Category Archives: Culture

250 words on spelling conventions in texting and twittering

twitterspelling

A few weeks ago, I came across a few intriguing questions in a job application form. Not just the usual inquiries about motivations, strengths and career plans, but questions that you could argue about in a pub or write books about. Below is my answer to the following question: “How much does it matter, if at all, that texting and twittering treat spelling convention with little respect? Please limit your answer to 250 words”. At the end of the post, you’ll find more food for thought. Continue reading

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Who Needs Information?

Radio KAOS

Pink Floyd has been with me all my life. My dad was listening to “Animals” when I was born. In the first 17 years of my life, I was involuntarily introduced to all of their other albums. Ever since they helped be overcome the worst moments of homesickness in the U.S. at the age of 18 – in particular “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall” – I have started to discover them for myself. Much to the liking of my dad, of course. When I asked last.fm to play me some Pink Floyd-like music the other day, it came up with “Who Needs Information?” by Roger Waters, a solo piece by one of the band members. Listening more closely, I thought it provides a very interesting perspective on communication – and the ever so timely warning that more information won’t solve all the world’s problems. Continue reading

Alumni communications – On how to keep in touch with those who left

BTP5_cover

A few days ago, we published the 5th issue of “Beyond the Pond” – the alumni magazine for all former students at Jacobs University Bremen. It’s called “Beyond the Pond” because on the university’s campus, there’s a little artificial pond that enjoys great fame and popularity among students (see picture above blends it with a swimming pool that used to be in its place). Maybe because it’s the most scenic part of campus (sadly enough); maybe because, year after year, it attracts a loved-up pair of ducks to its waters, which then produces some of the world’s most adorable ducklings. Now, that’s not the point of this post. I meant to say something about “alumni comunications” in general. Just why and how should former students/employees and their university/company talk to each other? Continue reading

Communication and the City

londonmap

This post was conceived over two cappuccinos in a cute little cafe in Northern London this afternoon. I found this cafe by searching the web for “best cafes in London” and got there by looking it up on Google maps. Finding the best places to go and figuring out how to get there – these are only two of the ways in which the Internet can help us navigate through urban landscapes. Are there other ways in which communication technology influences our lives in metropolitan cities? Continue reading

Che Guevara – What is it about his picture?

che

Right, another quick film review then. We went to see “Chevolution” the other night, a documentary about the famous photograph of Che Guevara. The film does a fairly good job delivering the historic facts about the picture’s origins (it was taken by Alberto “Korda” Diaz in 1960) and how it became the most reproduced photograph of a human being. Unfortunately, some of the people asked to comment on the image’s cultural and political significance are not doing a very good job at that and rather deliver some lofty polemics. Here are some of the deeper insights I distilled from “Chevolution”. Continue reading

Teachers, students, technology – New and shifting boundaries

classroom

I just quickly want to advertise a brilliant article I found in yesterday’s Guardian supplement about how new communication technologies change the relationship between teachers and students. The starting point is the most recent moral scandal in the UK which saw a female teacher being jailed for having an affair with a 15-year-old girl. A large number of the text messages they had exchanged were used as evidence in the case.

The Guardian article by John Henley offers a very balanced and nuanced perspective on how teachers and students have started to interact through new technologies. It’s all about boundaries that were once clearly established and now seem to become permeable. It’s about questions such as “Should I be friends with my students on Facebook?” or “Is it okay to send them emails?”.

When teachers and students suddenly meet in some virtual space, there are risks for both parties. So far, most public attention has focused on teachers who find themselves ridiculed on some video website or photo blog. Germany recently witnessed a court case in which a teacher had sued against an online portal which allows students to grade their teachers. The case was lost, but sparked a controversial discussion about any kind of rating websites, from doctors to travel companies.

As several cases cited in the Guardian article illustrate, students are also at risk when teachers use these new media to approach them in an indecent fashion. Oftentimes, social networking sites and other virtual spaces cannot offer enough control over the interactions they enable. This problem clearly extends beyond the teacher-student relationship into online child pornography in general.

What does it mean to be a teacher?

The bigger picture here is not so much about being ridiculed or indecent contact with minors. It’s about the changing role and self-understanding of teachers in an age of free-flowing information. It will no longer be possible for them to guard their classroom as a little island where they enjoy unchallenged authority over what knowledge gets circulated and how students learn. Teachers and schools will need to adjust to a new information environment in which they provide guidance on how to deal with these massive amounts of information.

That includes opening themselves up to new communication technologies (social networking sites, email, etc.) and figuring out a way in which they engage with their students while maintaining important boundaries.

Alan and Marvin – When machines talk

I’m a bit behind with my commentary on current news. But that’s okay, I think. Some days or weeks ago, the news was that Gordon Brown had issued an official apology to Alan Turing, a genius computer scientist, who was heavily discriminated against and “treated” for being gay until he committed suicide in 1954. Previously, Turing had helped crack the Germans’ encryption code during World War 2.

The story of how Brown’s apology came about is in itself noteworthy, for it came out of an e-petition on the UK government’s website. I must admit, I didn’t even know such thing existed in this country and I will certainly have a look at how e-petitions work. In this case, more than 30,000 signatures were collected and Alan Turing rightfully received his posthumous apology.

Turing Test of human “intelligence”

I guess Alan Turing was mostly known for his Turing Test. The Turing Test is an assessment of a computer’s ability to mimic human intelligence to such perfection that a human judge can no longer tell the difference between the computer and another human. It’s important to mention that the computer and his human counterpart are placed in separate rooms and they both talk to the human judge via some sort of text-based interface so that voice or handwriting don’t influence the verdict. The human judge can ask all sorts of questions through that interface to figure out who’s human and who’s not.

Every so often, some bright minds actually have a real competition based on the Turing Test. The contestant with the best human-intelligence-mimicking computer wins. Don’t know what though. Probably money and three levels up on the geek scale.

Of course, you may ask, “Wait a minute… you call being able to communicate through some text-based interface ‘intelligence’?” The philosophical debate about this is as old as the Turing Test itself and if you expect an authoritative answer in the next few paragraphs, I’m afraid I must disappoint you.

My humble opinion would be that simply being able to carry a nice conversation through some chat program doesn’t mean the computer in the other room is “intelligent”. Intelligence means relating the words and sentences of the conversation to the situation and the context in which it takes place, to everything that happened before and everything that is likely to happen later, and finally, relating the words and sentences to a “being” (don’t make me define “being”…). The conversation only makes sense when you interpret the words and sentences in relation to the unique “being” who expressed them.

The author JD Peters put forward the argument that Turing reduced intelligence to communication without the presence or interference of human bodies because he (subconsciously) wanted to escape the stigma of being homosexual. He may have hoped for a form of interaction and communication that is not distorted by any human “flaws”.

Speaking of talking machines…

While writing this, I remembered that the science fiction literature has already created a number of intelligent machines or robots that would not only ace the Turing Test but also live up to the standards of intelligence that I tried to describe just now (R2D2, etc.).

My most famous example is Marvin, the paranoid android from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s an incredibly intelligent robot, but he’s also incredibly depressed. Here are just three little quotes…

Marvin: “I am at a rough estimate thirty billion times more intelligent than you. Let me give you an example. Think of a number, any number.”
Zem: “Er, five.”
Marvin: “Wrong. You see?”

“I’d give you advice, but you wouldn’t listen. No one ever does.”

“I think you ought to know I’m feeling very depressed,” Marvin said.