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

January 13, 2013

(This article was originally published at Normal Deviate, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)


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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