The generalist’s stone: a stable mind

My header describes me as a “generalist.”

Of course I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. It’s not one of these words I’m always trying to define here at UR. If you’re going to engage in the arcane and onanistic sport of coinage, you should at least have the common decency to always counterfeit and never redefine, and this is one of the few rhetorical rules I even try to respect. And all kinds of people use the word “generalist” to mean all kinds of weird-ass things.

For example, as a system software man I am a “generalist.” All this means is that I’m not an expert in anything. I have failed at various tasks in OS research, 2D graphics, language design and runtime systems, kernel networking, standards crap, and the absolute, absolute worst—cell-phone browsers. The only thing I’ve really learned is that system software sucks, and I’m not at all sure why.

And I’m utterly unqualified for 99% of the programming jobs in the world. So if the word “generalist” is interpreted literally in any context, I am not a generalist at all. Not only do I not know Perl, Javascript or even Java, I have no knowledge at all of aerodynamics, zymurgy, or most of the things in between.

So clearly, since the word is useful and I’ve already started using it, I need another definition.

One way to be a generalist is to have—or at least asymptotically approach—what I call a “stable mind.” A stable mind is one that need not revise itself on receiving new information, defined as anything anyone else has ever known. (This is as opposed to a closed mind, which may need to revise itself—but doesn’t.)

For example, suppose some awful computer error granted me an infinite security clearance, and I could read all the secret files of the United States. Worse, suppose I had infinite time to do it in. Suppose I could even read George W. Bush’s mind. Would my opinion of the entire circus that is Washington, DC change? I’m probably wrong, but I’d like to think not.

Or suppose, like Stendhal, I could join the Grand Army on the retreat from Moscow. Due perhaps to some ingenious time machine. Would this alter my opinion of the human condition? Suppose I then worked as a taxi driver in present-day Cairo, went straight from there to the Reichsbank in 1936 where I was private secretary to Hjalmar Schacht, hauled nets on a shrimp boat out of Galveston in the fifties, served as a district officer in the ICS under Lord Lytton, studied Byzantine law in Constantinople sometime in the late 1200s, ran the catering for Mansa Musa’s hajj in 1324, apprenticed as a goldsmith in 18th-century Salonica, learned poetry from Yvor Winters in 1967, and fought as a captain in the Rhodesian SAS for most of the late ’70s?

Obviously, I have not had any of these experiences and, barring some really impressive videogame technology, am unlikely to have anything like them. However, I’d like to think that if this were not the case, adding them to my present fund of experience would not change much (and need not change much) of how I see the world. Again, I’m probably wrong about this. But I feel it’s at least worth trying to be right.

There is a feeling you sometimes get off people who, not at present but in the way past, used to be extremely heavy stoners. Serious connoisseurs of mind-altering everything. And who have since given it up for mere reality—but still, you feel, if they were walking down the street and a Triceratops suddenly materialized in front of them, they would remark, “oh, a Triceratops.”

And do, I don’t know, whatever you do when you have to deal with a Triceratops. Fend it off with a stick or something. But the point of being a generalist is this: that you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like being surprised. So you try and order your surprises in advance.

How many people were surprised, for example, when the Soviet Union collapsed? I would say this event and its aftermath changed a lot of peoples’ minds in quite unexpected ways. Especially if said people lived in the Soviet Union.

I am going out on a long limb here, I know, but I think a lot of people in the West may one day be rather similarly surprised. Most people in the West don’t think their entire system of government is fundamentally, irreparably corrupt. Nor did most people in the Soviet Union.

Or at least that’s what I think. But then again, I never lived in the Soviet Union. I’m sure at least one or two readers did—and perhaps they’ll be so kind as to contradict me.