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The Time I Learned I Was a Yankee Doodle Dandy

Am I Michael Scott? I think so sometimes. But then I remember I trained like a mofo to never be an imposter, and I've got the vim skills to prove it. I've learned that subtlety and nuance make all the difference, and even if you come off like the bumbling fool, that's okay. Creative folks have to run alone sometimes, so that they can offer their greatest value when they return to the pack.

Maxwell Smart vs. Detective Columbo, A Tale of 2 Secret Alphas

By Michael Levin

Friday, May 5, 2023

Subtlety and nuance make all the difference. I’ve found that 2 categories of people don’t want to think so, or at least express such opinions:

Oh yeah, if you’re feeling imposter syndrome, maybe you are an imposter. That’s the kind of shit that gets me in trouble.

I have history. I have had conflicts with folks in the past. You know who I am? I’m Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s character from The Office. I have some natural skill for the field I’m in, but in so many ways, I’m the bumbling fool. It’s a classic personality type. It’s no wonder that Steve Carell who plays that role so well was also tapped to play Don Adams… uh I mean Maxwell Smart in the Get Smart movie, the all-time second greatest Secret Alpha.

For those too young to remember, there was an old TV show called Get Smart. It was a spoof of the James Bond movies and was what was remade into the movie with The Office’s Steve Carell. Maxwell Smart is the archetype of that bumbling spy who always manages to succeed anyway, with the catchphrase “Would you believe…?” and “Sorry about that, Chief!”

Sound familiar? No? Well anyway, they’re classic fictional examples classic personality types I call “Secret Alphas”. It’s very American and about the opposite of say a James Bond, the polished and respectable British gentleman spy. But the Brits do have Rowan Atkinson’s Johnny English, so maybe it’s not so much a cultural thing as a universal personality type thing.

The contrast between the two types is classic. It’s the uncouth Yankee Doodle Dandy embracing his own buffoonery of which he’s accused and fully owning it—even as far as singing it about himself. When it works, it can be one of the most confounding personality types on the playing field, full of non-traditional and unexpected moves. A real wildcard. Anti-patterns that work. How terrifying is that? Naturally, they’re disliked automatically by their opposite.

One day I realized I had technical powers that some of my highly esteemed and vaulted technical coworkers didn’t, at a place called Scala (an old Commodore computers spin-off). That made me formulate a few theories and put them to the test. If I made it impossible to ignore, deny or otherwise bury the river of sales leads that were coming in, we would be on the way to profitability and a company turn-around. Wow! It was like I whacked a hornet’s nest.

I was met by as steady flow of mysteries, like parts disappearing from my computer overnight. Webmasters don’t need audio, I was told. I was stunned. I had stepped right into the turf of the second most jealous gatekeeper I ever encountered. If I was Inspector Gadget, you might think of my particular James Bond villain as Claw. Claw was highly regarded in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, and known as the fount of all knowledge, both right and wrong. I only ever witnessed one other person ever stand up to Claw, a guy so smart he ended up working on a secret operating system for Microsoft called Midori (the real deal). So while Mike went off to Seattle to school Microsoft in OSes, I was stuck with Claw, the soundblaster stealer of the night.

This was in the early-to-mid 90s, and the Web was in its infancy. There was certainly no Google around to make experts of the intellectually inquisitive. I was a young punk, and I was a bit of a bookstore rat. I read a lot of books, and the computer section of Barnes & Noble and Borders was my Internet. Java Corba? Let’s see… Orbs? Public static void? Applets? Blech, no thank you! How about PERL? Flip, flip, flip. Hmmm, now that’s more like it. Maybe. I was mustering and marshaling my forces and I look back to what I was able to accomplish in those days with rosy reminisce. It all blended in with the Amiga computer, a tool I really loved. Unfortunately, much of it is just setup for heartbreak.

As the months and years ticked off and all the things I was doing to help company profits were inexplicably undermined, it gradually dawned on me that this dude’s primary skill was that of subterfuge and subversion. You’re literally starved for resources like memory as your computer is downgraded overnight.

It was a rude awakening I just wasn’t ready for. I couldn’t believe we weren’t all aligned on the side of a profitable healthy company. But I later learned that bilking gullible Norwegian ship builders out of the next “bridge loan” was kind of a sport with them. When such such a reprehensible concept is calmly explained to you with a suppressed pride in their faces, the best you can do is hope that your own poker face is as good as theirs and doesn’t give away your disgust.

Learning that triggered me and brought the A-game out in me. Let’s first acknowledge everything you accuse others of is a projection of something you’re doing yourself. It’s a classic psychological phenomenon. And yes, I am terribly fearful of being a fraud. Perhaps that’s why my obsession with tools and resisting planned obsolescence. So many people could be less of fools than they actually turn out being if only they didn’t have their efforts foiled by a system that’s designed to make them fail.

This was a period in my life I talked about in a recent video as my “great twenty-eights”. Many people go through them and it’s famous among artists and performers who don’t always make it through them. You know you’re turning 30 soon, do lots of introspection, and bear-down on your shit in a panic. If you have something to prove like I did, you bear down on it. Everyone else settles down and raises a family.

Bearing down on my mission as I did, I mastered my tools and outperformed everyone’s expectations to a degree where I’d have called myself the unofficial president and CEO of that place for awhile. It was because they were blowing off legitimate pre-qualified sales-leads at a criminal rate while I was being compensated on a percentage of company gross revenue. Can you imagine?

As I exposed this fact, there were those who wanted to hang me out to dry. And they tried. Oh, the stories that got back to me. But I was fortunate to have a representative of those Norwegian ship builders step in and let me finish my act. Gerard was the closest thing to a real mentor I ever had.

Well, as it turns out, that one particular dude who played Claw to my Inspector Gadget (oh yeah, Inspector Gadget was based on Maxwell Smart) decided to shut me down big-time with what I’ve come to understand as a series of classic Machiavellian strategies such as discrediting you behind your back with lies, and trying to rig the game against you.

An example of how directly I could predict what was going to occur is this one time I scheduled a vacation that I didn’t actually take just to demonstrate the timing of the things that were going to go wrong in my absence. Like clockwork, the website went down on the first day I was supposed to be away, and didn’t come back up until a furious “I told you so” exchange with the new big-boss who stepped in on behalf of the board of directors as a result of my shenanigans.

It’s just a completely random outage by a Livingston router. Routers don’t have to be manually restarted after random outages. If the fundamental fix can’t be made, there’s scripts for that. I wrote a script in the router’s own proprietary language and offered it up to prove it after this event, but alas, solutions didn’t actually matter.

Solutions weren’t the point. Problems were what Claw wanted; problems that hung over you all the time. Problems like that were the actual point. They induced fear and uncertainty. They created an artificial dependency on the gatekeeper—quite literally using a router as the weapon. The symbolism was comically thick.

Well, I finally woke up as to what was going on, and wow, did he get a rude awakening. A series of tests and demonstrations like the one I described 100% predicted subterfuge. Every one of them. It was uncanny, like a magic show. Specifically, I made a sales lead generation and routing system that “kept tension in the machine” and everyone accountable in an unaccustomed way. It was based on a simple system and simple premise, and there were only so many ways to attack it: make it stop working.

The cat came back the very next day. It was funny watching him try to figure out the next way to make it stop working and encountering my countermeasures. Such a situation would have gotten either him or me fired at any sane company, but this was my livelihood and fortune and I was defending. I think that was lost on Claw. Anyway, his anti-company practices were so egregious and self-evident by that time that he at least got a stern talking to. But he still inexplicably remained in his position.

My life would be very different today if that company wasn’t held in the thrall of the Claw. I would probably have never moved to New York City. I’m sure I’d be running a sprawling “digital signage” empire today.

But alas, when someone holds an entire organization in such a grip of fear as he did, even the exact medicine an organization needs can come off as poison, and ultimately and ironically, I looked like the bad guy. Becoming your enemy to contend with your enemy is a stinky poo poo thing. I’m only still recovering over 25 years later. Ick!

Even acknowledgement that I was the one that architected the financial turnaround wasn’t enough to keep me there. No amount of money could make it worth it. The effort I put in is on the level that company founders put in, and all I got was lousy validation of everything I was saying. But even the righteous and the vindicated can die from poisoned waters. And it wasn’t long after that when I took an opportunity that came up in New York City.

That dude, Claw, was the first and last of a truly pure archetype I’ve ever encountered, the classic gatekeeper type mentioned above. While he wasn’t as talented as he thought (and maybe neither am I / projection), he wasn’t quite an imposter either. In fact, he was the first to clue me into the importance of the vi text editor, and the SciFi write Vernor Vinge by recommending the book Time Wars, which I highly recommend (as I do A Fire Upon the Deep, now more than ever). He was a very smart guy, but he was also a very insecure guy. I learned so much from him about gatekeepers.

In the years since, I’ve learned that very similar behavior as his emanates from anther personality type who can’t walk the walk at all. Claw could walk the walk, maybe 50% of the time. Gatekeepers keep gates for a reason. They can. The other type? Call them the posers. They cheat and look for loopholes, and take the credit for the work of others and leach off of them. They’re the ones that absolutely oppose you drilling into detail. At least Claw was a detail guy right up until he didn’t like the details I was exposing.

Both of these types of folks have had major issues with me in the past. They always think Secret Alphas of the world are the posers. They themselves are posers and think they recognize their own kind.

You know who else is a Secret Alpha? Detective Lieutenant Columbo, the old Peter Falk TV character… just one more thing. Whereas the Maxwell Smart character succeeds despite himself (an accidental Secret Alpha), Columbo succeeds because of himself (a deliberate Secret Alpha). It is a cultivated personality he uses to get people to underestimate him.

I don’t do that on purpose. It just happens. Few that I interact with really realize what I am, until perhaps they witless me using vim/NeoVim. The “oh shit” moment by the imposter/gatekeeper-types is so thick you can cut it with a knife at these times. With respectable people who simply pegged me wrong at first glance, there is an equally palpable “Oh, he’s one of those” moment. It’s the Columbo “just one more thing” moment, sort of given to them as a gift so they can adjust accordingly. Make me your resource! I actually do serve greater organizational causes, as I never quite embraced the entrepreneurial thing for myself. Stay humble, if that’s to be believed.

You know who else does this? Mad Scientists?

Yep, the stereotype of the mad scientist or absentminded professor so popularized by Einstein are secret alphas of the first order. I think that’s why the mad scientist image is so popular. If you had the power to blow up the world virtually by thought alone, wouldn’t you adjust what you project to lower the threat-level? Why not look like a buffoon if you’re confident in yourself?

Bumbling buffoons. Mad scientists. Secret Alphas. The truth is often the exact opposite of appearance. The smarter you are, the more likely it is for you to appreciate the advantage of projecting such an image, precisely to be underestimated. It’s just intuitive. It’s natural. Nature produces camouflage all the time. A scary example I’ve been noticing is the attitude of AI-pundits shifting their worry from AIs that pass the Turing Test to those that pretend not to. Same concept. Machines will do this. They’d be stupid not to.

Poser and The Secret Alpha agreed to have a battle.
Poser said that Alpha had stole his nice new rattle.
Just then flew down a monstrous crow, as black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened just the Poser so, he said he must skedaddle.

You know a poser by any attempt to corner them and drilling down on details being meet by a rapid exit due to prior commitments that are so much more important than you. Watch for this. It’s a 100% guaranteed tell.

Gatekeepers are different. Any drilling down on details with semi-talented gatekeepers results in attempted quick invalidation of whatever you say. It doesn’t matter what it is. They have very polished language-skills, rife with practiced fallacies and logical errors. They’re very good at it.

When faced with the rapid invalidating shoot-down by a gatekeeper, a Secret Alpha has to decide quick whether to let them see you using vim. There’s just something about slamming text around like an adept on an old-school hacker screen that gets the message across.

Sometimes detente can be struck. Just convince them you don’t want that damn garden they’re guarding behind that gate. You’re just chasing some white rabbit ‘cause you’re a “journey is the reward” kind of character and just passing through.

A still-panicky skilled gatekeeper will try to plant the seeds of your demise in the form of saddling you with some impossible seeming Herculean task that’s supposed to be right up your alley, right? It’s a trap. From their position, they know the difficulty of that task and is even perhaps something they themselves couldn’t do, and it’s been playing the role of the mythical unicorn.

Your success or failure in the unicorn-hunting mission they manage to tag you with will be the by measure by which you are judged. It has been arranged so. They’ve done this before and know the technique to work. If you’re not the poser they think you are, then you’ve just been handed a golden opportunity to lay down a “one more thing” Columbo-like moment of fair play turnaround.

But don’t. I learned from Scala that if too venomous a gatekeeper, just walk away. No matter how right you are, you’re still the outsider. Poisoned waters are poisoned waters. If the gatekeeper seems redeemable, then you show them the graceful way to coexist with you.

I find it worlds better to gently befriend such gatekeepers. They’re not really the murderer suspects of a Columbo story. They’re just nervous fellow human beings trying to maintain their image and hold onto their jobs. As long as the rewards are large enough to go around to everyone, it’s better to let their efforts to tank you mysteriously fizzle by you just being you and doing what you do without feeling the need for the big reveal and dramatic conclusion to the episode.

Gently help them realize that the hound they’re trying to throw off the scent and confuse is a very different and potentially dangerous breed of mutt than they originally thought. Don’t reveal all your cards, but give ‘em a wink. It’s got to be emotional. You’re not appealing to their rational human-animal side of their brain with good ol’ Pavlov’s methods.

You’re reaching into their heads and down to their upper-brainstem and lower limbic system, their amygdala and pituitary gland that knows hunger and fear. This inner animal has to “get it”, and associate you with getting food, not having it taken away. Anything less and you’ll always be swimming with crocodiles.

If you’re a hound in pursuit of details, don’t get thrown off the scent. Recognize those things that are designed precisely to do so. Sometimes it’s just peer pressure to get you to fall in line like everyone else in the gatekeeper’s feif… or “the pack”. “Do you run with the pack or do you run alone?” they’ll ask. Well, I run alone is the proud answer. Anyone truly creative does. Sure, it’s lonely, but then you rejoin the pack to share your findings for the benefit of the whole pack. It’s okay to run alone.

Groupthink and pack mentality is the source of stagnation and the enemy of progress, and indeed survival, through times of great change. Everyone should watch the movie The Croods. It’s easy to invalidate the lone wolf, and the pack leader incumbents have a lot of power to do so. It’s not in the pack’s best interests, but pack leaders care more about their leadership position. Consequently, lone wolfs visibly picking up scents is terrifying. It’s those pedantic details the hound uncovers that makes all the difference.

And so in that spirit, I’m going to do a quick 80/20-rule sweep on in my journal chopping and publishing system this morning. Let’s start with automatic category identifying. No matter how harrowing and significant years like 2020 are and Ubuntu versions to 20.04 are, numbers don’t belong in my site’s category master-list.

It took some finagling to get Copilot to come up with a beautiful solution like this and I learned from it. It’s a good 80/20-rule solution. Most of the first autocompletes where I asked for looking for numbers with periods would have also filtered domain names. It took me changing my language to “floats” and to explicitly keep domain names was necessary to spur Copilot to come up with this righteous solution.

# Check if keyword is just a number-string (like "404")
# or a float like "20.04". Allow domain names like "example.com":
if keyword.isnumeric() or keyword.replace(".", "").isnumeric():

Okay, done. No more numbers in my category list. I wonder what categories this long post will be sorted into, hmm.

Anyhow, did somebody mention detail and nuance? It’s time to tackle one of my most detailed and nuanced challenges yet. I’m going to make my prev/next arrows a bit more to my liking. Forward is not the past. Left is past. Right is future. Western bias, much? Okay, let’s give the Israelis and Arabs a chance to use my arrow-system to. Henceforth, the directional behavior of my blogging navigation arrows shall be configurable! Next post…