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Sunday, May 5th, 2013

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5:53p
A new way of thinking about systems ...
Antifragile-amz1Wow … it's been months since I've been able to block the time out to get over to the coffee shop (for some reason, I can't write at home) to knock out some reviews! Frankly, I'm “late” with this one … I won this in the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program, from the September 2012 batch, and it did not get into my hands until late December. Officially, we're supposed to have a review in within 3 months, and it's been four and a half. Maybe they'll cut me some slack with this being a 500-page tome of fairly obscure stuff.

I'd not been aware of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's work previously, but he does seem to be particularly noted for his “Black Swan” work (not the movie) on high-impact yet rare events. His field of study deals with “uncertainty, probability, and knowledge” and this book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is part of a loose trilogy of books in that arena.

Frankly, the concept of something that is “antifragile” is somewhat difficult to grasp … it's part of a triad of states, the other two of which are common: fragile and robust. Taleb had been a trader, and a good deal of what he bases the material here on is phrased in rather technical language from the study of volatility, with “gamma” and “vega” and other mathematical concepts that went right over my head. Early in the book he has a table with dozens of examples these states as expressed in different realms, but I'm hard pressed to pull examples to give you a clear idea of these categories because, in many of them, one of the three is missing, and in a lot of them, the example he gives requires a trip to the glossary! One is pretty straight-forward: Business. In this “Industry” is fragile, “Small Business” is robust, and being an “Artisan” is antifragile. For “Literature” he has e-readers as fragile, books as robust, and oral tradition as antifragile … for Science he has theory as fragile, phenomenology as robust, and heuristics as antifragile.

Speaking of science, Taleb has a rather charming concept which he calls the “Soviet-Harvard Illusion” which shines a wholly unflattering light on both government and academia (and the media for good measure as a contributing factor):

The Soviet-Harvard illusion (i.e., lecturing birds on flying and believing in being the cause behind these wonderful skills) belongs to a class of causal illusions called epiphenomena. What are these illusions? …
An epiphenomena is when you don’t observe A without observing B with it, so you are likely to think that A causes B, or that B causes A, depending on the cultural framework or what seems plausible to the local journalist. ...
The narrative fallacy is a more general disease of always wanting narratives instead of disconnected facts, or facts not glued by cause and effects. That’s how our minds work and that’s the prime reason I hate the media because it exploits our mental defects and gives us the illusion that more things on Planet Earth are explainable than they really are, hence more predictable.
Just about the only government (or large institution) that Taleb has any admiration for is Switzerland, of which he says: Note for now that this is the last major country that is not a nation-state, but rather a collection of small municipalities left to their own devices. In general the large is fragile, while the small and specialized is robust, and the small and unspecialized is “antifragile”.

Another concept that he introduces here is “iatrogenics” (which I'd not previously encountered), which means “caused by the healer”, and can be generalized to any form of interventionism (such as Congress passing horrible laws in response to particular and fleeting events that cause untold harm in their on-going application). This can, and does, crop up in endless institutional settings, from the clamor in the press for “something to be done”, to regulation for the sake of regulation, to examples of surgeries that become ubiquitous because they are both profitable and easy to prescribe.

Taleb has stories in here based on characters introduced in his previous books, including “Fat Tony” who has made his life's fortune in “not being a sucker”, and illustrates how he “bets” against the sucker response … costing him small amounts on-going, but paying off massively when the suckers all make a move (which is interestingly also paralleled in a story of Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, who, having been challenged to, essentially, “put his money where his mouth is”, created the first “option” deal on record, paying all the olive-press owners in the area a small amount to have rights to use their presses preferentially at some time in the future, having accurately predicted a large harvest that season). Much like the “sucker/non-sucker” dichotomy, there's also the “turkey/non-turkey” split. This story is based on the trust the turkey has for the farmer … it goes a thousand days being well fed and cared for … until the day the axe comes out. This concept also comes up in showing fragility vs. antifragility in careers, with the story of two brothers, one of whom is a corporate executive, living a life with much of the variability smoothed out, and another who is a taxi driver whose days are up and down, but always providing actionable feedback, and averaging out over time. One day the first brother is downsized (like the turkey), and faced with dire prospects, while (barring truly extreme occurrences) the second brother can weather most conditions that come his way.

Antifragile is not an easy read, on several levels. As noted above, it does veer off into technical aspects of some fairly obscure arenas, and Taleb introduces very unusual terms, perhaps defining them initially, but subsequently as a basic element (the word flâneur is one that had me flipping back to the glossary on several occasions) … making me wish that the Glossary (which is a fascinating read in itself) had appeared at the front of the book. Taleb is also unwilling to suffer either fools or those he considers frauds (and worse), and seems to have little compunction on calling them out, by name, with a good deal of venom (even to the point of coining various “Ethical Problems” with some of the more notable miscreants' names). It was also, to my reading, not particularly linear, floating in and out of historical, economic, political, academic, and street realms, with not much of a discernible “arc”. Frankly, I kept hoping that he'd detail Fat Tony's secrets, but if they're in there, they're in a meta level that I must not have connected enough of the dots to get!

I have an ARC (advanced reading copy) of this, so can't speak to the final version, but it's relatively new (publication date last November), and the on-line big boys have it at nearly half off at the moment. If you're interested in a challenging book that will get you to think about stuff that you have likely not thought much about, I'd say give it a go … but with the above caveats on it not being an easy read.


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