The Black Swan

I recently read “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand, and I just have to say, it’s been a while since I’ve read a piece of literature as philosophically thought-provoking. I am not really here to write a book review on it. Knowing that i have to report on a book or a movie I have just read or seen takes the fun out of the whole experience.



The reason I write this is because I feel like I have to give back. A good piece of literature was introduced to me and now I want to share a book that I have enjoyed, and I know you will love. The Black Swan is a book about the impact of things which are unlikely. What has no evidence cannot easily be discarded. It has a lot of economics and philosophy. Let me just cite a few quotations from the book, “The Black Swan” and “AntiFragile” both by Nicholas Taleb (I am in love with your mind Nicholas). Here are a few (or maybe more than a few) excerpts from “The Black Swan”:

Everyone has an idea of utopia. For many it means equality, universal justice, freedom from oppression, freedom from work (for some it may be the more modest, though no more attainable, society with commuter trains free of lawyers on cellphones). To me utopia is an epistemocracy, a society in which anyone of rank is an epistemocrat, and where epistemocrats manage to be elected. It would be a society governed from the basis of the awareness of ignorance, not knowledge.

This small blind spot has other manifestations. Go to the primate section of the Bronx Zoo where you can see our close relatives in a happy primate family leading their own busy social lives. You can also see masses of tourists laughing at the caricature of humans that the lower primates represent. Now imagine being a member of a higher-level species (say a “real” philosopher, a truly wise person), far more sophisticated than the human primates. You would certainly laugh at the people laughing at the nonhuman primates. Clearly, to those people amused by the apes, the idea of a being who would look down on them the way they look down on the apes cannot immediately come to their minds – if it did, it would elicit self-pity. They would stop laughing.

Maximize the serendipity around you.

Snub your destiny. I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking.

From “AntiFragile”:

In Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius.

So the central tenet of the epistemology I advocate is as follows: we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right, or, phrased according to the fragile/robust classification, negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works). So knowledge grows by subtraction much more than by addition – given that what we know today might turn out to be wrong but what we know to be wrong cannot turn out to be right, at least not easily.

It is quite perplexing that those from whom we have benefited the most aren’t those who have tried to help us (say with “advice”) but rather those who have actively tried – but eventually failed – to harm us.

In fact, the most interesting aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder – while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness.

Let us look at how evolution benefits from randomness and volatility (in some dose, of course). The more noise and disturbances in the system, up to a point, barring those extreme shocks that lead to extinction of a species, the more the effect of the reproduction of the fittest and that of random mutations will play a role in defining the properties of the next generation.

Further, you will never get to know yourself – your real preferences – unless you face options and choices. Recall that the volatility of life helps provide information to us about others, but also about ourselves. Plenty of people are poor against their initial wish and only become robust by spinning a story that it was their choice to be poor – as if they had the option. Some are genuine; many don’t really have the option – they constructed it. Sour grapes – as in Aesop’s fable – is when someone convinces himself that the grapes he cannot reach are sour.


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