Astute analysts of science, technology and the world at large noticed that my resume reads like a character from The Big Bang Theory. After all, an important tag used with this blog is cliché, and I am dead serious about theory and practice of combining literally anything.
[Edit in 2016: At the time of writing this post, this blog’s title was Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.]
Recently I have setup our so-called business blog and business facebook page, but I admit it is hard to recognize them as such. Our facebook tagline says (translated from German):
Professional Tinkerers. Heat Pump Freaks. Villagers. (Ex-) IT Guys.
People liked the page – probably due to expecting this page to turn out as one of my experimental web 2.0 ventures (I am trying hard to meet those expectations anyway).
But then one of my friends has asked:
Heat pumps instead of IT security – seriously?
Actually this is the pop-sci version: The true question included a lesser known term:
Heat pumps instead of PKI?
(1) PKI and IT Security
PKI means Public Key Infrastructure, and it is not as boring as the Wikipedia definition may sound. For more than ten years it way my mission to design, implement and troubleshoot PKI systems. The emphasis is on ‘systems’: PKI is about geeky cryptographic algorithms, hyper-paranoid risk management (Would the NSA be able to hack into this?) as well as about matching corporate politics and alleged or true risks with commercially feasible technical systems. Adding some management lingo it is about ‘technology, people, and processes’.
Full-blown PKI projects are for large corporations – so I was travelling a lot, although I was able to turn my services offerings from ‘working on site, doing time – whatever needs to be done’ (which is actually the common way to work as an expert freelance in IT) to ‘working mainly remote – working on very specific tasks only’. I turned into a PKI firefighter and PKI reviewer. If you really want to know it all in detail, click here (I also gave a lecture on PKI for five years in this MSc program).
There was nothing wrong with PKI as such: I enjoyed the geeky community of like-minded peers, and the business was self-running. The topic is hot. Just read your favorite tech newspaper’s articles on two-factor authentication or the like – both corporate compliance rules and new security threats related to cloud computing make PKI or related technologies being in demand a sure bet.
(2) Portfolio of Passions
I would like to borrow another author’s picture here: In The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living Randy Komisar – Silicon Valley virtual CEO – expounds how he dabbled in some creative ventures after having graduated, and how he finally embarked on a career as a lawyer. And how he saw his future unfolding before him – Associate, Senior… Partner. He could see the office doors lined up neatly, reflecting the ever progressing evolvement of what we call career, and he quit his career as a lawyer.
In particular, I like Komisar’s definition of passion that should not at confused with the new age-y approach of following your passion.
It is not about the passion, but about a portfolio of passion – don’t drive yourself crazy by trying to find THE passion once for all.
My personal portfolio had always comprised a whole lot – this blog has its name for a reason. Probably I will some day blog on all studies and master degree programmes I had ever evaluated attending. When I was a teenager there were times when philosophy and literature scored higher than anything sciencey.
So I had ended up in an obscure, but thought-after sub-branch of IT security. I have gone to great lengths in this blog to explain my transition from physics to IT. However, physics, science and engineering never vanished from my radar for opportunities.
I wanted less reputation as the internationally renowned high-flyer in IT, and more hands-on down-to-earth work. Ironically, the fact that security is hot in the corporate world started to turn me off. I felt I stood at the wrong side of fence or of the negotiation table – as an effectively Anti-Security Consultant who helped productive business units to remain productive despite security and compliance policies. Probably worth a post of its own, but my favorite theory is: If you try to enforce policies beyond a certain limit, people will pour all their creativity into circumventing the processes and beating the system. And right they are because they could not do their jobs otherwise.
For many years a resource-consuming background process of soul-searching was concerned with checking various option from my portfolio of passions. I was looking for a profession that:
The last item is a pet topic of mine: As a physicist – even as an applied physicist – you have not been trained for a specific job. Physics is more similar to philosophy than to engineering in this respect. We are dilettantes in the best sense – and that is why many physicists end up in IT, management consulting or finance for example.
There are interdisciplinary fields of research that utilize physics via sort of mathematical analogs – just consider Bose-Einstein condensation in networking theory. According to another debatable theory of mine we have nearly blown up the financial system because of many former scientists working in finance – on the physics of wall street – who were more interesting in doing something that mathematically resembles physics than in the impact on the real world.
Solar collector, optimized for harvesting ambient heat by convection in winter time. Image credits: Mine / Our German blog.
(3) And Now for Something Completely Different: Heat Pump Systems and Sustainability
Though am truly interested in foundations of physics, fascinated by the LHC, and even intrigued even by econophysics, I rather prefer to work on mundane applications of physics in engineering as long as it allows for working on a solution to a problem that really matters right now.
Such as the effective utilization of the limited resources available on our planet. Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist (Kenneth Boulding). I do not want to enter the debate on climate warming and I do not think it makes sense to attempt evangelizing people by ethical arguments. Why should we act in a more responsible way than all the generations before us? My younger self, travelling the globe by plane, would not have listened to that arguments either.
However, I think we are all – green or not – striving for personal and economic independence and autonomy: as individuals, as home owners, as businesses.
That’s what got us interested in renewable energy some time ago, and we started working on our personal pilot project that finally turned into a research project / ‘garage start-up’.
We have finally come up with a concept of a heat pump system that uses an unconventional source of heat: The heat pump does not draw heat from ground, ground water or air, but from a large low temperature reservoir – a cistern, in a sense. Ambient heat is in turn transferred to the water tank by means of a solar collector. A simple collector built from hoses (as depicted above) works better than a flat plate collector that relies on heat transfer via radiation.
As with PKI, this is more interesting than it sounds, and it is really about combining just anything: Numerical simulations and building stuff, consulting and product development, scrutinizing product descriptions provided by vendors and dealing with industry standards. None of the components of the heat pump system is special – we did not invent a device defying the laws of physics – but is it the controlling logic that matters most.
I am going to extend the scope for combining anything even further: Having enrolled in a Master’s degree programme in energy engineering in 2011, I will focus on smart metering in my master thesis. Future volatile electricity tariffs (communicated by intelligent meters) will play an important role in management and control of heat pump systems, and there are lots of security risks to be considered.
It is all about systems, interfaces, and connections – not only in social media and IT, but also in building technology and engineering. Actually, all of that is converging onto one big cloudy network (probably also subject to similar chaotic phenomena as the financial markets). I am determined to make some small contribution to that.
(4) Concluding and Confusing Remark
Now I feel like Achill and the Tortoise in Gödel, Escher, Bach(*) – in the chapter on pushing and popping through many levels of the story or the related dreamscape. I am not sure if I have reached the base level I had started from. This might be cliff-hanger.
(*) This is also a subtle tribute to the friend – and musician – mentioned above.