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Taleb the Antifragile
December 6, 2012 11:17 AM   Subscribe

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, Antifragile, was release at the end of November. His previous books centered on describing the problems of prediction. The new book is a conversational, sometimes diatribe, about, "How to live in a world we don't understand".

Reviews are mostly favorable, most take at least minor exception to his writing style. There is a detailed technical explanation of his theories in the back of the book, in general it is very accessible to someone who has read his other books. A little knowledge of statistics, economics helps, but not required.

I personally found his discussion of predicting via subtraction enlightening. If you must predict, think of what will not be there in the future.

Excellent interview on Econtalk.

Discussion of the word, Antifragile.

You can find him on Facebook, where he often talks about his current projects.

Previously on the blue:
Imagine someone of the type we call neurotic
The Great Bank Robbery
Ten principles for a Black Swan-proof world
posted by KaizenSoze (37 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's an excerpt of it on Salon, which I wrote a response to. I just got my copy yesterday, looking forward to reading it. His writing style takes some getting used to, especially coming from the polished magazine style of some other contemporary nonfiction. His books are more like a spoken argument that continually references itself.
posted by jeffkramer at 11:24 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]



From your blog, "The thing that Nassim Taleb and I have in common is that we’re privileged non-repressed-minority men."


Yes, yes, yes! I picked up on this also, I really like the guy, but I think he is blind to certain things, sexism, racism, because he has never experienced them. I could be wrong, he suffered through a civil war in Lebanon, but his privileged background really sticks out in this book. He never once talks about trouble finding a job or paying for anything. When he talks about hormesis, it's always voluntary.
posted by KaizenSoze at 11:35 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm extraordinarily skeptical of writers like Taleb, whose zeitgeisty, vaguely-but-not-really scholarly work seeks to game-changingly explain extraordinarily diverse phenomena such as "...innovation by trial and error, life decisions, politics, urban planning, war, personal finance, economic systems, and medicine." If there were principles that were both useful for interpreting such different fields of life and endeavor and also had deep explanatory or analytic power in each of them, I'd think that people who study those things might make use of these so-called "revolutionary" ideas.

I think it's far more likely that the ideas in this book seem superficially capable of explaining very different things, but only really work with cherry-picked evidence and even then lose their power when you go very far below the surface of the subjects under discussion, which Taleb will probably never do since "thinkers" like him (really, pamphleteers) aren't inclined to explore in good faith the strength of their arguments by doing things like considering plausible rival hypotheses in the same way that true intellectuals are. And I suspect that individuals who are willing to accept that wide swathes of human experience can be harmonized and explained by appeal to a few revolutionary/iconoclastic/whatever overheated adjective ideas which also just happen to be accurately reduced to a single word for our convenience will purchase this book, and it will sell a few million copies, and then the next Freakonomics-derived explanation of the whole fucking world that nobody ever thought of before will net the great sage Taleb another few million dollars. What a revolting racket.
posted by clockzero at 11:41 AM on December 6, 2012 [18 favorites]


I'm sorry, but Taleb is a crank. "Everyone is wrong, except for me and a few other worthies"--that is classic crank style. Whatever merits his argument might have--i.e., we shouldn't get suckered by our own intellectual constructs--they are buried under the haughtiness and penchant for score-settling that pervades his work. I forget who it was who said that the thesis of Black Swan is correct, but is only worth essay-length treatment, not book-length, but that's a good summation. Taleb is entertaining, no doubt, but I can't take him seriously.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:51 AM on December 6, 2012 [5 favorites]


Here's the person I was referencing:

Taleb's central hypothesis in Black Swan is right. But it is simple and worth only a chapter rather than an entire book. Taleb inflates its significance with an absurdly combative and grandiose writing style. It is Taleb versus the corrupt fools of the financial establishment; Taleb versus the false mathematical rigour of the academy; Taleb returning us to the wisdom of the ages.
posted by Cash4Lead at 11:53 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


I understand your complaint, unlike most people who claim they are right, he actually puts his money where is mouth is. Much of the chapter on ethics points out that most people predicting do not have, skin in the game. He consistently backs up his view with actually bets that will not get turned into golden parachutes if his is wrong, unlike most CEOs and economists.
posted by KaizenSoze at 11:59 AM on December 6, 2012


Isn't part of the point of Black Swan basically the Dunning-Krueger effect on a societal level?
posted by symbioid at 12:00 PM on December 6, 2012


A review that could not be characterized as 'mostly favorable':

"a baggy, dispiriting, antisocial mess of a book"
posted by hackwolf at 12:03 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Black Swan made some good points, but those would have fit in a book about 30 pages long. The rest was just pointless repetition.
posted by nikodym at 12:08 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll give you Antifragile in one sentence also

"If shit goes wrong, you want the bad outcome to be survivable."

There is a concept in investing called "margin of safety" - to my eye antifragility is a sort of an all encompassing version of that.

Taleb takes lots of good/great ideas from other thinkers (to his credit he usually credits them) and wraps them up in syntax best approximated by machine translated hegel with a huge dollop of ego.

If you can get past that I generally think they are worth a read. Fooled by Randomness should be essential reading for college seniors who want to go into business I think. Black Swan is over long, but the core idea is a valuable one.
posted by JPD at 12:10 PM on December 6, 2012


"How to live in a world we don't understand"

You mean like everybody in the history of humanity has managed to do by default?
posted by Sys Rq at 12:11 PM on December 6, 2012 [7 favorites]


The "antifragile" concept reminds me of Dmitry Orlov's comparison of the US and USSR, and his conclusion that the inefficient redundancies and simple robustness of the soviet infrastructure made it much better better at surviving collapse.
posted by fimbulvetr at 12:15 PM on December 6, 2012


The "antifragile" concept reminds me of Dmitry Orlov's comparison of the US and USSR, and his conclusion that the inefficient redundancies and simple robustness of the soviet infrastructure made it much better better at surviving collapse.

FTFY, Dmitry.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:22 PM on December 6, 2012


Heh, yeah Orlov kind of seems wrong, but actually putting aside his actual prediction his framework is a reasonable one and fimbulvetr is I think correct.

Over time process tends to matter more than the success of any one prediction.
posted by JPD at 12:28 PM on December 6, 2012


Taleb suffers from Scott Adams disease of knowing he is the smartest guy in the room if you knuckleheads WOULD JUST KEEP UP.
Which I suspect makes him abrasive, yet somewhat charismatic in person.
Reading the Black swan book was sometimes grating, and he could explain his ideas more succinctly, but he does have some good ideas.
posted by bystander at 1:01 PM on December 6, 2012


I like Taleb, respect his work and ideas, find his writing literary and above the norm. Thanks for the links.
posted by stbalbach at 1:16 PM on December 6, 2012


I met Taleb at a cocktail party, where he said that Antifragile is about systems which do not merely survive disruption, but thrive on it, becoming stronger in its aftermath. He cited economic markets and bones as two examples (bones gain mass from being jostled, as in jogging).

He seemed arrogant to me, and thoroughly uninterested in anything I had to say, but I'm not as important a person as he is (socially or economically), and "read" younger than I am, so while I didn't think I was imagining his disinterest, it didn't necessarily seem entirely unwarranted, and it also seemed likely that I was magnifying it in my head.

However, when I opened the book and read, in the first few pages, repeated references to the pointless oppressiveness of copyeditors, I lost interest in reading much further. Many writers resent their copyeditors, but few bother to take it out in the pages of their books -- particularly books as much in need of copyediting as this one.

I bet Taleb has a lot of smart and interesting things to say, but I think he suffers from what I think of as the Pauling effect (from Linus Pauling and Vitamin C) -- he's extremely competent in some arenas, and therefore dramatically overestimates his competence in many others.
posted by pocketfullofrye at 1:17 PM on December 6, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you draw a line between Robert Anton Wilson and, Taleb's hero, Umberto Eco, Taleb lies somewhere along that line.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:40 PM on December 6, 2012



Heh, yeah Orlov kind of seems wrong, but actually putting aside his actual prediction his framework is a reasonable one and fimbulvetr is I think correct.

Over time process tends to matter more than the success of any one prediction.


Taleb references Orlov. Taleb is interested in the process of not only surviving black swans, but improving ones position.

How do you spot something that is fragile, can minimize that risk, replace if with something robust or antifragile. That what Taleb is writing about.
posted by KaizenSoze at 2:03 PM on December 6, 2012



Taleb suffers from Scott Adams disease of knowing he is the smartest guy in the room if you knuckleheads WOULD JUST KEEP UP.


Big difference is that Taleb has academic papers to back up his big mouth.

He may have always been arrogant, back to the elitist comments at the start of the post. I think his experiences have given him no reason to be otherwise, he deals high profile academics and bankers, generally not a modest group.

He gave a presentation at Societe Generale just a few weeks before the Kerviel disaster. They heckled him relentlessly, refused to talk to him afterwards, then they blew up. The amount of schadenfreude that man has felt over the year has probably not taught him modesty.
posted by KaizenSoze at 2:20 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well said, clockzero. I call it an industry of peddling insight.
posted by Idle Curiosity at 2:23 PM on December 6, 2012


His academic work is focused on a particular area of risk and options pricing theory, whereas his books tend to focus on much grander themes. His academic papers are sort of adjacent to what his pop books are about. They don't really give him a whole lot of credibility in terms of discussing the nature of knowledge or thinking probabilistically.

Also there are some quite strong rebuttals to much of his work on options pricing. I'm not a quant so I am not capable of parsing the arguments out between them.

Kerviel isn't really the sort of risk Taleb would be warning them about. A rogue trader is sort of well, petty from an intellectual perspective. It hardly qualifies as an extreme/unforseeable event to be honest.

SocGen has to worry about the massive massive derivative book they sit on as part of their business of selling structured products. Naturally I'm sure Taleb showed up and told all of them they are evenutally fucked. I tend to agree with him, but its not like those guys don't have if not similar, than superior academic credentials to him. You can see why such a conversation would go poorly.

He's a smart dude, but he's also lecturing lots of other equally smart dudes who aren't used to being lectured to. And don't think for a minute that there aren't plenty of guys on those trading desks thinking the same thing he is. The problem is that those guys get fired before they are proven right.
posted by JPD at 2:45 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]



His academic work is focused on a particular area of risk and options pricing theory, whereas his books tend to focus on much grander themes. His academic papers are sort of adjacent to what his pop books are about. They don't really give him a whole lot of credibility in terms of discussing the nature of knowledge or thinking probabilistically.


Excellent, can you point me to them. I don't know any quants, but I do have a friend with an advanced economics degree.
posted by KaizenSoze at 2:59 PM on December 6, 2012


KaizenSoze: No offense, but you need to back off from this post and let the discussion take its course rather than jumping in to defend Taleb every time someone complains about him. The post itself reads like fanboy propaganda, and your thread-sitting isn't helping.
posted by languagehat at 3:01 PM on December 6, 2012



KaizenSoze: No offense, but you need to back off from this post and let the discussion take its course rather than jumping in to defend Taleb every time someone complains about him. The post itself reads like fanboy propaganda, and your thread-sitting isn't helping.


Noted, I will now bow out. I was hoping to get a good discussing going, seems that I have over done it.

Cheers.
posted by KaizenSoze at 3:08 PM on December 6, 2012


His idea of "fragility" is ridiculous on its face. OH MY GOD YOU GUYS IT'S SO SIMPLE NOW HERE'S NINE MILLION PAGES OF GOBBLEDEGOOK!

These writers fancy themselves renaissance men when, in fact, they're dilettantes. Rich dilettantes.
posted by basicchannel at 3:38 PM on December 6, 2012


The only thing antifragile about Taleb is his ego.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 4:00 PM on December 6, 2012


I think it's far more likely that the ideas in this book

I think it's far more helpful to have read a book before criticizing it.
posted by blazingunicorn at 5:31 PM on December 6, 2012


These writers fancy themselves renaissance men when, in fact, they're dilettantes. Rich dilettantes.
Actually, Taleb made a metric shitton of money repeatedly betting against fragile economic structures as a professional trader. He may be a dilettante renaissance man, but he seems to be pretty far ahead of the curve in terms of discovering under-appreciated risk.

Given a choice, I'd rather have a beer with Umberto Eco than Nassim Taleb. But I'd be happy to let Taleb invest my money, if I had any.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:57 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]


First I built an hut, but wind changed and collapsed it. I died.
Someone figured rocks were better construction materials. A tree feel on the rocks, he died.
Someone figured concrete was fine. But it didn't withstood traction, he died.
Somebody added rebar to concrete, cool! Fuck, too rigid, earthquake, he died.
Some cool engineer made skyscrapers earthquake proof to ...mmhh a 7th magnitude..fine enough. Some fucker slammed a plane into them. Many died. Fuck, a black swan!
Still haven't made building bomb proofs...mmhh..let's fix human mind.

Eventually we'll figure out that it's impossible to predict, but through memory, experience and understanding. Still have to find a solution for people willing to inflict pain on others because they can, such as banks on main street, for instance.
posted by elpapacito at 6:35 PM on December 6, 2012


But I'd be happy to let Taleb invest my money, if I had any.

I'd be careful with that. His returns as a money manager weren't really that spectacular, and I believe the fund died shortly after this. The theory that betting on long-shots has a supernormal return is a pretty controversial one.
posted by dsfan at 6:52 PM on December 6, 2012


I don't know anybody who takes Taleb really seriously but it's important to place him in the larger context. Compared to most other economists and pundits out there's he's, shall we say, not a complete buffoon. This alone earns him many points. Also, what Taleb does seem to grasp is the nature of risk. When most economists believed in the Great Moderation, that financial crises were a thing of the past, he was one of the few, from the beginning back when he was playing around with OPM (other people's money), that this was nonsense. Frankly, though, much of his thinking is shallow and he himself doesn't quite seem to grasp the full weight of the ideas he manhandles. The reality is that we are living in a deeply interconnected, complex, complicated, and dynamic world and the entire Western project -- the entire notion that a single individual might "work hard, make the right choices, buy a nice house and be happy" -- is slowly being put to rest. Fundamental concepts like risk, money, wealth, debt, sustainability and -- at the end of the day -- the moral and socioeconomic boundaries we draw around each other all need to be revisited. This kind of thing takes time, it's a deeply violent but slow moving process, think a mountain range falling into the sea, and so you get guys like Taleb who float away on the flotsam. Taleb's vaguely anti-intellectual exhortations to burrow deep may appeal in this climate of fear but ultimately they're a distraction. What is important is that people begin to think twice about all that has been taken for granted and, perhaps, to this point of the sword one should be grateful.
posted by nixerman at 7:07 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd be careful with that. His returns as a money manager weren't really that spectacular, and I believe the fund died shortly after this. The theory that betting on long-shots has a supernormal return is a pretty controversial one.
Damnit, back to the International Bank of Under My Mattress.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:09 PM on December 6, 2012


If you draw a line between Robert Anton Wilson and, Taleb's hero, Umberto Eco, Taleb lies somewhere along that line.
posted by b1tr0t


That's a pretty good line to be on.
posted by 445supermag at 8:15 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


To be completely fair you would have expected his strategy to suck in 02-03. If it had still existed 04-06 should have sucked as well if he was still operating. 07-08 would have been epic I imagine.
01 is the year I'd wonder about really.
posted by JPD at 8:48 PM on December 6, 2012


How Taleb mishandles anti-fragility
posted by JPD at 12:30 PM on December 8, 2012


This Is Not a Profile of Nassim Taleb
posted by vidur at 7:56 PM on December 17, 2012


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