Random Things I Have Learned from My Web Development Project

It’s nearly done (previous episode here).

I have copied all the content from my personal websites, painstakingly disentangling snippets of different ‘posts’ that were physically contained in the same ‘web page’, re-assigning existing images to them, adding tags, consolidating information that was stored in different places. Raking the Virtual Zen Garden – again.

New website: A 'post.'

Draft of the layout, showing a ‘post’. Left and right pane vanish in responsive fashion if the screen gets too small.

… Nothing you have not seen in more elaborate fashion elsewhere. For me the pleasure is in creating the whole thing bottom up not using existing frameworks, content management systems or templates – requiring an FTP client and a text editor only.

I spent a lot of time on designing my redirect strategy. For historical reasons, all my sites use the same virtual web server. Different sites have been separated just by different virtual directories. So in order to display the e-stangl.at content as one stand-alone website, a viewer accessing e-stangl.at is redirected to e-stangl.at/e/. This means that entering [personal.at]/[business] would result in showing the business content at the personal URL. In order to prevent this, the main page generation script used checks for the virtual directory and redirects ‘bottom-up’ to [business.at]/[business].

In the future, I am going to use a new hostname for my website. In addition, I want to have the option to migrate only some applications while keeping the others tied to the old ASP scripts temporarily. This means more redirect logic, especially as I want to test all the redirects. I have a non-public test site on the same server, but I have never tested redirects as it means creating loads of test host names; but due to the complexity of redirects to come I added names like wwwdummy for every domain, redirecting to my new main test host name, in the same way as the www URLs would redirect to my new public host name.

And lest we forget 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. As I mentioned before, I already use ASP.NET Routing for having nice URLs with the new site: A request for /en/2014/10/29/some-post-title does not access a physical folder but the ‘flat-file database engine’ I wrote from scratch will search for the proper content text file based on a SQL string handed to it, retrieve attributes from both file name and file content, and display HTML content and attributes like title and thumbnail image properly.

New website: Flat-file database.

Flat-file database: Two folders, ‘pages’ and ‘posts’. Post file names include creation date, short relative URL and category. Using the ascx extension (actually for .NET ‘user controls’ as the web server will not return these files directly but respond with 404. No need to tweak permissions.)

The top menu, the tag cloud, the yearly/monthly/daily archives, the list of posts on the Home page, XML RSS Feed and XML sitemap  are also created by querying these sets of files.

New web site: File / database entry

File representing a post: Upper half – meta tags and attributes, lower half – after attribute ‘content’: Actual content in plain HTML.

Now I want to redirect from the old .asp files (to be deleted from the server at some point in the future) to these nice URLs. My preferred solution for this class of redirects is using a rewrite map hard-coded in the web server’s config file. From my spreadsheet documentation of the 1:n relation of old ASP pages to new ‘posts’ I have automatically created the XML tags to be inserted in the ‘rewrite map’.

Now the boring part is over and I scared everybody off (But just in case you can find more technical information on the last update on the English version of all website, e.g. here) …

… I come up with my grand insights, click-bait X-Things-You-Need-To-Know-About-Seomthing-You-Should-Not-Do-and-Could-Not-Care-Less-Style:

It is sometimes painful to read really old content, like articles, manifestos and speeches from the last century. Yet I don’t hide or change anything.

After all, this is perhaps the point of such a website. I did not go online for the interaction (of social networks, clicks, likes, comments). Putting your thoughts out there, on the internet that does never forget, is like publishing a book you cannot un-publish. It is about holding yourself accountable and aiming at self-consistency.

I am not a visual person. If I would have been more courageous I’d use plain Courier New without formatting and images. Just for the fun of it, I tested adding dedicated images to each post and creating thumbnails from them – and I admit it adds to the content. Disturbing, that is!

I truly love software development. After a day of ‘professional’ software development (simulations re physics and engineering) I am still happy to plunge into this personal web development project. I realized programming is one of the few occupations that was part of any job I ever had. Years ago, soul-searching and preparing for the next career change, I rather figured the main common feature was teaching and know-how transfer – workshops and acedemic lectures etc. But I am relieved I gave that up; perhaps I just tried to live up to the expected ideal of the techie who will finally turn to a more managerial or at least ‘social’ role.

You can always find perfect rationales for irrational projects: Our web server had been hacked last year (ASP pages with spammy links put into some folders) and from backlinks in the network of spammy links I conclude that classical ASP pages had been targeted. My web server was then hosted on Windows 2003, as this time still fully supported. I made use of Parent Paths (../ relative URLs) which might have eased the hack. Now I am migrating to ASP.NET with the goal to turn off Classical ASP completely, and I already got rid of the Parent Paths requirement by editing the existing pages.

This website and my obsession with keeping the old stuff intact reflects my appreciation of The ExistingBeing Creative With What You Have. Re-using my old images and articles feels like re-using our cellar as a water tank. Both of which are passions I might not share with too many people.

My websites had been an experiment in compartmentalizing my thinking and writing – ‘Personal’, ‘Science’, ‘Weird’, at the very beginning the latter two were authored pseudonymously – briefly. My wordpress.com blog has been one quick shot at Grand Unified Theory of my Blogging, and I could not prevent my personal websites to become more an more intertwined, too, in the past years. So finally both do reflect my reluctance of separating my personal and professional self.

My website is self-indulgent – in content and in meta-content. I realize that the technical features I have added are exactly what I need to browse my own stuff for myself, not necessarily what readers might expect or what is considered standard practice. One example is my preference for a three-pane design, and for that infinite (no dropdown-menu) archive.

New website: Category page.

Nothing slows a website down like social media integration. My text file management is for sure not the epitome of efficient programming, but I was flabbergasted by how fast it was to display nearly 150 posts at once – compared to the endless sending back and forth questionable stuff between social networks, tracking, and ad sites (watch the status bar!).

However, this gives me some ideas about the purpose of this blog versus the purpose of my website. Here, on the WordPress.com blog, I feel more challenged to write self-contained, complete, edited, shareable (?) articles – often based on extensive research and consolidation of our original(*) data (OK, there are exceptions, such as this post), whereas the personal website is more of a container of drafts and personal announcements. This also explains why the technical sections of my personal websites contain rather collections of links than full articles.

(*)Which is why I totally use my subversive sense of humour and turn into a nitpicking furious submitter of copyright complaints if somebody steals my articles published here, on the blog. However, I wonder how I’d react if somebody infringed my rights as the ‘web artist’ featured on subversiv.at.

Since 15 years I spent a lot of time on (re-)organizing and categorizing my content. This blog has also been part of this initiative. That re-organization is what I like websites and blogs for – a place to play with structure and content, and their relationship. Again, doing this in public makes me holding myself accountable. Categories are weird – I believe they can only be done right with hindsight. Now all my websites, blogs, and social media profiles eventually use the same categories which have evolved naturally and are very unlike what I might have planned ‘theoretically’.

Structure should be light-weight. I started my websites with the idea of first and second level ‘menu’s and hardly any emphasis on time stamps. But your own persona and your ideas seem to be moving targets. I started commenting on my old articles, correcting or amending what I said (as I don’t delete, see above). subversiv.at has been my Art-from-the-Scrapyard-Weird-Experiments playground, before and in addition to the Art category here and over there I enjoyed commenting in English on German articles and vice versa. But the Temporal Structure, the Arrow of Time was stronger; so I finally made the structure more blog-like.

Curated lists … were most often just ‘posts’. I started collecting links, like resources for specific topics or my own posts written elsewhere, but after some time I did not considered them so useful any more. Perhaps somebody noticed that I have mothballed and hidden my Reading list and Physics Resources here (the latter moved to my ‘science site’ radices.net – URLs do still work of course). Again: The arrow of time wins!

I loved and I cursed the bilingual nature of all my sites. Cursed, because the old structure made it too obvious when the counter-part in the other language was ‘missing’; so it felt like a translation assignment. However, I don’t like translations. I am actually not even capable to really translate the spirit of my own posts. Sometimes I feel like writing in English, sometimes I feel like writing in German. Some days or weeks or months later I feel like reflecting in the same ideas, using the other language. Now I came up with that loose connection of an English and German article, referencing each other via a meta attribute, which results in an unobtrusive URL pointing to the other version.

Quantitative analysis helps to correct distorted views. I thought I wrote ‘so much’. But the tangle of posts and pages in the old sites obscured that actually the content translates to only 138 posts in German and 78 in English. Actually, I wrote in bursts, typically immediately before and after an important change, and the first main burst 2004/2005 was German-only. I think the numbers would have been higher had I given up on the menu-based approach earlier, and rather written a new, updated ‘post’ instead of adding infinitesimal amendments to the existing pseudo-static pages.

Analysing my own process of analysing puts me into this detached mode of thinking. I have shielded myself from social media timelines in the past weeks and tinkered with articles, content written long before somebody could have ‘shared’ it. I feel that it motivates me again to not care about things like word count (too long), target groups (weird mixture of armchair web psychology and technical content), and shareability.

I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

Before starting this blog I compared blogging tools in 2011. These two facts about WordPress and Automattic did win me over:

Now I have read the book on Automattic’s corporate culture:

The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Scott is a former Microsoft manager and long-term author and speaker. He has been hired my Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg to help introducing the first tier of middle-managers ever to Automattic’s so far flat hierarchy. Scott accepted, provided he can write a book about his experience. For him it was a test: Will he still be able to do the work of management and not only write and speak about it?

The book is a blend of personal essay and reflection of work and management in the tech world, and palpable anecdotes from a very peculiar workplace.

He did his duty in the trenches as a Happiness Engineer:

You get access to real tools and work on real things. If you do well, you’re offered a job. If you don’t, you’re not. The many phony parts of hiring, from inflated résumés to trying to say what you think the other party wants to hear, disappear.

At the end of this stint in support Scott admits how much easier work of a writer is – in contrast to the relentless never-ending flow of clients’ tickets:

This pressure made me feel like a wimp for complaining about writing deadlines or tough lecture audiences.

I guess skeptics would say a venture such as WordPress can hardly work – hadn’t they been successful for years now:

The business is firmly grounded in Open Source software. In 2002 18-year old Matt Mullenweg forked the copylefted software used for his own photoblog as its lead developer had left. In August 2003 there were over 10.000 blogs running on WordPress. For an extensive account of WP’s history see this.

The central values of the organically growing WP culture were: Transparency of discussions, meritocracy of authority earned – not granted, and the longevity of the project – which should live forever even if Matt himself would once give it up.

There is free WordPress.org for self-hosters, the service WordPress.com and other products by Automattic – according to Scott the business model was difficult to explain at times.

Based even on my own anecdotal experience of using WordPress.com I can say that it works – I pay for the Custom Design Upgrade for two blogs and think it is a fair deal.

Employees are fiercely independent, curious, and funny individuals, working at locations all over the world.

Many of them are former independent WordPress designers and developers – so probably people who don’t like to be (micro-)managed, who are fine with being paid for results and not for office face time or hours put in.

They do meet in person occasionally, and costs of meetings in real live compensate for savings due to lack of offices.

Matt Mullenweg – whom Scott describes as a renaissance mind with an epicurean desire to understand basically anything – has written down a creed:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Using colorful anecdotes and funny screenshots of WP-internal communications Scott demonstrates which key factors are important to make this work:

Mastery of asynchronous, written communication

Chat-like message exchange is preferred over audio or video calls, and tracking and discussion of work items is done using a blog called P2 (named after the theme used).

The reason for the first is probably surprising – and it might even sound discomforting to those who are stressed out by the constant stream of popups brought up by corporate instant communication tools: WP employees’ communications is based on the assumption that anybody else is working on some items in parallel or having some Windows open. It is not expected that people respond instantly to chat requests and some lag is allowed for – in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of calls.

Everyone understands it’s just a window on the screen and that you may be focusing on other things.

You could discuss pro’s and con’s of online meetings endlessly but I think Scott perfectly nails it:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

P2 communications is reminiscent of those legendary nested e-mail threads – I answer inline in redI answer in greenI answer again in blue… I praise collaborators to the skies who are capable of following and processing such nested communications – you can literally do whole projects by asynchronous e-mails.

Everybody at Automattic can on principle read every P2 conversation. This, I guess, provides for self-regulation, and it limits the tactical use of communication tool, such as subtle hints by picking CC recipients etc.

WordPress people compensate for lack of cues in face-to-face communications by letting personality shine through written communications. Scott says that WP internal communications is refreshingly free of corporate world jargon:

No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.

From my few but pleasant encounters with WP’s support team I can attest to that.

WordPress’ culture seems to be positively self-selecting for people who fit in.

Insider humor

Sharing a common sense of humor is in my opinion the single best indicator of how well you will get along – and work! – with somebody. It is even more indispensable in this distant working environment.

Laughter leads to running jokes, and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture. What is a friend, a brother or sister, or a partner but someone you share important stories with?

Also the title of the book is a running joke. For a reason no one could explain later the prompt above the comment box on Scott’s teams’ P2 site turned from What’s on your mind? into

Do you know where your pants are?

No incentives

It was my conviction ever since that any sort of company-internal competition and incentives for individuals or teams will not do overall goals any good. The dissipation of energy invested in facing competition will outweigh the benefits of challenging individuals to go for stretch goals.

So I was delighted to read this:

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? They all shrugged simultaneously and I laughed. Unlike most corporations that emphasize performance evaluations, none of them were particularly concerned. … It seemed to them like an odd question to even ask. … It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.

Frequent shipping of features

Against mantras of quality control and change management new features are rolled out all the time. I believe the reason why this has worked great so far is that risk management best practices are applied in an intuitive way: Features to be shipped are small, or their dependence on other features can be cut down. The overall risk of breaking anything major is negligible – and glitches be fixed quickly based on feedback in the production environment.

I think that all those controls in larger organizations rather prevent people from taking personal accountability – and Scott confirms this:

A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes. American football players take more risks, not fewer, because of their padding.

Geeky, but end-user-centric

Probably my impression is due to the fact that Scott has led Team Social that dealt with building features like WordPress JetPack that adds WP.com features on top of the self-hosted version.The team used some funny ‘socialist’ hammer and sickle symbols for their internal site.

His team put in many hours in trying to understand the experience of normal users WordPress wanted to serve – and I think this spirit and the idea to democratize internet publishing can be felt when working with WP. They tried to feel what a user feel who struggles with getting his or her first posting done – as astonishingly:

50 percent of all blogs never publish a single post.

A tricks that help are writing an internal launch announcement for a feature long before it had been launched – forcing you to focus on the value of this feature.

Tame the bureaucrats and policy enforcers

Another pet peeve of mine – I remember myself in a job role that theoretically had demanded of me to chide entrepreneurial small departments that they don’t adhere to corporate standard IT hardware procurement guidelines or that their website they didn’t comply with ‘CI rules’.

The volunteer culture Automattic inherited from WordPress, where contributors were under no obligation to participate, defined a landscape that granted wide autonomy to employees. Schneider and Mullenweg went to great lengths to keep support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.

T-shaped employees

This means having some very deep skills in a specific area but in addition the abilities to quickly become fairly knowledgeable in other fields – and applying that skills hands-on as needed, just as any in sort of start-up environment.

This is counter the culture (in ‘mature’ corporation) of denying to do X because you are not qualified, it is beneath you, it has not been included in your shop description, or nobody commanded you to do it.

Caveats

The book provides is a much needed real-live positive example of a company who has ‘got it’ – among cheerful analyses of a New World of Work and gloomy critique of debatable implementations (The documentary Work Hard – Play Hard having being one of the finest).

But Scott  warns against trying to copy WP’s culture and tack it on an existing one – e.g. by scheduling company meetings in open space style without and agenda, hoping that employees will simple start working together spontaneously – as they did in Seaside, the artificial settlement that served as the set of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. It was a company meeting that

looked more like a party at a very nice but geeky college dorm.

Chances are that in a different culture such experiments would be loathed just as other team morale events or the casual Friday, or any socializing event moderated by external psychologically trained moderators with a questionable agenda.

Conclusion

It is not only possible but beneficial to work on serious and sensitive stuff in remotely dispersed teams of self-motivated individuals. Scott’s account is convincing – he often emphasizes that he had been skeptical: He had considered his earlier success as a manager critically dependent on being in the same room with people and looking them into the eye.

The importance on a common culture and humor cannot be overstated. The most daunting crisis morphs into legends soon to be told by the fireside, if you are still able throw on some Douglas Adams’ or Monty Python quotes or give your test servers funny names such as panic.com.

I don’t think this is an IT / geek thing only – geekiness might help as there is this globally available template of a culture (42!) that fosters common humor. But I don’t see a reason it cannot be applied to other work that is in essence based on shuffling data – and communicating in an asynchronous way already:

The very idea of working remotely seems strange to most people until they consider how much time at traditional workplaces is spent working purely through computers. If 50 percent of your interaction with coworkers is online, perhaps through e-mail and web browsers, you’re not far from what WordPress.com does.

Many stories about famous start-ups are written when they have grown up – when they have scaled.

I am a small business owner by choice and I often ask myself – probably based on bias – does anything good have to scale? Scott answers this question confidently with No:

…greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

So in summary I consider it a great book, highly recommended if you use Automattic’s products are are just curious, or if you are an ‘office worker’ or a manager of those and thinking about the best way to work as a team.

It is an honest and entertaining manifesto:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.

Communist heart

Honoring ‘Team Social’ (Wikimedia)

I Am Too Googleable!

What a letdown.

I wanted to report on near completion of The Website Resurrection Project – but I had a mind-altering experience.

On the upside, I am not afraid of identity theft or surveillance anymore.

My dentist had to cancel an appointment the day before. I showed up some minutes before the appointed time. The practice was empty and dark, except for the assistants who told me:

We have eagerly been waiting for you!! We did not know how to reach you as we didn’t have your phone number!

Have you tried to find my phone number on the web? It’s on my business website!

Yes, we searched the internet – but there were so many search results coming up!!!! And we did not know which is your business page!

(Probably it was more like:
One of *these* pages is for business?!?).

You could have sent me an e-mail – I am usually very responsive! My e-mail address is on all my websites.

There was no e-mail address!

Uhm… sorry… I am very active on the internet … it is maybe difficult to sort all that out …

So it was all in vain.

I have a business page, three personal websites, this blog, and a German blog, and some weird older web projects. Find the canonical overview here. My usual response to an enthusiastic

I have checked out your website ! 🙂 !!

is

Which one?

And each and every of those sites has this overly correct legal information notice our online media law demands of me.

I even add the e-mail address though I might not need to.

As the Subversive Element I note on top of the legal information block:
Adding legal information to a site like this constitutes an act of subversion in its own right

Legal information needs to be accessible in a simple way, via a single click from any page. You then argue at court over the definition of simple and single click and if your visitors could or could not infer from a URL title such as contact that address information is to be found at this URL.

Most German wordpress.com bloggers have a legal info page longer than my most extensive posts. The About page of this blog is, at the time of writing, most likely illegal as the linked legal information is two clicks away from any post.

Tinkering with this was just a tiny part of The Website Resurrection Project – I have re-written loads of content, and didn’t leave any of the code or design untouched. All for the sake of clarity and serving the internet community well – and because I don’t have much other hobbies.

Using a browser I never use to logon to Google, a search for my name brings up a reasonable collection of results – my personal site being in the first place, legal info one click away.

Google has honored my efforts by recognizing my authorship for this website although I did not do take ownership in the Google-technical sense for any site – as my nerdy readers might have noticed on this blog. I wanted to save my pseudonym elkement and not trade it for the real name Google+ forces you to use.

I don’t think there should be any difficulty to spot my contact data. I am happy with the ranking – I am just worried about the subversive stuff is given less weight than the business-y. But that does not prevent clients who are my business social networking contacts from asking me for my contact data again – on Facebook!

So what’ the problem?

The IMP Log The Very First Message Sent on the Internet (6293913865)

How did we get there? How did it get started? This is the log of the first message sent on the internet in 1969 (Wikimedia)

_________________________________________

For German readers: Here is the law(s).

Search Term Poetry – Spring Edition

Dear Google,

you do still encrypt your search results. As a security enthusiast I should like this but I rather suspect you want me to use your AdWords tools. Please stop showing me ads for your “starter package” on all social networks, and give me the raw material for my poetry back.

For now I will penalize you by displaying the logo of your competitor although, admittedly, I would find yours more appealing.

Bing logo (2013)Now here is the poem.

As usual, every line corresponds to a search term from WordPress Stats covering the first quarter of 2014. Truncation of search terms at the beginning or the end is permitted, other editing is not.

The images are very much like the search terms – blurry, stored accidentally, and I try to compress and truncate them to serve a purpose.

And yes: the title really was a search term.

the theory and practice of combining just about anything
quality assurance poem
funny ways to combine 2 cliches

hoops smoke effect
response to existentialism

intuitive understanding
shallow and deep reading

non linear art
describes the tendency of the force

polarize antifragile
what is the measure

blank sheet
trusted certificate

google on my heat
myzen engineering

build einstein refrigerator
steampunk heat sink

call center puzzle
automatic clock

chinese wall
scrapyard combines

geonometric art
intersecting lines

poetry-02

sitting gyroscope
entropy and no momentum/energy

upward communication
i need to remember this

elastic glancing collisions
least action

center of mass
snippet shooting

fringe science theories
intuitive symbols

which is more important
to just roll over bump

Lost in Translation – an Overdue Update

In this post I try something new: I will keep it short.

This is actually an update long overdue. Months ago I have written a post on how to control the four elements that is how to harvest energy from ambient air, solar radiation, the freezing of water, and ground here.

Michelle has then told me in a comment on her blog that her husband tried to figure out how our heat pump system works – based on our German blog. Actually, at that time we mainly posted about the aesthetic value of our solar collector and re-using it as an espalier for tomatoes. (Michelle, you have a really odd search term in your stats now because I checked if I remembered our conversation correctly.)

Although we have very innovative, and if I may say so, geeky / nerdy customers it is rather unlikely that we will plan heat pump systems in Australia via sending checklists or doing ‘remote support’ in the same way we work in IT projects. (But don’t hesitate to contact me!)

Nevertheless, since the most recent layout update of our website, it bothers the perfectionist in me that all our technical documents on heat pumps have been only available in German. So I started to translate them. The first one is a summary / ‘folder’ / overview.

Heat pump system using a combined heat source - ambient air, solar radiation, ice, ground

Heat pump system using a combined heat source – ambient air, solar radiation, ice, ground (Credits: www.punktwissen.at)

Theoretically this should be self-explanatory.

Some important explanations though:

  • The person who has actually created this figure is best described by his tagline: Somebody Doing Anything Nobody Wants to Do. He is a shy engineer spending nearly all this time in his Doc-Emmett-Brown-style inventor’s garage so I cannot link to any English social media profile. Oh wait – except this one… sort of.
  • I had to consider the global context when stating that no permits are required (in Austria). This is an insider joke probably only comprehensible to Austrian readers: If there is a worst-case scenario in terms of permits required and bureaucracy in general, it is probably Austria. As we say: Bill Gates would probably not have founded Microsoft here as he couldn’t get the required forms filled out correctly.
  • This is the second time my different blog universes cross – and it is very exciting: as the team of Gray’s Anatomy meeting Private Practice. Yes, I do watch TV – I don’t read deep science and philosophy books every evening. The first cross-over occurred when I discussed in German if and how our system would work in Canada in a post that translates to Canadian Challenge … which was actually a rehash of my answers to the comments in the very first blog post in the four elements.

I think I will indulge in that type of cross-overs more often!

Intelligent Life-Forms in the Blogosphere – Again!

This post might baffle readers that come here for: science / physics / book reviews / corporate world dark satire / search term poetry / navel-gazing / self-destruction … (and the other genres I have forgotten).

However, I’d argue that this post covers all of those – in a subtle way.

My blog has a long tradition of dealing with blogging award nominations in a very very weird way. Still exhausted from our mad hatter’s tea party of a nomination (I also call it award crowd-sourcing) I had decided to found an award myself. Rules related to it should be bullet-proof, unassailable for logicians and corporate policy nitpickers. Above all, they should prevent exponential inflation.

Now is the time to bestow it upon a fellow blogger victim again!

I herewith nominate for the ILFB award – Intelligent Life-Forms in the Blogosphere:

Judy blogging at Raising the Curtain.

This is the description and the rules. Standards aficionados MAY recognize the format and SHOULD smile now.

The ILFB Award (Intelligent Life-Forms in the Blogosphere) rewards bloggers who are able to cover diverse subjects in a thoughtful and entertaining way. There are no other constraints such as a maximum number of followers.

  1. You are bestowed upon this award no matter what you do. You MAY deny passing on the award, the award will die out – as many life-forms did. You SHOULD nominate at least one blogger, you MAY nominate two bloggers. There is no deadline – you MAY wait for years if you pass on the award, but you MUST NOT nominate somebody if you haven’t been nominated. The founder of the award is exempt from the latter.
  2. You MAY nominate the blogger who has nominated you – the award MAY bounce back and forth between two bloggers forever. However, you MUST change the reason for the nomination every time.
  3. You MUST explain in more than one full sentence why you have nominated the nominee. You SHOULD reward bloggers who are able to write about at least two seemingly diverse subjects.
  4. You SHOULD reblog or pingback one of the nominee’s posts that has been published within the past year. The linked post SHOULD reflect key characteristics of the nominated blog.
  5. You MUST display the award’s logo, and you MAY change the title of the award as well as the logo. They would mutate anyway.
  6. If you find any inconsistency or loophole you SHOULD amend these rules to fix them.
  7. If the award title results in copyright infringements or any violation of any rights you MAY modify it. You MUST NOT hold the award’s founder liable.
  8. You MAY modify and amend rules 1.-7. to your liking as long as the changes
    – reflect your being an intelligent life-form in the blogosphere
    – are in line with the Prime Directive of this award – item no.0.
  9. Include this set of rules 0.-9. in your nomination speech post.

Compliance with the three MUST conditions as stated in 1., 2., and 5. will be checked by the founder of this award using his/her infamous googling skills at random. Any violation will be prosecuted and punished by a making the guilty party subject to a satirical blog post. Any blogger who had once been bestowed the award and who has proved to be compliant with the rules is entitled and encouraged to do the same (Google for non-compliant nominees and ridicule them)

This is the logo.

ILFB-Award-Intelligent-Life-Forms-in-the Blogosphere

As an homage to both Douglas Adams and Douglas Coupland I describe it as: Intelligent Life-Forms in the Blogosphere. The intelligent black life-form in his/her black ship is exploring a new blue world while the innocuous, white blogosphere is rising in the background. Nominees MAY omit that description but SHOULD add an interpretation of their own. (Image credit: The spaceship is from a black-and-white Microsoft Office Clipart – I hope this does not put anybody off. I added the blogosphere and the colors)

I think it is more than obvious why Judy is an intelligent life-form in the blogosphere. But in order to comply with my own rules I herewith state:

Judy writes about Life, the Universe and Everything so it is very easy to find posts on diverse subjects. She mulls about existential deep questions of life – see here Existential Guide to What I Am Doing Here – as wells as tracks down the illogicity of corporate animals’ behaviours – see her analysis of e-mail politics: Stop Using The “CC” As A Weapon.

Her writing shows a qualities that I admire most, especially when combined with sharp analysis – self-irony and humor.

But of course I have decided on that nomination intuitively. Off-the-records I tell you:

Judy has been the first person who has ever dared to comment on my blog. That point of time was several months after the blog went public, so commenting must have felt like entering an eerie ghost ship.

I also have a strong gut feeling that her professional self MAY appreciate the legal lingo of the rules. (On proof-reading I misread now: lethal lingo)

This post is also a subversive attempt of mine to deal with her – still ‘open’ – nomination of myself. So, thanks again, Judy!

And finally: Judy is from Australia, that means she is my blogging antipode, we are separated by 12 time zones and our countries are linguistically entangled by the Austrian-Australian confusion.

We should try to make an earth sandwich! (I did not check co-ordinates – hopefully I will be forced to travel to the Canary Islands.)

Revisiting the Enigma of the Intersecting Lines and That Pesky Triangle

Chances are I made a fool of myself when trying to solve an intriguing math/physics puzzle described in this post.

I wanted to create a German version but found it needs a revision. I will just give you my stream of consciousness as I cannot make it worse anyway.

The puzzle is presented as a ‘physics puzzle’ but I think its enigmatic nature is described better if stated in purely mathematical terms:

Consider three lines in a flat plane, not parallel to each other and not intersecting in a single point. Their mutual intersection points are the corners of a triangle.

Assuming that the probability to find an arbitrary point on either side of each line is 50% – what is the probability to find a point within the triangle?

I had proposed a solution 1/7. My earlier line of reasoning was this:

The three lines divide the full area into 7 parts – the triangle in the center and 6 sections adjacent to the triangle: Each of these parts is located either ‘to the left’ or ‘to the right’ of each line, called the ‘+’ and ‘-’ parts.

Center of mass, physics puzzle.

Proposed solution in post published in Feb. 2013: The body is divided into 7 parts; the center of mass being located in either with equal probability. (Image Credits: Mine)

There are 8 possible combinations of + and – signs, but note that the inverse of the symbols assigned to the triangle is missing: (-+-)  Digression: It would be there if we painted these lines on a ball instead of a flat plane – then each line would close on itself in a circle and there would be 8 equivalent triangles. The combination missing here would correspond to the triangle opposite to the distinguished and singular triangle in our flat plane.

I had assumed that the 7 areas are equivalent based on ‘symmetry’ – each area being positioned on either side of one of three planes – and assuming that the condition given (50%) is not physical anyway. A physical probability would vary with distance from the line – imagine something like a Gaussian symmetrical distribution function centered around each line. Than the triangle would approximately correspond to the area of highest probability (where the peaks of the three Gaussians overlap most).

Do you spot the flaw?

Intersecting lines, two halves

The lower half contains 4 different parts (1x triangle, 2x open trapezoid, 1x open wedge), and the lower half contains two open wedges and one open trapezoid. Probabilities should add up to 50% in each half though.

We can do two cross-checks:

1) the sum of the probabilities of all parts should add up to 1 – OK as 7 x 1/7 is 1. But :

2) the sum of probabilities of all pieces on either side of a line should add up to 0,5! This was the assumption after all.

Probabilities don’t add up correctly if I assign the same probability to each of the 7 pieces – it is 4/7 for the lower half and 3/7 for the upper half.

So I need to amend my theory and rethink the probability assigned to different kinds of areas (I guess mathematicians have a better term for ‘kinds of areas’ – more like ‘topologically equivalent’ or something.).

We spot three distinct shapes:

  • A triangle formed by the three lines.
  • Three ‘open wedges’ formed by two lines – e.g. part (- – -) in the lower half.
  • Three ‘open trapezoids’ formed by three lines, e.g. part (+++) in the upper half.

I am assuming now that probabilities assigned to all wedges are the same and those assigned to trapezoids are the same. I am aware of the fact that this will not work out if we consider a limiting case: Assume the angle between two of the three lines gets smaller and smaller – this will result in one very small wedge (between the red and the blue line) and two ‘wedges’ which are nearly equivalent to a quarter of the total area:

Intersecting lines, narrow wedges

In the limiting case of the blue and red lines coalescing we would end up with four quarters, and you would find an arbitrary point with a probability of 25% in either quarter.

In the video Quantum Boffin has asked for the probability of the triangle – which can be any triangle, of any arbitrary shape and size, and he states that there is a definitive answer. Therefore I think also the details of size and shape of the other areas does not matter, and the 50% assumption is somewhat unphysical.

As there are three distinct types of shapes – I need three equations to calculate them all.

Notation in the following: p… probability. T…triangle, W…wedge, Z…trapezoid. p(T) denotes the probability to find a point in the triangle.

The sum of all probalities to meet the point in either of the 7 pieces must be 1, and we have 3 wedges and 3 trapezoids:
i) p(T) + 3p(W) +3p(Z) = 1

We need 50% on either side of a line.

There is one Z and 2W on one side…
ii) p(Z) + 2p(W) = 0,5

…and T and 2W on the other side:
iii) p(T) + 2p(Z) + p(W) = 0,5

Now the sum ii) and iii) is just i) that these equations are not independent. We need one more information to solve for p(T), p(W), and p(Z)!

And here is my great educated guess: You have to make another assumption and this has to be based on a limiting case. How else could we make an assumption for an arbitrary shape?

I played with different ones, such as letting iv) p(W) = 0,25 motivated by the limiting case of a nearly right angle. Interestingly, you obtain a self-consistent solution. Just plugging in and solving you get: p(T)=0,25 and p(Z)=0. Cross-checking you see immediately that this is consistent with the assumptions – probabilities sum of to 50%: You either have two Ws or one W and the T in one half of the plane.

Assigning 0 to the trapezoid does not seem physical though. We can do better.
So what about assigning equal probabilities to Z and W? iv) p(Z) = p(W)?

I don’t need to do the algebra to see that p(T) has to be zero as you would have 3 equivalent pieces on each side, but the triangle can only be located one one side.

This assumption is in line with the limiting case of a really infinite plane. The triangle has finite size compared to 6 other infinite areas.

I change my proposal to: The probability to find an arbitrary point in the triangle is zero – given the probability to find it on either side of each line is 50% and given that the area is infinite.

Again I’d like to stress that I consider this a math puzzle as the 50% assumption does not make sense without considering a spatial variation of probability (probability density, actually).

Addition as per November 21:

Based on the ingenious proposal by Jacques Pienaar in the comments, I am adding a sketch highlighting his idea.

Theoretically, the center of mass would correspond to the intersection of the 3 “perfect” solid lines. Now allow for some “measurement error” and add an additional line denoting the deviations. I depicted the “left” and “right” lines as dashed and dotted, respectively.

Now take a break, get a coffee, and look at the position of the true center of mass with respect to the triangles made up by the dashed and dotted lines:

Intersecting-Lines-Proposal-Jacques-PienaarSince we have 3 colors and either a dashed or a dotted lines, there are 8 distinct triangles. I tried to make the angles and distances as random as possible, so I think Jacques’ proof does not depend on the details of the configuration or the probability distribution function (yet beware the limiting cases such as parallel lines). The intersection of the solid lines is within 2 of 8 triangles – hence a probability of 2/8 = 1/4.

I was intrigued by an odd coincidence as I had played with o,25, too (see above), but based on the assumption that of a probability of 0,25 for the wedges/corners – which by cranking the algebra or just cross-checking the 50% criterion results in p(Triangle)=0,25, too, and in p(Trapezoid)=0.

Looking hard at this new figure introduced by Jacques I see something closely related, but unfortunately a new puzzle as well: The true center of mass is in exactly two of eight trapezoids built from dashed or dotted lines. So I am tempted to state:

p(Trapezoid)=0,25.

But it is difficult to make a statement on the corners or wedges as any intersecting two lines cut the plane in 4 parts and any point is found in one of them. I was tempted to pick p(W) = 0 though, but this would result in p(Triangle)= -0,25.

So this was probably not the last update or the last post related to the enigma of the intersecting lines.