The Future of Small Business?

If I would be asked which technology or ‘innovation’ has had the most profound impact on the way I work I would answer: Working remotely – with clients and systems I hardly ever see.

20 years ago I played with modems, cumbersome dial-in, and Microsoft’s Netmeeting. Few imagined yet, that remote work will once be the new normal. Today I am reading about Industry 4.0, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and how every traditional company has to compete with Data Krakens like Google and Amazon. Everything will be offered as a service, including heating. One consequence: Formerly independent craftsmen become preferred partners or subcontractors of large companies, of vendors of smart heating solutions. Creative engineering is replaced by calling the Big Vendor’s hotline. Human beings cover the last mile that robots or software cannot deal with – yet.

Any sort of customization, consulting, support, and systems integration might be automated in the long run: Clients will use an online configurator and design their systems, and possibly print them out at home. Perhaps someday our clients will print out their heat exchangers from a blueprint generated on Kraken’s website, instead of using our documentation to build them.

Allowing you to work remotely also allows everybody else in the world to do so, and you might face global competition once the barriers of language and culture have been overcome (by using ubiquitous US culture and ‘business English’). Large IT service providers have actually considered to turn their consulting and support staff into independent contractors and let them compete globally – using an online bidding platform. Well-known Data Krakens match clients and freelancers, and I’ve seen several start-ups that aspire at becoming the next matching Kraken platform for computer / tech support. Clients will simply not find you if you are not on the winning platform. Platform membership becomes as important as having a website or an entry in a business directory.

One seemingly boring and underappreciated point that works enormously in favor of the platforms is bureaucracy: As a small business you have to deal with many rules and provisions, set forth by large entities – governments, big clients, big vendors. Some of those rules are conflicting, and meeting them all in the best possible way does not allow for much creativity. Krakens’ artificial intelligence – and their lawyers and lobbyists – might be able to fend off bureaucracy better than a freelancer. If you want to sell things to clients in different countries you better defer the legally correct setup of the online shop to the Kraken Platform, who deals with the intricacies of ever evolving international tax law – while you become their subcontractor or franchisee. In return, you will dutiful sign the Vendor’s Code of Conduct every year, and follow the logo guidelines when using Kraken’s corporate identity.

In my gloomy post about Everything as a Service I came to the conclusion that we – small businesses who don’t want to grow and become start-ups – aspiring at Krakenhood themselves – will either work as the Kraken’s hired hands, or …

… a lucky few will carve out a small niche and produce or customize bespoke units for clients who value luxurious goods for the sake of uniqueness or who value human imperfection as a fancy extra.

My personal credo is rather a very positive version of this quote minus the cynicism. I am happy as a small business owner. This is just a single data-point, and I don’t have a self-consistent theory on this. But I have Skin in this Game so I share my anecdotes and some of the things I learned.

Years ago I officially declared my retirement from IT Security and global corporations – to plan special heat pump systems for private home owners instead. Today we indeed work on such systems, and the inside joke of doing this remote-only – ‘IT-style’ – has become routine. Clients find us via our blog that is sometimes mistaken for a private fun blog and whose writing feels like that. I have to thank Kraken Google, begrudgingly. A few of my Public Key Infrastructure clients insisted on hiring me again despite my declarations of looming ignorance in all things IT. All this allows for very relaxed, and self-marketing-pressure-free collaborations.

  • I try to stay away, or move farther away from anything strictly organized, standardized, or ‘platform-mediated’. Agreements are made by handshake. I don’t submit any formal applications or replies to Request for Proposals.
  • “If things do not work without a written contract, they don’t work with a contract either.”
  • I hardly listen to business experts, especially if they try to give well-meant, but unsolicited advice. Apply common sense!
  • Unspectacular time-tested personal business relationships beat 15 minutes of fame any time.
  • My work has to speak for itself, and ‘marketing’ has to be a by-product. I cannot compete with companies who employ people full-time for business development.
  • The best thing to protect your inner integrity is to know and to declare what you do not want and what you would never do. Removing the absolute negatives leaves a large area of positive background, and counter the mantra of specific ‘goals’ this approach lets you discover unexpected upsides. This is Nassim Taleb’s Via Negativa – and any career or business advice that speaks to me revolves around that.
  • There is no thing as the True Calling or the One and Only Passion – I like the notion of a Portfolio of Passions. I think you are getting to enjoy what you are learning to be good at – not the other way around.
  • All this is the result of years of experimenting in an ‘hyperspace of options’ – there is no shortcut. I have to live with the objection that I have just been lucky, but I can say that I made many conscious decisions whose ‘goal’ was to increase the number of options rather than to narrow them down (Taleb’s Optionality).

So I will finally quote Nassim Taleb, who nailed as usual – in his Facebook post about The New Artisan:

Anything you do to optimize your work, cut some corners, squeeze more “efficiency” out of it (and out of your life) will eventually make you hate it.

I have bookmarked this link for a while – because sometimes I need to remind myself of all the above.

Taleb states that an Artisan …

1) does things for existential reasons,
2) has some type of “art” in his/her profession, stays away from most aspects of industrialization, combines art and business in some manner (his decision-making is never fully economic),
3) has some soul in his/her work: would not sell something defective or even of compromised quality because what people think of his work matters more than how much he can make out of it,
4) has sacred taboos, things he would not do even if it markedly increased profitability.

… and I cannot agree more. I have lots of Sacred Taboos, and they have served me well.

Where to Find What?

I have confessed on this blog that I have Mr. Monk DVDs for a reason. We like to categorize, tag, painstakingly re-organize, and re-use. This is reflected in our Innovations in Agriculture …

The Seedbank: Left-over squared timber met the chopsaw.

The Nursery: Rebirth of copper tubes and newspapers.

… as well as in my periodical Raking The Virtual Zen Garden: Updating collections of web resources, especially those related to the heat pump system.

Here is a list of lists, sorted by increasing order of compactification:

But thanks to algorithms, we get helpful advice on presentation from social media platforms: Facebook, for example, encouraged me to tag products in the following photo, so here we go:

“Hand-crafted, artisanal, mobile nursery from recycled metal and wood, for holding biodegradable nursery pots.” Produced without crowd-funding and not submitted to contests concerned with The Intersection of Science, Art, and Innovation.

The Stages of Blogging – an Empirical Study

… with sample size 1.

Last year, at the 4-years anniversary, I presented a quantitative analysis – in line with the editorial policy I had silently established: My blogging had turned from quasi-philosophical ramblings on science, work, and life to no-nonsense number crunching.

But the comment threads on my recent posts exhibit my subconsciousness spilling over. So at this anniversary, I give myself permission to incoherent reminiscences. I have even amended the tagline with this blog’s historical title:

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.

Anecdotal evidence shows that many people start a blog, or another blog, when they are in a personal or professional transition. I had been there before: My first outburst of online writing on my personal websites predated quitting my corporate job and starting our business. The creative well ran dry, after I had taken the decision and had taken action – in the aftermath of that legendary journey.

I resurrected the old websites and I started this blog when I was in a professional no-man’s-land: Having officially left IT security, still struggling with saying No to project requests, working on our pilot heat pump system in stealth mode, and having enrolled in another degree program in renewable energies.

The pseudonymous phase: Trying out the new platform, not yet adding much About Me information. Playing. In the old times, I had a separate domain with proper name for that (subversiv.at). This WordPress blog was again a new blank sheet of paper, and I took the other sites offline temporarily, to celebrate this moment.

The discovery of a new community: The WordPress community was distinct from all other professional communities and social circles I was part of. It seems that new bloggers always flock together in groups, perhaps WordPress’ algorithms facilitate that. I participated with glee in silly blogging award ceremonies. However, I missed my old communities, and I even joined Facebook to re-unite with some of them. Living in separate worlds, sometimes colliding in unexpected ways, was intriguing.

Echoes of the past: I write about Difficult Things That I Handled In the Past – despite or because I have resolved those issues long before. This makes all my Life / Work / Everything collections a bit negative and gloomy. I blogged about my leaving academia, and my mixed memories of being part of The Corporate World. It is especially the difficult topics that let me play with geeky humor and twisted sarcasm.

The self-referential aspect: Online writing has always been an interesting experiment: Writing about technology and life, but also using technology. As philosophers of the web have pointed out, the internet or the medium in general modifies the message. I play with websites’ structure and layout, and I watch how my online content is impacted by seemingly cosmetic details of presentation.

Series of posts – find our favorite topic: I’ve never participated in blogging challenges, like one article a day. But I can understand that such blogging goals help to keep going. I ran a series on quantum field theory, but of course my expertise was Weird Internet Poetry … yet another demonstration of self-referentiality.

The unexpected positive consequences of weird websites – perhaps called ‘authentic’ today. They are a first class filter. Only people who share your sense of humor with contact you – and sense of humor is the single best criterion to find out if you will work well with somebody.

Writing about other people’s Big Ideas versus your own quaint microcosmos. I have written book reviews, and featured my favorite thinkersideas. I focussed on those fields in physics that are most popular (in popular science). My blog’s views had their all-time-high. But there are thousands of people writing about those Big Things. Whatever you are going to write about, there is one writer who cannot only write better, but who is also more of a subject matter expert, like a scientist working also as a science writer. This is an aspect of my empirical rule about your life being cliché. The remaining uncharted territory was my own small corner of the world.

Skin in the Game versus fence-sitting. Lots of people have opinions on many things on the internet. The preferred publication is a link to an article plus a one-liner of an opinion. Some people might really know something about the things they have opinions on. A minority has Skin in the Game, that is: Will feel the consequences of being wrong, personally and financially. I decided to focus on blogging about topics that fulfill these criteria: I have 1) related education and theoretical knowledge, 2) practical hands-on experience, 3) Skin in the Game. Priorities in reverse order.

The revolutionary experiment: Blogging without the motivational trigger of upcoming change. Now I have lacked the primary blogging impulse for a while. I am contented and combine anything in practice since a while. But I don’t have to explain anything to anybody anymore – including myself. I resorted to playing with data – harping on engineering details. I turn technical questions I get into articles, and I spend a lot of time on ‘curating’: creating list of links and overview pages. I have developed the software for my personal websites from scratch, and turned from creating content to structure for a while.

Leaving your comfort zone: I do edit, re-write, and scrutinize blog postings here relentlessly. I delete more content again than I finally publish, and I – as a text-only Courier New person – spend considerable time on illustrations. This is as much as I want to leave my comfort zone, and it is another ongoing experiment – just as the original stream-of-consciousness writing was.

But perhaps I will write a post like this one now and then.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Same Procedure as Every Autumn: New Data for the Heat Pump System

October – time for updating documentation of the heat pump system again! Consolidated data are available in this PDF document.

In the last season there were no special experiments – like last year’s Ice Storage Challenge or using the wood stove. Winter was rather mild, so we needed only ~16.700kWh for space heating plus hot water heating. In the coldest season so far – 2012/13 – the equivalent energy value was ~19.700kWh. The house is located in Eastern Austria, has been built in the 1920s, and has 185m2 floor space since the last major renovation.

(More cross-cultural info:  I use thousands dots and decimal commas).

The seasonal performance factor was about 4,6 [kWh/kWh] – thus the electrical input energy was about 16.700kWh / 4,6 ~ 3.600kWh.

Note: Hot water heating is included and we use flat radiators requiring a higher water supply temperature than the floor heating loops in the new part of the house.

Heating season 2015/2016: Performance data for the 'ice-storage-/solar-powered' heat pump system

Red: Heating energy ‘produced’ by the heat pump – for space heating and hot water heating. Yellow: Electrical input energy. Green: Performance Factor = Ratio of these energies.

The difference of 16.700kWh – 3.600kWh = 13.100kWh was provided by ambient energy, extracted from our heat source – a combination of underground water/ice tank and an unglazed ribbed pipe solar/air collector.

The solar/air collector has delivered the greater part of the ambient energy, about 10.500kWh:

Heating season 2015/2016: Energy harvested from air by the collector versus heating-energy

Energy needed for heating per day (heat pump output) versus energy from the solar/air collector – the main part of the heat pump’s input energy. Negative collector energies indicate passive cooling periods in summer.

Peak Ice was 7 cubic meters, after one cold spell of weather in January:

Heating season 2015/2016: Temperature of ambient air, water tank (heat source) and volume of water frozen in the tank.

Ice is formed in the water tank when the energy from the collector is not sufficient to power the heat pump alone, when ambient air temperatures are close to 0°C.

Last autumn’s analysis on economics is still valid: Natural gas is three times as cheap as electricity but with a performance factor well above three heating costs with this system are lower than they would be with a gas boiler.

Is there anything that changed gradually during all these years and which does not primarily depend on climate? We reduced energy for hot tap water heating – having tweaked water heating schedule gradually: Water is heated up once per day and as late as possible, to avoid cooling off the hot storage tank during the night.

We have now started the fifth heating season. This marks also the fifth anniversary of the day we switched on the first ‘test’ version 1.0 of the system, one year before version 2.0.

It’s been about seven years since first numerical simulations, four years since I have been asked if I was serious in trading in IT security for heat pumps, and one year since I tweeted:

Self-Sufficiency Poetry

Our self-sufficiency quota for electrical energy is 30%, but what about the garden?

Since I haven’t smart metered every edible wildflower consumed, I resort to Search Term Poetry and random images. This is a summer blog post, lacking the usual number crunching and investigative tech journalism.

(Search terms are from WordPress statistics and Google Tools)

Direct self-consumption quota was nearly 100% last year (no preservation), and self-sufficiency was very low, with one exception: Yarrow tea.

This year we will reach 100% herbal tea self-sufficiency:

Yarrow TeamThe solar/air collector is boosting yarrow harvest – and we have yet to include its cosmic quantum free energy focusing effect in the marketing brochure.

fringe science theories
can efficiency be greater than 1

Collector, yarrow, poppy

But it also boosts vitality of other life forms:

alien energy

Slimey Aliens near collector

I cannot prove that these particular slimy aliens – edible and a protected species in Austria – are harmful as I never caught them red-handed. You just need to be careful when collecting vegetables to avoid the slimy parts.

We are self-sufficient re green ‘salad’ and ‘fake spinach’ for about half a year. Our top edible wild flowers in terms of yield are Dandelion, Fireweed, Meadow Goat’s Beard …

why does the grim reaper have a scythe

Meadow Goat's Beard

… and White Stonecrop: both tasty …

jurassic park jelly

White Stonecrop and snail

… and ornamental:

zeitgeisty

White Stonecrop, Sedum Album

With standard vegetables (accepted as edible by the majority) we did crop rotation – and the tomatoes look happiest as solitary plants in new places …

analyzing spatial models of choice and judgment

Tomatoe Plant

The Surprise Vegetable Award goes to an old heirloom variety, called Gartenmelde in German:

slinkyloop antenna
physics metaphors

Gartenmelde

Last year exactly one seedling showed up, and we left it untouched. This year the garden was flooded with purple plants in spring:

virtual zen garden

Gartenmelde in spring

There are two main categories of edible plants – and two different branches of the food chain: Things we mainly eat, like tomatoes, herbs, onion, and garlic …

old-fashioned

Garlic, tomatoes, herbs

… and the ones dedicated to alien species. Top example: The plants that should provide for our self-sufficiency in carbohydrates:

simple experiment

Potatoes

In the background of this image you see the helpful aliens in our garden, the ones that try to make themselves useful in this biosphere:

force on garden hose
so called art

Helpful Alien

But looking closer, there is another army of slimy life-forms, well organized and possibly controlled by a superior civilization in another dimension:

the matrix intro
protocol negotiation failed please try again

Slimey aliens and potatoes

microwaving live animals

This garden is fertilizer- and pest-control-free, so we can only try to complement the food chain with proper – and more likeable – creatures:

solutions to problems

Hedgehog, Potatoes

Yes, I have been told already it might not eat this particular variety of aliens as their slime is too bitter. I hope for some mutation!

But we are optimistic: We managed to tune in other life-forms to our philosophy as well and made them care about our energy technology:

so you want to be an engineer

Blackbird and air pump

This is a young blackbird. Grown up, it will skillfully de-slime and kill aliens, Men-in-Black-style.

Life-forms too quick or too small for our random snapshot photography deserve an honorable mention: Welcome, little snake (again an alien-killer) and thanks mason bees for clogging every hole or tube in the shed!

It is a pity I wasted the jurassic park search term on the snail already as of course we have pet dinosaurs:

Pet Dinosaur

So in summary, this biotope really has a gigantic bug, as we nerds say.

sniff all internet access

Bug or Feature

Travelling Like Spam Poetry

We have an anniversary.

In the summer of 2005,
the Chief Engineer and I set out to visit every Austrian village
whose names started with the letter Z.

It was a straight-forward idea given that we lived in a z-village. Our universe of websites contains the virtual equivalent – z-village.net, a German website chronicling the adventures and musings of two fearless settlers – calling themselves Subversive Element and Irgendwer (Somebody Doing Anything Nobody Wants to Do). These setters are on a mission to discover myth-enshrouded z-village. Today the z-village website is an epic tomb, but we link to it on our blog: punktwissen – Professional Tinkerers and Restless Settlers, tagging it with How it all got started. Perhaps that’s why not every reader recognizes this blog’s business-y nature.

Now, after I have scared everybody off with weird links (…. wait, I forgot to mention that it was the other members of our EPSI circle that suggested this trip!), here is the story:

We used the official list of z-villages from Austria’s statistical service – 247 places in total in a manual approach to optimization: Trying to visit as many as possible in one round trip. In the end, we managed to see 100 z-villages, driving 2000 km in about 10 days.

So the process was:

Try to find the next z-village shown in your print-out of Google maps or referred to in other sources. Most of these villages were small settlements rather than political entities, comprised of houses with addresses like z-village 7, and finding those was like trying to follow a yellowed old treasure map.

z-tripz-tripFind a place-name sign.

z-trip, found sign.Take a weird photo of the sign (Collection).

z-trip

Take to our heels when local life-forms start wondering. Sometimes it was scary, like Indiana Jones meeting the cannibals. In the north of Austria near the border to Czech Republic  – places typically picked for stereotype dark-family-secret-in-rural-village crime stories – the locals were especially suspicious.

Look, these guys are taking a photo of the sign ????!!!

z-trip, scary place

I realize, it might be hard to see the fun in this. You need to be part of it. Later I proposed this type of travelling to become part of life coaches’ outdoor training offerings. In jest of course, but as usual some people took it seriously.

Via the silly rule implied by the list of names we were forced to travel to places you would never pick for any type of vacation: They were neither advertised to tourists nor intriguing to maverick adventurers. It was like clicking form one hyperlink to the next and having to pick one line for poetry.

In the years before the z-trip our travelling was mainly for business. I mainly saw airports, train stations, motorways, and corporate headquarters. Though it should not have been a secret, the z-trip showed us that we live in a country comprised of fields and forests, of land not completely sealed by the tokens of 20th century’s civilization.

z-trip, as in the bucolic cliché

z-trip, magic well

z-trip, wind farm

We had to neglect some z-villages in the Western, Alpine regions to keep kilometers to a reasonable level. Nevertheless, we saw enough small villages that made us wonder how people can cope with tons of snow.

It was like in these movies portraying New Yorkers travelling to the wilderness of Alaska for the first time, having to deal with harsh weather and raccoons. I realized how clichéd, biased, and distorted some of my views were (… and yet, I use more clichés now to make my point!).

z-trip, wild animals

We both quit our corporate jobs the day after we had returned from that trip.

z-trip, settlers' selfie

Travelling like this was like using the internet in the pre-social-media era: Jumping from one obscure private website – designed by Microsoft FrontPage, with pink marquee taglines – to the next, not sharing and commenting on it.

I crafted my first website in 1997 – with FrontPage, I admit, and for business – but I was very reluctant to enter the interactive social web for a long time. My reluctance was the topic of my very first WordPress post. Since three years I have been exploring Web 2.0, and I am now returning to the z-travelling style of using the internet.

z-trip, mystic river

z-trip, bumpy road ahead

Update on Edible ‘Weed’

After two physics articles with too much links I owe you an image-only link-free post. This is an update to my catalogue of edible wildflowers in our lawn meadow.

I amended the original list with one amazing wild vegetable: Meadow Goatsbeard. In past years I tried to eradicate it, now I don’t scythe certain patches but carefully use grass shears, avoiding to cut its signature yellow bloom:

meadow-goatsbeard

It can be used as fake spinach and for salad – I vouch for both! Insiders say the roots are the real delicacy (tasting like salsifies), but this year I will not yet dig out the roots but rather let them flower and disperse their seeds. The most amazing feature is that it grows and grows new leaves, despite it had not rained in the past week and maximum temperatures were up to 30°C.

Here is the result of a single ‘harvesting session’ (left):

meadow-goatsbead-yarrow

… side-by-side with a Yarrow leaves (right). We are self-sufficient on tea since April. thanks yarrow and Lemon Balm.

In the background of the first image: the tomato plants attached to the solar collector. So far they look good this year, blooming nicely:

tomatoes-collector-june-2015

We weren’t able to discard ‘spare’ tomato seedlings – so they grow near the compost pile. Clients visiting us to see the heat pump system may think we are in the tomato business (one strawberry plant in the middle):

even-more-tomatoesFinally my secret favorite has started growing – Portulaca / Purslane. Yes, I think it tastes like pepper!

The wild, creeping variety (… and even more ‘spare’ tomatoes in the background):

wild-portulaca

The more erect variety, from purchased seeds (the larger ones).

portulaca-erect

The plants in the background is for decoration and suppression of other weed, such as grass 🙂 Some variety of Sedum Reflexum (yellowish), and Phlox.

Speaking about Sedum: White Stonecrop was a main ingredient in the typical spring salad, together with Dandelions, and the absolutely amazingly tasty Fireweed.

Now White Stonecrop is nearly blooming (in the image below: in front of seed pods of Pasque Flowers / Prairie Crocus[*] Afterwards it will wither – then harvesting season is over.

[*] I am sure I picked the most uncommon common name often in this post, actually I am not even sure about German ones.

white-stonecrop

Fireweed – despite the temptation I keep a few for seeds:

fireweedAs for Dandelions, it seems I was unable to take a photo of the plants. Now I know how to feel sorry for having not enough weed anymore. The buds are even more delicious than the young leaves.

dandelions

The photo of fireweed als shows one of my new favorite decorative weeds in the background, but the Poppy season is nearly over now.

poppy-june-2015

Poppy’s seed capsules have some aesthetic value, but they cannot beat Nigella Sativa. Here is spice in the making – alien space probes inspecting the garden.

nigella-seed-capsules

Those plants we finally picked for cultivating – weed or not – are also the ones that turned out maintenance-free, drought-resistant, and capable of taking care of themselves – suppressing other unwanted plants. The remaining ‘work’ – if you want to call it like that – is truly enjoyable and like the proverbial raking the Zen garden.

We have never used weed killers nor fertilizer except the soil from compost. We only water tomato plants and mediterranean herbs a bit, so scything is due only once every two or three weeks. I don’t care if the meadow is burnt down to straw in summer.

These are my favorite drought-tolerant alien periscopes –  Hen and Chicks, used as a medicinal herb, otherwise too bitter even for me.

alien-hen-and-chicks

We don’t fight pests, and I live in fear what will happen to eggplants’ fruits. I have learned that those are (in our climate) slugs’ favorite diet in summer. In this case the, last resort is my office gardening experiments. To  my surprise, this spare plant has some flower buds already.

eggplant-office-june-2015

… maybe due to the wooden ‘table’: original Art from the Scrapyard – from the remainders of our two large spruces – by the Carpenter-Artist-Engineer-Physicist working in that office with me.