Note: I wish you all a prosperous, healthy, and writerly year 2019. (No wishes for happiness, it will come from all the above.)
I have a French nephew who is super-smart. Not long after graduating from the best school in France, he moved to Morocco where he married a super-smart Moroccan woman. He is so smart that he asked me for my intellectual will before I depart for another planet. It’s below.
Here are my qualifications: I taught in universities for thirty years, including twenty-five years in a business school in Silicon Valley. My doctorate is in sociology. (Please, don’t judge me.) My fields of specialization are Organizational Theory and the Sociology of Economic Development. My degree is from a very good university although I am a French high school dropout. My vita is linked here (pdf). Its academic part is respectable from a scholarly standpoint, no more. There is much additional info in my book: I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography, available from me, and on Amazon Kindle, and in my electronic book of memoirs in French: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration”, also on Amazon Kindle.
1. When the facts don’t fit your perspective you should change …. ? (Complete sentence.)
2. One basic complex idea worth knowing that resists learning: natural selection.
Note: the effective mechanism involved is multi-generational differential reproduction. You don’t understand natural selection until you can put a meaning on all three words.
3. Another basic idea worth knowing, a counter-intuitive one, that also resists learning: the principle of Comparative Advantage: If you are not working at what you do the very best, you are impoverishing me. There is a ten-lesson quick course on my blog to explain this. Look for short essays with the word “protectionism” in the title. A longform version can also be found, here.
4. Taking from the poor is a stupid way to try to become rich when you can invent a new world – like Steve Jobs – and be immensely rewarded for it. Or open a decent restaurant and be well rewarded, or learn welding. There isn’t much you can take from the poor anyway because they are poor. Plus, the bastards often resist!
5. Culture is in the heads (plural). Everything else isn’t “culture.”
6. How a body of people act is not simply the addition of the thinking of its individual human members. (There is a sociology!)
7. Beware those pesky fractions. Quick test: Five years ago, my income was 40% of yours. Now, my income is only 20% of yours. Am I earning less than I did five years ago?
8. Correlation is not causation but there is no causation without some sort of correlation.
9. Statistical significance is significant even if you don’t quite know what it signifies. Find out. It’s not hard.
10. Use statistical estimation methods even if you don’t understand them well. It will improve your reasoning rigor by confronting you brutally with the wrongness of your guesses. And you can only become better at it with practice.
11. There is not text that’s not improved by extirpating from it half of all adjectives and adverbs.
12. Reading is still the most efficient way to improve your comprehension of the world.
It seems to me that if you understand these twelve points inside out, you are well above average in general culture; that’s even true on a global scale.
Below are some intellectual anchoring points of my life. They are subjectively chosen, of course. Don’t lend them too much credence.
My favorite singer-composers: Jacques Brel; the Argentinean Communist Atahualpa Yupanqui. (I can’t help it.)
My favorite instrumental musics: baroque music, the blues.
My favorite painters: Caravaggio (link); Delacroix (Eugene); Delacroix (Krishna).
I don’t have a favorite book because I read all the time without trying to rank books. These three books have made a lasting impression, changed my brain pathways forever, I suspect: Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe; George R. Stewart, Earth Abides; Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.
The only two intelligent things I have said in my life:
“Once you know a woman well vertically, you know nothing about her horizontally.”
“There is not bad book.”