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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

I Know That I Know Nothing

I know that I know nothing -- Socrates, Greek philosopher
Yes, I know, I used that quote in my last week's post about my first year in Bosnia already, but it is also related to what I want to talk about today.

The final sentence there is: "... having learned a few things already. At the same time, I know that I know nothing." After I learned a little bit about local habits, I reached a point where I knew enough to know that there is much and more to come. In fact, I tend to think that this is true about pretty much everything one learns.

Since I once ago took some courses in economics and economist are very fond of curves (the ones on diagrams, of course, what did you think??), I tried to compress and summarize my thoughts in a small graph.

On the x-axis, there is the "actual knowledge" in red, compared to "perceived knowledge" (by you, not by others) in blue, both as they are developing over time.

The actual knowledge does steadily increase over time. Of course, this is a huge over-simplification, because learning curves are different in different fields; the improvement might not be as steady as pictured out but stagnate or sometimes even decline (that is, you forget something); there are several difficulties related to accurately measuring knowledge. Yet, I think the fundamental principle remains more or less the same: Your actual knowledge does grow over time.

The perceived knowledge, however, does not. Depending on one's personality, perceived growth of knowledge is similar to the actual, or might even out-perform it. (Raise your hand if you never learned something new, thought you are a super-hero and natural talent after day 1 - just to fall flat on your face on the 2nd.)

In my understanding, this parallel growth of actual and perceived knowledge continues, until one of the following things happens:
  • You fall flat on your face
  • Your knowledge is challenged, particularly in fields you were not yet that profound in (e.g., an exam)
  • You meet, or read something from, somebody who you think you can learn something, just to be surprised how much there is still too learn
In any case, your perceived knowledge drops immediately, which actually is quite irrational a thing. You know that you've learned something already - on the other hand, only now you found how much more complex that field of knowledge actually is, and how much more there is still too learn.

Some people just give up on the sight of the remaining part of the path. Maybe you know the Simpsons episode where Homer tries to climb up the Murderhorn, at one point looking up to the top of the mountain like this (source:

However, as I pointed out above: I'm quite convinced that this is simply part of the way to mastering any subject. Again and again, you will encounter such peaks of perceived knowledge - just to find that there is more to come, the actual top of the mountain is even farther. In such moments, just visualize one of the pictures from above (yes, both the curves and Homer may do) and remember: Your actual knowledge is still increasing. Yet, even who was believed to be one of the wisest men of ancient Greeks knew - that he knew nothing.

P.S.: I'd be interested in some other literature which covers that topic or goes into a similar direction, so I'd be very grateful for all links or suggestions.

First Year in Bosnia, Aftermath

I know that I know nothing -- Socrates, Greek philosopher
It's now roughly one year already that I'm living in Banja Luka and I'm amazed by all the various people I met and the interesting impressions and habits I was exposed to. So, just about getting time to sum them up, right?

I learned that Serbian orthodox people celebrate Slava on the day their ancestors accepted Christianity, and Christmas and other Christian feasts according to the Julian calendar, normally around two weeks after Catholics. They would typically attend funerals also of the parents of friends and colleagues from work, in order to share their grief - something fairly uncommon in Austria.

Furthermore, I was surprised to hear that school classes are typically held in shifts, that is, one week you attend school from morning till around noon, and the next week you have afternoon classes only. Apparently, this is mainly due to shortage in rooms in schools.

Probably most remarkable for me, I feel that people are generally much more flexible here than in Austria. (Of course, such generalizations are kind of stupid, but I don't claim I'm providing any scientific proof and just talking about my personal impressions. Ha, on the safe side now!) Austrians tend to (over-) plan and organize, think several weeks in advance, just to be surprised that in the meantime circumstances changed and therefore their entire plan needs to be adjusted. Not so here, though ... it will be fine, that way or the other, so why bother thinking and struggling today?

That flexibility also applies when it comes to appointments. Yes, maybe you agreed to meet somewhere at a certain time, but there are so many things that might arise between agreeing and actually meeting, so it's fairly possible that you just re-arrange five minutes before that.

Flexibility sometimes also manifests as simply not caring too much. Why ride your motorbike with a helmet and registration blades? After all, that's just a stupid regulation from police, and until they notice that you are driving without helmet, you have passed already anyway, and of course, they will not run after you.

Overall, I thought that I had gotten a fairly well feeling for the mindset of people around here, but just last Friday my naïvety hit me again.

On Monday, November 21st, there was the 16th anniversary of the Dayton Agreement. Since that represents the end of the Bosnian War, you might assume that both Serbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina consider that worth celebrating, right? But far from it! It's only a national holiday in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian-dominated entity. People in the Federation celebrate on November 25th, the Statehood Day of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Naturally, that is not recognized by the RS.

How can I still be surprised about this?

My impression is that, particularly when it comes to issues related to the war, my understanding is still quite poor.
Furthermore, when it comes to (not) doing business and working habits, I think that in various regards it's evident that I, a child raised in a capitalist country, simply lack the understanding of what drives people with a communist background.

Concluding, I would say that I met lots of interesting and nice people, and that I'm happy to watch my (not-so-) new environment with the curiosity of a child and having learned a few things already. At the same time, I know that I know nothing.

P.S.: In case you are enjoying already but don't yet value some of the freedoms granted to you by being part of the EU (as was the case for me), feel invited to visit me and experience being short of them. No visa regulations (that is, freedom of movement)? No need to pay customs on the border, or think about it at all when ordering something online (that is, freedom of goods)? Of course, I don't say these advantages come without prize and EU is purely a supercool thing but some of the key advantages became that natural for us already, so it is good to keep it in mind they are not yet for many others.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Book review The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

For at least two years, Heinrich Bölls (who was awarded the nobel prize in literature in 1972) The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum was waiting on my to-read bookshelf. As far as I remember, I bought it due to a recommendation on Thomas Strobls However, as he winded down his page by September, I cannot find the exact source anymore.

Anyways, I guess you know the drill ... last week, I accidentally ran into this book again (actually not exactly the one referenced above, but the German original version) and read it within two days.

In one sentence, the book shows and criticizes the ubiquitous presence of media, and which consequences this might have on individuals who involuntarily become famous from one day to the other.

The short description given on is as follows:
In an era in which journalists will stop at nothing to break a story, Henrich Böll's The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum has taken on heightened relevance. A young woman's association with a hunted man makes her the target of a journalist determined to grab headlines by portraying her as an evil woman. As the attacks on her escalate and she becomes the victim of anonymous threats, Katharina sees only one way out of her nightmare. Turning the mystery genre on its head, the novel begins with the confession of a crime, drawing the reader into a web of sensationalism, character assassination, and the unavoidable eruption of violence.

From my point of view, the bottom line of the book is to highlight the potentially destructive power of media. In that context, also the subtitle of the book is worth mentioning: "How Violence Develops and Where It Can Lead". Apparently, that was also explicitly intended by the author, as explained in the afterword, added in 1984, ten years after the initial publication of the book.

Even though the newspaper mainly focused on during the book is called "ZEITUNG" (newspaper), already in the foreword the author notes that "all connections which can be made from the ZEITUNG to the BILD are not intended, but in this context simply unavoidable". (Bild is Germany's biggest daily newspaper. Just visit and draw your own conclusions.) Consequently, the entire book can be understood as as criticism on journalism as it is done by BILD and the likes.

Take my words on that with a grain of salt, and keep in mind that I'm quite skeptic towards media in general. Since roughly a year, I try to avoid it altogether.

Yet, even if you believe that you gain something through following news, thinking about the persons that are victims of sensationalism cannot harm. If you are open on that topic, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum reads fairly easy and definitely has a few interesting thoughts.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Click here to gain a huge performance boost!

If you are working in the IT business, you probably know that performance is a feature. Doesn't matter whether you are optimizing indices as a DBA, dealing with some hidden settings close to the bare metal as web master, motivating your team as team leader, or hacking directly into your IDE as a developer - most likely you are concerned about performance of your application this way or the other.

Gain a huge performance boost within one hour? Sounds a little bit like spam, I know, but still I want to urge you to read on - net improvements of bandwidth consumption of 60 - 70% are really quite possible!

For web applications, Yahoo prepared a list of best practices for speeding up your web site. They even provided an easy-to-use browser plug-in called YSlow which tells you immediately how your webpage performs against their metrics. Unfortunately, not all of these tips apply for you if you are not running a web site the size of Yahoo. Furthermore, these changes need to be planned well ahead and might require significant changes to your overall architecture. Thus, implementing them might be quite costly a task.

But hold on, did I say all of these? Far from it! There is one, in the best practices document referred to as "Gzip components" (or here, further on HTTP Compression), which comes essentially for free! Now, admittedly, this is not at all a new approach. HTTP Compression is fairly well supported since IIS 6.0, and already in 2004, Jeff Atwood described using it as a "no-brainer".

Probably you and your company are using this functionality already, in which case I still ask you to double-check whether your content is received gzip'ed on the client. Browser add-ons like Firebug or stand-alone tools like Fiddler allow you to inspect the content of HTTP requests and responses and to look for the magical "Content-Encoding: gzip", which indicates that the compression is fully operational.

Odds are, that even tough you and your colleagues know about HTTP Compression, it become that normal and commonly used these days that you don't even make sure any more whether it's actually in place and received on the clients as expected.
However, there are several things which might go wrong - for instance, IIS 7 has a default setting which prevents HTTP compression in case the request came via a proxy (noCompressionForProxies, which defaults to true) ... So take the time and check on an actual client browser!

If you have not heard about it at all up to now, take the time. I'm really convinced that this has pretty much the highest return-on-investment ever.

For those of you residing within the Microsoft eco system, you might consider the following hints useful.

IIS 6.0

A nice description about setting up HTTP Compression is found here. There is an official guide from Microsoft as well, but don't trust it, as it misses a few very important steps (especially when it comes to 'making your hands dirty' in the config files yourself). 

IIS 7.x

Should be much easier than in IIS 6.0. I found a nice manual which covers all steps necessary. One setting that was very important from within the organization I'm currently working for is:
noCompressionForHttp10="false" noCompressionForProxies="false"

Check the configuration reference for further details.

For troubleshooting, these links might help you:

So, either you were fully using HTTP Compression already, in which case you probably did not read until here anyway ... or otherwise, take the time, surprise your colleagues with your great performance boost and make a day off the other day ... no need to thank me, I'll take a beer instead :-)

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