29 August 2015

Oral versus written company cultures

I have noticed this thing a few years ago and it seemed like a very obvious concept to me. As usually when I invent something, I googled it, but unlike most times when I can read about others who already invented the same thing, I did not find any similar concept this time.
So here is the idea: in some companies (or organisations in general) writing is used more than in others to pass information around and to discuss things. This is obviously a gradual concept: some things will always be in written form, some always in oral form, but for many things in between, there is a choice of sending an email, creating a wiki entry, drafting a design doc, or talking to your coworker, or talking to the entire team of people sitting in front of their computers, or calling a meeting to discuss things and take decisions.
Let me just give one example out of many: a software team can come together in meeting to discuss requirements, specs (or acceptance criteria) for a new feature with one of them taking notes during the meeting and thereby complete the spec (or "user story"). Another possible way would be for one person to write a draft spec (no matter if that's a business analyst, product manager, lead developer, or just the person with the most interest and knowledge in that particular feature) and email it to others. (It's another question of culture not treated here, whether others can directly put their feedback into a shared document (wiki, issue tracker, whatever) or have to send it back to the responsible person.) In any case, the former way would be much more oral (keeping in mind that at a minimum meeting invitations are usually sent by email) while the latter is much more written (maybe with an oral part, when the document author reminds one or two coworkers to give their feedback while he crossing them in the company kitchen or hallway).
I can easily come up with a pro/con list of oral and written communication. Advantages for oral communication are:

  1. an asker of a question can get an immediate answer (which is very important when the question blocks their current task)
  2. people get a break from staring at their monitors
  3. being able to see another's facial expression transmits information that is often hard to put in words
  4. talking to just one person or a group of people all listening at once is faster than writing something. (this is even more true for people who aren't quick in formulating written speech; on the other hand, it's not true at all when the speaker makes notes for what they are going to say before saying it)
Advantages for written communication are:
  1. reading something is much quicker than listening to the same information spoken aloud. this is even more true when not all of it is relevant, because each reader can skip parts as they like, independent on all others.
  2. written information stays available for reading it again later. especially with modern computer's search capacity this can be very valuable.
  3. it's asynchronous: readers do not need to occupy the same time spot as the writer. each reader can read at their own preferred time. 
  4. both points 2 and 3 make written communication scale up much better: it is both hard to find a meeting time for more than six people and keeping all of them engaged all the time.
  5. writing something down helps clarify one's thoughts in a similar way that talking to someone does. but in writing the writer does not use another person's time and he or she can include their clarified thoughts into the communication that's sent out, possibly avoiding one loop of discussion.
  6. Writing allows to convey more complex information in more detail than oral speech can. In particular, for rational decision taking, writing has been shown to be extremely helpful, aiding in fighting many human heuristic biases that stand in the way of rationality.
Notice that text chat (such as via Skype, Jabber, SnapChat, etc.) is a form that combines advantages of both oral (it's instant) and written (it's silent and still somewhat asynchronous and can be looked up later) communication. Since it sits so neatly in between the two pure forms of oral and written, it can be used to differentiate company cultures on a single scale: a company has more written culture than an otherwise similar one if they use text chat in some places where the other uses talking. And the same goes for using email, a ticket system, or a wiki instead of text chat. (I would even argue that using a well structured wiki or task/project management system is more of a written culture than just using email all the time.

While I see that both sides (and all the shades in between) have their respective advantages, I find that most teams in the company I am currently working for, hang way to much towards the oral side than I would like. In particular, I am often disturbed by conversations in the team area that go over my head and distract from my current task. I find it hard to decide whether I should take of my sound-blockers to listen or (often unsuccessfully) try to ignore it. I hate spending time in meetings discussing things which one person could prepare beforehand, not just saving everybody time, but also often creating a result of higher quality. I hate it when a group has agreed on something, but later acts differently because the details and reasons had not been written down. I hate it when I miss an important discussion or information just because I was absent for a moment. And although I am not completely sure of it, I think that a written culture can encourage people to take more responsibility, for example, by drafting up suggestions to be approved instead of asking others and by just sitting down with a problem and a piece of paper (or text editor) before getting other's advice.

In other words: while I value the ease, quickness, and naturalness of simply talking to people, I would like my work environment to keep much more to the written way. After all, writing is part of what made our higher culture and our computing technology possible in the first place. Companies who neglect the writing, might not be able to tackle really complex issues and stay at the cutting edge of industry.

I want more of a written culture in my work life.

15 February 2015

Book Review: "Waking up. Spirituality without Religion" by Sam Harris

As usually, this is only partly a review and possibly for the larger part an account of the insights the book produced in myself.

What I really liked about the book:

  • the best part was the chapter on split brain experiments and observations. People whose right and left brains are less connected (for instance, due to an accident or surgery) seem to have two different personalities depending on which part of their brain one is interacting with. I found this hugely inspiring in understanding how some people like myself have trouble forming a steady opinion on things or trouble doing things which they have (not so long ago) firmly decided to do. Harris mentions that speech (although probably generated in both halves of the brain) can in most people not function without the left half of the brain. So in experiments, researchers had to use other ways (such as pointing their finger) of communicating with the right half of their subject's brains. This instantly reminded me of how much of my inner wisdom seems to be inaccessible to the verbalized thinking which I use to take decisions and solve problems. Although Harris doesn't mention this aspect of using more of one's inner resources, I still find his descriptions a powerful motivator to listen more to my body and to make more use of images and feelings when thinking about what I want to do or what I need to be happy.
  • another great motivator was his listing of many benefits of meditation (including some I didn't yet know). This is not a big part of the book and there is little advice on how to get those benefits if one doesn't want to spent entire weeks on silent retreats or travel the world to learn from dozens of spiritual teachers (such as Harris has done). The most practical manual which I can recommend for this is still "Search Inside Yourself". (And Harris' work motivated me to read SIY again! Or actually listen to it this time. I just bought the audiobook.)
  • I actually listened to the Audiobook of Waking Up, read by Harris himself. His voice and intonation is just as great as his choice of words and telling things as a story! I wish more authors would read their own books or at least get a really good and passionate voice actor to do the job.
What I found interesting, but not great:
  • Harris' view of what the purpose or end goal of Spirituality actually constitutes seems plausible and interesting to me, but not necessarily like something that would appeal to everybody. Just like all people share their very basic needs for food, air, sleep, socializing, and security, they diverge hugely on what they desire once the basics are met. One might see it as their goal to fly to Mars or at least prepare humanity to do this. Another might want to explore the ocean at thousands of meters of depth. Yet another might want to spread love and compassion to help the people around them, while again others (including some of my friends) see it as their goal to help as many people on earth as possible by earning a lot of money and wisely choosing to which altruist organisations to donate that. Similarly, Harris view of Spirituality (in a grossly abridged one-sentence summary) is that of an inquiry into the nature of consciousness and the self, followed (after long years of search) by the realization that consciousness is spotless like a mirror and there is no self. While I also find this realization quite comforting I am personally looking more towards how my meditation practice and my world view support my own well-being in the life outside the meditation hall. Others, again, are looking towards spirituality to find connection with other people or even with something that is more perpetual than us people.
    My own search is similar to Harris' in some regards. For instance, the importance of curiosity and inquiry and how I value teachers for the knowledge they share either with accessible explanations or by their good example. But as I see the differences between Harris' and my own goals, I see that many people will be even more different and maybe even unable to understand Harris' points. When it comes to their life's purpose, people are just incredibly different. For instance, while someone like Harris and (to some extend) myself is perfectly happy being the pilot of one's own life, many others simply seem to crave being led by someone who takes some (or more) responsibility off their shoulders. For some people this is so strong that they become devout followers of a guru. For others it is as simple as being one of the reasons (instead of having their own business) to work for a company large or small, where their boss takes some of the hard decisions. But this craving for leadership seems to be so basic, that there will always be some people who will not follow such a route of open-minded inquiry. 
  • His experiences with psychedelic drugs sound really fascinating and since I have heard similar stories from friends the book actually made me decide to try out some things myself – but that was just before Harris recounted his extra-ordinarily bad experiences with just the same drugs and how (as I understood it) he wasn't able to influence the outcome of his trips into the positive direction. And that was deterrent enough for me!
    In the end he gave a wonderful picture comparing drug-induced with meditation-induced higher states of minds: the first is like being stripped to a rocket that goes off with a large fraction of light speed. It can be truly mind-boggling when it goes to some place nice, but a nightmare if it goes wrong. And it is unclear whether one can influence the direction. Meditation, on the other hand, is like sailing when you start with a raft on still water: you can raise and enlarge your sail very gradually and it takes a lot of time to reach the open ocean. You will face troubles one by one so that you can learn how to overcome the obstacles and keep learning and growing. I personally like this image a lot because it can explain how many people are satisfied using meditation on one level (for instance, to calm their minds, or to better understand other people), but are not motivated to sail further out. Again, this was a wonderful motivator for me to engage in meditation more seriously!
Finally one thing I found really annoying about the book: his harsh criticism of Religion. Although he is factually right with all his charges against all the large religions, small cults, and other forms of superstition and mysticism. And although religions really have created a lot of damage to humanity and will continue to do so if humanity doesn't transform them into more open, accepting, and compassionate organisations, I simply believe that as a matter of how psychological defenses in the human mind work, criticizing religion in such a harsh way will only make it stronger. I, too, believe that religion as it is now has to disappear, but that this has to happen as some kind of embrace and transform. Probably religions of the future will have much less followers than in societies where religion was a mandatory part of the culture. Hopefully they will be free from any unethical behavior and even encourage people to explore there own ethics and learn to be more aligned to what they think and feel is right. Probably some superstition will never be rooted out, simply because colorful and dramatic explanations and justifications for good rules of behavior just stick better in the human mind than the dry scientific explanation which will yield the same conclusion. (As I like to say: usefulness of knowledge often trumps truthfulness.) And finally, I can't see how to completely root out the phenomenon of obedience from the basic hard- and software of the human mind. All we can do is to make people more aware of it, less dependent of it, show them more choices, and finally, create better and more ethical leaders.

13 July 2014

Besuch in der gläsernen Molkerei in Müncheberg

Durch die Kampagne Kuh und Du bin ich wieder einmal auf das Thema Tier- und Umwelt-freundlicher Milchproduktion gestoßen. Zufällig habe ich mir dann auch mal eines der Heftchen “Bio in Berlin und Brandenburg“ im Biomarkt mitgenommen und habe dann dort von verschiedenen regionalen Molkereien gelesen. Dazu gehört übrigens nicht nur die gläserne Molkerei in Münchehofe, sondern auch die Hofmolkerei des Ökodorfs Brodowin, sowie die Bio-Molkerei in Lobetal und die Hofmolkerei des Büffelhofs Bobalis.

Wie der Name schon sagt ist die gläserne Meierei am ehesten für Besichtigungen eingerichtet: man kann dort Montag bis Samstag zu jeweils zwei festen Terminen an einer Führung teilnehmen. Deswegen habe ich sie auch als erstes besichtigt. Hingefahren bin ich mit dem Rad ab Königswusterhausen und zurück mit dem Rad bis Halbe, wo auch eine Regionalbahn nach Berlin zurückfährt. (Das ist mit 10 km die kürzere Radfahr-Strecke. Ab KW ist es eher für Menschen, die gern auch mal 25 bis 30 km Rad fahren.)

Hier ein paar Dinge, die ich besonders informativ für mich fand:
  • Camembert wird an einem anderen Standort produziert als Schnittkäse, denn der weiße Schimmel des Camembert verträgt sich gar nicht mit der Rotschmiere der festen Käse. Die gläserne Molkerei hat für Camembert den Standort interessanterweise auf der Insel Rügen.
  • Roh-Milch wird bei Bauen durch Molkerei-Fahrzeug abgeholt. Verpackte Milch wird von Groß-Händler (Terra) abgeholt. Beides ist tatsächlich sehr lokal. Nur Käse wird Deutschlandweit vertrieben.
  • Rahm wird immer abgetrennt und für Vollmilch wieder beigemischt. Da auch fettarme Milch verkauft wird, bleibt noch Rahm für Butter-, Quark- und Käseproduktion übrig.
  • Milchpulver wird auf einem fremden Trockenturm produziert, der dafür periodisch gemietet wird.
  • Bio-Milch ist im Laden sogar günstiger als die Milch von bestimmten Marken, die sehr viel Werbung machen.
  • Frischmilch aus Münchehofe wird unter verschiedenen Handelsmarken vertrieben. 
  • Die Molkerei hat ihre eigenen Marken Heu-Milch und Spreewald-Milch, wobei es sich um Milch von bestimmten Erzeugerhöfen handelt. Bei der Heumilch besteht die Ernährung der Kuh zu mindestens 60% aus Gras (im Sommer) und Heu (im Winter). (Für Neugierige gibt es die genaue Regeln hier.)
  • Die regelmäßigen Salzbäder für die reifenden Käselaiber werden von einem Roboter verabreicht. Leider sind wir so schnell daran vorbei gelaufen, dass ich kein Video gemacht habe.
  • Die Maschinen zur Verarbeitung der Milch (Pasteurisieren, Entrahmen, ...) kommen von spezialisierten Betrieben aus Süddeutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz – eine Gegend, die so sehr darauf spezialisiert ist, dass sie ihre Maschinen in die ganze Welt exportiert. Mir gefällt dieser Kompromiss zwischen Globalisierung und regionaler Produktion: Bei den Maschinen profitieren wir alle von der Spezial-Kompetenz einer Region (und sie werden ja nur einmal transportiert und laufen dann viele Jahre), aber bei den landwirtschaftlichen Produkten bedienen wir uns bei den Schätzen aus unserer eigenen Region.
  • Der zur Molkerei gehörige Hofladen hat neben der Käse- und Milch-Theke aus lokaler Produktion parktischerweise noch ein gemischtes Bio-Sortiment und andere lokale Produkte. Damit dient er gleichzeitig als Lokalversorgung für die Dorfbevölkerung. Ich habe z.B. zwei Gläser speziellen Spreewaldsenf dort für mich gekauft. :))

Noch mehr Infos in den Beschreibungen meiner Fotos vom Ausflug.

Drinking milk and eating cheese – is it natural, is it healthy, is it economic?

The rise of factory farming of cows brings with it destruction of the environment and suffering of animals and people. There are two ways to react to this dilemma. The vegan way is to boycott all animal products including milk and all milk products. The "organic farming" way is to specifically support traditional, sustainable agriculture. I personally think that both ways are good and feasible for today's consumer since both vegan and organic products are available on the market. The question of which way to live brings up another question, namely: is it a good thing in general for people to consume animal milk and products made thereof? I find it interesting to shed light on different aspects of this question: the evolutionary, the biological, the medical, and the economic.

Nature and Evolution

Some adult humans are intolerant to lactose (a kind of sugar which naturally occurs in milk) and therefore can't consume any milk products (unless lactose has been removed in a technical process). This intolerance brings our attention to the fact that some ten thousands of years ago, the entire human race was lactose-intolerant during the adult life. This actually makes sense: mother's milk is a food for babies and infants. As soon as children can consume other food, they don't need to be able to digest milk any more. 
If we take a broader perspective, humans are just mammals and the function of milk, namely feeding babies, is not different in humans as it is for cats and dogs, or pigs and cows, or bats and kangaroos. From this viewpoint it makes sense to say that nature has made milk for babies and adults have no business drinking it. In other words, the vegan lifestyle (as it relates to milk) is quite natural!
On the other hand, we can say that the relationship between human farmers and their dairy animals (cows, sheep, and goats) is also a product of evolution, since both humans and animals have adapted over a course of thousands of years: the animals produce more milk than they need to feed their small, while humans have adapted to be able to digest milk even as adults. Over time this co-evolution of humans and dairy animals has slowly turned into controlled breeding of animals, which we could see as a form of artificial evolution, but its historical beginnings still seem to have been a quite "natural" process. After all, co-evolution and symbiosis of different species occurs in other places of nature, too. In one case, the term "dairy farming" is even used by zoologists to describe how ants live with a certain kind of lice.

Medicine and Health

If we start with what contemporary nutrition scientists label as "the Western diet" we find that it contains more saturated fats than would be optimal to maximize health and longevity. We can also see that most those saturated fats come from animal products such as meat on the one hand, but milk and dairy products on the other hand. From a viewpoint of optimizing our fat consumption we'd be better of to consume plant fat such as olive oil, lin seed oil, many kinds of nuts, as well as soy bean products instead of animal fats. (By the way, if the mention of "soy products" makes you think of soy milk, soy protein powder, and different kinds of soy-based meat replacements, it might seem that soy products are a kind of artificial/technical replacement for "natural" and "traditional" meat and dairy products. However, this is not so: different human cultures have developed many more different soy products over the course of history. Besides soy milk and tofu, there is Natto, Miso, DoenjangKongnamulEdamameTempeh, Tofu Skin, Tofuru, one of my favorite desserts: Douhua, and propably many more that are only know in their cultures of origin. Also, almond milk has a long tradition as a food.)
On the other hand, animal products including dairy are the only "natural" dietary source of vitamin B12 for humans and they also contain some other vitamins in useful doses. So, if you want to optimize your own diet for health and longevity, it is possible to simply take factory-produced B12. If you still want to be somewhat traditional, then some animal products are required.

Economics

The economic side of nutrition asks how can we feed a growing population of humans on a single planet of constant size? The argument brought forward by vegans is that contemporary factor farming uses a lot of high-value plant foods (such as soy beans, corn, and other grains) to quickly fatten animals at reduced cost for the farmer. Given this type of production, a lot of food that would be perfectly suited for human consumption is used up to produce much less of another food. For example, from the wheat needed to produce one kilogram of beef, we could produce many kilograms of Seitan and even do this with less adverse side-effects for the environment. Similarly, one liter of cow milk from soy-fed cows, uses soy and water from which we could make several liters of soy milk (healthier and more environment-friendly).
For those reasons I think that even though factory-farming evolved under economic pressures of efficiency, its products are not at all resource efficient compared to plant-based alternatives.
Now, if we look at traditional meat and dairy production, the picture looks very different: grass is not a very tasty food for humans, yet cows love it. Cows grazing outside all day are tending the meadows better than any lawn mower could while at the same time fertilizing it with their dung. Consuming milk and dairy products from those cows, therefore seems a very sustainable form of nutrition. The only thing we need to ask ourselves is if the large spaces and prairies used for grazing should better be used to produce crops with higher yields. In pre-industrial times, letting cows graze was efficient because it didn't take much work compared to planting, tending, and harvesting other crops. (Additionally, oxen were used for ploughing and pulling carriages even up to my grandfather's day!). But in our industrial times, machines do the hard work and it might be that agricultural space is becoming the limiting factor. So maybe, eating grass-fed meat will become obsolete except for nostalgic reasons? Or maybe, grazing will be restricted to places where more intensive crops are not feasible, such as mountains where only mountain goats can go?

Conclusion

I think that everybody has to find their own way of living and this short article only serves to weed out some contradictions that people might have in the rationalization for their own life style.
My own way of living, at this point of my live is a mix of vegan and organic. I hardly eat any meat at all (except for very little quantities from small animals raised by my family). I avoid dairy ingredients in products where I think they are unnecessary (especially chocolate, cake, and pastries). My milk consumption is totally plant-based (mostly soy milk, some almond milk and others, as well as coconut milk to replace cream in cooking). For cheese and other dairy products, which I do occasionally consume, I am very conscious to buy products based on organic and animal-friendly farming. Preferably from creameries that I have personally visited to have a real sense of what their ethical guidelines are.
Yesterday, for example, I did my first visit to a regional organic creamery and wrote about it on my blog (in German). But there are also pictures!

1 June 2014

hoaxes, opinions, but not many facts on nutrition

Non-vegetarians like to point out, that the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle isn't that great for the environment either. For example, I heard several people cite to me "rain forests are being destroyed to make space for soy farming". And vegans/vegetarians eat a lot of soy products, so they part of the destruction.
Now, my readers are probably aware that most of the world's soy production is actually for animal feed, not for human consumption. (Incidentally, the US produces much more soy beans than China, although China is has the largest human consumption of soy products because Tofu, Topi, Soymilk, and many other soy products already have a century-old tradition there.)

So the cited argument is blatantly irrational and obviously self-serving. It doesn't make any sense as an argument other than giving non-vegetarians something to say when they have "an argument" with a vegetarian person.

Now, I certainly don't want to say that non-vegetarian people are stupid. To the contrary I have heard this or similarly stupid arguments even from people who I otherwise respect for their opinion (in fields where they actually have expertise). What actually bothers me is that all kinds of people often carelessly come up with spurious arguments when defending their own position. Being smart to me, doesn't mean that I know better than other people. Being really smart actually means knowing that

Sometimes (as in this case) those arguments can quickly be dismissed, but at other times, they are making claims which just can't be directly verified. When it comes to my own well-being I can make simple experiments (like eating completely vegan for six weeks in a row) to find out my personal truth. But when it comes to issues of like the effects of diets on life-expectancy and cancer-risk, or the heated topic of pregnant mothers and the diet of their unborn babies, self-run experiments can't be the solution.

One question which is actually of practical importance to me is whether a purely vegan diet actually requires supplementing vitamins (B12 in particular). But a similar question is relevant for non-vegetarians, too: do humans in northern countries get enough vitamin D in winter? For both questions I have found all kinds of answers on the internet: yes, no, yesbut, nobut, and of course the always-valid answer: "it depends". (As a friend jokingly said: it depends on whether you want to rationally optimize your health and life-expectancy or just want to confirm to a certain lifestyle, for example, by eating no "artificial supplements".)

I find that people tend to trust other people who they know more than they trust other sources of information. (After all, the internet can confirm or deny any claim depending what search terms you use. For instance, the query "soy healthy" actually gives pros and cons alike in a way that left me more puzzling than I was before. But on second look on, for example, this article, it seems that a lot of actual definitive health benefits are quickly listed, followed by a much longer list of potential problems, but which are all prefixed by some "might" (harm) or "could" (have negative impact). It seems that in the desire to paint a complete and balanced picture, the actual benefits are all too liberally compared to the potential risks.)

But as the stupid rain-forest-meme above has shown, people in your social circles (even if they are otherwise smart and reasonable) can't be trusted either. So how can I really know things?

Let me leave this question open for you and instead conclude with a Zen-spirited motto: Often it is better to know that we don't know, than to have a wrong belief.