Simulations: Levels of Consciousness

In a recent post I showed these results of simulations for our heat pump system:

I focused on the technical details – this post will be more philosophical.

What is a ‘simulation’ – opposed to simplified calculations of monthly or yearly average temperatures or energies? The latter are provided by tools used by governmental agencies or standardization bodies – allowing for a comparison of different systems.

In a true simulation the time intervals so small that you catch all ‘relevant’ changes of a system. If a heating system is turned on for one hour, then turned off again, he time slot needs to be smaller than one hour. I argued before that calculating meaningful monthly numbers requires to incorporate data that had been obtained before by measurements – or by true simulations.

For our system, the heat flow between ground and the water/ice tank is important. In our simplified sizing tool – which is not a simulation – I use average numbers. I validated them by comparing with measurements: The contribution of ground can be determined indirectly; by tallying all the other energies involved. In the detailed simulation I calculate the temperature in ground as a function of time and of distance from the tank, by solving the Heat Equation numerically. Energy flow is then proportional to the temperature gradient at the walls of the tank. You need to make assumptions about the thermal properties of ground, and a simplified geometry of the tank is considered.

Engineering / applied physics in my opinion is about applying a good-enough-approach in order to solve one specific problem. It’s about knowing your numbers and their limits. It is tempting to get carried away by nerdy physics details, and focus on simulating what you know exactly – forgetting that there are huge error bars because of unknowns.

This is the hierarchy I keep in mind:

On the lowest level is the simulation physics, that is: about modelling how ‘nature’ and system’s components react – to changes in the previous time slot. Temperatures change because energies flows, and energy flows because of temperature differences. The heat pump’s output power depends on heating water temperature and brine temperature. Energy of the building is ‘lost’ to the environment via heat conduction; heat exchangers immersed in tanks deposit energy there or retrieve it. I found that getting the serial connection of heat exchangers right in the model was crucial, and it required a self-consistent calculation for three temperatures at the same point of time, rather than trying to ‘follow round the brine’. I used the information on average brine temperatures obtained by these method to run a simplified version of the simulation using daily averages only – for estimating the maximum volume of ice for two decades.

So this means you need to model your exact hydraulic setup, or at least you need to know which features of your setup are critical and worthy to model in detail. But the same also holds for the second level, the simulation of control logic. I try to mirror production control logic as far as possible: This code determines how pumps and valves will react, depending on the system’s prior status before. Both in real life and in the simulation threshold values and ‘hystereses’ are critical: You start to heat if some temperature falls below X, but you only stop heating if it has risen above X plus some Delta. Typical brine-water heat pumps always provide approximately the same output power, so you control operations time and buffer heating energy. If Delta for heating the hot water buffer tank is too large, the heat pump’s performance will suffer. The Coefficient of Performance of the heat pump decreases with increasing heating water temperature. Changing an innocuous parameter will change results a lot, and the ‘control model’ should be given the same vigilance as the ‘physics model’.

Control units can be tweaked at different levels: ‘Experts’ can change the logic, but end users can change non-critical parameters, such as set point temperatures.We don’t restrict expert access in systems we provide the control unit for. But it make sense to require extra input for the expert level though – to prevent accidental changes.

And here we enter level 3 – users’ behavior. We humans are bad at trying to outsmart the controller.

[Life-form in my home] always sets the controller to ‘Sun’. [little sun icon indicating manually set parameters]. Can’t you program something so that nothing actually changes when you pick ‘Sun’?

With heat pumps utilizing ground or water sources – ‘built’ storage repositories with limited capacity – unexpected and irregular system changes are critical: You have to size your source in advance. You cannot simply order one more lorry load of wood pellets or oil if you ‘run out of fuel’. If the source of ambient energy is depleted, the heat pump finally will refuse to work below a certain source temperature. The heat pump’s rated power has match the heating demands and the size of the source exactly. It also must not be oversized in order to avoid turning on and off the compressor too often.

Thus you need good estimates for peak heat load and yearly energy needs, and models should include extreme weather (‘physics’) but also erratic users’ behaviour. The more modern the building, the more important spikes in hot tap water usage get in relation to space heating. A vendor of wood pellet stoves told me that delivering peak energy for hot water – used in private bathrooms that match spas – is a greater challenge today than delivering space heating energy. Energy certificates of modern buildings take into account huge estimated solar and internal energy gains – calculated according to standards. But the true heating power needed on a certain day will depend on the strategy or automation home owners use when managing their shades.

Typical gas boilers are oversized (in terms of kW rated power) by a factor of 2 or more in Germany, but with heat pumps you need to be more careful. However, this also means that heat pump systems cannot and should not be planned for rare peak demands, such as: 10 overnight guests want to shower in the morning one after the other, on an extremely cold day, or for heating up the building quickly after temperature had been decreased during a leave of absence.

The nerdy answer is that a smart home would know when your vacation ends and start heating up well in advance. Not sure what to do about the showering guests as in this case ‘missing’ power cannot be compensated by more time. Perhaps a gamified approach will work: An app will do something funny / provide incentives and notifications so that people wait for the water to heat up again. But what about planning for renting a part of the house out someday? Maybe a very good AI will predict what your grandchildren are likely to do, based on automated genetics monitoring.

The challenge of simulating human behaviour is ultimately governed by constraints on resources – such as the size of the heat source: Future heating demands and energy usage is unknown but the heat source has to be sized today. If the system is ‘open’ and connected to a ‘grid’ in a convenient way problems seem to go away: You order whatever you need, including energy, any time. The opposite is planning for true self-sufficiency: I once developed a simulation for an off-grid system using photovoltaic generators and wind power – for a mountain shelter. They had to meet tough regulations and hygienic standards like any other restaurant, e.g.: to use ‘industry-grade’ dishwashers needing 10kW of power. In order to provide that by solar power (plus battery) you needed to make an estimate on the number of guests likely to visit … and thus on how many people would go hiking on a specific day … and thus maybe on the weather forecast. I tried to factor in the ‘visiting probability’ based on the current weather.

I think many of these problem can be ‘resolved’ by recognizing that they are first world problems. It takes tremendous efforts – in terms of energy use or systems’ complexity – to obtain 100% availability and to cover all exceptional use cases. You would need the design heat load only for a few days every decade. On most winter days a properly sized heat pump is operating for only 12 hours. The simple, low tech solution would be to accept the very very rare intermittent 18,5°C room temperature mitigated by proper clothing. Accepting a 20-minute delay of your shower solves the hot water issue. An economical analysis can reveal the (most likely very small) trade-off of providing exceptional peak energy by a ‘backup’ electrical heating element – or by using that wood stove that you installed ‘as a backup’ but mostly for ornamental reasons because it is dreadful to fetch the wood logs when it is really cold.

But our ‘modern’ expectations and convenience needs are also reflected in regulations. Contractors are afraid of being sued by malicious clients who (quote) sit next their heat pump and count its operating cycles – to compare the numbers with the ones to be ‘guaranteed. In a weather-challenged region at more than 2.000 meters altitude people need to steam clean dishes and use stainless steel instead of wood – where wooden plates have been used for centuries. I believe that regulators are as prone as anybody else to fall into the nerdy trap described above: You monitor, measure, calculate, and regulate the things in detail that you can measure and because you can measure them – not because these things were top priorities or had the most profound impact.

Still harvesting energy from air - during a record-breaking cold January 2017

The Future of Small Business?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taleb states that an Artisan …

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

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

The Stages of Blogging – an Empirical Study

… with sample size 1.

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

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

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pine trees in Tenerife.

On Resisting the Bait

I don’t mean click-bait. I mean write-bait. That article that wants you to launch your 2.000 words rhetoric missile, and click the red button: Publish.

I am pondering about one of the most successful genres clicked and shared on social media: a blend of popular psychology, life hacking, and business wisdom, perhaps enriched by trusted thought leaders’ anecdotes.

Viral articles often match one of the following patterns:

1) The positive version that wants you to be part of the chosen group:

People who are X are also capable of Y.

X has usually a somewhat negative connotation, so capability Y comes as a surprise and as a relief.

[Also introverts can be great leaders.]

In addition, X is not clearly defined (maybe Y isn’t either), and it will be easy to find a multiple-choice test that gives you confirmation about your status as a winner.

2) The negative version that makes you feel happy about not being doomed, or giggle mischievously:

People who are X are not capable of Y.

To make this work, X-People need to be a minority, and Y needs to be something the target audience recognizes as desirable.

[Book-smart academic over-achievers will hardly be successful entrepreneurs].

These articles are light entertainment for the Non-Xers, but X-People might have a hard time resisting the temptation to take the bait. Especially when they feel they haven’t tagged a blog post with Rant for a long time.

If there is anything to gain here in terms of self-improvement and self-hacking, it is the ultimate test of your Stoic attitude. You can refine and polish your counter-arguments over and over, make it more poignant and provocative, or more balanced and thoughtful. Make it more anecdotal, personal, and honest, or more detached and based on rock-solid research. You might long to dance on the slippery area in between, mastering the art of making fun of yourself without too much self-sabotage.

But no matter what you write: If you take the bait it will always sound like whining, nitpicking in the wrong place, or re-defining and twisting terms like ‘success’ to meet your own agenda. Besides, it may hurt your productivity at work to turn around that unpublished piece in your mind again and again. So do yourself a favor and trash your draft.

Graffiti in Shoreditch, London - Art Is Trash Dumpster (9422226755).

Also notorious wafflers are capable of writing short posts.

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 artisans working 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 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 are crowd pullers 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

 

This Year in Books: Biographies, Science, Essays.

This is my pick of books I enjoyed reading in 2013. I am hardly capable of reviewing books but I tend to pick books in order to answer a specific question.

Biographies

I have a penchant for physicists’ lives in the first half of the 20th century. How did scientists organize their lives and research without computers? How did they cope with war? Did it help the development of theoretical physics that their knowledge and skills were quite diverse?

Paul Dirac was perhaps an underrated hero of quantum physics until the release of The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo. Dirac trained as an engineer and searching for a job without success. He was driven by a top-down approach to physics: by the beauty of mathematical equations that eventually match a model of reality. Dirac’s usage of mathematics and his way of inventing new symbols (Dirac said he invented the bra) was said to give proof of his engineering mindset.

In Inside The Centre: The Life of J. Robert Oppenheimer Ray Monk gives a vivid account of the Manhattan project and the related rise of the reputation of scientists (which kept – in my opinion – misleading aspiring physics students for decades to come about their employability). For multi-talented and erudite Oppenheimer physics was the best way to do philosophy. Though not an administrator before, he turned out to be the perfect facilitator and “project manager” – speaking the language of theoretical physicists and engineers alike.

I picked this Oppenheimer biography because I found Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius by Monk superb:

It is a book for those interested solely in Wittgenstein’s life as well as for amateur philosophers who had tried to decode the Tractatus in vain (as myself). I am not sure if you grasp the combination of his logical analysis of language and his allusions to the mystical without knowing about Wittgenstein’s debut in philosophy as Russell’s mentee on the one hand and his desire to be given the most dangerous task in World War I, in search for a life-altering experience, on the other hand. Peter Higgs has recently stated that he would not have been successful in today’s academic system. The more we are flabbergasted by reading about Wittgenstein’s lifelong reluctance to publish anything.

Wittgenstein had trained as an engineer, too.

Other biographies I read I 2012 might corroborate that a training in engineering or working closely with engineers helps the development of the theorist’s mind:

Jürgen Neffe’s biography of Einstein lays out his life in chapters dedicated to different aspects of his life, rather than using a chronological approach. So the voyeuristic reader can zoom in on Einstein’s family life. I was most interested in his childhood when Einstein lived in his father’s and uncle’s electrical engineering company, and his track record as an inventor.

If Feynman – featured in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick- wasn’t the archetypical combination of a theorist and a hands-on tinkerer I do not know who was. His playing with flexagons or his childhood experiments with the garden sprinkler are legend.

History of Science and Popular Science

Until I read The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin last year I did not know that there are different genres of popular physics that can be characterized as enthusiastic or critical. Enthusiastic accounts use the science-is-cool approach  – that applies to sci-fi-style descriptions of the inner workings of the LHC as well as “spooky” theories used to explain experimental results. I believe it is not an accident to see that genre grow in times of cut governmental budgets.

The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll was awarded the prize for the best science book 2013 by the Royal Society. I have hardly seen a popular book covering theory at such a deep level and giving account of LHC’s history and work and live in the scientific community in general.

Critical books focus on the way (string) theory became detached from reality in a way that might have been too much even for Dirac. In the beginning of the 20th century theory was driven by experimental results to be explained – now theory is said to have taken up a life on its own.

The title Farewell to Reality: How Fairytale Physics Betrays the Search for Scientific Truth is sensationalist. In my opinion Jim Baggott gives a rather balanced account of the history of physics – I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to understand what the big questions in fundamental physics have been in the past 100 years.

Physics on the Fringe by Margaret Wertheim is an unusual gem. She criticizes contemporary research in a subtle way – as a by-product of describing life and mind of a so-called outsider physicist. A book that focuses on paradoxers without buying into their theories but showing respect for the human beings behind the theories (I blogged about the book here.)

Matthew Rave shows that theoretical models can be explained in a completely different way – not featuring famous physicists and artistic photos of particle colliders: Why is there  anything? is a Socratic dialogue that fans of Douglas Hofstadter’s Achille and Tortoise will enjoy.

Class of Its Own: Books by Nassim Taleb.

A review of books read in 2013 would not be complete without mentioning Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile and The Black Swan again. I blogged about these books and ideas here, here, here, and here.

In relation to the science books I want to emphasize his refreshing perspective of academic – planned, Soviet-Harvard-style – research versus tinkering by amateurs. I might over-generalize but I feel that those eminent 20th century physicists were tinkerers at heart.

Essays on Life, Work, the Universe and Everything

Taleb’s books are essays and not for the nit-pickers. This made me recognize that some of my all-time-classics could be classified as personal essays as well. These books are partly autobiographical vignettes, partly analysis of specific industry sectors – entangled using a narrative in a peculiar way.

The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living by Randy Komisar. A career in Silicon Valley illustrated by a fictional character, a young entrepreneur who wants to start an internet-based funeral business. Actually, the book is about the delusion of the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do and then do what you want to do. Using Taleb’s language it is about Optionality in your life.

21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com , Mike Daisey’s account of working at amazon.com in the glorious days before the dot.com bust is the most hilarious account of Dilbert’s life in the cubicle: his fight with illogical metrics, managers who admire Michael Moore’s movies and don’t see the inconsistency, or people nearly killing each other for exposure to the ray of light shining through the building’s single tiny window.  Underneath the epic story it is a book of a seriously multi-talented man and his love-hate relationship with the corporate world.

The Art of Working Less  is the (translated) title of my favorite German book in that category. It is very different from your typical self-help book on work-life balance. Both authors trained as medical doctors and were successful in their careers – as a doctor running his practice and a as CEO of a publishing house, respectively – until they decided to leave the treadmill.

The authors analyze the historical development of the value assigned to work. They wonder about our obsession with work – way beyond financial necessities and trancending the professional realm by attributing work-like “ethics” to our unpaid occupations too. The target group of the book are people who could easily afford to work less, but don’t do so. Martin Luther is blamed for having instilled protestant work ethics in generations by replacing work (Arbeit – a term with negative etymological connotations) with Beruf (profession) being very similar to Berufung (vocation, true calling).

Psychology

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain – an eye-opener. I am typically considered an extremely extrovert person by people who know me personally. Cain tells me otherwise, my reluctance of “social” company events gives proof of that. Probably I am a faker on a mission: Introverts are able to transcend their limits if they want to achieve their goals. I enjoyed Cain’s experiment of attending a Tony Robbins workshop for research purposes.

In David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants Malcolm Gladwell investigates how and why a physical or other disadvantage can lead to superior results. I was most impressed by the stories of dyslexic people who became successful in jobs that heavily rely on reading and writing skills. Gladwell’s heroes have learned to cope with so-called failure at an early age and they developed workarounds and skills replacing literacy as memorization, negotiation skills, and reading cues.

Fiction

I don’t read much fiction and if so, I tend to read several books by single author in a row. Last year was dedicated to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Chesterson’s Father Brown. This year I turned to Philipp K. Dick‘s dystopian fiction and Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Technology

Robust Control System Networks by Stuxnet decoder Ralph Langner is no-nonsense technical analysis – and yet the first book I read that contained a reference to the The Black Swan. Langner brilliantly debunks the way risks are evaluated in IT security, that is using insurance-based models and indulging in building theoretical models. Langner highlights the way control engineers at the shop floor think in contrast to this.

In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Nicholas Carr brilliant analysis reflects all my personal findings – again confirmed by this summer’s time-out from social media. I am eagerly awaiting his upcoming book on automation.

Having enjoyed reading Jaron Lanier, I am aware of the irony of hosting my blog on one of those Siren Servers.

Taleb has called Ray Kurzweil his anti-me in Antifragile, so I am probably not the most unbiased reader of The Singularity is Near.

Kurzweil’s worldview is self-consistent if you buy into his optimism, but it does not strike a chord with me. For reasons to be probably analyzed in future blog posts I rather picture myself as one of those subversive rebels in clichéd science fiction movies, those who live outside that utopian metropolis run on the latest technology.

Textbooks and Outlook

Having read Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory I plan to tackle more advanced textbooks in 2014.

But I will also return to ancient textbooks – books reflecting Dirac’s original ideas. I learned theoretical physics from Heisenberg’s last graduate student, Wilhelm Macke. He wrote six volumes on theoretical physics, published in the 1960s. I am looking forwarding to reading those again in 2014.

Theoretische Physik, Wilhelm Macke

Six volumes on Theoretical Physics, by Wilhelm Macke.