February 16th, 2018

A lot of things that most human beings would never think to do, to Amos simply made sense. For instance, when he wanted to go for a run he . . . went for a run. No stretching, no jogging outfit or, for that matter, jogging: He’d simply strip off his slacks and sprint out his front door in his underpants and run as fast as he could until he couldn’t run anymore. “Amos thought people paid an enormous price to avoid mild embarrassment,” said his friend Avishai Margalit, “and he himself decided very early on it was not worth it.”

Michael Lewis, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, New York, 2016, ch. 3

February 13th, 2018

Every discipline of social science, I believe, has some ritual tests of competence, which must be passed before a piece of work is considered worthy of attention. Such tests are necessary to prevent information overload, and they are also important aspects of the tribal life of the disciplines. In particular, they allow insiders to ignore just about anything that is done by members of other tribes, and to feel no scholarly guilt about doing so. To serve this screening function efficiently, the competence tests usually focus on some aspect of form or method, and have little or nothing to do with substance. Prospect theory passed such a test in economics, and its observations became a legitimate (though optional) part of the scholarly discourse in that discipline. It is a strange and rather arbitrary process that selects some pieces of scientific writing for relatively enduring fame while committing most of what is published to almost immediate oblivion.

Daniel Kahneman, ‘Daniel Kahneman – Biographical’, in Tore Frängsmyr (ed.), The Nobel Prizes 2002, Stockholm, 2003

February 6th, 2018

He said “I’m not laughing at you, Richard, but I just can’t help myself. I don’t care a bit, not a bit who’s right. I’m too happy. I’m just so happy right this moment with all the colors around me, the wine. The whole moment is so wonderful, so wonderful.”

Anaïs Nin, Henry and June: From the Unexpurgated Diary of Anaïs Nin, London, 2001, p. 6

February 5th, 2018

I can’t afford to hate people. I don’t have that kind of time.

Kanji Watanabe, in Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru, 1952

January 24th, 2018

Dr. Adams found him one day busy at his Dictionary, when the following dialogue ensued. “ADAMS. This is a great work, Sir. How are you to get all the etymologies? JOHNSON. Why, Sir, here is a shelf with Junius, and Skinner, and others; and there is a Welch gentleman who has published collection of Welch proverbs, who will help me with the Welch. ADAMS.
But, Sir, how can you do this in three years? JOHNSON. Sir, I have no doubt that I can do it in three years. ADAMS. But the French Academy, which consists of forty members, took forty years to compile their Dictionary. JOHNSON. Sir, thus it is. This is the proportion. Let me see; forty times forty is sixteen hundred. As three to sixteen hundred, so is the proportion of an Englishman to a Frenchman.”

James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London, 1791, vol. 1, p. 101

January 21st, 2018

I am reading through your letters not just once but maybe a hundred times. You can well imagine that yourself. After dinner I usually have nothing to do. I do not read books, I do not play cards, I do not go to the theatre, my only pleasure is my business[.]

Nathan Mayer Rothschild, letter to Salomon Mayer Rothschild, quoted in Niall Ferguson, The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets: 1798–1848, London, p. 107

January 17th, 2018

In his last trade, [Randy] McKay was going to reach his goal of making $50 million in the markets. This next-to-last trade was supposed to get McKay close enough to his target so that one more strong trade would achieve his goal. That is not quite how things worked out, however. The trade involved a huge long position in the Canadian dollar. The currency had broken through the psychologically critical 80-cent barrier, and McKay was convinced the market was going much higher. As the market moved in his favor, McKay added to his longs, ultimately amassing a 2,000-contract long position.

At the time, McKay was having a house built in Jamaica and would travel there every few weeks to supervise the construction. One Sunday evening, before he rushed off to the airport to catch his connecting flight to Miami, McKay stopped to check the quote screen. He cared about only one position: the Canadian dollar. He looked at the screen and was momentarily shocked. The Canadian dollar was down exactly 100 points! He was late for his flight, and the limo was waiting. The Canadian dollar rarely moves 20 points in the overnight session, let alone 100 points; it must be a bad quote, thought McKay. He decided that the market was really unchanged and that the hundreds digit in the quote was off by one. With that rationalization in mind, McKay rushed off for the airport.

It turned out that the quote that evening had not been an error. The market was down 100 points at the time, and by the next morning, it was down 150 points from the IMM Friday close. What had happened was that, with the Canadian election a month away, a poll had come out showing that the liberal candidate—who held some extreme views, including support for an independent Québec, and who had been thought to have no chance of winning—had closed most of the gap versus his opponent. Overnight, the impending election had gone from a foregone conclusion to a toss-up.

To make matters worse, although construction was sufficiently complete for McKay to stay at his new house, phones had not yet been installed. We are talking pre–mobile phone days here. So McKay had to drive to the nearest hotel and stand in line to use the pay phone. By the time he got through to his floor clerk, his Canadian dollar position was down $3 million. Since by that time the market was down so much, McKay got out of only about 20 percent of his position. The Canadian dollar, however, continued its plunge. A few days later, McKay was down $7 million. Once he realized the extent of his loss, he exclaimed to his clerk, “Get me out of everything!”

Jack Schwager, The Little Book of Market Wizards: Lessons from the Greatest Traders, Hoboken, New Jersey, 2014, pp. 65-67

January 4th, 2018

A boot, stamping on a human face – forever!

No! Wait! Sorry! Wrong future for socialism! This is John Roemer’s A Future for Socialism, a book on how to build a kinder, gentler socialist economy. It argues for – and I believe proves – a bold thesis: a socialist economy is entirely compatible with prosperity, innovation, and consumer satisfaction – just as long as by “socialism”, you mean “capitalism”.

Scott Alexander, ‘Book Review: A Future For Socialism’, Slate Star Codex, October 24, 2014

December 24th, 2017

Quantum Computing since Democritus is a candidate for the weirdest book ever to be published by Cambridge University Press. The strangeness starts with the title, which conspicuously fails to explain what this book is about. Is this another textbook on quantum computing—the fashionable field at the intersection of physics, math, and computer science that’s been promising the world a new kind of computer for two decades, but has yet to build an actual device that can do anything more impressive than factor 21 into 3 × 7 (with high probability)? If so, then what does this book add to the dozens of others that have already mapped out the fundamentals of quantum computing theory? Is the book, instead, a quixotic attempt to connect quantum computing to ancient history? But what does Democritus, the Greek atomist philosopher, really have to do with the book’s content, at least half of which would have been new to scientists of the 1970s, let alone of 300 BC?

Having now read the book, I confess that I’ve had my mind blown, my worldview reshaped, by the author’s truly brilliant, original perspectives on everything from quantum computing (as promised in the title) to Gödel’s and Turing’s theorems to the P versus NP question to the interpretation of quantum mechanics to artificial intelligence to Newcomb’s Paradox to the black hole information loss problem. So, if anyone were perusing this book at a bookstore, or with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature, I would certainly tell that person to buy a copy immediately. I’d also add that the author is extremely handsome.

Scott Aaronson, Quantum Computing since Democritus, Cambridge, 2013, p. ix

December 24th, 2017

Experience often repeated, truly bitter experience, had taught him long ago that with decent people, especially Moscow people—always slow to move and irresolute—every intimacy, which at first so agreeably diversifies life and appears a light and charming adventure, inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy, and in the long run the situation becomes unbearable. But at every fresh meeting with an interesting woman this experience seemed to slip out of his memory, and he was eager for life, and everything seemed simple and amusing.

Anton Chekhov, ‘The Lady with the Dog’, 1899, part 1

December 10th, 2017

“When something becomes obvious to you,” he said, “you immediately think surely someone else is doing this.”

Michael Lewis, Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt, New York, 2014, p. 14

December 4th, 2017

[Robert] Caro had a[n] epiphany about power in the early ’60s. He had moved on to Newsday by then, where he discovered that he had a knack for investigative reporting, and was assigned to look into a plan by Robert Moses to build a bridge from Rye, N.Y., across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. “This was the world’s worst idea,” he told me. “The piers would have had to be so big that they’d disrupt the tides.” Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of this scheme, and it seemed to have persuaded just about everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then, he recalled, he got a call from a friend in Albany saying, “Bob, I think you need to come up here.” Caro said: “I got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing some preliminary step toward the bridge, and it passed by something like 138-4. That was one of the transformational moments of my life. I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.’”

The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’”

Charles McGrath, ‘Robert Caro’s Big Dig’, The New York Times, April 12, 2012

December 3rd, 2017

[I]f I take the case of a Londoner who works in an office, whose office hours are from ten to six, and who spends fifty minutes morning and night in travelling between his house door and his office door, I shall have got as near to the average as facts permit. There are men who have to work longer for a living, but there are others who do not have to work so long. […] If my typical man wishes to live fully and completely he must, in his mind, arrange a day within a day. And this inner day, a Chinese box in a larger Chinese box, must begin at 6 p.m. and end at 10 a.m. It is a day of sixteen hours; and during all these sixteen hours he has nothing whatever to do but cultivate his body and his soul and his fellow men. During those sixteen hours he is free; he is not a wage-earner; he is not preoccupied with monetary cares; he is just as good as a man with a private income. This must be his attitude.

Arnold Bennett, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, London, 1910, ch. 4

November 29th, 2017

More “balanced” thinkers (who were prone to frame arguments in “on the one hand” and “on the other” terms) were less overconfident (r = .37) and less in the limelight (r = .28). Of course, causality surely flows in both directions. On one hand, overconfident experts may be more quotable and attract more media attention. On the other, overconfident experts may also be more likely to seek out the attention.

Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, Princeton, 2005, p. 63

November 21st, 2017

[Y]ou can’t prove whether discrimination is going on in an organization—or a society—by statistics. You often read about “glass ceilings” for women in a given field or about disproportionate school suspensions of boys or minorities. The intimation—often the direct accusation—is that discrimination is at work. But numbers alone won’t tell the story. We don’t know that as many women as men have the qualifications or desire to be partners in law firms or high-level executives in corporations. And we have some pretty good reasons to believe that girls and boys are not equally likely to engage in behavior warranting suspension from school.

Not so long ago, it was common to attribute women’s lower representation in graduate school and faculty rosters to discrimination. And there certainly was discrimination. I know; I was there. I was privy to the conversations the men had about admitting women to grad school or hiring them onto faculties. “Go after the guy; women are too likely to drop out.” Bugged conversations would have proved what raw statistics, comparing percentage of men and women hired, could not.

But nowadays 60 percent of college graduates are women, and they constitute a majority of law and medical students as well as graduate students in the humanities, social sciences, and biological sciences. And the University of Michigan, where I teach, two-thirds of the assistant professors hired are women (and they get tenure at the same rate as men).

Do these statistics prove discrimination against men? They do not. And I can assure you that bugged conversations—at least at my school—would not support the discrimination idea either. On the contrary, we are so frequently confronted with the prospect of admitting huge majorities of women into our graduate program that we contemplate relaxing admission standards for men, though we’ve never carried it out in a conscious way, of that I’m sure.

The statistics on postgraduate education have not stopped some people from claiming there is still discrimination against women in the physical sciences. One book I read recently claimed that women were “locked out” of physics. In the absence of evidence other than the purely statistical kind, there can be no justification for that assertion.

Richard Nisbett, Mindware: Tools for Smart Thinking, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, p. 188

November 20th, 2017

Another simple search cost, which we might regard as something of a fixed cost, is the cost of learning about smart contracts and how to use them. As the length of this report may help to demonstrate, this cost should be regarded as non-trivial.

Ben Garfinkel, ‘Recent Developments in Cryptography and Potential Long-Term Consequences’, sect. 4.5

November 9th, 2017

Measurement, declared so distinguished an authority as Goethe, could be employed in strictly physical science, but biologic, psychologic and social phenomena necessarily eluded the profane hands of those who would reduce them to quantitative abstractions. Here one detects the feeling that measurement somehow robs human phenomena of all mystery or beauty, and denies to investigators the satisfactions of age-old sense impressions and of intuitive understanding. Such feeling unusually appears within any discipline when it is first threatened, as it were, by quantification. Dr. Stevens terms it, in relation to current psychology, “the nostalgic pain of a romantic yearning to remain securely inscrutable.”

Richard Shryock, ‘The History of Quantification in Medical Science’, in Harry Woolf (ed.) Quantification: A History of the Meaning of Measurement in the Natural and Social Sciences, New York, 1961, p. 93

November 9th, 2017

I was planning to move to Florida, write philosophy in a library, while it was open, sleep outside in the warm weather at night, and hopefully find some soup kitchen or something. […] Living in the city slums wasn’t that enjoyable a feeling, especially since being robbed and shot at tended to disrupt my concentration on the theory I was working on.

Quentin Smith, ‘An interview with Quentin Smith’

November 7th, 2017

Personally I’ve never met anybody who didn’t like a good ghost story, but I know a lot of people who think there are a lot of people who don’t like a good ghost story.

Orson Welles, ‘The Hitch Hiker’, in Joseph Liss (ed.), Radio’s Best Plays, New York, 1947, p. 325

October 27th, 2017

In judging people and bodies of work, one can use stylistic consistency as a rule of thumb, and start by checking the statements in one’s field. The mere presence of correct material means little: it proves only that the author can read and paraphrase standard works. In contrast, a pattern of clearcut, major errors is important evidence: it shows a sloppy thinking style which may well flow through the author’s work in many fields, from physics, to biology, to computation, to policy. A body of surprising but sound results may mean something, but in a new field lacking standard journals, it could merely represent plagiarism. More generally, one can watch for signs of intellectual care, such as the qualification of conclusions, the noting of open questions, the dear demarcation of speculation, and the presence of prior review. In judging wild-sounding theoretical work standards should be strict, not loose: to develop a discipline, we need discipline.

Eric Drexler, ‘Abrupt Change, Nonsense, Nobels, and Other Topics’, Foresight Institute, 1987

October 26th, 2017

The motto of the Royal Society – Hooke, Boyle, Newton, some of the people who arguably invented modern science – was nullus in verba, “take no one’s word”.

This was a proper battle cry for seventeenth century scientists. Think about the (admittedly kind of mythologized) history of Science. The scholastics saying that matter was this, or that, and justifying themselves by long treatises about how based on A, B, C, the word of the Bible, Aristotle, self-evident first principles, and the Great Chain of Being all clearly proved their point. Then other scholastics would write different long treatises on how D, E, and F, Plato, St. Augustine, and the proper ordering of angels all indicated that clearly matter was something different. Both groups were pretty sure that the other had make a subtle error of reasoning somewhere, and both groups were perfectly happy to spend centuries debating exactly which one of them it was.

And then Galileo said “Wait a second, instead of debating exactly how objects fall, let’s just drop objects off of something really tall and see what happens”, and after that, Science.

Yes, it’s kind of mythologized. But like all myths, it contains a core of truth. People are terrible. If you let people debate things, they will do it forever, come up with horrible ideas, get them entrenched, play politics with them, and finally reach the point where they’re coming up with theories why people who disagree with them are probably secretly in the pay of the Devil.

Imagine having to conduct the global warming debate, except that you couldn’t appeal to scientific consensus and statistics because scientific consensus and statistics hadn’t been invented yet. In a world without science, everything would be like that.

Heck, just look at philosophy.

Scott Alexander, ‘The Control Group Is Out Of Control’, Slate Star Codex, April 28, 2014

October 25th, 2017

In macro, it’s important for people like me to always search for the truth, and reach conclusions about economic models in a way that is independent of the consensus model. In that way, I play my “worker ant” role of nudging the profession towards a greater truth. But at the same time we need to recognize that there is nothing special about our view. If we are made dictator, we should implement the consensus view of optimal policy, not our own. People have trouble with this, as it implies two levels of belief about what is true. The view from inside our mind, and the view from 20,000 miles out in space, where I see there is no objective reason to favor my view over Krugman’s.

Scott Sumner, ‘Why Bryan Caplan Almost Always Wins His Bets’, EconLog, May 26, 2016

October 24th, 2017

Il y a deux sortes de metteurs en scène : ceux qui tiennent compte du public en concenvant puis en réalisant leurs films et ceux qui n’en tiennent pas compte. Pour les premiers, le cinéma est un art du spectacle, pour les seconds, une aventure individuelle. Il n’a pas à préférer ceux-ci ou ceux-là, c’est ainsi. Pour Hitchcock comme pour Renoir, comme d’ailleurs pour presque tous les metteurs en scène américains, un film n’est pas réussi s’il n’a pas de succès, c’est-à-dire s’il ne touche pas le public à qui l’on a constamment pensé depuis le moment où l’on a choisi le sujet jusq’au terme de la réalisation. Alors que Bresson, Tati, Rossellini, Nicholas Ray, tournent les films à leur manière et demandent ensuite au public de vouloir bien entrer « dans leur jeu », Renoir, Clouzot, Hitchcock, Hawks font leus films pour le public, en se posant continuellement des questions afin d’être certains d’eintéresser les futurs spectateurs.

François Truffaut, Les films de ma vie, Paris, 1975, p. 104

October 18th, 2017

Wherefore in all great works are Clerkes so much desired? Wherefore are Auditors so richly fed? What causeth Geometricians so highly to be enhaunsed? Why are Astronomers so greatly advanced? Because that by number such things they finde, which else would farre excell mans minde.

Robert Recorde, Arithmetic: or, The Ground of Arts, London, 1543, p. 34

October 16th, 2017

A blog like this one probably should promote the opinions and advice most likely to be underrepresented in the blog-reading populace (which is totally different from the populace at large). But this might convince “thought leaders”, who then use it to inspire change in the populace at large, which will probably be in the wrong direction. I think most of my friends are too leftist but society as a whole is too rightist—should I spread leftist or rightist memes among my friends?

Scott Alexander, ‘All Debates Are Bravery Debates’, Slate Star Codex, June 9, 2013

October 13th, 2017

There always seems something stunted about the intellect of those who have no humour, however earnest and enthusiastic, and however highly cultivated, they often are.

John Stuart Mill, ‘Diary’ (January 16, 1854), in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 27, p. 643

October 3rd, 2017

All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.

Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, London, 1776, bk. 3, ch. 4

October 2nd, 2017

Se moquer de la philosophie c’est vraiment philosopher.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées, Paris, 1670

October 2nd, 2017

Formel meines Glücks: Ein Ja, ein Nein, eine gerade Linie, ein Ziel.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Götzen-Dämmerung, oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophiert, Leipzig, 1889

October 2nd, 2017

From many points of view we live in a glorious time. I have little sympathy with those who wish they had been born at any, even the most brilliant epoch, in the past of the human race. The Many have now opportunities of study, opportunities of travel, opportunities of healthy enjoyment, which of old were denied to all but the Few. Human activity is expanding in all directions. Life is infinitely fuller, more varied, more interesting than it ever was. But on the other hand it requires more judgment, more balance of mind, more strength of character to make the best of it. Where one can do so many things there is a real danger of trying to do too many, and the end of that is that one does nothing well. Every age has its own special difficulties and dangers. The disease which specially threatens this generation is restlessness, distraction, dissipation of intellectual and moral power. […]

Success will rest with those who can preserve a calm judgement, who will not be bewildered by the multitude of things offered to them, but select with tremendous rigour, and who finally, having selected, will give themselves time to enjoy what they have chosen, and not let themselves be flurried out of the enjoyment and the benefit of it by the thought of all that they have been obliged to pass by.

Alfred Milner, Bustle, Oxford, 1897