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.
This website shall finally reconnect with its roots – radices.
With the dawn of the new millennium a self-proclaimed Subversive Element has registered a bunch of domains. It was especially fond of radices.net and subversiv.at. Today, all these sites have been re-united and redirected to elkement.subversiv.at. But the site does not deliver on its promising name – I feel it became way too 'professional' recently. Historical content has been filed mostly under Physics (radices) and Art (subversiv). The category life displays some of the matter-antimatter collisions of these two worlds. Which also explains the category of the current article.
The Subversive Site was a Red Padded Cell, with Font Color = White, a so-called creative playground. The Element was aware that 'everybody' could read this but it did not care. The Merger of the sites was inevitable in the end, after a final detour of professionalization – when radices.net suddenly also hosted pages with IT Security links.
I have been a blogger, and I observed the evolution of other blogs: My anecdotal evidence shows that blogs live for about 1-2 years. If they are bound to survive they have to escape the matrix and to overturn their creators. A personal blog or website needs a 'Big' Idea. OK, not really big, but at least a-all-encompassing and abstract enough so that all the authors different threads and lines of thoughts can be silently tied together using this idea's magic glue.
My elkement.blog is relentlessly edited. It was a more philosophical site once, but I aim at following our punktwissen principles now. Articles should be concise, provide value, and perhaps also entertainment. There should be s logical connection between posts and my curated lists should help readers to find something 'useful'.
On the contrary, this site has more or less the same article over and over again – perhaps in disguise and interlaced with technical notes. It is all about my personal keeping the essence of Physics alive and useful for me. Since radices was originally a German-only science and philosophy site, the English version might not reflect this – but in the early articles on elkemental Force (at that time: Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything) I recaptured these ideas.
So I do finally accept this – let elkement.subversiv.at have its way. This is elkement's personal site, and its primary topic is How To Learn About Physics And Why This Might Be Useful Or Even Edifying In Very Different Ways.
- Learning physics means to start somewhere in the middle. That's why a first Introductions to Physics lecture is always hard (if the lecturer has some modest mathematical aspirations). You need to look at the same phenomena from different angles, and only after a while – and some work – everything will fall into place. This process and journey of learning is rewarding in itself.
- The more related to mathematical foundations (of physics) a question is, the less googleable the answer is. You can find anecdotes, and examples, science sound-bites for entertainment. Of course you find awesome lecture notes to learn the fundamentals from Feynman Lectures to Landau-Lifshitz – but you need to 'learn' them. In contrary to the mantra of You Just Need to Know Where to Find Something (like: Google for error messages) I believe that really knowing about fundamentals without googling helps a lot with problem solving: You can walk through how a system should work, just using the resources in your head.
- Mathematics purges the brain, and this does not only help with mathematical problem solving. So I believe that the hackneyed problem-solving skills of science graduates are real (albeit it is difficult to assess the self-selecting nature of STEM degrees for people with natural 'analytical' skills). But the caveat it: Years of corporate work, powerpoint slides, office politics, distractions, pressure to deliver ad hoc can erode these skills. I have long-term tested different methods to keep physics knowledge alive and usable - and learned now that science might even provide some evidence, in a sense.
- I have been in 'cyber security' for a while and I have written lots of gloomy articles about our new smart world of automation and where everything (including heating systems) is turned into cloud-based services. Thoughts on all of this is still work in progress, I am working on internal consistency and unambiguity. I came into the world of IT as an experimental physicist, I was applying my training of troubleshooting complex 'analog systems' to digital systems. Despite the myth of crystal-clear 0s and 1s it was often better to treat them as blackboxes. I lacked the typical computer nerd's / enthusiast's background and started late – playing with Microsoft systems and Office VBA and the like. In spite of this Treat-as-a-Blackbox approach I like to understand as much as possible about a system. Yes, I know you cannot understand, yet build, a power plant, from knowing how to solve Maxwell's Equations (yet understand or solve issues in cyber security related to such power plants). Nevertheless, if I have the choice to understand something at all, I'd pick Maxwell's Equations.
Since years I am using an (angry) dinosaur as my web and blog logo. The dinosaur is from another era, and sometimes it cannot deal with 'modern' concepts of our 'smart', 'networked' world. But perhaps, it was part of this world for a while in order to overcompensate.
Now the dinosaur is getting more and more confident that its typical dinosaur activities might be more productive and positive than it thought before.
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.
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.
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.
The most existing things, in no particular order:
Infrastructure updates - 'real'
- Turning the supporting construction of the first version of the solar collector into support for new wall heating loops - renovating the old kitchen: German article om the rebirth of the collector.
- Now we finally have what every green-minded home owner is expected to: A photovoltaic generator, plus smart metering infrastructure: Latest blog posting on data.
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
- One year ago we joked about it, now we do it: Planning heat pump systems the way we did IT projects - remote-only: Series of German blog posting on a project In The North
- Self-sufficiency, 'green life', and skin in the game: Harvesting 'salad' from the meadow for months: Blog posting on edible plants in the garden
We feel the fresh air of a new category: A new major tag that has infected most of our online content: It is called Work, Life, and Balance.
So it has to be added here of all websites, of course! Do we need a manifesto?
We don't want only a solar collector for research and self-sufficiency - we want 100% self-sufficiency re tomatoes!
We don't only want to
hack play with our inverter's web interface - we want to have enough time to watch our
PV panels harvesting energy!
As the saying goes, an expert is somebody who has committed every blunder in his or her discipline. It should be 'her' discipline as I have finally made it. I can prove via two similar but independent (and surreal) events.
1) The Subversive Element's website had been hacked. Well, not quite, as it was the same web server but the URL pointing to The Element's so-called business identity.
Paranoia and panic was mitigated by the curiosity of the nerd. The Element spent countless hours dabbling with Google Webmaster Tools. That is: Not only clearing Google's cache from spammy URLs, but also with scrutinizing all data available, for all websites including also the elkementary blog. And there we looked into an abyss:
2) Google's love for the elkement's blog was dwindling - by a factor of 100 within a few weeks.
But what an opportunity: Conspiracy theories running wild. In two blog postings, presented to THE INTERNET at a global level:
Of course I want you to click these links. The anatomy of a hack part is perhaps interesting. After all, I can still consider it correct, given most recent findings.
This does not apply to the elemental theories on Google. Here is the final explanation, in an incredibly brief posting, by elkement's standards:
- [2015-01-23] All My Theories Have Been Wrong. Fortunately!
tl;dr: All WordPress.com blogs had been gradually migrated to https only in the past months. In Google Webmaster Tools you need to add the https URL as an additional site. My traffic was tucked away in statistics for the https URL.
Facepalm, Tim Green from Bradford, Wikimedia.
I am running a small engineering consultancy together with my husband. Following Star Trek terminology, he is Chief Engineer, and I am Science Officer.
In overly correct legalese, my job titles according to our business licences are 1) Consulting Engineer in Applied Physics and 2) IT Consultant.
We specialize in planning of heat pump systems with unconventional heat sources, that is a combination of an underground water tank and an unglazed solar collector. 'IT' means: playing with control units and data monitorin.
As we run a German blog focused on this system and I also devote a 'sub-division' of my English blog to it, I use this site (radices.net) mainly for consolidating resources and links - in the same way as I curate security / PKI related links. Perhaps these link dumps will not be very useful for anybody but myself.
I once was a laser physicist and a materials scientists - my specialties having been high-temperature superconductors, laser-materials processing with Excimer lasers, and the microstructure of stainless steel. Then I turned to IT security, IT infrastructure and IT management for more than 10 years.
In 2012 I felt the urge to reconnect with my roots as a scientist and engineer, and we started working on our own heat pump research project in stealth mode. It turned to a second 'branch' of our two-person business. There are connections between my different fields of expertise - IT security and heat pumps - like: the security of the smart grid, 'hacking critical infrastructure', monitoring and control systems. Even the data we gather with our pilot setup have turned into 'big data' that require analysis and management.
So I am actually more of an engineer than a physicist. But I am still very interested in theoretical physics as sort of a mental exercise, and I indulge in reading textbooks as hobby. In 2013 I had focussed on (re-) learning quantum field theory.
Since 2014 I am mainly blogging on down-to-earth classical mechanics or thermodynamics, and I enjoy doing cross-checks and back-of-the-envelope calculations on my blog.
The Element has tried hard to subvert the Modern World of Work. As discussed on this site often - but not necessarily in a way comprehensible to anybody - results are debatable.
The Strategy of Subversion was too complex in the long run - hence The Element now wishes to apply a Keep it Simple approach. It wants to ride real waves: Anything longer than a tweet is not a read anyway.
Up-to-date and meticulously updated information on the current elementary undercover disguise can be found here.
The Elementary Work Portfolio is truly diversified.
On Twitter its tagline reads:
Physicist, engineer, geek, dilettante science blogger, IT security consultant, search term poet, Subversive El(k)ement.
The Element indulges in working (playing) with technology, in particular if there is something to be hacked. As odd as this may seem - it especially likes heat pumps and digital certificates.
On subversiv.at we are still dedicated to spot the weird and the bizarre in daily working routines, mantras, and rituals.
I need to go one step further in discussing why a problem is not a problem for me. This page is odd anyway, and the root problem is actually the structure of this website which once has been turned into a bilingual website. So I am discussing issues in English that had only been described before in German or vice versa.
Years ago I had been intrigued by discussions among freelancers: about (potential) clients who are not willing to pay for deliveries of samples, concepts and whatnot.
I have discussed below why I declared this issue non-existent.
Now it is even better (or worse, depending on interpretation) - I can hardly see a problem at all.
Yes, it can make sense to deliver a free sample work. But sometimes you don't even notice that this was sample work (You do not even notice that this was work). I cannot - and do not want to - distinguish between:
- a spontaneous outburst of my creativity - as close to 'art' as somebody like me can get.
- strategic 'viral' marketing (though done in a very paradoxical way)
But probably these are just dry runs for a new way our economy should work at large?
Is this Open Source or Open Innovation?
The Elkement has recently put forward a theory: Its life is cliché and some googling does prove that.
It has been proposed that there is a huge community of people (Netizens) who would share the following characteristics / properties / hobbies:
- IT security
- Interested in the history of science
- Star Trek fan
- Douglas Adams fan
- Douglas Coupland fan
We are now going to challenge this, and we will ask Google. As Scott Adams has pointed out correctly the internet is nothing else than the consciousness of an omnipotent being, once splintered and now reassembling itself.
- Searching for "physics" "IT security" "Star Trek" yields 5 out of 10 hits on page one that can be associated with The Element. Actually 2 more elemental links have been pushed down to page three since I wrote the German version of this article two days ago.
- "physics" "IT security" "history of science" yields 6 elemental page 1 hits.
Similar results can be achieved with nearly every combination of key words listed above.
So my advice is: If you are frustrated about being cliché:
- Write an article about those attribute
- And enjoy your page 1 Google hits.
- rant a little more, more sarcastically, more witty on stuff that deserve being ranted about.
- remove all the self-pity and replace it by the enormous chances that challenges actually bore.
- The menial engineering stuff plus the project management experience I gained during my PhD work was what made me employable in the real world while still keeping some relationship with the academic world over the years.
- It all - and I really mean IT ALL including the negative experiences - prepared me for the final step I had taken recently: returning to research and development (OK, it's more development), to physics and engineering - and being able to afford a smooth an gentle migration to a new career path.
I have returned to where I started from. This website closes on itself.
Unburdened of the nagging questions that have tortured The Element before. So this is: Subversion Light. Subversion in Retrospect. Subversion Reloaded - a remake, probably diluted due to pondering about what has been pondered about what had been pondered about.
Work has always been the leitmotif of subversiv.at. Work and the connotations attached to it by a corporate geek, such as true calling (or not), (knowledge) work, dread and pleasure.
This website has been started in 2001: motivated by philosophical discussions with like-minded corporate geeks. Discussion that accompanied a so-called management training. Confirmed by hip and hot so-called business book.
On the dawn of the new millennium I have started a psychological self-test and under-cover research. This was called 'Corporate World'.
So what happened to the Element? Did it live up to its expectations? Which expectations? Imposed by whom?
There is a Ten Years After edition of the business book mentioned. I do not know it and I have written an update of my own.
In Austria you can be awarded your PhD with special honors by the president of Austria, it is called Sub Auspiciis Praesidentis Rei Publicae. This year (2012) about 1000 people have been given this award since about 1952. I am not adding this explanation to impress you - this should rather set the stage for the probably unexpected message I sent to the guests of my graduation ceremony. On October 1996, we had been 4 awardees, me and husband being two of them.
I thanked the representatives of academia for their kind words, they gave us the feeling that we had been rewarded for our perseverance and our talents. Nevertheless I believed that an award like this imposes some accountability on us - we had to prove that we are not intellectuals or nerds only, but that we have some social skills too. Update: According to feedback I frequently got from customers I think I have done fine on this.
But... then... BANG....(paraphrasing my long-winded German sentences) there comes the eye-opener: There is something like real world and real jobs and nobody has waited for us. It was 1995 and there was something like a micro-crisis on the job-market, at least for physics PhDs. Update: I did not research that thoroughly in recent times, but I think that has not changed so much.
I still like my speech, but there was too much self-pitying. I belabored the point that as a high school I had expected a grown-up physicist's biggest ethical dilemma would be to choose between working for the evil military or searching the solution to the unified field theory as a lonesome wolf. Then I found out that your biggest problem was to find a job. Actually, in hindsight the situation was not that bad after all - rather the opposite. I did write only a few job applications in order to get a decent job, shortly after my husband ended up with the same employer - a national research center. And we had ditched the scientific career deliberately and knowingly before. And I pitied to be just a small and unimportant part of world's scientific machinery and I would just work on something unimportant. Recently, I had read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions for the first time (shame on me) and it came as relief that this was normal. As normal as it can get - I did Normal Science.
(Oktober 8, 1996, University of Linz)
I added a small rant that I would phrase harsher today. I had been told - repeatedly - that excellent people stay in academia (mediocre ones join industry). Back then I felt that this was BS - though of course I phrased it more politely. What I did not dare to say: I had also been told that there will be so many academic job openings for physicists in the near future. Today I have been confirmed by lots of credible accounts by other physics PhDs and by simply statistics, that this is what students have been told since the 1970s. And since the 1970s the number of physics graduates kept growing and exceeded the demand.
I had also ranted (a bit, in too timid fashion - but stay tuned for an article that I had written two years, to be re-published soon) about the metrics of scientific community - survival of the fittest AKA the person who managed to out his/her names on most papers and to minimize real contributions at the same time. I generally criticized the importance of "selling yourself". This is quite bizarre actually. This is self-irony, but in a subconscious fashion - I meant what I said. The truth is: I had an impressive record of publications - obtained by honest work. And I always had the talents to market myself - that I was not aware this this was self-marketing. When you tend to over-analyze things - as I sometimes so - then it is best to simply stay with the facts: I did get any job I ever wanted. I changed my expertise, my fields of work several times. My track record in terms of metrics (grades, publications, performance data, revenue, customer feedback) had been successful. It took me some time to find out, but I enjoy being an entrepreneur - and I would rather work "mundane tasks" in a self-employed way than being "part of the system that imposes its arcane rules on me. So back then was probably just lacking a bit of self-esteem and self-awareness.
I was proud of the fact that my husband and I merged our PhD theses into a single book. This is an option (though an uncommon one) as long as you denote who has been responsible for which part. I had also enjoyed of being supported by gifted technicians. And I really detested the attitude of not giving enough credit to other persons who had delivered valuable contributions. So I did not take the acknowledgement section in thesis too seriously, as I thanked my friends "how to use the pipe wrench" - which was an allusion to using that tool to open coke bottles every afternoon in the workshop. I could have phrased this a bit crispier in my speech.
Thus in summary the speech was not to bad (it felt good to receive standing ovations), the topics addressed were fine. Today I would:
As for the second item, wallowing in self-pity was probably also due to the fact that I did not get over the fact I did leave academia though it a deliberate choice and I have always considered it right - absolutely, positively. At that time I worked in a national research lab, but already felt separated from true science. More realistically (as explained in the posting linked above) also my academic existence was "more engineering-like" and more routine development grunt work than pure science. But there are two catches:
So after all - it was all worth it.
This is not about numerology or other esotericism - this is just a try to transform corporate planning thinking and deadline madness into something useful.
The proverbial carrot in front of the nose of the donkey does work. In fact, in works the better the more pointless but simple the goal is. I can speak from experience.
I once promised to myself that I need to make the change until a date of
0x.0x.(20)0x with x=5.
Actually the decision has been taken as early as x=2.
And it worked.
Probably thanks to conditioning by various dangling prestigious carrots - that I had all managed to grasp finally in the past: School, university, corporate goals.
At x=9 I started pondering about new plans again.
We are using the Babylonian system of numbers based on 60 and its various factors such as 12. This means that there will be no 13.13.13
The Element is in change mode and mood again.
I am a true professional: I am the total antithesis of a dilettante and an amateur. (Ha! Mike Daisey! Greetings from ElkeS)
An expert is a specialist and proud of not being a so-called generalist. Generalists is what the cowards call themselves: Those wimps that found the exit from permanently living in emergency mode, from really knowing it all and having to know and to fix it all. But I am not like that. I am the hero of troubleshooting.
But I am putting my hand on machines. I am wearing rubber gloves. By sheer thought power only I am able to penetrate into the nervous systems of these modern NOMADs. This is like in CSI – you remember the close-ups of blood vessels or electrical wiring. Then I track down and kill the enemy made from zero's and one's.
I am Trillian, I am Lara Croft, I am Ms. MacGuyver. And I put pizza into the microwave oven like Sandra Bullock in The Net. [Insert here: Something on the Improbability Drive, 42 or HAL].
I should not have any contact with human beings; I should not be human myself. I should live as an avatar only. I should inherit my mind to the world – to be uploaded to the internet. And as a compensation for all those heroic deeds I receive: Money, fame and glory without limits. People that owe their lives to me. And flowers. And an e-mail with some managers on CC. Until the next tsunami approaches the shore.
How did I ever end up in this geek paradise?
And where is the exit, the shut down button?
Get me out of here. Please.
Years ago (see below) I thought that I had the same problem as reported by many
freelancers: So-called colleagues, customers or social networking acquaintances asking for:
something that will require time, efforts and my expertise - and that is usually paid (well).
The problem has vanished or did never really exist for me. As long as you do not believe you need to make everybody happy you can simply say no to such not-willing-to-pay pseudo-clients. And as long as you are selling some service that somebody (desperately) needs (who is willing to pay).
But it is hard to say no to the paying clients. Especially if they are appealing to your vanity and to your reputation as the Number One / Guru / Diva.
Realistically it is not so much the fact that I can solve a problem in such a marvelous way. But I am probably the only available person. Or the only person that is as crazy as considering to work under such conditions - in terms of risk and schedule.
On reviewing your one history you are always biased and tend to rewrite it silently. You might consider that bias positive, recapturing Viktor Frankl's saying of flooding the entire life with meaning in retrospect. I am keeping the old versions of my web pages and force myself to re-read, comment and gradually change them. The CV tends to become cluttered, therefore I am providing a current version (2011) which is neither complete nor objective.
I always wanted to know how stuff really works and what makes human beings behave the way they do. As a child I have dismantled a toy car in a way that the grown-ups could not reproduce. I grew crystals of potash alum and blue vitriol (until I destroyed a not so heat resistant glass) and crafted paper polyhedrons (the largest in terms of no. of surfaces was a rhombicosidodecahedron with pyramids on each surface). Later I fired pulsed laser beams on little lumps of ceramic material, took photos of the emitted cloud of evaporated material and let thin films grow from this material. I have tried to understand why this clouds protruded into space in a very peculiar shape and why the electrical resistance of these films became zero at low temperatures (or not).
I was most interested in the reason why (things were as there were). It seemed less important to me to build something useful based on these insights. But I became more and more involved in the latter. Probably this was based on my investigations of the human behavior. Or rather the behavior of systems constituted by human beings. I learned what is required, important, right or opportune. As a small particle in large systems I have made some contributions. Today I am still under the impression of the ambivalent nature of of being the 'techie who saves the world': Fame and glory versus burnout and stoic self-descipline.
Reading the book of my life I am detecting the following recurrent theme: Since nearly 25 years I have been explaining technical and scientific stuff. By explanation I mean the transfer of low-level understanding - of 'talking and thinking science' in the language of mathematics - into examples, action, and stories. I am a true fan of Richard Feynman.
Do you know somebody who could help me with:
[insert here: something the networker does not have the faintest clue about in will cost him/her 1000s of hours.]
Years ago the Subversive Element would have analyzed these questions and did what it had to do - as a brave hero of networking. But know it knows:
For meeting one helpful person on the net, you have to pay: by serving five I-want-it-for-free-freaks
I had literally been asked: Do you like to work for free? Of course not really for free - this was an opportunity: Put in many hours of work requiring a lot of experience and a specific skill set. Then - if we are lucky - we will win the jackpot, get the project grant etc. Risk and reward!
Being subversive - does anybody appreciate it?
Does appreciation result in financial compensation?
Are we not able to be subversive in so-called business world or do we just feel that we are not allowed to?
Or could we be subversive all the time?
Would anybody notice it?