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A Letter to Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Composed on the 15th of January in the year 2011, at 10:03 AM. It was Saturday.

Dear Nassim,

I’m a fan. I read The Black Swan in a couple of days, and agree with many of your points. It had good science, a message to which I subscribe, and a feisty tone I enjoyed.

So I went to your appearance at the Barnes & Noble as soon as I saw the sign, without even looking at the book you were there to talk about. I was initially intrigued by a book of aphorisms, though a bit skeptical. A collection of aphorisms seems a lot like a tone and a voice deprived of structure, since, as we know, “an aphorism is a sentence without a mother.” You also seemed a touch unprepared, since it wasn’t so much a talk as a reading. The commentary between them stingingly jovial and I appreciated that, so I thought I’d stick around for the Q & A.

And it was then that one of your A’s set me off, and as it was near the end, I didn’t have enough time to phrase my response in the form of a Q, so I’m writing now.

Your description of a nerd is an asinine caricature from a bad 80s movie. That’s still a not uncommon perception of the average computer engineer, but when giving talks and writing books, it seems you would go so far as to meet one before verbalizing a picture of one. Particularly grating was the implication that the skills needed by a programmer derive from Asperger syndrome, but the particularly wrong part was that engineers and empiricists are obsessed with the literal, and the literal is merely the surface.

So, point by point: I’ve found myself in a position to know many engineers, and most of them are not on the autism spectrum. Indeed, many of the best of them are well rounded, well read, and quite sociable, if not actually jazz musicians. Mostly, they’re alcoholics like everybody else, and you couldn’t tell them apart from a bartender coming off his shift or a writer going into hers. Though many engineers would like to build an unsentimental, uncreative world that I want no place in, many of them do not, and even the ones that do have about as much chance of succeeding as the hippies did.

The nature of engineering is painfully abstract, most of the time. The problems in engineering are particular and difficult, but conceptualizing an end through means of soft and hard ware puts the mind very deep into the nature of an end, finding its extant or theoretical means, then translating them into an alien technology. Most engineers are also not banging their heads on a wall of equations, but solving structural and conceptual problems by sleeping on them.

Nerdistan, as you say, has not, contrary to popular perception, crept over the world and removed sentiment and stripped us of emotion and attachment, nor has it condemned a generation to social incompetence, though has condemned the middle white collar class to back pain and eye strain. I find this world more social and more knowledgeable than ever, and the change in in the currency of communication exists as an extension of communicative power, not a replacement for human contact. Nobody, anywhere, who is capable of normal human contact, thinks electronic social life is a separate but equal substitute for human contact. They may prefer it, and if they do, at least they have the option, because twenty years ago, they still would have stayed home, they’d just be unhappier.

They said the printing press would destroy society too. Anybody who held their breath for that is several centuries dead.

I think it is not necessarily the literal autistic you have a problem with. The telling points were your references to the sacred and the profane, a few jabs at atheists, and your insistence to impressionable college students that they read the classics, and ignore the education being hurled at them. I have my own views on education, and one of them is that every time a school board sits down and makes a list of books for kids to read, it’s always made up of books the members of the board have already read. I have read “the classics” as you say, and though I learned much from them, they did seem a bit dated, and somewhat inapplicable outside Europe and post 1500s North America.

No, I think it is the empirical atheist you have a problem with, and, if I must phrase this as a question, is it accurate to say it is not a proletarian fear of the erosion of social and personal experience, but an aristocratic fear that modern learning is eliminating the difference between the sacred and the profane, and you haven’t found a suitable ethical model to replace that abstract gap?



Spinnaker kills bird. Flocks mourn.

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