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.

On Resisting the Bait

I don’t mean click-bait. I mean write-bait. That article that wants you to launch your 2.000 words rhetoric missile, and click the red button: Publish.

I am pondering about one of the most successful genres clicked and shared on social media: a blend of popular psychology, life hacking, and business wisdom, perhaps enriched by trusted thought leaders’ anecdotes.

Viral articles often match one of the following patterns:

1) The positive version that wants you to be part of the chosen group:

People who are X are also capable of Y.

X has usually a somewhat negative connotation, so capability Y comes as a surprise and as a relief.

[Also introverts can be great leaders.]

In addition, X is not clearly defined (maybe Y isn’t either), and it will be easy to find a multiple-choice test that gives you confirmation about your status as a winner.

2) The negative version that makes you feel happy about not being doomed, or giggle mischievously:

People who are X are not capable of Y.

To make this work, X-People need to be a minority, and Y needs to be something the target audience recognizes as desirable.

[Book-smart academic over-achievers will hardly be successful entrepreneurs].

These articles are light entertainment for the Non-Xers, but X-People might have a hard time resisting the temptation to take the bait. Especially when they feel they haven’t tagged a blog post with Rant for a long time.

If there is anything to gain here in terms of self-improvement and self-hacking, it is the ultimate test of your Stoic attitude. You can refine and polish your counter-arguments over and over, make it more poignant and provocative, or more balanced and thoughtful. Make it more anecdotal, personal, and honest, or more detached and based on rock-solid research. You might long to dance on the slippery area in between, mastering the art of making fun of yourself without too much self-sabotage.

But no matter what you write: If you take the bait it will always sound like whining, nitpicking in the wrong place, or re-defining and twisting terms like ‘success’ to meet your own agenda. Besides, it may hurt your productivity at work to turn around that unpublished piece in your mind again and again. So do yourself a favor and trash your draft.

Graffiti in Shoreditch, London - Art Is Trash Dumpster (9422226755).

Also notorious wafflers are capable of writing short posts.

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

Looking Foward to ‘The Glass Cage’ – Random Ambiguous Thoughts

On September 29, Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage – Automation and Us will be released. I have quoted Carr’s writings often on this blog, and his essay All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines might anticipate some of the ideas he is going to explore in this upcoming book.

I read non-fiction books with specific questions in mind. In order to sort out these questions upfront, I am writing a post that may turn out incoherent.

I sense an ambiguity that might be typical for many so-called knowledge workers that spend most of their working hours in front of a computers. We feel some playful affection to the gadgets we use but silently we dread our growing dependence on them – and we seek escape in dreaming up alternate realities as artisans working with real stuff.

If you believe the geek turned craftsman is just a cliché – read this story about a software developer turned carpenter:

This is when I realized that I’d rather be looking through the window of a cool building, than the window of an LCD laptop.

Hadn’t technology evolved in the way it did in the past decades my job would be fundamentally different or not exist at all. I define the ability to work with clients in a remote fashion as an absolutely essential part of my job, and I am determined to prove that it is not only the IT industry and companies like Automattic whose way of working has been transformed: We have recently started our first heat pump planning project that will not include any on-site meetings. So I am not in a position to question the [allow for a buzz word] disruptive nature of technology.

But proliferation of working remotely cuts both ways: I have been able to do my IT security troubleshooting for clients ‘anywhere on this planet’ – so of course professionals living in countries with lower loving costs, and this lower hourly rates, could do as well!

However, I am not interested in following that train of thoughts. Probably I am too optimistic but I think I was able to constantly move my professional away from anything to-be-standardized. I have seen attempts to standardize consulting failing too often. So I am still waiting for the human-like bot to replace me. Consulting is people’s business no matter how much technology helps to mediate it – just as social media is a success because of the social part.

But I cannot deny that automation became an essential part of my personal version of the alternate artisanal reality: In the last two posts I mentioned my playing with database servers – all targeted to further automating data collection and evaluation for heat pump systems.

Would I want to stand outside in the cold and reading off data from a display myself for hours?

To some extent I probably would. I am eager to read The Glass Cage especially because of this quote:

Drawing on psychological and neurological studies that underscore how tightly people’s happiness and satisfaction are tied to performing meaningful work in the real world, Carr reveals something we already suspect: shifting our attention to computer screens can leave us disengaged and discontented.

It took me a time to realize that the reasons I use in defence of automation are all tied to my work. I have never been your typical computer freak or early adopter of gadgets who is interested to play with new technology ‘just because’. I am rather reluctant of using many appliances that are said to make our lives so much easier and allow us to ‘focus on what we really want’ and ‘get rid of the repetitive grunt work’.

I use a scythe to cut the grass. We don’t have an egg cooker, an electrical bread cutter, or a dryer. I could say I am just energy-conscious or trying to avoid clutter – but these are actually positive side-effects.

The shocking truth is that I like some healthy dose of simple, repetitive work.This even extends to the professional sphere: Against the mantra of focussing on your core business I do accounting and controlling – gleefully. This includes some boring data entry that better interfaces between those distributed software systems might do away with.

Most of the computer technology I finally got to use also as a consumer was actually driven by professional needs. I purchased my first cell phone as I wanted to be available for clients. I am thinking about the purchase of a tablet just because I could test some tools for managing digital certificates. I am considering a better internet connection to handle parallel remote sessions.

But wait – I have loved my Kindle eReader and I was a rather early adopter. However, I loved it because it was a 1:1 replacement of its real-life counterpart – a device just for reading: no internet, no e-mails, and no social media and sharing of inspirational snippets quoted out-of-context.

Is this because I am not a digital native?

In my first jobs as an experimental physicist and materials scientist about 95% of my job was repetitive grunt work: Cutting slices from crystals, grinding and polishing samples of material, adjusting optical components, waiting in front of a not-yet-computerized machine to see the paper coming out, take that paper and copy the curve using semi-transparent sheets, entering data, entering more data, being interrupted by some nasty sound as something broke, spending the next hours repairing the diamond wire saw or the leaky vacuum equipment.

Watching crime shows like CSI makes me laugh: They did a splendid job on making standardized lab work look so cool and sci-fi-style. We used to joke about create an image video for our research showing off the fancy colored laser beams in the dark lab – but that was meant satirical.

Femtosecond Laser and Pulse Compressor - Optics Lab - INRIM

This is why optics labs are crowd pullers at universities’ open days. (Image by Giorgio Brida, Wikimedia)

This combination of 5% thinking hard about the problems and drawing conclusions and 95% lab work was absolutely fine for me. If all repetitive, boring work – manual or computer-based – would be taken away from us, what would happen? Not to our professional selves devoid of jobs but to our human selves?

We could focus on the remaining hard and interesting problems, realize our potentials as humans, don’t we? We would be able to create and take decisions non-stop – until the bots will take over. But I am not quite sure if I would enjoy creating and deciding all the time. I imagine it could feel like jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink and skimming texts instead of reading a long piece.

I have read Life Hacker’s Bible recently – Tim Ferriss might answer you would finally have time to travel the world or learn to dance the tango, after you would have fully outsourced (that is: automated) your self-running internet business. World economy or crisis thereof, job options, realistic development of technology aside: Is this what the majority of people really want?

As I said, I am aware of the ambiguity and those pesky where-to-draw-the line questions. For sure I want high-tech surgery, perhaps a international expert or an AI-driven robot operate on me over that high-bandwidth connection. But I will keep mocking biometric keys for house doors, and sensors that turn on the light if I clap my hands.

Are my clinging to some boring work and my inconsistent argumentation just a shortcoming of our currently carbon-based species – to be replaced or extended by transhuman partly virtual-silicon-whatever beings? I read some books by transhumanists and radical technology enthusiasts – and they did not speak to me. I think I could re-iterate their arguments – this is the necessary pre-requisite for substantial criticism – and they seem to be self-consistent.

But I cannot yet track down why I don’t follow even less radical claims about the benefits of automation and technology. I always imagine myself being among the last human beings fighting the machines in a dystopian future. Perhaps I have seen too many movies or not enough of the good ones.

Anyway, I am waiting for Mr. Carr’s insights.

HAL9000.svg

HAL9000” by CryteriaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

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.

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.

Philosophical Counseling: Call for Volunteers

Interrupting my blogging break for breaking news: Fellow blogger and philosophy PhD Dan Mullin is about to launch a philosophical counseling practice. He is looking for volunteers who want to try out philosophical counseling – Dan is offering free Skype sessions in August.
Read the comments, too, and follow the links!