Book Review: Antifragile–Things That Gain from Disorder

AntifragileI Just completed reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile–Things That Gain from Disorder. Mr. Taleb is definitely a brilliant man. By profession he has been a quantitative analyst in the securities market, working with highly advanced statistical modeling. He has also been a professor in a number of notable universities. He has seen problems that traditional theories of all kinds fail to account for, which lead to major problems that though are hard to predict when they happen they are catastrophic, what he calls the Black Swan event or big tail event. People either love or hate him, there are many in the securities world that hate him, others who appreciate his thinking, his fans. He is one who does not suffer fools gladly, strives to be extremely honest and does not tolerate what he considers to be dishonest and evil. He uses material from roman and greek classical periods, history, philosophy to illustrate the points he makes, and characters like Fat Tony and Nero to help us understand his ideas. The book is a hard read, it is very demanding but enjoyable. For those who are more skilled in advanced math such as calculus and statistics, some of his ideas will be clearer. He is however rather arrogant around some areas that he discusses, while his critical thinking is appreciated and we need to be looking at the world we deal with, with a critical eye and not accepting at face value what the experts or talking heads tell us to think or believe, but discussing public health, medicine and psychiatry with no training is a real problem.

Review in the New York Times.

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Arguably: Essays

 Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens, is a book of Hitchen’s essays, that was published near the end of his life. It includes all the articles that he wrote for various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate and The Atlantic, in addition to writing several books. The essays are well thought out and written. Hitchens was very sharp, thoughtful and a real intelligent critical thinker who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Although he is a self-avowed atheist to his death, the first article “The God of Our Fathers: The United States of Enlightenment” discusses very eloquently about how religious beliefs played out with the Founders of the United States. The subject is one that addressing in a more thoughtful, nuanced way benefits.

 

Racism and Brilliant People

It’s always painful to realize that people you admire and appreciate have flaws and limitations, but it has come to my awareness that people of real intellect can also be incredibly arrogant and engage in Racism and other stupid practices. While preparing to write the article on Morrissey which I recently published, I was doing research on my subject and discovered some real racist actions on his part. At first, I considered deleting the post and never publishing it, but decided to address the issue more head-on.

Later my partner and I were watching a PBS series that the British constitutional historian, David Starkey did called The Monarchy which is very intelligibly researched in deep historical detail through many and many years. One can appreciate the work that went into his work, and his perspective as well as the presentation. It was also very disappointing to discover, when reading his biography rude, and arrogant behavior and Racism, saying the lower classes in England were becoming like the “Blacks.” How can someone characterize whole groups of people like that?

Of less intelligent and more ignorant people, I would not be surprised, in fact I suspect the extremes of racism, for instance like the KKK, the Klans, The Aryan Nation, etc., are examples of ignorant people who have limited intelligence, are frustrated by their own limited skills and lack of education, and the economic challenges that come from these realities.

My mother also Gifted who wound up with an Ed.D in Special Education, who had worked with the handicapped for years grew up in Philadelphia, PA. Her father was a a cop who rose to be captain of detectives during the bad years. She remembered stories with his Racism. He had a limited education, but was intelligent. He retired, and years later got a second Dachshund, which he named “Tar Baby,” a clear racist reference. My mother was furious and the name was changed.

People can take offense to racism, because it offends our basic values and sensibilities and affects people we know or have known, but it’s important to consider the science around racism and stereotypes, which set racism in motion.

Racism is not the only type of prejudice, and one can add homophobia, sexism, classicism, antisemitism, ablism, agism and other isms, as well as xenophobia or fear of the other.

In social Psychology and Cognitive Psychology thinking suggests that stereotypes arise from our brain’s tendencies to use heuristics or shortcuts which help us manage information overload. The problem is these heuristics help our brains process much information, but causes us faulty thinking at times. Along with this, our brain also from the same mechanisms favor those of groups like us, and fears groups who are different from us. This is called the ingroup/outgroup bias. Given this, we are all susceptible to stereotypes and prejudices, and even racist tendencies. We need to rise to our best selves, and challenge our own tendencies toward stereotypes and prejudices, and challenge those of those around us.

Obituary: Christopher Hitchens

This week we mourn Christopher Hitchens a writer known for his free thinking intelligent criticism and thought.

Hitchens Died thursday 12/15/2011 of Pneumonia. He had been valiantly fighting esophageal cancer for a number of years. He had been discussing and writing about his Cancer for a number of years almost ad-nauseum, including his book Hitch-22. He will be missed for his thought, writing and debate. He was known as an atheist and defended his atheistic beliefs and refused to accept religion into his fight against cancer and his dying. To be an atheist is very hard and their are few friends in this world for which I defend him. He has argued about the harm that has come from religion in many writings, including his book God is Not Great. Esophageal cancer is highly correlated with Drinking and Smoking, which Hitchens has admitted to have doing heavily. He argues that he would not change his life, even though the drinking and smoking killed him prematurely. He argued that it helped him think and write at his best. One can imagine the alcohol loosening the inhibitions and the tobaco calming the nerves.  Hitchens had been an author for Slate.com and Vanity Fair Magazine. Hitchens had appeared on television numbers of times, including on Charlie Rose.

 

Enough with the Luddites, Know-Nothings and Narcissists

The events at play in the Republican party and our politics in general, remind me of topics I learned in History and Sociology classes I took in college. The bottom two come along for the ride.

Luddites

Luddites were factory workers who resisted against progress in the textile factories, by destroying the looms. Much like those who resist progress and wish to stay in the 1950s and before and resist changes to society. Workers who are displaced in changes in the market have to be ready to adjust to changes in society, or they will be permanently left behind. Instead of fearing progress, one should continue to learn and take on new challenges. Life is far more secure and interesting when you do.

Know-Nothings

The Know-Nothings were a political movement that resisted the influx of catholic immigrants from Europe during the 1800s. These were feared to be hostile to protestant values and driven by the Pope in Rome. This is much like the fear of “illegal aliens,” who are really undocumented workers. This fear is more about jobs. Of course none, of those in this country want to do the jobs the undocumented workers do them at the prices they charge. This resistance, which is aimed specifically at Mexican and other Spanish speaking immigrants who frankly work harder and expect less than workers here.

Narcissism

I am speaking about the unhealthy variety here, who denigrate other people, put other people down, view them as less than, exploit others, and treat others as simply objects to use. A number of candidates in the republic party, including one who left the presidential race show these characteristics. I am speaking about Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain in particular, but our society is all to full of them, taking up the airwaves. Congress is full of them, who work for their own selfish desires, instead of doing the business of the nation and looking out for the nation as a whole.

Anti-Intellectualism

The first two terms take me to the third trend in politics, anti-intellectualism, seen in populist candidates like Herman Cain, Rick Perry. In earlier years we had George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Dan Quayle. This presumption that the American people are really that stupid. I am sure when those play dumb and don’t challenge voters to read and think and test assumptions it may seem easy and unthreatening, but we go down the road of stupidity in government. I appreciated John Huntsman’s intelligence and deeper understanding of the issues around him, unfortunately I am discovering I dislike his politics, even though I appreciate his intelligence. People are too threatened when our president uses his intelligence so there is always the need to talk down to the American Public.

 

 

The multiple meanings of ‘Gifted’

We know how we use the term gifted and it’s meaning, but the term has been misused as in “She is a gifted artist.” While, a person may be a gifted singer, it does not follow that the person has the prerequisite IQ to be “Gifted.” Such a person may have talent, but may not necessarily be among the most talented. I think it can make it hard for people to talk a bout gifted people. Being gifted is not necessarily about artistic talent, though gifted people can be artistically talented. Try searching for gifted among for instance Twitter, or using the Web, and you can find these examples, and you learn more about these people and I do not wish to diminish or demean people, but this is not what I was searching for.

Simon Schama

I was watching Charlie Rose interview Simon Schama the other night. He was talking about American and World politics and I was wishing more people could hear and understand what he could tell us. I had listened earlier to him talking about the History of Britain and his talks on art. I am always taken by how thoughtful, intelligent, and articulate Schama is. He had taught at Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and is now a professor at Columbia University. If you are interested in History and Art History, he is someone to listen to. There were a number of videos done by PBS with his comentary and art and locations. I have found history fascinating, am knowledgeable about history, but hearing his History of Britain was a major experience. This is an interview  on PBS.

More Simon Schama Videos

Nature or Nuture: What Contributes to Giftedness

For centuries, theorists have debated what contributes to human behavior, is it how we are born or is it what we learn. John Locke (1632-1704) had a theory called Tabula Rasa or blank slate, which argued that nothing was innate and it was all learned. This perspective influenced social sciences for many years going forward. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) associated with the development of  genetics as a theory, spawned significant amount of research and theorizing about how genetics influenced human development, however it would be many years before human DNA was sequenced. During the Third Reich, Nazis murdered those with disabilities, those who were different, gay, Jewish, gypsies and communists thanks to beliefs in eugenics. The Nazis thought they were superior and many of the others were inferior racially. This is an example of how science can go terribly wrong.

Twins Studies have been considered the gold standard for considering if traits are genetically predetermined. Monozygotic (MZ) or identical twins share 100% of their DNA as they were from the same egg. Dizygotic (DZ) twins share less common DNA. Comparing identical twins living together and who were raised apart and the differences between MZ and DZ twins, helped develop estimates of heredity. In an article in a professional psychological journal Wendy Johnson, Eric Turkheimer, Irving I. Gottesman, and Thomas J. Bouchard, Jr. authored “Beyond Heritability–Twin Studies in Behavioral Research” in which they suggested that time has come for abandoning twin studies in research into genetic influences. It has become clearer and clearer that environment poses many confounding variables in proving causation. As one would hear in a research class, “Correlation does not mean causation” that just because there is a relationship between two factors, does not mean that one causes the other. There can be many variables that could interfere or confound or cloud research into the relationship. Instead of arguing that A causes B, B could cause A or perhaps they interact. One of the realities that many of us are such a large mixture of various genes and influences that it is hard to know who’s who, and what I got from whom.

After much research, the current state of research suggests estimates of the heredity of Intelligence are in the vicinity of 50 to 80%. Current thinking suggests that genetics interacts with environment in terms of Genes x Environment rather than Genes + Environment. The interaction leads to genetic expression in terms of proteins and amino acids and others, which influence the outcome.

In another example of how science can go wrong (there are many examples), the book published in 1995, the Bell Curve by Harvard Psychologist Richard J. Hernstein and American Enterprise Institute political science researcher Henry Murray suggested that genetics contribute to far more than one would expect. Including African Americans are less intelligent than white people because of genetic differences. This smells a lot like Eugenics to me. This generated a lot of controversy and seems rather questionable. Another book from other scientists was published to refute those findings “Intelligence, Genes, and Success: Scientists Respond to THE BELL CURVE (Statistics for Social Science and Public Policy)” Edited By: Bernie Devlin, Stephen E. Fienberg, Daniel P. Resnick, and Kathryn Roeder. The American Psychological Association formed a task force and developed their official statement on the matter arguing that race, gender are  not correlated to intelligence, but intelligence is related to many factors and influences.

Gifted in the Media

There have been more images of gifted in the media, a few examples I will discuss are ABC’s The Middle and Fox’s The Simpsons. I think it’s good to see more gifted people depicted in the media, but it’s hard to conceive of how these characters became who they are in the social milleu and family they grew up in.

The Simpsons: I  would suspect that we all love Lisa Simpson or at least identify with her. It is clear from hearing her character that we are hearing what a gifted person would be thinking and talking about. Who’s genes did she come from, the rest of the family is at best average, perhaps less? I recall hearing that the difference in IQ in families tends to be very small like plus or minus 15 points. Even if you want to argue nurture over nature, the social environment is very poor. We have other characters who could be, but they are portrayed in such a bad light, for instance the mad scientist character, or Martin, the other gifted child, who is unfortunately gets portrayed in a negative light.

The Middle is another example. The gifted example we have is Brick portrayed as a child who at minimum avoids social contact because of anxiety, or might be diagnosed as Asperger’s Syndrome. Who else in this family could be gifted, again who’s genes did he come from?

There are more examples to be found in Seth McFarlane’s Family Guy and American Dad on Fox.

Family Guy: Little Stewie is our gifted character, of course we also have a gifted dog Brian. Stewie is like two but acts older, and talks even older. This is one character, I am not fond of, he is very condescending and insulting and has murderous tendencies. Where the giftedness could come from, not in this family. It is mentioned in episodes the father has borderline intellectual functioning, and the rest of the family at best average. This example is not the best example of giftedness that we have. I could go on about this, I will later.

American Dad: In this show, we see another potentially gifted son, a real nerd, though probably not the most obvious example. The father and mother aren’t very bright in this one either, not as stupid in the Family guy example, but brain dead in different ways. Again a question, where did the son get his brains?

What is the common theme in these stories? The gifted child surrounded by people who are stupid and moronic. I wonder if the creators saw their families like this. My father used to say when we are young, we think our parents are stupid, when we are older we admire them.  This does not seem to be the case. They are people to be ridiculed.