Tuesday, August 21, 2007

The List - it lives, it lives!

One more addition to the list:

Summaries (Or "Examples of Lazy Blogging")

It's been a busy time for me, so my readings have all been "catch as catch can". As usual, that means I've not done a particularly good job of noting my impressions and reactions. Hopefully I can dredge them up as I write this - otherwise this post'll be more of a note taking session than anything.

In keeping with that jar it loose as I go approach, I'll start with an overview of the chapters I've read - hopefully I can return later to backfill any areas I don't do justice (of course, we all know how well I follow up on that sort of resolution).

The prologue, aside from introducing we readers to Nassim's voice and some of his attitudes towards formality, prepares readers to look skeptically at certain kinds of knowledge and some of the assumptions that come from the sorts of learning that I've been most used to. In retrospect, I wonder if some of his overweening sense of self-superiority isn't actually a calculated teaching tool - a way of providing readers with a sort of security blanket in the form of a (hopefully) temporary authority to cling to as they begin scrutinizing authorities they've formerly trusted. But there I go, trying to rehabilitate the voice of the author before I've even finished the book. Time, and a couple hundred more pages, will tell.

There is one specific key point he makes in the prologue: he introduces his use of the term Platonicity to describe
our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defined "forms," whether objects ... or social notions

Chapter One.
In which we learn how our hero came to commit his genius to studying this most valuable and esoteric field. In all seriousness, this chapter's interesting in a few ways. Nassim's wasn't joking when he said he'd attack the narrative arts using narration. He introduces readers to his views and interests by walking us through a brief summary -- almost (dare I call it?) an executive summary of his young adult years as they pertain to his "Black Swan" analogy. It's a reasonable device to use, but one that I'll want to talk about a bit later.

I suspect a rhetor would notate the hell out of this chapter - without the benefit of such a background, all I can but point out that Nassim uses this narration to cement his conspiratorial rapport with his readers -- establishing both a "street cred" with his alleged assault on a police office (nudge, nudge) and a more traditional set of credentials when he introduces us to his grandfather who alternatively held roles as Lebanon's minister of defense, minister of the interior, and deputy prime minister (although, I feel it's only fair to point out that I've proudly touted my own family's previous involvement in a small country's past governance - I suppose this is what hypocrisy feels like).

At the same time, Nassim makes some interesting observations and reveals something of his personal priorities and values. He has some historical observations about Lebanon that I found engaging in and of themselves. As a product of a Greek Orthodox family, I found it notable that he had some fairly critical things to say about the assumptions held by many Lebanese Christians about their centrality to the Lebanese nation. He also casts a jaded eye on the very concept of Lebanon as a nation - insisting to use the term Levant and its derivatives (a conceit that provided me a little chuckle when I considered it in the context of his jibes against the French - is he having a little fun at his own expense, there? I'd like to think so)

His narration begins poking at the human proclivity for narration towards the end of the chapter, when he talks about his youthful discovery of William Shirer's Berlin Diary: Journal of a Foreign Correspondent. At this point, he talks about how diaries (even those edited after the fact) point out the weakness of our desire to believe we understand the past as manifested in our habit of building stories out of those facts that best reinforce our particular view of what happened. This is an observation that's particularly potent to me, as I'm guilty of constructing self-reinforcing and aggrandizing narratives of my own past AND I've had an intimate view on the sort of jarring experience that a person can have when they come back years after the fact to revisit their journal entries on an event that was particularly central to their views of themselves. This plays well into Nassim's favorite neologism (platonicity). To extend on his map analogy, a journal is analogous to a travelogue whereas a history is more of a map - both are descriptions of territory, but a journal doesn't purport to have a whole understanding of the historical landscape it's author is exploring.

He wraps the chapter up with a brief description of how he parlayed an early sense that the only predictable characteristic of the past is its unpredictability into a chance at real freedom. His concept of the stuff that makes up true freedom is surprisingly similar to Virginia Woolf's, but it seems characteristic that Nassim's version of Woolf's "500 pounds a year and a room of one's one" is "fuck you money".

Chapter Two
is basically a brief tale that I believe Nassim spins more to show the ways that people fool themselves into believing the past was inevitable and (by extension) predictable.

Chapter Three
gets a bit more interesting. Nassim frames it largely as a description of opportunity. He talks about advice he once received (and took to heart) that it would be best to choose work that is scalable - meaning that the pay scale isn't tied to the scale of effort or any other physically limiting factor. He (and probably most white color workers) found this eminently reasonable. After all, why lock yourself into having to do more work to make more money, when people will keep paying you for work you've already done or will pay you extra for work you had to do anyway?

Interestingly enough, he argues against the wisdom of this view. He points out that scalable work tends to only work out well for a small percentage of people - you end up with a couple of giants in a land of pixies. He digs into the entertainment industry to further illustrate the point - as film has occluded theater, a handful of superstars make lots of money; but the local theaters struggle even more than they used to and noone can make a living as a local actor. The big winners take it all. He argues that security can only be found in the nonscalable work - if you HAVE to be their and exerting effort for the work to get done, you're more likely to be able to find paying work even if you're not at the peak of the industry in question. Not that Nassim's getting all Marxist on us - he seems, at this point, to be simply describing what is rather than prescribing a solution.

Chapter 4
Here we've got a description and history of Hume's problem, including some noteworthy comparisons between the development of ancient Arab and European takes on the matter.

So far much of what Nassim's put forth is fairly self-evident, but he has some interesting ways of looking at it (not, perhaps, as interesting as he thinks they are, but maybe he's got a trick or two up his sleeve). I'm still quite curious about where he's going with this. Stay logged in -- I'll have more to say on these chapters as time permits.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Reading List, redacted

Thankfully, reading lists don't shrink - they grow! After my Boston trip, I've got some additions. Here's the full list, at this point:
Don't hold me to that particular ordering.

As promised

Let me start by saying that Nassim Taleb is an utter ass. He places high value on his own intellect and seemingly no value on the feelings of those he encounters. He is, however, both reflective and interesting. I'm intrigued by many of his observations.

He begins his prologue with some self-protection that's understandable from an academic writing such a piece. He frames his work as an essay of personal narration, stating baldly that he intends to attack the "narrative disciplines" using their own tools. While so doing, he equivales densely citing texts that support your thesis with selectively providing only that evidence which reflects well on your paper - labeling both, naive empiricism.

Here's a quote of his that, to me, represents many of the tradeoff's in Taleb's message:
... certain professionals, while believing they are experts, are in fact not. Based on their empirical records, they do not know more about their subject matter than the general population, but they are much better @narration -- or, worse, at smoking you with complicated mathematical models. They are also more likely to wear a tie

He regularly takes an almost gleeful delight in crafting his often insightful observations into polemic insults. In so doing, he tempts the reader to join in his sense of superiority - after all, he's let us readers in on the joke with him. Yet he manages to continue to provide enough food for thought to keep my curiosity at war with the cold feeling this assumed complicity conjures in the pit of my stomach. I'm glad to have picked up this book - it promises to raise some worthwhile questions!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Epistemological Ornithology

Since it appears that some people are actually checking this blog from time to time, I just thought I'd say this:
No, I'm not dead
As anyone who's checked out my latest travelogue will know, I've been busy. I haven't however, stopped my reading project. I'm largely through the Gore book, but I've recently misplaced my copy (huge surprise for anyone who knows me). Given that, I've moved on to the next book in the list, "The Black Swan", which is already proving thought provoking. I'm working on my initial post, but some hardware woes limit the personal time I've got online, this week.

More to come!