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.
on 30 October 2013
Having read Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness a while ago now I was looking forward to this ones as Taleb has a towering mind.
The basic premise in this book is that we all need to be more anti fragile, that is more resistant and resilient to shocks both large and small. He gives the example of small animals being able to absorb the shock from a drop, but large animals suffering because of their size. He favours the artisan producer rather than the mega corporation, and have a massive distrust of large corporations and their marketing.
He argues in here that the current systems, be it banks, governments and academia are all fragile, that is very susceptible to external shocks, and that the systems are geared to magnify these risks. An example if the banking crisis, where the risks taken got greater and greater, and yet those at the banks were bailed out. He thinks that making the traders and banker personally liable will have a major improvement to the global financial market.
Some of this was very hard to read, occasionally unreadable, and I think that the number of examples could have been reduced. A stronger editor would have been able to wrestle this into a much more readable book, and the arguments would have been stronger.
This is Taleb's latest book where he brings together his ideas from the Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness to create a complete synthesis to deal with the complex world we live in. He calls this approach anti-fragile, which is something more than robust because the anti-fragile thrives in adversity. A biologist would call this a world that is an evolving complex system, where prediction of the future is difficult or not impossible and where eco-systems have been anti-fragile for billions of years.
The insights are sometimes brilliant, but like the over-all theory if he read more others with similar views he would find he is not as original as he thinks he is. He is a fan of Mandelbrot but he misses out Wolfram whose book The New Kind of Science is actually covering a lot of the same ground. He also misses Prigogine who wrote a lot of similar views on complexity. He also misunderstands statistics where the rule is not to extrapolate because he confounds it with statistics in economics where extrapolation is the rule.
The other problem is Taleb's tone. He is continuously confrontational and often random. He is not very good at constructing reasoned arguments when ad hominems and stereotyping can be used to ignore other views.
69 of 85 people found the following review helpful
This book is not written for the reader. There is an 8 page contents list, but it's one of those that is designed to be mysterious and intriguing rather than show you what's in the book. Then it has 'chapter summaries and map', also written to tease you about possible meaning without actually providing any usable information. There's a graphical summary at the back, and that gives some hints, but I soon got lost, even though he doesn't seem to be saying anything that is not already well known and obvious.
There is a 7 page glossary for terms invented by Taleb, but 'antifragile' isn't one of them. The glossary appears to be far from complete, but it is hard to establsh exactly how incomplete because the glossary is not in alphabetical order - or any apparent order at all.
Don't expect much enlightenment from the definitions themselves. Here's the first definition I picked at random: "Naive Rationalism: Thinking that the reasons for things are, by default, accessible to university buildings. Also called the Soviet-Harvard illusion." Accessible to university buildings? This kind of bizarre logical slip is quite common in the book.
The writing has many grammatical errors and punctuation mistakes. It definitely needed more attention from a copy editor. There are also readablity glitches that make reading unnecessarily hard. For example, the third paragraph of the prologue says "We just don't want to just survive uncertainty, to just about make it." The first 'just' should have been removed because it causes your mind to spin. This is basic stuff.
The arguments often rely on analogies and anecdotes, rather than just using them for illustration.
There are also many stories included to illustrate how clever and honest Taleb is and how mistaken and dishonest lots of other people are. Here's a typical paragraph of this kind of material to give you a flavour: "For a minute I wondered if I was living on another planet or if the gentleman's PhD and research career had led to this blindness and his strange loss of common sense - or if people without practical sense usually manage to get the energy and interest to acquire a PhD in the fictional world of equation economics. Is there a selection bias?"
From a technical point of view, potential readers should understand that Taleb is a frequentist when using probability. If you are any kind of Bayesian then the technical content, if you can find some, could be annoying.
I haven't read all the book. Actually all I could do was start, then skim and sample. I found it unbearable and a waste of time.
However, I would guess that if someone else had presented the same basic ideas it would have been a bearable 100 pages; Taleb makes it 500+ pages of torture for the reader.
There might be some usable, novel ideas on how to design businesses, strategies, or portfolios in ways that limit their downside but not their upside but I couldn't find them. That may be because of the unhelpful headings, or because there aren't any such ideas in the book.
The front cover quotes a journalist, saying "A superhero of the mind" Well, Taleb is not my idea of superhero.
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
At the End of Taleb's previous Book, `The Black Swan' (which is about unexpected and large events), Taleb talks about Yevgenia Krasnova, an author whose first book was a remarkable and unexpected best seller: a Black Swan. She `...laughed at the public who extolled her earlier work, for she now found it shallow, hurriedly completed, and undistilled...'. Instead, she locked herself away for seven years and wrote the opus the first book should have been. When it came out, it was lauded by the public... but it didn't sell. Too long.
Yevgenia is a part biographical figment of Taleb's mind, and anyone who has read enough of Taleb to know how he ticks will know that Yevgenia's second book is actually this book: Antifragile.
I agree with Taleb's review of his own books: Black Swan was rushed and confused fact with anecdote/parable/stereotype often enough for the reader to wonder whether anything Taleb wrote was fact or just another fictional aside. Economists hated it because it read like a philosophy book rather than a formal economics book, and everyone else just thought it was a bit of a plodder to read even when it was on the right track, and it only delivered small truths when you got to the part where Taleb stopped philosophising and started dishing out answers (for anyone wanting a fast skim, chapter 13 and the appendices).
It had two big plusses: (1) It `predicted' the credit crunch in the global financial market, and (2) It was a best seller because of it. Well, actually, Nouriel Roubini predicted the credit crunch, Taleb just wrote that `something bad will happen'. But hey, that's publishing.
Antifragile is written in a similar vein. Taleb clearly made copious and wide ranging background notes from numerous discussions, but unlike many authors,he doesn't edit down much and seems to use *all* those notes. He also seems to enjoy treading the line between criticism and gloating of his peers. That's fine (nobody likes to read a book from someone who isn't a little oppionated), but it makes the book a little self indulgent for my liking. This all results in a heavy, meandering read: the reader has to be careful to filter Talebisms from fact.
And yet again, the one redeeming fact is that Taleb's central premise is correct.
He defines antifragile systems as the best fix against Black Swans. Antifragile systems as those that not only survive under uncertainty, but actually thrive. This is distinct from Engineered systems, which are simply robust. As someone who has worked on both a robust and an antifragile system, I get what he is saying here...
After graduating in Engineering, I spent ten years in the Nuclear industry, designing, reviewing and commissioning reactor control and safety systems. These systems are robust rather than antifragile because they are usually designed to meet the requirements of the maximum postulated safety critical incident. The problem is that the next *actual* safety critical incident that fails the system is always worse.
Fukishima was designed to survive an earthquake, but the accompanying tsunami was not in the plan. The UK is no better: I know for a fact that Sizewell B (UKs latest reactor) has a major part of its trip safety system (the RUHS and emergency generators for anyone following) closer to the sea than the reactor, so if a flood shock took them both out AND tripped the reactor (which it would due to loss of grid), well... there's a bit of boron left but a lot of heat with nowhere to go... and a fun Fukishima style Black Swan time.
At the moment I am designing software used in advertising. Nobody dies and perhaps a lot of the general public would be happy if it goes wrong, but its critical to the company. So what it does is report all its errors into a database that is used to make fixes. The more errors, the quicker they get fixed. That's an antifragile system, because the more we stress it, the more we know what goes wrong, and the better we make it. This system likes failures because lots of little ones incrementally make for a stronger system. Evolution and a lot of other natural systems are the same.
This all of course affects the business markets. Allowing a few big robust banks is bad because they are only robust in terms of the last big crash: the next crash will be bigger, and banks `too big to fail' will certainly fail. Having `stress tests' that banks all have to pass is simply skirting this issue... better to have lots of smaller ones that *actually are* stressed every day, so that not only can they fail, but they do fail. This makes individual banks less robust, but makes banking as a whole very robust: evolution again.
As comparison, tech start-ups follow a better system ('small enough to fail often'), and its no surprise that the only person capable of making more money than a trader is a start-up founder... its simply a better system because bad Black Swans only make the overall tech industry better, and good Black Swans can be capitalised on!
Personally I'm pretty certain that Taleb and most economists are being a little naive. To my disbelieving mind, its much simpler and more to do with human nature: all predictable and avertable Black Swans are caused by White Lies from people who know better but don't tell. They only tell after the event when its time to come clean and/or the incentive has gone.
Traders know when the stock market is going to fail, they just are not incentivised to spill the beans because their big money is always made on the tip just before the crash (or if I was being kind, they suffer from Gambler's fallacy caused by the gains at the top). I'm pretty sure their heuristic is also pretty simple: something like `employment market lags stock market lags credit market'. If you understand the credit market and know where it is going, you know where the stock market and your job security is heading because both the latter are a few months behind... time enough to make a killing and get out, or write The Black Swan.
Similarly, I've already described exactly how the Uk's most up to date reactor could fail big time. Again, not insider information, just common engineering sense.
So to conclude, a long book from an intelligent mind, transmitted though bad self-editing from the same mind, and peppered with a bit too much in the way of opinionated asides.
Good if you have a lot of free time and an interest in following an interesting, meandering but probably correct argument... but you could also ask someone who has already read it what the important three chapters are, and walk away with the same knowledge.
4 stars for the patient (or those who pity poor Yevgenia), 2 stars for the impatient or those who agree with Taleb's prediction about book length.
I'll split the difference: 3 stars.
101 of 126 people found the following review helpful
This book came to me free for review under the Amazon Vine Programme. Under other circumstances I might well have bought it, thanks to fulsome praise by others; but I would possibly have wished I hadn't. The professor's previous work, "The Black Swan", attracted 40 one-star and 59 five-star ratings, so he's someone you either love or hate. I review it from my personal viewpoint as an average reader seeking informed diversion.
Whilst the professor may be a great thinker, he is not a great writer. When he published "The Black Swan", he was accused of expanding a magazine article into a book; this work could equally be abbreviated without detriment. A book of such length and hoped-for importance needs to read easily to attract the widest audience; by and large, this one doesn't, partly because thinkers feel the need to use lots of unusual words to express themselves (to show that they are thinkers).
But on top of inflicting us with the full extent of his vocabulary - which, by the nature of his employment, naturally exceeds that of your average person - he devises yet new words and expressions with which to confound, together with graphs and formulae. These apart, though, mellifluousness of style is still not his strong point anyway. Reduced to its essentials, the book eventually comes across as a turgid, rambling, interminable, (but sometimes entertaining and ingenious) rant against a range of justifiably popular Aunt Sallies of the day. It exhausts one long before page 426, where this supposedly 544-page book ends, the rest being a much-needed glossary, graphs and formulae, additional notes, afterthoughts and a 24-page (!) bibliography.
In distinguishing between doers and thinkers, he has little good to say of his own group - especially Nobel Prizewinners in the sciences, their sin having been to explain the pragmatic discoveries of doers in scientific terms, and claim the credit. I don't see his problem; it's always better to know WHY something is so, rather than simply knowing that it IS so (if only because it might save you from those occasions when it isn't so). And if a scientific discovery is "accidental" (he uses the word pejoratively) - well, the accident wouldn't have happened if the research hadn't triggered it...
The Professor has anyway cottoned on to the very same cunning plan as his maligned Nobel prizewinners - he's taken the empirical, pragmatic and often obvious prejudices of many a man in the street (or tabloid journalist), and converted them into an intellectualised, modern philosophy with the aid of maths. But all he describes is the human species continuing to behave like it always has, albeit nowadays in more ingenious, thinking ways. Long before bankers and traders contrived both to ruin economies and to profit by the losses of others (vandalism and stealing, in other words) our early ancestors were busy vandalising the homes and stealing the women and crops of their neighbours; it's what we do; and early monarchs, tribal chiefs, holy men and witch doctors were interfering disadvantageously in the lives of common people, long before Governments and the medical profession (a favourite Aunt Sally) began doing likewise.
The book is flagged by the publishers as "how to thrive in an uncertain world". If you read deeply enough, you can infer from the Professor's analysis that the best way is to be as mean, scheming, thieving, conniving, heartless, unscrupulous and generally dishonest as the next man, and - like his (presumably fictitious) favoured character, the very rich, Fat Tony, whom in this book he kills off - to take maximumum advantage of fools. But he doesn't suggest how to eliminate the human frailties which cause the wrongs he exposes (apart from killing off fragilistas).
The Taleb-worshippers will buy, if only for the gleeful, dinner-table iconoclasm, as will anyone who enjoys a good rant, or who hasn't previously given much thought to the points he makes at such excruciating length (or who simply wants to pretend to be a thinker).
Finally as an aside, I don't think the publishers have done their author any favours by quoting on the cover his lofty rejection of "prizes, honorary degrees, awards and ceremonialism". Some MIGHT infer that this contained just a tiny element of - possibly pre-emptive - sour grapes (not me, of course). Although I notice he sensibly doesn't include "Distinguished Professorships" amongst his rejected honours. Well, even thinkers have to eat...
on 13 January 2015
I read this book a long time ago and I felt compelled to write a review as I am surprised how many people fail to realize how valuable it is. The book provides a philosophy of life, it goes well beyond being "interesting". For potential readers my advice is to focus on the idea and try to think on how you can apply it to aspects of your life as you read along, whether personal or work. Some people criticize his writing style but I fail to understand how this is any relevant. The ideas in this book are so intuitive that you wonder why you didn't realize this before or at least read about it a long time ago. Again some people say this is not new but again, who cares? Read it many times, it gets better every time and it will also lead you to other authors that are just as fantastic.
on 12 May 2013
I found Black Swan a bit patchy and heavy going and although this is a dense, complex book, I found it on the whole more tangible and satisfying.
The ideas come thick and fast and are all thought-provoking. It may be aloof and rambling a bit at times, but that is Taleb's style and I don't think he, of all people, is ever going to change that anytime soon.
The premise he works through is post-modern and intriguing but I must admit for this reader, not entirely convincing- that for eample through embracing chaos you can resolve your life activity to some form of more effective 'order'- but it is well argued and presented in a lively, never faltering fashion. So a good, and perhaps superior, companion to Black Swan.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 14 June 2013
A thought provoking third book from the author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. The central idea is that of antifragility which Taleb defines as more than merely robust, in the sense that stress will strengthen an antifragile system. Think of the mythical Hydra which grew two heads for each head that Hercules could sever. Unfortunately, the book could do with some pruning itself and is too long to sustain the basic premise, whilst spinning off into increasingly tangential anecdotes and stories. Shorter may not be more antifragile but would certainly be better.