Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder

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Authors: Nassim Nicholas Taleb
someone earning close to minimum wage, say, a construction worker or a taxi driver, does not overly depend on his reputation and is free to have his own opinions. He would be merely robust compared to the artist, who is antifragile. A midlevel bank employee with a mortgage would be fragile to the extreme. In fact he would be completely a prisoner of the value system that invites him to be corrupt to the core—because of his dependence on the annual vacation in Barbados. The same with a civil servant in Washington. Take this easy-to-use heuristic (which is, to repeat the definition, a simple compressed rule of thumb) to detect the independence and robustness of someone’s reputation. With few exceptions, those who dress outrageously are robust or even antifragile in reputation; those clean-shaven types who dress in suits and ties are fragile to information about them.
    Large corporations and governments do not seem to understand this rebound power of information and its ability to control those who try to control it. When you hear a corporation or a debt-laden government trying to “reinstill confidence” you know they are fragile, hence doomed. Information is merciless: one press conference “to tranquilize” and the investors will run away, causing a death spiral or a run on the bank. Which explains why I have an obsessive stance against government indebtedness, as a staunch proponent of what is called fiscal conservatism. When you don’t have debt you don’t care about your reputation in economics circles—and somehow it is only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one. Just as in matters of seduction, people lend the most to those who need them the least.
    And we are blind to this antifragility of information in even more domains. If I physically beat up a rival in an ancestral environment, I injure him, weaken him, perhaps eliminate him forever—and get some exercise in the process. If I use the mob to put a contract on his head, he is gone. But if I stage a barrage of informational attacks on websites and in journals, I may be just helping him and hurting myself.
    So I end this section with a thought. It is quite perplexing that those from whom we have benefited the most aren’t those who have tried to help us (say with “advice”) but rather those who have actively tried—but eventually failed—to harm us.
    Next we turn to a central distinction between the things that like stress and other things that don’t.
    1 Cato was the statesman who, three books ago (
Fooled by Randomness
), expelled all philosophers from Rome.
    2 This little bit of effort seems to activate the switch between two distinct mental systems, one intuitive and the other analytical, what psychologists call “system 1” and “system 2.”
    3 There is nothing particularly “white” in white noise; it is simply random noise that follows a Normal Distribution.
    4 The obvious has not been tested empirically: Can the occurrence of extreme events be predicted from past history? Alas, according to a simple test: no, sorry.
    5 Set a simple filtering rule: all members of a species need to have a neck forty centimeters long in order to survive. After a few generations, the surviving population would have, on average, a neck
longer
than forty centimeters. (More technically, a stochastic process subjected to an absorbing barrier will have an observed mean higher than the barrier.)
    6 The French have a long series of authors who owe part of their status to their criminal record—which includes the poet Ronsard, the writer Jean Genet, and many others.

CHAPTER 3
 
     

The Cat and the Washing Machine
     
    Stress is knowledge (and knowledge is stress)—The organic and the mechanical—No translator needed, for now—Waking up the animal in us, after two hundred years of modernity

     
     
    The bold conjecture made here is that everything that has life in it is to some extent antifragile (but not the reverse).

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