BOOK REVIEW: Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderAntifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb has a gift for uncovering simple and fascinating topics that have remained buried–not because they are unfathomable, but–because of the institutional blinders and group-think present in academia (at least within the social sciences.) I don’t mean to diminish what Dr. Taleb does by saying these are simple ideas, it takes a great intellect to not only recognize the ideas others have missed but to clarify them for a broad audience and to unravel the challenging ideas that must be made clear as one moves beyond the crux of the idea. Furthermore, it takes a bold writer to push these ideas out into the open against brute institutional antagonism. (If Taleb hadn’t written books that were highly readable and that presented the ideas in a manner readily digested by a broad audience, he’d likely still be being completely ignored by academicians.)

By “simple” I mean ideas that can be captured in a single sentence—often a pithy one at that. In his second book (his first work for popular audiences), Fooled by Randomness, the idea was that randomness is more pervasive than most people imagine and that false explanations are often built for chance occurrences. Black Swan told us that statistical forecasting fails catastrophically when one has “800 pound gorillas” in the data set (e.g. if one is comparing countries—a situation in which one will virtually always be in, as Taleb calls it, “Extremistan.”) The book in question, Antifragile, is built around the notion that some entities get stronger when subjected to stressors and disorder.

One can see many “antifragile” elements in one’s own body. A muscle subjected to exercise often gets tiny tears in fibers, but when the body does its repair work those fibers will be stronger than ever before. Wolff’s Law tells us that bones subjected to an increased load will increase their density. In fact, our bodies are testaments to the concept of antifragility on many levels. For this reason, Taleb uses many examples from the field of medicine—in addition to those from disciplines more closely related to his own, e.g. finance, economics, and risk. A lot of the medical discussion deals with the proclivity of Western medicine towards interventionism (in contrast to the “first, do no harm” motto often heard.) An example with which many people are familiar is that of the over prescription of antibiotics. While there are obviously cases for which antibiotics are necessary and beneficial, prescribing them willy-nilly robs the body of antifragility (i.e. if the body defeats the infection itself, it has inborn resistance.)

As with other of Dr. Taleb’s writings, I found Antifragile to be interesting as well as informative. The author does a good job of providing examples to elucidate and bolster his arguments and puts it all together in a readable package. He also does a great job of pulling examples and discussions from a number of different fields. This book doesn’t read like it’s about an Economics or Business subfield as much as it’s a book that can teach you something applicable to whatever your field might be. The book also covers a number of other critical but related ideas, such as the value of heuristics in decision-making, how antifragility can be increased (and fragility reduced), and the ethical issues involved.

My primary criticism is that the book overdoes the jabs at scholars and economists. I can understand where Taleb might have some pent-up rage against many academics. He has certainly had to weather a lot of equally petty assaults from the academics who loath him. The work of many a social scientist and economist looks pretty silly to those who grasp the concepts Taleb is presenting. Still, we got it. Halfway through the book, one wonders why Taleb is still so vigorously and maniacally whipping such a skeletal horse. While it’s hard to imagine anyone less strong-willed than Dr. Taleb could get these messages out in the face of the institutionalized opposition he faced, the flip side is that he will probably strike you as a pretentious jackass on occasion.

The book is organized into seven sections (each of multiple chapters.) It begins by describing antifragility and then proceeds through relevant concepts like optionality, nonlinearity, via negativa, and ethics. The book has handy appendices for those who prefer graphic or mathematical representations. (Like all popular science / social science works, there’s an attempt to keep the overly technical and visually intimidating material out of the body of the work.) There is also a works cited section.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in wonky type books.

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READING REPORT: February 27, 2015

I finished three books this week.

Antifragility

The first of these is Antifragile, the latest offering by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, whom you may know from Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness fame. While it’s his latest book, it came out a couple of years ago and I started it over a year ago.  The premise is that some entities become stronger when exposed to stressors and disorder,  and there are ways to nurture this tendency to be antifragile. While the ideas and many of the examples are fascinating, I put it down for a long time because Taleb is prone to rambling diatribes. After about the 1oooth time reading about how much he loathes the 98% of professors (we get it already), you may be ready to set it down as well.  [To be fair, Taleb probably gets a hundred death threats a year from enraged social science scholars whose life’s work will appear ridiculous to anyone who understands the gist of Taleb’s arguments in this and his preceding two books.] Taleb is a first-rate thinker who has delivered some very important messages about the misapplication of statistics, I’m not sure why he feels compelled go all Howard Stern about it–though it does probably sell a few extra copies and I suspect he is genuinely that way.

 

 

pyjamagameMark Law’s The Pyjama Game is in part a micro-history of the martial art and sport of judō, and in part is an accounting of his own experiences in taking up judō at the ripe age of 50. For me the history and evolution of judō is where the book is at its most interesting. However, if you don’t have any martial arts experience–or even if you don’t have any grappling-centric training experience–you may find Law’s discussion of testing and randori (free form training, the grappling equivalent to sparring) intriguing, or invaluable if you’re considering taking up judō, jujutsu, or sambo.

 

mantraSherlockHolmesThere is apparently a cottage industry of writers putting out their own Sherlock Holmes novels, and–in particular–writing about Holmes’s gap years. For those unfamiliar with the literary history of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, at one point he got sick of writing these crime fiction novels and killed off Sherlock Holmes. However, there was such a clambering for the master detective that Doyle resuscitated Holmes. These gap years in which Holmes was believed dead have proven fertile soil for writers who wish to write their own spin on where Holmes went and what he did when he was traveling incognito. I saw a press post for a new one the other day in which Holmes goes to Japan. The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, however, speculates that Holmes traveled to Bombay, and from there to Tibet and eventually to Shangri La. It’s an intriguing premise and offers some good travelogue type description of setting–however as a story it’s not as artfully executed as the Arthur Conan Doyle books.

 

I bought four books this week, two of which–in part–because they’ll help me complete the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge, which I will talk about below.

 

Dinosaurs_wo_Bones

Admittedly, I bought this book, Dinosaurs Without Bones,  not because the subject jumped out at me (though I’m sure it will prove thrilling) but rather because I knew the author about a billion years ago (I know; I should take geological time more seriously when mentioning a book of this subject.) At any rate, we trained at the same martial arts school in Atlanta, Georgia. That disclaimer being made, the topic looks fascinating and I’m eager to learn more about paleontological detective work.

 

GoldfinchThe Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and so it meets an unchecked requirement for the Book Riot Challenge (recent award winner of one of the major literary prizes.) Honestly, if it weren’t for my desire to complete the challenge, I might have read Tartt’s The Secret History first. The latter books seems a little more up my alley, but I”m eager to see what this critically acclaimed novel has to offer. If it’s engaging, I’ll go back and pick up her first novel.

 

AMillionShadesofGray

No A Million Shades of Gray isn’t a mommy porn book 20,000 times more intense than E.L. James’ book. On the contrary, it’s an intriguing YA book about a teenage elephant handler who escapes into the jungle with his elephant to escape war-torn Vietnam. This book will hit on an unchecked category on the Book Riot Challenge (i.e. YA book)

 

Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a book that I intended to read long before the movie came out, but still haven’t gotten around to it. It was cheap on Kindle, and so I picked it up. I’ve seen the movie, so it’ll be interesting to compare, given how visual the movie was.

 

I’m almost halfway through the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. The 19 books I’ve completed thus far this year include books in 11 of the 24 categories, including:

 

3.) Short story collection or anthology: a.) 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense, and b.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream

 

6.) By someone of another gender: a.) Tears in Rain, and b.) Principles of Tibetan Medicine

 

7.) Takes place in Asia: a.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel, and b.) The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes

 

10.) A micro-history: Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Postural Practice

 

12.) A science fiction novel: a.) Tears in Rain, b.) The Martian

 

17.) A collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

 

18.) A book that was recommended: Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

 

19.) A book originally published in another language: a.) Tears in Rain (Spanish), b.) Quarantine in the Grand Hotel (Hungarian)

 

20.) A graphic novel or comic book collection: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (Vol. 1)

 

23.) A book published in 2014: The Martian

 

24.) A self-improvement / self-help book: Zen Mind, Strong Body

 

READING REPORT: January 30, 2015

Welcome to my second weekly dispatch on what I’ve been reading. Owing to my weird approach to reading, I tend to finish books in clusters, and this week I polished off the novel The Martian, the horror short story anthology 999, and three nonfiction books (Principles of Tibetan Medicine, The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga,  and How Pleasure Works.) The only one of these that I’ve completed a review on is Principles of Tibetan Medicine, but reviews of the others will be in the works in the upcoming week(s.)


The star of my completed pile was Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s a spectacular science fiction read that’s engaging from beginning to end. Readers who love science will find it particularly fascinating and well-researched. For the yogis and yoginis out there, Ray Long’s book on muscles as applied to Hatha Yoga is well-organized, easy to follow, and easy to use.

 

The completion of several books this week creates openings in what fiction and poetry I’ll be reading on Kindle in the coming weeks. Drum-roll please… I will be starting the following books this week:


MoYan_LDWMO

1.) Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan: Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature back in 2012, and this 2006 book is about a benevolent land owner who is killed on orders by Mao Zedong, and is subsequently reincarnated as a series of farm animals.


 

IHaveNoMouth

2.) I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison: The title of this collection of short stories is also the title of the most prominent piece in it. The 1968 Hugo winning story is a post-apocalyptic tale of artificial intelligence run amok.


 

Aeneid

3.) The Aeneid of Virgil: I’m overdue to read this epic poem by the famous Latin poet written during the first century B.C.


 

In nonfiction, I made an impulse purchase this week that I’m about half way through reading. It’s called Zen Mind, Strong Body and it’s by Al Kavadlo. I’m having minor buyer’s remorse, not because it’s a bad book, but because it turns out to be a collection of blog posts, and so I could have probably gotten all this for free by digging around the world wide web a little. (Moral: always read the fine print on the dust jacket. I wouldn’t mind, but it was a bit pricey for rehashed blog posts.) Kavadlo is a personal trainer and advocated of calisthenics and advanced bodyweight exercises, and he has many interesting ideas on both mind and body. It has provided some interesting food for thought, but I don’t really need the hundreds of pictures of the author with his shirt off.

ZenMindStrongBody



 

I’m about halfway through Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book, Antifragile, and would like to make some headway on that in the upcoming week. While I’m a fan of Taleb’s work, I’ve gotten bogged down in this one because it keeps going and going and going on about a rather simple concept–i.e. that some things become stronger or more robust when exposed to stressors. I’m not sure the book needed to be this long. I suspect that Taleb is the kind to throw a world class tantrum if an editor took a hatchet to a word of his writing–and now he has the following to make it work. He’s a smart guy and raises many excellent points, but he seems like a major prima donna. At any rate, maybe he’ll surprise me in the second half with something novel and interesting–in lieu of endless restatement of his (admittedly fascinating) thesis.

Antifragility



 

I also started a book a few weeks back called Zen and the Brain by James H. Austin that I’d like to get back to. It examines what science has to say about the practice of meditation from the perspective of a neuroscientist who’s also a Zen practitioner.

Zen&Brain



 

At the end of last year, I did a post about the Book Riot 2015 Read Harder Challenge. It’s a sort of scavenger hunt for readers. There are 25 categories of books, of which one is supposed to read at least one book each. If you can count the same book for several categories (I don’t see why not as long as they fit the description) then I have so far covered seven categories. (Not bad for the first month of the challenge.)

-Collection of short stories: 999: New Stories of Horror and Suspense

Author of a different gender: Tears in Rain (Rosa Montero) and Principles of Tibetan Medicine (Tamdin Rither Bradley) [Both females]

Science-fiction novel: The Martian

Collection of poetry: Leaves of Grass

A book recommended for you by someone else: The Key Muscles of Hatha Yoga

-A book originally published in another language: Tears in Rain  (Spanish)

A book published in 2014: The Martian (Some might dispute this as it was self-published in 2011, but not picked up by a publisher until 2014.)

Antifragility and First World Diseases

Antifragility

TheWildLifeofOurBodiesI was sitting at an outdoor cafe as I thought about how to write this post. I’d just finished reading chapter 5 of the Rob Dunn book entitled The Wild Life of Our Bodiesand was reflecting upon how interesting it was to be reading two books whose central premise–in broad brush strokes–was the same. As I was ruminating, a family of four–a couple and their two daughters, an infant and a preschooler/kindergartener–came and sat down at an adjacent table.

For a while the preternaturally-cute infant crawled around on the table top, but as the mother became concerned that the wriggly little child might fall or spill scalding coffee, she eventually set the child down. The child proceeded to crawl around on the ground–ground on which one could easily imagine pigeons trolling for crumbs. [Full-disclosure: I didn’t actually see any pigeons, or even any noticeable filth on the ground for that matter, and–while this is India–it was a major coffee chain attached to the side of a popular up-scale shopping mall, and so that particular ground was probably at least hosed down daily.] The child crawled on all-fours, except that she had the plastic number placard which told the waitress where to bring the order in one of her hands, and she would alternate between dragging it across the ground and–when she got tired of crawling–she would roll onto her rump and pop a corner of the placard into her mouth.

If reading the preceding scene made you a bit queasy, you should be reading one [or both] of books mentioned above. Doing so gave me a totally different perspective on this event. There was a point when I–like many–would have assumed the little girl would get some sort of ailment and that her parents would pay in lost sleep for letting the kid crawl on the ground in an urban public space, but I’m now more inclined to think that probably nothing will happen, and she could–theoretically–end up better off for the wear. I’m not advocating wallowing in filth, but I have come to see biological stressors in a new light. I wouldn’t go so far as to advocate letting a child crawl around sticking things in his or her mouth that have been on the ground at a cafe, but it would no longer surprise me to hear that this child lived a healthier life than children of germophobic (properly “mysophobic”) first-world moms who are about one cookie-off-the-kitchen-floor from forcing their children to live in a bubble.

The reader may be wondering two things: 1.) how these books could mitigate one’s queasiness, and 2.) what the books even have in common. If  you’re familiar with Nassim Nicholas Taleb, it’s likely you associate him with criticisms of the misuse of statistical methods, and the failure to understand under what conditions the usefulness of these methods break down. While Taleb does consider a wide range of examples in his popular books Black Swan,  Fooled by Randomness, and–most recently and most relevantly–Antifragilethe world of business is where Taleb’s background lies and where much of his discussion is centered. The Dunn book, one the other hand, fits squarely in the domain of biology and medicine.

Both of these books take as their core idea that there are systems that must face constant and occasionally serious challenges to grow stronger, and that the removal of these challenges can have adverse and sometimes dire consequences. Taleb looks at such systems in a broad and general sense, and coins a term, “antifragile”, to describe such systems. A system is antifragile if it gets stronger (i.e. in some way better) when subjected to stresses. This shouldn’t be confused with robustness, which is being indifferent to stressors. Robust systems can take or leave stressors, but antifragile systems need them or they become weakened. Dunn’s book deals with a specific example of an antifragile system, our guts. The biologist suggests that our war on parasites and germs has created a whole raft of problems never before seen. It’s probably not a new idea to most readers, as there are ongoing arguments about the risks of our antibacterial frenzy.

While first-world dwellers tend to take a superior view of those poor third-worlders and their myriad ailments–a number of which have been stamped out in the developed world–Westerners may not even be aware that there are a number of ailments that exist almost exclusively in the first world. Increasing evidence is developing that certain forms of diabetes and allergies are linked to “clean living.”  Interestingly, while one might readily imagine how a digestive tract ailment like Crohn’s Disease is tied to insufficiently populated digestive ecosystem, there’s reason to believe that diverse issues such as autism and anxiety disorders may also be linked to loss of internal predators and the imbalances their loss causes.

It’s not entirely a coincidence that I’m reading these books concurrently. I’ve been interested in the issue in a broad sense as of late. How does the craving of comfort weaken a population? What are the risks of indiscriminately weeding the stressors out of one’s life? (As seems to be a major objective of modernity.)  Of course, stressors are not eliminated, but instead stressors that are relatively feeble may become the 800 lb. gorilla of stressors.