The Cypriot deal and Wiener-type obviousness

So it looks as if all the insured depositors get paid in full, and all the uninsured depositors, including lots of Russian mafiosi, are left sucking wind. That seemed like the obvious solution to me, but I was fully aware of my ignorance of what might else be in play. Now that it’s happened, I wonder whether the previous proposal was just a head-fake to make the necessary resolution more palatable on the island.

All of which reminds me of my favorite Norbert Wiener story. (Whether canonical or apocryphal, deponent saith not.)

It seems that Wiener was lecturing, and skipping – as was his wont – about four out of five steps in every demonstration. At one point he said “And therefore it’s obvious that … ” and wrote a string of symbols on the board. He then started to add “Thus we see …” when some thought brought him up sharp. He stared at he board for a few seconds, said, “Wait! Is that obvious?” stared at the board a while longer, said “Excuse me for a minute,” and left the room.

Twenty-five minutes later Wiener returned, drenched in sweat, with his necktie loosened, his collar unbuttoned, and clutching a sheaf of papers covered in scrawled writing.

Coming once again to the front of the room, he turned to the class, said, “Yes, it was obvious,” and resumed the proof of whatever he’d been proving.

No doubt my first instinct was “obvious” only in that extended sense. Any reader with actual expertise is invited to elucidate the problem.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

9 thoughts on “The Cypriot deal and Wiener-type obviousness”

  1. I heard a version of this joke at Stanford in the early 1960’s, but it was just a generic math lecturer as I recall, no mention of Wiener. On the other hand, I did attend a talk by Wiener at UCLA in the summer of 1959 – memory plays tricks; maybe someone told me the joke then. [By the way, did he always lecture with his head tilted back and his glasses falling off his nose?]

  2. I heard a variant of the story at Caltech in the late 1950s, told about some Caltech prof, though I can’t remember who.

  3. Russian mafiosi are not exactly known for their sense of humor when it comes to deals like this.

    1. In a way it would be nice if the technocrats responsible for the mess faced personal consequences, though Russian mob justice is unlikely to be fair. You don’t get the impression the men in suits have thought things through – haircutting the insured depositors was a crazy and destabilizing idea.

  4. With respect to obviousness, Daniel Davies’s “choose your own adventure” style version of saving Cyprus can be informative. It’s basically a decision tree labeled with his estimates of probabilities in game form; obviously, it’s somewhat simplified out of necessity and starts at a point where a lot of important decisions have already been made, but even so it makes you think hard about how obvious any seemingly obvious solutions really are, once you account for the interests of all the actors involved and their possible reactions (whether rational or irrational).

  5. My first boss was Wiener’s son-in-law, and it’s not apocryphal. He also used to read while walking the corridors of MIT, with one hand on the wall to keep him relatively safe.

  6. Mark

    At Cambridge they tell the same story of the math don who said ‘it is obvious that’

    paused for 5 minutes in front of the blackboard, said ‘yes it is obvious’

    and continued.

    So we must presume– urban legend?

  7. I don’t know if Norbert Wiener ever did that in a lecture, but one of my undergrad physics professors really did. It would’ve been ’86 or ’87.

    Not that I’m claiming that’s the origin of the story; it was already an old story by the mid 80s. One possibility is that it’s a sort of obvious thing to do, if you’re a lecturer with the appropriate personality. Another possibility is that it was a deliberate joke, especially at MIT where lots of Wiener stories were going around. Perhaps a combination of the two, but I don’t find the first possibility so implausible. This may be one of those urban legends that happened dozens of times in real life, one where it’s hard to track down to a definite origin not because it never happened but because it was so common.

  8. Now if Noam Chomsky would just do this a few times. Except he would never return because his comments are so rarely “obvious” (or valid).

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