Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Nassim Taleb and his black swans

LAST WEEK I WROTE about Nassim Taleb's book The Black Swan, forgetting to steer you to an interesting online review here. Then last night on the McNeil News Hour who should show up, at the end of the show, but Mr. Taleb himself, in an interview with the News Hour's sometimes determinedly entertaining economy commentator Paul Solman. Even more striking, exciting really, Taleb was joined by the man he claims as mentor, Benoît Mandelbrot.
For ten minutes they talked about Taleb's book and the economic crisis. The interview was both fascinating and disturbing; I wish it had been an hour long. Fortunately PBS does a good job of making itself available: you can read the transcript, listen to or download the audio track, or watch the streaming video of the interview on the PBS webpage.
Not to be overly dramatic, but Taleb and Mandelbrot say that this crisis may well be the greatest disturbance since, not merely the Great Depression, but the American Revolution. Citing the incredible complexity of the global economy, they see the entire apparatus to a chain reaction of unknowable effects. As Taleb explains:

You may have chain reactions we've never imagined before. And these come from the intricate relationships in the system we don't understand.

PAUL SOLMAN [turning toward the 84-year-old Mandelbrot]: You've been around a lot longer than we have. That's possible. Is it likely?

BENOIT MANDELBROT: Well, we don't know the probability. We don't have enough knowledge. We don't have enough information. We don't have enough reliable information on data which are not published. I mean, I sleep better, perhaps, than Nassim, but I don't sleep very well.

Sorry if I've disturbed your sleep.

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