I finished reading Taleb’s second book, The Black Swan. He openly admits that it’s not really a new book, but a re-writing of his first book, Fooled by Randomness, which I loved. He’s gotten really incredibly lucky with the timing of his book releases… just before 9/11 and just before the stock market laid a giant turd on the doorstep of all the happytalk from Wall Street. Especially lucky when you take into account the fact that The Black Swan was at least 15 months late!
Taleb really has just one big idea, and in his own obnoxious way, he’s humble enough to admit it. His idea is that the world is less predictable than we think. That “rare” events are both systematically more likely that we believe them to be, and that their consequences are disproportionately large. He rails against the use of Gaussian distributions where they should not be used — against the mindless shoehorning of all kinds of processes into that bell shaped box, where they do not belong, and can do great damage.
I think the main differences between this book and his prior one are that in this book, he provides a few short words on how he thinks we should live and plan, given that we live in an inherently, and increasingly, unpredictable world. That, and the fact that because of his prior book’s success, he was able to get away without having this book edited, apparently, at all (which I think may have been a mistake… but oh well). Anyway, his advice in a nutshell:
I’ve been doing some reading on Afghanistan. I am so glad I wasn’t born there. I’m going to read more, but ugh, I need a break.
The first book I read was A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaleed Hosseini, who also wrote The Kite Runner. It reminded me a little bit of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s intergenerational, it’s about a community, and it’s discontinuous – there are large spaces in time between the salient events which are conveyed. The style is also a little bit like the magical realism of Garcia Marquez, except that all the events really happened, and what makes them seem magical is how surreal they are. How surreal and awful.
When the Rivers Run Dry is a kind of modern, global Cadillac Desert, looking at present and future water issues around the world. I think in the end it was too ambitious, looking at too many individual situations superficially, without going into the details on how they came to be the way they are (which Cadillac Desert was able to do, since it focused only on the American West), and also without drawing enough insightful generalizations from the many different cases the author studied. It ended up feeling mostly like a dreary litany of mistakes painstakingly repeated in nation after nation, decade after decade, apparently without any learning going on. Often these projects were funded by the World Bank and other international “aid” organizations, or by powerful central governments. In both cases, the motivations often turned out to be short sighted and political or financial and had little to do with good engineering, productive agriculture, fisheries, or long term stability.
I just finished reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins. It’s his personal account of working as an economic forecaster for an international infrastructure engineering and consulting company called Chas. T. Main during the 1970s (it’s since been purchased by Pasadena’s very own Parsons). If I remember correctly, I got this book from Arjun.
It was widely criticized when it came out as being the rantings of a conspiracy theorist, and I think that by the end of the book, it definitely takes on that tone. This is unfortunate, because a lot of the problems that Perkins points out really do exist, and it actually doesn’t matter much whether they’re the result of a shadowy global conspiracy, or a structural problem with our international economic and development system. But most good conspiracy theories contain a grain of truth, and at the very least they can provide a useful lens into how the same situation and facts can be interpreted differently by people in different positions, with different experiences, and different incentives. In that light, the book is asking the reader to consider what debt-based foreign development aid looks like from the point of view of the poor people living in the countries receiving the aid. This is actually a really interesting thing to think about right now, because our current financial and economic crisis has been described by some as similar in many ways to the kinds of crises which the IMF and World Bank have historically been called on to deal with in “developing” economies.
The Evolution of Cooperation was, somewhat surprisingly, a story about math. Math that actually describes a lot of things in life. It’s the story of The Prisoner’s Dilemma. What makes The Prisoner’s Dilemma interesting, is that the players in the game have conflicting incentives. You can be rewarded either for cooperating, or for defecting. Unlike most things we think of as “games”, it is not zero-sum: both players can win, and both players can lose. Too often it seems like this possibility is forgotten. The dilemma goes like this.
Two suspected accomplices are taken into custody for a crime and separately interrogated. Each is pressured to rat out the other. If neither of them squeals (they cooperate) then both of them get short jail terms. If both of them rat, they both get fairly long terms. If only one of them gives in, and the other remains silent, then the fink gets off, and the honorable thief goes away for a long long time.
The World Without Us is an exploration of what the Earth would be like, and has been like, in the absence of H. sapiens.
This book was as much a look at how we have changed the world as it was an exploration of what would happen were we all to vanish one day. I especially liked the chapter Polymers are Forever, about the ultimate fate of our plastics, and The Lost Menagerie, a chapter about the missing megafauna of the Americas. Missing, largely because we ate it. I thought he could have spent more time on nuclear waste and our laughable attempts to plan 10,000 years into the future in dealing with it. It would have been interesting to have a chapter on climate change too, in the event that we’ve already tipped it over the edge and into an Eocene like warm period. Maybe better than anything else, I liked his descriptions of the wild Earth, both before and after us. I still think we can have such a world without driving ourselves extinct. But it would take something on the order of his suggestion that we limit our fertility rate to 1.0 for the next few generations. Down to 500 million people by the year 2150. Are we up to the task? This is a real chance to demonstrate that our intelligence makes us special after all.
He occasionally rambles off into technobabble about holographically projecting our minds to other worlds… or other far out stuff, which is doesn’t really serve the purpose of the book, and is distracting to anyone with a science background. Those lapses aside, the basic message of the book is about the beauty and perhaps the inherent value, of the Earth, even without us here to observe it. It is an inspirational call to Zero, Now. It’s heartening that it spent so long on the bestsellers lists, if others got the same kind of message out of it that I did. If it’s just feeding some apocalyptic peakist zombie trance, well, then that’s less heartening. Certainly makes me want to visit all the remaining pristine parts of Earth. Dive the coral reefs while I still can. Walk in every different kind of remaining old-growth forest. And keep on composting my urine.