Nassim Nicholas Taleb is clearly worth listening too but he seems determined to prevent this from happening. His book, Antifragile, is sprawling and confrontational. He uses it to settle a long list of scores with famous names who are never assumed to be merely wrong. Instead they are portrayed as cartoon villians bent on destruction of everything good in the world.

Taleb’s other quirks include an unwillingness to listen to editors. Unsurprisingly his book could really do with cuts to its most self-indulgent material. He isn’t a fan of modernity and has a fascination with ancient heroism. Apparently we should be more like the characters in the Iliad, alhough I’m pretty sure Taleb thinks Achilles was a whimp who was too willing to compromise. To be fair the random crankiness, the attacks on academics, and lack of self-awareness was pretty entertaining. (Perhaps his oversized persona is but a carefully cultivated act to seem more interesting).

Taleb explains the concept of anti-fragility. This is opposite of fragility. He notes that this isn’t robustness. Fragility is when something suffers from variance/change, thus a glass is fragile. Change its circustances suddenly, drop it from a table, and it suffers. A robust thing will not be impacted, it stands up to strains and stresses well, but doesn’t gain from them. On the other hand anti-fragile things benefit from stresses and strains. Anti-fragile things have excellent optionality, and benefit greatly from extreme events.

The book contains some great ideas and Taleb deserves credit for raising interest in variance and non-normal distributions. Too often we focus only on averages or assume a normal distribution without much thought to what we are doing. For raising important points I’d buy Taleb a beer if I saw him but apparently he doesn’t drink anything but coffee, water, and wine. Anything else is a bit too modern for his tastes.

Read: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2012) Antifragile, Random House.