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June 06, 2007

caveman lunch with taleb – part 3

Posted in: behaviour,black swans,business, finance and markets,coaching and teaching,creativity,life the universe and everything,writing

At the risk of indigestion — though with a fitting break since the last serving — we reach the final course that has left the Knackered Hack out to lunch with Nassim Nicholas Taleb for so very long. One of the quant-professor-turned-essayist’s most digestible dictums is “don’t run for trains”. So, in full keeping with the Slow Food movement, this nutritional saga continues, unhurried yet inexorable, to its wafer-thin mint conclusion.

On book reviews and media clustering

In the second part of our discussion, The Black Swan author highlighted some weaknesses in journalism. He explained to me why he felt blogs could provide an effective alternative. This new journalistic form allows people in need of information to locate entertaining critical thinking. As lunch continued we returned to this theme, discussing the critical reception he had received for his latest book.

Taleb noted that the initial reviews were very different in emphasis, and he was worried that one major negative review might skew subsequent ones:-

The book reviews were all uncorrelated. So I put the review by Niall Ferguson [in the UK's Sunday Telegraph] up on my website. So, all the subsequent book reviews lined up with Niall Ferguson, or the Wall Street Journal. You realise that people have this difficulty of coming up with their own opinion. So I am not convinced about diversity in our ecology … that it works that way. People will cluster.”

This clustering seems to worry Taleb, although it was undoubtedly pleasing in this instance as it meant his reviews were generally favourable. Blogs meanwhile, he goes on, tend to create diversity. Diversity is a key theme of Taleb’s, and one highlighted by Professor Scott Page’s book The Difference, whose recent RSA lecture we covered here, and who Taleb cites in The Black Swan.

On counterfactual historians and journalism

It seems that Harvard History Professor Niall Ferguson “got” the Black Swan concept for two reasons. First, Taleb attacks historians without much mercy in the book for their indulgence of “the narrative fallacy” — the retrofitting of a story to accommodate the known facts. Ferguson, however, is the leading light of a new breed of so-called counterfactual historians. Rather than see history as a deterministic process, they play with “what-if?” scenarios to figure out how important an event or individual might have been in shaping the subsequent evolving future.

Secondly, it is also Ferguson who Taleb credits in the book for highlighting the notion that World War I was a black swan event: completely unexpected, of large impact, and only retrospectively predictable. Ferguson showed that imperial bond market behaviour did nothing to discount a war, indicating that it was completely unexpected in pragmatic public discourse, though generations of historians have diligently sought to explain its inevitability through analysis of a vast array of assumed precipitating factors and “mounting tensions”. It also showed the value of market data in the analysis of historical events.

Returning to journalism, Taleb argues that the media reward system is back to front, and so produces similar results.

The biggest problem we have is effectively the incentive system. You should be able to pay $10 for a newspaper some days, and nothing another day. People pay the same price every day, regardless of the amount of news. That is counter to the way randomness is. In Extremistan [Taleb's term for a world fashioned by rare and extreme events as ours has become] some days you have a lot of news, some days you have no news.

And Ferguson’s approach to history might be a lesson journalists should follow:-

We should reward [journalists] for process, not results. Less on the visible, more on the counterfactual.”

On education, hanging out, and the best environments for work and play

One of the less discussed aspects of the book is an observation on the way children learn. Children possess a natural appreciation for complexity, Taleb argues. But that child-like sense of inquiry, with which all parents are so familiar, is gradually drilled out of us.

Overconfidence in what we know (what Taleb criticises as epistemic arrogance) may have been educated into us. This begs the question: “Should we approach the way children learn differently?”

There are two things I say about children in the book. One that they are programmed to infer things in a certain way — more ecologically. And another one, that children can question adults, but they become conditioned to accept some “truths”. If you look at how Einstein (and other great thinkers) grew up as a child, they were all left alone to mature. The worst thing you can do with children is put them in a classroom and have someone pontificate. Sitting in a classroom is boring.”

How is knowledge acquired? You do nothing a lot of the time. [At this point Taleb introduced the French verb "glander", which he translated as 'to be idle' or 'hang about'] … You don’t have an active form of to be idle … Actively doing nothing. Hanging around. You make people hang round. Instead of delivering knowledge like this [in a formal and continuous way], you deliver knowledge in a more concentrated way. If you let them go, they learn a lot some days, then not so much another day, depending on their appetite.”

KH: “So learning is non-linear?”

Learning is non-linear. Just like de Vany says [of nutrition]. We eat four meals a day in a linear way, we should starve sometimes. … Like our work activities, we should not work in an office. And I am sure you don’t work in an office. Some days you work very hard sometimes you don’t work at all. So it is concentrated and spread out.”

[For clients of the Knackered Hack, I want to assure them that I work hard all of the time, and especially hard on their specific brief, and that they are not invoiced for any "glander" time ;-) .]

But this “ecological” learning children do would seem to indicate that they should understand Mandelbrot’s fractal view of the world more readily. I wondered about my own son’s marvelling at fractals, and Taleb was quick to interject:-

Fractal geometry is much easier for your son to grasp than Euclidean geometry. Children learn fractals a lot better, Mandelbrot told me. Children pick it up right away. Adults much more slowly.”

So the fractal world is good for us and something that we should shape our lives around?

I sat down in the Gaudi building at a party, and felt at home. It was like a cave. It was irregular, and we like some kind of irregularity. If you look at the way I live, I don’t live in square stuff like that [Taleb points to the architecture of the restaurant], I like a wealth of environments — particularly with books — a wealth of texture. I put my desk in front of the window to look at trees, because it is soothing to look at these trees because it’s a fractal.”

And is it the same for exercise?

Working out outside gives you more comfort than working inside — less stressful, less uniform. Hills are not like a treadmill. It is not a repetitive exercise. My best exercise, in a way, is walking and meditating. I walk for hours, slowly/fast depending on concentration.”

And what’s next for Taleb?

Taleb indicated that he wanted to invest more in venture capital to profit from positive black swans, but the experience of writing and publicising his book has taken its toll:-

I wanna try to, but right now I don’t wanna do anything. Venture capital is my book. People tell me that I’m making bets on options. The book is a bet on options. I spent two and half years locked up!”

The bill arrived with accompanying chocolate mints, as is customary at the end of a British Indian meal. Taleb handed me his. “De Vany would not approve? ” I asked. But he was keen to reassure me that this fractal lifestyle is anything but puritanical. I inferred from this that a little bit of what’s bad for you may be the best defence against fundamentalism, and promptly consumed them both.

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