For those who care, its value lies in its insight into Taleb's personality
Commenté aux États-Unis 🇺🇸 le 5 mars 2011
I have to say I agree with the text of pretty much all the reviews: this is a book that contains wisdom, and it displays great arrogance and pomposity. Much of it is completely unoriginal, often no better than what you get in a fortune cookie, and lots of it is just plain stupid. Where its value lies is in what it reveals about Taleb himself -- if you care; it's as though he's taken the world's longest, weirdest, Rorschach test, and spewed out the responses in Sun Tzu form.
Consider the aphorisms that many are seeing as arrogance. I see them as self-hatred, or at least acknowledgment of wrongdoing. For example, there is "the characteristic feature of the loser is to bemoan, in general terms, mankind's flaws, biases, contradictions, and irrationality -- without exploiting them for fun and profit." In that I see recognition of the opportunity lost when he failed to capitalize on the coming crash predicted in The Black Swan. (Yes, he made some money, and one should never sneeze at a 100% or so return, but it hardly compares to the others, who drew the same conclusions with the same information, who turned hundreds of thousands of dollars into tens of millions of dollars.) Another example is "It is difficult to change someone's opinions as it is to change his tastes." To me that reads as the confession of a failed professor and writer, one who is struggling to accept responsibility for his limitations.
Some of his little sayings are clearly self-referential, obviously having significant meaning to him personally but not being things generally true. "The worst damage has been caused by competent people trying to do good; the best improvements have been brought by incompetent ones not trying to do good" would appear to be an apt summary of the history of his homeland, Lebanon, but has little application beyond that. "People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling `arrogant'" smells of someone who sees himself as an unappreciated genius. Along the same lines is "They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status -- but rarely for your wisdom." "Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it" brings to mind the frog and the scorpion. I just wonder (though don't particularly care) which one Taleb was.
Then there are the aphorisms that are just flat-out stupid: my two favourite are "Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases" and "Economics is like a dead star that still seems to produce light; but you know it is dead." I guess he had something in mind there, but it's hard to think of a single context where they have any truth or meaning.
There is wisdom in some of the aphorisms, many of which have already been quoted in other reviews, and others which contain enough grains of truth to merit discussion. Had he started his book with his afterward -- particularly his description of what purposes aphorisms can serve -- I think the book would have been better served, and the worthwhile content would have carried the reader through the bad with better humour. (The best use has already been referred to in a prior review: as a teaching tool, something for a parent or grandparent to discuss with a child.)
Unfortunately, given the way the book is structured, the negative aspects of the book overwhelm the good. Furthermore, his ceaseless, and often meritless, attacks on academia, employment, and journalism dull the impact not just of whatever message he's trying to convey here, but also dulls the impact of his earlier works. For example, his advice in "Fooled By Randomness" to avoid the news, as it in essence is nothing but noise, was something I've given a lot of thought to since I first read it. But what, there, was advice, is here simply rabid diatribe. It's impossible to take it seriously, and perhaps to my detriment, I'm back to reading the dailies.
I get that he had negative experiences with those three things. He wrote extensively about his work history in Randomness (his account of "Nero Tulip" is very thinly-veiled autobiographical). Okay, you had a bad experience at one of your firms and got kicked out. Get over it! It doesn't make everybody who has a job a "sucker" or a "loser". Similarly with academia: lots of people who think outside the box have trouble talking inside the box. You were one of them, but you got through it, and got your Ph.D. It doesn't make all universities evil. Move on!
I will quote one of the aphorisms that I consider to be very valuable: "Wealth" is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure "unwealth," that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have.
This book shows that for Taleb, there is obviously a pretty big gulf between where he is at, and where he wants to be. If you are an admirer of Taleb, and that's something that interests you, buy the book. But when you read it, I think you'll think he's a smaller-minded, less interesting, and less insightful man than you previously thought. For someone who came across so worldly in his first two books, this book portrays him as someone who lives in a very small, very simple, and ultimately very dull world.
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