How Not to Be a Nerd


Do you really not want to be a nerd? Perhpahs a little story from the book, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb would help you decide.

NNT (that is, Nassim Nicholas Taleb): Assume that a coin is fair, i.e., has an equal probability of coming up heads or tails when flipped. I flip it ninety-nine times and get heads each time. What are the odds of my getting tails on my next throw?

Assume that a coin is fair, i.e., has an equal probability of coming up heads or tails when flipped. I flip it ninety-nine times and get heads each time. What are the odds of my getting tails on my next throw?

Dr. John: Trivial question. One half, of course, since you are assuming 50 percent odds for each and independence between draws.

NNT: What do you say, Tony?

Fat Tony: I’d say no more than 1 percent, of course.

NNT: Why so? I gave you the initial assumption of a fair coin, meaning that it was 50 percent either way.

Fat Tony: You are either full of crap or a pure sucker to buy that “50 pehcent” business. The coin gotta be loaded. It can’t be a fair game. (Translation: It is far more likely that your assumptions about the fairness are wrong than the coin delivering ninety-nine heads in ninety-nine throws.)

NNT: But Dr. John said 50 percent.

Fat Tony (whispering in my ear): I know these guys with the nerd examples from the bank days. They think way too slow. And they are too commoditized. You can take them for a ride.

Now, of the two of them, which would you favor for the position of mayor of New York City (or Ulan Bator, Mongolia)?

So, let’s say you’ve decided that you want, or don’t want to be a nerd. Exactly how do you become, or not become one? Well, let’s read on:

Let us dig deeper into the problem of knowledge and continue the comparison of Fat Tony and Dr. John. Do nerds tunnel, meaning, do they focus on crisp categories and miss sources of uncertainty? Remember from the Prologue my presentation of Platonification as a top-down focus on a world composed of these crisp categories.

Think of a bookworm picking up a new language. He will learn, say, Serbo-Croatian or Kung by reading a grammar book cover to cover, and memorizing the rules. He will have the impression that some higher grammatical authority set the linguistic regulations so that nonlearned ordinary people could subsequently speak the language. In reality, languages grow organically; grammar is something people without anything more exciting to do in their lives codify into a book. While the scholastic-minded will memorize declensions, the a-Platonic nonnerd will acquire, say, Serbo-Croatian by picking up potential girlfriends in bars on the outskirts of Sarajevo, or talking to cabdrivers, then fitting (if needed) grammatical rules to the knowledge he already possesses.