North American Contrarian

Telling it like it is… in North America

Leave a comment

A Life Changing Concept from A Terrifically Boring Book… aka The Black Swan

Some time ago, I slogged my way through the book “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb.  It is a best-seller described as “prophetic”, “a black swanmasterpiece” and “changed my view of the world”.

Per the title of this blog post, you might guess that I found reading this book like a root canal without Novocain.  It’s the kind of book intellectual minded people hang on their bookshelves to use words like “erudite” in describing their reading habits.

That said, there was a brilliant concept in this book, one that I want to share (and hopefully save the good people of blog-land hours of torment reading the book in its entirety.)

Happy TurkeyThe concept was first introduced by Bertran Russell and is philosophically known as “The Problem of Induction” (sometimes referred to as “Hume’s Problem”) and it’s a human foible that impacts everything from economics to politics to why you are always broke.

Here it is, as described brilliantly in the book.

You are a turkey.  You live a glorious life, dining on the best turkey food (what the hell to turkeys eat anyway?).  Every day is a joy, and has been so since the day of your birth.  There are lots of chickens around for you meet, no limit set on your cockadoodling and careful care is maintained to make sure you are always in top form.

But there’s a problem, and it strikes at precisely 12 PM on October 12.  That, you see, is the day before Thanksgivingthanksgiving, which tends to be an unkind one for turkeys.  In the afternoon you are taken into the barn where your neck snapped and in an instant you sit lifeless, tagged for sale in the grocery store poultry isle.  Your life was an illusion and you never noticed that each glorious day was another slow  step towards this inevitable point of calamity.

So what does this have to do with anything except for Butterball sales?

Consider the case of the Jews in 1930’s, when Germany was on a steady arc towards enlightenment and life was gradually, but definitively becoming only better.  Consider your stock portfolio in 2007, which for almost a decade brought only gains. Or how each successive year you move up the company hierarchy and your salary incrementally follows.

The point is that we often base our current thinking on what has happened in the past.  But the past is often deceptive and sometimes- even often- does not indicate what is to come.  In fact, history is defined by surprises that completely alter the trajectory of everything that came before.

I love this concept… and not only because it fits so nicely with a blog that focusses on contrarian-ness.   The turkey metaphor has had a huge influence on my life.

It was the clincher as to why I got an MBA.  I realized that, although my career was going ok, this was not an indication that it would always continue to be ok and a broader education would buffer against any nasty surprises.   It’s why, even when stocks are on a great run, I still keep to a 30/70 bond to equities mix.  Hell, it’s even why I randomly pick up flowers for my wife on the way home from work.  You simply never know what tomorrow will bring.

Of course, the book delves much deeper into this concept and introduces the reasons as to why we are so prone to this problem.  For those who care to read on, my top three are:

  • Patterns: we want to believe that we have found a pattern when in fact things are much more likely to be random occurrences.
  • We believe almost solely what we see: to the point that we fail to recognize the wider realities outside our field of view.
  • We tunnel– that is, we focus on well-defined sources and ignore alternative ones, or those that fall outside of our own belief systems.

So that’s it.  Don’t bother reading the book, it’s a slog.  But next time you sit down for a turkey feast consider that if you aren’t preparing for the unknown around the corner, you, too, might end up seasoned with delectable cranberry sauce on a Thanksgiving plate.


Leave a comment

5 Life Lessons From Cavemen

Mankind has made huge progress since the ancient days when we wandered the earth itinerantly and relied on fickle stars instead of a Tom Tom, or even Google Maps.

url-1Yes, we have discovered great marvels like the George Foreman grill (just imagine how uneven Sabre Tooth Tigre meat would be without convection cooking) and small wonders like toilet paper (I have read much about our fore bearers but have yet to learn how they handled one of mankind’s greatest challenges.)

But before we get overly self congratulatory about our progress, I think it’s worth considering some of the great life lessons from our cavemen brethren.

1) The Tough Mudder, Every Day:

Without the aid of protein shakes or kale, cavemen rarely put on even a pound.  Instead they followed a vigorous exercise regimen, a daily sweat fest that somewhat resembled the tough mudder but with only slightly less opportunity for team bonding between events.  The swivel chair and ergonomic mouse had yet to be invented and our ancestors had little incentive or motivation to sit for eight hours a day.

Vericose viens were exceedingly rare in those days.

2) A Sophisticated Diet Plan:

paleo-diet1 Even before the advent of foie gras, the cavemen’s diet was surprisingly sophisticated.  Everything was locally sourced, organic and free range.  The menu was heavy on meats, berries and other simple grains.  it was a hybrid that would both make Atkins proud while also satisfying Michael Pollan and discerning foodies, all before the advent of the Food Network.

3) Only Keep What You Can Carry:

Cavemen carefully avoided our natural obsession with hoarding in a very simple way.  There were no shortage of great things available for the taking: ornate rocks, carefully chiselled bones and fur coats of every description (granted, yearly subscriptions to Nat Geo were still not available to collect dust in the cave cellar).

But you can just picture a caveman telling his wife “honey, I agree that giant hunk of quartz is a beauty, but I just can’t be running from a wholly mammoth with that thing strapped to my back”.

It was a remarkably effective strategy with the result that cavemen were the original pioneers of the minimalist lifestyle.

 4) Family Comes First:6a00d8341bf7f753ef00e54f3e5bcb8834-800wi

This was not something that little cavemen children learnt during endless reruns of the Cosby Show.   Instead it was engrained from birth that your family was your most important worldly possession.  These people formed the only barrier between you and everything the natural world could throw at you.

Dad was more than they guy who could grant you car privileges on the weekend.  Instead, he was your only defence against some very toothy animals that wanted to add you to the food chain while you slept.

Clearly, this is not a guy you wanted to piss off.

5) Seise Each Day

Before Lululemon brought yoga to the mainstream and Deepak Chopra urged us to awake to a new consciousness, cavemen practiced a brand of new age lifestyle that will go down in the ages.  This was largely for expediency, as our fore bearers had little time to reminisce about the past or look forward to the future.

Indeed, cavemen were the ultimate practitioners of living in the now.  They seized each moment as if it were their last and lived each day to its absolute fullest without the requirement of yoga mats, tie die or Yanni recordings.

Follow my blog for more contrarian fact, opinion and soapbox rants!