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150 of 166 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Who could have predicted this? Another Black Swan?
In 2007 Nassim Taleb depicted the then current financial situation in America as a brittle house of cards. The subsequent economic crash and burn made his reputation as a seer, though Taleb would never claim prophesy in any form. "I know nothing about the future," he told the Long Now Foundation in February, 2008. He deals not with prediction, but with the unknown, or how...
Published on December 4, 2010 by ewomack

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86 of 119 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A trite display of mostly witless pomposity
What a hugely disappointing book. Taleb is certainly capable of interesting and cogent writing but he displays almost none of that in this effort.

The aphorisms he offers up are rarely true; even more rarely are they both true and witty; rarest of all are those that are witty, truthful and original. Yes, sadly most of the platitudes that can be considered words...
Published on January 2, 2011 by SF


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150 of 166 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Who could have predicted this? Another Black Swan?, December 4, 2010
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In 2007 Nassim Taleb depicted the then current financial situation in America as a brittle house of cards. The subsequent economic crash and burn made his reputation as a seer, though Taleb would never claim prophesy in any form. "I know nothing about the future," he told the Long Now Foundation in February, 2008. He deals not with prediction, but with the unknown, or how humans fail to deal with the unknown, throw it under the carpet and pretend it doesn't exist. "The Black Swan" has become Taleb's symbol for the world's inherent unpredictability. The runaway best seller of the same name has seemingly redefined reality itself for some. From this point on the world looks fuzzier. Taleb has since spread his Black Swan-ism everywhere, and people are listening. But how to follow up such a magnum opus? As if to prove the unpredictability of the world, Taleb releases a thin volume of... aphorisms. Could anyone have expected this? The previously verbose wizard of the unknown takes on the most laconic textual genre next to haiku. Didn't aphorisms go out with Cioran? Not to mention that the book's title sounds right out of 1890: "The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms." In recent speeches Taleb has announced that he's now a philosopher. He apparently meant it. But he's still not predicting the future.

This very tiny volume, readable in a short sitting, delineates Taleb's thought in a very different manner than his previous books. It also takes on some new subjects. A short introduction frames the aphorisms to follow. Here the charming tale of Procrustes gets juxtaposed with our modern sensibilities. But the comparison seems appropriate. Where Procrustes lopped the limbs off of his dinner guests so they fit perfectly into his bed, we moderns chop huge sections of reality away to fit our preconceived notions. In other words, we tend to ignore outliers, random events and unforeseen events with huge consequences. This expresses, though more poetically, many of the ideas included in his previous two books. Many of these ideas reappear in brief form throughout the book. For example, the section "Fooled By Randomness" (also the title of his first book), includes this passage: "The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what's worse, the opposite." Our Procrustean tendency to deny randomness appears throughout the book in blatant and subtle ways. But Taleb also takes on other subjects. For instance, in numerous places employment gets compared to slavery rather bluntly. Some will see the obvious parallels, others may find his examples overbearing. Taleb also talks about love, friendship, ethics, science, and other psychological and philosophical tidbits. Some are more successful than others. Some, such as "Never say no twice if you mean it" inspire nothing more than a furrowed brow and a shrug before moving on. Many are laugh out loud funny: "The opposite of success isn't failure; it is name-dropping." Still more contain real brilliance that may cause double-takes. Regardless, some lines will pass with little reaction and smack more of opinion than of insight. A few come off as bizarre. All in all, the book provides enough food for thought to justify a good solid read. Taleb does have some surprising ideas about reality and how people should spend their time. He definitely favors more free time over long hours at work. Not to mention his thoughts on academia and economics. In the end, this book defies absolute summary, like most aphoristic works. But the reading level remains simple throughout, and readers can browse without worrying too much about context (unlike Nietzsche's aphoristic works).

"The Bed of Procrustes" definitely has its charms. Not only that, aphoristic writing really seems like an appropriate style for our modern attention spans. Though wisdom often sounds quaint in a rapidly changing society. In any case don't expect this minute book to delineate Taleb's thought in full. Read "Black Swan" for that (get the recently released second edition). This one gives only a slight overview. Though fun and often intriguing, it does not delve into details. Again, those looking for depth should read "Black Swan" and those wanting more should pick up this one as an enjoyable breather. In the meantime, Taleb will likely keep ruminating. Hopefully something else akin to "Black Swan" will pop out of him. He presented one provocative thought in a recent talk that involved using nature as a model for economies. Nothing in nature is too big to fail, he claimed. One could take out nature's largest entity (say, a blue whale) and the entire system would not falter. Unlike our economy where one or two big players could level everything. Though he didn't give details, Taleb presented this as a possible economic model. He also summed up that "if economists ran nature we would all have one lung, etc." That does seem startlingly true. Perhaps emphasizing efficiency over strength weakens us in the long run. In any case, hopefully Taleb will develop such ideas in the future.
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29 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Arrogance of the highest order. Loved it., March 6, 2011
Taleb's book of Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms is annoyingly brilliant. I am aware of no other intellect who can offer truisms in such an offensive, condescending, righteous, and elitist manner while also endearing, educating, enlightening, and inspiring.

The one word that has always come to mind when I think of Nassim Taleb is ARROGANT. Based on his aphorism, it sounds like I'm not the only one:

"People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling 'arrogant.'"

And he's right. Again. Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan made it clear to the world that Taleb is a first class thinker who can KNOW, to paraphrase one his sayings, a priori what most can only learn a posteriori. The Bed of Procrustes offers readers a much more robust insight into Taleb's world view and process which is ultimately quite useful for those who seek to find a deeper understanding of the complex world we live in. It may not be surprising that this deeper understanding that Taleb possesses stems from a pursuit that is at odds with the modern, scientific, technological approach to knowledge, but is rooted in one's ability to remove oneself from constraints, biases, artificial effort, and political and societal norms.

Taleb's aphorisms (short form writings which contain deep meaning) manage to tell us how to generate ideas without thinking, achieve progress without working, and reveal mysteries without looking. His targets include fields which rely heavily on the idea that what we know is more robust than what we don't (economics, medicine, academia), those which rely on popular acceptance to be considered influential (politics, journalism, literature) and all who are enslaved by a predictable existence. The aphorisms place a high premium on learning through opening oneself to the universe while knowing how to filter out the noise and avoid the misidentification of signal. Importantly, many of Taleb's saying properly identify error not as something that should be considered shameful or feared, but used as an asset from which we can gain insight.

The Bed of Procrustes will serve as a useful resource for those who see the power of short quotes to convey big ideas and those who wish to develop an approach towards understanding what is true before it slaps you in the face.
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48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What's the rush? Slow down and think ....., December 3, 2010
By 
Theodore A. Rushton (PHOENIX, Arizona United States) - See all my reviews
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An intriguing book based on an interesting thesis, well presented, in saying "we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas ..."

"The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself," Taleb begins, and shortly after continues, "to bankrupt a fool, give him information."

Okay, I declare bankruptcy. These aphorisms are an eloquent Luddite protest against the madcap technological excesses and follies of the modern world. I agree. Every new technology blossoms into excess, then retreats into practical use as newer ideas develop. Obsidian was once a new idea in cutting; but, anything this good soon evolved into ornaments and other impractical uses.

It's the inevitable fate of all new technology and all new ideas. All good ideas become complicated into absurdity, until wiser people ask, "Just what are we trying to accomplish here?"

Taleb is a wise man asking such questions, and this book is one of questions and relevant observations. It's the same question anyone with a cell phone and the choice of 250,000 apps might ask, like Taleb, "Why?" and the answer is "I dunno."

In brief, this is an eloquent plea to slow down and think.

What's missing is a recognition of human curiosity which creates all technology, from obsidian blades to Blackberrys. It's a book devoid of curiosity, of Rudyard Kipling's Five Faithful Serving Men and the journalist's eternal questions, "Who? What? Why? When? How?"

Of course, I'm not aware of the Luddites having many answers. But, Taleb, like those who sit and refuse to budge do serve to remind the rest of us that scurrying about accomplishes little. More power to him, and to those who ask, "Is this trip necessary?"
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41 of 50 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fun but too short for $9.99..., December 18, 2010
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I love Taleb, but this seems like he jotted down a few quibs while on his morning walk and decided to ride the wave of his popularity. Well, it worked, I bought it and I liked it. I feel like he should have walked a few more miles and jotted down a few more aphorisms prior to publishing. But he is remarkably astute and I love his works...even if I feel a little ripped off. I at least feel like I'm helping him stay a little longer in his street side cafe drinking latte, and pondering on life. Keep up the good work Taleb...just make your next book a bit more of a good value. Your fan.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved it...., December 29, 2010
By 
Vangel Vesovski (Mississauga, ON Canada) - See all my reviews
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My twelve year old son picked up the book at my local bookstore and could not put it down. While many of the aphorisms confused him, most made him think and he began to ask quite a few questions. Soon we were discussing various points and had more than a few laughs at the many victims of Taleb's wit. I wound up buying the book and picking up two extra copies as gifts for people who I am sure will enjoy reading discussing it, even if they are offended by some of Taleb's pronouncements.

Those that have read Taleb and are familiar with his books will have little trouble recognizing that the book is a further exploration of his theme of how individuals deal, and how they should deal, with what they do not know. And they will quickly find that Taleb's harsh view of fools is what it has always been. If you are easily offended and have the characteristics or opinions of those that Taleb skewers time after time you may not like this book. But if you have an open mind, an ego that does not need stroking, and thick skin you will probably love it.

As usual, Taleb is brilliant. His tone is sharp and his writing style is lucid. He begins by briefly going over the the myth of the cruel Procrustes (whose name meant 'the stretcher' in ancient Greek). Procrustes, whose real name may have been Damastes or Polyphemon, lived on an estate in Attica on the road between Athens and Eleusis. He would abduct travelers and provide them with a very nice diner. After the diner was over he would place them in his special bed where they would be fitted perfectly. That meant that those that were too short would be stretched while those that were too long would have their feet or legs chopped off. Taleb reminds the reader that every one of the sayings is about the same subject as, "we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences."

Those familiar with the themes in Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" will immediately recognize this book as a link to the previous discussions. As usual, Taleb does not spare his favorite targets and takes his shots at those that know far less than they think that they do and try to fit their limited knowledge into what they are familiar with.

Of course, Mr. Taleb's bias may come into play in some of his pronouncements. It is easy to write, "My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill," or, "You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits," when you are a successful trader and author who no longer has to work for a living if you do not wish to. That said, I can argue that Mr. Taleb's pronouncements are right on the money and far more deserving of attention than they are to receive from many readers who cannot handle the implied criticism of their own lives and choices.

My son found a number of the pronouncements worthy of writing down as the subjects of future essays. That said, he did not like Taleb's footnote for, "My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and legal," because he thought that Taleb was being mean and superficial at a time when he had the opportunity to point the reader in a worthier direction. Instead of noting Robert Rubin's legal theft, he should have pointed readers to the Theban Plays and the issue of Natural Rights in Antigone or to the Nuremberg trial, which dealt with the same issue. And as a aficionado of more than a few games, his thin skin allowed him to be more than a bit upset at the comment, "Games were created to give nonheroes the illusion of winning. In real life, you don't know who really won or lost (except too late), but you can tell who is heroic and who is not."

As with his other books, I loved Taleb's latest effort. But that having been said, it does not mean that you, my dear reader of this review, will love it as much or at all. The best way to find out is to look inside the book and hit the, 'Surprise Me!,' link. Read a few of the aphorisms or to look at the Postface. You also might want to look inside his other books and see if you like the style and can handle the wit and arrogance of the author. If you choose to read this book and keep an open mind, or his others, you are likely to learn a lot and to find plenty of material that can be a catalyst for some interesting debates or arguments with friends of family. I know that it has been a very enjoyable, rewarding, and useful book for me and for my young son.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What color is your swan?, March 24, 2011
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Aphorism:
-noun
a terse saying embodying a general truth, or astute observation, as "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Lord Acton).

Yes, the author is very arrogant and pompous, I would not dispute that with the other reviewers of this book. I would add that ego strength is what leads to success in the real world.

While reading this book I could just see Taleb reading classics and pondering the world while sipping a drink in a quaint cafe. Some of his thoughts are offensive to many, some are incredibly profound and true, others may be over the readers head.

I gave this book five stars because I found it very interesting, thought provoking, and hard to put down. It forces the reader to think. A deep thinker like Taleb is rare is this world of political correctness, materialism, consumption, and many people just thinking what they were programmed to think.

Here are my favorites from the book:

When conflicted between two choices,take neither.

A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence.

Weak men act to satisfy their needs, stronger men their duties.

Knowledge is reached (mostly)by removing junk from people's heads.

They agree that chess training only improves chess skills but disagree that classroom training (almost) only improves classroom skills.

Robust is when you care more about the few who like your work than the multitude who dislike it.

The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.

I really enjoyed reading this book and pondering on the aphorisms.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great aphorisms, August 8, 2011
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With "The Bed of Procrustes", Taleb seems to have become even more of a bona fide philosopher than he was in his former books. The popular appeal, while still there, has been turned down slightly. Taleb has turned to the aphoristic form, and is perhaps slightly more indebted to great precursors like Nietzsche than he would like to admit. A scathing critique of modernity, as well as the usual targets: economists, forecasters, platonists. It's a very good work; the aphorisms hit me like a hammer and I will be re-reading this several times to get the full effect.
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86 of 119 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A trite display of mostly witless pomposity, January 2, 2011
By 
SF (New Jersey, USA) - See all my reviews
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What a hugely disappointing book. Taleb is certainly capable of interesting and cogent writing but he displays almost none of that in this effort.

The aphorisms he offers up are rarely true; even more rarely are they both true and witty; rarest of all are those that are witty, truthful and original. Yes, sadly most of the platitudes that can be considered words of wisdom are just Taleb rehashing well-known and time-worn bromides.

Some of his gems just seem plainly wrong:

"Modernity's double punishment is to make us both age prematurely and live longer." Really? Because it seems to me that people are taking much longer to grow up nowadays than they did decades earlier. Adolescence is lasting well into the third decade (and later!) of life for a great many people that I see around me.

"The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said." A mature person could only feel pity toward both the liar and the poor individual who feels the need to be deceptive in return, and even worse, believes that there is any kind of victory to be had in such an exchange.

"You never win an argument until they attack your person." So winning an argument is (only) accomplished when the person you're arguing with gets so frustrated and angry that he resorts to insults and personal attacks? If that's how you feel, let me offer words of wisdom: you need to ask yourself why you were in that argument to begin with. Obviously, it wasn't to make your point of view clear to the other person.

"Saying 'the mathematics of uncertainty' is like saying 'the chastity of sex' - what is mathematized is no longer uncertain, and vice-versa." Taleb is surely familiar with quantum mechanics and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, which is derived from beautiful mathematics and is a vital part of the most successful theory (in terms of predictive power - 100%) ever devised. So he knows this is not so.

There are some worthwile witticisms. For instance: "The most painful moments are not those we spend with uninteresting people; rather, they are those spent with uninteresting people trying hard to be interesting." And somethimes they are moments spent with interesting people trying too hard to be profound.

I think the problem lies with the premise of this book. The greatest thinkers and cleverest people in history have each uttered perhaps a handful of aphorisms that history chooses to make note of. I'm willing to bet that if Mark Twain, Winston Churchill or Albert Einstein tried to come up with hundreds of them to fill the pages of a small book, they would have produced similar garbage.
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18 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars For those who care, its value lies in its insight into Taleb's personality, March 4, 2011
By 
Jeremy Crowhurst (North Vancouver, B.C.) - See all my reviews
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I have to say I agree with the text of pretty much all the reviews: this is a book that contains wisdom, and it displays great arrogance and pomposity. Much of it is completely unoriginal, often no better than what you get in a fortune cookie, and lots of it is just plain stupid. Where its value lies is in what it reveals about Taleb himself -- if you care; it's as though he's taken the world's longest, weirdest, Rorschach test, and spewed out the responses in Sun Tzu form.

Consider the aphorisms that many are seeing as arrogance. I see them as self-hatred, or at least acknowledgment of wrongdoing. For example, there is "the characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind's flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationality -- without exploiting them for fun and profit." In that I see recognition of the opportunity lost when he failed to capitalize on the coming crash predicted in The Black Swan. (Yes, he made some money, and one should never sneeze at a 100% or so return, but it hardly compares to the others, who drew the same conclusions with the same information, who turned hundreds of thousands of dollars into tens of millions of dollars.) Another example is "It is difficult to change someone's opinions as it is to change his tastes." To me that reads as the confession of a failed professor and writer, one who is struggling to accept responsibility for his limitations.

Some of his little sayings are clearly self-referential, obviously having significant meaning to him personally but not being things generally true. "The worst damage has been caused by competent people trying to do good; the best improvements have been brought by incompetent ones not trying to do good" would appear to be an apt summary of the history of his homeland, Lebanon, but has little application beyond that. "People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling `arrogant'" smells of someone who sees himself as an unappreciated genius. Along the same lines is "They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status -- but rarely for your wisdom." "Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it" brings to mind the frog and the scorpion. I just wonder (though don't particularly care) which one Taleb was.

Then there are the aphorisms that are just flat-out stupid: my two favourite are "Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases" and "Economics is like a dead star that still seems to produce light; but you know it is dead." I guess he had something in mind there, but it's hard to think of a single context where they have any truth or meaning.
There is wisdom in some of the aphorisms, many of which have already been quoted in other reviews, and others which contain enough grains of truth to merit discussion. Had he started his book with his afterward -- particularly his description of what purposes aphorisms can serve -- I think the book would have been better served, and the worthwhile content would have carried the reader through the bad with better humour. (The best use has already been referred to in a prior review: as a teaching tool, something for a parent or grandparent to discuss with a child.)

Unfortunately, given the way the book is structured, the negative aspects of the book overwhelm the good. Furthermore, his ceaseless, and often meritless, attacks on academia, employment, and journalism dull the impact not just of whatever message he's trying to convey here, but also dulls the impact of his earlier works. For example, his advice in "Fooled By Randomness" to avoid the news, as it in essence is nothing but noise, was something I've given a lot of thought to since I first read it. But what, there, was advice, is here simply rabid diatribe. It's impossible to take it seriously, and perhaps to my detriment, I'm back to reading the dailies.
I get that he had negative experiences with those three things. He wrote extensively about his work history in Randomness (his account of "Nero Tulip" is very thinly-veiled autobiographical). Okay, you had a bad experience at one of your firms and got kicked out. Get over it! It doesn't make everybody who has a job a "sucker" or a "loser". Similarly with academia: lots of people who think outside the box have trouble talking inside the box. You were one of them, but you got through it, and got your Ph.D. It doesn't make all universities evil. Move on!

I will quote one of the aphorisms that I consider to be very valuable: "Wealth" is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure "unwealth," that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.

This book shows that for Taleb, there is obviously a pretty big gulf between where he is at, and where he wants to be. If you are an admirer of Taleb, and that's something that interests you, buy the book. But when you read it, I think you'll think he's a smaller-minded, less interesting, and less insightful man than you previously thought. For someone who came across so worldly in his first two books, this book portrays him as someone who lives in a very small, very simple, and ultimately very dull world.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sure fire way to know if this book is for you, November 26, 2012
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This review is from: The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (Incerto) (Kindle Edition)
Read all the one-star reviews. Based on those you will either be keen to buy this book or certain to avoid it. Worked for me, great book.
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