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

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

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 really 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. You encounter ancient computers not only in military and research – 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.

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.

20 Comments Add yours

  1. vera ersilia says:

    Thank you for this post. I am an admirer of Nassim Taleb and others of his ilk, though I never studied these disciplines formally.

    1. elkement says:

      I stumbled upon a reference to The Black Swan in a book on cyber security :-) … and was finally motivated to read Taleb’s book by Dan Mullin’s posts:

      1. vera ersilia says:

        Thank you for the link! have you read Albert-László Barabási about complex systems? he is another very interesting writer. He is of Hungarian origin and I am particularly close the Hungarian culture.
        Not to worry …. he writes in English. Barabasi.
        This may not be a live link. Just Google him or see his book as at Amazon.

        1. elkement says:

          Yes – I have read Barabási! I have enjoyed ‘Linked’ a lot, but I found ‘Bursts’ a bit disappointing. I have bought Bursts because I was intrigued by his scientific papers on burst-like e-mails etc. Although I appreciate an unconventional writing style and coverage of many topics (therefore I like Taleb) I found the lengthy pieces on history in Bursts rather off-topic.

          1. vera ersilia says:

            Oh, I can understand that. Instead I loved the historical references, though maybe off topic, because of my sentimental ties to that country, its people and its history. I was married to a true-blue Hungarian for 12 years – he died in 2003. But even before that, Hungary had a special place in my heart. So I am obviously biased when I read Barabási. Nice talking with you..! Vera

            1. elkement says:

              Thanks for sharing this story about your connection with the book! I have enjoyed the conversation, too – always nice to meet people reading the same books!

            2. elkement says:

              Actually I was now searching for Barabási’s papers again – and stumbled upon this review of Bursts:
              The reviewer liked the sciencey ideas but had exactly the same issues with the historical part and that he “never convincingly connects the tale to his theme.”

            3. vera ersilia says:

              ..this confirms the fact that I go to his writing from my personal experience about Hungary… the heart has his reasons… etc.

            4. elkement says:

              Anyway – this conversation has now finally triggered me working burst-style on a post on Barabási’s paper on bursts – I had planned that for a long time since I had come to the conclusion myself (due to my Time-Out from social media this summer) that burst-like activities seem to be just normal.
              Thanks a lot for the inspiration :-)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot, Bert!!

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Elke. In the sidelines to a work life, I think I favour the life of the mind, love knowledge for the sake of exploring, and enjoy hands-on creativity as the most satisfying of work. The tools of a computer help to create prose, graphics, music and many other things… but almost always this is done for speed, accuracy and the ability to easily record, alter and transmit. However, the best of my writing has always come in the physical movement of the pen across the page, as though the slowness of the labour produces something different. I prefer a painted canvas to a glossy print graphic. Playing a piano with strings and a soundboard over an electric instrument feels so much more powerful and engaging. I think there is something underneath this mind-body connection, in which we are aware of the sensory experiences of our environment, which stimulates creativity and innovation. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the past few weeks. I agree with your post on so many levels, even if my comment here goes sideways on another track.

    I’ve been wanting to get to The Black Swan, now that I’ve cleared away my other reading. Hopefully in a week or so I’ll have some space to do this.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot for stepping by and commenting on that wall-of-text, Michelle, despite your tight schedule! I had re-written that post several times – and I might not have come to a final conclusion. I live in fear of tech enthusiasts’ scathing replies as I resorted to some hyperbole (as usual) to make my points. I am not extreme anti-technology and anti-progress, but I rather overstate my concerns when I feel I overwhelmed by too many too enthusiastic accounts.

      It’s very interesting that you mention that a computer is for “speed, accuracy and the ability to easily record, alter and transmit” – and compare the digital to the artisanal. On Twitter N. Taleb summarizes his view on automation this way: “Automation makes unpleasant activities of shorter duration, but makes enjoyable and ancestral ones (s.a. artisanal) feel like work.” Indeend – when you start using some gadget to do the alleged dull and routine parts of your work (incl. hobbies, housework etc.) you start as well feeling guilty if you don’t throw technology on tasks that might be repetitive but nonetheless enjoyable, probably only to you. I prefer the scythe to the lawn-mower which is sometimes considered eccentric.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        I agree with Taleb’s tweet. This morning, reflecting on a conversation we were having about similar observations, my husband said, “We should just move to a cabin in the woods.” There is something to the thought of turning back toward the simpler pleasures of life, even if that pleasure is connected to a less efficient means of performing work. Our lives become unbalanced without activities like walking instead of driving to the store, using a scythe rather than a lawn mower, or talking over the fence with one neighbour alone as compared to sending 50 emails in a day.

        For some of the baby boomer generation in Saskatchewan, life as children still involved horses as much as it did cars, outhouses opposed to indoor plumbing, and days before rural telephone service. Now their grandchildren text message to the person standing next to them and walk around with headphones on their ears, blocking out the sound of the world around them. When young people talk about life, they say they feel anxious having face to face conversations. I’m not sure how I can reconcile the differences in lifestyle and being which I see around me; it can be a confusing negotiation of intergenerational differences, and the separation of each seems defined by the relationships each generation has with technology. It’s a little weird to be placed in the middle generation, seeing both ways of being in sharp contrast to one another.

        1. elkement says:

          So true – a medical doctor once told me the human body is designed for walking 40km a day(!). Yes, we are the middle generation – I never thought about that in this way! We have some accountability, haven’t we? The digital native kids can’t say we didn’t warn them :-)

          Nicholas Carr whom I quote nearly as often as Taleb also starts his book The Shallows with a narrative of the changes he observed himself – from a childhood with black and white TV and reading books on paper from cover to caver – to web 2.0 era.
          We – ‘sandwich generation’ – might argue that we really have a special perspective, going from comparatively low-tech (especially in rural areas) to ‘networked’ within our lifetimes, and those professional authors make their arguments brilliantly. Younger people or Ray-Kurzweil-style enthusiasts may state that at all times admonishers of some dystopian future have argued in a similar way (letterpress will destroy oral tradition, etc.) . E.g. I stumbled upon this article yesterday, on a carefully researched blog I enjoy:
          Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome

          .. about sharing and forwarding stuff in ancient Role, on papyrus rolls, with comments, and with content equally ‘trivial’ as today’s memes.

          And – again – you gave me food for future posts!

          1. M. Hatzel says:

            I look forward to that post! Thanks for sharing the link and suggesting some more books to read. :)

  3. gotta say, Elke, good stuff. I have for a long time avoided medication that is not necessary, instead trying to change my habits in order to regenerate physically. I do take essential pharma products (yes, at my age). What is it that we say in German: Not macht erfinderisch? Sometimes we need to coerce ourselves to take the hard way, inventing something in the process

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks NicoLite, your comment is spot-on: Taleb also emphasizes “Not macht erfinderisch” as innovation has ever been triggered by scarcity and necessity. As a student (25 years ago) I believed I will once contribute to ‘improving life on this planet’, or something. However, I finally came to the conclusion that as a tech expert you do resolve ‘first world problems’ mainly – creating a sleeker cell phone display or the latest nano-particle covering that makes cleaning of bathtubs easier.
      Despite all that optimistic futurism it seems we humans are not really good at solving big issues even if technology would be involved in the solution (such as reducing CO2 emissions). Probably because this is finally subject to politics, not to nerdy advances in technology.

  4. So, just as Asimov formed the Laws of Robotics I am suggesting the Laws of reading and commenting on Elke’s Blog:
    1. You must never, never do this while under the influence of any mind-altering drug. The blog post will interact in unintended ways with the drug.
    2. You must read the post at least twice before commenting.
    3. You must wait for at least one hour—to allow for the post to be subsumed into your existing cognitive framework—before responding.
    Done. Done. And Done.
    As usual you’ve twisted my brain with quite a few interesting ideas and, as usual, I shall cherry pick for my response 
    ONE: I sat bolt upright when you got to the part about being an autodidact. Me too. I came from a small community and, like you, was the lover of books and tinkerer with devices. While my friends were busy fishing or playing sports I was…well you know, doing the same things you were. At university I had to change my ways. Whereas I could easily get away with my self-teaching ways at school I did not do so at university. I tried—and failed—to learn from the lectures and formal methods. It took a long time but I eventually realized that the self-directed methods did and always will work best for me. Fortunately grad school, which encourages a large degree of self-directed learning went better. Much better.
    That’s something that’s stayed with me throughout my career. It’s not gotten me any friends in the establishment, though and now I know why. “The system” does not work for me so my response—and yours—is to find alternatives that work, and to encourage others to do the same. Unfortunately the established leaders in all of our systems are such that the systems HAVE worked well for them so they see us autodidact types as misguided; a threat; something to be squashed.
    TWO: Same thing with the comments about Innovation and tinkers vs. planners. I never really thought much about the distinction, except to marvel at the few, like Fermi, who seemed equally adept at both. I’m left with this: Kant’s philosophy, though brilliant and logical, left us all with a few conundrums; things that could not really be resolved. He asserted thet certain things SHOULD precede others even though it was possible to find situations when he was likely wrong. A way was found to explain it, though. Sometimes things ‘dance’. Rather than have one thing always lead another one should instead envisage a situation in which two things aid one another. Clearly that’s the case here, as least as I see it. Findings from the lab often affect the way theorists see the world and theory often what drives what happens in the lab. Rather than one leading the other it’s best to see one as enabling the other.
    I can illustrate this physically. Go get a metre stick—do it—and hold it across your two outstretched index fingers. Now try and bring your fingers together in such a way that the TWO fingers get slippage at the same time. You can’t without cheating. It’s a about the interaction between torque and friction; first one then the other and so on.
    Hey—go look at your blog title: “Theory and practice…” it’s what I love most about your writing.
    THREE: Education and wealth. You did it again. All my life—at least as long as I have been an educator—I have insisted, without solid proof—that education leads. I no longer see it that way, thanks to you. I am again in line with Hegel and seeing that, maybe the two also move together. That is, a successful economy starts with people who value both hard work and learning. Natural selection, then, means that those are the people that remain and thrive within it.
    FOUR: Health and big pharma. The most successful drug ever – placebo . I do have some sympathy for big pharma, though. It takes hundreds of millions and tens of years to prepare a drug for market and the vast majority of drugs never make it. The risks are enormous so the companies do have to recoup a lot of money from each successful drug. The problem is really with us, as a society, as we expect everyone to pay equally for drugs. As I see it a way should be found that those in the third world should access the drugs at much lower cost. I know this is not simple—in particular a way has to be found to stop the inevitable black market back to the first world—but it is a problem that is solveable.
    Finally NSA and spying. It was amusing this morning to see that Ms. Merkel finally “gets it.” I guess those in power don’t see what is happening until it affects them personally. I, for one, see the value in enabling it so that forensic data can be recovered from electronics. My BIG problem is due to the lack of decent legislation and procedure about who this data is to be accessed. Right now select US orgs can get whatever they want whenever they want with no judicial oversight. Look, using a non-electronic analogy. I have no problem with the fact that police can look in the trunk of my car as long as they have a warrant. That’s because, in order to get one, a judge had to be convinced that there was goo reason to suspect I was doing something wrong. Same with electronic surveillance. If an agency wants to see what I am doing then all they have to do is get a warrant first. What’s wrong with that? Frankly I really see the fact that agencies can do this without warrants as a criminal act on their behalf; an affront to democracy. It is THEY who should be sanctioned.

    1. elkement says:

      I need to be careful now – probably I am subject to these laws, too, so I should not respond too hastily!
      I really should hand out awards for the best comments – and in case of posts like this there should already be an award for reading the post! So kudos for reading it twice – and replying with such an insightful comment!!
      Thanks for sharing your story as an autodidact. Actually I needed quite a while to recover and appreciate that trait of mine – as I was that nerdy student who managed to succeed within the framework given by the ‘system’. But I suppose your adventurer’s spirit becomes trapped and crippled a bit – as you start being dependent on external reward…teachers putting those golden star stickers in your notebooks… Taleb says that winning within the system comes at a cost – and this is your competitiveness outside of it. I guess one of the greatest strength you could develop as a child is your ability to cope with (so-called) failure early in live. Malcom Gladwell’s latest book – David and Goliath – is, among others, about people suffering from dyslexia and being very successful later in life. The reason he gives: They learned and accepted to ‘be a failure’, worked around it and developed complementary and very strong skills in professions that require a lot of writing and reading. It is counter-intuitive to our (my) assumption of picking a career that matches things that come easy to you.
      Probably I should read Seneca, recommended by Taleb in relation to becoming immune against failure as well as success. I always thought these ‘modern’ schools without grades and competition are some leftist experiment not preparing you well for real-live competition. But perhaps this is just fine – as students do not become dependent on recognition, too.
      Re tinkering, innovation and education I really owe to Taleb (I think I sound like a cult follower – I guess nobody will believe me when I say I am not that easy to impress…). I had my anecdotal evidence in applied physics and engineering, but I thought I am much too negative. I bet I would have said “officially”, too, that we need more education and science funding in order to get the economy going.
      Re pharma: I fully agree with you – I don’t second those who think that all patents should be for free for example. Pharmaceuticals are victims to bureaucracy of the most monstrous kind. If they invest that much money they should get their fair share. I am just desperate about the fact that drugs ‘not really needed’ are such a big business. But if patients and doctors would be more smarter and self-reliant, nobody would prescribe or buy those.(I guess I have to develop a philosophy dealing with free markets to sort this out… I realize I don’t have a stance on this I am really satisfied with…)
      Re NSA: Yes, another big topic – worth discussing in a longer post in its own right. I have recently read an article that way very counter-intuitive: The author claimed that it’s a good thing if we are all, in any aspect of our lives, spied upon – as finally nobody will ever be able to dispute any accusation if he or she is guilty. It was a very thoughtful piece (…dug somewhere in my G+ conversations…) so I don’t do the argument justice here. But again I figured that I frankly haven’t made my mind up.

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