Journeyman of Some

Combined Stream

103 thoughts
last posted Jan. 12, 2018, 11:11 a.m.
get stream as: markdown or atom
To add your thoughts on this topic
Sign Up Now
(it’s free)

A few weeks ago, I had a great example of an interest that consumed my attention for a day but didn't last beyond that.

My wife and I went to the ballet.

I've always had this happen with ballet: I get obsessed with it briefly and then my interest fades. Back when I was 8 or 9 I attended my younger sister's ballet performance and wanted to become a dancer. It never went anywhere. A couple of times as an undergraduate, I went to the ballet. Always loved it at the time but nothing ever came of it.

So anyway, we went the ballet a few weeks ago. When I came home I spent hours reading up on terminology, watching videos of great dancers doing particular moves. I was obsessed. For just that day.

I woke up the next day and went back to Greek and linguistics. Maybe Carl Djerassi would call that the equivalent of meeting up with the same person every few years for just one night.


One interesting taxonomic exercise relevant to this entire stream would be to categorize the thousands of webpages in my browser reading list and bookmarks.


So clearly color science is a different type of interest for me than cosmology is.

It's a recurring, supporting interest that continues to crop up in a few different contexts. I rarely actively seek to learn about it for its own sake but it's always enjoyable when I come across it in the context of another pursuit and I can strengthen my knowledge of it.

Is it possible I could go through a phase where I just want to focus all my time on color science? Possibly.

But it's also an example of where I can reduce too much churn and trading-off of other interests by recognizing that color science (and particularly the sorts of things I've talked about above) is something I enjoy learning about and which contributes to my understand of a bunch of other things but it need not itself be a driving passion of mine.

That said, it's not easy to put under a single persona.


It's clearly been a long running interest but, as a whole, it's a supporting interest.

I'm interested in color as it relates to computer graphics, digital photography, digital cinematography, astrophotography.

And as is often the case, it's the mathematical / computational modeling of the subject that particular interests me. So for example, I'm always interested in reading about color spaces.


Anyway, I'm noting all this down as part of an exploration of how my interests in this area have manifested and how I might then fit them all into a general model of my interests and passions.


In my old blog I did a number of posts about color, the notion of "primary colors" and color correction in photography.


I've implemented Ward's "A Contrast-Based Scalefactor for Luminance Display" and Green's "A colour scheme for the display of astronomical intensity images".


As a videographer, I became very interested in color modeling in video formats (e.g. what 4:1:1, 4:2:0 and 4:4:4 mean).

I've studied color correction / grading in cinematography.


Technically (and I chuckled when I realized this in the context of writing these thoughts) I'm even a published author in the field via a co-author credit in Journal of Imaging Science and Technology. Admittedly I was credited due to helping with the web development but one of my co-authors was Graham Finlayson, arguably one of the world's top experts in color perception and the computational modeling of it.


Doing computer graphics on my computer as a pre-teen I kept up my interest in color.

Running a desktop-publishing business in high school I learnt a lot about color from a printing point of view. This came up again in the mid-to-late nineties when I managed the publications unit at a university.

When I was 15, a couple of friends and I came 2nd in a state science competition for an experiment on the role color plays in reaction times.

When I came to the US in early 1996 to do an internship at Sun Labs, I remember they had a video library on technical topics including a few on color.


My interest in color goes back a long way.

I remember around the age of six or seven being confused as to whether the "primary colors" were red, green and blue like my science books said or red, yellow and blue like my teacher said in art.

At around eight I distinctively remember searching through books at a college library looking for one that would tell me the frequencies of each color of light. I don't recall why I wanted to know this though :-)


Another interest that crops up from time to time is the cluster of color theory / colorimetry, etc that relates to the physics, perception and computer modeling of color.

That's an interesting one to try to "fit in" to my other interests and personas.


Each of these gives me a direction far more important than the endpoint. They define vectors.

Or put in GTD terms: they reveal a Next Action in each interest so you can stop worrying about the final goal and just focus on the Next Action.


The Cambridge Mathematical Tripos Part III is a perfect example.

It matters far less to me whether I ever do it than simply using it as a path I want to head down with my study of mathematics.

Similarly with wine. Goal: become a Master of Wine. It gives me a path. Music theory: do a licentiate diploma at somewhere like TCL or AMEB.


Talking with the same friend about goals...

I have a very love-hate relationship with goals. There are plenty of "self-help" "life-coach" types that swear by them as if they're the single biggest factor in success.

Stephen Fry, on the other hand, has said "the worse thing you can ever do in life is set yourself goals; goal orientation is absolutely disastrous in life".

Fry goes on to point out that the problem is if you don't meet your goals, you consider yourself a failure and if you do meet your goals, you're left wondering "well now what?" and no happier than you were.

I find myself very persuaded by Fry's point but I do still set goals of sorts.

But as I explained to my friend, I don't consider them destinations to reach but merely directions to head at the moment.

They are a compass point, not a terminus.


What's particularly neat about this is I can construct a pyramid of interests so the foundation is fairly broad ... and narrows to the specialization I'm interested in as you go up.

James, may we risk saying that cosmology generates one of your principal ideals?


Before moving on to another topic with a different pattern, let me just follow up with some thoughts about goals and progress in the GR/cosmology-focused interest in mathematics.

Unlike wine or music theory, it may seem like there's not as obvious a progression or end-goal, but for me I think there actually is.

For quite a number of years, I've had in the back of my mind a possible (albeit challenging even if just from a lifestyle point of view) goal of doing Part III of the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos. It's a very difficult, taught-Masters course that allows for a focus specifically on GR / cosmology (as well as many other alternatives) at pretty much exactly the level I'd eventually like to get to. (I've long abandoned doing a PhD in theoretical physics.)

Even if I never actually do the Part III, I can use it as the basis for my own private study and progression. It's possible to work backwards through the course prerequisites to a set of Part II courses, then Part IB courses, then Part IA courses.

What's particularly neat about this is I can construct a pyramid of interests so the foundation is fairly broad (although still not all of 1st-year mathematics) and narrows to the specialization I'm interested in as you go up.

Here's what a possible progression might look like based on the current Cambridge Mathematical Tripos:

Part IA (1st term)

  • Vectors & Matrices
  • Differential Equations
  • Groups

Part IA (2nd term)

  • Vector Calculus
  • Dynamics & Relativity
  • Analysis I

Part IB (1st term)

  • Methods
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Linear Algebra

Part IB (2nd term)

  • Complex Methods
  • Electromagnetism
  • Geometry
  • Groups, Rings and Modules
  • Variational Principles

Part II Michaelmas (1st term)

  • Classical Dynamics
  • Electrodynamics
  • Principles of Quantum Mechanics
  • Cosmology

Part II (2nd term)

  • Statistical Physics
  • General Relativity
  • Further Complex Methods

Part III (1st term)

  • Cosmology
  • General Relativity
  • Quantum Field Theory
  • (possibly) Symmetries, Fields and Particles

Part III (2nd term)

  • Advanced Cosmology
  • Black Holes

It's possible to get a syllabus, recommended readings and, in some cases, lecture notes for these.


Let me go through a few examples in my own life.

Mathematics is often near the top of my lists of interests. During high school, I was a silver medalist in the Australian Mathematics Olympiad and was probably in the top 10–20 in the country (although not good enough to make the team for the International Mathematics Olympiad). I only say this to justify that I at least had a shot of making a career in the field. At university, I started off majoring in mathematics and physics with an eye to being a theoretical physicist.

My choice of mathematics units (where I had a choice) strongly favored pure mathematics, but I think that was in part because "applied" mathematics in my course didn't mean things like theoretical physics but more things like dynamic programming and operations research. I much preferred topics like group theory over numerical methods.

But over the twenty years that followed, what I kept coming back to (and buying books on) was the mathematical foundation of general relativity and, to a lesser extent, quantum mechanics.

I'd read lots of books on differential geometry but I realized my interest waned dramatically if it wasn't relevant to understanding general relativity.

So really, my interest in mathematics can be far more precisely subsumed in saying my interest is in general relativity and cosmology.

That alone summarizes my shallow, broad interest in mathematics in general, my deeper interest in linear algebra, my even deeper interest in tensors, etc.

I could even get excited in numerical methods nowadays, if the application were computational relativity and cosmology.

This also summarizes my particular interests within physics and my deeper interest in astrophysics; why I'm interested in quantum physics but less so its practical aspects.

So rather than list 10–15 or so interests across mathematics and physics, I can probably just say cosmology and neatly cover everything.

Well, almost everything because there are still areas of mathematics that might be a necessary foundation for another interests outside of cosmology or physics all together.


Here are some questions I think are useful asking:

  • why are you interested in X?
  • is your interest actually more general than X?
  • is your interest actually more specific than X?
  • is your interest in X just because of some property it has and it's actually that property you're interested in?
  • is your interest in X just because it's a useful foundation for another interest Y?

Talking with a friend and fellow multipotentialite/multipassionate recently got me thinking again about procedures for refining / clustering interests.

I have a list I made a couple of years ago with 72 interests on it but I now tend to think more in terms of 5–6 "personas". Those don't fully cover the 72 interests but they largely do.

There are a few strategies that led to the reduction, some of which I've talked about in this stream before but I wanted to try to really pin them down.


Recently saw this on twitter:

There's an inverse relationship between the number of things you try to be good at and the success you experience. Do fewer things better.

While I agree focus is vital for business, the above is anathema to the multipotentialite/multipassionate/scanner/expert-generalist in their personal lives and I've been so much happier in my life since ignoring advice like the above.


I've recently become very interested in Big History because it's another clustering of certain interests of mine—cosmology, molecular biology, economics, complex systems—that would otherwise be difficult to slot into macro interest clusters.


As mentioned a few times above, I find it helpful to group multiple interests together into clusters: subjects that work well together. It not only makes it easier to make associations between things but it's less stressful thinking of 4–5 "macro" interests than 20 "micro" interests.

For example: Ancient Greek, linguistics, learning science, educational technology, coding are one cluster (and I have dedicated to that cluster).

Some interests span multiple clusters. I've already mentioned above how often an interest in education and computational modelling cross cuts interests.

Sometimes that actually helps focus. For example, I've decided a big focus of my interest in wine will be wine education and applying learning science, computational modelling, etc to help teach about wine online (see for the result).


I just got back from a conference in Lyon, my third academic conference this year.

Most people think it's strange I attend (and sometimes speak at) academic conferences that aren't part of my job.

Some of the academics at this last conference, when they found out, also thought it was strange but they at least seemed excited for me.

One thing that quickly becomes clear: people are so used to wanting to know your affiliation and it can thoroughly confuse them when you don't have one.


Wapnick identifies the three superpowers of the multipotentialite as being:

  1. Idea Synthesis
  2. Rapid Learning
  3. Adaptability

Wapnick's term is "multipotentialite".


At 3:10 Wapnick suggests:

Ask yourself where you learn to assign the meaning of "wrong" or "abnormal" to doing many things?


Creativity and learning cure burnout.

Involvement in a fascinating project will heal you.


Do you have a lot of books lying around that you haven't finished?

What makes you think you haven't finished them?

You're not done when the author says you are. Publishers require a certain number of pages in a book.

Your brain doesn't.


Scanners can't chose one direction. It's like telling a parent to chose one child to feed. It's just not possible. A parent knows she has to feed all her children. And a Scanner must find a way to follow every path that interests her.


Scanners are often torn between needing variety and wanting to be experts in in field.

Few of them realize it's possible to be an authority in a number of fields.


When you lose interest in something, you must always consider the possibility that you've gotten what you came for, and you have completed your mission.


A Scanner's main source of energy and joy is learning, discovering, sleuthing, creating.


An enlightened Scanner is always careful to put her toe in the water instead of taking out a loan to buy the lake.


If Scanners didn't think they should limit themselves to one field, 90 percent of their problems would cease to exist.


I can tell you exactly what to do if you're a scanner.

Do everything that interests you.


Just do the parts you love the most.


A while back I said I'd quote from Barbara Sher's book Refuse to Choose but that I really disliked her term "Scanner". I'm going to post some of my favourite quotes from her brief e-book Thinking Through Refuse to Choose: 101 Things Every Scanner Should Know but you'll just have to, like me, mentally search-and-replace "Scanner" for your preferred term...


Embarrassed to say I've only just come across the term "multipassionate".


I'm working on a wine quiz site so perhaps I'll eventually be able to do a psychometric study (at least covering the theory side).


That ordering has a psychometric basis but the Wine qualifications could anecdotally be ordered something like:

WSET 1 << WSET 2 << CMS 1 < CSW < WSET 3 < CMS 2

The CSE would be between WSET 3 / CMS 2 and WSET 4 / CMS 3 as would be the FWS, etc. I'm not sure how the CSE and FWS place relative to each other, nor how the WSET 4 places relative to the CMS 3.

The CMS 4 (MS) and MW would obviously both place higher than the CMS 3 and WSET 4 but I wouldn't want to speculate on ordering between them.

So tentatively:

WSET 1 << WSET 2 << CMS 1 < CSW < WSET 3 < CMS 2 < {CSE, FWS} << {WSET 4, CMS 3} << {MW, CMS 4}.


One study (cited on the CEFR Wikipedia page) orders CEFR / ACTFL as:

NL << NM < A1 << NH << A2/IL <<< IM < B1 << IH << B2 < AL << AM < C1 << AH << C2 < S


One suggested mapping is:

  • ILR Level 0 → ACTFL Novice → CEFR A1
  • ILR Level 1 → ACTFL Intermediate → CEFR A2 / B1
  • ILR Level 2 → ACTFL Advanced → CEFR B2
  • ILR Level 3 → ACTFL Superior → CEFR C1
  • ILR Level 4 → ACTFL Distinguished → CEFR C2

Another is:

  • CEFR A1 → ACTFL Novice → ILR Level 0/0+/1
  • CEFR A2 → ACTFL Intermediate → ILR Level 1+
  • CEFR B1 → ACTFL Advanced low → ILR Level 2
  • CEFR B2 → ACTFL Advanced mid → ILR Level 2+
  • CEFR C1 → ACTFL Advanced high → ILR Level 3/3+
  • CEFR C2 → ACTFL Superior → ILR Level 4

The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) levels:

  • A — Basic User
    • A1 — Breakthrough or beginner
    • A2 — Way stage or elementary
  • B — Independent User
    • B1 — Threshold or intermediate
    • B2 — Vantage or upper intermediate
  • C — Proficient User
    • C1 — Effective operational proficiency or advanced
    • C2 — Mastery or proficiency

The ILR levels are:

  • Level 0 — No proficiency
  • Level 1 — Elementary proficiency
  • Level 2 — Limited working proficiency
  • Level 3 — Professional working proficiency
  • Level 4 — Full professional proficiency
  • Level 5 — Native or bilingual proficiency

The ACTFL levels are:

  • novice (further split into low, mid, high)
  • intermediate (further split into low, mid, high)
  • advanced (further split into low, mid, high)
  • superior
  • distinguished

They are defined (and hence are assessable) separately for listening, speaking, reading and writing.


One other subject that has (multiple) proficiency levels is language learning.

Systems include:


It occurred to me that perhaps music grades and diplomas in the UK are mapped to the QCF too and sure enough they are:

  • QCF Level 1 = Grades 1, 2, 3
  • QCF Level 2 = Grades 4, 5
  • QCF Level 3 = Grades 6, 7, 8
  • QCF Level 4 = AMus
  • QCF Level 6 = LMus
  • QCF Level 7 = FMus

For the diplomas, this fits with my earlier assumptions mentioned above.


Although my three-year postgraduate diploma in Greek has units labeled "beginner", "intermediate", and "advanced" that would be levels 4–6 if done at undergraduate level, they are all called level 7 when done as part of a postgraduate diploma.

This seems a shortcoming in the system.


So the WSET Level 3 is basically the "A-level" of wine :-)


The Qualifications and Credit Framework levels, mapped to school / university qualifications are:

  • Level 1/2 = GCSE
  • Level 3 = A-level
  • Level 4/5/6 = Bachelor's Degree
  • Level 7 = Master's Degree
  • Level 8 = Doctorate

I recently discovered that the "levels" of awards at WSET are the levels in the UK (minus Scotland) 's Qualifications and Credit Framework.


I tweeted yesterday:

That probably applied to a number of subjects.

It fits what I've said earlier about being interested in both the pedagogical and computational modeling aspects of many things.


Back in 2005, I took a week off work to attend SxSW (more for film and music than the interactive). At the time I blogged:

Yesterday at work, people kept wishing me well for my vacation. It was strange because I don't feel like I'm going on vacation. I feel like I'm switching to one of my other careers full-time for a week. Attending all three streams of SxSW (film, music and interactive) for a total of ten days isn't what I'd call a vacation. At least as fun. But not "vacation".

(emphasis added)


In November 2011, I did a site redesign and that's when I came up with the four-fold Technology, Entrepreneur, Scholar, Artist.

Gone (at least from every page on my site) was Extreme Programming and Genealogy; Record Producing and Engineering just became Record Producing; New Testament Greek became Ancient Greek; General Relativity was combined into Mathematics.

But two thirds of the list from 2004 essentially remained intact.


In November 2010 (the list stayed constant that long) I removed Italian and Go. Not due to lack of interest but certainly lack of activity.

Becoming fluent in Italian and achieving shodan in Go were still on my list of life goals.


Nothing changed until February 2007 when I added two new interests: Economics and Computational Neuroscience.

Updating the list to include those seems to have been triggered by a PyCon session I chaired.

I'd been interested in the brain and artificial intelligence since my teens (although clearly not enough to have mentioned them on my lists of interests until this point) but I think what got me back into it in 2005 was Jeff Hawkins's book On Intelligence.

I'd been blogging about economic topics since 2005 too, it just took me until early 2007 (triggered by the PyCon session) to mention it explicitly in my list of interests.


Around April 2005, I added Italian to that list. I had just started learning the language.

Around June 2005, I dropped Extreme Programming and added Software Craftsmanship (to this day my preferred term encompassing software development topics).


By 2004, I had a different approach to listing interests but had the following:

  • Python
  • Linguistics
  • Music Theory
  • Music Composition
  • Extreme Programming
  • Record Producing and Engineering
  • New Testament Greek
  • General Relativity
  • Mathematics
  • Filmmaking
  • Genealogy
  • Go

A remarkably robust list although interesting that I went back to Extreme Programming here.

The Linguistics page mentioned:

  • Formal Syntactic Theory
  • Morphology (including morphological inference)
  • Dependency Grammar
  • computational linguistics
  • Corpus Linguistics
  • New Testament Greek

Some of those additions (like Tolkien, Tintin, Computer Graphics) weren't new interests. They were just obvious omissions in earlier lists.

It's interesting seeing what was just a "fad" for me versus what's stayed.

Description Logics, Aspect-Oriented Programming, Conceptual Information Modeling would probably only have made my list of interests for a brief period.

XML, RDF, Web Services, Semantic Web were a big part of my life for a number of years but haven't really been for over a decade. I might say Linked Data now, though.

Biological modeling was only there briefly but it's come back in different forms as I've developed what specifically it is in that area that I'm interested in.

My linguistic, mathematical and musical interests have at their core stayed remarkably constant, though.


By early 2003, I'd tweaked the list a little.

Some interesting removals: no more C#, not more OOA/OOD or Conceptual Information Modeling, no more A Capella Singing, Sound Engineering / Mixing gave way to Record Producing, Extreme Programming gave way to Agile Software Development, no more Philosophy of Science, no more Science and Mathematics Education.

Computer Science / Software Engineering additions included: Description Logics, Aspect-Oriented Programming, Computer Graphics

Linguistics additions were Morphology and Hellenistic Greek.

Mathematics additions were Algebra and Topology.

Music additions were Prokofiev.

Filmmaking additions were Visual Effects and Sound Design.

Other additions: Tolkien, Tintin, Biological Modeling.


I mention above that a few years ago I labeled the broad areas of interest to me as:

  • technologist
  • entrepreneur
  • scholar
  • artist

and further split scholar into:

  • linguistics
  • ancient greek
  • mathematics
  • music theory

Looking at what I said my interests were on my website back in 2002, you can see them all there.

In mid-2002, I was listing my specific linguistic interests as Formal Syntactic Theory, Dependency Grammar, Computational Linguistics; my specific mathematical interests as Differential Geometry, General Relativity; as well as music theory I had Composition and, less scholarly, A Capella Singing, Piano, Bass Guitar, Sound Engineering / Mixing; I had New Testament Greek under a Christianity category (along with New Testament Manuscripts, Neo-Orthodoxy, First-Century Church, New Testament Theology); I had Filmmaking and specifically Production Management, Cinematography, Editing.

Under a broad Computing category I had Web (XML, RDF, Web Services, Semantic Web), Modeling (OOA/OOD, Conceptual Information Modeling), Software Development (Extreme Programming, Open Source Software), and Languages (Python, Java, C#).

I also had a Philosophy of Science, Science and Mathematics Education and Genealogy and Go.


Interestingly, the WSET Level 3 is called "Advanced" just like the CMS Level 3 although the latter is obviously considerably harder. This also fits my earlier five level system of: beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert, master.

There is a WSET Level 4 which is considered a Diploma.

Although not a WSET qualification, the Master of Wine requires a WSET Level 4. In this sense, a Master of Wine is basically a kind of Level 5 so it really does fit the "beginner, intermediate, advanced, expert, master" model.


I forgot to mention here that back in November, 2015, I enrolled in the WSET Level 3 Award in Wine and Spirits.

Unlike the Court of Master Sommeliers exams beyond level 1, the WSET awards don't have a service component so they are actually far better suited to me.

I started with the Level 3 because it's roughly the same level as the CMS Level 1 (although does have a blind-tasting component).


An article back in 2009 in Intelligent Life, entitled The Last Days of the Polymath has an interesting (if slightly uncomfortable) analogy to help distinguish dabbling in topics from depth in multiple topics.

“Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas,” [Carl Djerassi] says. “I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity."

“To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.”

Not sure I feel entirely comfortable using the analogy myself but the distinction certainly makes sense.


Passed my Introductory Sommelier exam yesterday. Inspired even more to do my level 2 now (although that's as far as I can go not working in the industry).

As discussed above, my natural inclination is to think about both computational modelling and pedagogy of any subject I'm interested in and wine is no exception :-)


I have a life goal of getting my level 2 Somm certification and I'm sitting my level 1 in exactly four weeks.


The Court of Master Sommeliers has four levels.

  • level 1 — an introductory course covering what they view anyone serving wine as needing to know
  • level 2 — "Certified Sommelier" which is the minimum they view a dedicated sommelier as needing to know
  • level 3 — "Advanced Sommelier" — when I went to a Michelin 3-star restaurant last year, the somm was a level 3
  • level 4 — "Master Sommelier" world class, fewer than 250 in the world.

There's a great documentary, Somm, about a group of level 3s studying and going for their level 4.


Under AMEB, the theory of music exams actually only go to up to grade 6 before the Associate level.

It's interesting that music has such an established progression of grades.

Few other subjects have that, at least in a way that's accessible to autodidacts.


Even that falls down the moment you consider something like music theory. In Australia, my understanding is an Associate diploma is roughly equivalent to early undergrad and a Licentiate diploma to an undergrad major. That means in the scheme on the previous thought, there are 8 grades before what I've called "beginner".


My instinct is something along the following lines (at least applied to academic subjects):

  • beginner — early undergrad
  • intermediate — undergrad major
  • advanced — graduate study
  • expert — assistant professor
  • master — full professor

It does still raise the question in my mind of "how expert" you need to be.

I was very careful in my original description to talk about "diverse interests that I've pursued to a level I would say is beyond an apprenticeship but has not yet reached (and will likely never reach) mastery."

I still think "expert" gets a little too close to "mastery" for me but I understand that might be relative.

I'm highly reluctant to attribute the term "expert" to myself in the context of any of my interests, whether linguistics or Greek or general relativity or music theory.

I would say I'm at most at grad-student level in each of those. I don't think that earns me the "expert" badge.


I was pointed to this article about Charlie Munger by @paltman who kindly said he thought of me when he read it.

The article talks about Munger as an expert generalist, a term it attributes to Orit Gadiesh.

The term expert generalist is, I think, a pretty good attempt to describe what I've been talking about here. The "expert" adequately highlights that we're not just talking about a jack-of-all trades generalist but the "generalist" contrasts with a specialist in just one area.

I Googled around and there are a few articles talking about the expert generalist in this sense.


That's partly what made MITx's 7.00x MOOC so great for me: it was an "Introduction to Biology" course entirely focused on biochemistry and molecular biology.


Molecular biology, though, is a great example where I have a very specific interest and only have an interest in the broader field to the extent needed to support the specific.

It would be misleading to say I'm interested in "biology" because, to first order, it's only really biochemistry and molecular biology I'm interested in.


It does omit my interest in molecular biology (and, as with anything, the computational aspects thereof) but that doesn't feel at the same level as the four above (yet).


The "scholar" category that I further subdivided into:

  • linguistics
  • ancient greek
  • mathematics
  • music theory

That has proven to be a very robust categorization of my scholarly interests.


A few years ago I categorized my interests into four main areas:

  • technologist
  • entrepreneur
  • scholar
  • artist

The Geek Code was one early attempt at a machine-readable statement of interests and expertise.

I remember having one at some point, perhaps I should recalculate it (although it's so frozen in the mid-90s :-) )


The profile form at the Linguistics Society of America lists 32 subfields and many specific languages and language families.


The Association for Computing Machinery also has a Computing Classification System.


The American Mathematical Society has a massive Mathematics Subject Classification.


For example, the Society for Classical Studies (recently renamed from the American Philological Association, which is a whole other topic for discussion) identifies 74 "Areas of Expertise" within Classics.

Using this list I would express my primary interests as:

  • A27 Language and Linguistics
  • A33 Greek Manuscripts / Editions
  • A35 Methodology / Pedagogy
  • A39 Electronic Media

And maybe secondarily as:

  • G08 Greek Philosophy
  • G13 Hellenistic Greek Literature
  • G14 Imperial Greek Literature
  • A28 Metrics
  • A31 Science

Many learned societies (certainly the ones I'm a member of) categorize the sub-fields within their field.


One thing I've learnt is to look for the topics I keep coming back to again and again. I do sometimes get interested in something for a short period of time and never return to it. But there are a core group of subjects I keep coming back to, even after breaks of a few years.

Of course, sometimes I can't tell if a subject I'm on hiatus from is one I'll ever go back to. But I just run with it. If I never return, that's fine.


A joke that those who have lived with me have made for many years is that, when I first get interested in a topic, an Amazon box will soon arrive with the top three or five* books on that topic.

* the exact number varies with the joke teller.


Categorizing your interests is related to any kind of taxonomy of knowledge, in particular book classification in libraries.

I also love researching the best books on a topic. I think I would have made an excellent acquisitions librarian at a University Library :-)


But my problem with the term gets to the heart of why I coined the phrase "journeyman of some". To me, "generalist" or "scanner" sounds like "jack of all trades". A "specialist" sounds like "master of one".

The "some" is very important in "journeyman of some".


One thing I didn't like about Refuse to Choose is that the author's term for the people she's describing is "Scanner". To me that has even worse negative connotations than "generalist".

That said, the book says helpful stuff so when I quote it, you'll just have to excuse the term "scanner" :-)


In fact, it's probably true for almost all of my interests that I'd like to teach the subject more than anything else (with writing software for it a close second).


Take for example, one of my interests for over 15 years: the mathematics of general relativity.

I'm very interested in doing differential geometry on a computer and I'm very interested in how to teach differential geometry.

I have over 20 textbooks on general relativity and what fascinates me most is the differences and similarities in the approaches they take to teaching the subject (and particularly the foundational mathematics).


Two things are common across a wide variety of my interests:

  • a desire to model the concepts computationally
  • a desire to teach the concepts in a structured way

One thing I've been thinking a lot about in the last year is how to characterize my particular interests, how to think of ways of narrowing down my focus in some areas or how to combine interests into themes.

I've also started to think of some interests as really just "supporting" interests: not things I want to pursue for their own sake but merely because they are prerequisites or useful backgrounds to what I'm really interested in.


Recently I read a wonderful book Refuse to Choose which finally cemented my decision to embrace my varied interests and to not feel I've robbed myself by not picking just one.

I'll come back to that book again in this stream, I'm sure.


For most of my adult life I've wrestled with the question: would I have succeeded at X if X is all I did?

Values for X have included: theoretical physicist, entrepreneur, linguist, game developer, New Testament scholar, composer, cinematographer, and more.

What would success mean for each of these anyway?


There are a few things I'd like to explore in this stream.

  • autodidacticism, particularly in the online age
  • the amateur (particular the amateur scholar)
  • whether you can succeed without the "focus" everyone says you need in just one thing
  • the perspective an interdisciplinary background can give you
  • how to describe and classify interests and how to rank one's depth in them
  • the benefits and dangers of setting goals relating to this
  • patterns and commonalities in my interests

Back in 2005, I wrote a blog post I quote in full here:

Multiclassing versus single classing in RPGs and real life

Sometimes I think about alternative paths I could have followed vocationally and the steps I would take to get there if I were much younger and making that choice now. It's almost like creating a new character in a role-playing game: "I'll start off as a economics undergraduate and then after five levels I'll switch to the prestige class Austrian Economist and go on a quest for Bigby's Prize in Honour of Alfred Nobel".

In RPGs, if you feel your character "concept" isn't working, you can go back and start a new one. Of course, that's much harder to do in real life, although some people do go back to undergraduate studies for a complete change in career.

I'm clearly multiclassing in real life. After getting a couple of levels in Mathematician, I switched over and progressed three or four in Linguist. Then I went and levelled up in Technologist a good eight or ten levels (the first few specialising in the schools of Web and XML but then also adding Python and Open Source). Somewhere along the way I picked up a level in Filmmaking and a couple in Music.

Progression as a multiclass character is much slower because you're a jack journeyman of some.

Oddly enough, very few of my pen-and-paper RPG characters have ever been truly multiclass. They've either completely been in one class or had a few initial levels in one then made a permanent switch.

I think I'm attracted to the singular focus of just one class but, without the ability to go back and start a new character in real life, I've decided multiclassing is the way to go for me.


I've never liked any attempt by others at classifying me as a science vs humanities person. Or business vs technology for that matter.


I've actually come to really like "amateur" in its original sense of one pursuing something (perhaps very deeply) just for the love of it.


I've been called a "generalist", a term I first saw Ted Nelson describe himself with.

I'm not a huge fan of the term for myself because I do consider myself quite specialized in some of the areas I've chosen to pursue (it's one thing to say I like mathematics, but I have a particular interest in differential geometry) and "generalist" has always seemed to carry the negative "lack of depth" rather than the positive "breadth".


I don't think I'm deserving of "renaissance man" and "polymath" is a bit of a stretch too.


10 years ago, when I started blogging, I coined the term journeyman of some to describe myself.

I explained it as follows:

You've heard the expression "jack of all trades, master of none"? Well, I'm kind of in the middle. I have a number of diverse interests that I've pursued to a level I would say is beyond an apprenticeship but has not yet reached (and will likely never reach) mastery.

I'm not a jack of all trades.

I'm not a master of none.

I'm a journeyman of some.