Shakespeare of shit

The original supposedly was posted to Quora, but I can’t find that original source. The tekst is awesome either way. Thanks, Nate White!

A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace - all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing - not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility - for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is - his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults - he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff - the Queensberry rules of basic decency - and he breaks them all. He punches downwards - which a gentleman should, would, could never do - and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless - and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority - perhaps a third - of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:

Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.

You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws - he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

Man wrestles submarine, wins

Yesterday the United States Coast Guard released a video that might as well be a movie-scene: a man hops onto an escaping ‘semi-sub’, slams the hatch and seems to succeslfully pry it open when submarine crew appears, all the while shouting the sub stop at once. Note how the Coast guard describes the location as ‘the pacific area’… That’s half the globe, boys! Anyway, as was vividly described in one of the comments, it must be great to have this job.

Even more interesting is the sub itself ofcourse. It’s used to smuggle cocaine, 17000 pounds in this one. Described as a semi-sub, it is barely submerged but obviously more than enough to make it very difficult to find. Wikipedia has a rather long page on these things, and it turns out it is a very common occurance! Some tech is discussed, such as the bent exhaust pipe seen in the video which helps cool the fumes and thereby make infrared tracking more difficult. There must be an underworld of highly skilled (and highly paid I suspect) engineers coming up with this stuff, and making them in series too it seems. Fantastic.

The article has more gems: the narco torpedo.

This particular “torpedo” was planned to be towed by a fishing vessel.[25] If a patrol ship is spotted, the “torpedo” cargo container is released. While still submerged, it was designed to automatically release a buoy concealed as a wooden log so as to be mistaken for marine debris by authorities. This log-buoy was equipped with a location transmitter system. This allowed the original towing vessel to retrieve the torpedo if the vessel and her crew were released by authorities.

Holy shit. There is some serious thought and engineering in these things. Well, I guess at ~$100M per shipment, no expense needs to be spared.

Power structures

I have a bit of a backlog in topics for posts on this blog and I’m hammering some off right now. One thing I notice is they’re all related to interacting humans, psychology and sociology. Perhaps I should change studies.

No Kings: How Do You Make Good Decisions Efficiently in a Flat Organization? An article on Hackernews where once again the comments are most interesting: they converge on the fact that all ‘flat organizations’ are is organizations with invisible rather than visible power structures. That’s a pity, because it does seem like an attractive idea: pure democracy. I guess there will always be that monkey-part of our brains preventing us from perfecting our societies.

Diversiteit en dokter

Bij het wegwerken van het backlog, een 2 in 1 post.

Diversiteit, een begrip waar ik ingewikkelde relatie mee heb. Mijn probleem met de manier waarop deze discussie gevoerd wordt, en het was leuk te ontdekken dat ik dat gemeen heb met de eerste Nederlandse homorechten-activiste: het wordt benaderd als een whitelist, in plaats van open-by-default. Een $X zou niet moeten hoeven vechten om gelijk behandeld en gerespecteerd te worden, de bias in systeem, samenleving en koppies voor het een of ander moet eruit. In plaats van trouwrechten voor alle genders, gewoon het hele trouwen en bijbehorende voordelen en regelingen afschaffen. Immers, ongetrouwden hebben zo nog steeds een nadeel (of voordeel). Waar dat punt persoonlijk wordt aangestipt in dit verder niet heel beste artikel: diversity of thought. Er is een groep, en in Nederland lijkt deze groot, die ongemakkelijk wordt van hoe ik ben, met name hoe ik denk. Het is heel vaag en lastig uit te leggen, maar ik merk dat (dus met name in Nederland) een bepaald conformisme in termen van denken verwacht wordt, die ik ten eerste niet snap en ten tweede ook niet ambieer. Dit levert conflicten op, doorgaans van het kaliber ‘incompatibele persoonlijkheden’. Ik zal er nu niet verder op ingaan, want ik snap het nog te weinig er veel meer over te zeggen, maar deze term onthou ik even: ‘diversity of thought’. Het jammere van het artikel is de (bijna) gelijkstelling tussen ‘diversity of thought’ en anti-diversiteitsgekkies: dat is in elk geval wat mij betreft het punt niet! Het punt is die lijst ‘geaccepteerde deviaties’. Dit werkt tegen elke nog niet ‘erkende’ ‘afwijking’, terwijl het idee van diversiteit wat mij betreft het wegnemen van vooringenomenheid is, niet zozeer het toevoegen van inclusiviteit. Niet dat ik dat slecht vind hoor, maar het zou jammer zijn als we het daartoe beperkten. Een marsman moet zich hier ook meteen thuisvoelen, zo bedoel ik het, zonder dat er eerst decennia gevochten moet worden voor rechten voor marsmannen/vrouwen/homo/etc (heb je die whitelist weer ;)).

Artikel twee, ook van de NRC, is zo mogelijk nog ernstiger van aard. Falende gezondheidszorg voor een zeer precaire persoon. Wat me hieraan opviel is wat herken uit andere ervaringen: (te)veel hangt af van input van de zieke. Het systeem lijkt participatie te verwachten, terwijl ik juist een expert-oordeel verwacht waar ik behalve feiten niet mijn mening aan bij wil dragen. Dit faalt dan juist bij mensen die die bijdragen ook echt niet kunnen leveren, wanneer die geneigd op het oordeel van de dokter/ondersteuning te vertrouwen, of daar zelfs geheel vanaf hangt. Zou dat niet anders moeten?

Century of the Self

Yesterday I finished viewing the Adam Curtis documentary The Century of the Self. This documentary presents an unusual but very convincing view of the history of democracy in the 20th century. This history is in this view shaped predominantly by the ideas of Sigmund Freud, as put into practice by the hands of Edward Barnays in particular. After having succesfully and durably solved most elementary human needs, people grew beyond being mere workers to become autonomous, vocal, demanding and capable humans, who had new demands beyond housing and food, and expected those demands to be met. As I write this, I realize this last bit is incorrectly summarized: due to the influences of Barnays for initially American industry this feeling of entitlement was engineered. Industry had solved the basics of providing for democracy, and was now worried that markets were saturated and therefore demand would fall, perhaps spectacularly so. They were looking for ways to create new markets, ever-growing markets, and so created, through Barnays, the consumer-economy. In this economy, ever-changing and inconsistent fashion, desires, would guarantee markets forever. I won’t explain further what Adam Curtis very clearly and brilliantly explains himself best in the documentary, which he put on Youtube himself for all to watch: see part 1 here.

A shot where a man argues that people are not in charge, but people’s desires are, seems to be the most fitting one line summary possible. Towards the end, it is shown how first conservatives and through the Third Way labour became politicians catering to these whims. People and parties became a market of consumers and suppliers, rather than a democratic society of citizens and politicians, in the way envisaged by Roosevelt, and I think taught in most schools (mine for sure). It’s a sobering but very convincing view of pretty much the most important thing in the world: the basis for our society. What was not really presented in the documentary was how the desires and whims of the people are influenced. Nowadays all pretense is dropped and we have the profession of influencers, people who try to steer the otherwise often incoherent desires in one direction or the other. Not only commercially, but also politically. Certain pundits, columnists, so-called journalists, are but tools for finding out the best way to pander to voters. Meanwhile people were busy satiating their desires, as Barnays envisaged, the ruling classes could continue to direct the world, because fundamentally, people can’t be trusted with such power (alternatively, people should not really interfere with the course of history, big wallets should).

This puts into perspective my own incline: ultimately we cannot trust our emotions, we must find methods to be rational and measurable. Find out not what politians say, but what they do. See who’s been working for our cause for decades and who didn’t, rather than play the above game. I wonder to what extent the above, the consumerist nature of our societies, is something than can be undone. Is it the Pandora’s Box for which Labour seems to hold it since the Third Way? I’m going to watch more of Adam Curtis to find that out.

Wij discussiëren niet

Godfried Bomans, ik heb hem buiten mijn boekenlijst gehouden, spreekt over Nederlandse fouten, of eigenlijk, onhebbelijkheden. Niet toevallig komen er een aantal punten naar voren die gaan over taal, en met name zijn tweede punt, “wij discussiëren niet”, doet me erg aan mijn ouders denken, maar inderdaad misschien wel aan Nederlanders in het algemeen. Onlangs luisterde ik naar de Klara.be radiodoc over Jane Austen, die het meermaals over “the art of conversation” heeft, en volgens critici inderdaad omwille van de dialoog misschien nog het meest gelezen zou moeten worden, en dat deed me aan hetzelfde denken: ik heb eigenlijk maar weinig gelegenheid mijn spreekvaardigheid te verfijnen. Ik heb helaas geen dichters of schrijvers, of anderszins mensen met een voorkeur voor taal in mijn kennissenkring of familie, misschien is dat de reden dat het me opvalt. Het meest oefende ik nog in de tijd dat ik in de studentenraad zat, daar kwamen, natuurlijk, mensen bovendrijven die de discussie leuk vonden.

Even later zegt Bomans: “wij zijn als de dood voor pathos”. Herken ik ook in het bijzonder. Misschien toch eens wat lezen; helaas biedt de bibliografie op Wikipedia weinig aanknopingspunten. Bijna jaarlijks boeken na zijn dood?

Abram de Swaan

Ooit had ik college van Abram de Swaan, een college waarvoor ik De Mensenmaatschappij moest lezen. Dit boek viel me op wegens zijn toegankelijke stijl en taalgebruik: het las bijna als een roman, terwijl het in weinig bladzijden de hoofdlijnen van samenlevingen schetst. Samenlevingen in het algemeen, met hier en daar wat specifiek detail over de Nederlandse (ik herinner me hoe polders ons tot conformisme dwong). Ik herinner me daarnaast zijn complimenten over de bovengemiddeld geinteresseerde, actieve en slimme groep studenten die wij waren (van de studie Beta-Gamma, niet Sociologie).

Ik ben nooit verder gegaan in de sociologie, maar sindsdien is gebleken dat het een van mijn beroemdste professoren is. Waar weet ik niet meer, maar ik vernam dat zijn studie van samenlevingen niet enkel werk was, het was ook persoonlijk door om te gaan met de samenleving, door bijzondere of belangrijke mensen te kennen (ik kon dit niet aardiger opschrijven), door een mening te hebben over actuele onderwerpen, door mensen uit andere samenlevingen te kennen, en door niet enkel te schrijven voor zijn collegae maar ook een algemener publiek.

Buiten De Mensenmaatschappij heb ik echter nooit meer iets van hemzelf gelezen, en een noot in een artikel in de Groene leidde tot de vaststelling dat hij vaak schreef voor De Gids, en dat die schrijfsels vrij te lezen zijn via (De Digitale Bibliotheek voor de Nederlandse Letteren)[https://www.dbnl.org/auteurs/auteur.php?id=swaa005]! Het eerste dat ik lees is Wetenschap als verhaal waar hij elegant en duidelijk de stijl van het wetenschappelijke artikel verklaart, bekritiseert en toch ook verdedigt. Het artikel zelf is het voorbeeld dat hij wil geven.

Vies Eten en Anti-Israëlische enthousiasmes en de tragedie van het blind proces raad ik ook aan. Ze onderschrijven het beeld van De Swaan als Homo Universalis, een wetenschapper in de wereld, niet los daarvan. Misschien is het geen toeval dat in die studie Beta-Gamma dat beeld expliciet langs kwam en welk ik sindsdien als persoonlijk doel, maar ook als eigenlijk doel voor elke wetenschapper hou: op de universiteit leer je op eerste plaats denken, het specialisme is bijzaak. Mits het een beetje is gelukt dat denken goed onder de knie te krijgen, is het vervolgens overal toepasbaar. Het enige dat vereist is voor onderzoek naar een nieuw gebied is onderzoek naar het nieuwe gebied en een gepaste houding: als je ergens nieuw bent moet je niet te snel van de toren blazen. Aan de andere kant, als je denkwerk aan alle dubbel en crosschecks voldoet, en het resultaat is het blazen waard, blaas dan. Soldaten van de wetenschap zouden hun werk verzuimen, zichzelf en de samenleving niet te goeder trouw zijn als ze hun denkwerk onnodig beperkten of voor zich hielden. Het verband tussen links activisme en antisemitisme dat De Swaan bijvoorbeeld ontdekt moet niet tot de wetenschap beperkt blijven.

De Swaans voorkeur voor Freejazz gaat me iets te ver, maar ik denk dat de Jazzy Chill-Hop die ik beluisterde bij het lezen wel aardig in stijl was.

Third culture

Foreign students don’t feel at home in the Netherlands (Netherland!). Does not quite match the image that exists amongst Dutch natives, as I have experienced it at least in my time in Amsterdam. The source is a Dutch newspaper, so come armed with your Netherlandic skills!

Having been on the receiving end of living a longer period abroad, I suspect this not feeling instantly at home is probably mostly dependent on how different the culture exactly is from the one you came from. I went to France, which is not a large geometric distance, but certainly a larger cultural distance than going to Germany. Most people I know that went abroad went to ‘culturally near’ places like Berlin or the UK, and I imagine that makes easier to feel at home than a Romanian in the Netherlands.

Cultural distance, by the way, is something I’ve never dug into. Is it actually quantifiable? Someone must’ve tried, right? Well, indeed! But can we get some numbers? Here you go! Without having dug into what the number actually mean, from a quick glance I see my personal observations validated: Germany-Netherlands have some of the lowest cultural distance in that dataset (of mostly European countries, and I think only Ukraine-Belarus beats us), at 0.026. The UK comes in at 0.047 and France at 0.065.

I digress. People will, to some degree, not feel at home elsewhere. It’s important to correct our self-image based on data that we are in fact not the Valhalla we tend to tell ourselves we are. It’s of course an uninformed self-image: what makes the Netherlands a Valhalla? What exactly is good, and why? And what not? I think in general people are not really aware of their own culture, outside of some stereotypes. After all, it’s a quantity best seen in contrast to something else, and the more you experience the else, the more you actually know about your original culture.

A related article (Dutch again) was recently published at the NRC: it introduced something I recognize. Although I haven’t lived significant periods in eight different countries, I do experience the Third Culture effect: if you’ve thought about all those different cultural traits you’ve experienced and have experimented with them all and made your own custom synthesis, you have arrived at something new! While in itself it’s a great thing to not just accept a single home culture wholesale but are able to hand pick from a few the parts that you find best, you make yourself different and therefore lose a certain capability to integrate. You don’t even need to go abroad for this, your country or city may have many different subcultures that in practice don’t mingle all that well, because they consider themselves very different. It’s not just a feeling ‘us third culturerers’ feel, you usually notice it through other ‘countrymen’ as well. They see you’ve changed a few parts in your culture, and often… ‘neglect’ is a strong word, but there is some sort of avoidance? An ever so slight look of disapproval? Basically what the foreign students experience I think (I have): it’s not very visible, because there’s a lot shared as well, but in the details it can become quite apparent.

One of the students says:

Ik heb ook in België gewoond. Hun Nederlands is makkelijker uit te spreken, ze hebben beter eten. En ze zijn net iets minder arrogant.

Through my partner I’ve become aware of a few aspects of spoken Dutch that are very unusual (hard-g, variety in vowels, diphthongs) which are less pronounced in the way the Flemish speak Dutch, and therefore easier. In terms of food and arrogance most agree. Another student:

We missen allemaal hetzelfde: het eten en het goede weer.

One of the students writes that the temperature changes makes him sick. I never realized this, but when I lived in Lyon (France), I indeed took a lot less sickleave!

Tunnelvisie

De homobeweging in Nederland, of in elk geval het COC, wilde aanvankelijk geen homohuwelijk, maar relatievrijheid waarbij personen zelf bepaalden welke vorm het huwelijk had, en de overheid slechts de verbintenis vastlegde. Toch is de geschiedenis anders gelopen, en is het homohuwelijk sinds 2001 een feit. Ik heb mijn best gedaan het fragment terug te vinden, maar dat is me niet gelukt: ik herinner me een radiogesprek met een activiste van het eerste uur en die blikte terug dat ze toch niet tevreden is met het homohuwelijk: het is een expliciete ‘whitelist’ van wat mag, terwijl een fundamenteler oplossing het opheffen van de witte lijst is, de relatievrijheid.

Ik zie het wel vaker, of eigenlijk regelmatig: mensen maken stap voor stap (waarde voor waarde) ruimte binnen een categorie. Bij mij duikt het beeld van dimensies op: iemand wordt beschreven met een punt (of wolk, of een andere geometrie, zover heb ik hem nog niet doorgedacht) in een N-dimensionale ruimte. Maar mensen hebben de neiging in discontinue ruimtes te denken, soms is er zelfs maar 1 punt in een bepaalde dimensie (het “tradionele” huwelijk). We hebben er nu een punt bij, het homohuwelijk. Misschien later nog meer, en nemen we dat naar de limiet oneindig, dan hebben we oneindig veel punten en kunnen we een continue ruimte beschrijven, en ik denk wel dat de verscheidenheid van mensen min of meer continue is. Er zullen mensen zijn die met meer dan een partner zouden willen trouwen, met een kat en ga zo nog maar even door. Er zijn natuurlijk beperkingen te verzinnen, zoals trouwen met kinderen, omdat die een grens overschreiden die bijvoorbeeld medisch of psychologisch toch ergens moet liggen. Natuurlijk zijn ook dat voortschreidende inzichten (100 jaar geleden waren dokters het ongetwijfeld eens dat er een medische reden was tegen het homohuwelijk), maar dat neemt niet wel eens over het denken na te denken: in plaats van bepaalde vormen toe te staan, de vorm, binnen de kaders die de rechtstaat elders al definieert, aan de burger zelf te laten, in dit geval dus een (bepaalde mate van) relatievrijheid.

Die discrete ruimte dwingt namelijk naar die discrete punten. De meeste huwelijken zijn hetero, maar zouden ze dat ook zijn als dat niet normaal was? Zelf heb ik meestal weinig belangstelling voor normaliteit, abnormale dingen zijn immers, en hier spreekt misschien mijn wetenschappelijke blik, veel interessanter. Op persoonlijk vlak heb ik geen last van de vorm van het huwelijk, maar wel andere (kleinere) impliciete verwachtingen. Er zijn bijvoorbeeld Nederlandse collega’s die er niet aan wennen dat ik een warme lunch eet. Dan doe ik ‘niet normaal’. Deze gewoonte pikte ik op in Frankrijk (het is veel makkelijker gisteravond iets meer te koken dan nog weer bammetjes te moeten smeren). Fransen die snapten dan weer niets van mijn hekeling van patriotisme, iets wat er daar veel sterker in wordt gegoten. Op zich was dat makkelijker op afstand te houden, immers, ik ben geen Fransman, dus werd dat ook niet op die manier van mij verwacht. Die afstand geeft dus een bepaalde vrijheid. Het zal wel zijn waarom vreemde vogels zoals David Bowie een tijdje in het buitenland gaan wonen, eens even weg van die normaliserende kracht die ze al een leven lang het hoofd moeten bieden.

Als je dan weer ‘terug komt’, dan heb je echter een nieuw probleem: mensen die niet bekend zijn met even afstand nemen, relativeren, en nog altijd in de lokale superioriteit blijven geloven. Daardoor wordt ik wel een beetje bang: wat zie ik ondanks deze ervaring nog over het hoofd? Waar denk ik nog onnodig star over?

Academics in the labour market

Academics in the labour market. Some experiences will follow.

In the past two years my partner, a PhD graduate and a few small postdocs under her belt, has been applying for jobs outside of academia. That in itself usually requires motivation to potential employers, because “why’d you give up your dream”? Well, the reality of an academic career, especially if both partners are academics, is not really a dream. There are many practical issues that you have less if you can work outside of the few places that offer academic jobs in a given country. But let’s assume for now that you can convince the potential employer that publishing papers isn’t your only interest, what’s next? Well, fortunately I have met a few employers that seemed to know what an academic training entails, and has a rough idea of what an academic can do. For most of us, it’s been a varied training of learning technical skills to perform studies, to write scientific papers, to write grants, to present in front of professors, but also first year students, to convince colleagues, to convince bosses, and in general we have a mind habituated to fact-based arguing and we tend to step around personal mismatches automatically and fairly fluidly. We have learned to be creative when tackling problems, because in a sense that is the work of a researcher: at the start we know nothing, perhaps we don’t even have any relevant skill. What we can do is identify our limitations, work on them (taking trainings, read a book or papers, interrogate colleagues and experts, in general “figuring things out”), thereby identifying solutions and work-arounds, such that the goal being worked towards gets closer. Sometimes drastic course changes are taken, after all, there are dead ends, certainly in research, and it’s a skills to see dead ends coming, and to have the courage to realize you’ve been on the wrong track and you must change course. I guess this may sound a bit like a startup, if you’re more familiar with that. In general rules and structure are neglected in favor of creative problem solving. And for that, most academics develop pallet of skills.

There are non-academics that develop similar pallets of skills: a wide and sometimes deep pallet. By no means did I want to imply the above is exclusive to academics, anyone can do that, it’s just that PhD’s and on provide room in most jobs not available to do that. Startups seem similar environments, and of course, they are not rarely staffed by people who might have started their university studies first. The non-academic employers I have spoken with that understood and recognized the above were all self-starters and the CEO of their own business, usually extremely competent at what they were doing. So, where I say academic, perhaps I just mean a person with a certain mix of entrepreneurship, intelligence, persistence, and creativity.

This pallet is however, I am now discovering, not known to or even understood by many other employers. The kind that you’ll find in middle-management of larger companies, or smaller to medium businesses that do not do particularly specialized work (i.e. you might find a number of competitors in the same market). Often, they’re not even clear on the difference between a bachelor and a PhD degree, other than rank. I’ll emphasize I’m not implying anything other than that’s what I’ve experienced. I simply notice these employers usually do not understand what an academic can bring to the table. Perhaps not by chance, they’re also usually not terribly interested. It’s perfectly fair that you, as an employer, seek to fill a well-defined position, and decided to invite an academic over, because they applied too. However, I think it’d be good if employers realized that such potential employees might immediately be interested in improving processes in your company. After all, that is the very thing they’ve been trained to do! And it might benefit you, after all, which employer wouldn’t be interested in increased output, more efficiency and so on. An academic may find these, perhaps in areas where you’ve never thought to look. If you’re looking for replaceable workers for your factory, an academic is probably not a good fit.

Some employers think academics have little experience, and need to be trained. They, like a high school student, will need to work for a while before they’ll be able to add value. Well, depending on your company, that may be true! However, it betrays a lack of understanding of what an academic is, which I’ll agree is a term with a lot of variance. In vernacular an academic mindset may indicate a lack of output, too much focus on theory and not enough on work. That is a fair critique. After all, improving your business, as opposed to running it, is more in line with the competences of an academic. Many companies, it turns out, are not looking to improve anything, they’re just looking to run it. In my opinion, that makes it unlikely that you know how to take advantage of the skills of an academic. Maybe it would be more correct to say that it is an effect of a highly compartmentalized company, which most larger ones are. Manager X, who’s placed the vacancy through HR on the website, is responsible for, say, production of widget Y, and is not in charge of improving the production of widget Y, let alone hiring or interviewing for it. So, they’ll see a natural division between production and development, where most academics would not see, or particularly like, the division.

Since the end of my current academic position is coming up within the year, I though it would be a good idea to start getting good at applications now, while there is still plenty of time. Until recently, I’d never applied outside of academia, so until recently all of the above was unknown to me. It’s been very educating to go through it myself, and to learn what employers typically ask, and how they are different. Mean and sigma. Another thing I didn’t know: my gut is pretty good at picking up signs. Sometimes there are clues in the way things are organized, things are approached or said that tell give you a bad or good feeling. Sometimes you catch one of those off signs, but because you’re applying you want to succeed you may bury it and focus your convincing skills on the win. However, so far I’ve learned that this is a bad case of letting ego in the way: these signals usually add up in one direction, and are dead-on. In one application, I made it to the last end of the last round and suddenly they asked my opinion about uncompensated, structural overwork. At that point, I realized I had already spotted a whole series of clues but had failed to add them up because I was too eager to get the offer. This question crystallized the pattern in front of me, and actually corroborated a story with with that employer had been in the news recently. At that moment, I realized that that was the only question they had for that interview. That interview was a major revelation, also because the position (scientific programmer) was misadvertised as a creative and free, whereas it turned out, in the final minutes of the final interview, to be all about production, and then some more production. I felt like I’d levelled up in spotting ‘the right kind’ of employers that day.

I’ve felt most drawn to employers who’d ask me what I could do for them, rather than asking me if I could do what they ask of me. The best (and most academic!) interview I’ve had so far was with a very commercial, and very small (and I suspect very profitable) company run by a non-academic. He actually had me talk at length about my research, which of course I was happy to do, focused on the relevant software dev parts of it. The company felt a bit like a research group, where people had different expertises and they came together to tackle the challenges in the world of their product. Since then, I’ve been in a few other places that had a same sense of openness and curiosity, and where pursuing your hunches was encouraged. That is I think the type of company most fit for an academic: a place where all parties are naturally curious and looking to make best use of each others resources. I learned that anything that does not fit the above, is very likely to be a sign the place is no good for the academic type. If an employers lowballs your salary (because ‘you need to be trained’), it conveys a similar sign: he probably has no idea of what you can do! So then, don’t work there.

Writing this up made me realize something: an academic probably likes a versatile job, and highly compartmentalized businesses (in the sense that departments don’t ‘interfere’ with each other) are likely to require ‘unversatile’ workers, and therefore may be a bad fit. An academic should probably look for freedom and curiosity, which may be found in larger companies or institutes, but perhaps especially in smaller companies ran by smart and curious self-starters. There will be room, even the expectation, that you’ll pursue new avenues in order to improve or increase business. These are they places where you’ll find other people with larger pallets, or at least the ability to understand them, and the need to keep you pallet growing!

I still have 10 months to go on my current contract, and I expect to develop my understanding and skills more. Not that I expect anyone to read this, but in case you have insights, don’t hesitate to sends them though my brand new contact form!