…exposure is more important than knowledge…
Taleb notes that some creatures and systems benefit from variation/stress. For example, when humans stress their muscles, they become stronger. After every commercial airline accident, there is a thorough investigation and changes made industry-wide. As a result, the system as a whole becomes safer.
Fragile items or systems are only weakened by stress and variation. Because they gain from harm/stress (the muscles become stronger, commercial flights are ever safer), they are anti-fragile.
Prediction is difficult, especially for rare events (those in the tail of a probability distribution). Instead of trying to predict what will happen, it’s more useful for us to think about whether an item or system is fragile or antifragile.
If a company/system is fragile, we can recognize the danger it poses without the need to accurately forecast the particular event that will cause us to be harmed.
If an organization/system/item is antifragile, we can recognize the potential for big growth following an extreme event without having to predict the particular event that will cause us to benefit.
There is also an ethical component to the discussion; some organizations/groups knowingly put themselves into antifragile positions at the expense of others.
I first read Antifragile in 2013 and was inspired to reread it due to the release of Taleb’s new book Skin in the Game (which I haven’t read). It was worthwhile to revisit. The core concept of thinking about best and worst outcomes, instead of about the probability of certain harmful or beneficial events is interesting, as are his discussions of the manifestations and implications of the concept.
Many concepts from history/philosophy/business and daily life are woven into the narrative, so it remains interesting.
Ideas per Page:1 There’s really just one idea, but it’s manifestations and implications are quite far reaching, so there is new thought provoked frequently. Maybe 7/10 (higher)
Related Books: I feel like The Clock of the Long Now is somehow related, but I can’t say why. The other Taleb books of course.
Recommend to Others: yes, but maybe some people would just find it a chore to read
Reread Personally: maybe read Skin in the Game first
Note: the kindle did not provide page numbers for these quotes
the odds of rare events are simply not computable. We know a lot less about hundred-year floods than five-year floods—model error swells when it comes to small probabilities.
Instead of a discussion of risk (which is both predictive and sissy) I advocate the notion of fragility, which is not predictive—and,
If the subject is not interesting enough for me to look it up independently, for my own curiosity or purposes, and I have not done so before, then I should not be writing about it at all, period.
the potent notion of the apophatic (what cannot be explicitly said, or directly described, in our current vocabulary);
Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks.
They take the worst historical recession, the worst war, the worst historical move in interest rates, or the worst point in unemployment as an exact estimate for the worst future outcome. But they never notice the following inconsistency: this so-called worst-case event, when it happened, exceeded the worst case at the time.
He was into the “maximum lifts” type of training and swore by it, as he found it the most effective and least time-consuming. This method consisted of short episodes in the gym in which one focused solely on improving one’s past maximum in a single lift, the heaviest weight one could haul, sort of the high-water mark.
In the complex world, the notion of “cause” itself is suspect; it is either nearly impossible to detect or not really defined—another
The fragility of every startup is necessary for the economy to be antifragile,
So, in a way, while hormesis corresponds to situations by which the individual organism benefits from direct harm to itself, evolution occurs when harm makes the individual organism perish and the benefits are transferred to others, the surviving ones, and future generations.
People have difficulty realizing that the solution is building a system in which nobody’s fall can drag others down—for continuous failures work to preserve the system. Paradoxically, many government interventions and social policies end up hurting the weak and consolidating the established.
—I detest the ruthlessness of selection, the inexorable disloyalty of Mother Nature. I detest the notion of improvement thanks to harm to others. As a humanist, I stand against the antifragility of systems at the expense of individuals, for if you follow the reasoning, this makes us humans individually irrelevant.
Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbor a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to be fit.
We can also see from the turkey story the mother of all harmful mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence,
We seek vaccination at every new school year (injecting ourselves with a bit of harm to build immunity) but fail to transfer the mechanism to political and economic domains.
(half noise, half signal)—this means that about half the changes are real improvements or degradations, the other half come from randomness. This ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95 percent noise, 5 percent signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and market price variations do, the split becomes 99.5 percent noise to 0.5 percent signal.
Not seeing a tsunami or an economic event coming is excusable; building something fragile to them is not.
Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it—books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.
for eight years, been self-employed. But, before that, for my last job, I wrote my resignation letter before starting the new position, locked it up in a drawer, and felt free while I was there.
If you put 90 percent of your funds in boring cash (assuming you are protected from inflation) or something called a “numeraire repository of value,” and 10 percent in very risky, maximally risky, securities, you cannot possibly lose more than 10 percent, while you are exposed to massive upside.
The error of thinking you know exactly where you are going and assuming that you know today what your preferences will be tomorrow has an associated one. It is the illusion of thinking that others, too, know where they are going, and that they would tell you what they want if you just asked them.
By definition luck cannot be exploited;
Clearly, we never think that it is thanks to ornithologists that birds learn to fly—and if some people do hold such a belief, it would be hard for them to convince the birds.
Further, Alison Wolf debunks the flaw in logic in going from the point that it is hard to imagine Microsoft or British Aerospace without advanced knowledge to the idea that more education means more wealth.
Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations—what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology.
Terence Kealey’s debunking of the so-called linear model and that he was a practicing scientist.
An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality. The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation)
So I went to the bookstore and ordered (there was no Web at the time) almost every book with “probability” or “stochastic” in its title. I read nothing else for a couple of years, no course material, no newspaper, no literature, nothing. I read them in bed, jumping from one book to the next when stuck with something I did not get immediately or felt ever so slightly bored. And I kept ordering those books. I was hungry to go deeper into the problem of small probabilities. It was effortless. That was my best investment—risk turned out to be the topic I know the best. Five years later I was set for life and now I am making a research career out of various aspects of small probability events. Had I studied the subject by prepackaged means, I would be now brainwashed into thinking that uncertainty was something to be found in a casino, that kind of thing.
Friedrich Hayek would be in that antifragile, antirationalist category. He is the twentieth-century philosopher and economist who opposed social planning on the grounds that the pricing system reveals through transactions the knowledge embedded in society, knowledge not accessible to a social planner.
There are many things without words, matters that we know and can act on but cannot describe directly, cannot capture in human language or within the narrow human concepts that are available to us. Almost anything around us of significance is hard to grasp linguistically—and in fact the more powerful, the more incomplete our linguistic grasp.
since one small observation can disprove a statement, while millions can hardly confirm it, disconfirmation is more rigorous than confirmation.
Jon Elster goes further; he recently wrote a book with the telling title Preventing Mischief
if you have more than one reason to do something (choose a doctor or veterinarian, hire a gardener or an employee, marry a person, go on a trip), just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something.
Franco-Russian poetess Elsa Triolet (“time burns but leaves no ashes”).
How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand
Now we can see the pattern: iatrogenics, being a cost-benefit situation, usually results from the treacherous condition in which the benefits are small, and visible—and the costs very large, delayed, and hidden. And of course, the potential costs are much worse than the cumulative gains.
Take for instance the following statement, entirely evidence-based: if you build muscle, you can eat more without getting more fat deposits in your belly and can gorge on lamb chops without having to buy a new belt. Now in the past the theory to rationalize it was “Your metabolism is higher because muscles burn calories.” Currently I tend to hear “You become more insulin-sensitive and store less fat.” Insulin, shminsulin; metabolism, shmetabolism: another theory will emerge in the future and some other substance will come about, but the exact same effect will continue to prevail.
So it is a serious error to infer that if we live longer because of medicine, that all medical treatments make us live longer.
in a large set of circumstances (marginal disease), anything that takes you away from the doctor and allows you to do nothing (hence gives nature a chance to do its work) will be beneficial. So going to church (or the temple of Apollo) for mild cases—say, those devoid of trauma, like a mild discomfort, not injuries from a car accident, those situations in which the risk of iatrogenics exceeds the benefit of cure, to repeat it again, the cases with negative convexity—will certainly help.
For heroism is the exact inverse of the agency problem: someone elects to bear the disadvantage (risks his own life, or harm to himself, or, in milder forms, accepts to deprive himself of some benefits) for the sake of others.
postdictors, who explain things after the fact—because they are in the business of talking—always look smarter than predictors.
In sum, corporations are so fragile, long-term, that they eventually collapse under the weight of the agency problem, while managers milk them for bonuses and ditch the bones to taxpayers. They would collapse sooner if not for the lobby machines: they start hijacking the state to help them inject sugary drinks into your esophagus.
A simple solution, but quite drastic: anyone who goes into public service should not be allowed to subsequently earn more from any commercial activity than the income of the highest paid civil servant. It is like a voluntary cap (it would prevent people from using public office as a credential-building temporary accommodation, then going to Wall Street to earn several million dollars). This would get priestly people into office.
First, the more complicated the regulation, the more prone to arbitrages by insiders.
Let me first define a fraudulent opinion. It is simply one with vested interests generalized to the public good—in which, say a hairdresser recommends haircuts “for the health of people,” or a gun lobbyist claims gun ownership is “good for America,” simply making statements that benefit him personally, while the statements are dressed up to look as if they were made for the benefit of the collective.
Everything in religious law comes down to the refinements, applications, and interpretations of the Golden Rule, “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do to you.” This we saw was the logic behind Hammurabi’s rule. And the Golden Rule was a true distillation, not a Procrustean bed. A central argument is never a summary—it is more like a generator.
Rational flâneur (or just flâneur): Someone who, unlike a tourist, makes a decision opportunistically at every step to revise his schedule (or his destination) so he can imbibe things based on new information obtained. In research and entrepreneurship, being a flâneur is called “looking for optionality.” A non-narrative approach to life.
Thalesian versus Aristotelian: The Thalesian focuses on exposure, payoff from decision; the Aristotelian focuses on logic, the True-False distinction. For Fat Tony, the problem is all about sucker-nonsucker, or risks and rewards.
Subtractive Knowledge: You know what is wrong with more certainty than you know anything else. An application of via negativa.
Orlov: Orlov (2011). Naive interventionism in development: Easterly (2006) reports a green lumber problem: “The fallacy is to assume that because I have studied and lived in a society that somehow wound up with prosperity and peace, I know enough to plan for other societies to have prosperity and peace. As my friend April once said, this is like thinking the racehorses can be put in charge of building the racetracks.” Also luck in development, Easterly et al. (1993), Easterly and Levine (2003), Easterly (2001).
An excellent understanding of probability linked to skepticism: Franklin (2001). Few other philosophers go back to the real problem of probability.
1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.