All Postings (95)

2017

Best of 2017

Working Remotely

Computer Science and IT

Taking stock! Physics

Subversive? Physics?

My Philosophy!

Scripts Beget Scripts

2016

Theoretical Physics. A Hobby.

Self-Referential Poetry

Silent Online Writing

'Are You Still Doing PKI?'

My Philosophy (?)

Impact of physics on my life

Not much happened in 2015

2015

Unspeakable

Self-Poetry

Farewell Posting ...

Hacking away...

Web Project - Status

We Interrupt ...

Poetry from Poetry

PKI-Status-Update

Life and Work

Definition: 'Subversive'

2014 in Books

Physics Postings

Engineering Postings

True Expert

2014

2014 - a Good Year

Physics or Engineering?

Engineering Links

What Is Art?

Bio

PKI FAQ

Google's Poetic Talents

Certificates and Heat Pumps

Nr. 5: A Mind-Altering Experience

Technet postings

WOP!

Pink Spaceship

radices = Roots!

IT Postings

Web Projects

Life, the Universe, and Everything

Uh-oh, No Posting in March

PKI Resources

PKI Issues

Subversive Work

Spam Poetry

A Career 'in Science'

Writing

On the Shoulders of Subversive Giants

Search Term Poetry

Facebook Art

2013 in Books

2013

Explain, Evaluate, Utilize

Technology

About Life-Form Elke Stangl

elkement and This Site

No. 3: Internet Apocalypso

Retrospection

Newsletter Resurrection

2012

For Free

Subversive Yearly Report

Is My Life a Cliché?

Indulging in Cliché

Torture Turning Trivia

Intermittent Netizen

Knowledge Worker...

Profile

Physics on the Fringe

Graduation Speech

The Element is Back!

Offline

Physics Links

2011

Not Funny

Calendar and Magic

Expert

In Need of a Deflector

About to Change

A Nerd's Awakening

For the Sake of Knowledge

2008

Profession Or True Calling?

No. 2: On Self-Reference

I Have No Clue About Art

Netizen

2007

The End

No. 1: On Subversion at Large

2005

Emergency Exit

Modern Networker

2004

The Scary Part

Exploring the Work Space

2003

Instead of a CV

Favorite Books

2002

Elke was here

Archive of postings for 2016, listed in descending order by creation date. All Postings shown.

I have just published a similar, but conciser article on my Wordpress blog. As usual, I try to provide useful information over there, where I just follow my stream of consciousness here.

I have written about all things physics for a long time - mainly on my blog, since 2012 – but I have never been quite satisfied with the result: Too boring for experts, not exciting and popular science-y enough for the 'educated public'. I think the reason was my hidden agenda, an agenda not even obvious to myself.

I wrote about phenomena and subfields I had just immersed myself and (re-)learned about, either because this was very remote from what kind of physics I use on a daily basis, or just because I was concerned with some aspect of it but wanted to complement that with 'more theory' for the fun of it.

In spite of that, I tried to keep a style that somewhat resembles your typical 'science communications', but that was most likely to no avail. Re-reading my old blog posting I don't read so much about 'the physics' as about my own learning process. Or I remember what I actually wanted to write about, but did not – in order to violate the pop-sci agenda - so the result was something in between a learner's notes and sketches of ideas for popular presentations. For example, I (re-)learned Quantum Field Theory after all the news about the Higgs particle and LHC. Both my experimental and theoretical background was in condensed matter physics, so it really took me a while to map what I learned about so-called Second Quantization and many body systems (described in a non-relativistic way) onto your typical QFT introduction that started with Noether's Theorem and Lorentz transformations. Now in order to drive that point home (in a blog posting), to explain what was so interesting for me, I would have had to introduce all those concepts to a lay audience which I considered futile. Or I was just too lazy to learn more LaTex or too hesitant to use equations at all. I noticed, I got on all sorts of tangents when I tried to run a series on QFT – I did exactly what I did not like myself about popular texts on theoretical physics: Pontificate on more or less palpable metaphors about fields and waves, but not being able to really explain anything above a certain threshold of abstractness.

I gave up on my series before I could 'explain' what interested me most: How forces translate into the exchange of virtual particles and how I actually knew about the 'Higgs field giving particles mass' without knowing any more: I had learned about Andersen's mechanism in solid state physics, and Ginzburg-Landau theory of superconductivity. Perhaps that would have been a great example of symmetry breaking and that infamous sombrero hat potential typically used in pop-sci articles about the Higgs field?

I absolutely know that this may sound totally opaque – which is the reason why I only write about it here, on my website in that forgotten corner of the web, rather than trying to turn this into a blog post. Here, I follow my stream of consciousness and don't bother anybody on social media with it. There, I try to be somewhat entertaining and useful.

But even here, I try to write about something that somebody somewhere might be able to relate to, and here 'the internet' comes to rescue: For better or for worse, no matter how seemingly unique, special, and eclectic your hobbies and professional specializations, are – there is somebody somewhere on the net who indulges in the same combination of stuff. So, yes: It seems there is a growing community of hobbyist physics enthusiasts who feel the same and who 'practice' physics in the same way: Professionals with a STEM background who seriously learn about physics in their spare time, like R;&D managers writing textbooks about undergraduate physics or introductions about Quantum Field Theory. Like the IT server admin or the management consulting who write blog posts about what they have (re-)learned in their sparse spare time. Like the retired IT specialists who returns to what they originally studied – physics. Like me, who has an education mainly in applied condensed matter physics and who works as a consulting engineer and IT consultant.

From a down-to-earth perspective, this hobby can be worthwhile and useful: I noticed that it sharpens the mind, even if I don't use that physics and math directly on a daily basis. It's this effect that is makes the hackneyed saying about the 'analytical skills' of physics majors true. However, there is a caveat: Yes, physicists may be good at any corporate job, but I think not to lose you 'analytical edge' you need to practice the skills that originally shaped your mind. I don't know about research in psychology, so this is just my personal anecdotal experience. Living the corporate, inbox- and interrupt-driven work-style and having your mind scattered and distracted my social media does not help. There was a time in my life when I got up at 4:00 AM every day to re-learn physics, starting with Feynman's Physics Lectures. Surprisingly, that investment was well spent. I felt, my IT security concepts become crisper, more concise, and better – and it took me less time to compile them; So the ROI was great.

What triggered this article is my prime example of useful mathematical: While I had some background in QFT there was one subfield in physics I had missed completely: the theory called 'most beautiful', even by sober authors Landau and Lifshitz – the theory of General Relativity (GR). I had specialized in solid state physics, lasers, optics, and high-temperature superconductors, and GR was not a mandatory subject.

But I wanted at least to understand a bit about current research and those issues with not being able to unify quantum (field) theory and relativity. And I can relate to poor consumers of my feeble attempts at pop-sci physics: When I read popular physics books, I enjoy them as long as I have some math background - although I feel sometimes flowery metaphors make it more difficult to recognize something you actually know in terms of math. But when you would have to use new mathematical concepts you cannot understand the metaphors at all. Digression: So it baffles me when people like articles about Black Hole, the universe, and curved spaces but complain about not perfectly comprehensible explanations of more mundane physics and engineering. I believe the reason is that you 'need not' understand worm-holes etc.; so can just relax and scroll through the story, much like watching an illogical science-fiction movie. But mechanical engineering and simple thermodynamics feels like you 'should know it' and 'try a bit harder to understand it', and so it brings back memories of school and tests.

But as I said, there might be small community of people who genuinely want to learn, despite – or because of!! – the so-called hard aspects: Going through mathematical derivations again and again, and banging your head against the wall, until suddenly you understand. Which is a reward in itself, a feeling that's hard to share, and could and should not be shared anyway – in an act of subversive protest against our culture of craving for attention and 'likes'.

So for this community I'd like to share the resources I have picked for learning General Relativity: A set of free resources, each one complete and much more than just 'lecture notes'. Each of them also represents a different philosophy and pedagogical style, and I believe physics is learned best by using such a diverse set of resources.

One can debate endlessly, if and how to introduce the mathematical foundations used in some subfield in theoretical physics. As a physics major, you learn analysis and linear algebra before tackling its applications in physics and/or some mathematical tools are introduced as you go (Hello, Delta function!). I think it does not make such a difference in relation to the first courses in theoretical physics, e.g. learning about vector analysis before or in parallel to solving Maxwell's equations.

I feel it is more difficult the more advanced the math and the physics get, as you have to keep a lot of seemingly abstract concepts in mind, before you finally are presented with what 'you actually use that'. But maybe it is just me: Different presentations of GR seem 'more different to me' than different presentations of special relativity and electromagnetism.

In GR you can insist on presenting a purely mathematical and rigorous introduction of mathematical foundations first – your goal being to erase all false allusions and misguided 'intuitive' mental connections. Thinking about vectors in a 3D 'engineering math' way might harm your learning about GR just as too creative science writing might put false metaphors in your mind.

On the other hand, you could start from our flat space (our flat spacetime) and try to add new concepts bit by bit, for example trying to point out what curvature in 4D spacetime means for curvature in the associated 3D space, and what we might be able to measure.

Some authors use a mixed approach: They starting with a motivational chapter on experiments, photons in an elevator, and co-ordinate transformations in special relativity … and then they leave all that for a while to introduce differential geometry axiomatically … until they are back to apply this something tangible … until more mathematical concepts are again needed.

Sean Carroll does the latter in his Lecture Notes on General Relativity, that are actually much more than notes. He also published a brief No-Nonsense Introduction to GR that serves as a high-level overview, and he manages to keep to his signature conversational tone that makes his writings to enjoyable. Perhaps – if this was the only literature used – the mixed presentation plus digressions into special topics and current questions in physics would be a bit confusing.

But I was still searching for video lectures to complement any written text. A few years ago, I have not found any comprehensive self-contained course, but in 2015 this series of lectures was published, recordings from an event called the Heraeus Winter School on Gravity and Light 2015 – marking the 100th anniversary of Einstein's publication of GR. A nostalgic factoid I found most intriguing: The central lecture of the course by Frederic P. Schuller was given in the very lecture hall at my Alma Mater (Johannes Kepler University of Linz in Austria – JKU) that I received my education in Theoretical Physics, by Heisenberg's last graduate student Wilhelm Macke. Tutorial sheets and video recordings of tutorial sessions can be found on the conference website.

Schuller focuses on the math first, and this was really enlightening and helpful after I used other resources based on mixed intuitive physics and math. The Youtube channel of the event also has recordings of Tutorial sessions, and I found some versions of brief lecture notes. I think this is a must – and unfortunately often overlooked or downplayed in the world of free 'MOOCs'- In order to learn math really, you need to do problems and you absolutely have to walk through every single step of every derivation. It is tempting to just skip the boring proof in a text (that you thought you understood), and it is even more deceptive to watch science videos and believe you understood something. So thanks a lot to my former university to make this course available to the public.

But I was still curious if you can do without manifolds and stuff – without cheating – and I think I found the master of the genre. And again it is a signal from the past (my past): I had looked things up in Landau/Lifshitz Course of Theoretical Physics when I worked at the university. But as the 10 volumes were quite expensive I never bothered to purchase them later. Recently I jumped with glee: Due to whatever quirk in copyright law, the Internet Archive made 9 of 10 volumes available, and I downloaded them all. Browsing through table of contents I noticed that GR was actually explained in volume 2, The Classical Theory of Fields. I am totally smitten by their style, too: Elegant, terse, detached. Much like Dirac's Principles of Quantum Mechanics. And I don't agree with those who say that the explanations are too terse: Landau and Lifshitz try to stay to tangible physics, and they use math in an ingenious way, mathematicians might call it sloppy (like: 'dividing' by differentials to yield a derivative). For that reason, one should consult other resources as well, but I think LL's GR is self-contained.

These books and videos will keep with busy for a while. I also try to interlace it with a bit of QFT again, e.g. by reading Dirac's version of it. My goal for next year is to complete first courses on GR, recapitulate what bit of QFT I learned in 2013/14, and then tackle an actual former specialty again: Re-learning about theories of superconductivity, with an emphasis about how these methods are also used in particle physics.

It might be dangerous thing to announce such grand plans on the web. But next year might be a busy one business-wise, and need to braze myself accordingly.

Artist's concept of general relativity experiment. (Public domain - NASA - Wikimedia)

It's this time of the year ...

Self-Referential Poetry, Edition 2016

(elkement. Last changed: 2016-10-25. Created: 2016-10-24. Tags: Google, Flarf, Poem, Poetry, Self-Referential, Web, Weird, Writing. German Version.)

Time to poetry-size articles on this website again! As usual, I google for this site - using site:elkement.subversiv.at/en - and take one continuous, unedited snippet from each of the linked pages. Search results must be processed in the order Google shows them, and they must not be re-arranged later.

 

the Existence of the Matrix AKA Corporate World

I had literally been asked
Who will take care of my dear website in 200 years?

run off to the restrooms at a party
As all stressed managers and other pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago

Algorithms loom large
look more like a placeholder

I am trying to learn the terminology
Off-the-wall geek humor versus existential philosophical questions

But I was penalized for all this.
Don't think about it too long!

While I gravitated against quantum theory
what I had had in mind but never did
not igniting my entrepreneurial spirits yet

back-to-the-roots stuff will be migrated
I want to challenge my own ideas
in a pang of cheeky self-assurance

a grown-up physicist's biggest ethical dilemma
what I never wanted to know
one more telltale sign of the Siren Server (© Jaron Lanier) resisting subversion by poetry

Global corporations have their brand names tested for potentially unwanted connotations
Especially if they are appealing to your vanity

The proof by contradiction
Our village has changed its zip code
to enter a more detached state of mind

You can turn into your own cliché
I'll pontificate about anything nonetheless.
So after all - it was all worth it.

Each phrase becomes a line in this 'poem'
it is no good rationalizing too much

a small-talk question, innocent and harmless.
Physics or Engineering?

I suck at keeping to my own agenda
Do we need a new attempt?
books trigger some random thougths of mine

you don't know how the story will unfold

I start a radical experiment: Opening my blog's editor, and typing what I think right now  - however, planning to never publish it to WordPress.

Contrary to what seems to motivate many freshly minted bloggers, and netizens inhabiting social web worlds in general, feedback and interaction had not been my primary goal. The appeal of writing 'in public' is that on principle somebody could read what you wrote, that the internet never forgets, and that you have to hold yourself accountable to what you wrote. Have to endure reading what you wrote when you were a different being.

The joy of my early web projects was also their subversive, semi-secret, and pseudonymous nature. Online spaces were wild places, blank sheets of paper, laid before me to hone my ideas.

There is another motivation for writing online, and this is as unrelated as possible from the philosophical approach: I enjoy crafting technical arguments, documentation of technical projects, 'science writing' because I want to force myself to turn my thinking into a consistent linear thread. I want to challenge my own ideas, find the loop holes in my own arguments. I know that my blog articles may be either boring or opaque or both unless the reader has explicitly searched for content like that. But actually the latter audience is who I am perhaps writing for: I have found so much useful tech / science stuff online, for free and in sublime quality, for my professional work, my own education, my pleasure of reading - and I do not want to remain on the receiving end of this communication only.

My second motivation is tied to a minimum level of 'feedback' - page views by fellow geeks - only seems to work for my articles written on our German blog: We only blog about two times a month now, but despite the smaller theoretical audience of German speaking readers the other blog has much more views, and views are still increasing. My English blog has fallen in oblivion again after I blog only twice a month and/or after I focussed more and more on energy, heat pumps, and down-to-earth engineering and physics of everyday life.

These are my personal recent top articles in the Physics / History of Science category so far:

As for Engineering / providing how-to's and explanations for DIYers, I like those: And this is where Physics and Engineering meet, in a way I truly enjoy: When I blogged about quantum theory, basic and un-original as my articles might have been, my blog was 'viral' in comparison to that.

But ironically, a silent blog brings me closer to my other goal: Using the silent online space to write just for me, holding myself as accountable as possible though. Last year I had overhauled this / these website(s) here, and it turned more into a blog. Now I finally know what the purpose of having effectively two blog(-like) sites are:

Here, I give myself permission for introspection and self-centered updates. I don't share subversiv.at links anywhere on social media. If somebody wants to reads this, he or she really has to be determined and go to the 20th page of Google search results. There is no interaction. Of course this is also a consequence of my minimal web programming, but feedback can be blessing and curse. You (or maybe only: I) tend to write more about what 'people have liked before', or at least you feel a little bit guilty if you expose your loyal readers to something unusual - which turns each new post into a challenge, one you'd like to dodge sometimes. My writing self is quite 'authentic' here, in modern parlance.

But I don't want to appear fake on my real blog, the one that has much more content that this page, much more carefully crafted, and I don't want my blog to die. My solution has been - since a few months, I am only post-rationalizing now - to stay away from the autobiographical, from opinions, from philosophical, from big ideas ... and to focus on hard things. The stuff I do really know. I think The Internet would be a better place, if people would only post or comment if they 1) had through education on the subject, 2) practical experience with it, and 3) skin in the game - being personally exposed to risks and consequences arising from putting their opinions into practice. (In reverse order.)

So on my blog I just try to be useful (hopefully) to some tech and science enthusiasts, and perhaps a bit entertaining. If I will ever find a more useful 'spin' to what I have written here now, I might actually turn it into a blog article, like: What I learned from having two different websites. Why I stay away from opinion on the web. What I learned from tech / science blogging.

But for now this posting here will just remain some open-ended collection, snippets of my stream of consciousness, and I am copying these lines to a new 'post' at this silent website here and deleting the draft for a blog post.

Since 2012 I have published PKI status updates here, trying to answer the question 'Do you still do PKI?' (or IT). I have re-edited them often, and my responses were erratic - I was in a Schrödinger-cat-like superposition state of different professional identities.

Now and then I still get these questions. Can I answer it finally? I am still in a superposition state - I don't expect the wave-function to break down any time soon. I enjoy this state! But my answer to IT-related requests is most often no.

So yes, I am still 'working with IT' and 'with IT security' professionally. Not necessarily 'in IT'.

I am supporting a few long-term clients with their Windows PKI deployments and related X.509 certificate issues (after having done that for more than 10 years exclusively). Those clients that aren't scared off by my other activities, and clients I had always worked with informally and cordially. But I don't have any strong ties with specific PKI software vendors anymore, and I don't know about latest bugs and issues. So I don't present myself as a Windows PKI consultant to prospects, and I decline especially requests by IT security partner companies who are looking for a consultant to pitch or staff their projects. I am also not interested in replying to Request for Proposals for PKI or identity management and 'offering a solution', competing with other consultants and especially with other companies that have full time stuff doing business development (I hardly did this in my PKI-only time). I am not developing software anymore that might turn into an 'enterprise solution'.

Today I am working 'with IT' more than 'in IT' in the sense that I returned where I came from, as an applied physicist who was initially drawn into IT, armed only with experience in programming software for controlling experimental setups and analyzing my data: I call myself the 'theoretical department' of our small engineering consultancy - I am developing software for handling Big Monitoring Data. I am also tinkering with measurement technology, like connecting a Raspberry Pi to a heat pump's internal CAN bus.

Security is important of course: I have fun with awkward certificates on embedded devices, I sniff and reverse engineer protocols, and I could say I am working with the things in the Internet of Things. But I am not doing large-scale device PKIs or advising the IT departments of major engineering companies: My clients are geeky home owners, and we (the two of us) are planning and implementing our special heat pump system for them. An important part of such projects is monitoring and control.

So every time I feel that somebody is searching for 'a PKI consultant' I am the wrong person. But if somebody stumbles upon my CV or hears my story at full length - and absolutely wants to hire me just because of the combination of this - I might say yes.

But it is no good rationalizing too much: Finally it is a matter of gut feeling; I am spoilt or damaged by our engineering business. Our heat pump clients typically find our blog first - which has been mistaken for a private fun blog by friends. Prospects are either 'deflected' by the blog (and we never hear from them), or they contact us because of the blog's weird style. Having the same sense of humor is the single best pre-requisite for a great collaboration. So whenever I get any other project request, not mediated by a weird website, I try to apply the same reasoning. Years ago I a colleague I had not met before greeted me in the formal kick-off meeting, in front of all others, with: You are the Subversive Element, aren't you? (Alluding to my Alter Ego on subversiv.at). That's about the spirit I am looking for.

My Philosophy (?)

(elkement. Last changed: 2016-05-02. Created: 2016-05-01. Tags: Learning, Life, Looking Back, Meaning, Philosophy, Profession, Technology, Work. German Version.)

Once upon a time this category was intended to comprise what I had learned about philosophy. I had even aspired to study philosophy. Then came the dawn of the web and of unconventional philosophers of web culture.
I had also followed common wisdom, and my first FrontPage-generated business website had a section called Philosophy.

What's left of that, or what has been my conclusion?

I believe - in a pang of cheeky self-assurance - that I ought to have my own philosophy. Experience, business and otherwise, should be good for something. My philosophy does not focus on the grand questions of life. I might have had an argument with my former self, the idealistic student of science who aspired to change the world as a physicist, a profession I pictured as a cross-over of hands-on MacGyver theorist-philosopher-mathematician, ad-hoc-inventing smart tools whole mulling upon deep insights on universe and everything.

The unexciting truth is that my personal philosophy is explained best by summing up the different roles I have ever seen myself to take on, no matter what my job title was. None of them was about making profound changes to the world or being any sort of thought leader.

1) The Reverse Engineer

I have been told that I dismantled (tech) stuff already at a time I have no conscious memory of. I wanted to know how things worked, and I found a way to get there. Some of these activities morphed into a career later, the obvious one having been IT Security - the stereotype field for lone maverick nerdswho reverse engineer stuff. Even as a white hat hacker and so-called security consultant you have to indulge in the relentless black hacker's mindset - or you become a security bureaucrat, ticking off checklists and following rules. (Which dies not mean you should not know the rules).
But I could as well have turned into a tax advisor or lawyer, given my pleasure in finding out how such systems work.

I disagree with Keep To Your Core Skills, and I have often used 'wasted my precious time' by 'not delegating'. I hope or believe - delusionally - that 'actually' everybody has this pleasure of finding things out ((c) Richard Feynman). I am wary of marketing (tech) stuff to allegedly dumb or stressed out end-users who don't want to understand anything about underlying technology. Perhaps I am talking to less than 10% of people, but after all this is about my personal credo.

2) The Mediator

One of my first ever fantasies as a child that came close to something like a career was being kind of a negotiator or diplomat. I am not kidding: I dreamt about settling peace treaties between Mickey Mouse and his sinister opponents in his cartoon world.
This has impacted any of my jobs, but it finally surfaced expicitly when a client booked me 'for another mediation', which was in fact the follow-up of a very technical meeting.

I had considered yet another training or degree, in coaching, psychology, or the like. However, I am glad that I never left technology for good (see 1). There is a paradox: People want such 'tech project psychology' services. However, they will not buy it if labelled as such yet happily use them if they come as a hidden by-product of technical consulting.

3) The Communicator

Maybe principles 1) and 2) can only co-exist if you bridge them with a lot of talking. During most of my career 'teaching', 'training', or 'lecturing' had been part of my official duties or a side-project done in moon-lighting fachion. I stopped teaching when I became a moonlightung student again. I have also realized that I am not cut out for over well managed, structured, quality-assured educational systems. I suck at keeping to my own agenda, and I beg for being carried away by hard off-script questions.
I was not the best class-room teacher, but I think I was good at informal, jam-session-style train-the-experts sessions.

Projects I remember most fondly were those where clients were not only interested in The Tech Guy Who Will Fix Everything but also in my pontifiating on fundamentals, even if that was not required to get the job done. But as I said above (1) - I believe it's always worth it.

4) The Organizer and Automator

When I was a child, I was not called upon to tidy up my room: Not only was I self-motivation to clean it - Mr.Monk-style - but I rather re-organized my cabinets quite frequently. It was Feng Shui of Decluttering meeting obsession with structure, and it has not changed to this day.

I have extended these principles to the virtual world as soon as I had 'data'. Writing a tool, script, program to automate something is second nature. Some sort of software development has always been part of my jobs - just as teaching was, but I found out only recently that I like data analysis and programming much more.

Proficiency with interpreting and manipulating data, and with using or fixing software is part of our culture and should be trained and valued just as other basic technologies and skills. And of course I believe that we, each of us, really needs them! But perhaps it is just my bad luck or my high standards... Every time I just to use and application or service as a normal end-user I end up with low-level troubleshooting.

 

I am aware of the picture of the obsessed nerd that I have painted here. I don't underestimate subtleties and human nature though. But nowadays soft skills are so often praised to the skies and people with 'big ideas', rather than nitpicking detailed persons, so as Subversive Element the contrarian stance comes natural to me. Even the most empathic coach who tells burnt out IT guys not ot overdo perferctiomism will be very happy if a neuro-surgeon or airplane engineer are totally obsessed with flawless technology.

I renamed my blog elkement.wordpress.com last November:

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

became

elkemental Force

The original tagline was

Physics versus engineering
off-the-wall geek humor versus existential questions
IT versus the real thing
corporate world's strangeness versus small business entrepreneur's microcosmos, knowledge worker's connectedness
versus striving for independence.

until it became

I mean it

and finally turned into

Research Notes on Energy, Software, Life, the Universe, and Everything

This means that my blog elkement.wordpress.com has found its purpose, and I am able to distinguish blogging better from publishing to this website elkement.subversiv.at. My actual research and 'science writing' is featured on my blog. Over there I am using wordpress.com features I have no desire for developing them myself for - and this website will remain my 100% home-grown self-developed pseudo-blog with a very limited feature set and no interactivity. The blog has LaTex support and allows me to present galleries of technical figures and diagrams.

These recent blog articles showcase what elkemental Force has been and is covering now (the end of a journey that started already two years ago - when heat pumps and thermodynamics replaced quantum physics):

Rowboats, Laser Pulses, and Heat Energy (Boring Title: Dimensional Analysis)
How Does It Work? (The Heat Pump System, That Is)
Half a Year of Solar Power and Smart Metering

My personal website, on the other hand, should be just this: A more self-indulgent site that provides status updates, meta-information and About-Me-style summaries. Because of that I will keep not sharing articles here to any social network.

And so yes: The hands-on engineering, physics, math and data analysis will be done over there on the blog. But there really are personal meta-thoughts on physics - so I don't have to change categories here.

(Theoretical) Physics and Me

Over the Christmas holidays I have been nearly offline from social media. I used the internet as I believe it was intended for me: To learn about something in depth and not necessarily sharing my insights or my 'progress'. I indulged in theoretical physics lectures just for the joys of it. I can rationalize: Yes, a bit of mathy gymnastics also serves me well when I deal with more mundane physics as a professional - such as toying with the heat transport equation.

But the real reason is unrelated to work: Theoretical physics and mathematical modelling of a small part of a complex world gives me the pleasure - and/or the illusion - of being able to understand and solve, well, something. Whenever I had been very stressed out in the past, close to burn-out, I got up even earlier - as 4:00 AM sometimes - to plow through Feynman's Physics Lectures or my favorite German volumes of theoretical physics by my late professor, W. Macke.

Not only did it help me to focus onto abstract details of a logical clear universe and to enter a more detached state of mind, but amazingly it also made me work more efficiently and focused later - on whatever technical challenge I had to solve. In those days, I was mainly concerned with Public Key Infrastructure, networking security, and applied cryptography.

With hindsight - and hopefully not too much hindsight bias - I feel that a rigorous training in a mathy subject boosts your results in any endeavor that needs an analytical approach. Perhaps only your physics training makes your realize that you need a more analytical approach at all, in addition to soft skills, practice, and familiarity with culture in certain industry sectors. I am thinking about project management, for example.

I believe that in any 'STEM' job, e.g. in IT, it is soothing to re-learn fundamentals often. One should know more than seems necessary about 'theory', before or in addition to knowing how to google, where to look up things, or whom of your tech buddies to call. Success in technical troubleshooting always gave me most contentment when I was doing it in my head mainly - like walking through a networking protocol the way it was designed, comparing that to messing reality, and uttering an educated guess about the root cause of an issue which was finally correct.

Whenever I had been blogging about a field of physics not related to my work - like quantum field theory - it was these mental connections I had in mind. I was trying to convey the joys of physics, but my main focus was different from most science writers' ones, so I think my writing was not engaging enough for the interested lay audience and sometimes oblique owing to too much references to math (whereas it was very basic for experts, of course).

My science writing is often a covert and feeble attempt to encourage others to tackle the real thing, that is the fundamentals and the math, and then to feel the same effects. I have seen that more books seem to have been released recently that try to bridge this gap between classical science writing (following the mantra of: Every formula will half readers) and text books.

I want to be part of that movement.

The most existing things, in no particular order:

Infrastructure updates - 'real'

Solar panels, before installation

Infrastructure updates - 'virtual'

  • We migrated three bank accounts, and I learned what I never wanted to know about different ways to setup debit orders. My favorite: an anonymous form on the vendor's website. Security = knowing your client account
  • Our village has changed its zip code. I learned what I never wanted to know about how organizations store addresses. Goodie: Opening 'support tickets' turned interactions with big platforms into something human.

Work and Life

Edible wild vegetables from the meadow in the garden

Personal website of Elke Stangl, Zagersdorf, Austria, c/o punktwissen.
elkement [at] subversiv [dot] at. Contact