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2 December 2010

Stretch of the imagination

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of the bestselling book on black swan events, delves deeper into the u

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small estate in Corydalus, Attica, on the way between Athens and Eleusis, where the mystery rites were performed. Procrustes had a peculiar sense of hospitality: he abducted travellers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveller to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched (his real name was said to be Damastes, or Polyphemon, but he was nicknamed Procrustes, which meant “the stretcher”).

In the purest of poetic justice, Procrustes was hoisted by his own petard. One of the travellers happened to be the fearless Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur later in his heroic career. After the customary dinner, Theseus made Procrustes lie in his own bed. Then, to make him fit in it to the customary perfection, he decapitated him. Theseus thus followed Hercules’s method of paying back in kind.

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, commoditised ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies and pre-packaged narratives, which, on occasion, has explosive con­sequences. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting – much as if tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fit­ting suit did so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realise that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.

Aphorisms have been used for exposition, for religious text, for boasting, for satires (Martial, Aesop, al-Maarri), by the moralistes (La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, Chamfort), to expose opaque philosophy (Wittgenstein), relatively clearer ones (Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Cioran), or crystal-clear ideas (Pascal). You never have to explain an aphorism – like poetry, this is something that the reader needs to deal with by himself.

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You are alive in inverse proportion to the density of clichés in your writing.

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Economics cannot digest the idea that the collective (and the aggregate) are disproportionately less predictable than individuals.

Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.

We ask, “Why is he rich (or poor)?” not, “Why isn’t he richer (or poorer)?”; “Why is the crisis so deep?” not “Why isn’t it deeper?”

The opposite of manliness isn’t cowardice; it’s technology.

The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today’s employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss.

Atheism (materialism) means treating the dead as if they were unborn. I won’t. By accepting the sacred, you reinvent religion.

To mark a separation between holy and profane, I take a ritual bath after any contact, or correspondence (even emails), with consultants, economists, Harvard Business School professors, journalists and those in similarly depraved pursuits; I then feel and act purified from the profane until the next episode.

Just as no monkey is as good-looking as the ugliest of humans, no academic is worthier than the worst of the creators.

Some pursuits are much duller from the inside. Even piracy, they say.

Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.

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.

The difference between love and happiness is that those who talk about love tend to be in love, but those who talk about happiness tend to be unhappy.

Some, like most bankers, are so unfit for success that they look like dwarves dressed in giants’ clothes.

They are born, then put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about thinking “outside the box”; and when they die they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes.

The 20th century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the 21st will be that of the technological one.

I need to keep reminding myself that a truly independent thinker may look like an accountant.

I wonder if a lion (or a cannibal) would pay a high premium for free-range humans.

The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free.

A theological Procrustean bed: for the Orthodox since Gregory Palamas and for the Arabs since Algazel, attempts to define God using the language of philosophical universals were a rationalistic mistake.

I am still waiting for a modern to take notice.

There is a distinction between expressive hypochondria and literature, just as there is one between self-help and philosophy.

Hard science gives sensational results with a horribly boring process; philosophy gives boring results with a sensational process; literature gives sensational results with a sensational process; and economics gives boring results with a boring process.

The fool generalises the particular; the nerd particularises the general; some do both; and the wise does neither.

I can predict when an author is about to plagiarise me, and poorly so, when he writes that Taleb “popularised” the theory of Black Swan events.

Modernity needs to understand that being rich and becoming rich are not mathematically, personally, socially, and ethically the same thing.

Meditation is a way to be narcissistic without hurting anyone.

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist an imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one.

The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds.

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).

The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not academics.

It has always been hard to do genuine – and non-perishable – work within institutions.

Anyone voicing a forecast or expressing an opinion without something at risk has some element of phoniness. Unless he risks going down with the ship this would be like watching an adventure movie.

Platonic minds expect life to be like film, with defined terminal endings; a-Platonic ones expect film to be like life and, except for a few irreversible conditions such as death, distrust the terminal nature of all human declared endings.

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 voyeurism.

There are designations, like “economist”, “prostitute” or “consultant”, for which additional characterisation doesn’t add information.

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.

Economics is like a dead star that still seems to produce light; but you know it is dead.

The curious mind embraces science; the gifted and sensitive, the arts; the practical, business; the leftover becomes an economist.

The classical man’s worst fear was inglorious death; the modern man’s worst fear is just death.

The internet broke the private-public wall; impulsive and inelegant utterances that used to be kept private are now available for literal interpretation.

I attended a symposium, an event named after a 5th-century BC Athenian drinking party in which non-nerds talked about love; alas, there was no drinking and, mercifully, nobody talked about love.

When a young woman partners with an otherwise uninteresting rich man, she can sincerely believe that she is attracted to some very specific body part (say, his nose, neck, or knee).

To be a philosopher is to know through long walks, by reasoning, and reasoning only, a priori, what others can only potentially learn from their mistakes, crises, accidents and bankruptcies – that is, a posteriori.

A good foe is far more loyal, far more predictable and, to the clever, far more useful than the most valuable admirer.

From “The Bed of Procrustes” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (AllennLane, £14.99).

To buy the book at a special offer price of £11.99, call the Penguin Bookshop on 08700 707 717 and quote “NS/Taleb” and the ISBN: 9781846144585

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