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Farsight Is Not All Talent

Some certain individuals understand everything and make perfect ideas. The ideas will be tried over time, but it always turns out to be the ultimate. Most only realize it after years, but not these people. They are, what I call, the farsighters.

And the ability, the Farsight.

In Dune (2021) by Denis Villeneuve, Thufir Hawat, in a blink, calculates the cost the emissary of the emperor spent to visit the ancestral planet of the house he serves, Atreides. Thufir Hawat is capable of that ultra-fast calculation due to being a mentat, a profession developed to replace computers in the Dune universe. That ten-second scene captures the unearthly intelligence and accuracy of a mentat.

thufir hawat
Stephen McKinley Henderson as Thufir Hawat

If I've ever been awed with similar scenes, not one but several, those were a couple of years ago. It was when I just started my first job. A senior, among others in the same (due to being a flat organization), is superior in performance. It takes months to realize his technical genius. He is a project manager but his knowledge ranges from organization management to crafting programs in assembly language. He's been in every computing domain, and that shows when he faces a technical problem.

Compared to other people's solutions toward a certain problem, this senior crafts a solution that's elegant. The word elegant in programming has been overloaded so let's define one. Programming is sort of like spellcasting, and sometimes a spell can go wrong. Sometimes the mistake is so invisible that it can't be seen with the bare eye. Also, one person's program can be misused or misunderstood by other people because it is designed vaguely, and misusing a program can lead to weird behaviors, not always, but sometimes, can lead to a loss (e.g decrease in customer satisfaction). Elegant is a solution that does not cause more problems, misunderstandings, or misuse. Elegant is while there are other roads leading to Rome, this one is smooth, safe, and with a high-speed limit.

An elegant solution can also be seen this way: a solution that's less elegant might sometimes come back like a boomerang to its author's face. A group is formed to fix this new problem. A new tweak to the solution comes, and after a while, a new problem pops up from that new tweak. This cycle loops several times. A new tweak introduces a new problem. That is until a certain point where the collective find an optimum solution, the flawless one. That is the elegant solution, a thousand-dollar gem hidden underneath the dirt. They celebrate the "maturement" of the solution, despite the lost hours. And it turns out, one person had proposed it long ago at the inception of the first solution, and that person did not "win the vote" because that person did not have the authority. Like the elegant solution, the Farsighter can also be buried underneath the noise.

Variations of farsighters sometimes pop around. Those are the kind of people who seem to have everything totally mapped in his mind, those you can learn from just by having a couple of minutes talk with. Those are the kind of philosophers who know a lot of domains, from finance to quantum physics, to the minute details. Those are the programmers who know high-level languages to assembly, the ones who can predict that a certain pattern maps to a certain problem. Those are the musicians who have the entire song in their head even before they are recorded. Those are the system architect who knows exactly the impact of a change in a component on the whole system.

Despite that, identifying farsighters is not an easy task. Most of the farsighters are not totally different from us. They eat like normal people, they work from 9-to-5, they still get tripped by cords. Ordinary stuff. And that is more annoying, especially, when you are in a position where you want such people to work with you, but you have a hard time identifying them.

Conceptualization and Capacity

-:

  1. If one eats, they might be hungry
  2. If one eats, they might be feeling wasteful if a food can potentially go uneaten
  3. Alice is eating

From those axioms, we can deduce that Alice is probably feeling hungry or wasteful because some food could potentially go uneaten. It is formally called the logical deduction. Logical deduction itself is a form of conceptualization, the forming of an idea. If you think of it, the forming of an idea is magical as it seems to come from nothing, or derived from completely different some. We, the reader and the writer of this article, I assume have lived for years, therefore we have enough axioms in our head for making a deduction. Given enough time to sit in a calming toilet and some energy to feed those brain mitochondria, one can just pop new ideas on their head.

Artists are the ultimate conceptualizator. I have deep respect for artists, especially those who can make inspiring and original art. Despite a lot of people thinking that art is either a piece of painting or music, no art is everywhere. There is the art of negotiation, the art of programming, the art of war. It is when you conceptualize and then create a method, a product, a paradigm, a belief, anything that so delightfully balances every related stake that it inspire a certain emotion to people.

Conceptualization is the first prerequisite of Farsight.

The second prerequisite is capacity.

History is the worst subject in my elementary school. It is a pain in the brain, and not only that I'm weak at it. I think that the history curriculum at my time was very disconnected from how we are supposed to get value from our history. The whole 7 years (from elementary to high school) of just remembering dates of historical events is just useless. The tests don't even involve the how's and why's of historical events, which makes me furious. I got even better lessons from playing video games that slightly mention the world’s historical events.

Somehow, with those horrible curricula, one or two classmates of mine could get great scores, 90 out of 100, while I got the 180-degree rotated version of it (06). That is the blessing of capacity. Either those classmates of mine were really interested in memorizing history event date of occurrence or they were simply very good at remembering things like those non-volatile hard drives.

Capacity is a complex thing, therefore I'd like to bring up the 2.5th prerequisite of Farsight, endurance.

To remember something, one has to be very exceptional, like having a photographic memory and other similar traits we often see on top 10 real superhuman power youtube videos, or to simply have them interested in the topic. This is why capacity is complex, people have different topics that interest them. It is also a good thing to cultivate interest in various topics so that facts and deductions don't evaporate to nothingness -- a wasted effort.

Exposure - To Avoid Overfitting

Axioms in one's mind must come from somewhere, which is the environment. The human mind is so advanced that it learns fast. Boredom is a symptom of the mind wanting to be fed with more new information. Even just new information is not enough, it has to be of a different pattern. That's why once you've got tired of film production houses throwing out movies with the same premise and formula every several months, you stop going to the cinema.

A smart mind with limited information is dangerous, as not only it will get bored, it will see everything in the frame of what it has. Maslow's law of the instrument, "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." is a protest toward one of the forms of boredom.

Overfitting is a modeling error in statistics that occurs when a function is too closely aligned to a limited set of data points. When overfitting happens in a human's mind, it conceptualizes a limited amount of information over and over. You may sometimes observe one or two of your older acquaintances have a problem with being open to new trends. That is overfitting. Or when one is stuck in a problem, by running around in circles in their thought, not getting help, not getting input from the outer world. It happens to everyone, so don't worry about it too much. What you can do is to undo its effect to a certain degree, that is by exposing yourself to the world.

Exposure to the world opens up new ideas and sometimes, fortunately, breaks false axioms in one's mind by contradicting them. It is never easy to have your belief (a strong axiom you hold on to) being crushed, just like that, by reality. But, in my personal opinion, it is much worse to not know.

Some experts may argue that the world is deterministic because physics is, but to one's small mind in this big world, the world is pretty much random. Incidents and random encounters in one's life may sometimes disturb the pattern that has formed in one's mind. Conceptualizing, in the form of reflection, will merge the disturbance into a new pattern. Like polyrhythm, the new patterns from the randomness in the mind become more complex, yet beautiful.

Is Not All Talent

I admit I am writing this because some days ago I watched a youtube video. The video tells us that the common character of geniuses is "the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals". That got me thinking. Farsight is not a thing you're born with. It may be part genetics, but not all. Farsight is a result of practice, an intense but subtle one.

Einstein once said, "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." Practice makes perfect, including practicing conceptualizing, finding exposure, and enduring thoughts.

When one ponders on something, chains of deductions are created in the mind. Sometimes, an interesting deduction is found, and because it is interesting, it persists. The link between axioms may be lost after a certain time -- a mechanism of the mind to save space for things more important to worry about. Nevertheless, the same forgotten links can be traced later as long as both nodes are there in one's mind.

Axiom-to-axiom link tracing is energy consuming, but the activity itself if done frequently will be cheaper over time. The links, traced enough time, will be more opaque and persistent, sort of like a quantum cache. Or, one can just write those idea on a paper, like what mathematicians do. The deduction itself is also cheaper when done overtime.

The longer one invests in conceptualizing, enduring, and finding exposure, the more one will gain Farsight. Like physical training, strength comes with repetition and intensity.

the-thinker

Farsight is Great (And Tiring)

I have worked with someone who thinks the solution to everything is divide and conquer. Let me give you a spoiler, it is not. At that time, with several people, I worked on a change to a, let's just say, complex system with tightly coupled components on a tightly coupled process. A tightly coupled anything is like a railway without gaps. In summer, the railway expands, and if it doesn't have a gap it bends, which makes it lethal for train commuters. There's no temporal nor structural buffer to accommodate for failures in tightly coupled components.

One day, an ask is asked. It's a big one. The manager divides the ask into small pieces. Each is siloed and assigned to workers. It becomes harder to work on that small pieces because each team working on separate pieces cannot see each other's work. Those working on the field are unhappy because the manager, who is responsible to divide work items, does not seem to care about the actual product. The manager seem to only care about the divide. To the manager's defend, the manager actually does not know that it cannot be divided that way. This is the symptoms of the lack of farsight in the leadership.

Here's where an expert of a certain system is important in the event of a change to it. Expert has farsight to their expertise. Expert is very valuable in tinkering with the complex system because knowledge of the whole system is needed to isolate a sub-domain or a sub-problem and for other people to take action upon so that the rest of the system does not break when it happens.

Divide and conquer strategy in a complex setting is an art by itself. The conquer part is only effective (or even only possible) when the division is done right, and the right division can only happen if the whole is understood.

The downside of being an expert (and by the extent a farsight owner) is that usually they are rigid if it is about their expertise. They have a set of unwritten rules about how a certain concept in their domain must be, ones that others don't know. They know which action is a temporal landmine when executed, they know what must not be done in spite of the common convention. The rigidity shows.

The downside of having an expert in your team is that sometimes they are slowing you down because they have a lot of facts in their head and sometimes it's making them slow to decide.

Also, since knowledgement-unknowledgement is the line that separates the spectrum of farsighters, sometimes it is hard to identify one. I'm working with web development. I encounter a pretty senior (in term of age) person who does not seem to know about the modern web development. Only when we had a watercooler talk, I realize that senior is a farsighter in tech who understands the fundamentals. What that senior know is not about the hip framework of this year, but literally the fundamentals, how to build a computer from scratch, how chips are designed, how to program a bare metal, how to build a browser, how does JavaScript run in the browser, how the cybernetic tech turns to modern day neural network tech. The knowledge creeps up from the bottom-to-top in a similar way as how conceptualization works. But, the most important thing, with that full-stack knowledge, the senior knows that there is a pattern of problem-solutions that occurs within that stack. Problem repeats, people keeps reinventing the wheel. Sometimes it's the wheel for the asphalt, sometimes it's the wheel for the rail. But someone who knows how wheel works can always make a wheel for people who don't know how to reinvent one, and that's when one gets paid.

Farsight in My Domain

By title, I'm a Software Developer mostly working on frontend devs, but I always encourage people who work with me to learn what's on the other spectrum. I often push my frontend peers to learn how OS works, how containers work, how project management works, see an analog to software development in other domains, software and system design, UX, etc. With that, I hope I incite a perpetual cycle of curiosity-learning, growth from exposure, for "curiosity is antifragile" says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, my current favorite writer.

If I were to look for a squadmate, an engineer, I would find someone who is reliable and knows to not write a footgun (and how to do it). Writing code, as I have repeated over and over, is just like spellcasting. Chant the wrong way and you'll summon demons. What you need is someone who can scrutinize the details of their spells, and your spells, before they are being cast. In short, somebody who is literate and has the endurance (or patience maybe) to read understand before proceeding. Someone who, not just writes, but debugs. Someone who, not just builds, but also designs. That is the trait of a farsighter!