Posts tagged with wisdom

Thank goodness someone with sense and mathematical credentials (W.W.Sawyer) has put the ghastly A Mathematician’s Apology to bed.

That Hardy was a very great mathematician is beyond question…. However, when any person eminent in some field makes statements outside that field, it is legitimate to consider the validity of these statements….

Hardy writes

I hate ‘teaching’….I love lecturing, and have lectured a great deal to extremely able classes. [2.]

Here lecturing means imparting mathematical knowledge to those able to understand it with little or no difficulty; teaching means giving time and effort to make it accessible to those who require assistance…. Good [management] consists in appreciating the merits of a wide variety of individuals and combining them into an effective team. [I]t is precisely this appreciation that Hardy lacks. He makes the extraordinary statement

Most people can do nothing at all well. [3.]

…[H]e regards you as doing well only if you are one of the ten best in the world at this particular activity…. [T]hat very few people do anything well is [then] an [obvious] consequence.

However in life we continually depend on the co-operation of men and women far below this exacting standard….

[E]ven … the … process that links the great mathematicians of one generation to those of the next [depends on them]. There may of course be direct contact, as when Riemann [studied] … under Gauss. But the fact that Gauss was able to reach university at all was due to two teachers, Buttner … and Bartels….[4.]

In science the importance of the expositor is perhaps as great as that of the discoverer. Mendel’s work in genetics remained unknown for many years because there was no one to publicize it and fight for it as Huxley did for Darwin.

He makes this curiously objective division of mankind into minds that are first-class, second class and so on…. There is no part of this that should be accepted as sound advice. If there is something you think worth doing, that you are able to do, that you have the opportunity to do, and that you enjoy doing, wisdom lies in getting on with it, and not giving a second’s thought to what ordinal number attaches to you in some system of intellectual snobbery. As for concern with the self, you are both happiest and most effective when you are so absorbed in what you are doing that for a while you forget the limited being that is actually performing it.

I am literally dead. But at least I was smarter than all of you food-eating idiots.

I am literally dead. But at least I was smarter than all of you food-eating idiots.



There are many important fields where one can’t rigorously prove results but there’s wisdom to be had, so I don’t think that you can’t know things you can’t prove.

Economics as a science is basically about modeling, and if all you knew about the economy was what can be modeled you would know very little. … One spends a lot of time understanding these models, and then what? Does that make you a valued counsel for a large company or government? Only insofar as you can argue better, generating a spread argument that others can’t easily dismiss. … [S]uch tools are used are often used to obfuscate and deflect common sense criticisms as being nonscientific, when such people are speaking about constructs and relationships with more rigor than is empirically warranted. I think it’s pointless to get into such debates…. That’s not a search for truth, just a way to more easily convince yourself you were right all along.

… Perhaps we simply need more granular data than is available, so like the germ theory before the magnifying glass, we simply can know what’s driving things. Clearly national income accounting has failed spectacularly relative to original expectations as to what it would show, like measuring one’s health via a thermometer: correct at extremes, but pretty useless in between.

Maybe things like the good life or happiness or an optimal fiscal policy will forever remain things that are achievable, just not in any rigorous way. Or maybe someday we will discover the equivalence of an economic magnifying glass.

Eric Falkenstein


I had to tell someone what £20−£12.25 was. At first I thought she was stupid. You really don’t know? But then I realised that many people can’t do mental arithmetic of the variety £20−£7.75; they just don’t admit it or ask for help. Then I thought she was smart.


I read somewhere that dyslexia is overrepresented among CEO’s. The person who pointed it out speculated that it’s because dyslexics are used to asking others for help. No matter how brilliant you are, you can’t be good at everything a large organisation needs to do. How are you going to be the person at the top if you’re more focussed on being brilliant yourself rather than seeking help from someone who’s smarter than you?

Words that seem innocuous to me can set other people into anger mode. (I too, of course, have my own buttons that can be pushed—mostly economics-related.)

One woman who has raised more children than I can even fathom doing (9) will launch off if she hears the phrase “quality time”.

She says "Quality time" is short for "I don’t really know my kids—but I’ll make up for it by going to their sports games and dance recitals.”

To her, ∄ such thing as “quality time”—time spent with your kids that’s significantly better than, or can make up for, other, less important, time. For her you really get to know your kids during all the unimportant, mundane, pedestrian moments of life.

The most obvious image of a laughable hipster should be a half-time art-school student whose parents are going to provide him/her with a cushy job and/or money so s/he doesn’t really have to work but can just learn some stuff, party/hang out, make some art, and do a little-of-this little-of-that. Maybe have his/her own record label or vanity company or charity or eat instagrammable food or wear cool clothes or whatever, and be beautiful.




Hey, that actually sounds like a nice life I would like to have for myself.


Since art and learning and performing and consuming of those kinds of things are ends in themselves, it’s like this stereotypical character already has what the rest of us would use up our potential leisure time working to be able to afford. In that case the hipster hatred can be just a form of envy.


First you have other things to consider—the principal being your father’s money. Does your partner love that? Or your youth, beauty and intelligence? All, some or just one of these reasons is enough for most people, but a true marriage is built on a greater (some say the greatest) thing: a mutual understanding. If you’d like to see a sham destroyed, wait until you see yourself—your true self—reflected in the eyes of another. You’ll see marriage is not an institution. It doesn’t need to answer to history or society. Each marriage is an institution unto itself.

I chose to go to university at the age of 18 because I thought heaps of useful knowledge was stored there. I thought to myself: Old people know a lot of stuff. I want to learn what they know. Because I will probably face challenges similar to the ones they have faced and I would rather learn from their mistakes than have to make them myself.

So I was surprised, after spending a number of years there and graduating, that I didn’t really learn a lot of practical life advice. I learned a lot of interesting scholarly things like the propositional calculus, fuzzy logic, decision trees, quantum mechanics, slack vectors, regressions; learned about other cultures, writing, constitutions,—and read and pretended to understand Ulysses. (update: check this outAnd I still admire and appreciate the people who taught me those super-interesting things.

But to me, the most basic question: How can I think about life in order to be happy? was not answered. Actually it was barely even broached.


Why not?

My sense is that people think: “Well, happiness, that’s not really a scientific subject is it?” Here’s my response: It’s only not scientific because we don’t apply science to it.

We live in a time of unprecedented respect for science.



Let’s not underestimate the power of 1,000 scientists, given resources + time, to answer questions about human happiness and its causes. We have statistics, we have double-blind experiments; we have causal graph models, topological machine learning, functional data analysis, robust algorithms; we have item response theory, sampling theory, supercomputers in our pockets, and worldwide communication networks. We have tens of billions of dollars every year already funding science research. We have machines that can look inside of people’s brains, for Chrissakes. I think we can do this.

Yup, that is a brain.

Yep, that is a brain.


In economics, happiness research is treated like a subfield of behavioural economics, which is itself a subfield. But the utilitarian philosophy that justifies cost-benefit analysis, the Lagrangian model of microeconomics, and ultimately the entire financial system is undergirded by this very weak understanding of “utility”, the pursuit of which is supposed to be the whole point of capitalism.

No wonder people outside the econ/finance intelligentsia keep saying “We need a [financial system | economic theory] for humans.” Other than the vague idea that health, wealth, and freedom are worth attaining (except maybe not always), our scientists really don’t know many specific consejos about the pursuit of happiness.

Out of all the broad-topic, cross-category departments in universities:

  • business (= how to do stuff),
  • history (= what happened),
  • archaeology (= stuff we dig up),
  • physics (= things that occur)

— why isn’t there room for one called How to make decisions and think about life?

Behavioural economists and psychologists who do study this kind of thing have indeed come up with practical advice:

How about we quantify the benefits of

  • meditation
  • volunteering
  • feeling like you have a high social status
  • making other people laugh
  • diminishment of ego
  • thinking about people who are worse off than you
  • (or conversely, the dis-benefits of envy / jealousy of people who are better off than you)
  • playing music
  • sex (my only evidence that people care about this is that it seems to appear on covers of Cosmopolitan)
  • listening to comedians
  • TV
  • gardening
  • number and kind of friendships
  • sport
  • prayer
  • chanting Hare Krisna
  • programming (obviously many of these would require casewise time series to quantify; not just one number)
  • marrying the wrong person
  • infidelity
  • polygamy
  • charitable donations (lump-sum or many chunks?)
  • knowledge of category theory
  • time spent philosophising or … blogging
  • eating according to a moral regimen (vegetarian, kosher, halal)
  • working hard now for enjoyment later vs. living in the present (some kind of Ramsey-respecting tradeoff, of course)
  • drawing & painting
  • fishing
  • careers outside an office
  • actually obtaining your ideal career (e.g., quant) versus learning humility and accepting what you can actually get paid to do (e.g., wash dishes)
  • getting sun on your bare skin
  • frolicking
  • having children
  • staying out late vs not being tired at work the next day
  • eating pizza
  • smoking cigarettes
  • hiking
  • eating bland food every X days to fight the hedonic treadmill
  • or—I’m sure there are a jillion hypotheses about strategies to be happy from self-help books?

and how about we spend money funding people who are going to come up with or test ways of thinking and acting in life that are going to make people happier? I mean we fund research on quantum communication. Isn’t happiness research possibly more important?

Forget the research money that goes to the engineers extending the battery life on my Handy. People complain about sitting on the runway and I’ve become so accustomed to 2 billion clicks per second on my computer that I get angry and throw it out the window whenever my YouTube videos won’t load.

Forget a trillion dollars wasted on development efforts that ends up going to fund despotic regimes instead. Rather than guessing whether it’s mosquito nets, dams, or pure cash that poor people need most, maybe we should be investigating how to be happy with what you have—just in case, you know, the direction the rich world has gone is not the best direction to go.


Think about how detailed a knowledge we have about a scientific topic like materials. There are, like, many 1000-page manuals with detailed measurements like the optical properties of tungsten-rubidium alloy at 13,000 kPa and 2700°C. Imagine if we had that kind of detail about, like, life choices. Picture this: Career Engineering Handbook. Tables of days spent in a depression doing psets by INTJ realist mechanical engineer, contrasted with payoffs and path dependence of the later-life happiness.  I’m sure any kinds of conclusions would be disputatious — that’s how science moves forward, isn’t it? — but if Happiness Studies were acting like science, those disagreements would be based on lots of measurement, data, facts, observations—rather than “A girl my brother knows said she regrets being a lawyer, so I guess I shouldn’t do that and start an organic egg farm instead.” Which is pretty much how it works now.

According to my logic, this should be a top research priority. Not that medical technologies or knowledge of asteroids that might hit us aren’t good, but seriously—3 centuries since the Enlightenment and we still haven’t figured out some good advice to tell 18-year-olds?

You can take a personal finance class in school, but you can’t get the very most basic kind of advice about life. That seems messed-up to me.

I’m tired of things improving incrementally through experience. I just want to achieve a symbolic success and then ride off into the sunset….

The problem, though, is that sunset turns into night, and then the next day is just a regular day again, and you still have to cut your toenails and save up for retirement.

Josh Gondelman


Have you ever noticed that professors never call another professor “a genius”, but regular businessmen (who own a bakery, a winery, a taxicab company, a janitorial supply company, a waste disposal company; welders, machinists, real estate agents, demolitionists) will regularly put up someone they’ve worked with as “a genius”?

  • She’s a genius at marketing.
  • She’s a genius when it comes to working with the county government; she knows all the ins and outs.
  • She’s a genius at design. If it weren’t for her, my store layout would be terrible. Every problem that came up, she had thought of in advance.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever hearing any professors use the word "genius". I think it’s because [a] they think they are geniuses, and [b] they think ‘genius’ is validation. Such a high compliment mustn’t be handed out too lightly.

edit: I may have to amend this claim. Some professors who do not have big egos might use the word “genius” as well. I still contend that academics use it more sparingly than other people.