PhD

Biographical Sketch

 

   Languages: German (native), English and Chinese (near-native in speech and writing)

                       The best way to learn a foreign language is in the country where it is spoken.

                       I have lived five years in the U.S.A. and England, five years in China, and nine

                       years (and counting) in Singapore.

   Education:   Diplom-Informatiker, economics & computer science (Germany)

                       PhD with focus on China's internet & society (U.S.A.)

   I translate:   Science & Social Sciences (including science education)

                       Marketing & Commerce

                       Industry & Technology (including gadgets, automotive engineering, manuals)

                       New Media & Journalism

                       Arts, Culture, Society & Politics

   I write:         Nonfiction, fiction, children's books

 

Born into a twentieth century Munich, I am an independent freelance translator and editor. I have edited two works of non-fiction and am currently writing a book on contemporary China. Before becoming a self-employed professional, I trained and worked as a researcher in Germany, the United States, China, and Singapore.

I live in Singapore with my wife and son. We are planning to relocate to Germany in 2018.

My aspirations are: to live life, get better at what I do, be a good husband and father, and spend time in nature.

Fun fact: It appears as if until only a few years ago, my life took place in stages lasting roughly half a decade ...  :-)

   2014 to now :  The Freelance Life (Singapore and Germany)

 

The guiding theme that runs through much of my adult life is the combination of translation and writing. Translation and writing have much in common. Both are reflective activities that require more than ‘knowing’ a language. At their core, both are about taking a series of thoughts from a source and expressing them in one's own (target) language, in the most natural, readable way possible.

 

Translation and writing also mutually pollinate each other. Both make you aware of how and why structure and expression differ across different cultures and languages. Also, both make you think deeply about language as the mediator between the worlds you encounter and inhabit. At their very core, translators as well as writers strive to successfully evoke the very essence of a message or thought. (A writer does so through creation, a translator through re- or trans-creation.) I believe that it is due to these commonalities between translation and writing that the practice of translation can advance one's writing just as writing can enhance one's translations.

 

Motto 1: Translating (a text) means juggling source and target until the best result emerges.

Motto 2: Writing (a book) means forming a complex thought & truly say what you want to say.

 

Key Accomplishment: Reinventing myself (again).
Key Lesson:  Tba.

 

   2008 to 2014  :  The Academic (Singapore)

 

In 2008, PhD fresh in hand (and about to get married), I jumped on a plane to Singapore to take up a Postdoc position at the Asia Research Institute, a university-level institute at the National University of Singapore. One and a half years later, I became a Research Fellow.

 

Things went well. I went on insightful research trips to China, presented my thoughts and findings at conferences all over the world, organized workshops on topics close to my heart (see my old CV), published edited volumes, journal articles, thought pieces (here and here), advised students, and joined committees I was interested in.

 

When my fellowship contract ended in May 2014, I had ‘lived’ a full decade (PhD studies included) in the scholarly world. I observed peers build their CVs for the express purpose of obtaining a tenure-track assistant professor position, a.k.a. the Holy Grail of an academic career. However, I came to the sobering realisation that this could not be my path.

 

The longer I breathed the air of academia, the more I came to resent what I call the self-organising usurpation of scholars’ brains. This process manifests chiefly in three ways: First, one is compelled to do what others are doing – or else: no work group, no job. Second, one is persuaded to do what is of interest to others – or else: no funding, no job. Third, one's findings need to fit in with existing journals and publishers – or else: no publication, no job. In my early years, there were gentle nudges and well-meaning invitations to join some cluster or group. Then came the casual remarks commenting on my recalcitrance and "chutzpah". In my last few years, thinking I wasn't getting it, the people who ran ARI became increasingly direct, trying to influence what I should or should not work on by applying funding and publication pressures. Little did they know that I have never been one to succumb to pressure.

 

While all this played out, I have grown equally disenchanted with the power of larger globalising processes and their impact on academic life. I witnessed how plutocrat players were busy rigging the economic and political systems in their own favour, by supporting co-opted thought leaders, partisan think tanks and universities only too willingly selling out to industry-sponsored applied research and sinister ranking systems. I saw first hand how independent intellectual institutions and their critical public intellectuals were sabotaged in a drive to control ideas and narratives. In China, where outspoken intellectuals I knew disappeared behind bars, or were 'invited to tea' and questioned about their loyalties. But also in Singapore and the United States, where critical scholars experienced funding-cuts or were otherwise discouraged to speak their minds, or whose jobs were given to more 'well-adjusted' individuals.

 

I have come to conclude that the compounded pressure to conform, enforced by an insidious reward-punishment process (insidious as it creeps into the academic consciousness as if it's a bad dream; insidious also as nobody can be held responsible), impairs our capacity for divergent thinking – the prerequisite for creativity. Little wonder then that I found much academic knowledge production to be compromised. "Publish or perish" leads to churning out mediocrity. Fear and academic careerism breed docility. Young scholars are 'persuaded' to fit in with so-called 'research clusters' or 'excellence clusters' and are increasingly less able to pursue their own research interests. Students – the eager young minds of tomorrow – are the victims (often self-inflicted) of an education system that has once been devised to train cogs for the machine ... and has changed only little since.

 

One sunny day, sitting in my posh, panorama-windowed office overlooking the Singapore Botanic Gardens (quite possibly, after taking one of my frequent walks in said gardens), I simply realised that I had read one too many borderline-meaningless publication churned out in an attempt to tune a CV; that I had received one too many well-meaning editorial advice to revise a draft paper into something the editor would like to see (or have?) written; and that I had been listening to one too many speakers proselytising anyone who would listen for authority-approved truths while carefully trying not to speak out of turn. Yes, it is possible to do all this while remaining true to oneself. Smart and dedicated people I admire have carved out a space and shaped it into an ivory tower career for themselves. But: Would I be happy spending the rest of my life, juggling other people's demands and watching my mouth, in a 'secure' and respected professorial position, glued to a chair, in an office, in a city that may not remain as interesting as it once was? Or was my hunch correct when I read a student evaluation of my capability as teaching assistant at USC, after assisting in teaching a course on Geopolitics? The student wrote: "You'll make a great professor one day!" I thought that was funny, but I also wanted to respond: "No, thanks. That's not for me!"

 

In summary, I retired from academia chiefly because I crave autonomy, both intellectually and geographically. Now, a few years on, I am happy to report that leaving academia was the right decision for me.

 

Key Accomplishments: Built and retired from a ‘promising’ career in academia.
Key Lesson: Academia and I are not a good fit.

 

   2003 to 2008  :  Back to Graduate School (U.S.A., China)

 

These were the years I spent in sunny California. When I received news of 'winning' a five-year full scholarship, I moved to the United States in fall 2003 to commence a PhD programme at the University of Southern California. At USC, I studied under eminent urban geographer Michael Dear (who became my doctoral adviser), communication scholar and sociologist Manuel Castells, political scientist Stanley Rosen, sustainability scholar Jennifer Wolch, and (late) historian John Wills Jr., to name but a few. Graduate school was bliss: Not only was I paid to read and write, I also got to interact with some of the most nimble and cultivated minds alive and to indulge my proclivity for (transdisciplinary) knowledge.

 

Thanks to my fluency in Chinese, I was able to zoom in on the voices and aspirations that operate through, and in turn configure, the Chinese-language Internet. As I investigated the effects of China’s new media on individual and shared agency and social learning, I realized the extent to which the online and the offline are becoming networked and interdependent dimensions of socio-cultural and political consciousness and activity. I hence knew that I would make ‘cyburbanity’, the frontiers of new-media augmented urbanities, one of the foci of my professional life.

 

When I advanced to PhD candidacy, just as I had taken all the doctoral seminars in the various disciplines that I was interested in, and life in LA started to become a bit monotonous, I got the chance to spend more than a year conducting ethnographic-ish research in Beijing and Shanghai. When I returned with piles of fascinating experiences and stories, I set up shop in a pool house in Pacific Palisades (only blocks from the house where Henry Miller spent the last two decades of his life) and wrote up my dissertation. I thought. I wrote. I translated. I jumped in the pool. I lived the life of the mind. Scholarly life was bliss.

 

Key Accomplishments: Gained a deeper understanding of the world. Obtained a PhD.
Key Lesson: The life of the mind is more fun if it happens at the right place (a beach?)

 

   1999 to 2003  :  The Wanderer (China)

 

My various homes included China where I lived and worked for several years. I lived in Qingdao (Shandong province) and Nanjing (Jiangsu province), and travelled widely, mostly by train and bus, across the region. While there, I learned the language and completed a graduate programme on Chinese society, economy and politics, in Chinese language, at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Jobs I held during that time ranged from freelance work for companies in Germany and the United States, to teaching Beginners' Chinese to Korean expats.

 

Let me share one formative experience I had during that time: It was September 11, 2001. I had just moved into the student dorm at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center a few days prior. I explored the facilities and was chatting with a sweet girl from New York. The lounge had a TV, and CNN was running. You guessed what happened next? Well, yes, the twin towers were hit by two planes. Naomi (the girl from New York) was as shocked as I was, and – here it comes – I assured her: "Don't worry, a plane crash won't make such skyscrapers collapse." Guess what happened next?

 

Now, it took me years to come to terms with having told Naomi something that was so apparently not the case. At first it was all-too-easy to buy in to the official story as it unfolded. And yet – I was flabbergasted: Had my aptitude for physics failed me? Had my reading books on architecture and structural engineering for fun been completely useless? Had my working in my father's company (he was a construction engineer and architect), earning some pocket money helping him do structural feasibility studies and patents back in my student days left me ignorant of what is and what is not feasible when it comes to building construction? Have the law of momentum conservation and Newton's third law of motion temporarily been suspended on that day? Apparently, yes.

 

But: This one short sentence I uttered to give reassurance to someone whose world crumbled to pieces that day has also pinned my eyes wide open: to globalisation practices and geostrategic chess games; striking discrepancies between representation and reality; hidden agendas and lying politicians; state and institutional conspiracies and false flag operations; conspicuous absences in public discourse; the incredible influence of media on public opinion; the collusion between scholars/intellectuals and power; the importance to develop media literacy; and so on.

 

Life would never be the same. In other words, that experience has boosted my wish to better understand the world we live in. "Like it or not we live in interesting times", as Robert Kennedy had once known. The little sentence I said that day – chaos theory calls this the butterfly effect – has no doubt reinforced my decision to pursue a PhD in the United States.

 

Key Accomplishments: Became immersed in a fascinating culture. Learned Chinese.
Key Lesson: Life in faraway lands comes in many beautiful shapes and colours.

 

   1995 to 1999  :  The Entrepreneur (Germany)

 

It was the early days of the internet, and our firm, Arise Data Design, provided services and platforms for small companies in the region. It felt good to create something from scratch, and to see how a vision becomes reality just through acting it out. I learned relatively quickly that when pursuing a business with a partner, the core requirement is a shared vision. If one partner is driven by the prospect of profits and status and the other is interested in creating a new service for the larger public, a venture is doomed. Enough said. I sold my share, and that was that.

 

Key Accomplishment: Cashed out and never looked back.
Key Lesson: The business world and I are not a good fit.

 

   1991 to 1995  :  The Science Student (Germany)

 

I studied an amalgamation of computer science and economics sometimes referred to as 'Information Management', with an emphasis on artificial intelligence (AI) and a diploma thesis on "Self-organisation in Multi Agent Systems" (in German). Resume-tuning and experience-hungry nincompoop that I was back then, my Diplom (B.Sc. equivalent) came with multiple paid internships, some in the R&D departments of companies such as Mercedes-Benz, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft, two semesters spent abroad (in London and San Diego), and various scholarships and accolades.

 

Key Accomplishments: Discovered my interest in and aptitude for AI. Tuned my resume.
Key Lesson: Working for large and sluggish commercial enterprises does not suit me.