Monday, May 14, 2007

Providence and Black Swans

This article from The Guardian mentions Felix Dennis’ book How to Get Rich. At some point in HtGR Dennis quotes Goethe (according to some website I looked at, this quote may not be attributable to Goethe):

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.

This is similar to the “Black Swan Theory” explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who also contributes to here. Taleb argues that random and utterly unexpected and unexpectable events like 9/11 are occurring with greater frequency because their frequency, number, and effect are amplified by the networked and highly technological world we now live in. From Edge:

Against what one might expect, this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favouring the positive over the negative — like evolution. These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest. With unplanned discoveries, you pick what's best; as with a financial option, you do not have any obligation to take what you do not like. Rigorous reasoning applies less to the planning than to the selection of what works. I also call these discoveries positive "Black Swans": you can't predict them but you know where they can come from and you know how they will affect you. My optimism in these domains comes from both the continuous increase in the rate of trial and error and the increase in uncertainty and general unpredictability.

I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I've been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as "uncultured", "unintellectual" and "poor in math" because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call "high culture". Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his "cultural" statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system, which allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in business.

It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional and theoretical studies is where it very strength lies — it produces "doers", Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and "cultural" states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people's ideas. (I hold, against the current Adam Smith-style discourse in economics, that the American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows to capture the randomness of the environment — "cheap options"— not much because of competition and certainly less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith, nor to some extent, those of Karl Marx, seem to be conscious about the role of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style causation and cannot separate skills and payoffs.)

I like this point of view. I have great plans for the future, but I they aren’t currently too specific. Obviously I’ll need to write up a sober business plan, but as long as I keep my wits about me I should be able to spot potential Black Swans when they occur. Felix Dennis mentions “the search” in his book. This corresponds, I suppose, to the time when you try to sensitise yourself to BSE (lol) and leap in when you find something useful. This must also be the reason that large corporations and governments engage in “blue sky research”, and Google employees dedicate 1/5 of their time to personal projects.

All the while institutional science is largely driven by causal certainties, or the illusion of the ability to grasp these certainties; stochastic tinkering does not have easy acceptance. Yet we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing — thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system. I am also optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straightjackets and more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style. But what I am saying is not totally new. Accepting that technological improvement is an undirected (and unpredictable) stochastic process was the agenda of an almost unknown branch of Hellenic medicine in the second century Mediterranean Near East called the "empirics". Its best known practitioners were Menodotus of Nicomedia and my hero of heroes Sextus Empiricus. They advocated theory-free opinion-free trial-and-error, literally stochastic medicine. Their voices were drowned by the theoretically driven Galenic, and later Arab-Aristotelian medicine that prevailed until recently.

This idea applies to so many other technological domains. The only bad news is that we can't really tell where the good news is going to be about, except that we can locate it in specific locations, those with a high number of trials. More tinkering equals more Black Swans. Go look for the tinkerers.

I like the idea of opinion-free science. It also strikes me that from an investment point of view, I wonder if taking a million dollars and investing in a thousand companies would be better than simply investing in one company. If you had even one Microsoft to start off with, and a few 3663’s and other success-stories, would you achieve greater growth in wealth than if you invested in an ISA account?

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