Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

wine-clarity

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

About 14,5 Random Thoughts on Blogging and Social Media

I have been blogging on WordPress.com since nearly three years, and I noted the following:

Blogs have a half life. Many decay after 2 years. Blogs I had followed had been deleted, or bloggers had suddenly stopped publishing without notice.

There are tons of single-post-blogs. A user-friendly editor motivates people to get started. But blogging does not take more time than HTML editing. We need time for composition, not for typing.

An important change in personal or professional life often triggers the launch of a new blog. If the change had been mastered successfully, the well might run dry.

You can write the articles you want to write, or you can write what you want to read. Perhaps many hobbyist authors go from the former, introspective-therapeutic stage to the latter.

Bloggers running blogs of the same age flock together in groups. Groups consist of less than 10 people; everybody reads and comments on the others’ blogs regularly.

WordPress.com is both publishing platform and social network, and it works well because nearly every user is both contributor and commentator.

Nearly all social media have done away with nested discussion threads, and only the first few lines of comments are visible unless you click More. Will WordPress follow suit?

It is hard to resist popular topics, and the hype might not be obvious. Who knew that all things quantum would enthrall the masses?

At the beginning there was the classical website; then there was the blog – configurable to serve any purpose. Now there is a specific platform for images, for long-form texts, and whatnot.

Optimization for mobile devices can makes sites harder to read on PCs. There is no such thing as the integrity of individual web pages anymore.

Web-logging the diary way messes up structure and categories. But  on static WordPress pages organized via nested menus I always look for that signature date information.

Social media fundamentally recalibrated communications; we go asynchronous. A synchronous phone call  feels like an intrusion unless life-altering.

Blogging and social media have revived the art of rhetorics, and I learned a new word: humblebragging. 

Our online repositories are like the human brain: Content needs to be alive: to be revisited, rearranged, and curated all the time to be useful.

You ought to add an image.

The View, 2015-02

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.

Gödel, Escher, Bach, and Strange Loops: Nostalgia and Random Thoughts

I am curious – who read the book, too? Did you like it?

I read it nearly 30 years ago and I would also tag it one of the most influential books I read as a teenager.

[This might grow into a meandering and lengthy post with different (meta-)levels – given the subject of the post I think this is OK.]

GEB QR preview featured

A modern variant of the ambigram presented at GEB’s cover. The shadows created by this cube represent the QR codes of Wikipedia articles about Gödel, Escher, Bach, respectively.

In 1995 author Douglas Hofstadter said the following in an interview by Wired – and this also resembles similar statements in his book I am a Strange Loop published 2007. He utters frustration with the  effect of GEB on readers and on his reputation – although he won a Pulitzer Prize for his unusual debut book (published 1979).

From the Wired interview:

What Gödel, Escher, Bach was really about – and I thought I said it over and over again – was the word I. Consciousness. It was about how thinking emerges from well-hidden mechanisms, way down, that we hardly understand. How not just thinking, but our sense of self and our awareness of consciousness, sets us apart from other complicated things. How understanding self-reference could help explain consciousness so that someday we might recognize it inside very complicated structures such as computing machinery. I was trying to understand what makes for a self, and what makes for a soul. What makes consciousness come out of mere electrons coursing through wires.

There is nothing metaphysical in the way the term soul is used here. Having re-read GEB now I marvel at the level Hofstadter was able to provide an interpretation devoid of metaphysics – yet elegant and even poetic. Hofstadter is quoting Zen koans but he does not force “spirituality”  upon the subject – he calls Zen intellectual quicksand.

GEB is about the machinery of mind without catering to the AI enthusiasm shared by transhumanists. It has once been called a Bible of AI but maybe today it would not be considered optimistic enough in the nerdy sense. It is not about how new technology might exploit our (alleged) understanding of the mind – it is only about said understanding.

When I read the book nearly 30 years ago I enjoyed it for two main reasons: the allusions and references to language, metaphors and translation – especially as implemented in the whimsical Lewis-Carroll-style dialogues of Achilles, Mr. Tortoise and friends…

And yet many people treated the book as just some sort of big interdisciplinary romp whose point was simply to have fun. In fact, the fun was merely icing on the cake.

… and,  above all, that popular but yet mathy introduction to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem(s). Gödel’s theorem is presented as the analogue of oxymoronic statements such as I am a liar or This statement is false – translated to math. More precisely there are true statements about integers in sufficiently powerful formal systems that yet cannot be proven within those systems.

Originally, the book was purely about the way the proof of Gödel’s theorem kept cropping up in the middle of a fortress – Principia Mathematica by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead – that was designed to keep it out. I thought, Here’s a structure that attempts to keep out self-knowledge, but when things get sufficiently complex and sufficiently tangled, all of a sudden – whammo! – it’s got self-representation in it. That to me was the trick that underlies consciousness.

I had considered Gödel the main part of the trio and I think I was sort of “right” due to this:

So, at first, there were no dialogs, no jokes, no wordplay, and no references to Escher or Bach. But as I typed the manuscript up in ’74, I decided it was written in an immature style. I decided to insert the dialogs and the Escher so that the playfulness became a kind of a secondary – but extremely important – part of the book. Many people focused on those things and treated the book as a big game-playing thing.

I am afraid, I did. I read the chapters dealing with a gradual introduction of the theorem more often than the parts about consciousness. Blending something abstract – that only hardcore nerds might appreciate – with wordplay, Escher drawings and musings on musical theory (pun not intended but obviously this is contagious) was a master piece of science writing. It seems this has widened the audience but not in an intended way.

But isn’t that the fate of nearly every real well-written science book transcending the boundaries of disciplines? Is there any philosopher-physicist writing about quantum mechanics who had not been quoted out-of-context by those who prefer to cook up metaphysical / emotionally appealing statements using scientifically sounding phrases as ingredients?

Anyway, focusing on the theorem: The gist of Hofstadter’s argument is that inherent contradictions were introduced directly to the very epitome of pristine rationality, Russell’s and Whitehead’s attempted to create. So we should not be surprised to find self-reference and emergent symbols in other systems built from boring little machine-like components. In a dialogue central to the idea of GEB his main protagonists discuss about holism and reductionism with a conscious ant hill – made up from dumb ants.

The meticulously expounded version of Gödel’s theorem is the heart and the pinnacle of the storyline of GEB in my point of view, and it is interesting to compare Hofstadter’s approach to the crisp explanation Scott Aaronson gives in Quantum Computing since Democritus. Scott Aaronson calls Gödel’s way to have formal statement talking about themselves an elaborate hack to program without programming. Aaronson makes the very convincing case that you could avoid all that talk about grand difficult math and numbering statements by starting from the notion of a computer, a Universal Turing machine.

Model of a Turing machine

Model of a Turing machine (Wikimedia, http://aturingmachine.com): an idealized computer working on a tape. It can move the read forward or back, (over-)write symbols on the tape or halt. Its actions are determined by the instructions on the tape and its internal state. Given a program you cannot decide if it will ever halt.

Gödel’s Proof then turns into a triviality as a formal system envisaged by Russell would be equivalent to having found a solution to the halting problem. The philosophical implications are preserved but it sounds more down-to-earth and it takes about two orders of magnitude less pages.

As Hofstadter says implicitly and explicitly: Metaphors and context are essential. Starting from a proof involving a program that is fed its own code probably avoids unwanted metaphysical-mystical connotations – compared to cooking up a scheme for turning statements of propositional logic into numbers, framed with Zen Buddhism, molecular biology, and art. But no matter in which way I might prefer to think about Gödel’s proof I guess I missed the mark:

(From the Wired interview – continued)

I had been aiming to have the book reach philosophers, people who thought about the mind and consciousness, and a small number actually saw what I was getting at, but most people just saw the glitter. At the time, I felt I’d lost a great deal by writing a book like that so early in my career, because I was no longer taken seriously by anybody.

If you did not get the message either you are in good company. David Deutsch, says in his review of I am a Strange Loop:

Hofstadter … expresses disappointment that his 1979 masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach (one of my favourite books) was not recognized as explaining the true nature of consciousness, or “I”-ness. I have to confess that it never occurred to me that it was intended to do so. I thought it merely explained the problem, highlighting stark flaws in common-sense ideas about minds. It also surveyed the infinite depth and meaning that can exist in “mere” computer programs. One could only emerge from the book (or so I thought) concluding that brains must in essence be computers, and consciousness an attribute of certain programs – and that discovering exactly what attribute is an urgent problem for philosophy and computer science. Hofstadter agrees with the first two conclusions but not the third; he considers that problem solved.

I can’t comment on the problem of consciousness being a yet-to-clarified attribute / by-product of computing but I find the loopy part about brains that must in essence be computers convincing.

Accidentally I have now read three different refutations of the so-called Chinese Room argument against strong AI – by Hofstadter, Aaronson and Ray Kurzweil. A human being in an hypothetical room pretends to exchange messages (on paper) in Chinese with interrogators. They might believe the guy speaks Chinese though he does only lookup rules in a book and mindlessly shift papers.

But how could you not associate the whole room, the rule book, the (high-speed!) paper-shuffling process with what goes on the system of the brains’ neurons? The person does not speak Chinese but “speaking Chinese” is an emergent phenomenon of the whole setup. Mental images invoked by “rule book” and “paper” are called intuition pumps by Hofstadter (a term coined by his friend Daniel Dennett) – examples picked deliberately to invoke that sudden “self-evident” insight along the lines of: Of course the human mind does not follow a mere rulebook!.

[Pushing to the level of self-referential  navel-gazing now]

Re-reading the blurb of my old version of the book I am able to connect some dots: I had forgotten that Hofstadter actually has a PhD in physics – theoretical condensed matter physics – and not in computer science or cognitive science. So the fact that a PhD in physics could prepare you for a career / life of making connections between all kinds of hard sciences, arts and literature was certainly something that might have shaped my worldview. All the authors heroes who have written those books that have influenced my the most as a teenager were scientist-philosophers, such as Albert Einstein and Viktor Frankl.

If I go on like this, talking about the science books and classics I read as a child I might get the same feedback as Hofstadter (see amazon.com reviews for example): This is elitist and only about showing off his education etc.

I am not sure what Hofstadter should have been done to avoid this. Not writing the books at all? Focusing on a narrower niche in order to comply with common belief that talents in seemingly diverse fields have to be mutually exclusive?

Usually a healthy dose of self-irony mitigates the smarty effect. Throw in se jokes about how your stereotype absent-mindedness prevents you from exchanging that clichéd light bulb. But Hofstadter’s audience is rather diverse – so zooming in on the right kind of humor could be tricky.

[Pop]

And now I do what is explained so virtuoso in GEB – having pushed and popped through various meta-levels I will not resolve the tension and return to the tonic of the story … a music pun, pathetically used out of context.

[Coda]

You might wonder why I did not include any Escher drawings. There are all copyrighted still since  less than 70 years have passed since Escher’s death. But there are some interesting DIY Projects on Youtube, bringing to life Escher’s structures – such as this one:

_____________________________

Further reading The Man Who Would Teach Machines to Think (The Atlantic)

Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Gödel, Escher, Bach, thinks we’ve lost sight of what artificial intelligence really means. His stubborn quest to replicate the human mind.

Scott Aaronson’s website, blog and papers  – a treasure trove! His book is not an easy read and probably unlike every so called science book you have ever read. It has been created from lecture notes. His tone is conversational and the book is incredibly witty – but nonetheless it is quite compressed information containing more than one course in math, quantum physics and computer science. And yet – this is exactly the kind of science book I want to read when trying to make myself familiar with a new field. One “warning”: it is about theory, not about how to build a quantum computer. Thanks to wavewatching.net for the pointer.

In Praise of Textbooks with Tons of Formulas (or: The Joy of Firefighting)

I know. I am repeating myself.

Maurice Barry has not only recommended Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow to me, but he also runs an interesting series of posts on his eLearning blog.

These got mixed and entangled in my mind, and I cannot help but returning to that pet topic of mine. First, some statistically irrelevant facts of my personal observations – probably an example of narrative fallacy or mistaking correlation for causation:

As you know I had planned to reconnect to my roots as a physicist for a long time despite working crazy schedules as a so-called corporate knowledge worker. Besides making the domain subversiv.at mine and populating it with content similar to the weirdest in this blog I invented my personal therapy to deflect menacing burn-out: I started reading or better working with my old physics textbooks. Due to time constraints I sometimes had to do this very early in the morning – and I am not a lark. I have read three books on sleep research recently – I know that both my sleep duration as well as my midsleep are above average and I lived in a severely sleep-deprived state most of my adult life.

Anyway, the point was: Physics textbooks gave me some rehash of things I had forgotten and prepared me to e.g. work with the heat transfer equation again. But what was more important was: These books transformed my mind in unexpected ways. Neither entertaining science-is-cool pop-sci books nor philosophical / psychological books about life, the universe and everything could do this for me at that level. (For the records: I tried these to, and I am not shy to admit I picked some self-help books also. Dale Carnegie, no less.)

There were at least two positive effects – I try to describe them in my armchair psychologist’s language. Better interpretations welcome!

Concentrating and abstract reasoning seems to be effective in stopping or overruling the internal over-thinking machine that runs in circles if you feel trapped in your life or career. Probably people like me try to over-analyze what has to be decided intuitively anyway. Keeping the thinking engine busy lets the intuitive part do its work. Whatever it was – it was pleasant, and despite the additional strain on sleep and schedule it left me more energetic, more optimistic, and above all more motivated and passionate about that non-physics work.

I also found that my work related results – the deliverables as we say – improved. I have been the utmost perfectionist ever since and my ability to create extensive documentation in parallel to doing the equivalent of cardiac surgery to IT systems is legendary (so she says in her modest manner). Nevertheless, plowing through tensor calculus and field equations helps to hone these skills even more. For those who aren’t familiar with that biotope: The mantra of other Clint-Eastwood-like firefighters is rather: Real experts don’t provide documentation!

I would lie if I would describe troubleshooting issues with digital certificates as closely related to theoretical physics. You can make some remote connections between skills that sort of related such as cryptography is math after all, but I am not operating at that deep mathematical level most of the time. I rather believe that anything rigorous and mathy puts your mind – or better its analytical subsystem – in a advanced state. Advanced refers to the better prepration to tackle a specific class of problems. The caveat is that you lose this ability if you stop reading textbooks at 4:00 AM.

Using Kahneman’s terminology (mentioned briefly in my previous post) I consider mathy science the ultimate training for system 2 – your typically slow rational decision making engine. It takes hard work and dedication at the beginning to make system 2 work effortless in some domains. In my very first lecture at the university ever the math professor stated that mathematics will purge and accelerate your brain – and right he was.

Hence I am so skeptical about joyful learning and using that science-is-cool-look-at-that-great-geeky-video-of-blackholes-and-curved-space approach. There is no simple and easy shortcut and you absolutely, positively have to love the so-called tedious work you need to put in. You are rewarded later with that grand view from the top of the mountain. The ‘trick’ is that you don’t consider it tedious work.

Kahneman is critical of so-called intuition – effortless intuitive system 1 at work – and he gives convincing accounts of cold-hearted algorithms beating humans, e.g. in picking the best candidate for a job. However, he describes his struggles with another school of thought of psychologists who are wary of algorithms. I have scathed dumb HR-acronym-checking-bots at this blog, too. But Kahneman finally reached an agreement with algorithm haters as he acknowledged that there is a specific type of expert intuition that appears like magic to outsiders. His examples: Firefighters and nurses who feel what is wrong – and act accordingly – before they can articulate it. He still believes that picking stocks or picking job applicants is not a skill and positive results don’t correlate at with skill but are completely random.

I absolutely love the example of firefighters as I can literally relate to it. Kahneman demystifies their magic abilities though as he states that this is basically pattern recognition – you have gathered similar experience, and after many years of exposure system 1 can draw from that wealth of patterns unconsciously.

Returning to my statistically irrelevant narrative this does still not explain completely why exposure to theoretical physics should make me better at analyzing faulty security protocols. Physics textbooks make you an expert in solving physics textbook problems, this is: in recognizing patterns and provide you with ideas of that type of out-of-the-box idea you sometimes need to find a clever mathematical proof. You might get better in solving that physics puzzles people enjoy sharing on social media.

But probably the relation to troubleshooting tech problems is very simple and boils down to the fact that you love to tackle formal, technical problems again and again even if many attempts are in vain. The motivation and the challenge is in looking at the problem as a black box and trying to find a clever way to get in. Every time you fail you learn something nonetheless, and that learning is a pleasure in its own right.

DOD mobile aircraft firefighting training device

Search Term Poetry Sans Google

Times have been rough for search poets since Google has decided to encrypt search results.

But you could also argue that search terms should be more non-mainstream, hip, and sophisticated now as submitted by users preferring non-mainstream search engines.

So this is Google-less search term poetry, created from terms harvested in Q4 2013. As usual, lines of the poem are taken from search phrases, unedited, and probably truncated at beginning and end. Search terms must not be concatenated.

[Interlude: Scholarly Wisdom]

I am reading a book highly relevant for the psychology of creating art from the virtual scrapyard: Daniel Kahneman’s seminal book Thinking, Fast and Slow (Thanks, Maurice!). Kahneman describes our shortcomings in dealing with probabilities and in making sound, rational decisions in general. He gives a lot of evidence from psychological research on how our so-called intuition fails us spectacularly.

Our educated guesses on numbers – such as the age of a celebrity – are impacted by random numbers brought to our attention via a wheel of fortune. We feel that 90% fat-free is better than 10% fat. And we are insist on seeing patterns in truly random structures.

Kahneman calls the different modes of thinking or sub-entities of our mind system 1 and system 2. Yet, these are conceptual entities describing the research results; they and not intended to be related to specific parts of the brain. Physicists would call this a phenomenological approach.

System 1 jumps to conclusions quickly and helps us with making the world simpler by substituting hard questions (Why should I vote for X?) by easy questions (Do I like X?). It does al this with ease. System 2 is our strained machine for mental arithmetic. It is at work when you multiply big numbers (unless you are savant) or create list of pro’s and con’s.

Actually, system 1 seems to be in control most of the time – but my special kind of poetry is created when I give system 1 full control deliberately. Gleefully and using zero mental energy it scans search terms or spam comments in order to see patterns and relations – dialogues and stanzas – where they are none.

[/Interlude]

Lines have been formatted in bold in italics in order to denote headers (System 2 tries to contribute by providing a table of contents).

scientific terms poems

calculations to determine
42 plus 63
42 divided by 63

do not fall
quantum boffin
with counterweight

proton animation
smokerings icon
earth rotation
toy elevator
it has to be tried in practice

power grid turned off
welcome to the real world
the subversive element

analytical essay

name the four element
space balls
phase space

mouse in a microwave
is always tangential to axis

which countries
german hills
jurassic park

“the new worst slogan”
best innovation ever
harvesting ice

cultural spam(food) poetry

metaphors on a scrapyard
anti-stress spiral spring

a break on my blog
sniffing a path
decoding hidden identity

zen capitalism
google culture
the jelly bing

confessions of a luddite
feel dumb in theory

clap hands
instead of falling over

Wheel of Fortune

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Physics with Anything

You have told me, you miss my physics posts. I have missed them, too, and I give it a try. But I cannot help turning this into a cross-over again, smashing together half-digested psychology, physics, IT networking, and badly hidden autobiographical anecdotes.

In 2005 I did research on the incorporation of physics-style thinking and mathematical models into non-science disciplines. Actually, it was a small contribution to an interdisciplinary research project, and I have / should have covered science-y ideas related to how revolutionary new ideas percolate society.

In retrospect, my resulting (German) paper was something in between science writing, thorough research including differential equations in detail – and some bold assumptions, partly inspired by popular science, cliché and science fiction. Probably like my posts, but more long-winded and minus the very obvious rants.

I built on my work in laser-materials processing, superconductivity, phase transitions, and I tried to relate chaos in thermodynamic systems and instabilities in fluids with related non-predictable diffusion of ideas.

HD-Rayleigh-Taylor

Simulation of Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities at the interface of fluids with different densities. You could probably test this with Caffe Latte.

I learned that there is a discipline called Networking Theory:

Many networked structures obey very similar rules. Networks of WWW hyperlinks, citations scientific papers, food chains, and airline networks are called scale-free networks, because the distribution function for the number of links follows a power law.

A small number of nodes has a high number of connections and the structure the networks appears the same on every scale applied – it is self-similar. The power law is only valid for ever growing networks.

Barabasi Albert 1000nodes

Network following a power-law distribution of connections. The backbone of the network is established by a few strong, well-connected nodes, and the vast majority of nodes has only a few connections.

The dynamics of such networks could be modeled using the same math as esoteric Bose-Einstein condensation, which allowed me to combine anything and relate networks and the quantum phenomena in superconductors.

But the basic idea is really simply: The more popular nodes attract more links. This is a winner-take-all model.

Companies have started monetizing network research by analyzing and modelling hidden structures and unveiling the the fabric underlying politics and economy.

Re-visiting that old article of mine I spot an application of physics in something-else-dynamics I have missed: One of the classical non-academic jobs for a (theoretical) physicist is Wall Street quantitative analyst or quant. Quants apply models taken from thermodynamics, such as diffusion in supernovas, to the finance world.

I would put The Physics of Wall Street – A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable on my Books-to-Read List if it would be available on Kindle, as I enjoyed this review:

The author, James Owen Weatherall is

an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, has two Ph.D.’s — one in physics and mathematics, and one in philosophy.

The book gives an overview of different models that resemble physics or are borrowed from physics – such as the Black-Scholes model that uses Brownian motion to model the dynamic development of prices of derivative financial products. Don’t ask me for details – I am just dropping keywords here.

The book seems to be based on optimistic assumptions:

Weatherall wants a new Manhattan Project to determine what’s wrong with economics, and he thinks it should be based in no small part on the contributions of physics-oriented economists, some of whom he believes have been treated unfairly by the establishment.

Here it is getting very interesting:

He has little use for Nassim Taleb, whose best-­selling book “The Black Swan” argues that the models used by traders disastrously underestimated the possibility of very negative outcomes — the black swans. To say that a model failed, Weatherall contends, is not to say that no models can work. “We use mathematical models cut from the same cloth to build bridges and to design airplane engines, to plan the electric grid and to launch spacecraft,” 

… as I am currently reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

In my outdated review article I finally came to the conclusion that some aspects of seemingly complicated systems – including those based on human beings – can be modeled using models of a baffling simplicity in relation to the alleged complexity of human nature. I am not ashamed of pointing out this glaring contradiction with my recent posts on gamification.

I would hailed Weatherall’s book and thanked him for contributing to my confirmation bias.

But Taleb speaks to me – in particular his chapter about Ludic Fallacy.

I do enjoy the clichéd characters of Fat Tony, the intuitive deal maker who hacks the real world, versus Dr. John, the nerdy engineering PhD who is fond of building mathematical models.

Taleb says:

Have you ever wondered why so many of these straight-A students end up going nowhere in life while someone who lagged behind is now getting the shekels, buying the diamonds, and getting his phone calls returned? Or even getting the Nobel Prize in a real discipline (say, medicine)

I took all my self-irony pills in order to recover. How could I not remember my indulgence in this diagram proving the braininess / nerdiness of physicists (and philosophers) – and my straight As of course. Did I mention that I am not a high-powered executive today or an accomplished professor? So it is Dr. Jane speaking here.

How could I not remember those enlightening anecdotes in David Goleman’s pop-psychology bestseller on EQ – emotional intelligence, first published in 1996. I enjoyed the story of two equally gifted students of mathematics, one becoming a rock star scientist, the other one becoming a mere computer consultant. I have read this book in German, so I will not give you a verbatim quote translated back to English. Actually, Goleman said something like: He pretended / claimed to be happy as a computer consultant. It says a more about me than about Goleman that I can quote this from memory without touching the book. I could say a lot of things about the notion of pretense here, but I will not repeat my most recent loosely related rant.

Goleman and Taleb both agree on the overarching role of intuition, thinking outside-the-box, gut feeling or whatever you call this. Luckily, Taleb is not concerned so much with proving which part of the brain is responsible for what because this is the part of pop-psy books I find incredibly boring. Nobody in his right mind would disagree (with the fact that interpersonal skills are important, not with my judgement of pop-psy books).

Even I tend so say, my modest successes in Mediocristan are largely due to my social skills whereas technical skills are needed to meet the minimum bar. Mediocristan is Taleb’s world of achievements limited by natural boundaries, such as: You will not get rich by being paid on time and material. You might get rich in Extremistan, as a best selling author or musician, but you have to deal with the extremely low probability of such a Black Swan of a success.

I am trying my hands at Occam’s Razor now and attempt to sort out this contradictions.

I believe that mathematical models of society make sense, and I do so without having read more propaganda by econo-physicists. I do so even if I will go on ranting about physicists that went into finance and caused a global crisis, because they just wanted to play with nice physics (as we said at the university) – ignoring that there is more at stake than your next research grant or paper.

Models of society and networks make sense if and only if we try to determine a gross statistical property of an enormous system. This is perfect science based on numbers that are only defined in terms of statistics – such as temperature in thermodynamics.

Malcom Gladwell is a master story teller in providing some convincing examples that proves that sometimes it only context that matters and that turns us into automata. For example subjects – who were not informed about the experimental setup – were inquired about their ethical standards. Would you help the poor? Of course they would. Then the experimental (gamified!) setup urged the subjects to hurry to another location, under some pretext. On their way, they were confronted with (fake) poor persons in need. The majority of persons did not help the poor, not missing the next fake meeting was the top priority. Gladwell’s conclusion is that context very often matters more – and in a simple and predictable – than all our sophisticated ethical constructs.

This is probably similar to our predictability as social networking animals, that is: clicking, liking and sharing automata.

People in a stadium clapping their hands will synchronize, in a way similar to fireflies synchronizing their blinking. You can build very simple models and demonstrate them using electrically connected light bulbs equipped with trigger logics – and those bulbs will synchronize after a few cycles.

Enthusiasm ends here.

I believe that using and validating those reliable models we learn something about society that is not exactly ground-breaking.

We can model the winner-take-all behavior of successful blogs to whom all the readers gravitate by Bose-Einstein condensation. But so what? What exactly did science tell us that we did not know before and considered trivial everyday wisdom?

In particular, we learn nothing that would help us, as individual nodes in these networks, to cope with the randomness we are exposed to if we aimed at success in Extremistan.

Mr. Taleb, keep preaching on!

However, I still need to wrap my head around the synthesis of:

  • not falling for the narrative fallacy, denarrating, and ignoring TV and blogs.
  • but yet: focusing on the control of my decisions and trying to grasp the abstract concepts of probability in every moment.
Black Swan

Black Swan (Wikimedia). I wanted to embed an image of Nathalie Portman in Black Swan ballet dancer’s costume, but I did not find a public domain image quickly, and I am not bold enough to do so without cross-checking copyright issues.

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Further reading – two related popular science books I had enjoyed in 2005:
Linked: The New Science Of Networks
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference