Wednesday, 9 February 2011

The Bed of Procrustes, Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This blog touts itself as offering "good-tempered" reviews, but I am going to interpret that sentiment broadly for the purposes of this post, since I am still quite annoyed at having paid £14.99 for this narcisisstic and second-rate book.  I freely admit that I skipped through some of it, and I don't feel any the poorer for having done so.  Extracts from it are available on Taleb's ostentatiously amateurish website.

This is a book of aphorisms.  Now, you might think that a man who sees fit to improve the world's understanding of itself by publishing his own book of aphorisms must be a massive, massive penis, and you'd be right, but the thinking behind the book does have a degree of real merit.  Taleb has become something of a guru since the publication in 2007 of his book The Black Swan (which I liked and reviewed on this blog), and there's no denying that he has some useful and valuable insights into the workings of the world in general and the financial markets in particular.  He rightly reminds us that "we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives".  This is where the Procrustes metaphor comes from.  He makes a good point, and I'm also right behind him when he writes that "our minds are not good at handling the non-anecdotal [and] tend to be swayed by vivid imagery, making the media distort our view of the world".

The problem is that this is not primarily a book about Taleb's important work on financial markets, risk management and the limitations of human knoweldge.  It is mostly a book about Taleb, and his strange and self-indulgent take on things.  He writes: "my classical values make me advocate the triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage; against modernity's phoniness, nerdiness and philistinism".  He also lets us know - repeatedly - that he doesn't like economists or professional academics (he is currently a senior professor at New York University).  By way of further background, his website reports that he "spends his time as a philosophical flâneur, taking long walks (slowly), thinking in cafés across the planet, and ordering a lot of books (a flâneur is the exact opposite of the tourist)."  Not much comment necessary.

Much of Taleb's worldview appears to be based on a contrast between modernity and classical culture, though for a self-styled classicist his understanding of the latter is strikingly superficial, having apparently been gleaned from a reading of a limited selection of élite texts.  He explicitly admires the megalopsychos of Aristotle, the "magnificent" man who "thinks of himself as worthy of great things and, aware of his own position in life, abides by a certain system of ethics that excludes pettiness".  No prizes for guessing who Taleb's own candidate for this role is, though a more churlish critic might question whether a man who eschews pettiness and believes that "[i]t is a waste of emotions to answer critics" would be so ready to come out with this sort of stuff.  Taleb elsewhere writes that "[t]he difference between magnificance and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking".  This appears to be an unwittingly candid admission that following his advice will result in one's public behaviour becoming indistinguishable from that of a self-important boor.

Taleb does not present his aperçus as the outcome of careful observation, thought and reflection.  Rather, the process is almost supernatural: "these sentences come naturally to me, almost involuntarily, in an eerie way, particularly when walking (slowly) or when freeing up my mind to do nothing, or nothing effortful - I could convince myself that I was hearing voices from the other side of the veil of opacity".  The reason, incidentally, why Taleb is anxious for his readers to know the speed at which he walks is that slow movements are one of the hallmarks of the megalopsychos.

Taleb has a contempt for paid employment.  He not only likens it to slavery, he says that it is slavery, an odd exaggeration for someone who professes to know something about classical society.  As he often reminds us in his writings, Taleb has been financially independent since making a killing in the crash of 87.  There are a number of words to describe the behaviour of a man who got rich by playing casino capitalism and then spends the rest of his life sneering at salaried employees, but erudition, elegance and courage are not among them.  The man has literally no work ethic, and no very obvious sense of social responsibility.  He may not like big business or the finance industry, but I strongly suspect that his megalopsychos votes Republican.

I am not the first to notice that Taleb has a rather fixed and slanted view of women and gender: "Sports femininize men and masculinize women", "Marriage is the institutional process of feminizing men - and feminizing women".  My personal favourite is his avuncular relationship advice: "When she shouts that what you did was unforgivable, she has already started to forgive you".  Well, maybe, Nassim, but I wouldn't always bet on it, and in any case I'm pretty sure that this doesn't deserve an epigram of its own.  It's also worth noting that the readership of the book is implicitly presumed to be male.  It is not clear whether there is such a thing as a megalopsyché.

Some of the aphorisms are just plain wrong.  "[T]he best improvements," Taleb tells us, "have been brought by incompetent [people] not trying to do good."  Well, no, most of them haven't, actually.  "The best revenge on a liar is to convince him that you believe what he said."  No, it's not.  It's to tie him to a chair and beat him about the head with a cricket bat.  Where Taleb's thoughts are not plain wrong, they are often what Basil Fawlty would call the bleedin' obvious.  "To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week's newspapers."  This will come as a penetrating insight to anyone who doesn't understand the concept of daily news.  "The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what's worse, the opposite."  No shit, Sherlock.  "Nobody wants to be perfectly transparent; not to others, certainly not to himself".  I think I was 18 when I figured that out.

Taleb strays into outright folly when he praises the "natural" way of doing things above human civilisation.  He either doesn't believe that life in the wild is nasty, brutish or short, or else he thinks that the cost of civilisation is at times too high.  "Don't talk about "progress" in terms of longevity, safety or comfort", he writes from his laptop in New York City, "before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness."  Well, I doubt that Taleb has bothered asking many animals what their views are on the subject, but I suspect that the last thing that my cats would want is to be released from captivity, and if Taleb himself had been born into a tribe in the New Guinea highlands I imagine that he would have been eaten by something by now.

Well, anyway, that's what I don't like about the book.  It would be churlish, however, not to quote a few of Taleb's genuinely insightful aphorisms, or at least those which share my own prejudices:

The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the leftovers become economists.

Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.

You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits.

Quite revealing of human preferences that more suicides come from shame or loss of financial and social status than medical diagnoses.

It is harder to say no when you really mean it then when you don't.

You cannot express the holy in terms made for the profane, but you can discuss the profane in terms made for the holy.

You will get the most attention from those who hate you.  No friend, no admirer, and no partner will flatter you with as much curiosity.

Education makes the wise slightly wiser; but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.