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The Senegalese Suicide
Expanding or Reducing Your Attack Surface
Something to know about my family is that we are emergent African-Americans on the verge of being international. I have friends and relations in several different countries. America is my home, but if I needed to crash in Rome or Paris, I’d have a place to go. Much of this owes to my late uncle who was one of the first in Kennedy’s Peace Corps. He went to West Africa. As that corner of the family originated in New Orleans there is a string of Francophone in us. I’d like to recover my French-ish sensibilities one day; I haven’t paid much attention.
I’m going to speak a bit out of school about another uncle, Salman. He was the father of my first cousin’s first wife. As a manager in the international bureaucracy that was is still is the UN, he was part of the diplomatic corps that managed affairs between the US and West Africa. During the good times we talked about cigars and how he and my aunt met in the 50s in Paris when French women dating any African was a kind of radical chic. We talked about his Senegalese lineage that went back hundreds of years. We talked about UN development business and what differences it did and did not make. But most of all we just enjoyed each other’s company, that was when we single men could sit still in the presence of any of his three gorgeous daughters. After a while, however, the number of visits to his sweet apartment in New York’s Tudor City fell off.
Word was that Salman and Margot were not getting on as well. We could only come by and see one of them but not both. Not long after, our visits ended altogether. This was sad, especially after the marriage of my cousin and daughter number two. It wasn’t until I had left the Northeast and settled down in Georgia that I got the news. Salman was dead of cancer. Nobody knew anything at all. What came out was that in a somewhat traditional style, Salman had walked out of the village, found a tree and sat still until he died.
Salman’s ‘tree’ was smoking, drinking and irritable behavior that had gotten so toxic that nobody wanted him around. The marriage disintegrated and everybody in his immediate family finally told him to go to hell. He may ultimately have done so. In Salman’s way, which we were to take as something expected of his bloodline and indigenous culture, he was doing us all a favor. He died in this way expecting that all of the grieving would be superfluous. The family would have proven, during their own lives turning against him, that they could endure without him. He made us hate him on purpose.
Salman might have lived a longer life had he sought treatment. We shall never know. He might have shared his secret that we might keep a loving vigil until his last days. Instead he chose to die his way. He made himself a target and so we spent all our emotional ammo on him until we were out of battery. The Senegalese Suicide.
A couple years ago Elon Musk sold his custom homes in Los Angeles. He said something to the effect that make perfect sense to me. He wanted to reduce his attack surface. This is an IT security term. In practice it means closing possible points of entry to the guts of a software program, fewer weaknesses to be exploited. There are many ways to accomplish this. For example, as a celebrity, you might decided to attend fewer charity events. Or as Musk did, spend more time sleeping in your office at work rather than commuting back home daily where everybody knows you live. The 405 at rush hour is a large attack surface. What are you going to do when traffic jams you up, get out and walk?
More than one astute subscriber suggested in response to my piece on Kanye West that he’s reducing his attack surface. Considering the tastes of his ex-wife (honestly I don’t know which Kardashian she is), it is certainly reasonable that for the sake of his children (I don’t know who they are) that they might not inherit so much from the West empire. I imagine that Musk’s fortunes do a lot more work than Kanye’s, after all, he managed to put a price on Twitter that nobody else could. Musk increased his virtual attack surface 100 fold. But at least he no longer lives so predictably in meatspace. I hear rumors that he’s making Twitter employees adopt similar discipline, something that is an old-school Silicon Valley tradition since the era of Webvan and Pets.com’s sock puppet. Live in your cube.
I did talk about hiphop and not Kanye West’s personal life. It’s none of my business. But I have been reminded that he has suffered the common pain of losing a custody battle. It’s one of the four horsemen of the American male apocalypse. The other three being heart attack, felony conviction and IRS lien. People rarely come out the other side of these the way they go in. For this he has my sympathy. His attack surface has given any number of third parties ample ambition to amplify arguments against him.
Is he killing himself softly with his anti-semitic song? Can he emerge intact? Was he ever intact? Well, he has at least 400 million little buddies to help him through. What fails without him? He could just hang out in Timbuktu for a year. Or maybe his psyche will not allow it. Maybe he’s trying to martyr himself into the Tupac zone. Then maybe his commercially unsatisfying raps once overlooked will make more sense.
The fact is that I care much more about Musk as he represents and has generated real engineering genius. The problem is that I don’t think, like the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, that Musk has generated a generation who can follow him up and sustain his energetic entrepreneurship. The exception would be the car company Lucid, whose vehicles are truly stunning, but we hear nothing of Solar City these days. PayPal has done well enough, as has Venmo. They made Apple do Apple Pay. If Musk pulls off what might be done with Twitter (something to do with bot-proof voting) it could be a massive boost for democracy worldwide. It might even make newspapers invest more in long form, given Twitter’s domination of the shortest.
All of this is speculation about that which deserves to live in our WEIRD eyes and how the wealthy might go off and find a tree. We haven’t integrated death well into our plans. We always think we might just pivot or reorg. We don’t see the value in purposefully downsizing unless we actually consider ourselves with contempt. Still, can you remember Dean Kamen? He’s the guy who had the world on fire in the days before his Segway was released, he had all of us imagining something to do with a Sterling engine. It turns out that even ChatGPT hasn’t found out enough about Dean Kamen’s work with Stirling engines to give me a workable clue. Then again, Kamen works out of New Hampshire. Small attack surface. He is out living in the trees, being productive and doing good things. Go look him up.
Naturally, I might make a Stoic suggestion about one’s attack surface, but I think the philosophy is silent on the matter. After all, the Stoics are world historically famous. On the other hand, no Stoic would engage in emotional arguments that make him a target for fools. I think this quote from Bertrand Russell works very well for today’s debates which leave so many people emotionally exposed.
If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If some one maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you should feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction.
The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants." — Bertrand Russell, An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1943)