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In which Netty attempts to again come to grips with economic concepts, but instead gains an even greater appreciation of Sonic Youth …

September 22, 2009

I did a year of economics during my HSC, back in the mid-1980s. I don’t know how much of it I’ve retained – none, I suspect. Pretty much all I remember of that class was that my teacher had a collection of rather natty bowties. And that was where I met a certain boyfriend who managed during the course of a year to dump me not once, but twice – and the second time during swot vac, which is, trust me, not a good time to be dumped. I also seem to recall that he got a credit in that class, whilst yours truly barely scraped through with a pass. Of course, he got his karmic relationship comeuppance later down the track, but let’s face it, that’s got fuck all to do with The Black Swan, c’est ne ce pas?

Possibly first up I need to apologise to my blogging partner here for subjecting him to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and, as he recently posted on his FB profile, for taking 10 days of his life that he will never get back. Not so much black swan as bete noir for Andy. Yes, this one was completely my fault. But honestly, it seemed like such a good idea at the time.

I put up The Black Swan after reading a profile of Taleb published in Good Weekend last year – still prior to the GFC shit truly hitting the fan – which piqued my interest sufficiently to make him a Reading Challenge candidate. And even moreso with what subsequently happened to the global economy. And yes, a lot of that is foreshadowed in The Black Swan (subtitled The Impact Of The Highly Improbable), which was first published in 2007. And yes, also, that statement flies in the face of Taleb’s premise of a black swan being a random and unpredictable event. And that won’t be the first – nor last – contradication within either this posting or the book itself.

Here’s my central problem with The Black Swan (and, like Andy, not the bird itself. Those black swans – the avian kind – are pretty cool. Lots of ’em near where I live. Oh, there I go again with the digressing thing. Sorry, Nick, I’ll try and stay on track here). Ok, so we’re talking a sexy concept with a catchy label and enough associated post-modern pop-culture cachet to grab the initial interest of the economic layman. But after wading through 300 pages of  Gaussian bell curves,  Platonicity, Mediocristan vs Extremistan, ludic fallacy and epistemic arrogance, I was left wondering, well, Nick, you’ve identified the problem, you’ve pontificated long and hard, you’ve given me a mild migraine in the process – but you haven’t given me (the reader) any solutions. Oh, hold on – Taleb does say (and I’m paraphrasing) that seeing nothing is predictable, one is best not to try and predict anything at all. Oh, lordy …

OK, Andy thinks Taleb is an out-and-out wanker. I’ll be a little kinder. He weaves a bit of personal history into the book, most of which I didn’t mind, although there is no doubt whatsoever that he thinks he’s one helluva intellectual (he also has a major bee in his bonnet about the Nobel Prize for economics – presumably because no one has ever bestowed one on him). He’s also so very much smarter than you and I. If anyone ever asks me to fill in one of those “name 10 people living or dead that you’d invite to dinner”, well, Taleb sure ain’t gonna be propping up at my table any time soon. (Neither will that other Mr Smarty Pants, Tommy-Boy Pynchon). Of course, I’m sure that suits him just fine …

Oh, and the Sonic Youth thing referenced in this blog’s title? Well, like Andy, it took me about 10 days to get through Taleb and his black swans, too, although my reading was heavily interspersed with Goodbye 20th Century, a newish SY biography, which I was basically picking up between chapters of the BS (yes, pun intended there) when the latter all got a bit too much for me. Maybe that should have been our Reading Challenge non-fiction choice instead. I doubt Andy would be much of an SY fan, but I’m wagering he would have had a much better time in their company than in Taleb’s!

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