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:
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.
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.