Ploughing Through Theoretical Physics Textbooks Is Therapeutic

And finally science confirms it, in a sense.

Again and again, I’ve harped on this pet theory of mine – on this blog and elsewhere on the web: 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. Thanks to Professor Gary for sharing it. 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 speeding up your rational System 2 ((c) Daniel Kahneman) – by getting accustomed to mathematics again. By training yourself to recognize patterns and to think out of the box when trying to find the clever twist to solve a physics problem. Re-reading this, I cringe though: Thinking out of the box has entered the corporate vocabulary already. Disclaimer: I am talking about ways to pick a mathematical approach, by drawing on other, slightly related problems intuitively – in the way Kahneman explains the so-called intuition of experts as pattern recognition.

But 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

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’ – 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.

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!

elkemental Force

About a year ago I have taken a decision and I am now taking a leap of faith. This blog is gravitating about this decision and I am writing now about a journey that began a while back.

I am finally working on plan A again after I had been quite successful in pursuing plan B. I am not all sure where to begin with and this is probably the reason I am writing a blog and not a book. So I will simply jump right into the middle of the story and select some menial and totally unspectacular moments that were important to me.

I had studied physics and worked in R&D for some time, then switched to IT. I can – and probably will – talk endlessly about what physics and IT have in common; actually more than what seems to be obvious and actually it is not…

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Career Advice – Borrowing Wise Words from a Sailing Hacker

On researching SSL-related hacks, I have stumbled upon the website of notable security researcher Moxie Marlinspike.

Marlinspike is also a sailor and working on diverse projects, such as Audio Anarchy – a project for transcribing anarchist books into audio format. On his About page he says:

I like computer security and software development, particularly in the areas of secure protocols, cryptography, privacy, and anonymity. But I also secretly hate technology, am partially horrified with the direction “geek” culture has gone.

and

In general, I hope to contribute to a world where we value skills and relationships over careers and money, where we know better than to trust cops or politicians, and where we’re passionate about building and creating things in a self-motivated and self-directed way.

I call myself Subversive El(k)ement, Security Consultant, Search Term Poet, and Luddite in Disguise … how could I not relate

So it was not a surprise that I found myself in total agreement with his career advice.

Moxie’s post starts with

What I want to say, more often than not, is something along the lines of don’t do it;

This is reminiscent of Via Negativa I learned about from Nassim Taleb’s writings. I have also  found it more helpful to state what I don’t like instead of phrasing so-called SMART goals. When planning positively you try to target a small point in the vast space of options – likely to be missed – in contrast to the negative approach of avoiding a subset of options and keeping a considerable part of them in reach.

From the famous Stanford Prison experiment Moxie draws a simpler lesson as an individual – and it seems more palpable to me than that grand discussions about morals and free will:

 … just be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.

You should look at the people working in a certain environment or industry sector and think twice if you want to become like them. This is not self-evident: At times I was dead set to break into a world whose representatives were anti-role-models – but of course I wanted to revolutionize the whole sector. Finally I have found out that it is more rewarding to go where the people are to whom you can relate with.

Moxie talks about choices we all make, and how the first of those, early in our careers, are defined by supporting structures like family, school, or university:

When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that constitute our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.

It is silly to attempt at rushing through our lives, taking conscious decisions as early as possible and trying to cast your perfect CV in stone, as

There’s no rush to get started early on a never-ending task.

Moxie concludes that in relation to the inquiries about career advice, he is:

… likely to respond with something like “if I were you, I’d hitchhike to Alaska this summer instead.”

He advocates

… doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to prevent starvation, and then doing something that’s not about money, completely outside of supporting structures, and not simply a matter of “consuming experience”

I can anticipate objections, and you can also find them in the comments on his Moxie’s post. How to pay the bills? How to feed the kids?

Actually I have re-written this post several times because of this – but, alas, I will not be able to avoid all ambiguity. All I want to say is that Moxie’s post struck a chord with me. Though targeted to students it is this classical advice to the younger self that exactly that self might not like. It took me ~20 years to come to that conclusion and act accordingly.

I think the primary target group of articles like this are people who arguably have choices but don’t use them – people who err on the side of caution. I don’t want to downplay the predicament of the single mum working two jobs but rather speak to the unhappy Head Chief Architect Officer of Something Sounding Really Impressive But Actually Doing Unnerving Grunt Work That Just Happens To Be Extremely Well Paid.

I am also not at all trying to evangelize among those who wholeheartedly enjoy their stressful jobs. There is this subtle dance of intriguing yet stressful work and inspiration that makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The big caveat here is that you need to find out on your own what exactly stresses you out in a fatal way – and this is not necessarily straight-forward. It is to be experienced, not to be determined by theorizing.

Based on my experience, anecdotal as it is, I dare hypothesize that there is an impressive percentage of respected middle-class corporate employees who do ponder about an alternative life as that iconic free sailor. My job role had been that of a technical consultant ever since but I had become more of a project psychologist at times. I was to hear surprising confessions – after we had left the formalities of the professional negotiations behind and people started philosophizing over coffee.

Generally speaking, I believe that most of us living in stable democracies are freer than we think. I am saying this as the inhabitant of a country whose primary mentality is not exactly shaped by entrepreneurial spirit and daring. I know how the collective submission to alleged obligations work.

As for using kids as a main counter-argument to a ‘free’ life-style, I was reminded of that most recent controversy about adventurous parents living and rising their kids on boats. – an impossible life for most people. Considering their life-styles too risky gives proof of how warped our sense of risks and probabilities is, and how over-valued spectacular risks of The Uncommon are in comparison to the dull, but near certain health risks of the accepted, sedentary living in a modern civilization.

We do make choices all the way, and be it just choosing the life expected from us by those supporting structures. When we are grown up we don’t have much excuses for not taking accountability – and this does not at all mean a perfectly streamlined career plan.

Quoting Moxie again:

Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.

The best advice is not to follow any advice (incl. this one), question everything, and decide for yourself.

Still from Kon-Tiki movie

From a documentary about Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia) – not sure if it is the new movie.

This post will be filed under Life – a collection that recently struck me as much too serious and solemn.

In any case – if that happened again, I would just like everybody to know that I have never been happier; and I am weighing my words carefully.

What Entrepreneurs Need to Have

Chances are that many readers had to do one of those things as corporate employees or as members of any large organization that asks management consultants for help: brainstorm on a vision, formulate a mission statement, create a business plan. As an aspiring start-up business owner  you cannot escape trainers who tell you need a have a logo designed by professionals, hire MBAs as CFOs, hire more professionals to dream up a great marketing strategy, and execute That Great Plan based on Your Sincere Belief in That Great Singular Idea.

This does not resonate with my experiences as an entrepreneur though. You might expect correctly that I would rather go for antifragile ‘dilettante’ tinkering – and all those buzz words make me remember that eerie documentary of brave new corporate world.

It is refreshing to find confirmation by a very successful founder of start-ups. I have linked Frank Levinson’s Top 10 Things You Must Have to Start a Business so often – it deserves a dedicated post. As usual I cannot resist pointing out some resemblance with Nassim Taleb‘s ideas.

Note to readers who might miss the physics in this post: Frank Levinson is a physics PhD and self-educated programmer. He has given an extensive interview about his career to the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics – the transcript can be found here. I was most impressed by his ability to deal with failure – he founded his successful venture Finisar after he had been fired as a CEO of a company he had founded himself. Levinson called it Finisar as he hadn’t finished anything before.

You Need Comfortable, Cheap Furniture – It doesn’t matter how you look but what you do.

This is in contrast to all that advice about branding and (online) reputation. Customers should not be jealous of your Porsche company car or suspect that those high rates they are charged for go into hiring designers that tweak your corporate identity every month.

Remember the coconuts!

The German title of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is: Knights of the Coconut. Horses were replaced by coconuts for budget reasons and this joke has gone viral. Monthy Python were creative and innovative because of constraints and necessities.

Levinson believes that therefore entrepreneurs need not enough money. In addition, the best money you can use is customer’s money – found the company on an existing revenue stream – or literally use your own money.

After all, it is about what Nassim Taleb would call Skin in the Game.

Pride of a Fat Baby and 1000 Ideas

Which pride does a fat baby have? Exactly: None.  In contrast to Focus on Your Core Business and Go for that Great Idea (probably accompanied by Follow Your Passion) Levinson advocates accepting project requests appearing as tangential to your aspired core business. His company did contract engineering for some years, then delivered bad products we considered good ones and finally manufactured really good products.

This is Taleb’s Optionality. Those seemingly odd projects allow for interaction with real customers, collection of feedback from the real world. Levinson also advises to love your tough customers – those who complain about the product – because they are really interested.

Non-core-business projects might give you new ideas and turn change your so-called business plan based. Actually, you should be generous with ideas and give away 1000s of ideas (for money), e.g. in contract engineering, rather than believing you have stumbled upon that singular idea – knowing exactly what the world really needs, based on your impeccable market studies.

“Common Sense”: You Need Customers

Sounds trivial, but isn’t. Frank Levinson’s key message is that customers are people who place an order and pay for services or product received. Customers are not: People who like your idea, would love to get free samples, and do co-development.

It is so simply but yet it cannot be overstated when you read it ten times a day in articles tweeted how important it is to grow your network, exchange ideas, find partners.

It resonates with my experience: The most enjoyable business relationships start with a client really in need what I offer – I do it – the client is happy and pays in due time. Actually it always was those business relationship that naturally morph into friendships. But the alleged friendships with people who want to discuss market potential over a coffee hardly ever turn into business.

Sure, customers need to know you exist. But as Levinson I feel that advice for start-ups over-emphasizes the importance of marketing to the point of replacing the requirement of having a very product with sophisticated marketing! Professional marketing, business plans, Vice Presidents (suits) should materialize very late in the company’s growth process – before an IPO, thus probably never if you decide to remain a small privately owned business.

Social media can help to connect with potential clients – your mileage may vary depending on the very nature of your business. Yet I believe Levinson is still right in being wary about the significance of a website as engineers are shy and hope to replace face-to-face customer contact by virtual online communications.

But watch the video yourself – 19 minutes well spent:

 

Fragile Technology? (Confessions of a Luddite Disguised as Tech Enthusiast)

I warn you – I am in the mood for random long-winded philosophical ramblings.

As announced I have graduated recently again, denying cap-and-gown costume as I detest artificial Astroturf traditions such as re-importing academic rituals from the USA to Europe. A Subversive El(k)ement fond of uniforms would not be worth the name.

However, other than that I realize that I have probably turned into a technophobe luddite with a penchant for ancestral traditions.

Long-term followers might know what I am heading at again as I could only have borrowed a word as ancestral from Nassim N. Taleb. I have re-read Taleb’s The Black Swan and Antifragile. The most inspirational books are those that provide you with words and a framework to re-phrase what you already know:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3405-3406.

I have covered Antifragile at length in an earlier article. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness – it is about systems gaining from volatility and disorder. I will not be able to do this book justice in a blog post, not even a long one. Taleb’s speciality is tying his subject matter expertise (in many fields) to personal anecdotes and convictions (in many fields) – which is why some readers adore his books and others call them unscientific.

I am in the former camp as hardly any other author takes consistency of personal biography and professional occupation and writing that far. I was most intrigued by the notion Skin in the Game which is about being held accountable 100%, about practicing what you preach.

I eat my own cooking. I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself. I will be the first to be hurt if I am wrong. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 631-633

Taleb has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans – and so do I. He is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks.

Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.

I don’t read his books as a detached scientist – it is more like talking to somebody, comparing biographies and ideas, and suddenly feeling vindicated.

A mundane example: At times I had given those woman-in-tech-as-a-role-model interviews – despite some reluctance. One time my hesitation was justified. Talking about my ‘bio’ I pointed that I am proud of having thrived for some years as an entrepreneur in a narrow niche in IT. In the written version the interviewers rather put emphasis on the fact I had been employed by a well-known company years before. Fortunately I was given a chance to review and correct it.

Asking for their rationale they made it worse: I have been told that it is an honor to be employed by such a big brand name company. Along similar lines I found it rather disturbing that admirers of my academic track record told me (in retrospect of course, when I was back on a more prestigious track) that working as a consultant for small businesses was just not appropriate.

What is admirable about being the ant in the big anthill?

I had considered my own life and career an attempt – or many attempts – to reconcile, unite or combine things opposite. Often in a serial fashion. In my pre-Taleb reading era I used to quote Randy Komisar’s Portfolio of Passions or Frank Levinson’s 1000 ideas you need to have (and discard again) as a business ower.

Taleb introduced optionality to my vocabulary, borrowed from trader’s jargon: An option is the right but not the obligation to engage in a transaction. Thus you should avoid personal and career decisions that puts you on a track of diminishing options. This is exactly what I felt about staying in academia too long – becoming a perpetual post-doc, finally too old and too specialized for anything else.

Nassim Taleb does not respect nerdiness and smartness as we define it the academic way.

If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3097-3099.

He suggests just passing exams with minimum score. I, nerd of stellar grades and academic fame, declare defeat – I have already repented here. But let me add a minor remark from cultural perspective: I feel that academic smartness is more revered in North America than it is in middle Europe although America values hands-on, non-academic risk taking more, as Taleb points out correctly. I had been surrounded by physicists with an engineering mindset – theoretical physics was for the socially awkward nerds and not a domain you become a rockstar in.

It would not de me good to brag about any sort of academic achievement in my ancestral country – it rather puts you under pressure to prove that you are a genuine human being and still capable of managing daily life’s challenges, such as exchanging a light bulb, despite your absent-minded professor’s attitude. Probably it can be related to our strong tradition of non-academic, secondary education – something Taleb appreciates in the praise of Switzerland’s antifragility.

I have been torn between two different kinds of aspirations ever since: I was that bookish child cut out for academia or any sort of profession concerned with analyzing, writing, staying at the sideline, fence-sitting and commenting. But every time I revisited my career decisions I went for the more tangible, more applied, more involved in getting your hands dirty – and the more mundane. Taleb’s writings vindicate my propensity.

I had always felt at home in communities of self-educated tinkerers – both in IT and in renewable energy. I firmly believe that any skill of value in daily professional life is self-taught anyway, no matter how much courses in subjects as project management you have been forced to take.

For I am a pure autodidact, in spite of acquiring degrees. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 4132-4133.

Blame it on my illiteracy but Taleb is the first author who merges (for me) deep philosophical insights with practical and so-to-say ‘capitalist’ advice – perfectly reflecting my own experiences:

My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like “recognition” and “credit” warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 678-680

I’d rather work some not-too-glorious jobs based on a simple feedback loop, that is: People do want something badly – I do it – they pay me, and I’d rather not (anymore): write applications for research grants in order to convince a committee or execute the corporate plan to meet the numbers.

Taleb provided very interesting historical evidence that so-called innovation has actually been triggered by now forgotten self-educated tinkerers rather than by science applying Soviet-Havard-style planning. You might object to those theories, probably arguing that we never had a man on the moon or the Dreamliner airplane without Soviet-Havard-style research, let alone LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson. I might object to this objection by hypothesizing that the latter probably does not result in products we desperately really need (which includes big airplanes and business travel).

But I do know the counter-arguments – Einstein and the GPS, Faraday and allegedly useless electromagnetic waves that once will be taxed, WWW and CERN – and I don’t hold very strong opinions on this.

Because of the confirmation problem, one can argue that we know very little about our natural world; we advertise the read books and forget about the unread ones. Physics has been successful, but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful, and people tend to generalize that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly nonlinear) weather than the origin of the universe. –Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Kindle Locations 3797-380

I absolutely do love theoretical physics – when other people listen to meditation music, do yoga, go to church, take walks in the sunset, wax poetic, read Goethe, are bamboozled by renaissance art: I read text books on quantum field theory. There is joy in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So academics should be paid by the public for providing the raw material.

But I know that Taleb’s analysis is true when applied to some research I have some personal familiarity with. Austria has been a pioneer in solar thermal energy – many home owners have installed glazed solar collectors on their roofs. The origin of that success is tinkering by hobbyists – and solar collectors are still subject to DIY tinkering. Today academics do research in solar thermal energy, building upon those former hobbyist movements. And I know from personal experience and training that academics in applied sciences are really good at dressing up their tinkering as science.

Nassim Taleb also believes that organized education and organized science follows wealth, not the other way round. Classical education in the sense of true erudition is something you acquire because you want to become a better human being. Sending your kids to school in order to boost GDP is a rather modern, post WW II, approach.

Thus I believe in the value of fundamental research in science in the same way as I still believe in the value of a well-rounded education and reading the ancients, as Nassim Taleb does. But it took me several attempts to read Taleb’s book and to write this post to realize that I am skeptical about the sort of tangible value of some aspects of science and technology as they relate to my life here and now.

I enjoyed Taleb’s ramblings on interventionism in modern medicine – one of the chapters in Antifragile that probably polarizes the most. Taleb considers anything living and natural superior to anything artificial and planned by Soviet-Harvard-style research – something better not be tinkered with unless odds are extremely high for positive results. Surgery in life-threatening situations is legitimate, cholesterol and blood pressure reducing medication is not. Ancestral and religious traditions may get it right even if their rationales are wrong: Fasting for example may provide the right stimuli for the human body that is not designed for an over-managed regular, life-hacker’s, over-optimizer’s life-style along the lines of those five balanced daily meals your smartphone app reminds you of. As a disclaimer I have to add: Just as Taleb I am not at all into alternative medicine.

Again, I don’t have very strong opinions about medical treatments and the resolution to the conflict might be as simple as: Probably we don’t get the upsides of life-saving surgery without the downsides of greedy pharmaceuticals selling nice-to-have drugs that are probably even harmful in the long run.

But – again – I find Taleb’s ideas convincing if I try to carry them over to other fields in history of science and technology I have the faintest clue of. Software vendors keep preaching to us – and I was in that camp for some time, admittedly – that software makes us more productive. As a mere user of software forced upon me, by legal requirements, I have often wondered if ancient accountants had been less productive in literally keeping books.

I found anecdotal evidence last year that users of old tools and software are still just as productive – having become skilled in their use, even if they do accounting on clay tablets. This article demonstrates that hopelessly outdated computer hardware and software is still in use today. I haven’t been baffled by ancient computers in military and research but I have been delighted to read this:

Punch-Card Accounting
Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they’ll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948. Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards.
Companies traditionally used the 402 for accounting, since the machine could take a long list of numbers, add them up, and print a detailed written report. In a sense, you could consider it a 3000-pound spreadsheet machine.

I guess the operators of this computer are smiling today, when reading about the NSA spying on us and Russian governmental authorities buying typewriters again.

IBM 403 accounting machine

The machine in the foreground is an IBM 403 accounting machine where the input are punched cards; the machine in the center is an IBM 514 Reproducing Punch apparently connected to the foreground 403 as a summary punch, and the one in the background is another 403 or 402 accounting machine. (Wikimedia, Flickr user ArnoldReinhold)

I don’t advocate reverting to ancient technology – but I don’t take progress and improvements for granted either. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains plans to release his new book in 2014, titled The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. In his related essay in The Atlantic Carr argues:

It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

Probably productivity enhancements kick in exactly when the impacts outlined by Carr take effect. But I would even doubt the time-saving effects and positive impacts on productivity in many domains where they are marketed so aggressively today.

Show me a single company whose sales people or other road warriors do not complain about having to submit reports and enter the numbers to that infamous productivity tool. As a small business owner I do complain about ever increasing reporting and forecasting duties inflicted upon me by governmental agencies, enterprise customers, or big suppliers – a main driver for me to ‘go small’ in any aspect of my business, by the way. Of course software would ease our bureaucratic pains if the requirements would be the same as when double-entry accounting has been invented by Pacioli in the 15th century. But the more technology John Doe is expected to use today, the more ideas CEOs and bureaucrats dream up – about data they need because John Doe ought to deliver them anyway in an effortless way.

Reading all the articles about the NSA makes me wonder if additions of painful tedious work due to the technology we ought to use is something marginal only I rant about. I had said it often in pre-public-NSA-paranoia times: I would love to see that seamless governmental spying at work to free me from that hassle. I had been confronted with interfaces and protocols not working and things too secure in the sense of people locking themselves out of the system.

So in summary I feel like an anti-technology consultant often, indulging in supporting people with working productively despite technology. Since this seems quite a negative approach I enjoy making wild speculative connections and mis-use interdisciplinary writings such as Taleb’s to make my questionable points.

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. (Adding a factoid: According to Wikipedia Austria was the last country in continental Europe after Albania to allow nationwide private television broadcasting).

Fortunately 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 digress – find the end of that story here.

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, accountable for 1000 users being able to logon (or not) to their computers –  not your typical 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 tries expound 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 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!