Career Advice – Borrowing Wise Words from a Sailing Hacker

On researching SSL-related hacks, I have stumbled upon the website of notable security researcher Moxie Marlinspike.

Marlinspike is also a sailor and working on diverse projects, such as Audio Anarchy – a project for transcribing anarchist books into audio format. On his About page he says:

I like computer security and software development, particularly in the areas of secure protocols, cryptography, privacy, and anonymity. But I also secretly hate technology, am partially horrified with the direction “geek” culture has gone.

and

In general, I hope to contribute to a world where we value skills and relationships over careers and money, where we know better than to trust cops or politicians, and where we’re passionate about building and creating things in a self-motivated and self-directed way.

I call myself Subversive El(k)ement, Security Consultant, Search Term Poet, and Luddite in Disguise … how could I not relate

So it was not a surprise that I found myself in total agreement with his career advice.

Moxie’s post starts with

What I want to say, more often than not, is something along the lines of don’t do it;

This is reminiscent of Via Negativa I learned about from Nassim Taleb’s writings. I have also  found it more helpful to state what I don’t like instead of phrasing so-called SMART goals. When planning positively you try to target a small point in the vast space of options – likely to be missed – in contrast to the negative approach of avoiding a subset of options and keeping a considerable part of them in reach.

From the famous Stanford Prison experiment Moxie draws a simpler lesson as an individual – and it seems more palpable to me than that grand discussions about morals and free will:

 … just be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.

You should look at the people working in a certain environment or industry sector and think twice if you want to become like them. This is not self-evident: At times I was dead set to break into a world whose representatives were anti-role-models – but of course I wanted to revolutionize the whole sector. Finally I have found out that it is more rewarding to go where the people are to whom you can relate with.

Moxie talks about choices we all make, and how the first of those, early in our careers, are defined by supporting structures like family, school, or university:

When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that constitute our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.

It is silly to attempt at rushing through our lives, taking conscious decisions as early as possible and trying to cast your perfect CV in stone, as

There’s no rush to get started early on a never-ending task.

Moxie concludes that in relation to the inquiries about career advice, he is:

… likely to respond with something like “if I were you, I’d hitchhike to Alaska this summer instead.”

He advocates

… doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to prevent starvation, and then doing something that’s not about money, completely outside of supporting structures, and not simply a matter of “consuming experience”

I can anticipate objections, and you can also find them in the comments on his Moxie’s post. How to pay the bills? How to feed the kids?

Actually I have re-written this post several times because of this – but, alas, I will not be able to avoid all ambiguity. All I want to say is that Moxie’s post struck a chord with me. Though targeted to students it is this classical advice to the younger self that exactly that self might not like. It took me ~20 years to come to that conclusion and act accordingly.

I think the primary target group of articles like this are people who arguably have choices but don’t use them – people who err on the side of caution. I don’t want to downplay the predicament of the single mum working two jobs but rather speak to the unhappy Head Chief Architect Officer of Something Sounding Really Impressive But Actually Doing Unnerving Grunt Work That Just Happens To Be Extremely Well Paid.

I am also not at all trying to evangelize among those who wholeheartedly enjoy their stressful jobs. There is this subtle dance of intriguing yet stressful work and inspiration that makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The big caveat here is that you need to find out on your own what exactly stresses you out in a fatal way – and this is not necessarily straight-forward. It is to be experienced, not to be determined by theorizing.

Based on my experience, anecdotal as it is, I dare hypothesize that there is an impressive percentage of respected middle-class corporate employees who do ponder about an alternative life as that iconic free sailor. My job role had been that of a technical consultant ever since but I had become more of a project psychologist at times. I was to hear surprising confessions – after we had left the formalities of the professional negotiations behind and people started philosophizing over coffee.

Generally speaking, I believe that most of us living in stable democracies are freer than we think. I am saying this as the inhabitant of a country whose primary mentality is not exactly shaped by entrepreneurial spirit and daring. I know how the collective submission to alleged obligations work.

As for using kids as a main counter-argument to a ‘free’ life-style, I was reminded of that most recent controversy about adventurous parents living and rising their kids on boats. – an impossible life for most people. Considering their life-styles too risky gives proof of how warped our sense of risks and probabilities is, and how over-valued spectacular risks of The Uncommon are in comparison to the dull, but near certain health risks of the accepted, sedentary living in a modern civilization.

We do make choices all the way, and be it just choosing the life expected from us by those supporting structures. When we are grown up we don’t have much excuses for not taking accountability – and this does not at all mean a perfectly streamlined career plan.

Quoting Moxie again:

Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.

The best advice is not to follow any advice (incl. this one), question everything, and decide for yourself.

Still from Kon-Tiki movie

From a documentary about Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia) – not sure if it is the new movie.

This post will be filed under Life – a collection that recently struck me as much too serious and solemn.

In any case – if that happened again, I would just like everybody to know that I have never been happier; and I am weighing my words carefully.

Fragile Technology? (Confessions of a Luddite Disguised as Tech Enthusiast)

I warn you – I am in the mood for random long-winded philosophical ramblings.

As announced I have graduated recently again, denying cap-and-gown costume as I detest artificial Astroturf traditions such as re-importing academic rituals from the USA to Europe. A Subversive El(k)ement fond of uniforms would not be worth the name.

However, other than that I realize that I have probably turned into a technophobe luddite with a penchant for ancestral traditions.

Long-term followers might know what I am heading at again as I could only have borrowed a word as ancestral from Nassim N. Taleb. I have re-read Taleb’s The Black Swan and Antifragile. The most inspirational books are those that provide you with words and a framework to re-phrase what you already know:

Authors theorize about some ancestry of my ideas, as if people read books then developed ideas, not wondering whether perhaps it is the other way around; people look for books that support their mental program. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3405-3406.

I have covered Antifragile at length in an earlier article. In a nutshell, antifragility is the opposite of fragility. This definition goes beyond robustness – it is about systems gaining from volatility and disorder. I will not be able to do this book justice in a blog post, not even a long one. Taleb’s speciality is tying his subject matter expertise (in many fields) to personal anecdotes and convictions (in many fields) – which is why some readers adore his books and others call them unscientific.

I am in the former camp as hardly any other author takes consistency of personal biography and professional occupation and writing that far. I was most intrigued by the notion Skin in the Game which is about being held accountable 100%, about practicing what you preach.

I eat my own cooking. I have only written, in every line I have composed in my professional life, about things I have done, and the risks I have recommended that others take or avoid were risks I have been taking or avoiding myself. I will be the first to be hurt if I am wrong. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 631-633

Taleb has the deepest respect for small business owners and artisans – and so do I. He is less kind to university professors, particularly those specialized in economics and employed managers, particularly those of banks.

Some of Taleb’s ideas appear simple (to comprehend, not necessarily to put into practice), often of the What my grandmother told me variety – which he does not deny. But he can make a nerd like me wonder if some things are probably – simply that simple. In case you are not convinced he also publishes scientific papers loaded with math jargon. Taleb mischievously mentions that his ideas called too trivial and obvious have been taken seriously after he translated them into formal jargon.

I don’t read his books as a detached scientist – it is more like talking to somebody, comparing biographies and ideas, and suddenly feeling vindicated.

A mundane example: At times I had given those woman-in-tech-as-a-role-model interviews – despite some reluctance. One time my hesitation was justified. Talking about my ‘bio’ I pointed that I am proud of having thrived for some years as an entrepreneur in a narrow niche in IT. In the written version the interviewers rather put emphasis on the fact I had been employed by a well-known company years before. Fortunately I was given a chance to review and correct it.

Asking for their rationale they made it worse: I have been told that it is an honor to be employed by such a big brand name company. Along similar lines I found it rather disturbing that admirers of my academic track record told me (in retrospect of course, when I was back on a more prestigious track) that working as a consultant for small businesses was just not appropriate.

What is admirable about being the ant in the big anthill?

I had considered my own life and career an attempt – or many attempts – to reconcile, unite or combine things opposite. Often in a serial fashion. In my pre-Taleb reading era I used to quote Randy Komisar’s Portfolio of Passions or Frank Levinson’s 1000 ideas you need to have (and discard again) as a business ower.

Taleb introduced optionality to my vocabulary, borrowed from trader’s jargon: An option is the right but not the obligation to engage in a transaction. Thus you should avoid personal and career decisions that puts you on a track of diminishing options. This is exactly what I felt about staying in academia too long – becoming a perpetual post-doc, finally too old and too specialized for anything else.

Nassim Taleb does not respect nerdiness and smartness as we define it the academic way.

If you “have optionality,” you don’t have much need for what is commonly called intelligence, knowledge, insight, skills, and these complicated things that take place in our brain cells. For you don’t have to be right that often. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 3097-3099.

He suggests just passing exams with minimum score. I, nerd of stellar grades and academic fame, declare defeat – I have already repented here. But let me add a minor remark from cultural perspective: I feel that academic smartness is more revered in North America than it is in middle Europe although America values hands-on, non-academic risk taking more, as Taleb points out correctly. I had been surrounded by physicists with an engineering mindset – theoretical physics was for the socially awkward nerds and not a domain you become a rockstar in.

It would not de me good to brag about any sort of academic achievement in my ancestral country – it rather puts you under pressure to prove that you are a genuine human being and still capable of managing daily life’s challenges, such as exchanging a light bulb, despite your absent-minded professor’s attitude. Probably it can be related to our strong tradition of non-academic, secondary education – something Taleb appreciates in the praise of Switzerland’s antifragility.

I have been torn between two different kinds of aspirations ever since: I was that bookish child cut out for academia or any sort of profession concerned with analyzing, writing, staying at the sideline, fence-sitting and commenting. But every time I revisited my career decisions I went for the more tangible, more applied, more involved in getting your hands dirty – and the more mundane. Taleb’s writings vindicate my propensity.

I had always felt at home in communities of self-educated tinkerers – both in IT and in renewable energy. I firmly believe that any skill of value in daily professional life is self-taught anyway, no matter how much courses in subjects as project management you have been forced to take.

For I am a pure autodidact, in spite of acquiring degrees. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 4132-4133.

Blame it on my illiteracy but Taleb is the first author who merges (for me) deep philosophical insights with practical and so-to-say ‘capitalist’ advice – perfectly reflecting my own experiences:

My experience is that money and transactions purify relations; ideas and abstract matters like “recognition” and “credit” warp them, creating an atmosphere of perpetual rivalry. I grew to find people greedy for credentials nauseating, repulsive, and untrustworthy. –Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile, Kindle Locations 678-680

I’d rather work some not-too-glorious jobs based on a simple feedback loop, that is: People do want something badly – I do it – they pay me, and I’d rather not (anymore): write applications for research grants in order to convince a committee or execute the corporate plan to meet the numbers.

Taleb provided very interesting historical evidence that so-called innovation has actually been triggered by now forgotten self-educated tinkerers rather than by science applying Soviet-Havard-style planning. You might object to those theories, probably arguing that we never had a man on the moon or the Dreamliner airplane without Soviet-Havard-style research, let alone LHC and the discovery of the Higgs boson. I might object to this objection by hypothesizing that the latter probably does not result in products we desperately really need (which includes big airplanes and business travel).

But I do know the counter-arguments – Einstein and the GPS, Faraday and allegedly useless electromagnetic waves that once will be taxed, WWW and CERN – and I don’t hold very strong opinions on this.

Because of the confirmation problem, one can argue that we know very little about our natural world; we advertise the read books and forget about the unread ones. Physics has been successful, but it is a narrow field of hard science in which we have been successful, and people tend to generalize that success to all science. It would be preferable if we were better at understanding cancer or the (highly nonlinear) weather than the origin of the universe. –Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan, Kindle Locations 3797-380

I absolutely do love theoretical physics – when other people listen to meditation music, do yoga, go to church, take walks in the sunset, wax poetic, read Goethe, are bamboozled by renaissance art: I read text books on quantum field theory. There is joy in knowledge for the sake of knowledge. So academics should be paid by the public for providing the raw material.

But I know that Taleb’s analysis is true when applied to some research I have some personal familiarity with. Austria has been a pioneer in solar thermal energy – many home owners have installed glazed solar collectors on their roofs. The origin of that success is tinkering by hobbyists – and solar collectors are still subject to DIY tinkering. Today academics do research in solar thermal energy, building upon those former hobbyist movements. And I know from personal experience and training that academics in applied sciences are really good at dressing up their tinkering as science.

Nassim Taleb also believes that organized education and organized science follows wealth, not the other way round. Classical education in the sense of true erudition is something you acquire because you want to become a better human being. Sending your kids to school in order to boost GDP is a rather modern, post WW II, approach.

Thus I believe in the value of fundamental research in science in the same way as I still believe in the value of a well-rounded education and reading the ancients, as Nassim Taleb does. But it took me several attempts to read Taleb’s book and to write this post to realize that I am skeptical about the sort of tangible value of some aspects of science and technology as they relate to my life here and now.

I enjoyed Taleb’s ramblings on interventionism in modern medicine – one of the chapters in Antifragile that probably polarizes the most. Taleb considers anything living and natural superior to anything artificial and planned by Soviet-Harvard-style research – something better not be tinkered with unless odds are extremely high for positive results. Surgery in life-threatening situations is legitimate, cholesterol and blood pressure reducing medication is not. Ancestral and religious traditions may get it right even if their rationales are wrong: Fasting for example may provide the right stimuli for the human body that is not designed for an over-managed regular, life-hacker’s, over-optimizer’s life-style along the lines of those five balanced daily meals your smartphone app reminds you of. As a disclaimer I have to add: Just as Taleb I am not at all into alternative medicine.

Again, I don’t have very strong opinions about medical treatments and the resolution to the conflict might be as simple as: Probably we don’t get the upsides of life-saving surgery without the downsides of greedy pharmaceuticals selling nice-to-have drugs that are probably even harmful in the long run.

But – again – I find Taleb’s ideas convincing if I try to carry them over to other fields in history of science and technology I have the faintest clue of. Software vendors keep preaching to us – and I was in that camp for some time, admittedly – that software makes us more productive. As a mere user of software forced upon me, by legal requirements, I have often wondered if ancient accountants had been less productive in literally keeping books.

I found anecdotal evidence last year that users of old tools and software are still just as productive – having become skilled in their use, even if they do accounting on clay tablets. This article demonstrates that hopelessly outdated computer hardware and software is still in use today. I haven’t been baffled by ancient computers in military and research but I have been delighted to read this:

Punch-Card Accounting
Sparkler Filters of Conroe, Texas, prides itself on being a leader in the world of chemical process filtration. If you buy an automatic nutsche filter from them, though, they’ll enter your transaction on a “computer” that dates from 1948. Sparkler’s IBM 402 is not a traditional computer, but an automated electromechanical tabulator that can be programmed (or more accurately, wired) to print out certain results based on values encoded into stacks of 80-column Hollerith-type punched cards.
Companies traditionally used the 402 for accounting, since the machine could take a long list of numbers, add them up, and print a detailed written report. In a sense, you could consider it a 3000-pound spreadsheet machine.

I guess the operators of this computer are smiling today, when reading about the NSA spying on us and Russian governmental authorities buying typewriters again.

IBM 403 accounting machine

The machine in the foreground is an IBM 403 accounting machine where the input are punched cards; the machine in the center is an IBM 514 Reproducing Punch apparently connected to the foreground 403 as a summary punch, and the one in the background is another 403 or 402 accounting machine. (Wikimedia, Flickr user ArnoldReinhold)

I don’t advocate reverting to ancient technology – but I don’t take progress and improvements for granted either. Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains plans to release his new book in 2014, titled The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. In his related essay in The Atlantic Carr argues:

It reveals that automation, for all its benefits, can take a toll on the performance and talents of those who rely on it. The implications go well beyond safety. Because automation alters how we act, how we learn, and what we know, it has an ethical dimension. The choices we make, or fail to make, about which tasks we hand off to machines shape our lives and the place we make for ourselves in the world. That has always been true, but in recent years, as the locus of labor-saving technology has shifted from machinery to software, automation has become ever more pervasive, even as its workings have become more hidden from us. Seeking convenience, speed, and efficiency, we rush to off-load work to computers without reflecting on what we might be sacrificing as a result.

Probably productivity enhancements kick in exactly when the impacts outlined by Carr take effect. But I would even doubt the time-saving effects and positive impacts on productivity in many domains where they are marketed so aggressively today.

Show me a single company whose sales people or other road warriors do not complain about having to submit reports and enter the numbers to that infamous productivity tool. As a small business owner I do complain about ever increasing reporting and forecasting duties inflicted upon me by governmental agencies, enterprise customers, or big suppliers – a main driver for me to ‘go small’ in any aspect of my business, by the way. Of course software would ease our bureaucratic pains if the requirements would be the same as when double-entry accounting has been invented by Pacioli in the 15th century. But the more technology John Doe is expected to use today, the more ideas CEOs and bureaucrats dream up – about data they need because John Doe ought to deliver them anyway in an effortless way.

Reading all the articles about the NSA makes me wonder if additions of painful tedious work due to the technology we ought to use is something marginal only I rant about. I had said it often in pre-public-NSA-paranoia times: I would love to see that seamless governmental spying at work to free me from that hassle. I had been confronted with interfaces and protocols not working and things too secure in the sense of people locking themselves out of the system.

So in summary I feel like an anti-technology consultant often, indulging in supporting people with working productively despite technology. Since this seems quite a negative approach I enjoy making wild speculative connections and mis-use interdisciplinary writings such as Taleb’s to make my questionable points.

I Want to Be Antifragile and Have Skin in the Game

Having read The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb I might have become an orthodox member of the Taleb Cult.

The more Taleb’s ideas struck a chord with me intuitively, the more I try to scrutinize them. I jumped to the 1-star reviews amazon.com to challenge my gullibility, and I tried my best to be as critical as possible. Mostly to no avail.

In my recent post I had conjectured that simple models of society and economy can make sense if the characteristic property in question is similar to, say, temperature. However, not many really interesting – or dangerous – properties are similar to temperature. Point taken.

Taleb’s compelling argument is about the circular reference between modeling systems and confirming the validity of your model: You collect data and start modelling by using the model of your choice – such as the dreaded Gaussian bell curve, rendering the impact of the highly improbably (too) low. As soon as the data start to match the model you are satisfied and stop exploring other parts of the hyperspace of data. You fall for confirmation bias.

So-called Big Data is particularly sensitive to yielding false spurious correlations. It would be tempting to jump into a discussion about NSA’s Big Data and models they build from it.

The overall message of The Black Swan in bleak, in particular for a nerd as myself;  thus I needed to read the sequel – Antifragile.

Antifragile is about structures, networks, properties that are enhanced and thrive in an environment that is unpredictable and volatile.

Taleb considers small Switzerland, itself built from nearly independent counties, superior to larger and centrally managed countries. I agree to the general idea of keeping structures from growing by stabilizing them via interventions – until they are too big too fail. As a minor critique, I fail to see how the European Union manages to delegate political action to the smallest possible unit – even though some declaration says so. The EU central bureaucracy and regulation madness is infamous – and rightly so.

This EU-related comment is typical for negative reviews of the book as ideas are presented in an anecdotal fashion, and the nit-picking experts on history, medicine, and other fields Taleb is not shy to have a strong opinion about, might point out some (minor) errors correctly.

He advocates less interventionism by medical doctors, such as throwing too much medication at non-severe illnesses such as rhinitis – ending up curing the side effects of medication with other medication. I am not a medical doctor so I cannot judge on the details, but I am extremely sympathetic to this – first as a taxpayer and, second, as a patient who is usually shocked by the number of different drugs you are prescribed when “suffering” from something harmless. I have formed an opinion when I once observed a grandfather asking for sleeping pills for his about 7 year old grandchild at the doctor’s – because she caught a cold.

Living beings and nature in general are Taleb’s prime examples of antifragile systems, and he has a subtle point: Even if individual species might be bound to die in the course of evolution, a larger organism would survive. You could make yourself immune against poison by taking in small doses over a long time (as illustrated by colorful anecdotes of the regime of the Borgias in renaissance Italy) – some of your individual cells might die, but you will survive.

He calls entrepreneurs and start-ups fragile for the same reason – the whole systems including those are made antifragile based on the individuals’ sacrifices for the greater good.

I understand antifragility – a term Taleb invented because he was not able to find an equivalent in several languages investigated – as the ability to react fast, immediately, intuitively and adaptive to an external trigger, even if this adds to higher short-term fluctuations. Taleb calls corporate employees fragile because they feels save after years of perfect stability, until they are laid off suddenly. In contrast to that, a taxi driver is antifragile.

His literary characters are invoked again: Fat Tony, master socializer and deal maker without formal training, is of course his antifragile stereotype. Actually, half of the book consists of opinionated, personal anecdotes – and this seems to be the reason why some people love and others hate the book.

Taleb states he needed to de-intellectualize after his stint at academia to work with British traders with pronounced cockney accent. The point was that these traders got their business right although or because they were ignorant of those grand mathematical formalism and models – while professors falsely believed that knowledge of advanced math is a pre-requisite for working as a pit trader.

He rants a lot about the arrogance of academia in stating that inventions constitute the direct output of academic research. Taleb questions this neat process as it is depicted in the marketing brochures of governmental agencies handling grants:
Basic reasearch –> applied research –> development –> applications.

Taleb quotes historical sources that seem to prove to more inventions than conventional history of science and engineering wants us to believe can be attributed to playful tinkerers  – MacGyver-like amateurs, such as 19th century British clergy men with enough time at their hands.

From critical reviews I conclude that many academics accuse Taleb of underestimating academic science. It seems I have read a different book. Taleb ridicules The Much Too Organized Corporate World and Their Useless but Seemingly Reasonable Risk Management (this is not a verbatim quote, but Taleb uses that kind of Fake Capital Letter Terms a lot and I admit I enjoy them, too) as much as organized, targeted academic science. Over-organization is key here and the mantra of manufactured and controlled innovation.

I can speak from some experience of research and development projects. A seasoned expert knows how to dress up his application for grants (taxpayer’s money)  in a way that it fits into the neat picture of nicely connected, half-overlapping arrows, further contributing to the myth of organized innovation. I have criticized those Potemkin villages of skillfully crafted documents and related projects ever since (one of the reasons I left academia) – and those writings and fraud are the same in so-called academic research as in seemingly useful proposals created by management consultants.

We tinker at the university and we learn how to present it in academic language – probably this is the most employable skill you acquire as a graduate student of the sciences. Later we tinker at The Corporate R&D Department and we know how to please (fool) the VP of innovation with our forecasts and reports.

Now I have opted for tinkering at my own small business now, at my own financial risk, denying government subsidies or participation in Those Glorious EU funded Research Projects with Renowned Corporate Partners – even or because these might be low-hanging fruits in renewable energies nowadays.

This brings me to the most important point Taleb makes: He demands anybody who comments on economy, corporations, and the world at large to have

Skin in the Game.

Famous economy professors as well as employed managers of banks should be held accountable as the engineers who were required to spend some time beneath the bridge they built. Forecasters and commentators should be judged on their own portfolios and investments.

I could not agree more, and this compensates for any errors the nit-pickers may find in the book or too much anecdotal evidence. I don’t see Antifragility primarily as a commentary on economical systems and probability, but rather as Taleb’s attempts to reconcile his various careers and philosophical theories. This is ambitious to say the least, but as you could conclude from my blog’s site title, it is a goal worth aiming at.
You make yourself an easy target of critics who zoom in on some aspect of your theories and their consistency with your own life. I would invite critics – so-called experts in a tiny aspect of this grand picture, but who do not have any skin in any of the games discussed – to put their own lives, professions, opinions and consistency between them to a test (in public).

Taleb states he does not write on anything he is not personally involved in – not because this would add statistical evidence but because this would add credibility and prove your having skin in the game. I suppose the detailed chapters on medicine stem from his having fought cancer.

I found his position of criticizing medical hyper-interventionism without advocating so-called alternative medicine (he even adds a disclaimer) a rare and a laudable one.

Taleb was a ‘capitalist’ trader and made a fortune in betting on the economic melt-down in 2008, thus you could hypothesize why he is inclined to (wealthy) Seneca’s stoicism, and might call Taleb a capitalist because he profited from “the market”. But again he denies fitting into boxes and categories. He is very sympathetic of small businesses and artisans, in contrast to Those Ostracized Corporations.

Small villages and agricultural / artisanal culture should be antifragile - I hope (This is near the village where I live).

Small villages and agricultural / artisanal culture should be antifragile – I hope (This is near the village where I live).

I can relate to a biography that is based on serial successes in academia and corporations – making the numbers and proving you would be cut for thriving by following the rules, but just long enough to provide that said proof and financial results that allow for retracting from the rat race and aiming at leading a life as independent as possible. However, reading Antifragile as an exercise in practical ethics, trying to answer the question of ‘how to live’, we should probably challenge it on the basis of what I call scalability: Would it work out – globally – if anybody in the world would try to live like this?

Probably not, and Randy Komisar‘s book and theories (that I admire, too) have been criticized in the same way: ‘Now after he has made it (based on luck or pedigree) it is easy to talk fluffy Zen Capitalism’. By the way, Komisar’s portfolio of passions is an antifragile idea par excellence, and very similar to Taleb’s optionality.

However, Taleb makes the same point that I use when trying to invalidate the but-what-about-the-poor-overworked-single-mother-of-three-who-has-no-choice critique in relation to a calling to our sense of independence.
Books like this are targeted to those who could have more options based on their financial situation – the amazing thing is that they do limit their opportunities all by themselves. The wealthier we get (on average, as a society) the more dependent we feel and/or the more dependent we make ourselves based on the mantra that expenditures absolutely need to rise with income. But we wouldn’t have needed a long book to find that out, right? So probably the main ideas about antifragility are rather old and ‘grandmother’s wisdom’ – but repackaging them and adding science, history, philosophy and irreverent anecdotes to them makes them more accessible to nerdy and/or intellectual readers.

In summary, I consider Antifragile a personal, opinionated essay about Life, the Universe and Everything, underpinned by anecdotal, but strong evidence, and ample analysis of literary and philosophical classics as well as quantitative science, and loads of practical hands-on business experience. Which is a rare combination indeed. Critics are invited to bring anything equivalent to the table.

I am not sure if I did the book justice as I cherry-picked some ideas that resonated with me and I focused on the interdependence of seemingly general ideas with individual biography. I am fully aware of the generalizations that I might have introduced now, due to the fact that I tried to squeeze (a subset of) these ideas into a single blog post – which is already too long though. This has not been a book review, but an exercise in challenging my own ideas.

This post feels unfinished – but I think this is a good thing.

_________________________

Further reading and interesting dialogues: I owe to the following bloggers for inspiration (in chronological order of publication date). It seems I flooded all related blogs with my thoughts on skin in the game today.

  • What do we owe to those for whom we labor? which reminded me of the noble accountability of the engineer. I cursed it often and I wondered if I would be happier as a mere commentator without skin in the game. However, I went for the accountability several times. Yes, I want to be in charge of making machines work even if gives me sleepness nights sometimes.
  • The Cream Separator A video and some powerful metaphors related to capitalism – triggering an interesting discussion. I am reminded of not to over-generalize and not to neglect historical context. I should read the original literature quoted by Taleb.
  • Why Are Intellectuals Anti-Capitalist? triggering a first version of this post dumped as a comment. Trying to distinguish between ‘leftist’ and capitalist angles I rather came to the conclusion in the discussion that I prefer to think in terms of skin in the game or not.
  • If Businessmen Became Bodhisattvas: “Selling In” – thought-provoking and (to me, ignorant of Eastern philosophy) fresh perspective – discussing the approach of savvy capitalists who claim they work that hard in order to become outstanding philantrops. My hypothesis is they lack skin in the game though.

Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Physics with Anything

You have told me, you miss my physics posts. I have missed them, too, and I give it a try. But I cannot help turning this into a cross-over again, smashing together half-digested psychology, physics, IT networking, and badly hidden autobiographical anecdotes.

In 2005 I did research on the incorporation of physics-style thinking and mathematical models into non-science disciplines. Actually, it was a small contribution to an interdisciplinary research project, and I have / should have covered science-y ideas related to how revolutionary new ideas percolate society.

In retrospect, my resulting (German) paper was something in between science writing, thorough research including differential equations in detail – and some bold assumptions, partly inspired by popular science, cliché and science fiction. Probably like my posts, but more long-winded and minus the very obvious rants.

I built on my work in laser-materials processing, superconductivity, phase transitions, and I tried to relate chaos in thermodynamic systems and instabilities in fluids with related non-predictable diffusion of ideas.

HD-Rayleigh-Taylor

Simulation of Rayleigh-Taylor instabilities at the interface of fluids with different densities. You could probably test this with Caffe Latte.

I learned that there is a discipline called Networking Theory:

Many networked structures obey very similar rules. Networks of WWW hyperlinks, citations scientific papers, food chains, and airline networks are called scale-free networks, because the distribution function for the number of links follows a power law.

A small number of nodes has a high number of connections and the structure the networks appears the same on every scale applied – it is self-similar. The power law is only valid for ever growing networks.

Barabasi Albert 1000nodes

Network following a power-law distribution of connections. The backbone of the network is established by a few strong, well-connected nodes, and the vast majority of nodes has only a few connections.

The dynamics of such networks could be modeled using the same math as esoteric Bose-Einstein condensation, which allowed me to combine anything and relate networks and the quantum phenomena in superconductors.

But the basic idea is really simply: The more popular nodes attract more links. This is a winner-take-all model.

Companies have started monetizing network research by analyzing and modelling hidden structures and unveiling the the fabric underlying politics and economy.

Re-visiting that old article of mine I spot an application of physics in something-else-dynamics I have missed: One of the classical non-academic jobs for a (theoretical) physicist is Wall Street quantitative analyst or quant. Quants apply models taken from thermodynamics, such as diffusion in supernovas, to the finance world.

I would put The Physics of Wall Street – A Brief History of Predicting the Unpredictable on my Books-to-Read List if it would be available on Kindle, as I enjoyed this review:

The author, James Owen Weatherall is

an assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, has two Ph.D.’s — one in physics and mathematics, and one in philosophy.

The book gives an overview of different models that resemble physics or are borrowed from physics – such as the Black-Scholes model that uses Brownian motion to model the dynamic development of prices of derivative financial products. Don’t ask me for details – I am just dropping keywords here.

The book seems to be based on optimistic assumptions:

Weatherall wants a new Manhattan Project to determine what’s wrong with economics, and he thinks it should be based in no small part on the contributions of physics-oriented economists, some of whom he believes have been treated unfairly by the establishment.

Here it is getting very interesting:

He has little use for Nassim Taleb, whose best-­selling book “The Black Swan” argues that the models used by traders disastrously underestimated the possibility of very negative outcomes — the black swans. To say that a model failed, Weatherall contends, is not to say that no models can work. “We use mathematical models cut from the same cloth to build bridges and to design airplane engines, to plan the electric grid and to launch spacecraft,” 

… as I am currently reading Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

In my outdated review article I finally came to the conclusion that some aspects of seemingly complicated systems – including those based on human beings – can be modeled using models of a baffling simplicity in relation to the alleged complexity of human nature. I am not ashamed of pointing out this glaring contradiction with my recent posts on gamification.

I would hailed Weatherall’s book and thanked him for contributing to my confirmation bias.

But Taleb speaks to me – in particular his chapter about Ludic Fallacy.

I do enjoy the clichéd characters of Fat Tony, the intuitive deal maker who hacks the real world, versus Dr. John, the nerdy engineering PhD who is fond of building mathematical models.

Taleb says:

Have you ever wondered why so many of these straight-A students end up going nowhere in life while someone who lagged behind is now getting the shekels, buying the diamonds, and getting his phone calls returned? Or even getting the Nobel Prize in a real discipline (say, medicine)

I took all my self-irony pills in order to recover. How could I not remember my indulgence in this diagram proving the braininess / nerdiness of physicists (and philosophers) – and my straight As of course. Did I mention that I am not a high-powered executive today or an accomplished professor? So it is Dr. Jane speaking here.

How could I not remember those enlightening anecdotes in David Goleman’s pop-psychology bestseller on EQ – emotional intelligence, first published in 1996. I enjoyed the story of two equally gifted students of mathematics, one becoming a rock star scientist, the other one becoming a mere computer consultant. I have read this book in German, so I will not give you a verbatim quote translated back to English. Actually, Goleman said something like: He pretended / claimed to be happy as a computer consultant. It says a more about me than about Goleman that I can quote this from memory without touching the book. I could say a lot of things about the notion of pretense here, but I will not repeat my most recent loosely related rant.

Goleman and Taleb both agree on the overarching role of intuition, thinking outside-the-box, gut feeling or whatever you call this. Luckily, Taleb is not concerned so much with proving which part of the brain is responsible for what because this is the part of pop-psy books I find incredibly boring. Nobody in his right mind would disagree (with the fact that interpersonal skills are important, not with my judgement of pop-psy books).

Even I tend so say, my modest successes in Mediocristan are largely due to my social skills whereas technical skills are needed to meet the minimum bar. Mediocristan is Taleb’s world of achievements limited by natural boundaries, such as: You will not get rich by being paid on time and material. You might get rich in Extremistan, as a best selling author or musician, but you have to deal with the extremely low probability of such a Black Swan of a success.

I am trying my hands at Occam’s Razor now and attempt to sort out this contradictions.

I believe that mathematical models of society make sense, and I do so without having read more propaganda by econo-physicists. I do so even if I will go on ranting about physicists that went into finance and caused a global crisis, because they just wanted to play with nice physics (as we said at the university) – ignoring that there is more at stake than your next research grant or paper.

Models of society and networks make sense if and only if we try to determine a gross statistical property of an enormous system. This is perfect science based on numbers that are only defined in terms of statistics – such as temperature in thermodynamics.

Malcom Gladwell is a master story teller in providing some convincing examples that proves that sometimes it only context that matters and that turns us into automata. For example subjects – who were not informed about the experimental setup – were inquired about their ethical standards. Would you help the poor? Of course they would. Then the experimental (gamified!) setup urged the subjects to hurry to another location, under some pretext. On their way, they were confronted with (fake) poor persons in need. The majority of persons did not help the poor, not missing the next fake meeting was the top priority. Gladwell’s conclusion is that context very often matters more – and in a simple and predictable – than all our sophisticated ethical constructs.

This is probably similar to our predictability as social networking animals, that is: clicking, liking and sharing automata.

People in a stadium clapping their hands will synchronize, in a way similar to fireflies synchronizing their blinking. You can build very simple models and demonstrate them using electrically connected light bulbs equipped with trigger logics – and those bulbs will synchronize after a few cycles.

Enthusiasm ends here.

I believe that using and validating those reliable models we learn something about society that is not exactly ground-breaking.

We can model the winner-take-all behavior of successful blogs to whom all the readers gravitate by Bose-Einstein condensation. But so what? What exactly did science tell us that we did not know before and considered trivial everyday wisdom?

In particular, we learn nothing that would help us, as individual nodes in these networks, to cope with the randomness we are exposed to if we aimed at success in Extremistan.

Mr. Taleb, keep preaching on!

However, I still need to wrap my head around the synthesis of:

  • not falling for the narrative fallacy, denarrating, and ignoring TV and blogs.
  • but yet: focusing on the control of my decisions and trying to grasp the abstract concepts of probability in every moment.
Black Swan

Black Swan (Wikimedia). I wanted to embed an image of Nathalie Portman in Black Swan ballet dancer’s costume, but I did not find a public domain image quickly, and I am not bold enough to do so without cross-checking copyright issues.

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Further reading – two related popular science books I had enjoyed in 2005:
Linked: The New Science Of Networks
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference