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Black humour and deep insight from the Black Swan

Wednesday, 21 November, 2012

“No, I don’t use Facebook. I absolutely don’t want to stay in touch with everybody in my past. I really believe in falling out of touch with people.” So says Tina Brown in a wide-ranging talk with New York Magazine. While Facebook can be a huge waste of time and a narcissistic indulgence, it can also be a platform for intellectual debate as Nassim Nicholas Taleb proved with his 16 October post, “The Stickiness of Languages“.

The comments add depth to the post and all of them are excellent:

Matthew Vallarino “In Genoese there are many nouns (goods, navigation etc.) that have Arabic origins which would have simplified trade, knowledge and communication.”

Jean-Benoit Nadeau “This reminds a point I learned but am looking for comfirmation: apparently, the Latin term Hispania was a deformation of the Phoenician I-shepan-ha (meaning Land of Hyraxes).”

Patrick Vlaskovits “Why did Magyar language displace local Slavs and Avars (Turkic language group I think) when the Hungarians occupied the Carpathian basin?”

Taleb makes no bones about his refined intelligence but once you get used to his style his humour is addictive. Here, he talks about the “Iatrogenics of wealth”. Snippet:

The master of the Black Swan“As a child I was certain that poor people were happier because they had less complicated but more social lives, huddled together in small quarters, and having no soccer mom (or the then-equivalent), they could just play in the streets etc. In addition, rich people use harmful technologies, go to the gym instead of playing in the streets, meet economists and other frauds, etc… So there were things money could not buy, in effect, money caused you to lose… Later on when I got a windfall check, in my twenties (before it became more common for people in finance to get big bucks), I discovered another harmful side of wealth: unless one hid the cash, it was hard to know who one’s friends were…”

It was The Black Swan that brought Nassim Nicholas Taleb global recognition, and now he’s back with a new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, which is being described as “a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world.” Here’s the core message:

“We all know that the stressors of exercise are necessary for good health, but people don’t translate this insight into other domains of physical and mental well-being. We also benefit, it turns out, from occasional and intermittent hunger, short-term protein deprivation, physical discomfort and exposure to extreme cold or heat. Newspapers discuss post-traumatic stress disorder, but nobody seems to account for post-traumatic growth. Walking on smooth surfaces with ‘comfortable’ shoes injures our feet and back musculature: We need variations in terrain.”

Modernity, says Taleb, is obsessed with comfort and cosmetic stability, but by making ourselves too comfortable and by eliminating all volatility from our lives, we make our bodies and souls fragile. The antidote is understanding disorder.

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