Computers, Science, and History Thereof

I am reading three online resources in parallel – on the history and the basics of computing, computer science, software engineering, and the related culture and ‘philosophy’. An accidental combination I find most enjoyable.

Joel on Software: Joel Spolsky’s blog – a collection of classic essays. What every developer needs to know about Unicode. New terms like Astronaut Architects and Leaky Abstractions. How to start a self-funded software company, how to figure out the price of software, how to write functional specifications. Bringing back memories of my first encounters with Microsoft VBA. He has the best examples – Martian Headsets to explain web standards.

The blog started in 1999 – rather shortly after I had entered the IT industry. So it is an interesting time capsule, capturing technologies and trends I was sort of part of – including the relationship with one large well-known software company.

Somewhere deep in Joel’s blog I found references to another classic; it was in an advice on how to show passion as an applicant for a software developer job. Tell them how reading this moved you to tears:

Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs. I think I have found the equivalent to Feynman’s Physics Lectures in computer science! I have hardly ever read a textbook or attended a class that was both so philosophically insightful and useful in a hands-on, practical way. Using Scheme (Lisp) as an example, important concepts are introduced step-by-step, via examples, viewed from different perspectives.

It was amazing how far you can get with purely Functional Programming. I did not even notice that they had not used a single assignment (Data Mutation) until far into the course.

The quality of the resources made available for free is incredible – which holds for all the content I am praising in this post: Full textbook, video lectures with transcripts, slides with detailed comments. It is also good to know and reassuring that despite the allegedly fast paced changes of technology, basic concepts have not changed that much since decades.

But if you are already indulging in nostalgic thoughts why not catch up on the full history of computing?

Creatures of Thought. A sublime book-like blog on the history of computing – starting from with the history of telephone networks and telegraphs, covering computing machines – electro-mechanical or electronic, related and maybe unappreciated hardware components like the relay, and including biographic vignettes of the heroes involved.

The author’s PhD thesis (available for download on the About page) covers the ‘information utility’ vision that was ultimately superseded by the personal computer. This is an interesting time capsule for me as well, as this story ends about where my personal journey started – touching personal PCs in the late 1980s, but having been taught the basics of programming via sending my batch jobs to an ancient mainframe.

From such diligently done history of engineering I can only learn not to rush to any conclusions. There are no simple causes and effects, or unambiguous stories about who invented what and who was first. It’s all subtle evolution and meandering narratives, randomness and serendipity. Quoting from the post that indicates the beginning of the journey, on the origins of the electric telegraph:

Our physics textbooks have packaged up the messy past into a tidy collection of concepts and equations, eliding centuries of development and conflict between competing schools of thought. Ohm never wrote the formula V = IR, nor did Maxwell create Maxwell’s equations.

Though I will not attempt to explore all the twists and turns of the intellectual history of electricity, I will do my best to present ideas as they existed at the time, not as we retrospectively fit them into our modern categories.

~

Phone, 1970s, Austria

The kind of phone I used at the time when the video lectures for Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs had been recorded and when I submitted my batch jobs of Fortran code to be compiled. I have revived the phone now and then.

 

Ploughing Through Theoretical Physics Textbooks Is Therapeutic

And finally science confirms it, in a sense.

Again and again, I’ve harping on this pet theory of mine: At the peak of my immersion in the so-called corporate world, as a super-busy bonus miles-collecting consultant, I turned to the only solace: Getting up (even) earlier, and starting to re-read all my old mathematics and physics textbooks and lecture notes.

The effect was two-fold: It made me more detached, perhaps more Stoic when facing the seemingly urgent challenges of the accelerated world. Maybe it already prepared me for a long and gradual withdrawal from that biosphere. But surprisingly, I felt it also made my work results (even ;-)) better: I clearly remember compiling documentation I wrote after setting up some security infrastructure with a client. Writing precise documentation was again more like casting scientific research results into stone, carefully picking each term and trying to be as succinct as possible.

As anybody else I enjoy reading about psychological research that confirms my biases one-datapoint-based research – and here it finally is. Science says that Corporate-Speak Makes You Stupid. Haven’t we – Dilbert fans – always felt that this has to be true?

… I’ve met otherwise intelligent people, after working with management consultant, are convinced that infinitely-malleable concepts like “disruptive innovation,” “business ecosystem,” and “collaborative culture” have objective value.

In my post In Praise of Textbooks with Tons of Formulas I focused on possible positive explanations, like physics being an ultimate training for your typically slow rational decision making and analysis engine. It takes hard work and dedication at the beginning to make it work effortless. You train yourself to recognize patterns and to think out of the box when trying to find the clever twist to solve a physics problem. However, it might be difficult to convey my message as hackneyed Thinking out of the box has entered the corporate vocabulary already.

Perhaps the explanation is really as simple as that we just need to shield ourselves from negative effects of certain ecosystems and cultures that are particularly intrusive and mind-bending. So this is my advice to physics and math graduates: Do not rely on your infamous analytical skills forever. First, using that phrase in a job application sounds like phony hollow BS – as unfortunately any self-advertising of social skills does. Second, these skills are real, but they will decay exponentially if you don’t hone them.

6 volumes on all of Theoretical Physics - 1960s self-consistent series by my late professor Wilhelm Macke

Learning General Relativity

Math blogger Joseph Nebus does another A – Z series of posts, explaining technical terms in mathematics. He asked readers for their favorite pick of things to be covered in this series, and I came up with General Covariance. Which he laid out in this post – in his signature style, using neither equations nor pop-science images like deformed rubber mattresses – but ‘just words’. As so often, he manages to explain things really well!

Actually, I asked for that term as I am in the middle of yet another physics (re-)learning project – in the spirit of my ventures into QFT a while back.

Since a while I have now tried (on this blog) to cover only the physics related to something I have both education in and hands-on experience with. Re General Relativity I have neither: My PhD was in applied condensed-matter physics – lasers, superconductors, optics – and this article by physicist Chad Orzel about What Math Do You Need For Physics? covers well what sort of math you need in that case. Quote:

I moved into the lab, and was concerned more with technical details of vacuum pumps and lasers and electronic circuits and computer data acquisition and analysis.

So I cannot find the remotest way to justify why I would need General Relativity on a daily basis – insider jokes about very peculiarly torus-shaped underground water/ice tanks for heat pumps aside.

My motivation is what I described in this post: Math-heavy physics is – for me, that means a statistical sample of 1 – the best way of brazing myself for any type of tech / IT / engineering work. This positive effect is not even directly related to math/physics aspects of that work.

But I also noticed ‘on the internet’ that there is a community of science and math enthusiasts, who indulge in self-studying theoretical physics seriously as a hobby. Often these are physics majors who ended up in very different industry sectors or in management / ‘non-tech’ jobs and who want to reconnect with what they once learned.

For those fellow learners I’d like to publish links to my favorite learning resources.

There seem to be two ways to start a course or book on GR, and sometimes authors toggle between both modes. You can start from the ‘tangible’ physics of our flat space (spacetime) plus special relativity and then gradually ‘add a bit of curvature’ and related concepts. In this way the introduction sounds familiar, and less daunting. Or you could try to introduce the mathematical concepts at a most rigorous abstract level, and return to the actual physics of our 4D spacetime and matter as late as possible.

The latter makes a lot of sense as you better unlearn some things you took for granted about vector and tensor calculus in flat space. A vector must no longer be visualized as an arrow that can be moved around carelessly in space, and one must be very careful in visualizing what transforming coordinates really means.

For motivation or as an ‘upper level pop-sci intro’…

Richard Feynman’s lecture on curved space might be a very good primer. Feynman explains what curved space and curved spacetime actually mean. Yes, he is using that infamous beetle on a balloon, but he also gives some numbers obtained by back-of-the-envelope calculations that explain important concepts.

For learning about the mathematical foundations …

I cannot praise these Lectures given at the Heraeus International Winter School Gravity and Light 2015 enough. Award-winning lecturer Frederic P. Schuller goes to great lengths to introduce concepts carefully and precisely. His goal is to make all implicit assumptions explicit and avoid allusions to misguided ‘intuitions’ one might got have used to when working with vector analysis, tensors, gradients, derivatives etc. in our tangible 3D world – covered by what he calls ‘undergraduate analysis’. Only in lecture 9 the first connection is made back to Newtonian gravity. Then, back to math only for some more lectures, until finally our 4D spacetime is discussed in lecture 13.

Schuller mentions in passing that Einstein himself struggled with the advanced math of his own theory, e.g. in the sense of not yet distinguishing clearly between the mathematical structure that represents the real world (a topological manifold) and the multi-dimensional chart we project our world onto when using an atlas. It is interesting to pair these lectures with this paper on the history and philosophy of general relativity – a link Joseph Nebus has pointed to in his post on covariance.

Learning physics or math from videos you need to be much more disciplined than with plowing through textbooks – in the sense that you absolutely have to do every single step in a derivation on your own. It is easy to delude oneself that you understood something by following a derivation passively, without calculating anything yourself. So what makes these lectures so useful is that tutorial sessions have been recorded as well: Tutorial sheets and videos can be found here.
(Edit: The Youtube channel of the event has not all the recordings of the tutorial sessions, only this conference website has. It seems the former domain does not work any more, but the content is perserved at gravity-and-light.herokuapp.com)

You also find brief notes for these lectures here.

For a ‘physics-only’ introduction …

… I picked a classical, ‘legendary’ resource: Landau and Lifshitz give an introduction to General Relativity in the last third of the second volume in their Course of Theoretical Physics, The Classical Theory of Fields. Landau and Lifshitz’s text is terse, perhaps similar in style to Dirac’s classical introduction to quantum mechanics. No humor, but sublime and elegant.

Landau and Lifshitz don’t need manifolds nor tangent bundles, and they use the 3D curvature tensor of space a lot in addition to the metric tensor of 4D spacetime. They introduce concepts of differences in space and time right from the start, plus the notion of simultaneity. Mathematicians might be shocked by a ‘typical physicist’s’ way to deal with differentials, the way vectors on different points in space are related, etc. – neglecting (at first sight, explore every footnote in detail!) the tower of mathematical structures you actually need to do this precisely.

But I would regard Lev Landau sort of a Richard Feynman of The East, so it takes his genius not make any silly mistakes by taking the seemingly intuitive notions too literally. And I recommend this book only when combined with a most rigorous introduction.

For additional reading and ‘bridging the gap’…

I recommend Sean Carroll’s  Lecture Notes on General Relativity from 1997 (precursor of his textbook), together with his short No-Nonsense Introduction to GR as a summary. Carroll switches between more intuitive physics and very formal math. He keeps his conversational tone – well known to readers of his popular physics books – which makes his lecture notes a pleasure to read.

Artist's concept of general relativity experiment (Public Domain, NASA, Wikimedia)

__________________________________

So this was a long-winded way to present just a bunch of links. This post should also serve as sort of an excuse that I haven’t been really active on social media or followed up closely on other blogs recently. It seems in winter I am secluding myself from the world in order to catch up on theoretical physics.

Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ for free – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

wine-clarity

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

Virtual Book Spine Poetry (Edition 2014 + 2015/6)

I am going to merge two overdue posts: 1) the 2014 edition of my yearly book reviews, a tradition I started last year, and 2) my next experimental poem, in a new experimental genre.

I owe to the inventors of Book Spine Poetry – and I’d like to challenge this: You can’t do that with ebooks. Which is a problem as I hardly read physical books.

But can’t we stack digital books on top of each other – creating a poem from their titles, that is: their virtual spines?

Books belong mainly in one of these genres.

  • IT security, hacking, and history / culture thereof. Plus a few history of science books
  • Life, work, technology, psychology, and their interdependencies.
  • Sleep research also including books read in 2015. Hence: 2015/6, one sixth of 2015.
  • Fiction by 1) Douglas Coupland, seismograph of geek culture and 2) Andra Watkins, a new author with a signature witty and succinct style.

Take artistic liberty I use the main title or the sub-title as a line of my poem – see the hover text on links for full information. I salt the poem with some spam comments (the lines without hyperlinks), and I add images from a building that boasts Germany’s largest unsupported concrete wall.

If this is too experimental: see my chronological Reading List instead.

it still appears to be a bit surreal to be honest

The Secret Life of Sleep
Exploding the Phone

Hackers
are generally preventing the situation
Democracy Without Secularism

Night School
The Art of Deception

Outliers
Lean In
don’t hesitate and lunge for a goal
Ghost in the Wires

architectural poetry

Not Without My Father
Catch Me If You Can
I am a Strange Loop
The options can be a little intimidating

 Walden
The Glass Cage

The Surprising Science of the Mind at Rest

The Year Without Pants
Slack
Nevertheless, for all it’s success,
Carry On

Microserfs
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

The Hard Thing About Hard Things
Good sleep, good learning, good life
The real trick now is maintaining a pipeline

architectural poetry

Generation A
The 4-Hour Workweek
Farewell to Reality

Girlfriend in a Coma
Hers was a outstanding life
Countdown to Zero Day

Spam Nation
So Good They Can’t Ignore You
it feels like to have a million dollars in bitcoins
Spoilt Rotten

Gödel, Escher, Bach
Robust Control System Networks

To Live Forever
I have always disliked the idea

architectural poetry

Quantum Computing since Democritus
as elliptical and centred as
The Twenty-four Hour Mind

Internal Time
Engineering Security
including officers with drawn weaponry

Generation X
Thinking, Fast and Slow
Moving On
if you are tired of accepting failure

Applied Cryptography
It truly is incomprehensible to me now,
Dreamland

Its not like you’ve said something extremely impressive architectural poetry

We Should Get Lost Sometimes – Nicholas Carr on Automation and Us

The Glass Cage is about automation’s human consequences. It is not intended to be your typical book about robots taking our jobs for better or for worse.

Carr gives an intriguing account of the history of automation and robotics nonetheless – from Luddites to Google’s self-driving cars. What we have known intuitively is backed up by research: We cannot all fund robotics startups, and the number of new jobs created through automation has always been low. In spite of success stories of people ‘making money online’ it is the providers of infrastructure (the ones Jaron Lanier calls Siren Servers) who actually make money. Technology changes faster than humans do, taking a ride on Moore’s law – but Carr is not a believer in technology that will automagically serve all humankind:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

He wonders why Google has mastered to build a self-driving car – a task once considered too difficult to be automated by any computer ever – but yet didn’t develop software that stops people from texting while driving. Perhaps because stopping distractions would run counter their business agenda?

More disturbing than the effect on employment is the way automation may impact our skills, illustrated by the history of avionics. We have come a long way since …

… the deep entanglement between human and mechanism was an elemental source of flying’s thrill,

… and pilots felt physical feedback from the machine. The books starts with a personal anecdote about Carr’s missing the sense of control and involvement when driving an automatic.

The Glass Cage is a poetic metaphor for the pilot’s cockpit. Carr returns to a topic he had dwelt upon in The Shallows: the role of maps and clocks as an essential layer put between us and space or the flow of time. In glass-cage-like workplaces former machine operators or soldiers turn into technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world. Automation and tools done right would still give us the feeling to be in control. Electronic airplane controls should rather resemble the older mechanical controls. Clunky yokes that provide sensory information let the pilot feel physical resistance – and are superior to sci-fi-style joysticks. Carr distinguishes between tools that work like mechanical extensions to our body – using the scythe as a prime example – and software-based technology that is experienced as a kind of implacable, alien force that lies beyond our control and influence. Quoting from a 1910 book on aeronautics, designing a plane to be operated is

… a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. The greater a plane’s stability, the harder it becomes for the pilot to exert control over it.

Pioneers as the Wright Brothers voted for a plane unstable as a bicycle, giving the pilot utmost freedom. Carr tries to do technology optimists justice – he is never sarcastic or derisive. He traces the hopes put into ‘software’ back to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead wasn’t writing about machinery. He was writing about the use of mathematical symbols to represent ideas or logical processes— an early example of how intellectual work can be encapsulated in code. But he intended his observation to be taken generally.

‘Automation’ can thus be understood in a very broad sense. I have written about Newton’s geometrical proofs that even Richard Feynman found very hard to reproduce. Now we have been spoilt by the elegant code-like symbols of calculus. Do really miss out if we not haven’t acquired such ancient skills? Carr believes so as we are human beings made to interact with the world directly, not via a cascade of devices and abstractions. A physics professor who has embarked on “a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues”  finally concluded that the way he viewed the world had palpably changed. Architects felt that they needed to stay away from electronic help or bring in the computer late so that the creative process is not (mis-)guided too early. A photographer tells his story of returning to the darkroom as he felt that the painful manual process forces him to make more conscious and deliberate choices – with a deep, physical sense of presence. The main point here is that these are not sentimental crusaders but people who simply wanted to do their jobs well.

… the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited to our purposes and intentions than the old thing.

Skills that come easy to an expert are learned the hard way: Pilots’ skills correlate with the time they have spent flying without the aid of automation. Neuroscience provides evidence of dedicated assemblies of neurons developed by such deliberate practice. Automation would remove complexity from jobs and thus opportunities to hone our skills. A recurring theme of the book is how automation erodes what makes us human in the best way – even if we might object: Carr quotes surprising findings by Csikszentmihalyi (of The Flow fame). When people were polled about their current mood at various time they …

… were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn’t like to be at work.

Psychologists call this unfortunate desire for what you ‘actually’ don’t want miswanting. One explanation is that people might pretend to prefer leisure over work as this is the socially acceptable behavior. An ethnographer confirmed Csikszentmihalyi’s theory by giving an account of an ancient tribe:

The Shushwaps did not have to wander to survive. They built villages and developed “elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources in the environment.” They viewed their lives as good and rich. But the tribe’s elders saw that in such comfortable circumstances lay danger. “The world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.” And so, every thirty years or so, the Shushwaps, led by their elders, would uproot themselves.

If I had to pick the main virtue venerated in this book – it would be accountability. The soldier dropping a bomb via clicking a mouse feels less responsible.

The congeniality of hand tools encourages us to take responsibility for their use.

The outlook on future wars is gloomy: Automated weapons may save lives, but may at the same time increase the likelihood of wars – just because of that. Machines effectively make moral decisions in everyday life already: Robotic lawn mowers already do it when not sparing small animals a human operator might have spotted.

Who determines what the “optimal” or “rational” choice is in a morally ambiguous situation? Who gets to program the robot’s conscience? Is it the robot’s manufacturer? The robot’s owner? The software coders? Politicians? Government regulators? Philosophers? An insurance underwriter?

I believe that ‘futurists’ might not be convinced though. What Nicholas Carr considers specifically human and worth being protected might strike tech enthusiasts as a shortcoming to be fixed by extending and transforming our bodies and minds. Critics might say Carr resorts to poetry in the last chapter in order to circumvent these questions elegantly. The physicist turned stone-age pathfinder said that …

… “primal empiricism,” struck him as being “akin to what people describe as spiritual awakenings.”

Which is something you can either relate to immediately and intuitively, or dissect it analytically. It strikes a chord with me, but trying to explain it any further leads to Wittgenstein-y struggling with reality:

Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words.

Google’s self-driving cars challenge the distinction between explicit knowledge – that can be cast into code (or words) – and tacit intuitive knowledge of processes. It seems that that this artificial boundary is pushed more and more into the realm of the so-called genuinely human. Carr uses a sonnet by Robert Frost called ‘Mowing’ to demonstrate that

a poet’s scrutiny of the world can be more subtle and discerning than a scientist’s.

As a scythe enthusiast I am biased but he really couldn’t have chosen a better example:

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows

Again, I think these lines will perhaps not speak to modern life hackers. Domestic automation would turn our homes more into workplaces – programmed, and dominated by metrics. We apply the

the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others.

Algorithms collect data that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Our formerly ‘continuous’ selves are turned into a collection of disjointed junks presented on social medias timelines which deprives us of options for changing our minds and thus for personal growth. Again I remember the proverbial clock from The Shallows, discretizing time. Making technology invisible and unobtrusive is not a solution but just the final stage of a gradual development:

It obscures the way we’ve refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology.

I have adopted technology as a professional, but sometimes also to respond to changes in the way we socialize today with everyone expecting to manage their lives through screens. Technology, especially networked one, fundamentally changes society. Already the power grid had a subtle impact on engineering culture, business culture, production, and finally living. You cannot fool yourself, and remain independent and self-sufficient in your spare time and just use technology if you have to. Carr states that self-reliance was once considered the mainstay of character. He advocates getting lost sometimes in contrast to Google Maps’ visions:

“No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. It is also to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.

I read Walden at about the same time as Carr’s book – and I am reminded of this quote by Thoreau:

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. … In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. … Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

I can relate, your mileage may vary. The Wright Brothers; first powered flight HU98267

Looking Foward to ‘The Glass Cage’ – Random Ambiguous Thoughts

On September 29, Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage – Automation and Us will be released. I have quoted Carr’s writings often on this blog, and his essay All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines might anticipate some of the ideas he is going to explore in this upcoming book.

I read non-fiction books with specific questions in mind. In order to sort out these questions upfront, I am writing a post that may turn out incoherent.

I sense an ambiguity that might be typical for many so-called knowledge workers that spend most of their working hours in front of a computers. We feel some playful affection to the gadgets we use but silently we dread our growing dependence on them – and we seek escape in dreaming up alternate realities – as working as artisans, with real stuff.

If you believe the geek turned craftsman is just a cliché – read this story about a software developer turned carpenter:

This is when I realized that I’d rather be looking through the window of a cool building, than the window of an LCD laptop.

 

Hadn’t technology evolved in the way it did in the past decades my job would be fundamentally different or not exist at all. I define the ability to work with clients in a remote fashion as an absolutely essential part of my job, and I am determined to prove that it is not only the IT industry and companies like Automattic whose way of working has been transformed: We have recently started our first heat pump planning project that will not include any on-site meetings. So I am not in a position to question the [allow for a buzz word] disruptive nature of technology.

But proliferation of working remotely cuts both ways: I have been able to do my IT security troubleshooting for clients ‘anywhere on this planet’ – so of course professionals living in countries with lower loving costs, and this lower hourly rates, could do as well!

However, I am not interested in following that train of thoughts. Probably I am too optimistic but I think I was able to constantly move my professional slef away from anything to-be-standardized. I have seen attempts to standardize consulting failing too often. So I am still waiting for the human-like bot to replace me. Consulting is people’s business no matter how much technology helps to mediate it – just as social media is a success because of the social part.

But I cannot deny that automation became an essential part of my personal version of the alternate artisanal reality: In the last two posts I mentioned my playing with database servers – all targeted to further automating data collection and evaluation for heat pump systems.

Would I want to stand outside in the cold and reading off data from a display myself for hours?

To some extent I probably would. I am eager to read The Glass Cage especially because of this quote:

Drawing on psychological and neurological studies that underscore how tightly people’s happiness and satisfaction are tied to performing meaningful work in the real world, Carr reveals something we already suspect: shifting our attention to computer screens can leave us disengaged and discontented.

It took me a time to realize that the reasons I use in defence of automation are all tied to my work. I have never been your typical computer freak or early adopter of gadgets who is interested to play with new technology ‘just because’. I am rather reluctant of using many appliances that are said to make our lives so much easier and allow us to ‘focus on what we really want’ and ‘get rid of the repetitive grunt work’.

I use a scythe to cut the grass. We don’t have an egg cooker, an electrical bread cutter, or a dryer. I could say I am just energy-conscious or trying to avoid clutter – but these are actually positive side-effects.

The shocking truth is that I like some healthy dose of simple, repetitive work. This even extends to the professional sphere: Against the mantra of focussing on your core business I do accounting and controlling – gleefully. This includes some boring data entry that better interfaces between those distributed software systems might do away with.

Most of the computer technology I finally got to use also as a consumer was actually driven by professional needs. I purchased my first cell phone as I wanted to be available for clients. I am thinking about the purchase of a tablet just because I could test some tools for managing digital certificates. I am considering a better internet connection to handle parallel remote sessions.

But wait – I have loved my Kindle eReader and I was a rather early adopter. However, I loved it because it was a 1:1 replacement of its real-life counterpart – a device just for reading: no internet, no e-mails, and no social media and sharing of inspirational snippets quoted out-of-context.

Is this because I am not a digital native?

In my first jobs as an experimental physicist and materials scientist about 95% of my job was repetitive grunt work: Cutting slices from crystals, grinding and polishing samples of material, adjusting optical components, waiting in front of a not-yet-computerized machine to see the paper coming out, take that paper and copy the curve using semi-transparent sheets, entering data, entering more data, being interrupted by some nasty sound as something broke, spending the next hours repairing the diamond wire saw or the leaky vacuum equipment.

Watching crime shows like CSI makes me laugh: They did a splendid job on making standardized lab work look so cool and sci-fi-style. We used to joke about create an image video for our research showing off the fancy colored laser beams in the dark lab – but that was meant satirical.

Femtosecond Laser and Pulse Compressor - Optics Lab - INRIM

This is why optics labs attract visitors at universities’ open days. (Image by Giorgio Brida, Wikimedia)

This combination of 5% thinking hard about the problems and drawing conclusions and 95% lab work was absolutely fine for me. If all repetitive, boring work – manual or computer-based – would be taken away from us, what would happen? Not to our professional selves devoid of jobs but to our human selves?

We could focus on the remaining hard and interesting problems, realize our potentials as humans, don’t we? We would be able to create and take decisions non-stop – until the bots will take over. But I am not quite sure if I would enjoy creating and deciding all the time. I imagine it could feel like jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink and skimming texts instead of reading a long piece.

I have read Life Hacker’s Bible recently – Tim Ferriss might answer you would finally have time to travel the world or learn to dance the tango, after you would have fully outsourced (that is: automated) your self-running internet business. World economy or crisis thereof, job options, realistic development of technology aside: Is this what the majority of people really want?

As I said, I am aware of the ambiguity and those pesky where-to-draw-the line questions. For sure I want high-tech surgery, perhaps a international expert or an AI-driven robot operate on me over that high-bandwidth connection. But I will keep mocking biometric keys for house doors, and sensors that turn on the light if I clap my hands.

Are my clinging to some boring work and my inconsistent argumentation just a shortcoming of our currently carbon-based species – to be replaced or extended by transhuman partly virtual-silicon-whatever beings? I read some books by transhumanists and radical technology enthusiasts – and they did not speak to me. I think I could re-iterate their arguments – this is the necessary pre-requisite for substantial criticism – and they seem to be self-consistent.

But I cannot yet track down why I don’t follow even less radical claims about the benefits of automation and technology. I always imagine myself being among the last human beings fighting the machines in a dystopian future. Perhaps I have seen too many movies or not enough of the good ones.

Anyway, I am waiting for Mr. Carr’s insights.

HAL9000.svg

HAL9000” by CryteriaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

When I Did Social Engineering without Recognizing It

I planned to read something about history this summer. Then I picked the history of hacking. My favorite was Kevin Mitnick’s autobiography – the very definition of a page-turner.

The book is free of hardcore technical jargon and written for geeks and lay audience alike. Readers are introduced to the spirit of a hacker in the older sense of the word: Mitnick’s hacks were motivated by the thrill of exploring systems but he never gained financially.

Kevin Mitnick successfully obtained the latest source code of cell phones, reports on security vulnerabilities in operating systems, and legitimately looking birth certificates of deceased children to setup new identity – due to his combination of technical skills and mastery of social engineering. He got people to reveal corporate information they should not. Pieces of information are seemingly innocuous in their own rights – a name of server, a corporate directory of employees – but it helps the social engineer to learn the lingo and pose as a trusted insider.

Computer-police

I adhere to the conventions re hackneyed images (Wikimedia).

I often had been called way too honest – and thus not getting anywhere in life, professionally. So I was asking myself:

Could I con people into breaking rules? The intuitive answer was of course No.

But then the following anecdote emerged from a dark corner of my mind.

A long time ago I had worked as an IT Infrastructure Manager – responsible for quite a colorful IT environment run partly by subversive non-official admins. I actually transitioned into that role from supporting some of the latter. One of the less delightful duties was to keep those subversive elements from building rogue websites and circumventing the bureaucratic corporate content management system – by purchasing internet domains like super-fancy-product-name.com and hosting these services where they figured I would not find it.

I also had to clean up legacy mess.

One time we had to migrate an internet domain hosted on behalf of an Another Very Important Organization to one of their servers. Routine stuff, had the domain been under our control. But it was tied to a subversive website a department had once set up, working with an external marketing consultancy. The consulting company was – as per the whois records – the official owner of the domain.

Actually the owner listed was not even that company was a person employed by that company but not working for them anymore. I consulted with the corporate lawyers in it would have been a legal knot hard to disentangle.

However, I had to transfer the stuff right now. Internet domains have a legal owner and an administrative and a technical contact. The person able to do the transfer is the latter but he or she must not do it unless instructed to do so.

I tracked down and the technical contact and called him up. The tech-c’s phone number is public information, very easy to find back then – nowadays you might need a tiny bit of social engineering to obtain it.

I explained the whole case to him – the whole truth in all details. He was a helpful network administrator working for a small internet provider. Having to deal with a typical network admin’s predicament immediately built a kind of bond. Meeting a fellow nerd makes working in IT infrastructure management somewhat enjoyable – in a job you are only noticed if something goes wrong. (The rest of the time you are scolded for needing too much money and employing too much personnel).

The result was that the domain was technically transferred to the intended target organization’s server immediately. But he said: If somebody asks you how this has been done – it wasn’t me!

Another admin at another telco said the same to me later – I had convinced him to provide me a password of a client. This inquiry of mine and reasons given were true and legitimate as I was doing it on behalf of a client – the password owner.

In both cases there was a third party, a client or colleague or employer, who was quite happy with the results.

But there weren’t any formal checks involved – people did not ask me for a verifiable phone number to call me back or wanted to talk to my boss or to the client. If I just had fabricated the stories I would have managed to get a domain transferred and obtain a hosting customer’s password.

Rusty and Crusty PadlockThe psychologically interesting part of my job was that I didn’t have real power to tell departments what they must or must not do. I could just persuade them.

I think this is an aspect very common to many corporate jobs today – jobs with with grand titles but just a bunch of feeble dotted lines to the rest of the corporate universe and its peripheral contractors’ satellites – some of which you never meet face-to-face.

Combine that with an intricate tangle of corporate guidelines and rules – many of them set up to enforce security and compliance. In some environments people hardly get their jobs done without breaking or bending a subset of those rules.

Social engineering in some sense is probably what makes companies still being able to function at all.

5 Years Anniversary: When My Phone Got Hacked

I like to play with phones.

Phone, 1970s, Austria

This is the phone we inherited when we bought our house. I kept it as it is the same 1970s type of phone I grew up with. I have recently resurrected it and connected it to an analog port of our phone system in this makeshift fashion. Great ringer!

5 years ago my cell phone decided it wanted to play on its own. It did participate in a TV voting – so the provider said and the itemized bill proved. This was for a music show I wouldn’t even watch if somebody paid me for doing so.

The bill showed that my phone sent SMSes every few seconds, faster than a human being would be able to type. At that time I had two mobile phones with the same number. None of them showed any SMSes sent at that time.

The costs amounted to about € 27,- but this was negligible in comparison the opportunity costs of me spending considerable time in preparing documentation for the provider – assuming naively that they would appreciate my input.

My arguments were:

  • None of my phones send the SMSes, see attached screenshots of messages sent. On the day in questions I did neither place or receive any calls at all.
  • At this evening nobody was in the house who might have sent these SMSes for fun or accidentally. No kids, no drunk friends at a party. I even offered to show them my calendar, entries to my time tracking software or driver’s logbook to prove I was at home.
  • Sure – I could have used another phone in addition to the two I had. But if I did not I had to remove the SIM cards from the primary phones and insert them to a hacker phone. For doing that I would have needed to turn the phones off and the other one on – and this should show up in their log files. And I hadn’t turned off the phones for a long time.

Things I didn’t say but figured were obvious:

  •  We are a business customer with typical bills amounting to hundreds of Euros per month. I did not make sense from a commercial perspective to invest time in researching an issue related to a loss of € 27,-
  • I am working in security myself, and I would have more lucrative things to do right now than putting together that documentation. I am friendly patient researcher informing a company about a security issue privately and not describing that on my blog.

It was all in vain and not obvious to them. Their reply was: The bill shows that you sent these SMSs. Period. They claimed to have done technical investigation, yet this took just a few hours.

I appealed to Austrian Regulatory Authority for Broadcasting and Telecommunications (RTR) that handles such issues. They said they could not do anything either.

One year later I found a news article about a similar case – calls that allegedly have been made in the middle of the night, every few seconds, and the customer wasn’t believed either. (For German readers: Article from archive.org).

How could my phone(s) have been hacked?

Many how-to’s can be found on the internet on cloning a GSM SIM card when having physical contact to the original, given the proper tools.

Over-the-air cloning was an option for the sophisticated hacker 10 years ago, but at the security conference Blackhat 2013 a German researcher presented his findings about breaking SIM cards protection mechanism. He is quoted with:

Give me any phone number and there is some chance I will, a few minutes later, be able to remotely control this SIM card and even make a copy of it.

I had found also found a few hints to a bluetooth-related hack but I had been paranoid enough anyway to never turn on bluetooth for such reasons – and I considered it absurd that  some evil hacker was lurking in the fields behind our backyard trying to control my phone over bluetooth … for the sole purpose of placing these votes.

Accidentally, some time later I had access to an itemized phone bill issued by the same provider to a client of mine.

On the other customer’s bill I found different uncommon phone numbers, in this case for other silly games – but the pattern was the same: A small amount of money spent on dubious services compared to the total bill. Isn’t’ that perfect business model? Rip off business customers whose bill is likely to be much higher than the costs of the fraudulent calls and whose lengthy detailed bills would not be checked. I only discovered both incidents as I am quite obsessed with a semi-automated nerdy analysis of phone bills.

Of course I called the phone company again on behalf of my client, and we are again treated as clueless participants in online games who tried to deny the obvious.

I am not such a hardcore phone phreak – so I am still looking for clues.

In the only feasible explanations were:

  • Somebody doing that elaborate over-the-air-hack that was – in 2009 – quite leading edge.
  • A manipulation of the data in the provider’s data center – that’s why I thought my inquiry could be helpful and I would not be treated as the most stupid phone user or as a liar.

But probably SMS spoofing does not require so elaborate a hack as it seems to be surprisingly easy to make a text message appear to originate from another number. Many sites offer SMS spoofing for pranks and for legitimate marketing. This article describes a scenario involving a malicious user impersonating subscriber with number 1112221111 and explains that

The larger problem is that the subscriber attached to the 1112221111 number is billed for the SMS message and is likely to balk at the incorrect charge.

(Yes. If the customer has a chance to balk.)

Now I am waiting for some offers from lawyers reading this who might want to help me fight for my € 27,- in the future. I promise this is going to be as exciting as a Michael Crichton movie.

German desk phone W48

Legendary German post-war era phone “W48” (Wikimedia). I am proud owner of the same type of phone though mine does not shine that nicely, and I lack such suitable cloth.

I was tempted to add – alluding to my nostalgic images: Those were so much safer! But the history of phone phreaking actually shows that the ancient phone system had suffered from glaring vulnerabilities re-discovered again and again since the 1950s. What did they expect from a system that uses the same line for sending voice and control signals? Kids with perfect pitch, often blind, discovered how to whistle their way to free long-distance calls.

I celebrated my phone hacking anniversary by reading this book I can only give my highest recommendations:

Exploding the Phone:
The Untold Story of the Teenagers and Outlaws Who Hacked Ma Bell
by Phil Lapsley.

The blurb is apt: Before smartphones and iPads, before the Internet or the personal computer, a misfit group of technophiles, blind teenagers, hippies, and outlaws figured out how to hack the world’s largest machine: the telephone system.

I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

Before starting this blog I compared blogging tools in 2011. These two facts about WordPress and Automattic did win me over:

Now I have read the book on Automattic’s corporate culture:

The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Scott is a former Microsoft manager and long-term author and speaker. He has been hired my Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg to help introducing the first tier of middle-managers ever to Automattic’s so far flat hierarchy. Scott Berkun accepted, provided he can write a book about his experience. For him it was a test: Will he still be able to do the work of management and not only write and speak about it?

The book is a blend of personal essay and reflection of work and management in the tech world, and palpable anecdotes from a very peculiar workplace.

He did his duty in the trenches as a Happiness Engineer:

You get access to real tools and work on real things. If you do well, you’re offered a job. If you don’t, you’re not. The many phony parts of hiring, from inflated résumés to trying to say what you think the other party wants to hear, disappear.

At the end of this stint in support Scott admits how much easier the work of a writer is – in contrast to the relentless never-ending flow of clients’ tickets:

This pressure made me feel like a wimp for complaining about writing deadlines or tough lecture audiences.

I guess skeptics would say a venture such as WordPress can hardly work – hadn’t they been successful for years now:

The business is firmly grounded in Open Source software. In 2002 18-year old Matt Mullenweg forked the copylefted software used for his own photoblog as its lead developer had left. In August 2003 there were over 10.000 blogs running on WordPress. For an extensive account of WP’s history see this.

The central values of the organically growing WP culture were: Transparency of discussions, meritocracy of authority earned – not granted, and the longevity of the project – which should live forever even if Matt himself would once give it up.

There is free WordPress.org for self-hosters, the service WordPress.com and other products by Automattic – according to Scott the business model was difficult to explain at times.

Based even on my own anecdotal experience of using WordPress.com I can say that it works – I pay for the Custom Design Upgrade for two blogs and think it is a fair deal.

Employees are fiercely independent, curious, and funny individuals, working at locations all over the world.

Many of them are former independent WordPress designers and developers – so probably people who don’t like to be (micro-)managed, who are fine with being paid for results and not for office face time or hours put in.

They do meet in person occasionally, and costs of meetings in real live compensate for savings due to lack of offices.

Matt Mullenweg – whom Scott describes as a renaissance mind with an epicurean desire to understand basically anything – has written down a creed:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Using colorful anecdotes and funny screenshots of WP-internal communications Scott demonstrates which key factors are important to make this work:

Mastery of asynchronous, written communication

Chat-like message exchange is preferred over audio or video calls, and tracking and discussion of work items is done using a blog called P2 (named after the theme used).

The reason for the first is probably surprising – and it might even sound discomforting to those who are stressed out by the constant stream of popups brought up by corporate instant communication tools: WP employees’ communications is based on the assumption that anybody else is working on some items in parallel or having some Windows open. It is not expected that people respond instantly to chat requests and some lag is allowed for – in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of calls.

Everyone understands it’s just a window on the screen and that you may be focusing on other things.

You could discuss pro’s and con’s of online meetings endlessly but I think Scott perfectly nails it:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

P2 communications is reminiscent of those legendary nested e-mail threads – I answer inline in redI answer in greenI answer again in blue… I praise collaborators to the skies who are capable of following and processing such nested communications – you can literally do whole projects by asynchronous e-mails.

Everybody at Automattic can on principle read every P2 conversation. This, I guess, provides for self-regulation, and it limits the tactical use of communication tool, such as subtle hints by picking CC recipients etc.

WordPress people compensate for lack of cues in face-to-face communications by letting personality shine through written communications. Scott says that WP internal communications is refreshingly free of corporate world jargon:

No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.

From my few but pleasant encounters with WP’s support team I can attest to that.

WordPress’ culture seems to be positively self-selecting for people who fit in.

Insider humor

Sharing a common sense of humor is in my opinion the single best indicator of how well you will get along – and work! – with somebody. It is even more indispensable in this distant working environment.

Laughter leads to running jokes, and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture. What is a friend, a brother or sister, or a partner but someone you share important stories with?

Also the title of the book is a running joke. For a reason no one could explain later the prompt above the comment box on Scott’s teams’ P2 site turned from What’s on your mind? into

Do you know where your pants are?

No incentives

It was my conviction ever since that any sort of company-internal competition and incentives for individuals or teams will not do overall goals any good. The dissipation of energy invested in facing competition will outweigh the benefits of challenging individuals to go for stretch goals.

So I was delighted to read this:

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? They all shrugged simultaneously and I laughed. Unlike most corporations that emphasize performance evaluations, none of them were particularly concerned. … It seemed to them like an odd question to even ask. … It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.

Frequent shipping of features

Against mantras of quality control and change management new features are rolled out all the time. I believe the reason why this has worked great so far is that risk management best practices are applied in an intuitive way: Features to be shipped are small, or their dependence on other features can be cut down. The overall risk of breaking anything major is negligible – and glitches be fixed quickly based on feedback in the production environment.

I think that all those controls in larger organizations rather prevent people from taking personal accountability – and Scott confirms this:

A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes. American football players take more risks, not fewer, because of their padding.

Geeky, but end-user-centric

Probably my impression is due to the fact that Scott has led Team Social that dealt with building features like WordPress JetPack that adds WP.com features on top of the self-hosted version.The team used some funny ‘socialist’ hammer and sickle symbols for their internal site.

His team put in many hours in trying to understand the experience of normal users WordPress wanted to serve – and I think this spirit and the idea to democratize internet publishing can be felt when working with WP. They tried to feel what a user feel who struggles with getting his or her first posting done – as astonishingly:

50 percent of all blogs never publish a single post.

A tricks that help are writing an internal launch announcement for a feature long before it had been launched – forcing you to focus on the value of this feature.

Tame the bureaucrats and policy enforcers

Another pet peeve of mine – I remember myself in a job role that theoretically had demanded of me to chide entrepreneurial small departments that they don’t adhere to corporate standard IT hardware procurement guidelines or that their website they didn’t comply with ‘CI rules’.

The volunteer culture Automattic inherited from WordPress, where contributors were under no obligation to participate, defined a landscape that granted wide autonomy to employees. Schneider and Mullenweg went to great lengths to keep support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.

T-shaped employees

This means having some very deep skills in a specific area but in addition the abilities to quickly become fairly knowledgeable in other fields – and applying that skills hands-on as needed, just as any in sort of start-up environment.

This is counter the culture (in ‘mature’ corporation) of denying to do X because you are not qualified, it is beneath you, it has not been included in your shop description, or nobody commanded you to do it.

Caveats

The book provides is a much needed real-live positive example of a company who has ‘got it’ – among cheerful analyses of a New World of Work and gloomy critique of debatable implementations (The documentary Work Hard – Play Hard having being one of the finest).

But Scott  warns against trying to copy WP’s culture and tack it on an existing one – e.g. by scheduling company meetings in open space style without and agenda, hoping that employees will simple start working together spontaneously – as they did in Seaside, the artificial settlement that served as the set of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. It was a company meeting that

looked more like a party at a very nice but geeky college dorm.

Chances are that in a different culture such experiments would be loathed just as other team morale events or the casual Friday, or any socializing event moderated by external psychologically trained moderators with a questionable agenda.

Conclusion

It is not only possible but beneficial to work on serious and sensitive stuff in remotely dispersed teams of self-motivated individuals. Scott’s account is convincing – he often emphasizes that he had been skeptical: He had considered his earlier success as a manager critically dependent on being in the same room with people and looking them into the eye.

The importance on a common culture and humor cannot be overstated. The most daunting crisis morphs into legends soon to be told by the fireside, if you are still able throw around some Douglas Adams’ or Monty Python quotes or give your test servers funny names such as panic.com.

I don’t think this is an IT / geek thing only – geekiness might help as there is this globally available template of a culture (42!) that fosters common humor. But I don’t see a reason it cannot be applied to other work that is in essence based on shuffling data – and communicating in an asynchronous way already:

The very idea of working remotely seems strange to most people until they consider how much time at traditional workplaces is spent working purely through computers. If 50 percent of your interaction with coworkers is online, perhaps through e-mail and web browsers, you’re not far from what WordPress.com does.

Many stories about famous start-ups are written when they have grown up – when they have scaled.

I am a small business owner by choice and I often ask myself – probably based on bias – does anything good have to scale? Scott answers this question confidently with No:

…greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

So in summary I consider it a great book, highly recommended if you use Automattic’s products are are just curious, or if you are an ‘office worker’ or a manager of those and thinking about the best way to work as a team.

It is an honest and entertaining manifesto:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.

Communist heart

Honoring ‘Team Social’ (Wikimedia)