Sunday, 30 January 2011

The bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Taleb

Philosophical and practical aphorisms

This elegant little hardback is Taleb’s latest publication (2010). It contains thoughts that carry straight on from his arguments in ‘Fooled by randomness’ and ‘The Black Swan’. Instead of a narrative and argument in a full book, he presents us with his private almost-poetry. We are given a series of aphorisms, well spaced out, only four or five to a page. This slows us down and persuades us to pause to think about each cluster of words.

The aphorisms are generally witty and designed to provoke a fresh perspective. They do not have the frivolity of Oscar Wilde, and do not achieve his level of charming, mischievous humour. They are certainly often wise and counter-intuitive, shaking us out of a conventional, shallow view of our modern world. Some structure is given by clustering them in chapters, revealing the preoccupations with which his readers will already be familiar. For instance, there is a chapter called ‘Fooled by Randomness’, one on ‘The scandal of prediction’ and one on ‘Robustness and fragility’.

Taleb is a wise man, and well worth listening to. His erudition and originality are on full display. Here are samples to give you a flavour:

“The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.”

“Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way round.”

“You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.”

“English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence towards the temporarily powerful) and arrogant down (directed at the small guy).”

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

“Suckers think that you can cure greed with money, addiction with substances, expert problems with experts, banking with bankers, economics with economists and debt crises with debt spending.”

You may notice that he blends a wide vocabulary with American idioms such as ‘Guy’ and ‘Sucker’, which lends a disconcerting instability to his voice. But he generally achieves the balance of an epigrammatic style, and there is an immediate impact for most of his aphorisms, plus an added sequence of afterthoughts, akin to the sensation of a perfume.

I remain a fan of Mr Taleb, and would urge others to read this book too. However I have a complaint that must be articulated. This may sound like an ‘ad hominem’ attack. I agree that the ‘ad hominem’ riposte of questioning a man’s motives or qualifications for saying something is inadmissible in civilised argument. His book is not an argued case, but much closer to a literary work, hence I believe this complaint is valid.

The author has made a lot of money trading options, and more recently from the sales of his books. Fine, and the best of luck to him. Possibly he is the beneficiary of randomness, as he may admit. Now he sets himself up as a philosopher and part poet. He has valuable things to say, but (and here is my complaint) he adopts a sneering tone against the majority of humanity, believing himself as someone much superior in understanding and heroism. I find it hard to stomach his long stream of aphorisms despising those having to work – which is the majority of us. Hence he shows a lack of respect for the readers.

“Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working.”

“There is no intermediate state between ice and water but there is one between life and death: employment.”

“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave better by convincing him that he is an employee.”

And so on. Mr Taleb has revealed too much of his nasty side, diminishing himself. While he sits on his millions in Treasury Bills, I can do without the sound of him snickering as I trudge off to earn an honest penny. Where is his heroism in this attitude?

No comments: