Book Review: Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Fooled by Randomness was described by Fortune magazine as “one of the smartest books of all time”. I have to agree with that and also make sure nobody questions me as to why I agree so, in fear of exposing myself as a fool. For this author has already predicted who I am and what I will be doing in the next few lines reviewing this book. He makes constant mockery of the journalist, the trader, the scientist and the MBA guy and notes that such people are the largest group of people who have read his book and also appreciated it probably because they assumed it was a lesson in intelligence for the other person. He also mentions how people who review this book are only a reflection of their personality and are not providing any intellectual fodder that the author needs to consider as criticism or feedback. 

Well, what else can be said? I already know that the author considers me a fool and also will never read these reviews (not that I’m qualified enough to expect him to read it in the first place!) as is only a reflection of my personality. So, what I will do is just author a book review for my own personal satisfaction of having read a brilliant work on a subject as abstract as “randomness”. 

To start with, this was by far the toughest book I read and tried to understand, often forcing me to re-read chapters or paragraphs I already read a few days before. All again, this is no surprise, as the reason for that was also explained by the author. Unfortunately for me, I belong to a larger sample size of people who were not born to understand the concept of probability and hence may 
never will (I will not assume a percentage value of this sample size here lest I expose my lack of statistical depth).

The author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, has definitely become a favorite of mine. A person I intend to follow closely (his work of course) to get some reprieve from the innumerable “success story” books, meaningless biographies of business tycoons and self-help literature that constantly seem to remind me of something missing in my portfolio while the other person has it because he or she is more assertive, a go-getter, a high profile communicator and endowed with other glib characteristics. The author however warns that this book is not escapism from hard work or an excuse for doing nothing or achieving less. 

The dynamics of randomness are such that more or less, that turns out to be the reason someone is firing away in life while the other is fired at work. Mr. Taleb calls these people who re-create their success stories after the fact by attributing it to a certain special skill as the “lucky fool”, where luck is defined as the random event that creates an avenue so successful in the present but yet unseen before. The author’s focus throughout the book is also on his favorite subject –
probability, with several references to Keynes “Treatise on Probability” as one of the best contributions of the economist.

When I read my History books and the 19th century work of so called intellectual authorities called “European savant” historians who literally recreated India’s past, took away its present and permanently dented its future, I couldn’t find a way to explain why these historians cannot and should not be treated as authorities on the subject just because of their race or their rational way of evaluating history (Max Muller et. al). This book and the author helped me in finding the answer I was looking for. The cloud of ignorance that these savants suffered from is called “historical determinism”. To quote the author in his own words – “When you look at the past, the past will always be deterministic, since only one single observation took place. Our mind will interpret most events not with the preceding ones in mind, but the following ones….Psychologists call this overestimation of what one knew at the time of the event due to subsequent information the hindsight bias, the “I knew it all along” effect”.

The author’s commentary on yet another arrogance propagated around the World by correlating “developed nation” with “material progress” is also interesting. He explains that “Mathematically, progress means that some new information is better than past information, not that the average of new information will supplant past information”. He then brings out the general argument dished out by the fans of the new things in life by showing the changes brought by the arrival of new technologies such as the airplane, autombile, telephone etc. Calling it as middlebrown inference (inference stripped of probabilistic thinking), he says such thinking can lead to people believe that all new technologies and inventions would revolutionize our lives. Banking on the concept of survivorship bias, he indicates that we are only looking at the winners at the cost of the several losers we have ignored. He quotes, “the opportunity cost of missing a new thing like the airplane or automobile is minuscule compared to the toxicity of all the garbage one has to go through to get to these jewels”. Likewise, he also talks about how randomness can be ingested into evolution to explain unexplainable results and also highlights the true significance of the Darwinian theory of self selection – it is after all about reproductive fitness and not about survival fitness.

The author also has some good commentary on his big influence in life, Karl Popper, a falsificationist. He goes to explain Popper’s lack of confidence in taking Science seriously and looking at justification or verification as the means to proving things as scientific. Mr. Taleb finally concludes with the concept of heuristics and how our brain is set up to use emotions for thinking, thereby forcing us to be less rational in our decision making and actions. While one can study randomness and theorize the need for handling it, our evolution and mental make up prevent us from identifying it.To end it, while admitting that like others, he also is a fool driven by emotions that drive action, he remarks that the difference lies in the fact that he realizes and accepts it rather than adamantly denying that we can be fooled by randomness.

The Telangana Movement in Andhra Pradesh

A very nice blog on the Telangana Movement and my response to it:

Great research work done on getting some facts straight on the language and culture based issues dogging Andhra Pradesh. While I appreciate the great call  you have made for all Telugus to be truly united irrespective of their cultural or political roots, I feel driving the need for such unity falls outside the periphery of Lok Satta or any political establishment for that matter. Democracy as a system thrives in an egalitarian system of governance and society. If you go back to the modern roots of democracy based on Roman doctrines for governance or way back into Chanakya’s rules of governance in the Arthashastra, you will see that spelled out wide and clear.
However, the irony that several people don’t realize is that, this very egalitarianism cannot survive when the divergent forces of diversity tend to pull a politically bonded society in different directions. In other words-race, caste, language, religion etc. are not uniting but only discriminating forces acting against egalitarianism, especially if they are serving a purpose beyond the rudimentary basics they are meant for. While I believe every language (or dialect) has its own beauty and cultural significance that must not only be appreciated but celebrated, if it goes beyond its basic purpose in life- i.e. to communicate in society- it starts creating a ‘you vs me’ mentality. That is basic human nature. This has been beautifully explained by Dr. JP in the succinct message he shared.
Due to the way we are taught our history in schools and our own reluctance to unlearn what we agreed to accept as kids, we fail to realize the true functioning of democracies. More so, we fail to realize that India as a country is a political creation that began to take shape when the British started mapping out their colonial conquests. The Indian Union of today was an uneasy relationship accepted by Nehru’s visionary team after our independence.
In a tremendously diverse nation like India, pursuing these egalitarian ideals of democracy meant that there was a need for some form of standardization (or commonality) to be carved out of India. This took the form of a national language in Hindi which wasn’t widely used before, a common macro-cultural identity based on the roots of Hinduism and Islam and so on. Every state in India was also formed with a largely inefficient but standardized format based on language with a common disregard for dialects. No other country in this world (barring China) has this humongous challenge at hand when it was in its process of nation building. While we celebrate the democratic principles of the USA and yearn to be like it one day, we comfortably fail to realize that a country like USA was able to succeed democratically as it was “politically” able to sideline the divergent factors that affected its stability since its creation as a nation – race is still predominantly White, religion is still predominantly Christian, language is still predominantly English. While as a social entity, diversity has been accepted with an open heart (you can build temples and celebrate being a Hindu in the US), as a political entity, the US doesn’t deal with the complexities of diversity that uproot egalitarianism and in turn defeat democracy. Changes today are affecting some of them and in those places, you do see friction and a not so progressive form of democracy – Hispanic and African American population and their growing significance, multiple religions like Hinduism and Islam bringing in a different perspective on daily life are some examples of those changes and they are slowly creating points of friction in American society. Coming to China, while the World may reject it as a non-democratic nation, it still had to face the same challenges in its nation building. Luckily for China, it grew out from a uniform central core into vast geographical tracts occupied by other diverse people. The core being Han Chinese are the dominant force in that nation and so is their language (Mandarin) and religion (lack of one under Communism). The outliers consisted of the Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongols and so on. If you look at the map of China, you will realize that they all form the peripheries of the country and are slowly losing their identity while slowly being integrated into greater China. While several examples can be gleaned out from our past and present, the key point I want to drive is that political governments can never be in the business of promoting extreme diversity as it runs counterproductive to the growth of democracies. Having said that, India is already stretching a lot to accommodate this from a political standpoint and it explains the rather slow and painful progress we afford to make in every step of our growth as a nation. Whether this is good or bad is again an exercise in personal perspective. I personally feel we are painfully slow in growth but vastly mature in our dealings as a country. But my impatient and greedy self that looks at fast results and better changes, sees the country’s approach as an impediment.
The reason I digressed to explain non-Telugu related aspects of the World is to help bring a change in our perspective of what democracy (something that Dr. JP is passionate about) and the Lok Satta party should mean. While the current political commitments of the Lok Satta party is towards the state of Andhra Pradesh, its true leanings are towards the promotion of democracy in the Indian Union. We should realize that while coastal Andhra culture and language became the predominant force in Andhra Pradesh much to the loss of identity of the other Telugus, this progression has a logical explanation, very similar to how we are still sitting idle in our homes while corruption and bad politics continue to happen around us. What happened in Andhra Pradesh was what happened to most people pushed as a herd to accept the changes happening around them. British Andhra was the most politically strong entity prior to our independence as that is where Education, the press and other forms of British governance saw their implementation. So did the movie industry and other large industrial establishments that in turn fed political organizations. The Nizam ruled regions of Andhra Pradesh bought their freedom from British interference but at the same time continued with all their past policies which as we see today were not supportive of the diversity of the Telangana people. What happened since our independence were just incremental steps in political adjustments that happened to carve out the identity of a then non-existent state called Andhra Pradesh. As one can imagine, such changes were just influenced by people from places where the capabilities existed. In other words, you can expect a person to file a lawsuit against another person who affected his living only if a judicial system, police, administrative bureaucracy and press exists. If one lived in a country where none or some of them exist, then that person will not even know what to do in such instances. Such was the parallel you could draw between the various factions in Andhra Pradesh. When such changes did happen during the formation of Andhra Pradesh, one particular system of identity was carried forward and the herd followed.

Now there are two pressing questions that need to be answered – the formation of a separate state of Telangana? and recognition and equality for the Telangana people and their unique Telugu diversity? While we can try to be politically correct and neutral in our statements on the first question, the facts are pretty simple. The creation of a separate state of Telangana will help in the creation of yet another democratic structure that will slowly or rapidly adjust itself to a standardization. That political standardization may come in the form a state board of education that teaches the Telangana dialect, a Telangana religion (all may be allowed but one will prevail politically), a Telangana caste and so on. This may still continue to not provide a solution to the Maoist separatists of Telangana and that will continue to be a pain point. Hence, there is nothing wrong in creating a separate state of Telangana provided its purpose is not to promote the diversity of the Telangana people, its literature and culture or create a one-Telugu movement. It will definitely provide state administrative jobs and better land deals for sure to its people. If the Telangana movement is mostly about this (which is not so depending on whom you talk to), then a separate state will definitely provide it.
This takes us to the second question, the question that the original blog was trying to address. What about the recognition and promotion of the diversity and the Telugu heritage of the people of Telangana or the one-Telugu unity? One must realize that when political organizations or governments promote language, literature or culture it is for the purposes of propaganda. They will always contain the truth presented in a way and manner to suit the greater needs of people with a political agenda. Even US textbooks and government literature are littered with trash on the exploits of Columbus, the founding fathers and the native Americans. Only literary works and materials outside of political interference have had the tenacity to show alternative perspectives. These still remain unknown to the blind eyes of meaningless existence that most people proudly lead as their normal lives. 
The true dissemination of the literary greatness, cultural richness or linguistic beauty of any region comes from its own people – not from its elected political governments or external promoters. The fact that this blog was still able to access the literary gems of Telangana writers is testimony to the fact that preservation happens from within, not from outside. The Bhagavad Gita was not preserved because we had successive governments promote it over more than 3000 years or because the Indian democracy requires it for taking oath in a court of law. While Sankritized Telugu may not be the true language of the Andhras, it is still a literary art form that also has its place in Telugu history. The ballads of Telangana poets also have their unique place in our lives. Their recognition will however come from one going out of the narrow purview of textbooks (again driven by political governments) and actively pursuing and promoting them on our own. If this is the Telangana Movement, then it doesn’t need a KCR or a TDP or a Congress or a bandh or a rasta roko or lost lives to support or grow it. It can come from the several thousand NRI Telangana Telugus who have the capacity to do a lot more today or from any one of us truly interested in propagating diversity in life irrespective of its origins. Governments were not created by us (yes, sad but true) to leave everything to them. They were created to serve us in our daily life while we take care of the rest.