reading notes

How to love the wind: Antifragile, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Another incredibly important book from the author of The Black Swan (which is maybe the more famous of his books). Love him or hate him–and personally I don’t mind indulging his tics, as we all have them, and it’s well worth it in this case–it’s hard to believe we ever had a productive conversation about modern civilization without the concept of Antifragile.

Here are my reading notes. (By the way, note that my notes do not at all map to the main ideas and terms of the book; they’re just whatever snippets stood out to me. For example I never even explain what antifragile means.)

Black Swans will be out there to get you as you now have much more to lose, a cost of success (and growth), perhaps an unavoidable penalty of excessive success. At the end, what matters is the strength of the string–not the wealth and power of the dining party.

This refers to the string from which the sword of Damocles hangs. The question isn’t how powerful you are. That’s irrelevant, as the kind of Black Swan event you’re fragile to is by definition catastrophic and will wipe you out regardless. The only relevant question is when.

Imagine someone gifted in learning languages but unable to transfer concepts from one tongue to another, so he would need to relearn “chair” or “love” or “apple pie” every time he acquires a new language … We are all, in a way, similarly handicapped, unable to recognize the same idea when it is presented in a different context.

Going from domain-dependent to domain-agnostic requires mappings. Sometimes a mapping is the same as an analogy.

Yet in spite of the visibility of the counterevidence, and the wisdom you can pick up free of charge from the ancients (or grandmothers), moderns try today to create inventions from situations of comfort, safety, and predictability instead of accepting the notion that “necessity really is the mother of invention.”

Innovation as the result of “the excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks.” First, it is necessary to have setbacks.

If humans fight the last war, nature fights the next one. Your body is more imaginative about the future than you are.

When we put a little acute stress on the body (e.g. with exercise or vaccines), the body afterwards prepares not merely for the same degree of stress, but for a higher degree of stress. Whereas we ourselves tend to prepare only for the highest degree of stress we’ve already seen before. We could learn something from the body.

If I could predict what my day would exactly look like, I would feel a little bit dead.

Yes. I have thought these words exactly.

Much of modern life is preventable chronic stress injury.

Acute stress = good for health. Chronic stress = bad for health.
Sleep deprivation, alarm clocks, commuting to work, back to back meetings, Slack, social media, New Year’s resolutions. Just get rid of it.

This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing–and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.

You never really eliminate randomness, unless you are dead (see above). What you can do is to get yourself to benefit from randomness, and/or accept small randomness in exchange for preventing catastrophic randomness.

We can also see from the turkey story the mother of all harmful mistakes: mistaking absence of evidence (of harm) for evidence of absence…

I was trying to express something like this just the other day (that just because you haven’t seen a person do a bad thing for a while doesn’t mean they don’t do it anymore), but this is a much more clever way to put it.

A little bit of agitation gives resources to souls and what makes the species prosper isn’t peace, but freedom.

Taleb quoting Rousseau quoting Machiavelli.

Seeking stability by achieving stability (and forgetting the second step) has been a great sucker game for economic and foreign policies.

“Artificially suppressed volatility” causes a system to become extremely fragile. In foreign policy, Taleb cites the U.S. policies toward Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq.

We are moving into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularization (or rather reinvention of new sacred values like flags to replace altars), the tax man, fear of the boss, spending the weekend in interesting places and the workweek in a putatively less interesting one, the separation of “work” and “leisure” …, the retirement plan … Violence is transferred from individuals to states. So is financial indiscipline. At the center of all this is the denial of antifragility.

We don’t condone murder but we do condone genocide. Steal money from an individual and you go to prison; steal money from a nation and you get to keep it, with bonuses. So has humanity advanced or regressed?

For we have managed to transfer religious belief into gullibility for whatever can masquerade as science.

Science can be a lot less scientific than it looks.

For a theory is a very dangerous thing to have.
And of course one can rigorously do science without it. What scientists call phenomenology is the observation of an empirical regularity without a visible theory for it.

This is the first time I’ve come across a definition of “phenomenology” that makes sense to me.

Actually I select the writing of the passages of this book by means of procrastination. If I defer writing a section, it must be eliminated. This is simple ethics: Why should I try to fool people by writing about a subject for which I feel no natural drive?

I started doing the same, some years ago. If there’s something I never feel like writing then I just give up on it. There will always be something else. That change made all the difference.

Using my ecological reasoning, someone who procrastinates is not irrational; it is his environment that is irrational.

See above re: modern life. I 100% agree with this but I would add some complexity here. Taleb here refers to two classes of activities: an activity you feel obligated to do but that you don’t feel like doing (e.g. writing a boring section) (let’s call this Class A); and an activity where you feel obligated AND you feel like doing it (e.g. writing a fun section) (let’s call this Class B). I would add a Class C: an activity you don’t feel obligated to do (or in fact would ultimately prefer not to do) but that you DO feel like doing, in the moment (e.g., scroll through social media).

I agree that it’s rational to procrastinate on A by doing B. But C kind of intrudes all over everything. It seems irrational to procrastinate on anything by doing C, and yet this is probably the most common case. Our environment has made it so: rationality is no match for addiction. Our environment has made rationality close to impossible.

No, we don’t put theories into practice. We create theories out of practice.

The point is about how things get invented and how knowledge advances, but it’s also why reading about writing (or anything else) can never, ever teach you more than just doing it. And I read “practice” as, not just doing something, but doing it as a habit, as a discipline.

The enterprise needed to be totally effortless in order to be worthwhile.

Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living.

These points are basically about following your curiosity in learning–in other words, never slog through, because it’s less efficient. Especially if you’re out to discover new ideas, in which case it helps to be exposed to as many different topics as possible. The opposite of “no pain, no gain.”

I decided to take a few years off and locked myself in the attic, trying to express what was coming out of my guts…

Ideal life.

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people now sail too close to the wind.

Taleb contrasts “efficiency” (bad–it’s supposed to come with those air quotes) with redundancy (good), using examples of construction or software project timelines, and flight times.

I understand the distinction best in the context of personally trying to be on time for things, as I ran into the idea myself when a few years ago I resolved to get better at being on time. Imagine you could be on time for an appointment if you leave now and take the train that’s 1 train earlier than the one you absolutely have to get on. You might end up with some time to kill near your destination (more redundant, less efficient), but you’re not too likely to be late.

On the other hand if you optimize for “efficiency” and shoot for the last train possible, which would get to the destination with very little extra buffer, then any variation at all will cause you to be late, including all manner of perfectly common and predictable variations. There’s Taleb’s “asymmetry” at work: almost no possible upside (you can’t get there any faster if you planned to take the minimum possible amount of time); only a very likely downside.

That said, understanding doesn’t equate to execution, and it turns out there are a lot more factors in the fascinating psychology that goes into being on time, but at any rate, I’m much better than I used to be.

And when it comes to software projects, I learned from the get-go to simply estimate by taking what seems like a reasonable amount of time, and doubling it. Don’t question why. Just double it. All kinds of tiny things come up that differ from one project to another, and add up to that second half of the time. And I must say, of the 15+ projects I’ve used that on, they’ve all been finished either exactly on time, or about 10% early.

Recall the foundational asymmetry: the antifragile benefits from volatility and disorder, the fragile is harmed. Well, time is the same as disorder.

Time = disorder. The direction of time as defined by increase in entropy. That’s occurred to me before. But put it all together: even when you do nothing special, over time the antifragile gets better and the fragile gets worse.

Just as there is a dichotomy in law: innocent until proven guilty as opposed to guilty until proven innocent, let me express my rule as follows: what Mother Nature does is rigorous until proven otherwise; what humans and science do is flawed until proven otherwise.

Why this rule? Because:

Everything nonstable or breakable has had ample chance to break over time.

It also works if in place of “what Mother Nature does” you say “what humans have been doing for thousands of years” (and Taleb also touches on that). Nature, and pre-modern humanity, do things that may not have supporting theories, but are empirically tested over long intervals of time. Science and modern humanity do things that do have supporting theories, but are not empirically tested (not for long enough intervals of time). See: trans fat, Thalidomide, antibiotics.

Antibiotics is a great example of an intervention that seems helpful but in retrospect is short-sighted and may eventually wipe out the human race. Taleb posits that medical interventions that seem mildly helpful or convenient, but not necessary, are more likely than not to be catastrophically fragile.

In general, he’s in favor of erring on the side of the via negativa, that is, subtractive interventions (taking away something harmful) as opposed to additive interventions–when it comes to solving any problem, not only medical ones. Like Emily Dickinson said: “‘Nothing’ is / the force that renovates / the World.”

“Nero, you sucker. Don’t be fooled by money. These are just numbers. Being self-owned is a state of mind.”

Money != freedom. We’ve all heard about how more money is better up to a certain point, and then it plateaus. Having seen the world beyond that point, I would say that it doesn’t quite plateau–it’s concave. The more unnecessary money people have, the worse off they seem, the fewer options they seem to feel they have.

The best way to verify that you are alive is by checking if you like variations.

Go forth, surprise yourself, be spontaneous, be self-owned, be alive.