Polymath Book Club: The Bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Taleb

This book is a collection of aphorisms. I have recommended Taleb’s other work highly; The Bed of Procrustes is very different but equally good.

In order to convince you of the quality of the book I shall choose 5 aphorisms at random, representing about 1% of the book (well, less than that because of the footnotes, Preface, and Postface).

Sports feminize men and masculinize women.

What made medicine fool people for so long was that its successes were prominently displayed and its mistakes (literally) buried.

You can be certain that the head of a corporation has a lot to worry about when he announces publicly that “there is nothing to worry about.”

It is a very recent disease to mistake the unobserved for the nonexistent; but some are plagued with the worse disease of mistaking the unobserved for the unobservable.

True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional.

OK, I didn’t cheat, and I guess that sample is representative in quality; but what it does not convey is that when you read the entire book, all 400+ aphorisms plus the notes, Taleb’s entire worldview comes into focus in sort of a pointillist way. There’s a lot to argue with, but you’ll be smarter after reading this book.

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9 Responses to Polymath Book Club: The Bed of Procrustes, by Nassim Taleb

  1. PA says:

    I would be interested in an explanation for “sports feminize men.”

  2. rebelliousvanilla says:

    PA, my explanation is that sports are a stupid way of unmanly competing. You basically compete on what others are doing, not in real stuff that you do yourself. It’s basically the equivalent of a wife bragging about what her husband does – the man rambling about what his sports team does.

  3. Polymath says:

    I think it has to do with the artificiality of sports and the need to conform to arbitrary rules. Here some other quotes from the book about sports:

    In nature we never repeat the same motion; in captivity (office, gym, commute, sports), life is just repetitive-stress injury. No randomness.

    What they call “play” (gym, travel, sports) looks like work; the harder they try, the more captive they are.

    For a classicist, a competitive athlete is painful to look at; trying had to become an animal rather than a man, he will never be as fast as a cheetah or as strong as an ox.

    Sports are commoditized and, alas, prostituted randomness.

    Here are ten more from Taleb:

    The Web is an unhealthy place for someone hungry for attention.

    An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion.

    Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.

    People reserve standard compliments for those who do not threaten their pride; the others they often praise by calling “arrogant.”

    Friendship that ends was never one; there was at least one sucker in it.

    What they call philosophy I call literature; what they call literature I call journalism; what they call journalism I call gossip; and what they call gossip I call (generously) voyeurism.

    To grasp the difference between Universal and Particular, consider that some dress better to impress a single, specific person than an entire crowd.

    The nation-state: apartheid without political incorrectness.

    English does not distinguish between arrogant-up (irreverence toward the temporarily powerful) and arrogant-down (directed at the small guy).

    For soldiers, we use the word “mercenary,” but we absolve employees of responsibility with “everybody needs to make a living.”

    And one more, which was footnoted “Consider the reaction to the banking and economics establishments.”:

    Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued, and silent in front of very large ones.

  4. rebelliousvanilla says:

    PA, to sum what I wanted to say up: women cheer for their men while they’re going to war or returning from it. Men do the same as sports fans.

    Polymath, I really liked these.

  5. Polymath says:

    That was a good article, and it reminds me of another one of Taleb’s aphorisms (he really hates the economics profession):

    The best test of whether someone is extremely stupid (or extremely wise) is whether financial and political news makes sense to him.

    The whole “stimulus” idea never made sense to me, it was like the broken window fallacy; just because it was the Keynesian gospel didn’t help because the logic was never explained. (By the way, Keynes was much more brilliant and much more practical than the later “Keynesians” were.)

    Here is some more Taleb on economics:

    The agency problem drives every company, thanks to the buildup of hidden risks, to maximal fragility.

    In poor countries, officials receive explicit bribes; in D.C. they get the sophisticated implicit, unspoken promise to work for large corporations.

    The left holds that because markets are stupid models should be smart; the right believes that because models are stupid markets should be smart. Alas, it never hit both sides that both markets and models are very stupid.

    It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense.

  6. PA says:

    my explanation is that sports are a stupid way of unmanly competing. You basically compete on what others are doing, not in real stuff that you do yourself. It’s basically the equivalent of a wife bragging about what her husband does – the man rambling about what his sports team does.

    I assumed Taleb referred to participating in sports as effeminizing. I agree that being a sports fan is a little iffy, unless there is a real connection between the fan and the players (for example, cheering for your World Cup players if they are your own ethnic nationals).

    I think it has to do with the artificiality of sports and the need to conform to arbitrary rules.

    Even as far back as high school, I always felt antagonism to people who disparage athletes. I’m now imagining Taleb being either fat, or a skinny sunken-chested wimp as a teenage boy.

  7. Polymath says:

    Taleb in other places praises the man of action, fighting skills, physical conditioning, and so on, so it is not athleticism per se he objects to, it is competitive sports, which is consistent with his more general theme of rejecting tame, artificially restricted versions of reality.

  8. rebelliousvanilla says:

    PA, basketball players are usually wimps and pathetic fighters, yet they act like they’re ‘men’ in that sense, for example. I don’t regard professional sports as anything of value since they lost their meaning – when Steaua Bucharest was filled with players that were raised by the club and were from Bucharest and all that, it was nice. I hardly care about cheering for some imported Africans and other people though. Same with national teams – yes, being proud of your national team is a good thing, but it has to be a national team, not a multiantional one.

    And Taleb didn’t talk athletic men down, he talks down sports. I look down on athletes, but I admire athletic men. More man, less athlete, but athletic nonetheless. This is the whole point. I’m not sure if he meant taking part in sports – the way it’s said sounds like being a sports fan since he talks about general people and most are sports fans. There are merits to sports, but that’s about it.

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