The third book of Taleb's Incerto trilogy was published in November 2012 and is now available in paperback. His first two books, Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan, sold so well that he was paid an advance of $4m for the final instalment.
Antifragile is an interesting read both intellectually and personally. Taleb famously gives little away to journalists but in this book his personality shines out through his writing. So emotionally charged is the book, I thought it would be appropriate to review it by reference to the subjects contained that come in for the most vitriol from Taleb.
Readers familiar with Taleb's other writings will already know how he feels about bankers. Taleb's definition of antifragility (systems that get stronger under volatility, as opposed to fragile ones that break) stems from his work in banking. One criticism that is already gaining much ground elsewhere is the absence of "skin in the game" for traders gambling with their clients' money. But Taleb's dislike of bankers is not just an academic one. Personal insults abound, including a "suit" held to task for getting a porter to carry his bags to the gym.
Fragility is often seen at a relatively simple level, a glass being the obvious example, whereas antifragility is a property of complex systems - the human body, human populations or markets. Politicians come under fire on (at least!) two counts. First, they cause chaos by interfering with systems that they do not understand. In particular, interventions by politicians tend to favour eradication of error, which increases fragility and risk of collapse. Secondly, and more strongly, politicians frequently gain personal advantage at the cost of others by talking a good game that they do not practice in their own lives.
I don't think I need to explain why Taleb hates economists or give examples from the book. Instead I just want to mention Taleb's rather touching fondness for Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Despite Taleb naming the Stiglitz syndrome (predicting the future inconsistently and only taking credit for the ones that turn out to be correct) after him, Stiglitz does not come in for the same strength of insults dished out to other "fragilistas" and I am amused by my impression Taleb secretly quite likes him.
4. Alternative Medicine
Taleb has a disdain for all modern medicine, and a whole section of the book explains the wrongheadedness of risking a serious issue by using insufficiently tested medicine for a non-life-threatening condition. The terrible example of treating morning sickness with thalidomide makes this point well. But don't confuse Taleb's skepticism with a belief in alternative therapies - he "went postal" on receiving a letter of support from one such practitioner saying she understood how he felt.
5. Orange Juice
Taleb's hatred for orange juice is an example of a wider disdain for the modern diet. He reveals his personal food rules, and very fascinating they are: no liquids that have not existed for at least one thousand years (i.e. wine, water and coffee only), no fruit not present in the ancient Mediterranean (no pineapples, pawpaws or other exotica) and observance of Greek Orthodox fasts for health rather than religious reasons. He considers oranges to be the equivalent of candy, as the modern variety have been intentionally bred for their sweetness.
I found Antifragile to be thought provoking and very entertaining. It is full of contradictions and inconsistencies, but the sincere passion behind the main themes gives the book its charm. The most delicious irony is that according to Taleb's own criteria - a book is more likely to contain accurate useful ideas the longer it has been in existence - the reader made their first mistake in choosing to pick the book up.
Managing Director of Softwire, technology and backgammon presenter. Plus a little bit of new music radio.