Tag Archives: books

Things I learned from the Black Swan (Not the Movie)

Nicholas Nassim Taleb‘s book the Black Swan was easily my favorite read of 2010. In his own meandering, hyper-intellectual way, Taleb explores the nature of randomness and the unknowable. I held off on writing a review for months because I thought I could write the mother of all reviews that would blow minds clear across to Saturn and back. We all know that’s not going to happen. After all, Taleb wrote the mind-blowing book, not me. I’m not even sure I get it myself, to be honest. Instead, I’m going to list everything you need to know in life that you can learn from the Black Swan.

1. The known is not as important as the unknown.
This is why the book is called “Black Swan”. If you’ve only seen white swans before, you’ll have a rule in your head that all swans are white. Travel to Australia and New Zealand, where there are Black Swans, that rule is completely broken. The unknown factor of there being black swans changes the nature of what a swan is. It’s not always going to be a white creature anymore. These unknown factors are responsible for many of history’s upsets, like intentions of the hijackers on 9/11, the location of the Japanese fleet before pearl harbour, or Christopher Columbus’ voyage. The known isn’t very important when unknown existing factors can change the situation completely.

2. Heuristics are better than rules.
When dealing with the unknown, the situation can change completely based on just a few key pieces of information. You can calculate all the mathematical scenarios you like, but they aren’t going to change the fact that the Emperor just showed up to his own procession wearing only a crown and a smile. For instance, the New York Times believes that as a rule, people will pay for journalism. They aren’t going to be so self-assured when the advertising based news services eat their lunch. So-called “rules of thumb” will get you through more situations than doing things by the book.

3. All large institutions are fragile
Big government, big corporations, it doesn’t matter. They are all held together by an extremely delicate web of tense agreements between millions of individuals. They may have all the military, the money, and the lawyers, but it doesn’t take much change to rend the fabric of society. Complexity, by it’s nature, makes organizations fragile. I’m not saying we should start burying guns in our backyards, I’m saying that governments and corporations are not as powerful as we think. If you think that Harper majority is going to send jack-booted thugs kicking down our doors, remember that it only took one guy setting himself on fire in Tunisia to turn the entire Middle East upside-down, and they had more jack-booted thugs than anybody.

4. Anti-fragility matters, not size.
So large institutions are fragile because they can’t respond to change. The opposite of that should be robustness right? Not quite. The opposite of a fragile organization is one that takes advantage of Black Swan events. Something that is decentralized, adaptable, makes many mistakes and learns from them all. I’m seeing this philosophy take shape in companies like 37signals and Freshbooks. It’s new class of privately owned companies with malleable products, day-one profit goals, and no outside money. Read “Re-work” for a more detailed description of this philosophy.

5. Randomness does not equal gambling.
Casinos are terrible metaphors for randomness. All Casino games have a knowable amounts of outcomes. There are always 52 cards for a deck, and 6 sides to a die. There are no rules for a truly random event taking place, like the casino being hit by a meteorite or an Ocean’s 11 style heist.

6. The only way to deal with randomness is to expose yourself to it.

You can’t avoid randomness by buying more insurance, forming more committees or even burying guns in your yard (the powder will get wet) so what are you supposed to do with your life? The only way to deal with randomness is experience it yourself. Make it your friend. This is not the same as risk-taking. Rock-climbing and sky-diving involve taking a large number of non-random precautions. Instead, take on an endeavour where the outcome is unknown. This is similar to Google’s so-called “20% time” that has led to innovations like gmail and Google reader. For the average person, that means reading a book about an unfamiliar subject, having lunch with someone new, or perhaps even commenting on blogs from time to time.

Library Books: I Have A Problem

Has this ever happened to you? You go to the library looking for one book, and suddenly that book turns into three, four, five, or this cry for help pictured here. Libraries are horrible simulacra for the joys of the consumer experience. Because the initial cost is zero, you tend to fill your bag with books thinking that it’s such a great bargain. Do you know how many books in that pile I actually finished? One. That white Seth Godin Book in the middle. All the while the books lie around the house, tripping you up because you thought, in your infinite wisdom, that if you put it out in the middle of the floor, you would remember to read it! My wife even got me a decorative basket in which to put these wayward books. Last night, I took this whole pile back to the library. Don’t let anybody tell you that free is the ultimate price for consumers. It just leads to hoarding.

Percy Jackson

Today my wife is going to take her class to see the film version of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. It’s part of their novel study of the book of the same name. The kids have high hopes for this movie (and so does their teacher). When Disney takes on a film, it’s always a crap shoot whether they can keep their corporate bureaucracy out of the production. In their rush to reach a wider market, they may try to make Percy Jackson into something it’s not: An American Harry Potter.

Having read all five Percy Jackson books myself, I can tell you that while there are similarities, the two series are completely different. While Harry was studious and accommodating, Percy is impulsive and defiant. His ADHD makes him a poor student (while at the same time makes him an accomplished soldier), and he will actually go out of his way to provoke magical beings that can end his existence with a thought. It goes without saying that Percy would have never stood for the Dursley’s shenanigans if they ever had the misfortune of meeting him. Like most of the demi-gods at camp half-blood, Percy has led a hard life because of his lineage. It’s going to take more than a summer camp with dryads dancing around to make up for being hunted by monsters and used as a pawn in the sibling rivalry of the gods. At many points in his adventures, Percy has to make choices between his duty to the gods and his duty to his friends and his own happiness. In Potter’s world, the goals of protecting the world from Voldemort and protecting Ron and Hermione were always one and the same. The only hard choice Harry had to make was whether the Death Eaters got to him at Hogwarts or at the Dursleys’ house.

If you need any proof that the Percy Jackson movie deserves to do well, you don’t need to look further than my wife’s grade seven class. People excuse the worst excesses of Harry Potter and the Twilight series by saying that it at least gets kids to read. Sara’s class, with full access to both Twilight and Harry Potter, has finished all their missing homework assignments to see this movie. Students would ask for the sequels from their parents for Christmas and then trade the books amongst themselves to read. Some of them have said, without hyperbole, that The Lightning Thief was the first chapter book that a teacher didn’t have to force them to read. It’s the books that convert non-readers that mean the most to literacy rates. Even if the movie is compromised beyond repair, if you enjoyed the Potter series at first, but were left high and dry by the end of it, do yourself a favour and pick up Percy Jackson.