Random Things I Have Learned from My Web Development Project

It’s nearly done (previous episode here).

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

New website: A 'post.'

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

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

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

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

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

New website: Flat-file database.

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

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

New web site: File / database entry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New website: Category page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The More Content You Have Created

… the more time you need for curating.

My first ever attempt at tweeting an aphorism. But it is true for me, and it defines the way I use online spaces.

As a contributor of online content, I am operating in different modes:

  • Creator, with emphasis on creating something original – including unintended re-invention of the already existing I had not googled.
  • Researcher, when cross-checking sources or doing calculations.
  • Commentator on the blogs of others.
  • Curator. It is this role I want to dwell upon now.

I started writing online by editing static web pages, and this still determines my netizen’s philosophy. Creating content was always playing with structure versus content, and playing with how to present content in a way it was useful to me – and maybe to others, too.

You cannot pre-define categories, tags, and other structure upfront in my opinion, but you have to revisit them regularly. Social media like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter are primarily determined by the timeline, without giving the user a chance to provide a more timeless structure. Actually the user cannot influence the layout at all. That’s why I consider them secondary channels. Originally I had planned to organize resources useful to me on such sites – but I don’t want to full-text search my own posts or edit hashtags.

What I prefer is what search engines might penalize me for: Long, hand-crafted lists of links. Since a few months I have resumed posting to technical IT security forums. These forums provide automatically compiled lists of my threads, my activity etc. But yet I compile lists of my threads on one of my sites whose domain name accidentally makes for an insider pun: radices, which means roots. I violate database best practices by organizing the same content in redundant fashion – by date or by topic. It is not the final list that is so terribly useful to me, but the act of revisiting all the content, struggling with categorizing, and adding summaries.

I made it a rule to only add links to my collections that I had already used, as I believe the ease of arranging links and downloading documents makes it too simple to just collect and hoard – without actually reading or using. The internet is not too blame here: In the old times, at the university, I was collecting and curating scientific papers – the collecting being a result of my monthly browsing interesting journals, and it was often more extensive than needed.

This year I have created new major categories for these blog by laying out the site map –  the pages making up the main menu. It dawned on me that this more than a navigation menu. It reflects what is important for me, and that I don’t care anymore about explaining how all this goes together. I created these pages at about the same time I stopped trying to explain why my professional playgrounds would complement each other so nicely. I rather say, I work on A and B, as odd as this combination seems. Combining Anything – I Mean It.

I do love playing with different platforms, and I do maintain all of my non-blog websites. My most innovative experiments in Google-Translate-assisted poetry go unnoticed as I published them only on my subversive website.

The reason I have this Anything blog is that I tried to keep things separated originally, but finally all of my sites cover all of my topics anyway. Curation is what makes me aware of it.

But on principle I do know that it makes sense to keep to a topic. On our German blog we focus more on heat pumps; there is a lot of technical information, and we keep to a specific narrative style. I am at a loss how to explain this. We call ourselves the Two Fearless Settlers and Professional Tinkerers who tell stories about renewable energies. We use synonyms for places that are reminiscent of fairy-tales or slightly old-fashioned newspapers. Ironically, there is a game called Settlers Online whose style might quite match our blog, and we only learned about this via search terms on our blog (which have also been turned into search term poetry). Clients find the site both informative and entertaining – some of the unexpected positive feedback left me speechless.

On this blog here the navel-gazing ramblings may still outweigh light entertainment or practically useful information. I am not sure if I want to change this – I am just parsing my content and I am recognizing this. The more I create site maps and categories, the less I use them to plan for future content. It is more about coming to a halt and contemplating. I have also decided that I will go on a literary diet until end of 2014 – so I will not amend my Reading List in the next weeks.

I feel like I have reached a goal I hadn’t defined before.

Vineyards

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

 

On Learning

Some years ago I was busy with projects that required a lot of travelling but I also needed to stay up-to-date with latest product features and technologies. When a new operating system was released a colleague asked how I could do that – without having time for attending trainings. Without giving that too much thought, and having my personal test lab in mind, I replied:

I think I always try to solve some problem!

tl;dr – you can skip the rest as this has summed it all up.

About one year ago I ‘promised’ to write about education, based on my experiences as a student and as a lecturer or trainer. I haven’t done so far – as I am not sure if my simplistic theory can be generalized.

There are two very different modes of learning that I enjoy and consider effective:

  1. Trying to solve some arbitrary problem that matters to me (or a client) and starting to explore the space of knowledge from that angle.
  2. Indulging in so-called theory seemingly total unrelated to any practical problem to be solved.

Mode 2 was what I tried to convey in my post about the positive effects of reading theoretical physics textbooks in the morning. The same goes for cryptography.

I neither need advanced theoretical physics when doing calculations for heat pump systems, nor do I need the underlying math and computer science when tweaking digital certificates. When I close the theory books, I am in mode 1.

In the last weeks that mode 1 made me follow a rather steep learning curve with respect to database servers and SQL scripts. I am sure I have made any possible stupid mistake when exploring all the options. I successfully killed performance by too much nested sub-queries and it took me some time to recognize that the referral to the row before is not as straight-forward as in a spreadsheet program. One could argue that a class on database programming might have been more effective here, and I cannot prove otherwise. But most important for me was: I finally achieved what I wanted and it was pure joy all the way. I am a happy dilettante perhaps.

I might read a theoretical book on data structures and algorithms someday and let it merge with my DIY tinkering experience in my subconsciousness – as this how I think those two modes work together.

As for class-room learning and training, or generally learning with or from others, I like those ways best that cater to my two modes:

I believe that highly theoretical subjects are suited best for traditional class-room settings. You cannot google the foundations of some discipline as such foundations are not a collection of facts (each of them to be googled) but a network of interweaving concepts – you have to work with some textbook or learn from somebody who lays out that network before you in a way that allows for grasping the structure – the big picture and the details. This type of initial training also prepares you for future theoretical self-study. I still praise lectures in theoretical physics and math I attended 25 years ago to the skies.

And then there is the lecturer speaking to mode 2: The seasoned expert who talks ‘noted from the field’. The most enjoyable lecture in my degree completed last year was a geothermal energy class – given by a university professor who was also the owner of an engineering consultancy doing such projects. He introduced the theory in passing but he talked about the pitfalls that you would not expect from learning about best practices and standards.

I look back on my formal education(s) with delight as most of the lectures, labs, or projects were appealing to either mode 1 or mode 2. In contrast to most colleagues I loved the math-y theory. In projects on the other hand I had ample freedom to play with stuff – devices, software, technology – and to hone practical skills, fortunately without much supervision. In retrospect, the universities’ most important role with respect to the latter was to provide the infrastructure. By infrastructure I mean expensive equipment – such as the pulsed UV lasers I once played with, or contacts to external ‘clients’ that you would not have had a chance to get in touch otherwise. Two years ago I did the simulations part of a students’ group project, which was ‘ordered’ by the operator of a wind farm. I brought the programming skills to the table – as this was not an IT degree program –  but I was able to apply them to a new context and learn about the details of wind power.

In IT security I have always enjoyed the informal exchange of stories from the trenches with other experienced professionals – this includes participation in related forums. Besides it fosters the community spirit, and there is no need to do content-less ‘networking’ of any other sort. I have just a few days of formal education in IT.

But I believe that your mileage may vary. I applied my preferences to my teaching, that is: explaining theory in – probably too much – depth and then jumping onto any odd question asked by somebody and trying something out immediately. I was literally oscillating between the flipchart and the computer with my virtual machines – I had been compared to a particle in quantum mechanics whose exact location is unknown because of that. I am hardly able to keep to my own agenda even if I had been given any freedom whatsoever to design a lecture or training and to write every slide from scratch. And I look back in horror on delivering trainings (as an employed consultant) based on standardized slides not to be changed. I think I was not the best teacher for students and clients who expected well organized trainings – but I know that experts enjoyed our jam sessions formerly called workshops.

When I embarked on another degree program myself three years ago, I stopped doing any formal teaching myself – before I had given a lecture on Public Key Infrastructure for some years, in a master’s degree program in IT security. Having completed my degree in renewable energy last year I figured that I was done now with any formal learning. So far, I feel that I don’t miss out on anything, and I stay away from related job offerings – even if ‘prestigious’.

In summary, I believe in a combination of pure, hard theory, not to be watered down, and not necessarily to be made more playful – combined with learning most intuitively and in an unguided fashion from other masters of the field and from your own experiments. This is playful no matter how often you bang your head against the wall when trying to solve a puzzle.

Physics book from 1895

A physics book written in 1895, a farewell present by former colleagues in IT – one the greatest gifts I ever got. My subconsciousness demands this is the best way to illustrate this post. I have written a German post on this book which will most likely never be translated as the essence of this post are quotes showing the peculiar use of the German language which strikes the modern reader quite odd.

Blog Cleanup – Raking the Virtual Zen Garden Again

I am proud owner of a full season of Monk on DVD, and as a child nobody ever had to tell me to tidy up my room. I indulged not only in cleaning my Lego(*) world with a fine paint brush but I rather re-organized all my belongings in Feng-Shui-meets-OCD-style quite often.
(*) Lego is a registered trademark… etc.

As a consequence I have raked my virtual Zen gardens often, too.

Zen Garden (Wikimedia)Now I have nearly replaced all the gravel in this Zen garden.

It’s not that I don’t re-tag and re-categorize often, making extensive use of WordPress’ Tags to Categories Converter that keeps the old links intact. But tags and categories did not do it for me. I have filtered my posts using those in order to group them, e.g. for sending this collection of “relevant links” to somebody else.

It is probably a shortcoming of this particular WordPress theme but other than using the search function it is not possible to create a concise list of posts, consisting just of headlines and the first few lines.

So I tried to create that views I wanted in the old way: I have now compiled so-called summary pages, listing all blog postings in a certain “main category”. I have just excluded reblogs. Any other article shows up at (at least) one of these new pages linked in the main menu.

As a consequence – as the menu bar now really, absolutely, positively says it all – I was able to shorten my extensive tagline which is now much shorter than the blog title.

I have absolutely enjoyed this task – as Zen as it can get.

All my web sites I have ever run are also experiments in exploring the interplay of structure and content. I believe it is nearly impossible to set up proper “categories” upfront so that you can just assign all posts you ever write to them later. Only bureaucrats believe the world works this way. I have some experience with so-called top-down web projects that end up in epic tombs of a structure nobody is ever bringing to life with “content” – because it is too rigid.

But some limitations may not be that bad after all: Boundaries force you to get creative at a new level to hack them and work around. In a twisted sense I love my personal websites’ schema that forces me to attach one main category to every article. It is as much fun as subverting a well-meant survey or questionnaire by using the fields in ways probably not expected by the designer.

Another interesting effect I noted again and again is that I enjoy commenting on my own posts, including self-parody. I find it most natural to reflect on old postings by adding a one-liner some months later. On my other sites I take self-reference to bizarre levels and comment on my old German posts in English or commented on comments on comments etc.

In summary, I think I (we?) write and blog in order to remember or discover who we are, were, or want to become. [This is the sort of clichéd statement I will for sure ridicule in a later meta-comment of mine.]

But to make this work – at least for me – I need to have a look at the old stuff from time to time, and I have to put old images into a new frame, or I need to attach virtual post-its that put everything in a new perspective.

Zen Garden (Wikimedia)