Fata morgana, or the mirage of a free and open market

Saturday, 08 March, Year 6 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

I narrowly missed not having a college degree at all.

On the strength of my highschool academic record I had been accepted (with ex-officio A's) in the local university'si physics dept. We ended up in a contention over paperwork which was litigated and eventually settled out of court. I never was one much impressed by the assorted pretense and bottled farts of the academic calling, and by the age of 18 I had already a lengthy experience and entrenched habit of people shutting the fuck up when I opened my mouth, being driven around by people twice my age, calling the shots and generally being the boss. Now imagine something like that in the freshman programme of a public university... The guns are coming out, yo!

My mother couldn't put up with the notion of the smartest mind my family line ever produced also being the first without a college degree, and so she started a great search which eventually resulted in my dual (philosophy, anthropology) degree. She found Achim Mihu's pocket university, and it fit like a glove. I'm not going to say much more about that for another two or three decades, but suffice it to point out that my mother is indeed a wise woman.

I tell you this as an introduction to pointing out that there's a very limited pool of smart people, and of that very limited pool there's in turn an even more limited pool of people who can actually do anything at all. Many if not most smart people are utterly useless, much in the manner a blade that can cut anything is perfectly useless.ii It is in this sense that I mean the observation that the very point of even having superior education in the first place is to serve the peaks. If, out of the smartest 10`000 kids out of any one generation you manage to educate 9`990 and fail to serve ten, you've not necessarily done much of a good jobiii. It all depends on whether those ten were the bottom ten or the top ten, because if they were the bottom ten their value is pretty much upper bound by the average of the 9`990, but if they are the top ten their value is not upper bound. At all. It is lower bound, by the same average, but that really makes very little difference.

Consider the problem in the perspective of Maciej Ceglowski :

Consider 17th century Flanders, the Golden Age of hacking oil painting. The cumulative population of Flanders over the century beginning in 1600 was around one million people, yet this tiny piece of Europe produced enough virtuoso painters to fill a phone book. The paintings made during the Dutch Golden Age are still unsurpassed.

The same thing happened in the Harlem Renaissance, and the Scottish Enlightenment, and in lots of other times and places. A tiny population of creators would spring out of nowhere and leave us with some of the greatest content in human history.

New Zealand has around four million people, which means by this reckoning the country should have four Rembrandts. So where are they? Where is the Wellington Socrates?

Where does this talent hide in more normal times? Is it just there all the time, going to waste, or is there some alchemy that creates it when conditions are right?

It's a big mystery, and one we've never solved, no matter what Malcolm Gladwell says. That's why we keep having these moments of hope every time a technology demolishes barriers to creativity. Maybe this will be the big one! Maybe Songsmith really will make everyone's life a musical!

So : I'll tell you exactly where they're hidden, and why, and what to do about it. They're hidden in plain sight, and they're hidden because the public services are designed with the public in mind, whereas the peaks are emphatically not the public. So they create their little private countries where public services work properly, even if the country is no larger than a bar and the public service mostly consists of ethanol.

In these terms, the hope isn't that "a technology demolishes barriers to creativity", the hope is simply that technology will allow such private countries to thrive, and more importantly, to be communicated to the rest of you. Like Bitcoin, for instance, the great appeal of Bitcoin isn't that any derp anywhere can easier buy soda on credit. There's no consumer credit in Bitcoin, nor is the derp level transaction in any way contemplated or considered.

The great appeal of Bitcoin is that unlike the BBU, it actually gets MP sufficiently interested to make his MP-empire a matter of public record, and publicly accessible. What a university in a quasi-monopolistic position and with wide cultural support couldn't accomplish, what the BBU to its detriment failed to accomplish, Bitcoin has managed just fine, and the importance of this couldn't possibly be overstated : if the entire world of gods and goddesses were to hang on the other side of the ring, Zeus could still easily, effortlessly throw them across the fucking skies.

It's what it is, like it or not : the only people that matter in the world, and indeed the only people worthy of the term, and the only good reason to expend any resources at all, and any and all resources available are the Rembrandts of this world. And, of course, their mothers.

So now, what to do about it ? I'm going to tell you in the next article.

  1. Babes-Bolyai, ex Ferdinand, a well respected public uni in Cluj, Romania, ranked 601+ by QS and #1 in the country. It's going to be a century old in a few years, has enrollment in the 50k range, about 1500 or so faculty and a hundred or two million dollars' worth of endowments. []
  2. What the fuck are you going to handle it with ? []
  3. A link to the English version is available towards the bottom. Joel Spolsky. []
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5 Responses

  1. gini lester`s avatar
    gini lester 
    Saturday, 8 March 2014

    I look forward to learning more, and meeting the 2 Rembrandts.

    Thank you.

  2. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    Mircea Popescu 
    Saturday, 8 March 2014

    Hey, me too.

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