Opinion

Emanuel Derman

Anti-Semites in the Anti-Melting Pot

Emanuel Derman
Mar 9, 2012 21:50 UTC

It’s spring break, and to revive my flagging mind I just took a short slow run on a beach near the edge of the water, and to revive my flagging body I have been rereading (and enjoying, for the third time in my life) the book Memoirs of an Anti-Semite by Gregor von Rezzori.

I’ve recommended the book over the years to several people and some of them didn’t like it and some of them didn’t even read it  because it sounds like a book about  the Nazis and the Holocaust and who wants to read more about that?

But it isn’t. First of all, it’s a novel in 5 stories, not officially an autobiography. Second, though the protagonist is brought up in anti-Semitic society by a prejudiced tough father who mainly loves hunting, that society is Europe between the wars in the residue of the Hapsburg Empire in the Bukovina and Vienna. The novel is about that lost world and the relationships it fostered seen through the eyes of an anti-Semitic protagonist who is worldly, cultured, loves women, and is always aware of  his prejudices and their roots, despite himself.

Bucharest and the Bukovina sound like the crossroads between East and West, filled with Armenians, Turks, Catholics, Germans, Austrians and of course Jews. Donkeys in the street, peddlers, Gypsy music players, and prostitutes everywhere. But it isn’t America. It isn’t a Melting Pot. (Sometimes his description makes me thing of Hong Kong.)

In America after a couple of generations most immigrants become more or less assimilated and Something-American. In Bucharest in the ’20s, people mix deeply but they stay in their own separate though intersecting streams. They intersect because of the primacy of commerce, and so the protagonist knows well (and sometimes very intimately) the people (Jews and others) that he is brought up to look down on. It’s an Anti-Melting pot, with a diversity we don’t have, and it has upsides as well as obvious downsides.

My life as a pseud and other stories

Emanuel Derman
Mar 1, 2012 15:32 UTC

In the early ’60s when Jules Feiffer drew black-turtlenecked Village people dancing odes to the seasons and Mad Magazine mocked beatniks, my South African high-school and college friends and I  called anyone who claimed to have read anything about existentialism a pseud.  At that time a friend of mine used to mention Merleau-Ponty, and that damned my friend in perpetuity.

Now, decades later, someone persuaded me to read Merleau-Ponty on The Phenomenology of Perception, and, having excitedly read a little, I think I’ve maybe been a closet phenomenologist for the last 30 years, only I didn’t know it. I may of course change my mind when I get to the end of the Preface.

Part of the reason I like it is that, the older I get, the more I believe that everything we talk about in science (or anything else, it’s just that “science” sounds more objective) is secondary to a usually unquestioned and almost unquestionable personal existence. Therefore the discoveries we make can never fully explain our existence itself. We are trapped (and liberated) by our consciousness. This Saul Bellow remark I’m over-fond of summarizes my point of view :

The A word

Emanuel Derman
Feb 20, 2012 22:05 UTC

I recently ran into someone who I had always regarded as more or less compos mentis, but they told me quite seriously that the Rothschilds ran the world because they owned countries rather than corporations. Now, I’m not immune to the charms of conspiracy theories; some things in the world are so messed up that I can see how only a conspiracy could explain them. If a small cabal of invisible people ruled the world for their own profit and pleasure it very likely would turn out just the way it has, only probably a little more organized. Unless they are fiendishly clever and add the noise to make it look unplanned.

I think the real hidden conspiracy is the conspiracy of the A____’s and think they are to blame for screwing up the world, even if they are working in the service of the Rothschilds.

I refer to the Advertisers. I’m tired of anti-depressant ads. And I’m especially appalled at how advertising funds the fortunes of the giant internet companies, the manipulative G___’s and  F____’s.  I’ve grown to dislike advertising and the way it pays and affects so much. I particularly hate it for the fact that G___ and F____ make their money by delivering me to companies who pay for me to use it, which explains most of the bad things about G___ lately. Companies used to get paid for delivering eyeballs; now they get paid for delivering souls.

Very small, very transitory pleasures

Emanuel Derman
Feb 17, 2012 15:32 UTC

My carefully concealed always positive outlook on life is taking a beating these days, and the only pleasures are (i) attacking inconsistencies in other people’s positions and (ii) defending my own right to the same.

In that respect, the other day I received an email from my publisher, Simon and Schuster, exhorting me urgently to list not only Amazon on my website but Barnes and Noble too:

BN supports your book online and in stores and it’s crucial that they are represented.

My own private I dunno

Emanuel Derman
Feb 15, 2012 15:38 UTC

I have been reading The Connectome: How The Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are, by Sebastian Seung, a Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics at MIT, and formerly a theoretical physicist.

One of his talks on the web is called “I am my connectome.” My own private connectome usually has a sort of uncontrollable synaptic response to statements like that, which seems to deny itself, but that would be quibbling with PR, and so, having functioned my whole life while knowing nothing at all about my insides, I have enjoyed the first 60 pages.

But one paragraph on pages 63-64 did throw me off:

If I could observe the activity of all your neurons, I would be able to decode what your are perceiving or thinking. This kind of mind reading would require knowing the “neural code,” which you can picture as a huge dictionary. Each entry of the dictionary lists a distinct perception and its corresponding pattern of neural activity. In principle, we could compile this dictionary by recording the activity patterns generate by a huge number of stimuli.

Aggression vs triumphalism

Emanuel Derman
Feb 8, 2012 16:20 UTC

I watched two recent finals — The Australian Tennis Open (Djokovic vs. Nadal) and the Super Bowl (Giants vs. Patriots) and their endings were very different in spirit. I liked the Super Bowl ending better, surprisingly for me.

Tennis is a non-contact sport,  and even today you can’t foul your opponent. But when Djokovic won a close very exciting game filled with reversals, he went literally ape — snarled, looked up at the sky, roared several times with bared teeth, tore off his shirt, flexed his muscles.

Intimidating to the other apes, though the game was already over.

I understand being happy about winning, and aggression is necessary to do so, but I dislike this kind of triumphalist gloating. Personally, Borg and the other Swedes were my stylistic heroes, plus Sampras and Federer. Still, no one gets hurt and it’s not violent.

Love and money

Emanuel Derman
Feb 3, 2012 15:27 UTC

Some interesting stuff I’m reading:

Schopenhauer, in The World as Will and Representation, has a chapter on The Metaphysics of Sexual Love, and remarks how strange it is that love ceaselessly occupies people’s thoughts, interests and readings, and yet has gone relatively unexamined from a philosophical point of view. He brands as naive Spinoza’s view that love is merely pleasure associated with an external object, and I’m inclined to agree. For Schopenhauer, it’s all about matter propagating itself, the temporary unity of lovers’ feeling reflecting the unity of the yet unborn child. Strong mutual attraction, he says, is related to the suitability of the characteristics of the future child from the point of view of the species, and has nothing to do with personal lifelong compatibility. Not a cheerful guy.

Money, the other topic of people’s relentless focus, is a mystery, too. Where does it come from and what is its real purpose and how much does an economy need? Forty economists were recently quoted as saying that a return to the gold standard is ridiculous, and that money ought to be controlled according to economic principles (though I don’t think the forty agree on what those are). Ben Bernanke has said gold is NOT a form of money, but was still at a loss to explain why central banks keep gold reserves, and could only invoke tradition.

So, I am just about to reread Fischer Black’s interesting paper Banking and Interest Rates in a World without Money.

Havel on the need for the transcendent

Emanuel Derman
Jan 29, 2012 16:08 UTC

Something about naive liberal humanitarianism often bugs and irritates me more than correspondingly naive reactionary beliefs, and I (probably wrongly) end up judging more severely than I should otherwise good people who espouse it naively.

Paul Berman, in his  rambling but very interesting post about the late Vaclav Havel, captures Havel’s description of what that something is. I quote Berman and Berman’s quotes of Havel. All italics are mine.

(Berman:) The Western-style democracies boasted of rule of law, human rights, democratic elections, market economies, and so on. Havel reminded everyone that these institutions, for all their charms, are “technical instruments,” useful only for achieving other purposes; and it was still necessary to acknowledge and refine and choose among the other purposes. In his estimation, an acknowledgment of other purposes required a notion of the transcendent.

Mysteries of macro

Emanuel Derman
Jan 27, 2012 20:46 UTC

1. Consider two countries, America and China. Suppose (only suppose) China manipulates its currency to keep it low, thereby making exports cheaper and imports expensive, benefiting its balance of payments and mercantile ambitions, harming America’s.

2. Now consider America alone, with two subpopulations: borrowers and savers. Suppose someone at the top manipulates T-bill prices, keeping them high (i.e. keeping interest rates low), benefiting the borrowers and harming the savers.

My question:

Why is 1. often considered reprehensible and unfair, while 2. is merely business as usual and unremarkable, even praiseworthy? Is there something fundamentally different about 1. when compared with 2.? Are bonds fundamentally different from currencies, stocks, real-estate, other assets?

Grading agencies (This is an A+ post)

Emanuel Derman
Jan 23, 2012 17:59 UTC

We’ve been in a bull market for Treasury Bonds since the late 1970s, and, as a student pointed out to me recently, and I think I can confirm, we’ve been in a bull market for academic grades too.

As long-term rates have compressed towards zero, so have grades compressed towards A and even A+.

In grad school, many universities consider anything below an A- the moral equivalent of an F, even though a B sounds like one note below an A, and expect students to understand that. It’s hard to figure out why this happened — I remember the start of it during the Vietnam war, when low grades might have annulled an academic deferment. But it’s also part of some general feel-good thing. And the subtle pressure of student grading of faculty, and faculty being judged on it.

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