Friday, July 23, 2010

Book #8: The Black Swan

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the eighth book I've read this year. The seventh was a Korean-language translation of Daddy Long-legs that I found quite boring, so I won't write about it. Taleb's Black Swan, on the other hand, was a fantastic treatment of one of my favourite topic, the gap between what we commonly think we know and what we actually know.

The title is a nice treat for anyone who has studied philosophy, particularly ancient or medieval philosophy, where "all swans are white" was something of a tautology until the day they found black swans somewhere. A black swan, according to Taleb, is an outlier. These outliers are unpredictable, rare and have a highly disproportionate. They are, in essence, things that no one seems coming which change everything.

This is easily seen by looking at history. We tend to think of history as having a steady, predictable progression, but the reality is that change is violent, sudden and unpredictable. As I discussed here with respect to the collapse of the Soviet Union and North Korea, significant changes are generally not predictable except in retrospect.

Moreover, many fantastic changes are produced accidentally and suddenly. Consider, for example, the Internet, which wasn't intended to let me download Dr. Dre's music, blog or stream episodes of Frasier. It certainly wasn't predicted by anyone, and its prevalence, at least in the West, was hardly a gradual process. Virtually all significant changes are like this, according to Taleb.

Taleb also takes aim at the perceived flaws of ancient philosophy, particularly Platonism, which divides things into neat categories. However, much of life exists outside of neat categories. When we can't categorize something neatly, we assign it lesser importance, which is a mistake according to Taleb. An amusing example of our tendency to categorize is of people who take the escalator instead of stairs at a gym, only to go and use the stairmaster.

Near the end of the book is this passage about philosophy, one of my favourites from the book:

Every Friday, at four P.M., the paychecks of these philosophers will hit their respective bank accounts. A fixed proportion of their earnings, about 16 percent on average, will go into the stock market...

These people are professionally employed in hte business of questioning what we take for granted; they are trained to argue about the existence of god(s), the definition of truth, the redness of red, the meaning of meaning, the difference between the semantic theories of truth, conceptual and nonconceptual representations...

Yet they believe blindly in the stock market, and in the abilities of their pension plan manager. ...They doubt their own senses, but not for a second do they doubt their automatic purchases in the stock market
."

As a fond Platonist, I think Taleb attributes a nerdy conventionalism to Plato that wasn't there. Much of what Plato wrote was, after much hand-wringing and Socratic gesturing at the agora, to conclude that we did not actually know the meaning of the words that we use all the time. It's not entirely true that Platonism simply accepts conventional definitions and received wisdom; if he is describing the practices of today's Platonists, then they really aren't Platonists.

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