Data on Learning to Speak

80,000 hours of video and 120,000 hours of audio recording.  That is the massive amount of data collected by MIT Media Lab‘s Human Speechome Project to analyze how one child learns to speak.  You can see a visual of the data on to get a feel for how words are gained over time.  Just clicking through the words and seeing the relationship between caregiver use and child use impresses me with the power of being able to collect such data.

“The Speechome team believes that this unique dataset may shed light on basic questions of language acquisition, at least as they pertain to one child. Why did he learn words in the order that he did? Why did he start putting certain words together into proto-sentences before others? In what contexts did he effectively use words? How long after he comprehends a word does he first use that word? How did the structure of everyday life at home influence language development? The research team at MIT is in the process of analyzing the audio and video recordings with the ultimate goal of addressing these questions.” according to the Forbes article Speech in the Home.

Immersive Communications

Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs has announced an application called immersive communications that combines physical, virtual, and augmented reality into one.  Forbes covered the story in Bell Labs’ Super Virtual Conferencing.  The idea is that geographically dispersed people on a variety of mobile devices can have a virtual conference in which they all appear and sound to be in the same room.  Think video conference plus virtual reality and make it mobile.

The concept is enticing, though it may take a few years before we see it in use.  One-to-one communication has become mobile as has mass communication, so it is easy to see that small group communication would follow that trend.  In terms of video, again we see that throughout mass communication and we are beginning to see it with one-to-one communication as smart phones get video capabilities. We also see extensive use of land-line video conferencing in large organization, so it is not hard to imagine those systems folding in a mobile element.

What is harder to imagine is the virtual reality component.  The element of all participants appearing and sounding to be in the same room.  As a communication scholar, this is the most exciting element because it uses technology to replace the look and feel of human contact.

In an article Anywhere, Anytime Immersive Communications, authors T. Van Landegem and H. Viswanathan outline just why and how this new form of communication will occur.

I look forward to seeing you immersively some time in the next decade.

Whisper to the Brain

Neurology is now being applied to persuading others through communication.  The NYT article, “Ads that Whisper to the Brain” reveals techniques used to discover what activates the human brain when somebody watches a commercial.

Researches use electroencephalographs (EEGs) to measure brain waves that become more active when people have heightened attention to determine if they are engaged by the commercial.

According to the article, “Neuromarketing’s raison d’être derives from the fact that the brain expends only 2 percent of its energy on conscious activity, with the rest devoted largely to unconscious processing. Thus, neuromarketers believe, traditional market research methods — like consumer surveys and focus groups — are inherently inaccurate because the participants can never articulate the unconscious impressions that whet their appetites for certain products.

If pitches are to succeed, they need to reach the subconscious level of the brain, the place where consumers develop initial interest in products, inclinations to buy them and brand loyalty, says A. K. Pradeep, the founder and chief executive of NeuroFocus, a neuromarketing firm based in Berkeley, Calif.”

What does this mean for consumers?  Well, first off researchers haven’t made the connection between brain wave activation and the purchasing  of products, so it may be a mute point.  But, the effort to influence consumers through communication is as old as time.

What is helpful is to be aware of the power of communication, both as a broadcaster and a consumer.  What you say and how you say it influences others.  And what you see and hear influences you.  Being aware is the key.  Being aware, you can acknowledge the sudden hunger that arises after watching an Oreo ad, or the desire to become involved after hearing a compelling political message. Being aware, you can acknowledge the influence of persuasive communication on yourself.  As for the subconscious thoughts, well, you still have the power to choose your actions.

Virtual Reality Transforming Social Interactions

If you watch yourself in a virtual mirror as an attractive avatar for 90 seconds, you will stand closer to other virtual beings and be more confident about your own looks in filling out an online data application. What happens in virtual reality, effects reality.

This I learned from a very interesting lecture video by Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL).

With my communication scholar bias, I was particularly interested in learning how non-verbal communication in virtual reality can be incredibly powerful.  In an experiment called “Augmented Gaze” virtual students are more attentive when the virtual teacher is looking at them.  In another experiment called “Digital Chameleon” if an avatar mimics your head movements with a 4-second delay you find them more engaging and are more likely to be persuaded by them.

Of course, we know of the power of non-verbal communication in reality, but it’s power in virtual reality is a bit of a surprise for me.  I believe, as Bailenson states, this will transform social interactions.

Words Can Get You Fired

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country,” he said. “But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

These words got veteran NPR journalist Juan Williams fired.  You can read the full story “NPR fires Juan Williams over anti-Muslim remarks” from The Washington Post. You can also read William’s perspective.

I am not passing judgement on Mr. Williams for I know too little about the case.  I am however pointing out the power of words.  Words can get you fired.

As a journalist, you make a living off your words.  Your words tell stories and share information.  When your words don’t match with the the standards of your organization — they can get you fired.

According to The Washington Post, NPR found that Williams words, “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.”

On, Williams rebutts that NPR, “Used an honest statement of feeling as the basis for a charge of bigotry to create a basis for firing me. Well, now that I no longer work for NPR let me give you my opinion. This is an outrageous violation of journalistic standards and ethics by management that has no use for a diversity of opinion, ideas or a diversity of staff (I was the only black male on the air). This is evidence of one-party rule and one sided thinking at NPR that leads to enforced ideology, speech and writing. It leads to people, especially journalists, being sent to the gulag for raising the wrong questions and displaying independence of thought.”

Strong, or should I say, Powerful, words on both sides.

Forget Coopetition, Now we Have Frenemies

I am probably more easily amused by communication quirks than others, but this is entertaining.

The San Jose Mercury news article on Adobe’s stock climbing on news of a secret meeting with Microsoft, explains that the companies are ‘frenemies.’

“Both Microsoft and the San Jose maker of expensive graphic design and Internet software are “frenemies” (at the same time rivals and business partners) of Apple, the Cupertino maker of Mac computers and “i” devices.”

I guess I have some of those myself.  You know people you run a 5K with, but really want to beat. Frenemies.

The invention of new words is always entertaining.  But the intention of a word that combines two antonyms, now that just makes my day.

Cross-Generation Tech Communication

In this Forbes article on The Cross-Generation Workforce, the digital disparity of generations is highlighted as an issue in the workforce.  I completely agree that as tech-savvy graduates enter the workforce that issues around technology use will need to be resolved.  The article puts forth some good suggestions on how IT departments can address the issues.  I would like to put forth that communication will be the key to making a successful shift.

Skillful communication between new entries into the workforce and the existing workforce has always been the core to successful transitions.  In this case, you have a new workforce that uses different tools to communicate and has a more spontaneous communication style (grossly generalizing here).  The challenge will be to accommodate that style somewhat and also change some of the communication patterns to meet the existing company communication culture.  Of course, that happens through communication.  That happens through listening an observing all members of the workforce and compromising on process and style.  Some of that can come through leadership setting policy and example, but most of that comes through individuals being committed to skillful communication.  Listening to one another and being open to compromise.

The idea that new workforce entries are more tech-savvy isn’t new, but the rapid pace of technological change has definitely increased the divide, therefore, increasing the need for skillful communication.

What Not to Do in Crisis

A crisis communication situation is never fun and always complicated.  Over the years, I have done my best to help clients in crisis navigate the waters.  This NYT article In Case of Emergency: What Not to Do is an excellent overview of the common crisis communication strategies as applied to BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs.  What I like most about the article is the clear message that crisis management is not just about the communication — the actions taken are way more important.  But, screwing up the communication does make it worse.

The article walks through the three poorly-handled crisis of BP, Toyota, and Goldman Sachs and points out what could have been done differently.  The top of my peeve list is leaders not sticking to the agreed upon message.  More than any other issue, I have personally found that ‘loose lips sink ships’ to be the greatest issue in crisis communication.  Because leaders are human (and oft full of ego), many find it very difficult to say what was agreed upon by the strategist and then shut up.  The article puts forth a few choice quotes:

“There is no one who wants this thing over more than I do. I would like my life back,” Tony Hayward, CEO of BP

Banking is “God’s Work,” Lloyd C. Bankfein, CEO, Goldman Sachs

Believe me, no communication strategist or lawyer suggested those statements.  They just didn’t need to be said.  When all eyes and ears are on a spokesperson in times of crisis, stick to the script!

That brings me back around to actions speak louder than words and the best communication can’t make up for tragic environmental damage, car defaults that lead to death, or getting rich at the cost of economic suffering of others.  But, good communication can pave the path for recovery and open the door to regaining trust.

Time is Money

Time is money. Something I learned just as I entered adulthood.  I remember my first UCSD economics class and a graph that pitted time against money.  The professor asked us students to put ourselves on the graph based on our own values — which was more important time or money?

It’s Free Only if Your Time is Worthless”  by Damon Darlin of The New York Times reminds us the the Internet is not really free because it takes up our time.  For some, lots of time.  Darlin uses the example of searching for free TV shows instead of paying for cable service.  Depending on how much you are worth on an hourly basis, that one show that took you 20 minutes to find could be costing you $30!

In that early economics class I valued time more than money, and I still do. Though my Internet habits may not be keeping with my stated value.  I find myself searching for hours for a flight that is $20-100 cheaper.  That is not good economics.

Thanks to Darlin for reminding us that our time is money.

Singularity Movement — One step too far?

The NY Times SundayBusiness section ran an article titled, “Merely Human?  So Yesterday” about the Singularity Movement.  Singularity, according to this article, is ” a time, possibly just a few decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.”  Technology and humans merge with technology taking the leading role.

The Singularity Movement has a university, aptly named, Singularity University that was started in 2008 by Mr. Kurzweil and Mr. Diamandis, with the help of Google co-founder Larry Page.  The corporate founders are listed as Autodesk, Google, and ePlanet Ventures.  The purpose of the university is to educate entrepreneurs on leading-edge technologies and it offers attendees contact with leading thinkers of our time.  With this mission, I agree.  I think it is fantastic that the bright minds of our time are collaborating and sharing ideas to solve the world’s woes.

What I have a hard time with is the side of the movement that, according to the NY Times article “offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth by affirming the notion that, yes, indeed, humans — or at least something derived from them — can have it all.”  The article quotes founder Kurzweil as saying, “‘We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology.””  As a practicing Buddhist, this is where I have to bow out.  I am a huge fan of technology and believe it does and will continue to solve many of the world’s woes, but I still want to be human.  I still want to be with the ‘pain body’ that we have on this earth.  I don’t want technology to fix death.

Another NY Times article, “What Broke My Father’s Heart“, addresses the very issue of technology extending life.  Sometimes it is better to accept death.  To accept being human.

I hope Singularity University is successful in it’s stated mission, ” . . . to assemble, educate and inspire leaders who understand and develop exponentially advancing technologies to address Humanity’s Grand Challenges.”  I just hope we keep Humanity the key focus, and not let technology take the lead.

Communication and Bullying

This month’s issue of Communication Currents covers the topic of bullying.  Often bullying is thought of as a physical offense, but more often than not it is a communication offense.  And, communication is always required to solve the problem.

The article points out how prevalent the problem is in schools and organizations.  It also addresses the challenge of solving the problem in an effective manner.  In particular, cultural norms come into play in helping the victim.

For example, people trying to help a victim in the US are more likely to recommend the victim seek a third party support, such as a counselor, than a person trying to help a victim in Japan.  That communication message is poorly received if used in Japan.

From the article: “By contrast, for victims in Japan, network support turns out to be the worst type of message. Being offered to introduce a third-party expert or confidant resulted in a considerable drop in their satisfaction level. There are several reasons that might account for this finding. First, seeking the advice of a third party is not customary in Japan. Seeing a therapist, for example, is still seen as equivalent to having psychological problems. A second reason is the fear of information leakage. Japan is a tightly knit society. As a result, one’s social network does not change often. Revealing the secret of bullying in such a closely tied society is a highly risky maneuver. Finally, suggesting to victims that they should see a third-party can be interpreted as an evasive answer: “I can’t or don’t want to deal with this issue. Go talk to someone else who is better capable of solving your problem.”

I found this article interesting in that it brings up an issue that is really communication based — in both its cause and solution — and addresses the cultural influence of communication.

Broadcast Slideshow

There is a new feature in Office 2010 that I can’t wait to try.  It is called Broadcast Slideshow and it allows you to create a link to your presentation so others can watch it via the Internet.  Brent Whichel of explains the feature in this video.

I think of the number of times we set up webinars to share information.  From my understanding, this feature can replace a basic webinar.  Just create and distribute a link to your PowerPoint presentation and others can follow along in a web browser as you flip through your slides.  Now, granted, there are polling and other features that webinars offer, but this is a simple alternative when you just want to share a presentation.

When I am working on developing a presentation with a client, I often find that we are each going through the same presentation slide-by-slide discussing what needs to be changed.  That requires the repetitive dialogue of ‘now we are on slide x’.  With the Broadcast Slideshow feature, that dialogue will not be needed because as I flip to a new slide, my client will be able to see that same slide.

Of course, being a Mac user, I will have to wait until 2011 before I can get the full-powered version.

Does Social Networking Make us More or Less Social?

That is the question on many social scientists and communication scholars minds.  When people use social networks and texting, does it hinder their ability to communicate in person?  Are these technologies making us more social or less social?

It is not clear how the rise in instant, computer-mediated communication will change the nature of social interactions, but it is clear there will be a change.  A significant change.

In the New York Times article this Sunday, Antisocial Networking?, the writer brings forth current statistics on teens’ use of social networking and texting and debates the social implications.

Commentary on the statistics from the PewInternet Study website suggests that face-to-face teen contact has actually remained steady (31%-2006, 39%-2007, 29%-2008, 33%-2009) while texting and social networking has increased.  In regard to texting, the author, Rich Ling, comments “Thus, another interpretation is that teens actually have more access and more informal, casual contact because of texting. This is because texting is woven into the flow of other activities.”

There we have it, evidence that it is making us more social.

But the NY Times article also mentions a Kaiser Family Foundation report that American kids between 8-18 spend 7 1/2 hours a day using an electronic device.  That is evidence that it is making us less social.

Is all this electronic interaction making the next generation less able to develop and maintain healthy relationships?  Or, are healthy relationship going to be defined differently in the next decades?

All I know is that I am thankful I am alive during this period of such change and can’t wait to see how technology and communication continue to intermix and influence each other over time.

PowerPoint — An Internal Threat?

The New York Times did a story, “We Have Met the Enemy and He is PowerPoint” about the military’s use or misuse of the presentation tool.  As is common, the tool is blamed for horrible presentations that result.  While I do not agree with the belief that PowerPoint makes you stupid and it is the tool that makes presentations bad, the article does make some valid points.

In claiming that PowerPoint is an internal threat, General McMaster makes a good point.  “It’s dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control,” General McMaster said in a telephone interview afterward. “Some problems in the world are not bullet-izable.” If only bullet points are used, it is difficult to see the interconnectedness of items, make a complex situation seem overly simple.  With that I totally agree.

He goes on to make the point that PowerPoint hinders the decision making process because it limits critical thinking and discussion.  Here I don’t agree.  It is only when the tool is misused that this occurs.  If people are presuming that once it is on a slide it is fact and not questioning the presenter, then it limits critical thinking, but that is the fault of the people.  And if the presenter does not use PowerPoint to encourage conversation, then that is the fault of the presenter.

I do think that there is a tendency to believe that PowerPoint replaces more elements of a communication interaction then it really does.  If used properly, it promotes communication and understanding by giving an additional visual element to the conversation.  That is it.  It doesn’t replace the conversation or lessen the responsibility of anyone participating.  That is the crux of the issue.

Since the program is not going away any time soon, as the article clearly states is the case in the military, perhaps it is time to teach more people how to use the tool more effectively.

If Communication Fails . . . Spouse Spying

The Forbes article “How to Track a Cheating Spouse” is one way to find out if your mate is being faithful.  Being that I am all about communication, I prefer the direct communication route.  If you ask your spouse to their face if they are sleeping with someone else, chances are you will be able to tell from their reaction, even if they lie straight to your face.

But, I guess if you try the direct communication and they lie, you can do as this article suggests and use technology to track down their activities.  Now we not only have phone logs and kept text-message conversations, but we even have GPS to track if people are where they said they would be.

So, if direct communication fails . . .

Scrabble Words

Being that Scabble is my most favorite game in the world, I was quite interested in hearing the news about proposed changes to the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary (OSPD) shared in the NY Times.

I recently had the opportunity to play Scrabble with an ordinary dictionary (travel version at that) and found it very unsatisfying. All of my usual end-of-game short words didn’t even exist in the travel dictionary.  It made me miss my OSPD.  But little did I know that the Scrabble Dictionary had so much conflict surrounding it.

From the NYT:

“The rules on the inside cover of the box, written by the game’s inventor, Alfred Butts, and its first marketer, James Brunot, are explicit: “Any words found in a standard dictionary are permitted except those capitalized, those designated as foreign words, abbreviations and words requiring apostrophes or hyphens.”

The interpretation of those rules, however, has been anything but simple. This past week, outrage sounded worldwide after reports, which proved untrue, that Scrabble would permit the use of proper nouns. The linguistic dust-up was only the latest in the game’s history.”

Apparently I am not the only one who has heated debates over whether foul language and foreign words commonly used in English should be allowed on the board.  Apparently there is a constant debate over making the dictionary more inclusive versus concise.  Next time I am arguing over a word with an opponent, I will remember two things:  1) I am not alone in my struggle 2) never play without my OSPD by my side.

It is About Time!

“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Quoted in NY Times Article, Top Defense Officials Seek to End ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’).

Did it really take our military 16 years to figure that out!?!

The message that has been sent to those serving our country is that it is ok to lie, but not to be gay.  Even though it is actually against the law to lie, that is better than telling your fellow service people that you are gay.  And, now, 16 years later the military leaders are thinking that maybe they were wrong.

It is about time!  Actually, it is way past time, but better late then never.  How about the message:  accept others for who they are because all humans have more in common than they have differences.  How about the message:  if you are willing to put yourself in harms way for the benefit of your country, we are all grateful.

Good Reminder of Cross-Culture Communication Needs

Just read a Forbes article titled “Technology’s Language Barrier” on the topic of communicating with technology across cultures.  It is an interested article and a good reminder of how we need to increase our cross-culture communication skills as our world shrinks from technology innovation.

Simple mistakes, like not understanding that Chinese women don’t change their names when they marry, strongly impact communication.  As the Internet opens the door to more cross-culture communication, these misunderstandings can occur more frequently and with greater consequences.

The article points out that while English has become the de-facto business world language, most of the 900 million people who have Internet access don’t speak English and 250 million of those people live in Asia.  Being able to effectively communicate with these people is critical from both a cultural and a business perspective.

Communicating with A Sex Doll

Now this story on Roxxxy peaked my interest — from a communication perspective, of course.  Robotic girlfriends have been around for a long time in some form or another.  And, as in every other area, technology has improved the experience, so I have read.  But apparently the physical experience is not enough and communication is a desired feature.  Douglas Hines’ original 1993 invention Trudy, lacked personality.

According to John Murrell’s Good Morning Silicon Valley email newsletter:

“Roxxxy still can’t move without assistance, but she offers what Trudy lacked and customers apparently wanted — conversational skills. “Sex only goes so far — then you want to be able to talk to the person,” Hines said. Equipped with sensors and an attached laptop, “she’s a companion,” he said. “She has a personality. She hears you. She listens to you. She speaks. She feels your touch. She goes to sleep. We are trying to replicate a personality of a person.” ”

So I get that communication is a critical part of intimacy with another human, but I am having a hard time with the concept of communication contributing to the experience with a sex doll.  But, Hines is being responsive to customer demand, and apparently the ability to communicate is desired.  And, when you order the robot online, you fill out a survey that allows Roxxxy’s personality to be personalized to match your likes and dislikes.  The cost for this conversational doll ranges from $7-9K.

Tell Them What You’re Gonna Tell Them

Remember the saying “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them” that is a recommendation for effective communication?

Well this week, the tech industry giants seems to be doing just that. Today Google speculation about the new Nexus One phone and Apple speculation about the slate computer were all over the Internet, including this San Jose Merc article.

I am not so interested in the news as I am in the communication technique.  It is the game of garnering the attention of technology consumers.  It is the game of stealing the attention from other companies.  Just as  CES (Consumer Electronics Show) is about to kick off this week in Las Vegas, Google is swinging attention its way with a press conference the Tuesday before the show.  And, even though Apple is not making any announcements to several weeks after the show, new is ‘leaking’ about future announcements, stealing a bit of attention from Google.

The original saying was a recommendation to help audience’s remember the key message.  Well, in this case, I would say not only does it help the consumers of technology remember what is being announced, but it also works as a power play to attract their attention — away from other company’s news.