Ego is for little people

When I got really famous and started to hang out with people at the top of the game in computer science and other fields, one of the first things I noticed is that the real A-list types almost never have a major territorial/ego thing going on in their behavior. The B-list people, the bright second-raters, may be all sharp elbows and ego assertion, but there’s a calm space at the top that the absolutely most capable ones get to and tend to stay in.

I’m going to be specific about what I mean by “ego” now, because otherwise much of this essay may seem vague or wrongheaded. I specifically mean psychologial egotism, not (for example) ethical egoism as a philosophical position. The main indicators of egotism as I intend it here are are loud self-display, insecurity, constant approval-seeking, overinflating one’s accomplishments, touchiness about slights, and territorial twitchiness about one’s expertise. My claim is that egotism is a disease of the incapable, and vanishes or nearly vanishes among the super-capable.

It’s not only scientific fields where this is true. For various reasons (none of which, fortunately, have been legal troubles of my own) I’ve had to work with a lot of lawyers. I’m legally literate, so a pattern I quickly noticed is this: the B-list lawyers are the ones who get all huffy about a non-attorney expressing opinions and judgments about the law. The one time I worked with a stratospherically supercompetent A-list firm (I won’t name them, but I will note they have their own skyscraper in New York City) they were so relaxed about recognizing capability in a non-lawyer that some language I wrote went straight into their court filings in a lawsuit with multibillion-dollar stakes.

This sort of thing has been noted before by other people and is almost a commonplace. I’m bringing it up to note why that’s true, speaking from my own experience. It’s not that people at the top of their fields are more virtuous. Well…actually I think people at the top of their fields do tend to be more virtuous, for the same reason they tend to be be more intelligent, less neurotic, longer-lived, better-looking, and physically healthier than the B-listers and below. Human capability does not come in nearly divisible chunks; almost every individual way that humans can excel is tangled up with other ways at a purely physiological level, with immune-system capability lurking behind a surprisingly large chunk of the surface measures. But I don’t think the mean difference in “virtue”, however you think that can actually be defined, explains what I’m pointing at.

No. It’s more that ego games have a diminishing return. The farther you are up the ability and achievement bell curve, the less psychological gain you get from asserting or demonstrating your superiority over the merely average, and the more prone you are to welcome discovering new peers because there are so damn few of them that it gets lonely. There comes a point past which winning more ego contests becomes so pointless that even the most ambitious, suspicious, external-validation-fixated strivers tend to notice that it’s no fun any more and stop.

I’m not speaking abstractly here. I’ve always been more interested in doing the right thing than doing what would make me popular, to the point where I generally figure that if I’m not routinely pissing off a sizable minority of people I should be pushing harder. In the language of psychology, my need for external validation is low; the standards I try hardest to live up to are those I’ve set for myself. But one of the differences I can see between myself at 25 and myself at 52 is that my limited need for external validation has decreased. And it’s not age or maturity or virtue that shrunk it; it’s having nothing left to prove.

I’m going to use myself as an example now, mainly because I don’t know anyone else’s story well enough to make the point I want to with it. I’m the crippled kid who became a black-belt martial artist and teacher of martial artists. I’ve made the New York Times bestseller list as a writer. You can hardly use a browser, a cellphone, or a game console without relying on my code. I’ve been a session musician on two records. I’ve blown up the software industry once, reinvented the hacker culture twice, and am without doubt one of the dozen most famous geeks alive. Investment bankers pay me $300 an hour to yak at them because I have a track record as a shrewd business analyst. I don’t even have a BS, yet there’s been an entire academic cottage industry devoted to writing exegeses of my work. I could do nothing but speaking tours for the rest of my life and still be overbooked. Earnest people have struggled their whole lives to change the world less than I routinely do when I’m not even really trying. Here’s the point: In what way would it make sense for me to be in ego or status competition with anybody?

And yet, there are people out there who are going to read the previous paragraph and think “Oh, that’s Eric’s ego again. The blowhard.” I’ve had a lot of time to get used to such reactions over the last decade, but it’s still hard for me not to collapse in helpless laughter at the implied degree of Not Getting It. Now (limiting myself to a small random sample of the A-listers I’ve actually met and taken the measure of) Alan Kay or Terry Pratchett or David Friedman or Freeman Dyson…they would understand why I was laughing. Because real A-listers are sui generis, and usually polymaths; they tend to have constellations of talent so extreme and idiosyncratic that they couldn’t even really be in ego competition with each other, let alone with those much less capable. That’s supposing they wanted to be.

And generally they don’t want to be. If you’re the kind of person who can make it to the top even in a single field (law or CS or whatever) you may not have started out with better things to do than compete for attention and glory, but by the time you make the A-list you’ve almost certainly discovered subtler games to play that are much more fun. You’ll maintain a reputation because a reputation is a useful tool, but it’s not the point any more. If it ever was. In my experience this is even more true of polymaths, possibly because their self-images as competent people.have broader and more stable bases.

I think there are a couple of different reasons people tend to falsely attribute pathological, oversensitive egos to A-listers. Each reason is in its own way worth taking a look at.

The first and most obvious reason is projection. “Wow, if I were as talented as Terry Pratchett, I know I’d have a huge ego about it, so I guess he must.” Heh. Trust me on this; he doesn’t. This kind of thinking reveals a a lot about somebody’s ego and insecurity, alright, but not Terry’s.

There’s a flip side to projection that I think of as the “Asimov game”. I met Isaac Asimov just a few months before he died. Isaac had long been notorious for broadly egotistical behavior and a kind of cheerful bombast that got up a lot of peoples’ noses. But if you ever met him, and you were at all perceptive, you might see that it was all a sort of joke. Isaac was laughing inside at everyone who took his “egotism” seriously – and, at the same time, watching hungrily for people who could see through the self-parody, because they might – might – actually be among the vanishingly tiny minority that constituted his actual peers. The Asimov game is a constant temptation to extroverted A-listers; I’ve been known to fall into it myself. It’s not really anybody’s fault that a lot of people are fooled by it.

Another confusing fact is that though A-listers may not be about ego or status competition, they will often play such games ruthlessly and effectively when that gets them something they actually want. The something might be more money from a gig, or a night in the hay with an attractive wench, or whatever; the point is, if you catch an A-lister in that mode, you might well mistake for egotism some kinds of display behavior that actually serve much more immediate and instrumental purposes. Your typical A-lister in that situation (and this includes me, now) is blithely unconcerned that a bystander might think he’s egotistical; the money or the wench or the whatever is the goal, not the approval or disapproval of bystanders.

Finally, a lot of people confuse arrogance with ego. A-listers (and I am including myself, again, this time) are, as a rule, colossally arrogant. That is, they have utter confidence in their ability to meet challenges that would humble or break most people. Do not be fooled by the self-deprecating manner that many A-listers cultivate; it is a mask adopted for social purposes, mostly to avoid freaking out the normal monkeys. But this arrogance is not the same as egotism; in fact, in many ways it is the opposite. It is possible to be arrogant about one’s abilities compared to the statistically average human being and the range of challenges one is likely to encounter, but deeply and genuinely humble when dealing with peers or contemplating the vastness of one’s own ignorance and incapability relative to what one could imagine being. In fact, this combination of attitudes is completely typical of the A-listers I have known.

The behaviors most people think of as “egotism” tend to be driven out by arrogance rather than motivated by it. If you really believe bone-deep that you are superior, you don’t act insecure and twitchy and approval-seeking, because you just aren’t! Arrogance doesn’t even have to be justified to drive out egotism – it just has to be there. It’s all the more powerful an egotism-banisher when the arrogance is actually well-justified by the A-lister’s track record. Thus, egotists are usually people who have not yet established their capability to themselves, or who had that confidence in the past but are beginning to doubt it.

Finally, I think a lot of people need to believe that A-listers invariably have flaws in proportion to their capabilities in order not to feel dwarfed by them. Thus the widely cherished belief that geniuses are commonly mentally unstable; it’s not true (admissions to mental hospitals per thousand drop with increasing IQ and in professions that select for intelligence, with the lowest numbers among mathematicians and theoretical physicists) but if you don’t happen to be a genius yourself it’s very comforting. Similarly, a dullard who believes A-listers are all flaky temperamental egotists can console himself that, though he may not be smarter than them, he is better. And so it goes.

Ego is for little people. I wish I could finish by saying something anodyne about how we’re all little when you come down to it, but I’d be fibbing. Yeah, we’re all little compared to a supernova, but that’s beside the point. And yeah, the most capable people in the world are routinely humbled by what they don’t know and can’t do, but that is beside the point too. If you look at how humans relate to other humans – and in particular, how they manage self-image and “ego” and evaluate their status with respect to others…it really is different near the top end of the human capability range. Better. Calmer. Sorry, but it’ s true.

142 thoughts on “Ego is for little people

  1. So, in simple English that would be… “I am so awesome that I don’t have to pretend to be more (or less) awesome than I really am”?

  2. The main indicators of egotism as I intend it here are are

    loud self-display: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=208
    I am the guy who responded to Craig Mundie’s “Who are you?” with “I’m your worst nightmare”,

    insecurity,constant approval-seeking [ok, I got nothing]

    overinflating one’s accomplishments:
    “Today I am one of the senior technical cadre that makes the Internet work, and a core Linux and open-source developer.”
    touchiness about slights and territorial twitchiness about one’s expertise:
    http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=1387

  3. Hmmm, a confused jumble of thoughts, a majority untrue but with snatches of truth, that’s actually difficult to parse because of the vague definitions that words like egotism and arrogance have. First, I disagree that the A-listers don’t have egos, as that’s what drives most to achieve. The difference is that the A-listers don’t need to exhibit their ego in the ways you mention or fight as many turf battles, either because they already have so much turf or because they usually win when they do. It’s difficult to reason about any of this because we’re talking about imputed mental states, as you yourself note the contradictory evidence of A-listers possibly ruthlessly engaging in such battles when it suits their larger purposes. The drivel about the top monkeys being generally better in looks or polymaths is obviously untrue, but as you say, they have less to gain from ego games after a point. However, it’s fascinating that you suggest you’re an A-lister then feel the need to reel off your list of inflated accomplishments (blown up the software industry? who’s overinflating now? HS helpfully adds more examples), which is more typical of your mooted B-lister. Of course, you will claim that you’re simply playing an Asimov game: funny how you always lay an exception that you can later invoke and that renders actual observation meaningless.

    The Asimov game is an interesting conception, though it depends on defining more precisely what qualifies, and I’ve played that myself, but the key is how you’d distinguish that game from a real braggart. Since it depends on internal mental states or subsequent protestations of such from Asimov, it’s very difficult to disentangle. The definitions of arrogance and egotism are sufficiently slippery that your redifinitions don’t elicit a ready response. The very fact that you’re so obsessed with a supposed A-list, that most people don’t necessarily think about, is a sign of a healthy ego, as the whole goal of any ego is to constantly rate and rank everyone else, often unflatteringly, in their drive to the top. I don’t blame you for having such an outsized ego, as it’s a normal catalyst in a drive for excellence, but it’s certainly ironic given your contradictory post. ;) Ultimately, I don’t think it’s that different at the top or the bottom, the difference is that the sated egos at the top don’t necessarily need to display their ego as much to get their rocks off, and as you note, often actively hide their ego for fear of how others will react. Since I think your central claim is largely untrue, I think you’re ultimately trying to describe yourself and apply what you find too broadly, not a good prescription for generalization.

  4. HS: It’s tempting to pigeon-hole Eric’s history as ‘loud self display’ and ‘overinflation of accomplishments’. And I’ll admit that Eric in ‘full court press’ mode is kind of fun to watch from across the room. (One can say the same thing about Harlan Ellison, though Eric is less of an ass.)

    However – in the four years I’ve known him, I can say categorically that he’s arrogant about his capabilities. I can say he’s ALMOST as capable as he thinks he is. And, most importantly, he’s one of the people I know who will shut the fuck up and listen closely when someone throws him a curveball that needs serious thinking.

    I say this not to defend Eric; he doesn’t see what you’re doing as an attack. I simply point out that there’s a lot more to this than what makes its way to text on the Internet.

    I’m on the lower threshold of people Eric considers A-listers. I’m a polymath, I can come up with ideas Eric doesn’t, and can match him bound-for-bound in conversations that run from ancient galley warfare to programming philosophy to quantum physics to sestinas to sword-geekery. He and I are also both extroverted geeks.

    Eric’s major weakness is a blind spot about the utility of concealing information. He won’t broadcast other’s secrets, but he never really considers the competitive advantage of keeping secrets of his own, and because he can see a better way to do things that works for *him* (to wit, “Hey, problem! Tool set. Solution!”) and considers rent-seeking behavior to be morally repugnant, he acts as if he expects others to see things the same way he does.

    Why do I bring this up in a comment on his blog?

    Because Eric is pretty good at listening to critiques of himself and taking the lesson from them. One of these days, Eric will figure out that this is an exploitable vulnerability and either remedy it, or structure his life to further minimize the chance that it’ll be used against him. (And to be fair, given what he does for a living, it’s unlikely that someone in his social circles would try to capitalize on it.)

    I also act differently than Eric does; I’m not as arrogant, not from lack of confidence in my abilities…but because a lot more of what I do has to be in one-on-one or one-on-small-group persuasion and teaching, and arrogance and overt signs of ‘egotism’ make that mode of interaction DIFFICULT.

    I’m somewhat likelier to let an idiot blither on without interruption than Eric is. I have to live in a world that’s predominantly made up of people who are less capable than I am; listening to them blither gives me channel markers and insights.

    One of those insights is that the world is made for them, not me. No matter how much I vent otherwise, this will not change within my lifetime, barring serious life extension technologies.

    Another of those insights is that one of the winning strategies in that realm is information concealment, either partial or complete. Dishonesty pays in the short and medium term; the function of society (and to a lesser extent, government) is to increase the opportunity cost for dishonesty. Openness pays in the medium and long term…but requires a broader base of buy in within the culture.

  5. Shorter Ken Burnside: ESR doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut ;-)

  6. @Ken Burnside:
    >he doesn’t see what you’re doing as an attack.

    I guess I should have clarified but I wasn’t trying to attack him or be mean-spirited.

    It just struck me as ironic/funny while reading his post that you could make the case that he suffers from several of the traits he purports not to have (he didn’t say it directly but it was implied that he’s an a-lister and therefore, short on egotistical behaviour).

  7. ESR is on the A-list of routinely making yourself look stupid on the Internet.

  8. I don’t think it’s your ‘egotism’ that people get turned off by. Everyone’s proud of their accomplishments big or small and that pride manifests in various ways (some of which can be interpreted as egotism).

    The issue I’ve felt is that you tend to be more egotistic than many of the other A-listers out there in similar fields. The argument i’ve mostly heard is “X is much better hacker than esr in so many ways and yet he doesn’t spend his time blathering like esr does”. In other words, the gap between what you portray yourself as being and what your work proves you to be is seen by your critics as a big one. I understand that a fraction of this is necessary for the PR type work you do but you get the idea…

  9. Behold, a little man who was accidentally at the right place at the right time, struggling to keep his ego inflated in a world that has moved past him. You have become so ridiculous that it’s hard to even parody you.

  10. I’ve known a couple of other people who overcame initial disadvantages and went on to become very competent at what they did, possibly in part as a result of said disadvantages. They didn’t do the modesty thing either.

  11. I’m going to use myself as an example now, mainly because I don’t know anyone else’s story well enough to make the point I want to with it. [bunch of accomplishments]

    You also have your own hater-comic devoted to you (ELER). Think that says a lot about the correctness of pissing off people as a heuristic for “am I doing the right thing?” It *is* damn funny though :)

  12. I’ve known a couple of other people who overcame initial disadvantages and went on to become very competent at what they did, possibly in part as a result of said disadvantages. They didn’t do the modesty thing either.

    It’s called overcompensation I believe. Sort of like the 90 lb weakling who goes on to become a 300 lb powerlifter. It’s actually a very useful motivator mechanism if you can tame it.

  13. I have a lot of fun just watching Eric do his thing. Ego? Arrogance? I’ve long since stopped caring. Whether you like it or not, Eric has indeed helped to change the software world. I’m not entirely sure I give him credit for blowing it up single-handedly, but he certainly lit the fuse.

    Breeze, I contend that Eric’s value and ability as a pure hacker isn’t his strong point. It’s been a long time since I explicitly used any of his code for anything; our itches don’t coincide, and so I have none that he can scratch. (However, I did take pleasure in pointing out to him that he was mentioned as part of the cast of thousands in the iPhone’s credits file.) Eric’s value and ability comes not in his coding, but in his thinking and writing. Lots of people write good, solid, even brilliant code. Damned few write the kinds of books and essays he does, though, and that’s where his true influence lies.

    Eric’s code may have been his foot in the door, and certainly it’s what he does as a matter of preference, but it’s not what he’s truly best at. Those who deride him based solely on his code, ignoring his other, more influential and important work, miss the point.

  14. > Breeze, I contend that Eric’s value and ability as a pure hacker isn’t his strong point.

    I think that’s what the general opinion is as well but that’s in sharp contrast to what esr himself claims (eg. core linux developer which says that he’s in the same technical league as Torvalds or Cox). This, I think, is the point of contention. I totally agree with you on his contributions as a writer and thinker which I think overshadow the code he’s released. The issue as I see it is his claims and skills don’t coincide.

  15. >If arrogance and ego gets you all that, where does humility get you?

    Two things, one important and one not.

    The relatively unimportant thing is the approval of people who think humility is a virtue.

    The important thing is openness to fact and truth, the ability to question your premises and see past your preconceptions. If you want to see clearly, you cannot let egotism get in your way.

    Ken Burnside noted of me that “he [...] will shut the fuck up and listen closely when someone throws him a curveball that needs serious thinking.” and “Eric is pretty good at listening to critiques of himself and taking the lesson from them.” That is functional humility (as opposed to humility that’s a display of virtue for social purposes), and it is nearly a defining characteristic of A-listers.

  16. Most of the opposition to ESR has been entirely based on political tribalism, with attempts to dismiss his works and code as a secondary rationalization. Notably, the peak of criticism came directly after the Iraq War began.

    A lot of Eric’s “ego” is that he consistently responds to such criticism, and often passionately.

  17. Indeed, Dallas. It’s telling that nearly every screed aimed at Eric includes, if not is entirely built around, his libertarian politics. If you see someone use the words “gun nut” in a post about him, you can rest assured the rest of it will be content-free.

  18. You say this lack of ego is more positional than it is due to actual accomplishments. I.e., it is due to A-listers being few and rare enough, and not meeting their peers and superiors often enough.

    Then gathering enough A-listers together, as for a very important project, or at a top company or university or research center, would weaken this effect. Some of them would begin to compete and ego-assert again. Have you observed this?

  19. >It’s been a long time since I explicitly used any of his code for anything

    That’s right, but you rely on it all the same. You just don’t know you do, because it lives in bits of infrastructure even hackers don’t think about much. I’ve tended to do my work in system libraries and utilities that have neither the visibility of user-facing applications nor the centrality and sexiness of OS kernels, GPSD being a good recent example.

    But…if you’ve used a cellphone with a pixel display in it, a browser, or a game console recently, odds are the images were rendered by ports of either either libgif or libpng; I maintained the former for years and wrote substantial pieces of the latter. It’s accidental that these later propagated so widely that most of their installations aren’t on Unix platforms any more, but it’s true. They worked, and the terms weren’t GPL, so nobody’s ever bothered to reimplement them except for a few special environments like Google Android’s Dalvik machine.

    Some years ago, you proudly showed me an OS/360 console display running on your laptop courtesy of Hercules. Jay, I’m pretty sure that display was relying on my code. I know what an ncurses application looks like, and I wrote the display optimizer that made your screen updates snappy. Ditto for anyone who uses mutt or pine or anything that runs full-screen inside an xterm instance.

    The half of the Unix programmers in the world who use Emacs rely on modes I designed and wrote every single time they do a version-control operation or run a symbolic debugger from within their editor. Or even just send mail with it – years ago I made a small but important mod to that package. Are you beginning to notice a pattern? I could go on and on…

    It did kind of weird me out when I learned that I had a credit in the ROM of the XBox, but I’ve gotten used to that now. And I recently learned that I’m infiltrating cellphones from two different directions now, as the Linux-based ones are starting to use GPSD reading from internal TTL GPS outputs rather than a custom stack.

    Ironically enough, in view of the widespread belief that I have an ego the size of Wyoming, part of the reason even you didn’t know these things is that I don’t talk about them much. It doesn’t really matter to me that other people don’t know my code is everywhere. I know it, and that’s enough for me.

  20. >Then gathering enough A-listers together, as for a very important project, or at a top company or university or research center, would weaken this effect. Some of them would begin to compete and ego-assert again. Have you observed this?

    I have not. But this may be due to small sample size; I wouldn’t rule out the possibility, in general.

    Hm…on reflection, I think “merely positional” distorts the case I was making a little. Yes, part of it is positional, but part of it is that to be an A-lister, you have to learn how not to let your ego get in the way of your own capability. So I think you might get ego competition again if you dropped a bunch of A-listers in a box, but it would be different in tone – more playful, less panicky, more ironic and self-aware, and generally put aside when there’s work to be done. But that’s just me speculating, and possibly projecting my own personality on the generality of A-listers more than I should.

  21. There are other strategies that some of us prefer. Having reached the top of the heap in more than one field myself, I have found that humility works just as well as arrogance. And while that statement may seem self-canceling, real humility lies between the false modesty of the self-loathing and the false pride of the insecure. There are times when you just have to tell the truth, even about yourself. Most of the time, honestly, I tone it down. I prefer not to scare those other people. And I’ve seen it happen too many times. People may not admit they are scared — like a bunch of the folks who have written comments on this piece. They hide behind “counter-attacks”, when it was not an attack in the first place. It is just that the raw display of talent and achievement is threatening to 99% of the populace, although many of them will never admit that.

    Which is why I recognize Eric’s statements here for what they are. He must have written it knowing that only a handful of readers would ever appreciate what he was saying. The rest just don’t have the experience to really get it. He didn’t bring up the Asimov game by mistake, people.

    BTW, it was not entirely a game for Asimov. There were those times when he believed his own press releases. But I may be biased. I’ve never really forgiven him for hitting on my girlfriend, back in ’73. Really blatant, no savoir faire, and me standing right there next to her. Anyone could do better than that. Hell, he might have scored, with a little sophistication.

  22. >>It’s been a long time since I explicitly used any of his code for anything
    >That’s right, but you rely on it all the same. You just don’t know you do, because it lives in bits of infrastructure even hackers don’t think about much.

    That’s why I said “explicitly”.

    >Some years ago, you proudly showed me an OS/360 console display running on your laptop courtesy of Hercules. Jay, I’m pretty sure that display was relying on my code. I know what an ncurses application looks like, and I wrote the display optimizer that made your screen updates snappy.

    Actually, no; Hercules doesn’t use curses, dammit, and that’s something that’s been a minor irritant for years. The general point holds, thoughl, every time I fire up mutt or slrn.

  23. HS: insecurity,constant approval-seeking [ok, I got nothing]

    If habitually responding to perceived insults with threats of real, physical violence isn’t a sign of insecurity, I’m hard-pressed to imagine what would be. This, then, is Eric’s “better, calmer” way of relating to people.

    Phil: The lack of self-awareness in this piece is simply stunning.

    Impressive, yes, but not exactly surprising. Eric claims that his awesomeness derives primarily from his (indeed significant) contributions to the movement, but for him, it always seems to come down to “I can kick your ass, and I will”.

  24. >BTW, it was not entirely a game for Asimov. There were those times when he believed his own press releases

    Yeah. That’s a trap that yawns open for all A-listers. It takes a constant cultivation of self-awareness and self-discipline to avoid it, and even the best can and will occasionally fail at it.

  25. > I’ve made the New York Times bestseller list as a writer.

    Was that for The Cathedral and the Bazaar?

    ESR says: Yes.

  26. Grendelkhan: “but for him, it always seems to come down to “I can kick your ass, and I will”.”

    I submit that’s your perception, not his position. You appear to be fixating on one event, not looking at the entirety of his work. Personally, I believe that calling Eric a liar is laughably wrong; I’ve met very few people who are so compulsively honest.

    You are, of course, free to believe what you wish, no matter how shallow.

  27. You know, I think this accounts for many people’s reactions to Rush Limbaugh.

    He is a A-lister at the top of his game, and displays a certain amount of bombast. This bugs certain people which is exactly the point.

    But anyone who meets him in the flesh can’t help but notice that he is a fun guy to be around, and very likeable.

  28. Though a great deal of this sounds true, I suspect that you’re underestimating the degree to which the A-list syndrome is driven by knowing that others acknowledge your status and so having less that you *need* to defend.

    Then again, since we can always have more status, I suppose you could turn around and ask why it is that an A-lister can satisfice on status while a B-lister is always driven to seek more of it. And there we might indeed be looking at an effect where people who are heavily driven to seek approval, just don’t end up developing their own novel theses with sufficient integrity to end up on the A-list.

    Testable implication: Can you think of seeming A-listers in industries that *aren’t novelty-driven*, who are gigantic egotists? Obvious examples might be politics, possibly Hollywood.

  29. >That’s why I said “explicitly”.

    So, in what way does “explicitly” matter? I’m not saying this to be confrontative or egotistical, but it seems to me that your thinking is confused. Is code less valuable, less worthy to be counted as a contribution comparable to years of visible public advocacy, because it’s usually invisible? The plain truth is that if the functionality of every byte of code I’ve written were to be deleted tomorrow, it would be a disaster bigger than the Y2K flop that wasn’t. The world can live without game consoles, but the UI of most cellphones would stop working, browsers would mostly revert to text-only (exception for JPEGs), several widely-used mail and newsreaders wouldn’t function, and a good number of the development tools programmers would be relying on to recover with wouldn’t work either — starting with vi. Stuff like this matters!

    Show some respect for the people who built your plumbing, dangit. I’m not irritated on my own behalf, much, but there are a lot of other hackers toiling in obscurity at libraries and utilities who have never had my opportunities to be a rock star. They deserve more credit than your “explicitly” allows them.

  30. Emile: Eliezer Yudkowsky makes a similar point here, about how successful people are generally smarter and nicer than ordinary people[.]

    As some commenters there point out, he’s really pointing out that CEOs and venture capitalists are more charming than ordinary people. Presenting the idea that the ruling class is happier and livelier than their subjects as a surprising reversal is a sick joke, and for what it’s worth, the description he gives could just as well apply to a cabal of sociopaths.

  31. I’m not trying to be insulting at all. I guess it’s more the old bit about “out of sight, out of mind”. It is in the nature of fame/notoriety that those who toil away in the trenches and do provide the glue that holds the Internet together – which means, these days, the glue that holds society together, far more than things like government programs – are least likely to achieve it. I’d love to be known for Hercules. I’m not; my fame is due to an accident. I suck it up and live with it.

    What I’m saying is that the code you’ve written, valuable though it is, is replaceable. There are lots of geeks would could, collectively, produce a similar corpus. As good? Maybe, maybe not. Sufficient? Certainly.

    I don’t know of anyone who could replace your other contributions, however. Take The Art of Unix Programming. I’m not sure there’s anyone else who could have produced that work. Sure, your other work was needed to get you to the point where you could converse with Ken Thompson and Doug McIlroy as equals. It’s what you did with that that matters, though.

    The code is valuable. The other contributions are more so, for they act as force multipliers; They make others’ code better, be it directly (as in TAOUP) or indirectly, by allowing them to free their thinking and work in an open source world. That is why I say those who criticize you for your seeming lack of code production are not just factually wrong, but wrong on an even deeper principle. They truly miss the point.

  32. Jay Maynard: I submit that’s your perception, not his position. You appear to be fixating on one event, not looking at the entirety of his work. Personally, I believe that calling Eric a liar is laughably wrong; I’ve met very few people who are so compulsively honest.

    Am I fixating on his threat to Bruce Perens, or his threat to Jim Thompson? Are you arguing that I should give credit for all the times he hasn’t responded to perceived insults with threats of physical violence?

    Also, please read a bit more closely; I’m not calling Eric a liar. I’m quite willing to amend my statement to from “it always comes down to” to “it frequently comes down to”, if that’s what bothers you; I accept that there have been times when Eric hasn’t threatened anyone when insulted. Again, I don’t think he’s lying; I think he has a grossly inaccurate and overinflated opinion of himself. Honest people can simply be wrong.

  33. >Testable implication: Can you think of seeming A-listers in industries that *aren’t novelty-driven*, who are gigantic egotists? Obvious examples might be politics, possibly Hollywood.

    Interesting that you bring this up, because I almost wrote a long paragraph about a related but more general issue before deciding it was too much of a digression and too speculative.

    I think there’s a gradient with science at one and and Hollywood/politics at the other. Near the science end there are objective measures of correctness that all the players can agree on. Near the other end there aren’t. (It might look like box-office revenues are an objective measure in Hollywood, but, famously, “Nobody knows what works.” there.) What I’m describing as typical A-list behavior and egolessness may, in fact, be typical only in fields close to the science end; my experience of fields at the other end of the gradient is not broad enough for me to be sure that it’s common there.

  34. Grendelkhan: “Are you arguing that I should give credit for all the times he hasn’t responded to perceived insults with threats of physical violence?”

    Well, if you’re going to argue that “for him, it always seems to come down to “I can kick your ass, and I will”.”, then yes, counterexamples do have a tendency to destroy your argument. Even weaseling your way down to “frequently” doesn’t help. I’ve known Eric for 20 years or so, and the threats you cite are very much out of the norm, so much so that I find myself wondering if there wasn’t some other cause that has not been disclosed.

    In any event, the picture you paint of Eric as a barely controlled homicidal maniac is very, very wrong.

  35. I read Eric’s post some hours ago, I believe minutes after it was published. I happened to be adding a new feed to my reader at the time and took notice of it. I thought for some time prior to commenting.

    There is a fine line between arrogance and factuality that is backed up by something verifiable. And then there is the difference between grown up ‘little professors’ and those who see the value in almost forcibly soliciting thoughts from others by strumming the ego and social conditioning strings of their audience. If anything, Eric is pathological, not arrogant.

    Eric wants more peers, they must be in short supply. This is by far the longest personal ad that I have ever read.

    ESR: Hmmm…I suspect from the rest of your comment that you intended some word other than “pathological” there.

  36. The post is a litmus test, to see who will respond with “insecurity, … approval-seeking, … touchiness about slights, and territorial twitchiness.”

    ESR says: That was not the primary intention, but I knew it would be an entertaining side effect.

  37. Cause and effect are much more intricately entwined than what you have stated here. You are correct that arrogance is a common, and possibly even necessary characteristic to operate beyond a certain level. Top performers in any field have to be arrogant enough to believe that they are capable of performing at that level. I also suspect that it is vanishingly rare for someone at the top to get there without ever having a number of setbacks along the way. In fact, many of those setbacks are precisely other people telling them what can’t be accomplished. As a result, the A-listers can’t rely on direction from others. They set their own.

    There is also an element of luck. The A-listers got lucky. They were in the right place and time. I’m not deprecating heir accomplishments. The number of people who get lucky and don’t have the ability to take it to that level is orders of magnitude greater than those who did.

    As for whether you are an A-lister yourself, I don’t know or care. You have interesting things to say. You aren’t afraid to say them, bluntly. I don’t think I’ve ever heard (or read) you conceding a point without an argument. Jay Maynard is right, although I would approach his point from a different direction. Lots of people have thought about many of the ideas you have written about. You have synthesized, brought interesting ideas from disparate realms together and used them to cast light on each other. You put yourself and your ideas out in public for all to see and comment on. Keep writing. If you stick your foot in your mouth, I’m sure someone will mention it.

  38. Jay Maynard: In any event, the picture you paint of Eric as a barely controlled homicidal maniac is very, very wrong.

    That would be wrong of me… if I had said it in the first place. You’re still not paying attention. I didn’t say that Eric responds with violence; I said that he responds with threats of violence. He’s not a barely controlled homicidal maniac, and I never said he was. Again, I’m saying that he has a grossly inaccurate and overinflated opinion of himself.

  39. And just what difference is there between threatening violence and committing it? You’re weaseling again. Either he’s a homicidal maniac or an ineffectual blowhard; if the latter, a couple of threats of violence are hardly his worst offenses. Your singling out those threats merely shows the weakness of your argument. If his opinion of himself is that overinflated, surely there are other examples that you can cite besides the heated responses of a man who was provoked beyond reason? (If, in fact, that’s what happened.)

  40. >What I’m saying is that the code you’ve written, valuable though it is, is replaceable.

    Er, what makes you so sure of that? I’m not certain of it at all, myself.

    After the fact, it tends to looks as though infrastructure could have been built by anybody and is replaceable. That’s because you’ve fully captured the gains from it, not just economically but in the way it shapes your thinking. Before the fact, though, there’s a kind of path-dependence that later becomes invisible. Here’s a for-instance: it was not actually a given that we were going to have any platform-independent standards for transporting pixel graphics. Indeed, if you look at the early history of X, what you see is a crazy divergence in image formats, all tweaked to match the idiosyncracies of different kinds of frame-buffer hardware. We could have ended up in a world where that continued to be normal.

    So what happened? Well…some guys at CompuServe described GIF, and then Gershon Elber and I made an open-source implementation that became ubiquitous. None of us knew we were changing the shape of the future, but remember that this was the late 1980s – pre-Web, even pre-JPEG. At the time, the idea that you could transport images between DOS, CP/M, and Unix was a pretty radical one, and the notion that one might willingly accept a limited palette and format-conversion overhead in order to get transportability was even more radical. But because GIF just worked, it set a precedent that led to JPEG and other image-format standard a few years later, and the earliest graphical Web browsers after that. And me? I wasn’t solely responsible for GIF “just working”, but I was a critical link in the chain.

    None of this was inevitable. It looks like it was, now, but I was there. I know exactly what semi-accidental design decisions by Gershon and myself got frozen into everybody’s view of historical inevitability. Today we could easily replace GIF, but that is largely because there’s a GIF-shaped slot in our conceptual universe; we live within a set of assumptions and background conditions that the ubiquity of GIF itself created.

    Don’t believe me? OK. Go look for pixel-image transport standards that predate GIF. Good luck finding any, let alone any that are still in use (I know of exactly one that might be an exception, and it’s never used for native computer graphics).

    And remember, as you do so, that GIF itself wasn’t a standard in the modern sense. It was a hack for CompuServe users. Now ask yourself how it became a standard. I know why…

  41. > Er, what makes you so sure of that? I’m not certain of it at all, myself.

    I don’t think your work is ‘replaceable’. I do however feel that it was just you being in the right place at the right time and if not you, someone else would have done it. The guys at CompuServe who actually described the format and imagined cross platform images I think are more important in this piece of history than you as an implementer of their proposals (similar to, I think, Bayesian spam filtering and Bogofilter).

    OTOH, I don’t think someone else would have written CATB or really pushed the whole Free Software thing into the business world. The difference between your contributions here and your contributions to graphics library are very great as I see it.

    So, in short, I think your contributions as an evangelist and writer are FAR greater than those as a programmer. Your claims about the former are pretty accurate but about the latter are not, I feel, quite so.

  42. > Finally, I think a lot of people need to believe that A-listers invariably have flaws in proportion to their capabilities in order not to feel dwarfed by them. Thus the widely cherished belief that geniuses are commonly mentally unstable; it’s not true (admissions to mental hospitals per thousand drop with increasing IQ and in professions that select for intelligence, with the lowest numbers among mathematicians and theoretical physicists) but if you don’t happen to be a genius yourself it’s very comforting. Similarly, a dullard who believes A-listers are all flaky temperamental egotists can console himself that, though he may not be smarter than them, he is better. And so it goes.

    The converse is also true. I often notice people project random positive traits onto autists or other disabled people as if to relieve themselves from an awkward position of superiority. I think what you have observed is a part of a more general need to believe that people are equal, because they do not want to face the ugly truth that people are not.

  43. > ESR: Hmmm…I suspect from the rest of your comment that you intended some word other than
    > “pathological” there.

    Are you reacting to the colloquial understanding of the word, or the word itself? Perhaps, better rephrased it should be systematic, which alludes to the fact that you retain a high degree of choice in the matter and that the matter itself is not compulsory.

  44. Is code less valuable, less worthy to be counted as a contribution comparable to years of visible public advocacy, because it’s usually invisible?

    Not objectively, but there is a tendency for such infrastructure code to have low reputation value, with the notable exceptions of the Linux kernel, and a certain filesystem named for a guy who is in prison now.

    And just what difference is there between threatening violence and committing it?

    A lot of that depends on the contingencies expressed in the threat.

    1) Give me your money or I’ll kill you.
    2) I may decide to kill you randomly.
    3) If you try to hurt me, I’ll kill you.

    To equate these three as “threatening violence” is naive at best, and disingenuous at worst. By obliterating the distinction between the initiation of force and its use in retaliation against an aggressor, the latter is empowered, as his victim is left defenseless.

    It seems we’re back to the definition of “pacifist” again. A person who does not initiate the use of force will not do 1) or 2), but will do 3). A pacifist will do none of them, thereby rewarding those who do 1).

  45. >So, in short, I think your contributions as an evangelist and writer are FAR greater than those as a programmer. Your claims about the former are pretty accurate but about the latter are not, I feel, quite so.

    Perhaps, given the kind of programming work I gravitate to, this evaluation is inevitable. I still think it’s an error, but…ah well. As I said, it doesn’t matter very much to me what other people think about this, or I’d be a lot louder about it. I did the right thing and it changed the world; that’s what matters.

  46. Jay Maynard: And just what difference is there between threatening violence and committing it?

    The latter is the act of a barely controlled homicidal maniac; the former isn’t. Are you honestly having trouble with this distinction?

    Either he’s a homicidal maniac or an ineffectual blowhard; if the latter, a couple of threats of violence are hardly his worst offenses.

    I single them out because they’re the most egregious examples of his ego. Arguments about the ratio of his self-importance to the actual importance of his contributions to open source are tedious; the same inflated ego is on display in either case, but it’s plainer here.

  47. >I single them out because they’re the most egregious examples of his ego.

    Er, and what purpose do you think that accomplishes? In your terms, I’m too egotistical to be bothered by anything you have to say about my ego; in my terms, I’m too arrogant.

    Do you have some notion that you’re going to find a magic spot to poke your pin, at which point I will collapse in a great whoosh of hot air and confess my manifold sins to the world? Heh. No chance – I’ve seen things more psychologically threatening than you in my breakfast cereal. If you had any substantive criticisms to offer, I’d do what Ken Burnside correctly notes I am unusually capable of doing: shut up and listen. You don’t, so you mostly provide light entertainment. At your own expense.

  48. esr: Don’t believe me? OK. Go look for pixel-image transport standards that predate GIF. Good luck finding any, let alone any that are still in use (I know of exactly one that might be an exception, and it’s never used for native computer graphics).

    FITS (1981), PICtor (1984), IFF (1985) and TIFF (1986) all apparently predate GIF (1987). PICtor and IFF/ILBM are no longer in current use; FITS is very domain-specific (astronomy; was this what you were referring to?), but is still used, and, of course, TIFF is quite common today. (Those shiny new DNG files are just TIFFs with extra tables.)

    Now, none of those are commonly used as inline images in web pages, but that’s not what you were asking about. I freely allow that I may have the dates wrong on some of these formats; please do correct me if I’m wrong.

  49. > As I said, it doesn’t matter very much to me what other people think about this, or I’d be a lot louder about it. I did the right thing and it changed the world; that’s what matters.

    That’s an admirable position.

    I guess a part of the whole thing is your role as an evangelist and over there, it’s necessary to market yourself in ways that can seem over the top. Other notable hackers don’t need to advertise themselves since they don’t function in an evangelical role (not to a non hacker crowd anyway).

    Keep doing what you do best. :)

  50. It must take a real massive ego to think that you knew what Isaac Asimov was thinking about himself …. Get real and get down from your high horse.

    Have you ever seen the A-List? If you had, you would know that you aren’t on it.

  51. >Now, none of those are commonly used as inline images in web pages, but that’s not what you were asking about.

    TIFF is still alive? Are you sure? I used to trip over them occasionally, but don’t think I’ve seen one since the century turned. The exception I was thinking about was actually the fax-imaging standards. The others, as you note, are quite thoroughly dead – I remember reading the IFF docs in esrly 1990s but it was long a goner even then.

  52. I can believe that many a-listers don’t spend their time defending their ego’s territory, but I suggest Harlan Ellison and Ayn Rand as counter-examples.

    Also, it would be interesting to see if there’s predictive power in your theory. Among talented people, are those with markedly less touchy egos more likely to do very well?

    If a-listers are more likely to be good-looking, is it that good looks are marker for general capability, or is it that good-looking people get more opportunities?

    Eric, I can remember when you were in People magazine, and it was a significant topic of conversation for you for quite a while. Does this count as ego?

  53. TIFF is still in very common use in Second Life, although it’s slowly being displaced by PNG. The reason is its handling of alpha; a wall with a window in SL is usually done with a texture with an alpha-transparent section.

  54. Eric and I are generally peers in a lot of things; different focuses of interest, but peers.

    Both he and I have met people who make us go ‘wow’. Esther Dyson, CJ Cherryh and Ray Kurzwiel are the three that I know that both Eric and I have met, and had about the same general reaction to. He and I have also met people who are in different sets. No doubt that group of folks s

    Some of them get frustrated at having to slow down their explanations and use mathematics to convey obvious concepts to us morons who are merely three standard deviations above the norm. (Think about having to do tech support over the phone to your technophobic 60 year old relative. It’s about the same brand of frustration and stopping to think about how to explain things in their context. It’s kind of humbling to be a Very Bright Person and see someone visibly going through that process to explain something to you.)

    Most A-listers want to use the smallest rule set possible to define a problem or articulate a solution. We are very problem and challenge driven. The mark of world-changing success is finding something you’re interested in doing and can unleash your full intelligence on. The mark of general success is being able to do scut work that bores you without someone directing your actions with negative consequences. Lots of people can’t do either.

    Many A-listers are grateful for the accident of position that put them where they are. Most had to go through the “toil of tedium and drudgery” at some point to get to the position where they could make a difference.

  55. >It must take a real massive ego to think that you knew what Isaac Asimov was thinking about himself

    No, just more perceptiveness than a cinderblock. It’s actually really easy to spot someone playing the Asimov game. The thing to watch for is how the volume of egotistical behavior changes in different contexts. Real compulsive egotists, you see, can’t shut it off. They’re always strutting, always looking for the edge, the put-down. When you see that behavior turn off like a light-switch, it’s a clue – especially if the player tends to be “on” in public but “off” in one-to-one interactions, moving swiftly from bombast to an unaffected and rather quiet charm – actually listening carefully and processing what he hears with his whole attention. In someone of Asimov’s intelligence, that behavioral contrast means the egotism is a mask, a put-on, a joke.

    Now, mind you, there is a danger that masks like that can get stuck to your face…

  56. Eric: TIFF is very much alive in professional print publication.

    Anything you want to do in raster formats with alpha channel support is done with TIFF. Likewise, anything you want to send to an offset press at 1200 DPI will be TIFF in some part of the process, because TIFF is the major raster file format that supports both alpha channel transparency and color separation.

    Deep in its grotty heart of hearts, I believe that the Adobe .PSD file, which is more or less the industry standard, is a .TIFF with extra information embedded. Also the .DNG format is TIFF with extra information.

  57. > Eric: TIFF is very much alive in professional print publication.

    I concur with Ken; in my experience, it also can handle 16 bits-per-channel well enough to be an excellent intermediary format for photo work (going to 32 bit HDR-capable images and such). See: dcraw, cinepaint

  58. IMO, you are just marketing the “successful” people. To hell with your theories :-). People will continue to be successful with or without your theories :-) (keep up the analysis!)

  59. >I can believe that many a-listers don’t spend their time defending their ego’s territory, but I suggest Harlan Ellison and Ayn Rand as counter-examples

    Never met Rand, But I’ve met Ellison, twice. The Asimov game, for certain.

    >Also, it would be interesting to see if there’s predictive power in your theory. Among talented people, are those with markedly less touchy egos more likely to do very well?

    I think so, but my data set is too small to assert that with great confidnce.

    >Eric, I can remember when you were in People magazine, and it was a significant topic of conversation for you for quite a while. Does this count as ego?

    Maybe. That was thirteen years ago, pre-Cathedral-and-Bazaar, before I was really famous. A lot of what was going on there was that I was struggling to adjust to the whole public-person thing, and you were one of the few people I trusted enough to talk about it with. Ye gods, if I’d had any idea what was going to come down on me within a year, I’d probably have been a lot more obsessive about it…

  60. Nancy notes that “I can believe that many a-listers don’t spend their time defending their ego’s territory, but I suggest Harlan Ellison and Ayn Rand as counter-examples.” I can’t speak to Ayn Rand, but Harlan Ellison is quite infamous for his egotism, yet he’s on the A-list of SF authors of anyone who knows anything at all about the field. How does he fit into your theory, Eric?

  61. “The Asimov game, for certain.” …Are you sure? Ellison is not known for having Asimov’s redeeming qualities; everything I’ve ever heard about the man indicates he has a towering ego.

    “Ye gods, if I’d had any idea what was going to come down on me within a year, I’d probably have been a lot more obsessive about it…” You cannot train for fame. You must learn to deal with it the hard way.

  62. About Ayn Rand….I’ve considered this further, and I think she was a sort of broken A-lister; her egotism was in part reaction to stark terror. She had watched, as a child in Russia, as totalitarian evil destroyed everything she loved. She thought that totalitarianism was coming after her, coming for everybody…and she wasn’t wrong, not about its intentions or its evil or the disgusting sycophancy much of the West’s intelligentsia adopted towards it. That much fear can warp a person, even (especially) when it’s justified.

    Then, of course, she made the mistake of surrounding herself with true believers. Bad mistake. The more she was cocooned by them, the less interesting she got.

    Have I learned from this example, and others like it? You damn betcha I have…

  63. I regularly thank the people who’ll argue with me and tell me where I’ve screwed something up in a game design or creative endeavor.

  64. >>As I said, it doesn’t matter very much to me what other people think about this, or I’d be a lot louder about it. I did the right thing and it changed the world; that’s what matters.

    >That’s an admirable position.

    Don’t give me too much credit for it. It’s easy for me to have that attitude because I’ve excelled at a bunch of other things and have a fan base a moderately successful rock star would envy. If I hadn’t, being “admirable” in this way would be more difficult – and more virtuous.

    And, of course, I’m making this point because it ties back to my central model of A-listers as people who have hit a point of sharply diminishing returns in the ego-competition game.

  65. I think it’s more a matter of focus. The real reason the best of the best don’t display much ego, is that they are primarily focused on whatever it is they do, rather than on themselves; that is how they got to be the best in the first place.

  66. That might even be an explanation of why so many actors and politicians don’t seem to have much personality when they aren’t “on-stage”; that is their primary focus. I don’t personally know any actors or politicians, so this speculation is entirely from media, take it with a big grain of salt.

  67. >Are you sure? Ellison is not known for having Asimov’s redeeming qualities; everything I’ve ever heard about the man indicates he has a towering ego.

    I can say this: The Ellison I met in 1978 was clearly playing the Asimov game – I know this because the mask came off in my presence. Perhaps that stopped being true at some point, perhaps the mask got stuck to his face. I have no relevant facts and therefore no opinion on the matter,

  68. esr: TIFF is still alive? Are you sure? I used to trip over them occasionally, but don’t think I’ve seen one since the century turned. The exception I was thinking about was actually the fax-imaging standards.

    I’m quite sure that TIFF is still alive. As I said earlier, the Adobe DNG format (dcraw is now DNG-based, and several cameras use it as their native RAW format) is actually TIFF (specifically, TIFF/EP with extra tags). TIFF is still used by automated fax and scanning systems; when I use the local office copier to scan a stack of papers, the file dropped on the network drive is a multi-page TIFF. The default file format for RenderMan-compliant renderers (at least for PRMan, BMRT and Pixie) is TIFF. The Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division provides archival versions of its images (click the photo; there are links to several versions) in TIFF format.

    The others, as you note, are quite thoroughly dead – I remember reading the IFF docs in esrly 1990s but it was long a goner even then.

    FIPS is still very much in use, though it is, as it always was, restricted to the interchange of scientific data. It’s no more a dead format than DICOM is.

  69. >I do however feel that it was just you being in the right place at the right time and if not you, someone else would have done it

    You know, this brings up another issue that bugs me – because you could say the exact same thing about my open-source advocacy. The gods know I’ve said it myself, often enough. So why is it that people are so quick to say, about something like giflib or ncurses or my Emacs modes, “right place, right time…anybody could have done it, he’s no great shakes as a programmer”, but when I say “I now believe some close equivalent of the analysis in this paper and its sequels would inevitably have been uttered sometime between 1994 and 2000 by someone else”, nobody pays any freaking attention?

    This really puzzles me – why write my bleeding-edge code off as mere serendipity and not my bleeding-edge advocacy? I mean, you can consistently take the position that I’ve just had a sharp eye for the right place to be but no great programming talent, or that I’ve got a huge talent that will out no matter what I do. In fact, I’m not really inclined to argue with either position. But cherry-picking one side and saying “that was happenstance” while attributing the other to talent just seems…wrong, especially since I can’t see any way to make the distinction from my own point of view.

    Of course, this brings up a deeper question. How do you tell the difference between an uncanny knack for positioning yourself where the lightning is going to strike and “genuine talent”? If you can prove an answer, don’t be shy – because I’d love to apply that spotlight to my own life.

  70. ESR,

    I think the causality runs the other direction, I can’t prove it beyond all doubt but can offer some details that can make it pausible.

    1. The first point is that you can never measure internal capability from externally observable achievement. All you can observe is that the person had not invested enough computational resources in solving a problem, but you cannot know if it’s because he hasn’t got any more, or if it’s because those resources are tied up with other tasks. Even when a person looks focused and concentrated, you still cannot know if there are other resources untapped by his current level of concentration – a facial expression isn’t a sure sign of the internal state, some people can even take very serious pain with a poker face, some other are on the opposite extreme. Similarly, one may assume there are some really dire situations in life into which every reasonable person should invest all their computational resources, but again it’s not something we know for sure if it really always happens so, relatively small and undiagnosed mental illnesses or suchlike could prevent it from happening so etc.

    So the first point is that the lack of capability can never be proven nor disproven by objective external observation because you can never prove one has truly invested all his computational resources into the job. You can measure success but you cannot measure talent.

    2. This leaves us talking on the level of subjective experiences, which is not the best way to make a point but its all we have here.

    Basically, if you don’t know from personal subjective experience what being an egotist means, then you don’t know a very important detail: all you can observe as an outward observer of the egotist, the ego games take up only about 1%-5% of the resources invested in the egotism. 95% of it is invisible because it goes on only on the inside – doubts, worries, feelings of ressentiment, basically thoughts that go on and on in endless loops, wasting lots of computational resources. You can visualize it as a tiny solar system, with the star of the self in the center and many little planets: the thoughts revolving around it. Any interaction with the external world – making any real-world achievement – requires forcing one or more planets form their track around the self and sending them out of the sun system of the ego, into the external world. Of course it is hard – thus the achievement will be small.

    So basically you can never know if your typical under-achieving egotist wouldn’t be a genius if only he force force his thoughts to stop revolving around himself and start revolving around the problem at hand.

    I know it from subjective experience because I was an egotist when I was a teenager, perhaps still am, although trying to fight it with Buddhism for about 7 years now. But I can tell you for sure that f.e. both times I tried a MENSA IQ test only about 25% of my thoughts revolved around the problem on the test page and 75% was revolved around stuff like: “Oh, no! This shit is so hard! I’m so stupid. I can’t make it. How the hell am I supposed solve it? Come on think, think, THINK! You can’t be that dumb!” (and stressing and sweating like hell). (This is why my dad suggested it’s a good idea to down a whiskey before taking such a test.) Of course it means I had little capacity left to invest into the actual problem.

    3. Now you might say that low self-confidence isn’t the same as egotism – perhaps egotism is rather over-compensated low self-confidence. But I think they are actually the same thing: low self-confidence comes not just from rationally evaluating one’s own low ability: a non-egotist would cheerfully accept his low ability, and try to improve it slowly. Low self-confidence rather comes form self-expectations much higher that the actual level of ability even if the actual level is high: low self-confidence means believing I must be, even: deserve to be a flawless, perfect genius and thus every little error looks like a disaster of this picture of the self. (I remember being totally devastated when I got a C on a history test when I was 11 years old. I was proud to be the official history geek of the class and it totally felt like losing my identity, losing myself, having a “Who am I, then? What am I?” kind of bad ego-trip.) So basically low self-confidence in and itself is egotist, it comes from very high expectations of oneself. Overinflating one’s accomplishments isn’t an overcompensation but simply a sign of the original ego-problem, of one expecting oneself to be perfect.

    Confident, calm, efficient people aren’t confident because they know they are great but because they *don’t expect themselves to be flawless*.

    Imagine how it would feel like being totally embarrassed, wounded, and lost (in the “Who am I, what am I, if not the perfect expert? Am I still anything?” sense of lost) every time you have to say “I don’t know, although I can find it out fast if you want me to” and you can begin to imagine what it is like to be an egotist. Of course one cannot be efficient in this state of mind. It’s a actually a wonder egotists can achieve anything at all – it’s always very hard and requires much more sacrifice than from non-egotists.

    I’ve wrote above that this is something very hard to demonstrate objectively and all I can do is to explain a subjective experience, but actually I can think of a prediction to make:

    The biggest achievers tend to have above-average physical courage even if their achievement is in a very peaceful field where they don’t need it.

  71. Of course, whether these image formats are still in use was never the question.

  72. I don’t think the phenomenon that you are talking about is all that difficult to understand. Let me offer this formula:

    S = k1.PSPE + k2.FBE – k3.CE

    Where:
    S = social status
    PSPE = Personal status producing efforts (such as boasting, strutting etc.)
    FBE = Fan boy status producing efforts
    CE = Critics status detracting effort
    (k1, k2, k3 some constants)

    Since much of human behavior drives toward producing a high value of S, then if your FBE greatly exceeds your CE then you can expend a great deal less energy on PSPE.

    To put it another way, if you are a big shot with lots of ass kissers, then a few detractors can be written off as unimportant outliers, and you don’t need to strut because your status has already exceeded the point where increasing it offers no value. If, for some reason, the fan boys back off for some reason, or the level of critisism becomes much higher, then it will be necessary to increase PSPE to compensate.

    This relates to two important aspects of human society: a high degree of focus on status, and a celebrity obsession amongst a large portion of the population. This is clearly akin to the dorks wanting to hang with the cool kids in high school.

    The nature of being a cool kid is that one has to maintain one’s cool.

    (Nothing in this post should be taken to detract from the important, and equivalent work done by fangirls.)

  73. >But I can tell you for sure that f.e. both times I tried a MENSA IQ test only about 25% of my thoughts revolved around the problem on the test page and 75% was revolved around stuff like: “Oh, no! This shit is so hard! I’m so stupid. I can’t make it. How the hell am I supposed solve it? Come on think, think, THINK! You can’t be that dumb!” (and stressing and sweating like hell).

    Interesting. Do you think that’s what it’s like for most people? I can imagine being in that frame of mind on a test, I guess, but I’ve never actually been there that I can remember.

    >Confident, calm, efficient people aren’t confident because they know they are great but because they *don’t expect themselves to be flawless*.

    I think it can stem from either, actually, and usually comes from both. When I wrestle, for example, my confidence comes from two things. One is that I know I’m exceptionally strong, and thus that even if I get into a dicey position it is likely that my opponent will have difficulty closing the deal with a submission – and this is a great advantage, it means I don’t get rattled or psychologically pressured easily even if I know my opponent is technically much better than I am. But you are also right that I don’t expect myself to be flawless – if I screw up, my attitude is to shrug, learn from it, and think “I’ll do better next time.”-

    >The biggest achievers tend to have above-average physical courage even if their achievement is in a very peaceful field where they don’t need it.

    Very interesting, and touches on some of my thoughts on physical and moral courage having the same physiological ground. Could you justify this prediction in more detail?

  74. >To put it another way, if you are a big shot with lots of ass kissers, then a few detractors can be written off as unimportant outliers, and you don’t need to strut because your status has already exceeded the point where increasing it offers no value. If, for some reason, the fan boys back off for some reason, or the level of critisism becomes much higher, then it will be necessary to increase PSPE to compensate.

    I don’t think it can be that simple. All the A-listers I’ve known (and myself, whether I belong on that list or not) find the fanboy phenomenon really rather annoying. And they don’t seem to stop finding it annoying just because the fanboys don’t come around for a while. So there’s some threshold effect your linear relation doesn’t capture.

  75. esr says:
    >I don’t think it can be that simple. All the A-listers I’ve known
    > (and myself, whether I belong on that list or not) find the fanboy
    > phenomenon really rather annoying. And they don’t seem to
    > stop finding it annoying just because the fanboys don’t come
    > around for a while.

    I used the word “fanboy” to be provocative. But. lets face it, there are different degrees of fanboy. I am sure the obsequious suck ups are disgustingly annoying, however, as ones’ fanboyishness moves from abject brown noser, through annoyingly fawning, through admiringly inquisitive, ones’ annoyingness surely becomes less. If half your “admiringly inquisitives” decided instead you were a jerk, perhaps you might strut a little more? I’m sure not in your case, but, you know, the other guy? There is perhaps a delayed reaction to loosing ones status, due to an accumulation of status momentum or status capital depending on your metaphor. Nonetheless, once depleted, it must be replenished somehow.

    Nonetheless, one’s social status is not at all determined by how one reacts to those who produce it, it is a function outside of oneself, except insofar as one does things to boost it (cock of the walk-wise.) And it is the very essence of cool to disregard the importance of cool, and dispute the importance of cool while remaining aloof. “I’m not important because I am cool, my standing is not extrinsic, rather it is intrinsic.” This comes out of the disturbing fact that one’s coolness is derived from the decisions of the mass of people who one would classify as betwixt distinctly uncool and dork. One has to imagine that there is something special about you, that you are not prom King because the losers voted for you.

    Of course, again, I am talking about the other guy.

    > So there’s some threshold effect your linear relation
    > doesn’t capture.

    Yes, indeed, I should have been clearer, that was meant to be economics math, not real math.

  76. I am interested to ask about the origins of this phenomenon, cool. What makes one person cool, and another a dork? What are the causes of becoming an a-lister rather than a z-lister?

    You have outlined your beliefs, I think, namely that achievements of admirable worth are the cause, but I wonder if that is more a function of the particular niche you dwell in. Has Meg Ryan achieved much of note? Perhaps her movie work might be admired by her peers also. I think the parallel is interesting (putting aside if you will your perceived quality of her thespian abilities.) Because there is a group of experts (or putative experts) who recognize the achievements, and then their recognition bleeds out into the unwashed fanboy masses who admire Ms. Ryan and Mr. Raymond, not so much for what they have done, but because the experts tell them to admire them. Always ready of mind to find an apotheosis, the eat it up, since Meg is as good as Marge. This seems fair, since not everyone is qualified to assess the quality of fetchmail, or “You’ve got Mail.”

    I would then ask the broader question: what is it that makes some people achieve, and some people fail to achieve? Eric’s contention seems to be that (in his field anyways), high intelligence, and coupled with broad spectrum skills are the key. Meg is rather hotter than Eric, but undoubtedly Eric is smarter than she, so each to his/her own niche.

    So, what is it that makes some people really successful, and others not so? Is it a selection effect with certain propensities providing small statistical benefits. What I mean by that is this: are there 10,000 people equally smart and equally polymath as Eric, but Eric, due to random events, happened to hit the jackpot? Or is there something about Eric that leads him inevitably to success, despite the random events around him? Are there 10,000 girls as pretty and talented as Meg, but she just happened to schmooze with the right producer at the right time, and poof, she is kissing Tom Hanks atop the Empire State Building?

  77. Do I get this right:
    Egoism is really insecurity.
    Arrogant people aren’t insecure, because they are arrogant.

    Arrogant people are arrogant, because they’ve convinced themselves, that they are awesome. Awesome people are usually arrogant, because they find it easy to convince themselves that they really are awesome.

    But i’m not convinced. I think that a lot of A-list chess players might be insecure about their ability to win other A-list players. They might be touchy about people thinking that someone is greater player than they are. Maybe if there is a party where A-list programmer meets A-list chess player, they both are flattered that they hang out with such awesome people, and don’t need to compete about who is more awesome.

  78. “Could you justify this prediction in more detail?”

    Plain simply focusing less on ourselves and more on other things, having less importance of the self, having less thoughts revolving around the self, or, perhaps, the best way to put would be less *locked* in the self and having more interaction with the external world could lead to more achievement and very likely should lead to more physical courage, in multiple ways. On a conscious level it might lead to thinking there are sometimes things more important than saving our own skins. On a less conscious level with a smaller ego one might be more connected with the external world and thus able to act even when the ego would like to lock up and shut out the situation. (Freezing up in fear could be seen as a retreat to the ego-solar system, shutting out the external world.)

    It’s hard to put it in modern words, really, both because it’s something happening on a below-conscious level and also because the whole thing is a pre-modern idea, explored thoroughly in Buddhism as the core existential problem of the separation of the self and the world, and also partially understood by the Classicals as virtue, by Augustine as self-love and vanity as the root of all evil and so on, but of course it was put in a very different vocabulary than we use today. In modern psychology it was not studied much, except perhaps for the Transpersonalists and also Seligmans Positive Psychology seems to catch some hint of it, too.

    Also I’ve heard about a psychologists called Viktor Frankl who allegedly said roughly this is how people survived concentration camps (by living for things considered more important than themselves) but I haven’t read much about it yet.

  79. “Do you think that’s what it’s like for most people?”

    For many, certainly, for most, don’t know. Again we have the problem that an external observer cannot determine the lack of talent, only the lack of success. When I attended the uni, pale, cold-sweating faces, trembling fingers at harder tests like calculus were near universal, but I cannot tell for how many was it a genuinely hard compared to their abilities and for how many was it for this frame of mind. Also bear in mind I’m from a very pessimisic culture with the highest recorded suicide rate of the world, of course it also has a huge effect on my experiences.

  80. “This really puzzles me – why write my bleeding-edge code off as mere serendipity and not my bleeding-edge advocacy?”

    One obvious hypothesis is that most of your followers are *themselves* better at writing working code than they are at writing clear, convincing essays. People are more impressed by talents they don’t have than by talents they do. (think of guitarists looking up at the guy on stage and saying “Heck, *I* could do that!”)

    If you could have somehow acquired a fanbase made up manily of journalist english-majors, perhaps they’d be raving about the code and pooh-poohing the writing as mere serendipity.

  81. Fascinating, fascinating post and responses! I have never heard of you ESR (I know very little of the world of CS), but am intrigued to read more of your stuff.

    As you and many others have suggested, it seems that the causal relationship between ego and success (or being an A-lister, as you put it) goes in both directions and is parabolic with self-loathing, uninspired people on one end and content people completely confident and comfortable with their considerable abilities at the other. From my personal experience and observing others, however, success seems to be a greater determinant of the size of one’s ego than vice versa.

    I have personally witnessed myself move up, and then back down, the ego vs. success curve in my life (again, similar to what you describe regarding your own ego); I used to doubt myself more and felt intimidated whenever I met someone whom I felt was smarter or more capable than myself (especially people from Harvard, haha) which lead me to react egoically around them. To be perfectly clear, I am using the word ‘egoically’ as the adjective form of ego, which you define in your post. As I have gotten older and have continued to impress myself and others, I’ve noticed that I do not react as egoically around other intelligent and often egocentric people, mainly because I no longer feel the need to prove my intelligence to them. I am more confident in my abilities.

    While it is quite difficult to truly know if my own ego has helped or hindered achieving success since I have no control experiment for my life, I have noticed that I tend to actually get more attention and subsequently more of what I want when I’m in an egocentric state of being, because people tend to admire and cater to the needs of people whom they think they are really awesome. I am a sample size of 1, however, and could be a bad example, because I think that the fluctuating size of my ego tends to be smaller than people with similar capabilities, so when my ego is at its height I still tend to not alienate others who could help me achieve what I seek. I’ll have to thank middle school bullies and a wonderful family for that.

    But enough about me.

    >So, what is it that makes some people really successful, and others not so?
    >How do you tell the difference between an uncanny knack for positioning yourself where the lightning is going to strike and “genuine talent”?

    I don’t have any direct answers to these interesting questions, but I will say this: external and internal factors both contribute to people’s success and failure, but it seems that situational factors play a larger role for outliers. Think about historical figures — neither Abraham Lincoln, Hitler, or Gandhi would have likely achieved such fame or infamy had they not lived through periods of great sociopolitical turmoil. Take a look at the other extreme — people who are “failing” in life likely have some terrible event to blame which is out of their control, such as abuse, being borne into poverty, and / or suffering some tragic natural disaster. The innate capabilities of the people in the middle seems to be a greater determinant of their success.

    Last point — and this is random and a bit silly. It seems that another motivating factor, which we could perhaps call the younger brother of ego, is similarly correlated to success: one’s sex drive. Just like ego and success, causality moves in both directions, but seems to flow more from success to sex drive. Allow me to explain. Horny people tend to have more sex than less sexually – motivated folks, but exceptionally hormone-infused teens (well, teenage males. This analogy only works for men.) tend to scare away the opposite sex. Similarly parallel to the ego vs. success discussion, when you talk to or become one of the people who is at the top when it comes to having sex, sex drive actually seems to decrease. You are satiated, you have nothing to prove, and you don’t need to run after every female you come across. Again, this is only my personal experience.

  82. >What makes one person cool, and another a dork? What are the causes of becoming an a-lister rather than a z-lister?

    I think these are actually two quite different questions. You generally don’t get to be an A-lister just by being cool, though the reverse may occur if being an A-lister pulls you a big enough fanbase.

    >Eric’s contention seems to be that (in his field anyways), high intelligence, and coupled with broad spectrum skills are the key.

    While they’re most strongly determinative near the sciences, I think those qualities are valuable anywhere. There are a lot of pretty girls in the world; therefore the ones that are most likely to actually build a career like Meg Ryan’s are the relatively bright ones.

    >What I mean by that is this: are there 10,000 people equally smart and equally polymath as Eric, but Eric, due to random events, happened to hit the jackpot? Or is there something about Eric that leads him inevitably to success, despite the random events around him?

    Boy, would I love to know the answer to that one.

    I have two clashing intuitions about this. On the one hand, I know better than anyone else how much of my success was due to serendipity. On the other hand, I worked very, very hard at becoming the kind of person to whom creative serendipities happen, and then I worked just as hard at exploiting them when they did. Thomas Alva Edison: “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”…and, I will unmathematically add, another 99% preparation. It took me 30 years to acquire the intellectual toolkit that enabled me to really make a difference, and I assure you I did not spend those decades eating bonbons.

  83. # esr Says:
    > the ones that are most likely to actually build a career like Meg Ryan’s are the relatively bright ones.

    I don’t know much about Ms. Ryan (I picked her because I thought the line about fetchmail vs. “You Got Mail” was cute.) However, I imagine you like me can come up with a fairly long list of extremely famous people who are, shall we say, not smart. And many of them think they are a lot smarter than they actually are. Lets just say that in Hollywood “polymath” means one parrot plus one parrot equals two parrots. I always loved the title of Laura Ingraham’s book in reference to the Hollywood intelligentsia “Shut up and sing”. (I never read the book, so I have no idea if the contents are as good as the title.)

    >“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”…and, I will
    > unmathematically add, another 99% preparation.

    If I might be so rude as to answer my own question, I think you have hit on it here. I think success and elevation to the heights of one’s peer group are based on a number of core skills and circumstances:
    1. a very high capacity for work,
    2. an excellent capacity for dealing with people (what might be called charisma);
    3. and a suitable set of skills (intelligence, acting, prettiness etc) to pass some basic level;
    4. a desire, that is to say, the mindset that working to achieve this is a desirable thing,
    5. live in a country and culture that is not really screwed up

    I think that generally the number 3 is the least important of these but I think it rather depends on the particular realm you wish to succeed in. If you have these, and you don’t have exceptionally bad luck, I think you are almost guaranteed success.

  84. “I have two clashing intuitions about this. ”

    I think it’s safe to say that a genius IQ (which you clearly possess) is a necessary but insufficient condition to be a groundbreaking polymath. There are quite a few guys out there with IQs above 150 whose contributions to our society and culture have been less than scintillating. The potential may be there, but personality and character traits to develop it are missing.

    I look at guys like you and Kurzweil, e.g. and it’s clear that something more than sheer brainpower is at work.

  85. “Egoism is really insecurity.
    Arrogant people aren’t insecure, because they are arrogant.”

    The way I understood this was:

    Egotists are insecure.
    “Arrogant people” talk smack and typically back it up.

    “But i’m not convinced. I think that a lot of A-list chess players might be insecure about their ability to win other A-list players. They might be touchy about people thinking that someone is greater player than they are. Maybe if there is a party where A-list programmer meets A-list chess player, they both are flattered that they hang out with such awesome people, and don’t need to compete about who is more awesome.”

    Well, I suspect the reason why this ISN’T the case is because many A-listers of the type esr mentioned are typical ultra-high IQ polymaths, and so essentially highly interchangeable (while appearing radically different or unique to a less able person.) Due to circumstances and personality differences they may have different areas of reknown, but there isn’t much they aren’t capable of achieving given the desire (something of which they are keenly aware.)

    My guess is their ego isn’t invested into the notion of being a top in profession so-and-so as opposed to the B-listers.

  86. JB: “Egotists are insecure. “Arrogant people” talk smack and typically back it up.”
    Or, to put it another way, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.

  87. >I look at guys like you and Kurzweil, e.g. and it’s clear that something more than sheer brainpower is at work.

    Thanks for the implied compliment, but I think Ray Kurzweil is significantly more capable than I am and would not put myself on his level.

  88. There’s a point in the sixth Harry Potter book where Dumbledore says something like, “I make mistakes too, Harry, and being rather cleverer than most my mistakes tend to be all the greater.”

  89. Ellison is not known for having Asimov’s redeeming qualities; everything I’ve ever heard about the man indicates he has a towering ego.

    Compensation for not being quite so towering in other ways? ISTR from the introductions Asimov wrote to the original Hugo Winners anthologies that they had a fairly friendly rivalry going.

    Or, to put it another way, it ain’t braggin’ if you can do it.

    It’s certainly bloody delusional if you can’t, but bragging is one of those eye-of-the-beholder things – if you perceive someone’s protestations of competence to stem from insecurity, they’re probably going to come across as bragging to you.

  90. Thanks for the implied compliment

    If that’s implied, spare me ever having to look at an explicit one.

  91. Jeff Read: There’s a point in the sixth Harry Potter book where Dumbledore says something like, “I make mistakes too, Harry, and being rather cleverer than most my mistakes tend to be all the greater.”

    I remember seeing something like that; the version I saw stated that being clever was like owning a jeep, in that you still get stuck, but you’re further from help when you do.

  92. >I remember seeing something like that; the version I saw stated that being clever was like owning a jeep, in that you still get stuck, but you’re further from help when you do.

    It’s true. More than once I have googled for help on a topic where I felt lost and in need of better information, only to have the top-ranked page be…on my own site.

    There are one or two topics where this is reasonable. For the others…oh, shit. If I’m the authority on this, we’re all in trouble…

  93. This has got to be the “Asimov mask”…but just because I saw through it doesn’t mean you can consider yourself to be of my caliber.

    :)

  94. I always assumed the apparent boastfulness in esr’s writing was a language thing — I’m reading English, but he’s writing either American or Usenet.

    I seem to recall Americans interpreting Scott Dixon’s (IRL driver) behaviour as arrogant, in much the same way as New Zealanders would interpret normal-American-athlete behaviour.

  95. I personally don’t recall reading anything by ESR that I would qualify as ‘arrogant’. As far as I’m concerned, if he walks the talk, he can have the bullhorn as long as he sees fit.

    A cry of “arrogance” is often an echo of inferiority.

  96. You might be interested in Mindset by Carol Dweck. In that book, she describes two kinds of mindsets people have: growth oriented and fixed. People with growth oriented mindset (rightly) believe that smarts comes from working hard, overcoming a challenge, and moving on to even more challenging things.

    People with fixed mindset believe that the amount of smarts that they have right now, is all they will ever have. So given an opportunity to work on a harder challenge versus doing the same thing over again, they prefer the latter. They are the ones that defend any criticism about their work.

  97. >You might be interested in Mindset

    I think either thing can be true. Dweck’s “growth” mindset works very well for people who have not reached the limit of their own capacity, but some people are simply not very bright for neurochemical reasons that can’t be fixed by hard wark. When people like that “believe that the amount of smarts that they have right now, is all they will ever have”, they are evaluating accurately.

  98. ESR says:
    > but some people are simply not very bright for neurochemical
    > reasons that can’t be fixed by hard work.

    I think this is true but misleading. It seems to me to be quite similar to muscular growth, which is to say everyone has some sort of physiological limitation as to how much muscle mass and the composition of that muscle mass. And that limitation is very much different from person to person based on both nature and nurture. However, it is clear than only a very tiny percentage of people come close to achieving the limits of their muscle mass, and are at the point on the growth curve where it doesn’t even look like there is a limit.

    I think brains are similar in many ways. They certainly adapt and change and become more flexible with use and practice. I have no doubt that everyone has a maximum capacity (though I am not sure what exactly that means), but most people are so far from it that they too are at the point on the growth curve where it doesn’t even look like there is a limit. In that sense, the “growth oriented” mindset idea is close enough to being universally true that it can be considered to be true universally save a few isolated outliers.

    I also think it worth pointing out that there are many different skills that contribute to success that do not involve smart. On the contrary, I think smart is not one of the most important measures of capacity to succeed, hard work, social skills and fortuitous circumstances are all much more important. (Except of course for the exception of success at highly intellectual pursuits, where smarts pulls about equal with these other things.)

  99. “Thanks for the implied compliment, but I think Ray Kurzweil is significantly more capable than I am and would not put myself on his level.”

    OK, so he’s the modern-day Ben Franklin and you’re merely Thomas Jefferson. ;)

    I did not realize how frightening an intellect Kurzweil possessed until I watched a full two-hour interview with him. His knowledge and depth of understanding of multiple fields is impressive to say the least.

  100. People with fixed mindset believe that the amount of smarts that they have right now, is all they will ever have. So given an opportunity to work on a harder challenge versus doing the same thing over again, they prefer the latter. They are the ones that defend any criticism about their work.

    Though wisdom and experience grow with age, the amount of raw smarts you have peaks at age 27, and then begins a steady decline.

    There’s a reason why Fields Medal eligibility is confined to the under-40 set.

  101. It is amazing how much the wisdom of age resembles being “too tired”.

    Neurologically speaking, the human brain is the last organ to leave ‘adolescence’ at about age 25-28, and most of what’s going on is the gradual de-coupling and severing of the cross-connections needed for the MASSIVE rewiring from puberty.

    While I think it’s *likelier* that the development of consumer neuropathy will be used by parents to help cushion their children through the core-dump years, it is also possible that it will result in an extension of the ‘peak brain years’.

  102. # Jeff Read Says:
    > Though wisdom and experience grow with age, the amount
    > of raw smarts you have peaks at age 27, and then begins a
    > steady decline.

    What does “raw smarts” mean?

  103. The main indicators of egotism as I intend it here are are loud self-display, insecurity, constant approval-seeking, overinflating one’s accomplishments, touchiness about slights, and territorial twitchiness about one’s expertise.

    The first person I thought of after reading this was you, Mr. Raymond.

    ESR says: Awww.. The little troll found the dumbest, most obvious jab. How special of him.

  104. Just a note on TIFF, but it’s currently the #2 standad after JPEG for image format use. Every single RAW file format in current use is in fact a TIFF file with custom tags or variant (Some explicitly so, PhaseOne uses the .tif extension openly for their RAW files) and it’s also both the standard intermediary format for editing in Photography and replacing PSD as the defacto standard file format for Photoshop now that it offers the same level of layer and history support as PSD.

  105. Seen in a .sig, and arguably relevant:

    “True confidence comes not from realising you are as good as your peers, but that your peers are as bad as you are”.

  106. >“The genius rarely feels superior to others, but instead baffled that those around them are so blind.”

    A false opposition, logically speaking. But psychologically true, and exacerbated by the fact that most kinds of “genius”-related talent are heritable and tend to run in families. Thus, I was in my teens before I realized that most people don’t have the ability to sing improvised harmony to melodies they haven’t heard before, because both my parents and all of my sibs could do that. I’d heard of tone- and tune-deafness, but just didn’t encounter it, and didn’t know that I was “musically talented” by most peoples’ standards. When I got a clue, my reaction wasn’t “Ghod, I’m so superior”, it was “Uh? How can they not do that?”

  107. The little troll found the dumbest, most obvious jab. How special of him.

    Dumb, obvious? Maybe; however, it is still true.

  108. Something must have changed in your CSS. I now see your page entirely filled with square boxes containing a capital A. View source, or copy and paste, reveals the real content, but I can’t read it without doing that.

    I’m running Safari 4.0.3 on Mac OS X 10.6.2. Your pages looked fine on Thursday morning. I didn’t look yesterday.

    Screenshot: http://billstclair.com/blog/images/aad-screenshot.png

  109. Dumb, obvious? Maybe; however, it is still true.

    ISTR ESR has in the past stated that a lot of what comes across as own-trumpet-blowing is really a kind of showmanship which in some way aids his advocacy work. Makes sense to me. Obviously there are some who will never warm to it, but annoying them may be part of the performance.

  110. > Something must have changed in your CSS.

    Are you sure it’s CSS? That looks more like encoding interpretation issue. Try switching encodings around or maybe even just clearing your browser’s cache?

    This is the first thing I found that appears related, it looks like a fairly recent Mac issue:

    http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=812606

  111. ISTR ESR has in the past stated that a lot of what comes across as own-trumpet-blowing is really a kind of showmanship which in some way aids his advocacy work. Makes sense to me. Obviously there are some who will never warm to it, but annoying them may be part of the performance.

    How Eric chooses to justify his obnoxious behaviour is irrelevant. He is an embarrasment to anyone involved in OSS. Eric simply doesn’t have the talent or achievements to trumpet himself the way he does. No serious programmer is impressed with any of his technical work above the level of mere competence. His ignorance of programming topics beyond remedial C programming is _legendary_. As a previous poster mentioned, the level of lack of self-awareness here (and in the similar sword camp posts) is startling.

  112. How Eric chooses to justify his obnoxious behaviour is irrelevant. He is an embarrasment to anyone involved in OSS. Eric simply doesn’t have the talent or achievements to trumpet himself the way he does. No serious programmer is impressed with any of his technical work above the level of mere competence. His ignorance of programming topics beyond remedial C programming is _legendary_. As a previous poster mentioned, the level of lack of self-awareness here (and in the similar sword camp posts) is startling.

    Do you see anything ironic in phrasing your attacks on ESR using the term OSS?

    More generally, what have you done for the OSS community lately that entitles you to speak for its entirety?

  113. Nice appeal to authority. I use the term OSS because that is the terminology that is appropriate for this forum. Eric did not invent OSS, he just carried out a bunch of marketing and then declared himself a genius and tribal leader.

  114. Read this: http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/take-my-job-please.html
    Either you think he’s flatly lying, in which case you have a self-consistent view but not one I find worth arguing with, or you’re being hypocritical in your insistence that ESR lives for fame (which he would pretty much have to, in order to attain his actual level thereof in the absence of any competence). Either way, not worth feeding the troll any longer.

  115. The “Take My Job Please!” is just another self-absorbed rant by Raymond about how he’s a special, irreplaceable flower in the OSS community. He doesn’t have a job within the OSS community other than being the village idiot.

  116. Aristotle says almost exactly this in the Nicomachean Ethics, in his passage about the megalopsychos or “great-souled man,” who, he says, is moderately pleased to be praised by good and wise men, because on one hand no praise could be equal to what he knows to be his true merits, but on the other hand there is nothing better anyone could give him; but with praise from small-minded people or on trivial grounds he is utterly unconcerned, and blame too. The whole passage is worth reading. I’ve tried to live by that model, and while I wouldn’t claim to be at the pinnacle of success by external (especially financial!) standards, I’m happy with who I am and what I’ve done. So what you’re saying makes sense to me.

  117. JessicaBoxer
    > Are there 10,000 girls as pretty and talented as Meg, but she just happened to schmooze with the right producer at the right time, and poof, she is kissing Tom Hanks atop the Empire State Building?

    Interesting that you should pick one of the most reluctant public figures on the Hollywood A-list. She certainly does not seem to be into public displays of egoism, or public appearances of any kind. This made me wonder about how much of what Eric said about arrogance applies to actors. It would seem that the cost of arrogance is different for them, because acting in dramatic scenes is such a delicate business that can easily be ruined if you don’t worry about turning people off. I was little surprised to learn that according to a bunch of actors, Denzel Washington is a rather nasty person on set. I wouldn’t think he has much to prove, or much to gain by playing the Asimov game at work.

    Anyway, making the Hollywood A-list is about the ability to make money for the studio. Some have talent as performing artists, but I think gov. Schwarzenegger has shown that there certainly are other ways to get there.

  118. >This made me wonder about how much of what Eric said about arrogance applies to actors.

    That makes two of us, because I wonder about that myself. I only have personal contact with A-listers near the science end of the spectrum. As I noted in a reply to an earlier comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky, It may well be that the psychology is different in places where the measures of success are fuzzier and more subjective.

  119. I wrote a comment here a few days ago detailing some more of the history of device-independent raster graphics, which has yet to show up. Please clean out your spamtrap (it contained a number of links) or let me know why it’s not posted. The comment ID, as provided by the site, was 242349.

    ESR says: Spamtrap’s clean. I don’t see it.

  120. I would much rather people remember my results than my name. Obscurity has its tactical advantages. It gives me the freedom to work without fear of damaging my reputation if I fail. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m glad to see you’ve returned to the source hosting project. ForgePlucker will hopefully preserve as much code as possible with a blind eye to its contemporary merit. The problem of vendor lock-in for user contributed content is a matter of increasing concern in free culture. I experienced question of who really owns the information first hand: the content contributor or the hosting provider. For these two reasons in July, I decided to move my blog where I fight GandhiCon3 from http://bethlynn.livejournal.com to http://whatwillweuse.com
    Thank you.

  121. Thanks for posting this. It forms another piece in the “jigsaw puzzle” I have been putting together ever since Neal Stephenson led me to “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”(heh, after looking up CatB online to check my spelling I happened to glance down at my bookshelf and there is CatB 1 of the 10 books I currently have at work. Checking the print history I see printed Oct 1999 so I have been reading you for 10ish years). After reading CatB I started searching for more stuff online. I have read everything (excluding some of the more technical stuff) you have posted on CatB.org,, and even parts of “Philosophy of Unix Programming”. I find you a very ‘readable’ author and so I enjoy what you write. I am not qualified to judge your technical prowess but I do have experience with SF fandom, pagans, guns, law, anarcho-capitalism, martial arts, SCA, etc and I have never found myself at odds with what you write on these topics. I haven’t always agreed mind you, but I have always understood. In searching for your writings I would find stuff written about you by people who HATE you and NOT understood. This bothered me enough that I was involved (briefly) with editing your wikipedia entry in 2004. Reasonable questions about critical accusations met “these links explain”. I followed those links and determined that they didn’t explain (assertion doesn’t = truth). That someone can take your writing, ignore context, twist meaning and willfully misunderstand just bothers me. It’s an itch I can’t scratch.
    This essay provides another puzzle piece. This tactic of “Choose Your Enemies Wisely” has utility as a filter AND as advertising. There is the “I could talk all day about my value but instead, why don’t you check out what my detractors say” filter aspect. Those who are influenced by that sort of `criticism’ I suspect of being non-useful anyway. Personally I find that anyone attracting this much venomous verbiage (heh) must have something good going. I kept checking A&D and CatB for new material after a random rant about your ‘evil evilness’ provoked a “Hey I wonder if that ESR guy has written anything new” response. Which demonstrates the advertising aspect. Which eventually led to, well, here.=) And judging by the first few comments I skimmed they STILL don’t get it. Thanks for coming back to the blog. Thanks for promoting liberty and logic. Here is to another 10 years of readable, thought-provoking, enjoyable posts.
    M=)

  122. Oops I meant “Art of Unix Programming”
    @ ESR I find the comments section much more enjoyable to read with the robotic responses of the We hate poopy head Eric fan club removed.
    @Jessica Boxer Are you familiar with the studies of summer camp boys referenced by Howard Bloom (can’t remember if it was Lucifer Principle or Global Mind)
    The studies supposedly showed that any random group (sharing the same cabin) of campers would sort itself out into different roles. One would become the Leader, another the Jester, another the Enforcer etc. After running the study for a while they would reassign the campers to specific cabins by type so you would have a cabin of leaders, a cabin of jesters, and so on. At this point the cabins would again sort themselves out in the various roles. If true this leads to Part of our personality is in our heads (mind/brain), and Part of our personality is in the people around us. Also the anecdotal reports that if a family member is in `recovery’ (think 12 step) for alcohol, gambling whatever and manages to gain some functionality, then another family member will start to exhibit ‘dysfunctional’ behavior “as if” the family had a set of roles to fulfill and it didn’t matter which family member was in which role.

    Oh and I don’t know why I chose 10 years, I should have another 25 years to read and enjoy so “Here’s to as many years you can manage”=)
    M=)

  123. This comment has “mysteriously” disappeared in moderation twice, now. I’m splitting it up until it actually shows up when I hit ‘post’.

    Upon further investigation, libgif (“giflib” at the time) was initially released in 1990; your contributions did not begin until you took over maintainership for the 2.1 release. The assertion that the development of GIF, popularized by giflib/libgif, led to the modern commonality of portable image formats, doesn’t hold water. The GIF standard dates from 1987, but the JPEG group was founded in 1986 as an outgrowth of a forum founded in 1983. You said “because GIF just worked, it set a precedent that led to JPEG and other image-format standard a few years later”; this is flat-out wrong. GIF did not set a precedent that led to JPEG; JPEG was in development, and had been for years, when GIF was released. Furthermore, even if it had, your involvement didn’t involve creating the format or making the conceptual leap that image formats didn’t have to be tied to output hardware, which is what you’re associating yourself with.

    You maintained a very useful library for some time, and got your name in a lot of places. You did not nigh-singlehandedly save us from a world of non-portable image formats.

  124. >This comment has “mysteriously” disappeared in moderation twice, now.

    The blog has no moderation; there are plugins that do that but I’ve never installed them. Either your comment comes through, or it lands in the spam trap – or, occasionally, just vaporizes somehow. I’ve had hints that this may have happened occasionally, and suspicions that akismet (the WordPress spam filter) is involved.

    >your contributions did not begin until you took over maintainership for the 2.1 release.

    That’s factually not true, and don’t make assumptions. The rest of your comment is just blather.

  125. Comments occasionally post with a note saying “Your comment is in moderation”; they don’t appear on subsequent pageloads. You may wish to check your plugin setup.

    esr: That’s factually not true, and don’t make assumptions.

    Quoting the above link, which you wourself wrote: “This package was originally written by Gershon Elber in 1990 [...] The 2.1 version featured substantial changes and additions by Eric S. Raymond.” You did not originally write libgif, and libgif did not exist until 1990. (Unless you were writing something factually untrue there.) You claimed to be “changing the shape of the future” by maintaining libgif, but the future you described was already well underway.

    The rest of your comment is just blather.

    You claimed that you had a significant influence on a particular part of the history of image file formats. Based on some relevant dates, this is impossible as you describe it. Is calling this “just blather” your way of being unusually capable of shutting up and listening when you’ve made a claim that you can’t back up?

  126. >You did not originally write libgif, and libgif did not exist until 1990

    I had been working on the code for some time before the 2.1 release in support of a games project on the Genie timesharing system; that was in mid-1989, possibly late ’88. The game project failed, which is why you never heard of it; I was trying to do things the creaky infrastructure of that system simply couldn’t support. Part of the reason it looks otherwise is that early versions were called GIFLIB rather than libgif, and were originally hosted on MS-DOS; I did the port to Unix myself (System V, Linux wouldn’t exist until 1991) and there is thus no way anyone limited to the
    Unix history of the code can know about its earlier incarnations.

    Very few people used version control back then; I didn’t write Emacs VC-mode until 1992 and nobody in MS-DOS land even knew what version control was. So the early history of the code (1987-1990) is rather murky even to Gershon and myself and probably can’t be completely reconstructed at this late date . I had always believed that Gershon wrote it in late ’87 shortly after the GIF standard issued; certainly he had already shipped a couple of releases vie Genie’s file download areas when I found it there.

    The oldest version described in the NEWS file is 1.1, but it’s clear there were earlier ones. See where it says “Support for the new gif89a format has been added.”? This doesn’t make a lot of sense unless there was at least one previous release before gif89a, which matches my recollection of having first looked at the code in 1988. I don’t know where you got the 1990 date, but perhaps it was an error introduced by a later maintainer. I think change #4 in the 1.1 release was already my work; I dimly recall the namespace issue as something that cropped up during the original Unix port I did.

  127. esr: I don’t know where you got the 1990 date, but perhaps it was an error introduced by a later maintainer.

    This sort of mystery could be easily resolved by following the links I attempt to helpfully provide to back up my arguments. In this case, it was an “introduction to giflib” written by you. Seriously; your name is on it. Scroll down to the bottom and have a look. Either you were wrong when you described the initial release then, or you’re wrong now.

    Regardless, even if giflib was in development in 1987, the JPEG group had already been working, in one form or another, for four years. Again: you claimed that you had a significant influence on a particular part of the history of image file formats. Based on some relevant dates, this is impossible as you describe it. Explain yourself or own up to your mistake, please.

  128. >Either you were wrong when you described the initial release then, or you’re wrong now.

    I think I must have been wrong then. I can’t really square the internal evidence in the code itself with a 1990 release date. It’s a weird mistake, though – can’t blame you for making the deductions you did. And I’d like to have better evidence. But, as I’ll show in a moment, it doesn’t actually matter much…

    >Based on some relevant dates, this is impossible as you describe it.

    Now you’re being silly. Have you considered when JPEG actually, er, shipped? JPEG was vaporware until 1992. That means, even supposing the release date had been 1990, there was a minimum of maybe two years during which GIFLIB/libgif was pretty much the only game in town for portable image formats. And — oh, dear — those were the years that Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the Web and Marc Andreesen was dreaming up Mosaic.

    (Qualification: TIFF may have existed, but we can tell there either weren’t any open-source implementations available or nobody working on the early Web cared, because Mosaic didn’t implement it. They cared about GIF, though. I think I know why.)

    Looks like the actual release date of JPEG actually supports my belief that Gershon and I made a big difference, even if I’m wrong now and libgif only dates to 1990. Which is sad for you, hater-boy. I doubt anyone will ever develop even the suspicion that your code mattered that much, or you’d have better things to do with your life than stalk me.

  129. esr: And — oh, dear — those were the years that Tim Berners-Lee was inventing the Web and Marc Andreesen was dreaming up Mosaic.

    The first recorded version of Mosaic described support for JPEG images as well via helper applications; the developers were clearly aware of the format. (Inline support was indeed for GIF images first; inline XBMs were added before the first public release in late 1993, and inline JPEGs in early 1995.)

    As for the vaporware comment, Adobe was apparently building JPEG-based decoding filters into the set of standard filters for PostScript 2, using the proposed JPEG 8-R3 standard from 1989. See page 91 of the Postscript 2 reference manual, dated 1990.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>