The Genius Ecosystem

Keep Calm Stay GeniusSome time ago, a friend of mine asked me if I thought I was a genius. She was interested because her husband, who is in many ways like me, was going through a tough time and she was trying to get a better understanding of him. I’m not sure of the specifics, but it is definitely my experience that people who are mathematically oriented do tend to have fairly specific kinds of problems. I think reading between the lines, you can kind of see that in my article, Numbers, Narratives, and God. A lot of us are both introverted and intuitive and this can leave us cut off from reality in a profound way. As long as everything is going fine “out there,” we manage just fine. But when our environments change, we don’t respond as well as some others do. I think this is because those changes “out there” aren’t real to us. As a result, we can really lose our bearings—we aren’t good at managing that reality. That’s what I assume she was looking for from me, but I really don’t know. I think her husband is a whole lot more together than I am, but it’s very possible that he has to deal with the same kinds of things.

But what struck me in the exchange was that she said she didn’t consider herself a genius. That shocked me. She is one of the smartest people I know—and I don’t exactly hang out with an intellectually diverse group of people—it is skewed toward what are traditionally called “smart” people. I wondered if it could be that she had one of these ridiculously limited definitions of intelligence. Or worse: she been given an IQ test somewhere along the line. I can’t think of a worse thing to do to a child than to label them as dumb or smart. There are so many things wrong with IQ tests anyway. I discussed this a little bit in, What’s Wrong With Jason Richwine? But it is worse than that.

I always feel weird talking about intelligence. If you look at standard IQ tests, they consist of two parts: general knowledge and moving blocks around. Is that what intelligence is? Being good at Jeopardy! and chess (pattern recognition)? Because if that is what it is, why do we test for it? Computers can now beat the best Jeopardy! and chess players. So who cares? Add to that, this amazing factoid I learned: Richard Feynman had a IQ score of 125. In high school, I tested far higher than that and there is no way I’m as smart as he was, much less smarter. Based upon having read his autobiography, I think I understand why he got that score, though. When I was in college, my “brilliance” often allowed me to do well at courses without really mastering the fundamentals. (Interestingly, I think I was exactly the opposite in my literature classes.) What made Feynman a genius was the clarity and depth of his thought; IQ tests measure what information people have picked up (naturally underestimating introverts and those with dyslexia) and “quick” thinking. (I’m sure intelligence tests have gotten better over time, but they clearly still have the same fundamental problem of testing only what they test, and then placing more value on them than they deserve.)

What I think we ought to be more interested in is cognitive creativity. Are you able to think creatively? But even that strikes me as an awfully limited way to arrange people. An intellectually slow person who has become an expert on kitchenware of the 1950s has far more to offer my life than someone who can do arithmetic quickly in his head. And look at artists. There are a lot of them who are really not very creative. I don’t think van Gogh was very creative. He had a singular vision and it was magnificent and it is important to have people like that. I think the same thing of Paul Klee who I admire a great deal more. I don’t think Hemingway was very creative, but the world is much better because of him. (I loved him when I was young, but I’ve cooled a lot the last decade). I think Steinbeck was creative, but if he had only written variations on Sweet Thursday or The Grapes of Wrath, I would still love him. And it’s not just art. I’d say the same thing about theology or science. Or math, of course! (My sister Kim just sent me My Brain is Open about one of the most creative mathematicians ever, Paul Erdos. He isn’t so well know exactly because he was so creative. I’ve been wanting to read this book since it came out and kudos to Kim for knowing me so well.)

The point is that what matters is how we all add to the cultural ecosystem. Think about Melville. He died thinking he hadn’t made much of an impact on culture. Cervantes died with a vague notion of what he had done, but he could have had no idea just how profound his contribution was. I still find it interesting that I can be reading Don Quixote now in a totally different context than he wrote it in, and get things from it that are far beyond anything he was conscious of. What an amazing thing! What a wonderful gift he has given us all—even those who haven’t read it—yet he was most known in his own time as an ex-soldier, tax collector, and a failed poet.

I’m well aware that to some extent I am fetishizing a certain kind of cultural work. It isn’t that I dismiss those who have made money and built infrastructure. But it seems to me that these people already get way too much credit in our society. And most of them actually do harm, whereas “bad” artists are just ignored. Still, I don’t doubt that there is great creativity in finance. But that’s what brought on the 2008 financial crash. And there is great creativity that went into developing nuclear weapons. That’s what may cause the extinction of the human race. But for good and bad, the products of diversity of creative minds are what determines our culture.

All I’m saying is that we don’t want intelligence or creativity, or whatever you want to call it, to be a species; it is an ecosystem. It is all necessary. And we are stupid and un-creative to hold up one kind of genius as the genius. In my own life, I know that I can be brilliantly insightful about one thing and totally clueless about another—often something that is obvious to other people.

I think we are all this way. I do know that I have a flare for solving differential equations. And that isn’t raw brain power—of all forms of math, it is the most intuitive. It’s closer to theology than science. And although I think there is crossover, mostly it is the case that different minds are good at different things. Imagine a world with only people who were great at venture capital. Or theology. Or even farming. We would have gone extinct long ago.

The issue should never be intelligence or even creativity, but how people can live fulfilling lives as they add to our cultural ecosystem. Clearly, some will find their places better than others. But my friend has found her place. She is not only a great writer, she is perhaps even better at helping others. She’s the only person that really understands my own work and has ideas on how to improve it. I have other friends who are encouraging and even dictatorial—both of which can be helpful. But she understands the process at an incredibly deep level, and zeros in on what works and doesn’t and why. I’ve learned as much about writing from her as anyone, and that puts her in some amazing company: Fowler, White, Steinbeck, and Turow (Don’t laugh: I’ve learned a lot from him). She is, in other words, a genius. And the world is a much better place for her having no clue about how to solve a differential equation.

My Advice to Jack Trammell

Dave BratDave Brat is the guy who beat Eric Cantor yesterday in the Virginia District 7 House primary election. Afterwards, he was talking to Chuck Todd who asked him about a raise in the minimum wage. Brat then proceeded to waffle and do the usual libertarian move of obfuscating. Todd asked, “Where are you on the minimum wage? Do you believe in it, and would you raise it?” Brat did very briefly answer the first part of the question, “Minimum wage, no, I’m a free market guy.” But then he started talking about how Obamacare is destroying the economy. Of course, he totally distorted the law saying, “[T]hrow Obamacare on top of that, the work hours is 30 hours a week. You can only hire 50 people.” This is all right-wing talking point: companies are laying off people and cutting back their hours so they aren’t covered by Obamacare. As Alan Barber at the always trustworthy Center for Economic and Policy Research has noted, Everything You’ve Heard About Obamacare Being a Job-Killer Is Wrong.

But then it got worse. Brat went on to claim that the minimum wage could only be raised if productivity went up:

So you can’t make up wage rates. Right? I would love for everyone in sub-Saharan Africa, for example—children of God—to make $100 an hour. I would love to just assert that that would be the case. But you can’t assert that unless you raise their productivity, and then the wage follows.

But Brat, the chair of an economics department, must know that the American economy (we can leave aside sub-Saharan Africa for now, given that it is just word salad from Brat) was doing quite well in 1968. If the minimum wage that we had then had gone up at the rate of productivity growth, it would have been $16.54 in 2012. That’s 225% of the $7.25 rate that it actual was and still is. So in as much as Brat is making any sense at all, he is making an argument in favor of a higher minimum wage.

I’m sure, however, that Brat was telling the truth when he first blurted out that he was for no minimum wage at all. He fancies himself a libertarian. But that’s not an opinion that even very many in the Republican base believe. So he will have to massage that position. That’s why he also said, “I don’t have a well-crafted response on that one.” Because despite the fact that he claims to be authentic, he is not inclined to say what he really thinks. Just another politician. Fine. Who cares?

Jack TrammellI think Democrat Jack Trammell, who will face Brat in the general election, ought to care very much. Since Brat considers himself a libertarian and he’s an academic, I’m sure he’s written on the issue of the minimum wage many times. It is one of the favorite issues for libertarians. There’s a reason for that: it is an issue of freedom. If you are so inclined, you can see it as simply the government stopping people from entering into voluntary contracts. Now I can dismantle that argument, but that is the theory. If I were working for Trammell, I’d be reading everything that Brat ever wrote so that the campaign could point out what a hypocrite Brat is.

And it isn’t just the minimum wage. The issue that seems to have won Brat the election was his anti-immigrant stance. Again: this is not what libertarians believe. Libertarians believe in open borders. I’m sure a little reading of Brat will find that he’s written some things that are exactly contrary to what he’s been saying recently. And I’ll bet this is just the tip of the ice berg. Libertarians fancy themselves very philosophically consistent and that often leads them to very unpopular places—especially when it comes to Republican voters.

I still think it is unlikely that Jack Trammell can beat Brat. District 7 is supposedly almost 60% Republican. But Trammell can certainly trammel (Sorry, I couldn’t resist!) Brat’s ideological freedom during this campaign. He can make him squirm. And if things go right, District 7 could go Democratic in 2015.

Jack Trammell 2014!


Here is Jack Trammell’s entire campaign website:

I do hope the Democratic Party provides him some money for this race. It has real promise. I may even pony up ten bucks myself—which is about the limit of my resources.

Perfect “Potato Pancakes”

Potato PancakesI find myself in the unusual position of not being interested in writing anything here. It is probably that I am badly in need of a vacation, but at $300 per night at the Timber Cove Inn, I just can’t afford it. You see, my manic-depressive cycle has turned down. What are you going to do? I don’t mind it. After all, happiness is a relative state. And intellectually, I know that how I feel now will be richly rewarded in the near future. But if I had had a large quantity of barbiturates last night, I might not be writing this right now. Note: I’m not saying that I was suicidal; I don’t do suicidal. But I did want to escape the world and go into a deep sleep and that often ends in death. See, for a beautiful, smart, and funny example, the tragic death of Marilyn Monroe.

But this morning (I did not sleep well last night, regardless) I felt good enough to finally getting around to quantifying my potato pancake recipe. You see, the first thing I ever really learned to cook was potato pancakes. About 25 years ago, I made them out of the recipe in the Joy of Cooking. And I loved them, which was not surprising because my mother made them when I was a kid. So I made them again and again. And over time, I stopped using the recipe because I knew it. And you where that leads! Actually, I didn’t. So recently I made the original recipe and I was underwhelmed. They were not nearly as good as what I now make.

This is not the first time I’ve written here about potato pancakes. The first time was back in 2011, when I wrote, Potato Pancakes. In that article, I put forth two of what I called “mom’s recipes.” This comes from the fact that my mother, who was an excellent cook, didn’t have recipes for anything. So she would say things like, “Oh add some potatoes and onions.” And I would respond, “How much?” And she would say, “Until it looks about right.” I have to admit that this is pretty much the way I am today. I wrote another article called, A Good Idea for Better Latkes. That was mostly a defensive article against another writer claiming that “you” are making your potato pancakes wrong. She was wrong about me, but for all I know you are doing it wrong.

After making the Joy of Cooking recipe, I decided that I had to share my actual recipe with the world. But it took me a long time, because it’s hard to quantify a recipe that you just know. And so I ended up with a number of batches that were suboptimal. Still, they were all better than the Joy recipe. And the recipe I ended up with not the very best that I make. But it is damned good.

Combine in a large mixing bowl:

2.5 cups of grated potatoes
1 cup of grated (Not finely!) onions
2 medium eggs
0.5 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
2 tbs flour

Heat a skillet with a quart inch of oil at medium. Create 1.5 inch balls of mixture and put them into the oil. Mash them down to make them into disks. When the bottom is golden brown, flip them over and cook them until the other side is golden brown. The second side doesn’t take nearly as long as the first side. After removing them from the skillet, soak up the excess oil with paper towels. Enjoy alone, with sour cream, or apple sauce. (The only good use of apple sauce is in potato pancakes!)

Note: you will need to play with the temperature of the oil; too low, they get soggy; too high, the inside doesn’t get cooked properly. Note: depending upon the evenness of your skillet, you may want to rotate the pancakes when they are on the first side. Note: keep the sizes of the pancakes small; too large and the texture is lost. Note: be careful; a minor accident last night rather badly burned one of my fingers (but that was because of a problem with that batch that shouldn’t be true of this one, but always be careful. Note: hot oil is extremely dangerous so, again, be careful. Note: be careful.

So now you know the secret to perfect potato pancakes. The only question is: are these potato pancakes? At times, I will use a one-to-one ratio of potato to onion. At other times, I will use garlic. You can be very creative with this. At times, I’ve put small shrimp in it. Whatever this is, it is delicious. I call them all potato pancakes.

Richard Strauss, Not to Be Confused With

Richard StraussOn this day in 1864, the great composer Richard Strauss was born. It is hard to exactly place his music as he straddles a very turbulent period of music history. But before we get to talking about him, we need to talk about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yes, the theme (if you will) of the film is Also sprach Zarathustra. Or at least the “Sunrise” section of the piece is. The whole thing is over a half hour long. It’s quite an interesting piece of music and you might want to listen to the whole thing some time. It was written by Richard Strauss.

But the other piece of music associated with the film is An der Schoenen Blauen Donau, which is literally “On the beautiful blue Danube,” but which is know as The Blue Danube. It too is written by Strauss. But not Richard Strauss. It was written by Johann Strauss II (not be confused with his father who was also a composer, Johann Strauss I). He was a composer of operettas and other “light” music. And that just shows that you don’t have to be a “serious” composer to be great. In fact, The Blue Danube is one of the most exquisite pieces of music ever written—very fun and yet subtle. But it was not written by Richard Strauss.

I am most interested in Strauss (We’re back to Richard now.) because of his life. By the time the Nazis took over in Germany, Strauss was a towering figure in world music. And Hitler liked his music, not being the “decadent” kind of music from the likes of Arnold Schoenberg. Now Strauss could have just left Germany. He was a star. The problem was that his son had married a Jewish girl. So, because Strauss was a decent person, he spent a good decade of his life protecting his extended family—ultimately succeeding. Although this did force him to schmooze with the Nazis who he found personally repugnant.

Since I know you won’t sit for a whole opera, here is just a little bit of Die Schweigsame Frau (“The Silent Woman”). The libretto is by the great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which caused quite an uproar because Zweig was Jewish. Luckily Zweig escaped Austria. Anyway, it is based on a Ben Jonson comedy. And as you can see in the following trailer, it is a lot of fun and the music is great:

Happy birthday Richard Strauss!