I haven’t had this significant of a lull in writing since I began in early 2007. The reason is that I have been preparing for a trip later this autumn to Ethiopia. I’m been practicing Ethiopian Amharic pretty regularly for the past two months. My wife has been a great help. We’ve learned the bulk of the Fidel/Ge’ez script and are up to somewhere close to 600 words. I’ve also learned quite a bit more basic grammar this time around. I still feel completely useless though and terribly slow. But no matter – it’s time to just keep pushing through. I believe it’s entirely worth it.
Why am I traveling? Many reasons. First of all, I’ll be looking up the immediate and extended family of my adopted daughter. I know close to where they are located and am enlisting some help to find them. I hope to give them pictures of their daughter (they last saw her over four years ago) and just talk to them a lot and learn as much as I can of her history. I’ll be showing them some videos and also recording some to bring back home. My daughter is still too young to visit, but I hope to take her back there in a few more years, along with maybe the entire family.
I’ll also be visiting a boy we have been sponsoring in one of the orphanages there for several years. We met him on our last trip and though he isn’t open for adoption, my wife and I both desired in our hearts to do something to support him directly. I’ll try to meet him casually without giving him any reason to become attached and also inquire into some of his persisting medical issues. I haven’t been able to make much headway on that from afar.
I’ll also be scouting around a bunch looking for future volunteer service opportunities for if my wife or the whole family if we were to come here short or long-term. I’ll be visiting a couple of different schools for the blind and talking with some other teachers and missionaries in the area. I’ve discovered that virtually none of what I need to know can be discovered by surfing the internet or via email. I’m just going to have to go there myself to learn about what’s happing first-hand. That will help us get the information we need to decide in what capacity to go back in the future. This could be anywhere on the spectrum of “visit as tourists for a week” to “move the whole family there for 2 years”. It could also be soon or far in the future. I have no idea. I am hoping that the Holy Spirit makes it obvious what we should do.
While I’m there, I’ll also be looking up a few people that I can talk to about the state of Christianity there as I find it (and it’s contrast with the secular west) completely fascinating. I’d love to talk to someone at a protestant seminary, as well as an Orthodox clergyman. I’ve been slowly making contacts. I’ll also be visiting a couple of people that helped us out with our adoption and an acquaintance at a tech incubator in the capital. I don’t think I’ll end up doing any of the typical tourist things except drink a lot of coffee! With any luck my Amharic skills will be at least slightly useful. Fortunately, Ethiopians are not at all snooty about feregi (white foreigners) trying to speak their language. Whew!
I also hope to journal a lot about my time there. Hey, it worked last time! In the meantime though, I probably won’t be putting much down into words. Even my sermons at church as of late have been delivered from shorter notes and I’ve skipped the labour of materializing them as a series of blog posts. My to-read pile is backed up beyond my mortal ability to catch up with it. But maybe that can be a good thing.
I love the variety of people who shop at Winco, our beloved local grocery store, late on a Friday night. This list is entirely accurate (though not exhaustive), and almost completely hyperbole-free.
1. The Indian guy buying 5 pounds of curry powder in bulk.
2. The Chinese couple with an entire shopping cart full of bok choy and pork and nothing else.
3. The frat guy with 2 cases of Keystone Light.
4. The elderly couple walking 1 mile an hour and blocking the soup cans indefinitely.
5. The mob of sorority girls in yoga pants, loud and rude.
6. Players from the basketball team, extremely tall and chugging an entire Gatorade while waiting in line at the checkout.
7. The tired mom with screaming kid who I’m sure the mom wishes could be in bed.
8. The stock worker who just about runs you over with the forklift.
9. The deep woods homesteaders buying two giant carts full of food since they only come into town once a month.
10. The dad who drank way too much coffee buying yet more milk and frozen Eggo waffles promised for his kid’s “balanced” breakfast the following day.
Joyce’s Ulysses cries, “History is the nightmare from which I must wake up.”
As in previous millenniums of the Christian story men found and testified and fought for one God and one earth, so now we must find and testify and fight for God’s one time against impatient men’s private plans for history. Schemes to usher in the end of history overnight defy the Christian belief in a dispensation of time, whereby God is taking care of his world from beginning to end.
-Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, The Christian Future, p.20
Though Nazi Fascism and what would become Communism were the two things on the radar when Rosenstock-Huessy wrote the above in the 1940s, this observation seems equally relevant if not more so today. I look all around me and I see “schemes to usher in the end of history overnight”.
I see “futurists” gushing about the impending AI “singularity” when the intelligence of machines will surpass that of man.
On the other side I see Christian Zionists who talk incessantly about Israel and prophecy, with their televisions tuned to CNN and their web browsers to World Net Daily. Any minute now, the last something showdown blood moon something tribulation something is going to explode. Heck, maybe we can even help it along, eh!? It’s kind of a drag that Jesus is taking His sweet time.
I see Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs talking with straight faces about how their new app will literally overhaul all of humankind.
I see pop atheist writers rejoicing at how we are throwing off last vestiges of religion and embarking on a future of pure humanistic freedom (in apparently the last days of man as the environment decays around us).
Joyce yearned to throw off history and even language, and yet he is so steeped in Catholicism, he can almost sound like a religious man to our ears today, his invented words and run-on sentences relegated to the ivory tower. Picking up the mantle are the contemporary gender-benders and linguistic castrators building a safe couch cushion fort out of trigger warnings. Their dismantling of the past seems eminent, but only to the Bay area social media app users on the one hand and the folks permanently tuned to CNN on the other.
For the rest of us hanging out somewhere in the middle (including the +1 billion Christians and +1 billion Muslims not living in the modern west), these schemes seem much less impending.
I believe God is “taking care of his world from beginning to end”. I pray to Christ today to protect me from the temptation to try to exert more control than I have been given, and the temptation to tremble in fear of the control other are exerting. There are schemes to yank history in this or that direction, but his slow growing seed of life and hope cannot be dislodged. Amen.
I’ve asked the question before (and here): what is an acceptable level of syncretism (mixing folk religion) in Christianity?
Syncretism, defined most narrowly would be formally and obviously mashing things up another proper religion. Recently converted tribes where local deities are still appeased is the textbook example. Some rituals of the cult of the Aztec goddess Tonantzin sometimes making their way into the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Mexico is another classic example. Much of what is often called Messianic Judaism probably fits this definition. But these distinctions are easy and the cases isolated. I’m not at all interested in this kind of syncretism.
It seems to me that there is no general escape from, as a young Christian, blending in your own preexisting beliefs (be they Pagan or secular, or what have you) with your new-found faith in Christ Jesus. An immature believer will have all kinds of silly baggage still in there from his previous years, his parent’s beliefs, and practices instilled in him by his job and cultural context. In short, we are ALL syncretists, especially at first, and remain so to some degree for our entire lives.
And because that is the case with all of us – that none of us ever holds exclusively to orthodoxy, despite our deepest intentions and our most careful crafted confessional documents, this must be, more or less, OK. I’m serious. God must be completely OK with the fact this is going on. Oh the shock! No! Wouldn’t the Lord grieve over our continuing to walk in darkness? That’s just not right! But wait. Think of it less in the abstract and with an apt analogy:
We are his children, his most beloved children. We are also rather young – not babies, but not elders. Think of your own children. Imagine your are in the shop with your ten-year-old son building a bookcase out of wood. You are doing most of the cutting, but he gets to fit all the pieces together and hammer the nails. When it’s all done and painted, you see that some of the nails are driven in crooked and protruding into the shelves in a couple spots. Do you scream at your son for his error and then smash the bookcase and throw it into the fireplace? Of course not. You know how to be a good father so you kindly point out a couple shortcomings (probably not too many – you decide not even to mention the corner that didn’t get sanded right), and move on.
The next day, your eleven-year old daughter is cooking spaghetti for the family. You’ve helped her do it a couple of times in the past and she’s excited to do it without any help this time. She browns the beef and adds the tomato sauce and salt, but absentmindedly looks at only the first letter on the bottle in the spice cupboard and adds a tablespoon of ginger instead of garlic. There are some funny looks at the dinner table later in the evening as it’s obvious something isn’t right with the sauce. But do you respond by throwing the food in the garbage and banning your daughter from cooking again until she completes a 2-year degree with Le Cordon Bleu? That’s ridiculous. It’s a learning experience. The next one will be too.
Our faith in Christ, though completely honest and stirred up by the Holy Spirit, is always muddled up with other ideas and faulty thinking about the nature of God and the world. Lots of good teaching and spiritual formation helps, but that takes time and mileage may vary. God knows all of this up front. Missionaries have often been criticized for, in hindsight, not “doing it right” when introducing Christianity to a foreign culture or little-understood people group. But geesh, somebody needed to do it! The early church was rife with pagan practices that took a whole generation or two to (mostly) root out. Read the letters to the Corinthians.
We in the modern west like to think of OUR ideas as pragmatic and scientific – not capable of mixing with religion since they are NOT religion themselves. Aren’t we clever? We are fools to think this. Our ideas about medicine, or free markets, or individual rights intersect deeply with our beliefs about the nature of God and man. They are our own folk religions that get blended with the Gospel when we try to think through problems and articulate our beliefs. If, when faced with a question, our conditioned gut-reaction is to check our iPhones for an answer (long before praying for wisdom), this too is not a wholly a-theological response.
But the Holy Spirit knows all this. Of course he does. And he is always guiding us into deeper relationship with God and greater maturity and understanding, a little bit at a time. Sometimes, branches on the new tree may take hundreds of years to bloom. That’s OK. We may think we don’t have much time, but the Lord has plenty.
And this helps explain why it seems like the Church is always in disarray. Its sheep are at all different levels of maturity. Its leaders are at different places along this journey too. Regionally the Church in China may have matured and learned some lesson that was long forgotten by the church in, say, Canada. Different modes of teaching and expression will be more effective for different people, at different stages of life, in different regions.
We’re all over the place and each new crop of children has to be brought into the faith as well. This is painstakingly hard work and we as parents can tie ourselves in knots worrying about drift. (Forget cross-cultural issues, personality differences is my own kids are challenging enough!) But God is our good Father, the Good Shepherd, and he will gently (and occasionally not-so-gently) lead us to good pastures. I think our ability to articulate and transmit orthodox belief is just not as hot as we think it is or wish it were. Syncretism, in the broad general sense, abounds, but this doesn’t mean the Church is a failure. It only means that God’s work is diverse rather than technically monolithic.
What got me thinking about all this again was this passage from Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Christian Future:
Each generation had, and still has, to be introduced to the whole painful process of rediscovery. Hence the Church has acted like an immense sponge, sucking up all childish approaches toward understanding, and deterring no one who was of good faith and on the road and still alive. No pagan, native, primitive first step was rebuked as long as group or individual remained in communion with the complete truth and its guardian, the Church. As a result, rationalists – who are a large part of the “world” in our day – are able to see this sponge character of the Church, but not the central truths toward which it drew the pre-Christian approximations which it absorbed. So rationalists reduce Christianity to a mere patchwork of prior sources, and identify a literal adult belief in the Creed with this or that childish state in its own understanding.
Truth, however, is only in those experiences that can be expressed by various ages in various ways. Even in mathematics the same truth recurs in new applications and in very different forms of statement. So legends like Santa Claus are not lies when told to children that they may understand the workings of the Spirit among us – as long as the legend waits to be told again, in appropriate terms, to the adolescent, the man, the father, the community leader. To omit the legendary form of truth is to suppress truth. As a human being, I need legend, the myth, the ritual, the poem, the theorem, the prophecy, the witness, the sermon, every one of them. The four Gospels give a model example of this rule that one truth must be expressed in different ways for different times of life. and that the whole truth is conveyed only on several such levels together.
I am fully conscious of the hollowness of these remarks [about the Christian Creed] for many good people who have no notions of God. To tell them that Jesus has divinity conveys little. They would first have to realize who God is, by starting with some experience of the Spirit who triumphs over their prejudices. It is the third article of the Creed [the Holy Spirit] which will have to form the basis of experience without which no reflection on the dogma is of any use. After all, the Creed reflects active participation in some prayer to God the Father or some sacrifice in the love of the Son. All the Scholastics who reasoned out God were priests or monks who prayed day and night. Their reflections on the trinity came as afterthought to real action and a way of life.
One of my students, on the other hand, frankly told me in his examination paper: “I have never prayed and I do not know what prayer is or is intended to do.” It is forbidden and would be blasphemous to discuss with this boy the divinity of Christ. He must be plunged into some communal experience of inspired living before we may mention to him the spirit behind all inspirations. I am afraid that we are prone, in our discussions of the Divinity, to gloss over the second commandment not to use God’s name in vain. Alas, it is applicable to our vain attempts of “discussing” God with people before they have experienced Him in one of the tree ways in which God overwhelms us, as our Maker, as our Victim, and as our Vivifier.
-Eugen Rosenstock Huessy, The Christian Future, p.105
This passage makes a penetrating statement regarding something I’ve long felt (from my teenage years), but have been unable to articulate – something wrong about some modern evangelism and Christian interaction with the secular public square. Check out what Rosenstock Huessy is saying here about interacting with the young agnostic man. “It is forbidden and would be blasphemous to discuss with this boy the divinity of Christ.” To geek out on the finer points of theology around this guy would be to take the Lord’s name in vain. To try to tell him of the glories of the Trinity might be a great wrong. We probably do this every day with our public spats on the internet about doctrine and ecclesial inside baseball. I also think this is a major shortcoming or at least danger of presuppositional apologetics. They are worse then nothing to the listener who has not been “plunged into communal experience” or been “overwhelmed by God”. In some fashion, the “seeker-sensitive” church recognizes this and attempts to make amends, but ends up breaking more things than it fixes in the process.
The chief pillar of good communication is understanding who you are speaking to – knowing your audience. It would seem that the most important element when preaching the gospel or teaching the Word would be discerning the activity of the Holy Spirit, how much and in what manner, in the lives of the listeners. As this is virtually impossible at a distance, the healthiest context is probably a relatively small congregation – not an unknowable number of listeners.
I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead
His eye to watch, His Might to stay
His ear to hearken to my need
The wisdom of my God to teach
His hand to guide, His shield to ward
The Word of God to give me speech
His heavenly host to be my guard
The second to last line of this stanza in this translation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate (see above) always gives me bit of the chills. “The Word of God to give me speech.” This could mean Jesus the creator giving us, his children the, power of language. I also picture children with slates and an old Bible centuries ago learning to read by memorizing and copying scripture. We talk so much about so many things and so presumptuously, but our very breath comes from Him. Without His gift, it’s like our mouths are glued shut, our minds in a dense fog.
I think this passage from Eugen Rosenstock Huessy’s The Christian Future is trying to get at a similar idea.
The Living God thus revealed by Jesus must be forever distinguished from the merely conceptual God of philosophers. Most atheists deny God because they look for Him in the wrong way. He is not an object but a person, and He has not a concept but a name. To approach Him as an object of theoretical discussion is to defeat the quest from the start. Nothing but the world of space is given in this manner. Nobody can look at God as an object. God looks at us and has looked at us before we open our eyes or our mouths. He is the power which makes us speak. He puts words of life on our lips.
Excerpts and a few comments from the (excellent and concise!) Penguin early Christian writings anthology:
The Didache is a small and tantalizing piece of evidence from a period of enormous importance for the history of early Christianity of which we are almost totally ignorant and driven to conjecture and hypothesis. But apart from the evidence it gives us for answering the kind of questions WE want to ask, it provides – more importantly – a picture of the Church standing on the brink of the world to come, eager for the coming of its Saviour, to whom it looks with joy, and aware of the momentous decision we make in the face of that coming, a decision between light and darkness, life and death.
p.189 (from the introduction)
Never speak sharply when giving orders to male or female domestics whose trust is in the same God as yours; otherwise they may cease to fear Him who is over you both.
A distinction is made for second generation Christians (what we call “raised in a Christian home” today), as early as 96 A.D.
The date of the Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians is generally reckoned to be about A.D. 96. The messengers who bore the epistle are describes as ‘men whose lives have been irreproachable from youth to old age’, that is Christians of the second generation.
Marvelous passages like this probably caused more than a few folks to want to include some of these writings in the original canon.
If there is true Christian love in a man, let him carry out the precepts of Christ. Who can describe the constraining power of a love for God? Its majesty and its beauty who can adequately express? No tongue can tell the heights to which love can uplift us. Love binds us fast to God. Love casts a veil over sins innumerable. There are no limits to love’s endurance, no end to its patience. Love is without servility, as it is without arrogance. Love knows of no divisions, promotes not discord; all the works of love are done in perfect fellowship. It was in love that all God’s chosen saints were made perfect; for without love nothing is pleasing to Him. It was in love that the Lord drew us to Himself; because of the love He bore us, our Lord Jesus Christ, at the will of God, gave His blood for us – His flesh for our flesh, His life for our lives.
I Clement 49
It was commonly believed that magic, which played a large part in the pagan religions, was destroyed by the Incarnation, and that the visit of the Magi typified its capitulation.
Footnote from Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians
I had not heard of this idea before and I’ll need some more sources to back it up, but it’s worth exploring. How this relates to demonic activity (and it’s alleged near-absence in the modern age) is of interest to me.
To profess Jesus Christ while continuing to follow Jewish customs is an absurdity. The Christian faith does not look to Judaism, but Judaism looks to Christianity, in which every other race and tongue that confesses a belief in God has now been comprehended.
Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians, Ch. 10
Ignatius doesn’t mince words with mushy interfaith dialogue!
My pen declines to write the names of these infidels, and I would even wish to have them erased from my memory altogether until such time as they come to a better mind about the Passion which effects our resurrection from the dead.
Ignatius’ Epistle to Smyrna 5
Ignatius is classy though. He doesn’t “name names”.
God has certainly filled my head with a great many thoughts; but I am careful of my own limitations, for fear boasting should be the downfall of me. The sentiments I ought rather to be feeling are apprehension, and a disregard of all those who seek to flatter me.
Ignatius’ Epistle to the Trallians, Ch. 4
Good stuff, and a proper introduction to a book, especially today.
Good does not reside in what your eyes can see; the fact that Jesus Christ is now within the Father is why we perceive Him so much the more clearly. For the work we have to do is no affair of persuasive speaking; Christianity lies in achieving greatness in the face of a world’s hatred.
Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans 3
The Apostle saw the force of this when he told us, knowledge makes a windbag, but love is a builder; that was his rebuke to the knowledge which is exercised without regard to the life-giving precepts of the truth. For a man who claims to know, but is without the knowledge which is real and attested by life, knows nothing; the serpent has tricked him, because his heart is not set on life. But he who possesses knowledge coupled with fear, and whose quest for life is earnest, may plant in hope and look for fruit.
The Epistle of Barnabas seems strange to modern ears: allegory is out of fashion and there is little else in the epistle. But the fashion that outlaws allegory is quite recent, and fashions change.
In the Epistle of Barnabas, (Ch. 4 for example) we see a vanilla premill interpretation of Revelation – Thing are going to just keep getting worse, and then Jesus will come back soon. Regional government activity seen as obviously the subject of Revelation imagery. Apparently projecting ourselves onto the NT prophecy has been going on literally from the very beginning. Every new generation thinks it’s about them. Maybe it is, in some fashion.
The excerpts I found the most interesting are below, with an occasional comment or attempted connection.
The beast…. is the drive to “focus” on what makes sense to us. Living on our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination than we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others.
Like Wendell Berry, Taleb often criticized the ills of overspecialization, but from completely different angles.
History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history. There is a fundamental incompleteness in your grasp of such events, since you do not see what’s inside the box, how the mechanisms work. What I call the generator of historical events is different from the events themselves, much as the minds of the gods cannot be read just by witnessing their deeds. You are very likely to be fooled about their intentions.
This disconnect is similar to the difference between the food you see on the table at the restaurant and the process you can observe in the kitchen.
The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows that is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
b. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and
c. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they “Platonify”.
Taleb spends a lot of the first part of the book talking about humans amazing ability to confidently come up with explanations of why something happened after the fact, usually in ways that imply that we obviously would have seen it coming if we had been paying attention. We want to feel in control so we exercise control over history by over-explaining things that maybe have no other explanation than luck (or I would add, divine providence).
Scientists may be in the business of laughing at their predecessors, but owing to an array of human mental dispositions, few realize that someone will laugh at their beliefs in the (disappointingly near) future.
Taleb grew up as an Orthodox Christian in Lebanon, though he is mostly an agnostic today. Still he frequently takes pot shots at those who put too much faith in contemporary science and he does not ridicule the religious, which is definitely refreshing.
Information WANTS to be reduced – either into stories we can understand, or into smaller chunks we (or robots) can handle.
We reduce too much information into stores because then we can remember it. Computers have to do the same thing (or rather we help them do the same thing) because you can’t do jack with too much non-boiled-down data.
People in professions with high randomness (such as in the markets) can suffer more than their share of the toxic effect of look-back stings: I should have sold my portfolio at the top; I could have bought that stock years ago for pennies and I would now be driving a pink convertible; et cetera. If you are a professional, you can feel that you “made a mistake,” or, worse, that “mistakes were made,” when you failed to do the equivalent of buying the winning lottery ticket for your investors, and feel the need to apologize for your “reckless” investment strategy (that is, what seems reckless in retrospect).
This is a good reminder. We needn’t have scruples for things we truly can’t control. We needn’t beat ourselves up and feel guilty for things that nobody could have seen coming, even if people accuse us of being reckless for not seeing it coming in the first place. Much understanding can only exist in hindsight. There will always be someone to chastise you for not saving enough money, even if you are the greater miser in the world. You have to draw the line somewhere.
Making $1 million in one year, but nothing in the preceding nine, does not bring the same pleasure as having the total evenly distributed over the same period, that is, $100,000 every year for ten years in a row. The same applies to the inverse order – making a bundle the first year, then nothing for the remaining period. Somehow, your pleasure system will be saturated rather quickly, and it will not carry forward the hedonic balance like a sum on a tax return. As a matter of fact, your happiness depends far more on the number of instances of positive feelings, what psycholigists call “positive affect,” than on the intensity when they hit. in other words, good news is good news first; HOW good matters rather little. So to have a pleasant life you should spread these small “affects” across time as evenly as possible. Plenty of mildly good news is preferable to one single lump of great news.
I know this is a pop psychology gem of dubious value, but it sounds more or less true to me. It makes me wonder if our presentation of the Gospel of Christ breaks down sometimes because we present it as this ONE BIG GOOD THING, but fail to articulate how it is also a thousand little good things every day. It might have more felt power in that form.
The irony of the author whose manuscript is rejected by a publisher who never read it and then years later, after he has become somewhat famous for a different book he wrote, the same manuscript is accepted for publication by another publisher who also didn’t read it. Nobody has read it.
(Paraphrase from p.105)
Good stuff here about knowledge being invisible when we don’t count it or it can’t be counted in contrast with opposite data points. The example he gives is from the world of medicine, where the problem is especially pronounced.
Our neglect of silent evidence kills people daily. Assume that a drug saves many people from a potentially dangerous ailment, but runs the risk of killing a few, with a net benefit to society. Would a doctor prescribe it? He has no incentive to do so. The lawyers of the person hurt by the side effects will go after the doctor like attack dogs, while the lives saved by the drug might not be accounted for anywhere.
A life saved is a statistic; a person hurt is an anecdote. Statistics are invisible; anecdotes are salient.
Silent evidence can actually bias matters to look less stable and riskier than they actually are. Take cancer. We are in the habit of counting survival rates from diagnosed cancer cases – which should overestimate the danger from cancer. Many people develop cancer that remains undiagnosed, and go on to live a long and comfortable life, then die of something else, either because their cancer was not lethal or because it went into spontaneous remission. Not counting these cases biases the risks upward.
Think how this relates to everyone dumping their bad news of Facebook, linking ranting news articles, and snide memes. It makes it look like the world is burning up, but it’s only telling a tiny slice of the story.
The appearance of busyness reinforces the perception of causality, of the link between results and one’s role in them.
A great tribute to engineers here, and a shout out to the value of dinking around verses building toward a defined purpose.
Engineers tend to develop tools for the pleasure of developing tools, not to induce nature to yield its secrets. It so happens that SOME of these tools bring us more knowledge; because of the silent evidence effect, we forget to consider tools that accomplished nothing but keeping engineers of the streets. Tools lead to unexpected discoveries, which themselves lead to other unexpected discoveries. But rarely do our tools seem to work as intended; it is only the engineer’s gusto and love for the building of toys and machines that contribute to the augmentation of our knowledge. Knowledge does not progress from tools designed to verify or help theories, but rather the opposite. The computer was not built to allow us to develop new, visual, geometric mathematical objects that few cared to look for. Nor was the computer invented to let you chat with your friends in Siberia, but it has caused some long-distance relationships to bloom. As an essayist, I can attest that the Internet has helped me to spread my ideas by bypassing journalists. But this was not the state purpose of its military designer.
The laser is a prime illustration of a tool made for a given purpose (actually no real purpose) that then found applications that were not even dreamed of at the time. It was a typical “solution looking for a problem.” Among the early applications was the surgical stitching of detached retinas. Half a century later, The Economist asked Charles Townes, the alleged inventor of the laser, if he had had retinas on his mind. He had not. He was satisfying his desire to split light beams, and that was that. In fact, Townes’s colleagues teased him quite a bit about the irrelevance of his discovery. Yet just consider the effects of the laser in the world around you: compact disks, eyesight corrections, microsurgery, data storage and retrieval – all unforeseen applications of the technology.
We build toys. Some of those toys change the world.
It has been bothering me lately how we overuse the word ‘random’ in casual conversation. However, reading Taleb’s discussion of how “true” randomness rarely matters (outside of fields like cryptography perhaps) has quelled my fears!
A true random system is in fact random and does not have predictable properties. A chaotic system has entirely predictable properties, but they are hard to know. So my answer to them is dual.
a) There is no functional difference in practice between the two since we will never get to make the distinction – the difference is mathematical, not practical. If I see a pregnant woman, the sex of her child is a purely random matter to me (a 50 percent chance for either sex) – but not to her doctor, who might have done an ultrasound. In practice, randomness is fundamentally incomplete information.
b) The mere fact that a person is talking about the difference implies that he has never made a meaningful decision under uncertainty – which is why he does not realize that they are indistinguishable in practice.
Randomness, in the end, is just unknowledge. The world is opaque and appearances fool us.
Randomness as incomplete information: simply, what I cannot guess is random because my knowledge about the causes is incomplete, not necessarily because the process has truly unpredictable properties.
Living in big cities is invaluable because you increase the odds of serendipitous encounters – you gain exposure to the envelop of serendipity. The idea of settling in a rural area on grounds that one has good communications “in the age of the Internet” tunnels out of such sources of positive uncertainly. Diplomats understand that very well: casual chance discussions at cocktail parties usually lead to big breakthroughs – not dry correspondence or telephone conversations. Go to parties! If you’re a scientists, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research. And if you are autistic, send your associates to these events.
Oh, you can just learn everything on the internet right? I can just work from home and do all the things, right? I like to think that, but when I read anything like this on the value of serendipitous connections, it makes me want to move to, say Ethiopia, or at least stay in the city I’m at rather than move to the deep forest.
I will repeat the following until I am hoarse: it is contagion that determines the fate of a theory in social science, not its validity.
Objects seem to have invisible but significant auxiliary functions that we are not aware of consciously, but that allow them to thrive – and on occasion, as with decorator books, the auxiliary function becomes the principal one.
Many readers (say, those who work in forecasting or banking) do not often understand that the “actionable step” for them is to simply quit their profession and do something more ethical.
I love that Taleb is able to at least entertain the idea that when faced with a problem, the solution might be to just quit because WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO DO IS EVIL. I think the religious formation of his childhood did him good, even if he doesn’t openly acknowledge it today.
“iatrogenics” – harm caused by the need to use quantitative models
What a great word. Apparently this is Taleb’s version of Iatrogenesis, (“brought forth by the healer”). That is, bad stuff that happens when you try to quantify stuff. If one is to critique modern science, this is perhaps the most fruitful branch to explore.
You cannot do anything with knowledge unless you know where it stops, and the costs of using it. Post-Enlightenment science, and its daughter superstar science, were lucky to have done well in (linear) physics, chemistry, and engineering. But at some point we need to give up on elegance to focus on something that was given short shrift for a very long time: the maps showing what current knowledge and current methods do not do for us; and a rigorous study of generalized scientific iatrogenics, what harm can be caused by science (or, better, an exposition of what harm has been done by science). I find it the most respectable of pursuits.
How do you live long? By avoiding death. yet people do not realize that success consists mainly in avoiding losses, not in trying to derive profits. Positive advice is usually the province of the charlatan. Bookstores are full of books on how someone became successful; there are almost no books with the title What I Learned Going Bust, or Ten Mistakes to Avoid in Life. Linked to this need for positive advice is the preference we have to DO SOMETHING RATHER THAN NOTHING, even in cases when doing something is harmful.
Sometimes, maybe often, doing nothing or just holding the current course really is the best advice. But we don’t like that answer. It requires more patience (and perhaps trust) than we feel we have.
Things that have worked for a long time are preferable.
Economic life should be definancialized. We should learn not to use markets as warehouses of value: they do not harbor the certainties that normal citizens can require, in spite of “expert” opinions. Investments should be for entertainment. Citizens should experience anxiety from their own businesses (which they control), not from their investments (which they do not control).
This is good stuff when it comes to community building. For example, instead of stashing away as many pennies as you can in your 401K, what if you invested in your relationships with your children enough that when you get old and feeble later, they would welcome you coming to live with them. Crazy I know, but this is how most of the world has done it for millennia.
I also wonder if this can be extrapolated to argue that we should not worry about the federal government (which we also do not really control!?).
For learning to read other languages:
Seneca should be read in the original Latin. Trying to read him in English is the equivalent of reading Yeats in Swahili.
You need a story to displace a story. Metaphors and stores are far more potent (alas[!]) than ideas; they are also easier to remember and more fun to read. If I have to go after what I call the narrative disciplines, my best tool is narrative. Ideas come and go, stories stay.
I know this to be true, though it is very hard for me to put into practice. I love ideas. I don’t really love stories. But my own writing and especially sermons would be better if I told more stories. I’ve talked to more than a few good preachers that also lament this (since they also love ideas more than stories), but who force themselves to be better communicators regardless.
The fact that stories are especially needed in these times to drive out lies or previously planted deceptions should be reason enough to learn the craft.
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.