Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

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Cold Topics Workshop

I was in Berkeley the other day, chatting with David Eisenbud about an upcoming Hot Topics workshop at MSRI, and it made me wonder:  why don’t we have Cold Topics workshops?  In the sense of “cold cases.”  There are problems that the community has kind of drifted away from, because we don’t really know how to do them, but which are as authentically interesting as they ever were.  Maybe it would be good to programatically focus our attention on those cold topics from time to time, just to see whether the passage of time has given us any new ideas, or cast these cold old problems in a new and useful light.

If this idea catches on, we could even consider having an NSF center devoted to these problems.  The Institute for Unpopular Mathematics!

What cold topics workshops would you propose to me, the founding director of the IUM?

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William Deresiewicz gets David Foster Wallace now

Just looking at William Deresiewicz’s piece on Mark Greif in Harper’s, where he writes:

Like David Foster Wallace, albeit in a very different key, Greif is willing to be vulnerable, to forgo the protections of irony and nihilism.

True!  (At least of DFW; I don’t know enough about Greif.)  And satisfiying, because I complained before about Deresiewicz mischaracterizing Wallace:

As for the slackers of the late ’80s and early ’90s (Generation X, grunge music, the fiction of David Foster Wallace), their affect ran to apathy and angst, a sense of aimlessness and pointlessness. Whatever. That they had no social vision was precisely what their social vision was: a defensive withdrawal from all commitment as inherently phony.

Maybe he reads my blog!

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I will never find all the bad sentences

Even now, a year after the book came out, two weeks before the paperback arrives, I’m still finding bad sentences in it.  The one I just noticed:

It was scary when a statistical model deployed by the Guest Marketing Analytics team at Target correctly inferred based on purchasing data that one of its customers—sorry, guests—a teenaged girl in Minnesota, was pregnant, based on an arcane formula involving elevated rates of buying unscented lotion, mineral supplements, and cotton balls.

I must have written “based on purchasing data” and then tried it again in a higher pitch with “based on an arcane formula … cotton balls” but forgotten to take out the original, leaving a sentence with a weird, redundant double “based on.”  Who knows how many mistakes like this are left in the final text?  How many will I never catch?

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The interpretation of dadbod

When I was in graduate school I read a lot of Freud (OK, I read a lot of Janet Malcolm writing about Freud and, inspired by that, a little bit of Freud) and I caught a whiff of the good old family romance when I encountered “dadbod”:

“In case you haven’t noticed lately, girls are all about that dad bod,” Pearson wrote. “The dad bod is a nice balance between a beer gut and working out. The dad bod says, ‘I go to the gym occasionally, but I also drink heavily on the weekends and enjoy eating eight slices of pizza at a time.’ ”

“There is just something about the dad bod,” Pearson continued, “that makes boys seem more human, natural, and attractive.”

OK, I thought, I’m a guy who’s read a lot of Freud, I’m probably reading too much into this.  Sometimes a trend piece is just a trend piece.  But then:

Pearson: My dad has read it. He called me this morning to talk about it. My dad is super into CrossFit. He’s super, super fit and really healthy. He actually found a comment where someone had uploaded a picture from Facebook saying, “This is her, this is actually her and her dad!” My dad looks young. People think we’re dating all the time, because he’s in such great shape. He told me that he got a kick out of it. He sent it to my entire extended family, saying, “Look how funny my daughter is!” He’s really enjoyed the comments and the attention.

Alrighty then.

 

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Show report: Janeane Garofalo

I had forgotten almost completely that there was once, about twenty years ago, a thing called “alternative comedy,” which seemed about to break out and become part or even most of the mainstream practice of standup as “alternative music” (though by then it was already rare to hear it so referred to) had done with mainstream radio.  That didn’t happen.  Standup, today, is still mostly made of jokes.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  But Janeane Garofalo, it turns out, is still going around doing a different thing, talking, being weird, looking at notes, enjoying herself.  People laugh.

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Doctoral programs can have a strong influence on the weak-minded

Daniel Drezner:

First, I cannot stress enough the cult-like powers of a PhD program. Doctoral programs can have a strong influence on the weak-minded. Even if you’re pretty sure what you want going into a program, that can change as you’re surrounded by peers who want something different. You might think you’re strong-willed, but day after day of hearing how a top-tier research university position is the be-all, end-all of life can have strange effects on your psyche.

I really do feel this is something we handle well at Wisconsin.  Our Ph.D. graduates go on to a wide variety of positions, some in primarily teaching colleges, some in research institutions, some in industry, some in government.  We do not consider the North American research university the be-all and end-all of life.  We are not just trying to produce clones of ourselves.  We really do strive to help each of our students get the best job among the jobs they want to get.  

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HNTBW covers: Italy and Brazil

The first foreign editions of How Not To Be Wrong are coming out!  Italy is first, this week:

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 14 Apr  11.00.AM

 

And after that, Brazil in June:

BrazilCover

From the NYRB:

In 2009, police in Long Branch, New Jersey, were alerted to the presence of an “eccentric-looking old man” wandering around a residential neighborhood in the rain and peering into the windows of a house marked with a “for sale” sign. When the police arrived, the man introduced himself as Bob Dylan. He had no identification; the officer, Kristie Buble, then twenty-four, suspected he was an escaped mental patient. It “never crossed my mind,” she said, “that this could really be him.”

The funny part is, it was actually Jonah Lehrer!

Why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager?

In today’s Wall Street Journal, Jason Zweig frets about the popularity of index funds:

If investors keep turning their money over to machines that have no opinion about which stocks or bonds are better than others, why would anyone want to become a security analyst or portfolio manager? Who will set the prices of investments? What will stop all stocks and bonds from going up and down together? Who will have the judgment and courage to step in and buy during a crash or to sell during a mania?

First of all, it hardly seems like the entire stock market is liable to become one big Vanguard fund:  as Zweig says later in the piece, “indexing accounts for 11.5% of the total value of the U.S. stock market.”  Big institutional actors have special needs which give them reason to actively manage their funds.  And an institution like Wisconsin’s pension fund, which manages about $100b, isn’t giving away 2% of its money per year to a manager, the way you or I would.  (This document says we spent $52.5 million in external management fees in 2013; percentagewise, that’s less than I give Vanguard for my index.  Update:  I screwed this up, as a commenter points out.  Our external management fees increased by $52.5m.  They present this as a substantial percentage of the total but I can’t find the actual amount of the fee.)

But second:  am I supposed to be upset if it becomes less attractive to become a portfolio manager?  One out of six Harvard seniors goes into finance.  Is that a good use of human capital?

(By the way, here’s a startling stat from that Harvard survey:  “None of the women going into finance said they would earn $90,000 or more, compared to 29 percent of men in finance.”  Is that because men are overpaid, or because we lie about our salaries the same way we lie about sex?)

 

 

 

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