Category Archives: BOOKS

The Black Swan: All in the Mind?

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin, 2007.

I had a mixed reaction to this book, spending much of it trying to avoid being suffocated by Taleb’s ego. More serious was the ignoring of Taleb’s bar-room philosophy (see my previous article) as he pontificated on anything that lurched into view on his meander to the meat of the book in part 3 (p. 213). He says that he gets emotional (p. 252) because of the irrationality of those around him in not coming round to he is way of thinking (and he does have a point) but there is nothing rational about being ’emotional’ and the various rage fits he seems to enjoy provoking in others (p. 64) or indulging in himself (p. 128). Interestingly Taleb’s mother elicits the most revealing passage:

I am reminded of a measure my mother concocted, as a joke, when I decided to become a businessman. Being ironic about my (perceived) confidence, though not necessarily unconvinced of my abilities, she found a way for me to make a killing. How? Someone who could figure out how to buy me at the price I am truly worth and sell me at the price I think I am worth would be able to pocket a huge difference. Though I keep trying to convince her of my internal humility and insecurity concealed under a confident exterior; though I keep telling her I am an introspector–she remain skeptical. Introspector shmintrospector, she still jokes at the time of writing that I am still a little ahead of myself.

Why don’t we all listen to our mothers more. As this article is not nearly flattering enough I guess it will never be read but should Taleb ever read these words I really think he should find out just what humility, what its cause are and what it looks like. Humility comes from inner confidence but bluster comes from insecurity. We all have to do battle with our insecurities and arrogant demons but it is going to be much more difficult if these categories are confused.

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The Mac Droids (The Register)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Register) on my blog-roll; see the about page. ]

With The Register reporting in its usual scurrilous style Microsoft’s ongoing difficulties in killing Windows XP, Bill Gates stepping down as the head of Microsoft and Taleb making an instructive blunder on the Mac-versus-Windows religious wars I thought I would indulge myself in a rare techie post.

It is also part of the review Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan.

Windows 3.0 (1990)

One of the many interesting (and instructive) observations that Taleb made in The Black Swans was the following.

A person can get slightly ahead for entirely random reasons; because we like to imitate one another, we will flock to him. The world of contagion is so underestimated.

As I am writing these lines I am using a Macintosh, by Apple, after years of using Microsoft-based products. The Apple technology is vastly better, yet the inferior software won the day. Why? Luck.

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Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have completed Taleb’s The Black Swan and will say more about it later but I first want to take him to task on one of his opinions (one that he doesn’t really hold as it turns out). From page 171:

Popper’s insight concerns the limitations in forecasting historical events and the need to downgrade “soft” areas such as history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment, like butterfly or coin collecting. (Popper who received a classical Viennese education didn’t go quite so far; I do. I am from Amioun.) What we call the soft historical sciences are narrative dependent studies.

To confuse historicism and history is a horrible conflation, and no claims to rural roots should excuse this kind of boorishness. As Aristotle by way of Aquinas and Schumacher reminds us,

‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.'(*) ‘Slender’ knowledge is here put in opposition to ‘certain’ knowledge, and indicates uncertainty.

(*) Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, 1, 5 ad 1.

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Trita Parsi’s Treacherous Alliance

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Trita Parsi) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of
Israel, Iran and the United States

by Trita Parsi (2007)

This is one of the best books I have read. I read it over six months ago yet it seems as clear as if I had read it yesterday and still feel excited about what Trita Parsi has achieved with this book, demonstrating that while the evolution of the relationship between Israel and Iran has had a deeply ideological face, underneath this façade geopolitical factors have been the real drivers and the real causes of their gradual transition from allies to enmity. Again, their current enmity is not founded in the Iranian revolution at the end of the 1970s but the termination of the cold war and the defeat of Iraq in the first Persian Gulf war in the 1990s. Parsi bases his analysis on 130 interviews of senior officials in charge of the foreign policy of the three countries covering the period from the decline of the Shah to the 2006 Lebanon war.

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On Love

In our Thursday evening meditation group at The Bodhi Garden we looked at the chapter on Meditation on Love from Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate. Each chapter in this book has been a revelation to us: McDonald’s simple and clear prose has a depth that can be easily missed. Here is the first paragraph that we looked at in the Thursday group.

Love, also called “loving-kindness,” is wanting others to be happy. It is a natural quality of mind, but until we develop it through meditation and other practices it remains limited, reserved for a few select individuals—usually those we are attached to. Genuine love is universal in scope, extending to everyone, without exception.

Buddhists have for the most part have given up on the word ‘love’ and an inspection of the entry on love Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy shows us why. Even sticking to the philosophical definitions of love we can see extreme confusion, without going anywhere near the ideas of love held by the benighted and unphilosophical.

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Mansfield Park and The Culture Wars

After a hiatus I have posted an article, Everything of Higher Consequence, on my Mansfield Park blog. Here I have brought together some of my thinking on the novel which also intersects with some recent thoughts on what makes progressives and conservatives tick. Given that the two stream of thought originated with the French revolution and Edmund Burke’s reaction to it, and the way that the baby-boomer culture wars have been fought out in Austen criticism (see Conservatives and Progressives) and Barack Obama’s objective to move beyond these culture wars (see about half of the posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog), you can see strong convergence in these seemingly disparate areas covering philosophy and the enlightenment, Jane Austen’s writing and contemporary politics.

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Earthquake Follies

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Talking Philosophy) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

After picking up Peter Singer on his inability to even attempt to address the ‘problem of evil’ seriously I see Julian Baggini has written a similar article on karma in the wake of Sharon Stone’s clumsy remarks. Just as Singer chose a hopelessly weak foil, one that is not known for any mastery of theology to make his point Baggini has chosen Glen Hoddle and Sharon Stone. As I suggested in the earlier article this I think fits a pattern of a particular kind of atheism, the faith system being based on the incompetence of the religious. This can’t be stated too clearly: the object of their faith, the thing to be protected, is the belief in the irrationality, stupidity, confusion, corruption, etc., of religious people. It is a profoundly negative belief system.

The earlier article, Why I am not an Atheist, avoided getting down into the issues themselves as I was convinced that this would trigger a tedious repetition of entrenched positions. Also not being a Christian I didn’t feel it was my place to wade in, but I have since promised to engage the issues and write a blog article, Theism for non-Theists. Here I do get involved with the Buddhist issues and you can consider it a bridge to the promised article, as the misunderstanding of karma and failure to grasp the Christian approach to the ‘problem of evil’ seem have similar underlying causes.

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