Category: Philosophy

What should I ask Elisa New?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia entry:

Elisa New…is a Professor of English at Harvard University. She holds a B.A. from Brandeis University (1980), as well as a M.A. and a Ph.D from Columbia University (1982 and 1988, respectively). Her interests include American poetry, American Literature-1900, Religion and Literature, and Jewish literature. Before moving to Harvard, she taught at the University of Pennsylvania.

Here is her Harvard page.  She also hosts the new PBS show Poetry in America.

So what should I ask her?

Models as indexing, and the value of Google

There are many arguments for the use of models in economics, including notions of rigor and transparency, or that models can help you to see relationships you otherwise might not have expected.  I don’t wish to gainsay those, but I thought of another argument yesterday.  Models are a way of indexing your thoughts.  A model can tell you which are the core features of your argument and force you to give them names.  You then can use those names to find what others have written about your topic and your mechanisms.  In essence, you are expanding the division of labor in science more effectively by using models.

This mechanism of course requires that models are a more efficient means of indexing thoughts than pure words or propositions alone.  In this view, it is often topic names or book indexes or card catalogs that models are competing with, not verbal economics per se.

The existence of Google therefore may have lowered the relative return to models.  First, Google searches by words best of all.  Second and relatedly, if you have written only words Google will help you find the related work you need, scholar.google.com kicks in too.  In essence, there is a new and very powerful way of finding related ideas, and you need not rely on the communities that get built around particular models (though those communities largely will continue).

It is notable that open access, on-line economics writing doesn’t use models very much and is mostly content to rely on words and propositions.  There are several reasons for this, but this productivity shock to differing methods of indexing may be one factor.

Still, it is not always easy to search by words.  Many phrases — consider say “free will” — do not through search engines discriminate very well on the basis of IQ or rigor.

My Conversation with Agnes Callard

She is a philosopher at the University of Chicago, here is the transcript and audio.  We covered Plato and Socrates, what Plato is on about at all, the virtues of dialog and refutation, whether immortality would be boring, Elena Ferrante, parents vs. gangsters and Beethoven vs. Mozart, my two Straussian readings of her book, Jordan Peterson, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the best defense of reading the classics, and the Agnes Callard production function (physics to classics to philosophy), all in suitably informationally dense fashion.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I have a friend who’s interested in longevity research…and he tells me there’s maybe a 10 percent chance that I actually will live forever due to possible scientific advances. I’m skeptical, but let’s just say I were to live forever. How bored would I end up, and how do you think about this question?

CALLARD: [laughs] I think it depends on how good of a person you are.

COWEN: And the good people are more or less bored?

CALLARD: Oh, they’re less bored. One thing is that you’re kind of having to live with yourself for a very long time if you’re immortal, or even just live for a couple thousand years, and a bad self, I think, is hard to live with. By bad, I don’t just mean sort of, let’s say, cruel to people or unjust. I also mean not attuned to things of eternal significance.

I think you can get by in a 100-year life not being too much attuned to things of eternal significance because there’s so much fascinating stuff out there, and one can go from one thing to the next and not get bored. But if we’re talking about eternity, or even thousands of years, you’d better find something to occupy you that is really riveting in the way that I think only eternal things are.

I think that what you’re really asking is something like, “Could I be a god?” And I think, “Well, if you became godlike, you could, and then it would be OK.”

COWEN: Let me give you a hypothesis. You can react to it. That which is cultural, say, listening to music, I would get bored with, even though wonderful music maybe continually will be created. But those activities which are more primeval, more biological — parenting, sex, food, sleep, maybe taking a wonderful shower — that are quite brute, in a way, maybe I would substitute more into those as an immortal? Yes?

CALLARD: I don’t see why you wouldn’t get just as bored of bodily pleasures.

COWEN: You’re programmed for those to be so immediate and riveting, right? You evolve to be maybe an 80-year-old being, or perhaps even a 33-year-old being, so you are riveted on things like reproduction and getting enough sleep. And that stays riveting, even when you’re on this program to live 80,000 years.

CALLARD: I think that at least some of those activities stay riveting for us over the course of our lives because their meaning changes…

And:

COWEN: Let’s turn now to your new book, Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming. There’s a sentence from the book. Let me read it, and maybe you can explain it. “Proleptic reasons allow you to be rational even when you know that your reasons aren’t exactly the right ones.” What’s a proleptic reason?

This was my favorite part, though perhaps few of you will get the joke:

COWEN: On aspiration, what do you think of Jordan Peterson?

CALLARD: I had this odd feeling. He only became known to me quite recently, in the past couple of weeks. I was listening to him talk, and I was thinking he sounds a little bit like Socrates, but not Socrates. I was like, “Who is that? Who is he reminding me of?” And it’s Xenophon’s Socrates.

Here you can buy her just-published book Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming.  You cannot follow her on Twitter.

What should I ask Juan Villarino?

I’ll be doing a Conversation with him in early May.  He is often known as “the world’s greatest hitchhiker,” here is a NYT profile of him.  Excerpt:

Villarino has cataloged every ride he has ever caught: 2,350, totaling about 100,000 miles in 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times.

He is from Argentina, and worked for a while in a Belfast cheese factory.  He is described as from a “downwardly mobile middle-class family” and:

In Buenos Aires, three men tried to mug him, but when they realized who he was, the thieves gave him money.

And:

They [Villarino and his wife] continue to live on about $7 a day each and travel as they always have, leading a life almost entirely on the highway, without a fixed address or jobs or bills.

Here is his blog and also a link to his self-published book.  Here is his blog in Spanish.  So what should I ask him?

1986 interview with Thomas Bernhard

It is wonderful throughout, here is one good part of many:

What, in your view, is a conversation?

I don’t usually have them. To me people who want to have a conversation are suspect, because that raises particular expectations they’re unable to satisfy. Simple people are very good to talk with. When talking is supposed to become conversation, that’s when things get gruesome! That fine expression “everything under the sun.” It all gets thrown in together and then one person stirs this way, the other stirs that, and an unbearable stinking turd comes out the bottom. No matter who it is. There are collected conversations, hundreds of them, books full. Entire publishing houses live off them. Like something coming out of an anus, and then it gets squashed in between book covers. This wasn’t a conversation either.

Do read the whole thing.

Do earthquakes make men more risk tolerant?

We investigate whether individuals’ risk preferences change after experiencing a natural disaster, specifically, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. Exploiting the panels of nationally representative surveys on risk preferences, we find that men who experienced greater intensity of the earthquake became more risk tolerant a year after the Earthquake. Interestingly, the effects on men’s risk preferences are persistent even five years after the Earthquake at almost the same magnitude as those shortly after the Earthquake. Furthermore, these men gamble more, which is consistent with the direction of changes in risk preferences. We find no such pattern for women.

That is from a newly published paper by Chie Hanaoka, Hitoshi Shigeoka, and Yasutora Watanabe.  What else will have this effect?

*Cognitive Gadgets*

The author is Cecilia Heyes, and the subtitle is The Cultural Evolution of Thinking, published by Harvard/Belknap.  It is not always a transparent read, but this is an important book and likely the most thoughtful of the year in the social sciences.

From the book’s home page:

…adult humans have impressive pieces of cognitive equipment. In her framing, however, these cognitive gadgets are not instincts programmed in the genes but are constructed in the course of childhood through social interaction. Cognitive gadgets are products of cultural evolution, rather than genetic evolution. At birth, the minds of human babies are only subtly different from the minds of newborn chimpanzees. We are friendlier, our attention is drawn to different things, and we have a capacity to learn and remember that outstrips the abilities of newborn chimpanzees. Yet when these subtle differences are exposed to culture-soaked human environments, they have enormous effects. They enable us to upload distinctively human ways of thinking from the social world around us.

The key substantive points from this are malleability and speed of evolution, and overall in her theory there is a much lower reliance on cognitive instincts and thus a fundamentally different account of social evolution: “In contrast, the cognitive gadgets theory applies cultural evolutionary theory to the mechanisms of thought — the mental processes that generate and control behavior.”

And “…social interaction in infancy and childhood produces new cognitive mechanisms; it changes the way we think.”

The chapter on imitation is the best appendage to Girard on memesis I know.  One interesting point is that most people find it quite hard to imitate how they look to others when say they tell a joke or make love.  To imitate successfully, you need to develop particular sensorimotor capacities.  Otherwise, you can be thwarted by a kind of “correspondence” problem, not knowing how the objective and subjective experiences of imitation match up properly.  This too we learn through cultural gadgets.

Mindreading is also a mental gadget, it must be learned, and it is surprisingly similar to print reading.  In an odd twist on Julian Jaynes, Heyes suggests that humans five or six thousand years ago may not have had this capacity very strongly.  And as with print reading, there is cross-cultural diversity in mindreading.  There is no mindreading instinct and we all must learn it, autistics too.

What about language?  Rather than Chomsky’s Universal Grammar, there are instead “domain-general processes of sequence learning.”  This in turn leads to a complex and quite interesting take on how, while non-human animals do also have language, it is quite different from ours (p.187).

Most generally, if someone is trying to explain X, maybe both genetic/instinct and cultural evolution accounts of X are wrong — try a cultural gadget approach!  And think of this book as perhaps the best attempt so far to explain the weirdness of humans, relative to other animals.

Note also that in this view, humanity is relatively vulnerable to cultural catastrophes, as we cannot simply bounce back using enduring instincts.  Furthermore, social media may indeed matter a great deal, and in revisionist terms some parts of Marx are not as crazy as they may seem (my point this latter one, not hers).

I need more time (years?) to digest the contents of this book, and decide how much I agree.  It is somehow neither hard nor easy reading, but most MR readers should be able to make their way through it.  Highly recommended, it is likely to prove one of the most thought-provoking books of the year.

Buy it on Amazon here.  Here is a Heyes lecture on related ideas, also click through to part II.

My Conversation with Martina Navratilova

Here is the podcast and transcript, Martina was in top form and dare I say quick on her feet?  Here is part of the summary:

In their conversation, she and Tyler cover her illustrious tennis career, her experience defecting from Czechoslovakia and later becoming a dual citizen, the wage gap in tennis competition and commentary, gender stereotypes in sports, her work regimen and training schedule, technological progress in tennis, her need for speed, journaling and constant self-improvement, some of her most shocking realizations about American life, the best way to see East Africa, her struggle to get her children to put the dishes in the dishwasher, and more.

Here is one bit:

NAVRATILOVA: I just wanted to leave no stone unturned, really. The coach, obviously, was technique and tactics. The physical part was training, working very hard. I’ll give you my typical day in a minute. The eating was so that I could train hard and not get injured. So it all came together.

The typical day, then, when I really was humming was four hours of tennis, 10:00 to 2:00, two hours of drills and maybe two hours of sets. Then I would do some running drills on the court for 15, 20 minutes, sprints that if I did them now, I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.

[laughter]

NAVRATILOVA: You know, 15- to 30-second sprinting drills. Then we would eat lunch. Then I would go either play basketball full-court, two on two for an hour and a half or little man-big man. It’s two on one. I don’t know, those people that play basketball. You just run. You just run.

COWEN: Which one were you?

NAVRATILOVA: It switches. Whoever has the ball is the little man. No, whoever has the ball, it’s one against two. Then you play little man, the person plays defense, and then the big man plays center. It’s not two on one, it’s one against one and then one. Then whoever gets the ball goes the other way. It’s run, run, run.

Then I would lift weights and have dinner either before lifting weights or after. So it was a full day of training.

COWEN: What about 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.?

And this:

COWEN:Billie Jean King once suggested that you use writing in a journal every day to help you accomplish your goals. How does that work for you? What is it you do? Why do you think it works?

NAVRATILOVA: It worked because it really centers you. It narrows it down, whatever long-term goal you have. It becomes more real and more current because it narrows it down in that, “What do you need to do today?” and “Did you accomplish that goal?” You have a big goal. You break it into smaller goals, into smaller goals, until you get into, “OK, what do I do today to get to that goal?”

…Try to be honest with yourself. Be honest but also be nice to yourself. You see that with most champions. They’re perfectionists. You beat yourself up too much. I preach and I try to strive for excellence rather than perfection.

If you strive for excellence, perfection may happen. [laughs] It’s good enough to be excellent. That’s good enough. You don’t need to be perfect because perfection just happens by accident.

I asked her this:

COWEN: What was it like to go skiing with Donald Trump?

My favorite part was this:

NAVRATILOVA: Tyler, you need to drink more water. You’re not hydrating at all.

Remember, above all else, sports is cognitive!  These are some of the smartest humans of our time, even if it is not always the kind of intelligence you respect most.

Are the Amish unhappy?

We were able to recruit 52 Amish participants for our study of which 56 % were male and for which the average age was 44. Interestingly, the average levels of life satisfaction as measured by the SWLS (Diener et al., 1985) was 4.4; just above the neutral point. Above neutral scores are consistent with the idea that “most people are mildly happy” (Diener & Diener, 1996), and that mild happiness is evolutionarily advantageous (Fredrickson, 2001). Comparatively, the Amish satisfaction in our study can be interpreted as meaning that the Amish fall lower than members of many other groups. In a study of more than 13 thousand college students from 31 nations, for example, only students from Kenya (whose average life satisfaction was 4.0) scored lower than the Amish (Diener & Diener, 1995).

Anecdotally, the Amish society in which we conducted our study was fraught with contrasts. On the one hand, the Amish had a pronounced pro-social attitude. One man I interviewed, for example, had donated tens of thousands of US Dollars toward the medical treatment of his neighbor’s son, with no thought of repayment. Similarly, the Amish often helped one another in quilting, construction, and food preparation. On the other hand, these neighborly behaviors were confined to in-group members. There was a conspicuous degree of prejudice toward out-group members, especially ethnic or religious minorities. One bishop, for example, asked me whether I thought the space shuttle Challenger exploded because there was a Jewish person (Judith Resnick) aboard.

Another set of contrasts could be found in the relationship between the Amish and the larger “English” society in which they live. While on the one hand there is a strong cultural push to remain separate from industrialized society. The Amish I spoke with were highly invested in publicly conforming to group norms related to abstaining from the use of industrial technologies and from remaining aloof from broader society. Privately, however, the Amish revealed themselves to be as curious and as human as people from any other society. One participant, for example, admitted that he used his workplace telephone—an allowable technology—to phone a newspaper number that hosts recordings of the world’s news. Another informant revealed that she had secretly flown on an airplane. These examples reflect the on-going tension of a society that must—individually and collectively—continually re-negotiate its relation to the larger society in which it exists. Where subjective well-being is concerned, the tension between retaining traditions and adapting to new circumstances is an interesting issue for research.

…global and specific domain satisfaction should, theoretically, be in agreement. For example, if a person is satisfied with her romantic life, her friendships, and her family relationships—all specific domains—she should, logically, report about the same amount of satisfaction with her overall social life (the global domain). Diener and colleagues found that this correspondence occurred in some cultures, such as Japan. In other cultures, however, they discovered an inflationary effect. People in Colombia and the United States, for instance, are likely to inflate their global reports of satisfaction over that reported for specific satisfaction.

That is by Robert Biswas-Diener, there is much of interest in this paper on happiness in small societies.  Via Rolf Degen.  By the way, this article about Norway is worth a ponder too.

What should I ask Balaji Srinivasan?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  Here is his home page, here is his bio:

Balaji S. Srinivasan is the CEO of Earn.com and a Board Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Prior to taking the CEO role at Earn.com, Dr. Srinivasan was a General Partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Before joining a16z, he was the cofounder and CTO of Founders Fund-backed Counsyl, where he won the Wall Street Journal Innovation Award for Medicine and was named to the MIT TR35.

Dr. Srinivasan holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. He also teaches the occasional class at Stanford, including an online MOOC in 2013 which reached 250,000+ students worldwide.

His latest Medium essay was on ICOs and tokens.  I thank you all in advance for your wise counsel.

Greeting cards aren’t about greeting

Greeting cards and cliché more generally bear witness to the fact that the most banal and the most meaningful regularly coincide, and that something always remains beyond the reach of words. Cliché is a place where life and language resist one another.

By recognising the radical imperfection of language, cliché can help ameliorate the damage it does. The continual return of these stock phrases reminds us that, though language can say ‘I love you’ or ‘Our deepest sympathies’ – which ties the love and grief we feel with all those who have ever, and will ever, love and grieve – it can never completely capture this grief or this love. After which, the universality of our love, our grief, begins to feel less like an act of violent conceptuality and more like an act of community, transposing us into a commune with all the living and the dead.

Greeting cards serve as a reminder that it is often with the clichéd and the ordinary that the fabric of language starts to unravel, and the pulse of life – that which will always remain beyond words – begins to bubble up from beneath.

Here is more, by Daniel Fraser.  Do you prefer that take, or a single tweet on the topic by Robin Hanson?

Very good sentences about sex

Here is one of them:

But there is a risk too that repoliticising desire will encourage a discourse of sexual entitlement.

Here is another:

By contrast, gay men – even the beautiful, white, rich, able-bodied ones – know that who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.

Here are many more, by Amia Srinivasan, definitely recommended to those of you who are interested, and do note that sex is not like a sandwich.  The piece closes with:

In the very best cases, the cases that perhaps ground our best hope, desire can cut against what politics has chosen for us, and choose for itself.

Via S.M.  Here is more about the still massively underrated author.

*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

People expect happiness improvements that don’t quite arrive

Among the young, expectations for future well-being run far ahead of reported well-being today. The gap diminishes with age, and in the rich countries, the lines cross around age 65 after which the future is expected to be worse than the present. Except for this, people appear to be perpetually optimistic about their futures even though this optimism is perpetually frustrated by actual outcomes.

…This (unjustified) optimism seems to happen everywhere in the world…

That is from a new paper by Angus Deaton.