The Real and the Imaginary—Weekly Wisdom 16th November, 2021

Also the dehumanizing nature of photographs, the state of US electoral politics, China’s state power, the incentives that made the internet and how to engage online.

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Something I learned this week

Imaginary Numbers have a very interesting history. Algebra didn’t always have the notation we use today. It was described in terms of descriptive passages and geometric models. That tied mathematics to the physical world. However, that leaves very little space for negative numbers. Which is why solving the Cubic Equation took thousands of years. This video recounts how Gerolamo Cardano arrived at the sqaure root of -1, as well as the Renaissance era academic politics. Later termed an ‘Imaginary Number’ by Descartes, denoted by an ι by Euler, and ending up in Schrodinger’s Wave equation. Which describes the most fundamental phenomenon of Physics.

It is by disassociating itself from the real world, did mathematics became capable of describing the real world.

Something(s) to read

  • The theater of state power by Andrew Batson: Andrew Batson is may be the most insightful commentator on China in the English language. In this essay from the early days of pandemic, he describes how state power is maintained and projected in the PRC. This informs a lot of what has happened since.
  • Nassem Taleb’s rules for online engagement: Taleb came up with a set of rules of engagement for his Facebook page. These are a good way of determining whom to engage with online on which subjects.
FAQ for the Facebook Author Page for Nassim Nicholas Taleb


This is a private page for an author, so the discussion is around the topics covered by the author in the Incerto and the technical companion, namely epistemology, decision, risk, probability, how to behave under unknown environments, fragility of systems, ethics of behavior under incertitude, etc. In other words, philosophical ideas about uncertainty.

This is not about promotion but rather development, and continuation of the discussions. As an author I owe much to this page and have given ample credit to the individuals who subsequently became personal friends.

Remember that this is not the place for discussions of political, financial and other journalistic issues: there are other places on the web where these are conducted much more successfully.

The Information page states that: Commentators should not jump into the conversation without prior familiarity with the problems/ideas, as it brings the discussions down to the lowest level. It is tough maintaining a conversation on the web without some rules of what should not be done.


Remember that you are on an author's page, and aphorisms do not have to be backed up within themselves. An author needs to write his books once; he does not have to re-explain the points every time he makes a comment.


Disagreements are useful, even necessary but they need to be in good faith, like a friend telling you that you are wrong, pointing out a mistake, not like a politician making the other person look like evil and scoring points. Remember this is not a public forum, but a private page for an author, so contradict others the way you would as a dinner guest of the person.


There are two kind of problems with posts.

Good Faith but Bad Topics. The first is people acting in good faith, without inelegance, but totally unacquainted with the topic so they reopen discussions that have long been solved, and distract the rest. It is the equivalent of someone in a math discussion forum asking to define the square root and insisting on his right to pose the question. Also includes people who, say, want to get rich and come here for a recipe not getting the point.

Also includes people making logical mistakes but not nasty about things. I assume sophistry is not intentional at first, so the posts will be deleted (with a comment explaining why) unless they continue and don't get the point in which case they will be prevented from posting and invited to take their comments elsewhere.

There are also people who corner others in a party... the equivalent here is repeated long posts on the same point that block the conversation, divert it, and prevent others from having something to say.

Finally, I tend to lose patience with "can't take healthy criticism" when it is neither healthy nor criticism.

Bad Faith Easily recognizable when you see it; attempts at using straw man arguments, deforming the

ideas posting, or getting personal.

Note that I have a few enemies, particularly in the finance community (after my thing with Victor Niederhoffer whom I mistakenly called "gentleman" in. Fooled by Randomness); it does not take much more than an overactive, bitter, and slighted person to make life difficult or engage in smear campaigns.

Also remember my "calling a fraud a fraud" by name has also elicited some responses... But everything is transparent on the web.

So people who post in bad faith will be prevented from updating on the page. It is like making sure someone is not "invited" to the dinner party.


I am very grateful for the members of this page as it is my principal access to the web and has provided raw material for the works.remember this is an author's page.

Quotes and Notes

Open Incentives

This essay is about Microsoft’s hidden advantage in the metaverse. However this passage reminds us about the incentives that birthed the internet. Those incentives are not present for any similar endeavor. So your Crypto Meta Web3 will not be an open platform. It would be more like terrestrial TV at best and Cable TV at worst.

The entire reason the Internet is as open and interoperable as it is is because it was built in a world without commercial imperative or political oversight; all future efforts will be led by companies seeking profits and regulated by governments seeking control, both of which result in centralization and lock-in.

— Ben Thompson, Microsoft and the Metaverse

Media and Reality

Stuff that inspire me, intrigues me and sometimes infuriates me.

This is the message you would have read when you signed up. Well this long essay is definitely in the latter group. The central premise of the whole thesis is confused; It conflates Republican, Conservative and Right-Wing. Same goes for Democrat, Liberal, and Left-Wing. All the while talking about the typical voters for the party.

That being said it is a valuable summary of the issues that plagues the electoral politics of the US.

One good way to understand the differences here is by looking at the 2020 Trump campaign, which was sort of a reductio ad absurdum of the general trends we see on the right. Republicans simultaneously attacked Biden for being woke and wanting to let BLM burn down cities, and also for being “racist” because he was once tough on crime. The Democratic base would not have let Biden get away with something similar; they demanded he demonstrate an ideological commitment to being softer on crime than Republicans, and he generally did, although he may not have gone far enough for some activists.

How cancellations work on each side also demonstrates the ideological versus tribal divide. On the left, people are cancelled for ideological transgressions. Al Franken was hounded out of the Senate and Andrew Cuomo from the governor’s office for MeToo reasons, with pressure coming from their own side. And when we talk about a Democrat potentially getting primaried, it’s usually over their positions. Republicans, meanwhile, have been purging people for insufficient loyalty to Trump, not over any ideological principles. Recall that Liz Cheney was originally promoted to the third highest Republican position in the House, despite supposedly being ideologically as far away from Trump as one can be. Meanwhile, no one was more supportive of Trump’s agenda, to the extent there was one, than Jeff Sessions, and now Republicans hate him, because again, loyalty to Trump is all that matters.

— Richard Hanania, Liberals Read, Conservatives Watch TV

Class and Surrealism

I will keep quoting Susan Sontag’s On Photography because it is beyond relevant. This time form the essay Melancholy Objects. This one focusses on how photography denigrates the downtrodden. the poor, the disabled, the broken down. For the benefit of the Bourgeoisie.

Photography has the unappealing reputation of being the most realistic, therefore facile, of the mimetic arts.

Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise: in the very creation of a duplicate world, of a reality in the second degree, narrower but more dramatic than the one perceived by natural vision. The less doctored, the less patently crafted, the more naive in history-the more authoritative the photograph was likely to be

Surrealism is a bourgeois disaffection; that its militants thought it universal is only one of the signs that it is typically bourgeois.

— Susan Sontag, On Photography

Thank you for joining me this week. If you know some who might enjoy this, please forward this email to them. See you next week.

Mudassir Chapra

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