Womack Report

June 26, 2007

Black Swans, misc.

Filed under: General — Phillip Womack @ 4:35 pm

Currently reading a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, titled The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

I was given the book to peruse by my brother James. I’ve had it for a day now; I’m somewhere between one-third and one-half of the way through the book.

It’s an interesting read. There are things that resonate with me, and things that strike me as bologna. The main thrust of the book is that people are most heavily influenced by unforseeable events; “Black Swans”, to use the author’s very, very frequently repeated terminology. The title comes from the story of a breed of black swans in Australia, when previously every known specimen of the bird was solid white. Anyone who knew anything about swans prior to that discovery would have told you there was no reason to believe a black swan could or did exist, yet there they were.

The draws parallels between the case of the black swans and any number of other events in which the events occur, and those involved were completely unprepared because the events in question were vanishingly unlikely, or totally at odds with previous experience. An illustration I preferred was the turkey. A turkey being raised for meat has a life of being fed and cared for by the humans, day after day, week after week, until one day those same previously benevolent humans whack its head off and turn it into thanksgiving dinner. The head-whacking is totally at odds with every previous experience of the turkey; the lessons learned from a life of being fed do not prepare a bird for its eventual fate. From the human’s perspective, the narrative of the turkey makes perfect sense; the feeding and the chopping are aspects of the intended function. But to the turkey it’s a shock.

The lesson of the book, then, is to not be a turkey. You don’t want to standing around waiting for the grain you get every day, only to find out today is the day for the unexpected axe. That’s good as far as it goes, and has some clear applications.

Taleb’s second point, which he’s just getting rolling on at the point where I’m currently reading, is that these unforseeable events are more frequent and more influential than we are disposed to realize, and that this state will tend to become more pronounced over time. He does a good job of showing that humans are not necessarily wired to cope with highly improbable events; we try to learn from experience, but experience isn’t useful in a totally unprecedented event.

This is the point where I don’t care for Taleb’s lessons. I think he’s right as far as it goes, but he seems unprincipled about what he considers an unforseeable random event. Particularly, he points to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack as a “Black Swan” event. He uses it as an example of an event that was low probability and which has nonetheless captured the public imagination with fear, despite the low chances of it recurring. My complaint about this is that some events are not random, or even unforseeable. The 9/11 attack was not some unfathomable convergence of events, it was a plan which was successfully implemented. The reason it will not likely recur is because there is a low probability of success, but the reason there is a low probability of success is because actual people are taking steps to prevent that sort of thing, not because the plan is inherently flawed.

Taleb discusses luck quite a bit in the book, in the context of what improbable events actually happen. This book becomes a bestseller, while that one languishes; this business succeeds, while that one goes bankrupt. That’s well and good, but it seems to me that it understates the degree to which some improbable events happen because people work hard to make them happen, and thereby skew the odds. It is likely true that luck is a large factor in what unknown author’s book becomes a bestseller out of the thousands published; it is less obvious to me that this would be true if only one book was published in a given year. It seems to me, to clarify, that Taleb sometimes inaccurately conflates rare events with improbable events.  This is probably a hazard of too much theorizing.

June 11, 2007

Sick people, sick cars, sick phones

Filed under: General — Phillip Womack @ 11:09 pm

Woke up this morning running a fever, and feeling like a person who was, well, running a fever.  I think whatever got ahold of me took effect late last night; I wasn’t in my best form yesterday, but I didn’t feel ill until 11:00 or so, after coming home from my brother’s house.  (more…)

June 6, 2007

Business Calculus and such

Filed under: Math,School — Phillip Womack @ 4:53 pm

First new update in a while. I’m sitting in my business calculus class, which won’t actually start up for another fifteen minutes or so. At that point, I’ll be putting the computer away. Laptops are not encouraged in this class.

Business calc is not generally looking to be an exciting, fun-filled course. Professor is fairly humorless, and the subject is, well, math. Doesn’t help that the course is being handled in a very cryptic manner. I’m been here for two days already. I know how to find a limit, given a properly set up problem, and how to find a derivative. There has not, thus far, been any discussion of what a derivative is or what use knowing it is to me. Some of that I can pick up by reading the book; apparently I’ll have to get all of it that way.

Teaching style, so far, is to stand at the front of the room and write equations on the whiteboard, solve them for whatever result we want, and then erase the equation and start a new equation. I’ll just have to deal with the instruction I have. On the bright side, rather than collecting homework, there will be daily quizzes over previous material. That should help force me to stay on top of things, and fits my general tendency to not do homework much better, to boot.

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