Book review: Antifragile | Nick Dunbar

The word ‘optionality’ is too narrow for his purposes, so Taleb coins the term ‘fragility’ for entities or systems that are short options, and ‘antifragility’ for those that are long. Taleb’s point is that when uncertainty increases, culminating in extreme events, ‘fragile’ things die or fail, while ‘antifragile’ ones survive and thrive, like option traders who own out-the-money contracts. He argues that by optimising systems to survive under normal conditions, we’re setting ourselves up for catastrophic failures like the Fukushima nuclear reactor.

I use the words in quote marks because one has to question whether these universal qualities actually exist as Taleb claims. A key issue is Taleb’s objectivist approach to uncertainty. In the technical document co-authored with Raphael Douady, Taleb writes: ‘a coffee cup on a table suffers more from large deviations’. Reading that, I ask, how does a coffee cup suffer? Does it have feelings?

For me, the sensible approach to such questions is to ask the person responsible for the coffee cup how they feel about its fate. Compared with the relative certainty of leaving the cup in the cupboard, how do you feel about the negative consequences of the cup tumbling off the table versus the limited upside of the cup doing its job and successfully conveying coffee to your lips without incident? By stating your relative happiness or unhappiness about these outcomes, you can actually derive your subjective probability that something will happen to the coffee cup.

Now Taleb rules out such approaches from the start, declaring that ‘psychological notions such as subjective preferences…cannot apply to a coffee cup’. That leaves us with Taleb’s universal, suffering coffee cup that I personally care nothing about. You won’t find any discussion of this distinction in Antifragile, which is why if you aren’t a fan of Taleb’s writing style, it’s best to skip the book and download his technical documents for free.

via Book review: Antifragile | Nick Dunbar.

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