Review of “Antifragile” by Nassim Taleb (a.k.a. Doc Savage)

REVIEW OF: “ANTIFRAGILE” by NASSIM TALEB (a.k.a. Doc Savage)

I have not yet finished reading Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. I am at page 214 of this 519 page book. Isn’t it sacrilege to write a review before finishing the entire book? Normally, yes. But you’ll see why this is an exception.

Taleb is well-known for his previous books such as Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan.

I read Fooled By Randomness a long time ago and, as best as I can recall I liked it. I think the message was: “all traders except for me are idiots.” The message of The Black Swan was that outliers matter. It may sound trite but it is an important point; he is right that many people use models and then forget that they are just approximations. The Black Swan made a lot of people mad. He gave the impression that all statisticians were idiots and didn’t know about outliers and model violations. Nevertheless, I think he did have interesting things to say.

Antifragile continues the Black Swan theme but the arrogant tone has been taken up a notch.

As with Taleb’s other books, there are interesting ideas here. His main point is this: there is no word in the English language to mean the opposite of fragile. You might think that “resilient” or “robust” is the opposite of fragile but that’s not right. A system is fragile if it is sensitive to errors. A system is resilient if it is insensitive to errors. A system is antifragile if it improves with errors.

To understand antifragility, think of things that lead to improvement by trial-and-error. Evolution is an example. Entrepreneurship is another.

Generally, top-down, bureaucratic things tend to be fragile. Bottom-up, decentralized things tend to be anti-fragile. He refers to meddlers who want to impose centralized — and hence fragile — decision making on people as “fragilistas.” I love that word.

I like his ideas about antifragility. I share his dislike for centralized decision-making, bureaucrats, (as well as his dislike of Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman). So I really wanted to like this book.

The problem is the tone. The somewhat arrogant tone of his previous books has evolved into a kind of belligerent yelling. The “I am smart and everyone else is an idiot” shtick gets tiresome. Having dinner with your know-it-all uncle is tolerable. But spend too much time with him and you’ll go mad.

The book is full bragging; there are continuous references to his amazing wonderful travels, all the cafe’s he has been in around the world, zillions of references to historical and philosophical texts and a steady stream of his likes and dislikes. He particularly dislikes academics, business schools, and especially Harvard. He often talks about the Harvard-Soviet empire. He got an MBA for Wharton where he credits an un-named professor for teaching him about options. But, of course, the professor did not really understand what he was teaching.

We find out that Taleb hates TV, air-conditioning, sissies, and most economists. He has taken up weightlifting and, using a training technique he learned from “Lenny Cake” he can deadlift 350 pounds. He is now so strong that people mistake him for a bodyguard. You can’t make this stuff up.

I think that Taleb is Doc Savage (the Man of Bronze). For those who don’t know, Doc Savage was the hero in a series of books in the 1960’s. Doc Savage was amazing. He was brilliant and strong. He was a scientist, detective, surgeon, inventor, martial arts expert and had a photographic memory. It was hilarious reading those books when I was young because they were so over the top.

Antifragile is “The Black Swan meets Doc Savage.” This is a real shame because, as I said, there are interesting ideas here. But I doubt many serious readers will be able to stomach the whole book. I read some Amazon reviews and I noticed that they were quite bimodal. Many people seem to believe he is the gigantic genius he claims to be and they love the book. More thoughtful readers are put off by the tone and give negative reviews.

If an editor had forced him to tone it down (and make the writing a little more organized) then I think this book would have been good. But he puts editors in the fragilista category. I can imagine the editor trying to give Taleb some suggestions only to be slapped around by author.

Which is why I decided to write a review before finishing the book. You see, only sissy fragalistas finish a book before reviewing it.

Disclosure: I am an Amazon associate. This means that if you click on any links to Amazon in my posts, then I get credit towards a gift certificate.

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24 Comments

  1. Mike G
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    I too am partway through it (about the same amount as you), but one thing that struck me about the way that he describes anti-fragility is that he tries to describe it to be a genius idea that people should try to implement in their lives. However, when he describes systems which exhibit this property, especially biological and economic systems, their fragility/antifragility is an attribute that is scale specific and essentially inevitable. Agents at any particular scale are fragile to variation at their scale but antifragile to variation at the scales below them. For instance, as he points out, cells are fragile to variations at their scale (disease, toxins etc), but that fragility allows the immune system of the body to develop and for the body to become robust or antifragile to other stressors. In turn, individual humans are fragile to some variations at their scale, but their mistakes and fragility help society learn and evolve. Smaller societies do so for states and so on up the chain. He talks about this, but then criticizes the large scale for being fragile to failure at its scale, as if things like the banking system could somehow avoid becoming fragile as they develop.

    It seems that fragility at one level can propagate upward through scales to benefit the larger scales, but fragility at any level leads to more fragility downward. Society may benefit from the failures of individuals, but the individual is harmed by the fragility of society. The only fragility that is despicable in Taleb’s eyes is fragility that can come from the large scale and harm ours.

    He discusses a bit about how optimization breeds fragility, but this is just part of the game in a sense. Each scale is evolving and, in doing so, becoming more optimized at its level. The antifragility that he lauds leads to the improvement of that scale, but that improvement it toward optimality on that scale, thus greater fragility. The large centralized systems, such as the banking system, evolved to that point in order to operate optimally, in the same way that the small business who grew from many previous failed entrepreneurial ideas. He hails fragility of entrepreneurs as being heroic and honorable, while admonishing the large institutions whose fragility was just as inevitable. It is noteworthy that there is a finite scale that systems can grow (without integration of ET societies), and hence at some level there is none higher to benefit from the fragility of smaller scales, but I do not think this diminishes my point.

    The ideas I have really gotten out of the book so far are:
    – the idea that mistakes and failure are a necessary part of society and those who try but fail should not be cast in a negative light.
    – the failure of systems of all scales is inevitable over different timescales, whether it’s cells, individual humans, social groups, cities, states, businesses, economies, etc and that fighting against this inevitable tide will only lead to a sharper, steeper decline.
    – That said, I have not yet decided yet if I agree that trying to optimize and stabilize a system is a negative thing, even though it clearly is in Taleb’s eyes. Fighting time may be futile, but may sustain the power or life of the individual for longer, even if the decline is sharper (For instance, one could argue that the US has already peaks as the world superpower and is now in decline. However, I do not think that the majority of Americans would agree that the government should allow the decline to happen naturally and to surrender our place on the world stage.)
    – Possibly more later at some point. I’ve rambled too much already and I’m quite tired. I apologize for the many preceding mistakes in grammar.

    • Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the very thoughtful comment

      LW

    • lylenexgen
      Posted February 21, 2013 at 8:30 am | Permalink

      Consider what you have “gotten… so far” in the light of “too big to fail”; there are inherent advantages to keeping systems to the smallest scale at which they can be effective. Avoidance of monopoly is usually advanced as a reason for keeping competition alive between small systems that aggregately produce as much as a larger system; but there is other reasons; the failure of a single small system is less costly, and the fitness of a small system is more likely to improve than that of a larger system.

    • haig
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

      Nice comment, but I think you have overstated the case that antifragility does not optimize for stability, or that it absolutely requires fragility to propagate down into its component parts. Taleb’s antifragility actually is optimizing for stability, as much as such optimization is tractable in the real world. Creating antifragile systems is a ratcheting up of convexity, at each point the component systems are allowed to fail, but the negative results of failure are minimized while the positive benefits from success are left open ended. This removes the possibility of large systemic failures, it avoids building a house of cards.

  2. Ken
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 1:48 am | Permalink

    I’d read the Black Swan and enjoyed it, except for his arrogant tone. Unfortunately I’ve already purchased a copy of Anti-Fragile and was waiting for a chance to read it. I expect that I won’t finish it.

  3. Ricardo Silva
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    “A system is antifragile if it improves with errors”. Doesn’t this just mean an adaptive system?

    • defcon
      Posted January 14, 2013 at 7:02 am | Permalink

      No, by definition. Adaptive systems change and learn from experience. This does not imply that they improve with errors.

      • haig
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

        Actually yes, it does mean it is an adaptive system. Changing and learning from experience == improvement with errors, at least if you do not limit the set of experiences to just positive outcomes.

  4. Posted January 14, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    The pretentious tone was already an issue in The Black Swan, but I agree it went up and up since then. The ultimate may be The Bed of Procrustes I reviewed a little while ago. I let the book in the common room for anyone to pick and it is still there!!!

  5. Keith O'Rourke
    Posted January 14, 2013 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Sounds like CS Peirce’s evolutionary cosmology, chance being necessary for evolution (i.e. blind, completely unmotivated adaption).

    As for “many people use models and then forget that they are just approximations”, from Leornard Cohen:

    “The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you.”

  6. Posted January 14, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    Thanks a lot for this review. I have to say that I find Mandelbrot equally arrogant in his writings although I think the scientific contributions of Mandelbrot give him a pass that Taleb is not really entitled to. I cannot read a book like this. I remember when I tried to read Robert Fisk’s famous book about the middle east I couldn’t read more than 20 pages maybe because it all was about ‘and they called me at 3am when I had slept only 2 hrs because I had to write this great article to this fantastic magazine that became really famous .. bla bla’ .. and I was reading all I was thinking was ‘Can you tell me something about the middle east please??’ ..

    Thanks again for a great review

  7. Posted January 14, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I like the braggadocio! It’s a literary way of putting ‘skin in the game’.

  8. Bill Jefferys
    Posted January 15, 2013 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    Never forget that evolution works as it does because it wastes a huge proportion of those organisms that are produced. Most individual organisms are evolutionary failures in that their genes don’t survive long. It’s only the genes that are selected for, not the individuals. This means that there is a disanalogy between evolution and entrepreneurship.

  9. Alice
    Posted January 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi there! I did not get yet the “Antifragile”, but I loved completely his “Black Swan”. If be fair I’m VERY surprised about your critic on Taleb’ arrogance, which I did not noted. Do not forget, that his books belongs to the literature, so I like his style and his “private” experiences with caffe and sports. May be I’m the same?

  10. Posted January 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, but may now look for it (obnoxiousness aside). I am an advocate of “error and the growth of knowledge” and on capitalizing on errors (EGEK 1996). I have tried to partially pin this down for specific contexts directed toward “finding things out”. Some random remarks:
    (1) The problem with purporting to capture in general a system improving or having the capacity to “improve” with errors is that, by and large, this cannot be well-captured except retrospectively, and from a given vantage point. So the idea would become a rather vague notion of “readiness” to learn from error, that what does not kill makes stronger, or a commitment to making lemon out of lemonade– slogans which are effectively determinable only once the new situation appears.
    (2) The presumption that evolution “improves” with errors has a tendency to encourage retrospective story-telling and/or tautologies—whatever survives is fitter.
    (3) There is an important difference between “getting better,” and valuing interesting radical overthrows, or deserving credit for creatively surviving extreme struggles.
    (4) Evidently, given what some commentators have said, Taleb hasn’t learned from some off-putting errors of writing, if errors they be.

    • Keith O'Rourke
      Posted January 19, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

      Agree, its not survival of the fittest – but simply survival of the fit, e.g. Bill’s example – not the survival of wealthy individuals but the wealth.

      Decided to try and improve on Leonard Cohen above

      If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, represent it as a duck – even though you know its not really a duck.
      As you learn more about how exactly unduck like it really is, represent it less wrongly as say a platipus.
      As you learn more …


      But remember, you never get a representation that is exactly what is being represented.
      Only mad dogs and shallow academics suggest/hope you forget.

      Now I just need some tunes and singing lessons.

    • Posted January 19, 2013 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

      lemonade out of lemon

  11. Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    A system is fragile if it is sensitive to errors. A system is resilient if it is insensitive to errors. A system is antifragile if it improves with errors.

    This makes sense. Selling vol or buying OTM succeeds if things don’t turn out as expected. But…

    To understand antifragility, think of things that lead to improvement by trial-and-error. Evolution is an example. Entrepreneurship is another.

    What?

    This makes me feel the way I do when someone says “Consider history”. Huh? What exactly is your view of history?

    To me entrepreneurship requires planning and staying on task (as well as other things). Evolution requires a lot of stability, like humans live within 50°C range.

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

      Generally, top-down, bureaucratic things tend to be fragile. Bottom-up, decentralized things tend to be anti-fragile. He refers to meddlers who want to impose centralized — and hence fragile — decision making on people as “fragilistas.” I love that word.

      I feel like the top-down versus bottom-up card has been played more than enough since airport-bookstore fare of the early 00’s lauded Google’s “bottom up” or Wisdom of Crowds or, whatever. This dichotomy feels overly explored at this point in this kind of literature. Is Airbus designing its next passenger craft with evo sims? No. Top-down has its place.

      Come to think of it: did the anti-top-down meme come to life out of the “communism lost” fall of the “centralised aka fragilista” USSR? If the new zeitgeist is anti-capitalist, anti-finance, and so on, perhaps that’s another reason it seems worn out.

      I recently watched a BBC docu of how the Chinese built a railroad through the Tibetan permafrost–with central planning, lots of authority, research, and I assume totalitarianism. Then I read stories of the bottom-up fixing of LIBOR by decentralised, ungoverned Barclays traders. But these examples don’t fit today’s happy simplistic narrative!

    • Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

      To be fair to Taleb, keep in mind that that was a 2 sentence summary of his whole book.
      I was oversimplifying the message.

  12. Min Xu
    Posted January 27, 2013 at 1:44 am | Permalink

    Hi Larry. Interesting post as always; learned about Doc Savage for the first time. I’m curious about the reasons for which you support decentralized authority, especially in the domain of economics. I have never studied economics seriously and have never looked at any economic data beyond the pretty graphs occasionally published by NYTimes, so I ask out of genuine curiosity and not to argue.

    Do you think the historical economic data very firmly justify the merits of decentralized authority or are your views partly supported by a natural intuition? What do you think about the opinion that strong government command and interference is necessary in event of crisis–economic, natural, social, or military?

    • Posted January 27, 2013 at 8:40 am | Permalink

      I would love to answer in detail but I don’t want to discuss
      politics and economics on my blog.

      Ask me in person.

  13. Posted February 24, 2013 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    As a fellow combination weightlifting and statistics aficionado, a 350 lb deadlift isn’t that much ¯\(°_o)/¯

  14. miketornado
    Posted March 5, 2013 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

    Do not attempt to please 99% of the people with safe, middle of the road thoughts or comments. Make bold statements and you will have a following. Better a passionate, cult-like % than a majority that is not moved and so will probably never (in his case) even read or hear the message. Wasn’t that, or something like that, in the book? Seems to be true.

3 Trackbacks

  1. By Taleb’s anti-fragile fail | ricardian ambivalence on January 19, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    [...] his ideas aren’t original. He is not the genius he think he is. Thus i was pleased to read this review (by Larry Wasserman, someone who is actually very [...]

  2. [...] – Review do livro de Nassim Taleb, Antifragile; [...]

  3. [...] And somewhere out on the internets a fellow on the internet named “Doc Savage” writes, in what is a partial review of the book devoted to Taleb’s sometimes grating tone, “We find out that Taleb hates TV, air-conditioning, sissies, and most economists. He has taken up weightlifting and, using a training technique he learned from “Lenny Cake” he can deadlift 350 pounds. He is now so strong that people mistake him for a bodyguard. You can’t make this stuff up.” (Here.) [...]

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