Anniversary 4 (4 Me): “Life Ends Despite Increasing Energy”

I published my first post on this blog on March 24, 2012. Back then its title and tagline were:

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything
Physics versus engineering
off-the-wall geek humor versus existential questions
IT versus the real thing
corporate world’s strangeness versus small business entrepreneur’s microcosmos knowledge worker’s connectedness versus striving for independence

… which became

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything
I mean it

… which became

elkemental Force
Research Notes on Energy, Software, Life, the Universe, and Everything

last November. It seems I have run out of philosophical ideas and said anything I had to say about Life and Work and Culture. Now it’s not Big Ideas that make me publish a new post but my small Big Data. Recent posts on measurement data analysis or on the differential equation of heat transport  are typical for my new editorial policy.

Cartoonist Scott Adams (of Dilbert fame) encourages to look for patterns in one’s life, rather than to interpret and theorize – and to be fooled by biases and fallacies. Following this advice and my new policy, I celebrate my 4th blogging anniversary by crunching this blog’s numbers.

No, this does not mean I will show off the humbling statistics of views provided by WordPress :-) I am rather interested in my own evolution as a blogger. Having raked my virtual Zen garden two years ago I have manually maintained lists of posts in each main category – these are my menu pages. Now I have processed each page’s HTML code automatically to count posts published per month, quarter, or year in each category. All figures in this post are based on all posts excluding reblogs and the current post.

Since I assigned two categories to some posts, I had to pick one primary category to make the height of one column reflect the total posts per month:Statistics on blog postings: Posts per month in each main category

It seems I had too much time in May 2013. Perhaps I needed creative compensation – indulging in Poetry and pop culture (Web), and – as back then I was writing a master thesis.

I had never missed a single month, but there were two summer breaks in 2012 and 2013 with only 1 post per month. It seems Life and Web gradually have been replaced by Energy, and there was a flash of IT in 2014 which I correlate with both nostalgia but also a professional flashback owing to lots of cryptography-induced deadlines.

But I find it hard to see a trend, and I am not sure about the distortion I made by picking one category.

So I rather group by quarter:

Statistics on blog postings: Posts per quarter in each main category

… which shows that posts per quarter have reached a low right now in Q1 2016, even when I would add the current posting. Most posts now are based on original calculations or data analysis which take more time to create than search term poetry or my autobiographical vignettes. But maybe my anecdotes and opinionated posts had just been easy to write as I was drawing on ‘content’ I had in mind for years before 2012.

In order to spot my ‘paradigm shifts’ I include duplicates in the next diagram: Each post assigned to two categories is counted twice. Since then the total number does not make sense I just depict relative category counts per quarter:

Statistics on blog postings: Posts per quarter in each category, including the assignment of more than one category.

Ultimate wisdom: Life ends, although Energy is increasing. IT is increasing, too, and was just hidden in the other diagram: Recently it is  often the secondary category in posts about energy systems’ data logging. Physics follows an erratic pattern. Quantum Field Theory was accountable for the maximum at the end of 2013, but then replaced by thermodynamics.

Web is also somewhat constant, but the list of posts shows that the most recent Web posts are on average more technical and less about Web and Culture and Everything. There are exceptions.

Those trends are also visible in yearly overviews. The Decline Of Web seems to be more pronounced – so I tag this post with Web.

Statistics on blog postings: Posts per year in each main category

Statistics on blog postings: Posts per year in each category, including the assignment of more than one category.

But perhaps I was cheating. Each category was not as stable as the labels in the diagrams’ legends do imply.

Compare …
1) the category pages: EnergyITLifePhysicsPoetryWeb,
2) to the true categories EnergyITLifePhysicsPoetryWeb.

Somehow…

public-key-infrastructure became control-and-it

and

on-writing-blogging-and-indulging-in-web-culture is now simply web

… and should maybe be called nerdy-web-stuff-and-software-development.

In summary, I like my statistics as it confirms my hunches but there is one exception: There was no Poetry in Q1 2016 and I have to do something about this!

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The Making Of

  • Copy the HTML content of each page with a list to a text editor (I use Notepad2).
  • Find double line breaks (\r\n\r\n) and replace them by a single one (\r\n).
  • Copy the lines to an application that lets you manipulate strings (I use Excel).
  • Tweak strings with formulas / command to cut out date, url, title and comment. Use the HTML tags as markers.
  • Batch-add the page’s category in a new column.
  • Indicate if this is the primary or secondary category in a new column (Find duplicates automatically before so 1 can be assigned automatically to most posts.).
  • Group the list by month, quarter, and year respectively and add the counts to new data tables that will be used for diagrams (e.g. Excel function COUNTIFs, using only the category or category name  + indicator for the primary category as criteria).

It could be automated even better – without having to maintain category pages by simply using the category feeds (like this: https://elkement.blog/category/physics/feed) or by filtering the full blog feed for categories. I have re-categorized all my posts so that categories matches menu page lists, but I chose to use my lists as

  1. I get not only date and headline, but also my own additional summary / comment that’s not part of the feed. For our German blog, I actually do this in reverse: I create the HTML code of a a sitemap-style overview page on wordpress.com from an Excel list of all posts plus custom comments and then copy the auto-generated code to the HTML view of the respective menu page on the blog.
  2. the feed provided by WordPress.com can have 150 items maximum no matter which higher number you try to configure. So you need to start analyzing before you have published 150 posts.
  3. I can never resist to create a tool that manipulates text files and automates something, however weird.

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

Anatomy of a Decision (1)

Four years ago I tried something new – I took a decision and started communicating it (some half-baked version of it) without having worked out a detailed plan. One year later I started this blog, reflecting on the journey and this decision. So I celebrate the 4 years anniversary with shameless, self-indulgent nostalgia – reblogging myself. Besides, you might have noticed I did not write much blog posts lately in the personal essay / opinionated piece genre. Perhaps because I don’t want to repeat myself. And I commit the cardinal sin in the visual age – not even an image!

On Learning

Some years ago I was busy with projects that required a lot of travelling but I also needed to stay up-to-date with latest product features and technologies. When a new operating system was released a colleague asked how I could do that – without having time for attending trainings. Without giving that too much thought, and having my personal test lab in mind, I replied:

I think I always try to solve some problem!

tl;dr – you can skip the rest as this has summed it all up.

About one year ago I ‘promised’ to write about education, based on my experiences as a student and as a lecturer or trainer. I haven’t done so far – as I am not sure if my simplistic theory can be generalized.

There are two very different modes of learning that I enjoy and consider effective:

  1. Trying to solve some arbitrary problem that matters to me (or a client) and starting to explore the space of knowledge from that angle.
  2. Indulging in so-called theory seemingly total unrelated to any practical problem to be solved.

My post about the positive effects of reading theoretical physics textbooks in the morning was written in the spirit of mode 2. The same goes for cryptography.

I neither need advanced theoretical physics when doing calculations for heat pump systems, nor do I need the underlying math and computer science when tweaking digital certificates. When I close the theory books, I am in mode 1.

In the last weeks that mode 1 made me follow a rather steep learning curve with respect to database servers and SQL scripts. I am sure I have made any possible stupid mistake when exploring all the options. I successfully killed performance by too much nested sub-queries and it took me some time to recognize that the referral to the row before is not as straight-forward as in a spreadsheet program. One could argue that a class on database programming might have been more effective here, and I cannot prove otherwise. But most important for me was: I finally achieved what I wanted and it was pure joy all the way. I am a happy dilettante perhaps.

I might read a theoretical book on data structures and algorithms someday and let it merge with my DIY tinkering experience in my subconsciousness – as this how I think those two modes work together.

As for class-room learning and training, or generally learning with or from others, I like those ways best that cater to my two modes:

I believe that highly theoretical subjects are suited best for traditional class-room settings. You cannot google the foundations of some discipline as such foundations are not a collection of facts (each of them to be googled) but a network of interweaving concepts – you have to work with some textbook or learn from somebody who lays out that network before you in a way that allows for grasping the structure – the big picture and the details. This type of initial training also prepares you for future theoretical self-study. I still praise lectures in theoretical physics and math I attended 25 years ago to the skies.

And then there is the lecturer speaking to mode 2: The seasoned expert who talks ‘notes from the field’. The most enjoyable lecture in my degree completed last year was a geothermal energy class – given by a university professor who was also the owner of an engineering consultancy doing such projects. He introduced the theory in passing but he talked about the pitfalls that you would not expect from learning about best practices and standards.

I look back on my formal education(s) with delight as most of the lectures, labs, or projects were appealing to either mode 1 or mode 2. In contrast to most colleagues I loved the math-y theory. In projects on the other hand I had ample freedom to play with stuff – devices, software, technology – and to hone practical skills, fortunately without much supervision. In retrospect, the universities’ most important role with respect to the latter was to provide the infrastructure. By infrastructure I mean expensive equipment – such as the pulsed UV lasers I once played with, or contacts to external ‘clients’ that you would not have had a chance to get in touch otherwise. Two years ago I did the simulations part of a students’ group project, which was ‘ordered’ by the operator of a wind farm. I brought the programming skills to the table – as this was not an IT degree program –  but I was able to apply them to a new context and learn about the details of wind power.

In IT security I have always enjoyed the informal exchange of stories from the trenches with other experienced professionals – this includes participation in related forums. Besides it fosters the community spirit, and there is no need to do content-less ‘networking’ of any other sort. I have just a few days of formal education in IT.

Your mileage may vary. I applied my preferences to my teaching, that is: explaining theory in – probably too much – depth and then jumping onto any odd question asked by somebody and trying something out immediately. I was literally oscillating between the flipchart and the computer with my virtual machines – I had been compared to a particle in quantum mechanics whose exact location is unknown because of that. I am hardly able to keep to my own agenda even if I had been given any freedom whatsoever to design a lecture or training and to write every slide from scratch. And I look back in horror on delivering trainings (as an employed consultant) based on standardized slides not to be changed. I think I was not the best teacher for students and clients who expected well organized trainings – but I know that experts enjoyed our jam sessions formerly called workshops.

When I embarked on another degree program myself three years ago, I stopped doing any formal teaching myself – before I had given a lecture on Public Key Infrastructure for some years, in a master’s degree program in IT security. Having completed my degree in renewable energy last year I figured that I was done now with any formal learning. So far, I feel that I don’t miss out on anything, and I stay away from related job offerings – even if ‘prestigious’.

In summary, I believe in a combination of pure, hard theory, not to be watered down, and not necessarily to be made more playful – combined with learning most intuitively and in an unguided fashion from other masters of the field and from your own experiments. This is playful no matter how often you bang your head against the wall when trying to solve a puzzle.

Physics book from 1895

A physics book written in 1895, a farewell present by former colleagues in IT – one the greatest gifts I ever got. My subconsciousness demands this is the best way to illustrate this post. I have written a German post about this book which will most likely never be translated as the essence of this post are quotes showing the peculiar use of the German language which strikes the modern reader quite odd.

I Am Too Googleable!

What a letdown.

I wanted to report on near completion of The Website Resurrection Project – but I had a mind-altering experience.

On the upside, I am not afraid of identity theft or surveillance anymore.

My dentist had to cancel an appointment the day before. I showed up some minutes before the appointed time. The practice was empty and dark, except for the assistants who told me:

We have eagerly been waiting for you!! We did not know how to reach you as we didn’t have your phone number!

Have you tried to find my phone number on the web? It’s on my business website!

Yes, we searched the internet – but there were so many search results coming up!!!! And we did not know which is your business page!

(Probably it was more like:
One of *these* pages is for business?!?).

You could have sent me an e-mail – I am usually very responsive! My e-mail address is on all my websites.

There was no e-mail address!

Uhm… sorry… I am very active on the internet … it is maybe difficult to sort all that out …

So it was all in vain.

I have a business page, three personal websites, this blog, and a German blog, and some weird older web projects. My usual response to an enthusiastic

I have checked out your website ! :-) !!

is

Which one?

And each and every of those sites has this overly correct legal information notice our online media law demands of me.

I even add the e-mail address though I might not need to.

As the Subversive Element I note on top of the legal information block:
Adding legal information to a site like this constitutes an act of subversion in its own right

Legal information needs to be accessible in a simple way, via a single click from any page. You then argue at court over the definition of simple and single click and if your visitors could or could not infer from a URL title such as contact that address information is to be found at this URL.

Most German wordpress.com bloggers have a legal info page longer than my most extensive posts. The About page of this blog is, at the time of writing, most likely illegal as the linked legal information is two clicks away from any post.

Tinkering with this was just a tiny part of The Website Resurrection Project – I have re-written loads of content, and didn’t leave any of the code or design untouched. All for the sake of clarity and serving the internet community well – and because I don’t have much other hobbies.

Using a browser I never use to logon to Google, a search for my name brings up a reasonable collection of results – my personal site being in the first place, legal info one click away.

Google has honored my efforts by recognizing my authorship for this website although I did not do take ownership in the Google-technical sense for any site – as my nerdy readers might have noticed on this blog. I wanted to save my pseudonym elkement and not trade it for the real name Google+ forces you to use.

I don’t think there should be any difficulty to spot my contact data. I am happy with the ranking – I am just worried about the subversive stuff is given less weight than the business-y. But that does not prevent clients who are my business social networking contacts from asking me for my contact data again – on Facebook!

So what’ the problem?

The IMP Log The Very First Message Sent on the Internet (6293913865)

How did we get there? How did it get started? This is the log of the first message sent on the internet in 1969 (Wikimedia)

_________________________________________

For German readers: Here is the law(s).

Blog Cleanup – Raking the Virtual Zen Garden Again

I am proud owner of a full season of Monk on DVD, and as a child nobody ever had to tell me to tidy up my room. I indulged not only in cleaning my Lego(*) world with a fine paint brush but I rather re-organized all my belongings in Feng-Shui-meets-OCD-style quite often.
(*) Lego is a registered trademark… etc.

As a consequence I have raked my virtual Zen gardens often, too.

Zen Garden (Wikimedia)Now I have nearly replaced all the gravel in this Zen garden.

It’s not that I don’t re-tag and re-categorize often, making extensive use of WordPress’ Tags to Categories Converter that keeps the old links intact. But tags and categories did not do it for me. I have filtered my posts using those in order to group them, e.g. for sending this collection of “relevant links” to somebody else.

It is probably a shortcoming of this particular WordPress theme but other than using the search function it is not possible to create a concise list of posts, consisting just of headlines and the first few lines.

So I tried to create that views I wanted in the old way: I have now compiled so-called summary pages, listing all blog postings in a certain “main category”. I have just excluded reblogs. Any other article shows up at (at least) one of these new pages linked in the main menu.

As a consequence – as the menu bar now really, absolutely, positively says it all – I was able to shorten my extensive tagline which is now much shorter than the blog title.

I have absolutely enjoyed this task – as Zen as it can get.

All my web sites I have ever run are also experiments in exploring the interplay of structure and content. I believe it is nearly impossible to set up proper “categories” upfront so that you can just assign all posts you ever write to them later. Only bureaucrats believe the world works this way. I have some experience with so-called top-down web projects that end up in epic tombs of a structure nobody is ever bringing to life with “content” – because it is too rigid.

But some limitations may not be that bad after all: Boundaries force you to get creative at a new level to hack them and work around. In a twisted sense I love my personal websites’ schema that forces me to attach one main category to every article. It is as much fun as subverting a well-meant survey or questionnaire by using the fields in ways probably not expected by the designer.

Another interesting effect I noted again and again is that I enjoy commenting on my own posts, including self-parody. I find it most natural to reflect on old postings by adding a one-liner some months later. On my other sites I take self-reference to bizarre levels and comment on my old German posts in English or commented on comments on comments etc.

In summary, I think I (we?) write and blog in order to remember or discover who we are, were, or want to become. [This is the sort of clichéd statement I will for sure ridicule in a later meta-comment of mine.]

But to make this work – at least for me – I need to have a look at the old stuff from time to time, and I have to put old images into a new frame, or I need to attach virtual post-its that put everything in a new perspective.

Zen Garden (Wikimedia)

On Science Communication

In a parallel universe I might work as a science communicator.

Having completed my PhD in applied physics I wrote a bunch of job applications, one of them being a bit eccentric: I applied at the Austrian national public service broadcaster. (According to Wikipedia Austria was the last country in continental Europe after Albania to allow nationwide private television broadcasting).

I deleted all those applications that would me make me blush today. In my application letters I referred to the physicist’s infamous skills in analytical thinking, mathematical modeling and optimization of technical processes. Skills that could be applied to basically anything – from inventing novel tractor beam generators for space ships to automatically analyzing emoticons in Facebook messages.

If I would have been required to add a social-media-style tagline in these dark ages of letters on paper and snail mail I probably would have tagged myself as combining anything, in particular experimental and theoretical physics and, above all, communicating science to different audiences. If memory serves I used the latter argument in my pitch to the broadcaster.

I do remember the last sentence of that pivotal application letter:

I could also imagine working in front of a camera.

Yes, I really did write that – based on a ‘media exposure’ of having appeared on local TV for some seconds.

This story was open-ended: I did not receive a reply until three months later, and at that time I was already employed as a materials scientist in R&D.

In case job-seeking graduate students are reading this: It was imperative that I added some more substantial arguments to my letters, that is: hands-on experience – maintaining UV excimer lasers, knowing how to handle liquid helium, decoding the output of X-ray diffractometers, explaining accounting errors to auditors of research grant managing agencies. Don’t rely on the analytical skills pitch for heaven’s sake.

I pushed that anecdote deep down into the netherworlds of my subconsciousness. Together with some colleagues I ritually burnt items reminiscent of university research and of that gruelling job hunt, such as my laboratory journals and print-outs of job applications. This spiritual event was eventually featured on a German proto-blog website and made the German equivalent of ritual burning the top search term for quite a while.

However, today I believe that the cheeky pitch to the broadcaster had anticipated my working as a covert science communicator:

Fast-forward about 20 years and I am designing and implementing Public Key Infrastructures at corporations. (Probably in vain, according to the recent reports about NSA activities). In such projects I covered anything from giving the first concise summary to the CIO (Could you explain what PKI is – in just two Powerpoint slides?) to spending nights in the data center – migrating to the new system together with other security nerds, fueled by pizza and caffeine.

The part I enjoyed most in these projects was the lecture-style introduction (the deep dive in IT training lingo) to the fundamentals of cryptography. Actually these workshops were the nucleus of a lecture I gave at a university later. I aimed at combining anything: Mathematical algorithms and anecdotes (notes from the field) about IT departments who locked themselves out of the high-security systems, stunning history of cryptography and boring  EU legislation, vendor-agnostic standards and the very details of specific products.

Usually the feedback was quite good though once the comment in the student survey read:

Her lectures are like a formula one race without pitstops.

This was a lecture given in English, so it is most likely worse when I talk in German. I guess, Austrian Broadcasting would have forced me to take a training in professional speaking.

As a Subversive Element I indulged in throwing in some slides about quantum cryptography – often this was considered the most interesting part of the presentation, second to my quantum physics stand-up edutainment in coffee breaks. The downside of that said edutainment were questions like: And … you turned down *that* for designing PKIs?

I guess I am obsessed with combining consulting and education. Note that I am referring to consulting in terms of working hands-on with a client, for example troubleshooting why 1000 users can’t logon to their computers. I did not want to be a stereotypical management consultant’s churning out sleek Powerpoint slides and leaving silently before you need to get your hands dirty (Paraphrasing clients’ judgements of ‘predecessors’ in projects I had to fix).

It is easy to spot educational aspects in consulting related to IT security or renewable energy. There are people who want to know how stuff really works, in particular if that helps to make yourself less dependent on utilities or on Russian gas pipelines, or to avoid being stalked by the NSA.

But now I have just started a new series of posts on Quantum Field Theory. Why on earth do I believe that this is useful or entertaining? Considering in particular that I don’t plan to cover leading edge research: I will not comment on hot new articles in Nature about stringy Theories of Everything.

I stubbornly focus on that part of science I have really grasped myself in depth – as an applied physicist slowly (re-)learning theory now. I will never reach the frontier of knowledge in contemporary physics in my lifetime. But, yes, I am guilty of sharing sensationalist physics nuggets on social media at times – and I jumped on the Negative Temperature Train last year.

My heart is in reading old text books, and in researching old patents describing inventions of the pre-digital era. If you asked me what I would save if my house is on fire I’d probably say I’d snatch the six volumes of text books in theoretical physics my former physics professor, Wilhelm Macke, has written in the 1960s. He had been the last graduate student supervised by Werner Heisenberg. Although I picked experimental physics eventually I still consider his lectures the most exceptional learning experience I ever had in life.

I have enjoyed wading through mathematical derivations ever since. Mathy physics has helped me to save money on life coaches or other therapists when I was a renowned, but nearly burnt-out ‘travelling knowledge worker’ AKA project nomad. However, I understand that advanced calculus is not everybody’s taste – you need to invest quite some time and efforts until you feel these therapeutic effects.

Yet, I aim at conveying that spirit, although I had been told repeatedly by curriculum strategists in higher education that if anything scares people off pursuing a tech or science degree – in particular, as a post-graduate degree – it is too much math, including reference to mathy terms in plain English.

However, I am motivated by a charming book:

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

by science writer Jennifer Ouellette. According to her website, she is a recovering English major who stumbled into science writing as a struggling freelance writer… and who has been avidly exploring her inner geek ever since. How could you not love her books? Jennifer is the living proof that you can overcome math anxiety or reluctance, or even turn that into inspiration.

Richard Feynman has given a series of lectures in 1964 targeted to a lay audience, titled The Character of Physical Law.

Starting from an example in the first lecture, the gravitational field, Feynman expounds how physics relates to mathematics in the second lecture – by the way also introducing the principle of least action as an alternative to tackle planetary motions, as discussed in the previous post.

It is also a test of your dedication as a Feynman fan as the quality of this video is low. Microsoft Research has originally brought these lectures to the internet – presenting them blended with additional background material (*) and a transcript.

You ought to wath the video now!

You may or may not agree with Feynman’s conclusion about mathematics as the language spoken by nature:

It seems to me that it’s like: all the intellectual arguments that you can make would not in any way – or very, very little – communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is.

[People like] me, who’s trying to describe it to you (but is not getting it across, because it’s impossible), we’re talking to deaf ears.

This is ironic on two levels, as first of all, if anybody could get it across – it was probably Feynman. Second, I agree to him. But I will still stick to my plan and continue writing about physics, trying to indulge in the mathy aspects, but not showing off the equations in posts. Did I mention this series is an experiment?

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(*) Technical note: You had to use Internet Explorer and install Microsoft Silverlight when this was launched in 2009 – now it seems to work with Firefox as well. Don’t hold be liable if it crashes your computer though!

Stargate: Succumb to the Power of the Ritual

Thanks for your prayers, voodoo magic, encouraging tweets or other tweaking the fabric of our multiverse:

Yesterday I have passed my final exams and defence – I did very well, and I am a Master of Science in Sustainable Energy Systems now. As the sensationalist title indicates I tried to play it cool but finally was nervous as you simply have to be nervous. Exams like this are setup as rituals and you should take the chance and feel the illusion of passing through a wormhole.

Edit: The title of my thesis was Security Architectures of Smart Metering Solutions. I add this based on a question in a comment as I had forgotten to mention it. So the following statement has been proven correct.

I am too exhausted to write anything coherent so I will provide you with some random factoids and opinions:

Rumors. People had speculated on G+ if my degree is in physics or ‘some sort of rocket science’. Unfortunately not – just down-to-earth engineering peppered with law and politics. I graduated in physics a long time ago.

Vanity. Many Austrian technical or science programmes continue to issue the traditional title of Diplomingenieur instead of Master of Science. I assume the rationale is to distinguish technical degrees from so-called post-graduate MSc degrees which don’t require you to hold a bachelor’s degree (similar to MBA degrees). DI has ever been a shortcut for ‘this person passed something hard and quantitative’. I am biased enough – I happily agree with this practice. So in all its glory my set of titles reads now:
Dipl.-Ing. Dipl.-Ing. Dr.

(Did I tell you that this is going to be a rather self-serving post?)

Random Reference to this Blog’s Title: Preparing for exams and defense I got as close as possible to combining anything: I really enjoyed reading old physics text books and popular science books on foundations of physics in parallel to engineering text books and legal texts.

(Did I mention I hate anything close to ‘teach to the test’, standard questions, minimizing learning efforts, centralized quality management of education and the like?)

Fluffy Ideals. I strongly believe in the vision and the necessity of combining a well-rounded education with learning down-to-earth skills while keeping your curiosity and at the same time meeting formal requirements and having to prove yourself.

Self-Made. Contradicting myself – blame it on residual adrenalin! – I am also an advocate of learning-on-the-job, being not at all impressed by degrees and judging others based on demonstrated skills. After all, I have worked successfully in IT without having acquired any formal qualification. I don’t count vendor-specific multiple-choice based certifications – yet I still think that people who make fun about those exams should take the tests themselves in passing if they believe it’s so easy.

Education. Probably ‘education’ will become a future pet topic of mine on this blog – I have been a life-long learner, very often in a formal academic setting, and I have been some sort of (part-time, moonlighting) teacher since nearly 25 years: starting as a tutor as a physics master student, teaching all kinds of physics lectures and hands-on labs as a graduate student, then working as a trainer in IT for very diverse audiences – from unemployed people with no technical background to international IT experts in a very specific field –  until I gave an IT security lecture at a university until 2011. Despite my horror of participating in anything resembling an association or a committee I even served on boards concerned with curriculum design and strategy for two times. I should have to say something about education. But for now I have decided that I am more than happy to being neither a student nor a teacher in any organized settings – no classrooms, no agendas, no exams!

Freedom. I am grateful for the freedom I had in picking the subject of the master thesis: I wrote about smart metering and security (thus deliberately not picking anything directly related to the heat pump stuff I was working on). I think I have now – once for all – reconciled all my ambitions in IT, physics and engineering.

Subversion. Officially I am not allowed to use the new title until the graduation ceremony. So probably this post contains illegal content. But after picturing myself as such as conformist collector of degrees I need to throw in something subversive.

More Rituals and More Subversion. The graduation ceremony and related culture might deserve a post in its own right. You (American readers) might be surprised to hear that students here had not worn academic gowns until recently. We re-imported that tradition from the US as young people enjoy graduation ceremonies in US movies – as those students are unaware of the history of the European student riots in 1968 that have eradicated academic icons and symbols. In Germany there even weren’t any ceremonies at all. Currently I think I will not wear that fancy costume as I don’t open the door on Halloween either.

Pendulum 90 degree

A pendulum swinging 90 degrees to the left and right. Sorry, this is the most unconventional image related to ‘degree’ I can come up with now. My subconsciousness might have selected it as I will return to more no-nonsense physics and science posts.

Edit: Oh wow – this was the 100th post on this blog. I haven’t noticed that before! There is something like true coincidence!

Edit 2: I did not mention what my thesis was about – thanks Dave for asking. The title was: Security architectures of smart metering solutions.

Decoding Myself: Searching for Hidden Clues in My Blog Posts’ Titles

I am inventing a new experimental genre: Header Poetry.

I tag this post with Spam Poetry and Search Term Poetry as – theoretically – my headers could show up as search terms or skillfully drafted spam comments.

As an innovator in poetry based on recycled material I need to do this – in order to claim all rights to use this innovation (irrevocable, eternal – insert you favorite legal phrases).

The rules: I am using my own post’s titles in the way I have utilized search terms and spam comments before. I am permitted to copy any part of my own headers, but I must not edit them.

The top title (*) has not been recycled.

An Elkemental Journey(*)

Clandestine Blogging
Narrating Our Life’s Events
Shallow Waters and Deep Reading

Almost There
I Screwed It up
Theory and Practice.
Anatomy of a Decision
What Do I Need to Smoke
The Dark Side Was Strong in Me

Reconcile All This
Discovering Your Life
A Blank Sheet of Paper
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

From Early Adopter to Lazy Laggard
I Did Normal Science
Sniffing the Path

Time Travelling
Stupid Questions
Are We All Newtonians?
Do You Want to Become an Engineer?

The Largest Experiment in Applied Game Theory
Intelligent Life-Forms in the Blogosphere
Work Hard – Play Hard
Do I Have an Opinion
Is It Determinism

Why We Really Need
Less Irony

Burn the Org Chart
the Myth of the Toilet Flush
Spam Poets Write Weird Things
Microwave Ovens Are Not Rodent-Ready

I Need More Trivial Content
Needless Things
Postmodern Art
Being Cliché

Intercontinental Discourse
Brain-Dead Visitors
Mad Tea Party

Cheery
in a More Normal Way

Have I decoded myself? Do truncated headers reveal anything I ever wanted to say anyway so that I can stop blogging?

Enigmatic Life-Forms

Enigmatic Life-Forms the Subversive Element sometimes interacts with.

So-Called Zen Capitalism and Random Thoughts on Entrepreneurship

In this blog and in the comments’ section of other blogs I have repeatedly ridiculed: management consultants, new age-y self help literature and simple-minded soft skills trainers. Let alone all other life-forms in the lower left quadrant of the verbal skills vs. quant skills diagram.

Now it is time that I give you a chance to ridicule me: I come up with a simple-minded philosophy of life, adorned with a new age-y tag.

I am a true fan of Randy Komisar’s book The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living and his video lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford university.

I have to apologize to hardcore long-time followers of his blog: I had already embedded one of my favorite videos in this post on my most recent career change.

Originally I planned to write a more detailed review, but somebody did exactly that already and summarized both the book and a related video. I learned about the term Zen Capitalism from this article, and I am breaking one of my silent rules on re-using it: Normally I detest this marketing lingo of oxymorons such as corporate responsibility. But it simply sounds too cool to be a gentle and wise capitalist, running your business on the wisdom of an Eastern mystic. I think it helps a lot that I know next to nothing about Zen and not a lot about capitalism.

Reader, if you are still here and not lost in the multi-verse opened up by clicking all these URLs, I will offer you my shortcut version of Komisar’s philosophy.

I had struggled with the existential contradiction between true passion and what to do for a living for half of my life. But the solution might be simple, or I turned into simpled-minded believer. Anyway, it works!

Komisar worked odd jobs while studying at the law school, e.g. as the manager of an unkown band. But he finally settled to the type of career that’s expected of a JD – until he realized that his future was going predetermined by the hierarchy of job levels at a law firm, from Junior Consultant to Senior Partner. I was intrigued by his story about the moment he recognized that – by looking down the aisle, framed by the doors of his colleagues offices’ all nearly ordered by hierarchy. This is probably one of the few times ‘hierarchy’ is used in the original sense of the word – sacred order. This is so very The Matrix!

He said that he was interested in the creative side of business – the metaphorical blank sheet of paper. So he abandoned his Matrix-like career and supported new businesses in the start-up phase a a Virtual CEO, denying the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do, then do what you want to do.

I had been incredibly self-disciplined for such a long time, so I feel entitled to state: Self-discipline and perseverance are all good and fine, but protestant work ethics has been ingrained into our society in a way that turned these virtues into self-replicating demons. I do not have a link to share as anything I read about the history of work ethics and its detrimental effects on Corporate Culture and the Cult of Overtime was written by German authors. So probably this is a German or middle-European issue anyway.

Abandoning the deferred life plan leaves you with the need to navigate through spacetime though. You need to take decisions that take you closer to … wait, closer to what actually?

Zen Center of NYC 500 State St jeh

The Zen Center in New York City. Investing about two minutes time in random searching Wikimedia – this was the image most related to Zen Capitalism I could come up with.

Komisar argues that it is passion that pulls us and drive that pushes us. Nevertheless, your quest for the one and only true passion will paralyze you. He said he was passionate about so many different things – trying to pick a single discipline or career once for all will drive you crazy. The good thing is that there are many options out there as well – options that should be aligned with what Komisar calls your portfolio of passions.

I believe the single most common error we all make – and I am not at all excluding myself – is denying existing options that are laying before us. In the discussion linked at the very top of this post I stated pretentiously I re-invented myself as an entrepreneur three times. This post – with its  references to a virtual CEO and Silicon Valley investments ninja – is probably the right place to add that this didn’t mean I funded three fancy fast-growing tech start-ups.

The very first time I became an entrepreneur I did so by seizing an obvious and fortunate option available particular in the years before the dot com crash. I swallowed all the pride I might have had as a physics PhD and set-up a plain and simple website marketing myself as an IT consultant for small enterprises. In contrast to today’s self-marketing mantras (as I see them tweeted every few seconds) I did not add a single detail related to my CV. I basically said ‘I will do it’.

This freelancing job was my leaving-academia-option. At that time I had worked for two years in a non-university research center (I believe this is similar to a National Lab in the US) – which was my first post-university job. I quit this job although it was a tenured position … for many reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post.

Above all, I saw the option that I might turn my IT experience into a business that allows me to determine how and where I am going to work. My IT experience was rather limited at that time – I had never been your typical physics graduate who worked in the lab during the day and compiled his own Linux kernel during the night. I did even use Microsoft Word instead of LaTeX for writing my theses.

My experience in business as such and economics was zero – in contrast to today’s science degree programmes I had never been force to take at least some mandatory economics lectures. So I learned double-sheet accounting from high school books from scratch.

Given that level of experience it worked out fine. Although I did turn to the epitome of the dark side later and become an employee again (having job titlethat  included the term Manager) seizing this freelance option was crucial. It finally opened up more options. Later I made a decision for another job I called a 60:40 decision – but again, it opened up rather more than less options.

I shunned getting stuck somewhere with a single option left. Probably this is due to the early traumatic experiences of colleagues of mine who spent too much time as post-docs at the university. I am not sure even sure if this is correct but they felt that there is an maximum age or [time spent at the university] – and after that you are lost for industry forever.

But I am now trying to return to the first narrative level now as I do not want to turn this into a Douglas Adams novel. Currently I have a hard time following Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect through all those nested levels of meta-explanations.

I basically want to emphasize that we often don’t recognize and appreciate options – most likely due to applying a filter whose logic is crafted from statements about what you ought to do. When I had transitioned to the more prestigious management job later I had been told my colleagues that this is finally an appropriate job again, fortunately. But troubleshooting computer networks at small, rural business? That was inappropriate, out of place!

I haven’t talked about Zen yet. The opening story in Komisar’s book is about his visiting a monastery in Myanmar and a riddle given to him by a monk. I could hardly believe the story is true – because adding the monk’s riddle to the tales from Silicon Valley seems so cliché. It is really unfortunate that many good stories and excellent quotes gets so over-used in management trainings, in particular the ‘spiritual’ ones. But I digress again.

The solution to the riddle implies something which is again very simple – paraphrasing to The journey is the reward and You are in charge of defining the details of the story. I don’t find a clever example to illustrate it in a non-stereotyped way, sorry. Read the book – it is a story of a guy who wants to found a start-up that sells coffins online. His pitch to Randy Komisar starts with Putting the fun back into the funerals.

Now I hope for better search terms for my poetry – including funerals, monasteries, and management.

Finally I share another wise and entertaining video about entrepreneurship with you:

Top 10 Must Have For a Start-up, by Frank Levinson, physics PhD.

You need common sense. You don’t need market studies, you need customers. You need to have the pride of a fat baby (that is: no pride).

I am watching this video regularly.  I am also re-reading my own motivational posts – I am not only the author, but the audience as well.