Some notes on Von Neumann, as a human being

I recently read Prisoner’s Dilemma, which half an introduction to very elementary game theory, and half a biography of John Von Neumann, and watched this old PBS documentary about the man.

I’m glad I did. Von Neumann has legendary status in my circles, as the smartest person ever to live. [1] Many times I’ve written the words “Von Neumann Level Intelligence” in a AI strategy document, or speculated about how many coordinated Von Neumanns would it take to take over the world. (For reference, I now think that 10 is far too low, mostly because he didn’t seem to have the entrepreneurial or managerial dispositions.)

Learning a little bit more about him was humanizing. Yes, he was the smartest person ever to live, but he was also an actual human being, with actual human traits.

Watching this first clip, I noticed that I was surprised by a number of thing.

  1. That VN had an accent. I had known that he was Hungarian, but somehow it had never quite propagated that he would speak with a Hungarian accent.
  2. That he was middling height (somewhat shorter than the presenter he’s talking too).
  3. The thing he is saying is the sort of thing that I would expect to hear from any scientist in the public eye, “science education is important.”┬áThere is something revealing about Von Neumann, despite being the smartest person in the world, saying basically what I would expect Neil DeGrasse Tyson to say in an interview. A lot of the time he was wearing his “scientist / public intellectual” hat, not the “smartest person ever to live” hat.

Some other notes of interest:

He was not a skilled poker player, which punctured my assumption that Von Neumann was omnicompetent. (pg. 5) Nevertheless, poker was among the first inspirations for game theory. (When I told this to Steph, she quipped “Oh. He wasn’t any good at it, so he developed a theory from first principles, describing optimal play?” For all I know, that might be spot on.)

Perhaps relatedly, he claimed he had low sales resistance, and so would have his wife come clothes shopping with him. (pg. 21)

He was sexually crude, and perhaps a bit misogynistic. Eugene Wigner stated that “Johny believed in having sex, in pleasure, but not in emotional attachment. HE was interested in immediate pleasure and little comprehension of emotions in relationships and mostly saw women in terms of their bodies.” The journalist Steve Heimes wrote “upon entering an office where a pretty secretary was working, von Neumann habitually would bend way over, more or less trying to look up her dress.” (pg. 28) Not surprisingly, his relationship with his wife, Klara, was tumultuous, to say the least.

He did however, maintain a strong, life long, relationship with his mother (who died the same year that he did).

Overall, he gives the impression of being a genius, overgrown child.

Unlike many of his colleagues, he seemed not to share the pangs conscience that afflicted many of the bomb creators. Rather than going back to academia following the war, he continued doing work for the government, including the development of the Hydrogen bomb.

Von Neumann advocated preventative war: giving the Soviet union an ultimatum, of joining a world government, backed by the threat of (and probable enaction of) nuclear attack, while the US still had a nuclear monopoly. He famously said of the matter, “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not 1 o’clock.”

This attitude was certainly influenced by his work on game theory, but it should also be noted that Von Neumann hated communism.

Richard Feynman reports that Von Neumann, in their walks through the Los Alamos desert, convinced him to adopt and attitude of “social irresponsibility”, that one “didn’t have to be responsible for the world he was in.”

Prisoner’s dilemma says that he and his collaborators “pursued patents less aggressively than the could have”. Edward Teller commented, “probably the IBM company owes half its money to John Von Neumann.” (pg. 76)

So he was not very entrepreneurial, which is a bit of a shame, because if he had the disposition he probably could have made sooooo much money / really taken substantial steps towards taking over the world. (He certainly had the energy to be an entrepreneur: he only slept for a few hours a night, and was working for basically all his working hours.

He famously always wore a grey oxford 3 piece suit, including when playing tennis with Stanislaw Ulam, or when riding a donkey down the grand canyon. But, I am not clear why. Was that more comfortable? Did he think it made him look good? Did he just not want to have to ever think about clothing, and so preferred to be over-hot in the middle of the Los Alamos desert, rather than need to think about if today was “shirt sleeves whether”?

Von Neumann himself once commented on the strange fact of so many Hungarian geniuses growing up in such a small area, in his generation:

Stanislaw Ulam recalled that when Von Neumann was asked about this “statistically unlikely” Hungarian phenomenon, Von Neumann “would say that it was a coincidence of some cultural factors which he could not make precise: an external pressure on the whole society of this part of Central Europe, a subconscious feeling of extreme insecurity in individual, and the necessity of producing the unusual or facing extinction.” (pg. 66)

One thing that surprised me most was that it seems that, despite being possibly the smartest person in modernity, he would have benefited from attending a CFAR workshop.

For one thing, at the end of his life, he was terrified of dying. But throughout the course of his life he made many reckless choices with his health.

He ate gluttonously and became fatter and fatter over the course of his life. (One friend remarked that he “could count anything but calories.”)

Furthermore, he seemed to regularly risk his life when driving.

Von Neuman was an aggressive and apparently reckless driver. He supposedly totaled his car every year or so. An intersection in Princeton was nicknamed “Von Neumann corner” for all the auto accidents he had there. records of accidents and speeding arrests are preserved in his papers. [The book goes on to list a number of such accidents.] (pg. 25)

(Amusingly, Von Neumann’s reckless driving seems due, not to drinking and driving, but to singing and driving. “He would sway back and forth, turning the steering wheel in time with the music.”)

I think I would call this a bug.

On another thread, one of his friends (the documentary didn’t identify which) expressed that he was over-impressed by powerful people, and didn’t make effective tradeoffs.

I wish he’d been more economical with his time in that respect. For example, if people called him to Washington or elsewhere, he would very readily go and so on, instead of having these people come to him. It was much more important, I think, he should have saved his time and effort.

He felt, when the government called, [that] one had to go, it was a patriotic duty, and as I said before he was a very devoted citizen of the country. And I think one of the things that particularly pleased him was any recognition that came sort-of from the government. In fact, in that sense I felt that he was sometimes somewhat peculiar that he would be impressed by government officials or generals and so on. If a big uniform appeared that made more of an impression than it should have. It was odd.

But it shows that he was a person of many different and sometimes self contradictory facets, I think.

Stanislaw Ulam speculated, “I think he had a hidden admiration for people and organizations that could be tough and ruthless.” (pg. 179)

From these statements, it seems like Von Neumann leapt at chances to seem useful or important to the government, somewhat unreflectively.

These anecdotes suggest that Von Neumann would have gotten value out of Goal Factoring, or Units of Exchange, or IDC (possibly there was something deeper going on, regarding a blindspots around death, or status, but I think the point still stands, and he would have benefited from IDC).

Despite being the discoverer/ inventor of VNM Utility theory, and founding the field of Game Theory (concerned with rational choice), it seems to me that Von Neumann did far less to import the insights of the math into his actual life than say, Critch.

(I wonder aloud if this is because Von Neumann was born and came of age before the development of cognitive science. I speculate that the importance of actually applying theories of rationality in practice, only becomes obvious after Tversky and Kahneman demonstrate that humans are not rational by default. (In evidence against this view: Eliezer seems to have been very concerned with thinking clearly, and being sane, before encountering Heuristics and Biases in his (I belive) mid 20s. He was exposed to Evo Psych though.))

Also, he converted to Catholicism at the end of his life, based on Pascal’s Wager. He commented “So long as there is the possibility of eternal damnation for nonbelievers it is more logical to be a believer at the end”, and “There probably has to be a God. Many things are easier to explain if there is than if there isn’t.”

(According to wikipedia, this deathbed conversion did not give him much comfort.)

This suggests that he would have gotten value out of reading the sequences, in addition to attending a CFAR workshop.