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.

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