“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.

On the value of suffering

We all suffer, but is it anything more than a sensation to be avoided or grudgingly endured? In different ways, both Nietzsche and Nassim Taleb have something useful to say.

Nietzsche thought suffering was vital, so vital in fact, that he wished it on his friends (it is unclear how many he had).

Friedrich Nietzsche: The dynamite German philosopher | Culture| Arts, music  and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 25.08.2020
Presumably looking for someone to wish suffering on

From Beyond Good and Evil, part 225:

You want if possible – and there is no madder ‘if possible’ – to abolish suffering; and we? – it really does seem that we would rather increase it and make it worse than it has ever been! Wellbeing as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end! A state which soon renders man ludicrous and contemptible – which makes it desirable that he should perish! The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that it is this discipline alone which has created every elevation of mankind hitherto? That tension of the soul in misfortune which cultivates its strength, its terror at the sight of great destruction, its inventiveness and bravery in undergoing, enduring, interpreting, exploiting misfortune, and whatever of depth, mystery, mask, spirit, cunning and greatness has been bestowed on it – has it not been bestowed through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?

Poetic as it sounds, how might ‘the discipline of great suffering‘ help in practice?

Let’s fast forward to The Black Swan, where Taleb argues that the non-linear nature of the modern world condemns people in many professions or pursuits to years, even decades, of labour with few results to show for it.

Positive lumpy outcomes, for which we either collect big or get nothing, prevail in numerous occupations, those invested with a sense of mission, such as doggedly pursuing (in a smelly laboratory) the elusive cure for cancer, writing a book that will change the way people view the world (while living hand to mouth), making music, or painting miniature icons on subway trains

Our emotional apparatus is designed for linear causality. For instance, if you study every day, you expect to learn something in proportion to your studies. If you feel that you are not going anywhere, your emotions will cause you to become demoralised. But modern reality rarely gives us the privilege of a satisfying linear, positive progression: you may think about a problem for a year and learn nothing

How does this connect to what Nietzsche was saying?

Well, one of Nietzsche’s central points is the importance of individuals pursuing their ‘will to power,’ an ambiguous phrase that refers to those drives which originate in the core of an individual’s identity and emerge in its free, creative, expression. He thought society, religion, and our own weaknesses conspired against us, offering easy truths and pre-packaged alternatives to the terrifying task of becoming a self, becoming oneself.

This task requires us to silence the doubts within and without, reject social conventions, and strike out alone. As a consequence, the creative flowering of the individual’s identity often goes with (and through) profound loneliness and suffering. For Nietzsche, learning to endure suffering is essential because suffering is an inherent part of living as an independent human.

Taleb seems to agree: suffering is the price we pay for pursuing non-linear pursuits, whether creative, intellectual, or personal:

“Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.”

Where Nietzsche advocated we become true iconoclasts, Taleb’s recommendation is more attractive and realistic alternative:

It may be a banality that we need others for many things, but we need them far more than we realize, particularly for dignity and respect. Indeed, we have very few historical records of people who have achieved anything extraordinary without such peer validation – but we have the freedom to choose our peers. If we look at the history of ideas, we see schools of thought occasionally forming, producing unusual work unpopular outside the school… A school allows someone with unusual ideas with the remote possibility of a payoff to find company and create a microcosm insulated from others. The members of the group can be ostracized together – which is better than being ostracized alone.