Friday, December 21, 2012

Taleb's aphorisms

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the author of the influential and seminal Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (which I've read about, but not actually read). Taleb explains his underlying philosophy in The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms, which as the title alerts, is entirely composed of aphorisms. The Greek myth of Procrustes is a parable about the disjunction of reality and formula.

Some key words: unconditionals, heroism, courage, magnificent, sacred and profane, suckers, nerds, slavery of employment*, robustness and fragility, ascetic, aesthetics, domain dependence, epistemology.

I didn't understand or respond to many of the aphorisms in my first reading. I reacted more in my second reading. I'll need to read the book, a quick read, again to cull all the value I'm going to get from the book for now. The preface and postface bookending Taleb's aphorisms provide a clear explanatory frame and tie the aphorisms to his more-famous works. Next on my reading list is Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness. I looking forward to finding out how Taleb's aphorisms inform my reading of Rand.

* Taleb earned millions as a Wall Street trader before reinventing himself as a sociologist -slash- political scientist.

Here are Taleb's aphorisms that stood out to me:

p 66, Ethical man accords his profession to his beliefs, instead of according his beliefs to his profession. This has been rarer and rarer since the Middle Ages.; p 62, My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal. (Former U.S. Treasury secretary "bankster" Robert Rubin, perhaps the biggest thief in history, broke no law. The difference between the legal and ethical increases in a complex system . . . then blows it up.); p 66, Weak men act to satisfy their needs, stronger men their duties.; p 54, You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration.; p 39, You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.; p 32, In most debates, people seem to be trying to be trying to convince one another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves.; p 8, Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.; p 3, The person you are most afraid to contradict is yourself.; p 41, Skills that transfer: street fights, off-path hiking, seduction, broad erudition. Skills that don't: school, games, sports, laboratory - what's reduced and organized.; p 47, Just like poets and artists, bureaucrats are born, not made; it takes normal humans extraordinary effort to keep attention on such boring tasks.; p 57, Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around. (The biggest error since Socrates has been to believe that lack of clarity is the source of all our ills, not the result of them.); p 60, Most people need to wait for another person to say "this is beautiful art" to say "this is beautiful art"; some need to wait for two or more.; p 64, You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.; p 65, Don't trust a man who needs an income - except if it is minimum wage. (Those in corporate captivity would do anything to "feed a family."); p 68, Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant.; p 81, For Seneca, the Stoic sage should withdraw from public efforts when unheeded and the state is corrupt beyond repair. It is wiser to wait for self-destruction.; p 82, To become a philosopher, start by walking very slowly.; p 83, To be a philosopher is to know through long walks, by reasoning, and reasoning only, a priori, what others can only potentially learn from their mistakes, crises, accidents, and bankruptcies - that is, a posteriori.; p 84, Conscious ignorance, if you can practice it, expands your world; it can make things infinite.; p 85, In Plato's Protagoras, Socrates contrasts philosophy as the collaborative search for truth with the sophist's use of rhetoric to gain the upper hand in argument for fame and money. Twenty-five centuries later, this is exactly the salaried researcher and the modern tenure-loving academic. Progress.; p 5, Your brain is most intelligent when you don't instruct it on what to do - something people who take showers discover on occasion.; p 6, Work destroys your soul by stealthily invading your brain during the hours not officially spent working; be selective about professions.; p 7, Compliance with the straitjacket of narrow (Aristotelian) logic and avoidance of fatal inconsistencies are not the same thing.; p 7, Don't talk about "progress" in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness.; p 19, If you can't spontaneously detect (without analyzing) the difference between sacred and profane, you'll never know what religion means. You will also never figure out what we commonly call art. You will never understand anything.; p 19, People used to wear ordinary clothes weekdays and formal attire on Sunday. Today it is the exact reverse.; p 24, What fools call "wasting time" is most often the best investment.; p 27, Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.; p 29, Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, noble, elegant, robust, and heroic life.; p 29, Don't complain too loud about wrongs done you; you may give ideas to your less imaginative enemies.; p 9, It is as difficult to change someone's opinions as it is to change his tastes.; p 30, Those who do not think that employment is systemic slavery are either blind or employed.; p 31, The twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one.; p 45, You need to keep reminding yourself of the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed. It takes mastery to control silence.; p 36, People are so prone to overcausation that you can make the reticent turn loquacious by dropping an occasional "why?" in the conversation.; p 49, The exponential information age is like a verbally incontinent person: he talks more and more as fewer and fewer people listen.; p 49, Most so-called writers keep writing and writing with the hope to, some day, find something to say.; p 64, Trust those who make a living lying down or standing up more than those who do so sitting down.; p 69, For soldiers, we use the term "mercenary," but we absolve employees of responsibility with "everybody needs to make a living."; p 71, When conflicted between two choices, take neither.; p 72, For the robust, an error is information; for the fragile, an error is an error.; p 75, 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.; p 56, The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control, and what's worse, the opposite.; p 58, Finer men tolerate others' small inconsistencies though not the large ones; the weak tolerate others' large inconsistencies though not small ones.; p 86, What they call "risk" I call opportunity; but what they call "low risk" opportunity I call sucker problem.; p 94, The traits I respect are erudition and the courage to stand up when half-men are afraid for their reputation. Any idiot can be intelligent.; p 94, The mediocre regret their words more than their silence; finer men regret their silence more than their words; the magnificent has nothing to regret.; p 97, The classical man's worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man's worst fear is just death.; p 103, A good foe is far more loyal, far more predictable, and, to the clever, far more useful than the most valuable admirer.; p 84, It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn't really make sense.; p 78, They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns); p 17, You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification and, above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else's narrative; p 34, There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same.; p 40, We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises and stimuli from the environment; p 52, What I learned on my own I still remember.; p 96, The magnificent believes half of what he hears and twice what he says.; p 66, There are those who will thank you for what you gave them and others who will blame you for what you did not give them.; p 56, The sucker's trap is when you focus on what you know and what others don't know, rather than the reverse.; p 95, Regular men are a certain varying number of meals away from lying, killing, or even working as forecasters for the Federal Reserve in Washington; never the magnificent. (I had to read Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics Book IV ten times before realizing what he didn' say explicitly (but knew): the magnificent (megalopsychos) is all about unconditionals.); p 96, The weak cannot be good; or, perhaps, he can only be good within an exhaustive and overreaching legal system.; p 12, 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.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

if I knew from th estart that there was so much to unlearn, I wouldn't have started on that road.

1/19/2013 7:30 PM  

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