Nabokov on Ignorance & Shortcuts

In art as in science there is no delight without the detail, and it is on details that I have tried to fix the reader’s attention. Let me repeat that unless these are thoroughly understood and remembered, all “general ideas” (so easily acquired, so profitably resold) must necessarily remain but worn passports allowing their bearers short cuts from one area of ignorance to another.
– Vladimir Nabokov, introduction to Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse, Vol. 1

Reflexivity and Spikes

One of my favorite ideas in the opaque Soros-ian investing oeuvre—borrowed from Popper and others, to be fair— is that of reflexivity, the notion that things feed on themselves and every move in markets breeds a counter-move. Here is Soros in the FT a decade ago:

I can state the core idea in two relatively simple propositions. One is that in situations that have thinking participants, the participants’ view of the world is always partial and distorted. That is the principle of fallibility. The other is that these distorted views can influence the situation to which they relate because false views lead to inappropriate actions. That is the principle of reflexivity. For instance, treating drug addicts as criminals creates criminal behavior. It misconstrues the problem and interferes with the proper treatment of addicts. As another example, declaring that government is bad tends to make for bad government.

Both fallibility and reflexivity are sheer common sense. So when my critics say that I am merely stating the obvious, they are right—but only up to a point. What makes my propositions interesting is that their significance has not been generally appreciated. The concept of reflexivity, in particular, has been studiously avoided and even denied by economic theory. So my conceptual framework deserves to be taken seriously—not because it constitutes a new discovery but because something as commonsensical as reflexivity has been so studiously ignored.

When you have too many people leaning in one direction you can always be certain a vicious countermove is coming, even if the original stance wasn’t wrong. It is a cliche, but the “too many people on the same side of the boat” metaphor holds: With the least provocation they will all race to the other side, often in concert, guaranteeing the boat flips on that side instead. It isn’t the leaning that kills you—it’s the spike in group action. 

Blind Bets, Status Quo Bias, and Homeostasis

Owner: I didn’t put nothin’ up.
Chigurh: Yes you did. You been putting it up your whole life. You just didn’t know it.
– No Country For Old Men (2007)

Just because you don’t know you’re making bets, doesn’t mean you aren’t making bets, usually around a status quo bias, or some sort of homeostasis, or a combination of both. 

Rewilding, the Long Way ‘Round

A high jeopardy of extinction comes with territory. Islands are where species go to die.
― David Quammen, The Song of the Dodo

Tell them, I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way ’round.
— Dr. Who, Heaven Sent

Rewilding1Conservation aimed at restoring and protecting wilderness, providing connectivity between such areas, and protecting or reintroducing apex predators and keystone species. has a bad rap. It’s generally thought of as crankish and impractical—other than, perhaps, if you have, say, a failed nuclear reactor and the area has been taken over by nature

The idea of turning back the ecological clock has otherwise been difficult to pull off, which helps explain why the example most of you will know best is the same one2I have this general theory of anecdotes, which is that when everyone retails the same one to prove a rule, it’s generally because there is no general rule, just that appealing anecdote.: bringing wolves back to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The trouble with this story, however, is that it isn’t the unalloyed success it’s been made out to be, despite the endless stories on the topic. Doing this sort of thing properly requires more than simply bringing back a single apex predator; it requires the disappearance of humans from wild ecologies. 

Because animal habitats are increasingly fragmented physically by humans, but also by sound. Many animals are acutely sensitive to humans, even if merely recreating, and it turns a troubling fraction of their habitats into islands. And after more than fifty years of studying island biogeography, we know without doubt that more islands, however created, means fewer viable species. 

That is why it is interesting when we see a natural experiment withdrawing humans from landscapes, especially if it doesn’t involve crashing a Soviet nuclear reactor. Current events are causing that sort of experiment right now, as roads become quieter, factories close, and people hunker down, all in the space of weeks. I saw a coyote confidently walking the street in front of our house mid-morning the other day,, and I’m hardly alone, as these tweets show. People are spotting mesopredators in places where they’ve never seen them before, and at times they’ve never seen them,

It’s too soon to say that rewilding is underway, and this is a roundabout way of getting there, but there has been a recent spike in people remarking on mesopredators in their neighborhoods. Depending on how long the current experiment in re-connecting ecological islands continues, the consequences will be worth watching.


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A Societal Flash Crash

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I’ve long argued the 2010 flash crash in US financial markets was a kind of normal accident, the technology-enabled algorithmic withdrawal of trading market liquidity. It was something that couldn’t have happened before markets were largely tech-enabled creations, which gave them an off switch. Flash crashes are a sort of disease of modernity, and entirely predictable.

What I hadn’t realized, but perhaps should have, is that it is possible to have something similar happen at a larger scale, like at the level of an entire society. This wouldn’t have been possible fifty years ago, but it is possible today. It is a remarkable experiment living through a societal flash crash. 

The Hard Break, A Continuing Series

The last few days in commercial flight cancellations have been remarkable, unprecedented, capped by a 21% week-over-week fall today. As I predicted, the hard break in the air travel network has arrived. 2020 03 18 18 45 07

By way of historical context, the flight records set in the summer of 2019 — 230,000 a day — now seem almost inconceivable: 

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