Swan Song

So, I’m done with The Black Swan. It feels false to say I’ve finished reading it, since I sort of skimmed the last third. I tried to stay connected, because the first part of the book really resonated with me, but it simply became too technical with no philosophy to anchor it back to “real life.” I like my numbers and graphs related to food and lurve. Or anything visceral.

Yet toward the end Taleb wrote these wonderful things…

Snub your destiny. […] Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking. [pg. 297]

We are quick to forget that just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions. [pg. 298]

And then the book became more interesting again, as Taleb talked of himself. He made the weirdly serendipitious point about mixing it up — how being random in your diet and exercise routine will result in more robustness (generally) than doing the same thing every day. We just discussed that here! He relates this to the economy, how all systems thrive on variability and randomness, that a period of hardship/deprivation will make you stronger, mentally and physically. Our bodies are strengthened by dealing with extremes, up to a point of course.

Everyone should read pgs. 324-329. Pure genius. I’d have to quote the entire thing, which I’m not going to do obviously. The whole book is worth the price just for those pages alone.


29 responses to “Swan Song

  1. I like the point about how just being alive is an extraordinary, improbable event. This thought has been handed to me, so to speak, over and over in the last several days.


  2. How is being alive improbable?


  3. Roy, tell us the story?


  4. Not being alive that’s improbable: being this particular constellation of matter and experience that makes up an individual, you: that’s what’s improbable.


  5. (Oof. Sorry for the two-colon “sentence.” Rise above it, David, rise above it.)


  6. Seems to me you’re as probable as anyone else.


  7. Logically speaking, IF being alive is improbable, and IF you are as probable as anyone else, THEN you are improbable, ergo …

    Why is life probable, DR? Clearly it’s possible and evident. But statistically? Honest q, not trolling, and won’t be pissy unless you are first. I mean, for you, more pissy than you generally are. Where here “pissy” means that brand of arrogance which you take as “cuddly” but we mere mortals find irritating. Uh oh. Does that count as being pissy? Eek.


  8. Life is probable because the universe is very big. And it’s as probable here as it is on any other planet it could have happened on. The beings on the very rare planet that has beings are always going to think it very improbable that they should be the beings.


  9. What I parse is that life is probable because we exist as proof of its possibility, or, from the other direction, since we already do exist, then life elsewhere is probable.

    In mathematical terms, even a thousandth of a thousandth of a percent is a “probability.” In experiential or practical terms, what line is crossed before a minuscule probability — an improbability if you will — is reckoned a probability? Granted, this is a squishy area, but I’m interested in hearing the reasoning.

    Also still want to hear Roy’s story about the last couple of days. Maybe he’ll blog it. Blog on, Brave Roy!


  10. Taleb doesn’t say what he means by it, so we’re free to spin it how we like (or not). I agree with Zen about the probability of life on earth not being the thing to get excited about, but what I think is (ew) out of all the results that could have happened between my parents, I am what there is. The odds of ME existing, specifically, are incredibly low. That doesn’t mean I’m special, in some religious way, just that (according to Taleb), I might think about not complaining so much all the time. How does he know?? 🙂


  11. My quick take: To say life is an “extraordinary piece of good luck, a remote event, a chance occurrence of monstrous proportions” is to say that of all the things it could be, and the countless more it could have not been, this life we actually have is wonderful for being unique and for including so much joy and beauty in its fundamental absurdity, and we live it most fully if we remember how improbable it is, and give thanks for the nature that sustains it and for every person who enriches it.


  12. In the last several days I have seen little things, here and there, that have made me realize that life is short and should be enjoyed, or utilized, or whatever your definition might be. Nothing mystical, I don’t think. Paula’s quote resonated. We shouldn’t take it for granted. In that way, life is a rare thing to be appreciated, but I can’t disagree with DZ when he says life is probable because the universe is so big. And long lived, I might add. And I have always said that if you know nothing about a particular thing, you sort of have to start with the assumption that the most probable explanation of what you see around you is that it is the result of the most probable of events. Every sun should have planets, every solar system should have one or two planets that have liquid water, and given enough time, every such planet should probably host some sort of life, and at least once in awhile some of that life should eventually invent the Internet. On the other hand, we make the assumption that we are common, probable, because the proof of that is our existence, and that assumption may be wrong. We may be, if you indulge me for a split second, all winners of the cosmic lottery.

    There is a club of actual lottery winners that gets together and drinks expensive booze and all whine about how unhappy they still are, whatever, but my point is should they think of themselves as “probable?” No, they should celebrate their status, and so should we all.

    I’m sorry I didn’t have some juicy story. I almost made one up . . .


  13. +1 to Don and Roy!


  14. Nancy, if the number of trials is sufficiently high, even something that is a priori very improbable becomes likely. You might like to figure out for yourself how likely a million to one chance is after a million trials.

    Don, keep smoking the weed bro. The thing is, it’s only as improbable as any other way it could have been, and the wonder you think it has is entirely internal to us. So basically you are praising the unlikeliness or otherwise of our having evolved brains that find the world wonderful.

    Roy, you (correctly) agreed that we’re nothing special and then you said, well despite reality, I think I’m special. Yes, it’s good to be alive but it’s not magical. It’s just atoms whirring away as they have for billons of years and this pattern of them thinks it’s real.


  15. Attention Zenners! I’ve been visiting The Jehovah’s Witness crowd cuz my neighbors /neigh-bours are in that camp. I sezs to them, meekly, that I’m not there to mark their work or nothin –their doctrine of hell is quite progressive… it goes downhill from there..Really, I’m here looking for a blonde beast, ain’t seen him yet. What was the topic? Oh well. I’m on your side, so lets go get ’em. “Spread out, Curly, whoop whoop whoop whoop whoop. My father died dancing…at the end of a rope. Whoop whoop whoop whoop.” Now, I’ll check the topic and say a sensible.thing.


  16. So, DR, the improbable is the probable, merely because it is possible.

    Not saying I disagree. Just wanted to see what boundaries you’d put upon it.

    Don/Roy/everyone else: Love that you all aren’t getting hung up on literal interpretations of the words, but instead reaching for the poetry behind them. Art isn’t about being right, after all.


  17. If you want to put it like that, then yes. Given enough trials, even the very unlikely becomes likely. Also, as I said, any being that exists will think it is improbable (because it is) but it is only as improbable as any other being would be.

    I entirely disagree on your definition of art btw. I agree much more closely with Blake afatg.


  18. I like to think of myself as the result of an extraordinary and unlikely series of fuck-ups that, in a just universe, would have proven to be my undoing. But here we are, you and I, at this unlikely, yet entire plausible juncture of history. Shall I rock you like a hurricane?


  19. Whatevs, peeps. I am totally magical and special.

    My husband has TBS, and because it’s on His Shelf, I’ve always ignored it assuming it to be some boringboring book on economics like all the other ones. Do you know how few car chases and sex scenes you get in those? Totally not worth your time.

    But if Paula sez so, I’ll have to check it out.


    • It is pretty heavily focused on economics, but there are still yummy nuggets regardless. He also mocks economists and bankers most delightfully.


  20. It’s just atoms whirring away as they have for billons of years and this pattern of them thinks it’s real.

    That actually does sound kind of magical. At least wonderful.


  21. it’s awesome to be the atoms.


  22. Note that I did not you can’t be wrong when out comes to art. Just that it isn’t about being right. Tricky, that.


  23. Zenners, splendid use of atomics. The cloud of smoke by day and the column of fire by night.”It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Safo that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, the stains become a warning, it is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” Dune the movie was, in part, an artistic failure, tho a brave attempt none the less.
    I don’t think I’m a result of random events. Evolution is a heresy that bred wickedness in the political sphere. I said as mrlevant@Twitter: we don’t want no chicken farmer.


  24. Paula’s beautiful writing, her intelligence and personal charisma ensures a her robust following. Father, anoint my words and your truth. Let him be the wheat and not a tare. Put your sign of welcome upon his brow. Blow ups are neater on the page and make a wordy space to write another day. Lo –in several days the Angel will speak but I editorialize faintly.. Wouldn’t be dead for quids: my raddled life, ancient purpose in the ’round, out of the physical spectrum, a charged logos, a universal harmonic of the realm. This castle has its drawbridge down –‘ere the spotters send their mark, to make a knight and bring him in safe, last joined the phalanx of the correct and true. A friend who sticks closer than a brother. He hears me in the mortal aptitude, red fields are for others not blessed of knowledge. Silence will take the fallen to their punishment. Not you, my brother.


  25. I agree with teacake that I am totally magical and special. But if it happened as a result of just and caring universe I would be totally magical and special in leather pants.


  26. @Erik
    You’ve got a good vibe there. Gonna buy meself some leather pants. 😀


  27. Pingback: Sad Shoe Day | Light Motifs

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