Archive for May, 2007

Taleb on Journalism, Blogs, and TV

Back in his days as a mathematical options trader, Nassim Taleb used to watch financial TV with the sound turned off. That way he could remind himself that the journalists and pundits — with their endless commentary and market predictions — were more noise than substance. He made that confession in his second book, Fooled by Randomness (2001).

As a former financial newswire journalist, with some 15 years’ Fleet Street experience, I have found his indifference to the fruits of my toil a little unnerving. But, there are some grounds for hope. Taleb has also written that journalism is important because it’s the way we find out about the world. But every time I’ve heard him speak, he is always quick to mention that he doesn’t read newspapers — so one should not ask what he thinks about the news, a Google IPO, or whether US real estate is in a bubble.

Real-time journalism has mushroomed since Fooled by Randomness was published, and besides the plethora of news providers, there are more blogs and self-appointed experts out there than you can shake a stick at. So I felt safe with the assumption that Taleb would still be screening out unnecessary sound and fury, that he’d be dismissive of this new technological Tower of Babel. But as he tucked into his Tandoori chicken, The Black Swan author told me that he’s actually an avid reader of blogs. Continue reading ‘Caveman lunch with taleb – part 2′

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Nassim Taleb, author of the New York Times bestseller The Black Swan, was the first person ever to email me here at the Knackered Hack.

No, honestly, it’s true. In the annals of this blog, that was seen as something of a red-letter day (if not a black swan event). But its relative importance on the part of the sender was naturally quite insignificant. Let’s say, our relationship was perfectly asymmetrical. So, when I turned up to meet Taleb at his London hotel recently, without the more imposing affiliation of a national media title with which to introduce myself, it took a while for it to sink in just who in publicity hell I was.

Finally, after 10 minutes, the author exclaimed in his soft Levantine accent: “Ah, I remember! You’re the marathon guy with the picture!”

Rarely have I been so pleased to be recognised for so little. It was nice to know that I registered with Taleb less as a total “unknown, unknown” and more as just faintly forgettable. Taleb had been researching blogs with a view to publicising his latest book, and had hit on this humble site. “I saw you writing about my book Fooled by Randomness on a marathon blog. I said to myself, this guy’s interesting!”

Even better! It’s a rare journalist who gets an actual compliment from the The Black Swan author.

As we exchanged initial small talk about exercise, I explained that I was a bit annoyed by all this complexity stuff of his, because his work has devalued most of my post-graduate business studies. Moreover, after leaving business school I moved on to devote a lot of my spare time to marathon training. But lately, having suffered repeated illness and injury and read the blog of another student of complexity, Art De Vany, I’d been led to the conclusion that this marathon malarkey might be injurious to health as well.

At this point a jet-lagged, publicity-dazed Taleb came alive: Continue reading ‘Caveman lunch with taleb’

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Tweet I think bookshops divide into two, really. Some of them look a bit like remainder shops. You go in and everything is three for two, four for three, one for two, two by six, and it’s just like going into a B&Q. And you go in thinking: “Ooh, I might buy a book to […]

It’s a little uncanny, about an hour ago I did a Google Images search for romanescu, and then just a few minutes later, the Knackered Hackette opens a marketing email from the folks at Innocent — manufacturers of the smoothie drinks — with exactly the same idea. Talk about self-similar ;-) .


With all the discussion of Mandelbrot in Taleb’s book, I had the idea that we might post a fractal for your delight once a week. Perhaps we’d call it “Fractal Friday” — something to look forward to as we wind down for the weekend. Taleb suggests that fractal shapes are good to contemplate — they are restful in their variation, and may stimulate creativity (more on that soon). Our favourite in daily life has to be the vegetable romanescu, delivered from Riverford Farm in Devon, when in season.

Well, Innocent provides this link to a great site by John Walker with some wonderful images of a romanescu cauliflower/cabbage/broccoli (including the one above), and a more technical discussion of fractals than we are capable of.

In the Knackered House all brassicas go by the nickname “Roman Doctor”: somewhere I half-remember reading (this usually means I made it up) that the Romans did not need physicians because their diet was full of life-preserving cabbage. It does not matter whether it is true or not. In our self-experimenting home, unlike the Knackered Hack’s own childhood behaviour, the kids know not to argue when told to eat their greens.

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So I went to London for a few days, then came home and went training. Not too arduous you’d think, but there was some background stress coming from one particular stakeholder. And with one child (aka Chip off the Old Hack) already down with a cold, it could not be long before man-flu symptoms started to manifest themselves at the head of the household.

Now, I think I have mentioned before that I have an evolutionary theory for man-flu, of which I’m sure Art de Vany would be proud. Man-flu is predominantly a British expression for a headcold requiring the male of the species to become totally inactive and self-pitying. One of the key symptoms of man-flu is a general lack of sympathy from the female of the species, who is genetically resistant to the strain (although not to the strain of having to take care of him).

My theory, which I’ll elaborate when I’ve next got time, has been accepted by three evolutionary biologists, so I feel confident that a paper would get approved and peer reviewed in some eminent journal, so long as the panel was all male. The only woman academic I’ve suggested it to just scoffed. But then I don’t think she fully appreciated the media value of the story, and got too hung up on the need for evidence.

Anyway, so apologies for those who keep coming back looking for more on Nassim Taleb.

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