I just finished reading The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Taleb
download prophecy the movie . It’s a fun read, and I think some of the things I learned from it will help me to illustrate Ecclesiastes when we start preaching through it in a few weeks.
Anyway, here are some snippets I thought were worth holding on to. Hope they are as useful to you as I think they will be to me.
The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others – a very small minority – who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. Page 1
Now if only I could convince Paula that this is the right way to think about book acquisitions…
It was a few years after the beginning of the Lebanese war, as I was attending the Wharton School, at the age of twenty-two, that I was hit with the idea of efficient markets – and idea that holds that there is no way to derive profits from traded securities since these instruments have automatically incorporated all the available information. Public information can therefore be useless, particularly to a businessman, since prices can already “include” all such information, and news shared with millions gives you no real advantage. Odds are that one or more of the hundreds of millions of other readers of such information will already have bought the security, thus pushing up the price. I then completely gave up reading newspapers and watching television, which freed up a considerable amount of time (say one hour or more per day, enough time to read more than a hundred additional books per years, which, after a couple of decades, starts mounting). Page 17
I’ve been struck lately by the number of people I respect who advise us against reading the newspaper on the grounds that it makes you more stupid about things that matter. I even stumbled across a compilation of quotes against news today.
In the arts – say the cinema – things are far more vicious. What we call “talent” generally comes from success, rather than its opposite. A great deal of empiricism has been done on the subject, most notably by Art De Vany, an insightful and original thinker who singlemindedly studied wild uncertainty in the movies. He showed that, sadly, much of what we ascribe to skills is an after-the-fact attribution. The movie makes the actor, he claims – and a large dose of nonlinear luck makes the movie. Page 31 (he footnotes Arthur De Vany Hollywood Economics: Chaos in the Music Industry 2002)
I suspect the same thing is true of megachurches. Don’t misunderstand me — there is a high level of skill involved in building an organization like that. But looking around at ministers I know, many more people seem to have the skills than have the megachurch to go with it. In other words, there are people out there as skilled as Ed Young
that the world will never know. I don’t think I’m one of them, mind, but I know that they’re out there. I’ve met them.
Indeed, it is not a well-known fact that the most complete exposition of the ideas of skepticism, until recently, remains the work of a powerful Catholic bishop who was an august member of the French Academy. Pierre-Daniel Huet wrote his Philosophical Treatise on the Weakness of the Human Mind in 1690, a remarkably book that tears through dogmas and questions human perception. Huet presents arguments against causality that are quite potent – he states, for instance, that any event can have an infinity of possible causes. Page 49
Interesting. You can read more about Huet on Wikipedia
In a famous argument, the logician W. V. Quine showed that there exist families of logically consistent interpretations and theories that can match a given series of facts. Page 72
You can learn more about Quine on Wikipedia.
Indeed, people tend to fool themselves with their self-narrative of “national identity,” which, in a breakthrough paper in Science by sixty-five authors, was shown to be a total fiction. (“National traits” might be great for movies, they might help a lot with war, but they are Platonic notions that carry no empirical validity—yet, for example, both the English and the non-English erroneously believe in an English “national temperament.”) Empirically, sex, social class, and profession seem to be better predictors of someone’s behavior than nationality (a male from Sweden resembles a male from Togo more than a female from Sweden; a philosopher from Peru resembles a philosopher from Scotland more than a janitor from Peru; and so on). Page 74–75
And yet the French remain… 🙂 Seriously, this reminds me of bone I have to pick with personality testing, namely that it is complete and utter bunk. Different people have different ranges of temperament, sure, but the tools we use to measure those variances are ridiculous.
[Given that the narrative fallacy is so misleading, we should remember that] Only a diamond can cut a diamond; we can use our ability to convince with a story that conveys the right message—what storytellers seem to do. Page 84
Good reminder for sermons — there are times that all the data in the world will lack the impact of a single compelling story.
The researcher Thomas Astebro has shown that returns on independent inventions (you take the cemetery into account) are far lower than those on venture capital. Some blindness to the odds… is necessary for entrepreneurs to function. The venture capitalist is the one who gets the shekels. The economist William Baumol calls this “a touch of madness.” This may indeed apply to all concentrated businesses: when you look at the empirical record, you not only see that venture capitalists do better than entrepreneurs, but publishers do better than writers, dealers do better than artists, and science does better than scientists (about 50 percent of scientific and scholarly papers, costing months, sometimes years of effort, are never truly read). Page 90
And governments do better than taxpayers. 🙂
Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world. Page 133
For many people, knowledge has the remarkable power of producing confidence instead of measurable aptitude. Page 135
Tragically true dat.
Show two groups of people a blurry image of a fire hydrant, blurry enough for them not to recognize what it is. For one group, increase the resolution slowly, in ten steps. For the second, do it faster, in five steps. Stop at a point were both groups have presented an identical image and ask each of them to identify what they see. The members of the group that saw fewer intermediate steps are likely to recognize the hydrant much quicker. Moral? The more information you give someone, the more hypotheses they will formulate along the way, and the worse-off they will be. They see more random noise and mistake it for information. Page 144
Combine that with this next one…
…in another telling experiment, the psychologist Paul Slovic asked bookmakers to select from eighty-eight variables in past horse races those that they found useful in computing the odds. These variables included all manner of statistical information about past performances. The bookmarkers were given the ten most useful variables, then asked to predict the outcomes of races. Then they were given ten more and asked to predict again. The increase in the information set did not lead to an increase in their accuracy; their confidence in their choices, on the other hand, went up markedly. Information proved to be toxic. Page 145
So if you’re addicted to statistics, lay off! Especially if you’re tracking every nuance of your weekly attendance or the hour-by-hour views of your most recent Facebook ad.
Economics is the most insular of fields; it is the one that quotes least from outside itself! Page 155
I didn’t see a footnote for this claim, but it amuses me to believe that it’s true.
Researchers have tested how students estimate the time needed to complete their projects. In one representative test, they broke a group into two varieties, optimistic and pessimistic. Optimistic students promised twenty-six days; the pessimistic ones forty-seven days. The average actual time to completion turned out to be fifty-six days. Page 157
Read it and weep, students. Read it and weep.
[Unlike biological variables such as age, human ventures exhibit a totally different schedule] Let’s say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days…. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it will have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait. Page 159
Eep. Based on this logic, my office will be finally and fully cleaned sometime around 3,000 A.D.
At New York’s JFK airport you can find gigantic newsstands with walls full of magazines. They are usually manned by a very polite family from the Indian subcontinent (just the parents; the children are in medical school). These walls present you with the entire corpus of what an “informed” person needs in order “to know what is going on.” I wonder how long it would take to read every single one of these magazines, excluding the fishing and motorcycle periodicals (but including the gossip magazines—you might as well have some fun). Half a lifetime? An entire lifetime?
Sadly, all this knowledge would not help the reader to forecast what is to happen tomorrow. Actually, it might decrease his ability to forecast. Page 163–164
He not only knocks newspapers, he knocks magazines as well. What’s next, blogs? 🙂
In 1965 two radio astronomers at Bell Labs in New Jersey who were mounting a large antenna were bothered by a background noise, a hiss, like the static that you hear when you have bad reception. The noise could not be eradicated—even after they cleaned the bird excrement out of the dish, since they were convinced that bird poop was behind the noise. It took a while for them to figure out that what they were hearing was the trace of the birth of the universe, the cosmic background microwave radiation. Page 168
They made an important discovery about the very nature of the universe while looking for bird poop! Don’t wait for the great moment. The event (conversation, sermon, insight) that changes your ministry forever will likely come at the most unexpected moment, and it probably won’t happen in the limelight. Get out there and clean some bird poop, and be attentive to your surroundings while you do it.
[How hard can long-range prediction be?] I use the example as computed by the mathematician Michael Berry. If you know a set of basic parameters concerning [a billiard] ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry’s computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle in the universe needs to be present in your assumptions! An electron at the edge of the universe, separated from us by 10 billion light-years, must figure in the calculations, since it exerts a meaningful effect on the outcome…. Note that this billiard-ball story assumes a plain and simple world; it does not even take into account these crazy social matters possibly endowed with free will. Page 178
Wow. Wow backwards.
We are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. Page 192
And this is why character and doctrine are always more important when screening ministry candidates than leadership aptitude. Assertive idiots lead people into spiritual disaster.
People are often ashamed of losses, so they engage in strategies that produce very little volatility but contain the risk of a large loss—like collecting nickels in front of steamrollers. Page 204
I can totally see myself being talking into doing that. What a vivid image.
Many people do not realize that they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may never see such a window open up again. I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees. Collect as many free nonlottery tickets (those with open-ended payoffs) as you can, and, once they start paying off, do not discard them. Work hard, not in grunt work, but in chasing such opportunities and maximizing exposure to them. This makes living in big cities invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters—you gain exposure to the envelope of serendipity. The idea of settling in a rural area on grounds that one has good communications “in the age of the Internet” tunnels out of such sources of positive uncertainty. Diplomats understand that very well: casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs—not dry correspondence or telephone conversations. Go to parties! If you’re a scientist, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research. Page 209
Of such things are destinies made.
We can have a clear idea of the consequences of an event, even if we do not know how likely it is to occur. I don’t know the odds of an earthquake, but I can imagine how San Francisco might be affected by one. This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can’t know) is the central idea of uncertainty. Much of my life is based on it.
You can build an overall theory of decision-making on this idea. All you have to do is mitigate the consequences. As I said, if my portfolio is exposed to a market crash, the odds of which I can’t compute, all I have to do is buy insurance, or get out and invest the amounts I am not willing to ever lose in less risky securities. Page 211
The results of an earthquake in San Francisco — bad. Probability — unacceptably high. Tick, tick, tick…
I said earlier that randomness is bad, but it is not always so. Luck is far more egalitarian than even intelligence. If people were rewarded strictly according to their abilities, things would still be unfair—people don’t choose their abilities. Randomness has the beneficial effect of reshuffling society’s cards, knocking down the big guy. Page 232
The race is not always to the swift, and this is by design.
Now why am I calling this business Madelbrotian, or fractal, randomness? Every single bit and piece of this puzzle has been previously mentioned by someone else, such as Pareto, Yule, and Zipf, but it was Mandelbrot who a) connected the dots, b) linked randomness to geometry (and a special brand at that), and c) took the subject to its natural conclusion. Indeed many mathematicians are famous today partly because he dug out their works to back up his claims—the strategy I am following here in this book. “I had to invent my predecessors, so people take me seriously,” [Mandelbrot] once told me, and he used the credibility of big guns as a rhetorical device. One can almost always ferret out predecessors for any thought. You can always find someone who worked on a part of your argument and use his contribution as your backup. Page 256
Ph.D. candidates take note. There are worse people to emulate than Mandelbrot.
The degeneration of philosophical schools in its turn is the consequence of the mistaken belief that one can philosophize without having been compelled to philosophize by problems outside philosophy…. Genuine philosophical problems are always rooted outside philosophy and they die if these roots decay…. These roots are easily forgotten by philosophers who “study” philosophy instead of being forced into philosophy by the pressure of nonphilosophical problems.
He footnotes Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations, pages 95–97.
And theology that is divorced from daily ministry gets wonky. All the greatest theologians in the history of the church have been involved in regular ministry to normal people.
I am most often irritated by those who attack the bishop but someone fall for the securities analyst—those who exercise their skepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists, and phony statisticians. Using the confirmation bias, people will tell you that religion was horrible for mankind by counting deaths from the Inquisition and various religious wars. But they will not show you how many people were killed by nationalism, social science, and political theory under Stalinism or during the Vietnam War. Even priests don’t go to bishops when they feel ill: their first stop is the doctor’s. But we stop by the offices of many pseudo-scientists and “experts” without alternative. We no longer believe in papal infallibility; we seem to believe in the infallibility of the Nobel…. Page 291
Rare to read such clear thinking about this in a book not devoted to apologetics. Of course, Taleb has it in for the Nobel.
Imagine a speck of dust next to a planet a billion times the size of earth. The speck of dust represents the odds in favor of your being born; the huge planet would be the odds against it. So stop sweating the small stuff. Don’t be like the ingrate who got a castle as a present and worried about the mildew in the bathroom. Page 298
Indeed. I like a book that closes with a call to gratitude, even if it’s unclear to whom your gratitude should be directed.
A fun read. Recommended.