Raphael's Blog

Till The Sky Falls Down

Deutsche Telekom's Great Endeavor

Today, Deutsche Telekom invited us to Darmstadt to a somewhat subtle recruiting event. They hid their efforts a little by venturing into the barcamp format and doing few traditional recruiting sessions.

Instead, they recognized that showing just a little of what they are doing and mostly just being a nice host itself is a good way to attract good people.

In the morning, we had a great inspirational speech by Mr. Kozel, who is the “CTIO” of Deutsche Telekom. He looks and talks little like Steve Jobs. And also he actually is from San Francisco. His rhetoric style reminded me a little of Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech. Kozel told us first about his past at Stanford and Cisco and then how he came to Deutsche Telekom. It was surprising to see that he apparently doesn’t speak a lot of German, being a chief officer in a German company like Deutsche Telekom.

Kozel also talked about speed and not becoming arrogant being the most important factors for companies, both startups and big companies. He told us how many companies failed brutally after becoming too arrogant and slow. True words. Although Kozel was very authentic, speed and not being arrogant is hardly something that I could see Deutsche Telekom departing from in the near future. If you look at Telekom’s core offerings, many parts of that company are still captured in the past.

In the afternoon, the barcamp part of the event began. We had already done the session planning before the lunch break in which I offered a session about Mobile Health.

I was a little disappointed at how many topics were about social media. Come on guys, let’s stop talking about talking without results (which is a simpler term for social media).

In the evening, we had a great dinner. The catering was just excellent. Excellent food, different sorts of wine and cocktails were offered by a best in class caterer. And there also was a dinner speech by Thomas Sattelberger, the chief human resources officer. He is a nice guy and has lots of experience, but it’s not a very good sales pitch, if you call yourself revolutionary and then give the elimination of reserved parking lots for management as one of the revolutionary measures. He continued well, by pointing out that we would find this ridiculous, which was precisely what most probably felt. And he was also probably quite right when he said that other companies like Siemens still couldn’t push themselves towards the same measures. But still, it’s subpar rhetorics. Sattelberger is a nice guy, but Kozel is the better speaker.

It was a very nice day with Deutsche Telekom. They seem to at least have realized some issues and are trying to change. I am not yet convinced about their competitiveness as the other carriers are also moving fast. Further, Deutsche Telekom is trying to survive by moving beyond their core telco business towards providing solutions. As of now, I can’t really see any tangible success in that area.

Lots of inspiration at TEDXMunich 2011

TEDXMunich was a two days event of inspirational things, or as TED calls it “ideas worth spreading”.

You’d best check out the website for a comprehensive list of the topics, what I found most interesting though were these presentations:

  • Making Machines More Human: Peter Plantec showed his software woman “Sylvie” who is a AI personality that respond to text and speech input and talks back to you. She actually learns all the time, has a huge training database and gives different answers every time. On day 2 we also discussed about how this could change our life. What I found most interesting was to have a software like this as an interface to Wikipedia or other sources. At the beginning, you state a question in human language and then back comes a short or long answer in actual language and speech together with an animated face. It’s like your personalized teacher. “Sylvie” now seems to be succeeded by the verbots, which are open source.
  • The Burning Man festival:  You can look up in Wikipedia what it is. It amazed me though and reminded me a little of the Nature One in Germany. Both are roughly the same size, although the Burning Man seems to be a lot more creative and I like the idea that they try to never leave any traces like garbage. I would really like to attend, maybe 2012?
  • Improvised theater: 2 guys showed us some very nice improvised performance. On day 2 we could participate ourselves and try it out. It was a lot of fun.

On day 1, we had all the talks and on day 2 were some workshops that were conducted by the speakers from day 1 and connected to the topics. It was a really great way to dive more into those topics and discuss further.

Also I met the guy runs Buck’s in Silicon Valley. It’s the most important networking restaurant over there for all the startups and VCs and so on. I was thinking of opening a restaurant like this in Munich or converting an existing one into that role. Who’s in?


Android Devcamp Stuttgart 2

Android is all around… that’s what they say, particularly Google. This weekend I was at the Android Devcamp Stuttgart 2.

It took place in – obviously – Stuttgart at the Literaturhaus, a very nice and central location in Stuttgart. It was a two day event consisting of a more ad hoc style first day with a hackathon and a beginner’s workshop and the real barcamp style second day. While at the first day, I was mostly brain storming with some people about ideas and did not really get to hack anything this time, I learned quite a lot the second day.

I learned about how to monetize apps with ads and also how to increase the number of downloads for your own apps. Luckily, we had a guy from smaato here (I think he was actually just randomly here), who could give us some examples of how they can help you.

Also, Microsoft did not just sponsor the event, there was also great interest in a short intro to Windows Phone 7. Many people attended the session of the Microsoft evangelist. I myself am not quite so sure about Windows Phone 7, because I think it could still be too fragmented (carriers should not be involved in any decisions at all in my opinion). There was also little Microsoft bashing involved. Nice, non-fundamentalist participants.

Another interesting session a little later in the after noon was about how to pitch bullshit to anyone who does not know anything about technology. While it was apparently nothing really know, it was a reminder and a funny nerdy perspective on how to talk to non-technical people. The host of the session asked me to pitch an app about a location-based social realtime bakery finding service and I gave it a try. It was fun!

Finally, after the very hot and humid day, we wrapped up the whole thing. This year, there really seems to be substantially more traction for Android. I still think, it’s a little too chaotic, fragmented and the non-integrated user experience makes it a little difficult to use for many users. But it’s getting better.

Also it’s nice to finally see some competition, e.g. from Windows Phone 7. While I haven’t seen many people using one, I could imagine that Windows Phone 7 could actually be successful in a few years.

The event was really well organized. Plenty of food, a very nice location and great atmosphere. And everything was free. Thanks to the sponsors! Only chance of improvement: More Mate next time 🙂


Hacking@CDTM – First time

Just recently, I started an initiative called Hacking@CDTM. In the announcement at the Inspire & Dine I briefly explained what hacking is: It is about exploring the boundaries of anything that is programmable or that you can put together in some way. For example, building spaceships with Lego is hacking. Building a sensor box that has a temperature and a motion sensor and that transmits all the data wirelessly to another box which uploads it to the internet is hacking as well. So hacking really is about creatively exploring what can be done with technology. It’s sort of like Star Trek: “Going where no one has gone before.”

In our first iteration on May 21st, we hacked a Wireless Sensor Network (WiSeNet) together. A WiSeNet is a network of multiple nodes that contain sensors and transmit all their readings over the air. We used the robust and established industry standard ZigBee for this. ZigBee is a really great invention: It’s very power efficient, designed with the goal in mind of having thousands of equal sensor nodes over large areas (e.g. a rainforest) and it’s extremely robust. A typical use case could be detecting fires in a big forest: You build a large amount of these small ZigBee-equipped sensor boxes that work for years with just one battery. Then you distribute the boxes from an airplane over that wide area just like food supplies are sometimes distributed from the air in disaster zones. All you then have to do is constantly monitor all the readings from the sensor nodes. If there is a sudden high temperature reading from node, one can immediately go there and stop the fire before it spreads.

We had another use case in mind this time: Having sensors in your household to monitor your home. We played around with a number of sensors: temperature sensor, motions sensors, light intensity sensor, humidity sensors and a magnetic sensor (which can be used to detect an opened window if you place a magnet on the window and the sensor on the wall).

For those interested in the implementation: We used a netduino (compatible to Arduinos in many aspects, but it runs on an ARM7 core and comes with the .NET Micro Framework) and the XBee Series 2.5 modules from Digi. The XBee modules are relatively easy to use: You simply connect one of the serial buses of the netduino to the XBee module. ZigBee handles all the securing communications work for you and you just have to tell the module the address of the other module that it’s supposed to connect to in the beginning via some special commands that also go over the serial bus.

Within just a few hours we had calibrated one of the sensors and were able to transmit values from the sensor box to a laptop (we plugged a USB ZigBee module into that laptop). This required us to solder a little and find out how some of the sensors work. For me, being a computer scientist, this was an interesting new thing to learn. But it was great fun. Another guy also tried to play a little with the brand new Android Accessory Development Kit that we got right away from the Google I/O. But apparently one needs an android device to really do something with it, so we have to do that again next time.
We also want to continue working on this and maybe one day we can install our own home automation technology at the CDTM!

I would like to thank all who participated and Anas and Ronnie who helped me organize it and Christian Menkens for supporting us. Thanks also to Nils Hitze for providing the Accessory Development Kit.

Check out our website for updates and the next upcoming event! Go to hackingatcdtm.eu.

Amazing Greece

One thing really amazed me about Greece during my last one week trip: They speak English and they’re not arrogant. Frenchies, I am looking at you 😉

(Though I must say that I met some very open and totally not arrogant French couchsurfers in Athens.)

The Greeks that I met seemed a little embarrassed about their country. They were telling me about how bad their education system is. How it essentially is very unjust also as it forces everyone to take private lessons. The Greek students in high school apparently have private teachers for every single of their subjects (maths, foreign languages – and even for their own language!).

Also, it is apparent that most of Greece’s current trouble is caused by a lack of discipline of many people (not working the next day after some soccer games for example) and the fact that the government was not just a little dishonest with their people and the rest of the world. Every government in Europe is at least a little dishonest. Germany in particular likes to abstract away detail from the people. That is a good thing. But past German governments have also hidden away the facts behind their decisions and delayed necessary decision. The Greek government(s) went one step further and just reported entirely wrong numbers about their economy.

Given all that, the Greek are very open and friendly. They honestly welcome foreigners to their country. They speak English very well. Even on the country side.

This is a totally different experience to for example Spain. The Spanish I met always seem to have trouble with other languages (except couchsurfers). Also, it seems ridiculous to me that they really want different languages inside of Spain (Castilian, the real spanish, Catalan and some other fun languages). Come on guys, languages are tools, not ice cream flavors.

All in all it was a really nice experience in Greece and I am glad that we have them in the EU. As I keep insisting: Not having them in the EU would not make things better. Germany is slightly better at managing money, so we should should share the knowledge with them, because we need them as allies and they need us. There is big competition out there.

Re(engineering) Chaos

Europe should become an Apple product. A great piece of engineering that is not for everyone.

Chaos can really cause trouble. The most significant trouble lies in the fact that the word has developed a negative connotation. Initially it meant a state of formlessness. The Greek came up with that idea a few thousand years ago. Now it usually refers to a lack of efficiency caused by a lack of discipline. Once again, the Greek are demonstrating that.

I have been travelling around Europe, the more I am beginning to realize that there is no real trouble with the things people are talking about. Like the Euro or having a European Union.

The trouble is with (some of) the Europeans. There is a lack of faith and a lack of dedication. There is insufficient passion for a great system, a great design, a great product. One that works instead of being colorful and available in 27 different flavors that all don’t taste so well. We should think of the Euro, the Union and Europe as a product. Or maybe even multiple products. Be it one or many, each one product must fulfill a clear and proper purpose that works.

There are some countries in the EU which just can’t “frame” their country properly. The real trouble is corruption and bad education systems. The Greek for example have an education system which forces people to take private classes, because the public one is not good enough (even though they are paying taxes for it). That sounds like Windows: You need additional software to fix stuff that Microsoft just did not think of in the beginning. No one is perfect from the beginning. The difference lies in those who learn from mistakes and fix them and those who keep riding the dead horse.

I really believe that most of Europe’s troubles lie in the fact that the European Union compromises too much by trying to make everyone happy with every thing instead of having separate solutions for every one. Many countries in the EU want to be everything. Particularly Germany and France. They want to be at the top of every game that is out there. And at the same time they want to hold on to “theirs”: culture, language etc.

Instead, it would be a lot better if the member states would finally acknowledge that they are in this union now and that it is OK that the French focus on one thing, while Germany does the other and Greece a third, different thing. That would mean that the acknowledge that they are dependent on the others. Like really dependent. That their stuff is not the best of every bread. But that instead, we can trust each other.

In other words: Let the European union be a swiss army knife, a set of tools that each fulfill exactly one purpose, but very well.

Is (language) learning very easy?

I recently came across a website of an Irish guy who learned around 8 languages within a few years without any language courses or formal education in anything related to languages. He’s an engineer in fact and began learning languages when he was 21.

Sounds amazing. His idea is simple: Get a phrase book and then just travel to the country and try to speak to people. So, if you can only say “hi”, “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the language you want to learn that is perfectly enough to actually start talking to them with these 3 expressions and picking up everything else on the go – learning by doing!

This is also my experience with learning languages: Forget all those courses, books etc. Not necessary and not helpful! What worked for me quite well with Mandarin Chinese was the combination of regularly working through ChinesePod lessons + meeting regularly with a native speaker to practice one on one. You teach the other side a language you know (e.g. English) and they teach you their native language (e.g. Mandarin).

My feeling is that it is particularly important to avoid any situation that makes you feel like you are learning how to speak the language, where in reality you are only consuming / listening. So, if you are in a university course, listening to the teacher, you are not talking. If you just sit around at home reading, you are not talking and not practicing. Same goes for group “language exchanges” and anything that primarily does not force you to talk. It’s not going to lead you anywhere in terms of ever speaking the language.

Also I noticed (and that happened to me at one point to) that many people in time start think that actually speaking a language is not so important any more. They seem to study it without a real goal or just to be able to read it or so. It’s one of those tricks that our unconscious plays. We started with the intention of learning the language to actually talk and then all of sudden we end up not pursuing that goal any more, but instead some arbitrary goal. That’s not what most people will want. They probably study it to be able to speak it with real people, not just read books or understand some isolated phrases.

Now I have another hypothesis: Most of the time, learning by doing is the way to go even with other things than languages. My experience is that you can teach yourself pretty much every thing by simply repeating some reference. Whether you are learning with a group, from a teacher or totally on your own, it seems to be the same all the time.

Do you have the same experience with learning and particularly language learning?

Mobile Internet as a Lifesaver

Around two weeks ago, I was lost in the hills in Morocco. It was totally dark. No roads nearby. No one to ask. No lights. I was somewhere in the middle of nowhere, up in the hills. The village seemed very close, but I had no idea on how to get down. At some points, the descents were so steep, there was danger of falling in the dark.

Luckily, I had a local mobile internet card in my iPhone. I was of course far away from any roads, so the only thing that could help would be looking at the satellite image of the area to see if there was any hope if getting out of the hills more or less safely in the dark.

After freaking out a little at first, I looked at Google Map’s satellite image. It showed a path out. It would be a little adventurous, while not seeing much in the total dark, but eventually it led me out of the maze.

This shows how important and helpful mobile internet and smartphones can be. There would have been no way to find out with traditional tools like a map. The only thing that could theoretically have helped would be an iPhone with all those maps preloaded. But then again, I would have had to have thought about that before going up into the hills. Had I known that it will get dark so quickly though, I probably would not have even brought myself into this situation. So, being able to download these maps on demand when not having planned being lost in the middle of nowhere (when do you ever plan that?) is a real helper and can sometimes be a lifesaver.

I just hope now that we will have one global mobile internet tariff soon (i.e. <= 10 years). It's of course not likely, looking at the present slowness at which the carriers drop roaming rates. But, wouldn't it be great?

In the mean time, carriers have at least started to offer quite reasonable prepaid options. So, it is a hassle to switch sim cards in every country when travelling, but it makes using mobile internet everywhere at least possible for less than a fortune. My experience thus far was that also in general, it is a lot easier to navigate in a foreign country with Google Maps than with traditional tools like printed maps.

Too many platforms

Seeing all these mobile phone/tablet platforms at MWC is amazing from a technical point of view. But the manufacturers all don’t want to accept that it’s not gonna be iOS, android, QNX, Blackberry OS, webOS, Windows Phone 7, QT/Symbian and bada at the end. Nobody needs all of that.

In my opinion, they should not even compete for platforms, they could just all do Symbian, android (next to iOS) and be fine. Symbian can take the cheap phones, whereas android can to middle class to high end. And iOS will stay the Porsche among phones and tablets.

Also, many of the new tablets look kind of nice. But a lot is just unpractical (strange gestures, no iTunes companion etc.). Maybe I am biased myself, but many of the “advantages” of other platforms than iOS that I have heard about in the last few days probably won’t matter to most consumers (not being Apple, different screen sizes/colors/, no restrictive Apple App Store Policy).

Instead, most of the iPhone’s and iPad’s competitors are equally expensive, but they are not easier to use. The industry is just copying again and praising technicalities as competitive advantages. They’re mostly just not Apple. Different, but not better IMO.

In their fight for developer’s attention, they all treat developers nicely though. Beautiful women at the booths and good food and the whole day during the dev events. I’d wish though that more people who attend were actual developers. It would be way more fun if there were more actual questions instead of the suits just listening and only few guys in t-shirts participating in the sessions.

Personally, I want to look into Blackberry’s platform and write some basic apps and put them in their store to see what happens. But having been at their developer day today, they could not convince me to really believe in their platform. At launch time, they will not even have their Java SDK ready, but only their web framework and the not so popular Adobe AIR framework.
Their PlayBook has nice hardware data, but what matters to me as a developer is whether people will buy it instead of the iPad and I will be able to make money out of it.

Indo-germanic everywhere (again)?

For quite some time, I have had this feeling now that language does not just shape how we think, instead language is what we think. Thus, learning something new is learning a new language. E.g., maths is just a (group of) language(s).

Right now, with everyone (*) learning English, the world seems to morph into an Indo-Germanic world again. So my hypothesis here is that all Indo-European languages have (approximately) the same power of expression. Further, with English consisting of so many foreign words from mostly Indo-European languages, it seems like English is the best of all those refined into one.

Having started to learn a few languages at the same time, I have noticed something truly interesting: It’s hard for me to separate languages. I am nowhere near to being fluent in Spanish or Mandarin Chinese, but the more that I learn, the more the way I think becomes a mix of German, English, French, Spanish and Mandarin. It’s like as if the union of all these was turning into a new language… similiar to what English already is, but in a more grammatical way.

Whereas English does use a lot of words from other languages, it hasn’t started to adopt so many grammatical features of other languages. There is still (limited) inflection in English like in irregular past tenses and grammatical tenses are still an important concept. Mandarin has neither, but that hasn’t jumped over to English. I think it would be an advancement of the English language though.

I am really wondering: Many people in Germany say they “dream” in German. When exposed to English for a sufficient amount of time (expats, exchange semester) they are surprise when they start to “dream in English”. I am beginning to think and dream in all the languages that I started learning at the same time. But they don’t really feel separate. It feels more like they are a perfect match. Like fragments of the same puzzle, coming all together now. And now I am thinking: Why is that? Shouldn’t there be lots of people having the same experience? Or have I just not met them yet?

(*) except the Vulgar Latin speakers (French, Spanish, Italian)