Saturday, August 03, 2002

Andy writes:

We bought and watched A Beautiful Mind, the latest Academy Award winner (Best Picture). I'd say it's Hollywood's best movie in 10 years. It demonstrates the importance of allowing dissent, especially people who think for themselves. The scene of Nash throwing the textbook into the garbage in class is priceless. True to life, as Nash once began a course at MIT with the salutation: "Why are you here?"

Supposedly gay activists were enraged that the movie did not include Nash's homosexuality before his marriage to Alicia, for which he was fired from doing military work. But those activists would have been even more enraged if the movie showed Nash going from gay or bisexual to straight.

One minor quibble for those who saw the movie: it should have shown Nash, not his imaginary friend, pushing the desk out the window.

Joe wrote, "The movie makes Nash out to be a much nicer person than he was in real life. Does that bother Andy?"

Later Joe wrote, "I'm comparing him with the description in the book. Did you read it?"

No, I didn't read the book, and don't plan to. It received some horrible reviews on It's written by an economist, for pete's sake! See sample review below.

I'm sure people disliked Nash. He didn't play by the rules, and was self-centered. But I thought the movie makes those points quite strongly.

Here's a sample review:

"This book is so poorly written, it was hard to follow Nash's life story in any coherent way. ... Why couldn't the author just spit out what she was trying to say? Why so many commas and disjointed ideas in one sentence? Argh! But I kept reading. I soon realized I had no idea what point in his life she was dishing about on any given page. And the way she kept on and on about his homosexuality, or "special friendships," it was reading like the FOX news channel. But written in a tone that tried and failed to be just-reporting-the-facts. You could actually tell what the author thought of the subject and that's kind of creepy in a biography. One whole chapter titled "The Arrest" measured a page and a half in length, one page of which was conjecture. And there were so many contridictions! Nash had no friends, but his best friend was so and so. Nash's neighbor now refuses to admit they were ever friends, but on the next page there's a lengthly quote from the guy about ho! w they worked together for years and played practical jokes on each other. At least I think she was referring to the same person that gave the quote - sometimes she would use a person's first name and then in the same paragraph use their last name or nick name, so it read as two different people.

Sometimes she'd begin with a quote or reminiscence by a person she'd never introduced. She'd throw a name in as though it was one of the main characters but it would be unfamiliar. I'd page back through the book to figure out who they were, but no luck. Two chapters later, she'd finally introduce them, long after I'd forgoten the quote they'd produced. Oh it was awful and I was so annoyed. But by the time I'd gotten half way through I had to keep reading, partly because I was so annoyed I kind of felt that if I stopped reading it, the author would win and I'd be defeated. Also I wanted to find something redeeming about John Nash. The other thing that got me about this book was how awful the math explanations were. ...

I think this is the first biography I've ever read where I've come away with more of a sense of the author's personality than the subject's. Surely that can't be cool? In authoring someone's biography? Didn't the editors catch any of this? I love biographies of mathemeticians and scientists, but this one is really bad. I'm looking forward to reading a different Nash biography so I can figure out what his life was like, and assemble the disconnected pieces of the Nash life story that this book gave me."

Joe responds:

Well, I'm certainly no math expert, but I really enjoyed the book, and though I read many reviews of it, I didn't have the impression that there were a lot of inaccuracies. I think the guy who reviews it for Amazon needs to take a cold shower. The book was praised by people like John Milnor,whom this crowd will surely recognize; Marcia Bartusiak, author of the wonderful "Einstein's Unfinished Symphony"; Keith Devlin, WSJ, New York Times, etc. Clearly, Roger is going to find any math explanations intended for the public to be pretty trivial, but if an author can get across the general idea of what Nash was doing, I call that a success. I just thought the book was so superior to the movie in helping me understand Nash's life and world.

The movie was easy on Nash. But Andy's right, he didn't play by the rules. Pity for his out of wedlock, abandoned first child. But, hey, that't the duty of genius, I guess.

Milnor's review is online. He says: "Mathematical statements and proper names are sometimes a bit garbled, but the astute reader can usually figure out what is meant. ... This is an unauthorized biography, written without its subject’s consent or cooperation. ... the publication of such material involves a drastic violation of the privacy of its subject."

I would say the review is damning with faint praise. He says stuff like: "we find fascinating information about the history of Carnegie Tech, Princeton, the Rand Corporation, MIT, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the Courant Institute, and also information about many wellknown and not so well-known mathematical personalities." but he fails to say that Nasar accurately describes Nash's life or his work.

I found the negative stuff in Nasar's book offensive and unreliable. It is based on hearsay about events 40 years ago, and Nash is neither willing or able to rebut them. There should have been an uproar about involuntarily outing a mentally disturbed man. Nasar was just doing it for her personal profit. I was glad that the movie omitted the alleged homosexuality. Gays would have been even more enraged if the movie showed homosexuality as a symptom of Nash's schizophrenia.

Nasar spent 3 years collecting 440 pages of facts about Nash, but did you get the impression she understands him? Some of the quotes were interesting, but her discussions are not very good. The movie seems to make it all make more sense.

Joe responds:

Well, I'd say the Milnor review (I hadn't seen the whole thing, just a blurb) totally supports my view. Milnor mentions no inaccuracies of fact. He is complimentary of Nasar and talks about how carefully the book is researched. I think Roger's excerpt is a bit misleading, because it makes Milnor sound really negative about the book, which is simply not the case.

Roger finds the "negative stuff" offensive. Well, let's face it - when you father an illegitimate child and then abandon him and the mother, that's ... offensive. So we agree on that, right? I assume that Roger does not find the information relating to the abandonment unreliable - has anyone seen it disputed? My only point was that it was stuff like that which was not in the movie.

Here's a review I think I more or less agree with.

I don't know if the bisexuality and abandonment stories are accurate or not. I doubt that anyone knows the full story and is talking. Joe wanted it in the movie. Why? How would it fit in? The movie was about a genius dealing with schizophrenia. At 2 1/4 hours, it was already too long for many people. The movie skipped Nash's childhood, his most respected mathematical research, his repeated commitments, his attempt in Europe to renounce his American citizenship, his divorce and remarriage to Alicia, etc. All of these things are more relevant to the main theme than the stories of alleged bisexuality. There are other movies that deal with themes of bisexuality and illegitimacy. I don't object to those themes in a movie, but there was just no way to do them fairly and accurately, no way to connect them to the theme of the movie, and no way to find sufficient time to treat them.

The Landsburg review complains mainly that Nash's economics work was misrepresented. Landsburg is a brilliant economist, but I don't agree with him on this. The movie portrays Nash as challenging the Adam Smith notion that free-market competition between self-interested parties leads to the best result. Landsburg says that Smith was right all along. I think Landsburg missed the point. Nash showed that (non-cooperative) competition leads to a Nash equilibrium, which may or may not be the best result that might be achieved thru competition. This is the sense in which Nash overturned centuries of wisdom. The point is explained well in Milnor's review.

I found it a pleasant surprise that the movie A Beautiful Mind represents Nash's theorem as accurately as it does, especially after the book did such a terrible job. Apparently there were some mathematical consultants that saved the movie from many embarrassments. The bar scene accurately and entertainingly gives an example of a situation where there are multiple Nash equilibria, and no single best result.

I saw one review (sorry I cannot find the link) by some prof complaining that the bar scene did not really give a Nash equilibrium because the blond girl got left without a date. But if you watch carefully, Nash goes to the bar with 4 (male) friends, and they meet 5 women, one of which is a blond. They all get paired up in Nash's scenario, and it is a Nash equilibrium.

I cannot think of another Hollywood movie that accurately portrays a mathematical concept (beyond simple counting). Even The Wizard Of Oz get the Pythagorean theorem wrong. There movies like Pi and Good Will Hunting that portray mathematicians and have ample opportunity to articulate some mathematics, but they all give silly caricatures instead.

Andy responds:

OK, I just read that review by Landsburg, and disliked it. Landsburg takes the standard approach of academics: defend the icons. He was offended because the movie depicts Nash as saying Adam Smith was wrong about something. We've got thousands of tenured professors like Landsburg religiously defending their gods, thereby impeding progress. We need more John Nashes in our universities.

Landsburg was at Princeton and seems biased in favor of the plodders there who disliked Nash. Many of Landsburg's put-downs of Nash are silly and petty, as in saying Nash's ideas were not as great as Einstein's and in calling Nash a bisexual (Nash went straight in marrying Alicia 45 years ago).

Joe and Julie are offended by Nash's purported abandonment of his illegitimate child, which apparently got great play in the book version. While I don't defend that, I do note that Nash was never married to the mistress and thus "abandonment" is probably not the correct term. The mistress obviously misread him. The reality is that most fathers spend virtually no time with children begotten outside their current marriage, which is the situation Nash soon faced.

I find JFK's youthful indiscretion more offensive: marry a woman, and then break the contract and dump her. Yet JFK is glorified by Hollywood far more than Nash was.

The funny thing is that Landsburg understands and respects Nash's work. He even wrote a textbook that discusses Nash equilibrium. He is also a right-winger, and I am sure he disagrees with Milnor's left-wing spin on Nash's work. The left-wing spin is that Nash showed that market equilibria can be suboptimal, so govt regulation is needed. Landsburg would say that the Nash equilibria are really optimal in a practical sense.

I agree with Landsburg that Nash's work was not as good as that of the most brilliant mathematicians, but still deserving of a Nobel prize. But why that relates to the movie, I don't know.

Andy writes on 4-Aug-2002:

Everyone makes good points about the Nash movie. I watched key portions again, and the trailer on the video which has interviews of the key players behind the movie.

I've changed my mind about the movie, but not the book. In a nutshell, Prof. Nash is another story like Dr. Sell's. Nash was forcibly drugged without his consent, as best I can tell. The drugs ruined him for decades. The book's author, and the movie's producers, were too biased in favor of Nash's wife Alicia. Looks to me like she forcibly drugged him and divorced him!

The movie did botch the bar scene. Roger's right that there were 5 males and 5 females (including the blond). But the movie clearly says that the Nash solution is for no one to choose the blond. That's wrong. One male has to choose the blond for it to be a Nash equilibrium.

I'm planning to write a law review article with the following title: "State Mandated Drugging -- Your Vein or Your Life." Princeton's website publishes Nash's email address. Think he will respond to email about what he went through? I doubt Alicia would let him <g>.

Yes, Nash was forcibly committed, drugged, and given insulin shock treatment. The movie is ambiguous about whether these did any good. The insulin shock therapy isn't even done anymore.

Nash chooses the blond. Then rejects her to go write up his idea. I guess that after he rejects her, the situation is no longer in equilibrium, but I think it is in a Nash equilibrium after the 5 selections are made.

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