“The very idea of assumed equilibrium bothered me”

One of the most frustrating parts of reading is forgetting. I struggle to describe a book in any meaningful detail even a month after finishing it, which somewhat undermines the learning experience. Highlighting, note taking, and folding pages all help stem the memory loss, but there are limits to what can be achieved without creating a part-time job.

With the help of some friends, I’ve come to three tentative responses. First, memory and learning is a game of quality and quantity, so read as much as possible; better to partially retain five books, than perfectly retain one.* This is especially true if you treat your books as a reference library that you can repeatedly return to. I have also decided to write short summaries with the two or three main insights, starting with the last book I finished, The Black Swan.

(If you’re wondering why I read a 14 year old book, see here)

The Black Swan has a simple point: thanks to a series of logical and biological shortcomings, we are unable to recognize life’s randomness, in particular low-probability, high-impact events – Black Swans. We make ourselves more vulnerable by our overconfidence that we can predict these events (and the future more broadly).**

cityofsound: The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2007)

Two broad points:

  • As I’ve previously discussed, his discussion of lumpy rewards intersects nicely with Nietzsche’s commentary on suffering. Put simply, uneven payoffs and the non-linear relationship between input and output mean it is possible that one may struggle with a problem or pursuit for a whole life, and fail to solve it. Or you may solve it in the bath by Tuesday. But, evolution and society have geared us to expect, and reward “satisfying linear, positive, progress.” Those who do not demonstrate that can appear as failure’s in the world’s eyes. This creates enormous social pressure, anxiety, and suffering on behalf of those who labor with randomness; they must struggle uncertain about the respect of others, which, no matter how iconoclastic we aspire to be, we desire. Taleb’s recommendation, to surround yourself by fellow dreamers and madmen, is one I endorse heartily.
  • The omnipresence of deep uncertainty recommends a kind of selective conservatism. There are certain outcomes which should not be risked, especially because our estimation of their likelihood is certain to be off by several magnitudes. This means building in redundancy and multi-functionality, but it also means respect for traditions and inherited wisdom which has (presumably) been stress tested over millennia. To get the positive benefit of Black Swans we need to tinker and experiment and stay open to serendipity, but always with an awareness of what we cannot afford to lose.

    This is interesting, because a preoccupation with fundamental uncertainty underpinned Keynes economic thought (it was excised by others later), as well as his conservatism (in that he was not a revolutionary). I’ve just bought Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France to explore this relationship between conservatism and uncertainty more closely.

Respect for elders in many societies might be a kind of compensation for our short-term memory. The word senate comes from senatus, “aged” in Latin; sheikh in Arabic means both a memeber of the ruling elite and “elder.” Elders are repositories of complicated inductive learning that includes information about rare events.

And four small ones

  • Additional detail is not positively or linearly correlated with better insight or decision making. It can worsen it.
  • Reification is dangerous. Even where models or spreadsheets have caveats, numbers and graphs project an numbing aura of confidence and reassurance.
  • Confirmation bias is closely related to the problem of induction; generalizing on the basis of verification (e.g. finding evidence which verifies your hypothesis) exposes us to confirmation bias.
  • Looking for causality in history is a fool’s errand

*My English literature teacher was once asked by a classmate how they could get better marks. “Have started reading five years earlier” was all he offered.

**It is a testament to the book’s impact that 14 years on, it feels familiar. Many of the people Taleb quotes, including Daniel Kahneman, Philip Tetlock, and Richard Thaler have since gone on to write their own best-selling popular books (and win Nobel Prizes) about these epistemic shortcomings.

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