Review: Taleb’s Fooled By Randomness

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (Incerto)
Nicolas Nasim Taleb
 

If you’re interested in poplar economics, you’ve very familiar with Taleb by now. This, and its sequel Black Swan are required reading for the economically literate.

Fooled by Randomness is both a very interesting book, and a not very well written one. It is constructed in an almost random (ha!) manner, leaping from one subject to another and never landing on any of its many ideas for very long. The basic concept of the book (and of Taleb’s work in general) can be laid out in a single sentence –

We underestimate the role of chance in our lives.

His explanation for why we underestimate it, and how that under-estimation affects our lives is what makes up the majority of the book. It’s a pretty fun (if disjointed) ride.

Taleb made his mark originally as a trader, and that is where many of his examples of the power of randomness come from. He uses finance to explain a survivor bias* and that we post-hoc create narratives to explain our success and failures, when really it was just blind luck that got us into the position.**

Since I read this, I have found myself thinking about my own life as well as markets and history in a different way. It isn’t like the concept of the importance of randomness is all that new or complex, but spending a couple of days thinking it all through with Taleb definitely brought it to the front of my mind. It’s worth remembering that there is much in our lives we do not control.

*Meaning that we think if we want to get rich we should become entrepreneurs, because we only see the successful entrepreneurs, when in reality, if we want the best odds of getting rich, we should become dentists.
** I should have seen the bubble burst in the housing market and limited my position! It is so clear now! Etc, etc. (yes, yes I know everyone knew the housing marker was going to tank, but no one knew, precisely when)

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Review: Shaawari’s Harem Years

Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, 1879-1924
Huda Shaarawi

Huda Shaarawi lead a pretty fucking amazing life. She started out life in the harem* of her father, and ended it being a feminist and a nationalist hero. This isn’t a particularly well written book, but when you lead a life that was intertwined with so many world events, your memoir doesn’t have to be well written to be engaging.

I could recount the narrative here for you, how she got an education in the harem from other women, how the harem wasn’t only a place of repression but was also a place of empowerment, how she was interested in European culture from an early age** but really you should just read it for yourself. The lives of incredible women like Shaarwi deserve far more attention than they generally get.

Huda Shaarwi

*We’re talking about the turn of the century, and yes there were still Harems
** If there isn’t a book out there about the relationships between early nationalist voices and the arts and culture of the colonial powers, there ought to be

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The BQ(Q) – “O.R.M.”

Here’s a great BQ(Q) with the blogger “Obsessive Researching Mommy” on her recent BQ with some great advice on avoiding injury. Thanks ORM!

Name: O.R.M. researchingmommy.blogspot.com

Sex: F

Age (at the time of first BQ): 49

Height: 5’3

Weight (at the time of first BQ): 118

At which marathon did you get your first BQ? What was your finishing time?

Tell us a little about the race. Vancouver 2015, 3:55. I was sure I was not going to BQ but surprisingly I felt like a million bucks from start to finish. By the halfway point, I felt so good that I realized I was going to do it and I think that fed into itself, giving me even more energy for the balance of the marathon. The course is challenging due to the ginormous hill at km 9 and the winding finish around Stanley Park.

How long had you been running when you ran your first BQ? Did you run in college or high school?

I did no running in high school or college. In my early 30s I ran casually and did one 10K per year for three years. I’ve been training for Olympic distance triathlons for the past six years. This was my second marathon.

What was your approximate lifetime mileage at the time of your first BQ?

3400K recorded since 2011. No idea before that.

How many miles did you run in the year before your first BQ?

682 miles in 2014.

Approximately how many races did you run in that year?

A half marathon in the winter, a 10K three weeks out, and the marathon itself.

Did you follow a canned program? If so, which one?

If not, can you give us an idea of what your training philosophy was? Hansons all the way! Unfortunately I could only do about 65% of the scheduled training but I tried to finish all the long runs.

Did you run with a running club or utilize a coach?

Mostly solo but easy runs with friends if available.

Did cross training play a role in your training? If so, how?

I did a little bit of swimming and a bit of cycling.

Did speed work play a role or specific workouts play a role in your training? If so, how?

I followed the prescribed Hansons workouts when possible.

Any other thoughts you would like to share with those of working towards a BQ?

Your biggest enemy is injury.  Here are all the ways to avoid injury:

  1. If you are doing Hansons, try to stick to the prescribed speeds. Do not go faster or slower. Recovery/easy runs are just that and if you run them too quickly, you are risking injury and are not achieving the specific purpose of the runs.
  2. Pick an easy course to qualify. The Vancouver marathon was not an easy course.
  3. Increase your cadence to around 180 to help avoid injury.
  4. If you are an older runner, go for maximal cushioning to prevent injury. Keep a collection of shoes and mix it up so for longer runs you are using maximal cushioning, speed work on cushioned but firmer shoes. This helps avoid repetitive injury.

If at all possible, find someone of equal ability to train with. This will help motivate you through the tedium of marathon training. On the day of the marathon: It will feel like you can’t go on any longer. Trust in your training. If you have 10K left, think that you run 10K every day. This is nothing.  The winner is the person who can endure the most discomfort. Run your own race and do not get carried away with the wave running their brains out at the start. Pace yourself evenly. Let them go. You will catch them later as they burn themselves out. You don’t need to stop for all the water stations. Drink according to thirst. On race day, try to enjoy the day and be present. Stay relaxed and remember that this is supposed to be fun. Smile and high five the spectators and thank the volunteers.

 

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Totals for the Week Ending 7-26-2015

 

Run Miles for the week: 42.7 in 7:09:57
Run Miles for the year: 856.7
Projected total run miles for the year: 1503.3
Weekly/Daily Average to reach 2k miles 51.6/7.4
Run Streak: 0
Did I hit every session of 18/55? Y
What did I miss? Nothing!
Runs that were one stupid mile: 0
Days until I beat my old run streak: n/a
Prospect Park loops for the week: 5
Prospect Park loops for the year: 59
Bike Miles for the Week: 0
Bike Miles for the Year: 431.6
Projected total bike miles for the year: 757.4
Weekly/Daily average to reach 2k bike miles: 68/10.1
Swim Meters for the Week 1750
Swim Meters for the Year 8200
Body Weight Work: 0
Total Exercise Time: ~7:00:00
Average Weight: 181
Books Finished: 1 (Books of Numbers, Joshua Cohen)
Books by Women: 0
Total Books for the Year: 30
Total Books by Women: 12
Percentage of total books by women: 40
Books per week to reach 52 ~1

 

 

Notes: Hit the marathon training plan almost exactly. Actually, I came in about two miles over. But no cross training, which I hope to rectify this week in one super huge week before a slight mini taper for the Presidential Traverse in two weeks! Yikes!

 

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Review: Stewart’s The Places in Between

The Places In Between
Rory Stewart

In theory, it is easy to hate an Eton educated upper class Scotsman who decides it’d be a lark to walk across Afghanistan six months after the fall of the Taliban. The idea reminds me of the stupidity and adventurism I encountered in my twenties with people going to the West Bank or Chiapas on a lark. People vacationing in other people’s misery so they can go home and brag about it is not really my cup of tea.*

But after reading Stewarts book, I have to say it is extremely good. We learn next to nothing about Stewart here outside of the details of daily walking. He is cold, he has dysentery, other than that, the focus is almost entirely on the people he meets, and I cannot think of a travel book that does a better job of honestly relating the lives of the people he meets.

Not every Afghan in this book is a noble tribesman; some are downright unkind to Stewart. Others are incredibly welcoming. Some are Taliban supporters; some are not. Some are drug dealers and some are subsistence farmers. I think the honestly in Stewart’s portrayal of the Afghans he meets is very respectful and his writing of this book is the best outcome of this kind of experience I can imagine.

*Which isn’t to say someone should never go experience another’s struggles. But if you’re going to do it, do it with humility and purpose, thanks.

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Review: Delany’s 1984

1984: Selected Letters
Samuel Delany

I have a Samuel Delany fetish. I have a google alert on the man’s name for Christ’s sake. I have read a bunch of his work, and hope to one day read it all, so I think I can say with some confidence that if you’re interested in Delany and his work, you have to get this book. This is a collection of letters Delany wrote to friends, fans and business acquaintances in the year 1984. He talks about his interests in post structuralism and how it was informing his work, about what movies and films he is seeing, about problems with his partner and in detail about his incredibly risky sex life at the time.

The parts of the book that document Delany’s continued unsafe sex in the cruising scene in New York,right when the AIDS epidemic was really getting going, are harrowing. Delany should be championed for his honesty in portraying this world. No edits appeared to have been made to these letters so we get what Delany was thinking about AIDS at a time when no one really knew what it was. He thought for a while he might be immune, he thought maybe you couldn’t get it from oral sex, he though a lot of things that turned out to be totally wrong. And reading him talking about how he and his community were thinking about this disease as it was first being discussed gave me chills. With all the unprotected sex Delany had in those days, it is amazing he survived, and we are better off because we have had another twenty five years of a brilliant write. Aand we have this book — an amazing document of a crazy time in downtown New York and a remarkable look into one of my favorite writer’s life.

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Review: Adams and Frantz’s Full Service Bank: How BCCI Stole Billions Around the World

Full Service Bank (How Bcci Stole Billions Around the World)

James Ring Adams, Douglas Frantz

If you know me, you know I have a deep and abiding love for books on business scandals. This shit fascinates me – the complexity of some of the fraud, the stupidity and greed of many of the people involved. I really can’t get enough of it.

BCCI is one of the biggest banking scandals in history. For a taste of the scope of the thing, it involved Clark Clifford, one of the great Washington fixers of all time, the terrorist Abu Nidal, and Sheik Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahayan, the guy who brought you the UAE and a couple of billions dollars in lost money. There are law firms and accountants still working to retrieve some of this money today, more than decade after the bank collapsed.

Most business and banking scandals are really just complicated variants of simple scheme or mistake. Long Term Capital Management borrowed more than they could afford. ADM was involved in price fixing, and BCCI was basically a pyramid scheme.* Admittedly a huge and complex pyramid scheme, but a pyramid scheme all the same. I am constantly amazed that people think they can get away with things like this, but I guess one should never underestimate the greed and stupidity of the average person.

Tracking who did what to whom when is a complicated job in this scandal, and Adam and Frantz do a good job of keeping it all clear. This book doesn’t have the great writing of, say Eichenwald’s book on Enron, but it does a keep all the facts straight. It isn’t for the novice business scandal reader, but the connoisseur will enjoy its international complexity and the taking down of a bunch of really important people.

*Enron is the exception here. You could say Enron was the result of shady accounting but that is really oversimplifying Enron’s use of a pretty fucking insane set accounting tools and debt restructuring instruments.

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