Math Formula

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nothing Is Ever What It Seems - An Alternate View To The Globe

Recently I was given an atlas as a present by good friends. May not sound too surprising - unless you take into account that this atlas does not represent the world in the way we got used to since we were kids, but in a slightly different format. Something like this (source:

Confused? Maybe even more so if you contrast it with the more traditional world map (source:, combined by the author; click to enlarge):

As you see, some areas on the traditional map (on the right side), appear bigger relative to others, when compared to the Peters map (on the left side), which presents areas exactly in the ratio they actually are. A few highlights of how areas are over-presented in the traditional map (all numbers:
  • Europe appears only slightly smaller than Africa; in fact, it's only one third (10,180,000 km2 vs. 3,221,532 km2)
  • Greenland appears similar to Brazil, whereas actually it's only a quarter (2,166,086 km2 vs. 8,514,877 km2)
  • The three Scandinavian countries Norway, Sweden and Finland combined appear even bigger than Mexico, whereas the very opposite is true (835,216 kmvs. 1,972,550  km)

So, what's wrong here? Well, the problem is, that we are apparently trying to represent a round, three-dimensional ball on a flat, two-dimensional sheet of paper. Kind of similar to squaring the circle, which is known to be rather difficult a task either.

Thus, inherently all representations of the world on a map are wrong.

Each representation is a trade-off between keeping
  • distance equality
  • angle equality
  • area equality
Unfortunately, you can only preserve two, but not all of them (for more background information, please refer to the Wikipedia article on map projection).

Since maps were originally mainly used for navigational purposes, it was rather useful to keep both distance and angle, and disregard area equality. (Just imagine where important sailors like Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo or James Cook might have ended up on their long journeys home without proper cartographic and navigational equipment)

However, this "area inequality" is more severe the closer you come to the poles. Therefore, areas closer to the poles are more stretched and appear bigger relative to the ones around the equator. As it happens, this representation extremely favours areas like the USA and Europe - the western world, at the expense of Africa, Latin America, ...

This is not to blame "westerns" of using a "wrong" map - as I said before, all maps are wrong to some extent. Yet, I think disregarding economic power and political strength, it is fair not to draw any short-sighted conclusions based on a misleading representation of sizes.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Call me paraglider ... ehm, officially tested paragliding pilot!

Several weeks ago, I joined airdrenaline, a local paragliding club. During Monday's annual meeting of the club, I was awarded the "Diploma Pilot paraglajdera", rendering me an officially tested paragliding pilot!

In the weeks between, I got to know some of the guys from the club fairly well, and it's hard to describe how great a time I had. In the meantime, I
  • scared away a cow which was calmly eating when I approached it from the air
  • scared away a farmer who was taking a dump in the field
  • literally found the pretty worst landing zone on the entire hill (some coppice)
  • literally found the only tree on the entire hill
It's definitely no exaggeration to say that a big share of my amazing year 1 aftermath is due to you, dear colleagues from the club.
Admittedly, the ratio between effort and actual enjoyment is fairly high, similar to, say, surfing, or ... well, I guess you can imagine one or two more similar activities.

For those of you who are not familiar with paragliding: Basically, the only equipment used is a wing, to which you are connected with an awful lot of lines. Unfortunately, these lines have a tendency to get tangled whenever they can. This wing is made of ultra-light fabric such as polyester, and typically around 25-30 sqm. It is constructed in a way that it would fly without any external powers - as soon as it is inflated properly. Once in the air, you mainly control it via a left and a right line (brake). Pulling the left brake deflates the glider a little bit on that side, resulting in the air streaming faster through the right part of it. Consequently, you turn left.

Typically, you start by spreading your glider on a hill and turn your back to the hill, looking towards the glider. Under normal conditions, the wind blows up hill. Therefore, once you start pulling the lines, the glider inflates and, since it's constructed in a way to fly, it starts ascending above your head.
Something like that:

Useless to say, it also starts showing its own will, too. Thus, the first two days of learning how to handle a glider only consist of getting to know what the glider wants, and how to enforce what you want. Pulling it up. Glider going down. Pulling it up. Glider pulling you five meters in one direction. And pulling it up. Glider all of a sudden trying to take you off, and concerned instructor trying to hold you back. Packing glider. And again.

However, the moments where you gain control over the glider become more frequent and longer.
Until, one day, you are considered to be ready for takeoff. In order to do that, you pull up the glider until it is directly above you, turn, raise your hands in order to release the brakes ... and then you run. Remember, it's still takeoff against the wind, so you must run and pull really strong:

... until, all of a sudden, the wind just lifts you up, and you are flying .. woohooo!

Similar to some of the other activities from above, it's hard to describe it to somebody who never experienced it himself. For me, it's an awesome combination of freedom, calmness ... well, you best simply try it out yourself!

Even though I obtained the diploma now, I know there is so much and more to learn ... and I can't tell you how excited I am to spend some more time out there in the Bosnian mountains, together with some nice guys, doing something that is simply awesome...

P.S.: If you are interested in more pictures, check out the club's Facebook page. There are also some cool videos on youtube.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

About The Freedom Of Goods

Chapter 2 of "TITLE I - Free movement of goods" of the Consolidated version of the Treaty establishing the European Community provides the basis for one of the four major pillars of what is referred to as the Single Market.

According to,
... controls on the movement of goods within the internal market have been abolished and the European Union is now a single territory without internal frontiers.
The abolition of customs tariffs promotes intra-Community trade, which accounts for a large part of the total imports and exports of the Member States.
Articles 28 and 29 of the Treaty establishing the European Community prohibit import and export restrictions between all Member States. However, if there is a threat to public health or the environment, Member States may restrict the free movement of goods.
This renders the EU a customs union, a special type of free trade area. Well, good and nice - as long as you find yourself on the lucky side of globalization, and as long as you don't happen to live in a country which is implicitly excluded from the union, by not being explicitly included. Like, say, Bosnia for example, in which case even purchasing a kindle via Amazon can become quite lengthy a process.

I will not dive into the pros and cons of free trade vs. protectionism now (oh, just found there is an entire article dedicated to the free trade debate on Wikipedia). Instead, I want to tell you how surprised I was again this week.

As some of you might remember, I bought a motorbike a while ago. Since I found that registering a vehicle can be quite complex a task for a foreigner in Bosnia (and, I assume, in most other countries too), this bike is now registered on a local friend's name. Recently, I talked to two Austrian custom experts, about me driving to Austria with 'my' BiH bike. Bang! Shake-heads, absolutely no, how can I even think about it (that's the young, naive European again), no way!

Just to be clear: Even with a written permission from the owner, I (as a citizen of an EU member state) must not 'import' any vehicle from a third-country ... and in that context, simply driving the vehicle across the border, and be it just for one hour, is 'importing' already.

I must confess, this requires me to rethink the entire idea of 'importing'. For me, that was rather permanent a thing, i.e., with the intent of using something for an extended period, or selling it. On the contrary, the liability to declare a good already arises by simply moving the good across the border, disregarding intended duration and purpose.

But, you might think, what happens if my friend rides the bike across the border, and I just use it afterwards? Well, I was informed, that's "abusive usage" then, representing a criminal act from both of us ...

Thinking the other way round, the same is true if I lend my Austrian car to a friend here - "abusive usage"! I'm neither a lawyer nor a customs expert (however I'm guilty of istism right now), and I guess there is some rationale behind that interpretation (am I also guilty of being naive now?), but my common sense simply cannot see anything wrong about it. It is my friends bike, and he is lending it to me, so why should I not drive to Austria, or any other place I want to?

I don't know whether the EU in general is too positively perceived at the moment, but giving me the freedom to lend my stuff to whomever I want, for whichever purpose I want, is clearly a great thing ... and that is what the Freedom of Goods is all about.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Know That I Know Nothing

I know that I know nothing -- Socrates, Greek philosopher
Yes, I know, I used that quote in my last week's post about my first year in Bosnia already, but it is also related to what I want to talk about today.

The final sentence there is: "... having learned a few things already. At the same time, I know that I know nothing." After I learned a little bit about local habits, I reached a point where I knew enough to know that there is much and more to come. In fact, I tend to think that this is true about pretty much everything one learns.

Since I once ago took some courses in economics and economist are very fond of curves (the ones on diagrams, of course, what did you think??), I tried to compress and summarize my thoughts in a small graph.

On the x-axis, there is the "actual knowledge" in red, compared to "perceived knowledge" (by you, not by others) in blue, both as they are developing over time.

The actual knowledge does steadily increase over time. Of course, this is a huge over-simplification, because learning curves are different in different fields; the improvement might not be as steady as pictured out but stagnate or sometimes even decline (that is, you forget something); there are several difficulties related to accurately measuring knowledge. Yet, I think the fundamental principle remains more or less the same: Your actual knowledge does grow over time.

The perceived knowledge, however, does not. Depending on one's personality, perceived growth of knowledge is similar to the actual, or might even out-perform it. (Raise your hand if you never learned something new, thought you are a super-hero and natural talent after day 1 - just to fall flat on your face on the 2nd.)

In my understanding, this parallel growth of actual and perceived knowledge continues, until one of the following things happens:
  • You fall flat on your face
  • Your knowledge is challenged, particularly in fields you were not yet that profound in (e.g., an exam)
  • You meet, or read something from, somebody who you think you can learn something, just to be surprised how much there is still too learn
In any case, your perceived knowledge drops immediately, which actually is quite irrational a thing. You know that you've learned something already - on the other hand, only now you found how much more complex that field of knowledge actually is, and how much more there is still too learn.

Some people just give up on the sight of the remaining part of the path. Maybe you know the Simpsons episode where Homer tries to climb up the Murderhorn, at one point looking up to the top of the mountain like this (source:

However, as I pointed out above: I'm quite convinced that this is simply part of the way to mastering any subject. Again and again, you will encounter such peaks of perceived knowledge - just to find that there is more to come, the actual top of the mountain is even farther. In such moments, just visualize one of the pictures from above (yes, both the curves and Homer may do) and remember: Your actual knowledge is still increasing. Yet, even who was believed to be one of the wisest men of ancient Greeks knew - that he knew nothing.

P.S.: I'd be interested in some other literature which covers that topic or goes into a similar direction, so I'd be very grateful for all links or suggestions.

First Year in Bosnia, Aftermath

I know that I know nothing -- Socrates, Greek philosopher
It's now roughly one year already that I'm living in Banja Luka and I'm amazed by all the various people I met and the interesting impressions and habits I was exposed to. So, just about getting time to sum them up, right?

I learned that Serbian orthodox people celebrate Slava on the day their ancestors accepted Christianity, and Christmas and other Christian feasts according to the Julian calendar, normally around two weeks after Catholics. They would typically attend funerals also of the parents of friends and colleagues from work, in order to share their grief - something fairly uncommon in Austria.

Furthermore, I was surprised to hear that school classes are typically held in shifts, that is, one week you attend school from morning till around noon, and the next week you have afternoon classes only. Apparently, this is mainly due to shortage in rooms in schools.

Probably most remarkable for me, I feel that people are generally much more flexible here than in Austria. (Of course, such generalizations are kind of stupid, but I don't claim I'm providing any scientific proof and just talking about my personal impressions. Ha, on the safe side now!) Austrians tend to (over-) plan and organize, think several weeks in advance, just to be surprised that in the meantime circumstances changed and therefore their entire plan needs to be adjusted. Not so here, though ... it will be fine, that way or the other, so why bother thinking and struggling today?

That flexibility also applies when it comes to appointments. Yes, maybe you agreed to meet somewhere at a certain time, but there are so many things that might arise between agreeing and actually meeting, so it's fairly possible that you just re-arrange five minutes before that.

Flexibility sometimes also manifests as simply not caring too much. Why ride your motorbike with a helmet and registration blades? After all, that's just a stupid regulation from police, and until they notice that you are driving without helmet, you have passed already anyway, and of course, they will not run after you.

Overall, I thought that I had gotten a fairly well feeling for the mindset of people around here, but just last Friday my naïvety hit me again.

On Monday, November 21st, there was the 16th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement. Since that represents the end of the Bosnian War, you might assume that both Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina consider that worth celebrating, right? But far from it! It's only a national holiday in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian-dominated entity. People in the Federation celebrate on November 25th, the Statehood Day of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Naturally, that is not recognized by the RS.

How can I still be surprised about this?

My impression is that, particularly when it comes to issues related to the war, my understanding is still quite poor.
Furthermore, when it comes to (not) doing business and working habits, I think that in various regards it's evident that I, a child raised in a capitalist country, simply lack the understanding of what drives people with a communist background.

Concluding, I would say that I met lots of interesting and nice people, and that I'm happy to watch my (not-so-) new environment with the curiosity of a child and having learned a few things already. At the same time, I know that I know nothing.

P.S.: In case you are enjoying already but don't yet value some of the freedoms granted to you by being part of the EU (as was the case for me), feel invited to visit me and experience being short of them. No visa regulations (that is, freedom of movement)? No need to pay customs on the border, or think about it at all when ordering something online (that is, freedom of goods)? Of course, I don't say these advantages come without prize and EU is purely a supercool thing but some of the key advantages became that natural for us already, so it is good to keep it in mind they are not yet for many others.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book review The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

For at least two years, Heinrich Bölls (who was awarded the nobel prize in literature in 1972) The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was waiting on my to-read bookshelf. As far as I remember, I bought it due to a recommendation on Thomas Strobls However, as he winded down his page by September, I cannot find the exact source anymore.

Anyways, I guess you know the drill ... last week, I accidentally ran into this book again (actually not exactly the one referenced above, but the German original version) and read it within two days.

In one sentence, the book shows and criticizes the ubiquitous presence of media, and which consequences this might have on individuals who involuntarily become famous from one day to the other.

The short description given on is as follows:
In an era in which journalists will stop at nothing to break a story, Henrich Böll's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum has taken on heightened relevance. A young woman's association with a hunted man makes her the target of a journalist determined to grab headlines by portraying her as an evil woman. As the attacks on her escalate and she becomes the victim of anonymous threats, Katharina sees only one way out of her nightmare. Turning the mystery genre on its head, the novel begins with the confession of a crime, drawing the reader into a web of sensationalism, character assassination, and the unavoidable eruption of violence.

From my point of view, the bottom line of the book is to highlight the potentially destructive power of media. In that context, also the subtitle of the book is worth mentioning: "How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead". Apparently, that was also explicitly intended by the author, as explained in the afterword, added in 1984, ten years after the initial publication of the book.

Even though the newspaper mainly focused on during the book is called "ZEITUNG" (newspaper), already in the foreword the author notes that "all connections which can be made from the ZEITUNG to the BILD are not intended, but in this context simply unavoidable". (Bild is Germany's biggest daily newspaper. Just visit and draw your own conclusions.) Consequently, the entire book can be understood as as criticism on journalism as it is done by BILD and the likes.

Take my words on that with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that I'm quite skeptic towards media in general. Since roughly a year, I try to avoid it altogether.

Yet, even if you believe that you gain something through following news, thinking about the persons that are victims of sensationalism cannot harm. If you are open on that topic, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum reads fairly easy and definitely has a few interesting thoughts.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Click here to gain a huge performance boost!

If you are working in the IT business, you probably know that performance is a feature. Doesn't matter whether you are optimizing indices as a DBA, dealing with some hidden settings close to the bare metal as web master, motivating your team as team leader, or hacking directly into your IDE as a developer - most likely you are concerned about performance of your application this way or the other.

Gain a huge performance boost within one hour? Sounds a little bit like spam, I know, but still I want to urge you to read on - net improvements of bandwidth consumption of 60 - 70% are really quite possible!

For web applications, Yahoo prepared a list of best practices for speeding up your web site. They even provided an easy-to-use browser plug-in called YSlow which tells you immediately how your webpage performs against their metrics. Unfortunately, not all of these tips apply for you if you are not running a web site the size of Yahoo. Furthermore, these changes need to be planned well ahead and might require significant changes to your overall architecture. Thus, implementing them might be quite costly a task.

But hold on, did I say all of these? Far from it! There is one, in the best practices document referred to as "Gzip components" (or here, further on HTTP Compression), which comes essentially for free! Now, admittedly, this is not at all a new approach. HTTP Compression is fairly well supported since IIS 6.0, and already in 2004, Jeff Atwood described using it as a "no-brainer".

Probably you and your company are using this functionality already, in which case I still ask you to double-check whether your content is received gzip'ed on the client. Browser add-ons like Firebug or stand-alone tools like Fiddler allow you to inspect the content of HTTP requests and responses and to look for the magical "Content-Encoding: gzip", which indicates that the compression is fully operational.

Odds are, that even tough you and your colleagues know about HTTP Compression, it become that normal and commonly used these days that you don't even make sure any more whether it's actually in place and received on the clients as expected.
However, there are several things which might go wrong - for instance, IIS 7 has a default setting which prevents HTTP compression in case the request came via a proxy (noCompressionForProxies, which defaults to true) ... So take the time and check on an actual client browser!

If you have not heard about it at all up to now, take the time. I'm really convinced that this has pretty much the highest return-on-investment ever.

For those of you residing within the Microsoft eco system, you might consider the following hints useful.

IIS 6.0

A nice description about setting up HTTP Compression is found here. There is an official guide from Microsoft as well, but don't trust it, as it misses a few very important steps (especially when it comes to 'making your hands dirty' in the config files yourself). 

IIS 7.x

Should be much easier than in IIS 6.0. I found a nice manual which covers all steps necessary. One setting that was very important from within the organization I'm currently working for is:
noCompressionForHttp10="false" noCompressionForProxies="false"

Check the configuration reference for further details.

For troubleshooting, these links might help you:

So, either you were fully using HTTP Compression already, in which case you probably did not read until here anyway ... or otherwise, take the time, surprise your colleagues with your great performance boost and make a day off the other day ... no need to thank me, I'll take a beer instead :-)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Theory X vs. Theory Y, or How to Motivate Children

"How can I motivate others?", is pretty frequently asked a question (Google hit count: 27.4m).

I guess what contributes to this question's importance is that it is really quite helpful, in several phases and situations in life. Be it your colleagues at work, be it your team-mates in the local football club after a not-so-promising first-half, or be it your or other's children or students who you want to learn something (say, because you recently turned a teacher) - it always comes down to motivation.

Probably the most popular theory about motivation is Maslow's hierarchy of needs, essentially stating that only once some basic needs are fulfilled, a human can seek for the ones on the next level. Heavily influenced by Maslow's famous paper from 1943, psychologists and managers alike started investigating the implications for managers, and how they can contribute to employee motivation.

Therefore, the MIT professor Douglas McGregor came up with his model of a contrasting Theory X and Theory Y, both of them about different points of view about what motivates employees.

Basically, Theory X builds on the assumption that employees in principle are lazy and unwilling to work. Consequently, their extrinsic motivation needs to be addressed. They will only work because of the outlook of their next check, otherwise lay down their tools and do nothing.
Unfortunately, it was found that an environment in which this theory is followed is far from allowing long-term happiness and an absolute killer for creativity. That approach was, and is still, used by all the real Michael Scotts (The Office US) and Strombergs out there. It is particularly prevalent in government organizations and huge enterprises.

On the contrary, Theory Y assumes that people do have the will to engage in something useful, inspiring, challenging ... something where they can fulfill their intrinsic needs. Thus, the main task for managers is to provide a framework in which it is possible for their employees to develop themselves and contribute something useful.
How different an idea is that? Employees and colleagues are no longer some kind of machines which just need to be fed, but something more, much more exciting and looking for something far beyond!
Even though that theory was develop in the 60's already, I find it astonishing how seldom it is still known, and even less being used.

However, I cannot stop wondering do which extend Theory Y applies at all.
I tend to accept what I understand from Theory Y, that people and employees are strongly self-motivated and that the major concern of management should be to remove all barriers of self-motivation. In the end, everybody is looking for fulfillment.

Apparently not so in Bosnia, though. My impression is that people are taking their job just as a means of monthly income, and nothing more. That impression was also confirmed by several of them when I raised that question in some discussions. It was also confirmed that it is true for people in many other eastern, former-communist countries where the major attitude towards work was just to be present and let the time pass by.

I pointed that out to Jurgen Appelo, author of the bestseller Management 3.0, who also wrote about that topic and replied that (text quoted with permission) ...

I believe that the same intrinsic desires (competence, status, power, freedom,
etc.) apply to all people in all cultures (with small differences).
However, some people don't seek to satisfy such desires in their jobs. That
doesn't mean that they don't want to.
It's just that they never learned that it's possible. Some people have never
experienced a fantastic job.
So yes, I believe Theory Y is better than Theory X.
However, if people don't take the trouble of finding a fantastic job, then
Theory X still applies to them. :)

As much as I'm inclined to accept that point of view, I find it rather depressing. Probably the country has more urgent issues that need to be solved first. However, I do sense quite a potential here, and I think that once people would start adopting a more positive attitude, some things might just start running easier and smoother.

So, how does that connect to children?

Well, I think both Theory X and Y might be applied to their way of developing and learning as well. Again, I remember from my school time that by most teachers Theory X was followed. Students don't want to learn, they are lazy, and the only way of getting them on the right path is by threatening them with bad marks.

As I heard recently, though, there are also other models like democratic education or Waldorf education, both of which assuming that children love to learn and grow, as long as their environment allows them to do so.

I was very surprised to find that, right around the corner where I lived for several years in Vienna, such an institution is found as well. One of my recent Couchsurfing visitors works as a teacher in a basic democratic school in Germany. Being asked about children whom her job is most challenging with, she replied without any hesitation: "Those that are not used to this approach. Those whose parents tell them they trust and empower them, but don't really live this by example".

Sometimes, lessons learned from the work with and from children are the most valuable ones. I think this is such a case.

Naturally, employees will not start growing and inventing like crazy once they are empowered to do by a modern, Theory Y manager, after being tortured by Theory X ones for several years. This change takes time, but it is definitely worth it. Your company and your colleagues will know to value it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fail fast, and fail often

A few weeks ago, I wrote about mantras in general, but with particular regard to lifestyle and attitude towards life.
Today, I want to talk about my favorite mantra at work.

Similar to the stupid ones I mentioned in that other post, obviously there are several suggestions you hear over and over again. What comes to my mind as a perfect example is 'I will work harder', as followed by Boxer in George Orwell's Animal Farm. Another one, as already mentioned earlier: Those who can go out can also work ("wer fortgehen kann kann auch arbeiten").

Anyways, let's not waste time on things that are useless, but rather focus on the ones I do consider helpful.

My favorite two mantras at work are:
  • Make better trade-offs
  • Fail fast, and fail often
I currently work in a software development company, but I think those two can be applied quite universally.

So, what does "make better trade-offs" mean? For me, that short sentence highlights the fact that quite often possibilities and decisions are not only black and white, but there is something in between. 

Taking an example from software development, quite often you face the question of implementing a particular feature the 'quick-and-dirty' way (which might do the job in short-term, but be rather poor to improve and maintain in middle- and long-term) or the according-to-the-book, super-perfect, elegant and time-consuming way. I feel that business people tend to gravitate towards the first statement, whereas any self-respecting geek would favor the second one.

Now, I don't want to make the case for the one or the other extreme. From my point of view, both of them are wrong, as they ignore that whatever they do is and will always be a trade-off. Thus, the only thing you as a decision maker can do is accepting the fact that you face a trade-off, and make better trade-offs.

For all kinds of decisions and actions, I think there is a strong aversion against failure prevails in our Western European culture. (Some people claim that this aversion is even stronger in former-communist Eastern European countries. Cannot yet judge about them, and even more so about people from more distant countries ... probably have to figure it out myself one day.) I think that this attitude is fundamentally wrong.
If you always keep doing the same things you are already confident and good at, you will keep doing them forever.
Instead, you should seek to fail, value to fail, and learn from your mistakes.

And I think not only should you seek to expose yourself to situations where you can fail, but you should seek to fail fast. And often. The faster you fail, the easier you can incorporate the findings and the feedback from that failure to you future actions! The same is true for the frequency of your failures. Faster failures, more frequent failures, clearly result in a much higher number of possibilities for improvement.

Admittedly, that thought is not new at all. In my understanding, it is one of the key advantages of Agile software development. As Juergen Appelo puts it in Management 3.0, "Software is produced in short time frames, often in time  boxes or 'sprints', and delivered in many incremental releases, where each release is a potentially shippable product." Shortening feedback loops is also something heavily encouraged by successful entrepreneurs, as young entrepreneur Carl Taylor reveals in an interview.

Again, I think these two principles can be applied in pretty much every industry. I'm sure you can find ways to apply them at your work, right away and right now. And I wonder ... what is your mantra at work?

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Call me paraglider, motorbike owner ... and German teacher!

Wooohaa! This week is so amazing! 

In the last months, I learned better than ever before that some things simply cannot be enforced. Life is full of combinations of bad circumstances. For instance, I had wanted to make a course for gliding ever since I had given it a try with a friend a few years ago. Therefore, I decided to enroll at one of the gliding clubs close by.

However, this didn't turn out to be as easy as I naïve Western-European had expected. First of all, only in one club there was an instructor with whom I could speak in English. Second, recently a new federal agency was founded which is responsible for issuing certificates to clubs, permitting them to educate new pilots. Unfortunately, that happened that recently that by the beginning of the season none of the two clubs had this certificate. 

Later in summer, one of them was finally given the certificate (the one with the non-English speaking instructor), and I thought: Well why not, I'll not crash down immediately, so give it a try in local language, off we go. Ha, but hold on … did you know that gliders need registration too, similar to cars? No? Apparently also people at the club were not that aware of that fact, because once they had the certificate, registration for their only glider expired … too bad.

So, while me being a little bit disappointed, I didn't give up and kept looking for other opportunities to
  • spend some time with or learn something cool I've always wanted to do
  • expose myself to situations where I'm forced to use local language (which is not the case neither at work, where there typically is a translator, nor in my free time, where I'm mostly surrounded by people with whom I can talk English). I live in BiH now already for three quarters of a year, and I even though I made some progress with regard to local language, I know I could do much better.
Several things came to my mind or popped up accidently, fulfilling the aforementioned criteria:
  • Paragliding (there is a paragliding club in Banja Luka, offering really cheap courses)
  • Buying a motorbike
  • Becoming a voluntary German teacher at a local language school
Having learned my lessons from the past, I thought I do my best to get prepared for all of them, and be happy if only one or two of them actually happen and the other ones do not due to facts I cannot influence.

Well, last Friday the stone started rolling … and didn't stop anymore. First, I got a call from the instructor of the paragliding club. All preparations sorted out, weather conditions for the weekend expected to be just fine, we'll start the other day. Similar as for surfing, I had underestimated how exhausting it is (at least until you develop a proper technique). Yet, the few moments where this stubborn glider accepts your will are definitely worth it. Maybe next weekend we'll start flying! (Well, I actually already did, a little bit at least. Didn't want to, though, so instructor had to grab my backpack and push me back to the ground.) Spending a weekend in the Bosnian mountains also pays off, just because of the really nice view. I can't wait the next weekend.

Next, I finally found a motorbike perfectly suiting my needs! Also the search procedure itself was funny … would you expect that, when you call an erotic line, you might actually end up talking to a guy with a high voice? Anyway, my new love … nothing new, nothing fancy, just perfect for me to get started:

Aprilia Pegaso 650 ... engine coming from Rotax, pretty close to the place I grew up. I did not yet manage to register it (turns out it's quite tricky a procedure for foreigners), but I cannot highlight enough how helpful friends were in all regards (cheers Duško). Can't wait to start exploring Bosnian countryside.

And then, there is still the thing with the German classes. Yes, I can see some of you laughing behind your screens now. Me a German teacher, how hilarious is that? Explaining a language which some people claim I'm not really capable of myself IN a language I'm even less capable of – how funny can that be? Today, there will be the first lesson with my small group of students, and once again, I really can't wait it. I guess it's gonna be challenging but awesome either.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

You Misunderstood Me!

“An order that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood.”

  - Napoleon Bonaparte

Do yourself a favour and completely remove "You misunderstood me" from your dictionary. Whenever you are still tempted to use it, say "I'm sorry, maybe I expressed myself a little bit confusing, and what I actually meant was ...". (At least remove it from your active vocabulary; for 'backward compatibility', as we nerds like to say, it's o.k. to keep it in your passive vocabulary.)
If you bought the above core message already, no need to continue reading, we're done for today. There is not much more to come, since I'm really fundamentally and unconditionally convinced about the above said and the essentials are in that small change in mindset. However, if you are interested ...

As indicated above and some of you might know already, I'm currently working in IT, an industry not particularly well known for the outstanding social skills of it's representatives. Even though you should take series like The IT Crowd and Big Bang Theory with a grain of salt, a huge portion of funny insights into reality can't be denied. Talking about nerds, even though misunderstandings are something completely normal and can happen whenever humans communicate with each other, I sense that the combination of rather low social skills and a big of self-esteem due to great wisdom in their domain are an extremely fruity ground for misunderstandings.

However, I'm really convinced that raising at least a little awareness about the principles of communication would simplify and improve so many things, both at work and in private life.

The sender-message-channel-receiver model from David Berlo dates back to the 1960's, and many of the recent findings in the field of communication can be attributed to Schulz von Thun (mainly known for his Four sides model, which goes beyond the scope of this post).
According to Wikipedia, communication usually described along a few major dimensions: Message (what type of things are communicated), source / emisor / sender / encoder (by whom), form (in which form), channel (through which medium), destination / receiver / target / decoder (to whom), and Receiver.

Since the target 'decodes' the message, this is actually the only part of the entire transmission of information that really matters. It simply does not matter what the sender had originally said, if it was not clear and precise enough. I think that's also what the little Frenchman from the quote at the beginning wanted to tell us. It does not matter what one says, as long as there is any possibility for it to be misunderstood! (Apart from that, am I the only one wondering about the similarity to Murphy's law?)

Consequently, it is your obligation as sender (i.e., the one saying something) to make sure your message can be understood as well. Trust me and develop trust into the people around you, they generally are willing and doing their best to understand you. If they did not, it's your fault (and if you misunderstand this, it's mine). If you are not certain what your communication partner understood, just ask her to repeat in her own words.

"So I did not misunderstand you either, just YOU said something confusing!"

Now as you are enlightened and you are correctly accepting your responsibility as sender, you might be tempted to completely refuse all responsibility as a receiver. After all, that's the bottom line of what I described above, right?

As so often, the story goes on ... and another issue enters the stage: respect. As you are enlightened now and your colleagues probably are not, I suggest being generous and taking all the blame on your side ("Sorry, I think I misunderstood you, could you please explain it again?"). That's not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength and willingness to successful communication.

I know it takes a while to adopt that approach, but once you are into it, it will just feel natural. Once you are aware of hit, you might feel like hit by a lightning whenever you hear somebody saying the evil "you misunder...".

Just that we understand each other, how about some Dilbert?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In Web 2.0, You Are Not the Consumer But the Product

It's hard to count or describe the numerous great experiences I made thanks to couchsurfing since my registration in July 2009. Couchsurfing is a social network dedicated to hospitality exchange. The idea is that users create profiles, similar to other social networks, and can decide (but are always completely free to do so) to offer a place to stay (even if it's only "a couch") to other users of the community. You can search your travel destination for potential couches and send requests to the users there, gather in groups, participate in the meetings of your local community or just host others every now and then yourself. Even though this concept was not invented by CS, it is now the biggest network with some 3 million registered users.

Thanks to CS, not only did I save a lot of money used for accommodation otherwise, but even more important, I met several interesting people, had an extremely joyful time or was simply rewarded with a good discussion or a great meal when hosting travellers myself. 

A nice host with a hyper-active cat in St. Petersburg, a CS-backed Christmas party in Antwerp, staying in a squatted, former brothel in Utrecht, two ukulele playing girls from Montreal, couchsurfers from Banja Luka who turned into real friends, a German couple who visited me in Bosnia by bike (starting in their home country) ... in short, CS is something I'm passionate about.

… or at least I used to be so, until the entire community was shaken by a press release from CS co-founder Casey Fenton three weeks ago, announcing a "new era for CS". Well yes, a new era it is. CS changed its organization type from non-profit to what is called a "B Corporation", a "socially responsible", but still ... corporation.

Before I will take a closer look at what exactly a b-corporation actually is and what it does, a little background information about the history of CS. 

Founded in 2004 by Casey Fenton and Daniel Hoffer, the official mission of the platform is to "Participate in Creating a Better World, One Couch At A Time". Even though the organization was never fully transparent or democratic, the open attitude of the founders and the dedication to achievements for the society made several users engage in the CS project voluntarily, e.g., providing translations and moderating bulletin boards. The project was mainly funded by donations of users. The company operated in a kind of legal grey zone since then, attempting to get the access to the various advantages of being a "501(c)(3) organization". However, the state of New Hampshire rejected that request several times, claiming that CS does not provide sufficient services in public interest.

So (that's what Casey says, not me) there was simply no other way of continuing with CS except of becoming a corporation, or more specific, a B(enefit) corporation. According to B Lab, a US-based NGO issuing B corporation certificates, B corporations are …

… a new type of corporation which uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.  B Corps are unlike traditional businesses because they:
  • Meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards;
  • Meet higher legal accountability standards;
  • Build business constituency for good business
Becoming a B corporation should enable CS to "build all the features the community has always been asking for", support further growth ... and maybe make some cash as well.

Quite a lot of money, truth be told. Reportedly, CS raised $7.6m in funding from various investors. Unfortunately, no details about the deal were revealed, which even further contributes to the serious irritation of several members of the CS community.

The group We are against CS becoming a corporation is currently supported by more than 2000 users. Some of them were among the most committed users of CS before, organizing meetings and being contact persons for new users and thus promoting the whole idea of the project. Some of them even made contributions in the form of source code, translations for the web page or financial donations. Rightfully, they are now pissed off, because they did donate their money and their free time to a common idea, a common vision ... and not to some Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists.

Consequently, a full list of investors was requested in an open letter to Casey. Up to now, it was disclosed that the major investors are Benchmark Capital (who also have their share in Twitter) and Omidyar Network, well known for their engagement in the Wikimedia Foundation. The fact that Matt Cohler, one of the early founders of Facebook, led the negotiations on behalf of Benchmark Capital now joins the board of CS is also not too well received.

In the meantime, Casey guaranteeing that the service CS provides will always remain free for all members fired speculations about the future business model of CS. Clearly, the aforementioned investment firms will rather not raise several millions without expecting anything in return. 

One possibility seems to be the one chosen by Facebook, which currently has mainly three sources of income:

  • Advertisements (apparently the lion's share of the $1.86bn it made in 2010)
  • Gifts (you can send gifts to your friends for $1 directly via Facebook)
  • Games (e.g., you can buy in-game credits for Farmville with real money)

So, may be some ads are expected on CS in the near future as well – something I could actually easily live with. Using Adblock Plus, a freely available extension for Firefox and Google Chrome blocking unwished ads all over the web, I would not have to struggle with ads.

However, as the recently included "Facebook Connect" functionality (you can log on to CS using your Facebook account) suggests, another possibility seems to be agreement with Facebook. Unfortunately, I have not yet found any way to check what the Terms of Use of CS used to be, because apparently it has been excluded from wayback - I would be grateful for any hint on where to check that. The current Terms of Use state:

4. PRIVACY.  [...] In addition, we provide this personal information to third-party service providers who help us maintain our Services and deliver information and services to you and other users of our Services.

... which actually reads a little bit scary, doesn't it?

But it gets even worse ...

5.1 You Grant Us a License. By submitting any content (including without limitation, your photograph) to our Site, you hereby grant us a perpetual, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license to use, reproduce, display, perform, adapt, modify, distribute, have distributed and promote such content in any form, in all media now known or hereinafter created and for any purpose.

… which I don't feel too comfortable with, because I really cannot see now to which extend they might execute their formal "rights".

As Don Norman said in a talk about Google recently, even though it appears on first sight that we are their users and advertising is the product, the opposite is true. Web 2.0 companies are making a business of collecting huge amounts of data about their users, and granting advertisers access to that extremely valuable information. Using the "traditional" approach of advertising, ads were displayed based on patterns like: Male, Single, in his sixties– might like something to improve his nightly performance. Now, there is a completely new dimension … male, single, in his sixties … and some of his friends recently bought a new flat screen, so for havens sake, show him an ad for a flat screen right away!

In the light of the above, I was really wondering whether I should continue using CS. I am not at all a fan of their bold move, and I truly share the deep concerns of the opponents of Casey's decision.

However, I remember that when I registered for CS two years ago, I simply thought it might be a cool thing and really did not care about their organization type. So, had it been already a B-corporation or a normal corporation, odds are I would never have thought about it at all and simply accepted whatever they are asking for. It may not be wise, it may not be ethical, but otherwise I would also have to give up using Facebook. And Skype. And Google. Nothing changed about their service, it is still a great opportunity to save money and meet and enjoy inspiring people. So I sigh and yield.

Draw your own conclusions, but keep in mind … in Web 2.0, you are a product.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Economist, Dentist, Computerist - An Essay on Ist-Ism

"What are you?" is probably among the most often asked questions whenever two people see each other for the first time. Many people are so used to that question already that the answer is quite flat and straightforward - don't expect much more than some job description ending with "-ist" (ideally followed by some impressive title)."What are you?", as if what one works or studied before would reveal anything about her personality.

Even worse, some people apparently even feel the need to declare themselves again and again during a conversation.

A: Me being an ***ist, I think the sky is blue
B: Well, but since I'm a ***ist, I would say it's rather gray

As much as I understand the human need for being part of a group, and also convincing himself about that fact every now and then, I seriously doubt that defining the entire personality by one's job is very smart.

Both of the above are different forms of what I call istism. Actually, it does not quite fit to the definition from the, which says:
An istism is a use of the 'ist' suffix, when being derrogatory. If Alice was to say "I hate coloured people", she would be being RACIST, thefore committing an Istism
So, I'll try to come up with my own definition.
Istism is the attempt to sum up somebody's perspectives about various topics under one umbrella term, topically by his job or one any other group he feels connected to. (e.g., "I'm capitalist, so I think about economics what all capitalists think".) Another form of istism is using the membership to a group as a means of reasoning (e.g. "I (have to) think that markets successfully regulate themselves, because I'm a liberalist.")
In my understanding, istism may be interpreted as another form of stereotypes. Even though the word "stereotype" is generally used in a rather negative way, I think that's only half the story. Quoting a close friend of mine, you also don't wonder whether the neighbour's dog showing his teeth is also willing to use them, but rather see to escape and thereby accepting the stereotype without questioning it in that case.
The world is simply too complex to be fully re-discovered every day, so no, I wouldn't say stereotypes are a bad thing in general. What bothers me about istism, though, is that somebody puts a sticker onto himself and thereby willingly exposes him to all the stereotypes - as if all dentists would be the same! The same in terms of views about politics, hobbies, favourite football club, drinks, ... whatever "really matters".

I think another reason for "What are you?" being asked that often is that people don't know how else to get a conversation started. I normally try avoiding answering such questions too straightforward (unless I'm in a business meeting, where it didn't turn out to be too successful to avoid talking about business matters), and of course, asking them myself either.
Instead, "What are you passionate about?" has worked wonders for me quite often already. For example, I really couldn't imagine one quite ordinary colleague being a passionate writer of short-stories in his free time. Every other minute he loves to spend with Icelandic horse. Admittedly, horses are not my major field of interest, but whatever is communicated with enough passion is simply contagious. I did not start horseback riding myself immediately (having made rather bad experiences on vacation, where I tend to end up with quite red an ass ...), but it was a great starter for an entertaining six hours drive from Bosnia to Vienna. I doubt that would have been possible had we only talked about business matters.

The thing is, everybody loves to talk what he is passionate about (some of our fellows actually even too much so), so I think that's a good starter to really get to know somebody. There might be other ways as well ... so how do you really get to know strangers? And maybe even more important ... what are you passionate about?

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