Thursday, January 29, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

At the beginning of this film we are given a Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? style question. The poor, uneducated hero keeps getting the quiz questions right because: A) he is lucky B) he is a genius C) he cheated D) it is written.

That last answer, "it is written,"
which we find at the end of the film was the correct one, is a phrase from The Quran, indicating that something is the will of Allah. Given that the hero's name (Jamal) is obviously Muslim, I find myself wondering whether this final answer indicates that the filmmakers are: A) commenting on religio-ethnic tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India today, B) seriously trying to portray the plight of the poor, C) conveying a deep subtext about freedom, chance, and fate, or D) just trying to be cute.

I suspect the correct answer is (D), they are just trying to be cute. And this movie is indeed extremely cute. You just want to reach out and pinch its plump little cheeks. Kitchykitchykoo!

I notice, though, on Wikipedia that some Indians are taking it way more seriously, and not in a nice way.

Actually, I liked it for what it was: A traditional tale of how the hero wins fame, fortune, and love, and rescues the heroine from the clutches of the villain. I even like the audacity with which they piled one coincidence on another as, in flashbacks as Jamal is under police torture, they explain how he happened to know the answers to the questions.

Still, the coincidental nature of these events affects the nature of the tale. To the extent that this is how the hero succeeds, the story of his success is not an account of how he achieves something. I was put in mind of the Medieval tale, Dick Whittington and His Cat, about a poor boy who eventually becomes the Lord Mayor of London as a result of a series of events that follow upon his taking in a cat. In a hierarchical world like that of the Middle Ages, we can imagine upward mobility, but mainly as a result of random events, and not so much as the object of successful, purposive action.

To a certain extent, this film conveys that sort of world view. Still, it is jolly good fun. So is the tale of Dick Whittington (if you're a kid).

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Beautiful Mind

I just read Sylvia Nasar's absorbing, novel-like biography of the great mathematician John Nash (A Beautiful Mind: Simon and Schuster, 1998), who eventually won the Nobel for economics. I also finally viewed the 2001 movie based on it. The movie surprised everyone by sweeping the Academy Awards -- how can a movie about a a man of ideas be popular?

Well, as you may know, they did it by cheating: the movie isn't about Nash's ideas at all but about his battle with schizophrenia (among his heroes were Nietzsche and Newton, also men of ideas who went insane).

The one scene in the movie where the screenwriter tries to explain a Nash idea -- the Nash equilibrium, an idea from his dissertation for which he won the Nobel -- is so bad it virtually inverts the meaning of the idea involved. Apparently, there was no math or econ technical advisor on this production at all.

The scene takes place in a bar, where Nash says "If we all go for the blonde and block each other, not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because no on likes to be second choice. But what if none of us goes for the blonde? We won't get in each other's way and we won't insult the other girls. It's the only way to win. It's the only way we all get laid. ... Adam Smith said the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what's best for himself, right? Adam Smith was wrong! The message: Sometimes it is better to cooperate!"

Wow. How many things are wrong with that? They begin with the admittedly technical-sounding fact that Nash's idea only concerns non-cooperative games and makes no comment on cooperation.

Here's one thing that I think is fairly important. The writer is obviously thinking of Adam Smith's famous statement: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self interest. We address ourselves [ie., in trading with them], not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

Smith is definitely not saying that self-interest somehow generally leads to doing what is in the interest of the other. He is talking about the butcher, the brewer, and the baker. In other words, he is taking about markets. He is not, for instance, talking about warfare, which is a situation where self-interest typically tends to be very detrimental to the other person. The Prisoners' Dilemma, which was first formalized by Nash's dissertation adviser Albert Tucker, is a situation in which uncoordinated self-interest is suboptimal both for the self and the other.

In the book, Nasar actually says that the connection to Smith here is positive. She contrasts Nash in this respect with the great founder of game theory, John von Neumann. Von Neumann, she claims, tended to think that in order to establish social order "players would have to form coalitions, make explicit agreements, and submit to some higher, centralized authority." To Nash, on the other hand, "individual rationality and self-interest, not common agreement on some collective good, seemed sufficient to create a tolerable order." Thus, she says, he gave "economics an updated, far more sophisticated version of Adam Smith's great metaphor of the Invisible Hand." (pp. 14-15)

Updating is very different from revising.

Human beings tend to find many of the basic ideas of economics deeply counterintuitive. This is very important, as it may mean that no democracy can have an economic policy that makes any sense. One of these troublesome basic ideas is that from the uncoodinated interactions of self-interested individuals social order can emerge. Nash's idea was a contribution to understanding this crucial fact.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

"Miracle on the Hudson" Co-Pilot is My Neighbor

Jeffrey Skiles, the co-pilot to Chesley Sullenberger, the only pilot in the history of commercial aviation to ditch a plane in water with no deaths or major injuries, lives in my town, Oregon WI. Jeff and Barb Skiles, my phone book informs me, live over on Foxridge Rd. As you know, Skyles and Sullenberger thoroughly searched the plane to be sure no one had been left behind, before abandoning it themselves.

"Well," you may be thinking, "aren't you special!" Actually I draw almost the opposite conclusion. What the press often reports as "heroism" must be very common, or the human race would never have survived the first million years of its battles with the unforgiving and indifferent cruelty of nature.

Notice how all those ferry boats appeared around the plane, quickly pulling passengers to safety. That river water was barely above freezing. Go into that and you have minutes to live. Meanwhile, the public servants who are paid to rescue people were flying uselessly overhead in helicopters. If these the passengers had waited for Leviathan to lumber into motion, there would have been deaths. Fortunately, there are plenty of decent people around who do their jobs skillfully and find it embarrassing to be called heroes.

Added Later: I'm not really sure what I should think of calling all the people who saved lives here heroes. I don't mind doing so, provided that we realize that we are reconfiguring the idea of a hero. We're no longer going with the Hercules/El Cid/George Washington paradigm. Notice that two of these were real people, who actually did heroic things -- so the old idea shouldn't be abandoned (if we do so) because it was unrealistic. Indeed, Sullenberger is something of a Hercules, isn't he? BTW, on the matter of being embarrassed to be called a hero, take a look at this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Western Civilization: It's Not Just a Great Idea

I just read the most delightful book, A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, by Alex Beam (Public Affairs Press, 2008). It's the often-funny story of Robert Maynard Hutchins' and Mortimer Adler's Great Books of the Western World.

It's not easy to think of anything more politically incorrect than promoting "great" (a hierarchical concept) books of the Western (a Eurocentric concept) world, but the Great Books project was basically a noble attempt to bring culture and world-historical ideas to the masses. The snooty jerks at The New Yorker published not one but two articles deriding it as "the Book of the Millenium Club." When a publicity photo appeared showing Adler with the index cards for his Syntopicon, an index of the 102 Great Ideas (click to enlarge) Marshall McLuhan said that the signs on the boxes of cards looked like little tombstones where dead ideas had been buried.

The Great Books came and went, and both Adler and Hutchinson died believing that their lives had basically been failures (a sentiment that Adler's son agreed with).

It's easy to make fun of the project (Beam mercifully avoids taking the obvious cheap shots) but I have a lot of sympathy for what these people were trying to do. I even like the idea of -- in some way or other -- isolating Western ideas and books for special treatment.

I think of Western Civilization as consisting of four (okay, let's capitalize it) Great Ideas: 1) scientific method, 2) multiparty democracy, 3) the rule of law, and 4) competitive markets.

One feature all four of these ideas have in common: all refer to processes, not results. Western civ is mad about methods. This leads to a couple of other crucial features.

Being all about process makes it very freedom-friendly. This sort of culture doesn't tell you what result you have to come up with, it only constrains the means by which you can come up with whatever result you prefer. Do you want to devote your life to the worship of Otho, the God of Flashlight Batteries and After-Dinner Comments? Fine! Just don't do it in a way that interferes with these four processes. But, you say, these ideas prevent me from forcing Otho-worship on others! That's too bad! You can't do it!

Another result of being all about process: because they are relatively free of content, the Four Ideas are pretty easy to carry from one culture to another. It is actually rather misleading to call it "Western" civilization any longer. It is Western only in the sense that the West is where it began. Today, one of the most successful countries in using the Big Four is India. Japan has done pretty well with them too.

Other cultures have been gentler, more beautiful, or more poetic and sensitive. None has been more powerful. No other culture has been able to send vehicles to Mars and Titan, or cure tuberculosis, or (to be honest) vaporize a million human beings at the press of a button.

So what does this world-conquering culture have to do with Adler and Hutchins' set of books? Everything! The Wealth of Nations, The Second Treatise of Government, The Origin of Species. The basis of these ideas is in those books. Spreading awareness of these books sounds like a Great Idea to me.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Another Industry Seeks a Bailout

Here is a stimulus package we can all get behind.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Tyrannicide Problem

Audiences are flocking to Valkyrie, a pretty good movie about one of the true heroes of the twentieth century, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. The critics on the other hand seem to be suffering from some kind of irrational reaction to the fact that Tom Cruise plays the hero. He really seems to throw them into a tizzy. Personally, I almost never either like or dislike a movie because some mime appears in it, and so I regard this one as worth seeing. Actors are sock-puppets, and (now that Pauline Kael is gone) critics should be ignored. Except for me, of course.

Anyway, when Bryan Caplan saw this movie recently he was moved to comment on an interesting problem posed by the practice of tyrannicide. No, it isn't how could it be justified? He rightly takes that to be obvious (how could you not kill Hitler if given the chance?) but why isn't there a lot more of it? People seem to have a deep-seated aversion to killing evil authority figures. (Notice that Dante puts Brutus on the same level of Hell as Judas -- the lowest.) Why?

His rather disturbing answer (other than that people are afraid of the consequences): there is a high correlation between moral virtue (as conventionally understood) and obedience to authority. Most of the people who care enough to fight evil are the very ones who have a gut aversion to going up against the big boys. This of course is exactly what Nietzsche would have said.

If Caplan and Nietzsche are right, it probably means that the ways of thinking and acting that most ethical theories recommend are actually very rare. Most are, after all, instances of what you might call epistemological individualism. Whether your favorite theory is utilitarianism, Kantian rationalism, or Randian individualism, they tell you that the way to act is to apply principles, ideals and algorithms to the problems of life, using the powers of your own mind. If there is a high correlation between morality and obedience to authority, the most likely explanation for that would be that people's obedience authority is the source of their "morality." In that case, the theory that actually describes the way such people act is relativism, which tells you to follow the lead of ... whoever or whatever makes the rules that actually govern society.

And that, to me, is very disturbing, for a number of reasons. One is that it means that if the person making the rules is Hitler, you may be stuck with him. The only people with the guts to take him out will tend to be the ones who don't care. In fact, they may be working the system for all its worth, and making out like bandits. Is that what actually happens, I wonder?