Friday, April 27, 2007


Even the experts find that the real world is unpredictable

Mr. Taleb is fascinated by the rare but pivotal events that characterize life in the power-law world. He calls them Black Swans, after the philosopher Karl Popper's observation that only a single black swan is required to falsify the theory that "all swans are white" even when there are thousands of white swans in evidence. Provocatively, Mr. Taleb defines Black Swans as events (such as the rise of the Internet or the fall of LTCM) that are not only rare and consequential but also predictable only in retrospect. We never see them coming, but we have no trouble concocting post hoc explanations for why they should have been obvious. Surely, Mr. Taleb taunts, we won't get fooled again. But of course we will.

Writing in a style that owes as much to Stephen Colbert as it does to Michel de Montaigne, Mr. Taleb divides the world into those who "get it" and everyone else, a world partitioned into heroes (Popper, Hayek, Yogi Berra), those on notice (Harold Bloom, necktie wearers, personal-finance advisers) and entities that are dead to him (the bell curve, newspapers, the Nobel Prize in Economics).

A humanist at heart, Mr. Taleb ponders not only the effect of Black Swans but also the reason we have so much trouble acknowledging their existence. And this is where he hits his stride. We eagerly romp with him through the follies of confirmation bias (our tendency to reaffirm our beliefs rather than contradict them), narrative fallacy (our weakness for compelling stories), silent evidence (our failure to account for what we don't see), ludic fallacy (our willingness to oversimplify and take games or models too seriously), and epistemic arrogance (our habit of overestimating our knowledge and underestimating our ignorance).

For anyone who has been compelled to give a long-term vision or read a marketing forecast for the next decade, Mr. Taleb's chapter excoriating "The Scandal of Prediction" will ring painfully true. "What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors," observes Mr. Taleb, "but our absence of awareness of it." We tend to fail--miserably--at predicting the future, but such failure is little noted nor long remembered. It seems to be of remarkably little professional consequence.

I suspect that part of the explanation for this inconsistency may be found in a study of stock analysts that Mr. Taleb cites. Their predictions, while badly inaccurate, were not random but rather highly correlated with each other. The lesson, evidently, is that it's better to be wrong than alone.

If we accept Mr. Taleb's premise about power-law ascendancy, we are left with a troubling question: How do you function in a world where accurate prediction is rarely possible, where history isn't a reliable guide to the future and where the most important events cannot be anticipated?

Mr. Taleb presents a range of answers--be prepared for various outcomes, he says, and don't rush for buses--but it's clear that he remains slightly vexed by the world he describes so vividly. Then again, beatific serenity may not be the goal here. As Mr. Taleb warns, certitude is likely to be found only in a fool's (bell-curve) paradise, where we choose the comfort of the "precisely wrong" over the challenge of the "broadly correct." Beneath Mr. Taleb's blustery rhetoric lives a surprisingly humble soul who has chosen to follow a demanding and somewhat lonely path.




There is a good takedown here of some crooked public opinion polling which claims that antisemitism in Germany is decreasing.

Once again journalism's once-prestigious Pulitzer prize has been awarded to a deceitful New York Times story

Probably Bush's fault: "Several French political parties demanded the withdrawal of electronic voting machines for the second round of the presidential election after widespread problems during Sunday's ballot. The Socialists, the Communist Party and the Greens put on a rare show of unity to call the machines a "catastrophe". It is the first time the machines have been used for a presidential election in France. Amid big queues in general to vote, people using the electronic machines were forced to wait up to two hours to cast ballots. About 1.5 million voters out of the 44.5 million nationally were able to use the machines. The left wing parties complained following problems at Noisy-le-Sec, a suburb east of Paris."

Musharraf Caves to Red Mosque Demands: "Pakistan Muslim League president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain visited Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) and conveyed to its two leaders that the Pakistani government has accepted all of Lal Masjid's demands, including the implementation of Sharia Law in Pakistan. It is another example of the Musharraf government's inability to contain the pro-Taliban and pro-al-Qaeda Islamist movement inside Pakistan. While ceding real estate to the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance through the various `peace accords' that handed terrorists South Waziristan, North Waziristan and Bajour agencies is troubling in its own right, this latest set of concessions is more troubling still."

Toyota ends GM's 76-year streak: "TOYOTA breezed past General Motors in the first quarter to claim world sales leadership and appears to have a clear road ahead to remain No 1, except for a few potholes in its path. Industry analysts said Toyota might have too few engineers and managers trained in the company's renowned production system to continue expanding its lines and maintain its reputation for quality, which the car maker said was its top priority."

Why they hate Israel: "There is something about Israel that enrages the left- and that something has to do with having to engage evil on a daily basis. The Israelis must deal with an evil that is real, evident and clearly defined. For the left, evil can not exist because the recognition of evil forces societies and cultures to set boundaries and limitations. Even more, evil helps to define culture and communal behavior. If there is no evil, the individual and the individual's needs and wants are of paramount concern. If there is evil, then the community and the needs of the community are of concern. The needs of the individual are subjugated. For the narcissistic individual, this is a catastrophe of the highest order, and that is why for the narcissistic leftists, the only evil they can acknowledge is the evil that places the welfare pf the community or state over the welfare of the individual. In the case of Israel, that must be done every single day. To not put the safety and well being of the community at the fore would result in disaster."


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"Why should the German be interested in the liberation of the Jew, if the Jew is not interested in the liberation of the German?... We recognize in Judaism, therefore, a general anti-social element of the present time... In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.... Indeed, in North America, the practical domination of Judaism over the Christian world has achieved as its unambiguous and normal expression that the preaching of the Gospel itself and the Christian ministry have become articles of trade... Money is the jealous god of Israel, in face of which no other god may exist". Who said that? Hitler? No. It was Karl Marx. See also here and here.

The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialistisch) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party".


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