Highlights to Notes

Using Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Antifragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb suggests that the interesting half of life is something we don't have an adequate understanding of, assuming that understanding something and naming it are the same. Are they? He defines antifragile as being something that is beyond robust (or immune to shocks), and actually benefits from shocks. He mentions the wisdom of grandmothers and other elders throughout this text and also the Black Swan, so maybe this is something we know (at least to an extent) by other names?

Certain types of sophistication, Taleb says, make societies more susceptible to Black Swans (big, unanticipated events that we rationalize later). This seems intuitive, but probably needs more elaboration before it's useful. He mentions Joseph Tainter (author of The Collapse of Complex Societies), who I should probably look into at some point.

Taleb says "formal systems of thought denigrate the natural", but that in spite of that, our actions often take the idea of antifragility into account. He introduces the idea of the apophatic: what we can't put into words, but is important and vaguely understood. This term comes from Orthodox theology, where people defined god by saying what it was not. He continues to the idea that the ancient Greeks lacked a word for blue. This explains the "wine-dark sea" of Homer (he includes an interesting anecdote about William Gladstone). the point seems to be that although we haven't until now had a word for antifragility, it's not an entirely unknown concept. I like this idea that there are things it's hard to put into words that are important to understand. A use for stories?

Taleb continues to the ideas of Mithridatization (acclimatization to poisons by small doses) and Hormesis (the benefits of poisons in small doses to trigger defensive overreactions). This is mostly metaphorical, I think. There's an important real detail here too, though, about the non-linearity of effects ("harm is dose-dependent"). Taleb elaborates this to a claim that periodic fasting is good, which is interesting if tangential to the main point. In his story, he seems to use it as a reminder that we're living a cushy life, devoid of stressors and unaware of our increasing fragility.

Taleb suggests that "success, economic growth, or innovation...may result only from overcompensation against stressors." (50) Certainly a vague recognition of this would help explain why we often tell stories of such events as hero's journeys. He mentions this in a discussion of "domain dependence", though. I think the idea about domains is an interesting one and probably more significant than his examples of the rich dudes that don't want to carry their luggage but then head to the gym. I think it takes some rigor to map out exactly where an idea is useful in its own right, where it's a useful metaphor, and where it may actually hinder understanding.

Overcompensation is an interesting idea. Again, its effect is non-linear (can't write on the Heathrow runway), but in a line that got 4,500 highlights in Kindle, Taleb said "The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!" (52) Conversely, having it too easy can weaken us, as the race horse that trains against lesser rivals. The idea is interesting that if you introduce a slight distraction or speak softly, people will not only have to try harder to hear you but that the "effort moves us into higher gear, activating more vigorous and more analytical brain machinery." (53) I wonder if there's a way to combine this insight with some "framing" and some of the ideas from Nudge to improve students' classroom results?

Redundancy, Taleb says, is the "central risk management property of natural systems." (55) Two eyes, two kidneys, etc. This can seem inefficient, until some accident demonstrates the increased "fitness" of the organism. Two eyes, of course, also allows binocular vision. But lungs, neural system, arteries. Taleb also mentions local maxima in this context, the idea that "the fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed." (56) He gives an example from his weight training practice that I'm not sure is that useful, but maybe it adds tone to the narrative. But then he also asks what does "fitness" mean, and is it an overcompensation response to stressors. Taleb suggests this is a definition of antifragility.

In an aside, Taleb says information is antifragile, feeding on obstacles. Criticism is a sign of attention (he cites Ayn Rand as an example). Envy is a sign that you're stirring people up.

In the third chapter Taleb compares natural and artificial systems. He begins by saying "Stress is knowledge (and knowledge is stress)". (66) The biggest idea in this chapter seems to be causal opacity: the idea that in the real world (in complex systems) it is VERY DIFFICULT "to see the arrow from cause to consequence, making much of conventional methods of analysis, in addition to standard logic, inapplicable." This epistemological question is the thing I'm most surprised to find in Taleb's writing -- I was not aware he was going this deep into philosophy when I picked up this book! The implications of this inability to truly KNOW causality are huge -- especially for History!

Taleb seems to suggest (though he doesn't come right out and say it here) that skeptical empiricism is a solution. Observe results (skeptically), and reserve judgment about the possible causes. He mentions that his dead-lifting routine might actually be working because it's strengthening bones rather than muscles, but he doesn't really care as long as it works.

This, of course, makes it possible to report observations without specifying causes. One of the observations Taleb makes is that "Humans tend to do better with acute than with chronic stressors, particularly when the former are followed by ample time for recovery." (70) Is this true? In what domains? Probably in weight training. I'm not so sure in response to Black Swans.

I like the point he makes that equilibrium may not be the right way to think about complex systems. He brings up Ilya Prigogine's idea of dissipative structures. The point seems to be that these complex systems NEED a regular diet of "volatility, randomness, the continuous swapping of information, and stress, which explains the harm they may be subjected to when deprived of volatility." (73)

Taleb concludes this introductory section by comparing fragilities. Evolution works, he says by making nature as a whole antifragile through the sacrifice of fragile individuals. So the story is about individuals and groups. Organisms are accumulations of members rather than distinct units and often the members of the group are in competition with each other. The members are expendable, which Taleb suggests that prior to the Enlightenment focus on the individual was well understood in human societies too.

There's an interesting suggestion associated with this, that periodic fasting causes autophagy, which Taleb claims is an evolutionary process by which the weaker proteins are broken down first. If this is true, then always having a full stomach is another way of subsidizing the unfit and weakening the organism.

To extend this (metaphor) to complex artificial systems like societies seems reasonable. But at some point we need to avoid the urge toward social Darwinism. Human societies are clearly different from nature in the ability of people to choose their behaviors. This is how animal breeding is different from natural selection. It's also how we can use the information learned by those who came before us to guide our decisions (History). Taleb's claim seems to be that bailouts weaken society by allowing unfit firms to survive and even grow. Increasing size and decreasing sample size seems to increase fragility, but this is not the same as a safety net increasing fragility. So, which is it?

Entrepreneurs (even failures) are heroic, Taleb says. The interesting thing here, for me, is the value of the knowledge of absence (what doesn't work), which does its discoverer no good but helps the next seeker immensely. Another maxim might be: knowledge of absence is not the same as absence of knowledge.