Book review entries
November 14, 2009
- The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb
- Not rated
I'd like to invite my readers to perform an amusing experiment. First, search the web for a page outlining the causes of the current financial crisis (I recommend the Wikipedia article on the matter), and skim through the sections to get an idea of how many different events could supposedly have been used as indicators of the upcoming disaster. Then, perform a new search, to find out how many experts saw it coming and how early they predicted it.
You should find a puzzling contrast between the two.
'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is not a book about the global recession. In fact, it was first published in 2007 and does not even attempt to make any economic forecasts whatsoever. Still, the book bears a relation to the crises, as it is about the unpredictability in general. According to Taleb, the more significant events of human history, the ones that have the most impact, are not following a traditional cause-effect structure, but are intrinsically unpredictable events which He calls these events 'Black Swans' -- a reference to the unexpected discovery of the non-white swans -- and describes them as having the following three characteristics: Rarity, extreme impact, and restrospective (though not prospective) predictability.
First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next (Don't cheat by using the explanations drilled into your cranium by your dull high school teacher.) How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet Bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics. Literally, just about everything of significance around you might qualify.
Taleb then goes on to describe two hypothetical worlds, Mediocristan and Extremistan. The former is a place where the common is the rule and where anything out of the ordinary is so insignificant that it can be ignored, while the latter is the exact opposite, a place where the highly improbable can have an massive impact, i.e. a place where Black Swans occur. In our world some things do belong to Mediocristan, like the height distribution of people ("extreme" cases have little to no effect on the global average), but a lot of other phenomena belong to Extremistan, like book sales (a few bestsellers can completely outweigh the enormous mass of lesser-known books) and often we don't realise it. Taleb uses these concepts to segue into various other related topics, such as the problem of induction, the flawed notion of an 'expert', empirical skepticism, and even the 80/20 rule and the Long Tail, which I wrote about in this post.
The style of the book is rather singular in my opinion. The book content is quite serious and displays profound insights and deeply held opinions of the author, and yet it is written in an entertaining and casual way. It is full of sophisticated expressions ("Epistemic arrogance", "Platonic fold") and references to well-known thinkers (David Hume, Karl Popper, Henri Poincaré, etc.), and yet in the same time it contains a lot of informal language, blatant sarcasm and cynicism, as well as several Yogi Berra quotes. If we set aside the actual content for the moment, I'd say it's definitely an enjoyable reading experience for anyone.
It is, however, the content that matters in a book like this. I personally found myself pleasantly agreeing with the author half of the time, and strongly disagreeing with him the other half. Taleb has a strong dislike for academics (due to their tendency to allegedly think inside the box and ignore unpredictable Black Swans), whereas to me the Academia is one of the most respectable and honest communities there is -- so there's already one point on which we don't see eye to eye. Furthermore I like to think that the world in which we live is predictable to some extent, and that through continuous effort and research it may be possible to construct more realistic models of reality,so 'The Black Swan' goes against much of what I believe in. But as Taleb says himself, you learn more by reading authors with whom you disagree. Taleb himself is very well-read, a fact which pervades the book, so while it is true that much of what he presents is his personal opinion, he has some strong evidence on his side and presents convincing arguments for his case. I also enjoy his bashing of macroeconomic theory and his criticism of financial experts and economic forecasters, not to mention his depiction of bankers, statisticians, and other people who pretend to be mathematicians. Finally, I am totally awed by the fact that he knows Benoît Mandelbrot personally.
I read 'The Black Swan' in the way I believe Taleb would have wanted me to: skeptically, and with an open mind. I do not blindly accept every word of his book, and still disagree with him on certain areas. But I have definitely learnt something from his book. I now see the world in a slightly different perspective, as I am sure anyone taking his book seriously would. If you are a firm believer in the predictability of historical events or in the principles of modern financial theory, I cannot promise that you will like what Nassim Nicholas Taleb has to say. That, however, doesn't stop me from recommending the book, especially if you are one of those people.
Other similar books include 'The (Mis)behaviour of Markets' by Mandelbrot, or 'Fooled by Randomness', Taleb's previous book.
August 18, 2009
- Praying Mantis
- André Brink
- Not rated
First of all, Praying Mantis is not the kind of book I usually spend my time reading. I tend to need something more fictitious, written for the sake of entertainment rather than information or awareness. In fact, I did not buy this book myself but was given it as a present a good while ago. I finally got round to reading it because I felt bad for leaving it unread for so long.
That being said, Praying Mantis is still a very good book by an author who has earned several prizes and whose works have been translated into thirty languages. I'll even go as far as saying that Praying Mantis is the best book about Africa that I have ever read. Okay, so I've only read two (the other one being Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe), but my point is still valid.
The story is based on the life of Cupido Cockroach, a South African Khoi (or 'Hottentot' as they were known then) who was born sometime around 1760. Despite being based on a true story, it is written as a piece of fiction, and we thus get a detailed account account of Cupido's life and adventures, in a time where two colonial powers, the Netherlands and Great Britain, are disputing the control of South Africa. Cupido is born to a black slave and raised by his mother as a true Khoi, with stories about eagles, mantes, Tsui-Goab, Heitsi-Eibib, and more. However, his mother soon leaves him and Cupido ends up becoming a devoted Christian instead, after a lengthy period filled with all the things that Christians consider sinful (drinking, fighting, sex, etc.).
The book itself is divided into three parts:
The first one is about Cupido's life before becoming a Christian. It is told as a story, like the stories Cupido himself are being told by his mother, and constantly balances on the line between fact and legend, the explainable and the supernatural. The language is also surprisingly neutral, leaving it up to the reader to recoil at the shocking attitude of the white farmers.
The second part is written from the point of view of Reverend James Read - a missionary who befriends Cupido - and covers the period from Cupido's baptem to him becoming a missionary. The language is much more developed and subject to a slight Christian bias, in contrast with the first part of the book which has a more Khoi perspective on reality. As always, here's an extract from me to you:
[Brother Cupido's preoccupation with the Word] also led to wholly unforeseen excesses and convolutions. The most exorbitant, and also the most fantastic, came to light on a late Sunday afternoon when I chanced upon Brother Cupido some distance away form the mission in a small kloof overgrown with euphorbias, aloes and blue plumagoes (which I had by then laboriously begun to identify). It was a year or so after Anna Vigilant's death, and he was sitting with his Bible on his knees, tilted at an angle to catch the last deep yellow rays of the setting sun. [...]
He had not seen me approach as he was so engrossed with what he was doing, so I stopped in some perplexity to observe him. He was reading aloud to himself, following with one finger the words on the big page, as if each were an insect he had to crush before moving on to the next. [...]
When he reached the end of this page, just as I was preparing at last to step forward and address him, he performed a most stupendous action. He tore out the page of which he had just read recto and verso, crumpled it, and proceeded to stuff it into his mouth.
Both fascinated and horrified, I exclaimed, 'Brother Cupido!'
He looked up, startled, snapping the great book shut, then shook his head and continued to masticate for a good while before, with slightly bulging eyes and quite considerable effort, he swallowed.
By this time I was kneeling in the dust in front of him.
'Brother Cupido,' I repeated in complete consternation. 'What's happening? What are you doing?'
'I am consuming the Word of God,' he said in his sermonising voice, seemingly unperturbed.
'But...' I was at a loss for words. 'It is a new Bible, Brother!' I stammered stupidly, as if that made all the difference.
'Why are you doing that?' I insisted in a much more peremptory voice than I customarily adopt.
'There is so much that I still do not understand, Brother Read,' he explained patiently, as if I were a child to be taught something of importance. 'So I decided I must eat it and swallow it to absorb it in my body. Only then will the Word of God be fully part of me. Then no-one can ever take it from me again. Is it not so?'
'But you have devoured nearly the whole Bible.'
'I still have Corithians to go. Then Galatians. Then Ephesians. Then --'
'I know, I know,' I interrupted. 'But surely this is not the way to go about it.'
'I spoke to God,' he said, 'and that is what He told me.'
The third part of the book concerns Cupido's doomed solo adventure as a missionary in Dithakong, a lost corner of South Africa. This is the hardest part to read, and in the same time the most important one. The objectivity of the first part has been forgotten, and the harsh behaviour of white people towards anyone black is clearly exposed. What makes this bit especially painful, is that everything keeps getting worse and worse for the poor Cupido we have come to love. Fortunately - and this is all-important in my opinion - Brink manages to turn things around in the end, and leave the reader with a perfect, almost magical ending.
The reason I enjoyed Praying Mantis more than Things Fall Apart, is that while the latter is written as one long mourning lament, pointing the finger at Christian settlers and categorising everything by either 'good' or 'bad', this books keeps a more neutral stance throughout most of the book and hence becomes a more pleasant reading experience. The injustice present in South Africa is still just as obvious, but it is sometimes up to the reader to deduce it, rather than having it slapped continuously in one's face. It is also less explicit in denouncing good and evil, which leaves us with a more realistic picture of the political situation, with Khoi, Xhosa, the English settlers, the Dutch farmers, and the Church, a very inhomogenous group in itself.
Recommending the book is tricky. If depiction of a historical setting through a work of fiction is your thing, go ahead and read it. Most probably will you enjoy it, and maybe even become an André Brink fan. If, however, you've never been thrilled by anything of this kind, Praying Mantis is not the book that is going to change this.
Next on the list is The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy. I'll have to admit that the reading is proceeding far more quickly for that one.
April 05, 2009
- The Long Walk
- Stephen King
- Not rated
First book review on this blog. My first review ever, for that sake. I won't give any kind of ranking, because I don't believe a mark reflects anything. I would never give 1 or 2 stars to a book anyway, I simply would stop reading it.
The plot in The Long Walk is very simple and can be explained in a few sentences. In a dystopic future, a marathon called the Long Walk is organised once a year. 100 boys between 16 and 18 start at the Canadian border in Maine, and walk south; we follow the steps of Ray Garraty, number 47. It is not immediately clear what the Prize for winning is, but it's clearly something big. Downside: if you stop walking, you "get the ticket"... I won't spoil anything, but knowing Stephen King, you can come up with a qualified guess as to what "getting the ticket" means. The winner is the last man walking, so keep your pace above the required 4 mph!
The Long Walk is a remarkable book. Just like Rage (another novel Stephen King wrote under the pen name 'Richard Bachman'), it had a profound impression on me. If you're just looking for a nice and realixing horror book, The Long Walk might not do the trick. It's slow, and filled with cryptic passages during which not much happen. Plus, the ending is unclear, but we'll get back to that. However, if you delve into the book, and try to make sense of the seemingly random comments and outbursts of some of the boys, the development of Garraty's thoughts, the symbolism of the road and the crowd, and so on, a whole new layer is added to the book. Every boy in the Walk must have a reason to be walking, and with a bit of close-reading and imagination the reader can try to figure these out. Look out for references to surreal worlds, like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz.
That being said, the novel can easily be read and understood without paying attention to small details. It's entertaining in a very macabre way. Here's an extract so that you may see what the book is like. Two Walkers, Pearson and Scramm, are talking to each other. Scramm has caught a cold.
"You don't sound so good," Pearson said, and there might have been careful optimism in his voice.
"Luggy for me I god a good codstitution," Scramm said cheerfully. "I thing I'be rudding a fever now."
"Jesus, how do you keep going?" Abraham asked, and there was a kind of religious fear in his voice.
"Me? Talk about me?" Scramm said. "Look at hib! How does he keep going? Thad's what I'd like to know!" And he cocked his thumb at Olson.
Olson had not spoken for two hours. He had not touched his newest canteen. Greedy glances were shot at his foodbelt, which was also almost untouched. His eyes, darkly obsidian, were fixed straight ahead. His face was speckled by two days of beard and it looked sickkly vulpine. Even his hair, frizzed upin back and hanging across his forehead in front, added to the overall impression of ghoulishness. His lips were parched dry and blistering. His tongue hung over his bottom lip like a dea serpent on the lip of a cave. Its healthy pinkness had disappeared. It was dirty-gray now. Road-dust clung to it.
He's there, Garraty thought, sure he is. Where Stebbins said we'd all go if we stuck with it stuck with it long enough. How deep inside himself is he? Fathoms? Miles? Light-years? How deep and how dark? And the answer came back to him: Too deep to see out. He's hiding down there in the darkness and it's too deep to see out.
"Olson?" he said softly. "Olson?"
Olson didn't answer answer. Nothing moved but his feet.
"I wish he'd put his tongue in at least," Pearson whispered nervously.
The Walk went on.
Then there's the ending. Some endings make you go "No don't stop now, I want to know more!"; others make you go "Oh, that was a perfect ending"; others "That ending sucked."
The ending of The Long Walk made me go: "what."
One the one hand, the ending fits perfectly the rest of the book, because it is left to to the reader to decide what happened and what will happen. The last few pages are crammed with innocent words that are loaded with special meaning (or maybe I'm just imagining stuff). On the other hand, I wouldn't have minded getting a proper explanation of the ending. It's the ending that could probably spoil this book for some readers.
Then again, it's a genre that doesn't use "Happily Ever After".