Friday, January 31, 2014

What I've Been Reading

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I think this is the first book in my recent memory I have re-read. Having respect for mother nature, getting ideas translated into math, understanding limitations of our math and most importantly getting deep into an idea are all timeless traits one needs to learn from Taleb. 

The postcrash years were entertaining for me, intellectually. I attended conferences in finance and mathematics of uncertainty; not once did I find a speaker, Nobel or no Nobel, who understood what he was talking about when it came to probability, so I could freak them out with my questions . They did “deep work in mathematics,” but when you asked them where they got their probabilities, their explanations made it clear that they had fallen for the ludic fallacy— there was a strange cohabitation of technical skills and absence of understanding that you find in idiot savants. Not once did I get an intelligent answer or one that was not ad hominem. Since I was questioning their entire business, it was understandable that I drew all manner of insults: “obsessive,”“commercial,”“philosophical,”“essayist,”“idle man of leisure,” “repetitive,”“practitioner” (this is an insult in academia), “academic” (this is an insult in business). Being on the receiving end of angry insults is not that bad; you can get quickly used to it and focus on what is not said. Pit traders are trained to handle angry rants . If you work in the chaotic pits, someone in a particularly bad mood from losing money might start cursing at you until he injures his vocal cords, then forget about it and, an hour later, invite you to his Christmas party. So you become numb to insults, particularly if you teach yourself to imagine that the person uttering them is a variant of a noisy ape with little personal control. Just keep your composure, smile, focus on analyzing the speaker not the message, and you’ll win the argument. An ad hominem attack against an intellectual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message.

I often hear people say, “Of course there are limits to our knowledge,” then invoke the greater uncertainty principle as they try to explain that “we cannot model everything”— I have heard such types as the economist Myron Scholes say this at conferences. But I am sitting here in New York, in August 2006, trying to go to my ancestral village of Amioun, Lebanon. Beirut’s airport is closed owing to the conflict between Israel and the Shiite militia Hezbollah. There is no published airline schedule that will inform me when the war will end , if it ends. I can’t figure out if my house will be standing, if Amioun will still be on the map— recall that the family house was destroyed once before. I can’t figure out whether the war is going to degenerate into something even more severe. Looking into the outcome of the war, with all my relatives, friends, and property exposed to it, I face true limits of knowledge. Can someone explain to me why I should care about subatomic particles that , anyway, converge to a Gaussian? People can’t predict how long they will be happy with recently acquired objects, how long their marriages will last, how their new jobs will turn out, yet it’s subatomic particles that they cite as “limits of prediction.” They’re ignoring a mammoth standing in front of them in favor of matter even a microscope would not allow them to see.

Half the time I am shallow, the other half I want to avoid shallowness. I am shallow when it comes to aesthetics; I avoid shallowness in the context of risks and returns. My aestheticism makes me put poetry before prose, Greeks before Romans, dignity before elegance, elegance before culture, culture before erudition, erudition before knowledge, knowledge before intellect, and intellect before truth. But only for matters that are Black Swan free. Our tendency is to be very rational, except when it comes to the Black Swan.

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