The Stages of Blogging – an Empirical Study

… with sample size 1.

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

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

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)

Peter von Rittinger’s biography reads like a success story created by a Victorian novelist, and his invention was a text-book example of innovation triggered by scarcity ( Bio DE / EN).

Born 1811, he was poor and became an orphan early. Yet he was able to study mathematics and physics as his secondary education had been financed by the Piarist Order. He also studied law and mining. Immediately after having graduated he was appointed as inspector in an iron ore processing plant (stamping mill), and later called a pioneer in that field and accountable for several inventions.

1850 Rittinger became ‘Sectionsrat’ (head of a division) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Mining in Vienna. He was knighted in 1863, so quoting all his titles as a public servant in the higher echelons of the Austro-Hungarian empire he was:
k. k. Sectionsrath Oberbergrath Ritter von Rittinger.

Peter von RittingerYet it seems even as an administrator he was still a hands-on tinkerer. He developed a process for harvesting salt from brine at Saline Ebensee in Upper Austria – saving 80% of input energy compared to processes used at this time. In the mid of the 19th century saltworks in Austria had been dependent on fuel: on wood available locally. Railway tracks have not been built yet, and fossil fuels had not yet been available. The ecological footprint had to be much closer to the physical area than today.

In History of Heatpumps, Martin Zogg writes:

One of the main applications [of mechanical vapor compression] is the salt production from salt brine. In order to get 1 kg of salt there have to be evaporated about 3 kg of water, which illustrates the enormous energy demand of such processes. Whole forests had been cleared for this purpose.
Peter von Rittinger … was the first to try the realisation of this idea on a pilot scale. …. He designed and installed the first known pilot heat pump for heating only with a capacity of 14  kW, … The start-up of Rittinger’s “steam pump” was in 1857.

This is the title page of Rittinger’s publication of 1855:

Rittinger, Abdampfverfahren, 1855. Title page.Translating about to:

Theoretical-practical treatise
on a novel evaporation process
applicable to all varieties of liquids
using one and the same amount of heat
which – for this purpose –
is set into perpetual circular motion by water power.
Taking into account the salt boiling process specifically.

I have created this simplified figure from the description in his paper:

Rittinger, Steam Pump, called the first heat pump.

Simplified sketch showing the principles of Peter von Rittinger’s steam pump as described in his original paper. The vessel had to be opened to remove the salt which had precipitated in the upper part of the vessel (called a brine ‘pan’ in German) and water accumulated in the lower part (‘double bottom’).

Salt brine is feed into the upper part of a vessel can be closed an has two parts: The colder, upper part contains brine mixed with water vapor at low temperature and low pressure; the lower part is separated from this cavity by a metal slab with high thermal conductivity. The colder vapor is compressed; and the compressor is driven by a water wheel. To start the process, all cavities are filled with vapor heated to 100°C at the beginning.

At a higher pressure, the evaporation / condensation temperature is higher. Thus hot, dense vapor condenses on the top of the lower cavity, releasing heat which is available in the upper cavity to heat the colder ‘input vapor’. This makes salt precipitate in the upper chamber where it was collected regularly.

In a heat pump for room heating a refrigerant running in a closed cycle is compressed by a mechanical compressor powered by electrical energy. At low temperatures and low pressures the refrigerant evaporates easily, even when in contact with a cold heat source (such as our water / ice tank at 0°C in winter). After compression, vapor condenses at temperatures higher than room temperature and thus the refrigerant is able to release the heat ‘harvested’ before. Rittinger’s steam pump is called The First Heat Pump by historians: However, in this device the water vapor mixed with salt brine is both the ‘refrigerant’ and the liquid to be heated.

In his paper, Rittinger explained that you could as well start from a brine at a temperature as low as 10°C, not needing any auxiliary heating. The system would operate at lower temperatures and pressures. But due to the lower pressures the same material would occupy a larger volume and thus the system had to be much bigger. I suppose, taking into account investment costs, this would have been less economical than using a bit of fuel to get the process going.

What I found intriguing about Rittinger’s work – and perhaps about the way research publications were written back then – was the combination of hands-on engineering, theoretical modeling, and honest and ‘narrative’ reporting of difficulties. Zogg’s history of heat pump quotes quite a number of Leonardo-da-Vinci-style inventors with diverse interests and an obviously ‘holistic’ approach.

Martin Zogg notes that using today’s technology, such ‘steam pumps’ easily obtain a coefficient of performance of 15 – more than 3 times the COP of a heat pump used for room heating. Mechanical vapor compression is state-of-the art technology in salt processing. The reason for the high COP is the lower temperature difference between hot and cool brine vapor. You just need to provide for a sufficient temperature gradient to allow for heat transport from the hot to the cooler cavity, and to overcome the change in evaporation temperature (according to Raoult’s Law).

I could not find the figures in the original paper that Rittinger referred to. The following image is a link to a clickable, larger version of the figures Rittinger had added to a later paper dated 1857, on the actual results of his experiments:

Figures attached to Rittinger's paper of 1857, steam pump experiments(Provided by the digitized archive of Polytechnisches Journal, by University of Berlin, under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 3.0)

What looks like a top view of spaceship Enterprise is the vessel seen from the top. On the left, the corresponding side view shows that it was rather tall. What had been described as a simple separating wall-style flat heat exchanger was actually built as a system of several cylindrical cavities (to increase the heat exchanger’s surface). In the figure the cavities containing high-pressure vapor are denoted with b/c/d. The steam pump / compressor is denoted with E, Dampf-Pumpe, and shown to the right of the vessel in the side view.

Though the numbers were in line with his theoretical calculations, Rittinger’s pilot system did not work well: This was an unreliable batch process, as the vessel was opened regularly to remove the precipitated salt. Rittinger made some suggestions in his original paper, on how to harvest salt continuously. From experience he knew that salt crystals should easily glide downwards from a tilted plane. But among other issues, Rittinger noted in his research report from 1857 that salt crystals behaved quite differently in his vessel, and he attributed it to the higher temperatures in the closed vessel: Instead of being able to harvest the loose crystal at the tip of the conical vessel, all vertical planes have been covered with a crust of salt that resisted also the strongest chisel.

His epigones finally solved such issues – quoting Zogg again:

Probably stimulated by the experiments of Rittinger at Ebensee, the first truly functioning vapour recompression salt plant was developed in Switzerland by Antoine-Paul Piccard the University of Lausanne and the engineer J.H. Weibel of the company Weibel-Briquet of  Geneva in 1876. In 1877, this first heat pump in Switzerland was installed at the salt works at Bex. It was on a larger scale than Rittinger’s apparatus and produced around 175 kg/h of salt in continuous operation.

We Should Get Lost Sometimes – Nicholas Carr on Automation and Us

The Glass Cage is about automation’s human consequences. It is not intended to be your typical book about robots taking our jobs for better or for worse.

Carr gives an intriguing account of the history of automation and robotics nonetheless – from Luddites to Google’s self-driving cars. What we have known intuitively is backed up by research: We cannot all fund robotics startups, and the number of new jobs created through automation has always been low. In spite of success stories of people ‘making money online’ it is the providers of infrastructure (the ones Jaron Lanier calls Siren Servers) who actually make money. Technology changes faster than humans do, taking a ride on Moore’s law – but Carr is not a believer in technology that will automagically serve all humankind:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

He wonders why Google has mastered to build a self-driving car – a task once considered too difficult to be automated by any computer ever – but yet didn’t develop software that stops people from texting while driving. Perhaps because stopping distractions would run counter their business agenda? More disturbing than the effect on employment is the way automation may impact our skills, illustrated by the history of avionics. We have come a long way since …

… the deep entanglement between human and mechanism was an elemental source of flying’s thrill,

… and pilots felt physical feedback from the machine. The books starts with a personal anecdote about Carr’s missing the sense of control and involvement when driving an automatic. The Glass Cage is a poetic metaphor for the pilot’s cockpit. Carr returns to a topic he had dwelt upon in The Shallows: the role of maps and clocks as an essential layer put between us and space or the flow of time. In glass-cage-like workplaces former machine operators or soldiers turn into technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world. Automation and tools done right would still give us the feeling to be in control. Electronic airplane controls should rather resemble the older mechanical controls. Clunky yokes that provide sensory information let the pilot feel physical resistance – and are superior to sci-fi-style joysticks. Carr distinguishes between tools that work like mechanical extensions to our body – using the scythe as a prime example – and software-based technology that is experienced as a kind of implacable, alien force that lies beyond our control and influence. Quoting from a 1910 book on aeronautics, designing a plane to be operated is

… a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. The greater a plane’s stability, the harder it becomes for the pilot to exert control over it.

Pioneers as the Wright Brothers voted for a plane unstable as a bicycle, giving the pilot utmost freedom. Carr tries to do technology optimists justice – he is never sarcastic or derisive. He traces the hopes put into ‘software’ back to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead wasn’t writing about machinery. He was writing about the use of mathematical symbols to represent ideas or logical processes— an early example of how intellectual work can be encapsulated in code. But he intended his observation to be taken generally.

‘Automation’ can thus be understood in a very broad sense. I have written about Newton’s geometrical proofs that even Richard Feynman found very hard to reproduce. Now we have been spoilt by the elegant code-like symbols of calculus. Do really miss out if we not haven’t acquired such ancient skills? Carr believes so as we are human beings made to interact with the world directly, not via a cascade of devices and abstractions. A physics professor who has embarked on “a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues”  finally concluded that the way he viewed the world had palpably changed. Architects felt that they needed to stay away from electronic help or bring in the computer late so that the creative process is not (mis-)guided too early. A photographer tells his story of returning to the darkroom as he felt that the painful manual process forces him to make more conscious and deliberate choices – with a deep, physical sense of presence. The main point here is that these are not sentimental crusaders but people who simply wanted to do their jobs well.

… the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited to our purposes and intentions than the old thing.

Skills that come easy to an expert are learned the hard way: Pilots’ skills correlate with the time they have spent flying without the aid of automation. Neuroscience provides evidence of dedicated assemblies of neurons developed by such deliberate practice. Automation would remove complexity from jobs and thus opportunities to hone our skills. A recurring theme of the book is how automation erodes what makes us human in the best way – even if we might object: Carr quotes surprising findings by Csikszentmihalyi (of The Flow fame). When people were polled about their current mood at various time they …

… were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn’t like to be at work.

Psychologists call this unfortunate desire for what you ‘actually’ don’t want miswanting. One explanation is that people might pretend to prefer leisure over work as this is the socially acceptable behavior. An ethnographer confirmed Csikszentmihalyi’s theory by giving an account of an ancient tribe:

The Shushwaps did not have to wander to survive. They built villages and developed “elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources in the environment.” They viewed their lives as good and rich. But the tribe’s elders saw that in such comfortable circumstances lay danger. “The world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.” And so, every thirty years or so, the Shushwaps, led by their elders, would uproot themselves.

If I had to pick the main virtue venerated in this book – it would be accountability. The soldier dropping a bomb via clicking a mouse feels less responsible.

The congeniality of hand tools encourages us to take responsibility for their use.

The outlook on future wars is gloomy: Automated weapons may save lives, but may at the same time increase the likelihood of wars – just because of that. Machines effectively make moral decisions in everyday life already: Robotic lawn mowers already do it when not sparing small animals a human operator might have spotted.

Who determines what the “optimal” or “rational” choice is in a morally ambiguous situation? Who gets to program the robot’s conscience? Is it the robot’s manufacturer? The robot’s owner? The software coders? Politicians? Government regulators? Philosophers? An insurance underwriter?

I believe that ‘futurists’ might not be convinced though. What Nicholas Carr considers specifically human and worth being protected might strike tech enthusiasts as a shortcoming to be fixed by extending and transforming our bodies and minds. Critics might say Carr resorts to poetry in the last chapter in order to circumvent these questions elegantly. The physicist turned stone-age pathfinder said that …

… “primal empiricism,” struck him as being “akin to what people describe as spiritual awakenings.”

Which is something you can either relate to immediately and intuitively, or dissect it analytically. It strikes a chord with me, but trying to explain it any further leads to Wittgenstein-y struggling with reality:

Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words.

Google’s self-driving cars challenge the distinction between explicit knowledge – that can be cast into code (or words) – and tacit intuitive knowledge of processes. It seems that that this artificial boundary is pushed more and more into the realm of the so-called genuinely human. Carr uses a sonnet by Robert Frost called ‘Mowing’ to demonstrate that

a poet’s scrutiny of the world can be more subtle and discerning than a scientist’s.

As a scythe enthusiast I am biased but he really couldn’t have chosen a better example:

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows

Again, I think these lines will perhaps not speak to modern life hackers. Domestic automation would turn our homes more into workplaces – programmed, and dominated by metrics. We apply the

the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others.

Algorithms collect data that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Our formerly ‘continuous’ selves are turned into a collection of disjointed junks presented on social medias timelines which deprives us of options for changing our minds and thus for personal growth. Again I remember the proverbial clock from The Shallows, discretizing time. Making technology invisible and unobtrusive is not a solution but just the final stage of a gradual development:

It obscures the way we’ve refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology.

I have adopted technology as a professional, but sometimes also to respond to changes in the way we socialize today with everyone expecting to manage their lives through screens. Technology, especially networked one, fundamentally changes society. Already the power grid had a subtle impact on engineering culture, business culture, production, and finally living. You cannot fool yourself, and remain independent and self-sufficient in your spare time and just use technology if you have to. Carr states that self-reliance was once considered the mainstay of character. He advocates getting lost sometimes in contrast to Google Maps’ visions:

“No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. It is also to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.

I read Walden at about the same time as Carr’s book – and I am reminded of this quote by Thoreau:

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. … In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. … Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

I can relate, your mileage may vary. The Wright Brothers; first powered flight HU98267

This Year in Books: Biographies, Science, Essays.

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

Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

Wittgenstein had trained as an engineer, too.

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

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

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

History of Science and Popular Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of Its Own: Books by Nassim Taleb.

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

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

Essays on Life, Work, the Universe and Everything

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

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

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

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

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

Psychology

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

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

Fiction

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

Technology

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

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

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

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

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

Textbooks and Outlook

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

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

Theoretische Physik, Wilhelm Macke

Six volumes on Theoretical Physics, by Wilhelm Macke.

Retro-Geek: On the Fascination of Machinery

I have no clue about art or design. I learned recently from The Time Traveler that stuff like the following has its own genre and sub-culture: It is called Steampunk.

Steampunk-Computer

Steampunk Computer (Wikimedia)

I am intrigued – as I was by the illustrations in Stephen Hawking’s book Illustrated Brief History of Time long before I knew this was Steampunk at its best. Why does Steampunk ‘work’ so well?

I believe it does for the same reasons as: The Flintstones, Max Raabe, even Star Wars, and the British Sherlock Holmes TV show. Though the latter should maybe be tagged Steampunk anyway. It is the 1 one 1 correspondence of modern gadgets and their ancient counter-parts that have never existed – done meticulously at a ridiculous, nearly microscopic level.

I am sure there are tons of articles by artists, designers or psychologists (which I did not research) that explain the phenomenon. Is it about our nostalgic feeling about an ancient era? Plus the spirit of innovation and the probably naive believe in technological progress (at ‘that time’)? Is it our subconscious longing for really understanding how stuff works – locating the tooth wheels and levers, instead of being put off by the enigmatic – but dull – integrated circuit boards in our iPhones and notebooks?

Or is it just the combination of metal and wood? Of silver, gold, black and a bit of rust & dust?

Steampunk transformer helmet

Steampunk transformer helmet (Wikimedia, http://www.steampunker.de)

Every scientist or engineer starts out as a tinkerer in his parents’ garage or the like (the cliché says, but this is backed by bios of famous physicists, such as Richard Feynman or Isaac Newton). So as for geeks in particular, Steampunk seems to allude to a part of our common DNA. We remember the clocks and cameras we had dismantled.

But probably you should not or cannot dissect a cultural phenomenon by writing about it. You can rather tell a story or create artwork that follows the unwritten rules of the sub-culture, and like-minded people will get it – or not.

It seems I have established the tradition of The Light Geeky Friday Post since last week. So I add a new category to my blog:
Geek Collection (and I might re-categorize old stuff, very retro).

Hansoms and Wires

I am reading the Sherlock Holmes novels on my Kindle, about 25 years after I have read them on paper.

The stories are still entertaining, Conan Doyle is a great story-teller (though he re-uses ideas in 1:1 different novels and once you are used to the typical plots you are able to guess the outcome. He was particularly fascinated by the abnormal and bizarre – lots of crippled or deformed people there! But that’s a digression…)

I planned to read a book not related to science and technology for the sake of distraction and light entertainment, but after all it has been a lesson in history of technology to me. The novels introduce you to the lifestyle of a Victorian Londoner, driving hansoms and communicating by wired telegrams.  Only the last novels had been written after the telephone has been invented.

And here is the catch: The way Sherlock Holmes has worked, communicated, researched and generally organized his life in a way we would call modern. That’s probably also the reason why the Sherlock Holmes TV series   manages to preserve the spirit of the ancient novels though the story is transferred to the 21st century. Today Sherlock Holmes uses an iPhone and Watson blogs, but browsing real books instead of the internet and sending (a lot of!) telegrams instead of e-mails does not make much of a difference. I believe people back then were as overwhelmed or stressed by written notes are we are by e-mail. Bertrand Russell’ autobiography gave me that impression as well: Those guys wrote tons of letters and networkers like him had to deal with a lot of letters.

The similarities strikes me odd as normally I rather belabor the over-accelerated lifestyle I feel / felt forced to comply with. But the generalization is not fully valid any way: Sherlock Holmes’ wires might be similar to text messages and e-mails. But I feel that the literary value of the average e-mail is lower than the value of the average (Bertrand-Russell-style) letter written in the 1890s. Was this only due to the fact that perhaps writing letters was the occupation of an educated minority?