Tag Archives: Immanuel Kant

Book review: The Biggest Bluff

Here’s a well-written book about (1) Poker (2) The Russian emigre Experience (3) Psychology (4) Chance and Luck.  What’s not to like?

I speak of “The Biggest Bluff” by Maria Konnikova.  Then there are the remarkable personal connections   First, she went to the same high school, Acton Boxborough High in a Boston suburb as my cousin’s sons.  THe high school is a little UN, and when we went to their graduations, the graduates welcomed us in 12 different languages, each spoken by a native speaker.  Second, the parallels between Konnikova and our nephew’s wife are striking.  They’re both 36 arriving at ages 6 and 9 from Russia speaking no English;.  college:Harvard for Maria, Princeton for the other;  Grad school: Columbia for a PhD in psychology for Maria, Columbia Law for the other.  Third, another nephew is in the process of getting a PhD in psychology from Vanderbilt

I played poker for a year or so in a rather unusual venue, e. g. with cops in the on-call room for the ER intern in a ghetto hospital in Philly in the 60’s.   When on call we knew better than to go to bed before 3 a. m., an hour after the bars closed at 2 and when the carnage which was going to happen had happened.  The cops would bring them in surgical interns and residents would hang out waiting for the OR to be ready.  Cops would hang around to see if they had to take the injured to jail or whether they’d be admitted.  No one could leave, so the cops and the docs had a floating poker game, the only solid rule being that, if called, you cashed out immediately (even in the middle of a hand) and left.

The carnage in the ghetto back then was incredible.  It still is.  Sadly, despite Head Start, The War on Poverty, Affirmative Action and Anti-Racism not much has changed.


https://chicago.suntimes.com/crime/2020/7/12/21321569/chicago-weekend-shootings-homicide-gun-violence-july-10-13 (64 shootings 13 deaths)

The book concerns the author’s journey from not knowing how many cards there are in a deck to playing professional poker in just under a year.  It’s a fascinating story, but of more interest to me are the tidbits tucked in.

For Instance, Von Neumann was interested in poker because the best hand didn’t win always, and the element of chance and most importantly the betting.  By chance he met his future  wife  (who was another man’s wife at the time) in Monte Carlo  having lost his shirt with his system for beating roulette.

Here’s Immanuel Kant providing an (unintentional) explanation of why the betting in poker is so important — “It frequently happens that a man delivers his opinions with such boldness and assurance that he appears to be under no apprehension as to the possibility of his being in error.  The offer of a bet startles him, and makes him pause.  Sometimes it turns out that his persuasion may be valued at a ducat but not at ten.”

Well with von Neumann and Kant on board you know you are in for a wild ride.

The book contains all sorts of succinct summaries of great psychological experiments — the Dunning Kruger effect , Kahneman’s work apears 3 times, Langer and the illusion of control, etc. etc.

One of the more interesting passages to me occurs when she talks about what a gamble an academic career is.  She studied with Walter Mischel at Columbia who didn’t believe in something called the big five personality traits.  “Good luck to me getting a job in any psychology department where the Big Five personality traits are still big — Walter Mischel and the Big Five are not on speaking terms.   If I were to go against the head of deparment or hiring committee . . .  Bye-bye job prospects.”

I find this incredibly sad, as must most of the hard science types which read this blog. It doesn’t matter if your research was any good, did it conform to the dominant narrative?  In contrast, a guy was plucked out of making sandwiches at a Subway and made a professor of mathematics, because his paper was so astounding — https://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/that-figures-professor-who-had-to-work-at-subway-dazzles-world-of-maths-after-solving-centuries-old-8625637.html.

It reminds me of Voltaire’s crack about sects.

“EVERY sect, in whatever sphere, is the rallying-point of doubt and error. Scotist, Thomist, Realist, Nominalist, Papist, Calvinist, Molinist, Jansenist, are only pseudonyms.  There are no sects in geometry; one does not speak of a Euclidian, an Archimedean. When the truth is evident, it is impossible for parties and factions to arise. Never has there been a dispute as to whether there is daylight at noon. The branch of astronomy which determines the course of the stars and the return of eclipses being once known, there is no more dispute among astronomers. In England one does not say–” I am a Newtonian, a Lockian, a Halleyan.” Why? Those who have read cannot refuse their assent to the truths taught by these three great men. The more Newton is revered, the less do people style themselves Newtonians; this word supposes that there are anti-Newtonians in England.”

But your career in academic psychology can live or die depending on whether you subscribe to the Big Five.

Addendum 13 July — Peter Shenkin has a fascinating comment about why Bohm didn’t get tenure at Princeton — it was not because of his politics — it’s in the comment section.

Finally – sex.  The book describes a lot of the mostly verbal (but one time physical) abuse she took from other players.

In one of the Sherlock Holmes stories the following dialog appears

Gregory (Scotland Yard): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

There is a very curious omission in the book.  Konnikova describes the physical appearance of the other players at length. She talks about the way players try to psych each other out.  The jacket photo shows a rather sultry attractive woman.

What doesn’t Konnikova talk about?  She doesn’t mention whether she uses her sex at the table to confuse the opposition?  Did she act seductively toward a particular opponent? What about makeup, perfume, decolletage?  Not a word.   Did she make a run at her teacher Erik Seidel?  She clearly greatly admires everything about him.  It’s on every page.

A great book, and about far more than poker.

Prolegomena to reading Fall by Neal Stephenson

As a college freshman I spent hours trying to untangle Kant’s sentences in “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics”  Here’s sentence #1.   “In order that metaphysics might, as science, be able to lay claim, not merely to deceitful persuasion, but to insight and conviction, a critique of reason itself must set forth the entire stock of a priori concepts, their division according to the different sources (sensibility, understanding, and reason), further, a complete table of those concepts, and the analysis of all of them along with everything that can be derived from that analysis; and then, especially, such a critique must set forth the possibility of synthetic cognition a priori through a deduction of these concepts, it must set forth the principles of their use, and finally also the boundaries of that use; and all of this in a complete system.”

This post is something to read before tackling “Fall” by Neal Stephenson, a prolegomena if you will.  Hopefully it will be more comprehensible than Kant.   I’m only up to p. 83 of a nearly 900 page book.  But so far the book’s premise seems to be that if you knew each and every connection (synapse) between every neuron, you could resurrect the consciousness of an individual (e.g. a wiring diagram).  Perhaps Stephenson will get more sophisticated as I proceed through the book.  Perhaps not.  But he’s clearly done a fair amount neuroscience homework.

So read the following old post about why a wiring diagram of the brain isn’t enough to explain how it works.   Perhaps he’ll bring in the following points later in the book.

Here’s the old post.  Some serious (and counterintuitive) scientific results to follow in tomorrow’s post.

Would a wiring diagram of the brain help you understand it?

Every budding chemist sits through a statistical mechanics course, in which the insanity and inutility of knowing the position and velocity of each and every of the 10^23 molecules of a mole or so of gas in a container is brought home.  Instead we need to know the average energy of the molecules and the volume they are confined in, to get the pressure and the temperature.

However, people are taking the first approach in an attempt to understand the brain.  They want a ‘wiring diagram’ of the brain. e. g. a list of every neuron and for each neuron a list of the other neurons connected to it, and a third list for each neuron of the neurons it is connected to.  For the non-neuroscientist — the connections are called synapses, and they essentially communicate in one direction only (true to a first approximation but no further as there is strong evidence that communication goes both ways, with one of the ‘other way’ transmitters being endogenous marihuana).  This is why you need the second and third lists.

Clearly a monumental undertaking and one which grows more monumental with the passage of time.  Starting out in the 60s, it was estimated that we had about a billion neurons (no one could possibly count each of them).  This is where the neurological urban myth of the loss of 10,000 neurons each day came from.  For details see https://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/03/13/neurological-urban-legends/.

The latest estimate [ Science vol. 331 p. 708 ’11 ] is that we have 80 billion neurons connected to each other by 150 trillion synapses.  Well, that’s not a mole of synapses but it is a nanoMole of them. People are nonetheless trying to see which areas of the brain are connected to each other to at least get a schematic diagram.

Even if you had the complete wiring diagram, nobody’s brain is strong enough to comprehend it.  I strongly recommend looking at the pictures found in Nature vol. 471 pp. 177 – 182 ’11 to get a sense of the  complexity of the interconnection between neurons and just how many there are.  Figure 2 (p. 179) is particularly revealing showing a 3 dimensional reconstruction using the high resolutions obtainable by the electron microscope.  Stare at figure 2.f. a while and try to figure out what’s going on.  It’s both amazing and humbling.

But even assuming that someone or something could, you still wouldn’t have enough information to figure out how the brain is doing what it clearly is doing.  There are at least 3 reasons.

l. Synapses, to a first approximation, are excitatory (turn on the neuron to which they are attached, making it fire an impulse) or inhibitory (preventing the neuron to which they are attached from firing in response to impulses from other synapses).  A wiring diagram alone won’t tell you this.

2. When I was starting out, the following statement would have seemed impossible.  It is now possible to watch synapses in the living brain of awake animal for extended periods of time.  But we now know that synapses come and go in the brain.  The various papers don’t all agree on just what fraction of synapses last more than a few months, but it’s early times.  Here are a few references [ Neuron vol. 69 pp. 1039 – 1041 ’11, ibid vol. 49 pp. 780 – 783, 877 – 887 ’06 ].  So the wiring diagram would have to be updated constantly.

3. Not all communication between neurons occurs at synapses.  Certain neurotransmitters are generally released into the higher brain elements (cerebral cortex) where they bathe neurons and affecting their activity without any synapses for them (it’s called volume neurotransmission)  Their importance in psychiatry and drug addiction is unparalleled.  Examples of such volume transmitters include serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.  Drugs of abuse affecting their action include cocaine, amphetamine.  Drugs treating psychiatric disease affecting them include the antipsychotics, the antidepressants and probably the antimanics.

Statistical mechanics works because one molecule is pretty much like another. This certainly isn’t true for neurons. Have a look at http://faculties.sbu.ac.ir/~rajabi/Histo-labo-photos_files/kora-b-p-03-l.jpg.  This is of the cerebral cortex — neurons are fairly creepy looking things, and no two shown are carbon copies.

The mere existence of 80 billion neurons and their 150 trillion connections (if the numbers are in fact correct) poses a series of puzzles.  There is simply no way that the 3.2 billion nucleotides of out genome can code for each and every neuron, each and every synapse.  The construction of the brain from the fertilized egg must be in some sense statistical.  Remarkable that it happens at all.  Embryologists are intensively working on how this happens — thousands of papers on the subject appear each year.