I did not have ambitions 2017. It should have been a year of taking stock - and it was, in a good way.
- I time-travelled and re-lived some history of software engineering, and finally learned basics of computer science. This was philosophical delight, but also useful and necessary: I was able to boost the performance of my simulations (above a level of what was, maybe, embarrassingly slow).
- I tinkered a lot with numerical simulations of our heat pump system. Main thing I learned: The more modern the building, the more you'd need to simulate humans' behavior, rather than physics or control logic.
- Reverse engineering and troubleshooting is what finally connects all the fields of science and engineering I love: Troubleshooting, ferreting out hidden causes and effects in hydraulics feel the same as sniffing and debugging software and networking protocols.
- Theoretical physics reading: I returned to classical thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; I find it fascinating and beautiful in its own right, even if only at the pre-1960s level. I took stock of my writing on heat transport - and I am happy I can actually really use physics on a daily basis, in down-to-earth engineering projects.
- I was thinking about automation, standardization, and big social media platforms. I struggled with this blog post about the future of small business for a long time, but optimism won. I might frame this even more positively today: There is a place for artisanal service delivery despite or because of Everything Being Offered As A Service by Omniscient Data Krakens.
- My blog turned 5 in spring, and I allowed myself to return to a more philosophical blogging style (briefly). Otherwise, I finally and subconsciously made the elkement.blog my main resources of technical content - or at least content related to my professional domain, and content edited for clarity and entertainment. Whereas on elkement.subversiv.at I let my stream of consciousness flow. It seems that the pattern that finally emerges is: elkement.blog = elkement's tech / science magazine and platform for personal research news, with an ever growing focus on fields I have training in and daily practical exposure to. elkement.subversiv.at gravitates against the same focus, but I allow myself to focus on my personal perspective only. So here you find 'what I am doing with [insert: heat pumps, security,...]', over there you find the useful content as such.
- Tomato harvest was great. I tried to grow late varieties - like Ox Heart - directly outside, and it worked.
- Dinosaur Kale tastes good. And it is able to recover from a at attack of a bug that targets kale (and radishes' seed capsules). Don't try to keep seeds of radishes in the land of canola.
This website is an old-school non-interactive site. My blog technically isn't, but looks like one now, for the lack of visible comments. However, messages have reached over covert 1:1 channels, so I do now that there is a small but sincerely interested group of readers. I thank you all for reading my stuff!
On science and technology
- I believe there is often a simpler, a more low-tech solution to a problem technology is thrown on.
- I sometimes call myself a geek but I don't understand this 'geek' movement of cheering science and technology - without any desire to learn any of the details.
- I prefer to work on seemingly mundane problems that somebody really wants me to solve right now.
- This explains why I discarded inquiries to participate in and profit from governmentally funded research projects.
- Yet, I often find a universe of intriguing puzzles when mulling upon a 'simple' problem.
- Learning about theoretical physics has a mind purging effect: It helps, no matter if I ever need the math directly.
On business and life
- If a business relationship does not work without a written contract, it does also not work well with one.
- Don't follow any advice by strategists and experts, especially if their primary role is to act as consultants and not as doers.
- If somebody has an opinion on something, I judge them on Skin in the Game, hands-on experience, and education - in that order. I keep this in mind when voicing my own opinions.
- I don't pay for leads - I endorse other for free, and I am endorsed for free. Not necessarily on a 1:1 basis.
On the internet
- The greatest internet-powered innovation in the workplace I have encountered is to work remotely.
- I am grateful that I started writing online before there were Likes and Comments. The point of writing online is to hold yourself accountable because others could read this on principle, not because you need feedback.
- The internet sharing paradox: The more information you share for free, the more requests for free information you get. Learning to say No is a key skill.
- No matter how eclectic you think your combination of specialties is - you will find people on the internet featuring the same combination. Just better. It's humbling and this is a good thing.
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 have been chronicling the books I have read on my blog since 2012. For 2014 I wanted to do something different: I created the virtual equivalent of Book Spine Poetry.
This page here (on e-stangl.at) seems not fit into my overall system of writing and curating content in different places. But on the other hand I had once started the first list here, stating that what you write about books says more about you than about the books.
Last year I read mainly about:
IT security and related culture and history. I'd attribute this to nostalgic flashback and the feeling I can and should tell some funny anecdotes many years after they had happened.
Sleep research. I believe that sleep is underrated and professions are self-selecting. I am a different being when I can sleep in harmony with my inner clock. I have briefly reviewed three of these books in my blog posting on hacking the biological clock - written under the impression of the upcoming most hated Sunday of the year, end of March 2014.
Technology and its interdependence with work and life. I wrote only three posts that might qualify as book reviews, and they represent my inner inconsistency and ambiguous thoughts:
- Nicholas Carr's thoughtful critique of too much automation. Though I was some sort of tech professional, maybe even an evangelist, most of life, it struck a chord with me. Not only am I bragging about using a scythe tongue-in-cheek, but I sometimes prefer the less automated and 'smart' solution. I can relate to architects and photographers renouncing of software voluntarily.
- Automattic's (WordPress') way of organizing its global workforce. I also enjoy working 'remotely' and communicate 'asynchronously'. We have worked in IT like this for a long time, but we have also started to do so in our down-to-earth heat pump projects.
- Douglas Coupland's Generation X. Gen X’s denial or envy of their boomer parents’ values and social security, and their denial of their considerably younger siblings who are cooler and more career-oriented. Yet, Coupland ends on an optimistic note.
I read (many) books, and I often pick them in order to answer peculiar specific questions of mine. 2013 was dedicated to: Biographies of scientists, popular science, physics text books and essays that deny categorizing.
These are my top five books of last year:
by Graham Farmelo.
Dirac trained as an engineer and searching for a job without success. He was driven by a top-down approach to physics: by the beauty of mathematical equations that eventually match a model of reality. Dirac’s usage of mathematics and his way of inventing new symbols (Dirac said he invented the bra) was said to give proof of his engineering mindset.
by Ray Monk.
It is a book for those interested solely in Wittgenstein’s life as well as for amateur philosophers who had tried to decode the Tractatus in vain (as myself). I am not sure if you grasp the combination of his logical analysis of language and his allusions to the mystical without knowing about Wittgenstein’s debut in philosophy as Russell’s mentee on the one hand and his desire to be given the most dangerous task in World War I, in search for a life-altering experience, on the other hand. Peter Higgs has recently stated that he would not have been successful in today’s academic system. The more we are flabbergasted by reading about Wittgenstein’s lifelong reluctance to publish anything.
...a sensationalist title. In my opinion Jim Baggott gives a rather balanced account of the history of physics – I would recommend this book to anybody who wants to understand what the big questions in fundamental physics have been in the past 100 years.
by Susan Cain
...an eye-opener. I am typically considered an extremely extrovert person by people who know me personally. Cain tells me otherwise, my reluctance of “social” company events gives proof of that. Probably I am a faker on a mission: Introverts are able to transcend their limits if they want to achieve their goals. I enjoyed Cain’s experiment of attending a Tony Robbins workshop for research purposes.
by Nassim Taleb.
This book belongs in a class of its own. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness. Taleb applies his ideas to very diverse aspects of life and work - from medicine (and detrimental iatrogenics), personal fitness, to politics and science / innovation. He has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans - he is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks. Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.
I have always wondered why my English articles about science, career (and the universe and everything) have different tone than my German ones.
The English version dated 2008 differed from the German version. After reading Bertrand Russell I dare to say that my English way of thinking about science was more Russell-like whereas my German version was a little bit too fluffy and written in 'longing for consensus mode'. Probably the statement on 'popular science books' was a bit too harsh.
Today I consider the following the most important aspect of science - both in retrospect as well as with respect to my current relation to science:
I am still most interested in the fundamentals of physics and in theoretical physics. Such as: Explaining why the sky is blue or how a heat pump works - both in words and pictures but also drilling down to the mathematical proofs. I admit that this is not primarily driven by the necessity to build technical solutions (although I do not object to apply that knowledge to real-life problems, of course). I believe that this way of scientific thinking has a value that stands on its own. It is not just 'technology' and 'formulas', it is rather part of our culture.
I re-discovered some really old books on physics last year. In contrast to the saying of the exponential growth of knowledge the very core of physics is unchanged. Strong foundations are even more valuable today in order to judge the overflow by so-called new stuff. I feel that immersing in these details and the full broad picture of nature as seen through the eyes of science allows to thrive (survive?) in modern project busywork more easily.
I read a lot of books, in particular since I have turned from an e-reader skeptic to a Kindle addict. This is the list of book favorites, pivotal particularly to my understanding of the corporate world.
The descriptions are not intended to represent reviews, and the list reveals more about me than about the books. If I were to name the favorite of favorites - tributes go to Mike Daisey for 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ amazon.com
Konrad Paul Liessmann
[In German]. The Austrian philosopher and university professor Konrad Liessmann defines knowledge and literacy in contrast to standard mantras of modern 'information and knowledge worker society'.
Education cannot be easy-going and in a playful way as we should be transformed in this process of adoption of knowledge. It is not sufficient to just 'know where to search for' (run off to the restrooms at a party to google for the background of a famous quotation).
He critizises ranking and so-called quality control being a playground of management consultants and related dogmas that flood universities. The analysis polemic (entertaining also), but to the point - I wholeheartedly agree to almost any of Liessman's arguments.
Russell describes the history of philosophical thinking with a bias. A bias that he does not deny. Nevertheless tries hard to pay tribute the arguments of his opponents and he explains their reasoning in terms of their situation in a specific era of history (in a way only Russell is able to analyze). Russell is not as kind when talkiing about philosophers who he considers violating basic humanistic principles.
Continuing the tradition established by Microserfs with respect to the dotcom hype in the late nineties.
But compared to "Microserfs", this book reflects the author's personal story: Sarcasm and cynicism wrap a clear message.
I believe that every IT/Tech insider would agre to Mike Daisey. Everybody who has been exposed to IT corporation cult-ure, everybody who is to some extent in IT customer service.
Mike Daisey is an awesome story-teller, gifted with the ability to tell a story about himself. He utililzes self-irony to ist extreme, but he is able to keep some distance to his person in terms of the subject of his story.
Years after the hype induced by this book Mike Daisey is a successful monologist - well deserved.
Coupland describes the life of a bunch of nerds at Microsoft in the mid-nineties and in their own company afterwards. But it is more than that: It is a mosaic of details building a perfect picture of a a generation's way of living and thinking.
Douglas Coupland is capable of portraying the core feelings and the true way of thinking of a generation by a sequence of loosely connected stories and by digging into the details of bizzare everyday items and jargon.
Again, a book that does not fit into any category.
Philosophical reflections on lifeand work, insights into the machinery of mystical Silicon Valley. And an autobiography and/or a novel bringing back hope into the life of people not knowing where they belong to really.
The subtitle names it The Art of Creating a Life while Making a Living. My dream is to write something roughly comparable ten years from now.
A race through seemingly bizarre philosophical and scientific ideas - wrapped in a dialoage, a 'thought experiment'. One of the core question is: What would constitute a challenge for an omnipotent being? The connection between these ideas and 'Dilbert' is not as remote as it seems, in my opinion.
German: Something like the German Version of Generation X, describing the life of young German people (yuppies) in the 80ties.
Compared to Coupland:
- less fiction
- less hope
- more sarcasm
which is most likely not a language issue, but due to cultural differences.
Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger
The soul, meaning and heart of the internet and its implications on modern business in a nutshell. To me: my personal number one in the list of books on internet and society.
The whole book can be downloaded from the website: der Cluetrain-Website
Two of my favourite quotations
- Hyperlinks subvert hierachy (das letztendlich der Anstoß für die Reservierung der Domain www.subversiv.at war)
- We embrace the web not knowing what it is, but we hope it will burn the org chart - if not the organization - down to the ground.
In a talk given by Tom DeMarco I listened to personally he said: 'Every day you do not have the chance to grow and develop yourself, is a lost day'. That is what slack is for.
German: Thoughts on the life, the universe and everything by the Austrian entrepreneur.
After a classical carrier in management Klaus Woltron seems to have found a way to combine work, life and reflection on the basic question of human existance in a better way.