Thursday, February 23, 2012

Right livelihood and not being vulnerable to exploitation

I woke up this morning thinking that it's probably not a great career move in and of itself to become a Ph.D. in theoretical physics - most of the physics Ph.D. folks I know are actually doing something quite removed from their chosen field of study. 

And yet,  despite in many cases personal experience with the above, that's not stopping many "tiger parents" who might be pushing their kids in this direction.

Generally, in my experience, the people that make it to the top weren't the ones who aced all the tests. You look at the so-called (but likely ephemeral) "success stories" in American business, and the millionaire/billionaire founders of some of the name corporations got their start as dropouts.  

 Malcom Gladwell had a fascinating article recently in the New Yorker about "How David Beats Goliath" After discussing how in basketball the full-court press can be used by weak teams to upend balances of power based on raw talent through disrupting the expected timing of events, Gladwell brings in out of the box thinking:

In 1981, a computer scientist from Stanford University named Doug Lenat entered the Traveller Trillion Credit Squadron tournament, in San Mateo, California. It was a war game. The contestants had been given several volumes of rules, well beforehand, and had been asked to design their own fleet of warships with a mythical budget of a trillion dollars. The fleets then squared off against one another in the course of a weekend. “Imagine this enormous auditorium area with tables, and at each table people are paired off,” Lenat said. “The winners go on and advance. The losers get eliminated, and the field gets smaller and smaller, and the audience gets larger and larger.”
Lenat had developed an artificial-intelligence program that he called Eurisko, and he decided to feed his program the rules of the tournament. Lenat did not give Eurisko any advice or steer the program in any particular strategic direction. He was not a war-gamer. He simply let Eurisko figure things out for itself. For about a month, for ten hours every night on a hundred computers at Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Eurisko ground away at the problem, until it came out with an answer. Most teams fielded some version of a traditional naval fleet—an array of ships of various sizes, each well defended against enemy attack. Eurisko thought differently. “The program came up with a strategy of spending the trillion on an astronomical number of small ships like P.T. boats, with powerful weapons but absolutely no defense and no mobility,” Lenat said. “They just sat there. Basically, if they were hit once they would sink. And what happened is that the enemy would take its shots, and every one of those shots would sink our ships. But it didn’t matter, because we had so many.” Lenat won the tournament in a runaway...
Eurisko was an underdog. The other gamers were people steeped in military strategy and history. They were the sort who could tell you how Wellington had outfoxed Napoleon at Waterloo, or what exactly happened at Antietam. They had been raised on Dungeons and Dragons. They were insiders. Eurisko, on the other hand, knew nothing but the rule book. It had no common sense. As Lenat points out, a human being understands the meaning of the sentences “Johnny robbed a bank. He is now serving twenty years in prison,” but Eurisko could not, because as a computer it was perfectly literal; it could not fill in the missing step—“Johnny was caught, tried, and convicted.” Eurisko was an outsider. But it was precisely that outsiderness that led to Eurisko’s victory: not knowing the conventions of the game turned out to be an advantage.
“Eurisko was exposing the fact that any finite set of rules is going to be a very incomplete approximation of reality,” Lenat explained. “What the other entrants were doing was filling in the holes in the rules with real-world, realistic answers. But Eurisko didn’t have that kind of preconception, partly because it didn’t know enough about the world.” So it found solutions that were, as Lenat freely admits, “socially horrifying”: send a thousand defenseless and immobile ships into battle; sink your own ships the moment they get damaged.
This is the second half of the insurgent’s creed. Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought...

I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately, for reasons that have to do with some of the things I in the course of my work.  It's also related in a way to the principles in 詠春 (Wing Chun) - the principles in 詠春 are quite counter-intuitive to anyone that's had to deal with bigger, stronger, schoolyard bullies. Above all, the principles teach one to remain relaxed (but aware and sensitive) even if a 260lb 6'6" guy is threatening to pummel you.

A lot of folks think that the defense against being vulnerable - to whatever - lies in the raw countering of force with force. In business, this thinking, unfortunately abetted by America's (former) material wealth and low-cost labor, has resulted in America's decline as wealthier, lower labor cost competitors have bested America on the playing field where it thought it could play.  And yeah, on some level, "get more education" might just be trying to counter force with force.  Yeah, get more education, but do it wisely.

Although, as I continually say, I stand with the folks who decry economic exploitation, I want to caution those working for peace and justice against adopting a narrative set either by those in power ("lift yourself up by your bootstraps- just work harder!") or those who are acting only out of their visceral reaction to those doing the exploiting ("hey, we're getting shafted, let's take it back!.") Armchair Marxists never succeed because although they've got the diagnosis right, they don't understand the treatment. 

It is true that even in crappy economic times economic successes can emerge by "borrowing the power" of the prevailing conditions to create new conditions that allow one to achieve an advantage: Google really came into being in the aftermath of the dot-com crash, for example.   That doesn't mean that therefore one should adopt a form of capitalist engagement that is savage, but it does mean that there are "openings" to be found if one is aware, and if one is also aware and disciplined, one might be able to help all beings.

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