white knight

white knight, originally uploaded by speh.

Shot this scene in Hamburg near the Central Station (with permission of the man on his knees). Spent some time today uploading photographs taken with my new Leica V-Lux 1 on flickr which I had heard of, but not used yet. Love it. What does especially get me going is how differently I look at, and go through the world now that I have a camera by my side…it’s lovely.


Be creative, or don’t be.

Being creative is the greatest challenge I know of. Everything else in my life has been easy by comparison. My ability to perform well, even (or especially) under stressful conditions, has helped. Writing, however, is a solipsistic activity – the only voices present are those inside my head: the fierce critic (a perfectionist), the exuberant child (wants to play), the arrogant lad (everything is trite). To round all of them (and plenty of other characters) up and form a performing team is difficult.

What can you do when you are in the same situation – you want to create, you have the ability, but you feel blocked by perfectionism, by goals that seem mutually exclusive etc.?

Here is a little advice:

(1) make the block into the subject of your creative endeavour. If you cannot write, write about that.

(2) use your other skills that don’t seem to have anything to do with creativity, to do the job: e.g. I like to perform – instead of writing, I dictate, then I transcribe. When I create, I imagine myself standing in front of a crowd.

(3) keep the inner critic occupied by playing music or by running the TV in the background.

Here is a beautiful summary from a creative writing book by Marge Piercy and Ira Wood:

“I believe the barriers to creativity are both inner and outer. The distinction between madness and sanity is one made by those around us: they honor us or they commit us. An act that brings admiration in one society will get you locked up in another.”

If you have never read a Marge Piercy book, this is the time to pick one up. I recommend “He, She & It”.

To Blog or Not to Blog

Very interesting new article from Wharton Business School on pros and cons of blogging. I have been thinking about letting my students blog – now I think I will initiate that.

Soft skills are hard

When asked for constructive criticism, one student remarked that he’d prefer “more hard skills” in my BPM course. Another said he’d like the soft skills. A third said that she didn’t think we would still do so much “organisational stuff” (we were at the time dealing with group process – I had designed a number of roles for the students to take on during class – recorder/visualiser/ideas creator/… etc). A fourth observed “the slow, soft way of approaching the topic” (which he liked).

I then spent a considerable amount of time showing them how e.g. “group process” contained a number of important lessons to be exploited in bpm practice later on. But of course, with my own “hard science” background, the remarks made an impression on me.

This morning I bought Bode’s book on “The Novel” (“Der Roman”, Francke 2005 – in defense of analysing novel, not merely reading it). I quote (my translation):

“Where the meaning [‘der Sinn’] of a procedure has not been understood, knowledge-creation or even an ‘aha’ experience can only result by accident.”

In my teaching, I want to support this process by the most effective process of immersion that I know: using oneself as an example. Including one’s professional and private experience. As a result, the students yesterday came up with wonderful solutions to a home exercise – describing their own professional life so far in free-form language. These solutions ranged from a simple time-line (extending beyond the student’s point of birth into the past – as far back as WWII – a systemic solution), over clustering of activities and tree-graphs, to a general process view involving only “I”, “external world”, and “genetic disposition”, complete with feedback relationships between these actors. So, whatever their conscious might say, the learning has begun.

There now, I feel somewhat justified. But why am I getting defensive in the first place? Is it really my background as a physicist (which I am betraying in subtle ways)? Is it lack of confidence in my own methods? My own mastery of the subject-matter? All of the above?

Maybe I should not ask the why question, but the what am I doing being defensive question? Answer: I am putting pressure on myself, which I may well need to improve this course. Creating a certain degree of resistance and constructive criticism is one way of doing it. Also, probably the most important reason: I enjoy the struggle! 🙂

Home of the Brave

Met two founders of Perlentaucher.de (English version: signandsight.com) on my way home from Göttingen yesterday – T. and N. – very colourful characters – gotta introduce them to the students. A great place to learn about online business. As an IT operation, they are fully committed to OpenSource, with a number of home-made systems that could be interesting.

We had a long discussion with many tangents about the ups and downs of online publishing – great resistance mixed with envy by the traditional publishing houses (newspapers). The Perlentaucher (German for “pearl diver”) looks like a great experiment, which could become a great business, too. In 6 years of practice, they probably have seen it all.

They need a blog (or do they?). Money. People. Perhaps write a book about their journey.

She named an underwater rock after me

My friend SP who refuses to leave online comments (I still don’t know why – are you shy? 🙂 made me laugh today: after reading my last entry on Emil Wiechert, she offered to name an underwater rock in the Greek sea after me… to say that I am flattered is a gross understatement … I am flustered! Thank you! Please make sure to publish the exact coordinates of “Xizao’s Rock” on the net! Thank you, I will try to live up to this unexpected honour by doing good deeds.

From the rear side of the moon

The man in the thumbnail picture on the right is the German physicist Emil Wiechert – Freeman Dyson mentions him in his wonderful book “Infinite in all directions”. On Wikipedia, I read that they named a crater on the rear side of the moon after the man, who built the world’s first seismograph. I don’t suppose he was alive when they did that (there was no way, in 1928, to know whether the rear side of the moon was not maybe covered in Swiss cheese …), but what a feeling that must be: a crater bears your name. But hold on – it’s where nobody can ever see it!

Man and/or machine

I found a very interesting example for the students to model using UML or another diagrammatic, object-oriented language: the simulation of a complete consulting company, part of an assessment centre.

Another: a description of the 50s listing the “duties” of a good wife. This is a class description for “housewife”, which makes us laugh today. The goal could be to first model this class after the original description, and then alter it to make it more real … the model contains attributes and relationships, things the objects of that class know and do.

The students delighted me in the 1st lecture on BPM with a few good, deep questions of the sort “what are – if any – the limits of process modeling?” I am now glad that I stepped on Robert Rosen a few weeks ago who looked at the relationship of machine and nature using mathematical category theory. His results are not undisputed – this might partly be because he is quite a polemic, too. Accuses his fellow biologists of essentially using the machine metaphor in their scientific explorations, which he considers dangerous.

Thinking about the student’s question made me think about the nature of language – I read up on Chomsky and was interested to hear that his Universal Grammar is considered more relevant to building compilers than modern science of language.

Take-off and landing

Well it is late, so just a few lines to the orkus: first lecture went reasonably well. The students will learn something! My main issue will be to avoid too much overlap because a lot of them take both courses with me this year. (How they can stand to be with me for 8 hours every week is beyond me, but that’s another question… :-))

Ruby Tuesday on Monday

Sometimes I feel closer to my dad than on other days. Today is one of those: to think how much is achieved by humans, millions of us, every day, generation after generation, while everybody is pretty much working only as an individual, by him or herself … of course this is not really true, but most of the time (even as leaders of state, teachers, parents or the like) we are on our own, working by ourselves. It’s more than a beehive, it’s a bee-ing…

On the more mundane issues: found my way thru FunnelWeb, which is very enjoyable, since I like to document continously when I program. Also, found Ruby, I think it’s love at first sight. Spent last night with SQL – perhaps it’s also the FROG on the cover of the O’Reilly book that attracts me … motivation must come from anywhere.

Going on to the next lectures in DB and BPM today. The author of a recent book on UML Christoph Kecher, was nice enough to let me have the diagrams for free use in my teaching.