Black Swan

23 11 2016


It’s not too often that I write a largely glorious review for a book which I couldn’t manage to finish despite my best intentions. Sounds kind of counter intuitive. Isn’t it? But that’s how it is for Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan is a metaphor coined by the author to describe a phenomenon with the following three attributes: “First, it is a outlier. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.” Typical examples include Sep 2011 attack, 2008 economic meltdown etc. In this book, Taleb talks about the nature of black swan events and why we can’t predict them.
As I started reading this book, I couldn’t help marveling at the sheer ingeniousness of the author. It seemed every phrase and sentence oozed intelligence and creativity. I was spell bound. As new as I am to the world of philosophy and philosophers, I was filled with awe. I got introduced to more and more interesting and intriguing concepts and I was enjoying every moment of it. One such concept that runs through more or less the entire book is “platonitcity”. It is the tendency to mistake the map for the territory. The author explains that “the platonic fold is the explosive boundary where the Platonic mindset enters in contact with messy reality, where the gap between what you know and what you think you know becomes dangerously wide.” He says that it is here that the Black Swan is produced.

He draws up the occurrence of black swan events and our perception of them through a simple analogy of “thanksgiving turkey”. While the butcher feeds the turkey for months, only to kill it for a feast. For the turkey, the occurrence of its murder is a black swan event. It doesn’t expect it in the months leading up to it because there was never any evidence to suggest anything other than continued pampering. But it’s not a black swan event for the butcher. So, the key is “not to be a turkey”. ūüôā Our confusion of our perception of ” there is no evidence of the possibility of black swans” with the statement “there is evidence of no possible Black Swans”, which the author calls “round-trip fallacy” lies at the root of why we can’t predict those events.

He also talks about Mediocristan and Extremistan. Mediocristan is a place an outlier doesn’t impact the overall measure and it follows the Gaussian distribution and is non-scalable. Example – weight a person, audience for a play etc. Extremistan, on the other hand is highly scalable and the outliers heavily impact the aggregate. Example – one extremely bestselling author or musician etc. The lesson is not use predictive methods applicable only to Mediocristan to Extremistan. It is in Extremistan there is a high chance of occurrence for a black swan event. Wow, pretty simple and deep at the same time!!

Another tendency of ours which contributes to our misunderstanding of Black Swans is “narrative fallacy”. Our tendency to develop narratives around facts (for the basic and subconscious need of easier storage and retrieval of information) based on our System 1 thinking. The result of this simplification is that we think that the world is less random than it is and we leave the black swans out.

There are many more interesting and though-provoking ideas in this book. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it, I must add, despite my best efforts. I don’t know why. It’s true that the book is so dense with content and ideas, even if they all have common threads. I might even have found it a little repetitive (but that’s how many good non-fiction books usually are anyways – just to make sure that you don’t miss the point and that it’s ingrained in your brain, to make maximum impact.). It’s also true that time and again I felt that the author was a more than a little pompous as he repeatedly bashed or disagreed with many other (supposedly) renowned philosophers and experts on many things. Still. Maybe, that’s all true. Maybe that’s how philosophers usually are – hold strong opinions and theories, single minded, assertive, and speak with utmost conviction.

Learning challenges

15 01 2015

Learning to Learn on Coursera is an amazing opportunity to enhance one’s skill at this all-encompassing capability, called Learning. In a different course I took several month earlier, I got a glimpse of the most powerful strategies that help us learn effectively. (I blogged about it here.) This course is offered by University of San Diego and co-taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley (who authored the bestseller – A Mind for Numbers, on which this course content is based on)¬† and Dr. Terrence Sejnowski (a pioneer in Computational Neurobiology). I’m only one week into the course and I already love the animated videos and the enthusiasm of Dr. Oakley. The 10 Rules of Good and Bad Studying provides a small taste (as claimed on Barbara’s website) of what you can find in the book and thereby the course.

The first assignment involves writing a reflective narrative about one’s learning situation/goal and how one plans to address it based on the many insights provided by existing research. Find a¬†version of my submission below:

Current learning situation and goal

I’m a software engineer currently learning skills to be a data analyst/scientist. Mostly, I’m relying on MOOCs for the purpose. I have some relevant background in my under-graduation and graduation and am keen on gaining right aptitude for the role. I realized that I have two major learning challenges in the process. One is getting my head around Statistical Concepts and the other is gaining some ability in storytelling, most essential for creating compelling analytical products. The other technical part, I’m sure I’ll get it eventually.

Learning aim

As I’m not a part of any formal academic program, my goal would be complete the relevant courses online and be able to create a few decent data products on my own. Six months from now, I would like to see myself as fairly confident with regard to Statistics and Storytelling (from analytics perspective).

Biggest mental challenges

While I work on the material, quizzes, and assignments, I don’t persevere when I hit a stumbling block. Also, I don’t really practice on a regular basis. While I don’t have a procrastination problem, I feel that I don’t get the most out of my study efforts. I also realize that I’m not timing my study well. I panic when I do nothing and try to cram as many things as possible into my schedule, leaving me little time for relaxation and/or reflection. I feel stressed out most of the times.

After my first few, not so encouraging, encounters with the topics, I am frustrated that the secrets of Statistics allude me, that I’m not able to master them. My storytelling attempts too were lame, at best. I think I kind of developed a mental block about them and do not approach them without considerable apprehension. I have always thought myself as an analytical person and one good at Math. It puzzles me that I couldn’t get Statistics right, that I’m not able to fathom its depth. I keep waiting for that mesmerizing teacher, who can unravel the complexity of Statistics and give me a key to understanding its essence. But of course, there is little chance for this miracle to happen. And I’m painfully aware that this unrealistic optimism is adversely affecting my learning efforts. I give up too early.¬†¬† And the opposite applies to ‘Storytelling’. I believe I’m naturally bad at this, and don’t envision a dramatic improvement. So, I don’t try enough. Again I realize though that this notion of mine is self-defeating.

Existing research and learning techniques

Understanding how our brain functions with respect to learning offers insights into how to approach it more effectively. There has been a lot of research on both how learning happens and what techniques are better than others. An extensive study on effective learning techniques by Dunlosky et al. reveals that practice testing, distributed practice, interleaved practice, self-explanation, and elaborative interrogation techniques have moderate to high utility. Surprisingly, as per the research findings, the more popular techniques of re-reading, summarizing, highlighting, and mnemonic usage are actually very ineffective. This blogpost by neurobonkers summarizes the lengthy monograph of the researchers quite well.

Research also points out that in order to assimilate new material we need to alternate between the two modes – Focused and Diffuse. Diffuse mode is when the default area network of the brain kicks in. And as Yang et al. points out, “rest is not idleness”. The importance of sleep in learning cannot be overemphasized. Sleep consolidates the fresh memories into long-term memories (Pierre Maquet).

Work by Carol S. Dweck¬† is perhaps the single most influential research on Mindset and Learning. By learning about neuroplasticity and believing in the ability of the brain to learn anything, despite the notion of natural talent, boosts “learning”. ( Dweck, C. (2008). Mindsets and Math/Science Achievement.¬†Prepared for the Carnegie Corporation of New York-Institute for Advanced Study Commission on Mathematics and Science Education¬†math and science grades. )

How will I apply

With the above insights, I would like to tweak my learning approach by indulging in distributed practice, self-explanation, and practice testing. I will practice more. I now realize the need to follow up intense focus periods with relaxation. One important takeaway for me is “leveraging sleep for learning”. I intend to study with focus before sleep and will to dream about it, so that I can assimilate new concepts better. I also commit myself to be more open and persevering towards the whole process.

2012 reading

6 01 2013

I’ve read a meager 53 books in 2012, owing to several academic and personal commitments. I’m not very happy about the overall reading (not just the quantity but the quality and variety) of this year but I’m glad that I utilized the services of my university’s library to read some good literature, especially Telugu. Find below some of the statistics drawn from my personal database:

Category_2012 Mode-2012

It can be observed that only 5 of the 53 are non-fiction. I wish I read more of them. I read a greater proportion of Telugu books (21 out of 53 i.e. 40%)compared to previous years.¬† Also, majority of works are from India, just like last year. I have to make a conscious effort to read stuff from different nations, at least in 2013. I haven’t read any translation works this year, with the exception of two; Short stories by Premchand and a novel – South of the border, West of the sun by Haruki Murakami.



Here are the bests of 2012:

  • Best Novel (English): Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenedis and Mistress by Anita Nair
  • Best Short Stories (English): The Red Carpet by Lavanya Sankaran and Release and Other Stories by Rakshanda Jalil
  • Best Novel (Telugu): Maidanam by Chalam and Changiz Khan by Tenneti Suri
  • Best Short Stories (Telugu): Saalabhanjika by KuppilinPadma
  • Best Non-Fiction: Indians by Sudhir Kakar


I wrote elaborate posts for Middlesex and Mistress after I read them. So I don’t feel the need to say anything about them now. The Red Carpet is a collection of stories based in Bangalore. Her in-depth style is a pleasure to read. The collection is very fulfilling. Release and Other Stories has a¬† lighter style in comparison but nevertheless deal with interesting and subtle subjects.

Maidanam by Chalam: It’s mind blowing. It would completely shake you. It’s deeply affecting too. I can say one is never the same after reading it. I can understand why it is so notorious. Words fail to express my reaction to it. I’ll leave it to the imagination of the readers. Those who have read the novel would understand I guess.

Changiz Khan is historical fiction, mostly likely to be the true depiction of the life of the great Mongolian leader. It’s a very new experience to read through the conditions and customs of those times, where physical power alone wins and war is a part of life. Thank god, we have come a far way since then. :-). Chengiz Khan was an enthralling read.

Saalabhanjika’s review is here.

One other deeply affecting book I read this year is Indians by Sudhir Kakar. He is an eminent psychoanalyst and writer. He has written several books dealing with culture and religion. I got some valuable insights from this particular book of his, which have put some doubts of mine to rest. Understanding the psychology of Indians as a whole helped me to accept and to have more clarity about certain things. I intend to read more and more of him in future.

In 2012, I got introduced to “Ampasayya” Naveen. I read several of his works during the past year starting from his famous Ampasayya to his Sahitya Academy Award winner Kaalarekhalu. Needless to say, I liked his style very much and look forward to read more of him in future.

2012 review of the blog

31 12 2012

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 16,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 4 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

2011 Reading

10 02 2012

I’ve been writing an end-of -the year synopsis on my perusal of books¬† for the past couple of years (i.e. ever since I started this blog) but this time I missed on it and haven’t posted anything about my 2011 reading. It’s not because I forgot about it or just been busy or lazy. In fact, I wanted to do something different for 2011 and I unwittingly set an ambitious task for myself. Inspired by the statistics course and visualization workshop I attended during the last semester,¬† I wanted to present the statistics of my reading in the form of attractive visuals. While the first part is fine, it’s the latter one which posed a challenge to me. Being untrained in visualization techniques and having made no significant efforts to acquire the required skills, the exercise took on a “delayed indefinitely” status. Finally today, I decided to present whatever crude things I came up with in my initial attempts this time and save the lofty goal for the next year. So beware of what’s coming next. ūüôā

Here are a few graphs, which are (I suppose) self-explanatory:

I read 75 books in total, of which most of them are fiction(69). As you can see, I read very few non-fiction in 2011 and all of them are Indian and in English.¬†It’s interesting to note that though I read the print material most of the time, reading in the electronic mode isn’t too insignificant. I attribute this to my dear Sony Reader. Another observation is that I own most of the books I read in 2011 and given the fact that I’m not an active member of any library currently, it’s ¬†surprising to see that I’ve managed borrowed a considerable number of books. Given the space constraint in my house, I should actually do this more. Though my selection in 2011 largely favored Indian literature, I indulged myself in a¬†variety¬†of ¬†writings from different nations. I’m usually so careful and systematic about picking my reads that there will be little chance for disappointment or frustration and this is evident from the ‘rating” chart. You can see that most of them were rated 3-5.

I prepared an excel sheet with various attributes like title, category. Author, language, country of origin, ownership status, mode (print/electronic), type (novel, short stories etc), translation, rating and remarks. Couldn’t come up with anymore interesting things. I created these graphs from Tableau Public. Being a free offering, it didn’t provide much flexibility and I couldn’t figure out how to show the percentages in the pie chart. I could have produced better analysis and presentation, but as I confessed earlier, I didn’t really give it my best shot.

Wait, there’s more to come, but not this time. I have bigger and more colorful plans for my reading data. ūüėČ I’ve been keeping track of the books I read for 5 years and this means I can do a time-series analysis to identify the trend(s). It would also be interesting to do some data mining (which I’m learning this semester) on it and explore for any hidden patterns (I know the data is not huge, but still, I can fantasize, can’t I?) and the ultimate objective would be to predict what I’ll be reading next. Wow, that would be really cool! Just thinking about it gives me a shiver of excitement. (You know me! I like being dramatic sometimes.)

Caught up in the enthusiasm for all the new thoughts that emerged in this context, I want to now introduce the tradition ( ūüėõ ) of announcing the best picks of the year. Here they are for 2011:

  • Best Short Stories – Telugu: Seela Veerraju Kathalu by Seela Veerraju
  • Best Novel – Telugu: Rachayitri by Ranganayakamma
  • Best Short Stories – English: Short cuts by Raymond Carver
  • Best Novel – English: Gone With the Wind by Margeret Mitchell
  • Best Non-fiction: Mother Pious Lady: Making Sense of Everyday India by Santosh Desai