Saturday, December 29, 2012

Antifragile -- A New Book By N. N. Taleb

I have just started the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb: Antifragile.  Taleb is the author of the enormously influential book The Black Swan, the ideas from his book in 2007 changed many investment ideas radically on Wall Street.  I enjoyed The Black Swan, and can confidently recommend it to all readers who have an interest in money or in unusual events and even probability...

Taleb is an example of a polymath, someone who is competent to write on a broad range of subjects.  We are very fortunate to have him writing books for us...

This book, like the last one, is written for an "educated but not technical" audience.  Almost anyone can read this and gain great understanding albeit with some perseverance.  I anticipate writing a series of articles here on various of his ideas, I am not sure if I will put up a "Book Review".  My aim here is explore various of his ideas that I find interesting as I plow my way through his book.

I also hope that many of you readers will offer up comments, especially those of you who read the book, and I anticipate that various of you will!


Today, I would like to examine his concept of "antifragile".  Taleb wrote that he had to coin this term as there is no word for it in English (nor in many other languages, he checked).  The term "fragile" he uses just as most of us would, anything that fragile can be broken easily.  Fragile things do NOT like errors, uncertainties, rough handling, changes...  Taleb explores what other people have thought would be the OPPOSITE of fragile, these others (I imagine some would have been friends or other contacts of his while he was working on the ideas he would be writing about) used terms like the below as the opposite of "fragile":


and other synonyms.  But, Taleb writes that the above words and similar are NOT the opposite of fragile.  Robust, strong and resilient things (systems, people, etc.) do not break when handled roughly.  But, fragile things BREAK or get weaker.  Taleb is interested in things that get STRONGER under certain kinds of stress, so he coined the term "Antifragile" as the logical opposite of fragile.

He goes on to paint a picture along a spectrum of fragility-to-resilience-to-antifragile, that LOTS of things fall somewhere along this general line (idea):

----  Fragile  ------------  Resilient  ------------  Antifragile ----

Antifragile things get stronger as they get banged around (within limits).  A quick example would be the human body's response to mild arsenic poisoning.  In earlier times (in Europe) killing people by poisoning them with arsenic was fairly common.  Poisoners soon learned, however, that they themselves could take small doses of arsenic, and build up something of an immunity to it.  This would allow them to drink from the same poisoned chalice, just as much arsenic in the wine, as the victim, the victim would die, but the poisoner would not.  In many respects the human body is antifragile, it responds well to many kinds of stress (exercise and fasting are but two well known examples.


Taleb likes to take his time to make his points, and does not hesitate to explain things in detail and by illustrations and examples.  Here are some examples (pp 23 - 27):

Plato, Aritotle
Early Stoics, Popper
Roman Stoics, Nietsche
Oral Tradition
Venture Capital
Public Debt
Prvt Debt, no bailout
Small, specialized
Small, unspecialized
Soccer Mom
Street Life
Street Fights & Parental Library

OK, he uses terms that may not be clear without his explanantions ("Soccer Mom" education is where the parents tightly control their kids risk exposure, etc.), but you can get a feel for his ideas.  Re his ideas on Finance (purple colored one in the table), he is illustrating his concept that in Silicon Valley (Venture Capital) it is OK to fail!  It happens all the time out there, people LEARN from their mistakes...


Taleb tells of his own experiences in his own program to make himself more antifragile.  Eliminate sugar!  He likes hard workouts (the MAXIMUM weight he can bench-press, one lift, for example), say, a couple of times a week rather than the treadmill or the jogging track 5 times a week...  He is comfortable eating vegetables one day, and a big steak the next.  Medicine is learning some of this, ELIMINATING things (anti-depressants and other pills typically help MORE than adding a new pill to the regimin).

He is "eating his own dogfood" (Larry Ellison), he has "skin in the game."


As I have only started the book, I only scratched the surface with my comments above.  His book is laden with many ideas, I hope to journey with many of you to explore what is likely to be great new virgin territory in understanding much around us.  I hope you will join me (and BUY his book!).

1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I work for Al Jazeera English’s social media based talk show The Stream and this Thursday, Jan 03, 2013, I have invited Nassim Taleb to be on our program. We usually bring in a variety of folks in our Google Hangout to ask questions/comment on the discussion with our guest.

    The show goes live at 2:30 pm EST and we would love to have you participate in the Google Hangout. Please let me know if you would be available. All you need is a good internet connection and a webcam. The conversation will be about his new book Anti-Fragile.


    Zuleqa Husain
    Al Jazeera English | The Stream
    Washington DC - GMT -4
    desk: +1 (202) 496-5794


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