I have now blogged since more than half a year and I have pseudo-blogged since about 10 years, but I have never stated any goals explicitly. Fueled by my Website Resurrection Project I will do so now, running the risk to be able to hold myself accountable for achieving these goals.
Despite the title of this blog – Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine just Anything – has been chosen quickly and intuitively it is remarkably apt. All my writing activities have ever been driven by the pleasures and pains of aiming at and/or being capable(*) of combining different aspects, properties, hobbies, professional activities, attitudes… in spite of an inherent tension or contradiction. To some extent I make my life easy by lowering the bar: I do not attempt at distinctly resolving all these contradictions. Even if I would be able to resolve them with respect to my life, I cannot prove my solutions can be applied to anybody else’s life. But I do want to expose myself to the biting questions arising from those contradictions.
(*) Actually it took me quite a while to figure out that you can be able to do well based on the metrics imposed on you by society, academia or the corporate world, but this does not at all imply that the activity considered is your true calling. Even the opposite can be true – you can consistently excel in something though you hate it.
Attempting to pick my favorite topics in random order I start with (… the topic which is probably the root topic of all others): my everlasting interest in the foundations of physics and the mathematical representation of our world versus my quest for working as independent as possible, in particular independent from taxpayer’s money. Despite my academic track record I left academia, one reason being thriving for true independence. My current attempt to reconcile is this is based on working as a consulting engineer, more precisely as a Consulting Engineer in Physics (as in my country you can become a Consulting engineer in whatever technical subject you can major in at the university). So I can call myself a physicist and my income is based on the only feedback cycle that I am comfortable with: Customer pay me for solving a problem that really exists now – no application-for-grants writing, no begging for governmental aids, no making up of long-winded explanations how my research will ever enhance society’s well-being.
However, I still aim at understanding modern theories in physics. Since I had specialized in applied physics, my exposure to quantum field theory was not sufficient to allow me for understanding the Higgs mechanism immediately or to grasp the concept of curved spaces in general relativity. By understanding I mean: Read and feel math easily – both intuitively as well as being able to dive deep and being able to explain proofs and concepts in every detail.
So I study quantum field theory and general relativity on my own as a hobby. I also enjoy writing about the science as sort of science blogger or hobby historian of science and I have felt the tension between doing science and just contemplating science (… ever since I had applied for a job in the science department of a TV station at the end of my PhD, but discarded the invitation to the interview because I had started to do science again.)
This brings up the next contradiction naturally: Specialist versus dilettante generalist. Actually, I had been a true specialist in narrow subjects also. I recently had terminated a period of 10 years of being known as an expert in a sub-sub-sub-niche in IT security (PKI), and I had changed fields before (successfully, despite recurring warnings on how this will spoil and break my career). Actually at the bottom of my heart I never felt as a specialist, rather as a renaissance type generalist who was able to dive deep into details and play the role of the specialist well. I also had been exposed to the contradiction manager versus technical expert, which I resolved by working as a technical expert officially and taking on unofficial roles such as what I call a project psychologist for example.
I firmly believe that in order to solve problems in our interconnected world (cliché, I know) we need people with a generalist overview and the ability to solve problems at the technical level _at the same time_.
I feel that today’s corporate world and related mantras (cliché alert again) favor the generalists in terms of: Social skills are most important, technical skills are pre-requisite – but try to work your way up to become a manager as soon as as possible and leave grunt work behind. This ends up in the Dilbertesque situation of project teams that consist of 9 managers (Program manager, technical project manager, organizational project manager, quality manager… ) and a single working ant. I used to be the ant quite often so the next pet of mine is how to work on things I am really interested in (and at the detailed level I am interested in) without ending up as the working ant at the end of the food chain.
In contrast to the other torturing questions I believe I had rather solved this by working as an independent consultant.
I also tried to escape or circumvent a lot of surreal and hilarious contradictions that characterize modern corporate world such as the obsession with numbers and metrics that are inherently inconsistent of the obsession with quality management and the like for its own sake. Many of these aspects, such as the obsession with metrics, have been transferred from the corporate world to other biotopes such as academia.
However I am not sure if these issues shouldn’t be better left to the realm of story tellers, as I could not do better here than the one of the greatest story tellers ever.