Antifragile review

Antifragile: Things That Gain from DisorderAntifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Maaaan this book was frustrating to read.

His main point is that some things are fragile – small random things happening to them make them break. Some things are robust – they’re resilient to small random things happening to them. But the best things are antifragile – small random things happening to them make them stronger. Good examples are things like your immune system, since being exposed to weak viruses makes it stronger.

So far so good. Unfortunately the rest of the book was painful to read, even as there were some good ideas sprinkled within. Here are some reasons why!

– The author is, to put it delicately, an egocentric asshole. He calls things “sissy” and “wussy”, because he’s apparently a fifth grader. Some choice quotes:

A friend who writes books remarked that painters like painting but authors like “having written.” I suggested he stop writing, for his sake and the sake of his readers.

Charming, no? He also goes on about people who just don’t understand his ideas (which I’m a little skeptical of…it’s possible that they do understand and disagree, which I’m sure the author would consider the same as not “really” understanding) and gives the example of a time when he was doing a radio interview and the journalist didn’t understand something, so he walked out of the studio.

– The book is extremely prone to overstating things for dramatic effect (I assume?), which made me not trust it in a lot of cases. The author says “I realized school was a plot designed to deprive people of erudition by squeezing their knowledge into a narrow set of authors.” (and then has a long list of authors that he’s read) He says depression is a made-up disease! Here, look:

But when you medicate a child for an imagined or invented psychiatric disease, say, ADHD or depression, instead of letting him out of the cage, the long-term harm is largely unaccounted for.

I mean, I don’t disagree that ADHD is probably overdiagnosed and we need to be careful about prescribing medication, especially if it isn’t proven to work better than counseling. But I think it’s pretty unreasonable and insulting to say depression is “imagined or invented”. To me, this shows a lack of empathy or a belief that since he doesn’t feel depressed, other people are just “sad” or faking it or something. Sigh.

– He has a giant chip on his shoulder. In retrospect this isn’t terribly surprising, because in “The Black Swan” he talks about betting for the market to crash and being wrong every day for a long time, until he was right. (it also isn’t surprising because he’s an egocentric asshole – see above) But he attacks people mercilessly, some of whom seem like they don’t deserve it. He keeps calling people “Fragilista” (which I never was entirely clear what that meant) and he talks about about “Soviet-Harvard” people. He is extremely condescending towards “book learning” and claims that most innovations came from tinkering without understanding what was going on, which I find a bit implausible.

– The book is extremely hedgehog like (see The Hedgehog and the Fox) – he tries to apply this principle of antifragility across a wide range of topics, some of which he (proudly!) doesn’t know much about.

He also hates the metric system because the imperial measures are “intuitive”. For example, a furlong is the distance one can sprint before running out of breath, which is really stretching the definition of intuitive…

Anyway, with most books I try to ignore the parts I don’t like and get what I can out of it. In this case the whole reading experience was pretty unpleasant, and 90% of the good parts were in “The Black Swan” anyway, so I’d recommend reading that instead.

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