Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A couple of follow-ups

1) Sunday, I wrote about Kevin Drum's struggles with Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, a book that, for no particular reason, has vaulted the author into the pantheon of pundits. His unremarkable observation that "bad things happen," cloaked as it is in self-indulgent tracts of virtually unreadable prose, struck me as a very few good ideas in search of a book.

Kevin found it "odd" and "intensely annoying":
The problem is that Nassim Nicholas Taleb basically sounds like a crank. His prose has all the usual markers: everyone else is an idiot (this includes philosophers, economists, historians, journalists, and pretty much all social scientists, among others); he's the only one who truly understands the world as it is; there's a monocausal explanation for this almost universal lack of understanding in others; and there's a tiny cast of other unappreciated geniuses who do get it (Benoit Mandelbrot, Karl Popper, G.L.S. Shackle, Daniel Kahneman, etc.).
But what of the content (and Taleb certainly pushes against the idea that we can separate style from content)?:
Generally speaking, he wants to persuade us that we know less than we think and that forecasting the future is a mug's game because history is primarily governed by huge, unpredictable events that come out of nowhere (black swans). But this is sort of a banal point: scholars have been arguing about the importance of contingent events vs. broad historical trends forever, and the difficulty of predicting technological breakthroughs is well-trod ground. Worse, Taleb doesn't add much to what's already been said about it. Just the opposite, in fact. In one chapter he cherry picks some inventions here and there to help make his case, but even using his own hand-picked examples he's not very convincing. We all know that penicillin was discovered by accident, but the computer? Taleb seems to think it sprang out of nowhere, but that's sure not how I remember it. It was a big invention and a huge discontinuity, but it was hardly unpredictable and hardly an accident.
Kevin seems to be surprised that there is so little there there, but is willing to concede that he may have missed the point. I would say, Kevin, you didn't miss the point at all; the real challenge is to explain why so many others have been so influenced as to make "black swan" a hot term, and Taleb a media star.

2) As for the disappearance of the great blog Carrie's Nation, in a comment to my follow-up post, 2Truthy unfolds the speculation that she shared with Melvin Toast on her fine blog, to wit:
In a nutshell, the entity known as 'Carrie's Nation' was likely one or more professional researchers working for a firm that pulled the plug at the end of April. That explains the blogger, CC's sudden and mysterious disappearance. Job over, on to the next disparate gig, maybe with tax codes. Detroit housewife? Fine. Sure.
That may be so, and fits the facts as we know them as well as any other explanation (including 2Truthy's offer of CC's suicide as an explanation, and mine of the Obama Indian technology cabal pulling the plug and sending her off to Gitmo).

If that is so, then there is actually a kind of Turing Test insidiousness to the Carrie's Nation experience, no matter how much I might tend to agree to the purpose to which it was put. The creation of a back story, complete with blog posts containing out-the-front-door pictures of a snowy day; the personal e-mails that I exchanged with CC; the idiosyncracies that, at least, seemed grounded in quotidian life: If all of these are fictions, I am left with a peculiar feeling.

Again, accepting 2Truthy's theory requires me to accept that a lie lay at the heart of Carrie's Nation. I have discussed my reasons for cloaking my real identity, but I am still the person I have revealed here. My name wouldn't add anything to the discussion, but every material fact I have written is, indeed, a fact. I can't really say that I like the idea that CC may have been a corporate figment, partially because my own representation of "her" is put in question, but more because it casts doubts on anyone who adopts a nom de plume for whatever reason.

So a part of me resists the theory, even as time and logic dictate acceptance. If that's the case, then perhaps 2Truthy is the passionate alter ego of George Will (he doesn't really believe the stuff he writes, so expresses his true feelings under an alias), mcfnord the online avatar of Bill Gates - heck, maybe I better go check my driver's license to make sure I'm not some consortium of think tank-ers writing my little blog each day.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My guess is that whoever was behind Carrie's Nation got a job. That's the #1 reason people drop out of internet activism. They do what's best for themselves, and that means hiding things that might get them blacklisted.

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