Emanuel Derman

More from Prost, a fictional work in progress

Emanuel Derman
Sep 25, 2012 01:11 UTC

Late in life, when his roots should have held him steady, he became unmoored, and it seemed inappropriate. But who determined what was appropriate?


In the summer of 1956 when he was an eleven-year old boy, the hot items were fluorescent socks in lime green or neon pink that glowed in the dark as they strolled up and down the beachfront at night. Those strolls were a local version of what his parents called shpatzieren, the pre-WWII Mitteleuropean slow promenading up and down main street on a Saturday or Sunday summer afternoon, men in white suits walking arm-in-arm with their parasol-carrying wives, the men doffing their hats to the opposing women on someone else’s arm, the women smiling back in response.

Here in southern Cape Town (or Cup-Eh-To-Ven, as his mother first pronounced it, she told him, when she heard she was to emigrate to there from Poland) no one wore white suits. Here, teenagers and parents shpatziered in casual clothes on the elevated Promenade in Muizenberg, or on the winding pavement beside the lawns of Beach Road, Sea Point.

Muizenberg was a Southern African Brighton or Blackpool, a colonial English-style summer resort, the preferred vacationland of Jewish immigrants who lived in the lower part of the continent.

Every summer for several years his family spent two weeks at The Queens Hotel, a shabby dark three-story establishment owned by some relatives of his father, open only in the summer. All the hotels in Muizenberg were colonial. Every meal from breakfast to dinner seemed to involve baked haddock, and every room had a chamber pot in case you had to urinate in the night, since the shared bathroom was at the end of the corridor or even half way up another flight of stairs. Parents requested on a form to have coffee or tea with biscuits delivered on a tray to their room each morning at 6 or 7 a.m., a supposed holiday luxury whose nature eluded him: Why would you want to have coffee served to you in bed long before breakfast and then go back to sleep?

An eagerness to impart unnecessary information

Emanuel Derman
Sep 14, 2012 15:04 UTC

I find myself increasingly in irritated disagreement with the many neuroscientists and evangelically professional atheists who think that science is everything, that matter is all we have, and that photographic images of chemicals glowing in the brain are equivalent to thoughts and feelings. (I have no problem with their simply disbelieving in God.)

I grew up a rationalist. My introduction to the supposedly spiritual was in synagogue and school, but it was a pro forma introduction, tales and laws and recitations but no discussion of the perception of God. Nothing about the sort of experience Aldous Huxley wrote about in The Perennial Philosophy.

While in Oxford as a postdoc, some several-years-old advice to read Rudolf Steiner, given to me in a time of trouble, popped into my head again when I passed a poky little anthroposophical bookstore. I purchased an English-language copy of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds.

A parable on quantitative easing

Emanuel Derman
Sep 11, 2012 14:18 UTC

When my son was a little less than two years old, I used to play a game he liked, bouncing him up and down on my knee while chanting a nursery rhyme:

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
Mix them up and make them nice
Pop goes the weasel!

On “Pop goes the weasel!” I would sharply drop my knee all the way down and let him bump to the floor. He always chortled. He liked the game so much that one day he asked me to repeat it over and over again, perhaps fifteen times, laughing at each bump except the last one, when he turned to me in surprise and asked: Why it’s not funny anymore?

German models

Emanuel Derman
Sep 3, 2012 23:38 UTC

I have begun to write what will be a regular column for the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), and the first one just appeared this Saturday Sep 1 2012, translated into German. Here is the introduction to the column written by Frank Schirrmacher.

And here below is the original text of the column in English, from which the German was translated.

The good days are here once again for models of the physical world: after a drought of almost fifty years, physicists at CERN have discovered what seems to be the long-awaited Higgs boson. But we are living through a period of bad days for models of the social world, where I am using the word ‘model’ in the sense of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major-General Stanley in The Pirates of Penzance, who sang: “I am the very model of a modern Major-General.”

The Complexities of Advertising

Emanuel Derman
Aug 8, 2012 21:23 UTC

I’m attending a meeting on complexity at the Santa Fe Institute, and today there was a panel during which someone bemoaned the absence of science reporting in US newspapers, and mentioned that even the NY Times Science section is mostly not serious. Someone from the UK then remarked that science programming on British TV is much better.

I postulate that you can understand what happened to the NY Times Science section by comparing nbcolympics.com to bbc.com vis a vis Olympic reporting.

NBC, like Google and Facebook is driven by advertisers, and has to deliver you to them. Hence most of what follows. BBC is funded by subscriptions (compulsory ones, for better or worse) and hence can take the high road, which has its advantages.

Dog’s Lives

Emanuel Derman
Aug 5, 2012 17:49 UTC

I am in Santa Fe, NM, about to spend a few weeks at the Santa Fe Institute where I hope to learn something about market microstructure and agent-based models.

Everyone in Santa Fe (i.e. the few people I’ve met thru work here in the past — I wrote a chapter of Models.Behaving.Badly here in 2009, using their excellent library) seems to think Santa Fe is paradise on earth, and maybe it is, though I prefer paradise on the seashore. I  have this atavistic urge to find a place that is easygoing but has access to culture, and yet lets you back off from the discontents and irritations of politics and corporations. People here seem to think this is it. But, I should add, people here seem to be close to retirement.

One of the points I tried to make in Models.Behaving.Badly was that models were analogies, comparing something you don’t understand to something you do, e.g. a nucleus to a liquid drop, or stock returns to smoke diffusion, whereas theories were (attempts to discover) absolute (rather than relative) descriptions of phenomena (e.g. Newton’s laws or relativity). I spent an evening with an accomplished physicist here, and was pleased to see that he agreed. When I was here last I read Maxwell’s papers from the 1860s; he called his final description of the electromagnetic field a theory, having first tried a bunch of metaphorical models to warm up his intuition and understanding.

Tail risk, the police, and grad school

Emanuel Derman
Jul 25, 2012 17:53 UTC

This past Saturday morning I walked past the Loews movie house on 68th and Broadway and saw, stationed outside, a NYC police car with sirens flashing, and standing in front of it, with his back to the car and with a holstered gun, a cop, his eye on the movie house … which was, I then realized, showing The Dark Knight.

My first instinct was: Isn’t this ridiculous? Someone crazy tragically shoots up one movie house and now they’re going to guard all movie houses showing that movie. This isn’t like political attacks on synagogues on Yom Kippur, which after September 11 led to police guarding synagogues.

A little later I saw the same situation at the Loews on 83rd Street.

But I’ve changed my mind. What the police were doing was practicing tail risk elimination.

An excerpt from Prost, a work in progress

Emanuel Derman
Jul 13, 2012 16:08 UTC

All our fashions, in those days, were imported from America. In the summer of 1956, when I was eleven, the hot items were fluorescent nylon socks in lime green or neon pink that shone in the dark as we strolled up and down the beachfront at night. These beachfront strolls were a local version of what my Yiddish-speaking parents called shpatzieren, the pre-WWII Mittel-European slow promenading up and down the main street on a Saturday or Sunday summer afternoon, men in white suits walking arm-in-arm with their parasol-carrying wives, the men doffing their hats to the opposing women on someone else’s arm, the women smiling back in response. Shop on Main Street.

That’s how we kids strolled on the elevated Promenade in Muizenberg and on the strip of Beach Road in Sea Point in those Fifties days. Muizenberg, then but now no longer, was a South African Brighton or Blackpool, a copycat English-style summer resort for the masses. At lunchtime day-tripping crowds picnicked on the Muizenberg lawns; before and after they sat jammed together under beach umbrellas on the narrow stretch of beach between the raised cement sidewalk and the sea. The beach was divided in two by a line of brightly colored (red or yellow or blue or green) wooden beach bungalows that ran parallel to the water. Families rented a semidetached half of a bungalow for the season; you could lock and store beach equipment in them, and change in and out of your swimsuit in privacy, though friends I knew peeked through holes in the dividing wall of their parents’ bungalow to watch girls in the adjacent half changing out of their costumes, as we called swimsuits. Muizenberg had a Milk Bar where you could twirl on raised leather bar seats and order milk shakes, and next to it a copycat English-style penny arcade where you could play mechanical games for a penny or two. Inside the arcade was a little studio where you could pay to record your voice on a shellac-covered tin disk, as did Pinky in Brighton Beach. I still have one my father recorded with me, where you can hear him, heavily Yiddish-accented, prompting my four-year-old self at 78 rpm with the words I forgot in Mother Goose nursery rhymes. At the entrance to the long cement Promenade was a ten-foot-high hexagonal windowless cement kiosk that housed a camera obscura whose lens, situated at the top of the kiosk, on a sunny day projected, onto a horizontal table at the center of the kiosk, moving images of the people outside walking (shpatziering) up and down “The Prom.” It was magical.

Sea Point, in contrast to Blackpoolish Muizenberg, was Nice or Venice. The beachfront was dotted with cafés, Italian-owned pizzerias, apartment blocks with French- or Italian-Riviera names (Marseilles, San Remo). You could buy gelatos, frullatos, espressos. All of this exotic foreigness had sprung up during the postwar boom in which Italy became synonymous with sophisticated food, movies and clothes.

The Powerful League of Missing Persons

Emanuel Derman
Jul 3, 2012 02:28 UTC

Sometimes, quite often, Absence is so powerful that it’s a Presence of its own.

I wrote a little about this in Models.Behaving.Badly. The positron was regarded as the absence of an electron in early quantum field theory, but turned out to be as real as anything. Pain, an apparently negative thing, is also real, perhaps more so than Joy, as described in Yehuda Amichai’s poem on The Precision of Pain. I once read a sequel to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he claimed that, even after someone dear to him died, he was persuaded that they were still there by their presence in his thoughts and life.

I think of this again because there are some people I see very little, some even not at all, and yet … they are almost constantly with me, in my thoughts and affecting my actions. I don’t even mean “with me” in a subconscious way, but as a real force and presence, despite being almost out of contact.


Emanuel Derman
Jun 4, 2012 11:05 UTC

I am impaled on the horns of a dilemma.

I dislike:

    Mayor Bloomberg telling me I can’t smoke a cigar in Central Park Nudge stuff. Nanny states.

I think everyone should be treated as equally (as though he or she were) grown-up.

And yet …

I find myself liking the fact that they are going to outlaw 640z sodas in NYC.

I hate seeing people drink those things. I wish I knew how to find a principled yet nuanced way of both defending my right to stupidly smoke and simultaneously preventing people from drinking 64oz sodas, trashcan-size movie popcorns, Carnegie Deli sandwiches, lousy-restaurant-size bowls of pasta, 30 oz. steaks and all the other gross disgusting unnecessarily large things that often pass for food here. This isn’t pure snobbery; some of these things, especially the steaks and pasta, sell in classy restaurants too.

I struggle to find a fine enough sieve to separate these things, but if there is one, I think it has to do with limiting the rights of corporations. I’d like to defend individuals’ rights to harm themselves, but not defend corporations’ rights to profit by persuading people to do harmful stuff.