Let Your Hyperlinks Live Forever!

It is the the duty of a Webmaster to allocate URIs which you will be able to stand by in 2 years, in 20 years, in 200 years. This needs thought, and organization, and commitment. (https://www.w3.org/Provider/Style/URI)

Joel Spolsky did it:

 I’m bending over backwards not to create “linkrot” — all old links to Joel on Software stories have been replaced with redirects, so they should still work. (November 2001)

More than once:

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to [several people] for weeks of hard work on creating this almost perfect port of 16 years of cruft, preserving over 1000 links with redirects… (December 2016).

Most of the outgoing URLs linked by Joel of Software have rotted, with some notable exceptions: Jakob Nielsen’s URLs do still work, so they live what he preached – in 1998:

… linkrot contributes to dissolving the very fabric of the Web: there is a looming danger that the Web will stop being an interconnected universal hypertext and turn into a set of isolated info-islands. Anything that reduces the prevalence and usefulness of cross-site linking is a direct attack on the founding principle of the Web.

No excuses if you are not Spolsky- or Nielsen-famous – I did it too, several times. In 2015 I rewrote the application for my websites from scratch and redirected every single .asp URL to a new friendly URL at a new subdomain.

I am obsessed with keeping old URLs working. I don’t like it if websites are migrated to a new content management system, changing all the URLs.

I checked all that again when migrating to HTTPS last year.

So I am a typical nitpicking dinosaur, waxing nostalgic about the time when web pages were still pages, and when Hyperlinks Subverted Hierarchy. When browsers were not yet running an OS written in Javascript and hogging 70% of your CPU for ad-tracking or crypto-mining.

The dinosaur is grumpy when it has to fix outgoing URLs on this blog. So. Many. Times. Like every second time I test a URL that shows up in my WordPress statistics as clicked, it 404s. Then I try to find equivalent content on the same site if the domain does still exist – and had not been orphaned and hijacked by malvertizers. If I am not successful I link to a version of this content on web.archive.org, track down the content owner’s new site, or find similar content elsewhere.

My heart breaks when I see that it’s specifically the interesting, unusual content that users want to follow from here – like hard-to-find historical information on how to build a heat pump from clay tablets and straw.

My heart breaks even more when the technical content on the target site gets dumbed down more and more with every URL breaking website overhaul. But OK – you now have this terrific header image with a happy-people-at-work stock photo that covers all my desktop so that I have to scroll for anything, and the dumbed down content is shown in boxes that pop up and whirl – totally responsive, though clunky on a desktop computer.

And, yes: I totally know that site owners don’t owe me anything. Just because you hosted that rare and interesting content for the last 10 years does not mean you have to do that forever.

But you marketing ninjas and website wranglers neglected an important point: We live in the age of silly gamification that makes 1990s link building pale: I like yours and you like mine. Buy Followers. Every time I read a puffed up Case Study for a project I was familiar with as an insider, I was laughing for minutes and then checked if it was not satire.

In this era of fake word-of-mouth marketing you get incoming links. People say something thoughtful, maybe even nice about you just because they found your content interesting and worth linking not because you play silly games of reciprocating. The most valuable links are set by people you don’t know and who did not anticipate you will ever notice their link. As Nassim Taleb says: Virtue is what you do when nobody is looking.

I would go to great lengths not to break links to my sites in those obscure DIY forums whose posts are hardly indexed by search engines. At least I would make a half-hearted attempt at redirecting to a custom 404 page that explains where you might the moved content. Or just keep the domain name intact. Which of course means not to register a catchy domain name for every product in the first place. Which I consider bad practice anyway – training users to fall for phishing, by getting them used to jumping from one weird but legit domain to another.

And, no, I don’t blame you personally, poor stressed out web admin who had to get the new site up and running before April 1st, because suits in your company said the world would come to an end otherwise. I just think that our internet culture that embraces natural linkrot so easily is as broken as the links.

I tag this as Rant, but it is a Plea: I beg you, I implore you to invest just a tiny part of the time, budget and efforts you allocated to Making the Experience of Your Website Better to making some attempt at keeping your URLs intact. They are actually valuable for others – something you should be proud of.

The Heat Source Paradox

It is not a paradox – it is a straight-forward relation between a heat pump system’s key data:

The lower a heat pump’s performance factor is, the smaller the source can be built.

I would not write this post, hadn’t I found a version of this statement with a positive twist  used in an advert!

In this post I consider a heat pump a blackbox that converts input energy into output heat energy – it ‘multiplies’ energy by a performance factor. A traditional mechanical heat pump uses electrical input energy to drive a mechanical compressor. The uncommon Rotation Heat Pump utilizes the pressure gradient created by centrifugal forces and thus again by electrical power.

But a pressure difference can also be maintained by adsorption/desorption processes or by changing the amount of one fluid dissolved in another; Einstein’s famous refrigerator uses a more complex combination of such dissolution/evaporation processes. Evaporation or desorption can be directly driven by heat: A gas heat pump thus ‘multiplies’ the energy from burning natural gas (and in addition, a heat pump and a gas boiler can be combined in one unit).

The overall performance factor of a gas heat pump – kWh heating energy out over kWh gas in – is about 1,5 – 2. This is lower than 4 – 5 available with mechanical compressors. But the assessment depends on the costs of kWh gas versus kWh electrical energy: If gas is four times cheaper (which nearly is the case in Germany) than burning natural gas in a traditional boiler without any ‘heat pump multiplication’, then the classical boiler can be more economical than using a heat pump with an electrical compressor. If gas is ‘only’ two times as cheap, then a gas heat pump with an overall performance number of ‘only’ 2 will still beat an electrical heat pump with a performance factor of 4.

While the gas heat pump may have its merits under certain market conditions, its performance number is low: For one kWh of gas you only get two kWh of heating energy. This  means you only need to provide one kWh of ‘ambient’ energy from your source – geothermal, water, or air. If the performance factor of an electrical heat pump is 4, you multiply each kWh of input energy by 4. But the heat source has to be able to supply the required 3 kWh. This is the whole ‘paradox’: The better the heat pump’s performance is in terms of heating energy over input energy, the more energy has to be released by a properly designed heat source, like ground loops sufficiently large, a ground-water well providing sufficient flow-rate, an air heat pump’s ventilator powerful enough, or our combination of a big enough solar/air collector plus water tank.

Illustration of the ‘heat source paradox’: The lower the performance number (ratio of output and input energy), the lower is the required ambient energy that has to be provided by ‘the environment’. The output heating energy in red is the target number that has to be met – it is tied to the building’s design heat load.

If you wish to state it that way, a heat pump with inferior performance characteristics has the ‘advantage’ that the source can be smaller – less pipes to be buried in the ground or a smaller water tank. And in an advert for a gas heat pump I found it spelled out exactly in this way, as a pro argument compared to other heat pumps:

The heat source can be built much smaller – investment costs are lower!

It is not wrong, but it is highly misleading. It is like saying that heating electrically with a resistive heating element – and thus a performance number of 1 – is superior because you do not need to invest in building any source of ambient energy at all.

No, You Cannot ‘Power Your Home’ by One Hour of Cycling Daily

In the past days different versions of an article had popped up in my social media streams again and again – claiming that you could power your home for 24 hours by cycling for one hour.

Regular readers know that I craft my statements carefully in articles about energy, nearly as in the old times when submitting a scientific paper to a journal, with lots of phrases like Tentatively, we assume…

But in this case, I cannot say it more politely or less distinctly:

No, you cannot power your home by one hour of cycling unless the only electrical appliance in your home is the equivalent of one energy-efficient small computer. I am excluding heating and cooling anyway.

Yes, I know the original article targeted people without access to the power grid. But this information seems to have been lost in uncritical reshares with catchy headlines. Having seen lots of people – whose ‘Western’ homes will never be powered by a treadmill – discussing and cheering this idea, I want to contribute some numbers [*].

This is all the not-exactly-rocket-science math you need, so authors not adding conclusive numbers to their claims have no excuses:

Energy in kWh = Power in Watts times hours divided by 1000

Then you need to be capable to read off your yearly kWh from your utility bill, divide by 365, and/or spot the power in Watts indicated on appliances or to be googled easily.

A professional athlete can cycle at several 100 Watts for some minutes (only) and he just beats a toaster (which needs a power of 500-1000W).

So an average person cannot cycle at more than 100-200W for one hour, delivering 0,2kWh during that hour at best.

With that energy you can power a 20W notebook or light bulb for 10 hours, and nothing more.

Anything with rotating parts like water well pumps, washing machines, or appliances for cutting or mixing need much more power than that, usually a few 100W. Cycling for one hour can drive one device like that for less than half an hour.

An electric stove or a water heater needs about 2kW peak power, at half of the maximum such appliances would consume 1kWh in one hour. An energy-efficient small fridge needs 0,5kWh per day, a large one up to 4kWh.

A TV set could need 150W[**], so you might just be able to power it while watching. I don’t say that this is a bad idea – but it is just very different from ‘powering your home’.

I’ll not link those click-bait articles but an excellent website instead (for the US): Here you can estimate your daily consumption, by picking all your appliances from a list, and learn about the power each one needs. At least it should give you some feeling for the numbers, to be compared with the utility bill, and to identify the most important suckers for energy.


I have scrutinized our base load consumption in this article: In summer (without space heating) our house needs about 10kWh of electrical energy per day, including 1-2 kWh for heating of hot water by the heat pump. The base load – what the house needs when we are away – is about 4kWh per day.

There are numerous articles with energy statistics for different countries, I pick one at random, stating – in line with many others – that a German household needs about 10kWh per day and one in the US about 30kWh. But even for Nigeria the average value per home is about 1,5kWh, several times the output of one hour of cycling.


[*] I’ve added this paragraph on Feb. 8 for clarification as the point came up in some discussions on my post.

[**] Depends on size, see for example this list for TVs common in Germany. I was rather thinking of a bigger one, in line with the typical values given also by the US Department of Energy (300W for a plasma TV!).

Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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.

Do I Have an Opinion on Education at Large and on MOOCs in Particular?

Something education-related seems to have hit the blogosphere – many blogs I follow cover online-courses, teaching and education yesterday.

My feelings are mixed.

Important note: Though this was intended as a balanced review. But it ended up as one of my usual posts attributed to this genre I have no name for. I could invalidate most of my own arguments – however, I don’t want this post to become even lengthier.

WP Space Ship Control Panel

Alien alert. If you are not prepared for that, don’t continue reading.

I am a dinosaur. I finished my MSc in physics at a time when the concept  of a bachelor’s degree was unheard of in my country. I admit that I did not get even over the fact that reasonable technical degree programs have been cut into 3+2 years to comply with the so-called Bologna process.

I should have an opinion on education.

I have given lectures, labs and problem solving courses at the university in a former life – mainly on superconductivity and laser physics. I have designed vocational trainings for aspiring IT engineers as well as train-the-experts no-nonsense hardcore workshops on Public Key Infrastructure.

Most recently I had given an academic lecture on PKI for five years – including an “asynchronous online learning part”, and currently I am also a part-time student again myself in a (down-to-earth) renewable energies program.

In my online course – which was not massive – I have handed out virtual machine computer puzzles to students and required them to solve those within several months – supported by scheduled online discussions. Every year people badly need the looming deadline to get working two weeks before due date.

Corporate professionals who are students at the same time demand rules and deadlines to be imposed on them – in the same way as it happens in The Corporate Borg Sphere. I can relate – too much. As usual, I am also part of the target audience of this post.

Unless non-interactive lectures are MOOCs my own MOOC student experience is limited to a programming course – company internal, but rather massive though – I took before MOOC was an acronym. So I am not qualified to write this post; I just cannot resist.

Ironically the field of expertise I had been most “renowned” so far was one I had zero formal education in. I learned from the IT hacker community to judge people only on skills they demonstrate right in front of me. Hackers detest bragging with degrees or  – worse – certificates issued by market leading technology providers, based on multiple choice tests. One of the main decoders of Stuxnet, the worm that aimed at damaging the nuclear facilities in Iran, is a psychologist by education.

I dare say that real hackers are 100% self-educated – no matter if they put some formal education on top of that later. The latter is a hidden mega-trend in my opinion: More often than not I saw experienced professionals going for a degree – in a program they knew more about than the teachers – just because they wanted that piece of paper giving proof of what they already knew.

I see strange contradicting trends in education and I don’t think that Massive Open Online Courses are a disruptive new way of education per se.

They are a symptom of changes in educational systems or society at large – of which I am not sure if I like them all.

As I said I am still baffled by the Bologna standardization process and associated splitting up of study programs. It is like neat little boxes that can be attached to each other in a compatible way – called “modularization”.
The upside: Cross-country recognition has been facilitated finally and you are more flexible to craft your own degree program.
The downside(s): The bar has been lowered in order to provide more cross-discipline / cross-programme permeability. The latter is a noble goal of course, in order to solve the complicated interdisciplinary blah blah issues that an interconnected global blah blah society faces.

I have the perfect backup material for all readers who prefer to hear opinionated rants rather by somebody with substantial experience in education – unfortunately it is in German. Austrian philosophy professor Konrad Paul Liessmann has written a book called Theorie der Unbildung – Irrtümer der Wissensgesellschaft which roughly translates to Theory of Non-Education – Misapprehensions of the Knowledge Society. Actually Unbildung is illiterateness, but it is meant in a sarcastic sense – so I believe non-education is a better term.

Liessmann calls it a polemic himself. He rants in a most entertaining way – appealing to anybody who appreciates Dilbert cartoon humor – on:

  • Sociology dropouts turned management consultants who give seasoned university professors patronizing advice on didactic concepts.
  • Management consulting mantras flooding academia, backed by their infamous management and controlling software and the involved gamification … sorry… enforcement of metrics, benchmarks and other silly rules.
  • The mantra of playful learning based on interactive media. Unfortunately you won’t be able to get rid of the need of the efforts of thinking hard. I am at a loss for translating his brilliant and subtle sarcasm in the way he oppose the naive mantra of anything being fun and play opposed to plain hard work.
  • Standardized, quality controlled exams that fosters Teach to the Test mentality. In my most recent encounters as a student and a teacher I have been stunned by new levels of optimization of the credentials collecting process – illustrated by collective group work on the pre-defined catalogue of potential examination questions, or asking The Most Important Question in the first lecture which is How many XY do I need to submit (present, solve…) in order to [paraphrasing] barely scrape by with PASSED [/paraphrasing].

This is my summary of the most conflicting trends I conclude from my anecdotal experiences:

1) Free information for a networked society:

Endless valuable information is available for eager learners – if you know how to google and how to tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff: Scientific publications, lecture notes and text books. I am not sure if we need all that re-packaged and sold as “courses”.

An economist might reply: If there is a market(*) for that – why not? And don’t that material exist only because of the universities’ outreach progams – initiated by management consultants who were criticized by professors?

Do we need coaches who help us to navigate through the vast universe of knowledge? (Not a rhetorical question).

2) Gamification and edu-/info-tainment garnished with corporate-style deadlines for a society built on the mantra of the ever reducing attention span:
We as a learning society seem to need: infographics, videos, blended learning, Facebook-like discussion groups. As odd as it seems we – the free people of earth – rely on triggers, pop-up messages and arcane rules designed by others more than ever. And in contrast to cyberpunk stories – we are aware of it and we like. (“We” does not exclude “me”.)

I am intrigued by this ambiguity – as I feel free information on the net and corporate strangeness / gamification have common roots. These roots seem to be tied to technology.

Falla Tetris

Computer games go real live.

Nicholas Carr who analyzed our relationship with reading in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: We have gained the ability to skim, scroll and evaluate content fast, but we lose the ability to read linear, long-winded text. Research has shown that students allowed to click on videos and other material related to a specific article remembered less than students who had to focus on the text only.

As I said, I am subject to that as well. I have turned from a voraciously reading teenager – capable of immersing in long-winded wooden existential philosophical prose – to a constantly distracted channel hopper.

I have been conditioned by multi-tasking to the extreme, always in firefighting mode, with several pop-up windows of the corporate equivalent of social media fighting for a small time-slots of undivided attention. I have learned to learn on-the-fly and on-the-job for years until I decided I wanted to reconnect with the old silent learning experience.

Thus I started re-reading and re-learning physics nearly 10 years ago – for the pure enjoyment of escaping multi-tasking hell. It was fun but it was hard at the same time. It took me to overcome an activation barrier to get “into” the linear, gradual absorption of knowledge again.

I am a strong advocate of learning alone – the very old-school concept of the problem-solving strategy attributed to Richard Feynman (by Murray Gell-Mann): Write down the problem – think hard – write down the solution. I would like to add: Bang your lonely head against the wall in despair until your brain grows some new synaptic connections. I could never get the concept of “learning in a group”. Probably I have now finally revealed that I am a sociophobe introvert, but anyway: This should make me a MOOC advocate, shouldn’t it?

I have watched a lot of physics lectures online, I enjoyed in particular David Tong’s QFT lectures – awesome blackboard & chalk style, no Powerpoint. But I enjoyed it because there were lecture notes as well. After watching some videos I started reading the notes in advance. I had always felt the most awesome physics video lectures were those that gave me a fresh perspective on something I had learned the old school way before – by solving lots of mind-numbing problems.

If this (non-interactive) lecture counts as a MOOC – I am a big fan. However, I am a dinosaur travelled to the future – I am not the one to judge on how well a MOOC-only learning environment would act on a digital native’s brain.

On writing this post I was struggling with my desire to let all those weird thoughts running wild – associations between cyber economy and cyber learning. I failed to establish any balanced angle.

In summary I feel uncomfortable about turning the process of learning into something that is built on instant gratification, game-style motivation resembling the tools we are tortured with the corporate world, social-media-style interactions, packaging and standardization of microscopic units of knowledge, and gradually replacing linear text by visual aids.

But there is more substantial criticism I can also relate with:

The market might be dysfunctional. For well-paid professionals the pay for teaching courses in a moonlighting fashion payment does not matter – you would do it for free because pay is low anyway compared to your usual rates (I speak from experience, and this holds for online and traditional courses). So you might lose money already by having to postpone more lucrative assignments because of teaching –  you do it due to idealism and/or ego.

Quote from this post: In other words, while a few already well-paid superprofessors get their egos stroked conducting experiments that are doomed to fail, “second- and third-tier universities and colleges, and community colleges” risk closing because Coursera and its ilk have sent higher education price expectations through the floor and systematically devalued everybody else’s work.

The Largest Experiment in Applied Game Theory Ever

I am very interested in the LHC at CERN. Not only in the fundamentals of physics unveiled by the experiment, but in the amazing efforts in logistics, project management and engineering that make the world’s largest machine (Borrowed from Sean Caroll and Lisa Randall) work. Probably I have studied physics to contribute to such experiments someday.

But we have something even more awe-inspiring today. As an technical aside, we are (I am) not the logistics managers in the experiment, but we are: the particles, the guinea pigs, the subjects, the probands. We are participating in The Game – a much better game than than the one Michael Douglas has been part of in the movie: It is not an experiment set-up for a single person only, but it concerns at least the whole European Union, if not the whole world. Yet it is as kafkaesque as you had imagined in your weirdest and most paranoid dreams.

Readers who have managed to resist the urge to close this browser tab window and who have born with me will have noticed that this is not your typical Easter posting. It is not my typical geeky weird posting either though I might need to utilize some very dark humour. This posting is:

  • totally biased. You might be shocked about my very first forays into politics and economy.
  • not based on any sort of expertise. I am the guinea pig musing about the experiment.

Of course I am talking about the situation of what we call the Eurozone and our political leaders’ ongoing attempts to rescue our financial system and regain its stability.

Yesterday the Swedish member of the European Parliament, Gunnar Hökmark, has suggested a change in EU legislation, that would allow for seizing money from deposits above € 100.000 in the future. The likelihood is rising that tough treatment of big depositors will be written into a new EU law, making losses for large savers a permanent feature of future banking crises. (Source: Reuters: The European Parliament will demand that big savers take losses if their banks run into trouble…).

Savers in Cyprus with deposits above € 100.000 might lose about 40% of their savings, and this might happen in other countries in the futures.

Now game theory is at play when savers consider their options: Will you queue in front of the bank, take your money and run? Or will you stay calm and watch all those fools. The latter is the more reasonable way to do – in terms of the overall stability of the system, but nonetheless you are ***** if all other customers of your bank would withdraw money from their accounts before you.
[As for ***** – I am still an avid follower of rules and laws and I want to avoid the need of having to tag my blog as mature or whatever]

I have had a chance to experience this from the guinea pig’s perspective when one of Austria’s largest bank nearly collapsed as a consequence of their own private speculation-based crisis in 2006. The funny thing about this was that this bank was owned the Austrian Trade Union Association and I had once selected it – the conservative bank for cautious savers and workers – over all those banks who had just embarked on their risky ventures in Eastern Europe. An elderly coupled had been robbed after they had withdrawn € 400.000 from their deposits by a villain who had followed them from the bank to their home. The bank was rescued finally, and politicians opened saving accounts at this bank in front of TV cameras.

This may not let my moral capabilities appear in the best light but I frankly admit this was probably the first time in my life I was really, personally, existentially concerned with what I heard in the news everyday.

So of course I am thrilled about the chance to go through this again and feel the tsunami of instabilities starting to roll over Europe.  Actually right now I should do some research on cybersecurity and hacking smart meters, destabilizing the power grid. I have just devoured a compelling and well-researched German novel that lays out an apocalyptic, cyberpunk blackout scenario. However, I feel we manage to destabilize ‘the system’ without the helping hands of hackers, and based on IT that works as designed.

My compassion goes to the people of Cyprus, the hard-working savers in particular.

In the last years we had an ongoing discussion in Austria about introducing taxes on properties and assets (which we do not have today, in contrast to most other countries). From discussions about those I have learned the a majority(*) of people believes that you cannot own more than several € 100.000 unless you: are a criminal, have dealt with drugs, have inherited a fortune from your wealthy possibly aristocratic family whose wealth is based on crimes committed in the Thirty Years War, or you have benefited from risky financial deals based on all those derivative products I do not quite understand without a PhD in quantitative finance.
(*) It is a majority of online posters, but chances are it is the majority of the population. It is more than tempting to form an opinion about a minority of so-called wealthy people if you are part of the majority. Some bright lights of politicians here even wanted to make those taxes imposed on a minority subject to a referendum.

I cannot wait to read similar arguments again about all those fraudsters and banksters whom the crisis and laws like this serve right because they caused the crisis and should swallow their own poison now.

This. Makes. Me. Sick.

I have told you that this is neither going to be funny nor balanced, but it is probably time to add a disclaimer: I do not at all object against laws and political measures that would put myself at a disadvantage. I am in favor of a flat tax that would replace the intricate system of taxes, deductions, benefits, subsidies, charges, and so-called social insurance contributions which are a capped social tax in a sense anyway. It would probably leave me with less money but it would make the whole system simpler and cheaper – and this is an argument I can relate to a lot as a sensible citizen and taxpayer.

But I cannot relate to the argument of charging in particular so-called big depositors.

€ 100.000 is not a fortune – do the math: Imagine yourself being young – probably single, working in the right industry sector at the right time. Working your head off actually as you believe you would stop working like crazy in a few years and return to normal. Or take all the money and built solar power plants in Africa. Or fund an indie movie about a Star Trek like civilization that has abandoned money. No, I am not talking about starting a Zuckerberg-esque startup, sell it to an investor and retire. I am talking about working as a highly qualified expert in a sought-after field and being paid based on time and material. I guess, there are qualified lawyers, medical doctors, architects and IT specialists in Cyprus who own more than € 100.000 based on hard and good-to-honest work. Put yourself into their shoes and ask yourself if you would feel treated fair.

It is punishing people who do not follow the mantra of consumerism and let their monthly expenditure rise in proportion to their income. I have never understood why one needs to have a bigger car, bigger flat TVs (and a higher number thereof), vacations to exotic destinations if you earn more money, the latest communicator shaped cell phone including the holographic doctor feature. You might deposit your money to your favorite bank where you considered it safe. You might have selected some conservative, dull way of saving money – not some high risk speculation. You basically wanted to be compensated for increasing rate of inflation. But now the Cypriot architect might regret he did not buy a bigger house or swimming pool instead, or sign-up for the first parabolic flight for civilian space tourists.

But my – biased, uncalled for – theory is that there is a more subtle pseudo-ethical argument lingering in the minds of lawgivers and their consultants:
Money does not buy you happiness and many scientific studies do prove that you do not get happier if your monthly income raises beyond, say, several thousand euros. Due to whatever reason the argument seems to be reverted and twisted sometimes along the lines of: Too much money makes you a corrupt victim of your wealth, a modern age Ebenezer Scrooge watching the stock market tickers on his computer all the time – and donating a lower percentage of money than his poorer fellows do. I have indeed come across studies that seem to prove the latter (BTW as this is a post full of venting anyway, I do not give you any URLs this time not to break the subjectiveness. And BTW – off topic: I really like the movie Scrooged featuring Bill Murray).

On the other hand, every time some really wealthy person – such as Bill Gates or one of the few Austrian self-made billionaires, such as the founder of Red Bull, Dietrich Mateschitz – engages in charity or donates tons of money for whatever good cause there is an endless stream of mainly critical commentaries about: Why did they fund X and not the even better cause Y. Why did not spend even more. They better should donate as their wealth is built on illegal or at least immoral actions. This is just a big PR campaign for their company anyway.
So my pet theory is: Rich people cannot get it right anyway – no matter what they do or don’t do with their money.

Just to add a single sciencey link: Consider the stir the Milner prize had caused – a self-made billionaire funding a prize on fundamental research, a person donating his private money on disciplines that might lack funding in times of economic crises and budget cuts. Critics have complained about why money was given to established researchers, and why the selection is done by a non-scientists and his clandestine unknown advisors. And on and on.

The killer argument in an economic assessment is the utilitarian one (Philosophers among my readers – I hope I do not mess this up.): Politics should make sure that happiness or some moderate level economic wealth for that matter should be secured for a majority. This means that a minority, even an innocent one, not being accountable for the financial mess, would have to make sacrifices to save ‘the system’.

I have always agreed to this and I rather want a technocrat to be minister of finance or minister of social affairs – somebody who is able to calculate stuff and think in terms of the economical system as a complex network governed by some differential equations. It is sufficiently complex already to foresee that kinds of effect a new law may have. As a politician you simple cannot factor in every single heartbreaking story. My favorite example is the health system: Somebody needs to make a pragmatic and so to speak cold-hearted assessment of the value of a human being’s life. Otherwise you would not be able to decide on question as: Should a 105 year old patient be put on the list of people eligible for a heart transplant?

Having said that we would need to evaluate the impact of seizing large depositors money versus keeping private assets sacred. I am at a loss here: Trying to give an answer to this would require me to have access to the models experts in economy use to analyze the consequences of what they are doing. At least I hope they are using quantitative models. I have just a gut feeling that politicians deciding on this might not know exactly what they are doing – and it is tempting to go for something that will hit a probably not too popular minority. If the system is about to crash, it might crash with or without those deposits being touched. We all might lose money anyway (with the notable exception of people being in debt and not bound to a fixed rate of interest).

As a deposit owner in the middle of the crisis I might feel a little better if I know that anybody is affected in the most equal way. My conclusion is that measures like this do not help at all to foster social cohesion. And though it makes the game theory experiment less exciting it would really help if politicians would not speculate about such things in public.

I am not a big fan of online petitions as it feels like appeasing conscience with a click. But I would sign one that is called:

Stop the Eurozone Game Theory Experiment.

Let the system crash for heaven’s sake but stop probing what might happen if you tell millions of people their money might not safe be at the banks.

or as alternative:

This Cannot Be Real. Please Release Us From the Matrix. Red Pill for Everyone.

As I am not sure of this is reality or matrix we could also vote for:

Please Let Me Go Back to the Matrix. Blue Pill for Everyone.

Matrix like corridor

Matrix-like corridor: Where’s The Keymaker when you need him?

The Dark Side Was Strong in Me

Once in a communication skills training I learned: For each of us there is a topic / a question / a phrase that will turn us raging mad or leave us in despair, or both. The point the trainer wanted to make, of course, was to use your combatant’s topics to your advantage.

There are mild variants: Topics you cannot read about without feeling this urge to comment on. This happened to me recently when reading some excellent blog posts on academia – and leaving thereof:
7 Myths About Academic Employment*), The Cult of Academia*) and A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life. (*)Offline as per 2019

These blog posts refer to the humanities, but according to my anecdotal evidence the situation is not that different in physics. The Career Guidance section of physicsforums.com is highly recommended reading for physics graduates.

I would like to share my experiences – biased and anecdotal (please imagine your favorite disclaimer inserted here) – in dealing with my need-to-comment-and-make-me-cringe-question.

It’s a small-talk question, innocent and harmless. I have worked in the IT sector for about 15 years, about 10 years specialized in a very specific niche in IT security.

In the coffee-break during the workshop or when indulging in the late night pizza after 14 hours in the datacenter … you start talking about random stuff, including education and hobbies. And then you are asked:

But why is a *physicist* working in  *IT security*?

Emphasis may be put on physicist (Flattering: Somebody so smart) or on IT security (Derogatory: Something so mundane). The profession of a physicist might be associated primarily with Stephen-Hawking-type theoretical research. In this case the hidden aside is: Why did you leave the ivory tower for heaven’s sake? Or simply put:

Young Jedi, why Did You – The Chosen One – Succumb to the Dark Side of the Force?

I have probably given different and inconsistent answers, depending on details as the concentration of caffeine or if the client was an MBA or a former scientist.

This iconic computer virus as pictured on my very first small business website in 1997, showing off my expertise in IT security. Credits mine, don’t steal.

This is the first set of arguments was as follows – the first line of defense so to speak:

Studying physics does typically not qualify and prepare for a specific job – unless you remain in academia. (Of course this triggers or reinforces the question: Why did you leave? Bear with me!) So physics in this sense might resemble humanities. There is broad range of areas physicists end up with and which that overlap with engineering (electrical, mechanical) or computer science. But there are more and more interdisciplinary fields emerging like biophysics, quantum computing etc.  that require the infamous analytical problem solving skills of the physicist. Thus it is not that strange that a physicist ends up as an ‘engineer in applied cryptography’.

Cryptography is based on mathematics (number theory in particular). If you want to understand why an algorithm is secure you need to understand the math behind. In contrast to a mathematician, a physicist might bring additional practical skills to the table, e.g. skills concerned with thin films and electronics.

Corporate IT systems are comprised of lots of interfaces between systems (hardware / software) provided by different vendors. They are complex systems. Although I do some software development, I am not a programmer – I am more like an experimental physicist exploring these interfaces in terms of black boxes and reverse engineering / educated guesses. This is in many cases easier than trying to find the particular developer that know about what is going on in detail. Having forced to find vacuum leaks in my apparatus some time ago had provided the best training for debugging and troubleshooting problems in IT systems.

When I design, envisage and build IT systems I am translating requirements into a formal structure – I am projecting a new picture of the infrastructure (based on certificate trust paths) on the existing network topology. This is very similar to the thinking that is applied when a physicist ‘explains’ / models the world.

The longer I worked in this area, the more I focus on technical ‘low-level’ stuff – especially on hardware-related things (smartcards, hardware security modules). It took me some time to get over advice from people that told me that every technician needs to become a manager some time. I had my share of company politics and management – but I returned to the world of technical details.  My first IT job was a real break: I went from analyzing the microstructure of materials to helping small and medium enterprises with their IT problems. But the longer I stayed ‘in IT’, the closer I got to physics again.

I am utilizing applied classical cryptography, based on computational security. One threat to these technologies are posed by quantum computing techniques. So I am interested in progress in these areas and in contrast to many physicists who have ‘gone into IT’ I have tried to keep my knowledge on theoretical physics alive. Actually, quantum computing and cryptography is fascinating because it is an interdisciplinary field connecting some of my former and current areas of expertise (laser physics, quantum statistics, IT security). I had actually had a chance to become a post-doc in that field – several years after having left academia, but finally I declined.

Second round.

The next questions might be tougher. Most difficult interviewers are persons who are aware of my academic track record.

  • Question from former colleagues: You had been the smartest of our class – I was shocked that you in particular left academia.
  • Advice by former professors: But you should know that the best people stay in academia! An answer is not expected, rather regrets.
  • People with no clue about physics and/or what I actually do ‘with computers’ ask: But for doing what you do now – you would not have needed to study physics!
  • People who think my job is about the same as configuring their home WLAN: But configuring computers networks, especially in Windows isn’t that self-explanatory and can’t that be done using some wizards… next-next-finish’? There is no need for a physics PhD here.
  • People in IT (like network admins) are sometimes quite impressed by my CV. In case I can I talk a bit on my personal history of jobs and change of jobs they ask : Yes… OK…so public key infrastructures were more interesting than quantum physics, really?!?

I feel that in 99 of 100 discussions I failed to come up with a balanced, well-crafted reply quickly quickly. Probably it is because this topic is important for me – it is about my personal and professional identity. I am not good at elevator-pitch-type replies in general – I am rather a waffling story-teller (which is proved by this post again).

But if the coffee break or pizza dinner lasts long enough I might get to the following:

Trying to Combine Just Anything

I always had been interested in many areas. In high school it was not all clear that I would become a natural scientist or technical expert. I had also been strongly interested in literature and philosophy. Though calling myself a nerd today I was not at all the math-physics-computers-only type.

My goal had always been to find an area of expertise and a way of working that allows me to combine all those interests.

I Am a Slacker

I admit that I was probably too lazy in the sense I did not follow the advice / command of working all weekends.

I had endless discussions about the significance of the ratio of output and time (my theory on the economics of academic work or work in general) versus the absolute number of working hours (the alleged goal). I was finally defeated by: Yes, but just because the results you achieve in minimum time are so great you could achieve so much more if you would work more!

If you think this sounds a bit like Pointy Haired Boss and Dilbert you got the message.

What versus How

It took me years to find out that the way of working might be even more important to me than the subject as such. It is not only about an interesting subject (‘Doing nice physics’ as we used to say in the lab) but also about the personal freedom to decide on a specialization. I did not feel that I have this kind of freedom in academia, but it seemed very difficult to me to ever leave the niche of expertise again that you had carved out before  – and filled with a respectable number of publications.

Thus the very pragmatic conclusion in hindsight was: Rather specialize in an area of expertise that give me, say, 85% personal satisfaction in terms of penchant for *the subject*, but 100% score in terms of this is *how I wanted to want*. So I  enjoy reading papers and text books on theoretical physics (like quantum field theory) in my spare time. But  I selected another field I made a living of – a field that allows for the greatest control on my valuable time.  Nobody should control what and when and where I am exactly working – as long as I deliver the results promised. And it is solely me who commits to results – there is no manager who motivates to deliver more billable hours and there is no funding agency who expects a progress report every three months.

If There Is Risk I Want Freedom, too.

So I sacrificed so-called job security for personal freedom and risk which did work out great in the commercial world so far. Back in academia I was not willing to spend years as a travelling and underpaid postdoc. This may sound as a contradiction. But if I need to take a risk, I also want to take all the decisions. Being a temporarily employed postdoc seems to me combining the disadvantages of being an employee – following supervisor’s or agency’s guidelines for grants – and being self-employed, lacking security. I felt the same about working in long-term full-time projects as an IT consultant which is the normal thing to do as a so-called specialist. I was only working in short-term, special engagements I had picked carefully.

I Don’t Want to Beg for Taxpayer’s Money

I did not want to apply for postdoc positions and write applications for project grants. I hated writing those applications – it made me feel like a submissive petitioner. I think I already felt like an entrepreneur back then though at time I did not have a clue about working self-employed. I strongly wanted to be paid for something that somebody else really wanted *right now*. As a logical consequence I state: I rather prefer so-called mundane work that is in demand over fundamental research whose value to the society is debatable.

This does not mean that all fundamental research is of no value to society and I do not want to discourage anybody else from doing it (but I do not want to water down this lengthy post with all kinds of disclaimers). Actually, I had always considered myself to be the I-rather-do-fundamental-research-than-applications-type. I am still interested in it and as a ‘consumer’ I am perfectly fine with public funding of arcane fields of physics. I just do not want to be the one whose existence depends on that funding, and I needed to give it a try to come to that conclusion.

Pride before the Fall?

As a highly trained specialist  (I thought) it was just not acceptable for me that the first job as a freshly minted PhD would not provide some improvement in terms of both income and job security. Yes, I was probably too proud. More than 15 years after completing the PhD I can safely say that this was the right decision. I was able to select between different options I had and I judged and mitigated risks realistically.

I Do Not Want to Be Part of Any Collective

It took me some time to learn that I am not willing to work as a part of big system built on strict rules – be it academia or a big corporation. I learned to play, obey and fulfill the rules too well.

I slightly preferred the world of corporations because they are at least honest about (financial) goals. What made me sick in academia were the proposed goals of pure science, research for the good of the world and trying to understand the secrets of the universe etc. If it was about just popping out papers with your name as much as possible to the left of the list of authors than I would have felt better if somebody said so. However, today’s corporate world is undergoing an interesting twist – companies become green, social and whatnot. This is putting me off for the same reasons.

The Journey Does Not End Here

So what I actually wanted and needed was to create or invent my own environment of working, my own framework, my own rules. Fulfilling the not unimportant boundary condition that I want / need to earn money. It was an important step for me to work as a self-employed IT security consultant.

I  admit I also needed to proof to myself I can make it and achieve some metrics set by myself. However, ‘having been there and done that’ priorities have shifted again and I have decided to make yet another leap-of-faith-y change this year.

This Is My Journey and Nobody Else’s

Quoting (paraphrasing) from The Monk and The Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living. So I am fully aware of the fact and I accept, acknowledge, appreciate differences between all of our journeys. This is my story and not a piece of advice to physics graduates, scientists, employees of corporations or whomever I might have seemed to address in particular. I am mainly addressing myself, I guess. But amazing as it may seem it took me quite a while to fully embrace simple, basic lessons such as:

  • If you are good at something, this does not mean you have to do that forever. Do not get carried away by all this talk about ‘your potential’
  • If there are other people doing the same but having more fun at doing it, you should consider a change. Work needn’t be fulfillment of duty and/or challenge all the time.


Sort of the next episode here.