“The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts—we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve the tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences.

A well-formed aphorism is a work of art. Economical and evocative like poetry, it begs you to reflect on it; to comprehend the idea it’s presupposing in just a sentence or two.Once comprehended, you can either reject the premise of an aphorism or embrace it. Either way, the act of pausing and reflecting on the state of the world feels like a worthwhile meditation.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an arrogant man with a head full of interesting ideas. He’s obsessed with trying to understand human fallibility and the limits of what we can know. At the end of the day, whether or not you agree with him, he’s fun to read.

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Highlights

These are standalone compressed thoughts revolving around my main idea of how we deal, and should deal, with what we don’t know, matters more deeply discussed in my books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness.

Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it.

You never win an argument until they attack your person.

Since Cato the Elder, a certain type of maturity has shown up when one starts blaming the new generation for shallowness: and praising the previous one for its values.”

Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.

You exist if and only if you are free to do things without a visible objective, with no justification, and, above all, outside the dictatorship of someone else’s narrative.

The book is the only medium left that hasn’t been corrupted by the profane: everything else on your eyelids manipulates you with an ad.

You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.

Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

My only measure of success is how much time you have to kill.

Men destroy each other during war; themselves during peacetime.

We are hunters; we are only truly alive in those moments when we improvise; no schedule, just small surprises and stimuli from the environment.

Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health.

You need to keep reminding yourself of the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed. It takes mastery to control silence.

There is nothing deemed harmful (in general) that cannot be beneficial in some particular instances, and nothing deemed beneficial that cannot harm you in some circumstances.

You want to be yourself, idiosyncratic; the collective (school, rules, jobs, technology) wants you generic to the point of castration.

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

The tragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control and, what’s worse, the opposite.

My biggest problem with modernity lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal.

Just as dyed hair makes older men less attractive, it is what you do to hide your weaknesses that makes them repugnant.

It takes extraordinary wisdom and self-control to accept that many thinks have a logic we do not understand that is smarter than our own.

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns).

What makes us fragile is that institutions cannot have the same virtues (honor, truthfulness, courage, loyalty, tenacity) as individuals.

The only definition of an alpha male: if you try to be an alpha male, you’ll never be one.

The traits I respect are erudition and the courage to stand up when half-men are afraid for their reputation. Any idiot can be intelligent.

Social science means inventing a certain brand of human we can understand.

A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence.

You are guaranteed a repetition when you hear the declaration “never again!”

The general theme of my work is the limitations of human knowledge, and the charming and less charming errors and biases when working with matters that lie outside our field of observation, the unobserved and the unobservables—the unknown; what lies on the other side of the veil of opacity.

Counter to the common discourse, more information means more delusions: our detection of false patterns is growing faster and faster as a side effect of modernity and the information age: there is this mismatch between the messy randomness of the information-rich current world, with its complex interactions, and our intuitions of events, derived in a simpler ancestral habitat. Our mental architecture is at an increased mismatch with the world in which we live.

 

 

 

 

 

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