Sunday, October 14, 2007

The Beautiful Mind of Raymond Chandler

Forgive me for coherence problems with this post. It’s basically an unstructured response to one of my guilty TV pleasures, NUMB3RS. It’s a love/hate relationship for me when the brilliant mathematician Charlie Eppes tries to explain some branch of economics. In addition to being an economist, I received my doctorate from Caltech (CalSci in the show). While at Caltech, I first developed an appreciation for the two of the twin subthemes of this episode: game theory and the noir Los Angeles novels of Raymond Chandler.

In my experimental economics class (something else that is a legacy to me from Caltech, specifically from Charles Plott) I have fun demonstrating some cases where game theory does a pretty good job of predicting human behavior. Specifically, game theory predictions are pretty awesome in things like auctions. On the other hand, a lot of research of the past couples of decades has demonstrated areas of human interaction where game theory doesn’t do a great job, usually areas outside of markets. I remember fighting over who did the dishes when I was an undergraduate with three other roommates, but if all of us always acted like gamers, everything would have fallen apart. That seems to be an overarching conclusion of this research. We behave enough like game theory to make a perfect world unobtainable, but enough differently that we’re not in the world of the war of all against all.

I thought a lot about that in tonight’s episode. Charlie was working on a mathematical model of friendship. But when he was explaining the role of game theory, he used examples of lions and jackels in a survival battle. I have no doubt that part of our brain remains capable of those types of animalistic instincts. But isn’t being human in a world after the fall supposed to be about rising above that?

I realize that there is a certain fun in mapping game theoretic principles into certain Biblical, usually Old Testament stories (check out the work of Steven Brams). But, unless you adopt modeling conventions that cause game theory to explain everything, as opposed to nothing, how do you explain: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” ? Or how about “No greater love has a man but that he lays down his life for his friends” ? Or how about when laying down your life is not just a statement but an actual sacrifice by a sinless man? Or how about the early Christians who risked everything to follow the new Way? As you readers could tell from our previous posts, Doug and I are working on a project regarding the Kingdom of Heaven. I think part of our challenge is: how do we distinguish when standard economic tools such as game theory are useful and when do we say that they are complete junk (this is a family friendly blog). And the boundary between the two may be very important,.

And now for some more personal, less religious, thoughts. In the end of the episode, Charlie Eppes claims to have gone beyond his formal models to find transcendence in friendship. We see that he is reading Romeo and Juliet….and about love. At what point did economists drive love out of the world?

And this is where the second theme of this episode --- the references to Raymond Chandler ---- comes into my post. The script tagged Chandler as the novelist of murderers and blackmailers --- the jackels Charlie Eppes is modeling using game theory. There certainly are countless writers who can explain love better than Raymond Chandler. Usually, Philip Marlowe is all about duty, honor and courage, almost never about love. And there is indeed a lot of murder and blackmail. But in one glorious book, one of the greatest American novels, The Long Goodbye, Chandler creates a drama built around friendship. In this novel Marlowe finds, experiences, and then loses the friendship of Terry Lennox, who seems to be one of the few friends that we see in his life. Chandler novels were never made into “buddy cop” movies for Hot Fuzz to parody.

If Charlie Eppes ever wanted to see the transcendence of friendship, he only needs to abandon his formal models to read The Long Goodbye by the very same Raymond Chandler that his father associated with blackmail and murder.

[Beyond Here Be Spoilers]

If you’ve ever not had a friend, or have lost a friend, I dare you to read the last paragraphs of The Long Goodbye and not have it rip your insides out:

He turned and walked across the floor and out. I watched the door close. I listened to his steps going away down the imitation marble corridor. After a while they got faint, and then they got silent. I kept on listening anyway. What for? Did I want him to stop and come back and talk me out of the way I felt? Well, he didn’t. That was the last I saw of him.

There is no game theory for this.

*Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye, (New York: Ballantine Books, Seventh Printing 1978, originally published 1953).

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