The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb

The Black Swan by Nassim TalebI 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:

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How inevitable is synthetic biology?

I love watching talks and seminars online.  It is in so many ways superior to watching them in person.  You can pause the talk to discuss it with your friends out loud, or to look something up online.  You can skip the boring introduction.  You can stop watching the talk if it’s lame, and try another one, and keep trying until you find a good one.  Maybe best of all, there are vastly more talks available online than even at a large and diverse institution.  The one plausible weakness is the lack of interactivity – you can’t ask questions.  But it turns out that the Q&A part of most public talks (and even departmental colloquia) kind of suck.  You can mitigate this weakness by watching the talk with other people who are thoughtful and intelligent, and talking to them about it during and after.

Rene, Michelle and I sat down last night and watched this excellent debate between Drew Endy from Stanford/MIT and Jim Thomas, put on by The Long Now Foundation.  The formal presentation/debate portion is an hour long, and is followed by another hour of discussion.  Endy is in favor of an open source type model for synthetic biology, with the technology being available to basically anyone.  Thomas thinks it should be controlled, and kept out of the hands of potentially dangerous actors: the military, the corporate oligarchy, etc.  Their positions are of course more subtle and well thought out than that, but you can only fit so much into a nutshell.

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Reading Afghanistan

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.

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Microwire Photovoltaics at Caltech

I went to this year’s second Everhart Lecture yesterday by Josh Spurgeon, who is working with Harry Atwater and Nate Lewis, trying to develop cheap, scalable solar cells.  As with most of the Everhart Lectures, it was a very well presented talk.  Unlike many of them, it was directly relevant to a real-world problem: how can humanity continue to utilize on the order of 10TW of power, without changing the composition of the atmosphere (see Nate Lewis’ excellent presentation for more information). The ultimate solution to that problem will almost certainly involve directly capturing incident solar energy, because the potential resource available is both vast and relatively concentrated, when compared to other sources of renewable energy.  But solar has two very serious problems today: it is expensive (both in absolute terms on a per watt installed basis, and in an up-front capital expenditure sense), and it is not available when the sun isn’t shining.  Whatever the solution looks like, in order to scale up to 10TW, it needs to use only earth-abundant, non-toxic materials.  In semiconductor photovoltaics then, silicon probably has an unassailable lead.  It’s the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and it’s about as toxic as sand (though silicon semiconductor fabrication has serious toxicity associated with it and certainly needs to be made closed-loop).  Exotic materials like cadmium-telluride, and copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) are unlikely to scale to tens of terawatts, simply because of the limited availability of elements like indium and tellurium.  Additionally, owing to the vast silicon microprocessor industry, we are much better at micro and nano-scale manipulation of silicon than any other material on Earth (ignoring for the moment biological systems).

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When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce

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.

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Confessions of an Economic Hit Man by John Perkins

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.

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The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod

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.

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The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

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.

The Sequence: a play about the Human Genome Project

It turns out that Pasadena has a wonderful little theater called The Boston Court.  It’s a non-profit organization, producing some classics, but perhaps more interestingly, also some first-run original pieces by SoCal playwrites.  Michelle saw an adaptation of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there last year, and we went and saw 1001, a story weaving the Arabian Nights with commentary on the modern Arab-Israeli coflict and the War on Terror.  The casts are essentially dedicated amateurs – the auditions page lists a $300 rehearsal stipend, plus $25/performance.  The space is so small that there is no need for amplified sound, and the sets are fairly minimalist.  They have student discounts and matinees, and late night salons for discussion after the plays are performed.  I have a hard time imagining a better setting and scale for theater.  Even better, it’s easy biking distance, and they seem to have a bent toward plays that are relevant to the modern world.

On Friday, we went to see The Sequence, by Paul Mullin, who has also written about Louis Slotin’s death during the Manhattan Project due to a criticality accident while “tickling the dragon’s tail’, and The Ten Thousand Things, an exploration of the meaning of deep time in human society, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now.  The Sequence is a play about the Human Genome Project, and the race between Craig Venter‘s Celera, and the publicly funded project headed by Francis Collins, to complete the sequence first, and also about a young journalist, Kellie Silverstein, who is covering the race, who struggles with her own genetic destiny, knowing that her mother died from breast cancer due to the BRCA1 mutation, which she likely also carries.  The Sequence was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  Ironically, Mullin cannot afford to be a professional playwrite, and instead works in a clerical position at Amgen to pay the bills.  Like Copenhagen, the play has only three characters.

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PBS Tackles Global Warming: HEAT

I watched the PBS Frontline report Heat online.  It’s 2 hours long, and explores the magnitude and difficulty of scaling back global carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050 (which is what the IPCC says is required).  To be a success in my mind, I think it had to do four things:

  1. Convey the colossal magnitude of the problem, essentially requiring a complete re-imagination of the engines literally driving the global economy: fossil fuels and ever expanding resource consumption, and cooperation between nations and corporations on a scale we’ve never seen.
  2. Describe the potential costs of inaction, including sea level rise, possibly rapid decreases in agricultural productivity in some areas, water shortages in the world’s most populous regions due to melting glaciers, and ultimately, the irreversibility of the changes, due to positive feedbacks.
  3. Explain how solving the problem is difficult, politically: due to effective lobbying from old and currently profitable industries, and the inability of tomorrow’s potentially profitable “green” industries to effectively lobby, because they don’t currently have either the billions in profits to “invest” in DC, or a large base of employees represented as constituents.  Economically: because there is no cost borne by GHG emitters, making the atmosphere a tragic economic commons.
  4. Provide at least an outline of what any potential solution will look like: It will have to be measured in terawatts, meaning the only two sources of power that are up to the task in the long run are solar and nuclear (with reprocessing and breeder reactors eventually).  It will also require a method of turning electricity into some transportable high energy density form, like liquid fuels, or much much better batteries.

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