Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder — Nassim Taleb

The Black Swan is so good that I’ve been running around telling everyone to read it, which naturally led me to its successor, Antifragile. It, by contrast, is an excellent book to get from the library (per this accurate warning) and an excellent book to read skeptically, given its many dubious claims and stories.

Antifragile_coverThe top-level idea of Antifragile is a good one (many random events trade small gains for tremendous losses, and vice-versa; focus on making sure that you can sustain small losses for big gains, which makes you “antifragile,” as opposed to merely “robust”), but rarely have I read a book with such a correct thesis and so many misrepresentations, needless ad-hominem attacks, and dubious stories that may not demonstrate what the author thinks they demonstrate. Many amuse along the way but could have been removed; for a guy who is fond of the term “narrative fallacy,” Taleb is awfully fond of narratives that could be called fallacious.

I meant to write a real review, but I’ve been beaten to it and would direct you instead to the link, where David Runciman does a better job than I’m likely to. If The Black Swan is an unexpectedly fascinating and insightful work with a deceptively simple main idea that is helpfully explained and elaborated on with virtually every page, Antifragile is the sort of book that can be better read through the reviews than the book itself. As noted in the first paragraph, if you feel the need to verify this claim, at least get Antifragile from the library.

Let’s take one small example of a dubious claim: on pages 83 – 84, Taleb tells a parable about two men, one a banker and one a taxi driver. In that parable the taxi driver differs from the banker:

Because of the variability of his income, [the taxi driver]” keeps moaning that he does not have the job security of his brother—but in fact this is an illusion, for he has a bit more. [. . .] Artisans, say, taxi drivers, prostitutes (a very, very old profession), carpenters, plumbers, tailors, and dentists, have some volatility in their income but they are rather robust to a minor professional Black Swan, one that would bring their income to a complete halt.

But taxi drivers are interesting example because we’re approaching the point at which self- driving cars may become common, which would be a major professional Black Swan for taxi drivers. The Industrial Revolution has been hell on “Artisans,” who today still find it very hard to compete with factories. To be sure, the Internet has made it easier for artisans to do their thing by allowing them to sell on their own websites and on aggregators like Etsy, but artisans as a group are never going to be as important as they were in, say, 1700.

There are also paragraphs so stupid that they defy rational explanation:

both governments and universities have done very, very little for innovation and discovery, precisely because, in addition to their blinding rationalism, they look for the complicated, the lurid, the newsworthy, the narrated, the scientistic, and the grandiose, rarely for the wheel on the suitcase. Simplicity, I realized, does not lead to laurels.

Government and universities have been pivotal in everything from computers to nuclear power to medicine, and saying they “have done very, very little for innovation and discovery” is incredibly, stupidly wrong—the sort of wrong that tempts one to disregard the entire rest of the book. It is useful to have outsiders throwing intellectual stones at academic insiders, but only when the outsiders know more than the insiders. In this case, Taleb is just a crank. A few pages later he does qualify the quoted paragraph, but he shouldn’t have written it.

Elsewhere, Taleb writes that “The intellectual today is vastly more powerful and dangerous than before,” which I find flattering but also unlikely; I also suspect many if not most intellectuals would agree with that assessment, given how many of them write lamentations about their lack of influence.

There are moments like this, which is fascinating: “Criticism, for a book, is a truthful, unfaked badge of attention, signaling that it is not boring: and boring is the only very bad thing for a book,” and then Taleb considers books we now admire that were banned or controversial, like Madame Bovary. But he doesn’t consider other highly criticized books that are now shunned for good reason, like Mein Kampf, or The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He also doesn’t consider books that are wrong and important and should be relegated to the highly of ideas, like Das Kapital, which still gets read and taken seriously in some academic precincts. All three are bad books for reasons that have been much discussed, and there is something else that can be very bad for a book: it inspires people to steal things from others or hurt others. That’s what all three encourage.

That’s four samples. And yet he also produces gems like “men of leisure become slaves to inner feelings of dissatisfaction and interests over which they have little control.” In many ways I am reminded of Camille Paglia, who also has much to say about the ruthlessness of nature, often mentions prostitutes, and often goes further than her evidence or ideas merit. Yet as far as I and Google know, very few others have observed the connection.

Let’s talk some more about the positive; one chapter in Antifragile, “Skin in the Game,” is an especially important way to assess the world and assess risk. Taleb quotes Hammurabi’s code:

If a builder builds a house and the house collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house—the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, a son of the builder shall be put to death. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house—he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.

Someone who puts people at risk should be at equal risk themselves. CNN just published “Yemen says U.S. drone struck a wedding convoy, killing 14,” in which 14 people were murdered by the United States; they are probably classified internally as “collateral damage” or by some similarly Orwellian euphemism (although “U.S. officials declined to comment on the report,” because why does the truth matter, anyway?). Imagine that those who ordered or authorized the strike would have their own husbands and wives and children killed in proportion to the number of civilians they killed. No one would order such strikes.

Nor would politicians authorize such strikes if the struck could vote, or if CNN and Fox News covered them for weeks or months at a time, as they would if something similar happened in the U.S. As Conor Friedersdorf correctly observed in The Atlantic, “If a Drone Strike Hit an American Wedding, We’d Ground Our Fleet.” But those who are launching the missiles have no skin in the game, to use Taleb’s favored phrase.

If someone does something wrong, what bad thing happens to them? If a doctor screws up too badly, they at least get sued. But if, say, a teacher’s students can’t read or do math, nothing bad happens to them. Long before I read Taleb, I remember explaining to students that, if they emerge from my classes unable to write effectively, nothing bad happens to me—I’ve never heard about a U of Arizona T.A. being fired for incompetence. The only bad things happen to them, in that they won’t be as good at writing or reading as they would be otherwise. That seemed to be a revelation to them: I don’t think they’d considered how they, not their teachers, bear the risks of a lousy education. Those risks are even more pronounced at the high school level, where most public school teachers are unionized and can’t really be fired.

Academia and government share the property of not having much skin in the game. As Taleb says, “An academic is not designed to remember his opinions because he doesn’t have anything at risk from them.” You often don’t get tenure for being right; you get tenure for publishing, regardless of whether what you’ve said is right.

In his books Taleb is weirdly reluctant to address global warming and climate change, which may be the ultimate nonlinear Black Swan system of our age—prone to sudden shocks that may have catastrophic results. There is a brief mention of the issue on page 415 of Antifragile, but he doesn’t discuss the issue in any detail. The collective response of the world to these dangers is to shrug, make minor changes, and hope for the best.

The danger is real and yet almost no one does anything significant to mitigate those challenges—though the risk of catastrophic change is extraordinarily high and the things that could be done to reduce it are relatively easy compared to what may come. Taleb implicitly endorses action when catastrophic risks are high even when probabilities are low in this section:

which is more dangerous, to mistake a bear for a stone, or mistake a stone for a bear? It is hard for humans to make the first mistake; our intuitions make us overreact to the smallest probability of harm and fall for a certain class of false patterns—those who overreact upon seeing what may look like a bear have had a survival advantage, those who made the opposite mistake left the gene pool.

The metaphor is clear, yet he barely addresses, either in The Black Swan or Antifragile, the way we might be making the global climate extremely fragile through our use of fossil fuels. In the U.S., some of the obvious means to mitigate fossil fuel usage, like building denser urban cores or switching towards nuclear power, are barely on the national agenda and, even when they are on the national agenda, they can easily be blocked by short-sighted local NIMBYs. Nuclear power is particularly curious, since coal power emissions kill far more people in the West than any form of nuclear power. But coal kills people slowly, over time, and mostly invisibly; it never ends up in the news, while any problem with nuclear power sears the media’s collective eyes.

Overall, with climate change, we may be mistaking a bear for a stone, and we may collectively pay the price.

Since Taleb has cultivated an outsider’s persona and portrayed himself, often accurately, as a teller of truths no one else wants to hear, or whose logic others attack despite its accuracy, he seems to have decided that attacks on his logic or his perceived truths automatically make his logic or perceived truths correct. But that’s a simple error in itself, since the attacks are not sufficient to show that he is right, and with any much-attacked thinker there is a danger in becoming so impervious to outside criticism that the work suffers. I suspect that Taleb has moved into that latter category, and there may be an interesting psychological meta narrative about how he moved from his initial outsider, but intellectually rigorous position, to a hybrid insider-outsider in which he no longer feels as compelled to write tightly and correctly as he did before fame (justifiably) found him.

Success breeds the danger of surrounding yourself with yes-men, but a good editor should be the opposite and should tell you hard truths that you don’t necessarily want to hear. Taleb, one feels, is not the sort of guy looking for constructive disagreement. Yet despite the mess in the book, some of its ideas are important. If I were a philosopher I’d be more willing to excuse bad writing and a dubious execution. Since I’m not, it’s hard to get past the book’s many moments in which I went, “That’s not right” or “That doesn’t belong.” But Antifragile also can’t be dismissed outright, because some of its ideas are important and rarely discussed. Given the form those ideas take, I doubt they will get the attention they deserve.

Life: The readers edition, and Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan

Both Huet and Bayle were erudites and spent their lives reading. Huet, who lived into his nineties, had a servant follow him with a book to read aloud to him during meals and breaks and thus avoid lost time. He was deemed the most read person in his day. Let me insist that erudition is important to me. It signals genuine intellectual curiosity. It accompanies an open mind and the desire to probe the ideas of others. Above all, an erudite can be dissatisfied with his own knowledge, and such dissatisfaction is a wonderful shield against Platonicity, the simplifications of the five-minute manager, or the philistinism of the overspecialized scholar. Indeed, scholarship without erudition can lead to disasters.

—Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan, a book that I had erroneously believed I had already “read” through the many references to it made by other books and articles. I turned out to be completely wrong, as the book is still original and almost every page has some unexpected insight; like Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind I consistently cannot predict the brilliant observations and extensions that come from the unfurling of a basic idea that is simple to understand.

Regarding the quote itself, I would add that it is not only the quantity of reading but the quality that makes erudition; reading a great number of, say, romance novels is unlikely to yield the erudition of reading broadly yet deeply. Reading a few romance novels might be essential to deep thinkers, however, for reasons that I will leave to you, or to commenters, to explain.

I also have defended reading, especially to those who say they somehow do not “have the time,” by pointing out that books often encompass years or decades of a writer’s life and thinking in a volume that can be read in just a few hours; who would not want the wisdom of 20 years distilled into an easily digestible chunk? Yet apparently many people don’t want such a gift, which is widely available for $10 – $15 at bookstores or for less from Amazon or free from many libraries. Satisfaction with your own knowledge is a sign that a mind has become barren without even realizing its own barrenness.

Adapt — Tim Harford

Adapt is deep—much deeper than most pop economics books, and deeper than Harford’s last book, The Logic of Life. I can’t really define precisely how—”deeper” is not the sort of thing that lets me compare quotes from one section versus another section. But there’s a sense of inevitability about this book.

Harford describes how Thomas Thwaites, “a post-graduate design student at the Royal College of Art in London,” attempted to make a toaster from scratch. He failed, and not subtly, either. This leads to Harford’s larger observation: “The modern world is mind-bogglingly complicated. Far simpler objects than a toaster involve global supply chains and the coordinated efforts of many individuals, scattered across the world. Many do not even know the final destination of their efforts.” It’s easy to find this alienating, especially if you’re a random paper pusher who manages information and never sees anything tangible that you’ve created. Hence the derogatory term—”paper pusher”—that presumably sets up some kind of binary, with the paper pusher contrasted to, say, a lumberjack, or something. I don’t even know what, other than that the phrase is common.

Yet we exist as paper-pushers and bureaucratic cogs because people will pay for cogs and because if we didn’t, we also wouldn’t have the modern economy. We don’t think about this much, however; as Harford says, “The complexity we have created for ourselves envelops us so completely that, instead of being dizzied, we take it for granted.” Maybe we need to. But we also need an unusual set of skills in such a vast landscape: ones that will let us try new ideas, let them fail or succeed, and then try something else. That’s a top-level view of Harford’s point.

In a blog post, Harford writes:

[. . .] the message of Adapt isn’t really “practice makes perfect,” or even “learn from your mistakes,” at least not as a straightforward self-help cliché. It’s about building systems – whether markets, businesses, governments or armies – that solve complex problems. And it turns out that complex problem-solving usually means experimenting, quickly discovering what works and what doesn’t, and somehow letting what’s working replace what isn’t.

Unfortunately, we often don’t realize how complex problems should be solved, and individual egos often get in the way of those problems. That was the basic issue with Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary: he didn’t accept the need to improvise, which appears to be getting more important over time, not less. This also sounds similar to the subject of Nassim Taleb’s next book, Antifragility: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand.

Or consider this passage from Adapt, which should make us humbler about the large political problems we face and how we can solve them:

We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders. Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it. It wasn’t just Obama: every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the pools as reality starts to bite. This isn’t because we keep electing the wrong leaders. It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.

Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter-gatherer problems. The societies in which our modern brains developed weren’t modern: they contained a few hundred separate products, rather than ten billion. The challenges such societies faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader. They would have been vastly simpler than the challenges facing a newly elected US president.

Notice the key word in the first sentence: “need.” Is it really a need we have to believe in our leaders? At first I wanted to say no, but thinking about all the symbolic capital we invest in our leaders (and actors, and others, especially if those “others” are credentialed) makes me think otherwise. Those needs should make us somewhat uncomfortable, since leaders might not be able to fix as much as they might imagine. This is also an aspect of the “New Jesus” complex, which James Fallows described in the context of David Petraeus becoming the commander of American troops in Iraq. As Fallows says:

Everyone who has ever worked in an office will recognize the idea. The New Jesus is the guy the boss has just brought in to solve the problems that the slackers and idiots already on the staff cannot handle. Of course sooner or later the New Jesus himself turns into a slacker or idiot, and the search for the next Jesus begins.*

We want some Messianic figure to sweep away all our problems. In the real world, that just doesn’t happen, or it very seldom happens. Petraeus was certainly important, but he was also implementing ideas that had percolated around the military for some time—as Harford discusses in his chapter on “Conflict or: How Organisations Learn.” The military is an obvious environment for exploring adaptation, since the consequences of failing to adapt are severe: people die. Blockbuster went under because it couldn’t or wouldn’t compete with Netflix (see here for more), but the consequences mostly happened in terms of shares lost. On the battlefield or in the emergency room, it happens in terms of lives lost. We want a leader to somehow “clean house” or “cut through red tape” to solve problems, but that often doesn’t happen, especially outside secular hagiography. Instead, we need to learn as individuals and organizations how to adapt to circumstances and how to make circumstances adapt to us. Few would disagree with this banal assertion. Many would disagree in a particular circumstance that requires adaptation.

The word “potency” hearkens to the Middle Ages, when the fecundity of the King was linked to the fecundity of the realm, as so many fairy tales hold. Yet we’re still using the same kinds of words to describe leaders today, even when leaders get in trouble for being overly, uh, potent (see, for example, Bill Clinton, or whoever is involved in the scandal du jour).

There’s a recurrent thread of very old ideas and needs running up against modern complexity in this book, although Harford doesn’t discuss such issues directly. But they’re present, if you’re watching for adjectives like “potency” to describe leaders. Or word like “instinct” that contrast with the cool, cerebral mastery we’d like to associate with modern technical accomplishment. Underlying contemporary achievements sit older ideas. When we deny those ideas, we get into trouble. Harford is trying to get us back out.

* For the origins of the New Jesus complex, see this post, also from Fallows.

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