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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Quant Who Led a Scholar's Life

Antonello da Messina, St. Jerome in his Study (1460s).
The quantitative trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb became famous after the publication of his book The Black Swan, which analyzed  events that disrupt or shatter systems but that are unanticipated because they are so rare.  He became a major explainer of the 2008 crisis based on his long term study of nonlinear systems, uncertainty, and how things react to random events. One passage his new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, picks up there.

"After the crisis of the late 2000s, I went through an episode of hell owing to contact with the press.  I was suddenly deintellectualized, corrupted, extracted from my habitat, propelled into being a public commodity. I had not realized that it is hard for members of the media and the public to accept that the job of a scholar is to ignore insignificant current affairs, to write books, not emails, and not to give lectures dancing on a stage; that he has other things to do, like read in bed in the morning, write at a desk in front of a window, take long walks (slowly), drink espressos (mornings), chamomile tea (afternoons), Lebanese wine (evenings), and Muscat wines (after dinner), take more long walks (slowly), argue with friends and family members (but never in the morning), and read (again) in bed before sleeping, not keep rewriting one's book and ideas for the benefit of strangers and members of the local chapter of Networking International who haven't read it.

"Then I opted out of public life. When I managed to retake control of my schedule and my brain, recovered from the injuries deep into my soul, learned to use email filters and autodelete functions, and restarted my life, Lady Fortuna brought two ideas to me, making me feel stupid--for I realized I had had them inside me all along."

Mr. Taleb supports his scholar's life with his wealth.  He disdains universities, but the function of the university has always been both the enlightenment of humanity and the support of the conditions of autonomous thought.  The university does this for non-rich people.  His own experience confirms that detachment, tranquility, and concentration are means of moving beyond the existing and usually failing paradigm.  Moving from trading to analyzing and back again, Mr. Taleb rediscovers the necessity of Kantian reason, that which is free of the state's and society's determinations.

Plus, "free reason" extremely pleasant. Pleasure is something that the scholar has no right to ask herself to give up, or to abandon to the demands of others.


Helen said...

I love this post, Chris, especially the emphasis on pleasure. For a more pessimistic view of the scholar's life, here is my favorite excerpt from Samuel Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes": (Johnson left Oxford after a year due to pride and poverty):

When first the College Rolls receive his Name,
The young Enthusiast quits his Ease for Fame;
Resistless burns the fever of Renown,
Caught from the strong Contagion of the Gown;
O'er Bodley's Dome his future Labours spread,
And Bacon's Mansion trembles o'er his Head;
Are these thy Views? proceed, illustrious Youth,
And Virtue guard thee to the Throne of Truth,
Yet should thy Soul indulge the gen'rous Heat,
Till captive Science yields her last Retreat;
Should Reason guide thee with her brightest Ray,
And pour on misty Doubt resistless Day;
Should no false Kindness lure to loose Delight,
Nor Praise relax, nor Difficulty fright;
Should tempting Novelty thy Cell refrain,
And Sloth's bland Opiates shed their Fumes in vain;
Should Beauty blunt on Fops her fatal Dart,
Nor claim the triumph of a letter'd Heart;
Should no Disease thy torpid Veins invade,
Nor Melancholy's Phantoms haunt thy Shade;
Yet hope not Life from Grief or Danger free,
Nor think the Doom of Man revers'd for thee:
Deign on the passing World to turn thine Eyes,
And pause awhile from Learning to be wise;
There mark what Ills the Scholar's Life assail,
Toil, Envy, Want, the Garret, and the Jail.
See Nations slowly wise, and meanly just,
To buried Merit raise the tardy Bust.
If Dreams yet flatter, once again attend,
Hear Lydiat's Life, and Galileo's End.

Thank you for the post! H.

Chris Newfield said...

Helen thanks for this. everybody hates a scholar - esp poets! Taleb was also traumatized by competitiveness and envy at NYU. It's less nasty than Hollywood but people forgive them because they are always throwing gigantic parties. there's a lesson there somewhere.
This blog definitely needs more poetry!

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