Specialist vs. Generalist

Humanity seems to have a love affair with specialization, yet curiously almost all specialists work for generalists. Do you assume bosses makes more because they are worth more? Do you think specialists make the breakthroughs that change the world? Are both points of view correct? Can a person be both?

Here is a completely admittedly non-comprehensive set of perspectives. You might say why do I want to read anything that is not comprehensive? I counter with when was the last time you had the time to read anything that was? And in an Internet Knowledge Age would it even be possible anyway? So get used to smaller snippets and hopefully choose ones with insights.

Qualifying this Perspective 

After attending school full time until the age of twenty-seven, then working for several more decades, I have achieved some measure of expertise as technical specialist at Bose, Apple and DARPA.  Primarily I have had a professional life functioning at the intersection of innovation, physics, engineering, sound and music. Additionally having founded technology companies and the Silicon Valley Innovation Institute, I became a generalist managing specialists. Having been a college dean, department chair and faculty member, I found in academia many people end up playing both roles. Simply living several decades exposes one to large numbers of both.


The bottom line is one must collaborate, for none can be specialists in everything, nor manage everything we are involved with at the same time. From time to time we run into people who think they can, an excellent reason to believe in karmic payback.

In no particular order are some unintended ramifications of our general worshipping and rewarding of specialists and specialization.

1) There is no one (but you) to integrate all of the independent streams of information flowing into situations. Take for example medicine. Have you, or a loved one spent any time dealing with an ongoing medical condition, especially if it involved a hospital. In this case you become the generalist attempting to converge the specialists but you are not their boss so your results may vary.

2) Generalists run everything. All businesses, all nations, everything! Imagine a college student majoring in a difficult rigorous field where more people dropped out than graduated. What happened to those who did not make the grade? Some changed their majors to managment and become supervisors of those who did not.  Sometimes it even work!

3) More information is published about every field than any individual can ever digest. This sometimes forces people to narrow their attention to a “reductio absurdum” level, where they can know everything about nothing.

One potential solution floated is called the T-shaped Person, one who is deep in a field (specialist) and wide but shallow in many others. These people respect both the specialist and the generalist, for they are both.

In our Internet Age of “there is an app for that” where we can just Google or You Tube anything and everything – it has become easier to learn to address more topics than ever before.  Marketing people who develop messages selling us on concepts, that we need neither expertise nor executive assistants are at least partially right – everyone can do more. 

What do you think? 

Music Meanderings 

9/9/18, 8:30 AM

Western Classical Music has a great tendency to focus on Melody and Harmony as it’s two most important aspects as they are incredibly powerful for delivering an emotionally engaging and cathartic excitation to the human system (to us). There are however many more and less obvious aspects of music which can be taken into account, and successfully managed to achieve emotional engaging outcomes.

If you have ever thought about the vast differences between live and recorded music, some can be explained technically along with economic consequences. At the moment most musicians earn their living from live performing and merchandise, not from recording, licensing  and collecting royalties. Presumably in part, this is because audiences are willing to pay a lot more to hear live music than recorded music. Many of the differences between live and recorded have nothing to do with harmony and melody but rely upon the factors.

In order to earn a living a musician, it may be worth understanding something about these other factors. Even if you are not a musician, but listen to music and would like it to continue to be written and performed, you may also want to be concerned about factors which impact most types of music in addition to classical.

Crossing over from the art side of music into the science side of sound, we find many correspondences but not identical one to one mappings which is the reason for this mini physics lesson.  The three dominant dimensions of sound are spectral, dynamic and spatial. 

The dynamic refers to the range from soft to loud.

The spectral refers to pitches from low to high (bass to treble).

The spatial refers to how energy is distributed in space.

Harmony and melody live firmly in the spectral domain where pitch and frequency are descriptors used by musicians and scientists which are denoted on scores by placing dots on staves to show what notes to play and for how long and in what combinations.

There are dynamic markings musicians use to indicate loudness while physicists use SPL or sound pressure level in decibels to measure loudness. Then there is the field that bridges these two called psychophysics which has to do with relating emotional variables of music to physical variables of science, by how we perceive sound. Here to there is not always a one to one mapping of variables as we are more sensitive to some pitches than others which also shifts as a function of loudness. For the most part recordings have been able to capture the full dynamic range from soft to loud and the full spectral range from low to high notes pretty well. However the remaining spatial domain not as well.  

If you attend a live concerts of multiple un-amplified instruments, you may have noticed you can tell where the instruments on the stage are located even with your eyes closed. The ability to process directional information has been critical to our survival because the ability to hear around corners, but not see around them, often saved us from predictors. This is one of the great losses of recorded music when compared to live music. A symphony is a hundred channel sound source not very credibly deliverable by a two channel system, 

Even when attending concerts pumping all instruments and voices through PA systems (which for the most part are monophonic and not even stereo) a tremendous amount of information is lost. I miss this information. High quality stereos in the past did a reasonably good job creating a spatial field that approximated the sound stage. Today most music we listen to is stored as mp3 files which are terrifically compressed to be able to be streamed. Compression is always achieved by losing information. Losing the spatial experience is one of several casualties. However, the incredible convenience of streaming compressed audio justifies me happily paying for Pandora and Spotify every month. I do not confuse for a moment that this sounds like live music, which is why single concert tickets cost much more than monthly streaming fees.

Musicians desiring sustainable business models might want to understand some of these issues. There is much more to say about this topic and an overall positive projection, as increasingly available bandwidth reduces the need to discard the information that contributes to music sounding live.

Sight Hearing 

9/8/18, 7:24 AM

Perhaps you are familiar with the phrase – sight reading. This amazing skill permits some musicians to pick up a piece of unfamiliar music and read it as easily as most of us can read a book. Some people can “sight read” blueprints, circuit diagrams, computer code, financial statements, project plans, or other forms of visually codifying and memorializing complex information. This ability to cross sensing boundaries is very helpful to rapidly understand multiple domains.

One such ability I personally covet, is what I call Sight Hearing although many professional musicians simply call it score reading. This is the skill where a person can look at a musical score and internally hear what the music sounds like. All conductors must have this skill fully developed and it is also helpful for both performers and composers.

In todays unlimited information world where books, recordings, videos and yes even musical scores can all be almost instantly accessed online sometimes for no or little cost, it seems the ability to develop these sight-reading and sight-hearing skills could be greatly accelerated. I will let you know when and if I get there. What does this have to do with innovation in general? I am sure you can see (hear) why it is useful for musicians.

It has to do with the fact, that all of us can select new skills we may want to master, and dive in almost instantaneously (especially when online). There will alway be some who know more than us and who know less than us, about any even field, so this is not a contest about being the best or worst. It is more like immersion or swimming because of there is now a literal ocean of relevant information about anything and everything.

I suspect all innovation advocates are life long learners, because we all have not only curiosity in common but the mental bandwidth and disposition to look for answers. We now can pick a topic or a goal, invent a curriculum cobbled together from this ocean and literally begin to grow at any instant in time and a far more accelerated rate than ever before. 

To get way from the generalities and use one of my own current passions as an example: Lets say I wanted to be able to write and conduct a symphony in five years (a current goal). Yes I know this may sound insane when one has other degrees, and has lived other lives for decades but bears with me for a moment.

I have determined a critical skill to be able to compose and conduct a large scale work is to be able to hear a score by looking at it. I know this is possible because amazing individuals in my life can do it. Assuming an outrageous goal and enough discretionary time (and admittedly some proclivity) how could one do this? 

Well without delineating my entire curriculum here are a few elements one could integrate and remember this does not only apply to music – it is an example.


1) Giant free online music score repositories.  

2) Giant online free repositories of recorded music many of which are videos.

3) Lots of free courses, podcasts, articles and mostly relevant blog postings.

One could simply correlate the above resources and get there eventually.

Stepping things up a little bit supported by a few low cost subscriptions picked from music streaming services, written and recorded book repositories and journals. For much less than the cost of a single college course you could subscribe to enough services to occupy every available minute of the day. For a few hundred dollars you could have a fairly amazing pile of inputs but then you could step it another level and get yourself a mentor.

Almost everyone in the world makes less than $100 per hour and if you were to do the research and be able to come up with a couple of thousand dollars per year, you could roughly have a personalized extremely high quality or if you are lucky, an extraordinarily high quality instructor to help guide you through this new endeavor including your piles of resources. If you live near your instructor-mentor great yo can do it in person but if not you can increasingly often do it through a video call.

Pick an audacious goal, commit to at least a couple of hours a day, and a couple of hundred dollars per month and you can experience consistent fulfilling progress.  

Remember even 20 minutes per day of real exercise can get you in shape! Imagine what two hours spent on anything could do? And the cost, amazingly at this time, roughly a cup of coffee per day.

The real issue is neither money nor time, for barriers to entry to acquire new skills or start new businesses are lower than ever before.  The real issue self talk! http://svii.net/self-talk

Aesthetic Engineering Revisited

9/7/18, 11:41 AM

Just yesterday, I discovered Orchestration is an aesthetic engineering historical existence theorem, to add to architecture, industrial design and digital content development. Orchestration has a technical definition in computer science, and an artistic definition in music, the one of greater interest here. One succinct definition: Orchestration is the study or practice of writing music for an orchestra (Wikipedia). Orchestration is an advanced part of the study of Composition, one that is also a branch of aesthetic engineering, where Aesthetic Engineering, AE is defined as integrating emotional engagement with logistical robustness.

The reason this matters a great deal, and to more than musicians, composers, and listeners is our society is becoming increasing transaction and consumption based, and as such more quantifiably oriented. Unfortunately, anything longer than short term happiness is more based upon quality than upon quantity. Aesthetics, originality, creativity, curiosity and innovation all contribute mightily to meaning and well being, but are not for the most part quantifiable. Although many publish findings attempting to quantify these intangibles, to my mind are of questionable scientific validity because they are often lacking repeatability and specificity, the two basic tenets of good science. 

Culture and the emotional relevancy required for emotional engagement for example, are more based upon intangibles than quantifiables. This is where aesthetic engineering integrates and balances between the logistically quantifiable and emotionally relevant qualitatively intangibles. 

This balancing act has been going on for millennia, although AE has begun to be taught in the 21st century.  In 2000, when first teaching Aesthetic Engineering at Cogswell Polytechnical College, it was was defined as combining the emotional relevance of the arts, with the technical robustness of engineering. I introduced this topic because web-based content was not very emotionally relevant. It tended to be either emotionally engaging or not crashing, but not both, causing me to search for historical examples where engineering and art were successfully coupled. I found two strong compelling existence theorems, Architecture and Industrial Design. 

It appeared Ancient Architects discovered how to design beautiful buildings that did not fall down when it rained, and European Sports Car Industrial Designers managed to bring to market, extremely high performance motor vehicles that were also gorgeous. I wondered why the Internet had not spawned similar marriages by 2000, but have since realized that the internet was a relative youngster then, and these things can take a lot of time.  At that time, while advancing from lecturer to dean, I was able to convince the then college president, that we should offer Aesthetic Engineering as a core requirement in a digital arts degree program. This was a one year survey course for seniors. Now almost 20 years late the web has become far more emotionally engaging and technically robust, which is important as without emotional engagement, there is no emotional relevancy.  Most of the world does not care much about intellectual relevancy, only about emotional relevancy.  

Aesthetic Engineering has been addressed through several SVII programs and postings:

Innovators’ Showcase! – July 18th 2012: 

Recap: High Tech x High Fashion (SV’s New Collection!) December 5th 2012

Innovation Vitality to deliver critical innovation initiatives?) December 4th 2013

Liberal Arts in a Digital Age via Entrepreneurial & Engineering Thinking  October 25, 2015

Aesthetic Engineering July 26, 2017

As innovation advocates, try to balance meaning with money and relevancy with quantity, You may even find that participating in making your offerings more emotionally relevant to your customers results in more stable long term quantifiable results as well.