I will try to explore my relationship with IT / software / computers / computer science / software engineering or whatever the best term is to describe it. I am in a mode of looking back with content, and making small changes, learning a bit more.
As often, thinking in 'opposites' comes most natural to me:
Self-study versus formal education. The IT and software industry is young and - I believe - had originally been populated by people without a formal training in computer science as this did not yet exist as an academic discipline. The community was open to outsiders with no formal training or unrelated experience. As a former colleague with a psychology background put it: In the old times, anybody who knew how to hold a computer mouse correctly, was suddenly considered an expert.
I absorbed the hacker ethics of demonstrating your skills rather than showing off papers, and I am grateful about the surprisingly easy start I had in the late 1990s. I just put up a sign in a sense, saying Will Do Computers, and people put trust in me.
I am not 'against' formal education though. Today I enjoy catching up on computer science basics by reading classics like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.
Breaking versus building things. I have been accountable for 'systems' for a long time, and I have built stuff that lasted for longer than I expected. Sometimes I feel like a COBOL programmer in the year of 2000.
But I believe what interested me most is always to find out how stuff works - which also involves breaking things. Debugging. Reverse Engineering. Troubleshooting. All this had always been useful when building things, especially when building on top of or interfacing with existing things - often semi-abandoned blackboxes. This reverse engineering mentality is what provided the connection between physics and IT for me in the first place.
It was neither the mathematical underpinnings of physics and computer science, or my alleged training in programming - I had one class Programming for physicists, using FORTRAN. It was the way an experimental physicist watches and debugs a system 'of nature', like: the growth of thin films in a vacuum chamber, from a plasma cloud generated by evaporating a ceramic target bombarded with laser pulses. Which parameter to change to find out what is the root cause or what triggers a system to change its state? How to minimize the steps to trace out the parameter space most efficiently?
Good-enough approach versus perfectionism. 80/20 or maybe 99/1. You never know or need to know anything. I remember the first time I troubleshooted a client's computer problem. I solved it. Despite knowing any details of what was going on. I am sort of embarrassed by my ignorance and proud at the same time when I look back.
In moment like this I felt the contrast between the hands-on / good-enough approach and the perfectionism I applied in my pervious (academic) life. I remember the endless cycles of refinement of academic papers. Prefixing a sentence with Tentatively, we assume,... just to be sure and not too pretentious though I was working in a narrow niche as a specialist.
But then - as a computer consultant - I simply focused on solving a client's problem in a pragmatic way. I had to think on my feet, and find the most efficient way to rule out potential root causes - using whatever approach worked best: Digging deep into a system, clever googling, or asking a colleague in the community (The latter is only an option if you are able to give back someday).
Top-down, bottom-up, or starting somewhere in the middle. I was not a typical computer nerd as a student. I had no computer in high school except a programmable calculator - where you could see one line of a BASIC program at a time. I remember I had fun with implementating of the Simplex algorithm on that device.
However, I was rather a user of systems, until I inherited (parts of) an experimental setup for measuring electrical properties of samples cooled down by liquid nitrogen and helium. I had to append the existing patchwork of software by learning Turbo Pascal on the job.
Later, I moved to the top level of the ladder of abstraction by using *shock, horror* Visual Basic for Applications, ASP, and VBScript. In am only moving down to lower levels now, finally learning C++, getting closer to assembler and thus touching the interface between hardware and software. Which is perhaps where a one should be, as a physicist.
Green-field or renovation (refactoring). I hardly ever had the chance to or wanted to develop something really from scratch. Constraints and tough limiting requirements come with an allure of their own. This applies to anything - from software to building and construction.
So I enjoy systems' archaeology, including things I have originally created myself, but not touched in a while. Again the love for debugging complements the desire to build something.
From a professionals' point of view, this is a great and useful urge to have: Usually not many people enjoy fiddling with the old stuff, painstakingly researching and migrating it. It's the opposite of having a chance to implement the last shiny tool you learned about in school or in your inhouse presentation (if you work for a software vendor).
In awe of the philosophy of fundamentals versus mundane implementation. I blogged about it recently: Joel Spolsky recommended, tongue-in-cheek, to mention that Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs brought you to tears - when applying for a job as a software developer.
But indeed: I have hardly attended a class or read a textbook that was at the same time so profoundly and philosophically compelling but also so useful for any programming job I was involved in right now.
Perhaps half of older internet writing reflects my craving for theses philosophical depths versus the hard truth of pragmatism that is required in a real job. At the university I had been offered to work on a project for optimizing something about fluid dynamics related to the manufacturing of plastic window frames. The Horror, after I had read Gödel, Escher, Bach and wanted to decode the universe and solve the most critical problems of humanity via science and technology.
I smile at that now, with hindsight. I found, in a very unspectacular way, that you get passionate about what you are good at and what you know in depth, not the other way round. I was able to possibly reconnect with some of my loftier aspirations, like I could say I Work In Renewable Energy. However, truth is that I simply enjoy the engineering and debugging challenge, and every mundane piece of code refverberates fundamental truths as the ones described in Gödel, Escher, Bach or Structure and Interpretation.
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:
- Peter von Rittinger’s Steam Pump (AKA: The First Heat Pump)
- Rowboats, Laser Pulses, and Heat Energy (Boring Title: Dimensional Analysis).
- Hacking My Heat Pump – Part 2: Logging Energy Values
- How Does It Work? (The Heat Pump System, That Is)
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.
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
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):
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.
... an odd combination probably.
But I have a penchant for combining anything. For me IT security, physics, and engineering are all connected naturally, and not only through my biography.
The communication between devices making up the internet of things need to be secured. Publicy Key Infrastructures may provide X.509 certificates needed to do this.
Physics provides one the one hand the underpinning of engineering, on the other hand mathematical methods used in physics can be applied to all kinds of complex systems. There is some truth to this satirical explanation of the relation between Feynman diagrams, certificate validation, and hydraulic designs..
But philosophical musings aside, on a daily basis I simply like to play with technology: Exploring how applications and systems use digital certificates and how they can or can't be 'hacked'. How to build ('hack') a technical solution using off-the-shelf components? How to develop a simulations tool from so-called simple 'Office software'?
Explaining science and technology is my passion and my mission - as a physicist, engineer and IT expert.
All children are curious scientists: We want to know 'how stuff really works'. However, in science education answers are finally given in the language of mathematics - which might kill curiosity.
I admit that I can indulge in math at times, just for the sake of it. Theoretical Physics was my personal therapy in fighting the detrimental impacts of having been sucked into Dilbert's (corporate) world once.
Nevertheless, I understand your discomfort - math haters / deniers. Fundamental theories in physics, such as string theory, seem to have developed a purely mathematical life of their own. Algorithms loom large: Corporations dig Big Data to predict our behaviors as consumers, and of course there is the NSA. And Facebook ads.
Thus I am determined to dissect and expound scientific underpinnings of, well of basically anything interesting I come across in physics, engineering or IT. As an IT consultant I sometimes gave stand-up quantum physics edutainment sessions in coffee breaks. So you are my target group: Experts in any science-y, geeky, technical or other quantitative field.
I am indecisive: shilly-shallying between excitement about curved space-time and multiverses on the one hand, and focusing on hands-on research and development from whose impacts we - taxpayers, John and Jane Does - will benefit in our lifetimes.
Currently my (science) writing is focused on
- Quantum Field Theory. When the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012 I realized that I cannot make head or tail of how the Higgs field gives the other particles mass. Based on the theory of superconductivity and phase transitions I had once been exposed too - I actually should have. Thus I am set to (re-)learn QFT.
- Thermodynamics - this is were fundamentals (entropy and the arrow of time) meet hands-on engineering (heat pumps).
And I am pondering on:
- classical physiscs and its underrated geek factor Why does a spinning top not fall over? Is it true that the sense of rotation of vortices in water flowing down the sink of your bathtub or toilet flips at the equator?
- the philosophical implications of different, but yet mathematically equivalent theories: This holds for quantum mechanics and determinism, but also for classical dynamics. The principle of least action adds a touch of multiple universes to Newtonian mechanics.
- how physics tools are used to model complex systems, such as the economy and stock exchange prices or how revolutionary ideas percolate society.
- the illusion of intuition in physics and related philosophical ideas: The Spinning Gyroscope and Intuition in Physics, Are We All Newtonians?
- Power engineering and the implications of 'internet-icizing' the smart power grid: Greatest Innovation Ever, Controlling the Four Elements. Or: Why Heat Pumps Are Cool.
- History of science, old patents and inventions in particular: Einstein and His Patents.
- Information technology and IT security. Cyber Security Satire?, My Google Searches Might Heat Your Home.
- how orthodox science relates to outsider physics: Physics Paradoxers and Outsiders.
(Last Update: January 13, 2014. Created: September 14, 2013)
My motto is: Building bridges between human beings and technology.
I had always been working as a vendor-agnostic consultant and trusted advisor to clients and I support them with picking, evaluating, understanding and implementing technology. Our business is called punktwissen: an artificial German word made up of 'Punkt' (point) and 'Wissen' (knowledge), indicating: Getting to the point and boiling down knowledge to the essential information.
My specialties: Modelling of heat pump systems that utilize unconventional heat sources, troubleshooting issues with digital certificates and Public Key Infrastructures.
My mission: Improving personal and economic independence of small businesses and entrepreneurially minded persons - via the clever utilization of renewable energies and carefully selected IT tools.
I am interested in the interfaces between building technology, energy engineering, applied physics, and IT infrastructure. In my thesis (2013) I have tried to combine everything I was ever interested in – physics, IT security, power engineering – writing about smart metering and security.
These comments on ancient German newsletters (or: newsletter necro) are part of The Website Resurrection Project. Although the Element is now also blogging - using state-of-the-art blogging software, the Red Pages are still maintained. This is very Zen: Pseudo-blogging without a chance of receiving any feedback.
The original newsletters are more than 8 years old, and it is hard to understand what in hell was on my mind when I had written those.
In case of Newsletter No. 3 it is a bit easier as the core story is a narrative related to a technical glitch that happened in exactly this way in the so-called real-life.
In 2004 we had just overcome the era of the internet being SKAWEE-REWEERT but The Element still used an ISDN line as a backup for its ADSL connection. Which was a blessing.
The Element was very ambitious and operated its own Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 in 2004, that is: an Active Directory Domain Controller and a Microsoft Exchange mail server on the same box. The box was located in a very secure closet in the "data center"- a cupboard in the toilet.
This server downloaded e-mails every 15 minutes from the hoster's mail server via POP3 via ADSL and the download was limited to 2.5 GB per month.
Now another subversive entity sent an 18.5 MB invitation the Element. This took a while - more than 120 seconds. Now the hoster's mail server did not exactly follow the specifications (Internet RFCs) for POP3: Downloading was considered idle time and after 120 seconds idle time the connection was terminated. Recommended as per specs: 30 minutes.
The server has been configured for deleting e-mails after successful download. Since the download was never successful this e-mail had never been deleted. But every 15 minutes it tried to download again and failed after 120 seconds.
Why didn't the Element discover that before the download limit was exceeded? Because it was on vacation but wanted to have an option to access its own server via Outlook Web Access from the internet. No kidding. Warning e-mails by the ADSL provider were sent only a few days later. But the elementary internet traffic was back to the dialup ISDN era for the rest of the month.
(November 2, 2012. Update: March 26, 2013.)
You can turn into your own cliché. In a self-consistent way - absolutely, positively. Just watch this video. I am a nerd, a nerdess. For me, 'technology' was mainly about:
- Living off pizza and caffeine.
- Sociophobic lifestyle. In the prototypical programmer's cave.
- Chasing hackers and security bugs.
- Getting excited over text files and command line output.
However, what a let-down: Discovering Your Life Being Cliché.
But I learned from Mark Twain: The kernel, the soul - let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances - is plagiarism.
I try my best to keep up the techie style even as a more hands-on engineer. 2013 is dedicated to the quest for the Grand Unified Theory - unifying geekdom and down-to-earth tinkering with energy systems. I am projecting my hopes and dreams onto the power grid and its soon-to-be added IT-based smartness.
A netizen is an inhabitant of the internet. Everybody knows that today. Back in the golden times of the internet a netizen had to be an expert. A navigator through a new world, a world that existed only for the technologically adept. It comprised dark corners and caves.
Dark corners do still exist today. If you want to explain to paranoid technophobes why the internet is cute and harmless despite cybercrime you ought to say: It is just like the real world.
So everybody is a netizen. If the Know Everything oracle (Google) does not find any content related to you - you might be something special.
You might be a Realizen probably.