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# Genius and the Tin Standard

by Daniel M. Ryan
by Daniel M. Ryan

You haven't really lived until you've seen the smartest fella in the room being shown up by a person with an I.Q. score near to Einstein's. I have to add that, if you yourself are favored with an I.Q. score enough to qualify you for Mensa, being shown up in this way is character-building. These three examples will prepare you for the experience:

1. The Josephus Problem. 41 people agree to a suicide pact in which every third man is killed, until there's no-one left who qualifies for death. Which two would be left standing? You reach for your favorite means of calculation only to see someone blurt out, "assuming that the first person killed is #3, then the sixteenth and the thirty-first man would be left standing." Everyone else who heard that someone looks goggle-eyed when the presenter announces that that is the correct solution.
2. The Bridge of Königsberg Problem. Is it possible for someone to draw a line that crosses all seven bridges in the supplied diagram? Out you bring your pen and paper. When they're ready for deployment, someone buttonholes you and says, "no. The number of bridges has to be even." A few mental stabs and one attempt later, you concede that the buttonholer was right about the "no" and might as well be trusted with the rest.
3. The Bland Grid. This puzzle faces you:

You're allowed to form the word "BLAND" through any five-letter sequence in the grid: the line connecting the letters may be straight or crooked, but the B-L-A-N-Ds which make up the word must be next to each other. You can use each letter in the grid more than once. How many BLANDs can you get out of this puzzle?

After beginning to dig in, a standoffish someone shambles up to you and says "sixty-four." His ease inclines you to work it out mentally, through breaking the problem down into subgroups. At the end of your workout, which ends with a feat of mental arithmetic that you'd be quite proud of in other circumstances, you say "right." It comes out in exactly the same tone that the professor of Britonomics did at the end of Thornton Melon's cram-oral exam in the climax of Back To School.*

What enables someone with a genius-plus I.Q. range — for this paragraph's purpose, about 170 or more — to solve problems like these so effortlessly? The best guess I can come up with is that they have a facility to deal with three levels of abstraction, whereas normal human beings are confined to two. Instead of intuitively classifying using genus and differentia, they classify using family, genus and differentia. To use an Aristotelian example: normal humans understand the objective-universe axiom as "existence exists," but someone with a genius-plus I.Q. score needs it in the form "existence exists existentially" to get its point. A few ostensibly garbled works of ontology tip their hand with respect to this mental knack.

I have to add that this hunch is only my own, as far as I know: it has no scientific backing. I got it from asking myself what could a facility with puzzles of this sort, and a writing habit of stringing together subordinate clauses as if they were single words, have in common. If you want to see examples of that style of writing, you'll find some in the webbed back issues of the journal of the Mega Society, a club for those with I.Q.s of approximately 175 or greater.

Whatever their mental acumen is, it is sufficiently noticeable to make people in the 170-or-more I.Q. range extraordinarily susceptible to two beliefs: eugenics, in which the superior slot is (of course) filled by them, and group self-pity, which is sealed in through them being treated as freaks by the rest of humanity. The end result is an odd combination: Darwinistic pathos. A group of people, so the story goes, who can make the "best and the brightest" look plainly stupid have been shot out of the socio-political mainstream. They could be doing so much for humanity, if they were "socially" encouraged through government support, but they're not, so we all lose. This is, so the story continues, one of the unfairnesses of life. Until the government steps in and remedies the posited "root inequity," the posited lose-lose situation will continue. The more politically hip in this circuit compare funding for gifted kids to funds disbursed to aid students with disabilities, which makes the former seem both "underfunded" and socially disabled. Examples of lobby efforts for the sake of intellectually gifted children can be found here.

It is a shame to see a bunch of academically gifted kids being used as beggars' 'swounds. Rather than being neglected, the gifted circuit has a certain freedom of action that the regular school network lacks. The trick in seeing why is to realize that government and passivity always go together, except in times of war. Thus beginneth the lesson unit:

Government attempts to outcompete the free part of the economy and society have been tried for as long as there has been government; for whatever fashionable rationale, the package of force and "protection" is often considered to be a better motivator than incentives and voluntarism. Unfortunately for such attempts, a comparison of government performance and private-sector performance has, when all relevant factors are journaled, proven to be embarrassing for government. Once the "failure analyses" have been performed, it is revealed that government, in order not to sully its prestige, had better find an area where the private sector can't go. Such a shift is economically rational for proponents of government because it makes the big bad auditor-analyst go away. Thus, government and monopoly, and secrecy for both, have a natural affiliation.

In the United States, government "action," outside of war, is confined to two spheres. The first is an answer to a call of "need," as communicated by pressure groups; the second is attempts to "make America Number One again." If foreign ingenuity, whether in vivo or in Potemeko, reaches the major organs of the United States media and shocks "the public," the second sphere is rolled out. For government programs in the first category, the needy have a correspondent duty to stay needy, unless a "circular flow of need" exists. Otherwise, the nice government official will be obligated to pound the pavement and will end up discovering that bureaucrats are perceived to have a special need for marketable skills. This would make many of them feel bad. So, a socially astute need case is inclined to conclude that staying on the need rolls is the optimal solution. It helps both the relevant client group and the friendly bureaucrats who administer the funds and rules for their benefit. And so life goes until someone discovers the connection between need and passivity.

As far as the second category is concerned, it doesn't require a group of passive petitioners, ones who are passive except for petitioning, to keep it functioning. Unfortunately it does require two factors to both start it up and keep it rolling: the United States being shown up by another country and a large segment of the United States public interpreting it as such. Sputnik fit both criteria; the current foreign space programs do not. Thus, the politically good times for the bright physicist back in the late 1950s and most of the 1960s are not around now. Since programs of this sort are both performance-based and have a definable end to them, placing your hopes for government money and prestige on this kind of program is as risky as finding and using an arbitrage-based moneymaking system for the stock market. These only get you what you want if the tide is flowing your way: once it shifts, even King Canute (or "King Fed") can't bring back the profit flow. And, as far as the effectiveness of government challenge programs are concerned, there still is that pesky private sector, which has to be smacked down every now and then.

If both of these options are unsatisfying, then the only alternative is war preparedness. Being all that you can be through figuring out why the battlemetric models of the past weren't good enough and how to improve them, or through finding an especially neat way of enabling the combat troops to kill people more efficaciously. If holding the beggar's bowl is too much for your pride, and the need for challenge programs is just not there, then your only choice, if you want sinecure-quality government help, is to apply your fine mind to "Roads of Baghdad"-style puzzles. That's the only permanent government-guaranteed use for the very bright, except for those who master the knack of whatever passes for collegiality in the academy without getting gulled or shafted (‘"Go" to Gone') in the process.

When all of the above factors are considered, being supposedly shut out of the supposed government cornucopia is not that much of a deficit after all — it can be quite liberating. Acceleration issues mean nada in the homeschooling circuit, where every child's expected to be a self-starting child. There is a time-proven homeschooling kit which covers every grade level, from kindergarten to grade 12, at a price cheaper than a single unabridged copy of Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica (even a used one) costs. There are also lots of homeschoolers already, and they tend to be appreciative, not jealous or envious, of academic prize-winners from their ranks.

As far as wealth is concerned, there is one huge field — computer programming — with a lot of bright people who still admire mental acumen as well as earnings potential. The old-fashioned ones, at the very least, still admire mental fireworks of any sort, even of mastery of puzzles. As a result, there is a lot less pressure in the private-sector bright circuit to acquire a money-loving heart than you might assume. Bill Gates is still an embarrassment/joke in some computer-programmer social circles, but unlike the typical politico, whether Republican, Democrat, or intellectual, he just shrugs it off. There is a blessed easygoingness for the "severely gifted" in the private sector, which only evaporates when someone becomes severely competitive. All it takes to merit respect is a performance ethos, which is interpreted quite broadly: even cracking a math conjecture, or Internet peer tutoring, qualifies. The reputed "get-up-off-your-donkey" circuit, rumored to be prevalent, is actually quite scarce, and is confined to politicos who are easy to avoid in private-sector-land if you're small. It's easy to be liked, unless you yourself are pegged as a politico, or as a backtalker, or as both. The intersection between the two categories is something akin to "hypocrite."

If, unfortunately, this kind of life don't satisfy because the prestige level is low, then there's only one alternative to reclaiming "parity prestige": cultivating a martial mindset. This attitude was the base of the prestige of the "rocket scientist" ‘way back then. Here's what it takes to win yer prestige: concentration upon the armory, the whole armory, and nothing but the armory. This implies that the heights are reached by figuring out better ways of killing or capturing people who your government has deemed to be the enemy — who sometimes are your fellow citizens. (A relevant study unit.) Diplomats, as well as non-combat analysts, very much have to live with this ethos too: both are seen by the war implementers as something akin to the towel boy. Any professional diplomat has to accept it as part of the job.

Thus, if you place your hopes for security in the hands of government, then it's either the Sword or the Cross (or its secularized equivalent in this context). As noted above, mendicancy is part of the latter way. Thanks to that attribute, the academy is not the safe haven it might appear, although academic dependence does normally take the form of academic jealousy, not of academic beggary. There's also a certain kind of tunnel vision required with respect to political issues, a burden that all pressure groups have to assume. Free is just another word for "then you're washing the dishes instead. So get to it or it's hustling taxi driver tips for you." You have to either adapt to this kind of pressure or learn to love "Kambodia Kill."

Far better to cogitate over the implications of an old puzzle cracked by none other than Murray N. Rothbard: Buridan's Ass. It goes like so:

This is the fable of the ass who stands, hungry, equidistant from two equally attractive bales of hay, or, thirsty, equidistant from two water holes. Since the two bales or water holes are equally attractive in every way, the ass can choose neither one and must therefore starve. This example is supposed to prove the great relevance of indifference to action and to be an indication of the way that indifference is revealed in action. Compounding confusion, Schumpeter refers to this ass as "perfectly rational."

[I]t is of course difficult to conceive of an ass or a person that could be less rational. He is confronted not with two choices, but with three, the third being to starve where he is. Even on the indifferentists' own grounds, this third choice will be ranked lower than the other two on the actor's value scale. He will not choose starvation.

Or so we "assume."

* The correct answer is 60.

July 29, 2006

Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian whose reach sometimes exceeds his grasp. He is currently working on a book on Objectivism.