Tag Archives: John von Neumann

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.

The most interesting paper I’ve read in the past 5 years — Introduction and allegro

Have a look at Nature vol. 495 pp. 111 – 115 ’13, and the accompanying editorial (ibid. pp. 57 – 58) and see if you can find out why I think it is so fascinating. It has to do with my background and interests over the last 50+ years which are unlikely to be completely the same as the readers of this blog.

This post will be about computers, and how they can be completely understood in terms of their components (because humans constructed them). The next will be a boiled down version of the 6 articles https://luysii.wordpress.com/category/molecular-biology-survival-guide/.

Well, for nearly all my professional career 1962 – 2000 I was a neurologist and neurologists must deal with the brain and attempt to understand how it works (which we still don’t). The brain (and mind) has always been interpreted using the dominant technology of the day.

Freud (1856 – 1939) formulated his work when steam power was widely known and used. He studied with most eminent neurologist of the time (Charcot) after getting his M. D. His conception of the mind and it’s pathology had to do with powerful urges and the way they were channeled through the pipes of the psyche. In particular, traumatic events if allowed to build up in the system, could create pressures and wreck the psychiatric machinery. Hence the emphasis on discovering the blockages and releasing them before the steam engine exploded into pathology. This approach is alive and well today — can you say PTSD ?

Presently the brain is thought of in terms of the current dominant technology — the computer. It runs programs. Use of this analogy goes back to the dawn of the computer age way before they became widespread. John von Neumann who invented the stored program computer, in which programs and data looked the same, wrote “The Computer and the Brain” before his death in 1957.

So as a neurologist (and general techie) I was fascinated with them when they came out for the general public. Obviously, they could be completely understood because we created them. I bought an alpha Micro (long gone) which was the fruits of some engineers who worked at Digital Equipment Compancy (DEC — long gone), which was sold to Compaq (also long gone), back in the early 80’s.

Don’t laugh at what I bought; it was state of the art at the time. It had 64 kiloBytes of memory, of which 32 kiloBytes was taken up by the operating system, and the other 32 was used for programs. I read about the logic behind computers, and quickly realized that everything important happened inside the ALU (Arithmetic and Logical Unit), which had places to store data (registers) and a place to store one instruction (another register called the instruction pointer). The instructions were 16 bits (2 bytes long). The disc was state of the art at the time — all of 80 megaBytes — it looked (and sounded) like a washing machine, with removable platters which looked like giant thick frisbies.

I’d read up on how registers could be built up from logic gates (AND, OR, NOR, NAND). So, on paper, I built logical registers from these elements. I had a clock as well (a black box) which could send signals to the gates coordinating things. I quickly understood that for the simplest instruction == Add register A to register B, further instructions were necessary — this is the microcode — e.g. move register A to the ALU, open register B, use it as input along with the instruction code for Add, to perform the addition, then store it someplace.

Then after understanding how the instructions operated, I wrote a program to take the ones and zeros of the instructions of the operating system, and turn them into something readable e.g. 0110101000001111 into ADD A, B. This allowed me to see how instructions were turned into a functioning machine.

Why do it? Well, it was interesting, and at the end of all this an understanding of how computers work could be had. Clearly the output depended on the internal structure of the computer (which didn’t change) and the program fed into it (which did). Once you understood the structure of the computer and the language of the instructions, all you needed to understand its output was the program (e.g. the code).

As all this was going on, people were deciphering the chemical nature of the genetic code. Know the sequence of nucleotides in the code and you’d know everything was the zeitgeist. By an enormous effort the first sequence of an organism became available in 1977 — it was of a DNA virus PhiX-179. It had all of 5,386 base pairs and was a huge amount of work. The human genome project was decades away.

This sort of genetic hubris is the subject of the next post in the series. If you’ve read the paper, can you now see why I find it so fascinating? Stay tuned.