Distractions, Diversions, Books, Wines, Whiskeys and Other Stuff To Think About When You Should Be Doing Something Else.

Posts tagged “Nassim Nicholas Taleb

RFC: Procrustean Prompting

So, I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. I must say it isn’t exactly what I expected. Most people probably know an aphorism or two, even if they don’t know that is what they are called. “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” or “The only thing required for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” are two common aphorisms, but essentially any short saying that contains a general truth or bit of wisdom can be considered an aphorism. I knew the book was going to be a collection of aphorisms but I also expected some longer sections of philosophy. It turns out that the book is entirely composed of aphorisms without a larger narrative though there is, apparently, a theme.

In an idle moment I was flipping randomly through the various ‘chapters’ that contain aphorisms on particular topics. As I did, I found myself thinking about using aphorisms as writing prompts, something that is one of the oldest tricks in the history of old tricks, and how it might be really interesting to turn this book into some kind of weblog meme, passing the torch from blog to blog to elicit a post inspired by the aphorisms contained in the book combined with the interests and world-view of the authors. Maybe even making them into an online, or even printed collection.

Thus, my request for comment.

Anybody else think this sounds like an interesting project or would like to offer any ideas to improve or expand the concept?


Additions to the Antilibrary: 2/21/09

From Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan: The Antilibrary

“The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market will allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.”

I am blessed to live in a community with a high quality local library system and, as a result, I am able to access an antilibrary well beyond anything my own personal financial means could provide (including the works of Umberto Eco). Here are some books currently on my antilibrary shelf:



The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Originally published on 7/5/07 at Dreaming 5GW.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

“Before the discovery of Australia, people of the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from the observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird.”

The Black Swan deserves a prominent place on the 5G warrior’s bookshelf. The concepts explored by Nassim Nicholas Taleb are the very mechanisms by which a 5GW campaign, as we have explored it, will function. Black Swans strike at the critical vulnerability for which there is no defense because we are not even aware we are vulnerable. As Taleb points out, if on September 10, 2001 it had been reasonably conceivable that terrorists were going to hijack planes and crash them into large buildings the events of September 11, 2001 would be unlikely to have occurred. Identifying these vulnerabilities on the systemic and strategic level is what 5GW is all about.

So, what exactly is a Black Swan event?

“First, it is a outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.”

Best of all the text flows in an easy, almost conversational manner (I’ll bet Taleb is a really fun guy to hang around with) and the examples are interesting even when exploring really theoretical territory. However, I think this quote sums up the reason to find this book and study it carefully more than any other.

“ Black Swan logic makes what you don’t know far more relevant than what you do know.”

Find out what you don’t know.