bookmark_borderSummary: Indistractable

I came across Nir and his second book, ‘Indistractable,’ through the podcast ‘On the way to new work‘, which is usually in German, but some episodes with international guests are held in English.

Nir is an expert in habit building and designing products that stick. He served as a lecturer at Stanford and HPI, built and sold two companies, and now works as an investor, speaker, consultant, and, obviously, book author.

If atomic habits is a manual for managing your personal habits, Nirs first book hooked is a manual for managing user habits and designing a product that ‘hooks’ people. Facebook, Google, and all of these giant internet companies use psychological tricks to create more compelling and sticky products – why shouldn’t startups do so too?

And for all those who criticized Nir for writing his first book about how to make a product addictive, here comes the remedy: a book about how to become indistractable!

Summary of Key Ideas

The Antidote to Impulsiveness is Forethought

Unlike other animals, humans can imagine what the future may look like. They often complain about how distracting the world is. Still, they can do something about it: forethought enables us to plan ahead and avoid the distraction. You don’t have to wait until the chocolate cake is on the way to the mouth.

Indistractable people have principles, habits, and other systems in place that help with impulse control, making decisions, and planning ahead.

Like: “Repeating a mistake more than once is a choice.” – You got me once, but now I understand why and I will do something about it.

Forethinking is hard because it does not come naturally – it needs to be learned and trained. It employs system two thinking, making a conscious mental effort rather than responding affectively to a situation (which is part of system one thinking, see Thinking: Fast and Slow).

Today, we live in a world of abundance: as factfulness by Hans Roßling pointed out, more people die from eating too many than too few calories. There has never been a better time in history to be alive (given the global average standard of living). Yet, we need to learn how to deal with that abundance, with all the freedom and all the choices we could make. And there will be a divide between people who let others control their time and those who don’t (= who are indistractable), i.e. who have developed principles, habits, and systems.

Distraction is not a new phenomenon, and it is not necessarily provoked by digitalization and using mobile phones. Digital detox shifts the type of distraction, e.g. from surfing web pages to browsing through books.

What is the opposite of “distraction”?

It is not focus. It is traction.

Traction is an action that moves you closer to your values, to the things you like to achieve, and the person you want to become. DistrACTION is also an action we are taking ourselves, but which pulls us away from our goals, from what we planned to do, from becoming the person we want to become.

Any action can be traction or distraction based on one word: intent. You cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it distracted you from.

Carrying out what we planned to do creates traction. Responding to external or internal triggers prompts us into distraction. And distractions that get rationalized are dangerous: they lead us to do the easy rather than the important stuff (= that moves us forward).

External triggers (rings, dings, other people) account for only about 10 % of when we get distracted. 90 % are caused by internal triggers: uncomfortable emotional states, like loneliness, boredom, fatigue, anxiety, stress, etc.

Time management is Pain Management

Most often, we get distracted because we don’t know, how to deal with an uncomfortable feeling. Thus, you need to understand which discomfort you are trying to escape.

1) Master your internal triggers.
2) Make time for traction = productive time
3) Hack back the external triggers
4) Prevent distraction with pre-commitments (as simple as working with a colleague in an office, create an ‘effort pact’ – a commitment to stay focussed and work at the tasks at hand)

Tactics are what you do; strategy is why you do it.

Consistency over intensity: people doing extraordinary things don’t achieve them in a weekend but through regular action. People reach their peak of potential because of consistent effort.

Consistency and outstanding amounts of work/practice one achieves through flow.

Contentment is not evolutionary beneficial; therefore, humans are never pleased and crave for more (related to Yuval Harari’s books Sapiens and Homo Deus).

Becoming who you like to become

People usually escape the discomfort caused by internal triggers through clicking, playing, drinking, and other distractions. Highly effective people use them to nudge themselves to train more and become better – like rocket fuel for traction.

Values are attributes of the person you want to become.

Planning ahead: How would the person you want to become spent the next week?

1) Caring about yourself: having a bedtime, time to yourself, etc.
2) Time for relationships, family & friends, schedule time with others (don’t give them a scrap of what’s leftover)
3) Time for traction (working on what moves you forward)
4) Time for reactive work (reacting to emails etc.)

Use a timeboxed calendar to make time for these different domains to become indistractable.

‘Being busy’ vs. ‘getting work done’ is like the concept of ‘being in motion’ vs. ‘taking action’ laid out in atomic habits.

Thoughts on “Indistractable”

I really liked his take on distractions, being actions we take consciously and their opposite being traction rather than focus. It also put time management into a new perspective – that it’s not only about planning when to do what but also how to deal with different emotional states and external or internal triggers.

The book gives you a little bit the impression that for being indistractable, your life needs to be planned out to the very minute (“if it’s not in my calendar, it’s not going to happen”) – how would you know otherwise whether you are ‘on track’ or ‘distracted’?

While I see the benefits of reserving time slots in your calendar for creating traction (i.e. work on projects moving you forward), planning out everything leaves little room for “being spontaneous” and reacting to changing circumstances.

Related: An exact breakdown of how one CEO spent his time

Also, predicting your emotional and mental state throughout the day can be challenging. It may be a good idea to keep your options open to work on alternatives that would also move you forward if you are not in the mood to do what you planned for. In the sense of “sense and respond” rather than “predict and control” Reinventing Organisations. Just reserve time for traction in your calendar and then decide which project you like to work on most spontaneously.

Another idea would be to have two calendars – one for absolutely fixed appointments and one for appointments with yourself, which you could adapt flexibly to whether tasks get finished earlier or at some later stage.

All in all, the bottom line is one should find a level of planning one is comfortable with. It’s more like keeping up a productive mindset and spending time on traction rather than religiously following some predetermined plan. Here, “Indistractable” contributes several key ideas and some specific, often rather obvious, but also often ignored advice like “replying to fewer emails leads to receiving fewer emails,” e.g. for creating an indistractable workplace, raising indistractable children, or building indistractable relationships.

What to read next?

  • Hooked – the first book by Nir Eyal, on how to get customers hooked on your product – make it sticky and build habits
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport for creating traction
  • Flow by Mihaly – a classic on what is flow and how to get into it/maintain it
  • Atomic Habits for personal habit management
  • Factfulness to learn more about the current state of the world we live in (and the abundance of options Nir described)

bookmark_borderClimate Escapism and the Quest for Tech to Fix it

This February was quite exciting for all space enthusiasts, as three spacecraft were arriving at Mars: Hope (Emirates Mars Mission) and Tianwen-1 (China’s Mars Mission) entered Martian orbit to investigate the Martian atmosphere. And last week, the NASA rover ‘Perseverance’ landed on Mars on its ‘Mars 2020’ mission to look for signs of ancient microbial life or even bring probes back to earth.

These are pretty exciting times, given that interest and investments in space missions were significantly decreased after the Cold War and that to date we haven’t managed (or didn’t want to?) establish a presence in space beside the ISS; let alone that we have built a moon village in the last decade. So it’s great to see this interest being revitalized by the ongoing Mars missions, and SpaceX plans to start colonizing Mars by the middle of this decade.

At the same time, the climate movement Fridays for Future (FFF) released a satirical tourism ad last week, promoting Mars as a perfect travel destination: no war, no pollution, and no pandemics. An untainted planet and a new world. So, who wouldn’t wanna go there? You just need to get used to living in a space station.

Yet, this is pure nonsense. And that was the whole point of the ad. As FFF pointed out to Euronews, 99 % of humanity won’t ever have the chance to travel to Mars. Thus, from the activist’s viewpoint, governments would make better use of money fighting the climate crisis rather than spending billions of dollars on space exploration.

And that is exactly where the ad fails to get its message through: Promoting the idea of traveling to Mars is probably not the most effective way to raise awareness for the climate crisis. Too much escapism, too little focus on how to tackle the actual problem.

Also, it misses the point, as astrobiological research does not infer escapism, neither does cutting down on space exploration provide a good starting point to mobilize additional forces to take climate action. (As it was pointed out before, the U.S. government allocated about \$700 billion to defense in 2019, but only \$21.5 billion to NASA’s science and human exploration programs. The FFF critique seems misplaced at this point*.)

So I don’t believe that the thinking, either we save Earth or travel to Mars, will get us very far. Space exploration has the potential to trigger the general public’s interest in science and technology. It will lead to advancement, push technology and society forward, and will even foster a technological solution to reduce or better capture carbon emissions.

This is judged by the progress in the last century. The Cold War, and in particular the Sputnik crisis, led to a massive surge in space defense projects and innovations, a greater focus on STEM education, and ultimately, massive investments in the chip industry that gave birth to Silicon Valley.

The Quest for Tech

Today, more and more people get aware of the climate crisis. But the Sputnik event is missing.

Despite the best efforts by Greta and FFF to activate millions of people around the world, so far, political leaders have failed to take adequate action globally. The last UN climate conference, COP25, set a bad example. And while the data on the ongoing climate change is absolutely clear, it is absolutely unclear how to prevent this change given current politics and our state-of-the-art technologies.

Where is the Sputnik event that drives massive efforts in planting trees and recultivating grounds, sky-rocketing carbon taxes, and tighter regulation (even prohibition!) of carbon-intensive activities?

Reducing emissions immediately is still our best bet to mitigate the effects of global warming, and there are many things one can do on an individual level. Yet, the most effective thing of these is activism to urge decision-makers to take climate action. Or to go for moonshot projects.

In the spirit of ‘Doing Good Better,’ following a high risk – high potential outcome path is also a fairly good option: Start a (social) business like Ecosia. Start a non-profit like ClimateScience. Or research and develop technologies e.g. for carbon capture. These paths may not be for everyone, and they pose the risk of failure. But potentially, they may have a huge (i.e. scalable) impact.

Currently, the situation with technological advancement is similar to the agricultural revolution.

As Yuval Noah Harari nicely pointed out in his book Sapiens, agriculture was a trap. Farmers worked longer hours and had worse living conditions than hunter-gatherers. But, since the population exploded, there was no way of going back as hunting and gathering could not feed such a large population. And actually, in the very long run, this turned out to be much better than hunter-gatherer life: without farming, we would not have arrived at our present standard of living.

Similarly, there is no way of going back to a society without technology. In the last century, technology has been the driver of increased living standards worldwide but also provoked environmental pollution and global warming. Given the inertia of politics, the unwillingness of people in ‘developed countries’ to cut down on their standard of living, and the current state of the climate crisis, developing technology further remains crucial. Even if the illusion of a simple technical solution to fix the climate may prevent leaders from taking effective action.

Recently, Elon Musk has announced to donate $100 billion toward a competition for the most effective carbon capture technology. Trees and other plants already do this, but can it be done technologically more efficiently? Probably. Let’s see which solutions the award will bring up.

Climate Escapism

During the 2020 Australian bushfire season, vast land areas got burned, and many people had to move, who were then deemed to be the first climate refugees. This is pretty ironic since Australia is also one of these ‘developed countries’ with serious carbon emissions, especially from the coal industry.

In the light of the FFF Mars tourism ad, another form of flight enters the discussion: escapism. Given the ambitions of SpaceX and others, interplanetary space travel will get feasible this or the upcoming decade, which raises several practical and ethical questions: Should ‘the rich’ be allowed to escape to a space station or even to Mars in case of a global catastrophe on Earth?

It reminds me of the sci-fi trilogy ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ by Cixin Liu, where humanity faces an upcoming invasion of a superior alien species, the Trisolarans. As traces in the intergalactic medium manifest the evidence that a fleet of Trisolarans is on its way to Earth, this constitutes the Sputnik moment that sparks off crisis and depression worldwide.

But then humanity switches into the hyperdrive mode: New inventions and massive investments lead to the construction of space elevators and starships. Governments around the world join forces and envision the ‘Wallface project’ as a global defense strategy. And a global ban on escapism from Earth is rolled out. There it is again, the discussion on escapism.

What would you do today if you would know that a fleet of Trisolaran battleships was to arrive at Earth – in 300 years. You would never encounter Trisolarans yourself. Neither would your children do. But you would know with certainty that at some point, they will arrive and destroy Earth. (Or at least enslave humankind.)

The climate crisis is similar in the sense that it doesn’t really matter whether a huge portion of humankind will get wiped out in 300 years by aliens or natural disasters. But unlike the case of alien invasion, different countries have different interests concerning the climate crisis. Not only the oil-producing countries. Some countries like Russia might even get more hospitable and less frosty and benefit by a few degrees.

The impact of the changing global climate is creeping up, but it is not clear which catastrophe happens next. The Sputnik event is yet to come.

TL;DR

We should treat the climate crisis with the same seriousness as an upcoming alien invasion. We need to prepare for it, and rather than disregard space exploration as “escapism,” scientists and activists should work closely together on this issue.

*Disclaimer: The climate crisis is a real issue, and FFF is doing overall an amazing job of bringing this issue to people’s attention, which I absolutely support. I just had the impression that this particular clip was not a particularly good PR move.

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bookmark_borderWhy Trust in Charities is Crucial

A year ago, the German newspaper “Die Zeit” published a critical report on how many trees the nonprofit Plant-for-the-Planet (PftP) actually plants. After researching – by its own account – for a year and closely examining the numbers, the accusations in last week’s article now become more concrete: that the numbers PftP quotes for trees being planted are unrealistically high. Also, the trees would certainly not have a 94% chance of survival, and above all: there are already enough trees on the Yucatan Peninsula, where PftP is active.

A little later, Felix Finkbeiner, founder and spokesman for PftP’s board of directors, responded to the accusations with a blog article. The pattern is the same in both articles: first, discredit the opponent, then compile exemplary data to strengthen one’s own position, and finally address one’s own community. The articles are clearly polarizing and not written objectively. The newspaper “Die Zeit” doesn’t mention a single positive thing about PftP, yet this organization can’t be just this bad. PftP defends itself, but a statement is clearly missing on how the numbers will be independently audited in the future. This is demanded by the Center for Sustainable Management of the University of Witten/Herdecke.

My point here is not at all to judge the work of Plant-for-the-Planet. Certainly, PftP is planting some trees in Mexico (I haven’t been there yet, unfortunately), at the same time, they provide the infrastructure via an app to collect donations for hundreds of tree planting projects worldwide, and the fact alone that they draw attention to the climate crisis is commendable.
But it is important that they not only implement projects but also do so as effectively and transparently as possible and have them independently audited to build trust and have maximum impact.

Another example: organic food

The organic segment is one of the few segments in the supermarket currently growing and growing consistently. Supermarkets have realized that customers are willing to pay more for organic foods. Maybe because they’re healthier, produced more fairly, or do something good for the environment, or whatever effect you hope it will have.

But if supermarkets deliberately offer organic food more expensively because it allows them to earn extra money, this is completely reasonable from an economic point of view, yet it also breaks trust. And it leads to an attitude among customers à la “I don’t care what I buy, they just want to make money anyway.”

And that’s a huge problem because the whole idea of the market economy is based on the fact that customers know what’s best and control supply with their buying decisions. No one would produce products if there were no demand for them. But for customers to buy the products they think are “better,” it takes trust. And likewise, it takes trust for people to donate to the charities they think will be effective.

Transparency & Trust

The climate crisis is a tough problem, and many people and nonprofit organizations are working day and night to solve this problem. To really make a difference and not just take money that other nonprofits could have used, a nonprofit should be as effective as possible (in the spirit of the “effective altruism” movement). And most importantly, it also shows that it is transparent and trustworthy in solving the problem.

It is far more effective to pool donations and put them into non-profit organizations to solve problems than for each person to pursue their own little project. But for that to happen, there has to be trust that the nonprofit will actually solve the problem.

Thus, the most important value proposition of a nonprofit organization is not the solution to a problem but trust and transparency that this problem will actually be solved.

Our own experience

A year ago, I started a small publishing company: Visual Ink Publishing. We publish books in the realm of education, and we do it completely open-source under a Creative Commons license – both as a print and digitally. This means that we have a special responsibility to make a social impact in the realm of education, open-source & free access to knowledge, and the printing and delivery of the books. To print books, trees are cut down and turned into paper, which consumes a lot of energy and water. And finally, the books are transported to the readers, which causes additional emissions. Publishers have an important responsibility here for printed books.

As a young publisher and as a first step, we have also supported Plant-for-the-Planet through the Startup Review Forest, which we learned about through the Startup Insider newsletter, and thus have already planted the first trees. At least on paper. But this can only be a very first step. Also, we will evaluate in more detail which organizations are really effective and whether one might achieve more impact, for example, by preserving peatlands, remediation of soils, or in the area of environmental education in addition to planting trees.

Bottom Line

The most important task of a nonprofit organization, in addition to solving its own chosen problem, is to establish the trust that that problem will actually be solved.

And if you really want to achieve impact, you shouldn’t trust that Fairtrade, organic food, and marketing-heavy tree-planting campaigns will save the day or the world. Rather, research yourself, which projects are really effective, or in the spirit of “Doing Good Better” most effective, and then consciously decide how to donate your money so that real impact happens.

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bookmark_borderThe Option for Life

We start right at the beginning of Cixin Liu’s novel Death’s End when the theoretical physicist Yang Dong finds herself in the control room of a supercomputer facility. In former times it was used to model particle collisions. But since the sophon block was put into action by the extraterrestrial Trisolarans, progress in fundamental physics has ceased. Instead, the facility is now used to simulate the evolution of planet earth.

Yang Dong is about to leave, as suddenly, a thought strikes her mind. She turns toward the facility operator and, out of the blue, asks him: “Do you believe in God?”

The facility operator looks up from a multitude of monitors, facing her through a pair of green glasses. “I don’t.”, says Green Glasses, a brave scientist, and turns back to the monitors.

“But if the physical parameters of the Big Bang would have been just slightly different, there would be, for example, no heavy elements, and thus no life. How can you believe that they weren’t fine-tuned in some way?” Yang Dong persists.

The operator faces her again, shaking his head.

“I can’t tell for the Big Bang …” he turns back to his monitor, “… but let’s see how the earth would have evolved without life.”

The supercomputer quickly runs a coarse-grained simulation, revealing an orange-colored planet featuring endless deserts and lonesome mountain ranges sprinkled by impact craters. Where did all the oceans, all the rivers, and all the groundwater go?

The simulation demonstrates that the earth would be massively different without life: Mountains not covered by vegetation are more likely to erode. Plains without plants are subject to desertification. And without life, our atmosphere’s composition would be vastly different, which might result in less protection against meteorite impacts or massive global warming like on Venus, eventually evaporating entire oceans.

“Earth is shaped by life. It is a home constructed by life for itself.”, the facility operator concludes.

Selection Bias and Hyperbolic Fixed Points

When you start asking why there is life on earth instead of just a plain desert, a vantage point might be the anthropic principle, which you might come across when reading through the books of Stephen Hawking.

It tells us, in short, that as we observe life on earth, in the first place, our universe must be able to support life. If we are given a multiverse, only a universe with physical parameters amenable to the existence of life will finally end up hosting forms of life. So this is a sort of selection bias: If these parameters weren’t fine-tuned the way they are, there just wouldn’t be any living beings to rumor about their very existence (Weak Anthropic Principle).

Taking the perspective of theoretical physics and dynamical systems theory, to me, this seems pretty much as if the laws and parameters governing our universe were fine-tuned towards a hyperbolic fixed point, like a pendulum being stuck at its top position. If they were slightly different, thus, if the pendulum in our analogy would move even just slightly from the top, the resulting state would be entirely different: Moving away from the narrow fixed point that accommodates life and floating towards a multitude of dead universes.

A dead universe would be like the ground state, the globally stable solution, but also a trivial solution. Along these lines, a universe featuring life would be in an excited, non-equilibrium state, giving rise to a non-trivial fixed point solution. And the probability of hitting such a lively, hyperbolic fixed point straight would be almost zero. Thus, following the (weak) anthropic principle, there must be a multitude of dead universes out there (somewhere outside our universe, no one knows where exactly), and just by chance, our universe hit a fixed point of life.

Stability Diagram of Linear Dynamical Systems. Credits to Freesodas on Wikipedia

Life might be Attractive

Odds are getting better if one takes into account the impact of life itself. As the simulation of earth’s evolution in Cixin Liu’s novel demonstrated, the earth would be entirely different and way less hospitable without life. But on the contrary, life supports itself by forming sustainable, circular cybernetic systems, which dramatically increases the chance of finding forms of life once conditions get sufficiently close to a life-supporting state.

The odds of reaching such a life-supporting state remain still pretty low. But rather than hitting such a state straightaway, now one would have to get “just” sufficiently close to a state that is supporting at least primitive forms of life. And from there, life builds itself a home.

This should significantly increase our chances of ending up in a lively universe. While complex forms of life, such as human beings, require rather specific environmental conditions for survival (unless they are technologically developed), primitive life forms might develop even under extreme conditions such as on Mars or the Jupiter moon Europa.

Getting back to dynamical systems, this sounds a lot more like an attractive fixed point: It might be that tuning the parameters of our universe towards a lively solution might – at least locally – look like a stable focus rather than a hyperbolic saddle point. Think of an inverted double-well potential, which may describe the energy of a dynamical system / represent in our analogy a very simple universe with just one parameter \(\zeta\).

An example is shown below: there is a stable fixed point of life, marked by a green “O,” surrounded by repulsive hyperbolic fixed points, marked by a red “X.” If we tune the parameter \(\zeta\) to the left of the left “X” or the right of the right “X,” we end up in a dead universe for this simple universe. But if we get in between the two “X,” the energetically most favorable state is at the green “O,” and thus our universe might converge to the lively solution at “O.”

Quantum Mechanics on Surfaces. Source: Jensen, Bjørn. (2012). 10.5772/33644.

And as hitting a range of possible parameters, like the range between the two “X,” is easier than hitting the point “O” straightaway, when tuning the parameters of our universe, the existence of life might not be as improbable as we might think.

Indeed, the often-cited experiments by Miller and Urey have shown in the 1950s that once you expose a soup of inorganic, basic compounds to radiation, after some time, essential amino acids build-up, which are the basis of carbon-based forms of life as we know. For sure, organic molecules won’t make up for a living organism, but it’s a starting point, and so there might be a fair chance to end up with (more complex) forms of life.

This means that even if conditions were not exactly fine-tuned on earth, or, on a more intergalactic level, if the parameters and laws of our universe were not perfectly fine-tuned, there would be some margin of states which would still yield a lively solution. One would “just” have to get sufficiently close to a state similar to Miller and Urey’s experiment where a planet allows for the formation of essential amino acids, which allows for the formation of primitive forms of life, that would alter the environmental conditions of that planet and which eventually would support more complex forms of life.

Life might be like an attractive fixed point, and different states of a planet might be converging to a lively solution, as long as their initial conditions do not deviate too much from these fixed points representing life. Yet, these lively solutions would not be unique, just like dinosaurs and humans represent two different lively fixed point solutions based on carbon compounds, and there might be even forms of life that are not based on carbon.

On the one hand, this should make us aware of our responsibility to shape our planet earth for the future to keep it hospitable. On the other hand, it might not be as improbable as one might think to encounter life on other planets as well. Unlike the characters in Cixin Liu’s novels, we just haven’t encountered alien life yet (at least to my knowledge).

The conversation concludes, and Yang Dong departs from the supercomputer facility, left with the final, terrifying question: “If life has shaped planet Earth that much, how would the universe have evolved, if there were no life?” or vice versa: “Which impact will life have on the universe as a whole?”

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bookmark_borderThree Years of #StuFoExpo at TU Dresden

Just two weeks after I started my Ph.D. at TU Dresden, I attended my first conference as a Ph.D. student. It wasn’t a specialist research conference, though.

The “Second Conference on Student Research,” held in fall 2017, was an interdisciplinary conference organized by the bologna.lab from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU). It gathered 130+ students from all over Germany and 45+ different disciplines for a two-day conference, featuring talks and posters from all different research fields.

It was both exciting and challenging to present my Master’s thesis research to such a broad audience and, vice versa, listen to so many different presentations. I was intrigued. Right after the conference, I approached one of the organizers, figuring that the conference was already a pretty well-established event, in a sense, that it was already determined which universities were going to host it next. And that there would be no reasonable chance to bring this conference to Dresden for the next couple of years.

But the main take-away I got from this conversation was the inspiration to start an event myself. Eventually, I remembered the Postgraduate Research Showcase, organized by the science faculty at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), which I attended in 2016 as an exchange student. So what about organizing a “Student Research Expo” at TU Dresden? Involving all kinds of research projects, from every faculty and every student doing research being able to participate – no matter whether it’s within the scope of a term paper or a Ph.D. thesis.

After discussing with several colleagues back in Dresden, I wrote an email to the then Rector of TU Dresden, Hans-Müller Steinhagen, who happily forwarded the proposal to the then Vice-Rector Research, Gerhard Rödel, and a few weeks later, I found myself involved in a meeting on how to implement the “Student Research Expo” in practice.

After half a year of preparations, the #StuFoExpo became a reality on July 4, 2018

For the next half a year, I wrote tons of emails, filled out the paperwork to secure a lecture hall for the event, organized funding by BASF Schwarzheide and Southwall Europe, and ordered, last but not least, catering. The plan was the following: Every student would prepare a poster contribution in advance and get 90 seconds to pitch the project to the audience. Afterwards there would be a poster session to discuss research in-depth and make connections, and in the end, a jury would judge the best contributions, and in addition, there was an audience award.

Along the way, I assembled a team of fellow students and dear friends to help with preparations and the actual event. The Team Initiation & Interaction led by Christian Bruchatz and Robert Fischer organized workshops on “How to design a poster and pitch your project.” And about two months before the expo, we opened the call for proposals, and many people helped us spread the word around campus. When submission closed, we had received more than 50 contributions. That was incredible!

Opening up the #StuFoExpo 2018

Finally, on 4th of July 2018 the first “Student Research Expo” (dt. Ausstellung für studentische Forschung / #StuFoExpo) kicked-off.

With about a hundred visitors over the course of one afternoon, my team and I soon figured that organizing larger-scale events is an art in itself: Our keynote was running straight over schedule, which gave me just enough time to call up maintenance to provide our catering service with power. Only about 35 students showed up for the pitch session, while the others were caught up with lectures or coursework. Naturally, the first run of such an event was kinda exploratory.

Finally, the poster session went smoothly. But collecting all the feedback from the jury and the audience votes took us way too long, and so for the award ceremony, basically only the student researchers were left.

Nevertheless, despite all organizational obstacles, the first student research expo sparked something off. All the positive feedback and encouragement we received showed the potential for doing more about student research than just submitting theses and moving on.

Thanks to all my fellow DDoc’s (Dresden Doctoral Council) for their support in organizing the first #StuFoExpo 2018. Especially Paula Penckert (left) and Anne Geißler (right).

While for TU Dresden, the second round of excellence was coming up in late 2018 / early 2019, and everyone was busy preparing, we

a) received substantial financial support from the Studentenstiftung Dresden (many, many thanks to Jens Bemme!), which helped us to employ a student assistant, Paul Petzold, for organizing the 2nd #StuFoExpo

b) and we even contributed to the TU Dresden application in the Excellence Universities Funding Line! With the help of Jörg Schmidt and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Learning and Teaching (ZiLL), we applied for FOSTER – Funds fOr STudEnt Research – and therefore, I am particularly proud and happy that TU Dresden made it into yet another round of Excellence funding.

Despite having moved to the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology within my Ph.D., I continued to organize the Second Student Research Expo together with our student assistant Paul Petzold. It took place in November 2019 in the ballroom of TU Dresden: thoroughly planned, a lot more organized, slightly smaller scale, but all in all, an amazing event. And with the actual poster exhibition being on display all around campus for several weeks. The financial support of the Studenten Stiftung Dresden had greatly helped us bridge the time until the FOSTER funds became available at the end of 2019.

Fast forward, even in the face of Corona, the Third Student Research Expo took place last week on September 1, 2020, as an online event: featuring the marvelous keynote talk by Ronny Timmreck on his work with leXolar and Senorics, and 20 student pitches, that were pre-recorded as a video and which you’ll also find here.

I am super happy watching this event evolve within the last couple of years, and I am excited for the student research initiative to unfold its full potential at TU Dresden and beyond – by connecting students, researchers, and industry and inspiring students to pursue research from an early stage on, maybe even before their Bachelor’s thesis.

If you have any ideas for the next expo, if you want to exchange experiences or if you would like to support us, feel free to drop us an email:

stufoexpo@mailbox.tu-dresden.de

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bookmark_borderHybrid Teaching 101 Goes Startnext

In the last couple of months, Corona has turned the world upside down. Or better say from outside to inside, and suddenly we found ourselves as part of an experiment in remote work and digital teaching, which neither of us had fully anticipated, nor schools or universities would have agreed to if proposed.

Before Corona, using digital tools for teaching was an optional addendum to in-person classes and lectures: nice to have, but not essential. But then suddenly, digital teaching and learning became the only mode that schools and universities operated for weeks. By now, more and more of the social distancing restrictions are slowly lifted, and face-to-face meetings become feasible again, but teaching will have changed forever.

Going Beyond Self-Publishing

At the end of June, I met Tim Kantereit (@herr_ka_punkt) on Twitter: teacher, blogger, podcaster, and organizer of the book sprint “Hybrid Teaching 101”. Jointly with 33 teachers and digital education enthusiasts throughout Germany, he has written an entire book on hybrid teaching during and after Corona — and I am really proud that he chose Visual Ink Publishing to publish his book. It is our second #VIP project, and you can download a free copy under the CC-BY-SA license from our website (German only)

https://www.visual-books.com/hybridunterricht

At first, digital teaching may seem unfamiliar to many, lacking feedback once everyone’s Zoom video is turned off. Let alone choosing a conferencing platform in the first place that abides by all privacy requirements. And when the meeting is all set up, there are numerous challenges for successfully transferring knowledge and relating to a course held entirely online.

How do I build a strong relationship with my students also digitally?

How do I motivate them in a digital learning setup?

How can I leverage the potential of both in-person meetings and digital tools?

The book offers various examples and impulses on how these questions can be answered in practice. It is also an invitation to develop ideas yourself and implement them early on in your teaching career. While it’s mostly targeted at young and aspiring teachers, also senior teachers will gain fresh impetus.

Starting with the Crowd

We released the ebook on Saturday, June 27, 2020, in the morning, free to download as a PDF from the VIP website and on Apple books. Around noon Tim wrote to me that his Twitter was exploding, and by the evening, our release tweet had been liked and retweeted more than 200 times!

Within a few days, that number increased beyond 500 times, our book being downloaded several thousand times and becoming the fourth most downloaded free ebook on Apple books for a moment in time.

At this point, we realized that we were on to something exciting and huge. Within a few days, Tim and I came up with a pitch video, set up a crowdfunding campaign on Startnext, and hit the start button just five days after the ebook release.

And the campaign took off. After three days of crowdfunding, we had reached one-third of our anticipated funding and gathered 30+ backers. Now, after just ten days, we have surpassed our first crowdfunding goal of €2000, and it’s now time to say Thank You! for all the amazing support we have received.

As for any project, the start is subject to lots of uncertainties, and at first, Tim and I weren’t entirely confident whether crowdfunding would be the way to go. Especially since the ebook version is still and will forever be free to download as creative commons.

And that’s exactly why we were amazed and grateful for so many people supporting our campaign, which will now give us the chance to print the first edition both as softcover and hardcover at the manufacturing costs. Our goal with this is to reach out to those who are not yet acquainted with digital teaching. But who would like to get a first impression and prefer having a printed book right in their hands.

Outlook

Reaching the first crowdfunding goal is just the beginning. At this point, our campaign has been converted into a flexible campaign, which means that all additional funding will reach us no matter whether we arrive at our second crowdfunding goal. But the more pre-orders we receive, the larger the first edition that we can print, which will help us offer the book at a more attractive price even for the long-term: more books printed =fewer printing costs per book.

Therefore, please keep sharing the link to our Crowdfunding campaign and tell others about this book project. Together we can inspire much more people within Germany and beyond to leverage the potential of digital teaching.

www.startnext.com/hybridunterricht

Some final words

This is the first time I am running a crowdfunding campaign myself, and I am super excited about how it is going so far. I will update this post after the campaign and share more of our experiences.

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bookmark_borderResearch Data Goes Cloud

Every time you undertake research, you create new knowledge about our world and, thus, new data. The challenge is now: How to store and manage all of this data for later reuse?

NFDI is an initiative within Germany, put forward by the Joint Science Conference in late 2018 and backed financially by the federal and state governments, to establish a distributed cloud infrastructure to address this issue. The acronym NFDI hereby stands for the lovely German term “ Nationale ForschungsDatenInfrastruktur,” i.e. national research data infrastructure. The directorate of NFDI is based in Karlsruhe, while the data management is taken care of by the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) and the Leibniz Institute for Information Infrastructure (FIZ).

This data management is based on the so-called FAIR principles: Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. It means that research and metadata need to be findable, both by humans and bots, accessible in a standardized way, integrate well with other data, and reusable following the respective licenses. And this last point being ‘reusable’ is crucial since this is the ultimate goal of FAIR: to make data more reusable and thus the science more efficient.

Research Data Management: Now and in Future

Currently, NFDI is in the process of forming consortia and reviewing funding proposals, with a total amount of €85 million provisioned for the establishment of up to 30 consortia across all sciences. The long-term goal is to build an independent legal entity dedicated to research data management in Germany in conjunction with other initiatives such as the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC).

Since NFDI is a very recent initiative, probably not many researchers nor students have heard of it so far. Within the Youth German Physical Society, I am heading a team dedicated to spreading the word about NFDI and contributing the youth perspective on research data management. On the one hand, this means envisioning how such a research data infrastructure could work in the future, as we will use it in five to ten years.

Just pretend you are reading a scientific publication. Currently, it’s like you are scrolling through a PDF, and if you would like to reuse some data points, you would extract them from a crappy, low-resolution screenshot or plead to the authoring researchers and hope they are going to send over some data. Now imagine this article were web-first, linked with all the research data and featuring interactive graphics like in IPython. Where you put your cursor into the graphics and read off the data point, display the publishing license, and right-click to export the data for reuse in your own simulation, in accordance with the publishing license. And you were introduced to this data management system within your studies.

On the other hand, our goal is to discuss how NFDI can be integrated into teaching, in labs courses, and during thesis writing, acquaint students with using such a cloud-based research database. This includes, for example, providing sample data as open educational resources. An entire concept is presented by a position paper of the Federal Council of Physics Students in Germany.

Event: Satellite Workshop ‘NFDI @ Teaching’

On June 3, 2020, our team from the Youth German Physical Society, together with the Federal Council of Physics Students in Germany, is organizing a satellite workshop ‘NFDI @ Teaching’ to the Conference on a FAIR Data Infrastructure for Materials Genomics, which is going to take place from 9 am till 1 pm as a Zoom seminar. On this occasion, we would like to discuss designing a research data infrastructure with respect to the needs of young, aspiring researchers and how NFDI could look like in practice at university.

Also, in November 2019, we have been doing a design thinking process within the Youth German Physical Society, design thinking about who will use NFDI (by creating personas) and how these people are going to use it (by writing user stories). The results of this process will be presented as a poster contribution to our satellite workshop.

Looking forward to seeing you on June 3, 2020!

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bookmark_borderCustomer Targeting inside the Madrasa

When Ulugh Beg Madrasa was built in 1420, it soon became one of the educational centers of Central Asia, attracting astronomers, mathematicians, and scholars from all over the Islamic world. Today it is one of the main tourist attractions in Samarkand. But maybe it’s due to this spirit of being a former educational institution that the madrasa hosted in May 2019 the ICTP summer school on advances in condensed matter physics, which I had the pleasure to attend.

While the morning and afternoon were filled with physics lectures, during lunch break, we had plenty of time to stroll through the madrasa, enjoying vistas from one of the minarets, admiring the beautiful ornaments — and passing by an innumerable amount of tourist shops on the go.

These tourist shops all basically looked the same. They all sold more or less the same tourist stuff, including shiny fridge magnets, wooden business card holders, and scarves of all different colors (surprisingly haven’t found any postcards). And when you stopped by, the owner would tell you the same story in broken English, that their magnets were the real ones and only their scarves were made from authentic silk.

The impression of these shops grew familiar until I reached the Dil-Suzani Boutique. The shop was run by Dilshod, whom I heard even at some distance talking to his clients in decent English, seamlessly switching to French and then greeting me in German, once I had entered his shop and he had asked where I was from. This shop was truly different and unique on its own!

For more than ten years, Dilshod has been running the shop, and by now, the Dil-Suzani Boutique is well known for its high-quality embroideries. Someone passing by may have just thought he is selling some sort of funny carpets. But after talking to him, she would have learned that these were traditional Uzbek suzani and would share his passion for all the intricate little details and hidden meanings of their patterns. And eventually, pay a reasonable price to keep a suzani as her very special gift from Uzbekistan.

When running the shop for over ten years, Dilshod had come across people from all over the world. But unlike other shop owners, he really had to talk with the tourists, explaining the meaning of the embroideries and finally inspiring them to pay for them. Targeting a high quality — high price — low volume segment of customers, Dilshod had to engage with them a lot more, picking up words from so many languages and thus speaking English and many other foreign languages a lot better than the average shop owner. A hypothesis I tested soon after when visiting a real carpet shop and finding that the owner as well spoke decent English.

For the average tourist shop that sells the usual tourist stuff, it received from the same supplier, competition among the shops levels out any competitive advantages and thus price differences. The price quotes were still about ten times higher than what the locals would pay, but with some finesse, you could negotiate a reasonable price. And then there were no substantial differences in pricing among different shops. (Prices are generally low, compared to Germany, but you just don’t go to these shops or the bazaar without bargaining. That’s part of the game.)

Your shop will only receive special attention if your value proposition is significantly different from the shops surrounding you. And that is what needs to be addressed by your skill level and your strategy for customer targeting.

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bookmark_borderComing in from the Cold

I have to admit this country wasn’t on my bucket list. For sure, I had heard of it before from the media, but mostly in the context of political repression, censorship, and sometimes also its cultural heritage stemming from the former silk road. But I didn’t even know where to locate Uzbekistan on the map when an email caught my attention in early 2019, announcing a summer school on condensed matter physics and quantum technologies to be held in Samarkand.

About three months later, I am on my way to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan and the largest city in Central Asia, quite excited, as this was going to be my first time in a foreign country where English is not an official language. I had been preparing myself several weeks in advance, organizing my travels, learning some words of Russian from the Russland Journal Podcast, and, of course, looking up the agenda and preparing for the summer school I was going to attend.

Tashkent with Locals

After the death of Islam Karimov in 2016, the much-acclaimed first President of Uzbekistan, the country has opened up a lot under the presidency of the (seemingly far less known) second president Shavkat Mirziyoyev. After abolishing visa requirements for many Asian countries in 2018, since January 2019 also German nationals can enter Uzbekistan as a tourist for up to 30 days. Since then, not only the number of tourists has increased multiple times, but also policy got more amenable towards tourism, for example, by lifting the photography ban for the Tashkent subway system.

Due to my flight’s schedule, I arrived two days earlier than the actual start of the summer school, and together with several other participants, we got picked up from the airport and were brought to a hotel on the city’s outer rim. To my surprise, the organizers had arranged an entire day program, showing us around the main sights of Tashkent, including Ko’kaldosh Madrasasi and Chorsu Market, eating traditional plov at the Plov Center, enjoying views from Tashkent tower, and finally visiting the flower festival in the city center.

My first impression of Tashkent was simply amazing! I was deeply impressed by the interplay of cultural heritage and modern architecture, the friendliness of the people, and the beautiful flower arrangements that were on display. While traffic was more like what I had expected from an “underdeveloped country,” a bustling chaos of cars going anywhere, the ATM’s didn’t work everywhere, and the countryside is yet a whole different story, which I’ll touch upon later, my overall first impression was far better than expected. Surprisingly many international brands were present, with the same Samsung S10 advertisement as in Germany displayed on large-scale billboards.

While the other participants and the organizers were off to Samarkand the second day already in the morning, I spent that day in Tashkent just on my own. Lacking both a guide and internet, I made my way by taxi to the National Library of Uzbekistan, hoping to find at least some internet. After going through passport control and an airport-level security check, I was allowed to enter the library building. None of the libraries’ staff was into English, but I soon got handed over to a group of aspiring Uzbek students.

That’s where I met Dilmurod, studying for the IELTS exam, working on his own education startup idea, and happily taking the chance to speak English with some random stranger walking into the library. So by mere luck, I suddenly had a guide, showing me around the library building and also the city center, passing by the Ministry of Finance (such an impressive building!), the Islam Karimov Museum (closed at that time), and the Humo Ice Dome. Many thanks, Dilmurod; we’ll keep in touch, my dear friend!

Finally, I took the Afrosiyob from Tashkent to Samarkand in the evening, a high-speed railway reaching top speeds of up to 250 km/h. I was facing the same airport-style security check at Tashkent central station, which seemed so backwards, like from a time before the information age. But riding the Afrosiyob to Samarkand was a smooth experience — like flying on the ground and as cheap as going by plane.

The Madrasa and the Quantum

The summer school was about to begin the next day, and it was announced to be held at the main attraction of Samarkand: the Ulugh Beg Madrasa. But to our all surprise, it took place not in some building near the madrasa, but right inside the actual madrasa. That was so amazing. The summer school was held inside the actual historic madrasa! A steady rhythm of breakfast filled the following days at the hotel, lectures at the madrasa in the morning and afternoon, lots of time to explore the madrasa and Samarkand city during the lunch break, and joint dinners with all of the attendees in the evening.

It was a great opportunity to meet and exchange with researchers working in condensed matter from all over the world. During the day, exotic, topological states of matter came to life during presentations inside the madrasa, and at noon and in the evening, we had time to dive into Uzbek culture, visit historical sites or just keep some time to ourselves for studying (or writing on my second book “Frühstudium”).

Cultural Restorations

As an interesting side note here, the Ulugh Beg Madrasa was at that time right in the process of restoration. Generally, I like the idea of restoring and reviving historical sites instead of leaving every single stone as is and waiting for the acid rain to dissolve it. It’s maybe not original in the sense that it has not been touched for a thousand years, but that way, one can more clearly relate to these ancient times and imagine how it would have been like. So at first, as a tourist, I was quite impressed by the restored madrasa: it just looked so beautiful.

Only later I learned that these restoration works were judged internationally as being largely unprofessional and replacing historical sites with copies. This is unfortunate, as this way, a part of the historic spirit is lost. In some places, such as in Tashkent or Shahrisabz, restorations and “tourism development plans” went even as far as bulldozing entire sites and evicting people from their homes, which drew a lot of national and international criticism. It shows that Uzbek development plans are still more a matter of political taste rather than based on historical and scientific grounds.

Almost at the end of the summer school, we also made a day trip to Bukhara, another city of ancient beauty, several hours by bus apart from Samarkand. That way, we spent most of the day driving back and forth, with just a few hours left to explore Bukhara. Here, the process of restoration could be seen most clearly, with all of the historical sites making an artificially well-preserved impression and lots of hotels and restaurants just waiting for tourists to come. It was impressive, at least, as long as you didn’t leave the restored historical parts of the city center.

The cities outskirts, as well as driving through the Uzbek countryside, partly restored my previous, naive impression of an underdeveloped country: People doing fieldwork by plow and donkey, unfortified roads, and deteriorated houses. Obviously, it will still need a lot of time before the country will catch up to the decently developed city centers and develop a national identity that is respecting its ancient history and representing the modern and open-minded country Uzbekistan is evolving to.

Despite all controversies arising around these restoration works, internet censorship, and liberty of speech issues, Uzbekistan has made great leaps in recent years, opening up and presenting itself as an attractive tourist destination: it’s coming in from the cold. This once again reminds me of the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which argues that there are no us ‘western’ countries and ‘them’ underdeveloped countries anymore. The gap is closing, and soon enough, countries previously thought of as “underdeveloped” will present themselves as equally developed emerging markets.

Never Stop Exploring

After the summer school, I went together with three other physicists on a trip to Zaamin national park and spent the last few days exploring remote tracks on the border with Tajikistan. It gave me another totally different yet refreshing impression of Uzbekistan, a country of largely unexplored natural beauty, which has not yet been subject to some tourism development plan.

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bookmark_borderThe Marginal Value of Time

Over the past couple of years, I had the pleasure of meeting several highly ambitious high school students, for example undertaking early study (as I did), attending hackathons, or even introducing themselves to found a graphene startup.

As much as these pupils are dedicated to their respective passion, they had to develop some effective ways to make time for their own ambitions. Attending high school blocks out a large portion of time in pupils’ lives by the sheer need to be present at school or deal with some homework or exam preparation. So it’s interesting to see them developing efficient strategies for self-organization and time management, even going as far as cutting into their own sleep time.

In fact, it’s not unusual at all for youngsters to miss out on sleep time. Unusual is that these particularly ambitious pupils do not trade their sleep time primarily for playing computer games and attending parties, but rather for working on some student research project, reading university-level science books, or refining their elevator pitch for their second startup competition.

So these few too many hours they gain from effective self-organization and sleeping less apparently provide them with extraordinary benefit. Otherwise, they wouldn’t employ such measures. Taking only time into consideration (!), it seems that an additional hour of productive works provides them with an extraordinary marginal value.

First, what means marginal value? Consider for a moment, what is more “valuable”: Water or diamonds? On the one hand, water is essential to life. If you were stuck inside a desert and running out of water, you would probably trade diamonds for a bottle of water rather than dying of thirst. Thus, water has a very high average value. But since water is readily available to us, having one more bottle of water generally adds very little value if you can have a bathtub full of water right from the tap. On the other hand, having one additional diamond (or even a single one at all!) would add tremendous value to any of us. So diamonds have fewer average value than water, but they have a huge marginal value.

Let’s get back to the case of highly ambitious pupils. Given the large portion of time occupied by schoolwork and the few hours left every evening to pursue your own ambitions, an additional hour to yourself adds a significant marginal value in two ways. On the one hand, if you are busy with school and homework for about eight hours and another four hours get taken up by day-to-day stuff (commuting, eating, …), it makes a whole lot difference, whether you have two hours, three hours or even four hours remaining to yourself. An additional hour provides a dramatic relative increase in your time being productive.

On the other hand, these pupils account for less than 1 % of all high school students, as most pupils dedicate their “free time” to other stuff. So one hour of additional study or work on some project easily gives you an edge over those spending an hour on leisure. My point here is not to judge pupils’ use of time. My point is that one additional hour spent productively provides a lot of marginal value that can contribute significantly to the accomplishments one achieves (alongside other factors such as support from other people, intrinsic motivation, or the pervasive concept of “giftedness”).

I picked this “group of highly ambitious pupils” as an example, which I can fairly well relate to. But actually, these considerations apply to anyone subject to a tight schedule that is dominated by external factors they cannot influence.

If you are generally flexible in managing your time, say you are, for example, a student or self-employed, an additional hour of work provides you with a moderate benefit, which is usually surpassed by the value of quality/family time. Focusing on better self-organization and management of the time already at your disposal probably has a higher impact on your productivity than trying to get more time or even cutting into sleep.

But if most of your day is determined by external forces which you can’t influence, such as being stuck with schoolwork or in mandatory meetings, an additional hour of being awake and productive might provide a substantial benefit.

And the same holds true if you start learning a new skill, for example, a new language: Even just twenty hours of practice will clearly give you an edge over zero hours of practicing. The first few hours provide the greatest marginal value.

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