A grotesque mediocrity — January 24, 2017

A grotesque mediocrity

Of the writings dealing with the same subject at approximately the same time as mine, only two deserve notice: Victor Hugo’s Napoleon le Petit and Proudhon’s Coup d’Etat. Victor Hugo confines himself to bitter and witty invective against the responsible producer of the coup d’etat. The event itself appears in his work like a bolt from the blue. He sees in it only the violent act of a single individual. He does not notice that he makes this individual great instead of little by ascribing to him a personal power of initiative unparalleled in world history. Proudhon, for his part, seeks to represent the coup d’etat as the result of an antecedent historical development. Inadvertently, however, his historical construction of the coup d’etat becomes a historical apologia for its hero. Thus he falls into the error of our so-called objective historians. I, on the contrary, demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.

Blog-post series idea, quantitative-literacy department: Top Tens — January 23, 2017

Blog-post series idea, quantitative-literacy department: Top Tens

Here’s a quick idea for a series of blog posts: “If you want to do [x], you will need to address the following 10 items; everything else is negligible.” For instance: if you want to cut the Federal budget appreciably, you’ll need to cut defense, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, or the interest on the federal debt; everything else amounts to very little. (In particular, the National Endowment for the Arts amounts to very little. There may be a list of sound ideological reasons to kill it, but budget-balancing is not at the top of that list.)

Or: if you want to raise American life expectancy, you’ll need to reduce a few major causes of death; giving everyone a flu shot, while useful, won’t cut it.

Or: if you want to reduce health-care costs, you’ll need to focus on the last few years of life; making me pay more for the occasional X-ray won’t cut it.

These are just hypothetical examples, and I’ve not worked out the detailed numbers on any of them; doing so would be part of the fun of the exercise. The goal of the exercise, overall, is to give people — including myself! — a clarifying idea of where the big wins come from. For instance, how much life expectancy could we gain from imposing a $1 tax on cigarettes? (A book I read recently but haven’t yet reviewed probably contains exactly this number.)

Useful idea? What else would people like to see in such a series?

LazyWeb (if that’s still a thing) request: where to read unsanitized Martin Luther King? — January 17, 2017
What should I learn this year? — January 13, 2017

What should I learn this year?

I feel like I should learn some subject that’s entirely new to me. I basically did that with behavioral economics a few years back, and I found that fun. Now I’d like to find some subject that’s really interesting, totally new to me, and hopefully somewhat off the beaten path. Behavioral economics, for instance, is rather overplayed in the public discourse. Sociology and anthropology, on the other hand, are probably underplayed: among the social sciences, they get the least treatment in mass media, and the least respect among the sort of technical folks who would laud economics. So sociology and anthropology would be good candidates. Maybe I should start with Weber (apart from The Protestant Ethic, which I read and which is a Bad book — a book that is Bad), since he seems to be a father of sociology. And maybe Durkheim?

What about other fields? Anyone have any suggestions on books I really ought to be reading, in subjects about which I know little?

As always, I’d also like to learn more math. I’m much less good at it than I’d like to be. I think writing code may be the right way to learn it, so I think I’ll try to take that avenue in. It’d be interesting to actually code up some crypto and primality-testing algorithms, for instance. I tried to code up the AKS algorithm, but I didn’t really understand why I was coding what I was coding. So a textbook of number theory or crypto, taught via programming examples, would be useful. Likewise for linear algebra and complex analysis. Maybe Coding The Matrix would be the way to go.

Open thread. Let me know what I should stuff into my brain this year!

Prisoner’s dilemma — January 12, 2017

Prisoner’s dilemma

Suppose someone gave all of America’s media outlets a choice: a sociopath will be at a given place at a given time; if any of you film him, he will destroy the United States, though you’ll get phenomenal ratings; whereas if everyone turns off the cameras, you’ll get slightly less revenue and the U.S. will live another day. I have a fairly good idea how this would turn out.

Anyway, what’s everyone doing on Inauguration Day?

Lately this is how I’m feeling — December 21, 2016

Lately this is how I’m feeling

The feeling is that our civilization will end at the precise moment that our knowledge and prosperity reaches its pinnacle:

He had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.

And then Trump was elected.

Possible 2017 project: read only old books —

Possible 2017 project: read only old books

There’s sort of a novelty/innovation fetish in the world (some other time, I will expand upon my loathing for Bay Area startup culture), so it occurs to me that finding ideas which are

  1. old, and
  2. still considered correct

would be a useful corrective to the structure of today’s world.

Makes me want to start casting about among my academic friends to find books that they think are old but still true.