Fooled by Randomness or Bad Science?

October 31, 2008


Having just finished reading Fooled by Randomness and having only read 2 chapters so far of Bad Science, there is really no contest. One is a ridiculous collection of buzzwords and ego, and the other is an evidence based consideration of how the world actually works.


First: Fooled by Randonmess  Avoid this like the plague. I foolishly bought it because I’d seen it mentioned several times in the press as somehow revealing something interesting about the current financial crisis and how the author Taleb had some kind of insight into the world of stock markets and beyond.


However, I think that most of the excitable reviews surroundng Fooled by Randomness have actually been Fooled by Hype. After all I realise that’s why I bought it…


For those who haven’t been initiated into the Cult of Taleb, he claims to have privileged information into the way the world really works in the same way other peddlars of reheated buzzwords like to claim. (See Malcolm Gladwell of Tipping Point for another one, although that’s a much more enjoyable read.) So instead of a reasoned and logical argument we get a stream of bitty chapters summarising his musings on randomness, stock markets, and, you know, life its-very-self.


The central thesis seems to be (brace yourself for this revelation): ‘you can’t predict the future’. Whilst technically correct, I’m not really sure we need 300 pages going on and on about it. I think most of the world realises you can’t predict the future of the stock markets – or indeed anything much, if you want to be literal about it.


If you really want to muse about the unpredictablilty of stock markets, then watch Aronofsy’s, ‘Pi’, which is in a totally different class – given that’s it’s a quite a good film.


The other big problem with the book is that he’s got the world’s largest, most irritating, overblown self regard for his own intelligence. His other main theme is: ‘if you disagree with me, you’re an idiot and I will ignore and laugh at you.’ Great. What a charmer.


I think the words I’m searching for here are: ‘he’s pompous prick who made a few million on the stock market and – contrary to his own ‘thesis’ – seems to think that fact alone justifies his own inflated opinion of himself.


So, forget him, and read Ben Goldacre’s ‘Bad Science’. It’s everything Fooled isn’t: considered, rational and backed up with those things that scientists like to call ‘facts’. Facts are a bit unfashionable at the moment, but they do a rather good job of explaining how the world works and making it easier to tell the difference between something that works (eg, medicine) and stuff that’s based on patent nonsense (eg, alternative therapies)


Goldacre is the Guardian’s Bad Science columnist who delights in debunking psuedoscience and showing how the media so often misunderstands and misrepresents scientific research to the public, who don’t generally have a scientific background to know the difference.


Bad Science is witty and funny, and yet deadly serious at the same time as it exposes how people are fooled not by randomness, but by the media’s often and infuriatingly irresponsible attitude to science reporting (see the MMR hoax). He also discusses (and despairs at) the deliberate misappropriation of sciencey sounding theories and words by everyone from homeopaths to nutritionists in order to peddle silly sugar pills or faddy ineffective diets.


If you really want a considered insight into how things are, go for Bad Science!  

Bad Science

Fooled by Randomness


October 30, 2008

Warning: this warning has no warning.

Thanks Microsoft!

W – a brief review

October 24, 2008

That’s Oliver Stone on the right:

So last night I was at the UK Premiere of W, the Oliver Stone film about George W Bush, which was all very exciting, walking up the red carpet at Leicester Square and so forth. Spotted a few celebs: Russell Brand in a skirt sitting a few rows in front. Rebecca Loos at the after party, etc.

But what about the film?

Something of a missed opportunity I’d say. Whatever you think of Bush, he’s certainly made his mark on the world (which hopefully will recover eventually), and therefore is a great subject for a film. Is he a complete idiot who got lucky? A conniving nepotist? A really smart guy who’s just misunderstood?  I wouldn’t have minded which Stone went for and explored – at least it would give you something think and argue about.

Well, Stone doesn’t know or even care to hazard a guess. All we get is a sequence of ‘things that happened’. He’s a fratboy. Then he’s an alcoholic. Then he meets Laura. Then he finds God. Then he gives up booze. Then he’s Governor of Texas. Then he’s President. Then he invades Iraq. He calls Bush Senior ‘Poppy’. A lot.

It really is that simplistic. No attempt to get under the skin – exempt for a bit of desultory father/son tension. We learn nothing we didn’t already know, and never have our prejudices challenged.

The performance from Josh Brodin, however, is good. He doesn’t do a caricature of Bush, but does exude that strange unaware brashness that Bush has. In fact the only bit of the film which very nearly gets good is during his appallingly mishandled visit to wounded soldiers in hospital, where you almost get the sense he might realise what he’s done. But then it’s the next scene and the next and it’s never explored again.

Similarly Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney and Scott Glenn as Rumsfeld are very good, but it’s not enough to turn this into a film with anything much to say or that tells us anything about ‘W’ that we didn’t already know.

Dear Banking System…

October 17, 2008

Dear Banking System,

It has come to our attention that you are £300,000,000,000 over your overdraft,  which exceeds your agreed limit. 

You will be charged £4,500,000,000 interest for each day your account remains overdrawn.

If you are experiencing financial difficulties which might make it difficult for you to repay this amount, please get in touch with us where will we laugh heartily at the boot now being on the other foot, I mean, we will consider lending you some cash whilst you sort this bloody mess out. Oh, and we’ll take control of your banks as part of some kind of partial renationalisation I don’t really understand.

Hope that’s ok,

Lots of love,

The UK


Bring back ‘Pototoe’ Quail

October 2, 2008

Not that the world needs another post on Sarah Palin, and I don’t even care except that let’s hope she doesn’t become the 2nd most powerful person on the planet, eh, but she really said this:

Sarah Palin: My understanding is that Rick Davis recused himself from the dealings in that firm, um, I don’t know how long ago, a year or two, ago and that he’s not benefitting from that, and I would hope that that’s the case.

Interviewer: But he still has a stake in the company so isn’t that a conflict of interest?

SP: Long long pause. Again, my understanding is that he recused himself from the dealings with Freddy and Fanny and any lobbying efforts on his part there, and I would hope that that’s the case, and as John McCain has been saying, and as I’ve been – on a much more local level – been also rallying against, is the undue influence of lobbyists in public policy decisions being made.

Not having paid much attention to the whole business I thought this was the spoof thing everyone’s been talking about. But it ain’t.


A thing in progress

October 2, 2008

Can you guess what it is yet?