Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Minimum Viable Sociopathy

There are absolutely NO Nazis fighting for Ukraine!
If you agree, then just gouge out your eyes!
(Note NATO and Nazi flags side by side.
Isn't that just cute?)
I seem to be doing a lot of hyperproductive things lately: explaining to people how to kill the foul beast of Empire, revolutionizing the way English literacy is taught to both native English speakers and the rest... Somebody just emailed me to tell me that I have become “one of those significant commentators.” Yikes! If I keep going this way, then I will run the risk of making a Significant Contribution to Society (SCS). And that would be a mistake; not just for me, but for anyone.

Plus I'd be spending most of my time deleting blog comments from imbeciles. It's the blogging equivalent of scraping bugs off your windshield. (It's about 1% thoughtful comments from actual readers, and 99% senseless blather from idiotic trolls. I am serious. Very sad. But I liked the one I got the other day from a Ukrainian who said that his people will drown all the Russians in their (Ukrainians') own blood. That was cute, but I deleted it anyway because it's hate speech.

But allow me to explain about SCS and what the title of this blog post means.

As Venkatesh Rao explains so well over at his Ribbonfarm, a person faces two opposing risks in grappling with the vicissitudes of earthly existence: the risk of achieving nothing, and the risk of achieving something that's not on strategy. Let me summarize his argument.

If you simply wander aimlessly through life, breathing oxygen and eating and excreting organic matter, then you will still get somewhere. Statistically, a blind-drunk sailor who walks out of a bar will, on average, while stumbling along on his way to nowhere in particular, cover the distance of √n steps for every n steps he takes. This is known as a random walk, or Brownian motion, which is fine for molecules at anything above 0ºK, and perhaps for drunken sailors too, but most of us sentient beings want our lives to have a bit of meaning. And if the progress of our lives starts looking too much like a random walk, then we tend to start asking ourselves difficult questions, like “What's it all about?” and drinking too much. And that causes our walk to get even closer to random. And therein lies a great danger, because this sort of downward spiral inevitably ends with somebody else telling you “What's it all about” and what it is you have to do, supposedly for your own good, though it hardly ever is.

There is also the opposite danger. If you keep your eyes fixed on your goal and make a concerted effort to make n steps of progress in its direction for every n steps you take, then you will quickly happen upon a wall with a gate in it, and a guard at that gate will demand to see your permit, degree, qualification or certificate before letting you pass through that gate. And the process of you getting that permit, degree, qualification or certificate will end with somebody else telling you what your goal ought to be. The goal is, universally, to accumulate things: dollars or stripes on your uniform or publications and citations, or earwax. Details don't matter, but what matters is that these things never have much of anything at all to do with your original goal. And although many people rationalize that such things are necessities, or means to an end, it is very hard to convince yourself that expending all your energies in lifelong pursuit of earwax so that you can get back to your original goal—what was it again?—is at all reasonable. These, then, are your two options: march (almost) in place, or accept somebody else's marching orders—and march off to spend your whole life collecting earwax.

But Venkatesh, being one smart cookie, offers us a third option. You see, there is some threshold for the amount of forward progress in any given direction you can make before you are likely to encounter a wall. If on average a random walk results in √n steps for every n steps taken, then you can experimentally discover some threshold δ such that for every n steps you can safely make √n+δ steps' worth of progress in any direction you choose without getting on anyone's radar. Venkatesh expresses these two constrains using the following simple formula:

n < C ≤  √n + δ

where C is one's Contribution to Society. Those who stay within the bounds expressed by this formula practice what he calls Minimum Viable Sociopathy (MVS). This is a tremendously powerful concept, because it shows how you can do pretty much whatever you want. You just have to do enough different things, and each one half-assedly enough, so that none of them runs the danger of making a Significant Contribution to Society (SCS), and getting noticed and potentially struck down by those who jealously guard their prerogatives to determine which contributions are valid and which are not. All you have to do is set your sights just a tiny bit lower than one would normally expect, and you should be safe.

What this means in practice, for me at least, is that as soon as it starts looking like I am heading in the direction of acquiring a specific job title or job description, or getting involved in something that might require registration, certification or licensing, then I need to backtrack or head in a different direction for a bit, until everybody loses interest. In doing so I sometimes forgo some opportunities for an increased income, but that is the price of freedom.

For example, you probably expect that I will next talk about collapse of the USSA, or Ukraine, or how the English language ought to be taught, or give you a bit of philosophy like I just did. That's a good guess, but instead I will talk about something else entirely.


Bill said...

Pretty much sounds like my life.
Sailor USN, student, married forest fire fighter, forest road surveyor, reforestation contractor, devorced, English teacher Japan, Translator Japan,
yoga, trekking, married maybe. The above is just a random sample.
Now 71.
Good article

forrest said...

Hey, I seem to have hit on this method myself! Blunder just enough in one right direction, then back off after the first few normies clobber me, wander around some more, blunder off towards some other worthwhile insight -- and no-one will bother to shoot me!!! Maybe.

My donkey said...

I take comfort in knowing there's actually no risk of achieving nothing.

It may take a lifetime, but we all eventually achieve room temperature.

Brian Rich said...

The random walk describes my career development rather well, too. I know exactly what you mean with the guarded gates metaphor. I have only recently been able to do professionally what I have loved doing for many years as a hobby - teaching science and engineering skills to kids - by doing it as an after-school gig. I'm finding it to be very satisfying work, and doable without an externally awarded credential.

John D. Wheeler said...

I can't believe you wrote this!

You realize now I can't recommend your blog to anyone who knows me for a good long time, until this post is well buried. I can't have them catching on to me!

I have to maintain the illusion of being Mostly Harmless.

Marc L Bernstein said...

I used to be a half way decent racketball player when I was around 30 years younger, in the mid 1980s. I noticed that my best results came when I continually mixed up my shots - my serve, my attempts at a winner (kill shots and passing shots), lobs which hugged a side wall, ceiling shots, z-balls, etc. Executing this strategy was not easy. It was easier to get in a rut, and try too many of the same kind of shot.

Your idea in this article reminds me a bit of a successful strategy based on variety and unpredictability, something that often worked in racketball. The key was keeping the opponent guessing and off-balance.

In this case you are keeping society itself from zeroing in on you.

Your idea sounds a bit tongue in cheek but there's more wisdom in it than might at 1st be apparent.

1789to1989 said...

Thank you for this post. I have been a success by the standards of the "Traders", and in the last few years, as I grew in the courage to acknowledge the coming hard rain that is soon to fall, I swung to the opposite side. I resolved to take my USD, convert it to Au, buy a tract of farmland and a home in Пенза, take a Russian wife, and live life as a "moral" family man.

Perhaps I have been deluding myself and planning on "collecting earwax", as another blogger might say. Can I practice MVS and hold the middle ground of liberty?

It is posts like this that make a few minutes (or longer) each Tuesday such a treat.

Thank you, Dimitri. You are opening minds.

Unknown said...

I think the third option is taken by people who have no desire to become a leader, or to be responsible for others. We are happy to investigate, get excited, more forward and share with others in the hope that our understanding will contribute to their self empowerment. However, the moment people look to us to lead, the moment people look to us to take responsibility for them, we back off. If we smell the slightest whiff of need, manipulation or someone using us for their benefit, we change colours like a chameleon.

WE have no desire to get to the "top,"whatever that is. Other than our own wondrous exploration of life the universe and everything. To many, those who strive for the top, and those who we disappoint by not taking the lead or taking responsibility for them, we are regarded as failures. For us this is no failure, we escaped yet again the mesh on entrapment.

Anonymous said...

I forwarded this to my webmeister, because he was feeling a little bit down lately. Everyone is saying that he ruined his career by taking too much time off to travel and do awesome stuff while he was still young. Personally I have always been a lousy and uncooperative slave, but didn't find peace with it until recently. Now I can listen to people in their 30's brag about taking on mountains of debt and paying into their retirement accounts "all their lives" and feel pity instead of envy.

Also I think a lot of people took your article last week very seriously and would have commented, but your audience is much more careful about what they say online than the multitudes of bottom feeders at ZeroHedge.

V. Arnold said...

Learning English is good.
But, adopting the meme it implies is wrong, wrong, wrong.
English is a way to communicate; not a philosophy.
Language is not for advantage, but for understanding...

chazz said...

BS, MS EE-ChE carbon coke plant, but when they wanted me to promote me to chemical separations, I was out of there. Next went back to get a PhD in EE, then took over family rental business, raised my drug addled nephew, helped him get off drugs, took care of elderly diabetic father, got my nephew graduated with PhD. Made a little ($300k) over 15 years in the stock market, and learned a lot about the tax code which I've been using to legally get my income down. I call it income engineering. So the last two blog entries have really hit home.
Now its time to sell the business, and grow flowers for a while. Spend time playing with my grandniece. Oh and some travel.
Sometimes I think should have gotten around the family stuff because there was enough money for someone else to do it, but when someone drops a fifteen year old relative on you, you really can't get around it, and luckily I didn't want to.

jwl said...

Sweetly sardonic.

Unknown said...

Nice, thanks Mr Orlov, Mr Rao. In recent years i've thought that reframing the hunger for meaning (as a mere tic of the ego) is a better route to contentment than assuming meaning, but the MVS seems to describe my life better.

Johnny Swift said...

Visibly and consistently overachieving will definitely win you more condemnation than praise. After all, most of the people "in charge" are greedy idiots and know it, thus see anyone accomplishing too much as a threat. Yes, it's better to be a bit of a Renaissance Man, scattering your talents and interests about. Rather than thinking of myself as not focussing and achieving the "success" I probably could, I prefer to think I am always leaving myself room for improvement.

Unknown said...

While reading this post I couldn't help but think of this song:
"Never first or second place, I won't ever run your rat race"

Russ said...

Dmitre: When I retired 22 years ago people would ask me what I was going to do. I told them 'nothing'. I think I've now got it down pat. Good post, Russ

Energyflow said...

I got a really good laugh at this. When we take ourselves too seriously we become essentially egoistically autists regardless of our hobby or occupation. If I were Caesar, or Jesus and had no humour I would have failed. Indirection is key to acheiving unsensed inner goals, like a kid or pregnant woman having a strange appetite due to failing nutrients. There's more than one way to skin a cat. The goal is the path. Doing stuff to impress or influence others too much is bad. We become guru and they copy us without knowing why. Everyone should find his own path from within. Worst case are people pushed into carreers chosen by parents, child actors, etc. Mozart, Michael Jackson. Huge influence on others but unhappy. I remember reading 'to kill a mockingbird' in school. A white guy in the novel, in usa south in 1950s, feigned alcoholism, to give people am excuse to ignore his black wife and kids. Societal pressures force us into behavioural boxes which are unfulfilling. Unfortunately getting minimal happiness nowadays is ever harder as .education expensive and a waste of time as no jobs so geniuses waste life surfing internet in parent's basement. So actually we have little choice. This makes me fatalistic. If born at right time in right place you can be happy, even moderately influential without it going to your head but casually dying in childbirth, of dysentery, tuberculosis even for kings was normal in 19th century and our success against 'death' was autistic, not well thought out just as suggested in blog entry. Wisdom comes with age. Perhaps our culture will wise up but I think it will destroy itself first. The next civilization will not be humanist scientific industrialist democratic but regardless it will be based on mimicry of gurus and will run on automatic till it blows up just like it always does. Better than preaching your religion, or boasting your talents is the saying 'When the pupil is ready the guru will appear'.

Unknown said...

I learned a long time ago that life is deviseve and any effort to excel will be met with resistance .
Throughout history anyone who has achieved greatness or built anything of same has done so without Qualification or interest in such , their achievements have come about through sheer unbridled artistic talent they were born with !
as these type of people on the surface seem to be of some kind of simple nature infuriated the talentless plebs causing them to seek revenge of some kind .
This came in the form of Mathematics from the Greeks !
Yes mathematics gave the plebs an instrument of design in the form of RECIPE ! not for cakes but anything that is required of grand scale , through maths you can teach anybody ( pleb ) to copy anything albeit devoide of creativity or talent thus rendering the true ARTISANS defunked !

Mister Roboto said...

In the USA in particular, ev-er-y-thing tends to be about money, money, and more money, and here the gatekeepers of whom you speak also tend to be the parasitic "intermediaries" of whom John Michael Greer spoke in his recent series of posts about money-driven economies. Money-based economies, according to Greer, are basically run for the benefit of these intermediaries, and people's dreams and goals are little more than raw material to be strip-mined in the quest to expand ever-increasing giant blocks of money. Some of the blocks of money eventually become so gigantic that their owners have the most say in what will and will not be society's priorities. And this increased power allows these intermediaries to do even more stringent gate-keeping and thus ever more strip-mining of society's potential. For what happens after that, look to the Aesop fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs and that poor creature's unfortunate fate.

Cass Hewitt said...

very interesting and original. Well done

Blindweb said...

Lao Tzu explained it 2500 years ago: The straight tree gets cut down. The overstretched bow breaks. The overtempered sword shatters.

Life has no meaning. Once you accept that what do you do? You follow the path (tao) of least resistance

Albert Bates said...

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets it.
- Leonard Cohen

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Seems most of us here (who get through the 99% idiot-troll filter) have been practicing MVS all our lives; or finally getting there. Me too. I'm one of the whole-lifers. :)

Unknown said...

Now I am curious. How many posts do you have to delete--50%? 10%? Some 15 years ago I was enthralled by Strauss and Howe and their 4th turning but the beast keeps slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and I keep waking up and having to go to work. I am planning a ski vacation and will worry about Collapse when I get back. Thanks for your post. Really enjoy them.

HeyZeus said...

MVS... finally a pseudo-scientific description of what I used to call my "what would Wally (of Dilbert fame) do?" philosophy of life. Brilliant.

EarthenTara said...

absolutely brilliant.
thanks a million for the perspective and the light.

As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions of your mind, lose it. Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go. Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction.
- Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

being reasonable maintains staus quo, unreasonableness is what brings change, in small seemingly insignificant steps. I keep needing to hear unreasonable people remind me of that. and then keep on keepin' on, all quiet like. thanks again.

peace out y'all.