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the black swan of nanowrimo October 14, 2008

Posted by eatnorthamerica in farcical review bullshit, pseudo-informative bullshit, things that are not quite things we know.
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The Canadian government finally returned the money it owed me from the time I spent being joyfully-unemployed last year, so I decided to blow some of it on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s idiosyncratic Black Swan.

Very briefly, Taleb is an iconoclast ex-quant (and full time wag) who does things like buy options geared towards the inevitability of economic disaster, accepting constant losses while waiting for crashes to send his option values skyrocketing.  

Commonsense dictates we go for small, constant gains when we invest, yet opens us up to getting screwed by unpredictable economic failure. For Taleb, the world has been shaped by these acts of random chance, acts that have a minute chance of occurring and carry huge impact, acts that we claim are inevitable after the fact and yet never plan for.

We carry on with life because some things are completely out of our ability to predict. You can’t bank on what they’ll be, you can only bank on the probability that they will happen. Hot from Taleb comes a moniker for events of this ilk: black swans. I won’t get into the details, because far better minds have written more informative material on him. Eristics aside, his viewpoint radiates some uncommon sense. Sometimes it’s refreshing to hear someone say, “I don’t know.”

I’m reminded of the Time article (this one made it to Time’s 85 year anniversary compendium) on Deep Blue, the chess computer that beat Kasparov:

What is Deep Blue’s secret? Grand master Yasser Seirawan put it most succinctly: “The machine has no fear.” He did not just mean the obvious, that silicon cannot quake. He meant something deeper: because of its fantastic capacity to see all possible combinations some distance into the future, the machine, once it determines that its own position is safe, can take the kind of attacking chances no human would. The omniscient have no fear.

In Game 1, Blue took what grand master Robert Byrne called “crazy chances.” On-site expert commentators labeled one move “insane.” It wasn’t. It was exactly right.

Here’s what happened. Late in the game, Blue’s king was under savage attack by Kasparov. Any human player under such assault by a world champion would be staring at his own king trying to figure out how to get away. Instead, Blue ignored the threat and quite nonchalantly went hunting for lowly pawns at the other end of the board. In fact, at the point of maximum peril, Blue expended two moves–many have died giving Kasparov even one–to snap one pawn. It was as if, at Gettysburg, General Meade had sent his soldiers out for a bit of apple picking moments before Pickett’s charge because he had calculated that they could get back to their positions with a half-second to spare.

In humans, that is called sangfroid. And if you don’t have any sang, you can be very froid. But then again if Meade had known absolutely–by calculating the precise trajectories of all the bullets and all the bayonets and all the cannons in Pickett’s division–the time of arrival of the enemy, he could indeed, without fear, have ordered his men to pick apples.

Which is exactly what Deep Blue did. It had calculated every possible combination of Kasparov’s available moves and determined with absolute certainty that it could return from its pawn-picking expedition and destroy Kasparov exactly one move before Kasparov could destroy it. Which it did.

Kasparov himself said that with Deep Blue, quantity had become quality.

Taleb repudiates the power of human inference; the computer is incapable of it. Sometimes you have to overthrow human frailty to succeed. Is that good, or bad?

Everyone’s iPhone is Wikipedia-enabled. The showboat of knowledge sails on, leaving us only the lifeline of connective insight.

November is coming up, and that means NaNoWriMo is here again. 50000 words for the month of November, the amount that mutates novella into novel. I did not know that Brave New World contains a mere 50000 words of blazing beauty.

1,666⅔ words per day, for thirty days. If you don’t make the effort, you never get the chance to be a black swan.

That, combined with spending enough time on my guitar to not screw up someone’s wedding ceremony, is going to be a hell of a lot of doing. But when people are doing this, what excuse do I have? Let’s go learn from failure.

Apparently it takes a minimum of 10000 hours to become world-class at anything, so I’d better get cracking.

I had a clump of songs in major keys on my playlist zoning together whilst I was writing this; all background noise, until a minor key popped out and my focus was jerked right there.

Our random lives boil down to self-imposed decisions. Unpredictability may be the new god, but it doesn’t mean we can’t choose which dice he throws.

 

I’ve spent a lot of energy and many years trying to learn a very few basic things, which may turn out to be mostly crude opinions anyway. There’s so little in the world we can be sure of, and maybe it’s the lack, that flaw or deficiency, if you will, that drives our strongest compulsions.”

Ben Fountain

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Comments»

1. Steve - December 20, 2008

Somewhat related to the New Yorker article:

http://taoyue.com/stacks/articles/brilliant-men.html


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