Icosian Reflections

…a tendency to systematize and a keen sense

that we live in a broken world.

Impressions: Freakonomics

On my flight Boston-Keflavik, I picked up Freakonomics, by Levitt and Dubner. It was a fun read that I highly recommend. But a few things struck me about it, so I figured I'd write them down rapid-fire.

There's also a much longer about-Christmas post in the works, but it might not be out until tomorrow.

(1) "Despite [his] elite credentials, his approach is notably unorthodox."

I'm not sure what bothers me more: the widespread stereotype that eliteness is inextricable from orthodoxy, or my sinking suspicion that it's not entirely false.

(2) "He is ... an intuitionist."

In mathematics, "intuitionism" is a bit of a dirty word. In layman's term's, an intuitionist rejects the idea that a double negative is a positive, and so considers as invalid the logic:

1) Either A or B is true.
2) A is false.
3) Therefore, B is true.

It's appealing, because disallowing proofs by contradiction of the negation (i.e. the above form) means that every proof of "X exists" necessarily gives a mathematical construction of X. By contrast, traditional, analytic logic sometimes produces proofs that some object, logically, must exist -- but no indication of how one might make/find/imagine it.

It's widely derided because basic logical maneuvers are excluded, and so many 'intuitive' results can't be proven at all! As a professor of mine once lamented: "[Luitzen] Brouwer became famous for his proof of the fixed-point theorem, but then he became an intuitionist and never did anything useful again."

Anyway. Words have interesting meanings in different contexts. More recently: a friend and I were having a discussion about Humanism, and eventually realized that we were talking about completely different things. Communication is hard.

(3) Reminds me of...

Freakonomics reminds me of another book I re-read recently: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Foer. (I've mentioned the latter previously in my first post on vegetarianism.) Not because they overlap in subject matter, but because they share the tone of "everything you think you know is wrong, and let me tell you the truth in small words". Both authors are unconventional, unorthodox, conversational, and have an elegant command of metaphor and analogy. They address heavy topics in lighthearted speech, and both pack tremendous revelations into easy reads.

(4) Obvious?

People rave about Levitt and Dubner's book as "provocative", "eye-opening", and "groundbreaking", and while I thoroughly enjoyed the read, it didn't actually feel all that surprising. Instead, it felt refreshing to have someone stop trying to do economics, and just doing economics. (I'm referencing Master Yoda here, yes, but mostly actually Eliezer Yudkowsky.) I'm unsure as to whether that's because I've spent a lot of time with people who ask "What is true?" instead of "What should be true?" or whether the authors just presented their ideas so smoothly that everything felt completely natural. I'd be interesting in hearing others' opinions on just how mind-blowing they found the "revolutionary" book.