Yes, rich kids already won the career game. Here’s why.

Americans like to believe that the modern workplace, like school, is a meritocracy. Sure, some people have a lot of money and don’t have to work, but Americans prefer to believe that, among those who do work, side-by-side in the same environment, it’s a fair competition. To their chagrin, they observe that their co-workers from wealthy backgrounds advance three times as fast, and wonder what the hell is going on. Why does one person, no more skilled than any of his co-workers, advance so effortlessly because of who his daddy is?

I don’t intend to insinuate that companies or managers are knowingly being elitist. No company or manager would intentionally give favor to one who has already enjoyed so many external advantages, especially if that person’s level of talent did not merit it. People in offices are out for themselves, not trying to preserve (or to combat) the social status quo. Rather, this is a subconscious and irresistible force, and it comes from one root cause: rich kids don’t fear the boss. That’s extremely important.

Consider two analysts at a prestigious financial firm, both 24 years old and of equal drive, intelligence, and talent. One is from a double-income family in suburban Connecticut earning $125,000 per year– a decent sum by average standards, but less than the analysts hope to be making by 26. The other’s father is a hedge fund manager earning $10 million per year. Let’s also assume, for now, that none of their co-workers or managers know either analyst’s family background, except through their behavior. The middle-class kid spends the bulk of his time trying not to offend, not to behave in a way that might jeopardize the job he worked so hard to get and could not easily replace if he lost it. He doesn’t invite himself to meetings, avoids contact with high-ranking executives, and doesn’t offer suggestions when in meetings. Thanks to the fear he experiences on a daily basis, he’s seen as “socially awkward” and “mousy” by higher-ups. Nothing recommends him, and he will not advance.

Middle-class kids generally fuck up their first few years of the career game in one of two ways. Either they fear authority tremendously, which is crippling from a career perspective and renders them devoid of creative energy, or they show an open distaste for managerial authority, described by the wealthy as having a proletarian “chip” on one’s shoulder, and fail to advance on account of the dislike they thus inspire. Even when they are cognitively aware of how to manage authority, the stakes of the career game for a middle-class striver, who will fall into humiliation and possibly poverty if he fails it, are so severe that only the well-trained and steel-nerved few can prevent these calamitously high risks from, at least to some degree, disrupting their game.

The rich kid, on the other hand, relates even to the highest-ranking executives as equals, because he knows that they are his social equals. He’ll answer to them, but with an understanding that his subordination is limited and offered in exchange for mentoring and protection. He views them as partners and colleagues, not judges or potential adversaries. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but most of his bosses like this. (Most bosses aren’t assholes and don’t like to be feared, at all. In fact, they’d be happy to forget that they are bosses.) His career advances fast. He’s “up and coming”. This occurs even if no one has any idea that he’s from a wealthy background.

The rich kid, fearless on account of not needing to keep his job, can effortlessly walk the middle path. He’s neither a cowering weakling who crumbles at the sight of authority, nor an obnoxious brat whose sense of entitlement and dislike for managerial authority limit his progress prematurely. He respects others and himself and has an uncanny air of effortless “coolness” (by which I mean freedom from anxiety) that enables him to actually get things done. It becomes common knowledge that he’s “up-and-coming”, a rising star in his company. Even if his performance is smack-average or somewhat below, his effortless rise will not be deterred. It is assumed. With that advantage, he can concentrate on actually getting work done, yet another uncommon advantage.

This “middle path” between self-defeat and entitled arrogance is narrow– a tightrope, metaphorically speaking. It is, I should note, of equal width and tension for both rich and poor. There is no intentional preference given to one class over the other. The difference is that children of wealth traverse it at a height of one meter over a mattress, while the middle-class and poor traverse it at a height of 20 meters over a lava pit.

Thus, I have described the inevitable advantages the children of wealth hold in the career game. This assumes that there is no knowledge of their economic standing. The rich kid, even when no one knows that he is rich, still wins. He has the right air about him, and the same freedom from anxiety and free-flowing creative energy of a college student because, for him, college (i.e. the time of life in which most middle-class peoples’ lives peak) never ended. His entry-level job is not a place of stress, but a continuation of school; a place where he can learn and grow.

If the employees’ economic situations were known, it might be expected that some advantage would be conferred to the industrious “striver” from the middle class. In practice, this isn’t really true. While the worst scions of wealth, rich brats as seen in documentaries like Born Rich, disgust people and generally negate the advantages conferred by their social capital; the majority of rich kids who are well-behaved and decent are valued more highly when their circumstances are discovered. In practice, one finds that people would rather gain the connections and favors available to the rich than satisfy any small sense of altruism by extending benefits to the hard-working middle and lower classes.

What’s more, the attitude shown to the wealthy in the workplace is one of appreciation. Consider the example above, of two fairly identical analysts in a high-stress financial job, and assume that their familial economic standings are known (as is usually the case). The middle-class analyst is assumed to be there because he likes the money. This doesn’t endear him to anyone, and if he asks his boss why he isn’t getting his way in project allocation or career advancement, he can be given a reply like, “That’s why we pay you the big bucks.” (If he responds justly to that comment and makes its issuer a better person, he’ll be summarily fired and, if this action earns him a reputation, unemployable.)  Such an insulting reply, except with gauche irony, would never be given to his counterpart, if his economic standing were known. By contrast, as it’s known that the rich kid has no need to work, he is appreciated for doing so. He is assumed (unlike the middle-class striver) to have a strong work ethic just because he shows up sober to work every day. He doesn’t have to go over the top to establish that he has a decent work ethic; that he is working at a level of reliability taken for granted from his middle-class counterparts is taken to prove his work ethic and stamina.

This advantage held by the wealthy, more prominent on the East Coast and outside of technology, is nearly impossible to compete against in most companies. I wouldn’t advise a person even to try. “Faking rich” is going to lead a person to seem pathetic and materialistic, not refined and free of anxiety. Moreover, feigning the cavalier attitude toward executive authority that rich kids hold effortless is very dangerous if one lacks the requisite social skills. Overdone, it can lead quickly to the unemployment line.

For the individual, I can offer no personal solution to this deep sociological problem. As far as I know, there’s none. I would advise those who are sufficiently talented to work in technology, which tends to be more meritocratic than other industries, and to avoid old-style business. Beyond that, I know of no solution.

So why did I write this essay, if I can offer no solution? First, it’s because I believe my generation will overthrow the arbitrary and brutal authority of corporate capitalism and bigoted conservatism in favor of rationalistic, libertarian socialism driven by a scientific approach and a concern for universal social justice, and I want to encourage this to happen. If I raise awareness of a defective and unfair situation, perhaps I can encourage people to change it. Second: although this is one of corporate capitalism’s milder flaws, leading a multitude to moderate disappointment but with little-to-no acute danger or loss of life, a rising awareness of the career game’s unfairness might result in less energy wasted, across the whole of society, attempting to ascend the proverbial “corporate ladder”. Establishing that a gambling house provides only rigged games is the first step toward depriving it of players, and therefore setting in motion the first stages of its destruction.

Fscking Ace: a simple, depraved gambling game.

Fscking Ace is a simple game of cards. It’s not highly skillful or deep, but it’s fun and twisted. As this is a gambling game with wide swings, I’d recommend not playing at the specified increment of $1, unless one has an appetite for risk. For low-stakes “fun games”, divide dollar amounts by 100, playing with pennies instead of dollars, or decide that they are “points” that count for bragging rights only.

Disclaimer: I’ve never played this game for money. I probably never will. I’m not much of a gambler and, at any rate, a good dealer doesn’t taste his own poison.

Number of players: This can be played with 3 or more players. Use a double-deck if there are 6 or more players, a triple deck if there are 11 or more, and so on.

The deck: The pack contains 48 cards: all diamonds, clubs, and hearts, the Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 of spades, and two jokers. The colored joker is the $10 joker; the other is the $5 joker. (Mark one if they are identical.) If a double deck is used, then remove one Ace of Spades, leaving 95 cards. Remove two Aces of Spades from a triple deck, forming a pack of 142.

Optional: when using multiple decks, players may wish to remove the extra 2’s, because these “doublers” magnify wins and losses. With more than one deck in play and lots of doublers, the potential for catastrophic loss or enormous gains (each being the other, given the game’s zero-sum nature) is substantial.

Starting a round: Choose first dealer using the most distasteful mechanism you can come up with (highest or lowest salary, who can tell the most offensive joke, highest or lowest number of previous sexual partners). Or just draw lots. Whatever works. Dealer shuffles the pack and places an unused card (such as an unused spade) under it, making it impossible for any player to see, by accident, what’s on the bottom.

Playing a turn: Turns begin at the dealer’s left and progress clockwise at the beginning of the round. (Play order may be reversed, as described below.) Each player, on his turn, must turn over at least one card. If it’s a spade, his turn ends. Otherwise, he may keep turning over cards, until drawing a spade, or he may decide at any point to end his turn. If he chooses to end his turn, he scores the cards turned up. Most cards are worth $1, but the jokers are worth $5 and $10. If he draws a spade, he scores nothing for that turn and it ends.

For example, a player who drew, for his first four cards, 7♦-4♣-K♣-$5Jo, would score $8 for that round if he decided to stop. The joker is worth $5 and the other cards are $1. If he drew again and caught a spade, he’d score $0 for that round. The cards drawn by him that turn would be discarded, and his turn would end.

The red twos, if drawn and scored, are worth $1 base but also double the values of regular (non-Joker) cards that one has scored (from $1 to $2, $2 to $4, and so on). Twos of clubs are worth $1 but double the values of jokers that one has scored. (If multiple decks are used, they compound. For example, three 2♣’s makes a $10 joker worth $80.)

If a player’s turn is ended by a 2♠, he keeps it (as if it were scored) instead of discarding it. If he loses the round, his losses will be doubled. Also, when a player’s turn is ended by a 7♠, the order of play reverses (from clockwise to counter-clockwise, or vice versa). The 3, 4, 5, and 6 of spades have no special effect.

Ace of Spades, ending the round: If a player turns up the Ace of Spades, the round ends immediately. That player becomes the loser of the round, hence the name “Fscking Ace”.

The loser pays each player for the cards they have scored, plus an additional $1, to each player. A bonus of $5*N, where N is the number of players, is given to the player who scored the most cards. (In a tie, this bonus is divided among the tied players.) Due to Jokers and doublers, this is not necessarily the person who scored the most money.

The person who would have played after the one drawing the A♠ will open play in the next round. There is no ending condition other than peoples’ continuing willingness to play this evil, evil game.

Deism: why I’m neither a Christian nor an atheist

As a humanist and rationalist, I value reason highly; but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about death (my own, as well as the abstraction) and the matter of afterlife, about which reason alone can tell us little. Science has answered many of humanity’s most pressing questions, but death is a boundary it has not been able to cross. What I believe happens after death (reincarnation) shall be delayed to another post, as shall my views on whether humanity should eliminate aging and death (transhumanism) when it develops the ability to do so. I am, instead, going to talk about religion.

Perhaps it’s not polite to admit such a thing, but I like some religions a lot better than others. Buddhists, Quakers, Unitarians, secular humanists, and the most liberal quarter of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam)? All on my good side. Islamic fundamentalists and Christian evangelicals? Not so much. This is especially relevant in 2011, as a perverted, arch-conservative, anti-intellectual and uncannily mean-spirited strain of Christianity threatens to drag the United States of America back into medieval barbarism, and places much of the world in danger of unjust military action or invasion. The “conservative” strain of modern religion is inherently anti-rational, racist, misogynistic, reactionary, and anti-humanist. Christopher Hitchens is right about it: it poisons everything. Spirituality is one of humanity’s best attributes, but religion, when abused, can be toxic.

I’ll jump, abruptly, to a more positive and personal topic: what I believe. It’s awkward for me to say that “I believe in God” because I simply don’t believe in any of the anthropomorphic gods that humanity has invented. All three thousand (or so) of them are ridiculous cartoon characters, and most of them are assholes of whom I’ll say that I’m very glad that they (almost certainly) don’t exist. I wouldn’t like it, for example, if a woman I cared about were raped by Zeus. I do, however, believe in a Divine Spirit. I only use the word “God” because that is the language I was born with, and I use “him” by convention only, as I doubt highly that God has a gender. Still, I will say it: I believe in God. Or, more to the point, I believe in divinity. I believe there is an existent and accessible consciousness of pure love and wisdom that is most right, calm, and peaceful, and that we, through billions of years of biological evolution and spiritual transmigration (rebirth), are moving toward it. We are not “saved” or “damned” based on a few actions or our beliefs over one 80-year interval. We move a little bit forward or backward with every thought and action. We are eternal, but constantly in flux, and every moment counts.

What is God? God is a consciousness that we can experience, if we’re willing to listen. He gave us (and possibly some other animals) a bit of consciousness that enables us to unleash immense creativity, beauty, wisdom, compassion, love, and goodness. Quakers call it the “inner light”; Buddhists have a number of names for different aspects of it– the inner teacher, the heart chakra, Buddha-nature. God may not seem, in this depiction, like a single (or atomic) being at all, but “he” is, in my estimation, far more “atomic” and unified than we are. The notion we have of ourselves as atomic beings is a comfortable illusion, but quite false. The person I was at 6 has been replaced entirely by someone very different from him. We’re constantly in flux, innately interdependent, and utterly doomed to abrupt and jarring changes in the future (including, most notably, the inexorable failure of one body and rebirth into another.)

I believe that it is reasonable to believe in God and the likelihood of an afterlife. Evidence for reincarnation is strong (although not strong enough yet, in my opinion as well those of most researchers leading such work, to be called “proof”) and the experience of divinity recommends a spiritual nature to this world. I also believe it is acceptable and right to apply rationality to matters of divinity and religion, something that mainstream Christians find hubristic and arrogant; they tend to believe God is “beyond mere reason”. Why do I believe this? Because reason is one of the greatest gifts God has given us, and “he” has created a world which rewards rationality and compassion while punishing ignorance severely. If God is reasonable, he wants us to use, rather than reject, reason and science.

God also created, I’ll observe, a world in which it is equally possible for a reasonable and good person to believe in him or not to believe in him. Some of the best and most brilliant people believe in a God; and some of the best and brightest people are agnostics and atheists. In my 27 years, I’ve discovered no correlation at all between being a good person and believing in a God.

This leads to my first and most major beef with evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity: their contention that non-believers are “wayward souls” and, if not converted, will be sent to eternal torture in hell. I believe it is wrong, and I find that someone could wish for such a thing to be utterly heinous. A supernatural being who would provide only subjective evidence (and only to some people) of his existence, then subject some of his best children to eternal torture for the “crime” of not believing in his existence, is not a compassionate and just God but a pervert and a monster. (I am more flawed, and therefore more likely to be arrogant and spiteful, than God and I will readily volunteer that if you do not know of or believe in my existence, I wish absolutely no harm upon you.)  Thankfully, I’m almost entirely certain that no such beast exists. Rather, he was made up by authoritarians who invented a bigoted god in their own image: someone powerful who hates all the same people (atheists, homosexuals, liberals) they do.

The matter of hateful and depraved religion is depressing and deeply divisive, but it’s an important issue. The worst elements of Christianity are a dominant force in American politics, and a deadly one that threatens the future of the world. This is because the conservative strains of the leading religions are utterly nihilistic and positively seek the world’s destruction. Take the Christian variety of this attitude that is seen in American conservatism. It believes that this world is a disgusting and sinful place, one that will be swept away by an angry God at the Last Judgment, and one whose destruction and replacement should be brought on as soon as possible. They actively work, as seen in their disgusting politics, to bring this catastrophe about. Universal healthcare is useless toward the goal of bringing about the End Times, but violence in the Middle East? It’s required. This perverse goal, of course, is about as anti-humanist as it gets. For a note, much of the support for the idiotic and atrocious war still being fought in Iraq came from those who wished to bring violence to Mesopotamia in order to bring about the End Times and the Rapture, allowing the “faithful” a blissful escape from this world while the rest of us (“Left Behind”) perish in misery. If that is not a depraved and just plain fucking evil ideology, I don’t know what is.

I don’t believe this world is all there is, but we’re in it and will be for a long time, and God wants us to treat it well. It’s a gift from him, not some sin-stained ball of mud he wants us to destroy in order to set the stage for a divine hissy-fit.

There are, of course, plenty of great, brilliant Christians. And the same applies to Islam and every other religious tradition. Although I respect the best strains of these faiths, I do not share their beliefs, as I reject revealed religion and miracles. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one miracle: us. Consciousness, that is. While it’s entirely possible that complex robots with powerful computation centers, such as humans, could evolve through materialistic processes, I find nothing in science alone that explains consciousness or existence. Biology, chemistry, and physics explain the world quite well. They don’t explain why we, as conscious beings, exist at all, much less are in it. But we do, and we are. That, I believe, is probably the only miracle that occurred, and it’s the only one we need.

Balls, a 3-player trick-taking card game

I’ve been looking for a great three-player trick-taking card game for a while. I designed Ambition, a four-player trick-taking card game, back in 2003. I believe Ambition’s one of the best playing card games out there, but it scales quite poorly. It works best with exactly four players, but not well with three. So, if nothing else, I need something to play when a fourth for Ambition is unavailable.

Skat I found appealing in concept, but loaded with a bit of cruft. I wanted to improve it or, better yet, develop a brand-new three-player trick-taking card game. Throughout December 2010 and January 2011, I spent much of my spare time play-testing a brand new (and, in my opinion, quite good) game of cards. It’s called Balls, and the rules can be found here.

Programming, like writing, gets harder as you get better.

Writing’s hard. I don’t think anyone who has done it and taken it seriously, whether in creative fiction or in precise, technical nonfiction, disagrees with this claim. What makes it either very difficult or endlessly rewarding, depending on one’s perspective, is that it remains challenging as one progresses, because one’s increasing competency is paced equally with, if not outpaced by, escalating standards to which one’s own work is held. Many of the millions of wannabe novelists out there believe that the reason they haven’t written (or even started) “their novel” is because that first novel is just too damn hard. Most writers would say that, although it’s the hardest to sell, the first novel is actually the easiest to write. No reputation is at risk, the first novel is expected to be mediocre, and most importantly, one’s own intense self-criticism hasn’t set in, at least not in full force, yet. From what I’m told by experienced authors, writing never gets easier, even for the immensely talented and skilled. One notable exception to this exists, and it’s those who are writing only to make money and who have consciously decided to make writing purely a matter of economic optimization. As far as I’m concerned, such people don’t qualify as writers, but that’s another topic for another time.

Programming is similar. Performing specific tasks, obviously, becomes easier as a programmer’s competency grows, but good programmers don’t want only to “solve the problem”. They want to solve the problem correctly, which entails writing code that is generally useful, extensible, and of high aesthetic quality. The code should not be needlessly slow, complicated, or brittle, even if those concerns are irrelevant to the immediate use case (e.g. an inefficient algorithm may be acceptable on small data sets, but is intolerable in code that might be expected to scale to larger inputs). “Kludges”– inelegant solutions– and “anti-patterns”, such as busy-waiting to implement an event loop, that may be acceptable to a novice programmer trying to just get a program working, become embarrassments to intermediate programmers and intolerable for experts.

Definitions of good programming often diverge, as well. In the 1960s, self-modifying, clever and fast assembly code might be considered “good”, as it solved hard problems at record speed, although it would be opaque to anyone required to maintain it in the future. The scope of an average program was smaller than it is today, and a large project written in such a style would likely be discarded if major revisions were required by anyone other than the writer of the original code. In the 2010s, such unmaintainable code would hardly be considered good code, even if it were 20% faster than a more maintainable alternative. Then again, such may be perfectly acceptable code if generated by a compiler, as humans rarely read the machine or assembly code their compilers create.

Though there is no strong consensus on what constitutes good code, it’s a matter on which many programmers are immensely opinionated. It has to work, obviously, but that’s setting a low bar. Even the worst programmers can make software “work” according to a minimal specification, given enough time and allowance for inelegance; but the code of a bad or even mediocre programmer is often so unpleasant to read, use, and maintain that it inspires a gnawing and universal desire to throw it all out and start anew.

For my part, I would say that a good programmer must be a good teacher. The code and documentation should be instructive of how the code is to be used, and how each component works. Ideally, programmers would develop in such a manner that the function of every line of code is self-evident, due both to the innate clarity of the language (a virtue of, say, OCaml) and the quality of documentation. In practice, most managers will never budget sufficient time to make this a reality, but it’s what software engineers should aim for when they can.

Here we venture into the thicket of aesthetics, where every rule has exceptions that must be learned through practice, and where “known unknowns”– matters on which one knows of one’s lack of knowledge– are only a fraction of total unknowns. (An example of a “known unknown”, for me, would be the German language. I know that it exists, and a few stray words and grammatical principles, but I can’t read or write it. An unknown unknown would be any of the six thousand extant languages that I’ve never heard of.) And that is what makes writing, and software engineering as well, increase in difficulty as one’s skill increases. As one’s knowledge increases, one’s awareness of the gaps in one’s knowledge increase at a more rapid rate. One’s perceived “knowledge ratio” decreases as one’s actual ignorance wanes. A problem with one known solution is easy to solve; when there are ten, and when one knows there might be a hundred more worthy of study, selecting which is best becomes very difficult.

A genre of essay I sometimes find myself writing is the “problem essay”, the first act of which describes an undesirable or inefficient situation, with the second act managing its logical conclusions and avenues and approach, and the final act proposing solutions. This is a very common pattern in writing. Here would be the point at which I propose a “solution”, but I, frankly, don’t have one. To tell the truth, I don’t know if the counterintuitive tendency of a craft’s difficulty to increase with one’s improving skill and knowledge is a “problem” in the first place.

Actually, as a game-design snob who enjoys a well-structured challenge, I rather like this aspect of disciplines like writing and computer programming. It keeps things interesting.