black swan

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.─ George Elliot Middlemarch

Filters are important. What people, information, ideas, art, experiences, joy do you let in? For me, it’s a daily struggle not to allow television and other media sources dictate my views and perceptions of the world and other people. Those things have a place, but they shouldn’t be too big of a place. So much of it is garbage. I also struggle not to be overly influenced by past personal experiences (childhood and subsequent). That’s harder for me than tuning out media noise.

I try to keep my eyes and ears and brain open to the new. Sometimes, I think I might be on to something. The idea of anticipatory systems keeps popping up in everything I read and experience. Last night I got deeper into Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein, and read with great interest the early impact that certain philosophers had on his worldview. I stopped and reread this passage twice:

Kant distinguished between two kinds of truths: (1) analytic propositions, which derive from logic and “reason itself” rather than from observing the world; for example, all bachelors are unmarried, two plus two equals four, and the angles of a triangle always add up to 180 degrees; and 2) synthetic propositions, which are based on experience and observations; for example, Munich is bigger than Bern, all swans are white. Synthetic propositions could be revised by new empiracle evidence, but not analytic ones. We may discover a black swan but not a married bachelor or (at least so Kant thought) a triangle with 181 degrees. As Einstein said of Kant’s first category of truths: “This is held to be the case, for example, in the propositions of geometry and in the principle of causality. These and certain other types of knowledge … do not previously have to be gained from sense data, in other words a priori knowledge.”

Later on he changed his mind though, and grew to reject Kant’s rigid distinction between analytic and synthetic truths …

A proposition that seems purely analytic — such as the angles of a triangle adding up to 180 degrees — could turn out to be false in a non-Euclidean geometry or in a curved space (such as would be the case in the general theory of relativity).

This morning, I saw a man on the subway reading a book called The Black Swan and I did a double take wondering to myself “black swan, where’d I hear that one before?” (I had a feeling it was the Einstein book, and I just, moments ago, confirmed that.)

Then, when I got to the office and booted up my compie, the new feedreader I am trying out delivered this Forbes.com article into my world: You Can’t Predict Who Will Change the World, written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the black swan book. An excerpt:

We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past–but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future.

The current discourse in economics, for example, is antiquated. American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows us to capture the randomness of the environment–the cheap Black Swans. This works not just because of competition, and even less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith nor those of Karl Marx seem to be conscious of the prevalence and effect of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style cause-and-effect, and cannot accept that skills and payoffs may have nothing to do with one another.

Ah yes, more shit talking the cartesian bias and celebration of randomness. I’m not going to buy the book, because between Freakonomics and Blink and all the others, I’ve already read it fifty times at this point. We get it guys: life is nutty and unpredictable. That’s also what makes it so fun. And I have a hunch that, pretty soon, we will start valuing human intuition too, and those who know how to see what is and what will be. The kind of stuff that financial models and recommendation technologies cannot pick up. The ultimate human filters …

“Truth is the vision closed eyes see.” — Octavio Paz

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