Jef Claes

On software and life

08 Dec 2013

Book review: Antifragile

When things are fragile, they break easily. We often see fragility as a bad thing and design things to be robust. But this isn’t what we’re really after either; things that are robust might be hard to break, but they’re also hard to change, making them fail to adapt to new stressors over time. The model that we’re really after is antifragility; when something is antifragile it will benefit from stressors and get better over time.

A cup is fragile; drop it and it breaks. A skyscraper on the other hand is robust; it is designed to resist the forces of nature; from hurricanes to earthquakes. A perfect example of antifragility is the human body; go to the gym, work your ass off, and you will grow stronger.

In this book, Taleb takes this model and applies it to a wide variety of systems; biological, medical, economic and political. Most concepts are easily relatable to software too.

While the core concepts could be summarized in a few pages, Taleb uses anecdotes, ancient texts, narratives and formulas to prove his point - resulting in a 519 pages thick book. Not all passages are a smooth read though. Some parts read as if they were written in one sitting, dumping everything that had been building for years on paper, without being proofread after. Mixing that with Taleb’s extremely rich (= hard) vocabulary makes for reading sessions where your full concentration is a must - not suitable for after work commutes. It took me six weeks to finish the book - well worth it though.

There are a lot of things that stuck with me. Instead of sharing those in my own words, I revisited some quotes I highlighted and copied them below. I hope they give a better feel of what to expect from the book.

Remember that you need a name for the color blue when you build a narrative, but not in action - the thinker lacking a word for “blue” is handicapped; not the doer. 

It would have taken a bit of heroic courage to justify inaction in a democracy where the incentive is to always promise a better promise than the other guy, regardless of the actual, delayed cost. 

It’s much easier to sell “Look what I did for you” than “Look what I avoided for you.” Of course a bonus system based on “performance” exacerbates the problem. 

The benefits of procrastination apply similarly to medical procedures: we saw that procrastination protects you from error as it gives nature a chance to do its job, given the inconvenient fact that nature is less error-prone than scientists. 

People who build their strength using these modern expensive gym machines can lift extremely large weights, show great numbers and develop impressive looking muscles, but fail to lift a stone; they get completely hammered in a street fight by someone trained in more disorderly settings.  

In project management, Bent Flyvbjerg has shown firm evidence that an increase in the size of projects maps to poor outcomes and higher and higher costs of delays as a proportion of the total budget. But there is a nuance: it is the size per segment of the project that matters, not the entire project. 

What survives must be good at serving some purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture. 

We notice what varies and changes more than what plays a large role but doesn’t change. We rely more on water than on cell phones but because water does not change and cell phones do, we are prone to thinking that cell phones play a larger role than they do. 

Corporations that are large today should be gone, as they have always been weakened by what they think is their strength: size.  

There are secrets to our world that only practice can reveal, and no opinion or analysis will ever capture in full. 

Recall that under nonlinearities, the simple statements “harmful” or “beneficial” break down: it is all in the dosage. 

When you think you have found a free lunch, say, steroids or trans fat, something that helps the healthy without visible downside, it is most likely that there is a concealed trap somewhere. Actually, my days in trading, it was called a “sucker’s trade.” 

What made medicine mislead people for so long is that its successes were prominently displayed, and its mistakes literally buried - just like so many other interesting stories in the cemetery of history. 

We are built to be dupes of theories. But theories come and go; experience stays. 

The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge after it was built. 

In the old days, privilege came with obligations. You want war? First in battle.
Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have - or don’t - in their portfolio. 

Corporate managers have incentives without disincentives - something the general public doesn’t quite get, as they have the illusion that managers are properly “incentivized.” 

Third layer, the even more serious violation: companies trying to misrepresent the product they sell by playing with our cognitive biases, our unconscious associations, and that’s sneaky. The latter is done by, say, showing a poetic picture of a sunset with a cowboy smoking and forcing an association between great romantic moments and some given product that, logically, has no possible connection to it. You seek a romantic moment and what you get is cancer. 

Don’t be fooled by money. These are just numbers. Being self-owned is a state of mind.

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.