the same league as any of those folks, and I have not had much success with my attempts of drawing using a tablet, so I decided to give it a try by starting small. Following a tip by Bernie Michalik, I went to a DeSerres store and bought one of their moleskine-imitation books, which cost half of the price of the real Moleskine ones, some cheap pencils and ink pens, and started fooling around with the new found hobby. Here’s my first sketch, a drawing of my son in the 10 seconds he stood still watching something on TV:

Lucas and Penguin

With 100 more years of practice, I can hopefully join one of the Moleskine Art groups in Flickr :-)

I have a lot to thank Bénédicte and her Carnet de Dessins blog for being an inspiration and taking me out of my geek / Web 2.0 comfort zone and go back to the non digital world of pencil and paper. I may never become an artist, but I’m enjoying doing things that do not require a keyboard for a change.








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