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- Publié sur Amazon.com
In 2007 Nassim Taleb depicted the then current financial situation in America as a brittle house of cards. The subsequent economic crash and burn made his reputation as a seer, though Taleb would never claim prophesy in any form. "I know nothing about the future," he told the Long Now Foundation in February, 2008. He deals not with prediction, but with the unknown, or how humans fail to deal with the unknown, throw it under the carpet and pretend it doesn't exist. "The Black Swan" has become Taleb's symbol for the world's inherent unpredictability. The runaway best seller of the same name has seemingly redefined reality itself for some. From this point on the world looks fuzzier. Taleb has since spread his Black Swan-ism everywhere, and people are listening. But how to follow up such a magnum opus? As if to prove the unpredictability of the world, Taleb releases a thin volume of... aphorisms. Could anyone have expected this? The previously verbose wizard of the unknown takes on the most laconic textual genre next to haiku. Didn't aphorisms go out with Cioran? Not to mention that the book's title sounds right out of 1890: "The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms." In recent speeches Taleb has announced that he's now a philosopher. He apparently meant it. But he's still not predicting the future.
This very tiny volume, readable in a short sitting, delineates Taleb's thought in a very different manner than his previous books. It also takes on some new subjects. A short introduction frames the aphorisms to follow. Here the charming tale of Procrustes gets juxtaposed with our modern sensibilities. But the comparison seems appropriate. Where Procrustes lopped the limbs off of his dinner guests so they fit perfectly into his bed, we moderns chop huge sections of reality away to fit our preconceived notions. In other words, we tend to ignore outliers, random events and unforeseen events with huge consequences. This expresses, though more poetically, many of the ideas included in his previous two books. Many of these ideas reappear in brief form throughout the book. For example, the section "Fooled By Randomness" (also the title of his first book), includes this passage: "The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what's worse, the opposite." Our Procrustean tendency to deny randomness appears throughout the book in blatant and subtle ways. But Taleb also takes on other subjects. For instance, in numerous places employment gets compared to slavery rather bluntly. Some will see the obvious parallels, others may find his examples overbearing. Taleb also talks about love, friendship, ethics, science, and other psychological and philosophical tidbits. Some are more successful than others. Some, such as "Never say no twice if you mean it" inspire nothing more than a furrowed brow and a shrug before moving on. Many are laugh out loud funny: "The opposite of success isn't failure; it is name-dropping." Still more contain real brilliance that may cause double-takes. Regardless, some lines will pass with little reaction and smack more of opinion than of insight. A few come off as bizarre. All in all, the book provides enough food for thought to justify a good solid read. Taleb does have some surprising ideas about reality and how people should spend their time. He definitely favors more free time over long hours at work. Not to mention his thoughts on academia and economics. In the end, this book defies absolute summary, like most aphoristic works. But the reading level remains simple throughout, and readers can browse without worrying too much about context (unlike Nietzsche's aphoristic works).
"The Bed of Procrustes" definitely has its charms. Not only that, aphoristic writing really seems like an appropriate style for our modern attention spans. Though wisdom often sounds quaint in a rapidly changing society. In any case don't expect this minute book to delineate Taleb's thought in full. Read "Black Swan" for that (get the recently released second edition). This one gives only a slight overview. Though fun and often intriguing, it does not delve into details. Again, those looking for depth should read "Black Swan" and those wanting more should pick up this one as an enjoyable breather. In the meantime, Taleb will likely keep ruminating. Hopefully something else akin to "Black Swan" will pop out of him. He presented one provocative thought in a recent talk that involved using nature as a model for economies. Nothing in nature is too big to fail, he claimed. One could take out nature's largest entity (say, a blue whale) and the entire system would not falter. Unlike our economy where one or two big players could level everything. Though he didn't give details, Taleb presented this as a possible economic model. He also summed up that "if economists ran nature we would all have one lung, etc." That does seem startlingly true. Perhaps emphasizing efficiency over strength weakens us in the long run. In any case, hopefully Taleb will develop such ideas in the future.
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- Publié sur Amazon.com
My twelve year old son picked up the book at my local bookstore and could not put it down. While many of the aphorisms confused him, most made him think and he began to ask quite a few questions. Soon we were discussing various points and had more than a few laughs at the many victims of Taleb's wit. I wound up buying the book and picking up two extra copies as gifts for people who I am sure will enjoy reading discussing it, even if they are offended by some of Taleb's pronouncements.
Those that have read Taleb and are familiar with his books will have little trouble recognizing that the book is a further exploration of his theme of how individuals deal, and how they should deal, with what they do not know. And they will quickly find that Taleb's harsh view of fools is what it has always been. If you are easily offended and have the characteristics or opinions of those that Taleb skewers time after time you may not like this book. But if you have an open mind, an ego that does not need stroking, and thick skin you will probably love it.
As usual, Taleb is brilliant. His tone is sharp and his writing style is lucid. He begins by briefly going over the the myth of the cruel Procrustes (whose name meant 'the stretcher' in ancient Greek). Procrustes, whose real name may have been Damastes or Polyphemon, lived on an estate in Attica on the road between Athens and Eleusis. He would abduct travelers and provide them with a very nice diner. After the diner was over he would place them in his special bed where they would be fitted perfectly. That meant that those that were too short would be stretched while those that were too long would have their feet or legs chopped off. Taleb reminds the reader that every one of the sayings is about the same subject as, "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, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences."
Those familiar with the themes in Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets and The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" will immediately recognize this book as a link to the previous discussions. As usual, Taleb does not spare his favorite targets and takes his shots at those that know far less than they think that they do and try to fit their limited knowledge into what they are familiar with.
Of course, Mr. Taleb's bias may come into play in some of his pronouncements. It is easy to write, "My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill," or, "You have a real life if and only if you do not compete with anyone in any of your pursuits," when you are a successful trader and author who no longer has to work for a living if you do not wish to. That said, I can argue that Mr. Taleb's pronouncements are right on the money and far more deserving of attention than they are to receive from many readers who cannot handle the implied criticism of their own lives and choices.
My son found a number of the pronouncements worthy of writing down as the subjects of future essays. That said, he did not like Taleb's footnote for, "My biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and legal," because he thought that Taleb was being mean and superficial at a time when he had the opportunity to point the reader in a worthier direction. Instead of noting Robert Rubin's legal theft, he should have pointed readers to the Theban Plays and the issue of Natural Rights in Antigone or to the Nuremberg trial, which dealt with the same issue. And as a aficionado of more than a few games, his thin skin allowed him to be more than a bit upset at the comment, "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."
As with his other books, I loved Taleb's latest effort. But that having been said, it does not mean that you, my dear reader of this review, will love it as much or at all. The best way to find out is to look inside the book and hit the, 'Surprise Me!,' link. Read a few of the aphorisms or to look at the Postface. You also might want to look inside his other books and see if you like the style and can handle the wit and arrogance of the author. If you choose to read this book and keep an open mind, or his others, you are likely to learn a lot and to find plenty of material that can be a catalyst for some interesting debates or arguments with friends of family. I know that it has been a very enjoyable, rewarding, and useful book for me and for my young son.