Thursday, January 07, 2010

Medici Money

One of my humanist friends, L., worries about the growing power of computer "technicians" in society. The public services in Italy are rapidly being computerized, and access to them requires following the plans and fantasies of the technicians.
However he has a sneaking admiration for mathematicians - they are more philosophers than scientists or technologists.

I tried to point out to him that numbers, since Pacioli (Summa de arithmetica, geometria, proportioni et proportionalita,Venice 1494) (and long before), have ruled us much more tightly.

When I came to Italy, trying to manage my own numbers, I wrote (with Katis and Sabadini) a categorical analysis of partita doppia (double-entry bookkeeping) (which had always puzzled me since a child). It involved the compact closed structure on Span(Graph), and in fact lead to another very abstract paper (P. Katis, R.F.C. Walters, The compact closed bicategory of left adjoints, Math. Proc. Camb. Phil. Soc., 130, 77-87, 2001).

These thoughts came back to me recently when I tried to read a book by Tim Parks (Medici Money, Profile Books, 2005). I say 'tried to' because I found the book quite indigestible despite my interest in the subject matter. It is a book without concentrated form or idea. I am surprised because I found Tim Parks' book, Italian Neighbours, on a foreigner coming to live and work in Italy well-organized and very pleasant. That book I feel I should have read before moving to Italy myself - almost every experience in it I have lived myself.

For a book on money I much prefer Frozen Desire, by James Buchan (Picador 1997), a book I return to, even if money remains to me still a mystery.

Perhaps if I read more carefully Sean Carmody's recent posts on Stubborn Mule I might be further enlightened. Or perhaps he should use some of the category theory he knows to formalize and make more precise his annecdotal explanations.

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