Customer Review

101 of 125 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars POPULAR ICONOCLASTICISM, 22 Nov 2012
This review is from: Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder (Hardcover)
Customer review from the Amazon Vine Programme (What's this?)
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...
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Showing 11-14 of 14 posts in this discussion
Posted on 25 Dec 2012 23:29:16 GMT
gadfly says:
The reviewer is wrong:

'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.'

By definition an accident, or Black Swan event, in natural science would not be 'triggered' by research. But many developments do indeed seem to be Black Swan events. That is the point. As far as I can make out, Taleb does not believe this is a bad thing, though a 'fragilista' presumably would.

In reply to an earlier post on 27 Dec 2012 14:01:22 GMT
Apparently you haven't understood the book. In the original, historical meaning of the term, which goes back at least to Roman times, a Black Swan event was something that could never be - the equivalent, in a way, to saying "And pigs might fly". The discovery of the first Black Swans (in Australia) thus obviously rendered the phrase obsolete. So far, no-one has found a flying pig. Taleb resurrected the term to mean something entirely different - read the book to find out what, if you can bear it (or look it up on Wikipedia if you can't). You'll find it doesn't equate to accident.

Accidents arise in the course of discrete chains of events, and alter their course; so don't start the chain, and you won't trigger the accident. For example, don't start research into staphylococci, and you won't unknowingly create the conditions for the chance arrival of a spore of the penicillium mould into just a single one of your many neglected lab cultures during your annual holiday - the well-known accident, triggered solely by starting a research project in the natural sciences - which revealed penicillin.

The OED defines a Gadfly as "one who torments or worries another"; is that truly your principal aim in life, or have you misunderstood that definition as well ?

Posted on 6 Jan 2013 10:38:49 GMT
DannyMc says:
This review accurately reflects what I read in the sample of this book. I suspect that Taleb is not a great thinker; he seems too full of disdain of other thinkers. I don't think that I have come across poorer writing outside self-published works. Reading possibly too much into his character from his writing, I smile as I imagine his discussions with his editor.

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Mar 2014 11:52:41 GMT
Buyer Buddy says:
Infrangible means something different, anti fragile mean that something is breakable, but grows stronger under limited stress.
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