Coming back to Germany always feels weird. These first some days I will turn around after people thinking “Hey, they speak German!” I search for German translations of English words waving my arms wildly, I forget to order water with dinner, and make right turns at red. Speaking of driving, how can somebody possibly make sense of this mess of street signs? Heck, I've grown up here and don't know what to do. Worse, why do streets constantly end unexpectedly, or turn into one-way-streets, and either way just never get you to where you wanted to go? So much about charming old city centers. I don't even want to start with the Autobahn. These Germans, they drive like nuts, change three lanes without a signal to make the next exit.
I step into a plane and swap my circle of friends. Yesterday I was busy organizing a conference, today I am searching for a wedding present. Yesterday I was cursing the late-summer humidity in Ontario, today night temperatures drop to freezing point. Yesterday I was trying to get a grip on cosmological perturbation theory, today I’m sitting in a group of people discussing the mortage crisis.
The workshop I’m currently at - excuse me, the “symposium” - is a different world. I’m surrounded by men in suits and a noticeable fraction of elegantly dressed women. We all have name signs on our tables, and more than half of the speakers read their talk off notes, sitting on the front table. One has to get used to the melody being different from talking freely, but it is much easier to follow the line of thought than trying to follow somebody stuttering incoherently his way though a powerpoint presentation. Nobody in the whole room uses a laptop during other people’s talk. I make a weak attempt to work on a draft while somebody speaks about the similarity of Gorillas to CEOs and feel like my typing hangs in the air like I’d just burped. So that’s why blogging is slow. One can only burp so much among suits.
A British guy in his sixties named Charles tells me he will mention the LHC in his talk and asks what Bose’s first name is. “I’m bad with names,” I say, “I’d ask Google.” – “Who?” Somebody else inquires what I do if I’m not working, and I mention I’m writing a blog - “What?” The guy next to me works on the emergence of musical trends, specifically that of the Hip-Hop wave in Germany and Italy and asks what I’m working on. Good question I think. Cosmology is what I say. He finds that complicated. I am sure the emergence of music trends is far more complicated than Einstein’s Field Equations. I think I’m the only one here with a background in the natural sciences.
“Learning Organizations” is the topic of this workshop – excuse me, symposium. I know nobody of the speakers, I know hardly anything about the topics, but it seems most of the other participants don’t know each other as well, except for the locals from Heidelberg. I would really like to know how can we adapt the institutions that we use to organize our lives to the challenges we are presently facing and that will become more pressing in the future. How can we upgrade our outdated systems so we can make fast decisions about complex problems when we have no time for trial and error? How can we efficiently incorporate expert’s knowledge? How can we break out of our fixed organizational structures and enable a more flexible handling of the way we reach decisions and implement them? I am hoping to learn something about that here.
So far, I am not sure admittedly what to make out of all these talks. I miss the lingo I am used to. Everybody seems to have a different perspective and a different point of view, and everybody is politely and nicely contributing and trying to find similarities. But what I’d want to hear is: hypothesis, model, assumptions, data, test, limits, uncertainties, conclusion. I’m wondering where the applications are, I’m wondering where the suggestions are, I’m wondering where the vision is. What I hear is how Gorillas are like CEOs. Here is why: A male Gorilla subject of aggression of a female Gorilla can’t afford to hit the female because he would lose his status in the group. Instead he will direct his aggression at the next male Gorilla in his vicinity, a risk for his status as well, because he will have to win the fight or again lose his status in the group. What that has to do with CEOs? It’s supposed to tell us something: emotions come before strategical thinking. It can result in an instant reaction with a random target and a suboptimal outcome.
The topic of the mortgage crisis keeps coming back. I don’t know nothing about economy so I should probably keep my mouth shut. Mpfgprrrrrrpfh. Ah. Okay, I tried. So here is my crisis explanation: Lacking negative feedback upon the emergence of nonsense. Too many people according to whose self-interests it made sense to carry on with what macroscopically didn’t make any sense at all. Too many people who believed they'd be smarter than all the other people. But most importantly: no place where the knowledge of that nonsense could have been directed to, lacking negative feedback, growing bubbles that had to burst. That combined with the different timescales the economical and the political system work on. The former enormously fast, and the latter lagging behind.
I offer this explanation when the discussion comes up again. A women remarks it’s more a question of power than of timescales. I can’t agree on that: There were many people who were not surprised by this crisis at all, some warned of it before, without effect. Had there been enough time, reason would have prevailed. Hey, Science is a Worldview! But so we had a system that wasn’t able to learn fast enough, institutions that were not able to adapt. And no, I don’t think that’s the end of the story.
Coffee break. You know what’s really scary is that people listen to me.