On my flight to the East Coast (New Jersey) I read the The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, which in an of itself being #76 on the Amazon best-seller list is by the authors criteria itself a “Black Swan”. This book has a number of good ideas, but alas uses a number of fallacious notions and claims, some less critical some more so to stake its claim.

One of the interesting repeated targets of Mr Taleb’s scorn, which he terms Platonism, is one which is carried too far. Platonism, that is essentially the use of abstraction, is ridiculed and dismissed repeatedly. However, one might at the same time, put alongside the paper cited a few days ago of Mr Wigner’s on the unreasonable success of Mathematics in Physics (or one might say … the unreasonable success of Platonism in explaining the Physical universe).

I plan to get into more detail about some of the notions in this book during the rest of this week, but I’ll leave with a few short comments tonight.

  • I had mentioned when I noted that I was going to be reading this book, that camparisons to the more traditional historical work by David Hackett Fischer, The Great Wave: Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History, might serve as a counterbalance to this book. In The Great Wave, Mr Fisher notes some intruiging research. In the last 800 years of Western history there have been a small countable number of periods of dramatic stability (or in the Mr Taleb’s terms the “Black Swans” had little impact) and periods of great instability (lots of Black Swans having greater effect) on political and social fronts. Mr Fisher correlates ecomonic price data of staples and commodities and lines them up with those historical periods and found a strong correlation. Periods of growing price instability especially in staples and other commodities precede and continue throughout periods of instabliity and during periods of relative price stability … political stability was also seen.
  • Mr Taleb “cleans” up his argument a great deal. He presents occupations as being part of, or disconnected from, the affect of Black Swans, i.e. the improbable. One of his consistent examples is writing. However there in addition to luck (or the improbable) as connected with the career of writing at the same time a stable (non-Black Swan) related career one can derive from that. Not all aspiring writers are either wildly successful novelists like Ms Rowlings or operating machinery in Starbucks. Many, if not most, writers are writing copy for ordinary use. Writing technical manuals, textbooks, advertising copy, white papers, and so on. Programmers like the Woz made a killing, but there is an ordinary profession and stable livelihood to be made from perfecting and developing skill at programming (as at writing).
  • It’s interesting to note that the ancient Chinese Lao-Tzu philosopher also considered the problem of the danger of upheaval and perhaps loosely interpreted the Black Swan in the political arena. Lao-Tzu suggested becoming a craftsman in a trade that was specifically not useful for the machinery of State, so you wouldn’t get drafted into the games of Nations and at the same time, being useful for society, but not useful for the state insured the greatest chance of not being caught up gristmill of intra-national and inter-national strife.

Filed under: Mark O.

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