Tinkering, Science, and (Not) Sharing It

I stumbled upon this research paper called PVC polyhedra:

We describe how to construct a dodecahedron, tetrahedron, cube, and octahedron out of pvc pipes using standard fittings.

In particular, if we take a connector that takes three pipes each at 120 degree angles from the others (this is called a “true wye”) and we take elbows of the appropriate angle, we can make the edges come together below the center at exactly the correct angles.

A pivotal moment: What you consider tinkering is actually research-paper-worthy science. Here are some images from the Chief Engineer’s workbench.

The supporting construction of our heat exchangers are built from standard parts connected at various angles:

The final result can be a cuboid for holding meandering tubes:

… or cascaded prisms with n-gon basis – for holding spirals of flexible tubes:

The implementation of this design is documented here (a German post whose charm would be lost in translation unless I wanted to create Internet Poetry).

But I also started up my time machine – in order to find traces of my polyhedra research in the early 1980s. From photos and drawings of the three-dimensional crystals in mineralogy books I figured out how to draw two-dimensional maps of maximally connected surface areas. I cut out the map, and glued together the remaining free edges. Today I would be made redundant by Origami AI.

I filled several shelves with polyhedra of increasing number of faces, starting with a tetrahedron and culminating with this rhombicosidodecahedron. If I recall correctly, I cheated a bit with this one and created some of the pyramids as completely separate items.

I think this was a rather standard hobby for the typical nerdy child, among things like growing crystals from solutions of toxic chemicals, building a makeshift rotatable telescope tripod from scraps, or verifying the laws of optics using prisms and lenses from ancient dismantled devices.

The actually interesting thing is that this photo is the only trace of any of these hobbies. In many years after creating this stuff – and destroying it again – I never thought about documenting it. Until today. It seems we weren’t into sharing these days.

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

“Being Creative with What Is Available”

This is a quote from Simon Dale’s website who has built several eco-friendly ‘Hobbit’ houses. It reminded me of the cave house built into lava bubbles by Lanzarote’s most famous artist César Manrique:

Lava bubble room, César Manrique foundation.

This is very a truly 1970s living room – a ‘The Flintstones’ experience on many levels. (Image: mine)

Being creative with what is available has an appeal beyond economical necessities.

As a teenage hobby astronomer I built a mounting for my small telescope from pieces of wood and metal I found at home. It allowed for rotation about two axes. (I don’t have an image which is probably good.)

As a scientist at the university your labor is cheap but professional equipment is much too expensive. So you have to tinker. My experimental apparatus included a toy motor moving an optical lens, and a water-cooled projector’s bulb was the radiative heater mounted inside my vacuum chamber.

We investigated the growth of superconducting thin films deposited from a vapor ‘plume’ caused by shooting very short UV laser pulses onto a ceramic sample. There was no fancy high-speed device: We took photos of that plume using a normal camera and called it Time-Integrated Photography in scholarly lingo. We found some interesting scaling laws though.

PLD Plume

I am too lazy to scan an old photo of our own plasma plumes. But Wikimedia has it all – this looks exactly as ours did! Oh, the paper authored by The Chief Engineer and myself is worthy $40 today. (Image by Wikimedia user: H. Perowne).

Maybe the desire to build something from anything and to use whatever tool is at hand is the true connection between my diverse activities.

Most IT infrastructures are historically grown and you hardly ever find that green field people would like to install their solutions in. If you don’t like bottom-up tinkering it is just a source of endless frustration. Otherwise it is a noble Apollo-13-like challenge.

The same goes for tinkering with an old house. In the moment we are puzzling about an underground tank powered heat pump system for a house that will be built on top of a high-rise bunker.

Bochum - Baarestraße - Bunker 01 ies

A typical German high-rise bunker, in this case somewhat prettified. Normally they are just bleak grey boxes. (by Wikimedia user Frank Vincentz)

This is not uncommon in some German cities  where unused building land is scarce and thus expensive. Here is an example of a musician’s studio built on top of a bunker in Frankfurt:

… a World War II bunker in Frankfurt that had been previously disguised as a house because it was too expensive to demolish. In a crappy part of town, “a no man’s land between heaps of gravel and dumps, piled-up recycling-products and containers that await their shipping”, the architects decided to rise above it all …

I believe in true innovation driven by necessities and constraints (only). Nassim Taleb’s derision of Soviet-Harvard-style planned ‘research’ struck a chord with me. He challenged the alleged causation usually invoked by politicians and people working in taxpayer-funded committees that ‘steer’ and ‘manage’ innovation at three meta-levels above the ground of honest hands-on work: It is plausible that bottom-up tinkerers trigger innovation which in turn allows countries for building prestigious universities and think-tanks; not the other way around.

Having finished my PhD I saw a report on TV about a mechanic – a craftsman without a degree who was introduced as an inventor. I forgot what the invention actually was but I do remember his apparatus very much reminded me of the vacuum chamber I had worked with – when doing Time-Integrated Photography. I figured: Wow, he calls ‘tinkering’ what we would have written academic papers about! Fast-forward 20 years, I read conference papers on heat pumps and think: Wow, they call research what we call tinkering!

Exit the scientist and enter my subversive, poetic subconsciousness. They are perhaps not that different.

Isn’t this question – What is research? – remotely related to What is art? Or am I just too fond of satirical submissions to academic journals – both art- and science-related ones? It is maybe not an accident that an artist’s cave house came to my mind.

I have called our solar collector Art from Plastic and Wood tongue-in-cheek, here shown in behind another object awaiting further art-ification:

Organic space probe

An organic space probe, sending signals from a distant, ecologically minded, civilization.

Search Term Poetry and Spam Poetry are just another way of tinkering with something at hand. I was recently baffled by academic articles on so-called Flarf Poetry – so there are at least some experts for whom my so-called art would qualify as such. Don’t worry – I don’t insist of this. But I do wonder if ‘serious’ art is always driven by some sort of necessity, too.

By the way, right when I had the linked post on flarf poetry in the making I was invited to contribute some – to a real serious (?) art project. And so I did – consider this a cliffhanger.

What Learning about Feynman’s Path Integrals Was Good for

I have gone to great lengths on this blog in order to explain how and why a degree in physics prepares you for seemingly different careers, or at least does not hurt.

But it would have been so simple. I will now illustrate this – using just two incomprehensible images.

Actually, I have a hidden agenda: The top page on this blog is my review of the book Student Friendly Quantum Field Theory. Of course I am trying now to coast on its success.

But I swear that each of these images made us – the Chief Engineer and me – spontaneously and independently burst out:

This is more complicated than Feynman’s path integrals!!

So if QFT does not prepare you for plumbing and IT security – I don’t know what does.

1) Feynman diagrams spotted in pipework – especially in the way the Chief Engineer depicts it! Our assumption is that this sort of documentation is commented by your typical HVAC contractor with What does he have smoked??

Piping diagram

The Chief Engineer’s Piping Diagrams. Captions in German but not important anyway. One of his ingenious inventions is built from many of these units.

2) Feynman diagrams in certificate paths – in the way authors of Request for Comments envisage the proper usage of related internet protocols. This is the kind of paper any developer sometimes SHOULD read to cross-check implementation versus best practices but I MIGHT give because the RFC is rather PhD-thesis-like.

Certificate path validation, RFC 4158

Certificate path validation, RFC 4158. Details again not important. It is about trust, cast into cryptographic relationships. Again these structures are fractal and you would see more and more trees and branches the deeper you dig.

OK – and now a true Feynman diagram. As with the other ‘examples’ a full-blown diagram would be built from lots of these units:

Susy Zerfall chi0

Feynman diagram of a SUSY process. Details – again – not important, and I would not be able to answer questions anyway (Wikimedia, user Patrick87).

As a disclaimer in case any practicing theoretical physicist feels offended: Of course I don’t intend to say that either of these things is as complicated or requires as much training as Quantum Field Theory.

But probably there is a more serious message to be uncovered here:

Feynman diagrams are often described as depicting the reactions between elementary particles. Yet they are shortcut for very unwieldy integrals in an abstract space.

Drawings of pipework and also the certificate paths seem more tangible. But the latter is replacing cryptographic relationship by little sticks and the former is after all an abstract map of physical items using 2D symbols.

In The Shallows – What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains Nicholas Carr reminds us of the significance of our abilities to create maps at increasing levels of abstraction:

Mankind’s first maps, scratched in the dirt with a stick or carved into a stone with another stone, were as rudimentary as the scribbles of toddlers. … As more time passed, the realism became scientific in both its precision and its abstraction. The mapmaker began to use sophisticated tools like the direction-finding compass and the angle-measuring theodolite and to rely on mathematical reckonings and formulas. Eventually, in a further intellectual leap, maps came to be used not only to represent vast regions of the earth or heavens in minute detail, but to express ideas—a plan of battle, an analysis of the spread of an epidemic, a forecast of population growth.

Building and interpreting – abstract – maps of all kinds has become a key ‘skill’ – from software enterprise architecture diagrams to all sorts of infographics shared on social media like How Douglas Adams predicted the iPad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBM 403 accounting machine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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