I found the underlying points made by Taleb interesting and enlightening in the sense that it offered a fresh perspective albeit that the underlying issues are not novel. To an extent his subject material is the behavioural equivalent of evolution. Our behaviour is informed by negative events as well as positive and this makes us more resilient. Someone who has the occasional minor prang in a car is probably going to be safer than those who have never experienced a shunt and go round in a bubble of false security.
I do not pretend that this is a comprehensive deconstruction of Taleb's thesis but neither am I sure it should have taken 425 pages for him to make his point and a bibliography running to 24 pages to have got there. They say that a driver should drive for the comfort of their passenger and I believe that a writer should write with much the same objective in mind.
A point can be made in a pithy way and 'Freakanomics' achieved this on the subject of statistics. That brace of books may have been more frothy in tone but Levitt and Dubner succeeded in communicating some quite intricate concepts. Taleb made some interesting observations in Black Swan but I would not use the word succinct.
I often worry that popularity causes individuals to become caricatures of themselves, identifying and emphasising those characteristics which they believed made them popular to the degree that it becomes irritating. The comedian who ceases to be funny, the actor who elongates their dramatic emphasis, the writer who takes interesting thoughts but turns them into a belief system which they then name.
To my taste, Taleb laboured his points as if he relishes the cleverness of his own words and this rather put me off. Does this 'superhero of the mind' (to quote the dust jacket) actually communicate with sentences such as "Not using models of nonlinear effects such as convexity biases whilst doing 'empirical' work is like having to catalogue every apple falling from a tree and call the operation 'empiricism' instead of just using Newton's equilibrium"?
Many years ago Richard Dawkins set a high watermark for how to communicate complex ideas in a palatable way without over simplifying to the point of distortion. In my view, the tide is out on Antifragile. To lift a principle from Taleb, if the downside of writing in an over lengthy style is greater than the potential benefit, maybe one should cut down on the wordage.
on 14 January 2013
I haven't read Black Swans or Fooled by Randomness so came to this book with no preconceptions (aside from an interview with Taleb from the Guardian which piqued my interest in his ideas). I imagine that if the reader is fond of his previous work the frequent back-references will be appealing, whereas I found this a little repetitive and excluding.
It seems that the successes Taleb has experienced both intellectually and financially have lead to him being able to indulge in an over-long exposition of ideas that could fit into a single essay (as opposed to this 5-books-of-essays collection). He also seems to have many axes to grind and a need to boast about his physique and luxurious dining habits.
The most frustrating aspect of putting the time into reading and making notes on this is that: it is all "set up" and very little conclusion. Just as a neat summation/distillation seemed immanent he changes track. The best way to read might be to take the 1st paragraph of each essay and no more - the rest is just bloat.
I did enjoy aspects and have taken away some food for thought, but would take Taleb's own advice and stick to proven thinkers with a little more track record. It's fine but nothing special.
on 26 September 2014
Excellent book with some very interesting ideas. I devoured it in a few days, something I haven't done with a book for a long time. I agree with some other reviewers that his terminology can be difficult for people unexposed to economics/finance, but he does his best to provide other examples and to highlight overly complicated sections that can be skipped by the less technical reader. I also enjoyed his style of mixing philosophy, maths, biography and history together, although I can understand that other people may struggle with the less strict structure than typically found in a book of this type. I appreciate that he appears to follow his own philosophy as much as possible, and that he is blunt, not holding back on his opinions. Would highly recommend to everyone to be honest.
In the 500 pages of this book there is a really good 50-page extended essay, which is a bit obscured by the increasingly idiosyncratic writing. I can't complain because I knew what I was letting myself in for, having previously read the Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan books and this is really just a continuation in both content and style. In fact one of his earlier books has actually changed my life in a very real way - about five years ago I gave up reading newspapers after decades of ploughing through at least one of the broadsheets every day - so I don't take him lightly.
I think it is fair to say that Taleb could do with a strong-willed editor. There is a well-known principle in presentations that you need to reinforce an ide through repetition (tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them) and this takes that idea to extremes with a list of contents that spans nine pages, then three pages of chapter summaries and then a prologue that basically summarises the whole book in a few pages. Each section of the book has a brief summary as does each chapter in the section. In addition to that there is an appendix to the prologue (!) an epilogue and 80 pages of index, appendices, notes, bibliography and acknowledgements. The point is that you can cutout 20% of the pages and still be left with the whole book to read.
As for the actual meat of the book, it can get a bit ranty. The author has a long list of people he doesn't like and misses no opportunity to lay into them. His targets include bureaucrats, bankers, experts, risk managers, journalists, Alan Greenspan, economists (he refers to them as "economists and other lunatics"), 'ivy-leaguers', academics, Aristotle, scientists (who he refers to as "so-called scientists") and Davos attenders. While many of us might not have a lot of time for many on the list (especially journalists and bankers) Taleb seems to make it all very personal.
At the very least it makes the book read like Father Ted's acceptance speech for the Golden Cleric awards, at worst it makes the book read like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. It does not help that he invents grand-sounding names for people and then capitalises them, so he refers to 'the Soviet-Harvard Delusion' or the 'Central Fragilista Delegation' or refers to Alan Greenspan as the 'Uber-Fragilista Alan Greenspan'. Normally, if you hear somebody delivering something in this style (the style of David Icke or a bearded bloke yelling on a street corner) you switch off. That would be a shame here because there are some interesting ideas hidden away.
Fortunately, all this ranting is as amusing to read as it is annoying. I kind of picture Victor Meldrew reading it.
There are a few people that Taleb seems to like, but not many: Benoit Mandelbrot, Thales, Seneca, Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand.
I don't think Taleb would like me. Not because of this review (he says he likes criticism) and not (just) because my day job is in risk management, but because I appreciate the points he is making but don't ever intend to completely buy into his philosophy. Yes the ideas of optionality and asymmetry seem to work but I'll add them to many of the other theories out there and adapt them. I think Taleb would prefer some ideal world where everything and everyone just followed his ideas.
Unfortunately, his ideas carried to the logical conclusion are not practical. He considers the ideal way of life to be some sort of mediterranean agrarian life with everybody living an artisan lifestyle and no employees, which is not practical with out huge populations and our collective expectations as consumers.
None of this is to say the book is rubbish. The author is the current in-vogue thinker with the in-vogue big idea (Black Swans) which replaces 'Nudge' as the big idea, which replaced 'Tipping Points', 'The Wisdom of Crowds' and 'Long Tails' as previous big ideas, and this big idea does really get you thinking about some pretty big ideas - some of them pretty scary if Taleb is right.
Anybody who has read and enjoyed books by writers such as Levit & Dubner, Daniel Kahneman, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely or Jonathan Haidt would enjoy this book, or at least appreciate it. Anybody else mightdo, but should probably try something friendlier first and start with Freakonomics or Thinking Fast and Slow.
Hot on the heels of his other successful books about economic theory (Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan) Taleb has revealed another interesting concept about current financial markets - we are trying to protect ourselves from economic shock by removing volatility, but this actually weakens our ability to survive such shocks by removing the survival of the fittest element of competition. This is the central concept of the book (in a nut-shell) that there are things out there that benefit from chaos, not merely survive it, but actually revel and grow from disorder. These things are the Anti-Fragile.
This book can be read in a couple of ways; a cursory walk-through will expose the reader to the intriguing concepts of Iatrogenics, Procrustean beds and Mithridatism - all the while talking about subjects as broad as the formative years of the middle-east to weight-lifting. However to the technical reader; all of the associated graphs & formulae are included in the appendices should you want more depth and of course; his arguments are well bibliographed & referenced.
These topics are all milestones in his book and sound random when relayed as a string but the arrival at each of these points is well considered and explained. However, it is the absolute disdain that drips from pages of this book that leaves a bad-taste in your mouth. Taleb writes whilst sneering at the current participants of the financial-system and proudly lauding the superiority of his system dogmatically - it is easier to point & laugh at something, but far more difficult to create something better in its place. His megalomania is only further compounded as we read about the people he likes to lunch with, his exercise regime and his diet. It all seems rather boastful and supercilious to the layman.
Pomposity aside, this is a thought-provoking book that will make you reconsider some of the band-aids we have slapped on the Bretton-Woods-based financial system we currently have. It suggests an alternative, and for that reason alone it should be lauded, but when this is not only a good idea, but well informed and intelligent it is truly worth a long, hard look. Highly recommended.
on 1 May 2014
Whilst this book has some interesting things to say I find it, for the most part, a strange cross between a sales pitch and an unfulfilled self justificatory stream of conciousness. A kind of insight into someone's cognitive work in progress and simultaneously accumulating bank account.
It mentions the Black Swan in terms of why, after reading that you should pay for a second book - simple the Black Swan is this new books, "junior appendix". This is a sales pitch pure and simple. So, after telling the world something and earning a fortune in the process, there is - yes good Christians - even more to be revealed. Just keep the faith.
It also name drops Steve Jobs early on. Never a good sign. It's a weak and easy way to appropriate popularity by association. The author even employs the same trick with our very own grandmothers.
It never ceases to amaze me just how flexible the English language is. Always having the ability to adapt and absorb new cultures and languages. However, I think this author is engaging in a deliberate assault upon language that unnecessarily twists meaning in an attempt to both lure the paying reader and obfuscate its rhetorical weaknesses.
No doubt the author would say their choice of language is antifragile but this is simply impoverished circular logic. Even cultish.
The English language is perfectly capable of saying what this author means to say without a dribblesoup of nonpreponderances and antiplatitudinal neologistificationizing. See what I mean.
on 4 September 2013
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an exceptional writer - though not entirely in a good way. He is variously described as a "superhero of the mind" (Boyd Tonkin) and "Wall Street's principal dissident" (Malcolm Gladwell), and much commentary focuses on his style more than his content. Few dispute that he is brilliant, though he feels compelled to demonstrate this with striking frequency.
His most recent book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is an exciting challenge to received wisdom about adopting middle-of-the-road strategies in personal health and finance, macroeconomics and much more besides. But it comes with a strong dose of personal advertisement and gratuitous demonstration of Taleb's breadth of learning.
It is worth putting up with this though. The essence of his argument is that a spectrum runs from fragility through robustness to antifragility, and that we should seek to develop antifragility - the ability to become stronger through challenges - in our bodies, our finances, our politics and our economies.
With examples from a wide variety of disciplines Taleb illustrates that we often describe certain things as good or bad when in fact the key consideration is dose. By careful dose control we can increase our tolerances of many things that would otherwise be very harmful to us - and in doing so we increase our antifragility. Taleb himself reacts to this insight by training with streetfighters rather than personal trainers and investing in a contrarian portfolio.
His arguments have fascinating ramifications for individuals and policy makers. For example, he suggests that our public health systems are riven by agency risks and the malign influence of what he calls "iatrogenics". He praises entrepreneurs as the heroes of humanity - the people who knowingly or unknowingly take risks that probably condemn them to losses but drive forward progress for the societies to which they belong.
One of Taleb's interesting conclusions is that we are terrible at making complex judgements and that we should therefore trust the only reliable assessor of quality - time. In other words, we should suspend judgement on things (foods, medicines, concepts, philosophies) until they have stood the test of time. He points out that the best predictor of how long something will last is how long it has already lasted. As a result, he advocates drinking wine and coffee but avoids all processed foods.
This is an exciting and bold book and it may change your behaviour in any of several ways. You may consider changing your diet, your attitude to saving and investment and even your career. It is well worth reading.
on 4 February 2015
Review courtesy of www.subtleillumination.com
What’s the opposite of fragility? Most people say robustness, resilience, or strength. Most people, says Taleb, are wrong. Fragility is to be weakened by uncertainty or volatility, while resilience is to be unaffected by volatility. What we need is something strengthened by volatility and change – something antifragile.
That, in a nutshell, is Antifragile. Like all the best ideas, it’s a simple idea with immediate, important, and interesting consequences. In particular, Taleb argues that the modern world, in its quest for efficiency and optimization, has ignored the effects of volatility. As a result, shocks (Black Swans) have catastrophic consequences. When one hits, however, we ask the wrong question. We demand to know why we failed to predict the housing bubble or disease outbreak, instead of asking ourselves why we built a system that is tremendously vulnerable to such shocks.
Instead of eliminating centralization and vulnerability in our systems, like big corporations or big bureaucracies, however, we keep trying to predict the future, an endeavor doomed to failure. Shocks, as Taleb has argued in other books, are rare, and so attempting to predict them is impossible because they happen so rarely – we never have enough data points to draw conclusions. (For the economists reading, he believes in fat tails). Rather than trying to predict the future, we should build systems that can evolve and adapt to it.
The idea is a fairly simple one, but not I think something most of us have thought about. Once you've got it, the rest of the book doesn't add much, which is always the danger of having one great idea. It can also sometimes be a bit technical for a general audience. The idea gets 5 starts, possibly 6: the book 4 for being too long.
Many of the books that I have read in the last couple of years referred to the works of Taleb, particularly The Black Swan, so I was excited to read a book that he considers a synthesis and development of his previously published material.
How to review this one? Whatever I think of a non-fiction writer and their output, one of the key criteria for me is whether their work made me think. In that regard, Antifragile is a hit with so many interweaved notions that you have to keep your wits about you to try to follow the train of Taleb's arguments. Funnily enough, Taleb quite often refers to the work of (his friend) Daniel Kahneman though I'd find it hard to think of a better example of the confirmation bias that Kahneman describes than Taleb's work. He even admits, when talking about his opinions of France, that he was frustrated that it didn't seem to fit his model of the world until he finally understood how France really worked. In other words, here was a glaring example that appeared to go against what he was claiming so he sought long and hard for evidence to support his convictions and hence dispose of dissonance.
The book is full of interesting and challenging ideas, built religiously on the ideas of the classical thinkers. Again Taleb seems to have been highly selective in his choices (confirmation bias once more) but you can't help think that he's onto something more than just a massive ego trip about his superior appetite for reading, weightlifting and making money off a skewed system. He enjoys teasing the (I would agree) largely meaningless world of classical economics, showing how it must be pseudo scientific if it has been entirely unable to reach any convergence of ideas, and he enjoys belittling the `empty suits' of corporations in the financial sector whilst expounding the merits of being an artisan or mafia member. None of which really helps me to practically determine how I should introduce more antifragility in my life. Taleb claims he avoids all cycling near urban areas and sugar for this reason. OK - so cycling (despite all the modest benefits) could be argued to expose a rider to the `Black Swan' of annihilation by collision but has anyone ever been killed due to a Black Swan sucrose event? I don't get it!
He claims there was no word for the opposite of fragile (largely by selecting fragile to mean something slightly different from most common dictionary definitions) but most of the examples he gives are quite happily described by the term `adaptive' that is used in many scientific fields to describe behaviours that respond to changing environments. He peppers his text with graphs that succeed in illustrating a point but, examined closely, are often technically flawed making his explanation of convex & concave seemingly dependent of choice of peculiar axis conventions. Overall I felt I understood him DESPITE his explanations! Maybe that is part of his intention (he reckons bad reviews help a writers success more than good ones and sites the popularity of Ayn Rand's novels). In fact, if I wanted to ensure that this book is read I should slate it and conversely if I thought it was poor I should describe it as `underrated'.
In essence this is a book that stimulates a great deal of thought - much of it required to identify the logical and psychological pitfalls that Taleb has laid in your path, with the overall result that I have gained new perspectives on the financial sector and risk in general. Its well worth the read if you can stomach the constantly vainglorious Taleb style. Both over and under rated. You decide.
on 14 May 2013
I've not read Black Swan, Taleb's runaway success of a book in previous years. I've heard mixed reports about it, so wasn't sure what to expect of Antifragile.
It's an odd book, mostly because of Taleb's writing style. It is in some ways very informal, almost written as if it was an extended lecture or speech. It's also laced with dry humour and sarcasm - whether you like this approach or not is quite personal, and may depend in part on whether you are one of the groups that Taleb regularly attacks in his writing, such as hedge fund managers who take risks with others' money, or ivory tower academics. I found it quite refreshing.
The book is in many ways massively overstating the case for antifragility. For example he argues that the economy, because of its systemic interdependencies, is very fragile and, by contrast the body is antifragile. But its much more a matter of degree than the black-and-white picture the author presents (the economy is in some ways strongly antifragile, for instance).
Underneath these quirks and cricisms, though, the core idea is enormously compelling, and the book entertaining and memorable to read. I suspect it could have easily been 100 pages long rather than 500, and lost little of its quality, but the extra 400 pages are quite fun so it could be worse.