A Story about Bertrand Russell’s Plane Crash

In the past few days, a video has been circulating of an interview where Bertrand Russell credits smoking with saving his life.1

Russell explains:

In fact, you know, on one occasion [smoking] saved my life. I was in an airplane, a man was getting a seat for me, and I said, “Get me a seat in the smoking part, because if I can’t smoke I shall die.” And sure enough there was an accident, a bad accident,2 and all the people in the non-smoking part of the plane were drowned, and the people in the smoking part jumped into the Norwegian fjord where we’d landed, and we were saved. So I owe my life to smoking.

I have a family anecdote to share about this incident. In 1948, my grandfather, Richard Kinsey, was a graduate student in philosophy at Princeton. In a seminar that fall, a professor asked each student for their views on philosophy. My grandfather “rashly but with conviction” (in his words) said that he considered Bertrand Russell the greatest living philosopher. Later that day, he found out that a plane with Russell was down, leaving it for some time doubtful that his description of Russell as a living philosopher was accurate.

Several years later, my grandfather wrote Russell to tell him the story. Russell’s response was:

Thank you for your very charming letter. I am glad that at least one of the adjectives you applied to me in 1948 is still applicable.3

This response seems consistent with Ray Monk’s characterization of the older Russell as the type to make “wittily self-deprecating remarks” of this sort (e.g., “My brain is not what it was. I’m past my best — & therefore, of course, I am now celebrated.”). This contrasts with his earlier behavior. Monk quotes Virginia Woolf’s diaries: “Bertie is a fervid egoist, which helps matters.” And Russell wrote the following on modesty in his 1919 essay Dreams and Facts: “Modesty, the correlative of politeness, consists in pretending not to think better of ourselves and our belongings than of the man we are speaking to and his belongings.”

I recommend taking a look at Monk’s excerpt (see also Sylvia Nasar’s review of it), which describe an interesting shift in character: the young Russell, a brilliant mathematician and philosopher, turning into a rather fallen and mediocre, if celebrated, older man.

  1. I found this on Andrew Sullivan, who got the link from 3 Quarks Daily
  2. This was the Bukken Bruse disaster, a plane crash that killed 19 people. 
  3. I’ve put a scan of the original letter from Russell, along with my grandfather’s description, here (warning, large file). 

Links: Number Theory, Mel Brooks, Garden Hermits, Gay Marriage, Passwords, etc

I promise to have some real posts soon—an announcement describing my freshman writing course about math, and a two-part series on the late economist Albert Hirschman, including a discussion of how his theories apply to the tech world—but for now a few links:

  • There’s big news in math with Yitang Zhang’s proof of a big result in number theory. What struck me most was the beautiful story behind the work: Zhang didn’t find a tenure-track job, and toiled for years in obscurity, working at a Subway (sic!) and as an accountant before finding a non-tenure-track job at New Hampshire. For more, see this article from the Simons Foundation, which did the best job giving a sense of his story. (I hope some publication—the New Yorker?, or does the new New Republic want to give it a try?1—can do a good longform profile on Zhang.) An interesting tidbit is this reflection from Zhang’s advisor at Purdue, Tzuong-Tsieng Moh.

    For more about Zhang’s result, see Jordan Ellenberg’s excellent article on Slate. What’s particularly important about Ellenberg’s article is his emphasis on heuristics and non-rigourous arguments in mathematical thinking. Yes, pure math requires formal proof in the end, but the process relies on a much wider variety of epistemological processes. (Note that Ellenberg’s article, though written for a popular audience, struck me as more demanding on the reader than most popular expositions. For non-math people, if there are parts that are confusing, don’t feel bad, and forge onward.)

  • On a lighter note, do watch this video of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft singing Sweet Georgia Brown in Polish. (If you insist on skipping their banter—don’t!—the singing starts around 1:45 in.) They did this for the 1983 film To Be or Not To Be, which is a fun time if you’re looking for something not too serious. (The youtube clip here isn’t from the movie, it’s from a television show, but it’s as good as the clip in the movie, indeed arguably better because it isn’t lip-synched as in the movie.) (h/t to this Fresh Air interview of Brooks)

  • Ezekiel Emanuel with an interesting piece in the Times on how to reduce suicides.

  • Leon Wieseltier on the humanities in The New Republic. I don’t fully agree, in the following sense: I think people need to understand both the humanities and the sciences.2 But given that the intellectual tug-of-war has pushed so strongly to the side of science—although too often in a problematic TEDified discourse that ignores methodological issues3—Wieseltier provides an important counterweight.

  • An interesting article in Ars Technica on password security.

  • Did you know that in 18th century England real humans were hired to serve as garden hermits? Alice Gregory has a great article on this in the Boston Globe.

  • I’m going to tread very delicately here. I strongly support gay marriage,4 and abhor homophobia. So I want to be explicit in saying I don’t agree with him here,5 but Michael Kinsley has an interesting article in The New Republic on gay marriage and the controversy surrounding the promiment conservative surgeon Benjamin Carson. I haven’t followed the details—it sounds like Carson has said some pretty bad things—but I think it’s important that we take a moment to listen to Kinsley, especially because of the danger that comes from stifling free speech at universities. A key fact is that this was about a commencement speech. Put aside that commencement speeches are usually dull.6 The more important thing is that commencements are about the graduates. I’d be uncomfortable with something overly political either way.

    See also The Observer, Andrew Sullivan, Gawker, and Evan Wolfson.

  1. If I didn’t have a thesis to write, a course to design, and a job to find this summer, and if I didn’t lack the necessary clips and connections with the journalism world to get the assignment, I would be tempted to try… (If anyone from the New Yorker is reading, choose me, not Sylvia Nasar, my thesis can wait!) 

  2. Here I’m including economic and probabilistic thinking, among the things, in the “sciences”. Indeed, those are far more important than knowledge of physics, I would argue. Perhaps we need to change C.P. Snow’s example from the laws of thermodynamics to those of economics and probability. 
  3. Yet another reason why humanists need to understand science is the overabundance of journalism that fails to understand correlation vs causation, etc. 
  4. Although, for an amusing take, see this New Yorker cartoon by Michael Shaw. 
  5. A word to the Griceans out there—for those who don’t know who Grice is, I promise to say much more about him this summer and fall in the context of my writing course—let me make clear that that proviso applies to every link. I just wanted to articulate that more explicitly here. 
  6. A singular exception is the speech the late Reverend Peter Gomes gave at Stanford’s Baccalaureate in 2008. It’s available to watch online on youtube starting around 23:45 in. (Sadly, this video has received less than 1% of the views that Oprah received for her commencement speech the next day.) A full transcript is also available, but you should watch the speech, since it’s not the same on paper without Rev. Gomes’ eloquent oration. 

Remember Learned Hand Before Criticizing Apple’s Tax Practices

Apple is the news, charged by Congress with evading taxes. In any discussion about taxation, the following quote from the great judge Learned Hand1 should be kept in mind:

Any one may so arrange his affairs that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which will best pay the Treasury; there is not even a patriotic duty to increase one’s taxes.2

Yes, as a society we must choose how to structure our laws and tax codes so that people pay their fair share of taxes.3 Certainly, a tax code that allows evasive practices is no good. Nor is it good if an overly complicated4 tax code simply benefits lawyers and accountants who make money by coming up with clever tax dodges; that doesn’t add any value to society. But the criticism should be on the tax code, and on a political system where special interests prevail over prudent economic and social policy, not on companies that are following the law.5

Update: Also take a look at Matt Yglesias on this.

  1. For more on Hand, I recommend Gerald Gunther’s biography, which I remember enjoying (albeit many years ago). 
  2. Helvering v. Gregory , 69 F.2d 809, 810-11 (2d Cir. 1934). (Note that the 1935 Supreme Court case permutes the order of the parties.) 
  3. I’m not convinced that having a corporate tax is the best way to do this. Economists all over the political spectrum agree. Obviously, since the rich would benefit most by removing corporate income taxes, we would offset this by appropriately increasing income and investment taxes. (One criticism to this is that removing corporate taxes deprives the government of an easy lever to incentive certain corporate behavior through tax credits. I suppose the government could use subsidies. Obviously, there are details to think about. Further, in an interconnected, global economy, there needs to be coordination between different countries’ tax codes. Of course, we should also add Pigovian taxation of corporations for negative externalities like pollution.) 
  4. The qualifying “overly” is crucial here. I am not at all suggesting an overly simple, flat-tax approach. In an age where computers can handle calculations and paperwork that would pose an unreasonable burden on humans, there’s no need to be afraid of having appropriate gradations in our tax code. (What is outrageous is that we need to pay money to a company like Turbo Tax to do this.) In fact, it strikes me as far more elegant if we did much more of this; why not have continuously increasing rather than discrete tax brackets? (I admit that this might be a bit much, and in fact might not be worth the hassle.) A big one that bothers me is the removal of income-averaging, which unfairly affects authors who receive large lump sums that represent years of poorly remunerated work but are taxed as if this were their regular income. Should Chad Harbach really be taxed at the same rate as an investment banker? 
  5. Of course, if companies are breaking the law, that’s a different story. 

Interesting Articles: Syria, Free Speech and Privacy Online, Dogs, Fossil Fuels, How to Win at Poker, and More

  • A good article by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker on Syria. A really complicated situation.

  • An interesting etymology from the recent New Yorker article (paywall) by Rivka Galchen about Elmhurst Hospital:

    The word “pedagogy” comes from the Greek term for the slave who escorted a child to school. (p. 55)

    No comment about whether 21st century University of Michigan undergrads have internalized this etymology when interacting with their Graduate Student Instructors…

  • An article by Jeffrey Rosen in The New Republic about the crucial role twenty-somethings in Silicon Valley are now playing in determining free speech regulation. The article itself isn’t so profound, but it’s a good opportunity to think about the importance of Facebook, Twitter, and Google as arbiters of free speech.1 (Question: Have any of you cursed on Facebook? At least in my social circle, that seems rather unusual.)

    Also: Facebook Tells Court ‘Like’ Feature Vital to Free Speech. This is pretty obvious, isn’t it? (The lawyer’s argument that some liking is done just to get a coupon, and therefore liking isn’t protected speech is absurd; most of anyone’s speech is innocuous and non-political, but that has nothing to do with whether speech should be protected for those special cases.) (via Christian Tom)

  • On privacy and LinkedIn. When I’ve used it, I’ve observed how creepily accurate LinkedIn’s recommendations are, for people who shouldn’t be suggested based just on the graph of the social network. I’d always assumed this was mostly based on browsing history. This article offers some explanations. And, importantly, it shows a few hidden privacy settings that you should make sure to adjust. (I hadn’t noticed them, and I tend to be pretty good about such things; I, for example, am one of the few people I know on LinkedIn who has deactivated “People also viewed” from my profile, which reveals an awful lot of information about people’s browsing habits.) Of course, there’s so much to be said about how to balance privacy with the benefits that these algorithms provide; it is useful that LinkedIn is so good at finding people I know.

  • Yes! Farhad Manjoo’s “No, I Do Not Want to Pet Your Dog,” from Slate. I thought his comparison with children was particularly apt. I’m someone who finds little children completely adorable, and my patience for their noise in places—||cafes, libraries, bookstores, airplanes, restaurants—||where I otherwise would get annoyed is pretty high. But there are many people who aren’t so enamored with little children, so it seems appropriate that there are communal norms against little children causing too much disturbance.

    Now change children with dogs. I’m biased, because, unlike with children, I’m no fan of dogs. But certainly the argument against dogs is so much more compelling, for at least the following reasons: (1) dogs cause allergies that affect many people (this is the source of my distaste2); (2) we ought to draw our moral circles somewhere, and as far as I’m concerned, we should focus on loving humans more, so certainly children—even if sometimes annoying in public places—deserve more patience; and (3) if we’re going to be a society that supports women’s rights (and we should be!), we should be supportive of children being brought (within reason) to workplaces.3

    Okay, rant over. But seriously: negative liberties matter. In a world with so much human cruelty, can’t we direct what love we have to other humans, rather than animals?4

  • Are Fossil Fuel Firms Overpriced? An interesting article from the Economist, suggesting that shareholders might be insufficiently weighing the risk that carbon reserves won’t be used because of environmental regulation. Of course, such regulation would be an extremely good thing; pollution by fossil fuels is a negative externality par excellence and should be taxed. This is Pigovian taxation, which is widely endorsed by economists all over the political spectrum.

  • On the topic of obvious problems that happen when economic theory isn’t respected: Venezuela has run out of toilet paper, thanks to price controls. (Do ignore the weird last paragraph.) (via Andrew Sullivan)

  • How to Win at Poker from the Economist. Each time I read an academic article that reveals opportunities in a market that otherwise looks efficient, I wonder whether the academic prestige from publishing the article offsets the potential winnings from keeping the idea quiet and profiting off of it.

  • Your 19th Century Livejournal: apparently, it’s only in the last century that journals and diaries have become mostly private; before then, they were shared as we share blogs today.

  • Right after I got so fed up with Harpers that I unsubscribed, in the last issue I’ll get, I found a charming article by Thomas Frank: Getting to Eureka. Unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall, but if you have a subscription or want to find a copy to peruse in a library (it’s the June issue, just mailed), enjoy it.

  1. This is an interesting phenomenon, not just in journalism, but in literature: the importance of having some length of writing not because of the content itself but instead because reading it makes you think about things, or serves some other purpose. (For example, in literature, sometimes you need to have some length of content just to give the feeling of time passing.) 

  2. Public service announcement: Dog (and cat) dander is very difficult to remove. It’s from skin flakes that enter the air, not hairs, so even if a pet isn’t touching someone, if it’s in the same room, the dander will get there. (It’s been suggested that cat dander is so pervasive because it’s used as a pheromone by cats; that’s why it travels so well in the air.) Studies have shown that after a dog or cat is removed from a house, it takes months for the dander levels to decrease. (Actually, it’s depressing how little research has been done on this. There’s this one study in the 1980s, but very little since then, nor is there much evidence-based research about how best to remove such dander.) So if you’re in an apartment building that doesn’t allow pets, please don’t sneak one in; find a building that allows pets. (The one consolation I take from the disturbing mix of increased allergy rates—|presumably having something to do with the hygiene hypothesis—|and increased pollen from global warming is that perhaps the tide will turn against pet ownership. Is there anyone else out there who spends time googling “cities with low pet ownership rates”? But I don’t want to move to DC!) 
  3. Being an academic, I’m thinking of course of cafes and libraries. This applies to actual offices, too. (Of course, there are limitations. But the point is to be supportive and offer a variety of childcare options.)  
  4. When I give this argument, I like to cite Ivan’s discussion of the cruelty done to children in Brothers Karamazov (in the key chapters right before the Grand Inquisitor: The Brothers Meet and Rebellion). This, of course, conveniently neglects a later scene of cruelty to dogs (not to mention the horse scene in Crime and Punishment, which eerily parallels Nietzsche’s hugging a horse when he went mad). Cruelty to animals is bad, of course. But I don’t think we should consider it as anywhere close to as bad as cruelty to other humans. (And I think it’s best to treat wanton cruelty of animals as problematic largely because it correlates with and possibly increases the likelihood of cruelty to humans.) 

A Sonnet for Morgenbesser: Dear Astrophil, Love Stella

Two summers ago, I sat in on a wonderful introductory poetry course taught by John Whittier-Ferguson. Among the poems we read was Sir Philip Sidney’s sonnet Astrophil and Stella 63 (“O Grammar rules…”).

In this sonnet sequence,1 Astrophil is less than successfully wooing Stella. By this 63rd sonnet he resorts to linguistic trickery: You have said “No, no,” to me, but two negatives are a positive, so you’re saying “Yes”! In his words:

O Grammar rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young Dove may in your precepts wise
Her grant to me, by her own virtue know.
For late with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I crav’d the thing which ever she denies:
She lightning Love, displaying Venus’ skies,
Least once should not be heard, twice said, No, No.
Sing then my Muse, now Io Pæan sing,
Heav’ns envy not at my high triumphing:
But Grammar’s force with sweet success confirm,
For Grammar says (O this dear Stella weigh,)
For Grammar says (to Grammar who says nay)
That in one speech two Negatives affirm.

Reading this, I instantly knew what Stella’s response should be. So, one lovely summer day, rather than doing my math, I took up my poetry pen for the first time since elementary school haikus, and wrote this:

Dear Astrophil, Love Stella

“Yes, yes!” I say to you—with caveat.
I warn: bewitching can our language be;
This game might lead to nought but misery
For you who tried to win me o’er by thought.
Even for those who think on ‘is’ and ‘ought,’
’Tis not so easy as it seems to be.
A famous don once gave a talk, you see,
Where by his aperçu he did get caught.
“That from two nos we get a positive,
Of this there’s evidence corroborative.”
Thus did our wise and learned chair declare.
“And yet you must agree that it is so,
That from two yays we never get a no.”
—Whence from the back the quick retort: “Yeah, yeah.”

–Rafe Kinsey, July 2011

My Stella is recounting the famous quip of the late Columbia philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, who offered this remark after the British philosopher of language J.L. Austin claimed that double positives never make a negative.2

Morgenbesser was a wonderful character, renowned for his wit. Let me offer a few of my favorite quotes:

  • During his final, painful illness: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?”
  • Morgenbesser published very little in his life. In response to criticism of his meager written output, he said, “Moses wrote one book. Then what did he do?”
  • About an older professor he did not admire: “The Lubavitcher Rebbe has more doubts in a single night than that man has had in his entire life.” (This quote reminds me of certain particularly dogmatic analytic philosophy professors I knew in college.)
  • On pragmatism: “It’s all very well in theory but it doesn’t work in practice.”
  • To psychologist B.F. Skinner: “Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn’t anthropomorphize people?”
  • Asked what it is that a philosopher does: “You make a few distinctions. You clarify a few concepts. It’s a living.”3

For more, see his New York Times obituary, this remembrance from Columbia College Today, this remembrance from the Times, and the list of stories on his wikipedia page, from which I’ve drawn most of these quotes.

  1. My summary here comes from secondary sources; I haven’t read beyond this 63rd sonnet. For more on the sonnet, see this helpful site from the Poetry Foundation. 
  2. Some sources suggest Morgenbesser’s response was “Yeah, right!” If so, my poem can be changed as follows: Line 11 becomes So did our don preface his deep insight and line 14 becomes —Whence from the back a sigh arrived: “Yeah, right.” This version is actually easier to parse, since “Yeah, right” more immediately reads negative, while with “yeah, yeah” you have to hear the right intonation to get the negative. But I prefer the “yeah, yeah” version, which matches the opening “Yes, yes!” 
  3. From the first issue of Lingua Franca, “Letter to our Readers.” This is unfortunately unavailable online; the late Aaron Swartz’s wonderful archive only has content that was on the old website, rather than the complete archives.