Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: a review

AntifragileYou knew that Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile was in my reading list: having read it, I now owe you a review. Taleb’s The Black Swan was a book I found not only clever and innovative, but engaging and somehow necessary (for reference, here is my 2007 Black Swan review); Antifragile, rather less so.

What is antifragile? Taleb has coined the neologism to describe a class of things that “benefit from shocks”: “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” It is a property of living beings that Taleb describes in mathematical form (convexity) and proceeds to apply to ideas, cultures, political systems and much more. He is least interested in the application of the idea to the “vulgar” world of finance, perhaps feeling that the events of the past few years have abundantly proved his point.

Figure 12

Notwithstanding the author’s ambition, scope and breadth of intellectual interests, let me say right away that this would be a bigger book if it didn’t hit the reader in the face repeatedly with bitterness, sarcasm and contempt. The deeply held opinions of the author may not have changed since his previous books; his tone, I think, has – and not in favor of readability. Just witness the ad personam taunting and teasing directed at certain people (Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Merton) and schools (“The Soviet-Harvard delusion”); the author’s scorn for entire professions, such as academia and management; his rants against large corporations, with the exception of Apple (!), and disdain of corporate leaders, except for Steve Jobs. Passages like this may be occasionally entertaining to the reader, but grow to be too much:

The historian Niall Ferguson and I once debated the chairperson of Pepsi-Cola as part of an event at the New York Public Library […] Neither Niall nor I cared about who she was (I did not even bother to know her name). […] My experience of company executives, as evidenced by their appetite for spending thousands of hours in dull meetings or reading bad memos, is that they cannot possibly be remarkably bright. […] Someone intelligent—or free—would likely implode under such a regimen.

The most convincing arguments in the book are about medicine and diet. Which is somewhat surprising from a non-specialist writer, until you remember that most medical and nutrition professionals have a bias for intervention (medicate, perform surgery, keep you on a diet, sell you supplements), when subtraction (not intervening and removing things instead) would often just work as well. They therefore live an implicit conflict of interest, the paradoxical result of which is “if you want to accelerate someone’s death, give him a personal doctor”. Taleb is right to call the reader’s attention to iatrogenics, the (usually hidden or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits. His ideas on diet also make sense: our bodies benefit not just from variety of nutrients, but from some “randomness in food delivery and composition” and some stress in the form of periodic deprivations (such as in the Orthodox lent) and occasional fasting. Even here, though, the author’s Levantine superiority complex (and don’t you forget that Steve Jobs’s ancestors came from Syria!) gets to be rather quirky:

I, for my part, resist eating fruits not found in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean (I use “I” here in order to show that I am not narrowly generalizing to the rest of humanity). I avoid any fruit that does not have an ancient Greek or Hebrew name, such as mangoes, papayas, even oranges. Oranges seem to be the postmedieval equivalent of candy; they did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean. […] As to liquid, my rule is drink no liquid that is not at least a thousand years old—so its fitness has been tested. I drink just wine, water, and coffee.

His brief critique of Singularity efforts follows logically from his arguments, but is delivered with the recurring scornful attitude. Well, at least he remembers the fellow’s name:

I felt some deep disgust—as would any ancient—at the efforts of the “singularity” thinkers (such as Ray Kurzweil) who believe in humans’ potential to live forever. Note that if I had to find the anti-me, the person with diametrically opposite ideas and lifestyle on the planet, it would be that Ray Kurzweil fellow. […] While I propose removing offensive elements from people’s diets (and lives), he works by adding, popping close to two hundred pills daily. Beyond that, these attempts at immortality leave me with deep moral revulsion.

The least convincing arguments in the book are those in praise of entire economic systems based on “small is beautiful” (going hand in hand with the author’s love for the Swiss political system). Taleb rightly praises small entrepreneurs for their risk-taking: even if small businesses are individually fragile (as in the example of restaurants) or merely robust, even harboring a bit of antifragility (taxi drivers), their ecosystem (the restaurant scene) becomes antifragile. And he is right to point out that size can make you fragile: it is probably true that large projects are intrinsically over time and over budget due to intrinsic negative convexity, and that “the problem of cost overruns and delays is much more acute in the presence of information technologies”. Yet, one cannot seriously propose the London Crystal Palace (an overgrown conservatory built in 1850-51) as a model of architectural effectiveness, let alone human achievement, today.

It seems to me that in deliberately ignoring that it is mostly large organizations that create large economic surpluses, Taleb gets way too close to the current “degrowth” narrative, a crackpot economic proposition if there ever was one. While he openly despises large corporations and the people who work in them, he seems happy to write up his books on a computer built in a very large factory in China (as long as it is a subcontractor for Apple), to have his writings published by very large publishing houses, and to fly in planes built by large corporations and run by other large corporations (even while pointing out the fragility of air traffic control systems), for example to meet interesting people in Davos, at a large annual World Economic Forum gathering that would not exist if there were no very large corporations to sponsor it. Even the aforementioned New York Public Library is probably a much too large and bureaucratic organization for his taste, given that his model for an antifragile life and thinking is the “flâneur with a large private library”, no doubt acquired via independent (often antiquarian) booksellers.

With the exception of, say, drug dealers, small companies and artisans tend to sell us healthy products, ones that seem naturally and spontaneously needed; larger ones— including pharmaceutical giants— are likely to be in the business of producing wholesale iatrogenics, taking our money, and then, to add insult to injury, hijacking the state thanks to their army of lobbyists. Further, anything that requires marketing appears to carry such side effects. […] There is no product that I particularly like that I have discovered through advertising and marketing: cheeses, wine, meats, eggs, tomatoes, basil leaves, apples, restaurants, barbers, art, books, hotels, shoes, shirts, eyeglasses, pants (my father and I have used three generations of Armenian tailors in Beirut), olives, olive oil, etc.

Eyeglasses? Last time I checked mine, Luxottica had made those – and Luxottica is a very large multinational that has long abandoned its “small is beautiful” stage. Maybe Mr. Taleb orders his glasses from Warby Parker – fine. But do Warby Parker’s owners really not want to grow it into a much larger company? And does Mr. Taleb like a glass of vintage Chateau d’Yquem less than a Greek retsina, knowing that Chateau d’Yquem is owned by LVMH, a large corporation, and not a small artisan?

In summary, Antifragile is a thoughtful book with much to recommend it for, and you should read it if you like the author’s broad, non-academic erudition, share his reverence for ancient history and Mother Nature, and don’t mind his personal quirks too much; but the book’s flaws in tone of voice – and, sometimes, in argumentation – make it less strong than it otherwise could have been.

Behind Boardroom Doors. Essays by Betsy Atkins

BetsyAtkinsIt turns out there is some stuff that they don’t teach you in business school, and that you have to catch up on later, in your own self-directed continuing studies program. Corporate governance is one of those things. Luckily, I just read a book about corporate governance that isn’t a dry, legalistic tome about procedures and standards, but an account from the trenches of real board experience: Behind Boardroom Doors: Lessons of a Corporate Director, by Betsy Atkins.

You can read my review here. The chapter I found most engaging is “My 16 Days on the HealthSouth Board”, adapted from an essay you can read here, as good an account of crisis management as I’ve ever read. If you have an interest in matters of corporate governance, and perhaps you’re just starting out as a board director, reading this book will be like going to dinner with a very experienced director and getting all the precious nuggets from her. Enjoy it!

There is really no summer at all. From John Cheever’s Journals

What year, what summer it is, it does not matter. John Cheever is struggling to write, tired, preoccupied with money and lust. A journal entry:

Yesterday. A hot, midsummer day, past haying weather. Hot. In the back rooms the smell of burning paper from the heat. Then how subtly the air becomes fresh at dark and how a perfectly round, pale moon comes out of the woods. There is the excitement of autumn in the cool damp air and the light of the moon, coming back across the field through the orchard, the rich smell of windfalls, the beautiful flavor of an apple – and the next day will be still, hot, the next moonlight night will seem like fall; this variety, this continuous and stimulating play on your senses and your memory. How subtly the autumn arrives on the northwest wind and the full moon. There is really no summer at all; the summer is an illusion. The flowers are formed on the goldenrod by the Fourth of July, the green of the maples has begun to fade. The calendar of flowers, gin bottles, steak bones.

Half a page later, it is the end of November and it is snowing.

Family and summer reading. Three recommendations

What do you do if your mother and father drive off one morning and rob a bank?

What do you do if your brother shows up to visit you weighing 386 pounds?

What do you do if your sister calls for help because your nephew has thrown a frozen pig’s head into a mosque?

These are the fictional premises of the three novels I want to recommend today – Canada by Richard Ford, Big Brother by Lionel Shriver, and The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. All three of them are about how families can go wrong, very wrong; and all three of them make you bless the comfort of an uneventful family.

Morozov, Lanier, and the intelligent reading of books and critiquing of ideas

Much ink has been spilled in recent weeks about two new books, To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov and Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier, taking very different approaches to criticism of our collective behavior on the Internet. Of course, I would like nothing more than to devote serious time to the reading, discussing and perhaps reviewing of serious books. Yet, life being what is it, I only make this happen on summer vacations anymore; and I’m glad a good friend, somewhat quaintly, gave me for my birthday a paper copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, so that the sheer material presence of the object might get me to read it, much like a house plant gets you to water it ora a dog to walk it.

But back to Morozov and Lanier. It was only thanks to a tweet by Esther Dyson that I discovered and read this evening a thoughtful piece about the two books written by Maria Bustillos, and I decided that Lanier’s gets the higher spot on my summer reading list. Then I found that Bustillos also wrote a long and worthwhile article on Udacity and MOOCs, which I recommend you read if you liked my short and techno-optimistic blog post about online education last month. Then I had do do some work, and then I have to get some sleep – you know what I mean. If you don’t have time for the books or the debate, do read the articles.

Lanier’s book has two covers, so he gets two pictures in this post. I do prefer the UK one, with its delicate blossoms.

clickhere futureuscoverfutureukcover

On elections

From Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a few thoughts on the 2009 Indian elections.

Parliamentary elections would be held at the end of April, and middle- and upper-class people, especially young people, were registering to vote in record numbers. Affluent, educated candidates were coming forward with platforms of radical change: accountability, transparency, e-governance. While independent India had been founded by high-born, well-educated men, by the twenty-first century few such types stood for elections, or voted in them, since the wealthy had extra-democratic means of securing their social and economic interests. Across India, poor people were the ones who took the vote seriously. It was the only real power they had.

Getting past Coetzee. An essay by Hedley Twidle

In his life of VS Naipaul, Patrick French remarked that it might be “the last literary biography to be written from a complete paper archive”. I sense something similarly historical about Coetzee’s achievement, a power of pre-internet concentration and application that has now been eroded in Version 2.0 people. A mental discipline that can stay trained on things for longer than other minds, without flinching; that can push thoughts, or sentences, one step further than they would normally go.

A quality of, in a word, seriousness. Coetzee says somewhere or other that, for a certain kind of artist, seriousness is an ethical imperative. So why do I find myself wanting to be so unserious in his august presence? To dwell on all those things that cannot be related in the polite literary profile, or the rigorous academic paper. Such as: what does it mean to be obsessed, perhaps unhealthily obsessed, with an author? And: why don’t black South Africans read or talk about Coetzee? And: why am I beginning to think that his work should not be taught at the University of Cape Town – or at least that a 10-year moratorium on Coetzee studies should be declared?

While I was traveling in South Africa, I happened to read in the Financial Times the winning piece in the 2012 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize, by South African author Hedley Twidle. It is in turn ironic (“Droves of students arrive from Wisconsin and Ohio to spend a term abroad, filling the Coetzee sign-up lists”), surprising (“Coetzee, the staff informed me, is a regularly shoplifted author”) and clever (“…a question that all literary scholars should put to themselves on a daily basis: “How can you know anything about literature if all you’ve done is read books?””). Read the full piece here: you won’t understand anything more about Coetzee than you already know, the unknowability of the subject being among the postulates underlying the essay. But you will learn a bit about literary obsessions, seriousness, unseriousness, and a country that is “as irresistible as it is unlovable”, South Africa.

The imperative for literary fiction. David Foster Wallace

… Many of out best-known C. Y. [Conspicuously Young] writers seem content merely to have reduced interpretation to whining. And what’s frustrating to me about the whiners is that precisely the state of general affairs that explains a nihilistic artistic outlook makes it imperative that art not be nihilistic.

It’s always a deep, deep pleasure to read David Foster Wallace, only colored with sadness at reading him posthumously.

The coming elections and you. The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg

From a LibraryThing interview with Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab

The most effective way of turning a non-voter into a voter—several times more effective than any other technique that’s ever been measured—is to send a citizen a copy of her vote history, the record of elections in which she cast a ballot, and her neighbors’ vote histories. Then tell her that everyone will get an updated set after the coming election. Behavioral psychologists call this “social pressure,” the idea that people adjust their behavior to conform with what they think are others’ expectations. In 2006, a few researchers ran a field experiment and found that sending such mail had a massive impact on turnout—but they also got death threats from people who accused them of blackmail.

This is an instance where the knowledge was shared, and, in fact, the study was published in a political science journal. (It’s proven to be one of the discipline’s ballsier experiments to date.) But political campaigns and parties have been wary of using it for fear of being labeled bullies by voters. Over the following years, political operatives and academics found ways to soften the language, while still exerting subtle social pressure and impacting voter turnout—and these results are likely to hit millions of mailboxes before Election Day.

I had thoughts about election analytics back in 2007, but I thought Google would be a more visible player. Here is my old post with two rather wrong predictions.

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Sushi Economy; his next project is a book on gay marriage, titled The Engagement.

Dark summer reading

I was not blown away by the book I read this summer. I need to plan better next time.

I ended up mostly engaged by crime fiction, even if it’s a genre I am not an expert in. The most satisfying read was The Whisperer by Donato Carrisi, an intricately constructed novel with some truly haunting moments. I also enjoyed two novels by Glenn Cooper, Secret of the Seventh Son (aka Library of the Dead) and Book of Souls. Secret of the Seventh Son starts out as a serial killer novel, but then branches out into something else, on a metaphysically bizarre premise that is further pursued in the second book of the trilogy (the third one, The Librarians, is forthcoming; you can see from the titles alone why I would dig this sort of stuff). The author is quite an interesting character: he majored in archaeology in college, then went to medical school specializing in infectious diseases, then became a pharmaceutical CEO. And now he writes metaphysically bizarre books.

I read two surf crime novels by Don Winslow, but they did not have the epic scope of what I think is his masterpiece, Power of the Dog, which I recommend you read right away if you haven’t yet.

Last summer, I was enthralled by Stephen King’s 11/22/63. Many people don’t read King because they think he writes in the horror genre. Even when he does, there is so much more to it; I’ve always loved his ear for the spoken language (if you are a foreign student of American English, you can hardly do better than read Stephen King for practicing your idioms). 11/22/63 is a novel about time travel – a topic very few writers have tackled successfully – transporting us in the United States of the late ’50s and early ’60s, revived in painstaking detail, to follow a protagonist who sets himself the task of undoing the Kennedy assassination. It is a marvel, and it is what I missed this summer, when there was no new big Stephen King novel, and nothing else as juicy as this.