The Black Swan

I’ve been offline for a while as I needed a bit of a mental break in the midst of a cross-country move and settling in at home. But now that I’ve picked up more work to sustain me, I’ve had a bit more chance to read and have decided to record my notes in blog form.

black swanRecently, a friend referred me to Overdrive, a website that helps you find e-books available from different libraries. I managed to find a book that’s been on my list for about six years now – The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. No, I’m not considering becoming a dancer; I have enough mental health issues to deal with. It’s all about the impact of the highly improbable on life.

After a few chapters, I realized I wouldn’t wish reading it upon even my worst enemies. The author’s style is somewhat endearing at first, but as the chapters bear on starts to feel rather arrogant and pedantic. I’ve begun skipping around because it’s just too tiring to actually read every meandering word.

Some main ideas:

  1. The Black Swan is supposed to be the prototypical example of Hume’s problem with induction. Basically, everyone in the world thought that all swans were white until they discovered a black swan in Australia. In practical matters (history, financial markets), you often don’t realize that x is really possible (dot com bust, 9/11) until it happens. History is often shaped by these seemingly random events that couldn’t be fully predicted (think World War I).
  2. Don’t trust people who think they can predict history or finance 25 years into the future; they can barely predict the next 6 months. (Personal note: keep this in mind for things like Obamacare / the national debt.)
  3. We’re always constructing narratives, because that’s simply how we remember things. We come up with explanations ex post facto, looking at history and pretending that we can find reasons for what occurred even if it was actually random or hard to understand. We try to fit things into our self-constructed patterns, fitting it to a platonic ideal – our map of the world – instead of recognizing the messy reality. (Example: the French thought Hitler was going to be out of power quickly, which is why they didn’t react as quickly. It’s only afterwards we call the French stupid and easily conquerable for not realizing it.)
  4. Remember the difference between “there is no evidence of cancer” and “there is evidence of no cancer.” Basically, just because there is not evidence of the existence of a black swan doesn’t mean there is evidence of no black swans; the absence of evidence for something is not evidence denying its existence.
  5. Interesting idea: maybe capitalism works because it allows people to be wildly unpredictable and try totally unusual things.
  6. Sometimes the more you know, the worse you are. As you try to develop theories, you construct more bad ideas, and then fit future information into those bad theories. (They did a psych test where they focused an initially blurry image. Those given fewer images were more quickly able to identify what the image was, over an even amount of time.)
  7. We generally are bad at predicting risk, because the riskiest things are the least predictable. Don’t trust the “suits” – financial advisors, political consultants, etc.
  8. The Ludic Fallacy: studying probabilities via games is bad, because theirs is sterilized, domesticated uncertainty, whereas in the real-world, you need to discover both the odds and your areas of uncertainty. Example: a casino spends most of its time focused on security in the casino and its clientele, but those numbers are highly predictable. Its four biggest possible financial crises came from completely unexpected places: a tiger maiming his beloved trainer (they’d only planned if the tiger attacked an audience member), an injured construction worker trying to blow the casino up, an employee failing to properly file taxes, the owner’s daughter being kidnapped. The worst risks are not computable, because they are hard to foresee and therefore impossible to model.
  9. A big problem: most risk assessments don’t contain a reasonable possible error rate to their estimation ratios. The error rate is often higher than the projection! Uncertainty is not found in bell curves; it is found irregularities. We should expect deviations from the norm. It is like the turkey, who after being regularly fed day in and day out for a year, is stunned by his death on Thanksgiving. The regular doesn’t always give a clue to the end story.
  10. Hayek’s nobel prize winning acceptance speech was the “the pretense of knowledge” – is this all just a variation on Socrate’s wise realization, “I know that I know nothing” ?

I’ll add more notes as I keep reading skimming.

Lust & the Like

So I recently wrote an article on female masturbation, in response to a blog post that’s been linked as the best of her.meneutics, Christianity Today’s blog for women. My basic premise was that Christians need to stop pretending that women only masturbate because they want to “fill a void” or have “attachment issues.” The root of the problem – something many Christians feel weirdly uncomfortable acknowledging – is that women lust for sex just like men do. (Though on a spectrum, they may lust less on average.)

There have been many bizarre responses, which I feel weirdly compelled to detail here, even though they make it painfully clear that many of them haven’t read the article at all:

1. This article smacks of patriarchy. I specifically criticized the traditional accounts of female masturbation because I think they are patriarchal and downplay women’s agency in sex. See quote below:

The doublespeak here—that women are supposed to be simultaneously sexually adventurous, available, and willing yet without possessing lust themselves—is an impossible contradiction to embody. It treats sex as a man’s playing field, reinforcing the notion that women should cater to men’s desires without possessing similar desires of their own.

To fully address female masturbation, we don’t need more psychoanalysis about sex that implicitly negates female sexuality. We need a biblical approach that recognizes both the immense pleasure of the female orgasm and the inherent goodness of sexual desire while reserving its proper place for within marriage.

2. What century is this? The 1800s? No, if it were the 1800s I’d be saying:

Some young women actually anticipate the wedding night ordeal with curiosity and pleasure! Beware such an attitude! A selfish and sensual husband can easily take advantage of such a bride. One cardinal rule of marriage should never be forgotten: GIVE LITTLE, GIVE SELDOM, AND ABOVE ALL, GIVE GRUDGINGLY. Otherwise what could have been a proper marriage could become an orgy of sexual lust.

That’s a real quote, from a Victorian marriage guide, written in 1894 by Ruth Smythers. It’s very clear my article is written from a 21st century perspective, drawing from the wisdom of the ancients as well, instead of being completely oblivious to anything before 50 years ago.

Of course, we can simply assume that something is false because it’s old, right? In the end, this is little more than chronological snobbery. People don’t study history and so they assume that whatever is present or current is good, right, and true. Anything from before 1969 is clearly regressive and antiquated and false. Nevermind that attitudes toward sex have varied throughout the ages, especially in cities and the upper classes. Buy let’s just ignore those pesky historical facts!

3. It’s inappropriate to talk about such things in a magazine. Guess what. Everybody’s doing it and nobody’s talking about it. It’s because there is such stigma around this topic that the pastoral responses have been so unhelpful. Because no women are talking about it, every woman who struggles thinks she’s weird or on sexual overdrive or something. So we need to talk about it, and we seemingly can’t talk about it in person due to stigma. A magazine is a good way to resolve this tension.

4. My personal favorite: where is the Bible in all of this? Without getting into the sin of Onan, there actually was a Bible quote in the article. But it was subtle – “to stir up and awaken love before it pleases.” I quoted the Bible like Jesus quotes the Bible – without giving book, chapter, and verse. But you have to be knowledgable to track these more subtle clues… I won’t comment on what this says about the average commenter.

5. Masturbation can be performed without lust. I actually agree with this point; it’s possible to get off without lusting after a particular person. But I don’t think that’s a very common case, so it didn’t seem worth getting into arguments about it. I do worry about what it means when we start using a sexual act intended to be used in communion with another for purposes like our personal stress relief or soporific intents. I don’t have time to get as far into this, but I’ll write about it more later. I just don’t think this is a serious possibility for most people, and that lust is the more common problem.

6. Masturbation is perfectly fine. What’s your problem? This has not been the traditional opinion in the church, and some people I know and respect (Richard Beck, for example), hold the unorthodox position. The purpose of the article was not to make the case for why masturbation is wrong. It was an argument about a pastoral approach to a problem – once we agree something is wrong, how do we treat it? Most pastoral approaches I’ve seen in sermons have been significantly misguided, which is why I wanted to write this. I’ll present a longer argument on another day.

7. My favorite response from my boyfriend: Reading the comments on your article made me feel like this:

troll

A Playlist of Songs of Lament

Last month, a tragedy occurred in the life of one of my closest friends. She was understandably furious at God, and I was frustrated by a God who sometimes seems to love her less than I do. After we’d taken care of the necessary odds and ends, I retreated to my room to pray. Yet my tongue was stuck; there was nothing I wanted to say to God. Normally when I’m verbally incapacitated during prayer (a frequent occurrence for a reluctant convert), I resort to song for communication. Yet in this moment facing tragedy, I had no songs to sing.

Songwriter Michael Gungor explains the reason for my sudden muteness – “Approximately 0 percent of the top 150 CCLI songs (songs sung most in churches) are laments.” Popular songbooks contain half the number of laments found in the psalms; for evangelicals whose worship leaders pick and choose their favorites, the number of laments we learn dwindles even more. I could only think of one – “It Is Well With My Soul” – whose titular refrain couldn’t be farther from what I was feeling. To save you from having to dig as thoroughly as I had to to find appropriate songs to sing at this time, I figured I would share. So, here are some of the songs I found myself capable of singing during this time of lament, organized in order of the amount of frustration relative to praise I could muster while singing them.

Sunday Bloody Sunday – U2

Yahweh/40 – U2 

Pride – U2 

Rivers of Babylon – Sublime 

Trenchtown Rock – Bob Marley 

Casimir Pulaski Day – Sufjan Stevens 

For the Widows in Paradise for the Fatherless in Ypsilanti – Sufjan Stevens 

Hallelujah! What a Savior! – traditional hymn

Hallelujah – Jeff Buckley 

Timshel – Mumford & Sons 

Sigh No More – Mumford & Sons 

Awake My Soul – Mumford & Sons 

Dry Bones – Gungor 

How He Loves – John Mark Mcmillan

Satisfied in You – The Sing Team 

Feel the Tide Turning – Mumford & Sons 

Beautiful Things – Gungor 

In the end, I believe in a God who can redeem all our suffering, just as he did for the suffering of Jesus on the cross. I believe in Jesus, who felt such palpable distance from God – just as my friend did – that he cried out from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” I needed songs of lament to remember this.

Gungor sums it up best in his article, “Why Worship Music Should Be Sadder“: “A Christianity that does not lament is a shallow Christianity. It is a medicinal, numbing balm we use to avoid living life in a world that is groaning. It is a Band-Aid to cover our wounds. Fig leaves to be sewn over our humanness. And many of us need to be saved from our addiction to this anemic, shallow substitute for Christianity.”

Hopefully this list may help you find this list of songs a helpful tool for living life in a world that is still groaning, aching for the full justice and grace of God.