Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Be forewarned – this was a long read, and will likely be a longer than usual ‘review/thoughts/rant’. This book, to me, was a challenge to get through – especially after just having read Silvers book on prediction The Signal and the Noise. Before I begin with my criticism of this book, I’ll lay out briefly how I feel about the content. I found that after having struggled to get through the introduction and early stage of the book, I agreed with a lot of what Taleb has to say – but perhaps not quite as strongly, and certainly not in the way he presents (mostly articulates) it.

To be antifragile is to be not only resilient to randomness, variance, volatility, unpredictability (and however many other ways you can say ‘things you weren’t expecting to happen’), but also to gain or benefit in the event of volatility. It took me a little while to wrap my head around the idea of being able to benefit from volatility, but Taleb makes good use of a couple figures when he argues that a person that is Antifragile can benefit from volatility only in systems that are non-linear –the more extreme or unlikely an event that occurs in a system, the more radical and extreme the response will be (picture a chart of an exponential response).

One example of this that is fresh in my mind (I think) that seemed to make sense would be if you were to essentially bet against the ‘economy’ (or bet that there would be a financial system collapse – through the magic of the stock market). If you were to have reason to expect that this is a wise bet to make (you see the 2008 mortgage derivative swap whatever thing coming), over time you’d be wrong for a little bit – but you’d would only be losing small amounts of money (at the low end of the exponential curve). When the extreme, unpredictable event (called a Black Swan in the book) happens, you cash out big-time. Another strong example of antifragility (or a lack thereof) is how a child that is allowed to play in the dirt, get cuts and bruises, expose itself to lots of sunlight and new bacteria (or germs or virii or whatever) while its immune system is in its highest rate of development – you could likely assume that it would be ‘stronger’ than a child raised in a sterile room, covered in sunscreen, and using sanitary wipes after touching anything. One of my favorite examples – that coincidentally relates to me due a recent change in my exercising – is how barefoot or minimalist running strengthens your feet by allowing them to adapt or react to terrain using all the muscles in your foot, instead of protecting them with over-cushioned running shoes. My feet are becoming antifragile.

Throughout the book, Taleb engages in vehement bashing of academia and academics, and while at some points it was pretty repetitive and tactless (often saying things like “evidence schmevidence”), I tend to agree with the argument he was presenting. You can only really learn so much in a lecture or a textbook, and to understand how the real world tends to actually function and operate, you have to jump in there – and this doesn’t require much more than a bit of initiative, let alone a Doctorate. Ranging from the ignorance of people that think they know what they’re talking about because they went to school for six years and wrote their thesis on this or that, to the absoloutely treacherous record of politicians and ‘economists’ predictions and models used to forecast how things are going to go (with no punishment for their complete inaccuracies) – there’s shocking lack of practical knowledge compared to pure academia that happens to run the world. I didn’t exactly enjoy how much Taleb talked about ancient philosophers (I’m sure mainly because I’m completely ignorant of this subject – and all the names just sound like they’re from God of War to me), but a few of the quotes and proverbs struck a chord with me. In regards to trying to attain a deeper understanding of things he says, “the sea gets deeper as you go farther into it”, or as I like to think “I know enough to know that I don’t know much” – something that I think many people should open up to.

Taleb argues that true knowledge and entrepreneurship is attained not fom high level academia – but from tinkering, or trial and error. I agree with this to a large extent, but not entirely. I would argue that university level education provides a sort of launch pad – and then the rest is about diving in and seeing what you can figure out. I can probably truthfully say that of the things I truly understand – I’ve only really gotten a grasp of them from troubleshooting them (taking out the broken bits of a computer until it turns back on), and learning from why I broke something in the first place. Reverse engineering is underappreciated. I rarely tend to make the same mistake more than once, and I feel confident that I can learn how to do just about anything – because I understand the true mechanisms behind understanding mechanisms.

So as I said – there’s a lot in this book that I agree with. It was hard to get through, however, because of an over-abundance of ancient philosophy and literature that I’m not well versed in, and it kind of reads (much like this post, I’m sure) like a mad-man’s manifesto because I don’t think it was edited (he mentions on multiple occasions that book editors are among the things he hates the most – editors shmeditors). While my talk of this book was not very brief, there was a lot in this book — I’m sure I missed half of it, and forgot a quarter — so you may want to read it yourself. That being said, there were lots of interesting blurbs and quotes that I liked, so I’ll end with a few of them.

–          “Food would not have a taste if it weren’t for hunger; results are meaningless without effort, joy without sadness, convictions without uncertainty, and an ethical life isn’t so when stripped of personal risk” (in other words, volatility can be a good thing, working hard can be worth it, put your money where your mouth is or shut up, and people will fuck you over if they’re never held accountable).

–          “We a suckers for the sophisticated” (A lot of people will buy into anything with a bit of math behind it – equip your bullshit detectors)

–          In regards to minimalist running shoes… “In a way they are selling us the calloused feet of a hunter-gatherer that we can put on, use, and then remove upon returning to civilization.”

–          In regards to big pharma and medications “the non-natural needs to prove its benefits, not the natural” (Smoke weed errry day)

–          “I am not here to live forever, as a sick animal”

–          “We sacrifice ourselves in favor of our genes, trading our fragility for their survival. We age, but they stay young and get fitter and fitter outside us. Things break on a small scale all the time, in order to avoid large-scale generalized catastrophes.”

Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, by Scott Jurek and Steve Friedman

I picked up Jurek’s Eat and Run yesterday and couldn’t put it down. I finished it in one day – my own personal marathon of reading (plus it was pretty short). I found it to be a genuinely inspiring, although somewhat depressing tale of running and chasing your own limits. “Sometimes you just do things”, as Jurek often quotes of his father throughout the book struck a chord with me – I often tell myself that “it is what it is” in the same manner. I like to know why things are, but sometimes, you just need to understand that you just need to do things, and they are what they are.

I’ve been trying to get myself into somewhat of a running frame of mind, training for my first half marathon. Miniscule in distance compared to 150mile ultra marathons, but I feel the principle is the same. Running is an easy and natural movement, and anyone can do – but running for just a little bit longer each time takes something else. Finding your edge and pushing past it is what it takes. Going as far as you can possible go, and then going a little bit more. Running is more mental than I had previously imagined it would be, and I was happy to read that one of the strongest ultra-runners of all time felt the same way.

Jurek speaks of “the zone”, or “the sudden, Zen-like clarity that comes when you least expect it, often when your body is pushed to the limit” in Chapter 14. I think that I’ve chased down and tasted Satori once or twice before – I was running, and it was so easy and light that I forgot that I was even moving (I don’t even think I could hear the music in my headphones). It was crystal clear, it was blissful, but it was ephemeral. Jurek immediately follows his talk of satori with, “Satori can be sought, but it cannot be held”, which certainly was the case with myself – like all drugs, the high doesn’t last.

Other than a few motivational snippets and spiritual guidelines, I took away a little bit of advice for improving my eating and running. Jurek is an avid – but not obnoxious – vegan, and has a recipe for a vegan meal at the end of each chapter. I can’t exactly try them out right now, as I’m living in a tent without a blender, and the construction crew would never cease ridiculing me while they eat their hourly hotdogs – but I’m excited to try them out when I get home (I love a mean guac, salsa, burritos, and rice. What could go wrong?). As far as running advice is concerned, the big thing I took away other than the mental strength and focus required was in regards to stride rate (I also learned that a single stride length is the distance covered after both legs have pushed off the ground – not each individual step). Jurek mentions that most elite or professional runners try to maintain a rate somewhere in the range of 85~90 strides per minute. For this, he also recommends finding music at that BPM (beats per minute) or double that. I’m excited to try it out and see how it works, and then (hopefully) start lengthening my strides once I build up more endurance and strength.

For being a short book, I tried to keep my talk about it short – but it seems that I got lost in the zone I often find myself in when I start to type. I understand what Jurek calls Satori, and plan on chasing it down. All in all, Eat and Run was a good read. Lots of delicious sounding recipes at your disposal at the end of each chapter, more encouraging statements and mental preparation than I expected, and even a little bit of advice on how to improve. For a budding runner, or even veteran mileage killer, I think most people would get a kick out of Jureks book.

The Signal and the Noise: Why Some Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, by Nate Silver

I originally heard of this book, like many other books I’ve read, from either The Daily Show with Jon Stewart or The Colbert Report. I can’t remember which, but they’re practically interchangeable. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad that most of my recommended reading comes from satirical news shows, but hey, at least I’m reading something. Despite being introduced to myself on what is essentially comedy television, this was an exceptionally well thought out exploration into the world of statistics, Bayesian reasoning, and their applications.

Silver mixes some great (albeit nerdy) jokes into the world of analyzing and scrutinizing seemingly endless data – which was a good call, because I don’t think most people are quite as interested, or have much of a technical background, in the realm of statistics and signal analysis. I think what really made this book so enticing for me was the fact that I had just finished a course in my engineering education regarding Instrumentation and Data Analysis, which was essentially a crash course in statistics, probability, and leaned heavily on Bayes theorem. Now that I think about it, I actually recall that the professor in that course mentioned Silver by name (he was in the news prior to that for having just correctly called the American Presidential election almost perfectly) during class one day – I don’t remember if he plugged his book or not though.

This book hit the target on so many of my interests and hobbies that it was almost eerie. I don’t exactly analyze baseball, or basketball – but I avidly follow hockey and was pretty impressed when EA sports was correctly able to predict the winner of the Stanley cup one year (the Blackhawks), and almost got it right the next year (my beloved, runners-up Canucks), and it made me think about the practical ways to break it down and analyze it. Silver even spent an entire chapter on poker, which will always have a soft spot in my heart. Although it isn’t related to my academic or extra-curricular interests, I spend a lot of time looking at weather forecasts due to the fact that I’m currently stationed on a construction project that is easily slowed down by adverse weather, so the weather forecasting section was fascinating too, and I didn’t realize how exceptional of a job is done and how much progress was made in this field.

I could continue elaborating about how much I enjoyed each chapter, and about how Silver described each concept so well that it just rolls into your brain for later use – but I think that would spoil the book for you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Signal and the Noise, and it helped me see the forest for the trees, and reaffirm how useful it is to approach the world with a probabilistic attitude instead of a binary yes/no view. From 100 year storm events, and hypothesis testing, to confidence intervals and Bayes theorem – there wasn’t a part of this book that I didn’t enjoy. If you have any interest in statistics or data analysis, you should read this.