Wednesday, October 22, 2008

word of the day: fractionation

context: In a description of the towers at an oil refinery, the author says, “[Some] are fractionating towers, in which crude oil is heated from the bottom to distill it. The various hydrocarbons in crude, ranging from tar to gasoline to natural gas, have different boiling points; as they’re heated, they separate, arranging themselves in the column with the lightest ones on top. … Looming overhead are 20 fractionation towers and 20 more exhaust stacks.”

source: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman

Friday, October 10, 2008

ground ground nuts

In her book 84, Charing Cross Road Helene Hanff responds to a friend who is visiting England:

“I fail to see why you did not understand the groceryman, he did not call it ‘ground ground nuts,’ he called it ‘ground ground-nuts’ which is the only really SENSible thing to call it. Peanuts grow in the GROUND and are therefore GROUNDnuts, and after you take them out of the ground you grind them up and you have ground ground-nuts, which is a much more accurate name than peanut butter, you just don’t understand English.”

84, Charing Cross Road is a surprisingly affecting collection of correspondence between Hanff and an English bookseller, Frank Doel, and a few others. The correspondence got its start in 1949 when the British government was still imposing rationing, a legacy of the war. Besides sending a little money to buy books, Helene makes friends by shipping tinned goods, like ham and tongue. The back and forth between the effusive New Yorker and the reserved Londoner provides contrast yet Doel seems to get Hanff’s sometimes sarcastic wit.

The paragraph I quote above is outside the main thread of the book but fun anyway.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

the relative powers of elegance and aesthetics

“In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I don’t run to catch trains.

Except in those instances when not running to catch a train upsets the person with whom I am traveling. Elegance and aesthetics get wiped away pretty quick when you’re sitting next to somebody seething.

Monday, October 06, 2008

don’t fear contradicting yourself

“If you know that the stock market can crash, as it did in 1987, then such an event is not a Black Swan.”

This contradicts other things Taleb has said. But Taleb doesn’t seem to fear contradicting himself.

A Black Swan in Taleb’s metaphor is an event (or thing) that cannot be predicted from the existing data set. It is an “unknown unknown” (apparently former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld isn’t the only one who likes this phrase). Europeans had only ever seen white swans. “White” was one of the definitions of “swan.” Then black swans turned up in Australia. Nobody could have predicted!

An unanticipated market crash then would be more a “gray swan”? “A gray swan concerns modelable extreme events.” You don’t know when it’s going to happen but, as it’s happened in the past, it’s within the realm of possibility and you can take steps to protect yourself (or take advantage).

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Sunday, October 05, 2008

dwarf the Himalayas

“Our planet looks smooth to an observer from space, but this is because it is too small. If it were a bigger planet, then it would have mountains that would dwarf the Himalayas, and it would require observation from a greater distance to look smooth.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb makes this observation in a discussion of fractals. He follows to its logical conclusion the idea that organization is the same from the tiny to the gigantic. The rock is the mountain, more or less. But in following his logic Taleb makes one of those mistakes he often warns about – reality is not a logic game. Presumably a mountain on a Jupiter-sized planet would dwarf the largest mountain on earth the way Jupiter dwarfs earth, if not for gravity. Gravity is pulling at the Himalayas themselves.

Is a Jupiter-sized rocky planet even possible? If it did exist it would probably be quite smooth, as the planet’s gravity would be so great that the smallest nub would be squeezed down to nothingness.

The largest mountains are not on the largest planets. Olympus Mons is supposed to be the tallest mountain in the solar system (three times the height or Everest?), and it grew up on Mars, a planet much smaller than Earth. Venus, which has 90% of Earth’s gravity, also boasts mountains taller than any on Earth.

Friday, October 03, 2008

a poetry book that sold 7,000 copies would be a Black Swan

“If I told you that two authors sold a total of a million copies of their books, the most likely combination is 993,000 copies sold for one and 7,000 for the other. This is far more likely than that the books each sold 500,000 copies.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The quote is from a discussion of averaging. Few books sell well, let alone in the seven figures (or the six or even the five). The bestselling authors are easy to see and easy to name. Their great shadows hide the many thousands who’ve written perfectly decent books who struggle to get a book published and out to their relative handful of fans. The bestseller is a Black Swan. By looking at the mass of evidence it could not be predicted. We know the occasional outlandish success will appear because we have seen it before. But predictors, Taleb asserts, are usually wrong about where that success will come.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

it’s lonely being right

“It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Curious, that. If the “wrong direction” is “more profitable”, what makes “the right one” right?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Christmas dinner

“The same past data can confirm a theory and also its exact opposite[.] If you survive until tomorrow, it could mean that either a) you are more likely to be immortal or b) you are closer to death.”

source: The Black Swan: the impact of the highly improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Taleb notes the quite-reasonable assumptions of a turkey being fattened for Christmas dinner. Every day presents another tasty handout. Things are going great. Turkey’s got shelter from predators, plenty of food, company of other turkeys - what a deal! The optimist would say tomorrow will be just like today, just as yesterday was and the day before that. Let’s say the pessimistic turkey has a rather darker view of tomorrow. What should his strategy be? Escape to hunger and the chase?

Be that as it may, who knows whose future includes Christmas dinner?