Friday, February 15, 2013

The Via Negativa, Less Is More!

Many of you know that I have been reading N. N. Taleb's new book Antifragile (I have actually finished except for the technical material I am still wading through in his Appendix).  In his new book, he discusses at some length a concept he calls the "via negativa", in which by giving up some things, you actually make your life better and fuller.

"Via negativa" does NOT mean living an evil life, just to make this clear at the outset...

This article will meander a bit, I ask for your patience as I will tie it all together in due course...

Before I jump into the main discussion today on his via negativa, I would like to quickly examine the interesting case of gold today (this will be relevant further into my discussion below).  This morning the price of gold has plunged, check out the chart:

As of 1:00 PM US ET, the price has come back $7.00 or so, but still a nice epic drop of over 2% in a matter of less than a handful of hours.  During the day, I will try to see if I can find out why, or you can just go check out Turd Ferguson's site (he is up to speed on daily trading in gold).  Here is Turd's update so far today, he does not state anything special or conspiratorial.

During the day it is of course possible that a "reason" for the big drop may make it into the news.


N. N. Taleb discusses via negativa, an idea that has been around in one form or another for thousands of years (and under other names).

Taleb earlier in his book discusses some old ideas (especially Stoicism, the Greek philosophical school of Zeno and Epictetus, Stoicism is also a big part of Tom Wolfe's book A Man in Full, see wikipedia reference on his book (the book is excellent)):

One of the characters (a young man in prison called Conrad Hensley) in his book discovers Stoicism.  Stoicism has been very influential in history, including in the early Church in Rome.  Stoicism is a "meme on the rise", so as a service to my readers I pass along two other links (to Stoicism and Greek philosophical schools):

[In an aside here for a moment, I have read that Old Ideas are typically better then New Ideas.  Many old ideas are still around (the Ten Commandments, from some 3400 years ago), Hip-Hop Music will be forgotten in 34 years...]

In the article on Stoicism article above, you will note that Stoics just are not unfeeling people sitting around indifferent to emotion...  Stoicism, overly briefly, asserts that happiness (peace) is more likely to be achieved by careful observation of the way Nature (God) works, and by choosing to live accordingly.  These philosophers in Ancient Greece had the time to THINK about things, there was less pressure to "be productive".  The term "cosmopolitan" (a person who identifies himself with the world rather than a nation or a city) comes from Ancient Greece...  IMO, it is NOT true that our species has evolved its basic thinking very much.


Taleb slowly brings his via negativa idea together...  Perhaps his clearest (and easiest to explain by a fringe blogger...) beginning is his Chapter 7 ("Naive Intervention") in which he shows how dangerous it is going to the doctor.  Many treatments over the millennia by doctors have caused more harm than good (he notes how George Washington may have had a premature death (Page 111) because of medical ideas in his era).  "Going to the doctor" of course has had legions of critics throughout the ages (including my father-in-law Eleodoro Perez, age 91, who believes most of them are quacks...).

Bad results from medical treatments are often a naivete.  They are typically unexpected.  Taleb writes of the fate of Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis (he helped to make washing hands by doctors popular, see:, who noted that more women died of giving birth in hospitals than giving birth in the street.

The word Taleb introduces is "iatrogenics", causing harm while trying to help.  How do you avoid a iatrogenic fate?  By not going to the doctor unless you HAVE TO (emergencies).  Here is Taleb's first big hint at the via negativa, getting more from life by doing something less...  Taleb has a table showing examples of (naive) interventionism and the iatrogenic costs, here is one of my favorites (consultants giving business advice, Page 115):

Positive advice
Richer charlatans
Focus on return vs risks
Bankrupt businesses

In the same Chapter 7, he goes on to point out some of the virtues of procrastination (my wife will not be happy reading this...) -- in at least some cases -- in that the Ancient Romans revered procrastination, one of their favorite generals (Fabius Maximus, who ultimately went on to help defeat Hannibal the Carthaginian) was nicknamed "The Procrastinator" ("Cunctator", sure hope I typed that one correctly...) in that he drove Hannibal crazy in avoiding and delaying engagement in battle (Hannibal had military superiority).

Here is a paragraph from Antifragile, in which he has his own heuristic ("rule of thumb"), where he writes on avoiding problems...:

"I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice, exploiting our gullibility and sucker-proneness for recipes that hit you in a flash as just obvious, then evaporate later as you forget them.  Just look at the "how to" books with, in their title, "Ten Steps for--" (fill in: enrichment, weight loss, making friends, innovation, getting elected, building muscles, finding a husband, running an orphanage, etc.).  Yet in practice it is the negative that's used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning about life is about what to avoid.  You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures."

So much wisdom above!  Re-read it...

Taleb discusses (elsewhere) that he is REDUCING things in his life, he eliminated sugar from his diet, he stays away from highly-educated fools, etc.

The various ideas associated with via negativa are ancient, it is one of the central tenets of the skeptical-empirical school of medicine of the postclassical era in the Eastern Mediterranean, and has been explored by Karl Popper (The Poverty of Historicism), Jon Elster (Preventing Mischief) and even Steve Jobs (musing on innovation, underlining mine):

"...  It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that are there.  You have to pick carefully.  I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done.  Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things."

Taleb then spells it out, "Less is more" (Page 306):

"Less is more has proved to be shockingly easy to find and apply -- and "robust" to mistakes and change of minds.  There may not be am easily identifiable cause for a large share of the problems, but often there is an easy solution (not to all problems, but good enough; I mean really good enough), and such a solution is immediately identifiable, sometimes with the naked eye rather than the use of complicated analyses and highly fragile, error-prone, cause-ferreting nerdiness."

Taleb then goes on to buttress the above by observing the famous "80/20 Rule" (actually tending nowadays to becoming more skewed to 95/5 or even 99/1 (the 1% taking almost all the benefits vs. the 99%...).


Now please permit me to tie some of the above threads together.  In my own life I am engaged in a little bit of via negativa to help me achieve some peace, a better life, a life better integrated with the Universe...  Only a handful of you readers know "WTF" I am writing about here (although some others of you may have some idea).

For example, I recently engaged in a small series of actions that are shameful and wrong (that I will not go into here).  I am now trying to AVOID these kinds of wrongs now, and have embarked on a new direction to help guide me.  But, in trying to "right the ship" (which I used to only nominally do, if at all), I have taken a step or two that will help get me into a better psychological state.  One of these steps is a Buyer's Strike.  For a while, and for my own personal reasons, I have decided NOT to buy a few things that I have been somewhat compulsively been a buyer of in recent times (gold and ammo for example).

And my own excursion into the via negativa is why I am not buying gold hand-over-fist like I would normally do...  I also have embraced another facet or two of via negativa to improve my life (eliminating things to make life more whole).  Believe me, there is treasure to be found here...

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