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Best Books of the Year So Far
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, December 2012: Fragile things break under stress. But, according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, there's an entire class of other things that don't simply resist stress but actually grow, strengthen, or otherwise gain from unforeseen and otherwise unwelcome stimuli. Taleb sees degrees of antifragility everywhere, from fasting, mythology, and urban planning to economic, technological, cultural, and biological systems. The wealth of radical thinking in this book astounds; the glossary alone offered more thought-provoking ideas than any other nonfiction book I read this year. That said, Antifragile is far from flawless. As comical as Taleb's rough handling of his favorite targets can be--academics, economists, and tourists, to name a few--his argumentative style boasts gaping holes, non sequiturs aplenty, and at times an almost willfully repugnant tone. Some readers will find Taleb's brashness off-putting; others will embrace it as a charismatic component of the ideas themselves. Either way, no one will finish this book unchanged. --Jason Kirk
Judging by his anecdotes, Taleb interacts with the economic masters of the universe as he jets from New York to London or attends business-politics confabs in Davos, Switzerland. Anything but awed by them, Taleb regards them as charlatans, not as credible experts. Such skepticism toward elites, which imbued Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007), continues in this work, which grapples with a concept Taleb coins as “antifragile.” Not readily reducible to a definition (Taleb takes the whole book to develop the idea), suffice to say here that antifragile’s opposites—economic, political, or medical systems that are vulnerable to sudden collapse—tend to be managed by highly educated people who think they know how systems work. But they don’t, avers Taleb. Their confidence in control is illusory; their actions harm rather than help. In contrast, Taleb views decentralized systems—the entrepreneurial business rather than the bureaucratized corporation, the local rather than the central government—as more adaptable to systemic stresses. Emphatic in his style and convictions, Taleb grabs readers given to musing how the world works. --Gilbert Taylor
Nassim Nicholas Taleb spent two decades as a trader and risk taker before becoming a full-time essayist and scholar focusing on practical, philosophical and mathematical problems with chance, luck, and probability. His focus in on how different systems handle disorder.
Taleb is currently Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University's School of Engineering, but he spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study, or as a flâneur meditating in cafés.
He is the author of the Incerto (latin for uncertainty), accessible in any order (Antifragile, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, and Fooled by Randomness) plus a freely available technical version, Silent Risk. Taleb has also published close to 40 academic and scholarly papers as a backup, technical footnotes to the Incerto. Taleb's books have more than 100 translations in 35 languages.
Taleb believes that prizes, honorary degrees, awards, and ceremonialism debase knowledge by turning it into a spectator sport.
""Imagine someone with the erudition of Pico de la Mirandola, the skepticism of Montaigne, solid mathematical training, a restless globetrotter, polyglot, enjoyer of fine wines, specialist of financial derivatives, irrepressible reader, and irascible to the point of readily slapping a disciple." La Tribune (Paris)
A giant of Mediterranean thought ... Now the hottest thinker in the world", London Times
1 Summary ---------- 1.1 Introduction ========== Taleb conveniently quotes one of his friend's summary of this book: "Everything gains or loses from volatility. Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty."
I think the point is better expressed by rephrasing: "Antifragility is what gains from volatility and uncertainty, up to a point. And being antifragile is a good thing."
Well, that's pretty much summarizes this 500-pages-long book. The rest is an accumulation of more or less relevant topics, delivered in Taleb's trademarked seering, holier-than-thou, hero-or-moron style. Why, even in "Dynamic hedging", his first, $100-book on trading exotic options, he was already both immensely entertaining and almost unbearably infuriating.
1.2 A few of the more interesting points: =========================
1.2.1 Every phenomenon in the world belongs to one of the following categories: Fragile: vulnerable to unforeseen shocks Robust: indifferent to shocks Antifragile: thrive on shocks, up to a point. That's what Taleb calls the Triad.
1.2.2 Most modern structures are inherently fragile Salaried employment: while it looks safe on the surface (predictable salary every month) it is subject to the catastrophic risk of losing one's job. Debt-fueled economies: debt has no flexibility, so these economies can't stand even a slowdown without risking implosion (cf current situation) Modern societies: efficiency demands are pushing the structures to the maximum, so a little sand in the cogs make the whole edifice totter. Touristification: turning adventures (kids growing up, people visiting foreign countries) from exciting, dangerous activities into bland, Disneyfied and safe ones.Read more ›
I begin for readers who have not read anything else by this author, especially those who are familiar with his ideas only second-hand. His second book, Fooled by Randomness, is by far the easiest introduction to his ideas. It is relatively short and illustrates his ideas in dramatic and amusing stories. For people with technical backgrounds, the first book, Dynamic Hedging, makes the points in a much more restricted domain (managing risk of financial options) which allows more precision. The Bed of Procrustes is striking and insightful, but as it is a series of loosely connected aphorisms, the reader has to sort out the links for herself.
Taleb's third and most commercially successful book, The Black Swan, and this one (which may become his most successful), lay out his ideas in more breadth and depth. The three in the first paragraph are relatively non-controversial. They are critical mainly of people who are safe to ridicule, those who are blind to the uncertainty in the universe in fields that are ruled by randomness, such as finance. The Black Swan and Antifragile attack--in the most intemperate language--people, ideas and professions accustomed to reflexive worship. The attacks are vigorous and directed at the core beliefs that underpin large areas of modern life.
These latter two books are more difficult to read.Read more ›
This book has a really cool innovative style. The first appendix is "a graphical tour of the book" where Taleb graphically explains all the main concepts. It renders the nearly incomprehensible visually explicitly clear. I wish nonfiction writers would use such a graphical appendix. The second appendix focuses on really technical concepts for the quants. That's so Taleb can write the body of the book for the layperson. But, for the mathematicians he is willing to drill down in technical details.
The main point of the book is that the World is really complex and genuinely unpredictable. Black Swans (rare) events will always be Black Swans. Any efforts to forecast such events are counterproductive. But, even though we can't forecast Black Swan events we can manage our exposure to them so they don't hurt us or so we can even benefit from them (antifragility). If we simply remain long the underlying risk by attempting to model Black Swan infested variables, we will be exposed to volatility and fail (fragility).
The main underlying concepts are that the majority of causal relationships are nonlinear. They typically have both a convex section where the curve rises exponentially upward and is associated with a positive effect (antifragile) and a concave section that declines exponentially downward and has a negative effect (fragile). Think of the dose of a prescription drug. At first, as you increase the dose the health benefits improve (convexity). But, beyond a certain dose side effects and toxicity cause harm (concavity). This is shown on the first page of the "graphical tour." The trick is to reduce one's exposure to the concave part of the curve (reduce toxicity, reduce fragility) and increase exposure the the convex part (increase benefit, increase antifragility).Read more ›