Peter B. Jones

May 9, 2011

Our second interview is with Peter Jones, who completed his Ph.D. thesis last month at MIT.

Kush: You live pretty close to where Ralph Waldo Emerson used to live. What are your thoughts on his statement: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.”

Peter Jones: Foolish consistency is, of course, foolish, but knowing when consistency is foolish and when it is wise is something even Emerson never really mastered (see, for example, his hesitant conversion to abolitionism). In St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians he explains the purpose of the Christian church organization is so that we “be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine.” I think the modern world (at least, the Western world), in its revolt against institutions and authority, has veered too sharply toward Emerson and away from Paul (who, let us not forget, knew first hand about overnight conversions). This leaves society open to thrashing as we follow the fickle majority from one pendulum peak to the other. Personally, I feel ardor and zeal are excellent traits (only) when sufficiently tempered by introspection and foresightfulness.

Lav: Your doctoral work looks at coherently combining disparate beliefs not only in static settings but also when the world is changing dynamically. Indeed you have provided theorems on best ways to combine incoherent beliefs. Do you think institutions like churches, governments, or community organizations are adept at this? What could be better?

PJ: There is certainly aggregative benefit in a healthy civil society, including the institutions you mention. However, I think the key benefit of such institutions is less the ability to aggregate opinion and more the impact on community members, as they form connections with those who are ideologically, or demographically other. If, as Robert Putnam has claimed, civil society in America is in retreat then I think the primary loss is not of institutions and institutional knowledge (although that is significant). The greater loss is the trust, understanding, and tolerance of those with different backgrounds, beliefs and ideologies that arises from vibrant organizations.

L: Sometimes there are fundamental differences in subjective beliefs, e.g. about the beauty of a woman or the luckiness of a number. Do you know of any good ways of performing either beauty arbitrage or luckiness arbitrage?

PJ: Luckiness arbitrage shouldn’t be hard. Suppose someone (P1) has a “lucky” number. Step One: get P1 to go long on their lucky number winning, say, a randomized ball draw at odds higher than uniform (you take the short side). Step Two: get someone rational (P2) to go short on the same ball draw at uniform odds. Step Three: Profit! Since you’ve got a long position at the uniform odds and a short position at higher odds, you have a guaranteed win. If the “lucky” ball comes up, you pay P1 some amount, but receive a larger sum from P2 and vice versa if the “lucky” ball doesn’t come up.

I’ll sidestep the question of beauty arbitrage; everything I’ve tried to write about it sounds a bit too much like human trafficking for my comfort.

K: When did you first get the desire to work on problems of national security?

PJ: I’m not sure when I first got interested in national security.  Certainly from about the time I graduated from high school I’ve been interested in politics and political issues, and have felt compelled to make, in some way, a contribution to preserving the values and institutions we all rely on.  My parents were both politically active on a local level, and my mom ran at least twice for state legislature (but was never actually elected). I see in national security research a nexus of my technical abilities, my intellectual interests, and my obligation to “give something back.”

K: Is Jimmer Fredette the reincarnation of Pistol Pete Maravich?

PJ: Fredette-mania was pretty out of control in March.  It seemed like half the posts on my Facebook feed from friends in Utah were about Jimmer.  If Jimmer does as well in the NBA as Maravich did I’ll be both gladdened and a little surprised.  He seems like a good guy and I hope he succeeds.

As a side note, my “Junior Jazz” coach used to call me “Pistol Pete.”  I figure it was mostly an attempt to inspire my play.  Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, it had little impact on my shooting accuracy.


One comment

  1. […] about six months ago (one previous to the one in April) I met up with a friend of the blog, Peter Jones, and we went candlepin bowling and had a bit of discussion about Robert Putnam’s book Bowling […]

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