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Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder

Taleb introduces the book as follows: "Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better".[1]

Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

The phenomenon is well studied in medicine, where for example Wolff's law describes how bones grow stronger due to external load. Hormesis is an example of mild antifragility, where the stressor is a poisonous substance and the antifragile becomes better overall from a small dose of the stressor. This is different from robustness or resilience in that the antifragile system improves with, not withstand, stressors, where the stressors are neither too large nor small. The larger point, according to Taleb, is that depriving systems of vital stressors is not necessarily a good thing and can be downright harmful.

More technically, Taleb defines antifragility as a nonlinear response: "Simply, antifragility is defined as a convex response to a stressor or source of harm (for some range of variation), leading to a positive sensitivity to increase in volatility (or variability, stress, dispersion of outcomes, or uncertainty, what is grouped under the designation "disorder cluster"). Likewise, fragility is defined as a concave sensitivity to stressors, leading to a negative sensitivity to an increase in volatility. The relation between fragility, convexity, and sensitivity to disorder is mathematical, obtained by theorem, not derived from empirical data mining or some historical narrative. It is a priori".[2]

Via negativa is a type of theological thinking that attempts to describe God by negation or in other words, by what God is not. Taleb expanded this definition to include more generally the focus on what something is not, in action, what to avoid or what not to do. Avoiding the doctor for minor illnesses or removing certain food from one's diet to improve health are examples.

Toward the end of the book Taleb provides examples of the problems of agency and cherry-picking, calling them the Robert Rubin problem, the Joseph Stiglitz problem, and the Alan Blinder problem. In the last chapter (p. 412), for example, Taleb criticizes Alan Blinder, the former vice chairman of the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System for trying to sell him an investment product at Davos in 2008 which would allow an investor to circumvent the regulations limiting deposit insurance and to benefit from coverage for near unlimited amounts. Taleb commented that the scheme "would allow the super-rich to scam taxpayers by getting free government-sponsored insurance". He also criticized Blinder for using ex-regulators to game the system which they built in the first place and for voicing his opposition to policies of bank insurance that would hurt his business, i.e., claiming that what is good for his business is "for the public good". The event has been discussed in the media, but not denied by Blinder.[7][8]

It is easy to see things around us that like a measure of stressors and volatility: economic systems , your body, your nutrition (diabetes and many similar modern ailments seem to be associated with a lack of randomness in feeding and the absence of the stressor of occasional starvation), your psyche. There are even financial contracts that are antifragile: they are explicitly designed to benefit from market volatility.

In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile toward the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry : anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.

'Really made me think about how I think' - Mohsin Hamid, author of Exit WestTough times don't last. Tough people do. In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world. Here Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary. The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, many things in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil. What Taleb has identified and calls antifragile are things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish.Antifragile is a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world. Erudite, witty, and iconoclastic, Taleb's message is revolutionary: the antifragile, and only the antifragile, will make it.'The hottest thinker in the world' Bryan Appleyard, Sunday Times

And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

The fragilista falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, the (unscientific) overestimation of the reach of scientific knowledge. Because of such delusion, he is what is called a naive rationalist, a rationalizer, or sometimes just a rationalist, in the sense that he believes that the reasons behind things are automatically accessible to him.

Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers. They become dangerous when we forget that.

The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates! This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern methods and ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything).

The one case is a tragedy, the other a statistic. Our emotional energy is blind to probability. The media make things worse as they play on our infatuation with anecdotes, our thirst for the sensational, and they cause a great deal of unfairness that way. At the present time, one person is dying of diabetes every seven seconds, but the news can only talk about victims of hurricanes with houses flying in the air.

The benefits of procrastination apply similarly to medical procedures: we saw that procrastination protects you from error as it gives nature a chance to do its job, given the inconvenient fact that nature is less error-prone than scientists.

We are very likely to believe that skills and ideas that we actually acquired by antifragile doing, or that came naturally to us (from our innate biological instinct), came from books, ideas, and reasoning. We get blinded by it; there may even be something in our brains that makes us suckers for the point.

Knowledge formation, even when theoretical, takes time, some boredom, and the freedom that comes from having another occupation, therefore allowing one to escape the journalistic-style pressure of modern publish-and-perish academia to produce cosmetic knowledge, much like the counterfeit watches one buys in Chinatown in New York City, the type that you know is counterfeit although it looks like the real thing.

Note that I do not believe that the argument set forth above should logically lead us to say that no money should be spent by government. This reasoning is more against teleology than research in general.

Let me stop to issue rules based on the chapter so far. (i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people.

Provided we have the right type of rigor, we need randomness, mess, adventures, uncertainty, self-discovery, near-traumatic episodes, all these things that make life worth living, compared to the structured, fake, and ineffective life of an empty-suit CEO with a preset schedule and an alarm clock.

Much progress comes from the young because of their relative freedom from the system and courage to take action that older people lose as they become trapped in life. But it is precisely the young who propose ideas that are fragile, not because they are young, but because most unseasoned ideas are fragile.

As a case study, consider mammograms. It has been shown that administering them to women over forty on an annual basis does not lead to an increase in life expectancy (at best; it could even lead to a decrease). While female mortality from breast cancer decreases for the cohort subjected to mammograms, the death from other causes increases markedly.

According to Nassim, the general misconception about the economic benefits of increased education levels rises from the simple fact that people cannot differentiate between causality and correlation. The simple fact that a number of rich countries are educated, does not mean that we should infer that education makes a country rich, we should not be fooled by randomness. Nassim is not however against the acquisition of knowledge, the problem is the, 'commoditized, prepackaged and pink-coated knowledge' offered by formal education. This brand of education to some degree offers the individual a stable career option (again depending on what degree the individual in question pursues), but its real benefits lies in its ability to, 'make good citizens' (citizens who are polished dinner partners). We should not however lose sight of the fact that skills at doing should never be mistook with skills at talking. People who do things in the field are never subjected to an exam to test their knowledge/intelligence, they know only what it is necessary. In the words of Nietzche, 'What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent'. 041b061a72


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