the black swan

1. I remember buying this book at a Popular book sale because it seemed interesting – I had no inkling of its pop culture significance of the book then. I barely made it through halfway before something about it rubbed me the wrong way, and I just … didn’t like it. I think I thought the author was a little arrogant, presumptuous, in his delivery. It’s been on my shelf for the past three years, accumulating dust.

I only picked it up again because it appeared as one of those miscellaneous books on an econ reading list, and I thought, hey, far be it for me to presume that my judgment of an economics book is more sound than a university professor’s, right? So I re-read it … and my second impression was still the same, but this time I pushed forward gamely, trying to figure out what exactly inspired the lingering feeling of distaste.

It’s a collection of things, of course – and to be fair, the author does acknowledge most of them himself within his narrative. At the very onset, he qualifies that this isn’t really a book, but an essayed collection of his thoughts as they have developed. It does read like that, quite conversational, and so a little haphazard and unfounded at times, sweeping statements. It admits to being a narrative about how narratives are inaccurate and unreliable, but he says that is because a narrative is emotionally effective, and so he wants to get his message across. But mostly I think it misses the point, a little, and it draws upon many, many run-of-the-mill, age-old philosophical conundrums and repackages them to give the, at best, disorienting – at worst, false – impression that they are original concepts. The very title itself, ‘the black swan’, is a fancy metaphor for Hume’s problem of induction, which is, to be honest, an intriguing thought experiment to remind us about the limits of reason and human capacity, but cannot ultimately be the default principle governing life and social interaction. Many of the concepts he raises – confirmation bias, ‘evolutionary’ selection bias, linear/exponential functions, ‘Mediocristan/Extremistan’ (REALLY, REALLY?) etc. – are all, for me, familiar enough ideas generally accepted and accounted for in the intellectual world, I .. thought. I didn’t think it warranted the level of simultaneously self-congratulatory and dire doomsday evaluations of humanity’s great flaw: the inability to predict and accommodate randomness. In any case, strict adherence to the god of randomness would mean that even his advice and his book would be rendered useless by his own logic. He spends chapters deriding experts for having exceptionally high failure rates for predictions, because fundamentally their tools are insufficient models of reality; isn’t his own book itself purporting to teach about uncertainty? He does prevaricate by saying that he’s not claiming to be an excellent soothsayer himself, because he’s undergone tests proving his own susceptibility to these biases – but then, did saying ‘life is uncertain and no one can do anything about it’ necessitate a three-hundred-odd-page book, and such accolades? \

It felt like one of those pithy wisecrack writ large, generally. I liked some of his examples, until he revealed them to be fictional (which defeats the veracity of the examples. I can understand how it is a way for him to counter the effects of what he calls Mediocristan anecdotal evidence, which resonates easier with our emotional side, by putting forth another equally emotionally resonant anecdote that reflects a point … but intellectually and emotionally it is less honest because it is fictional.) One specific paragraph that bothered me – and is emblematic of my overall issue with his book – is his quick foray into the philosophy of free will, stating baldly that being able to predict one’s actions means that the subject does not have free will, which is such an erroneous simplification to almost be a bastardization of philosophy. (Throughout the book, I sometimes feel as though he is simply taking soundbites from each discipline to prove his point, in the process completely overlooking the decades or centuries or millenia of analysis and thought that have gone into the issue at hand, which is usually far more sophisticated than he imagines.)

Quite possibly I am sweepingly wrong about the book – but this is what I intuitively felt; any form of skepticism must become self-defeating if taken too far. Still, going to finish it, though. I want to read about his solutions on our inability to predict and deal with Black Swans in our lives. 

Make no mistake, though – this book itself is a Black Swan.

2. Oops, unexpected rant went on unexpectedly long.

The spate of conversations I’ve had with students, prospective or current, at my university is causing me wonder about … the presumption, I suppose, that simply because someone is, like me, a first-year, or studying PPE, or at Oxford, or was from a UWC, we need to establish some sort of interaction. Yesterday, I was looking at internship opportunities offered by my university and serendipitously, I found a (now-)third year PPEist from UWCAC who did an ‘internship’ at PSYL last summer. Of course, I wrote her a FB message. That is kind of creepy, isn’t it? But for some reason, those two levels of connection made it a mild compulsion.

3. Finally set a end date for my internship. Also received news this morning that my relief-teaching job is not as secure as I thought it was, owing to my alma mater’s regrettable tardiness – still, contingency plans abound! My dad is in favour of an internship in Shanghai/Beijing; funny how their reluctance for me to go overseas manifests only for all definitions of ‘overseas’ = ‘Europe’.

My Mandarin could use some improvement, it is true.

4. I am incurably restless, clearly.

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