Thursday, September 23, 2004

Almost last thoughts on randomness


In chapter 10 of Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks us to consider a room full of professional actors waiting to be auditioned for a part. One of them will get the part. But they are all professional actors, otherwise they wouldn’t be there. What will determine the producer’s choice?

Well, as Taleb points out, it could be some silly detail. It might be, for instance, that the guy just 'looks right'; or it could be that the producer had fallen in love the previous day with a person of a similar-sounding last name. In other words, the choice is random. And yet this choice could mean all the difference between an actor being a member of the cast of a smash hit (and acquiring all the fame and fortune which then follows) and the actor continuing to be a waiter in a coffee shop.

Substitute a room full of manuscripts by hopeful authors, for the room full of actors, and you begin to see the point. I hope.

And I have to ask, as I have asked before, and will go on asking at the risk of being boring – is this a business in which sensible people would wish to be involved? It compares very badly, for instance, with hairdressing and selling secondhand cars. In both of those occupations, a reasonable degree of success can be pretty well guaranteed to anyone with minimum aptitude and the knack of turning up for work on time. It ain’t nearly so random, in other words.


In the information age, says Taleb, winners tend to win big. Take for example, Microsoft. Is the Windows software the ‘best’? You don’t have to go far to discover that plenty of people don’t think so. In fact, phrases such as ‘heap of crap’ have been known to creep into some of the conversations that I’ve had. But is it the biggest success? Oh yes.

Success, however achieved, leads to more and more success; and, provided the product is tolerably professional and acceptable, quality over and above a certain basic level is not much of a factor. So the big-selling books get bigger. And bigger and bigger. And everybody else starves. And IT AIN’T FAIR!!

But what, exactly, can you do about it? Well you can stay out of the book business, for one.

Taleb, remember, is a writer himself. It has dawned on him, by page 167, that the bi-polarity which he describes is affecting him personally. Either everybody wants your book or nobody does, and they won’t even return your phone calls. But writers should bear in mind, he says, the nonlinear effect behind success in anything. ‘It is better to have a handful of enthusiastic advocates than hordes of people who appreciate your work – better to be loved by a dozen than liked by the hundreds.’

This has, I suggest, profound implications. Because today you can publish your work in ebook form, if nowhere else. And, in theory, you can find your dozen passionate advocates from all over the world. All you have to do is (a) write an absolutely staggering book, and (b) find those twelve people who are going to be knocked absolutely sideways by it and act as your publicity agents. Shouldn’t be too difficult.

Final thought from chapter 10: ‘Too much success is the enemy (think of the punishment meted out to the rich and famous), too much failure is demoralising.’ Taleb says he would like the option of having neither. And so say all of us.


Why are writers so resistant to reality? Why do they fail to see the blindingly obvious, and beat their heads against brick walls to the advantage of no one except possibly those who sell bandages and soothing ointment?

Well, you’ll be relieved to know that writers are not just thicker than everyone else. Taleb points to the evidence that human beings are not wired to make rational decisions; we are wired to make decisions based on emotion. Which explains much.

Even the mighty Taleb has his limitations. He reached a turning point in his career, he says, when he realised that he was not intelligent enough, nor strong enough, to even try to fight his emotions. But he is intelligent enough – just – to know that he is rather emotional by nature. He therefore finds it best not to read things – such as criticisms of his work – which will upset him.

Unless the author of a statement, such as a book review, has extremely high qualifications, the statement will be more revealing of its author than of the work which he is reviewing. So you can forget about reading any rejection letters or ‘suggestions for improvement’, since most authors of such missives have absolutely zero track record in knowing what they’re talking about. Furthermore, reading what they have to say will only annoy the shit out of you. (Technically this is called Wittgenstein’s ruler, by the way.)

Final thoughts on randomness next week.

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