Monday, April 25, 2011

St. John's Chapter 9

We were reading this chapter in the New Testament last night, but it was what was happening in my home right before reading this chapter, that made these passages extra profound and beautiful. I was in a grumpy mood. Our pretty expensive camera has been lost now for a couple of weeks now. The last time we had seen it, our two year old was walking down the hall with the camera in her hand. My iPod was also missing. It was the end of the day. Our house already has a baseline of too much clutter, but we tend to oscillate around the baseline quite widely. This night was no exception. I was barking orders grumpily at my kids trying to get them to pick up their mess, while I kept looking for both the iPod and the camera.

Low and behold, I found both under our bed. Still grumpy, but a little less so, we basically picked up most of the stuff. My wife was now in a bad mood, taking my frustrations at our mess very personally - not totally realizing that I am much more responsible for our mess than she is. Anyway, I embarked on our family scripture reading, St. John Chapter 9. I decided at random, to inject our problem right into the scriptures to see what would happen, and guess what?

"1 And as Jesus passed by, he saw a family which was messy from the beggining.
2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this family or their parents, who failed to teach them how to keep house?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this family sinned, nor their parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in them.
4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the house of this family with the clay,
7 and said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Silo'am, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
8 The neighbors therefore, and they which before had seen him that they were a complete mess, said, Is not this he that lived in squalor?
9 Some said, This is them: others said,they look like them, but they said, we are they.
10 Therefore said they unto them, How was thou house cleaned?
11 They answered and said, A man that is called Jesus made clay, and anointed our house, and said unto us, Go to the thy house and wash and we washed, and we knew how to keep our house clean and organized.

This resonated with me because we are all born with struggles and weaknesses - not because we're bad or sinful. It's just because we are human. And the way to achieve growth is through our faith, and through that faith, our weaknesses can be removed, not because of anything we do, but "so the works of God can be made manifest".

I'm wondering how many of us are taking advantage of these sorts of gifts. We all have blind spots. We can also be healed.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Black Swan Events

It seems like everywhere I turn I'm being compared with my peers based on the bell curve. I've been graded against it in school and stuff like promotions and raises are commonly granted based on how I perform in comparison with other people. You know the curve I'm talking about, the one shaped like a bell, where you cluster most of the people together in the middle - the C students, then a small clump at the top, another small clump on the bottom. Does this even make sense? Is this how life works? Should a company any company make employee evaluations in this way? Should our schools operate in that way? Do I want my children graded this way?

I think the reason the bell curve has caught on is because in many aspects of our day to day lives it seems to work pretty well. You can get away, mostly, grouping people in a bell shaped curve, where most people are average, a few are below average and a few are above average. But it's rare to impossible to diverge too far from the mean.

There's a lot of reason this approach is favored. For one, it reduces complexity. If you're a teacher (or a parent), you can easily assess how your child is doing in her class by looking at a letter grade, and these grades really mean something when you know they have been applied based on a bell curve. The problem is there are people who clearly don't fit. They either fall so far to right of the curve, they completely off of it. So, not only are super-super stars rare, if you believe the Gaussian curve, they don't exist.

So, how do you account for the super-extraordinary student? You can't give him an A. Well, they are either moved up a grade (or two or three) or they are pushed out of the educational system completely. In the business world, they quit your company and create their own, or if they don't, they will achieve all star status, but will be hopelessly underpaid and probably under-utlized.

Because most of us have grown up in a culture of bell curves, it's only natural that large companies use this same technique to determine raises, promotions, and in the time of hardship, who to lay off.

Why am I focused so much on the bell curve? Well, because I recently finished the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb who talks about the bell curve in the most disparaging way possible.

The main thesis of the book is that everything that truly matters in our society happens because of events that are both unpredictable and revolutionary. One single stock market crash can wipe out the gradual, predictable gains made over the course of 20 years. A major earthquake in Japan can destroy entire communities that took decades to build. A single event on 9/11/2001, can destroy our economy, turn the airline industry upside down, and bog our country down into two wars. In fact war itself is a black swan. So many times they seem to come out of nowhere, devastating nations for decades.

These are disruptive events and are extremely difficult to predict. Technology is an industry ripe with black swans. Cisco, eBay, Google all were black swan events. Rising out of the dust to produce companies that changed everything. But as soon as these companies got big, they also became predictable. The truly important events, largely in all cases, happened the day these companies were founded. Everything since has been only to leverage their initial idea.

But are people as easy to classify as the bell curve suggests? I would make the argument that the whole notion of the bell curve is flawed. We use it because it works most of the time, but mainly because it makes our lives simple. An individual person is just that, an individual, with built in strengths and weaknesses, but also with a unique set of experiences and opinions and points of view. One of the reasons we are so surprised by black swan events is because a really good idea can germinate just about from anywhere. So much of what happens in society occur through a series of well-timed accidents. The right person was in the right place thinking the right thoughts having the right skills at the right time. So much of all of this is just luck, coming from a circumstantial sequence of events.

Skill matters, though. If you aren't prepared for the unpredictable, it will either bury your or pass you by. How do you prepare? In the words of Taleb, how do you turn black swans grey?

I think we need to break out of the bell curve way of thinking. Every single person has the potential, if given the opportunity and training, to produce black swan events.

Here is one suggestion taking directly from the book:

"The strategy for the discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or 'incentives' for skill. The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can."

If we, as a country, want to continue to develop as a nation of innovators, there has to be room to do exactly this. It has to be open to all and widely encouraged and openly supported. The more people excluded, due to lack of opportunity or education, the more we narrow opportunities to benefit from positive black swan events.

At the end of the day, none of us in reality falls within the Gaussian curve. It's a massive over-simplification of how individuals behave and how the world works. It's possible to force the real world into a theoretical model and to pretend things work that way - until you're hit by a black swan event, of course.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Last week, I had the opportunity to visit London and Paris. I was in London for just about a week for a business trip, so I extended the trip for a day to take in Paris. I'll try to blog about my day in Paris at some point. But, luckily for me, being a lone in Paris, I had as my only companion, my iPod, with the Kindle App loaded on it. I was able to take in a bit of reading while waiting in line for various tourist attractions. The book I was reading? The Black Swam, a book basically about risk. The fact is that we're living in a heavily black swan world, but we live like we don't. The notion of the black swan implies this belief that just because we haven't lived through an event, the event is highly unlikely. But these big events (say the massive earthquake in Japan), are much, more common and much more likely than we think.

He covers a lot of ground in the book, and while on my trip, I was able to finish it. I can imagine a whole series of blog posts on the the book itself, we'll see how many I get to do.

One of the themes of the book is to really point out how many blind spots we, human beings, have without realizing it. The author really wants us to get how flawed we are and how much we should be suspicious of our human failings. One example of this flaw, is our desire to cluster.

"If you want to see what I mean by arbitrariness of categories, check the situation of polarized politics. The next time a Martian visits earth, try to explain to him why those favor allowing the elimination of a fetus in the mother's womb also oppose capital punishment. Or try to explain to him why those who accept abortion are supposed to be favorable to high taxation but against a strong military. Why do those who prefer sexual freedom need to be against individual economic liberty?"

"The best way to prove the arbitrary character of these categories, and the contagion effect they produce, is to remember how frequently these clusters reverse in history. Today's alliance between Christian fundamentalists and the Israeli lobby would certainly seem puzzling to a nineteenth-century intellectual - Christians used to be anti-Semites and Moslems were the protectors of the Jews, whom they preferred to Christians. Libertarians used to be left-wing. What is interesting to me as a probabilist is that some random event makes one group that initially supports another issue ally itself with another group that supports another issue, thus causing the two items to fuse and unify... until the surprise of the separation."

Here's the problem with this clustering and categorizing:

"Categorizing always produces reduction in true complexity. It is a manifestation of the Black Swan generator. Any reduction in the world around us can have explosive consequences since it rules out some sources of uncertainty; it drives us to a misunderstanding of the fabric of the world. For instance, you may think that radical Islam (and its values) are your allies against the threat of Communism, and so you may help them develop, until they send two planes into downtown Manhattan."

The principal remedy in the book is to have the guts and the humility to admit our lack of certainty and knowledge on the issues.

Individual issues, like abortion or the death penalty, are complicated. To decide to map, seemingly disconnected points of views from a whole swath of issues into a single political party, seems absurd on its face. I get why we do it, to make our political system easier to comprehend, to reduce the true complexity of the world. But know this, we take serious risks when we do so. The world is much more complicated, much harder to understand, and impossible to define or reduce so cleanly.

The best answer to most political questions, is probably "I don't know", or "I'm not sure". Either that, or just inject a lot of "probably's" or "maybe's", or "in my uncertain opinion" into your conversations. The problem, of course, is that kind of language will most certainly not get you elected or listened to. It takes guts to face and admit uncertainty. But those who do, are the ones worth listening to.

And its why I feel that both parties are usually correct on most issues, correct but enormously flawed and limited in their point of view. Believe in your political party like it was your religion at your own risk.