Friday, January 09, 2009

Living the good life elegantly

One of the ideas Nassim Nicholas Taleb comes back to again and again, both in The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness is that you can and should live elegantly.

Living elegantly means being stoical about loss and disaster, and not working too hard or becoming overly stressed when things don’t go your way.

It also means avoiding “noise.” In this context noise is the constant humdrum flow of news and factoids that we all expose ourselves to in this information-saturated age. Reading the paper every morning doesn’t make you any more informed than someone who spends their time reading philosophy and history textbooks.

Taleb argues that the older something is the more likely it is to be of value: things that aren’t valuable tend not to be preserved or sustained in culture. This leads to an interesting comment on religion: whyever people believe in god is beside the point, millions of people do and have believed in God for thousands of years so there must be some psychological or cultural value to it. I’m inclined to agree with this, but not with the general point that “because we’ve always done it” is a good argument in favour of anything.

My objection is to the imposition of religious cultural values on those who do not believe: particularly the recent complaint to the ASA that the atheist bus is "offensive."

Stephen Green, national director of Christian Voice, sez:

"There is plenty of evidence for God, from people's personal experience, to the complexity, interdependence, beauty and design of the natural world.

"But there is scant evidence on the other side, so I think the advertisers are really going to struggle to show their claim is not an exaggeration or inaccurate, as the ASA code puts it."

Taleb would of course point out that you can't prove a negative ("God does not exist") and I would point out that the atheist bus does not claim to: "There is probably no God."

This statement is induced partly from lack of any indication of the existence of God so far (based on repeatable experiment, rather than subjective experience) and deduced from the internal inconsistency of most conceptions of God.

In The Black Swan Taleb presents a strong finding from cognitive psychology called the information bias that shows that being exposed to information more frequently does not necessarily improve your ability to make decisions.

Taleb also argues that being presented with a constant barrage of negative news is also bad for you from the point of view of happiness.

I’d like to draw a link between what Taleb says and the ideas of the Viridian design philosophy. In Bruce Sterling’s last note he says that people should minimise the amount of badly-designed clutter in their lives so that they might be happier. In the same way Taleb is advocating a reduction in information clutter, and concentrating on quality rather than quantity of data.

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