Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan is, despite it’s flaws, probably one of the more truly important works to show up on the bestseller list in a good while. I read it a couple months ago and made a lot of notes, but have neglected to blog about it (or much else) since. I hope to get that cleaned up in the next few days.
Below is probably the best and most entertaining real-world example or illustration in the entire book. Taleb recounts how he was called in to help with a Las Vegas casino’s risk management.
The casino’s risk management, aside from setting its gambling policies, was geared toward reducing the losses resulting from cheaters. One does not need heavy training in probability theory to understand that the casino was sufficiently diversified across the different tables to not have to worry about taking a hit from an extremely lucky gambler. All they had to do was control the “whales,” the high rollers flown in at the casino’s expense from Manila or Hong Kong; whales can swing several million dollars in a gambling bout. Absent cheating, the performance of most individual gamblers would be the equivalent of a drop in the bucket, making the aggregate very stable.
I promised not to discuss any of the details of the casino’s sophisticated surveillance system; all I am allowed to say is that I felt transported into a James Bond movie—I wondered if the casino was an imitation of the movies or if it was the other way around. Yet, in spite of such sophistication, their risks had nothing to do with what can be anticipated knowing that the business is a casino. For it turned out that the four largest losses incurred or narrowly avoided by the casino fell completely outside their sophisticated models.
First, they lost around $100 million when an irreplaceable performer in their main show was maimed by a tiger (the show, Siegfried and Roy, had been a major Las Vegas attraction). The tiger had been reared by the performer and even slept in his bedroom; until then, nobody suspected that the powerful animal would turn against its master. In scenario analyses, the casino had even conceived of the animal jumping into the crowd, but nobody came near to the idea of insuring against what happened.
Second, a disgruntled contractor was hurt during the construction of a hotel annex. He was so offended by the settlement offered him that he made an attempt to dynamite the casino. His plan was to put explosives around the pillars in the basement. The attempt was, of course, thwarted, but I shivered at the thought of possibly sitting above a pile of dynamite.
Third, casinos must file a special form with the Internal Revenue Service documenting a gambler’s profit if it exceeds a given amount. The employee who was supposed to mail the forms hid them, instead, for completely unexplainable reasons, in boxes under his desk. This went on for years without anyone noticing that something was wrong. The employee’s refraining from sending the documents was truly impossible to predict. Tax violations (and negligence) being serious offenses, the casino faced the near loss of a gambling license or the onerous financial costs of a suspension. Clearly they ended up paying a monstrous fine (an undisclosed amount), which was the luckiest way out of the problem.
Fourth, there was a spate of other dangerous scenes, such as the kidnapping of the casino owner’s daughter, which caused him, in order to secure cash for the ransom, to violate gambling laws by dipping into the casino coffers.
Conclusion: A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that the dollar value of these Black Swans, the off-model hits and potential hits I’ve just outlined, swamp the on-model risks by a factor of close to 1,000 to 1. The casino spent hundreds of millions of dollars on gambling theory and high- tech surveillance while the bulk of their risks came from outside their models. (p.130)
The bottom line of this story, and probably the biggest take-away from the entire book is that most of the important things that effect our lives our outside of our control and ability to predict. Using statistical model and science to predict the future gives us a very false sense of confidence and leads to a myriad of poor decision making. The “cure” is humility – to be more aware of your own lack of knowledge and control.
…He went to come out of theater then. “Do not come out, said Ailill, “till you bring me a branch of that mountain-ash on the bank of the river. Beautiful I think its berries.” He went away then and broke a spray from the tree, and carried it on his back through the water. And this was what Findabhair used to say afterwards of any beautiful thing which she saw, that she thought it more beautiful to see Froech across the dark pool; the body so white and the hair so lovely, the face so shapely , the eye so blue, and he a tender youth without fault or blemish, with face narrow below and broad above, and he straight and spotless, and the branch with the red berries between the throat and the white face…
-Froech in the Dark Pool, from A Celtic Miscellany, p.249
What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen? Some might thing the answer to this question must be something bordering on the abstract and ethereal, like a lovely sunset or a bright starry sky. Some might think of the sexiest man or woman they can remember, perhaps from the cover of a magazine. Someone steeped in scripture and closing their eyes might consider the adoration of Christ enthroned in heaven, though that is, of course, is yet to be revealed. Others may think of a perfectly built machine – it’s gears interlocking with great precision. A young child, filled with wonder and smiling, can be incredibly beautiful.
In the passage above, what does Ailill say, for the rest of her life, was the most beautiful thing she ever saw? Some dude wading through the water holding a stick. That would probably not be your first guess, but context is immensely important. The young man is at the height of physical beauty and courting her. He brings her a gift – a token that reminds her of one of her favorite things and places from nature. It’s highly subjective.
We are always told that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and to the degree that this is used to acknowledge that what is considered beautiful highly effected by the formation of the viewer and the context, this is true. But when this phrase is used to brush aside the possibility of absolutes and to make ugliness and evil equal with good and light, then it does the devil’s work – quite literally.
I love some of the imagery and ideas in this love poem called ‘Mary, My Darling’ that I found in the Celtic Miscellany.
If I were like a wild duck with the wide hills before me, and the sight of Heaven to save my soul, I should bring the girl home if I were able, and should let her father be seeking her a while.
If I were in London as chief of the Guard, and had leave from the French to sail y ship on the sea, though I were worth five thousand pounds every day I would give her my estate, my choice is Mary.
Get up, boy, and set off on your pony, and every way you go be asking for my dear love; she was betrothed to me while I was yet a child, and I thought her nine times sweeter than the cuckoo or the organ.
The notes say it’s from an Irish folk song, so I went to look it up. Surely up would pop 20 videos to choose from on YouTube or something in Wikipedia. Nope. After nearly an hour of Googling, it became apparent that it’s most likely the tune was lyrics were never translated into English. Even the smallest snatches of it only appear in Hurlstone Jackson’s translation, which I’m holding. And even what was probably a rhyming version in Gaelic appears to have been forgotten. It appears to have only survived as a instrumental fiddle tune.
In the late 1800s, this guy Patrick Weston Joyce walked all over Ireland and wrote down as many melodies as he could find old folks to sing or pipe them. We probably owe him a lot when it comes to preserving some of this music. In 1909 he published his “Old Irish Folk Music and Songs: A Collection of 842 Airs and Songs Hitherto Unpublished”. He has this to say about “Mary, My Darling”:
O MARY, MY DARLING . Irish, Air (3/4 time, “plaintive”). D Minor. Standard. AB. “There are two settings of this in Stanford-Petrie, different from each other, and both different from mine. both are in the major scale; but the tune should be in the minor: so I took it down from James Buckley, and so I heard all others play and sing it. Moreover, the ornamented setting given below, copied from Mr. Pigot, is also in the minor. There is a bad (major)_ setting in O’Daly’s Poets and Poetry of Munster, 2nd ser., p. 224, where will also be found the pleasing Irish peasant song of which this is the air. I give the tune here, partly to restore it to its proper minor form, and partly because it gives me an opportunity to record a good specimen of the variations and ornamentations which Munster fidders and pipers were fond of introducing into this and many other slow airs; such as ‘Rois geal dubh,’ ‘An rabhais ag an g-carraig,’ ‘Seadhan O’Duibhidhir an Ghleanna,’ etc. The musicians always played the simple unadorned melody first; after which came the ornamented form, or ‘Variations'” (Joyce). Joyce (Old Irish Folk Music and Song), 1909; No. 147, pgs. 74-75.
T:O Mary, my darling 
S:Joyce – Old Irish Folk Music
Ac|d>e fe dc|A2A2 d>e|f2 gf e/d/c/e/|d2d2 fe|
d>cAG F/G/A/=B/|cAd>cAG|F2 GEF>D|D2D2||
d>B|c2 dcAG|A2A2 d>e|f2 gfe>c|d2d2 fe|
At the bottom is the notation system he used. Translated into sheet music it looks something like this:
He was able to find several people that would play or hum him the tune, but even ~150 years ago, nobody volunteered any words. (He records the Gaelic words for many other tunes.) So it appears to have been lost, as far as I can tell at this distance and working through the laparoscopic portal of the web browser. To learn anything further would likely require real people and even rarer books.
This description of Hyfeidd the Tall appears in the 9th century record called the Gododdin, of an early Scottish people.
…Wearing a brooch, in the front rank, bearing weapons in battle, a mighty man in the fight before his death-day, a champion in the charge in the van of the armies; there fell five times fifty before his blades, of the men of Deira and Bernicia a hundred score fell and were destroyed in a single hour. He would sooner the wolves had his flesh than go to his own wedding, he would rather be prey for ravens than go to the altar; he would sooner his blood flowed to the ground than get due burial, making return for his mead with the hosts in the hall. Hyfeidd the Tall shall be honoured as long as there is a minstrel…
-from A Celtic Miscellany, Trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p.249
Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, writing here in the mid-14th century, describes what could easily pass for a scene in a contemporary romantic comedy film, such as Knocked Up (with Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl) or Date Night (with Steve Carell and Tina Fey). Reprinted below just to show that some ideas (and funny situations) are very old.
I came to a choice city with my handsome squire in my train, a place of liberal banqueting, a fine gay way of spending money, to find a public inn worthy enough, and I would have wine – I have been vain since childhood. I discovered a fair lissome maiden in the house, my sweet soul! and I set my heart wholly upon the slender, blessed girl like the sun in the east. I paid for a roast and expensive wine, not merely out of boastfulness, for myself and the fair girl yonder; and invited the modest maiden to my bench, a sport which young men love. I was bold and persistent, and whispered to her two words of magic , this is certain; and, no laggard lover, I made a pact to come to the sprightly girl, the black-browed maid, when the company should have gone to bed. When all were asleep but I and the lass I sought most skilfully to find my way to the girl’s bed – it was a miserable journey and came to grief.
I got a vexatious fall there, and made a clatter – not a good exploit; in such reckless mischief it is easier to get up awkwardly than very nimbly. I did not spring up unhurt; I struck my shin (oh, my shank!) above the ankle against the side of a silly squeaking stool, left there by the ostler. In rising where I was placed, unable to step freely but continually led astray in my frenzied struggles – my Welsh friends, it was a deplorable affair, too much eagerness is not lucky – I knocked my forehead against the end of a table, where a basin rolled freely for a while, and an echoing copper pan. The table, a bulky object, fell, and it’s two trestles and all the utensils with it. The pan gave a clang behind me which was heard far away, and the basin yelled, and the dogs began to bark at me – I was a wretched man!
Beside the big walls there lay three Englishmen in a stinking bed, fussing about their three packs, Hickin and Jenkin and Jack. One of these varlets muttered angry words to the other two, with his slobbering mouth: ‘There’s a Welshman prowling sneakily here, and some busy fraud is afoot. He’s a thief, if we allow it; look out, and be on your guard against him.’ The groom roused all the company together, and an ignominious affair began, they hunting about furiously to find me, and I, haggard and ghastly in my anguish, keeping mum in the darkness. I prayed, not fearlessly but hiding away like one terrified; and by dint of praying hard and from the heart, and by the grace of the true Jesus, I regained my former lodging in the grip of sleeplessness, and without the reward I had looked for. I escaped, for the saints stood by me; and I implore God for forgiveness.
(From A Celtic Miscellany, Trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p.210)
Discussion on pop music lyrics and meaning, from fans and critics alike, frequently feel like an exercise in missing the point. Ripped from the context of their 3 minutes and 45 second productions, they lose most, if not all of their weight. Recognizing that, I’d still like to take a stab at identifying a few patterns.
Possibly against my better judgement, I’ve binge-listened through Ellie Goulding’s new “huge pop” album Delerium quite a few times this week. As most of the songs come from the Swedish production and writing engines of folks like Max Martin and Klas Ahlund, it’s impossible to tell how much, if any input the singer/artist on the label had on the musical direction. The crafting of the vocal takes and synths is magnificent though, even on some of the weak or obnoxious tracks.
On the album we hear a lot of lines like:
I just move as my heart commands
(from “Scream It Out”)
You got yourself in a dangerous zone
Cause we both have the fear, fear of being alone
(from “On My Mind”)
But tonight I’m gonna lose it all
Playing with fire, I was the first to fall
Heart is sinking like a cannonball
Baby kill it, what’re you waiting for?
(from “Something in the Way You Move”)
There is often a deep self-awareness of weaknesses and limitations, coupled with a passionate abandon. One moment, she’s a reflective outside observer, the next moment she’s the actor – making serial youthful bad decisions to get high and dance all night, spend the night with a stranger, etc.
Nearly every other track on the 23-tune deluxe album features this tension in some form. Youth vs. maturity, spontaneity vs. memory, sin(?) vs. wisdom. Sia’s 1000 Forms of Fear album from last year (that I discussed here) frequently employed the same shtick: Trapped in addiction but going to live it up(?). Trapped in a bad relationship but gonna be tough(?). I’m sure if my knowledge of the last 20 years of Top 40 was more encyclopediac I would find no shortage of examples. Or maybe not.
The one that comes to mind at the moment is Sheryl Crow’s “Favorite Mistake” (1998). One gets the impression on listening that despite her newfound wisdom, she would make the same mistake over again if given a time machine. It seems that the 3:45 pop song is a “safe place” where one can reminisce on one-night stands, recalling the youthful excitement while distancing oneself from the destructive aftermath. Growing up in Evangelical culture, I was incessantly warned about this kind of whitewashing and I won’t argue with the veracity of that take. But it seems that these songs also have an incredible vicarious therapeutic value that is rarely acknowledged or discussed. At the end of the day though, I think that’s often why we like them, though the “why?” resists analysis.
It seems that most of U2’s writing takes this tension of reflection a further step back. When Bono sings…
The DNA lottery may have left you smart
But can you stand up to beauty, dictator of the heart
(from “Stand Up Comedy”)
Are we so helpless against the tide?
Baby, every dog on the street
Knows that we’re in love with defeat
Are we ready to be swept off our feet
And stop chasing every breaking wave?
(from “Every Breaking Wave”)
I’ve had enough of romantic love
I’d give it up, yeah, I’d give it up
For a miracle, a miracle drug, a miracle drug
(from “Miracle Drug”)
…he’s more skeptical of his own memory, of his own passions and ability to make the right decision, even in the present. In short, love is still the subject, but he’s moved on from reflecting on romance to thinking about God. An extra 25 years will do that to you.
The above is all just an exercise in wondering out loud about something I’d like to understand more. But dear reader, don’t think too hard about it. Instead, listen to everything great about this:
The Irish bard Tadhg Og O hUiginn, who died in 1448, wrote this:
O Son of God, do a miracle for me, and change my heart; Thy having taken flesh to redeem me was more difficult than to transform my wickedness.
It is Thou who, to help me, didst go to be scourged by the Jews; Thou, dear child of Mary, art the refined molten metal of our forge.
It is Thou who makest the sun bright, together with the ice; it is Thou who createdst the rivers and the salmon all along the river.
that the nut-tree should be flowering, O Christ, it is a rare craft; through Thy skill too comes the kernel, Thou fair ear of our wheat.
Though the children of Eve ill deserve the bird-flocks and the salmon, it was the Immortal One on the cross who made both salmon and birds.
It is He who makes the flower of the sloes grow through the surface of the blackthorn, and the nut-flower on other trees; beside this, what miracle is great?
(From A Celtic Miscellany, trans. by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p. 300)
What miracle indeed is greater? Many who have read Chesterton’s Orthodoxy have delighted at his attempt to “reenchant” the world and make the plain, everyday, perhaps boring, and “natural” things seem amazing an magical. Here I think the author is reflecting in the same vein.
Scientific naturalism carries with it a curious sort of entitlement. It is as if one DESERVES the salmon in the stream on account of our surviving the million-year Darwinian meat-grinder. Instead of a gift from the immortal creator, we take them for granted, scoffing at little children who still find their presence magical. (I’m looking at you Neil deGrasse Tyson.) Since we think we know for certain how they came about, then we feel allowed to disregard them as a gift. “Hey religions morons, show us a f**kin’ miracle!” we cry. But we have categorized truckloads of miracles out of sight already. We can point at little that isn’t already right under our noses.
A frequent subject of the Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym is two lovers attempting to meet secretly at night. It rarely works out well. Here is representative passage from his piece The Mist (~1350).
I made a perfect tryst with my slender lovely girl, we pledged ourselves to steal away – but my journey was all in vain. I went out early to wait for her, but a mist sprang up as night came on; a cloudy mantling made the road dark, as if I were in a cave; all trace of the sky was hidden and the empty mist rose to the heavens. Before I could step one pace on my journey not a spot of the land was to be seen any more; neither the birch-wood slope, nor the shore, the hills, the mountains, nor the sea. Woe to you, you great yellow mist, that you did not ebb for a while once you were made! Like a cassock you are of the grey-black air, a very sheet without an end, the blanket of yonder lowering rain, a black weft from afar, hiding the world; like a vapour from the ovens of Hell, the smoke of the world bred up from far off, the smoke of the ghost-fires of Hades, a thick mantle over this earth, the web of the spiders of the sky that fills every place like the high seas.
(A Celtic Miscellany, Trans. Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson, p.78)
It’s essentially the 14th century version of that music video for Closing Time.
As a casual hobby writer and a laymen, I don’t typically post links to the sermons I deliver occasionally at church. However, I got a lot of positive responses to this one and in the absence of a manuscript (I’ve been trying to preach from minimal notes lately), I’ve decided to post a link to the recording here for the handful of those who might be interested.
The outline is as follows:
Acts 26 – Paul’s 3rd telling of his conversion
Why personal conversion stories?
Ways God is being made known to men
Ways God does NOT make himself known
The richness and diversity of testimonies
The PROBLEM with testimonies (We are hypocrites, liars, idiots, poor communicators, and poor listeners.)
The double-edged sword of post-modernism: Personal story unquestionable, but immediately dismissible
Whom can you trust?
“Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament”
The Good News for those burned by the church.
Jesus and the Holy Spirit overcome the shortcomings and problems with testimonies
In the ~9th century account of the death of king Conchabhar mac Nessa of Ulster (Northern Ireland), a great earthquake is observed. The Druid at hand tells the king that the reason for the “trembling of heaven and earth” is the death of Jesus Christ the Son of the Living God, at the hands of the Jews. It then comments that Conchabhar was one of only two individuals in Ireland (the other being the wise judge Morann) to believe in the one true God before the coming of Christianity centuries later.
Now, one could say quite easily that this is obviously a later addition and embellishment on a much older tale, but like much myth, it could contain a grain of truth. With the Magi, the birth of Christ was announced to pagan astrologers who then came to pay him homage. Could not his death also have been marked in such a way that other pagan priests might have taken notice?