MICHA.ELMUELLER

 

Looking back on 2018

Like in the last years here comes my yearly recap. Older flashbacks can be found for 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, and 2010.

2018 went by really fast. Faster than the last years. Probably because of having a routine, having a 5-day 40 hour workweek. Rough highlights were our trip to Sri-Lanka, another trip to Portugal where the company I worked at had rented two villas in an orange field for employees who wanted to flee the Berlin winter. Then a really nice summer vacation in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern — a rural German federal state above Berlin. The nature there is really nice and this is a part of Germany that was unbeknownst to me.

Then there were a number of nice visitors here in Berlin and a festival which we visited. I had also organized a weekend on a secluded hut with a couple of friends for my 30th birthday, that was also really nice.

Overall the summer was fantastic, a friend said it was one of those super-idealized summers as you remember them from your childhood, where everyday was super-sunny and the days would never end. I cannot possibly describe it any better. The weather was just fantastic for months.

I definitely feel much more accustomed here now, it’s also comforting to know my way around a lot of areas. Another nice thing is that there are regularly friends showing up in the city because of work, conferences, etc.. I don’t think there is any other city in Germany where this happens to such a great extent.

I had real luck with my job here in the last two years + a couple months. For about 1.5 years our office was situated in an infamous, trendy area of Neukoelln and the time there was really great and I learnt a lot of things. I have a lot of nice memories about this time, the colleagues, trying out the myriad lunch places around, etc.. We then moved to Mitte/Prenzlauer Berg in spring 2018, which was also really interesting. It’s crazy how different the perception of the city is just by taking a different way to the office each morning — totally different people, totally different vibe.

But after the really nice time at this company I have decided to take use of one other great opportunity and have started the new year working for a company which I have admired and followed closely since a long time. The office is in Kreuzberg and the area is the same as the area where the other office was before. This feels a bit strange to me, since I somehow can’t help the feeling of “going back”. We’ll see how it plays out.

Big Topics
In 2018 we basically only cooked vegan. I perceive this as really easy once you get accustomed to basically just not buying milk, cheese, butter, or eggs. I can’t imagine it any other way anymore.

Zero Waste. I have written a whole post on this.

Favorite Articles
I always enjoy reading Tynan’s recap on the gear he owns (he’s one-bagging and owns only this stuff).

The Bachelor thesis Writing Network Drivers in Rust by Simon Ellmann was an interesting read on a topic of which I had no clue (how network drivers work).

Engineering at Parity is a great blog post on the process in a decentralized, modern, open-source company. The way how developers are viewed in this article — as autonomous adults, who don’t need to be forced into a process framework and are able to decide on their own which work style suits them best — resonates a lot with me.

Donations
I donated to archive.org and the Methuselah foundation. The Methuselah foundation was incorporated by Aubrey de Grey and tries to further research into means of reversing the effects of aging. Their slogan is “Making 90 the new 50 by 2030”. I think there are many compelling arguments for this and I think research in this direction has the most potential to mitigate suffering, yet it’s heavily underfunded. If you’re interested in the topic I suggest you read the following short story.

Short Story
The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant is a fabulous story by recognized AI researcher Nick Bostrom.

Best Photos I took
I couldn’t be happier with the photos I took in Sri Lanka.

 
 

Best Photo someone took of me
🙂

 

Best Music
Khruangbin. Also went to a concert they gave here in Berlin.

Favorite Gadget
I’ve set my eyes on a particular analog camera a while ago and in early 2018 I found a nice exemplar! I’m talking about the “Fuji Klasse S”, which is the last analog camera Fuji made. They basically sat down in 2007 and thought about to make an analog camera with the modern technology available now and with their modern knowledge about how to build cameras. So it’s kind of an analog camera with modern build quality and modern features (though not really what you would call super-modern, they added features like a simple automatic focus for example). Oh and they only built 7000 copies and released them only in Japan.

Favorite Ingredient
Liquid Smoke. There exists a distillation process by which the smoke from burnt wood can be filtered into a liquid. Harmful substances are filtered out and what remains is the fabulous aroma of burnt wood.

In the vegan kitchen this is an often-found ingredient, since you can marinate all kinds of things to get a nice smokey aroma. Great stuff!

Quotes
There was some reddit thread on “What advice would you give your younger self?”. The most upvoted answer was “save more money”. This got me thinking and a big theme of 2018 was to get my finances under control.

“Let them reject you, don’t reject yourself” as a reply in a thread where somebody asked if he should apply somewhere. Can also be applied to asking girls out :-).

Journalist and chemist Hamilton Morris on how he got to work for Vice: “The simple answer is that I went to the Vice office when I was twenty and pitched some stories that interested me, wrote them, got them in print and then never stopped writing stories.”.

“Disruption is all about providing a better service than there was before.”

“It‘s a greater danger for a company to die because of finding too few developers, than dying because of running out of money.”
I can’t find the article anymore, but it was a major article on one of the high-profile tech websites. Definitely fits with my impression of the scene here in Berlin. The typical turn-around time for software developers here is 18 months and there are many many job opportunities.

“There is always an explanation for a bug.” David Heinemeier Hansson

Movie
Annihilation. Brilliant! Watched it two times on two subsequent evenings. Alex Garland is also the head behind Ex-Machina.

Best Podcasts
There are two which I think are both 1A:
Serge Faguet on Biohacking.

The WRINT episode with the Finanzwesir on personal finances, early retirement, financial independence, etc..

A blockchain project which I’m following since a while is colony.io, I think what they do is really novel and interesting. This podcast outlines their idea.

Best Vlog
I was fascinated with this YouTube channel of Michael Jamison for a while. He lives in South Africa and has raised tigers who due to birth defects were unable to survive in the wild. Thing is, that he raised them in his own house and has integrated their enclosure into his living space. The vlog is an immersive view into his extraordinary life and his daily experiences with the tigers.

Conferences/Meetups
I was only at the “Rise of AI” conference in Berlin. It’s nice that so many conferences are here. There is basically no threshold if the conference is just 20 minutes from your flat.

I also went to two tech meetups at N26. It’s really nice to be able to just go there. Uncomplicated, just after work on some Tuesday. And then you can talk to their CTO there and ask them all kinds of technical questions. Things like this always give me the feeling of being here, in the center, where it all happens.

Most obscure story I heard
During Christmas time we were in a small village in south Germany, there I was told this story. The village typically has storks visiting each year and they build nests on high houses. One of the inhabitants didn’t like that a stork had built a nest on his neighbors roof. So he came up with an elaborate plan to entice the stork into leaving the village.

He employed an ornithologist (a bird scientist) to build him a stork nest as close to reality as possible. He then bought a bit of land at a beautiful seaside, maybe 1 km out of the village.

The further part of his plan involved getting a huge oak tree. The oak was felled and stripped of all branches. A structural engineer was then employed to come up with a way to properly put the oak up in the newly acquired seaside estate. A hole was then excavated on the soon-to-be stork-land. Next a steal cone was cemented into the ground. Heavy machinery was employed to lift the dead oak into the steal cone. Actually, the first crane was incapable of finishing the job. That’s why the work was delayed — a heavier machinery had to come. This then worked out and the oak was successfully mounted into the steal cone. Steal wedges were put into it to secure the whole construction against all kinds of wild wind and weather conditions. The remaining space was then filled with landslide, everything was covered, and even some small trees were planted

The ornithologists nest was then mounted on top of the oak and — to top it off — an outlook bench and a little dog hut (for the dachshund) was placed right next to the oak.

How can the stork possibly resist this offer of a new home? I guess we’ll see. I already thought about sending this in to the Atlas Obscura :).

New year resolutions for 2018 (taken from last years blog post)

  • Spend less money. ✓
    I had detailed this: “I want to gather a detailed overview over all my expenses and want to meticulously document every cent that I spend in January.”
    This was a really good exercise and I continued doing it throughout most the year. Most importantly it makes your expenses visible, which in cash-obsessed Germany can be quite helpful.
  • Consider meditation again. ✗
  • One additional, regular fitness exercise. ✗
  • Bring photography skills to a level that I am satisfied with (i.e. a more serious level). Specifically by thinking more about composition and getting better at it. ~
  • Contribute more to open source projects. ✓
    I definitely achieved this and made 10-15 PRs to different projects in 2018. I also participated two times in the Stellar Build Challenge and got awarded prizes both times.
    These contributions were a nice opportunity to get mentored. I think that when learning a new technology this is an underrated way to learn something. Basically you can search for an open source project which you respect and start working on issues that interest you. Oftentimes you will receive guidance by the maintainers and they will give you feedback on your solution.
  • Start a technically challenging new project. ✓
    I learnt a new programming language — Rust, which is a low-level programming language with a similar niche to C++. I then rewrote a (Perl) monitoring plugin which we used at work in Rust and sped it up thereby by >96%. This eliminated issues with false positives which the plugin had due to being too slow. I’ve put my rewrite on GitHub and published it as a Rust package.
  • Develop my own clothing style further. ~
    There was some development, I would have liked to see more though.
  • Decide fast, don’t overthink. ~
    I’m still taking too long to decide, but it’s getting better.

New year resolutions for 2019

  • Every evening make a plan for the next day.
    I got myself a pretty Hobonichi Techo for this purpose.
  • Do Yoga every day. Consider “the gym”.
  • Get really good in Rust.
  • Save more money.
  • Buy max. 5 clothing items
  • Habit Tracker: The idea is to visualize how well you achieve the goals which you have set for yourself and encourage you to keep it up. I decided on these: Zero Inbox, Satisfied with Achievements today, Did something from To Do List, Yoga, Vegan.

Books in 2018

Books I read in the last years: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014.

This year: 13 books — 11 in english, 2 in german.

Albert Warnecke — Was Sie über Vermögensaufbau wirklich wissen müssen
There were two outstanding books I read this year, the first on the list and the last.

This (first) book is basically a guide on the entire topic of personal finances. It covers everything: where to put your savings, what insurances you need, etc.. Especially the chapters on stocks/ETFs/inflation rate were very beneficial for me. The book also covers some part of the Financial Idependence/Retire Early idea.

I found out about the book after listening to this (excellent) podcast with the author.

Daniel Korth — Jetzt rocke ich meine Finanzen selbst!
Also a book regarding personal finances. The author describes his personal experiences after inheriting money. He let one of the large German banks handle the investment and describes all the bad ways how they managed his heritage and what a better approach would have looked like.

Jeffrey Kluger — Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon
Can recommend it if you’re into NASA and/or space :).

Leslie Berlin — Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age
Interesting book on the story of a couple not-so-famous Silicon Valley personas who were elementary to the tech boom in Silicon Valley. Was an interesting read.

David Kushner — Masters of Doom
This biography tells the story behind “id software”, and its founders John Romero and John Carmack. Both of them are legends in the computer gaming/computer graphics world. They are e.g. responsible for Quake, Doom, Wolfenstein 3D, Commander Keen, the invention of Multiplayer and Deathmatch, etc.. There are may many other small innovations which they made detailed in the book. Mostly stuff which nowadays is elementary in a lot of modern games. John Carmack is todays CTO of Occulus.

The book was an interesting read and I can definitely recommend it if you are remotely interested in tech history and like the effect of “Wow, they also invented that?!”.

Andrew Hunt, David Thomas — Pragmatic Programmer
At mbr we had a book club and this was the first book we read. The book is about 20 years old and a lot of things are obvious now, since they have become wide-spread industry standards. It’s easy to forget that for many things this was the book which first popularized these ideas or even invented things (like “rubber duck debugging”).

There are a couple ideas in the book which stuck, one of them was that they emphasized how important it is to constantly learn new stuff as a software developer. Otherwise you just halt. The recommendation they give is to learn a new programming language each year, as to not lose track of recent language developments.

97 Things every programmer should know
Not much stuck from the book.

Jeff VanderMeer — Annihilation
I read the book after watching the brilliant movie. The book is good, though I liked the movie better.

Cathy O’Neil — Weapons of Math Destruction
The book examines the harmful influence of machine learning and big data on decision making. Each chapter is dedicated to one harmful application of data science models. Some examples: predicting where crimes might occur next (this is called “predictive policing” and already reality), models to automatically filter the best employee/student application, or models to find out which teacher performs the worst. The critique is legitimate and she makes a lot of valid points.

One of her points is that the feedback loop for these models is often missing. In the example of filtering student applications there is e.g. no feedback loop. Nobody ever looks what happened to the students which were filtered out — maybe they went on to become a professor because they were exceptionally talented? In the book she provides a lot of real-world examples for people who were falsely filtered out by these models.

She also highlights that a lot of these models are marketed under the premise “algorithm, neutral, highly mathematical, highly sophisticated, highly complicated”, yet there are very often statistical flaws found after these algorithms are used in production.

My critique on the book is that she often refers to issues which are very relevant to the U.S. (racial stuff, with cities being divided by races, etc.), but by far not that relevant for Europe. Also a number of these applications would be illegal in the first place in Europe, so some examples seem exaggerated to a European mind.

There is one real-world example which stuck: a major city in the USA decides to develop a model to rate teachers, in order to find out who teaches best. Soon after that teachers start gaming the algorithm, e.g. by grading tests very very optimistic and good-willed, so that it seems to the algorithm as if the pupils suddenly turned very good under this teacher. The effect was that the teacher which had the class next year oftentimes received a very bad rating by the algorithm — especially if it was an honest teacher. This was because it then seemed as if the pupils suddenly got bad grades under the new teacher, whereas the dishonest teacher just had skewed all grades in a positive manner.

From the last chapter:

If a Big Data college application model had established itself in the early 1960s, we still wouldn’t have many women going to college, because it would have been trained largely on successful men. If museums at the same time had cofidifed the prevalent ideas of great art, we would still be looking almost entirely at work by white men, the people paid by rich patrons to create art. The University of Alabama’s football team, needless to say, would still be lily white.
Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Doing that requires moral imagination, and that’s something only humans can provide.

Cal Newport — So Good They Can’t Ignore You
I liked the Deep Work book by Cal and so I was motivated to also read this. Basically his hypothesis is that the phrase “All you need to be successful is to find your passion and follow it” is extremely harmful.

He examines this advice of “just follow your passion”, as very often propagated by people like Steve Jobs, and shows that it is extremely seldom that this works. Often the people giving this advice do this after they are already successful whilst they didn’t even follow their own advice.

He gives the example of Jobs, who — if he would have followed his passion — would rather be a meditation trainer in Palo Alto today instead of having started an electronic software company. The book is good and I liked a lot that he questions such an established belief system.

Pedro Domingos — The Master Algorithm
This book examines the idea of a master algorithm, a general purpose learning algorithm, which can derive anything from data. So if you would give this algorithm a huge pile of books it would learn to read, interpret language, extract the semantic knowledge in the text, etc. all by itself.

This is opposed to the current state in machine learning where individual algorithms have dedicated appliances. Domingos makes the case that such a general learning algorithm exists and sketches how it could look and why it has not yet been discovered.

The first chapters are written really well, but I got lost when he examines the five learners which are currently established in machine learning. I decided so skip these chapters since I wasn’t interested that much in the mathematical details, but rather the grand idea. The book itself was an interesting read and definitely falls into the tech-utopian, enthusiastic category.

Aubrey de Grey — Ending Aging
I’ve dug into this idea of ending aging. The book makes an elaborate argument for why it makes a lot of sense to put research effort into this idea. He argues that extending the human lifespan by a significant amount is totally doable and would prevent a lot of suffering which comes from age-related diseases.

Steve Klabnik, Carol Nichols — The Rust Programming Language
I’ve written a more detailed article here. But yeah, basically this was my main resource for learning Rust. I read the book mostly on the subway. 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening. Great book with a lot of examples and small projects.

Rust is quite an elaborate expert language though, hence Chapter 19 [sic!] starts like this: “By now, you’ve learned the most commonly used parts of the Rust programming language. […] We’ll [now] look at a few aspects of the language you might run into every once in a while.” Chapter 19 and still not every aspect has been touched!

24 things that changed in our household in 2018

The idea for this post actually came from Markus. His idea was to post the individual points as an advents calendar, one item each day. I sadly did not manage writing this up in time, but I had written down some notes and so I thought I’d finish this nevertheless.

Since quite a while we are on a Zero Waste trip. This is a huge scene of people who try to minimize their waste. r/zerowaste is a fitting subreddit, but there are also a lot of books, talks, ….

These are 24 things which changed in 2018 in our household as part of our zero waste effort.

  1. Using napkins out of textile — so much less waste, so much nicer. Can be easily washed and reused.
  2. Cotton handkerchiefs instead of Tempos. Same as above.
  3. Buying groceries in very large packs (e.g. 10l oil canisters, 2.5 kg nuts, etc.).
  4. Shop regularly in one of Berlin’s supermarkets which don’t generate waste (by selling only unpackaged groceries). The Original Unverpackt is Germanys first supermarket like this and in Kreuzberg, it’s the one we frequent most often. The difference is really astonishing, for example we now always have a large bottle of dish soap at home and fill it up there whenever needed. The canister which they have in the supermarket is refilled directly by the manufacturer.
  5. Bring own bags along to the bakery, market, supermarket, etc..
  6. Use chestnuts for washing. This works surprisingly well. During autumn we collected some kilos of chestnuts which had fallen from trees. There are a number of blog posts and videos online on how to use them. They can be dried and stored for usage in the coming months.
  7. Use plastic bags which you received unwillingly (e.g. the ones in which packets sometimes are wrapped) as waste bags.
  8. Process vegetable leftovers into a soup (works really well with e.g. brocoli stems).
  9. Instead of gift wrapping paper you can easily reuse e.g. paper bags, comics, or city maps.
  10. Grow our own herbs. Thyme, rosemary, mint, parsley, chives, basil, arugula, ….
  11. Shower soap instead of shower gel.
  12. Cling film is this roll of thin plastic which is typically used to wrap food as a mean of keeping it fresh. Bee’s wrap out of wax cloth can be used instead and easily washed/re-used.
  13. Use textile leftovers instead of Cewa.
  14. Drink tap water instead of water from plastic bottles. We handed a bottle of our tap water in to the Berlin Water office for analysis. The water quality in the city pipes is extremely good, the thing is that the last meters in a house are not controlled. So with Berlin’s old buildings it’s unclear how the quality is (and if there are any lead pipes on the way to your tap). The analysis only costs a few euros and is even free in some cases.
  15. Giving away stuff. Some stuff we sold and some stuff we donated. Some other things we put in front of our flat with a “Give Away” sign. I guess it’s typical for Berlin that everything was taken, most of the stuff even in under one hour.
  16. Sew clothes that you no longer like into something else — e.g. napkins or a different clothing item.
  17. Congratulation cards from old photos. This was something that worked out really well. We had a lot of photos that we had gotten printed out (or developed) at some point. Many of these could easily be transformed into a congratulation/greetings card.
  18. Use bamboo toothbrushes which are biodegradable.
  19. Use a metal razor with an exchangeable single razor blade instead of the fancy plastic ones which go bad quite fast.
  20. Donate books and buy new ones from a book donation center. In Berlin there are a lot of them, “Berliner Büchertisch” in Kreuzberg is our favorite one.
  21. In the summer an Iso-bottle can be used for having cool water wherever you go.
  22. Instead of buying finished products we started doing some stuff by ourselves: chili garlic oil, granola, compote, burger buns, rice milk, ….
  23. If you just squeezed a bio lemon and are about to throw it away: you can rub off the zest and freeze it. This can later be used everywhere where you need lemon zest (baking, etc.). So you don’t need to buy a dedicated package of lemon zest.
  24. The thing that I had most fun with was to take out every food item that we have in the flat and place it on the floor. We then went through everything and sorted it back in properly. This really helped in gaining awareness of what is actually there and what needs to be used up soon.

How I learn

I spent a couple months of 2018 diving into Rust, a modern low-level programming language with high-level language features — functional programming, asynchronous programming, closures, ….

The language is a bit out of the family of languages that I usually work with and so a lot of stuff had to be learnt.
Also, I characterize Rust as an expert language. It is very explicit since one of its design goals was to not have hidden performance costs of functions without the programmer being aware of it.

I learnt the language the same way that I learnt stuff during university and it has proven to work very well for me:

  • I read a fundamental book on the topic from cover to cover and made sure that I understood every single line in the book. The book was “The Rust Programming Language”.
  • After having read a large part of the book, I summarized each chapter that I had read so far in my own words on paper. To me it’s important to not immediately summarize each chapter after I’ve finished it, but rather gain an elementary idea of the domain first.

    For this summary I re-read each chapter and wrote up the most important things. During this “second reading” I very often suddenly understand things that I haven’t before or suddenly notice some detail that I haven’t before. Also it often suddenly clicks and I see the connection to something that appears only later in the book.

  • I immersed myself into the community, subscribing to the r/rust subreddit and reading the weekly “This Week in Rust“.
  • I watched a number of YouTube talks by the leading people in the field.
  • I coded up an own project: this was a problem that I faced and Rust was a perfect fit. The project was definitely challenging in its goal and I had to use a number of different language features. So it was no easy walk, but the result took use of a broad set of features the language offers. I open-sourced the project and published it as a package to cargo (the Rust package manager).
  • I provided Pull Requests for projects which I respect which also use Rust. The feedback was really helpful and I think this is an excellent way to learn a language. One basically gets a mentor and feedback for free. In programming languages there are often idiomatic ways and patterns to do things and this is a handy way to get to know them.

    Also, while fixing bugs for those projects I had to read the source code of bigger Rust projects. This way I saw the idiomatic way to structure/design large projects in this language.

I would say the idea of summarizing the chapters of the book in my own words is the most important idea from the list above. To me, the core idea is that it helps me find my own view on the material. It’s especially important to me that this process is done without any computer, I’m too distracted otherwise.

About Me

I am a 31 year old techno-creative enthusiast who lives and works in Berlin. In a previous life I studied computer science (more specifically Media Informatics) at the Ulm University in Germany.

I care about exploring ideas and developing new things. I like creating great stuff that I am passionate about.

License

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I would be happy to hear if my work gets used! Just drop me a mail.
 
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