Thursday, January 10, 2013

Antifragile – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The NYT could have just stopped at the headline: “You AreAll Soft!  Embrace Chaos!”  That pretty much sums it up.  I heard Taleb on a Bloomberg podcast, and thought it was interesting that a guy who hates the media was on Bloomberg.  The interviewer asked him a question about Sandy Hook as a black swan event.  The only possible response was “way too soon, and actually, that question will always be too soon” – but instead he launched on a circuitous answer that ended up getting cut off.  On the book:

-Conditioned state reading.  I read “The Black Swan” while backpacking the Arizona Trail.  I enjoyed reading Taleb’s ideas at night and then pondering them (to my limited capacity) during the day.  Taleb was heavily influenced by the ideas and writing structure of Montaigne, and in turn that association reminded me of my experience of reading Montaigne’s Essais while semi-marooned at an abandoned Alaskan homestead.  The Essais remain my favorite book, which made me like “The Black Swan” perhaps more than I would have otherwise.

“Antifragile” doesn’t stand up to “The Black Swan,” but neither did my reading experience – I was sneaking in a few hours after work and family, on the flight here to New Zealand, etc.  It’s possible I would have enjoyed it more if it had a summer release and I could have taken it on my Pacific Crest Trail hike.  Or not – my experience seems to reflect that of the professional reviewers.

-I read “The Black Swan” when I, like a lot of people, were interested in the story and practice of the 2008 crash.  Since that time, I’ve lost interest in very big frauds in lieu of very small ones.  I don’t find it that interesting that people will scheme to make millions of dollars – that makes perfect sense.  It also makes sense that someone who has nothing and is hungry will scheme to feed himself.  But what about someone who isn’t hungry, doesn’t even really need the money, and risks devastating consequences anyway for a few hundred or thousand dollars (or nothing)?  I think this is why I like the Cohen brothers so much – their art is those stories.

-Taleb expounds what he thinks is his thesis at the end of the book, and proudly states that every sentence flows from that thesis.  Which demonstrates to me that he truly did not have an editor involved (and indeed, he puts editors in a negative/pejorative column of one of his tables [Table 7]).  However, the real thesis appears early on: “Alas, men of leisure become slaves to inner feelings of dissatisfaction and interests over which they have little control.”  Clearly, Taleb is much, much smarter than me, or you, or really pretty much everyone (except that he’s clearly wrong about quite a bit in this book, and even I can tell).  He’s made a lot of money.  Why does he sound so angry and disconsolate?  Hasn’t he learned from history (and Montaigne) that no one likes a sore winner?

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