The Black Swan

The Book of the Week is “The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, published in 2010. In this book, the author explains his theory about rare, unexpected events, “Black Swans”– unexpected by those affected, because human traits and uncertain situations cause people to draw the wrong conclusions, formulate the wrong predictions, and make the wrong decisions. “Black Swan events are largely caused by people using measures way over their heads, instilling false confidence based on bogus results.” The author applies his ideas mostly to “experts” who manipulate the financial markets.

While Taleb makes some good points, this blogger suspects that very few readers of this book will come away fully understanding what a Black Swan is. Taleb tries to provide several examples; his illustrations are unclear as to why one event is a Black Swan and why another is not.

One example consists of five trading managers at a European-owned financial institution who wrote a five-year plan. Having neglected to consider all possible adverse future events, they were done in by “the Black Swan of the Russian financial default of 1998 and the accompanying meltdown of the values of Latin American debt markets.” Yet, Taleb writes that the 2008 financial crisis was not a Black Swan. He says such a cluster screw-up will happen again. A Black Swan is a negative or more rarely, a positive occurrence that in general, has never happened before.

One human trait people have is that they are reluctant to attribute events to randomness. But Taleb thinks randomness plays a part in all sorts of events, including long winning streaks of investors. He even generated a computer simulation showing how it would be impossible not to have money managers who beat the market year after year– he says they did so simply by luck alone. Another reason these investors are overrated is that people hear more often about winners rather than losers.

Taleb writes, “We want to be told stories, and there is nothing wrong with that– except that we should check more thoroughly whether the story provides consequential distortions of reality… Just consider that the newspapers try to get impeccable facts, but weave them into a narrative in such a way as to convey the impression of causality (and knowledge).”

Burned Bridge

The Book of the Week is “Burned Bridge, How East and West Germans Made the Iron Curtain” by Edith Sheffer, published in 2011.

This book discusses the history of the splitting of Germany post-World War II, and its effects on Neustadt, a Western border city, and Sonneberg, an Eastern border city, both connected by Burned Bridge. Pursuant to agreements made at Yalta, “… on July 1, 1945, Soviet forces entered Sonneberg, and the U.S. Army withdrew into Neustadt… bighearted Americans distributing gum and chocolate from tanks with images of brutish Soviet solders in tattered horse-drawn wagons.”

In the late 1940’s, frequent border-crossers included black marketeers, undocumented workers, refugees and begging children. In both the East and West, border guards were easily bribed to accept fake travel permits. Families had been rent asunder by the creation of the artificial border.

In 1952, the East German government cracked down on border residents who had made, or were liable to make trouble– activists and frequent border-crossers who might spread the word to Easterners about the Western (capitalist) way of life– by forcing Easterners to move farther east, away from the border. Through the 1950’s, the East German government launched propaganda campaigns to lure former Easterners back to Sonneberg, offering residences, jobs, wages and farms superior to previous ones. Returnees exploited such opportunities, obtaining high-level education for their children as well, in the process. The physical Wall was erected in August 1961.

For about a decade after the war, West Germany flourished economically, after which various untoward events in the 1960’s and 1970’s slowed its growth. There occurred the scandalous Spiegel Affair, violence stemming from student and anti-nuclear protests, terror perpetrated by the Baader-Meinhof gang, oil shocks and anti-immigrant sentiments.

The late 1980’s saw a relaxation of westward travel. Nonetheless, the East German government was resistant to change, and continued to oppress its people through the fall of 1989. In November, dissatisfaction reached critical mass. “Most still recall exactly where they were and what they did when Burned Bridge opened, and cry with joy at the memory.” During reunification of East and West, people who were infrequent border-crossers experienced shock at the stark economic, cultural and social disparities between the two.

Street Without A Name

The Book of the Week is “Street Without a Name” by Kapka Kassabova, published in 2009.  This autobiography describes the brand of Communism the author experienced as a child in 1970’s and 80’s Sofia, Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian historical events that interested her.

It was an unspoken, dirty little secret that the Communist lifestyle was actually inferior to that of the West. The Bulgarian government told the people that “Politburo comrades were heroes of the anti-Fascist resistance” and “the labor camps were for enemies of the people.”

The author’s mother branded Bulgaria’s leader and his cronies “idiots in brown suits.”  The State oversaw all academic, athletic and musical events, such as a contest called the Olympiads, in which grade-school kids competed in different subjects.  At ten years old, Kassabova was convinced that the West consisted of drug addicts, criminals, capitalists and dreadful child labor, based on one story:  Dickens’ “David Copperfield.”

Her parents both worked in the field of engineering, which placed the family in the middle class. Even so, the family lived in a third-class (out of four classes) concrete neighborhood where blocks were numbered. At the furniture store, there was a three or four-month waiting list for shelves and beds, that only afforded one the opportunity to physically fight for the desired items when the delivery truck arrived at the store in the wee hours.

One time, when the author was eleven, her father met someone from the Netherlands through his work, and invited his family to go “camping” with his own, on the outskirts of Sofia.  The Dutch visitors arrived in a recreational vehicle (RV), while the Bulgarian family had brought a hard-to-obtain, shabby military tent.  (As an aside, the cost of the RV equalled about twenty years’ worth of the author’s mother’s income.)  The Dutch were horrified by the disgusting state of the toilets, and the “rubbish and dogs everywhere.”  The Dutch, in addition to their sparkling new vehicle, brought Western goods, including Gummi Bears, chocolate biscuits, juice in little cartons, and one of ten varieties of potato grown in their home country.

The Kassabovas knew their standard of living under Communism was way overrated by their government but they could not leave Bulgaria– until the Berlin Wall fell.  Even then, they had to complete a ton of bureaucratic paperwork and wait years.  During such time, the author’s mother underwent a stay in the hospital, where there were newspapers instead of sheets, and soap and towels had to be provided by patients themselves.  The author’s father paid a large bribe to the head doctor so as to see the patient emerge from the hospital alive; during Bulgaria’s transition to capitalism, there was more corruption than before– which is saying a lot.

Read the book to learn more about the author’s perspective on her life and birth country.

Crossing the River

The Book of the Week is “Crossing the River” by Victor Grossman, published in 2003.

This autobiography tells how an American defected to East Germany during the Korean War. A very unusual story, indeed. He was brainwashed by both his parents, intellectual Communists, in the 1930’s and 1940’s.

He tried to rationalize his penchant for suffering by saying that the cruel and unusual goings-on in the US actually provided a worse way for people to live, than the East Germans did. In the early 1950’s, the McCarthy era was in full swing, the US had ousted the leader of Guatemala in a bloody affair, and instigated another shameful coup in Iran; there was the ugliness at Peekskill, there was still segregation; besides, the Soviets had helped defeat Germany. Comrade Stalin was a god, to the Communists.

The author argues that in 1960, the quality of life wasn’t so bad in East Germany. Yes, there were severe food shortages, but everyone’s medical care was paid for, and everyone had a job or was provided with necessities for survival, and assistance for finding a job, according to his own need. Of course, the people also spent needless hours every day manually washing clothes and dishes, lighting a fire in the pot-bellied stove, and patiently waiting for unreliable public transportation, or hoofing it, because they couldn’t afford a car.

In the early 1960’s, the East Germans kept trying to attack the integrity of the Federal Republic (of West Germany) (with good reason) by publicizing the fact that a large number of ex-Nazis (who had committed unspeakable war crimes) were working in civil service– as judges, even(!) and in the West’s armed forces. It was somewhat alarming that so many Nazis were helping Germany to re-arm, and becoming a pivotal force in NATO.

In the late 1980s, the East German leaders staged a few media incidents, trying to continue to isolate the “German Democratic Republic” (the misnomer that was East Germany) clinging to power, believing that only they could be keepers of the flame. The East Germans, like the Chinese, were into self-criticism circles. They had “tutors”, who bullied doubters and discouraged free-thinkers, cutting them down with questions such as, “Are you questioning the collective judgment of experienced Marxist leaders, able to assess factors far better than any individual? Could you be more correct than they are?”

It was a traumatic time for the author when Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes in the mid 1950’s. But the author continued to rationalize that his adopted homeland was still a better place to live than imperialist America. It’s an excellent book anyway.