Math Formula

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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