Monday, April 12, 2010

Fooled by Randomness

As I am writing these lines I see the following headlines on my Bloomberg
Dow is up 1.03 on lower interest rates
-Dollar down 0.12 yen on the higher Japanese surplus

and so on for an entire page. If I translate it well, the journalist claims to provide an explanation for something that amounts to perfect noise. A move of 1.03 with the Dow at the 11,000 constitutes less than 0.01% move. Such a move does not warrant an explanation. There is nothing that an honest person can try to explain ; there are no reasons to adduce. But like apprentice professors of comparative literature, journalists paid to provide explanations, will gladly and readily provide them.

- Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

It is hard to rid oneself of the notion that one is somehow a unique snowflake. I - belong to large swarm of the population that rejects self- help books or even popular literature. They are meant for others. And don't worry - this post is not about how I was wrong all along and I have now found my bible. I continue to believe in the wilde dictum that 'art is superbly sterile'. One is reluctant is to claim to be influenced by a book. To hear the statement: book X changed my life is cringeworthy. The milder version: 'book X changed the way I think about Y' is amusing and cringeworthy in that order. However, one likes to believe 'well read' is a compliment. The cumulative is something but the details are vulgar.

The awareness of the existence of a certain thought processes similar to one's own. A more fluent putting in words, of what one may have said all along, is sometimes a reason why one likes a book. When the book is widely regarded as 'thought provoking' and 'insightful' it may be a rash thing to say. But hey why else does one have one's own wall on the net for.Somewhere in the 20th century, it has become acceptable (even endearing) to be brash.I have taken it upon myself to be the knight in shining armor, defending humility (in others that is). So I actually fail in my noble duty when I endorse a book noted for the author's sweeping statements and bluntness. As truth needs to be told: the book is good.

The crux of the book as I like to interpret it is: 'actually, nobody has a clue'. My reading it was kinda preaching to the converted (well, my reading it wasn't the preaching, but I got tired wrestling to get the idiom right so I let it be). The book aims to deflate anyone who is given to reverence of any kind for anything - people, institutions, history -and everything else in sighting distance .

But - a word crucial in every literary review - a critic must talk about both sides. Where Taleb falls short is coming across as 'sure of himself' amidst a whole book claiming 'every man to himself, there's nobody to look up to'. Sure he talks about the vulnerability of it, the near inevitability of disaster and ends the book sounding dangerously close to self-help. But the kind of fear of being alone in a bulwarkless universe - is something that did not come across in the book. Are he (and so many of his readers) so much at peace with tackling the 'slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' by themselves ? "All the best !" I'd say sarcastically as if I've gone about living several times.

I see that I managed to say I didn't like something because it could have been soomething else. Su.Ra would have disapproved.

But, in doing what I did I uphold a strong tradition in literary criticism. I am sure someone must've told Hemingway that in his latest work, he had been disappointing parsimonious with characters. "It should've been :The Old Man, the sea and the Pirates".


  1. தமிழர்கள் அனைவருக்கும் தமிழ் புத்தாண்டு வாழ்த்துக்கள்

    இந்த ஆண்டு உங்கள் வாழ்வில் எல்லையில்லா மகிழ்ச்சியும், நோயற்ற வாழ்வும், குறைவற்ற செல்வமும், நீண்ட ஆயுளும் மற்றும் அனைத்து நலங்களும், வளங்களும் பெற்று வாழ வாழ்த்துகிறோம்.


  2. Oh you surely mean "fueled" by randomness? Like, for instance, these Ramayana references popping in my head since reading, say, "Poets Cornered": Watched "Nizhal Nijamaagiradhu" couple days ago (Tangent: Someone recently recalled Oru Viral Krishna Rao?); Sumithra reads "Kamban Kanda Seethai" in bed, just as Kamal (Sanjeevi The Healing Mountain, no less) sings the soulful "Kamban Yemaandaan."

    Elsewhere, Adithya plugs "Sathya" and I instantly recall that outdoor-cafe scene where Amala (the new poor girl in rich town) meets an impoverished Kamal and his gang, and promptly proceeds to play out Ramayana's Aaranyakaandam inside her head, LOL! (Speaking of women trapped in a Dickensian existence yet dreaming dionysian dreams, both Nizhal and Sathya enact this in a quirkily merry, mythological manner.)

    Adithya's earlier plug "Baasha" too has a gender-swapped "thee kulikkara" scene, I thought, with Rajini emerging from the fireball that's the climactic car-explosion, unscathed (hence absolved of all blame heaped on him previously, by near and dear). Lastly, re-watched my all-time-favorite movie "Majaa" today, and guess what Asin's name is, in it? Yep, Seetha!

    I'm really loving this thing they all call randomness. :-)

    p.s: Btw, is that a picture of a black Cygnet you got here? (Reminds me of all the Signet classics on my bookshelf, thanks to a recent windfall.)

  3. I guess the situations and grand imagery of epics is so suffused in us, that it is only surprising if we don't see them surfacing everywhere - even Baasha :-)

    With the author dead, I guess the reader has a free hand. My publicist urges me to quote this

    Adhitya as in the channel?

    PS: It's a pic of a Black Swan. Taleb argues that the Black Swan Theory explains more of the world and history than we think.

  4. The book along with the Black Swan has been one of the compelling reads in recent times, amongst the media-annointed ones (strangely). I must have underlined innumerable sections in the Black Swan book. There are some interesting talks/interviews with taleb on youtube. The man is a real eclectic ekambaram for sure for somebody who ran a hedge fund or something, and reportedly made a pile. But then that might be a case of attribution fallacy ;-)

  5. BNB, perhapas I am over-reading Taleb to suit my interests when I say this:

    I saw a lot of overlap between Taleb,Goundamani and Woody Allen :-)

    Goundamani's life message seems to be irreverence to all and sundry, people, institutions, history, what not.

    Allen is all about the natural unease one would have in a world where there is nothing to cling, where opinions, people, ideas swing. All we have is our rationality - whose boundedness and frailness only deepens our unease.

    While I started reading it assuming I was not the target reader - and that it was aimed at those who follow stock indices - but ended up liking it with my own tangential interpretation.

  6. dagalti:
    Just watched a Gound-Rambha-Karthik clip from a well known movie whose name escapes me. One of the scene strikes me as being profound in a irreverent sort of way. Vinu Chakravarthi the father and ooru periyavar of sorts in response to complaints from makkal goes inside the house and whips himself. Nobody notices him, the mother is busy feeding her son Karthik (a bum); Gound is up to his usual antics in the scene. While I had a good laugh at the scene, it struck me as an all too familiar scenario in families, where the husband is reduced to zero once the boy comes of age, and the humble doting house wife suddenly turns vicious with her pent-up memories of repression etc. How they manage to patiently sweet talk and mollycoddle the husband's ego, patiently waiting their turn ... ok rubber band arundhurum idhukku mela oru simple scene-a izhuthaa :-D

  7. BNB, that one is unakkAga ellAm unakkAga where GM famously introduces himself to polite company thusly: I yam kuNdalakEsi, second standard, avvaiyAr aaramba paada saalai.