User:Woozle/The Black Swan

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Notes on The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

page xvii

A small number of Black Swans explain almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

This seems like a pretty bold assertion (it's also a rather narrow definition of the word "everything"), and I can only presume he'll spend much of the book backing it up.

Ever since we left the Pleistocene, some ten millennia ago, the effect of these Black Swans has been increasing. It started accelerating during the industrial revolution, as the world started getting more complicated, while ordinary events, the ones we study and discuss and try to predict from reading the newspapers, have become increasingly inconsequential.

Again, this seems like quite a bold assertion, and doesn't quite jibe with experience... so I'll be looking for the justification. It feels more like an attempt to make the reader think that this is so, and to be more aware of confirming data, and thus build his case primarily through confirmation bias.

It's difficult to argue with most of his examples from history, as only a historian who specializes in each given period would be likely to have easy knowledge of what the actual thinking was (by people who were paying attention to events and had access to adequate data). Research into these things take time.

And if events could not be predicted, isn't this just saying we didn't have access to adequate information? It seems very much counter to the scientific spirit to say "we can never know in advance" and write it off as a dead loss, rather than looking at what we knew, what we guessed from what we knew, and trying to find patterns in the discrepancy. What sorts of things should we be paying attention to in order to better anticipate the next Black Swan?

And yes, some people did see the rise of the Internet. It didn't happen exactly as expected, and it happened a lot quicker than many people expected, but some people -- looking at trends such as Moore's law -- more or less pegged the overall scale of it (often to their own incredulity). 9/11 was foreseen, too -- not that the towers would fall, necessarily, but that airplanes could be used as weapons and flown into the Twin Towers -- yes, there were warnings. Same with Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. Historians apparently agree that Pearl Harbor was an engineered provocation, not a freak event (except in the sense that the Moon landing was a freak event).

Is he now going to use failure of imagination by those at the top as an excuse for further failures of imagination? This seems like completely the wrong direction to go.

How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.

So turn off your mind, stop worrying about these things you can't control, and give up trying to make the world a better place.

He'd better have some damn convincing theory & data for those "Black Swan dynamics".

This combination of low predictability and large impact makes the Black Swan a great puzzle...

I should probably stop reading the prologue and skip ahead to where he starts justifying, because now he's basing conclusions on a premise which I'm not buying.

page xix goes into 9/11 in detail:

[H]ad the risk been reasonably conceivable on September 10, it would not have happened. If such a possibility were deemed worthy of attention, fighter planes would have circled the sky above the twin towers...

He's picking exactly the wrong example to start with. The planes weren't there because they were doing war games exercises elsewhere, one of which was almost identical to what actually happened. Further research is needed to verify this, and it may turn out to be just a rumor -- but even if you don't buy it, the fact is that our national airborne defense was supposed to have been able to intercept those jets in far less time than was available, and in fact had done so (not shoot-downs, but visual contact) in other cases prior to 9/11.

page xx

The next example he brings up isn't much better:

Consider the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Had it been expected, it would not have caused the damage it did...

It was expected to happen eventually (because it has happened before -- can this really be called a Black Swan?), but we didn't know it would be so soon. The entire Pacific Ocean, which is prone to tsunamis, is covered by a sensor net and an early-warning system which has been used several times already. The problem is that the "Ring of Fire" which causes earthquakes in the Pacific extends just a bit into the Indian Ocean, where it is surrounded by poorer countries which are protected from tsunamis emerging from the Pacific. Combine a somewhat smaller perceived need to be part of the network with a far smaller ability to pay for one to be built (which wouldn't benefit the rest of the Pacific Rim either, which is protected from tsunamis emerging in the Indian Ocean by those same geographic barriers), and the results are almost inevitable.

Yeah, this is hindsight -- which is what the author is decrying -- but it's only hindsight on my part. I bet the people who were involved with planning the Pacific Rim alert network were well aware of this gap in their design, as were the leaders of all the countries affected. They were simply powerless to do much about it (to bump up in priority the building of a network to the point where it could take money away from other concerns which would otherwise be far more urgent), absent the knowledge that a tsunami was imminent.