Thursday, October 09, 2008

An Unwanted Journey: Day 1051 - Black Swans and Tinkering

As some of you know, I have a second blog. It is called Bringing Closure and is devoted to the more technical aspects of my career in information technology.

On December 31st, 2007, I wrote a brief entry about a book called The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable, in which I mused about anticipating the unexpected during the course of 2008. It seems that anticipating the unexpected is far more difficult than I ever could have imagined.

I certainly did not anticipate that I would have donated my collection of information technology books to the executive of the Waterloo Wellington Information Technology Professionals group that I co-founded in 2005; that the reason for doing so was that metastatic colorectal cancer would rob me of my work and put me on short- and long-term disability with a two-year prognosis; that I would have an abortive liver resection; that I would be starting chemotherapy with Avastin and FOLFIRI; that both our family pets would have died; or even that the credit crunch in the United States would turn into a global market panic.

Nor did I ever suspect that so many of my career-related acquaintances would become dear friends, an entirely new support network of people committed to helping me deal with terrible health diagnoses and prognoses. Maybe I wasn't completely blind to these possibilities, but neither was I anticipating them in any meaningful way.

But like the author of the book The Black Swan, I employ stories and vignettes in this journal to illustrate my unwanted journey, even though most of the significant aspects of that journey were entirely unanticipated, something which narratives blur and confuse.

My blog is entitled Don Spencer's Artifacts, an allusion to my confidence in the power of ideas - artifacts - while the major thread of this blog is entitled An Unwanted Journey, a series of vignettes about the vagaries of my personal experience of colorectal cancer. It is the vignettes, not so much the ideas, that illustrate the value of this blog. Certainly ideas are not without merit, it's just that they lack the resonance and memorable quality of narratives.

My narratives, like all narratives, impose an order on the past. They transform a black swan into something we all think we could have predicted beforehand. But when the truth is told (albeit in narrative fashion), all I've really done is tinker - after the fact - with material provided in an apparently random fashion.

Here's an example.

Yesterday I met for coffee with a colleague at a place called Matter of Taste, where we sipped latte and cappuccino and talked about books we were reading (and a little about work). My friend spoke about the markets, especially the markets in the United States, and the catastrophic loss of confidence we are all witnessing. That triggered a thought for me about a couple books still in my personal collection by the author Nassim Taleb. I promised to forward a reference to the titles when I returned home. In doing so, I found the books and started browsing them again. As I did so, I recognized a key word - tinker - that had just surfaced in some apparently unrelated reading I had done recently of the relatively new science of Evo-Devo, evolutionary developmental biology (see Sean B. Carroll's Fruitfly Study Shows How Evolution Wings It). From there, as I continued with my online search, I discovered that Taleb's forthcoming book is tentatively titled Tinkering.

After the fact, it all seems so obvious. Evolution apparently works through tinkering with a simple chemistry set of DNA. Free market economies work through endless and free tinkering (not planning or regulation). Cancer treatment works by tinkering with the body's own defensive and regulatory systems (when it works at all). Narratives work by tinkering with the random components of a life lived, especially one in which other people figure prominently.

Apparently it's all about black swans and tinkering.

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