The Black Swan: A book

2 08 2012

The Black Swan is a book written in 2007 by Nassim N. Taleb, an american writer of libanese origin. He has a prodigious record on financial trading and here he took to write about the importance of events that seem rare according to the normal explanation or understanding of a state of affairs, but that end up having an enormous sigificance. The major thesis is a warning against taking averages, and it is a very powerful idea, in my opinion. One example he uses is scientific scitation. Some papers get a disproportionately large number of citations, while about 50% of the publsihed paper are never read by anybody. This is totally true and some top journals (so-called boutique journals) make it their business to search only for those papers that will prospectively be largely cited, so they look systematically for the “Black Swan” paper. Such papers can be made out of fashionable subject, high level  abilities for writing titles, very top quality design of figures, and previously highly rewarded names as coauthors. In practice it is not so easy. So there are labs in very important places devoted to explore a potentially fashionable subject for a very short time, to make the Nature paper and then abandon the subject. Other scientists call this to “take the cream out of the coffee”. The rewards for the potentially highly cited paper is so large that it has a considerable influence on the high level science nowadays. Fortunately there still seems to exist a range of scientists that take their time to solve a problem they think important, or interesting, irrespective of the immediate reward, just for the sake of it. Some scientists become crazy about their impact and the awards, others do not care at all. There is every kind of people. In my research filed, there are scientists of both kinds. I especially admire those scientists that pursue an idea relentlessly, with all the power they have been given and all that that they can gather. It is also nice to look at those scientists that seem to have a very good time with their job, that create graciously and effortlessly.

Another instance is the top level science projects in Europe, which is the ERC Advanced Grant. In this call it is necessary to present a “high risk” project, looking again for the Black Swan. It is also a highly demanding art to write such projects, in such a way that you can actually do it, if it is awarded, so that you don’t have to return the 2.5 Meuro if you get no results at all (as it should be expected in most of the projects, if their risk was so high). A balance of this type is called in Spanish “nadar y guardar la ropa”, swim and take care of your clothes.

Scientific credit, finnancial reward, literary success, and the major benefits in other occupations in life, go in a great proportion to a few individuals. Maybe those individuals have really a great merit, but it is clear that others with similar skills, ability and dedication do not make it, so Taleb is arguing for the significance of luck,. The book is not trivial at all, it makes you think how you view statistics, how you give credit to stories (in the press…) and how you infer consequences from the past toward the future. So just by looking at the winners one should not infer the tratis that explain the success, one should look at the whole bunch of people that was trying hard. Noneteheless this year I read the bio of Steve Jobs and one concludes that there is a set of very very special individuals that do very big things, of course if they have the right environment and the right time.

One interesting distinction is between scalable and nonscalable jobs. Some occupations require a dedicated work, and the production depends on the effort and time devoted. But some others do not, and especially in thinking activities, the reward can be small or very large for the same effort. So it is part of the world that some people works in organization of other people’s works. The “idea” people sells an intellectual product in the form of a transaction or a piece of work, while the “labor” person, sells you his work. “If you are an idea person, you do not have to work hard, only think hard. You do the same work whether you produce a hundred units or a thousand… A scalable profession is good if you are successful; they are more competitive, produce monstruous inqualities, and are far more random, with huge disparities between efforts and rewards-a few can take a large share of the pie, leaving others out entirely at no fault of their own.”

“There is more money in designing a shoe than in actually making it: Nike, Dell, and Boeing can get paid for just thinking, organizing, and leveraging their know-how and ideas while subcontracted factories in developing countries do the grunt work and engineers in cultured and mathematical states do the noncreative technical grind.”




One response

7 08 2012
Carmen Karst

Lo débil puede acabar siendo algo extraordinariamente fuerte. La falsación de Popper daba problemas con las proposiciones negativas y esto llevó a sustituir dicho principio por otro de verificación más débil basado en la probabilidad. Pero la probabilidad no es algo tan débil como aparenta. Y las probabilidades pequeñas siguen sin ser tan poca cosa. Todo valor de probabilidad posee su propio “instinto de supervivencia” y este no se define proporcionalmente al trozo de pastel (de realidad) que representa su huésped, sino que es independiente y máximo. Esto permitió justamente el éxito de David contra Goliat, y debiera curarnos de toda sorpresa.

En mi opinión, la teoría del cisne negro quizás no da suficiente importancia al papel del error. Es el error lo que más estragos produce en nuestros planes porque nadie quiere errores, raramente alguien se confiesa enamorado de lo equivocado o adicto a la búsqueda de sensaciones frustrantes. Ahora bien, cuando el error (y por error) nos trae algo bueno entonces le concedemos un ascenso en el listado de las criaturas nominales: ahora es Hallazgo, señores, ahora su nombre es Invención. Y es algo muy grande. Tan grande que era un deseo desconocido, un deseo no computado hecho realidad y ya Freud observó agudamente que en los sueños el modo subjuntivo se expresa en modo indicativo. ¿Fábula o crónica? En los cuentos de verdad el cisne eclipsa hábilmente al lago.
Nota: No leí el libro entero así que podría estar muy equivocada…

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