The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is a fantastic, eye-opening book that will challenge not only what you know but also what you think you know. Taleb is widely renowned as the guy who made beaucoup amounts of money off of the 1987 stock market crash. He profited not by predicting the crash would happen, but that the system would eventually produce a “black swan” event that would make options insanely profitable.

Recommendation — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (or “NNT” as I like to refer to him) opened my eyes with this book. Any book that can blow open your understanding of the world is a must-read — and this is one of those books. The role that randomness and unpredictability play in our lives is completely under-appreciated, when it is acknowledged at all. Just one attempt at appreciation I’ve made can be found in my post “But For,” which is an attempt to string together a series of unplanned events that have cumulatively had an enormous impact on my life.

Going forward, I want to garner a greater appreciation for power law, stochasticity, black swan events, and living in “Extremistan.” On my immediate reading list are related books: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Stumbling on Happiness and The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. I’ve yet to order it, but NNT’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, is also on my list.

I’ve become a bit of a Nassim Taleb junkie and typically link down stuff he puts out (videos, articles, posts to his low-tech blog “Opacity,” etc.).

Review — Rather than recant what others have said better, I’ll selectively quote a thorough and informative review of the book from Amazon:

The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist – all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront “the problem of induction,” illustrated here by the story of the black swan.

Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement “all swans are white.” There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our “knowledge” of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness.

Taleb explains that conventional social scientists use induction to collect data, which is then plotted on the good old Gaussian bellcurve. With characteristic silliness, Taleb dubs the land of the bellcurve “Mediocristan” – and informs us that it is the natural habitat of the white swan. He contrasts Mediocristan with “Extremistan” – where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the bellcurve does not. Taleb’s fictional/metaphorical ‘stans’ share something with the ‘stans’ of the real world: very ill-defined borders. Indeed, one can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless tribal regions of Extremistan. The bellcurve can only help you in Mediocristan, but you have no way of knowing whether you have strayed into Extremistan – beyond the bellcurve’s jurisdiction. This means that bellcurves are of no reliable use, anywhere. The full implications of this take a while to sink in, and are sure to cause huge controversy. In July, Taleb will debate Charles Murray (author of -what else?- the Bell Curve). I’ll let you know who wins.

Control Theory by William Glasser

Control Theory by William Glasser

William Glasser’s 1985 book Control Theory is subtitled “A New Explanation of How We Control Our Lives.” This review covers many components of the book, which makes it fairly long. In short, Control Theory is an excellent read that I heartily recommend.

Control Theory details a framework for understanding how humans choose behaviors to assert control over the world. These behaviors include depressing, angering, phobicking, etc. Glasser reframes all feelings as behaviors that you choose. As such, individuals go from being something to doing something.

This is expressed right out the gate in the Author’s Note:

Much of this book is concerned with the behaviors we choose as we attempt to control our lives. As I will explain in great detail, all behavior is made up of three* components: what we do, what we think, and what we feel. Doing and thinking are always expressed as verbs, like running or meditating, but feelings are usually expressed as adjectives, like depressed, or nouns, like depression. . . .

To say the man is depressed would be to infer that the depression happened to him. What I will explain in this book is that it is a behavior he is choosing in order to deal with the difficulty of losing his job. To describe accurately what this man is feeling as a behavior and also be grammatically correct, I would have to say that he is depressing or choosing to depress.

When feelings turn into things we do — Though you might be inclined to write-off talking about feelings like “anxiety” as “anxieting,” having read Glasser’s work and reflected on my own behaviors I think he is really on to something. The telltale sign of a good idea is it’s usefulness, and it has become incredibly useful to view my own behaviors and those of friends and family from the perspective of control theory.

For example, when a friend starts depressing about their job, he is actually trying to control a situation where he has lost control. Through depressing he can exact behavioral change — i.e. people react to his depressing by trying to cheer him up. Of in the case of someone who could effect change in the friend’s job, reorganize the workflow. Via depressing the friend can take back some control.

Awareness of how we work to exert control is paramount. Being aware of how I can use painful emotional behaviors (like depressing) to re-exert control makes me more aware that I could choose other, more productive behaviors. Rather than depressing to control, I can go play a sport, read a book, or do some chores. I may not want to do something more productive — sometimes its very clear to me that I just want to depress/anger/whatever — but since it is very difficult to change my feelings or think my way out of an out-of-control situation, at least by doing something productive I can improve my situation.

Control theory does not mean that all misery is chosen. In the short term, our reaction to losing control is usually some form of painful emotion. It’s the longer-term reaction whereby we either choose to emote our way back into control, which is almost always counterproductive, emotionally painful, or a waste of energy, or we do something which may change our feelings, buy us time or improve our situation, snapping us back into control of our lives.

Pictures in our heads — Glasser explains that humans convert experience into mental “pictures” that we file away in our memory for future reference. For example, a chocolate-chip cookie satisfies a baby’s hunger for something sweet. Chapter 3, The Pictures in our Heads notes:

This means that we store in our personal picture albums the pictures of anything in the world that we believe will satisfy one or more of our basic needs. For the rest of his life, when that baby gets hungry, he will start turning the food apges of his album. Many times, when he comes to the pictures of chocolate-chip cookies, he will say to himself, “That’s what I want right now,” and he’ll try to find a chocolate-chip cookie in the real world. . . . With a little thought, it will become apparent that your personal picture album is the specific motivation for all you attempt to do with your life.

And later:

It is not easy to change our own pictures, but it is even more difficult to persuade others to change theirs. To change a picture, we have to replace it with another that, if not equally satisfying to the need in question, is at least reasonably satisfying. This can be done only through negotiation and compromise; force will not work.

We behave to satisfy the pictures in our heads. It’s a simple truth that has some profound implications, particularly with regard to relationships. In particular, Glasser discusses how relationships that succeed are those where the friends, family or lovers have enough common pictures to share. In a situation like a marriage (or with parents or children), it is paramount to the ongoing success of the relationship to share common pictures.

Sometimes one person may have a picture that is irreconcilable with the picture of their significant other. Compromise and negotiation are key in these situations. What more, the couple should work towards finding ever more pictures that both can share with each other. Success in relationships is dependent on sharing mutually satisfying pictures (This doesn’t mean all the pictures have to be the same).

The process of creative reorganization — Another great concept that Glasser describes in Control Theory is that of “creative reorganization,” which is a process by which our minds attempt find usable ideas and behaviors. In Chapter 10, Creativity and Reorganization, Glasser writes:

The behavioral system is a two-part system. One part contains our familiar organized behaviors; the other part, which is the source of our creativity, contains the building blocks of all behaviors in a constant state of reorganization. By themselves these building blocks could not be recognized as discrete actions, thoughts, or feelings; but as they reorganize, they may become recognizable and usable. . . .

As active as this process is, we may have little or no awareness that it is going on. . . .

From this bubbling, ongoing creative reorganization comes a random stream of mostly minimal but occasionally well-organized new behaviors that are available to us to try if (1) we pay attention to them and (2) we decide that those two which we pay attention may help us gain or regain control over our lives.

Glasser importantly notes that creative reorganization often produces junk ideas. It’s up to us to sort out the good ideas from the bad.

Creative reorganization hits on an idea that is so pervasive in life and success that I have to mention it here: it is that the best ideas, businesses and, well, things emerge from massively iterative processes. They survive by being most fit and useful. Look at markets, biology, ideas, blogs, products, etc. And most of the time, these things aren’t planned in advance — they emerge out of the ether — the random iterations of life. Robust, dynamic and successful systems provide for huge volumes of iterations.

Other useful clippings — While reading the book, I typed up some more insightful quotes.

From Chapter 17, Taking Control of Your Life:

In an effort to deny what they really want, people like Susan often sigh and say, “What’s the difference what I want? I’ll never get it.” But her sighs and depressing are still her way of choosing to suffer to try to get what she denies she wants. From the standpoint of the pain she chooses, it makes no difference if she is aware of what she wants or not. If we don’t have what we want, we will choose to anger or suffer just the same. Once you know control theory, you will not waste your time and energy refusing to face what you want just because it is hard to get, because you know that you will choose to suffer just the same.

Chapter 18 Control Theory and Raising Children:

Try as hard as possible to teach, show, and help your children to gain effective control of their lives.

I was remarking yesterday about extending the above quote on child-rearing to managing employees. A powerful manager empowers employees to improved responsibility and control over their job. The opposite is also true: the manager who strips control from employees will have miserable employees who essentially do very little productive work.

Conclusion — Glasser discusses control theory as it pertains to drugs and alcohol, child-rearing, health and more. This idea-packed, paradigm-shifting book weighs in at a paltry 236 pages. It is out of print, but as you can see there are some 70+ copies at Amazon. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

Glasser discusses towards the end of Control Theory a book he wrote in 1976 titled Positive Addiction. Glasser describes Positive Addiction as an activity where, while in a state of control, you achieve a period of creative reorganization. The example of positive addiction he describes is running. Running allows for a period of “in-control time” (Something we all need every day) and can take the runner into a meditative state of creativity. Because creative states have the potential to produce unpredictably good ideas via the iterative process, finding and pursuing positive addictions could be incredibly beneficial. Since I’m no runner, I’d like to discover what other activities might qualify. I might need to pick up this book, too.

Finally, hat tip to Dr. Michael Eades for alerting me to this great book.

*Glasser actually writes about a fourth component of behavior, the physiological response (i.e. the way our bodies react to a stimulus — usually a reaction we cannot control).

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

It took me a shamefully long time to complete A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson — multiple months, in which I even put it down for long periods of time and read other books (For shame!).

The book is a monstrous undertaking that serves as an overview of all time (going back to the Big Bang and advancing to the present), covering all areas of science in the process.

Though an educational read, the book can drag on at times. One unexpected gem Bryson embeds in this book is in his ability to depict the discoverers and scientists as flawed, sometimes eccentric, often under-(if at all)-appreciated human beings. On one level, it is empowering to realize what amazing discoveries were made by self-taught, self-made scientists. Nowadays, it seems you have to go to school for half your life to study a subject and maybe publish a paper that is important outside the narrow niche of your own subject. This hasn’t always been the case, and Bryson illustrates that truth wonderfully.

This idea is what stuck with me the most. Degrees don’t make for original thought or observation. In conjunction with having read Gary Taubes’ Good Calories Bad Calories, I’m reminded that scientists can often get so caught up within their narrow focus that they fail to string together bigger ideas. We’d do well to remember that discovery, observation and original thinking springs from following our own interests even as we don’t know where they’ll lead and even if they are obscure and boring to most everyone else!

Future Imperfect by David D. Friedman

Future Imperfect by David D. Friedman

Plowed through Future Imperfect by David D. Friedman during my last week in India. David Friedman is a legal scholar, economist, anarchist and cook, who happens to the be son of the late, great Milton Friedman. I’ve previously read DDF’s Machinery of Freedom and Law’s Order. I also subscribe to DDF’s blog, the blandly titled Ideas. Future Imperfect is an overview of a slew of emerging technologies that could drastically change (or already are changing) our lives. From bio-tech, cloning, nano-tech and life extension to encryption, virtual reality and even space elevators, Friedman covers a lot of ground.

It’s a fun read that is actually available for free as an ebook (by download) compliments of DDF. You’ll have to find the link though as I bought the book. I’m old school like that I guess.

A fun, exciting, and sometimes troubling read into any number of possible futures for humanity, I heartily recommend Future Imperfect. I also recommend Friedman’s other non-fiction works (Harald wasn’t my cup of tea) as they are all eye-opening, paradigm-shifting and excellent.

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Read The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (UHG2G) by Douglas Adams while abroad for three weeks in India.

The UHG2G is five books by Adams all follow our human protagonist Arthur Dent along his adventures with Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and other fun characters (like Wonko the Sane) as they travel around the universe in seemingly impossible improbable (I.e. via the Improbability Drive powered spaceship) ways.

The book is a science-fiction classic with a cult-like following. I remember all my nerdy peers reading it in middle school. Somehow I managed to miss it then. I’m finally catching up a full lifetime (as I was 14 then) later.

The UHG2G was a great book to take with my on vacation as its dense, humorous, adventurous and sort of about traveling. Even as absurd as the situations are within the various books in the UHG2G, Adams has a great way of storytelling that prods the imagination in wonderful ways. I have to recommend it for nothing other than its unavoidable connection to all other science-fiction and its dry, ridiculous humor.

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey by Chuck Palahniuk

Just read my third Chuck Palahniuk book Rant, which is an “oral biography” of a rabies-infected, super-messiah named Buster Casey (nicknamed “Rant”) who lives in a dystopic future where people plug-in to “boost peaks” (like watching a movie for all the senses), something that reminded me of The Matrix. In this dystopia there is a cultural dichotomy of “Daytimers” and “Nighttimers” that has been established to help deal with overpopulation — both groups coexist in the same space but never together (i.e. night and day). For fun nighttimers go “party crashing” whereby they tag other party crashers cars by bumping into them. A whole culture emerges out of this game.

A repeat theme of Rant from other Palahniuk books is rebellion against the self-imposed quarantining and numbing of humanity. Like in Fight Club, there’s this sense of despair over the loss of experiencing anything real. Crashing cars into each other de-isolates us. Self-inflicting spider bites (And other nasty critter bites) makes us feel alive even as we experience the pain. “Boosted peaks,” which are akin to heightened vicarious life-experiences as “produced” by others, are fought by the protagonist Rant as he spreads rabies (he may or may not be doing this intentionally). Rabies seems to inhibit anyone from boosting peaks.

All of the themes presented in Rant seem pertinent to our modern angst-ridden times. Palahniuk is a unique writer even as his characters seem a bit too similar at times (similar in their extreme strangeness perhaps), and sometimes his writing makes me feel downright dirty. Regardless, I’ve enjoyed everything of his I’ve read thus far.

A note on the book’s style — it is written as though you are hearing the various characters talk to you about Rant, their experiences with him, Party Crashing, etc. I enjoyed this style as it had a nice pacing and it made for an interesting, if not somewhat jarbled, storyline. Overall, even at only 300 pages, there is a lot that happens (and a lot to absorb), making Rant one of those books I could easily find myself rereading one day.

I definitely recommend it. And I hear Palahniuk plans to write two more installments that deal with Buster “Rant” Casey in the next two or three years. I look forward to them.


My brother-in-law, Michael Van Cise, who turned me onto Rant had this to say about the book:

In Rant, Chuck Palahniuk takes the reader on a wild ride where it’s difficult to separate reality from fiction. The title character, Rant Casey, intentionally infects himself with the venom of poisonous spiders, snake venom, and the rabies virus. Because he’s a sort of hybrid being/super-human (or at least a supercarrier of disease) he can survive the toxins and disease and uses the side-effects of the disease or toxin to his advantage. Specifically, spider venom gives him sustained erections and the rabies virus takes away his ability to “boost” (an escape undergone by characters in the book via a port located at the back of their necks through which they boost transcripts of things others have recorded), which enables him to achieve the mental state necessary to travel through time. The book could be categorized as science fiction given the ports as well as the fact that urban society is divided into daytimers and nighttimers. As with Fight Club and Choke, Chuck Palahniuk introduces medical knowledge and other factual information which is stimilating, whether or not its true (and I have not tried to verify the facts, medical or historical, though I assume some are created/fictional and others are actual). If you like Fight Club, you’ll enjoy Rant. There are revelation moments in the storyline of Rant just as in Fight Club. The story builds on itself, tidbits of information being released to the reader through various characters though things are more unresolved at the end of Rant than in Fight Club.

I’ll also note that Michael mentioned liking this book best amongst the three or four (?) Palahniuk books he’s read, which include Fight Club, Diary, and Choke. I happen to agree though I will never be able to say what a virgin reading experience of Fight Club would be as, like most people, I saw the movie first.

Update 2 (Today is Feb 21): More from Michael:

I was listening to NPR ( this morning and heard Garrison Keillor and his “Writer’s Almanac.” Today is Chuck Palahniuk’s birthday.

First, it appears I’ve been pronouncing his name wrong. Keillor pronounced it “puh LAH nik” (rhymes with “colonic”), as opposed to how I was saying it, like PAUL- uh- nick.

Apparently Chuck’s first novel, “Little Monsters” was rejected by publishers as being too crude (imagine that!). He had the idea for fight club after being in a fight, returning to work and having people pretend like they didn’t see him.

You can find the transcript of Keillor’s bit at [Y]ou can listen to it by clicking here.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Just finished Starship Troopers, which I was first introduced to a number of years ago by the movie of the same name. Suffice to say that the movie is quite different from the book; however, I don’t think having seen the movie detracts from the book — probably because the book is much more cerebral than the battle-focused movie.

This was my third Heinlein read. My favorite thus far is still The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I’m sure I’ll still be reading more of his stuff.

One aspect of ST that I enjoyed was the picture of a world where government is controlled by individuals who are selected for via a grueling process of elimination. I’ve often remarked that the only individuals who’d make good politicians are those who did not want to be politicians. Said differently, anyone who desires to be a politician, wishing to control others, is the very sort of person I do not want to be a politician!

Heinlein solves this problem by creating a society that only allows the military to vote. In this society, those who make it into the military are all volunteers and are held to incredibly high standards where it appears the slightest mistake can be punished by flogging or even death.

It’s an interesting solution — one worthy of some thought. It’s also seemingly at odds with libertarian ideals (which are put forth subtly in TMIAHM). However, Heinlein’s solution is provocative.

Other ideas in ST include the nature of man and the nature of morality. Having recently read Speaker for the Dead, it’s challenging to conceptualize right/wrong with regards to race when there are multiple races throughout the universe. Is it “us” (humanity) or “them” (some other alien race)?

For such a short book (about 275 pages), Starship Troopers packs a lot of punch. I recommend reading it.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt

Just finished reading Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt. I originally heard about this book via NPR and was curious enough to add it to my Amazon wish list. I’ve blogged on traffic/driving before. See autodogmatic:

Two of the above blog posts referred to studies that are mentioned in Traffic. “Anarchy” is frequently alluded to by Vanderbilt, as well, even as it is disclaimed — likely because Vanderbilt is using “anarchy” to mean chaotic rather than anarchy-as-spontaneous-order. The latter understanding (that anarchy-as-spontaneous-order reigns on the roads) is hard to ignore.

Rather than rewrite my own review, I’ll echo one of the top-reviews on amazon:

While the topic of the book is nominally “traffic”, the real topic is about human psychology and how it deals with the situations involving traffic. The material is chock full of “things that make you go, ‘hmm.'”

In spite of being intriguing, the information the author conveys is rarely useful information. The reader will likely be left unmoved by the author’s reasoned advocacy of late merging, for instance. Similarly, the style of writing feels like that of a news or talk show, where the announcer/host will “tease” an interesting bit of info, run a commercial, discuss things about which you don’t care, run another commercial, and then, in the last 2 minutes of air time, give you the anticlimactic answer to the story headline you found interesting enough to make you sit and watch.

Unfortunately, most of the book is like this, and the cool things that the author has to say are just that. Cool, but not quite meriting a book. Of the book’s 400 pages, nearly 100 are end notes. I am happy that the author’s work is well-sourced (books of this genre often lack sources, preferring to rely on anecdotes), but it conveys how the author had to work fairly hard to turn a very large set of disjointed facts into any sort of readable narrative.

The book wasn’t as gripping or insightful as I was hoping it would be. It wasn’t bad — just not a fun read. I think it could have been condensed to only 200 pages max (it was 286 readable — probably another 100 of biblio). One tidbit I learned that I’ll share is that people have historically gravitated to an average commute time of about 30 minutes. This time has made for different city sizes from days when people walked everywhere and cities typically had no larger than a five mile diameter to modern days when people drive many miles into and out of a city on their daily commute via fast-paced highways.

Interesting trivia, for sure — good reading? Ehhhh …

Demian by Herman Hesse

Demian by Herman Hesse

Just read Demian by Herman Hesse (buy at amazon). The book is a fictional first-person account of a German youth named Sinclair who is going through a period of awakening/enlightenment, working through issues of good and evil, at the hands of certain mentors (Max Demian throughout, Demian’s mom ultimately).

The book is about 170 pages. It has a mysterious quality to it, and I imagine there are some underlying ideas that I completely missed. The big takeaway to me was that there are those people who examine their lives, live with a self-driven purpose and exist apart from the “herd” and then there’s everyone else. Demian, Sinclair, et. al. seek their own purpose, which is a higher road than the herd. As for tangible philosophical ideas, the book came up short for me. Wasn’t an unpleasant read even still, but then again, if you’re a pretty individualistic person, you’ll find you agree with the general premise of this book — so what’s not to like?

Probably a good read for a 16 year old struggling with the idiocy of high school popularity contests.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Started this book on my flight back from India to the States. It’s not a long read, but it took me awhile to plow through it. I think it’d be a fun book to read for a young kid, but as an adult, it just seemed dated and a bit too “aw shucks” to me (There are a lot of old fifties-ish expressions in the book).

One aspect of this book I enjoyed was that it did paint a nice picture of a time (October/fall/Halloween) and a place (small town).

Definitely no Fahrenheit 451. Get it for your kids (if you have any looking for a fun Halloween-ish book to read).