Learning to Fly by Missing the Ground

Earlier this year, I turned forty.

I’ll give you a moment to choose between “crap I’ve been listening to an out-of-touch old dude who looks younger than he is” and “crap, I’ve been listening to a ponderously self-important kid whose picture I never bothered to look at.”

Forty is an milestone in the middle of the uncanny valley of life. At forty, you’re supposed to be silently suffering the mistakes of the previous generation and making mistakes for the next generation to suffer. It’s a time of life to be shutting the hell up and doing Real Things in short.

Some of my old college friends are doing that. And making obscene amounts of money, collecting titles and stuff.

Failing that, it’s a time to be raising kids by way of apology for not doing Real Things (implicitly hinting that your kids will do Real Things, which seems to involve teaching them to play the piano for some reason that has never been entirely clear to me).

Many more of my old friends are doing that. Clearly, the next generation will not suffer from a lack of piano players.

Forty is not an ideal age to be blogging. Because it’s not an age anyone is particularly eager to hear from. At twenty-five, you’ve got inspiring dreams and ideals to share. At fifty, you’ve got complete stories to tell and lessons to convey.  At forty, if you’re not overworked and too busy to blog, you’re just a distraction for everybody.

As far as I know, none of my old friends is blogging. One is a journalist, but that’s different.

I don’t normally call attention to my birthday since I’ve realized nothing good comes of it. In fact, over the years, I’ve figured out various devious techniques to discourage people from celebrating at me. The only thing I do with birthdays is use them to get out of doing things I don’t want to do.

But this time, I made a genuine attempt to Note the Significance of the Milestone.

So I bought myself a box of madelines, and sat down to reflect. I’m pretty decent at this introspection thing, so I figured I’d be able to come up with some good stuff. I can normally generate at least 3.5 Deep Thoughts per hour exploring even the most pointless seeming bunny-trail, so I figured this ought to be a birthday cakewalk.

I figured maybe I’d come up with material for one of those advice-to-college-students things that might snag me a lucrative commencement address gig. Or at the very least, I figured I’d come up with a Letter to My Younger Self worth 20 schmalz points.

I came up with nothing. Zilch.

Just a sense of intense surprise that I’d actually made it for this long without crashing and burning in some hideously unremarkable way.

My most remarkable accomplishment on the way to 40 appears to have been actually making it to 40 without anyone raising serious objections. A few people have occasionally attempted to suggest I am wasting my life, but I ignored them and they eventually went away.

Here’s the thing, if I were pretending to be somebody in a regular career, I could have called this sense of intense surprise “impostor syndrome,” eaten my cake, had a few drinks, and gone back to pretending and avoiding getting found out. Unfortunately, I haven’t pretended to be anybody since around 2006, so that doesn’t work.

So I figured I must be one of those Boydian do-something people I keep hearing myself talk about.

Maybe, I thought, the right way to Mark The Occasion was to make a list of everything I’ve done.

The List

So I made the list of major stuff I’ve done. Not significant (I’m not a masochist), just major. As in, I can remember doing them without snorting madelines.

There’s two things you should know about what-have-I-done-with-my-life-so-far lists.

First, such lists are about accumulation, not enumeration. I mean you could include things like “brushed teeth  14,417 times” but people are inclined to view that kind of thing as resume-stuffing.

So things you include should at least in principle be capable of adding up over time to Something Significant. Ideally, they should also be things that are accumulating compound interest. Eternal vigilance against personal tooth decay is hard for even the most generous observer to count as a Contribution to Humanity.

This Contribution to Humanity stuff is what gets you. Figuring it out by staring at your list is a non-trivial matter. It’s never clear what counts, and for how much.

Second, it’s not about what you’re accumulating. You could be accumulating earwax for all the universe cares. It’s about who’s counting. Usually it is one or more members of this Humanity thing you’re supposed to be Contributing to.

Now, you could do the counting yourself, but that is rightly regarded as a highly suspicious move around the world. Back in the day, petty bullies with a grudge would beat up the village idiot, declare That Mountain Over There the edge of the world (to prevent people from wandering off on account of not wanting to be ruled), and declare themselves King of Kings, Master of the Three Worlds.  The point of such subtle political maneuvering was to suggest that their very existence ought to be regarded as a Contribution to Humanity, and suitably rewarded. With taxes and harems for instance.

So Humanity, upon discovering that such claims were not in fact true, very reasonably stopped taking people at their own estimation.

This happened around 724 AD, and made a lot of people very mad, especially those who had just turned 40 and ordered their King of Kings gold plaques from the Sky Mall catalog. It also made an entirely different category of people mad for a different reason: they’d been assuming the Day of Auditing of Contributions to Humanity was a) far in the future and b) in the hands of a buddy they could trust c) a cinch, given that they’d been doing it by the book, whatever it was.

So both these kinds of pissed-off people wrote long blog posts about how the goalposts had been unfairly moved for Contribution to Humanity. The idea of not taking people at their own estimation took a while to spread though, so for a while, there was a thriving second-hand market in “King of Kings” gold plaques and souvenirs.

The point of this little history lesson is that it is generally wise to let other people count Contributions to Humanity for you. Because they get pissed if you try to do it yourself.

Traders count money. What’s your net worth? they like to demand.

If you are one of those low-self-esteem types, this question itself counts as huge validation: somebody thinks you might be worth something, net. This makes traders pretty humanistic.

But the validation evaporates pretty quickly if you’re forced to sheepishly admit that you’re at best worth about five minutes of retirement time under a moderate inflation scenario, plus a coupon for free pizza. You’re not going to cut any ice with these hard-headed trader types with those numbers. They’ll be nice to you, but they won’t care. To them, your Contribution to Humanity is a net zero at best. Being generally nice people, they won’t count you as a negative Burden on Humanity, but they won’t take you seriously. You’ve got no money to put where your mouth is.

Guardians, otherwise known as tribalists, are a somewhat better prospect. Not least because they like to hand out free pizza coupons to you for just existing, even if you don’t declare yourself King of Kings or bother with the tedious business of beating up village idiots.

Guardians count medals rather than money, and those are easier to earn. In certain medieval European cultures, you’d be awarded one medal per pound of ear wax, and young women would dance around you on your fortieth birthday if you’d collected three pounds of earwax or more by that age (women would have to collect six pounds, and do it by age 22, to get guys to dance around them).

The downside is they do like to classify some people a Burden on Humanity and do objectionable things to them, and there’s a risk they might decide you belong in that class.

You can’t control how Guardians count unfortunately, but if you don’t like how one particular tribe counts, you can always label them traditionalists and yourself a disruptor. This generally allows you to switch tribes and score some medals from whatever kind of Guardian hates the first kind of Guardian. The first kind will have labeled you Burden on Humanity by this time, so screw them.

The general trick here, in case you haven’t caught on yet, is to play by a very clever rule known as you decide whether it’s a contribution, I’ll decide whether you’re part of humanity. It’s a game all Guardians play with each other.

You can pay a lot of money to an MBA program to learn complex mathematical versions of this trick, which involve doing calculus with the discounted present value of earwax. But really, all you need is a capacity for swearing under your breath, sticking out your middle finger, and conjuring up enough energy to cross the Mountain at the Edge of the World to the tribe on the other side (about fifteen minutes by car, according to Google Maps). This rule for judging whether something counts as a Contribution to Humanity is called exit over voice. 

This rule is one of the wonders of modern civilization incidentally, right up there next to sliced noodles. It’s only been in effect for a couple of centuries on a meaningful scale.

Before that, there was a less clever rule in effect that could be summarized as we decide whether it’s a contribution to humanity, and if it’s not, we’ll kill you, and if you try to cross that mountain, we’ll kill you. This rule led to a whole lot of killing and not much contribution, as well as medieval bloggers being burned at the stake for blogging at 40.

So on the whole, exit over voice is a good rule, and most people grudgingly admit today that it’s better than the old rule. Some Guardians who didn’t do well in the second-hand King of Kings gold plaque market crash of 725 AD like to argue that the old rule was better,  but the general consensus today is that they’ve been holding on to their grudges way too long.

That said, while exit is better than death, it can get tedious, going from tribe to tribe, pretending to care about one sort of earwax or another. If Traders are too much about show-me-the-money,  Guardians are too much about, well, earwax.

To summarize: there are three ways to figure out whether you’ve done something with your life. You can:

  1. Count it yourself, which has been a rather clueless thing to do since 724 AD
  2. Allow Traders to count, which involves a lot of hard work of dubious interest
  3. Allow Guardians to count, which has been a safe, if rather unsatisfying thing to do since about 725 AD

I was recently challenged by a Member of Humanity, rather appropriately named Adam, to demonstrate that my developing philosophy of life is not just a thinly disguised attempt to create a tribe of antitribalists. That is a fair question, and in fact, one can argue that the tribe of antitribalists is what we’ve been calling Traders, and that money is just a surprisingly successful kind of earwax, which can be earned by making qualifying Contributions to Humanity by surprisingly forgiving standards. The best thing that can be said about this tribe is that they tend to leave you alone rather than trying to kill you if they don’t like your attempted Contributions to Humanity.

To partially summarize the summary by consolidating Point 2 and Point 3, if counting your contributions to humanity yourself is a clueless idea, allowing any sort of tribe — Guardian or Trader — to count it for you is to end up fixated on collecting a load of earwax.

So to fully summarize the partial summary, counting Contributions to Humanity is a crappy idea, even if you get paid for it.  The key to life is surviving while avoiding any sort of countable Contribution to Humanity.

There are some ways to act on that idea. In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for instance, an immortal named Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged avoids Contributing to Humanity (well, Lifeanity) by going on an eternal mission to insult everybody in the universe, in alphabetical order.

Wowbagger clearly understood that that Contribution to Humanity is a bad idea, though his operationalization of the understanding left something to be desired. It smells just ever so slightly of resentful overcompensation and reactionary nihilism. And on the whole, it did not lead to a very good life for Wowbagger.

Insulting everybody will certainly do the trick if you want to avoid tribes though. The set of people who decide to insult the rest of humanity for the rest of their lives must necessarily insult each other, which sort of gets in the way of them forming a tribe.

But it’s both too much work, and an unpleasant business, and borders on cutting off your nose to spite your face. A much easier, and pleasanter way, is to simply do random stuff. That’s enough to kill any sort of earwax accumulation. Because you see, no matter who’s counting or how, it only counts if they come up with a sum that’s better than a random walk. Otherwise, they’re inclined to not give you credit for it.

Usually the Counters like to err on the side of caution and look for stuff that’s much better than a random walk, so if you stay in the zone of uncertainty around a random walk, you’ll avoid the Contribution to Humanity game and have a shot at “kinda interesting and not earwaxy.”

You don’t actually want a true random walk because then you stay up nights drinking too much and wondering about the Meaning of Life, which gets tiring after a few years. But you want to stop just short of generating enough of a real signal with your life that it might start to look suspiciously like a Contribution to Humanity to some people. That just leads to people celebrating birthdays at you. You know it’s for them, not for you, because historically such groups have a history of deciding that you’re a rather lousy reason for celebrating, killing you and — get this, it’s rich irony — celebrating your birthday not just at you, but without you.

The reason the edge of randomness works well is that even a drunk covers about \(\sqrt{n}\) worth of life-distance traveled for every \(n\) life steps taken, simply by not falling down.

As I, for instance, have apparently managed to do.

As a result of the drunken ease with which you can create the appearance of having Contributed to Humanity by virtue of simply managing to exist, most earwax-collecting tribes assess your candidacy to One of Us status by this formula:

\(C>\sqrt{n}+\delta\), where \(\delta\) serves to define a barrier to entry into the tribe.

The quantity is usually called “values” or “mission” or something lofty like that, and ensures that earwax is, overall, being collected rather than dissipated by the tribe (the essence of Humanity worth Contributing to). This idea is about a century old. For instance, the original last stanza in Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Ifwhich was changed in the published edition, reads:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
with \(>\sqrt{60}+\delta\) worth of distance run
you’re kind of drunk, but doing okay, my son

The editors felt it was taking the edge off an otherwise fine and inspiring Letter to a Young Person type blog post, and recommended tightening it and making it a bit loftier in its aspirations, in line with the rest of the poem. Kipling, perhaps wisely, agreed to do so, and as a result the poem was Counted by the ear-wax priests as a Contribution to Humanity. The contribution, in case you’re wondering, was defining what a “man” is, and  in another poem, defining what constitutes being a burden on humanity. The latter poem was immediately co-opted by a lot of unpleasant Guardians, who went on to use it to justify doing quite a few unpleasant things.

Kipling was somewhat clueless. I’d have liked to hear Wowbagger insult him.

So Wowbagger was headed in the right direction, having intuitively discovered the whole sociopathy line of thought, and having dimly sensed its relationship to living an interesting life.

But he played it wrong.

The key is to engage in Minimum Viable Sociopathy and pivot the hell out of any situation that threatens to turn into some sort earwax collection enterprise. Wowbagger’s sociopathy was not minimally viable. Despite not being a contribution, it was countable, which is often enough to do the damage. So he was rather miserable. The key is to do it the other way around: keep it a contribution, but not countable. Countability is what turns personally satisfying contribution into Contributions to Humanity.

To augment my summary of the partial summary: Contributions to Humanity is a crappy loser-and-clueless idea and you should practice minimum viable sociopathy to avoid getting sucked into some sort of earwax collection game or being thrown into a reactionary nihilist career of insulting people.

Whaddya know, I do have advice-to-college-students. Doubt it’s commencement address material though. Maybe if I start my own university.

Life Lessons

If you’ve decided to adopt Minimum Viable Sociopathy in order to avoid both the dismal business of Insulting All of Humanity as well as the mug’s game of counting your Contributions to Humanity by weighing some sort of earwax, welcome to the dark side.

You’ll need a way to monitor whether you’re staying in the sweet zone of \(\sqrt{n}<C\le \sqrt{n}+\delta\). Err on the side of reactionary non-randomness and before you know it you’re Wowbagger. Err on the side of caring about Humanity too much, and before you know it, you’re sitting on a load of earwax, constantly trying to figure out who’s part of Humanity and who’s not.

Hit exact randomness in between and you stay up nights wondering about stuff that’s really not, in the end, very interesting.

The  \(\sqrt{n}<C\le \sqrt{n}+\delta\) zone is where interesting things happen steadily, without turning into either angst or earwax, so it’s good to stay there if you can. Or at least periodically visit for long vacations.

The trick to figuring out whether you’re in that zone is to weave some sort of narrative through your list of Things I’ve Done. You know you’re in the zone if the narrative just barely makes sense. That’s how you can do something without accidentally also becoming somebody.

This means, incidentally, that you should avoid the temptation to figure life out completely. Because the great risk is you’ll simplify your life until it can be completely figured out. In fact, if you sense that happening, you must immediately do something pointlessly confusing and complicate your life so it gets back to the edge of incoherence.

The minimum-viable sociopath life is only worth living if you studiously avoid examining it. If you must figure life out, make sure you do it too late. That way, your investment in a minimum-viable sociopath life is a sunk cost. If you figure life out too early, you might be tempted to live a Meaningful Life, and that’s nothing but trouble from what I’ve seen.

Of course, you can’t entirely avoid drawing lessons from whatever you’ve been up to, but  so long as you don’t let it get out of hand, you’re relatively safe. If you can’t figure it all out and fit the pieces together, chances are high that nobody else can either. Which means nobody can be entirely certain whether you’re part of humanity or not.

Fortunately, the lessons you can easily generalize and share are typically not original, and the lessons that are original typically cannot be generalized and shared. Only modeled in slightly puzzling ways.

Here’s one of my most significant life lessons: check to see if the guy swimming in the lane next to you is a professor before being rude to him.

I dare you to get anything useful out of that. Actually, I don’t know if got anything useful out of that. All I know is that the incident it is associated with was life-course-altering for me. So I assume there’s something important there.

Looking back, of the 14 major life-course-altering events in my life — this was one of them — 9.5 were a) accidents from which it is not possible to draw any useful general lesson b) disproportionately influential in shaping my life, for better or worse c) events to which my personal contribution was a Random Act of Sociopathy, such as being rude to a guy swimming in the next lane.

Not only have these 9.5 events been life-altering, I suspect they were also life-enabling. I suspect it is precisely these 9.5 Random Acts of Sociopathy that allowed me to miraculously make it to 40 without crashing into either reactionary nihilism or some pile of earwax. Each time I was in danger of crashing terminally, some random act of sociopathy kept me afloat, and bought me a few more years of staying alive.

There is a theory in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that this is how you can learn to fly. The trick is to fall down and miss the ground. The key, according to HHGTTG, is to miss the ground by accident. You can’t intend to miss the ground. And the way to miss by accident is to be distracted by something surprising just before you’re about to go splat.

Before you know it, you’re floating free, gently.

This is a delicate procedure. As Douglas Adams notes, you shouldn’t think too much about it, or do things like wave to people on the ground, or allow them to celebrate birthdays at you too energetically or often.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Let me open with a mildly hostile formulation: Happy 40th birthday!

    Now for the real challenge: are you sure you are on the Socio-Path, or rather just an anti-social Loser?

    It is the Losers who disdain the collecting of earwax, finding lame substitutes instead to hide their case of sour grapes. A Sociopath will gladly collect various types of earwax, should it be useful to do so. They just don’t take it seriously as an end in itself.

    By your own explanation, it is the Sociopaths that _create_ the systems that the Clueless follow, so why would they disdain them? Every Sociopath should be able to whip together a big lump of the appropriate earwax whenever necessary. Neurotically avoiding such lumps is the kind of “purity in opting-out” ethic of the big L.

    Come over to the real dark side! ;-)

    • You get a Sociopath game-design bronze medal! Congrats :)

    • I think most people are simply not egotistical enough to take route 1. I, for one, am perfectly happy to judge my own achievements and prounounce them worthy or unworthy, and I actually don’t care what other people think.

      The thing is, most people do care what other people think — *and it seems to be hard-wired*. It’s in your genes: you can’t change it. You don’t have the choice.

  2. Just out of curiousity, what happened in 724?

    Obviously, there have been quite a few Kings of Kings since then (Charlemagne, a couple Chinese dynasties, Ghengis Khan, Queen Victoria, a whole bunch of Mikados and a passel of Shoguns just being the start).

  3. Despite the fact that I periodically dig out ear wax with a re-shaped paper clip (kids, don’t try this at home or you may perforate your eardrum), you have managed to diagnose the drift of my post-40s life. I have been transmogrifying into a Wowbagger without really being particularly aware of it. But the reactionary and nihilist tendencies cannot be denied. I usually attribute it to the cynicism born of my occupation as a prosecutor. I see the worst of humanity, tend to think Hobbes was right about the war of all against all, and practice shouting “You kids, get off my lawn!” as I approach my mid-50s. Indeed, your observation that you’ve made it to forty without a remarkable meltdown worthy of others’ recrimination seems like a noble accomplishment to me. I surrendered the cause of humanity in my mid-30s and have simply been trying to avoid unnecessary conflict or unpleasantness in each of the moments of my life since then. And to think I was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by my tribe in high school. Then, the earwax was a Nobel prize. (I was an ambitious tyro chemist). Now, success to me is being in a state of flow that permits, or at least does not derail, my unfettered curiosity about everything that crosses the event horizon of my mind. That, and a really satisfying meal. Because the metabolic demands of a thinking brain are ravenous.

  4. Don’t you need enough surplus net worth to account for the latter years of your life when you are old and infirm? Or is that implicitly factored into Minimum Viable Sociopathy?

    • Of course I do; I am just going about it in a different way because the traditional way doesn’t really seem to work for me :)

      It’s one thing to be suspicious of trader games as not-quite-what-they’re-made-out-to-be. It’s quite another to be dumb about actual risks.

  5. Happy 40th Venkat!

    A couple thoughts:
    – Isn’t being rude to the known professor swimming in the lane next to you a strategy of PUA?
    – In tribalist sports, salaries (trader), stats (individual performance), wins (team performance), and trophies (Guardians) are all counted. Trophies matter most when the community counts legacy/Contributions to Humanity.
    – The farther down the cliff before hitting the ground positions you to see things 99.9% of others never will. It’s most certainly competitive advantage. I think one needs to be a trader at the moment to capture it though. Guardian thoughts (and fellow Guardians) won’t save you from hitting the ground (Guardians seem to have perverse incentives for you to migrate from safe Guardian zone to trader zone).

    Good post.

  6. I look forward to the follow-up article where you disassemble this issue into its constituent parts and end up offering the conclusion that a 25-year-old girlfriend is/isn’t the solution to the problem.

    Section 1: What is valuable in a valueless world?
    The first part of the article will explore the nihilistic angle further as well as referencing your previous writing on the sociopath worldview, culminating in that character-defining quote by Robert California.

    Section 2: Decision and Justifications
    Most of the rest of the article will be devoted either to
    a) the conclusion that it’s okay to be a sociopath to get what you want, replete with justifications and appeals that a true sociopath wouldn’t need
    b) the conclusion that it’s not okay to be a sociopath to get what you want, replete with ex-post-facto rationalizations to imply that you never really wanted it that much anyway

    The subtext will eventually reveal to the observant reader that both A and B are themselves rationalizations, and choosing to write either is less indicative or whether you actually believe it and more indicative of whether you actually believe you could get a 25-year-old girlfriend… and this will lead to…

    Section 3: Where the true character of Venkat is finally revealed
    In my wildest dreams, this section starts with the words “If I’m so smart, then why…” and spins off from there in one direction or the other, but any reasonable facsimile will suffice to make myself and everyone else read the shit out of that post.

    • My work here is clearly done :)

    • How about this:

      It’s OK to be a sociopath to get what you want provided that what you want is pro-social.

      If what you want is anti-social, feel free to try to be a sociopath to get what you want. We’ll kill you, so good luck with that.

  7. “Just a sense of intense surprise that I’d actually made it for this long without crashing and burning in some hideously unremarkable way”

    I know that feeling intimately and have pondered it for some years now. I think there is some relation between knowing that you have extraordinary analytic skills, a ever-present battle of pleasure and duty to collect pieces of a unknown puzzle called Life, The Universe and Everything from all kinds of different sources and the depressing thought that while you sit on your surfboard waiting for the next swell to come, time and opportunities passes, sharks patrol and you may never actually “get it”

    When I passed 40 half a dozen years ago, my focus changed and I grew to appreciate Kurt Vonnegut (especially “The Sirens of Titan” and “Galapagos”) and an old John Lennon quote: “Life’s what happens to you while you were busy making other plans”

    And I’ll tell you one thing: Ribbonfarm is no small feat….

  8. Getting rid of earwax or other merits implies to listen better, no?

    I’d assume that the trader is basically the kind of person who has figured out that merits have relative value with respect to each other and they try to gain arbitrage wins from their volatility. Guardians seek for long term investment so that they don’t have to care for the random noise of the market; in fact they desire an absolute investment with positive payoffs, no matter how the business is actually going. I guess you can reconstruct their whole antagonist play from their opposite determinations. The traders rely on an infinite game to sustain and the guardians attempt to defeat them with absolute investments.

    The insomniac philosopher will probably dislike the trader for matching a shallow and bad infinity ( which is also Wowbaggers life ) and being scared about the guardians. They enjoy wisdom and sometimes also its younger and more modern cousin, science. They promise to bring their own games to a final end: not round based sameness with small variations ( Wowbaggers bad infinity ), but sharp uniqueness. If the game is played out you need to play an entirely different game. They continue to exist by sucking at bringing their unique games to an end or by partitioning it into small pieces ( “research programs” ) because the whole game is to big for anyone. Unfortunately this brings up yet-another-social-organization accumulating earwax and listening bad, an enterprise with an embedded feudal hierarchy and a very long memory.

    I always felt an ambient sympathy with the postmodernist youth rebellion against all this but also taking your advice seriously to not insult professors, which means that one tames ones own loser/outsider resentments. My feeling is that this gets easier with increasing age but also with having a little bit of earwax on the side. Not enough to be consumed and gollumized by it or becoming deaf, only enough to be smug when needed.

  9. I turned forty in June, so much if this hits home in a weird way.

    Is Game of Pickaxes an earwax accumulator? If so, and if you are worried about how the Guardians will respond, know that no one here will alert them of its completion. Please release it when the Trader in you bubbles to the surface.

    Don’t you think you owe it to others who are working on a minimum-viable sociopath life?

  10. Since you somehow seem to be a little birthday averse, only so much: We’ve been following your musings on and off 4 years now, even linked you in our blogroll, read Tempo one and half times and Be Slightly Evil in the blog and 2 more times. In this ever noisier world that should be sufficient praise.

    Still, somehow in the middle of live we’ll come up with more. In various spots of his numerous books, our favorite strategy specialist Martin van Creveld convincingly, at least for us, argues, that in this world that has changed so much since the 2 great an many smaller wars in the first half of the 20th century, there are only to successful positions, namely an entirely good and an entirely evil one.

    The son of Hafiz al Assad who was inclined to take the latter position amply demonstrates these days that all grey hybrids of the two are bound to fail after a disagreable time of undetermined length.

    There are many more examples of the failing of the hybrid and slightly evil strategists even though you make the case pretty well. One might also be tempted to assert that the near entirely good choices of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi did fail in the end and the slightly evil strategies of Jawaharlal Nehru succeeded.

    Be that as it may, it still happened in said 1st half of the previous century and in a country with practically no TV and no discrete electronic processing at all. Keep up the good stuff, we will read on.

    • it should have said “life” of course, please correct and delete this reply.

    • After a good night’s sleep allow me to explain a little bit further. Won’t cost you a single cent, rupee or yuan. Only a bit of your most valuable asset, non-monetarized time, which is now.
      Being slightly evil is an excellent guidebook for the lone rider. Maybe also for a two adults relationship. I have followed it for years in all lone aspects of my life. And, greatly encouraged by you I will continue to do so although I’m already nearing the sixtieth anniversary of my materialization in the slightly evil universe or nature, as they said in my childhood.
      But once you get real responsibility it is simply not good enough. Childcare for example simply does work well only, if your good. Surgeons and presciption doctors should admit deficiencies, as you correctly write ’cause it beats denial hands down. But nurses in frequent contact with patients have to be slightly good for the healing process to work better. Let’s stay with childcare. It started out like that. Before even by virtue of some control over animals and plants and the resulting division of labor it had turned out that a certain division of labour in childcare and food acquisition had advantages in many environments humankind cared to migrate to, out of Africa that is. That is when women started to be slightly good and men had to resort to being slightly evil. Both sexes developed corresponding ideological systems.
      So once more, if you have to care about other human beings in a responsible way, you will have to supplement being slightly evil with being slightly good. And in the most complex endeavours mankind still undertakes, like wars it is better to decide if you want to try to be all good or all evil. All else is bound for failure, we’re somehow sorry to assert. Do not believe us, go for van Creveld (The Changing Face Of War as a starter, maybe).

    • Isn’t capitalist economy the name for the grey zone, the space without existential enemies?

  11. Thanks for the comments. Some interesting things to mull there. Things like childcare do require a different logic.

  12. Noted on the basis of similarity, by a good friend and professional colleague: http://annarborchronicle.com/2013/08/26/in-it-for-the-money-how-to-career-as-a-writer/

  13. Thanks for writing said essay! (No, I am NOT trying to count your essay as a C.T.H(contribution to humanity), but thanks for writing. Now, after reading this, I will go off and do something else so I don’t get ‘Counted’ for reading your essay and go off to live in this wondrous/boring/terrifying universe!

  14. Assuming anything at all like a somewhat kind-of-sort-of sane system of values [1], it’s actually pretty hard to predict what will be enduring as a “contribution” and what won’t. Conan Doyle thought Sherlock Holmes was pulp trash and was more committed to his histories. He’s an adequately good historian, his stuff is readable and has that poetic Victorian loftiness to it, but he’s not one of the best. He is maybe the greatest mystery writer ever. Funny world. [2]

    Beyond that, would it be crass and obvious to remind you that you’re in the .000001% of most insightful people on the planet? [3] Maybe that counts for something, or maybe it doesn’t, or maybe that’s not the point. But it is true.

    With that said, can I give you a bit of a hard time? My biggest takeaway from this post is that the “oh, woe is me and my pseudo-clever self, I’ve done nothing useful with my life” type writing hook is pretty lame. I guess you’re allowed to indulge in it once a decade without being overbearing, but I’m going to refrain from doing it henceforth, despite occasionally feeling the same sentiment. So that’s another small contribution, albeit an indirect one and probably too small to warrant even a small fraction of micro-medal delivered via Twitter.

    [1] You know what I mean, right? Do I really have to rigorously cite this?

    [2] What’s the most likely thing from American culture to live on 1,000 years from now? My guess is — I’m not kidding — the Batman mythos.

    [3] That puts you in the top 7000 or so. I think that’s a very fair conservative estimate. With no disrespect intended, another zero would open the question to much more debate.