The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The intolerance of genius

One of the reasons, today, that we have such mediocre progress on important issues, is the unwillingness to put up with geniuses who don’t have “soft skills”, aka. who don’t play well with others. (Obligatory note, this isn’t a post about me.)  There is this odd belief that 10 very smart people can do what one genius can.  They can’t.  There are thresholds of ability (not intelligence, ability) and if you’re below them, you just can’t do the things that people at that level can do.  Period.

Related, but not the same: in terms of intelligence, there are levels at which you can learn everything, but not anything (ie. you can’t be a real polymath) and without that knowledge, in one person, not spread out through a team, many connections cannot be made and when they can, the process is vastly slower. (Aka. no, you can’t look it up.)

True genius, and I’ve known a few, is alienating.  Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people.  One acquaintance told me that it takes him six months to tool down from high level work to the point where he can talk to bright normals and have them understand him.  Genius is also about obsession, about living with a subject till you breath it, till it’s obvious to you.  Even on a pure IQ level (and again, genius is not always about IQ) once you move more than 2 standard deviations in either direction, communication becomes very hard.

In the old days, geniuses were tolerated, even coddled.  If it was necessary for GE to hire a secretary to act as interface between a genius and the rest of the world, that was done.  Geniuses were surrounded with other geniuses, their eccentricities tolerated, and allowed to run.  Today it’s “if you don’t play well with others, even if you can do things they can’t, you’re out.”

This is the symptom of a society that doesn’t really care about progress.  We live in a courtier’s society, where ability is secondary to social skills, where who you know and who you blow (as the cynical saying at one of my ex-employers ran) is far more important than how good a job you do, because your job isn’t to actually solve problems or get things done, it’s to manage your superiors and get along with your peers.

One might say “it has ever been thus”, but this is only partially true.  The brilliant mavericks were far more tolerated in the war era and cold war period, because they were needed.  The possibility of losing a war, or of there even being a war which was an actual risk to the western powers, kept us honest.

Now those people are sidelined.  Socially skilled mediocrities fail to the top, our society shudders from crisis to crisis, out actual scientific and technological process has slowed to a crawl, and deployment of what technological progress we do have is slow and uneven and often happens faster in other nations.

Genius, actual genius, is uncomfortable.  They do things for reasons they often can’t explain to people who aren’t geniuses. They’re obsessive, and they’re often alienated from other people who simply can’t or won’t understand what they’re doing and why.  If you want to benefit from society’s geniuses, you have to tolerate much of this.

I will add that not only do we not tolerate geniuses any more, we largely don’t even cultivate genius.  The people who go to the “best” colleges in the US these days are not geniuses, not in any creative sense.  They are exactly chosen to be conformists who have done exactly what they were supposed to do for their entire lives.  They are courtiers in training, the senior servants to the oligarchy.  Again, in the old days (we’re talking all of 25 years ago), while those people made up most of the Ivy League, broad exceptions were carved out for the truly brilliant, whether intellectually, artistically, or otherwise.  Some of those exceptions still exist, or slip through, but they are the exception now.

And this, this is another reason why the future does not happen, and when it does happen, it mostly does not happen in the US any more.



Twain’s War Prayer


Putin Stings America


  1. someofparts

    This is why we enjoy Monty Python so much lately. Bitter laughter. Lots and lots of bitter laughter.

  2. jump

    So right.
    In the years after the war, WW II, the US was obsessed with intelligence and creativity and why the west did not have the Einstein or Heisenberg? There was a quest for what made intelligence or what made creativity. Go figure!
    That was then. Now there is conformity and washed out innovation.
    What was that line from Amadeus? Salieri: Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you…
    Can’t get a word in edge wise :).

  3. Ramesh Kandukur


  4. Everything you said above can be seen to the ‘nth’ degree in your typical government office in the US. Promotions exist for those who get along rather than challenge the system to improve. Just part of the decline . . .

  5. Celsius 233

    A very interesting post Ian. It’s something I’ve considered for many years; but I never framed it as genius.
    But more as outliers; because that was how I was raised; outliers, people like Margret Mead, Ruth Benedict, and Albert Schweitzer.
    Einstein was my very first hero (and remains so today, as a true genius), but I’m loathe to attribute genius too freely. It’s a rare quality not to be cheapened.
    But with time, people such as these become fewer and fewer; it’s tempting to call them genius.

  6. sanctimonious purist

    Could a genius also be an Ivy League courtier in training, senior servant to the oligarchy, or are they mutually exclusive? I’m serious. I’m trying to figure out if I’ve ever met any geniuses or not. I used to think I had, but all but one of them could fit the senior servant to the oligarchy description.

  7. Dan Henry

    I dont know about all this Ian. Joe Rogan says that smartphone competition is so cut throat that the new models 6 months from now will completely obliterate and negate the current models. And planned obsolesence is nonsense. And the Singularity is coming.

    He has 1.1 million twitter followers. We are fucked so so hard

  8. Solar Hero

    Genius is tied by a 2d regression algorithm to defined outcome-matrices in education, tech level and a few other societal factors. The relationship projects temporally in a scatter-fractal pattern that conserves redundancy and new creation events, therefore when generational discrepencies are delta-ed out, a smooth Ligne curve is consistently repeated.

  9. Solar Hero

    I don’t understand why people can’t see this.

  10. David Kowalski

    There is a very thin line in the US between genius and being defined out as mentally unstable or even mentally ill. Some genius is obviously washed out by the system these days. Einstein, Mozart, Jefferson and many others actually had a form of autism, Asperger’s syndrome. I suspect that many other creative people over the centuries were simply considered useful and allowed to be different as long as they contributed.

    When two “temperamental” geniuses met, they often clashed and split (think Edison and Tesla). Neither was consigned to the dustbin. Newton had quarrels with other scientists of his time. Even Edison, who invented the corporate research lab, was unable to exist within the structure of the behemoth he created (General Electric).

    Computer programs sometimes are used unsuccessfully to copy genius. Minus the 1% inspiration, no amount of perspiration leads to creativity. Hollywood makes copies of copies. Drug companies make small predictable changes to extend the patent life. Business people squeeze the profit margin by making the same product with 50 cent an hour labor over seas. It’s all safe. It’s all predictable. Ultimately, it’s all economically parasitic and deadly.

    If the Union was fighting the Civil War today, it would be doing it without Lincoln (melancholia), Grant (failed alcoholic, binge drinker) and Sherman (difficult to get along with and almost certainly had Asperger’s Syndrome); instead trying to cope with corporate type mediocrities.

    You hit the nail on the head, Ian.

  11. Z

    The intolerance of independence.


  12. True as it goes (and nicely capped by Z‘s comment “The intolerance of independence,”) but an interesting frame.

    Now that the cult of “progress” is beginning to show fault lines, however, I’m sure that I’m not ready to lament the withdrawal of the best and the brightest (and the genius) from the service of progress. Much of the nostalgia for the adulation for intelligence was, as mentioned, a by-product of Cold War imperatives, but a significant portion of it was fueled by the futuristic Jetsons dreams that came with the orgy of cheap energy. This dream is now obsolete.

    I cite the references to technological progress that so quickly coalesced around the definition of “genius,” here in the comments thread, as soft evidence for this.

  13. Peter Cowan

    Funny how we have a lot of the opposite though, especially in my field (software):

    obsessive, alienated assholes with no socials skills who think it means they are geniuses.

  14. Kb

    This trend was already becoming obvious in the late ’90s (the Dilbert era) along with a rapidly rising disdain for intellectual effort among the upper class. It all feels very Roman.

    I do think the reckless-seeming haste of the U.S.’s drive for unchallengable world dominance is driven by the necessity of imposing on any possible rivals the same stasis that it is sliding into itself, and to do so before it begins to manifest as actual geopolitical and military weakness.

    Success in that case would presumably mean a kind of worldwide Byzantium, never falling, but never really advancing either.

  15. You’re right, but being right is not enough. Please attempt to propose a solution.

  16. Ian Welsh

    Defining the problem is the first part of devising a solution. As for solutions, over my career as a blogger and writer, I have devised a great number of solutions. Solutions work if the social structure is there to support them, they do not, if it is not.

  17. One of my experiences in academe feels related to this. We’re all supposed to be bright wits, creative, contributing to humanity, and so forth and so on. One day I heard a provost say how necessary it was to toot your own horn because nobody else was going to toot it for you.

    I remember being floored. Why does anyone have to toot? Isn’t work supposed to stand on its own merits? If everybody is tooting as loud as they can, we’ll all go deaf. What’s wrong with shutting up and paying attention?

    And what if someone is smart but no salesman? Just dump their contribution? A lot of smart people aren’t salesmen because they’ve been seeing through pitches all their lives. You’ll end up dumping most smart people, all the non-tooting ones.

    What you’re seeing with genius is related. When you select people for some criterion, like “teamwork,” rather than ability to get the job done, you’ll get lots of teamwork and no results.

    What I was seeing in academe was just the low-level background rumble of the same drive to bullshit that’s exstirpated capability at all levels.

  18. Chuck Mire

    The causes are multiple. A good start is to read “The Age of American Unreason” by Susan Jacoby.

  19. “Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people.”

    Exactly! That has been my problem for years!

  20. Celsius 233

    @ David Duff
    August 31, 2013
    “Geniuses perceive the world in a different way than other people do, and as a result they have trouble interacting with other people.”
    Exactly! That has been my problem for years!
    LOL, we get no respect.
    But then, I’m no genius; just one who sees differently…

  21. Gaianne

    Just dropped by to say hi.

    Clear and concise! Very good post.

    Intolerance of genius seems to be yet another aspect of decline. (The US has been in stagnation, shifting to decline since 1980.) The small reasons people are noting are real, but small. The underlying big reason will be one relating to the whole system, and its inability to respond to circumstances requiring dynamic stability rather than growth.

    Kb: “It all feels very Roman.” So true. A warning, that: It means we have a pretty good idea what comes next.


  22. atcooper


    My advanced apologies for any opaque tech jabber.

    I’ve seen this as well. It turns out you are much better off telling hiring what they want to hear, not what’s true.

    Also related:

  23. Blizzard

    I really like this post. Genius, what it is, how to cultivate it, does seem like an afterthought to our decaying civilization. To the extent that you even hear “genius” discussed, it’s applied to mere entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, mere craftsmen (computer programmers), or even pro athletes. And of course, there is genius in those areas, but it won’t yield the same history-altering benefits as genius in the arts and sciences.

    To me, this comes back to our mis-education systems. The schooling I got was shit, and it was probably still in the top 10% in terms of quality. A classical education is the birthright of every child born today, and we’re systematically robbing them of it. And in the process, snuffing out any genius in the cradle, along with what was our future.

  24. Everythings Jake

    The idea’s interesting, thanks, but frankly, I’ll take a little more union (IWW old school) and a little less genius coddled so they could make beautifully engineered items to kill poor (and preferably non-white) people.

  25. @ Celcius233:

    “But then, I’m no genius; just one who sees differently…”

    You should have gone to Specsavers!

    (Sorry, that might not mean very much ‘over there’ but over here it’s a catch phrase from a brilliant – dare I say ‘genius-level’ ad campaign:

  26. FLC

    RE: Steve Jobs–Long ago, I noticed that the idea that the technology that Apple aquired from NeXT had anything to do with its subsequent change of fortune was a complete anathema.

    Almost everything in OS X/iOS is derived from NeXT, but even technical references tiptoe around the subject, hell, just acknolwedging why system calls start with “NS” seems to give writers the heebie-jeebies. (This seems to be a Bush II-era and later phenomenon, as the initial announcement of OS X in 1997 <a href=" the NeXT/OpenSTEP framework as the magic bullet that would pierce Windows’ domination of the industry.)

    I found it very odd–NeXT was Jobs’ own company after all–but I’ve come to realize that there is an iron law that says that Apple is to be seen purely as a marketing success, and nothing that a bunch of dirty techies came up with could possibly have have been of any relevance to the matter.

  27. FLC

    Sorry about the borked link…sigh.

  28. FLC

    Could a genius also be an Ivy League courtier in training, senior servant to the oligarchy, or are they mutually exclusive?

    I’m not sure if it answers your question, but this bit of The Ascent of Man seems relevant somehow.

  29. Rik

    It seems to be tied to the failing of the Civil Religion of Progress (not a “cult”), which has been up & running since Francis Bacon (source: the ArchDruid, who blogs once a week – and is not on Twitter or Facebook).

    Many of these geniuses are portrayed – always in hindsight! – as the lone genius who fought for the advance of progress against his contemporaries, when the truth is that these people rarely if ever operated in a vacuum. It’s just what values a society emphasizes.

    On second thought, perhaps it’s not the failing of Progress, but it’s achievement instead. Suppose geniuses were valued in the past exactly because, say, everyday abysmal conditions?

  30. atcooper

    ARM chips are green tech (or greener tech at least). It’s also relevant that Jobs originally conceived the recent bout of phones as independent of the carriers. The telcos are incredibly politically powerful, and it’s still my hope better tech breaks them.

  31. Eureka Springs

    So Ian, Do you think Marcy Wheeler is a genius or someone with a photographic memory?

    I think I’ve known many people who are near genius on at least some levels… and that is probably at least as frustrating for a person as being genius without knowing it would be.

    Anyway, glad you brought this up… I’ve been wondering about societal intolerance of common sense for so long I hadn’t considered the genius aspect.

  32. S Brennan

    Ian, I am more inclined to agree with

    Peter Cowan -August 30, 2013

    “Funny how we have a lot of the opposite…in my field (software): – obsessive, alienated assholes with no socials skills who think it means they are geniuses.”

    Geniuses are not as common as assholes who think they’re a genius, taking a WAG at it, I’d say the factor is [at least] 1000 : 01

  33. Ian Welsh

    Of course most people who think they’re geniuses aren’t, Peter and Brennan. It is possible to tell the difference. Programmers/coders slide by on the fact that most people don’t know how to code. Coding, as one of my brightest friends admits, is not that hard once you’re at a certain level of intelligence, it’s just cutting problems at the joints and translating into a computer language. Some people love it, I find it boring. Years ago I wrote tons of pseudocode, I don’t any more.

    ES: Marcy is near genius. Stirling Newberry is a genius. I don’t believe Marcy has a photographic memory, but she does have a good memory. Marcy’s talents are the ability to cut at the joints, an obsessive attention to detail, and an ability see consistencies and inconsistencies. Or, if you wish, she is very good at textual analysis (few people are as good as Marcy at this, even with the same training she has.)

    Those who remember BOP may remember Shaula Evans, also a genius (operational genius). Old Man was a genius as well, though not quite at the same level as Stirling. To some he appeared brighter, this is a function of being less bright, actually, his insights were more accessible. But certainly he was the real thing, and perhaps a more useful genius because his insights were more accessible. (This is not insult, this is analysis: even at my peak I am less smart than any of the 3 people I mentioned, but so what? I have gifts that each of them doesn’t. Every person, as the quote runs, is everyone else’s superior in some way.)

    I should add that genius is dangerous to genius, more than half the geniuses I’ve known are dead now and died before age 45. Stirling has made the same observation. And of those who aren’t dead, many are profoundly ill, or burned their genius out, also possible. Even more than “type As” geniuses are prone to work themselves either in to the grave or in to ill health, and they are bad at taking care of themselves. I have seen this repeatedly. In part it’s because they don’t feel like they’re working when they’re working on the things that interest them.

    The key point of the article was simple this: numerous smart people can’t do what one genius can. While I’m not a genius (I’m a near genius, or a poor-man’s genius, as a friend and I refer to people at our level), my recent loss and partial regaining of mental ability confirmed this for me: while stupid, I could not “power through”. When I regained some level of ability, the solutions to problems I could not solve for 2 years became obvious, even trivial.

  34. RJMeyers

    my recent loss and partial regaining of mental ability confirmed this for me: while stupid, I could not “power through”. When I regained some level of ability, the solutions to problems I could not solve for 2 years became obvious, even trivial.

    Stress and physical illness can do amazingly bad things. I had this happen back in 2005, where I hit a sudden high point and pretty much breezed through my final Master’s work, then had surgery and chemotherapy, moved across the country, and became socially isolated. Took years to recover. Now I’m many years past any chemo or treatments, am married, have a small but good circle of friends, and have taken to running 1 or 2 miles every day. The difference is amazing. Stress from my job in the last year or so has cut into it a bit, but I’ve roughly maintained via my hobbies in my off time, plus reading blogs/Twitter like yours.

    Although I can’t help but suspect that the problems you couldn’t solve for 2 years may have become obvious partly because they were bouncing around in the back of your head for 2 years. I’ve been working on the design for a very complex computer game part-time since 2006, and my brain will still suddenly come out with solutions or improvements to problems that I haven’t really thought about for months or years. Thankfully I’ve only just started committing it to code, so changes are still easy.

    I’ve come to visualize intelligence as people standing along an exponential curve (though intelligence itself is hard to define). Most people are on the long, nearly flat portion prior to the big rise, essentially standing right along the ground. Very bright people are scattered a little ways up on the start of the curve, where they are off the ground but still not too far up. They thin out just as the curve really starts to take off. People on the flat portion mostly just see these very bright people and declare them to be the smartest people around. The bright people look back over the flat portion and are able to see roughly where they stand, and they can communicate with most of the people on the flat portion, though there are certainly gaps. Then they turn around and look up the slope… and see people who make them feel like idiots–true geniuses spread thinly up the ever steeper slope, disappearing into clouds of incomprehension. The cognitive distances between them and the “lower” geniuses can still be described as surmountable gaps, but as you move up the curve these gaps become canyons, which eventually become oceans that both parties must struggle to cross in order to communicate.

    Or, more succinctly: It’s very odd to be considered the smartest person among friends, co-workers, and family, yet still have met a few people in my life that are almost incomprehensibly more intelligent than I am.

  35. Ian Welsh

    A friend once said to me “once you’re at a certain level of intelligence, most people you meet are either about as smart as you, or stupider.”

    I’m at that level of intelligence, you probably are too. If I go into a 10,000 person organization which doesn’t select primarily for intelligence, I expect to either be the smartest person in the room, or as smart as the smartest person in the room. In an org that does select for intelligence, I still expect to be able to keep up, and to be smarter than most, even if they know more about the subject than I do. (Plus, lots of very high IQ people have terrible intellectual judgment).

    Divide intelligence into three parts (Yes, you can divide other ways)

    1) processing power and pattern recognition (measured pretty well by IQ)

    2) Creativity

    3) Judgment

    A lot of people only have the first, they are very smart ordinary people, they will get to the same solution a modestly bright person would, just a heck of a lot faster. The folks who put up their hands first in class, whose self-worth is based around #1.

    I have a lot of #3. Stirling Newberry is a creative genius, he’s certainly in the very high IQ range, but there are smarter people who don’t come up with nearly as interesting or useful theories.

    High IQ people without 2 or 3 and preferably both, are extraordinarily dangerous if the problem isn’t straightforward. They are the brilliant people who can completely fuck things up. Think Larry Summers — he really is VERY high IQ, I know people who know him. Brad DeLong has very little of #3 either, though he’s very very smart. (He’s very good when his emotions aren’t involved, his historical economic work is excellent). #1 is much more common than #2 and #3.

    It isn’t primarily intelligence based, but empathy also has a multiplicative effect in certain circumstances.

    Around about 4 standard deviations IQ starts to go really off tracks without #3, because at that IQ level people can make connections between almost anything, the pattern recognition is in overdrive.

  36. alyosha

    At least when I was in school, #1 was absolutely encouraged, developed, tested, rewarded, etc. I’m one of those common examples who has some #2 and even a little #3, but these are things we were never formally trained in, and so these areas remain underdeveloped. It was all left to happenstance. #3 is a lot of why myself (and I’m sure others) are drawn to your site. Lacking any formal training or desire to explore #3, life has a way of teaching you in this area, but it takes time, is usually incomplete, and it’s possible to draw wrong or not clearly thought out conclusions.

    ..Programmers/coders slide by on the fact that most people don’t know how to code. Coding, as one of my brightest friends admits, is not that hard once you’re at a certain level of intelligence, it’s just cutting problems at the joints and translating into a computer language. Some people love it, I find it boring.

    As someone who’s done years of programming and house remodeling, they’re very similar endeavors, one is largely mental, the other physical, but both go through the same project decomposition (“cutting at the joints”), design, and construction phases. Both have their creative aspects, but once mastered, they get really boring and repetitve. Great hobbies though. I’d love to do a bathroom right about now. I’m real eager to be done with this particular programming project I’m on right now – a big struggle to try and stay interested in doing activities I’ve done thousands of times before.

    You’re right about people who are strong in #1 but not in #3 (“brilliant people who can completely fuck things up”). My career went off the rails at several points where better judgment would’ve saved it. Like many engineers, it became clear I was good at the “how” questions, but terrible at the “whys”. God save us from Larry Summers.

  37. Ray Saunders

    Speaking of genius, is there any further news about Sterling?
    (Agonistas are often asking)

  38. Ian Welsh

    Stirling is doing better than we expected, and it’s at least theoretically possible he make a full recovery, or something very close, in a couple years.

    Alyosha: good intellectual judgment and good personal judgment aren’t always packaged together. I have good intellectual judgment, my judgment of how to run my own life is not so good.

    Larry Summers and Brad DeLong are both the sort of people who could, can and even have done good work when they were told what to do and not asked for their opinion about what ought to be done.

    Creativity and judgment aren’t the easiest things to teach. In fact, for creativity, in many cases, the best thing to do is give people tools and get out of the way. Creativity has declined, significantly, with the rise of helicopter parenting. Children need to have time by themselves to fully flower in to their creativity.

  39. Ray Saunders

    Thanks for the update on Stirling.

    I have known several people I would call geniuses on technical matters – worked with probably the top 10-15 people in the IT world (when it was a lot smaller – pre-PC) and there are those who thought that I walked on water. Many excel at #1 & #2, which IMO are innate but can be heavily influenced by parents/schools.
    The idea of having good judgment in some areas but not others may be a cultural problem.
    Your comment re professional vs personal judgment is a on the money. Too much focus on #1 & #2 tend to isolate one from one’s peers and leave one less than well socialized, ending up with one being professional accomplished byt socially ignorant. If judgment requires the ability to concurrently juggle all pertinent facts to arrive at a judgment and social matters are among the facts, we can expect bad judgment under those conditions.

  40. Kaleberg

    A friend of mine calls it the “tyranny of the well rounded”. She’s a woman, so she knows all the pressures on one to be “well rounded”. This whole “well rounded” thing may have screwed us the genius thing, but it has also hurt us in a lot of other ways.

  41. Ian Welsh

    Judgment can vary.

    Brad DeLong wants a guru, and has bad judgments in gurus: he’s a born follower. Nothing wrong with being a follower, but a good follower must have good judgment in who they follow and when.

    Larry Summers is over 170 IQ. You’ll rarely run in to anyone smarter, though they do exist. Larry lacks social judgment, but he also lacks intellectual judgment. He’s good at technical matters, but he can’t see where things like deregulation lead, because he’s swallowed the kool-aid in his own intellectual discipline. He believes in its embedded assumptions, rather than understanding that they are assumptions and where and when they break down (to put it simply, that markets are not self regulating and cannot self-regulate.)

    Every intellectual system has premises, axioms and assumptions. There are some things which simply are not true, or cannot be proved as true. They are often approximations of the truth–they are close enough to the truth under certain circumstances. If you do not understand where and when they break down, you will go wildly wrong when you push discipline towards its extremes. You must also be aware of the fact that other people will game your system, that when your assumptions are known, other people will then subvert them.

    Any system which says ALL people are or do X is almost certainly wrong if it’s saying anything that isn’t trivially true. All people do not maximize utility (in fact, no one does). Everyone does not act in self interest all the time. Everyone does not act altruistically. Prices do not always convey information about how valuable something is. Supply and demand do not always determine price. Perfect information is rarely available, and people are not even close to rational, except on rare occasions when they are. Entrepreneurs succeed as much by luck as anything else, compensation has little correlation with how hard people work, many people are willing to die for their beliefs, but definitely not all; etc, etc…

    Intellectual judgment requires knowing the limitations of any system you’re using, what it’s good for, what it’s bad for, where it breaks down. Good policy judgment requires understanding human nature, not in the operational sense that a good salesman does, but in the sense of understanding how people react to incentives, ideas and laws–how they are shaped by them, how they shape them, how they get around them, how they come to believe in them or how they subvert them.

    It’s almost impossible to teach this (almost) and learning it requires both real world experience and deep thought on psychology, history, mass psychology, anthropology, cognitive science and humanities. Start with Machiavelli, and move on.

    It’s weirdly true that people are hugely plastic on the whole, and yet have so much behaviour in common. The specifics are endless, but the patterns repeat themselves.

  42. Celsius 233

    Ray Saunders
    September 3, 2013
    Many excel at #1 & #2, which IMO are innate but can be heavily influenced by parents/schools.
    The idea of having good judgment in some areas but not others may be a cultural problem.
    Bingo! Culture is huge, IME. I taught EFL for 5 years here in S.E. Asia (Thailand).
    While quickly moving into the 21st century technologically; culturally, the general population is barley into the 20th century.
    It’s a complicated culture; but hammer to nail; critical thinking isn’t taught because most teachers don’t have any idea what it means to be a critical thinker. And, the very few students who do seem to get “it” are quickly labeled as problem students.
    As a top down society, questions are not well received and Thailand has just been listed at the bottom of 8 ASEAN countries for education.
    Sadly, out of more than 4,000 students (900+/year; 50+/class) over those 5 years, there were probably not more than 30 who got “it”.
    It’s not better today, more than 4 years after I retired; so, yes, culture is a very big influence IMO and IME.

  43. Formerly T-Bear

    Genius is the cutting edge where nature meets nurture, and is one of the two poles, the other being madness, that give width to the spectrum of intelligence (depth is added to the spectrum of intelligence by some combination of intensity, concentration or drive). Genius has the ability to appear anywhere upon that spectrum where ever a mind is given the full range of its powers. Almost everyone has, at one time or another experienced the flash of genius, most do not recognize the moment and move on, some retain the memory of the moment, few indeed are those who ‘carpe diem’ and flow with the moment for however long it lasts in their experience.

    One of the best presentations of genius is in Robert M. Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” read as allegory. Genius is the art of being in the here and now, a here and now that is inclusive of past and future, a highly unstable condition but with support from being in a state of centeredness and balance can be sustained for prolonged periods. Absent the ability of centeredness and balance, the destination changes from genius to madness, only the finest of lines separates the two. Carlos Castaneda’s recounting the experience with mentor/brujo/warrior Don Juan provide insight into this realm of mind where qualities of being in a warrior state and a state of impeccability are central to having and surviving the experience.

    There have been several possible geniuses (genii?) encountered. One was a student of nuclear physics who was reputed never to attend classes but maintained top of class grades and was suspended from university for non-attendance of classes (administrators could not figure out how this was done, so solved the mystery by assuming cheating and expelling). The other was the only genius to do well, His name was the same as the person holding the REC on my then home, Allen, who I met on a quiet night, Tuesday IIRC, at Okies, before he joined some others in Seattle. It was one of the best conversations that night I’ve had in my three score and ten.

  44. Charles S. Herrman

    I am not a frequenter of this blog and was introduced by a friend who thought of me on reading Mr. Welch’s post on the personal and social issues confronting genius. You do not know of me only because academe wishes not to know of those offering stiff competition. They could care less if others are diminished by the resulting ignorance. It requires the stewardship of knowledge to get over the human disposition to cut off competitors and other threats. Oh, I know, that sounds vain, vindictive and petty, but as one of those forlorn geniuses so ably represented by Mr. Welch and the many bright commentaries secundum, I thought it fitting to offer a taste from the horse’s mouth so that you might better compare notes.

    These are bipolar traits – note I did not say ‘symptoms’. I am the originator of the ‘trait-based’ theory of nosology. No, not everybody is ‘bipolar’, of course. But – a fact you can take to the bank and cash (if not easily spend at most institutions) – is that bipolar traits are well represented in the gene pool and exist either to defend against, cope with, or be available for use in these roles, and are, as such, the brain’s interpretation and reaction to “exposures” both good and bad, mainly good – until the disposition to permit the bad becomes a kneejerk and habitual component of the psychic reality. ALL of mental illness is collectively the panoply of variegated reaction to exposures ranging from fear and fright to thrill and the excitement of microwaving cats (something to keep in mind when interviewing serial killers, who are inevitably riddled with bipolar disease).

    The principal source of all banes confronting the genius is the institution, whose social psychology includes a fair share of delusional groupthink, whereby to ensure a tame and thus lame workforce (think of the great book written when this movement was just under way, by William Whyte, The Organization Man). Several consequence follows upon this theme: disdain for those standing out; disdain for outsiders; disdain for out-of-the way approaches; disdain for the ambitious, the high GPA, the genius, all of which suggest ‘showing off’, thus showing you up, both of which are to be viewed akin to – after the Japanese model – nails to be hammered down.
    Culturally, this typifies the honor-based binary, which, along with dignity make for a typology that completes and fills out the brilliant start put forward by Mead and Benedict in the 1930’s. If I was hardly the first (though amongst the first, in the 70’s) to place both concepts together as a sociological framework of sorts (Berger et al. did likewise), I am the only one to develop the model, add flesh and bone, generate predictive ability and wonderfully exhaustive explanative capacity. All of which I had done as a sophomore in college. College, a place where individual professors took me under wing, but where the institution itself was relentlessly myopic, jealous and suspicious of me and all I desired. Think Niebuhr’s brilliant Moral Man, Immoral Society.

    You wouldn’t know that I am the originator of “exposure theory” or the ‘honor-dignity’ binary in part because the Wikipedia article I developed was torn down after a year and a hundred helpful and agreeable edits later, constituting sufficient evidence that the article’s “notability” fulfilled “Jimmy’s” philosophy of the autonomous independent editor, i.e., each and every one of us, not just the academics amongst us. Once junior intellectual wannabes discovered they could gain brownie points towards tenure by prettifying what they had ideologically eschewed like botulism, it was all over. Within a few days two academics and their followers had managed to defile both the code and philosophy of the endeavor. I viewed my clearly incorrect conduct as akin to affirmative action, all instances of which are, on the surface, inherently and necessarily unethical. We adopt such policies for their moral desiderata, which for me was regard for the obvious that institutions were unwilling to countenance. Not schools, not publishers, not businesses, not nobody. I did it because no one else was going to. I would do it again, and one day fairly soon, will.

    Honor-based societies have their faults, just mentioned. They also have their good points: integrity, forwardness (if in the ‘loud’ subclass, including Russia and many Tea party Republicans), dispassionate aloofness (if in the ‘soft’ subclass, as with Japan), clear-headedness, realism ( regrettably all to ready to degrade into Kissingerian Realpolitik), cheerfulness, hospitality, enthusiasm and dance (the English long accused Anabaptists of enthusiasm, and they assuredly did not mean it as a compliment). Some consequences: Israelis hold Arabs, and in particular Palestinians, in contempt, a fact they are not only aware of, but employ as a provocation. The culturally aware were aware, as was I, that the Second Intifada began the moment a certain Prime Minister trampled the holy shrine of some name that escapes my frizzled brain.

    Nations, groups and even persons can be denominated under the system, aware that never is either absent, only that a majority prevalence based on good evidence suffices to bring forth the appellation. Nietzsche’s error re Wagner was to presume, fairly stupidly for someone that smart, that a select person would, given a label, manifest all its best traits. As he came to learn, his idol was no Dionysian, or, equivalently, the Dionysian label could not include the likes of Wagner. Benedict would try her hand at his binary but she was insufficiently aware of how properly to manage the metaphysical presuppositions inherent to such binaries.

    Meet Marcus Sakey of the Travel Channel’s Hidden City and who is also a very successful novelist. His latest work, recently released, is (according to an interviewer) “an exciting – and dangerous – world in which some people are born with special abilities, and are hunted down by the government.” The title, Brilliance, suggests a lively and incisive satire on the reaction to genius types. The interview shows clearly Sakey’s bipolar traits, those we expect from youth finding large success and with varied artistic flairs. Even the charming and clever ripostes are so common as almost to be characteristic of the bipolar personality, even of most who have progressed to disorder or disease. I personally gravitate to those with bipolar traits; they are often the redoubtables who are endlessly fascinating and never dull. They are rarely easy to live with. Newton could never be your friend, nor Rousseau; Einstein would not be the ideal neighbor. Even on medications twice a day, I am, for pretty obvious reasons, unmarried.

    There are smart people, redoubtable people, smart and redoubtable people, and then there are geniuses, some who are just really smart, some who are absurdly proficient and/or productive, and those who are both prolific and redoubtable. The latter two are properly ‘geniuses’ in my view. Great businesspeople, artisans and writers are usually in that first category. Great inventors and discoverers (including explorers and philosophers) tend to be in the second. Michelangelo, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steve Jobs and probably Bill Gates occupy the first, Da Vinci, Picasso, Einstein, Newton and Rousseau the second. All have had mental infirmities. All can be characterized on the bipolar spectrum, a tool I devised to better understand the myriad of inter-related clusters of traits that combine to form variegated symptoms that maddeningly vary considerably within the compass of a single syndrome and a single label.

    Fear of discovering an intellectual better plagues too many academics and typifies another of my findings, that of the “cult of dignity” (my dignity is better than your dignity). The cult sports all the worst traits of the honor-based tendencies. Its opposite member is the ‘cult of honor’. The professions began as cults of honor as did aristocracies, militaries and all civil service appointments (China under Confucius is the model for the last-named) – each a sliver off the common cultural block, each variously defining and rarifying the best of the best, then putting elevated abilities to work to express said ideals with the appropriate autonomous prerogative and balancing stewardship obligations (responsibilities and duties). This amalgam also defines the “office”, as the Romans knew all too well, and which their aristocracy violated no less than does ours today – the office: a created concentration of real or metaphorical power (knowledge, talent) by which to accomplish as a sine qua non, with a zero sum result of prerogative and stewardship.

    The wealthy have ever preferred their own rules to those they themselves elaborate as ideals. Understand the office and the behaviors implied therein, and you understand everything necessary to acquit Edward Snowden of everything but minor trespassing. But the powerful are having none of my silly knowledge and they are having none of that contempt for their high-flown prestige and importance. Recall the contempt of Secretary Rogers for Feynman’s childish, immature and impudent display, what with a beaker of water, etc. Genius is dangerous and is easily enough presumed defective wherever their truths are inconvenient. Catherine Drinker Bowen titled her biography of Franklin, “The Most Dangerous Man in America”.

    The beautiful, even the liberal as well as the moribund, are no less easily swayed to hide (when not disparaging) the source of good ideas, afraid that citing the source would bring about embarrassment. A couple of my essays on stewardship were forwarded to Elizabeth Warren’s private email. She recently noted in public that finance, and in particular banking, is supposed to be ‘boring’. That is not a usual locution even for the well-informed. It is the locution I use in my work, one that I stress. But I also add that the autonomous prerogative inherent to every office is proof that what is boring can also be truly satisfying. Were I a guest at a Senate hearing I confess there would be some ill-at-ease Senators. Enough reason to prevent such an appearance, surely, though I could inform the worthies precisely how to assure a correct accountability in the secretive parts. Nobody in the august chambers of self-importance and self-absorption wants to put with a genius ingrate. The Feynmans are officially unwelcome. His bipolar traits proved embarrassing. Natch. His conduct, and that of all like him, is presumed in advance to be a contempt of the serious and important mien of select institutional off-shoots. They are to be seen, not heard.

    Embarrassment also figures in the marked disposition to avoid contact with independent scholars. The peers would peer down in disgrace. Charles Hartshorne, while alive considered the “world’s greatest living metaphysician”, privately informed me how academics have long treated independents and offered himself as an example of the type. He also showed me the journal article in which he apologized. Part of that apology was to assist my own journey with a wonderful recommendation, as only he could offer, being aware, as one who with Paul Weiss was asked by Alfred North Whitehead to compile and organize the Pierce papers, that I had independently arrived at the metaphysics of both Peirce and Whitehead and that I had subsequently developed these concepts into a methodology that would open up signal contributions in four to six fields depending on how one categorizes them.
    Genius can be as unsettled as it is unsettling. Picasso wasn’t, and could not be, satisfied with a style. He went through all and even invented one; Alexander pope, on electing to employ a meter previously identified with mere doggerels, proceeded to place his poetic stamp on every genre, all with the iambic pentameter. In philosophy, I occupy a thin slice towards the top called (now pejoratively, in part thanks to C. Wright Mills) grand theory. It does not abide limitations.

    Well, now, these are all pretty tall statements. Be assured of one thing: given my gift (or IQ or whatever) and its stewardship the world is there for the asking. For with sufficient perspiration upon inherently adequate means, anything can truly be achieved. A cure for cancer, a nanocomputer, a return to ideals in legal theory, or a demonstration that Pythagoras and others were right that number represents reality – anything can be accomplished (scratch that last one, I have done that too, in discovering a family of constants, in identifying that Pauli’s Fine Structure Constant, a.k.a. alpha is in actuality a natural constant, and discovering a chronologically prior version of the natural logarithm and its value out to over a hundred decimals, with the immediate implication that pi was somehow likewise via Euler’s equation).

    When I was in eighth grade I had for over a year experienced the pleasure of having a nationally known scientist as a mentor. She agreed to have me as a guest in her seminars, after which she called me at home and asked me if I knew what “protégé” meant. She was on the team that grew a carrot from a mast cell. She was the initial (and only) backboard for my early awkward flights of thought, one of which caught her unusually off-guard. The James-Lange theory posited aspects of memory precisely as I had outlined using the exact same two terms to describe colloquially the main modalities: itemizing and chaining. I thought she had taken ill. But even she could be surprised by a fucked up young lad with a yen for theory.

    Oh, I knew I was a mess. Einstein didn’t talk ‘till he was four. I neither talked nor walked until four. Autism presents an exposure to the brain in a peculiar way, scrambling the circuits as if to clear them of dross and permit instinctual flows easier access as a means of assuring need satisfaction despite an unknowable, undefinaeable exposure. Think of a cat at a watering hole shaking its head at breakneck pace, almost wanting to tell you the issue is to determine if more water is needed or not. In autism, however, the brain’s response is structural; lower areas are granted permanently privileged access to higher centers and consciousness. Better than forty percent of autistics grow up to be bipolars. But the added excitation, intrinsically engendered, tells the brain to “ten-hut”, get on with it apace, and so on. And the result is a brain on edge, always challenged, always at the ready, always geared up for fight or flight, always curious, always the poet, charmer – often a schmoozer and/or boozer, and etc. And, yes, the vanity, vindictiveness and pettiness.

    Another trait is “forwardness”, a characteristic of investigative reporters as well as philosophers and court fools. It takes the form of brutal honesty, sometimes over-the-top as in ‘sharing’. It takes the form you are reading this very moment: literalist, fancified truth, the sort that is either well or ill received, just as with the over-all personality. One commenter to Mr. Welsh’s piece, an academic, was nonplussed at an administrator (?) offering the advice that scholars might be perhaps more ready to advance their contributions – the interpretation I take to it, for this reason: the institutional awareness favors peace over conflict, and is fundamental in the politics of all honor-based peoples and groups.

    In academe, where contributions (or at least some productiveness in journal articles) generate intense rivalry for honors, there is a natural disposition to formulate a sort of style-guide of conduct to keep things in order. Here are some of the basics: 1) don’t publish popularly, you make the public think other scholars aren’t capable (many academics were appalled at the first great public expositors such as Dewey, then the famous astrophysicist, then a paleontologist, and so forth); 2) be respectful of all peers and use appropriate titles; treat everyone as if a budding Einstein; 3) be lenient to the point of disrespect of decency in order to deter student outbursts; 4) have one another’s back and protect the academic spirit as against outside intruders; 5) assert the primacy of the profession; keep to yourselves the resources of scholarship and do not mingle with independents; 6) parlay architectural mannerism into a cult of academic attitudes and conduct that disarm discontent amongst the public and/or the politicos who are sent to hold us accountable; 7) downplay your achievements and do not discuss work out of office and classroom, each of which sends a message that you command attention over others.

    This is “old school” stuff, stuff as in ‘stuffiness’. Official as in ‘officiousness’. Little by little things do change, they open up, more credit is given to freedom and to the innate decency any professional is expected to nourish toward even a foe. The remark to be more forthcoming in truthfulness of one’s valid merits is another reasonable interpretation, a welcomed relaxation from number (7) above, and not likely intended as the commenter received it. Academics are nothing if not self-conscious, and I suspect that the brain drain and many affiliated evidences that normals have learned, or are of the opinion, that academe is not a fit place for gifted people, is at last creating a movement towards more reasonable approaches.

    A good place to start is to rip to shreds that style guide. Exactly what message does an academic expect from the public when their behavior sends the messages that 1) every academic deserves a ribbon at the Special Olympics of the mind, and 2) that what is a portion of the public weal should be packaged in what lawyers style a “closed shop” where preferment is by pandering, pestering, what with those mediocre journal articles – each a pissing affair on trees that characterize a scholar’s fiefdom, a forest affair protected as only a king protects it. Over-the-top diligence and punitive strictness. This is a portrait not of a cult of honor, but of a cult of dignity that Thomas Kuhn labeled a ‘paradigm’. Yes, I deliberately exaggerate, but I have a very bright readership here, so I take an occasional liberty.

    What may seem a dreary aside is actually to my point. Genius is downgraded in the academic style guide, far more even than in the private/public realm. In business, where it can beget money, pains are taken to make do with the source; a ‘take the money and run’ attitude supervenes over a desire to squelch what is dangerous. As for the public: when an intelligent person has a chance to hear from me on safe ground, I have never yet heard anyone say other than that I deserve the just deserts of my long decades of being ignored. In fact, marvel of marvels, I get a larger rise from Republicans than from liberals.

    Now I want to give you a flavor for what it truly means to be a genius falling through every crack a democratic capitalistic society can throw out like nail strips to stop a derelict driver. Imagine, then, that you are me. In two year’s time you put up on SSRN (The Social Sciences Research Network) 29 articles, roughly a thousand double-spaced pages of almost entirely scholarly material. Hamlin Law School contacts you indicating interest in your piece ‘A Trinitarian Concept of Office’. They like to combine religious and legal theory and practice. On discovering you to be dangerous (independent) there is a break in emails. No peer review of the article, no attempt to help make the article all it can be for the benefit of the scholarly community, no nothing. If you are an independent, forget it.

    Abacus Law Book from India (a prominent law book publisher world-wide) contacts you with a very formal request for reprint permission for your original piece ‘Common Denominators in White Collar Crime’ where you introduce the bipolar trait thesis into the realm of legal analysis, indicating as well the concept of the ‘ad hoc’ office, which is so often the private/public medium of white collar opportunists. Were the law to correctly recognize stewardship and the office for what they actually are, we would nip these problems in the bud and make the legal system far more integrated and consistent, matching jural and juridical parameters. In the process they evidently smelled a rat. Those pesky independents at it again.

    You have a friend who is a friend of an academic at the vanguard of the “Big History” concept seeded with a million dollars by Bill Gates. He thought that the personal relationship of twenty years would sway a an academic hungry for every added morsel worthy of prestige. Your friend may be a truly marvelous person, but terribly naïve. He even was sure that the good academic would call me on the phone to ask about the contribution I could make to a movement in which my work practically defines and exemplifies the core ideas. Please. Really. No, that ain’t gonna happen. In fact, their website, in mentioning the yearly conference and the call for papers, all primly academic, there is a request for c.v.s, an outright notice to all comers that independents are not welcome there. What academic could give a flying fuck if there’s an Einstein out there? He’d be asked to return to Europe and bother them.

    After my editor at openDemocracy had called one of my efforts ‘billiant’ (they published three in connection with the Occupy Movement). I was asked to write an answer to the query ‘Why elected (and other) leaders are so frequently dismal?’ I wrote as a philosopher does, in this instance a genius, one with the expected trait of forwardness. I explained how both authoritarian and democratic moieties generate circumstances inviting, I had almost said requiring, a slate of bipolar traits to surface, not all of them good, and in so doing inspired the fear in the good editor that I had not double-checked with the appropriate academics as to my clever ‘theories’, and etc.

    I replied, at first very politely and civilly, that the experience of the Lakalai tribe was a clear empirical demonstration that what I had said required absolutely no academic validation and wasn’t that really the point of it all – the point that being aware of these traits meant that moribund academics and godlike doctors would be compelled to relinquish their hold on the keys to medical heaven and admit that anyone can identify these traits, leaving the doctor to differential diagnosis and treatment. All to no avail. I was never again to be published there.

    I am a victim, of sorts, in a society so geared to materialism that academe and industry serve the same goals and nourish the same outlooks, while those pretending to knowledge or talent but who are in neither, are at once nowhere – and will remain nowhere. The public simply forgot, in the scramble for the American dream, that there was more to life than Sunday church and earning money that is then well spent. I have no problem with capitalism; I am a fan – so long as its inadequacies are dealt with. England, who started us on our materialist quest, was flexible enough to offer Newton a sinecure and a job in the Royal Navy. I am in public housing, on disability, living with a dear cat and 7000 volumes (books and journals) in 315 square feet.

    Philip Johnson, the historian of religion and author of Intellectuals would say this is entirely just, and would defend his judgment based on my scurrilous written deportment and all the sad pitfalls of moral obloquy than can be implied therefrom. He said likewise of fifteen of the great literati in the book above named. He is an idiot, a high-placed fool, a man with a high IQ and not the sense that god gave geese. He reminds me of the ‘wicked smart’ virologist of world renown who belligerently held to a position that even at the time was being disproved by evidence. He was the original AIDS denialist and managed to get a few Nobel cronies to march with him while his far-reaching internet preachment led directly to hundreds if not thousands of premature deaths. I hear he was let go from a position only to be hired back elsewhere, that his pernicious and stupidly self-serving website is still up. In a just world designed by this stewardship advocate, he’d have spent five years in prison and been forced to take meds for what is evidently bipolar disorder/disease (assuming no other cause from differential diagnosis).

    I doubt not that these two folks have genius-level IQs. I do not consider them geniuses and I hope you don’t either. While we have in our country a moralist strain, we are increasingly, if terribly slowly, emerging from the general cult of dignity that holds most of our people and all of its institutions in thrall. We are emerging to experience the reality of the ideals in religion and law that allow us to be, nominally, ‘dignity-based’. Gradually the professions are changing and will continue to do so. I have optimism that we will, in a hundred years, find a few countries in the world arriving at full-fledged dignity cultures. I will be long gone, but in the meantime I was hoping to help things along.

    That doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. It is simply too difficult for the MacArthur people to find the likes of me despite my presence on scientific sites and various article repositories. It is simply too difficult to find private individuals with the requisite contacts to locate either a patron (even materialist Rome had its Maecenus without whom we likely would not have Virgil, Horace or Propertius) or an interlocutor to a highly-placed academic able to fend off peers in assisting a genius, or to media folks willing to air such material as might spark public interest on a broad scale. Believe me, I have tried. I have failed. I still try. It is a dissatisfying part of life that takes me away – in a never-endingly depressing way — from my work. Still I am an optimist. But I place realistic hopes only on achieving still more of my scholarly ambitions, and ambitious they are. If a so-called genius selects other than the height of ambition, and the steepest of difficulty, such is not (in my perhaps over-strict view) a true genius.

    We are a society still in the early phases of what it means to be mature, to be willing and able to face responsibilities, to acknowledge our betters whether in talent or intellectual endeavors. With this degree of immaturity there can be no place for genius within institutions, and few avenues for success apart from them. We all want to identify with greatness, and we want to make ‘beautiful’ people out of those we would admire or emulate. The stupider and richer the better. Put them next door and all is different. What is familiar is common, not rare.

    The genius is generally diffident regarding fame, private and protective of the time required to do the work that typically consumes him or her. Everything, both empirical and imagined, seems to argue against the success and happiness of the genius. The ideal would be to locate a few private wealthy willing to steward by way of patronage. If Wagner could live luxuriantly so can a genius in other realms. As for this genius, he wants, needs, a secure decent place midway up a downtown condo and security from medical bills, with some left over for travel. Somehow, when makers of mousetraps can be billionaires, there should be fodder aplenty to sustain decently a productive genius. The academics will welcome me only when shamed into it or, should I gain wide acceptance, they will smack their chops over the prospective students and the respect my presence would bring to the institution. It’s all about the institution. I am but a means to their end when not a bothersome, nettlesome, outsider.
    I once tried to obtain a password for the databases largely paid for by the public, and which would allow the same remote access available to the 50,000 students and nearly a thousand faculty at the nearby public university. They said it was the big bad vendors who required severe limitations on access. Well, I did some homework and discovered otherwise. I even obtained a special exemption from a major vendor and the good people at the university got in touch with that vendor and apparently threatened it, for there was no further communication and no replies to further inquiries. The university is charged with policing the portal, and they have the prerogative to allow or disallow who they will. That is the reality, vendor agreements notwithstanding (my guess is they were originally written by university legal departments in any case). I suggested establishing a means by which to qualify a scholar as deserving of access to scholarly materials. They were never heard from again. What a pesky, impudent fellow I am!

    I petitioned the local state senator, who was painfully but expectedly dismissive. The reason I have not submitted more journal articles or written technical books is owing to the lack of reasonable access to requisite resources. No, I am not going to set up shop in the library. When I suggest that faculty do likewise, they stare in disbelief. They just can’t bring themselves to entertain the notion that they are idiots in the eyes of a real genius. Their library department told me to use the public library. That guy clearly hadn’t been to the clue store. After doing more in my life than any five or more academics in multiple lives, one might suppose that my books would reveal worthwhile material of utility to civilization. Doesn’t look like that’s gonna happen anytime soon.

    Thank you for the patience to see through to the end of an admittedly too long post. I hope this fills in gaps and complements the fine remarks many of you placed to the original.

  45. Charles S. Herrman

    I apologize for misspelling Mr. Welsh’s name and for lack of paragraph spaces. Guess I have been spoiled by systems that add them automatically. Thanks.

  46. Celsius 233

    @ Charles S. Herrman
    September 5, 2013
    Yours was a most interesting and informative post.
    Greatly appreciated; while I read it all, it’s one of the few posts I must read again, as there is vast amounts there to consider.

  47. Peter Cowan

    “Of course most people who think they’re geniuses aren’t, Peter and Brennan. It is possible to tell the difference. Programmers/coders slide by on the fact that most people don’t know how to code. Coding, as one of my brightest friends admits, is not that hard once you’re at a certain level of intelligence”

    In fact, much–maybe most–of programming is just pure drudgery, requiring minimal intelligence, eg: “If this, do that, otherwise do something else”. Doing it in a way that makes it possible for someone else who has never seen the code to pick it up, and maintain it in the future is much harder. But that doesn’t require intelligence so much as discipline and organization skills. As for the non-genius, asshole coders, I brought it up merely to note the irony that there is still some space in our culture for that temperament, but it is being taken up by mostly non-geniuses, doing superfluous work.

    I find the discussion of the health/intelligence connection very interesting. I have memories of being really smart back in high school; winning math contests, skipping classes and not doing class work, but acing the finals. That sort of thing. Then I spent several years, um… intentionally killing brain cells, and a couple years with illness and I’ve never been the same. Add in fatherhood and now a chronic illness (that comes and goes) and I find myself sometimes questioning even basic math that I do in my head. But, perhaps not surprisingly, I am much happier, and I have an easier time making friends.

  48. cripes

    Yes, of course, pressure to conform to an overlapping panoply of groupthink inducements and penalties rewards servile obediance over competance every time. So the social utility of wealthy benefactors sponsoring cranky artists and geniuses applies equally to mere rebels and iconoclasts, whistleblowers–so important is the cultivation of outsiders to social health that it can hardly be left to the whims of moneybag Babbits who would employ todays geniuses to paint their figurative Sistine chapel in BOCA Raton. Instead? We need a reliable social space, legal space and guaranteed basic income society in keeping with our technological capacity. Then the bi-polars, bums and genuiuses alike can flower to the betterment of us all.

  49. I can tell that few of the people here actually work on the leading edge of science and technology. The reason why getting along with others has become so important is not because of hatred of genius. It’s because technology has become so complex and expensive that one person literally cannot do it all because he literally cannot type that fast. Richard Stallman, for example, is probably a genius. Yet his GNU operating system is pretty much dead on arrival because he cannot work with others, while Linus Torvald’s Linux runs the server powering this blog because Linus *can* work with others. Linus is probably a genius too, and is possessed of a high level of self worth and a disgust with things that he thinks are stupid. I’ve had my own run-ins with him in the past. But that arrogance does not prevent him from listening to and accepting the contributions of others (though it slows things down sometimes!). Which is good, because one person simply could not create and support the vast number of subsystems that the Linux kernel currently has, there is not sufficient time in the day to type that fast.

    Antisocial genius fails today for the same reason that Communism failed: Because the number of inputs into any modern technology is so vast that it’s simply impossible for one man (or one Communist commune) to create them all. You’re going to have to work with other people to assemble all those inputs and merge them together. Just how it is.

  50. Ian Welsh

    There are places where teams are needed, there are places where they aren’t. And teams are made to work with anti-social genius by not putting the genius in charge.

    In research, certain breakthroughs cannot be made by non-geniuses. And yeah, actually, I know people who work on the cutting edge.

    Even at a lower level, this Bullshit is common. When I was managing editor at another (major) website, one of our authors would hit Digg (digg was the big site back then) for 50k hits about 1 out of every 4 articles. The other editors considered that author difficult to work with, but all it required was about 30 minutes of work per article and a little sensitivity to the fact that the author had poured heart and soul obsessively into each article–which is why they hit so often. When I left, the author was sidelined in a few months.

    Something like Linux is all very nice, but it is not a work of genius, it is a Unix clone (check the read-me). It takes impressive intelligence, but there is no great conceptual breakthrough at the heart of it. Want to be impressed by someone’s genius related to languages and operating systems, forget Torvald, look at Ritchie and Thompson.

  51. Charles S. Herrman

    The impetus of genius can be the occasional sporadic insight, but here, as with the work of artists, greatness resides in the ability to achieve on a recurrent , if not necessarily regular, basis.

    The recurrently productive genius appears to magically pull rabbits out of hats, and requires no one else to achieve the on-going insights. S/he relies on what in my trade is called ‘structuralist’ methodologies. Structure is generally considered as a background pattern(s) that require metaphysical as opposed to empirical deconstruction.

    Teamwork enters this picture in two ways, where it enters at all: 1) The theorist identifies what needs to be done to elaborate the underlying structure and puts others to the task; then, having the structure, shows others (and asks their assistance) to demonstrate how to reflect the structure in composites or products; 2) The theorist identifies and elaborates mechanisms that, when understood by experts in the field, can be given over to those experts for application in ways the theorist could not manage for lack of the knowledge and/or expertise, and 3) A team leader proposes an objective and put the challenge out to the team, figuring on the smarties or geniuses to come up with something, after which some combination of the former two methods prevails.

    Further classification to these points goes to the structure and how it relates to the endpoint as a substrate — as a ‘material cause’ in Aristotelian terms or as ‘thirdness’ in Piercean terms. At the frontiers the structure is amorphous and the independent as well as dependent variable reside within nature, whether physical or biological. On the other hand are empirical systems, that are substrates often taking the form of emergent technologies.

    Where the substrate is ‘in the physical or biological ether’, as it were, the lone genius is almost without question the only source needed until some product or other empirical application is required.

    The most popular technical articles I write are those on methodology, and rightly so, for the principles aback metaphysical paradigms offer a template that can be held up to any aspect of nature. A techi is not exactly suitable for such efforts, for however thorough the training, there is as much art as science in the process both in design and in the interpretation of findings. With obvious exceptions, the usual techi is a rule follower far more than a rule maker.

    A broad and rough-hewn parallel might suggest that the usual teammate proceeds by interpolation, whereas the theorist operates more by models reliant on extrapolation. Either way, there can be team approaches with and without genius. But the latter will be requisite where the product is the rabbit trick variety. The areas most likely to be reliant on the genius are the frontier areas. even there a team approach is useful but in either case has to be wrapped around a process in which the theorist/genius is logically at the center even if the organizational process has arranged things differently but suitable to a smooth process of development.

  52. Erm, Thompson’s work was based on a simplification of Multics (though he inverted “everything is a segment mapped into memory”, the Multics motto, into “everything is a file”, the Unix motto, because of the limitations of the minicomputers that he had to work with), and the notion of writing an operating system in a high level language was also based on Multics. Using PL/1 like Multics was clearly out of the question on a PDP-11, I spent some time poring through the gigantic mass of code that was the Multics PL/1 compiler and there was no hope of getting that to run on any 16 bit machine, so Ritchie writing what is basically a high level PDP-11 assembler with PL/1-like programming language constructs on top of it was a fairly logical next step. Even the way he segmented the name space in “C” between function level, file level, and global level was basically borrowed from Multics, though of course the implementation was not the same (for one thing, the Multics global level truly *was* global, since everything was a segment and could be mapped into memory if you had permissions to do so, a fact that I used to do some rather… interesting… things).

    As for Unix versus Linux, Linux implements the Unix API. Linux is not, however, Unix. I was fairly familiar with the Unix source code in the early 80’s and recently have been doing a significant amount of Linux kernel work for my employer (man, hard to believe it’s been over 30 years since I started doing this stuff, must be why my joints are stiff in the morning). Linux’s internals aren’t anywhere near the same. They didn’t even start out being anywhere near the same, Linus was informed by both Unix and by a variety of message-passing operating systems that he eventually decided were the wrong approach. (And I just deleted about 80 lines of highly technical stuff about the impact that had on the design of various subsystems of the Linux kernel when I realized that it would confuse the vast majority of people). In any event, my argument was not that Linus is the smartest person in computing (I’ve met people in the industry who are probably smarter than Linus, though not many) but rather that possessing both genius *and* some modicum of social skills is necessary to actually achieve in this industry because of the sheer complexity of the technology — Linus could not have typed fast enough to write the totality of the current Linux operating system, period. Genius alone and you’re Richard Stallman sleeping under the desk in his office. Or Hans Reiser festering in his prison cell.

    Now, you may have a point when it comes to pure science and mathematics. But I’ve never heard of a pure scientist or mathematician being expected to have a lot of social skills.

  53. Ian Welsh

    Again, geniuses don’t have to be in charge of a team to take advantage of what they offer.

  54. Anon

    An earlier poster maintains:

    “In fact, much–maybe most–of programming is just pure drudgery, requiring minimal intelligence, eg: “If this, do that, otherwise do something else”. Doing it in a way that makes it possible for someone else who has never seen the code to pick it up, and maintain it in the future is much harder. But that doesn’t require intelligence so much as discipline and organization skills.”

    I have followed this blog for many years, and have generally found Ian’s views and the resulting commentary of very high caliber.

    But I am very disappointed in the attitude being expressed towards those of us that work in computer science.

    If you’ve ever truly worked in the field, not had just a passing interest in it, you’d find an unusually high percentage of truly bright people. The combination of imagination, creativity and sheer ability required, not to mention the necessity of constantly (and quickly!) learning new technologies makes the job far from “drudgery” requiring “minimal intelligence.”

    The work is painstaking and requires phenomenal attention to detail, but for many of us that is not “drudgery” because the creative possibilities inherent in software, being virtually unlimited by any physical medium, more than make up for it.

    If you find a line of work not to your liking, that is no reason to disparage those who do.

    And none of you would have a forum to express these views if not for those of “minimal intelligence” who, like myself, have contributed an enormous amount of energy and innovation in creating the vast array of information systems that make these very words possible.

    Very disappointing indeed, from a group I formerly held in rather high esteem.

    Very disappointing.

  55. Ian Welsh

    Peter makes his living programming, I suspect he knows what he’s talking about. As for myself, I did quite a bit of programming back in the 80s and early 90s. I grant I don’t much like it, and didn’t then (I hate debugging) and I haven’t done any serious programming since about 98.

    And yeah, sorry, most programming is drudgery, and doesn’t require more than bright-normal IQ. Programmers were the heart of tech-libertarianism in the 90s and early 2000’s and thought that they were well paid because they were so brilliant, and irreplaceable, most of them were neither.

    I’ve known programmers who were at the top of the game, who were geniuses: one of my friends cut his teeth doing the traveling salesman problem for Bell Northern in the 80s and early 90s, another was called in by IBM when their own boffins couldn’t solve problems, a third…. but you get the point. Most programmers do intellectual drudge-work, and they are not geniuses. Some are. Same as most mind-work fields.

    If you can’t see past your own interests, you’re missing the point. Most writers aren’t geniuses, most bloggers aren’t, heck the vast majority of professors aren’t. The idea that programmers were some special elite is why programmers were the vanguard of “I’ve got mine because I deserve it, fuck you Jack” libertarianism in the 90s. The average programmer is nothing fucking special, and deserves no more than any other intellectual worker. Which, I think, is a decent living, same as janitors should get, and, for that matter, everyone else.

    But programming doesn’t take any particular genius, and it doesn’t take more than about 1 to 2 standard deviations of intelligence over norm, either, for the vast majority of programming jobs.

    And those sorts of people are cheap now that China and India are coming online. Brains are cheap and plentiful now.

    Programmers deserve respect for the work they do, but so does everyone who does something which makes the world a better place.

    Now, really good programmers, who are rare, are a different matter, but then really good people at any job are rare. Still, even really good, isn’t genius.

  56. Z


    I don’t believe this for a second:

    “(Summers)’s good at technical matters, but he can’t see where things like deregulation lead, because he’s swallowed the kool-aid in his own intellectual discipline. He believes in its embedded assumptions, rather than understanding that they are assumptions and where and when they break down (to put it simply, that markets are not self regulating and cannot self-regulate.)”

    C’mon! summers “can’t see” where deregulation leads when the evidence of it is laying all around us? He’s incapable of understanding that markets do not effectively self-regulate? A man with a 170 iq?! Do you believe that he also believes that the financial crisis of 2008 was unforeseeable too … as he publicly claims? When there were people that foresaw it and were very public with their foresights prior to the crisis … foresights that summers himself surely had to be aware of? Nonsense! He does not BELIEVE in those assumptions of his discipline … he simply takes them on and promotes them because they BENEFIT him.

    I think that you probably didn’t fully explain what you were trying to convey in regards to summers – it happens, I do it all the time. Because you are implying in your assumptions that summers is intellectually honest. And I believe that you are far too smart to believe that it is a coincidence that 170 iq larry suddenly regresses to an double digit iq when it greatly benefits himself to do so.

    On obama and his mother:
    Yes, obama’s mother was probably a terrible mother … look at the end-product. And maybe she was generally distant towards him as well. But my theories about obama and his mom are that they became way too close at some juncture in his life.

    On intelligence, from a person who is most definitely not a genius:
    What I think holds most people back from becoming more fully intelligent is a lack of integrative thinking and their ego – which I think respectively are due to selfishness (only seeing things from their point of view and rarely going further than that) and immaturity, but the causes are also all tied together.

    My definition of integrative thinking is the ability to understand dynamics and systems … cause and effect … the higher order effects of actions/events. Most folks only think to their immediate needs and maybe only slightly beyond that. By doing so, they limit the amount of inputs they take in and process. When one sees themselves as part of something larger … as part of a whole … their minds automatically take in more inputs and see and process things more integratively which exercises and enhances their analytical skills. That helps them to gain a deeper understanding of the systems and dynamics in place that lead to those higher order effects.

    As far as ego is concerned, most people simply can’t admit that they are wrong and this immensely stunts their intellectual development. Instead of understanding that we all have lots to learn … even if you are someone of the intelligence of an Einstein (how many times did he change his mind?) … too many people childishly regress to an emotional state and feel threatened when they are told that they are incorrect. And consequently they adamantly cling to faulty beliefs because to do so would mean that they would have to admit that they were … gasp … wrong. As if anyone knows everything and that we are not all ignorant in some ways.

    And our rulers understand this dynamic and use this to greatly benefit themselves. They know that if they can inundate us with enough marketing/propaganda to get people to take on an initial belief … if they can get to us first … and especially get us to take on an identity based on that belief (the rough and tough individualistic libertarian, the inherently morally superior liberal) … and also characterize the opposing side in ways that flatter the believer … that they can manipulate the fuck out of us. Which they do … very effectively.


  57. Z

    In short, geniuses that place pursuit of the truth as their highest calling … rather than their self-interest … are the ones that our rulers find dangerous and aim to disempower. Because they can’t control them.


  58. Ian Welsh

    I do believe it, yes. In Summers case I am only one step from him, and what I have been told is that he did not, indeed, forsee it (just as Greenspan was honestly surprised that markets were not self-correcting.)

    Being smart, really fucking smart, means you can make yourself believe anything.

  59. Z

    There is a huge difference between not being able to foresee the crisis yourself … which I do not believe anyway despite summers’ saying so because summers is clearly dishonest … and declaring that the crisis was unforeseeable … which is clearly a lie and proves that he is dishonest.


  60. Peter Cowan


    Sorry if my comments about programming came off as a criticism of people who program for a living. It wasn’t intended that way. Ian already addressed most of your points, but let me just add: In my professional experience, as a programmer, jobs that require you to think mathematically are much less common than jobs that require a basic grasp of logic and organizational skills for implementing business related functions, and *lots* of patience. The hardest part of programming is usually the debugging, which is just more detective work. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t computer scientists working at a genius level on some projects. Of course there are, it just not most of us. What is more common, in my experience, is genuinely smart programmers going out of their way to elevate their work beyond business logic drudgery just for the fun of it.

  61. Anon


    Normally I wouldn’t have bothered to respond, but there’s been a disturbing tendency among government and media alike to label much of software development “programming,” and go along with the narrative that it’s mostly unskilled “wog work” best sent offshore.

    Of course this “nothing to see here, move along” attitude by government and news sources regarding the outsourcing of engineering, IT and computer science jobs in the United States virtually ensures that nothing will be done about it, so another whole taxonomy of well-paying, non-polluting, labor-intensive work can be silently sold to the lowest bidder without the public raising a fuss.

    The irony is that, even as the *previous* generation who bought into the “jobs of the future” nonsense are finding themselves increasingly unemployed, they’re selling the same hogwash to a new batch of kids. Witness the incessant hue and cry from industry about “The STEM Worker Shortage!”, even as they write more H1B visas than there are job openings every year.

    Unfortunately this new batch of kids are going to pay far more for their worthless degrees than I did. 🙁

    And there’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding what software design entails, even to the point where I read a U.S. Department Of Labor article that made an artificial distinction between “designers” and “coders”, imagining “coders” as a group of people who merely type in statements that the “designers” have specified.

    Since you’ve developed software, you’re well aware that that’s almost never the case, and there is often significant design responsibility in “programming” jobs.

    Yes, there’s lot of dull work in the business/financial software sector — but there is also a lot of very interesting work requiring significant skills and knowledge beyond “coding.”

    “Coding” in itself is indeed straightforward, but knowing what to code in any given problem domain is where practitioners are put to the test. Like tofu, “coding” hasn’t much of a flavor of its own. Its real value is only apparent when the skill is wielded by an individual steeped in substantial knowledge and experience with the sort of problems the code is attempting to solve.

    For example, I work in embedded systems, where the programs I write must be as small and efficient as possible to run on microprocessors of (relatively) modest capability that are built into other devices — like real-time video manipulation systems, industrial controls, consumer electronic products and aerospace systems.

    Doing those sorts of things well requires mastery of electrical engineering principles, advanced software design and algorithms — not to mention the problem at hand. While I have never claimed to be a genius, in this forum or anywhere else, I consider myself a solidly middle class “semi-bright normal” who has managed to make a decent living by working insanely long hours and putting up with ridiculous amounts of schedule pressure and stress.

    Despite it all, the scientific and creative aspects of the job have kept me in it, and I remain enthusiastic and curious, even as the slow death of American manufacturing makes it harder and harder to stay employed.

    So I couldn’t find any way whatsoever to bridge the gap between “minimal intelligence”, which were your exact words, and the abilities of myself and (in general) my compatriots. We may not be geniuses, but we’re not stupid/average either, and many of us struggle just to stay employed until the whole shebang gets moved to some low rent third world venue.

    So you hit several nerves and elicited my vociferous objection. 🙂

    But finally getting that off my chest, I can once again wish you and all our fine contributors here the very best.

  62. Formerly T-Bear

    @ Anon

    Just to note the apparent honesty of your remarks.

    Programming and coding seem to be the modern version of craftsmanship, craftsmanship being masters at using their materials. The materials of the programmer are language and logic of a mathematical sort rather than the leather of the cobbler or precious metals of the goldsmith, their products ranging from cheap summer sandals to the Imperial Eggs of Fabergé’s.

    Craftsmanship was what filled human needs for hundreds of thousands of years, the ability appeared concurrently with the first remaining artifacts of the species; from its body was born modern manufacturing which in turn gave rise to industrial production. There is absolutely nothing about craftsmanship that should give rise to regret, humiliation or disgrace, if anything, those endeavours that should give rise are today’s most esteemed and best paid e.g. banksters, their bought politicians and the lawyers that protect them.

    All the best………

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