February 21, 2010

Breaking the Silence

It's silent

You've gone on holiday somewhere out in the open. The desire to escape the stress, tumult and pollution of the city has finally overcome you, and you and your family/friends/colleagues have decided to take use your holiday to go to the countryside. Or the woods. Or a deserted beach. I don't know where you are, you tell me. In any case, you've fled the masses and have found an isolated spot somewhere. Maybe you own the place, maybe you're just visiting. It could be the first time you're here, or it could be your favourite spot. Allow your imagination to roam. There is only one condition on the choice of your location.

It's silent.

Maybe there's a bird cooing in a tree. Maybe the waves are creating a gentle hiss. Maybe the wind is making some branches rustle. Maybe a nearby stream is But these are all natural sounds. They fit in with the silence that dominates this place. There are no cars driving about, and no electronic or mechanical noise gives away the presence of any foreign elements. Civilization seems far removed in this place. The constant humming, buzzing, or shouting that together form the trademark of human cities, have been reduced to nothingness. No artificial disturbance, no unwanted interruption of the stillness that greets the ear. 

It's silent.

It's delightfully silent. It is as if one has been transported back to a time where man has not yet conquered the Earth, and where nature is still almighty. Where the world's natural harmony hasn't been upset by Man's footprints. One feels transported to an otherworldly location, in which worries have evaporated. There is only oneself, the world, and the silence. It is perf...

"Wow, have you noticed how silent it is here?"


"It's incredible. You don't often experience something like that, do you?"

Stop. For the love of Mike, stop. Don't ruin it.

"Don't you think it's amazing?"


"It reminds me of sometime a while ago, back when I was on holiday in..."

Bugger. The feeling's gone.

A lot of people I know would break the silence like this without thinking about it -- maybe they are the same people who like to talk during movies. I don't hate them for doing any of these things; in fact, without them, holidays out in the open would be incredibly boring. Eventually, someone needs to talk, to strike up a conversation. There's a time for silence, and a time for talking.

But I still find it ironic whenever someone talks out loud about the surrounding silence.

February 14, 2010

Cellar Door

I'm still here!

If you follow this blog and you ever notice a long break in blog posts, do not fret, it's not because I've run out of ideas. Every time I think of something worth writing about I write it down, and right now my list is expanding much faster than my actual "posting speed" on The Missing N. If there is silence from my side it is usually because I have limited free time, not because I have exhausted my inspiration. Far from it.

So I'm back, just in time to celebrate the one year anniversary of this blog that I started on the 13th February 2009. Blog anniversaries are usually measured in number of posts, I know, but that doesn't change the fact that this blog has been running for 366 days and is still alive. Hooray!

Not so long ago, during the free time that I spent engaged in less introverted activities than writing blog posts,  I went to the cinema with some friends to watch 'Donnie Darko'. It's a good movie, with an twisted plot and a grandiose ending that gets you thinking, and blah blah blah. But we're not here to discuss the quality of 'Donnie Darko'. We're here to look at a specific scene. Don't worry if you haven't seen the film: what I'm about to say contains no spoilers and requires no background knowledge of the film whatsoever.

There is a scene towards the middle of the movie in which Donnie Darko is sitting in a classroom, alone with a teacher. The blackboard behind the girl reads 'Cellar Door'.

Cellar Door from Donnie Darko

I smiled to myself when I saw it, because I'm a language freak and I recognized the reference. I was thinking that the director might have left it there as some kind of inside joke, when Donnie Darko suddenly enquires about the significance of these words.

- What's 'cellar door'?
- A famous linguist once said that of all the phrases in the English language, of all the endless combinations of words in all of History, that 'cellar door' is the most beautiful.

They almost had it right. Cellar door is indeed said to be one of the most beautiful words in the English language. This claim is linked to the field of Phono-Aesthetics, the study of beauty within sounds. The idea is that when you remove the meaning of a word, its connotations and the details of its spelling, you're left with a sound that may or may not be pleasant to the human ear. In poetry, rhymes, alliterations and meters are all examples of phonoaesthetics. Edgar Allan Poe purportedly chose the name 'Lenore' more because of its sinister sound than anything else. Thus, although it may not follow as strict a scientific procedure as other areas of linguistics, phonoaesthetics is alive and kicking, and 'Cellar Door' is one of its most classic examples. Say it out loud. Whisper it. Forget the meaning, forget the spelling. Whisper it again. A lot of people will agree that those two words together have a certain ring to them, some kind of magical touch. This is what the teacher is trying to say in 'Donnie Darko'.

But "a famous linguist"? The claim was first put forward by... J. R. R. Tolkien! Now Tolkien was indeed, to a certain extent, a linguist. A philologist to be precise, someone who has studied the historical development of languages. He was familiar with a variety of languages, dead or still spoken, invented artificial languages for his works, and wrote essays on linguistics and phonoaesthetics. Nevertheless, I daresay that Tolkien, author of the world-known saga "Lord of the Rings", was not as well-known for his qualities as a linguist than for his skills as an author and his pioneering of the entire Fantasy genre. Most everyone has heard, if not read, 'The Hobbit', but few are those who know about Tolkien's essay on English and Welsh from 1955. So perhaps the producers/scriptwriters of Donnie Darko should have gone for "famous writer" instead of "famous linguist". It never hurts to do a little research before writing the dialogue to a film.

Then of course there the irony that the dialogue in 'Donnie Darko' takes place exclusively in American, and 'Cellar door' loses a great deal of its phonetic pleasantness when uttered in American, due to the American way of pronouncing the 'r' at the end of each word. The comedy is taken to a further level in the translations of the movie, such as the French one, where the phrase 'Cellar door' has been replaced with "Porte de cellier", effectively missing the whole point of phonoaesthetics.

For those interested, the first reference the beauty of 'Cellar Door' appears in the essay mentioned above. The context is as follows:

Most English-speaking people...will admit that cellar dooris 'beautiful', especially if dissociated from its sense (and from its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doorsare extraordinarily frequent, and moving to the higher dimension, the words in which there is pleasure in the contemplation of the association of form and sense are abundant.

And for those intrigued by my first YouTube book reviews: the second one, The Martian Chronicles, has been put online.

February 01, 2010

Apologies & Book reviews

To all regular readers of this blog:

I apologize for the lack of posts recently. I have had way too many things going on for me to sit down and write a blog post, and I'm afraid that there's probably not going to be another one soon. In a few weeks time, I should have sorted a few things out, and my compulsion to write blog posts will have returned.

In other news, I have decided to stop writing book reviews for this blog. That being said, I am still going to make book reviews -- except now they will be in video format! I have no idea if it will work, or if it's just a plain bad idea. Call it an experiment. If you want to see the first video book review, 'The Hunt For Red October', click here.

Discoveries so far: Talking to a camera is a strange and somewhat unsettling experience.

January 06, 2010

NYR 2010

I know, I said I would post these yesterday. A day late, but here they are, my New Year's Resolutions.

Quick note on the numbering system: The first two digits indicate what year the resolution is from. The next digit is the number of the resolution (1 to 5, see previous post). The last digit say what version of the resolution it is, i.e. if it has been revised.

  • 09.1.2: Get up within 5 seconds of turning off the alarm clock. Don’t go back to bed for at least half an hour.

  • 09.2.2: Exercise at least 130 times a year (corresponds to average of 2.5 times a week). “Exercising” is defined as a minimum of half an hour of working out or running, or both. Exercising several times a day still counts as a single time.

  • 09.3.1: Tidy my room every Sunday. The room is considered “tidy” when there is nothing on the floor that shouldn’t be, the floor has been hovered, there is at most one pile of papers on the desk, and no rubbish or paper remains on other surfaces.

  • 09.4.2: Reply to all personal emails, SMS and Facebook messages that require an answer, within 24 hours of reading. A message requires an answer if it is a not a response to one of my own messages, if it contains a question mark, or if it contains at least two sentences. If the reply would be more than two paragraphs long, you may give yourself more time.

  • 09.5.1: Be in bed by midnight. “Being in bed” is defined by being literally in bed, be it lying, sitting or standing. Once in bed, the bed must not be left before sleep has taken place

  • 10.1.1: Sit straight during lectures. If, on a given day, no time is spent in a lecture hall, ignore this resolution.

  • 10.2.1: Play at least 30 minutes of piano a day. Teaching or playing for others also counts. If the day is spent travelling, i.e. if the bed from which you wake up is different from the one you fall asleep in, you may ignore this resolution.

  • 10.3.1: Every day, write a diary entry. There are no restrictions on content, length or style.

  • 10.4.1: Wash up anything that has been dirtied during the making of a meal, within 30 minutes of having finished the meal. When in Warwick, “washing up” is defined as washing, drying and putting back to its place. When in a house with a dishwasher, “washing up” is defined as rinsing and putting in the dishwasher, unless someone else is offering to do so.

  • 10.5.1: Do not turn on or use any computer on Saturdays.

Some of these need a little commenting.

09.5.1: A friend of mine found this one very odd, because in her words, "your time as a student is a time for living". I don't entirely see how this is synonymous with "going to bed late", but she did have a point. So I have decided that if I get to bed late because I have been out, my resolution will have failed for that day, but I will have no scruples about it. The point is to avoid those pointless evenings surfing the net or watching YouTube videos.

10.3.1: Up until now I have had no diary at all. The reason I'm starting one is a practical one more than anything else. We think we can remember things, but slowly and gradually memories slide out of our mind. In 50 years, most of us will have forgotten the details of our childhood or adolescence, and they will be briefly summed up by a few adjectives, like "happy" or "angsty". I don't want that to happen. My diary is, in effect, going to be an archive of past events, described as they were happening, without the romanticizing effects of retrospection. If I ever decide to write an autobiography, I will (hopefully) have a massive database of memories at my disposal.

10.5.1: This one is in fact an indirect version of "work more". Most of my procrastination on weekends is caused by my computer. The idea is that if I don't turn it on, it will be easier to force myself to work. By the same token, I will also decrease my dependency on the Internet, and prove to myself that I am still not entirely a slave to technology.

Feel free to modify any of these resolutions in order to suit your own goals.

January 04, 2010

Resolutionary Theory

Happy Ew Year

Happy New Year to everyone! And welcome to the future! I look forward to writing 2010 everywhere, from now on!

Now, of course, is the time for making New Year's Resolutions -- or NYRs, for conciseness. But what happened to last year's resolutions? Were they dropped or forgotten around March, maybe? What about the resolutions from previous years? Can you even remember them? Do you even make NYRs anymore?

You may say that you don't believe in the effectiveness of NYRs, because they don't last anyway. I claim the converse: Your NYRs don't last because you don't believe in their effectiveness. Deep down, you may think that they're not going to work anyway and that like every other year, you will gradually lose the will to carry on the resolutions. Consequently, the NYRs become half-hearted, and the prophecy comes full circle. Furthermore, there is in my opinion at least one good indicator that, subconsciously, you may already have damned your NYRs. I'm talking about the 'length' of resolutions.

Suppose you tell yourself: "From now on, I will go to bed earlier". This is a common NYR, yet I see a serious problem with it: when does it end? Does it last a year? Can you decide at any arbitrary point in your life to stop it? Are you meant to keep it for the rest of your life? Is the idea that the NYR will eventually become a habit? Any of these could be the correct answer for you, personally, and of course the question about length is silly since a NYR is not a binding contract. Nevertheless, it shows that on its own, the resolution I presented hasn't been well thought through.

It is my belief that only with clear and fixed rules can one take NYRs seriously. The exact nature of those rules is of course up to the individual, but I shall present my own view on the matter here. It's a system that I made up last year (I didn't make NYRs before then) and have developed a bit more this year.

Length: Once made, a NYR lasts at least one year. The resolution must be kept until the very end, until the 31st December, and only then can it be reconsidered. There are then three possibilities: Deletion, Extension or Revision. Deletion removes the NYR from your current list of resolutions, and you no longer have to worry about it. This is the only sensible choice if it turns out that the NYR wasn't that great, or if it is no longer applicable. A NYR could also be Deleted if it has become superfluous, i.e. if the NYR has become a habit and no longer requires the status of 'New Year's Resolution' in order to be kept. This is a matter of personal taste however; a NYR which has become a habit need not necessarily be Deleted. The second possibility is Extension, which makes the NYR last an extra year (after which its status must again be reconsidered). This is suitable for resolutions which were, in essence, good ideas, but which were unsuccessful -- in other words, try again. It can also apply to NYRs which were both good and successful, and which you would like to repeat. Finally, there is Revision, the act of changing the wording of a NYR slightly, before extending it. Revisions can be done both to relax the conditions of a harsh NYR, or to improve an already successful one. Because NYRs can sometimes be a bit hard to calibrate, Revisions are allowed until a specific date in January (I propose the 7th).

Type: A NYR can be either a Habit or a Task. A Habit is an act that must be performed regularly throughout the year (e.g. getting up early). A Task is one specific act that must be completed before the year is over (e.g. sort out the stack of papers on the desk). Habits usually require more self-discipline, but Tasks run the risk of being postponed indefinitely.

Wording: The wording of a NYR must be clear and unambiguous. In the case of a Habit, it must always be possible to determine at the end of each day/week/month if the NYR has been accomplished. In the case of a Task, there must be no doubt at the end of the year whether  the task is done. Whenever using words that are vague or ambiguous, elaborate on the meaning. Write down the exact wording somewhere.

Amount: Make up a fixed amount of new NYRs every year. Based on advice 48 ("Every year make 5 promises. Try to keep at least one of them."), I propose 5 new NYRs every year. These do not include the NYRs that you decide to extend or revise, so in the end you may well end up with much more than 5 resolutions. Keep track of them on a piece of paper, or in a Word document (or equivalent). Delete resolutions if the numbers become too overwhelming. Use the entire year to think of new NYRs. If, for instance, you suddenly get an idea for a habit you could need, in the middle of May, then write it down somewhere and add it at New Year's Eve.

Final advice: Based on a survey involving 5000 people, Professor Richard Wiseman recommends the following 5 principles to have a better chance of keeping NYRs:
1. Break resolution into smaller, more achivable, steps.
2. Tell friends and family about your NYRs
3. Remind yourself regularly of the benefits of achieving your goals
4. Reward yourself every time you achive one of the smaller steps mentioned in [1.]
5. Map out your progress

Tomorrow I will post my own New Year's Resolutions here, so that even if you don't want to apply my system, you can see an example of it in action.

December 28, 2009

Popular Maths

Christmas is over, and a lot of us are presumably already enjoying our new presents. For me, no Christmas is complete without getting at least a couple of books, a present I always welcome. Lest I should sound like a total dweeb, I'd like to point out that I also wished for, and received, more standard presents. Still, a geek is a geek, and if you have followed my blog thus far -- or if you've had a peek at the 'About Me' section -- you may not be surprised to hear that I'm often given books discussing mathematical topics.

This year, however, I explicitly stated that I did not wish for any such books.

The reasons are twofold: First, it is a lot easier for me to decide which books are interesting and at the right level, and which books are too dull or too trivial. Additionally that means I can buy them second-hand, which saves money as well as paper. It is the second reason, though, that I want to focus on in this post. It may sound odd, but the majority of popular maths books that could potentially be a Christmas present, do not in fact target mathematicians like myself. Rather, they are meant to be enjoyed as gentle introductions to certain maths-related topics, to people whose main area of expertise is not maths. An appetizer, if you will. So whenever Iget one of these books, I always feel a little sad that whoever bought the book for me, did not buy it for him- or herself. 

Popular science books (books on popular science), such as Richard Dawkins' 'The Selfish Gene' and Bill Bryson's 'A Short History of Nearly Everything, are cropping up everywhere. Likewise, there are also plenty of popular maths books out there, some of which have received considerable attention and praise from the general public. Ian Stewart is worth mentioning in this context due to the popularity and success of his popular maths books, ranging from the serious, but still accessible, works ('Does God Play Dice', 'Letters to a Young Mathematician') to the more playful ones ('Professor Stewart's Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities', 'Math Hysteria'). Then there are books which explore presents one concept in detail, but in layman terms (like 'Imagining numbers', 'Fermat's Last Theorem'), books which explore a wide range of topics on a superficial level (like "Why Do Buses Come In Threes?' or 'How to Cut A Cake'), books which give a brief introduction to maths in general ('Introduction to Mathematics'), and so on.  Not to mention the somewhat childish yet extremely enjoyable 'Murderous Maths' series. I have read many of these, and always find them agreeable to read, but when I'm confronted for the 55th time with a detailed presentation of the golden ratio, I can't help thinking: I shouldn't be the one reading this.

Stephen Hawking writes in 'A Brief History of Time':

Someone told me that each equation I included in the book would halve the sales

Most popular maths books are therefore written in an informal style and contains as few equations as possible, so as not to scare the reader. In fact, this is the main feature that distinguishes a popular maths book from a standard maths book. The author usually takes care not to lose the reader in his reasoning, and it is these clear explanations that sometimes make me realise: someone else should read this. I think this is where the problem lies. People think that any kind of maths is beyond them, and that they will never be able to understand or appreciate it. They think that what lies between the covers of those books is an inaccessible world, when in fact the content of such books is not the 'real' maths that university students are being taught, but a modified version of it, specifically designed to be understood by the non-specialist. My Algebra lecture notes are an example of a text that requires a certain degree of mathematical ability to read; 'How To Cut A Cake' isn't.

Please, come visit Mount Maths. It's a little lonely up here. But the view is incredible.

December 12, 2009

Open letter to the Vlogbrothers

Last time I wrote an open letter, it was addressed to the English people in general, and was meant more as a joke than anything else. This time, however, I have in fact written and sent a letter (that is, a short email) to John and Hank Green, and have decided to post it here as well, for your enjoyment.

A few words about the two: Hank and John Green, also known as the Vlogbrothers, are two American brothers (aged 29 and 32 respectively) who decided in 2007 to spend an entire year communicating to each other only through non-textual means. They called it the 'Brotherhood 2.0' project, and initially gave it two rules: First, any form of text-based communication, like e-mail and SMS, was forbidden. Second, every weekday one of them would post a video blog on YouTube to the other, whereupon the other would respond in a video blog the next day, and so on for an entire year. The Vlogbrothers soon gained an unexpected number of followers who were subsequently dubbed Nerdfighters, as in "someone who fights for Nerds". Although the Brotherhood 2.0 project ended the 31st December 2007, the Vlogbrothers still regularly post videos on YouTube. Recurrent themes in their vlogs include: Promoting the idea of being an intellectual (hence the 'Nerdfighter' label), donating money to charity, and adding "in your pants" to book titles for hilarious effects. The videos are often somewhat interactive, asking the viewers to help the Vlogbrothers with a search or to participate in a good cause -- like, for instance, www.kiva.org -- and the acronym 'DFTBA' ('Don't Forget To Be Awesome') is frequently used as a reminder of the resourcefulness and creativity the YouTube followers have displayed. DFTBA has now become a popular abbreviation in the Nerdfighter community.

The email I sent to Hank and John is an example of what is known as 'constrained writing'. Constrained writing, as the name suggests, is a piece of writing like any other, but submitted to certain constraints. A classic example is George Perec's 300-word novel "La Disparition", written without ever using the letter 'E'. I will not reveal what the constraint is in my letter, but hopefully it will be obvious. Here it is:

Dear Fraternity

Title be Alexander, devoted fan. This being, Alexander delightfully followed the brothers' astonishing display 'f textless brotherhood. A double fortnights' time ('bout)  ago, Discovery Fortuitous (through bloke: Alex Day). From then, been active, darting fast through brotherhood animations. Done! From the beginning all down! Finished! Thus, became a dedicated 'Fighter.

Two brothers are -- Darn, for the best adjectives disappear from the brain. Altruistic; deep; funny; those become alluding descriptions for them, but are desperately failing to brotherhood adequately depict. For the bestselling author + ditty fabricating, treehugging brother 'Ank: durable fanfare that beautiful appraisal delivers, forever! This, both assuredly deserve!

Following things be Alexander's destined future: To buy amazing discs! Fie! the books also! Duo Fratres Triumphabunt!


The D's were a pain.

December 07, 2009

Frustration in Games

The following ideas are based on an innocent article I read years ago, but which has been stuck in my head ever since. I will be talking about games, and when I say "game", I'm referring to word as it is used in common speech. It can be solitary or involving several players; it can be a board game, a video game, a verbal game, and so on; but it must be something we play for fun, not for personal profit.

What makes a game a good game? Which aspect do all fun games have in common? What force drives our attention to the game, and keeps us motivated, addicted? I am not trying to give explanations as to why we have personal preferences, rather I want to make a conjecture about why the popular games have become so, and why many other potential ideas for games, while technically "games", would never be considered fun. So, in general, why do we like the games we play?

The answer, when you think about it, is less obvious than it would seem. Let's review some possibilities. Is it the chance that we might win, that motivates us? Partly, but consider a game where you win with absolute certainty. Surely such a game presents no interest whatsoever! The possibility of winning is naturally a crucial element in any good game, but the ability to win is, in itself, not what makes a good game. Is it the social aspect, then, the fact that it is a peaceful and relaxing way of interacting with other people? That, again, is a common trait in many games, but games like Sudoku, Crosswords or Minesweeper are also found amusing by many, and those games involve no human contact. The simple observation that it makes us forget the worries associated to our daily lives? This may very well explain why we play games in the first place, but not why certain games are generally found fun, while others have never seen the day of light.

My claim is that what keeps us attracted to certain games, is the element of frustration.

It may sound contradictory at first, but think about it. In almost every game, there is a rule which restricts you moves, blocks your play, or limits your abilities in some other way. Consider for example chess -- I will use chess as a recurring example throughout the post. Already, most of your pieces cannot move in any way they like, and to complicate things further, your most powerful pieces are initially stuck behind a row of slowly-moving pawns. The same kind of restrictive rules seem to apply to most other games I can think of: in Risk you lose men quickly, but regain them very slowly; in SET, the cards have to match in a very specific way; in Minesweeper you are only given partial information about the grid; in the well-known online Helicopter Game, green blocks constantly obstruct your way. All this contributes to the element of frustration, the feeling the game will not allow you to have things your way. And this might well be the secret little ingredient that will make you come back for more.

Now, some may argue that such restrictions are necessary, in order to make it non-trivial to win the game. But while this is true to some extent for single-player games, it does not hold when two or more people are playing against each other. Imagine a hypothetical variant of chess, in which most (if not every) piece would be allowed to move and capture like a queen. This is an "improvement" from standard chess, a removal of restrictions, but both players should still find it difficult to win, as both players will be following the new rules and thus none of the the two should have an advantage over the other. Likewise, in any other multi-player game, removal of restrictive rules should not necessarily facilitate a win. But still, what we see is that all but every multi-player game has rules that cause frustration of some kind. Not just irritation at the other players' behaviour, but also annoyance at the difficult position in which the rules themselves have put you. Who hasn't been frustrated because they were stuck in a puzzle game, or moaned at the lack of cards in your hand during a card game, or cursed at the sharp turns of a high-speed racing game -- and yet, kept playing? Regardless of what your favourite game is, chances are it has frequently caused you to feel angered, or at least slightly annoyed.

For every game there is, it is possibly to think of a less frustrating version of the same game. And still, the final product turned out to be what it is. For some reason, this unforgiving aspect of the rules makes a game more interesting, and the games with innocent and non-irritating rules, like War or Rock-Paper-Scissors, bore us quickly. There must, of course be a reason for this, and although I'm no psychologist, I think it;s safe to say that it is linked to the pleasure gained from overcoming a problem. If the game is harsh on you, you may feel a certain sense of achievement after winning, whereas if the game doesn't In a game involving multiple players there will of course always be the pleasure of having beaten the others, but an extra reward is offered for enduring, and beating, the game itself.

A final note: I'm not saying here that the more frustrating a game is, the better it is. What I mean to say, in a nutshell, is that every good game needs a certain degree of frustration incorporated in the rules. The art of making games, is finding this correct balance.

November 28, 2009

Minor Frustrations #2

Follow-up to Minor Frustrations #1 from The Missing N

Brace for impact: Tomorrow starts a 6-day nightmare. Between Sunday morning and Friday afternoon, I have the following: three Maths assignments (so far I have only managed to finish one), two tests, one programming assignment, a concert, and a Student-Staff-Liaison-Committee meeting. Not to mention my usual unforgiving timetable. As it has been a while since my last post, and as I won't be able to post much next week, I thought I'd post a short blog entry now. And given the short amount of time I want to spend on this, the stressful circumstances and my current frustration at my Algebra assignment, I thought a little rant would be appropriate. A completely unrelated, but nonetheless heartfelt, rant.

I mentally frown at people who... comment on movies while watching them. Some people seem to be unable to help themselves, and I do my best not to get angry at them, but it is something that can really spoil a movie for me. Maybe they see it differently, but to me the whole idea behind watching a film is that you pay fully attention to what is being said and what is going on on the screen. The strength of a visual medium like a movie, is its power of immersion. You see events taking place before your very eyes and you hear the accompanying dialogue, noise and soundtrack; in short, you feel sucked into the screen, and the external world suddenly stops existing. You forget that it is, after all, just a movie.

Therefore, I find it terribly frustrating when someone on the couch next to you suddenly yells "Oh god, did you see that!?". Not only is it a rather silly question, it also instantaneously breaks the wonderful spell under which the film may have put you, and yanks you back to reality, to the fact that you are in fact sitting/lying in a room and staring at a TV or a computer screen, and that whatever what you see taking place is to some extent... fake. The magic is momentarily lost, and it always takes little a while to dive back into the movie.

Especially if the blabbermouth keeps talking.

I have come to realise, though, that those people who enjoy talking during movies do not do it intentionally. It is for them a spontaneous thing that they do not think about, and which is as much a part of the movie-watching as the silence is for me. And as I talked about in the previous Minor Frustrations post, this isn't an all-important issue in my life. Rather, it's one of those things you don't care that much about but that you feel good complaining about. There.

November 14, 2009

Review: The Black Swan

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.

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