Saturday, January 5, 2013

Antifragile: Exploring Some Of Taleb's Ideas

This article is the second part of a series in which I will explore some of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about in his important new book Antifragile.

Again, these are interpretations are mine, I sometimes use his words, sometimes mine to explore a point.

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One idea he explores is one that many of us have run into before, at least obliquely, namely that as any system (person, country, company) gets stronger, something within that system becomes weaker or dies.

There are two levels that Taleb looks at here.  Let me begin this by describing a source of his own ideas: mathematician Benoit Mandelbroit.  Mandelbrot found self-similarity in scale when looking at many complex systems, that is, seeing similar patterns at the micro and the macro.  Mandelbrot's most famous legacy is the Mandelbrot Set (a really nice article is here at wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mandelbrot_set).  There are a LOT of videos at YouTube (here's one, I picked this one kind of arbitrarily, because it had over 1,000,000 views: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G_GBwuYuOOs).

Taleb also reminds us of the "selfish gene" (this idea is explained at more length by biologists Richard Dawkins and Robert Trivers), namely that out genetic makeup does not even care whether we as individuals are comfortable, live good lives, etc.  The Selfish Gene only cares about its own reproduction, and that earlier versions (our parents and grandparents) do not even care about individual offspring in later generations...

In other words: "The System" does not care about you, it only cares about itself.  If you wind up strengthening The System, you will likely carry on.  If you weaken the system (or are weak), The System will weaken or destroy you to allow more robust entities to carry out its work...

There are some exceptions: grandmothers helping families preparing the very young to become useful later on.  You see!  Grannies are a Good Thing!

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Taleb has an interesting take on mortality and immortality (Pages 67 and 68).Something (let's say a creature) that would be immortal would have to be robust enough to withstand all future random events.  RANDOMNESS is a separate topic that I may explore later, Taleb does so at great length in his earlier book Fooled by Randomness).  What he means is that NO ONE can predict what kinds of random acts will happen in the distant (or even less than distant) future.  An immortal man would have to be able to withstand the rigors of another big asteroid hitting the Earth and plunging it into cold and darkness for 100 years, or even to be able to withstand Al Gore's Global Warming...).

Taleb on evolution:

"In fact, the most interesting  aspect of evolution is that it only works because of its antifragility; it is in love with stressors, randomness, uncertainty, and disorder -- while individual organisms are relatively fragile, the gene pool takes advantage of shocks to enhance its fitness."

Or a gunshot wound.  Or being run over by a truck.  Immortality means living forever, which means that almost everything would likely happen.

Nature does not even TRY to make any being immortal.  Not even a species, nor even a family (in the Carl Linnaeus sense of the word -- a "family" is a group of fairly closely related species).  Nature provides the information necessary for living things to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions.  The trilobites and the dinosaurs dominated their environments, eons ago, yet exist no longer.

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I wrote above that Taleb was inspired by Benoit Mandelbrot.  He then describes a mechanism that we see all the time.  Taleb:

"...  There is a similar hierarchy of things, and we just see the top layers form the outside.  The cell has a population of intercellular molecules; in turn the organism has a population of cells, and the species has a population of organisms.  A strengthening mechanism for the species comes at the expense of organisms; in turn the organism strengthens at the expense of some cells, all the way down and all the way up as well."

So, you see?  The System does NOT care about you!

And yet, we learn from errors...  IF they if they do not put our system at risk.  Here are two dramatic examples (paraphrased):

1)  Every plane crash (horrific, typically hundreds of lives) means that the erors that caused each of these are carefully studied.  That is why flying is relatively safe.  We have a LOT of plane flights every day.  Each one is relatively independent of the other.  What is learned from the rare crash strengthens that systems (flying in planes).

2)  Globalized economic systems tend to operate as one however.  A big mistake, in Japan say (a country that some observers are monitoring very carefully...), could bring our banks down...  We just don't know.

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The restaurant BUSINESS is another example of scale and antifragility.  It is well known that starting a restaurant is a risky venture, there are so many clawing for the dollars of those who are hungry...  The restaurant BUSINESS is antifragile, because it is full of efficient restaurants themselves.  Any of you living in cities can see that easily enough, wherever there are one of your city's "playgrounds", there are plenty of restaurants, even if they change more often than you might like (and makes me wonder why there is no decent TexMex food in my own city).

The Restaurant System does NOT care about any single restaurant!

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In the coming days, I will be exploring more of Taleb's ideas.  Please join me!

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