Review of “Risk and Meaning” by Nicolas Bouleau

September 5, 2011

(This article was first published on Portfolio Probe » R language, and kindly contributed to R-bloggers)

The subtitle is: Adversaries in Art, Science and Philosophy.

Executive Summary

Genius or madness?

I haven’t decided.

Irreversibility of interpretation

The book drives home that once we decide how something is we can’t go back to our state of innocence.

Figures 1 through 3 exhibit this idea via a randomly generated polygon.  Look at Figure 1 before moving on.

Figure 1: Set seed 59.

Figure 2: Two butterflies on a rock.

Figure 3: Set seed 59 or butterflies?

Figures 4 through 6 use a different random polygon.

Figure 4: Set seed 52.

Figure 5: A heart.

Figure 6: Set seed 52 or a heart?

The book has a couple of very nice (and startling) examples of this phenomenon on pages 88 and 89.  The rabbit-duck on page 107 is also quite nice.

The author’s statement on this:

We are incapable of no longer seeing what we have discovered.  It is impossible for us to rediscover our naivety, that neutral point of view we had when we found ourselves facing a random situation.

Risk and meaning converge

The book includes an ironic story about a politician.  The moral of the story is:

Within each interpretation, we can evaluate probabilities and damages to some extent.  But between various interpretations it is impossible to conclude anything.  And a new interpretation may arrive at any time.  Essentially, risks belong in the realm of semantics

To flesh this idea out, there is a quote from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (translated by M. H. Heim):

The bowler hat was a bed through which each time Sabina saw another river flow, another semantic river: each time the same object would give rise to a new meaning, though all former meanings would resonate (like an echo, like a parade of echoes) together with the new one.

This, in turn, is connected to Knightian uncertainty.


A quote of Werner Heisenberg about snowflakes is given, and then commented on:

Heisenberg tells us that the snowflake’s development can legitimately be seen as belonging to the category of risks.  He purposely took the example of the snowflake, beautiful and inoffensive, to not lead us astray into the vocabulary of worries of the human condition, but he clearly refuses to accept the idea that we consider ourselves independent, without any connections, from events that could have turned out otherwise without any reason.

This is then taken into the economic realm:

The expressions ‘propensity for risk’ or ‘aversion to risk’  are employed in financial models in a very restrictive sense which encourages constant misunderstandings, as if we had absolute rules for how we behave in lotteries, independent of symbolic meanings at play.  It’s too simplistic.

(Quote marks added for clarity.)

The initial part of the book considers the ancient Greek view of chance — it was quite different from our modern view.  Here is a quote that might be useful for current soothsayers:

Cicero considered himself a member of the brotherhood of Soothsayers but he didn’t believe in divination, creating a difficult position for himself.  Was this hypocrisy or paradox?  No, he simply understood his role as Soothsayer differently: a wise counsellor, as a coach, we might say today.

We are constantly confronted with randomness, and we have to decide if that random mess is food or foe.  We did it with spears.  We do it with keyboards.

The search

Kandinsky became aware of a new type of value that forms and colors could have if one could destroy the meanings that gave birth to them.  It is as if, when a viewer first sees a painting, he is more alert as his mind is trying to recognize the object, and this state of alertness makes him more sensitive, and enables him to establish a different relation to the work, than when his mind has stopped searching for a meaning.

If we think we know the answer, we stop searching.

Published form

The physical book is not your average book.  It is wider than it is tall.  It is stuffed with illustrations.  It pays attention to the limits of pages.

If I had made a list of the 10 publishers in the world least likely to publish this book, Springer would most likely have been on that list.

It was madness to try to publish with Springer.

It was genius to succeed.


Madness or genius?

I think the answer to that question really boils down to simplicity.  If what is being said is said in the simplest possible way, then it is genius.  It’s not clear to me that is true.

The author is certainly aware of the issue of simplicity.  The following quote is about mathematics and architecture, but could apply more generally:

The search may continue indefinitely.  It ends when, often unexpectedly, it meets simplicity.

But perhaps the author is merely a voyeur rather than a true believer.

Another possibility is that random verbiage was added on purpose to underscore the underlying message of the book — in which case it is genius after all.

Appendix R

The code for Figure 1 is:

plot(.5, .5, type='n', xlim=c(0,1), ylim=c(0,1), axes=FALSE,  xlab="", ylab="")
polygon(runif(10),  runif(10))

The code for Figure 2 is:

plot(.5, .5, type='n', xlim=c(0,1), ylim=c(0,1), axes=FALSE,  xlab="", ylab="")
polygon(runif(10),  runif(10), col="gold")


The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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