Black swans of trespass

Nassim Taleb has an article in the FinTimes presenting ten principles he believes would reduce the occurrence of rare, catastrophic events (events he has taken to calling black swans).  Many of his principles are not actionable, and several are ill-advised.  Take, for instance, # 3:

3. People who were driving a school bus blindfolded (and crashed it) should never be given a new bus.

If this principle was applied, the bus would have no drivers at all.   All of us are driving blindfolded, with our only guide to the road ahead being what we can apprehend from the rear-view mirror.  Past performance, as they say, is no guide to the future direction of the road.
Or take #6:

6. Do not give children sticks of dynamite, even if they come with a warning.  Complex derivatives need to be banned because nobody understands them and few are rational enough to know it. Citizens must be protected from themselves, from bankers selling them “hedging” products, and from gullible regulators who listen to economic theorists.

Well, what precisely is “complex”?  Surely, Dr Taleb is not suggesting the banning of plain futures and options, as these serve a valuable function in our economy (enabling the parceling and trading of risk).  But even these are too complex for some people (such as those farmers, dentists, and local government officials currently with burnt fingers), and surely such people need protection from themselves much more so than the quant-jocks and their masters on Wall Street.  So, where would one draw the line between allowed derivative and disallowed?
Once again, it appears there has been a mis-understanding of the cause of the recent problems.  It is not complex derivatives per se that are the problem, but the fact that many of these financial instruments have, unusually, been highly-correlated.  Thus, the failure of one instrument (and subsequently, one bank) brings down all the others with it — there is a systemic risk as well as a participant risk involved in their use.   Dr Taleb, who has long been a critic of the unthinking use of Gaussian models in finance, I am sure realises this.

Bach in Manchester

Last night I heard a thrilling performance in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, performed by Manchester Camerata, the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, and the choristers of Manchester Cathedral, under Nicholas Kraemer.   The two orchestras and choirs were arranged on the left and right sides of the stage, with the children’s chorus in between.  I have seen this work staged in many different ways, including with the choirs seated side-by-side, and even enmeshed together (overlayed is what a computer scientist would say; gemuddled might be the appropriate German word).   I think last night’s staging was probably the best I have heard, since the various parts were much more distinguishable than they are normally, and the stereophonic effects quite powerful.
The evangelist was James Gilchrist, whom I have heard in this part before, and he gave an intense and very dramatic performance, as close to a theatrical performance as a singer can get.   The other soloists – Matthew Hargreaves (as Christ), Elizabeth Weisberg, Clare Wilkinson, Mark Le Brocq and Stephen Loges – all gave solid, hall-filling and hall-stopping performances.
The continuo part was played on two small organs, a cello and a lute.   This is the first time I have heard a lute in this Passion – I guess finding a viola da gamba player is normally hard enough, let alone a lutist.  I was sitting close enough to hear the lute, played by Lynda Sayce, and it added a nice, somewhat bitter-sweet, edge to the overall sound.   I doubt this could be heard further back, though.   The lute, the cello, played by Jonathan Price, and one organ, played by Ashok Gupta, were physically located around the Evangelist, which had the effect of making the singer and continuo more of a single unit in the recitatives than is usual.  Often, the recitatives in the music of Bach seem a little out of place to me – neither quite speech nor quite song – and so putting the singer with the continuo created a mini-ensemble which had its own coherent logic.   I was sitting quite close to this group, and thus could see their playing and their co-ordination with one another, as well as hear each part well.   I was particularly impressed by Gupta’s confident playing.
The other organ, played by Christopher Stokes, was at the far rear of the stage, and I could hear it less well.  I suppose it was placed there to be near the walk-on soloists.   In the main, the voices of these soloists did not project so well last night, at least not to my position in the left front stalls, diagonally opposite and down stage from them.    (I expect the hall’s acoustics were not designed for projection in that way – most concert hall projection is designed to be up and out from the stage, rather than across and down stage).  Perhaps because of his strong voice, the only singer who stood out in this regard was Adam Drew (as Judas), who sang confidently and dramatically.
With a work of such great spiritual depth, I always feel that immediate applause is not appropriate.  We should sit, still and silent, for a few moments upon completion, to meditate on the meaning of what we have just heard. I’ve never met an audience that agrees with me, however, and last night was no exception.
Of the dozen or so times I have heard this Passion, across three continents, last night’s superb performance was one of the best two or three.

Earlier posts on music are here.

At the hot gates: a salute to Nate Fick

After viewing The Wire, certainly the best television series I have ever seen (and perhaps the best ever made), I naturally sought out Generation Kill, from the same writing team – David Simons and Ed Burns.  Also gripping and intelligent viewing, although (unlike The Wire), we only see one side’s view of the conflict.   The series follows a US Marine platoon, Second Platoon of Bravo Company of the 1st  Reconnaissance  Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, as they invade Iraq in March-April 2003.   Like Band of Brothers, we come to know the platoon and its members very well, feeling joy at their wins, and sorrow at their losses.  The TV series is based on an eponymous 2004 book by a journalist, Evan Wright, who was embedded with the platoon in this campaign.
The TV series led me, however,  to read another book about this platoon, written by its commanding officer Lt. Nathaniel Fick (played in the series by actor Stark Sands).    The book is superb!    Fick writes extremely well, intelligently and evocatively, of his training and his battle experiences.  His prose style is direct and uncluttered, without being a parody of itself (as is, say, Hemingway’s).  His writing is remarkably smooth, gliding along, and this aspect reminded me of Doris Lessing, on one of her good days.   Fick clearly has a firm moral centre (perhaps an outcome of his Jesuit high school education), evident from his initial decision to apply to the military while still an undergraduate classics major at Dartmouth.     Having felt a similarly-strong desire as an undergraduate to experience life at the hot gates, I empathized immensely with his description of himself at that time.   Fick’s moral grounding is shown throughout the book, not only in the decisions he takes in battle, and his reflections on these decisions, but also in the way he refrains from naming those of his commanding officers whom he does not respect.    He also shows enormous loyalty to the men he commanded.
And Fick’s experiences demonstrate again that no organization, not even military forces,  can succeed for very long when commands are only obeyed mindlessly.   Successfully execution of commands requires intelligent dialogue between commanders and recipients, in a process of argumentation, to ensure that uttered commands are actionable, appropriate, feasible, effective, consistent, ethical and advisable.  Consequently, the most interesting features of the book for me were the descriptions of decision-making, descriptions often implicit.   Officers and non-officers, it seems, are drilled, through hours of rote learning, in the checklists and guiding principles necessary for low-level, tactical decision-making, so that these decisions can be automatic.  Only after these mindless drills are second nature are trainee officers led to reflect on the wider (strategic and ethical) aspects of decisions,  of decision-making and of actions.   I wonder to what extent such an approach would work in business, where most decision-making, even the most ordinary and tactical, is acquired through direct experience and not usually taught as drills.  Mainly this is because we lack codification of low-level decision-making, although strong fmcg companies such as Mars or Unilever come closest to codification of tactical decision-making.
Fick’s frequent frustrations with the commands issued to him seem to arise because these commands often ignore basic tactical constraints (such as the area of impact of weapons or the direction of firing of weapons), and because they often seem to be driven by a concern for appearances over substantive outcomes.   In contrast to this frustration, one of Fick’s commanding heroes is Major Richard Whitmer, whose unorthodox managerial style and keen intelligence is well described.  A military force able to accommodate such a style is to be admired, so I hope it is not a reflection on the USMC that Whitmer appears to have spent the years since the Iraq invasion running a marine recruitment office.  Next time that I’m CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I’ll actively try to recruit Whitmer and Fick, since they are both clearly superb managers.
I was also struck by how little the troops on the ground in Iraq knew of the larger, strategic picture.  Fick’s team relied on broadcasts from the BBC World Service on a personal, non-military-issue transister radio to learn what was happening as they invaded Iraq.   We who were not involved in the war also relied on the BBC, particularly Mark Urban’s fascinating daily strategic analyses on BBC TV’s Newsnight.  Were we remote viewers better informed than those in the ground in Iraq?  Quite possibly.
Nathaniel Fick now works for a defence think tank, the Center for a New American Security.  A 2006 speech he gave at the Pritzer Military Library in Chicago can be seen here.   A seminar talk to Johns Hopkins University’s series on Rethinking the Future Nature of Competition and Conflict can be found here (scroll down to 2006-01-25).  And here is Fick’s take on recent war poetry.
K. Atkinson et al. [2008]: Command dialogues. In: I. Rahwan and P. Moraitis (Editors): Proceedings of the Fifth International Workshop on Argumentation in Multi-Agent Systems (ArgMAS 2008), AAMAS 2008, Lisbon, Portugal.
Nathaniel Fick [2005]:  One Bullet Away:  The Making of a Marine Officer.  London, UK:  Phoenix.
Evan Wright [2004]:  Generation Kill. Putnam.

Protagonist vs. Antagonist

A letter in the latest London Review of Books describes the continuation in modern Italy of an old Roman tradition of protagonist and antagonist choruses:

Reading that in the ancient Roman play Octavia, ‘unusually, there are two chorus groups, one pro-Octavia and the other pro-Poppaea,’ I was immediately reminded of a remarkable broadcast I saw recently on Italian television (LRB, 26 February). I was in a hotel in Venice at the time, trawling through the 57 channels in search of some coverage of the Milan soccer derby. It transpired that Italian football, just like its English counterpart, has been sold down the river to Sky; since my hotel did not subscribe, live coverage was unavailable.
I did, however, stumble across a channel that was attempting to give the best possible live coverage without actually showing any of the action. They had a camera at the stadium, but it was trained away from the pitch, on two commentators who were describing the play. The point of it was that one man was an Inter fan, and the other supported AC; as each team gained possession of the ball, their man picked up the commentary (and the other was supposed to stop, though he rarely did). My first thought was that this had to be the lamest and most desperate attempt to cover the game imaginable. I was about to turn the thing off and head out into the night, but something stayed my finger. It turned out to be the best piece of entertainment I’ve seen for years. I realised later that it was drawing on an ancient Italian dramatic tradition. If the two choruses in Octavia came even close to the hilarious interplay the two commentators produced when AC Milan scored, only for the goal to be disallowed, then I think the play is definitely worth reviving.” (Letter from Robert Heath)

Richard Whately

In an IHT op-ed on puns, Joseph Tartakovsky mentions Richard Whately (1787-1863), Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin and former Oxford Professor of Political Economy, as being renowned for his puns.   Whately was possibly the first person to represent an argument using a diagram, in his 1826 text book on logic, Elements of Logic.  Philosopher Tim van Gelder has a reproduction of Whately’s diagram here.
How nice to be remembered 150 years after one’s death for both one’s wit and one’s visual thinking processes.
Chris Reed,  Douglas Walton and Fabrizio Macagno [2007]:  Argument diagramming in logic, law and artificial intelligence. Knowledge Engineering Review, 22 (1): 87-109.
Joseph Tartakovsky [2009]: Pun for the ages.  International Herald Tribune.  28 March 2009.
Richard Whately [1826]:  Elements of Logic. London, UK: Longmans, Green and Company, 1913. First published 1826.