A Tale Of Two Talebs
or, how to kick your addiction to the Internet’s biggest asshole.
Nam Talebam quidem Amioun ego ipse oculis meis vidi stupe page, et cum illi pueri dicerent: Σιβυλλα τι θελεις; respondebat illa: αποθανειν θελω.
“Never call someone an imbecile (or fucking idiot) unless he causes harm to others/system; there must be a moral dimension to insults.”
· Nassim Taleb
“Things are never complicated if one has principles.”
· Nassim Taleb
“If you want to punish an enemy, put him on a pedestal. He will hurt himself falling from it.”
· Nassim Taleb
“Old friends don’t attack old friends in public before contacting them.”
· Nassim Taleb
“You come at the king, you best not miss.”
· Omar Little, The Wire
“When you play the game of thrones you win or you die.”
· Cersei Lannister, Game of Thrones
spoiler alert: Omar dies. So does Ned Stark.
Prologue To The Second Edition Of The Introduction To Where It All Began
For Nassim Taleb, il miglior bullshitatore — Why Taleb is the greatest human being to have ever lived — The harm that Fama hath wrought —Not that kind of Canon — What Would Jesus Do? — Gödel, Escher, Taleb— I like to make up Italian
Friends, I used to love Nassim Taleb. Our academic interests are similar, although not quite identical. He enjoys statistics while I enjoy pure mathematics. But we are united by our derivative interest in the philosophy and interpretation of these domains, and in using our rigorous understanding of them to challenge their lazy misapplication elsewhere. He was a trader while I am an investor. But we are again united by our hatred of the influence of mainstream financial economics, particularly a horror called “Modern Portfolio Theory” (“MPT”) which impacts the teaching and practice of trading and investing alike.
MPT is actually quite difficult to debunk. It is rather like the best philosophical paradoxes, for which many have an inarticulable instinct that they just know the answer, while all attempts to explain an answer spiral into circularity or contradiction, if they arise to any meaning whatsoever. And even though everybody knows MPT is wrong, nobody seems to know what to do about that. It doesn’t matter that the map is of the wrong city, it’s the only map we’ve got!
But Taleb has debunked it. That much is clear. The route to resolving the paradox takes us through exactly the fields I mentioned above. Real statistics, real mathematics, real economics, and real finance will get you most of the way. But it is testament to the trickiness of the problem that you arguably need a dose of the interdisciplinary and intrinsically difficult to define complexity science to tie it all together.
My exposure to Taleb goes in reverse order through the above paragraphs. I found him through the nagging feeling that something within finance was not quite right, and that the tools of finance could not quite explain this. He was mentioned repeatedly by complexity theorists as a popular point of reference. I tugged this thread until I arrived at The Incerto, his collection of nonfiction works that are extremely difficult to categorise, for much the same reasons as complexity science is.
They are interdisciplinary. Are they philosophy? Economics? Finance? Statistics? Complexity? This is the wrong question. What they are is really, really good. They are a stream of consciousness on how to think properly about what is happening around you.
I do not feel bad about such an obsequious introduction because the remaining ninety-nine percent of this essay is a brutal assault on his character and intellect. It is the story of why I am no longer trying to get in his good books. I would actually prefer to get in his bad books; he is a bad person, or he at least pretends to be a bad person, but then is there a difference? Pretending preschmending, as Taleb would say in pitiful Fat Tony Brooklynese, he still does it. I am unaware of, “but your honour, it was art!”, ever paying off in a court of law. If you don’t go out of your way to be hated by bad people, you are probably doing less good than you can.
In truth I believe there are two Talebs. There is Taleb, the author, and Taleb, the tweeter. Or, if you prefer, Taleb, l’autore, and Taleb, il twittatore. “Twittatore” is not a real Italian word, but, you see, two of Taleb’s writing tics are made-up words and random Italian. Why not combine them? The effects might be nonlinear, who knows?
TALEB, L’AUTORE …
… is a genius, as above. More than just an extremely intelligent individual, he has a rare gift of making his insights perfectly accessible. That said, Taleb, l’autore, often goes too far with made-up words, gratuitous self-reference, and all manner of other sneaky parlour tricks to create the illusion of a daunting and all-encompassing oeuvre. Much further down in the essay, I surgically deconstruct this with a mathematical precision for which readers’ minds have not yet been adequately lubricated.
Even when he performs such mathematical shenanigans — and I do repeat this mid- and post-surgery — I think this method of writing on the part of Taleb, l’autore, is only dangerous to the extent readers don’t realise it is all part of the act. The positive trade-off of this irksome showmanship seems to be that it is not at all uncommon for people from any and every background to credit Taleb with introducing them to statistics, finance, philosophy, and more, in a way they grasped and even enjoyed for the first time in their lives. I am in this group. Grazie, signore Taleb, l’autore.
But even this effusive praise I feel I must caveat half way to hell. Taleb, l’autore, is not Richard Feynman-cum-William Shakespeare-cum-Jesus H. Christ, as his cult initiates would have you believe. Taleb would have it that his showmanship is an extension of his intellect (rather than his brand or his ego) because: like Feynman, nobody has ever before put their finger on these precise ideas and it is his ethical duty to bring these truths to the world; like Shakespeare, the extant English corpus is not powerful enough to give these ideas the expression they deserve; and, like Jesus, the moral code that breathes through his work ought to be an inspiration to all mankind because it is historically unique and just God-damned perfect when you stop to think about it.
What I will show in this essay is that these ideas are either stupid, misused, or have been had before; that English is more than expressive enough; and that Taleb is a terrible, terrible person. The latter two rather need examples but we can start on the first right now. There is almost nothing in Taleb that is not in Homer, The Bible, or Shakespeare.
For a while I believed that the IYI (the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot) might actually be genuinely original and worthwhile, but readers are invited to consult the first few pages of Part 3, Chapter 1, of Dostoyevsky’s, The Idiot, to find out why I no longer believe even this, as entertaining and valuable as Taleb’s essay above still is. I’m not claiming plagiarism. I am claiming that Taleb has opted out of a humbling intellectual initiation that every serious writer goes through, usually as a teenager, and usually before they have written anything: the realisation that there are no new good ideas, only new bad ones. Taleb doesn’t do humility, so I imagine he regards the looming torment of this experience as The Establishment being perpetually out to get him.
The allusions to intimidating mathematics throughout Taleb, l’autore, might give the impression that surely some of this must be new, but as we are about to see in detail, it is to my mind very likely that every single mathematical reference he has ever made in his books (and certainly on Twitter) is misused, he does not understand, is really intended to reinforce the pseudo-profundity of the point made in prose, not to explain it at all, or some combination of all three. And even this I think would be excusable if it were an accident, or if this was where it stopped. Writing is hard. Thinking is hard. The classics are classic because those people were a lot smarter than us and we kinda wish they were still around telling the rest of us idiots what to do.
Tell Taleb what to do? Fuggedaboutit! What could Feynman, Shakespeare or Jesus H. Christ possibly know that Taleb does not? So while people like me credit even those whose photos we use in our Medium posts, and link to their pages on photo sharing sites, Taleb is more than happy to pretend that, yes, other people do exist, have thought things, and have written some of them down, but the most with which they can really be credited is that they got him thinking. The Western Canon is but his muse; The Taleb Canon is the true New Testament.
side bar: I propose we refer to this as Nassim’s New Testament, or “NNT”. It’s like Douglas Hofstadter’s “TNT”, except more self-referential, and less likely to blow up.
Even if His is the literal word of God, could He maybe just act like he is merely relaying it, rather than speaking it? Why must He be Jesus when he can settle for Moses? Everybody loves Moses. If He really were Jesus, then just being Moses is what He would do. Fond as Taleb is of digressive musings on the Tanakh, a far better reference point in all of this is that Taleb, l’autore, ought to have been the next Douglas Hofstadter, although I suspect Taleb could never settle for being the next anybody. There are plenty of paltry prophets, but, as ma boi Yeezy knows, JESUS IS KING.
Hofstadter is an enigmatic genius. Almost all his writing is aimed at the layman and yet it weaves philosophy, mathematics, computer science, psychology, neurology, art, music, literature … it would be a good after-dinner game to challenge an opponent to name a topic about which Hofstadter doesn’t have something deeply insightful to say. Gödel, Escher, Bach, his undisputed masterpiece, introduced, and continues to introduce, many people to the same disciplines as Taleb does, albeit with a different focus once inside. It is the paragon of humorous and oft-mathematical self-reference. Fs in the chat for Doug.
GEB is my favourite nonfiction book, by a long, long way. It is many people’s favourite nonfiction book by a long, long way. Many more people owe many more dankes to Herr Hofstadter than grazies to Signore Taleb. And of course, Hofstadter, Der Schriftsteller, doesn’t drag his influence down to net negative with an insufferable, deceitful, cultish, bullying, cowardly, bullshitting, charlatanic presence on Twitter. As far as I am aware, Hofstadter doesn’t have a Twitter account at all. If only that were also true of Taleb, l‘autore.
TALEB, IL TWITTATORE …
… is a bully and a coward. A bullshitting charlatan. He really is the worst kind of obnoxious little turd. He would torture his helpless younger brother “to build character” and then cry when merely yelled at by his father, or worse, run away. His modus operandi is to pounce on unsuspecting souls who seem to have misused one of his favourite words, flip back and forth between gratuitous insults and superfluous and intimidating technical jargon, some of which is his own made-up definitions both for neologisms and for words he has decided to redefine, direct his army of sycophants to mimic him and create a kind of meatspace DDoS, and then block the original target to prevent rebuttal. Each step is justified with moral logic on the level of Leopold and Loeb, and yet the moralising of Clarence Darrow.
UPDATE, April 23rd, 2021: Taleb has locked his tweets, meaning firstly that they no longer show up as embeddings on Medium, and secondly that I WIN. Luckily I anticipated such tomfoolery and have inserted screenshots in all their places.
Unfortunately, the Medium editing interface is weird in such a way that I can’t access the URLs before deleting them, so I’d rather not delete them in case he one day unlocks them again. In the meantime, that means the formatting will look strange wherever there used to be a tweet of his.
Check out the twitter thread that led to me getting blocked if you don’t believe me:
Obviously, I am being a dick here. I will be much more of a dick, many more times before we are done here. But this was right when I had committed to being a Talebian dick to Taleb. And it’s not like I don’t have a point, amidst my dickishness (the standard Taleb apologia, I might add). Taleb makes a really interesting point, then gratuitously insults a bunch of people he has never met or listened to because he thinks they all conspired not to read his old book, then he refers the reader to his new book that hasn’t been published yet. I tease him a bit because this is ridiculous. So, he blocked me.
“I shall wear this as a badge of honor.”
And that was days, weeks even, after the final straw.
All these things, and a thousand like them, came to pass in and close upon the dear old year of 2020. In March, to be precise. It was the best of months, it was the worst of months. And yet …
A Series Of Irrelevant Remarks On Literature
The Burial of the Dead — Silicon Valley, the show, not the place — Power is power — Another cultural reference I actually won’t cover at all
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Prose out of the dead pages, mixing
Black Swans and fat tails, stirring
Old ideas with double integrals.
The Incerto kept us warm, confusing
Yes. Very confusing.
Like many an opportunistic rabble-rouser in the aftermath of The Great War, Taleb seems to gain from disorder. But it is all a ruse. It is theatre. It’s a series of interlocking excuses for unacceptable behaviour that he has convinced his cult to swallow. And, amazingly — impressively — it goes beyond his cult. It seems to extend all the way to his casualties. It is unclear whether anybody really believes the garbage they spout about Taleb, or whether they are just understandably terrified of his showbiz “antifragility”. And remember, friends, this is a word he made up because he claimed the incredibly profound concept it captures doesn’t exist in any of the fleventy-five languages he speaks:
Taleb is a real-life Erlich Bachman, if Bachman were not merely a bullshitter but an actual threat: if he weren’t an occasionally lovable and unlikely hero. The difference is split over the minor issue of real life having no predetermined genre. Nobody seems to be fully aware that Taleb is a clown: that he is not funny, but that he is to be laughed at nonetheless. His obnoxiousness ought to be funny, but for reasons I cannot fathom, we all seem to take him seriously, and to be a little afraid.
Much like Bachman, Taleb goes after little kids and tells them that, “you just brought piss to a shit fight you little cocksucker! I’ll slit your fucking throat, I’ll kill your mother, I’ll rape your father, I’ll kerb stomp that little face so hard that your teeth will go flying! You little shit!”, and his acolytes say, “I mean, I don’t approve of his methods, but he does have a point.” When Bachman says, “tech big data solution systems creating unique cross platform technology”, it may as well be Taleb saying, “complex convex black swans creating antifragile second-order fat tails”.
But when you really dig at it; when you know more than him; when you aren’t afraid, he is incredibly fragile. If Taleb has skin in the game, then it is extraordinarily thin skin. Fragile Little Nassim, all alone, whining like an Ayn Rand hero about how hard it is to be so God-damned brilliant that nobody can possibly understand him. When you catch him in this, it is beautiful. I welcome readers to open their hearts and minds to such an experience. I know you want to defend him. You want to let him dominate you. You think it’s just easier that way. I get it. I really do, but I’m here to help you kick your addiction to the Internet’s biggest asshole. This is an intervention. Everybody except Fragile Nassim is invited.
I happen to have had several such quasi-religious experiences in a short space of time. And so I invite readers to relive this journey and learn these truths, these hard truths. Try to imagine that this is an overly mathematical Stendhal novel, infused with some T.S. Eliot just to keep it from being completely comprehensible. This is a piece which passeth understanding. Have you a little T.S. Eliot in your home?
Fragile Nassim never shuts up about how much he loves French literature, with zero evidence as far as I can tell — although, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You can say, “Qui, moi? Mais, j’adore Allais et Cesbron, hon hon hon!” as much as you like, but until you make a reference that makes sense, you are just name-dropping dead people you are pretending are your friends and your peers. At least the living might one day have the guts to deny this in public.
Tempting as it is to cast my challenge in the terms of, say, Le Rouge et le Noir, I prefer Dickens (have you read Dickens’ American Notes?). This is a tale of two Talebs. We have covered the best of Taleb quite enough. Let’s get on to the worst of him. Friends, you can be Carton, about to go on an intellectual journey. I’ll be Madame Defarge, plotting the downfall of my enemies. Fragile Nassim can be …
… oh, what does it matter, he hasn’t read it.
A taste of his own medicine — Ще те смажа! — Rawls, I suppose? —What good is power if you can’t protect the ones you love?— The Bonfire of the Lavatories
For readers unfamiliar with Taleb, unfamiliar with me, or both, this is not at all how I would normally talk or write. This is all my best imitation of Fragile Nassim, and it continues for goodness-knows-how-many thousand more words. There’s also shades of T.S. Eliot scattered throughout because, i) like Eliot, Taleb sprinkles gratuitous references he does not explain and you are forced to assume he understands and you do not, and ii) it gives me cover to do the same, in a second order, convex manner, given this indulgence is a ploy to make fun of Taleb across even higher dimensions:
“I am using multiple tactics and going dynamically deeper.”
I isolated the quote above because it is very mildly adapted from an actual quote from one of Taleb’s cult initiates — I never quote things straight except by accident — about what Taleb would do to me, following the publication of this essay. Taleb’s cult, Taleb’s response, my anticipation of his response… we’ll get to all this in due course.
If you don’t like any of this, you can leave right now and I won’t hold it against you. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s my best attempt to mimic the way Fragile Nassim treats his casualties.
I have adopted the tone here for two reasons. First, as I tried to hint at with the flurry of Fragile Nassim quotes at the very beginning, he deserves it. By his own professed moral logic, bullies do not need to be simply disagreed with, they need to be humiliated. They need to be hounded to an early retirement. This is skin in the game: you must be equally exposed to the upside and downside of your decisions. If the upside is being a bestselling author and the Internet’s biggest asshole, then you don’t get to walk away from the downside of your victims exacting their revenge.
But second, I wanted to rile up the audience. This was probably more effective if you aren’t familiar with Fragile Nassim, me, or either. Although we have a catch-22 because in that case you probably have no interest in reading this essay in the first place. But if so, and if you are still with me, that feeling you are getting reading this — what an obnoxious little turd! — that’s exactly how you would feel, and should feel, if you saw enough of Taleb, il twittatore. That’s what I’m fighting against, except this particular obnoxious little turd is world famous. He has enormous influence, legions of cultish and sycophantic fans, and more than enough time and money to commit himself to destroying people who don’t deserve it. He brings guns to twitter fights. It simply is not on.
He does this for the sake of his ego and his brand. He and his followers will surely come up with excuses. But I will show, one by one, topic by topic, excuse by excuse, that they are complete and utter bullshit.
“You’re a clever man. But you’re not half as clever as you think you are.”
There are a lot of pre-packaged excuses, I warn you. But there are also a lot of words in this essay. I took my time.
My mum made a “code of honour” for me as a kid, which I noticed just now is still on a magnet on our fridge in the house in which I grew up. It reads, “I will not lie, cheat, steal or bully, and I will not tolerate those who do.”
I am told this is adapted from the West Point honour code, with the addition of “bullying”. Quite a fine institution from which to positively amend a code of honour, I would say. And while I am not pretending this is a selfless act of martyrdom, it is not entirely selfish. There is a moral dimension to my insults. My code is much like Omar’s. He only thieves thieves; I only bully bullies. It’s really that simple. Thanks, Mum.
“It’s All In The Game, Yo.”
Readers would do well to quickly jump to this fabulous extract from the late, great Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, on Pissing Monkey Syndrome, which I quote at length below. It is exceptionally short — a two-minute read, maximum — but to condense it to three sentences for the truly intransigent: monkeys piss on people as a show of dominance. If you try to reason, negotiate, appease, or avoid, it will just get worse. The only way to hope to live a normal life is to throw the monkey in the toilet and make him, “think he’s trapped in a piss monsoon.”
That’s what this is. A category 5 piss monsoon for a pissing little monkey who had it coming. If you don’t like it, fine. I willingly grant that piss monsoons are unpleasant. Go read something else whose author doesn’t have a mildly personal bone to pick. But do so knowing full well the consequences of your decisions. You had the chance to break in a pissing little monkey and you chickened out. If the monkey turns around one day and pisses on you, you will only have yourself to blame.
“And it’s no use trying to make friends with the little bastard, no use trying to pet him or coo sweet nothings over him, no use trying to get in his good graces by serving him fabulous monkey feasts, apples and raisins and celery and hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, all that stuff monkeys love. Any way you try to please him is only going to make it worse. He’ll play you for a hopeless pushover.
The only thing that works is, you grab the little bastard while he’s at his bowl gorging himself, and you throw him in the toilet, and while he’s flailing about in the water and he’s disoriented and he can’t get any traction on the toilet bowl, it’s so slick, you piss on him. You deluge him with every ounce you’ve got. That fucking monkey’s going to think he’s trapped in a piss monsoon. The whole sky, the whole world is pissing on him. There’s no more air to breathe, only piss fumes.
At first he’ll be going, ‘EE EE EE EE’ — he’s mad as hell — and then the tone will change, and it starts sounding like a cry for mercy . . . and then it slows down to ‘EE . . . EE . . . EE . . . EE,’ and then the decibel level sinks, and nothing’s left but a pathetic little whimper, ‘ee . . . ee . . . ee . . . ee,’ and the next day he’ll be curled up on your lap like a little pussycat and practically begging you to pet him and coo sweet nothings.
You’ve shown him who’s boss around here. You’ve shown him you’re the alpha male, not him.”
Technical Appendix To The Afterword To The Introduction
Isaiah Berlin’s day off — Mens rea et mala fide — The Bulls could have had a sevenpeat — Please believe me! Please believe me! Look, I’ll derive all of this right now! What more do you want?
My plan for the meat of the essay is as follows: there were three occasions recently in which Fragile Nassim did his usual routine of butting into a twitter exchange to bully somebody into silence. In all these cases, I knew that Fragile Nassim was wrong. Even more amusingly, I knew that he had wandered way out of his depth in order to bully somebody who knew exactly what they were talking about and had no idea why Fragile Nassim was there. I was privy to these bizarre exchanges in the first place because I follow these individuals. And I follow these individuals because I understand the area of their expertise and want to learn from them as undisputed experts.
To be completely clear, there are very few areas of any field at all that I claim to understand in such depth. The highly abstruse nature of what I am about to discuss is likely testament to that. Unlike Fragile Nassim, I stay in my lane. Fragile Nassim is a hedgehog who thinks he is a fox. He thinks his One Big Idea applies to everything.
But it also raises a deeply troubling issue. There is a common law principle called falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, or, false in one thing, false in all. It means that a witness who is known to have lied about one thing must be assumed to have lied about everything. Ironically enough, it is a form of “the precautionary principle” — that is, as Fragile Nassim has decided to redefine this expression. Lies have fat tails.
So, if I know that Fragile Nassim is full of shit regarding three of the (maybe seven?) fields in which I have real expertise, what am I supposed to think when I see him harassing some poor fellow in a field I know nothing about? Whose side should I take? Why? Whose side should you take? Why?
I realise I am in a tricky position with respect to my own readers, however. I would like for this essay to be as accessible as possible. And yet the nature of my task is such that, not only do readers probably have to be interested in Taleb’s oeuvre, but they have to tolerate my focusing on the rigorous minutiae of fields of which they are likely totally unfamiliar.
I do not think this can be helped. I will try to make the most of the opportunity to explain the intricacies of free banking, Bitcoin, ergodicity, mathematical logic, computational complexity, venture capital, abstract algebra, finance, cryptography and set theory, wherever either necessary or amusing, and so that readers can see how, exactly, Fragile Nassim is full of shit. Most of this will be in the form of vouched-for citations, because the material is only relevant to my argument here to the extent that Fragile Nassim does not understand it.
But it is a tough ask. If I fail, I can always claim it is readers’ own stupid fault for not having read everything I have ever written and a few things I haven’t written yet.
But what I can hope for is a kind of reputational scalability. A few readers may know a lot about free banking, Bitcoin, ergodicity, etc., etc. — certainly more than Fragile Nassim and very likely more than me. These readers can vouch for my criticisms. Readers who trust them can get on board. If it is not overly hubristic — and perhaps this is unavoidable too given the task I have set myself — the mere existence of this essay could be a useful point of reference for every subsequent time Fragile Nassim steps over the line.
Use this gospel for protection.
BOOK I: Free Banking and Bitcoin
The battle for the framing is over, the battle for the details is about to begin — Prediction and protection — That escalated quickly! I mean that really got out of hand! — Essentially the plot of Breaking Bad — Let’s dig deeper, shall we? — Taleb’s First Syllogism: All my fans seem to understand this; therefore I understand it — A Game of Chess — Down The Fractal Rabbit Hole
The interjection in question started as a back and forth between Thomas Walker, Jr. and George Selgin that got a little spicy, but was still perfectly civil. I show the five tweets below, and then provide some commentary before looking at how Fragile Nassim decided to contribute:
The core of this disagreement is a misunderstanding about what Selgin’s third point in the first tweet actually meant. It was innocent enough, and despite the apparent hostility, the conversation was moving in the direction of resolving it. Selgin was originally criticising the tendency of wannabe economic forecasters who are clearly more beholden to ideology than to actual, helpful forecasting, to simply rail against the Fed and blame it for imminent demises that never happen.
Walker misunderstands this, but his misunderstanding is perfectly reasonable. He assumes Selgin is saying that people should simply not prepare for disasters because they are unpredictable anyway. I claim this is a reasonable misunderstanding, because many people do say this kind of thing, and Taleb, l’autore, rails against them with good reason: it is extremely stupid. This is why Walker tags Taleb, because he thinks Selgin is making an anti-Talebian point.
But Selgin is doing no such thing, as he then explains. He makes up ground in realising what, exactly, Walker has misunderstood by linking his academic thesis to the real world and explaining what would happen should somebody try to translate the position he was criticising into action: they would go bust long before it pays off. The jab at Taleb seems unnecessary. But if he is referring to Taleb, il twittatore, then sure, why not? He is a pseudo-scientific doomsayer. What else is new?
Walker doesn’t quite get it yet, and actually starts to backpedal into vague Talebisms in order to avoid Selgin pinning him down, so Selgin pounces and, effectively, asks him define his terms so as not to get away with such pseudo-profundities. To his credit, Walker partially acknowledges this and starts to move towards a constructive dialogue.
But it doesn’t matter because The Taleb has been awakened:
It is explained to him by many that he has no idea what he is talking about, that he is making the same mistake Walker made at the beginning of the exchange and has since moved on from, and that he should know who Selgin is. Nobody seems to notice Fragile Nassim consistently misspelling Selgin’s name, despite it being in his profile, but maybe that’s somewhere between fifth and ninth on the list of infringements and Twitter only allows so many characters. Fragile Nassim doubles down:
At this point, I encourage readers to explore this for themselves, because the threads diverge too far to coherently track within an essay. And yet, amazingly, every single one of them ends up with Fragile Nassim getting owned by his own followers and simply disappearing rather than apologising or admitting error. Ivan Tcholakov responded to the first tweet as if it were a serious question from a serious person with the serious answer, “he is a guy who understands money better than anyone else.” Fragile Nassim replies, “he seems to be an imbecile. And very ignorant.” A fellow named Nicholas concurred, “great argument. I was doubtful at first, but the second use of ‘imbecile’ had me sold.”
Other threads end similarly. One ends with Selgin using one of the same quotes I include at the beginning of this essay, noting Fragile Nassim is being neither funny nor original. Literally every other person says something similar. It’s an embarrassing defeat, and Fragile Nassim slinks away.
But is it more than that?
Yes, I think it is. You see, friends, as has been alluded to, George Selgin is arguably the world’s foremost expert on the history and theory of free banking. Okay, you might think, that’s pretty darn niche, so where is this going? Hold that thought.
You may not also know that Fragile Nassim wrote the foreword to a book called The Bitcoin Standard, by Saifedean Ammous.
UPDATE, February 12th, 2021:
Very popular in Bitcoin circles, the book is mostly a polemical introduction to the early Austrian school of economics, building up enough theory for the layman to understand the importance of Bitcoin by the book’s final few chapters. Now Ammous certainly knows who Selgin is and has enormous respect for him. The two have debated, and while the video is entirely tangential to my discussion here, it is well worth a watch.
Ammous mentions Selgin in the Bitcoin Standard. He practically had no choice because of who Selgin is.
And, incidentally, Selgin’s most well-known book, Money: Free and Unfree, is an absolute must-read for any Bitcoin aficionado. Hal Finney off-handedly said in bitcointalk in 2010, in answer to how Bitcoin-backed banks might work, that,
“George Selgin has worked out the theory of competitive free banking in detail, and he argues that such a system would be stable, inflation resistant and self-regulating.”
Thus enshrining Selgin in Bitcoin scripture. If you know about Bitcoin, you know about Selgin.
side bar: Fs in the chat for Hal:
But also, in case you missed it,
AMMOUS MENTIONS SELGIN IN THE MOTHERFLIPPING BITCOIN STANDARD
This all raises serious questions about Fragile Nassim’s foreword to Ammous’s book. Given he wrote the foreword — or if he had even so much as claimed to have read the book — how could he possibly not know who George Selgin is? How? This utterly pointless Twitter embarrassment revealed much more than Fragile Nassim intended. In the proper context his behaviour here is utterly damning. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
Friendly Internet strangers reached out to me on the topic of Taleb’s grasp of Bitcoin. There were many hypotheses that I had robustly covered already but had not yet published, as we will soon see, but one in particular stood out as both new to me and genuinely hilarious.
Now, keep in mind, this is hearsay. But also keep in mind that everybody who heard him say these things is prepared to go on record if required. I am merely trying to keep things civil here. I’m all about keeping things civil.
This friendly Internet stranger told me that Taleb views Bitcoin as “not the end solution,” to our monetary woes. When asked what was, he told a story about his time on the trading floor. Traders would settle debts with others with “points”. These points were effectively transitive mental IOUs. Then the mafia got involved and started using points for money laundering. Hilarity ensued, etc., etc., …
But more importantly, Fragile Nassim genetically understood Bitcoin’s failings. Nakamoto can get out of here with his/her/their weak ass shit …
Do the mechanics of this proposal sound at all familiar?
That’s right, friends, Fragile Nassim invented the Lightning Network. Not Poon and Dryja, not Stark, Osuntokun, and Farrington. Fragile Nassim in the pits in ’84. And just to be clear, I’m not a coder, but I did write the official limerick because I just want to be involved, okay?!? I WANT TO WORK IN TECH BUT I HAVE NO USEFUL SKILLS!
It gets better. He claimed that “localism” was the cure for currency issues. Of course it is, Fragile Nassim, because the titles of things you have written are the cures for everything, aren’t they?
So this friendly Internet stranger told me that, next, Taleb was put in a room with a banker (who had just spoken about how banks were developing a white listing/black listing strategy that, he stupidly and inexplicably thought, would destroy Bitcoin’s resiliency) and he had it explained to him that Lightning could get around these issues. Moreover, he was told that decentralised consensus development can, in general, work around the banks and make their policy attempts ineffective to the point of futile. Because it is antifragile (no, seriously). Neither Taleb nor the banker understood a word of this.
When Elizabeth Stark said the following IN 2014, Taleb and his Trader Bros laughed, if they even noticed, but the smart money shit its pants and started liquidating:
This woman might seem like a cute little Internet pixie, but as far as Taleb is concerned, she is the Grim Reaper, Shiva, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. We shall play a game of chess, Fragile Nassim, and Elizabeth Stark will play as Death.
SHE IS THE END TIMES
… come to rip out the soul of your fraudulent and parasitic industry and send you all back to the farm. And when you get there, you won’t be using cows as currency. You’ll be using Bitcoin.
I went back to read Fragile Nassim’s foreword to The Bitcoin Standard, which I remember not thinking much of at the time beyond, “hey, that’s neat!”. It is really awful. In between the platitudes around complexity, decentralisation, and bashing “macroBS-ing economists”, are several dead giveaways that Fragile Nassim has no idea what Bitcoin is or how it works, which is impressive given it is only 2 pages of writing. You would think he could cover that with platitudes alone.
He says Bitcoin has, “no owner, no authority that can decide on its fate. it is owned by the crowd, its users.” That is as true as you can hope to explain to somebody whose exposure to Bitcoin so far has been 4 hours of YouTube videos, but it is plainly wrong. There is an enormous difference between controlling a Bitcoin UTXO in the sense of holding the private keys that can spend it, and controlling the Bitcoin client software in the sense of being able to push through a fork. To think to equate these due to the word “own” is a category error. It shows he doesn’t know what he is talking about.
This is particularly amusing because, while various concepts such as antifragility, black swans, skin in the game, and more, are very useful as explanatory tools (Gigi’s wonderful Bitcoin resources library has a section devoted to The Incerto) the idea of consensus development has no parallels in Fragile Nassim’s oeuvre. Why try to understand something new when you can throw a bunch of made-up words at it and see what sticks? Bitcoin is for foxes. Fragile Nassim’s arrogant hedgehog is devoured by the honeybadger. It gets worse …
“Bitcoin has a huge advantage over gold in transactions: clearance does not require a specific custodian. No government can control what code you have in your head.” What in the actual fuck is that supposed to mean? The first part is true — Selgin could have told you that — but the second part is asinine. What code is he talking about? Does he imagine people are walking around with the Bitcoin Core client code memorised? Why? So they can hack into the mainframe? If he means that governments cannot control the private key seed phrases you have in your head, then that is correct (and trite) but that is not “code”. Fragile Nassim does not know what “code” is. It gets worse …
“[Bitcoin] may fail; but then it will easily be reinvented as we know how it works.” This once again makes no sense because NNT does not talk about the game theory tapped for the Proof Of Work consensus algorithm. It’s exactly the kind of banal thought you would have if you knew nothing at all but were pressed for an opinion. It’s textbook Frankfurtian Bullshit. Honeybadger wins again. Do we have any more hedgehogs in the back? We do? Good, because it gets worse …
“In its present state, it may not be convenient for transactions, not good enough to buy your decaffeinated expresso macchiato at your local virtue-signalling coffee chain.” I think he means “espresso” but who the hell knows at this point. Maybe the whole thing is an elaborate troll? Anyway, had he bothered to think about Bitcoin for any length of time whatsoever, and outside the lens of NNT, he would have known that by far the single most important thing happening in the world of Bitcoin at the time of writing was the development of the Lightning Network, and that this statement is therefore false. But we knew already that he did not know this — and continued not knowing it even as it was explained at him. And besides, you can’t frame Hash Time Locked Contracts in the language of options volatility so why even bother?
“How you expect to run with the wolves come night when you spend all day sparring with the puppies?”
“It is the first organic currency.” This is definitely a troll. I bet if you take every seventh letter it spells out “I got paid for this shit!” You would know how ridiculous this claim is if you had … oh, I dunno … read George Selgin.
lol, that’s nice, Fragile Nassim. It’s okay, though, everybody struggles at first. Tumbling down the rabbit rabbit hole is very disorienting. Very complex. Very nonlinear. If I can help you understand by misusing intriguing yet technical mathematical jargon, I prefer to think of it as a fractal rabbit hole. You know? Fractals? Mandelbrot? Your BFF?
One hundred years from now — one thousand years from now — when Fragile Nassim is no longer around to piss anybody into submission, to tell you the truth, nobody will read his books. Nobody will use his made-up words. Nobody will employ his asinine ideas. He will be remembered for one thing and one thing alone: as the guy who wrote the foreword to the first ever serious book about Bitcoin. And that, having been given this opportunity to grasp the single most important genuinely new concept of his lifetime, he chose instead to indulge his own ideas: unimportant, recycled, and, by then, long forgotten.
A VERY, VERY, VERY, VERY TECHNICAL APPENDIX TO BOOK I
This chapter is too sad for a subtitle. No jokes to be found here, I’m afraid. I even switch back to “Taleb” to make this point, such is its importance. Fragile Nassim will be the butt of many more jokes in Book II and beyond.
Entirely unrelated to Bitcoin, where I am sure Ammous would wipe the floor with Taleb if it came to it, Taleb turned on Ammous recently. Readers can look it up as it mostly happened on Twitter. What I am about to relate is public information, and when I tried to get private information from Ammous about it, he refused, saying it was a private disagreement. All he was willing to tell me was the following: that he told Taleb something in private; Taleb did not respond; Ammous told him again; Taleb was irked, blocked Ammous, then smeared him publicly, over privately communicated information that Taleb’s audience had access to in such a way that Ammous would be the last to find out and could not defend himself. Everything after “Taleb was irked” I already knew.
So I reached out to Phil Tetlock instead, who I vaguely recalled having endured something similar and, once again, it was all confirmed: private disagreement, relayed in confidence and friendly concern at the perceived error, at first ignored, and soon after stabbed in the back in public.
The details are completely unimportant in both cases, and presumably in many more. I don’t want to distract readers with the red herrings of the content of the disagreements. Taleb has a well-documented history of smearing people in public over concerns they raised with him in private. Most tragically of all, many of these people used to consider themselves Taleb’s friends, which was exactly why they told him their concerns in private first.
Per relationem, fo sho’, fo sho’. But, falsus in duo, falsus in omnibus? Falsus in how many before people snap the fuck out of this? I am starting to suspect his cult initiates will answer: an infinity that they are entirely unable to define. That’s okay. I can define it for them: it is probably aleph-one, the cardinality of the continuum, given Taleb’s Godlike immensity is continuous throughout time and space.
This is not a question of statistics, philosophy, or complexity. This is a question of politics and ethics. It is a question of how much we are willing to sacrifice to exist as social beings.
You simply cannot treat people like that. For individual rights to have any meaning or value, and for our physical health as a species to be worth protecting in the first place, there must be some baseline of trust, fairness, and consistency. This is true for Libertarians and Marxists alike. This is the basis of deeming politics to be an interesting and worthwhile intellectual endeavour, and its enaction the distinguishing trait of a good life and a civilised people; that the impulse to raw power be overcome; that we can use the miracle of our minds to realise almost nothing in real life is really a zero-sum game. It is illegitimate — no, it is evil — to ever appeal to Truth or Justice if you care this little about treating people with respect. It is more intellectually honest to admit you are a tyrant, or indeed to say nothing at all and impose a mute tyranny.
BOOK II: Ergodicity
It’s about time — You don’t even go here! — People would get whipped for less if our culture wasn’t so soft — A poem of profound insignificance — All your Twitter are belong to us — A shocking eruption of great electrical energy — Nobody can be neutral now — Sit on the naughty step and think about what you’ve done
I have discussed ergodicity, the ergodicity economics research programme, and Ole Peters and Alex Adamou, on several occasions. Thankfully, since some of my older, poorer attempts, Peters has written a primer in Nature Physics that is highly accessible and saves me the trouble. A very, very straightforward explanation of why this all is interesting might go as follows: mainstream economics uses ensemble averages almost universally, when they really should consider time averages for most, if not all, of such calculations. As such, everything in mainstream economics is wrong. Not horribly wrong, just subtly wrong for interesting mathematical reasons, which in the occasional, highly specific case, turns out to matter a lot.
Readers can probably see where this is going. I am actually not going to go any further with the explanation (readers are strongly nudged towards the primer above, or the entire lecture notes here) because this section is less about the details of ergodicity economics, and not even so much about how Fragile Nassim doesn’t understand them. It’s more about his behaviour, having failed to understand them. Recall my extremely brief description: mainstream economics is wrong because math. That sounds like something Fragile Nassim could get behind, right? Fragile Nassim loves math!
The Logic of Risk Taking
A central chapter that crystallizes all my work. In forth. Skin in the Game
Ergodicity as it relates to Fragile Nassim is fascinating. It is superficially adjacent to his One Big Idea, and so, obviously, he thinks he understands it genetically. He understood it as a child, you see, because the Lebanese Civil War was highly ergodic. In fact, he does show flashes of understanding it, but at an entirely superficial level at the absolute best of times. The core idea, as above, is pretty simple. I am certain he understands that. But I suspect he simply has no real interest in understanding its nuance beyond its applicability to The Incerto. That would require learning something about economics, physics, psychology or mathematics.
Fuck that! Amiright? And so, this makes it an interesting counterpoint to Book I’s topics of free banking and Bitcoin. These he clearly does not understand at all. He says comically stupid things, in an authoritative tone, no less, and we all jump on the ROFLcopter.
Ergodicity is subtler. It is evidence not of his ignorance and stupidity, but of his ethics.
What I am about to show is that Fragile Nassim uses his half-understanding to persistently derail valuable conversations that are happening on Twitter in the nascent field of ergodicity economics. This is extremely unfortunate because Twitter is probably the second most valuable tool the ergodicity economics researchers have for spreading their ideas. Discord is the most valuable, but you have to be invited to Discord, so Fragile Nassim is shit out of luck on that count. I can attest that the quality of the conversations in the Discord channel between all the same people is far superior to that on Twitter, because nobody is shitting themselves that Fragile Nassim is going to appear out of nowhere and start swinging his dick around.
So, to be clear in my accusation: there is a fruitful community of thinkers in this field of which I am a relative expert and Fragile Nassim is a charlatan. But Fragile Nassim’s charlatanism is actually making it difficult for this field to grow. We can have extremely productive conversations in spaces which Fragile Nassim cannot access, but we find it very, very difficult to attract new interest in the subject, because Fragile Nassim has co-opted it, on the assumption that it’s all just a footnote to The Black Swan.
I am actually mindful of potentially boring readers with too many examples of exactly the same thing. So I guess I will go for increasing shock value. We’ll start with the trivial. Here is Ole Peters making an interesting point about the connection between ergodicity economics and prospect theory: (note there is a typo here, the second “losses” should be “gains” but it gets a bit lost in the ensuing thread)
Here is Fragile Nassim swinging his big stupid dick around:
And here is me wishing he would stop derailing these discussions:
This is the least incriminating for Fragile Nassim. He isn’t mean or destructive here, just obnoxious. But it is interesting nonetheless as several features are worth pointing out as they are entirely typical. First, nobody invited him. He wasn’t tagged, he wasn’t asked, his work wasn’t mentioned. There was fuck all reason for him to be there. He just popped up to swing his dick around and kill the (to that point very interesting) conversation.
Second, he has no idea what he is talking about. Hence my rebuttal. “Left-boundedness” has nothing to do with this. Fragile Nassim is bullshitting because this is the connection he thinks he has made to his One Big Idea. But he doesn’t understand the nuances of this material at all. In fact, he has already decided that since he hates what this material seems to oppose, he must understand it. We will return to this fallacy when discussing abstract algebra several thousand words down. In short, he seems to commit a similar fallacy quite often.
Third, what Ole is talking about is not, after all, the “simple result” of anything. It is the extremely complicated result of something Ole has devoted ten years of his life to at least understanding, if not discovering. This is where we begin to grasp how deeply unethical this all is, although it might seem benign. What Fragile Nassim has done here is as follows: he has butted into an exchange between a serious academic and this academic’s interested fans; he has derailed the conversation; he has inadvertently insulted the academic by insinuating that the academic’s work is merely a footnote of his not-at-all scientific-but-rather-popular output; he didn’t even intend or realise the nature of the insult because he comes across as borderline autistic; and even aside from all of this dubious ethics, he hasn’t even understood the material.
This absolutely must be stressed, because people use this as a bullshit defence of Fragile Nassim all the time: if he were right about whatever he was saying, and especially if there is some imminent danger in others being wrong, then this might be merited. We would all have a similar pre-packaged cop-out that we would be scrambling over each other to be the first to tweet: “I don’t approve of his methods but I approve of the results”.
But when he doesn’t have a fucking clue what he is talking about, there is no such excuse. You do not approve of his results. YOU DO NOT! Go write on the blackboard one hundred lines of, I do not approve of Nassim Taleb’s results. And don’t try any mental jujitsu to wrestle yourself back to why you may have once approved. I just proved to you that this does not apply and I am about to prove it several more times on this topic, and on seven other topics in this essay. Seriously, snap out of it. He can’t hurt you. It’s all going to be okay.
Fourth, he did not reply. He did not acknowledge his error. He did not apologise. He just slinked away to go harass somebody else. Probably George Selgin, for all I know.
Fifth and finally, this single incident happened to be the straw that broke the camel’s back and convinced me to start writing this essay. Little did Fragile Nassim know at the time, but as has been known to happen in complex nonlinear systems, this single shot cascaded into a revolutionary war.
Friends, a poem:
By the rude snark that broke the flow,
A foe was made; a plan unfurled.
And little did old Taleb know
He’d fired the tweet heard round the world.
Incident number two was around a month earlier. This one is worse, as promised. Ole, myself, and a perfectly nice seeming chap named Adam Oliver were having a discussion, again, around the links between prospect theory and ergodicity economics. Adam says this:
To which Fragile Nassim comes out of nowhere with:
Fragile Nassim cannot resist citing something he wrote once that clearly everybody should have read. Now this is interesting. I was at fault here, in a way I will never be again as I have had enough of this nonsense. I had read this paper by Taleb, so I knew what he meant.
It’s a great paper, by the way. If you can stomach the math, all correct as far as I can tell, and you are interested in the philosophy and practicality of making predictions under conditions of uncertainty, it is well worth a read: arXiv link here to save you several clicks.
Also, I was the one who tagged Taleb originally, but at an earlier point when I thought it was relevant, and well before Adam said this or even joined the conversation. February really was a different time, friends. I was so young. So naive. I liked Taleb’s tweet and started arguing with Adam (politely, though, nothing like what Taleb routinely does).
Anyway, in a separate thread, Adam tried to engage productively. I want it on the record that I thought this was foolish at the time and warned against it. But nonetheless:
So, just to recap, in case this was all too much to process: Ole, Adam, and I were having a perfectly civil conversation about a topic Fragile Nassim thinks he understands but does not. Adam said something that offended Fragile Nassim, not knowing Fragile Nassim was even part of the conversation. Fragile Nassim chastised Adam for not having already read his 13-page highly technical paper on a totally different subject, which, as usual, includes a fair number of stupid, made-up words. Then Adam asked Fragile Nassim very politely to clarify his complaint on Twitter, and Fragile Nassim said, “Read the fucking paper, then bullshit”. That would make Erlich Bachman blush, what with all his mother-killing and father-raping.
And it turns out, by the way, that I was wrong, because Taleb was wrong! Who could possibly have predicted such a thing?!?
Ole Peters knows a lot more than I do about ergodicity, and I know a lot more about ergodicity than Fragile Nassim, so I very much welcomed his intervention:
Adam said thank you. I did too, but offline mind you, as I was completely fed up with Fragile Nassim’s obnoxious-little-turd routine at this point. But Fragile Nassim wasn’t done! How dare you thank Ole for being helpful and civil, Adam! HOW DARE YOU!
Um … what? Public Service Announcement everybody: nobody may say anything on Twitter, at any time, in any setting, to anybody, that Fragile Nassim deems to contradict something he once wrote somewhere and expressed with made-up words. Are you fucking kidding me? And I’m just an interested observer with a day job. Do you know how toxic this is for Ole? Do you know how much of this shit Ole has to put up with in the course of doing his actual job?
A fun little interjection before the climax of awfulness below. In the “Technical Appendix” to Skin In The Game, Fragile Nassim gives an utterly incoherent explanation of why Peters and Gell-Mann’s work on ergodicity, “cancels out the so-called equity premium puzzle if you add fat tails.”
Firstly, the work that relates ergodicity to the (actually called, by everybody) equity premium puzzle was done by Peters and Adamou, not Peters and Gell-Mann. The Peters and Gell-Mann arXiv link for Evaluating Gambles Using Dynamics is here for what Fragile Nassim thinks he is talking about; the Peters and Adamou arXiv link for Leverage Efficiency is here for what Fragile Nassim is actually talking about but doesn’t realise it. Hilariously, the only mention of the “equity premium puzzle” in the former is a reference to a then-working-paper version of the latter. So I think it’s fair to say that Fragile Nassim didn’t actually read the paper that he cited in his book and listed in its references.
But Gell-Mann is super famous so Fragile Nassim wants him in the bibliography.
Oh, and, secondly, when one finally gets to the correct paper written by the correct people, one discovers that the real explanation has nothing whatsoever to do with “fat tails”. Zero. Zip. Nada.
This is similar to Selgingate in yet another way. Fragile Nassim threw this in entirely unthinkingly, and didn’t realise how much it revealed about his own ignorance and stupidity. I will not explain in detail here, as it takes Peters and Adamou 22 pages, plus ten years of thinking and a research program with postdocs and interns and whatnot. But, the very same insightful argument made in Leverage Efficiency that dispels the equity premium puzzle also explains why volatility exists in capital markets.
Let’s just pause for a moment and marvel at how beautiful this is.
- Fragile Nassim never shuts up about “volatility” (or French Literature) and how he understands it at a deep, transcendental level
- Fragile Nassim cites the wrong paper to make the wrong point to get a Nobel Prize winner in his bibliography
- Fragile Nassim did not read the right paper
- Had he, Fragile Nassim would not have understood the right paper. We know this because he nonsensically tried to frame the ideas in the wrong paper in terms of his One Big Idea. He would have the same problem with the right paper, had he read it
- The right paper explains volatility
- You absolute dipshit
We will have a lot more to say on Skin In The Game, and “technical appendices” in due course. For now, let’s round off ergodicity by seeing just how bad “explaining everything in terms of his One Big Idea” can be …
You may still be in the self-deluding camp of, “I don’t approve of his methods but I approve of his results,” as with Erlich throwing a child’s bicycle into a hedge (but the little shit learned his lesson, though, didn’t he?). But if this didn’t snap you out of it, then I’m not sure there is much hope. Just in case, let me give it one final shot. Would it bother you if you learned that Fragile Nassim puts his own ego before saving people’s lives? Answer instinctively, from the heart, before I show you the evidence and your head explains it all away as too nonlinear to establish causation …
The absolutely most incriminating evidence of Taleb’s bullshitting charlatanism with regards to ergodicity is probably the saddest part of an otherwise jovial and satirical essay. The condescending moralising for the remainder of this section is not satire at all. I am mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore. Go shout that out your window and see if anybody joins in.
In his review of the Imperial College London paper on modelling the virus in the UK (“Ferguson et al”, Taleb et al’s paper here) he makes at least two extremely disappointing and entirely unnecessary errors. I want to make absolutely clear that I do not understand this field at all (I stay in my lane).
I am not commenting on the overall merits of Taleb et al’s paper, nor on any specific claims beyond the two I am about to highlight. My criticism here is that he says one thing that makes absolutely no sense, and which there was absolutely no reason to say. He then says another that can legitimately, if harshly, be read as invalidating the entire paper, regardless of how true, interesting, valuable, and even potentially life-saving the rest of the claims might be. I don’t need to understand the rest of the paper even one bit to validly make either criticism. In such a serious setting, one must surely wonder, falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus?
First, Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at LSHTM, pointed out with shocking calmness and grace that this entire paper is based on a truly astonishing error:
Taleb et al claim the Imperial model “appears to be in the general class of SIR differential equations”. It is not. It is an individual-based model. Friends, can you think of a more serious blunder in an academic rebuttal than to fail to adequately describe the thing you are attempting to rebut? It’s basically an accidental strawman.
Now, note very carefully, please, that this does not logically invalidate any other claims in the paper — which I have admitted I have not even attempted to interpret. Ask Adam if you want to know more, he is the expert here. It just raises serious doubts as to their veracity, given the article begins, “However, [Ferguson et al] make structural mistakes in analyzing outbreak response.” This claim must now be questioned in a way the paper will obviously not go into, because the authors have made themselves unaware of its dubiousness. But hey, at least Taleb has a history of respecting Kucharski and taking him seriously:
Gabish, Fragile Nassim. Gabish, indeed. And this isn’t even about ergodicity. I just happened to notice this while doing due diligence and reading all the way to the end of the paper, having found my ergodic blunder.
At the start of the paper, following several specific and technical critiques of Ferguson et al’s methodology, Taleb et al characterise their claims thus far as, “equivalent to ergodicity, as they consider new infections to be a function of infected fraction and immunity, and not influenced by where in the trajectory of the outbreak they are, distinguishing going up from going down.” This is an extremely tenuous connection that should not have been included in a serious paper. It’s the kind of thing Taleb would write in Fooled By Randomness, where absolutely nothing is at stake. Here, there are two possible interpretations:
1) Taleb et al do not know just how tenuous this connection is, and therefore let Taleb swing his dick around because he wanted to use the word “ergodicity” and sound like a big ol’ smarty pants. What they meant was the following:
“considerations of ergodicity are likely relevant. This is a complex nonlinear system and potential sources of strong attraction affect the output in ways that may be crucial given the interpretation of the model in the real world. Hence the direction of time matters and the state of the model at a given time cannot be understood independently of all preceding times. These considerations are characteristic of discussions around ergodic variables.”
That is what they meant. What they said was, “this is equivalent to ergodicity.” This statement is Not Even Wrong. It is just gibberish.
2) Taleb et al knew all of this but wrote it anyway.
I’m not sure which is worse.
We really need to linger on this to realise just how bad it is. This is not Taleb, il twittatore, nor Taleb, l’autore. This is Taleb, trying to be a serious academic. It is almost unsettling reading something he has written and not having it reek of an obnoxious little turd. I couldn’t tell you if the rest of the paper is good or not. I hope it is, but it doesn’t really matter. Just think very carefully about what he did here.
He is in a position to write this paper in the first place because of Taleb, il twittatore, and Taleb, l’autore. That is fair enough — perhaps even a noble goal. We have got to the point where he is actually trying to be a serious academic. And not just on statistical consequences of fat tails or some such esoterica (interesting as I’m sure that is — once again, I stay in my lane), but on an issue of immediate and global existential importance. And the man still, knowing all of this and having worked for over twenty years to get to this point … cannot help but swing his big stupid dick around. He doesn’t even properly read the thing he is criticising and then employs an irrelevant concept in criticising it that he doesn’t understand. He manages to be, at once, lazy and dishonest. I’m not sure how he manages to try so hard and so little at one and the same task. It’s almost impressive.
And for what? So that everybody has a reason to disregard this paper? So that the lives he is trying to save might actually be lost? What is wrong with him? I’m serious. This is not about Twitter; this is not about boresome books, than hell’s own self more trite; this is not about whether or not he really understands Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. This is about whether he really wants to save people’s lives or whether he is compromised in doing so by his desperate, pathetic desire to show how much of a big ol’ smarty pants he is.
There must be an absorbing barrier for this kind of behaviour. That’s an ergodicity joke. Fragile Nassim might get it, but he might not.
NOVELLA I: Mathematical Logic
This subtitle cannot be proven within this formal system — Not gonna lie, this isn’t a very long section, but I committed to these wanky subtitles a long time ago— Hence no picture. How would you even put ‘Mathematical Logic’ in a picture? Comment or DM me suggestions, I’m curious …
There are a few more cases, all of which I encountered recently — more a string of loosely related examples which I can’t quite pad out to the extent I did for free banking, Bitcoin, and ergodicity. But they are as damning as the first two. I doubt anything will ever be as damning as the third.
In an essay I wrote recently I included the following snippet:
“Farrington’s Heuristic is another good example [of a heuristic] which I made up while editing a later version of this essay — if a writer is discussing risk, uncertainty, knowledge, and the like, if he refers to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, and if he is not obviously joking, then everything else he says can immediately be dismissed because he is a bullshitting charlatan enamoured by cargo cult math. This heuristic has only one binary parameter — ‘is he joking?’ — and so is highly robust. In case anybody cares, the theorems are NOT about ‘knowledge’: they are about provability within first order formal logical theories strong enough to model the arithmetic of the natural numbers. This is quite a specific mathematical thing that bears no relation whatsoever to epistemology or metaphysics. Also, there are two of them, which turns out to be important if you understand what the first one says.”
side bar: the first article below is where this quote came from. The second is where the concept of “cargo cult math”, referenced in this first, was articulated. I reread them and it turns out both have favourable references to Taleb, l’autore. Go figure. I used to be so young and naive … in February …
Curious readers are advised and encouraged that neither are written in Talebian obnoxious-little-turd-speak. Pinky promise.
The Complex Markets Hypothesis
In which I hypothesise that markets are subjective, uncertain, complex, stochastic, adaptive, fractal, reflexive … just…
If I remember correctly, adding this note to The Complex Markets Hypothesis was a reaction caused by seeing the trigger for Farrington’s Heuristic in three bad books in a row that I had read in preparation for that essay. In preparation for this essay, I discovered that Fragile Nassim actually does exactly this in The Black Swan. I obviously thought little of it at the time, but he mentions Gödel’s theorems twice. Mathematical logic has nothing whatsoever to do with what Fragile Nassim is talking about in that book, nor is he joking, so we must therefore conclude he is a bullshitting charlatan enamoured by cargo cult math.
NOVELLA II: Computational Complexity
it’s just a bunch of tweets, really
NOVELLA III: Venture Capital
I have written many books: Fooled By Randomness, The Black Swan, The Dictionary — Set theory naïve enough for Taleb — Let’s tug on this thread for fifteen thousand more words
Next up, consider this bizarre remark that I assume Fragile Nassim would later regret:
Now, Balaji Srinivasan knows a lot more than I do about venture capital, and I know a lot more about venture capital than Fragile Nassim. And so I wonder, is Fragile Nassim once again assuming that all words mean what he has decided they mean? Srinivasan responded, far too politely in my view:
We all like Taleb, l’autore’s work, Balaji, but you are dealing with Taleb, il twittatore. Just before moving on, can we get a quick ‘lol’ in the back for “discussing ideas from books they haven’t read”?
All this unrepentant bullshitting makes me wonder, does Fragile Nassim actually understand anything or does he just say words he demands the unilateral power to define? You know, like a toddler?
Bitcoin and ergodicity are outrageously niche subjects. All seven people who happen to be experts in both have a Telegram group in which we try to work out how to get Bitcoiners to take ergodicity more seriously, and ergodicists to take Bitcoin more seriously.
Our only good idea so far has been to tweet about it a lot.
And occasionally say things like the following, from The Complex Markets Hypothesis:
But Farrington’s Heuristic and Balajigate got me thinking, does Fragile Nassim actually understand even the things people credit him with? I’m not entirely sure that he does …
“Second Order”, The First Order Effects
Je Suis Jeremie— Farrington’s Syllogism — The Gospel According to Joe— Christ, that’s a lot of math— Typical characteristics of the IYI — A stopped clock is antifragile twice a day— A convex Maoist mosquito
Here’s an example. He says, “second order” a lot, to mean something like, “more complicated and advanced than something first-order, and that only super-duper smarty pants like me can understand.” It’s defined reflexively — what is “first order”? — but that’s okay. Maybe it is obvious in context. Here is a random example from an exchange with a poor, unsuspecting fellow named Jeremy Horpedahl, who I am just going to assume was right about whatever Fragile Nassim disagreed with. It’s not a scientific approach, but it is a pretty robust heuristic:
I think I know what Fragile Nassim is trying to say here. By “second order effects” he means “effects”. That’s it. “Nonlinear” is jargon that is technically correct but adds nothing to the sentence, nor does “analysis”, nor does “payoff”. He is saying, “Explain why you don’t understand that this topic requires acknowledging a more complicated process — and hence more complicated consequences — than you have so far suggested.” Remember in the laughably stupid foreword to The Bitcoin Standard, how Fragile Nassim threw in a cheeky Orwell reference in order to sound like a serious grownup? I’m not sure he knows that Orwell’s best work is not 1984, but Politics and the English Language. The not unarrogant Taleb chased the not unconfused Jeremy across the not unslick Twitter comments system.
The use of “nonlinear” deserves harsher critique than just “is technically correct”, because on further thought … no, no it isn’t technically correct. It is terminology from the correct technical field, but it turns out he is not using it correctly. To define “nonlinear” we must define “linear” and assume anything else is “nonlinear”. But wait! I have just laid the exact trap into which Fragile Nassim has already fallen. The following is a fallacy: the definition of X is that it is things that are Z. The opposite of X is Y. A is not Z, therefore A is Y. Do you see it? It is in the same vein as the fallacy committed half way through the ergodicity demolition.
Try this out: the definition of ‘happy’ is that it is things that are feeling and showing pleasure or contentment. The opposite of ‘happy’ is ‘sad’. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems do not feel and show pleasure or contentment, therefore they are sad. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems are not happy, not because they are sad, but because they are not the kind of things that can be happy, sad, or any emotion. I feel honour-bound to point out that the conceptual core of this fallacy is quite similar to something I first understood when reading Taleb, l’autore. That one is not forced to choose between being long or short a stock; one can simply be out the market.
Reading the passage that made this crystal clear for me, I believe in Skin In The Game, influenced me greatly. I don’t have the book to hand, but he tells a story about being a guest on CNBC, or something similar, and the host asking him his view on Microsoft, to which he replies, “I am neither long Microsoft stock nor short it, so I have no view.” The hosts and the other guests are confused, but Fragile Nassim and the audience get to laugh.
This rather confusing, pseudo-moral behaviour is worth exploring further. It is easy to misread this quote as implying that Taleb thinks it is immoral for anybody to talk about the merits of investments they are not personally invested in. He might mean this, but I doubt it. I think it is far more sophisticated than this, and, in fact, is one of his more genuinely original insights. For what it’s worth, I think Skin In The Game is his best book too (poor ergodic referencing notwithstanding). I think that by the time he got around to writing this he was no longer desperate to appear smart and could in fact just be angry. It’s a terribly angry book. Wonderfully, poignantly, deservedly angry.
I do not think that his recounted behaviour on CNBC suggests a belief in a binary ethical choice between “good” and “evil”, but a choice from something more like a lattice. Readers in the know can consider this an amusing warmup for the unrelenting barrage of abstract algebra at which we will shortly arrive, but normal readers are free to imagine whatever they think this means: it works just as well as a metaphor as it does as a rigorously mathematical half-joke:
Compare to Christianity. Somebody who identifies as a Christian might imagine themselves to be maximally Christian by never doing anything Jesus said not to do. That doesn’t mean they think any less of others who do such things, even if they also call themselves Christians! Jesus was all about forgiveness, man is fallen, blah blah blah. And besides, the self-identifying Christian in question is only responsible for his or her own behaviour: in the eyes of God, at least.
Fragile Nassim is operating similarly. Just like Omar, he has an ethical code that pertains, in part, to finance. And for what it is worth, I absolutely, non-sarcastically, subscribe to this ethical code, to the best of my abilities. I may slip up from time to time, but I still have my fingers crossed for finance Heaven.
Fragile Nassim is not necessarily judging anybody else for failing to live up to this code. He is merely trying to do his best to live up to it himself. He is being maximally Talebian, while others flounder around the degrees of relative latticial financial morality as stipulated in the the Gospel According to Joseph of Nassim, the Robust, supremum of the (partial) order of Talebism.
The only slight potential confusion comes from, once again, Fragile Nassim seeming to play the role of Jesus in this anecdote. That’s fine. It’s unavoidable but not strictly appropriate. He is Jesus in the background of this anecdote: his is the word of finance God, his is the silver rule, blah blah blah. But in this anecdote, he is not Jesus, but a Christian: not Taleb, but a Talebian. It’s a hidden asymmetry in daily life. It’s his cross to bear.
… as with Dostoyevsky, I have also become suspicious that Fragile Nassim perhaps got the idea of long/short/out the market from the line of thinking on Naive Probabilism developed by Harry Crane, who I’m sure has never been thusly compared before. Or maybe he has? He is a very interesting guy. I’d put his odds of it much higher than Fragile Nassim’s.
This is an alarmingly common experience when one dares to read books by authors other than l’autore robusto. You might very well think Taleb discovered social “fragility”, but then you read Wendell Berry, and before him Hannah Arendt, and before her Alfred Jay Nock. Such humanists might not be scientific enough for your liking, and so you might think to focus on Fragile Nassim’s discovery of Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection in mathematical biology. Alas, that was discovered by a guy called Fisher.
It’s easy to get away with this kind of thing if we don’t define our terms. So let’s define the shit out of some so that Fragile Nassim has nowhere to hide:
What does “linear” actually mean? It is a quality of a function, or more abstractly of any fully determined mapping between two mathematical spaces of the same algebraic type which each contain a fully determined binary operation and some concept of scalar multiplication. “Linear” is usually used as a shorthand to mean “homomorphic”.
Before diving into hardcore math, readers are advised that “homomorphic” basically captures the idea of “structure preserving”: the thing the function maps to has the same structure as the thing mapped from. The function preserves the structure.
side bar: readers uninterested in abstract algebra are strongly encouraged to skip to below the photo of a book’s index. “Structure preserving” is perfectly helpful and useful for everything that follows.
As I once explained to Stephen Wolfram over Negronis in a private café by Lake Como, a homomorphism is a function that has homogeneity of degree 1, and, considered as an operation in the higher space of functions from the domain to the union of the domain and the range, distributes in the range over the defined binary operation in the domain.
Or: a function between spaces is a homomorphism relative to the binary operations within the spaces mapped to and from, if and only if both of the following —
— side bar, your honour!!! seriously, dear reader, if you are not in the mood for final-year-undergraduate-level abstract algebra, then, as your lawyer, I strongly recommend you not be present for the following discussion. You are going to have to trust me that this much abstract algebra is really necessary to rigorously define “linear”, and hence that I’m pretty sure Fragile Nassim hasn’t actually done so, but it may not be to your taste. This is your last warning, lest you put yourself in legal jeopardy during what follows:
A homomorphism is a fully-determined function with both the following properties:
i) it is homogeneous of degree 1: applying the function and multiplying by a scalar are commutative functions, in the space of functions from the domain to the union of the domain and the range, meaning that you can perform them in either order and get the same answer. “Of degree 1” refers to the power the scalar must be taken to in the domain for commutativity to hold. Run-of-the-mill functions tend to be homogeneous of degree 1, but there are always intriguing pathological cases. Only degree 1 is required for a function to be homomorphic.
ii) considered as an operation in the higher space of functions from the domain to the union of the domain and the range, it distributes in the range over the defined operation in the domain: applying the function to the result of the domain’s operation on two inputs gets the same answer as applying the range’s operation to each of the function’s outputs on the same two inputs from the domain.
This can all perhaps be more compactly packaged by saying that it does not matter whether the homomorphic function is applied before or after the relevant operation or scalar multiplication: any permutation of these and the answer will be the same.
And, in fact, it is all far more easily expressed symbolically. Loathe as I am to resort to mathematical symbols if words can ever do the trick, readers may better understand the above gibberish by grappling with the following instead: if x and y are elements in the domain, a and b are scalars, + is the operation in the space of the domain, ⊕ is the operation in the space of the range, and · is scalar multiplication in both, then f is a homomorphism iff:
f (a · x + b · y) = a · f (x) ⊕ b · f (y)
A function (not a payoff, not a theorem, not a Black Swan) is linear iff it is a homomorphism. Got it?
side bar: if you made it through not only the Bitcoin section, but also through this painful definition of a homomorphism in terms of the bare bones of abstract algebra — reduced almost to the point of set and/or category theory — do yourself a favour and look up homomorphic encryption right now. It is unbelievably niche but unbelievably cool. And it’s cool in a kind of annoying, Talebian way: even if you have no idea how it works, you can still tell that the idea is cool! :)
Homomorphic encryption is a form of encryption that allows computation on ciphertexts, generating an encrypted result…
bailiff, bring the jury back in, please …
With this all this tedious baggage out of the way, does it sound like Fragile Nassim really meant “nonlinear” or perhaps that he just meant “complicated”? If the former, he is an idiot. This seems unlikely given what else we know. So he must have meant the latter. In which case, why doesn’t he just talk like a normal person? Why does he throw this ever-so-slightly misused intimidating technical jargon at people? Why doesn’t he read Orwell?
Fragile Nassim is like these people who tell you they love Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, who can accurately and entertainingly recite some of the stories, but who are completely unaware that it is about math and philosophy. Hofstadter knew this, but Fragile Nassim likely does not, because he isn’t really well-read. He’s well-read enough to scare people with references, but not well-read enough to understand what these references mean or where they come from. Sometimes, he hasn’t even read the references, but lists them as references anyway. If only we had a catchy little phrase to describe somebody like that …
What I am building up to is that, in the tweet above, the “payoff” cannot be “nonlinear”, just as a theorem cannot be happy. It is perfectly fair to assume that lots of functions or transformations in the realm of this discussion are nonlinear, but the payoffs are not. Since he really means either, “the underlying function is nonlinear,” or, “the payoff is not simple,” why doesn’t he just say one of these? Either is fine. Perhaps I am being overly pedantic, but normal people don’t struggle with this at all and hence do not fall victim to my predatory pedantry. Fragile Nassim set this trap for himself.
The way Fragile Nassim is using the word “payoff” refers to a scalar. Scalars cannot be nonlinear. This is nonsense. Fragile Nassim tricks himself because it is not linear, either, and therefore he thinks it must be nonlinear. It can be such a struggle dealing with first-order thinkers.
And if you thought that was the worst part of the tweet, boy-oh-boy, are we only just getting started on “second order”. Here’s another one:
Here he means “derivative”. There is nothing “second order” about a derivative. In fact, if anything, you would need a second derivative for this claim to not sound stupid.
But he’s talking about acceleration! Gotcha! Second derivative of displacement with respect to time!
No. Read it again. The starting point is “speed”, and speed is a rate of change with respect to time, not an “effect”. I maintain that the ability to read this as non-nonsensically (sensically?) correct is entirely accidental. You might not be convinced by this, but just remember that “antifragility” certainly has nothing to do with second derivatives because it is a made-up word. We will see shortly that Fragile Nassim has form in occasionally accidentally making sense about concepts that are way over his head.
And so, this is a batshit stupid way to speak unless you are trying to win a bet to say “second order” in every single sentence. To my metadefinition above, this is just “more complicated” than the “first order” speed, the function of which, “acceleration” is the derivative. While we are on it, cars do not have “speed”, because they do not go in a straight line. They have “displacement”, hence they have “velocity”. The change in velocity is what Fragile Nassim is talking about.
And no, “metadefinition” is not a real word, but Fragile Nassim frequently uses the made-up word “metaprobability” as if it were, to mean something equally stupid, and I can play that game too. At least I haven’t caught him calling it “second order probability”, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Here’s another one:
I don’t have a clue what this is supposed to mean, but maybe we can get George Selgin on the phone?
“Second Order”, The Second Order Effects
We dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig, dig … — Cometh the hour, cometh the audit — Internet fortifications— A self-referential throwback to Sierpiński and friends — Put up or shut up
Now, even though these were in fact the first three Fragile Nassim tweets I encountered by googling “Taleb tweet second order”, I have no way of proving that and readers have no right to believe me. I may have used a biased sample. I may have fooled you with randomness.
I now present a scientific exercise that readers can repeat for themselves. I grabbed the nearest Taleb, l’autore, book I could find: Antifragile, in this case. I turned to the index and looked for “second-order”. Jackpot! Not just “second-order”, but six hits for “second-order effects”, which is nonsensical, as covered. And actually, having recalled the context for many of these usages, it turns out we need to check the index for “linear” as well. Six more hits for “linear model”! TWELVE for “nonlinear” What a gold mine! Hi Ho, Hi Ho, it’s off to debunk we go!
You would think Fragile Nassim has a PhD in Non-Linear-Second-Orderology at this rate, with the amount he has to say on the subject. Let’s go through every single God-damned one of these and find out if he understands what he is talking about. Let’s imagine we are doing this over Zoom and you are secretly recording me to send to Fox News. Okay, kids, you should all be using the edition of this book that gives me the highest kickback (Penguin Books paperback, 2013 edition) so no excuses for being unable to follow. Everybody turn to page 7 …
Pg. 7: “Complex systems are full of interdependencies — hard to detect — and nonlinear responses. ‘Nonlinear’ means that when you double the dose of, say, a medication, or when you double the number of employees in a factory, you don’t get twice the initial effect, but rather a lot more or a lot less.” This is excellent. Really, I am not being sarcastic. Not only is it true, it is very clearly articulated. Which gave you a better feel for nonlinearity — this or my excruciating chat about homomorphisms? Exactly. This is an interesting, accurate, and articulate petard by which Fragile Nassim will now hoist himself.
Pg. 178: “asymmetry is a form of nonlinearity.” In the context, this is correct, but if repeated often enough it gets annoying. We will see this shortly, but as this is his first offence, it is excusable, and there is no point lingering.
Pg. 195: “This is called the Baconian linear model.” Stop. No, it isn’t. You made that up. Nowhere near enough abstract algebra was known in the time of Bacon’s Novo Organum to use the word “linear” with any mathematical precision whatsoever. Which is a fascinating juncture to reach so early on in our audit, because, obviously, the word existed, and Bacon very probably used it many times. He would have meant either “having line-like qualities” or just “simple”.
This is all well and good, but note the anachronistic tension — Fragile Nassim has unambiguously set out his stall to try to use it in the complex systems sense, in which the meaning from abstract algebra can be appropriate and extremely helpful. So, which is it? Do you mean “homomorphic” or do you mean “simple”? He is trying to mean both, but this is absurd. He can’t have his homomorphism and eat it too. In fact, it is worse than absurd, it is scoundrelly. He is doing this on purpose because he doesn’t think he will be caught. He thinks you will be wowed by his awesome intellect and not think to ponder the meaning of words for long enough to catch him. Well, guess what, Fragile Nassim? I am in a lockdown, and I have nothing better to do!
I would even wager that Fragile Nassim’s response to this accusation would likely be a textbook version of Nicholas Shackel’s Motte and Bailey Doctrine, as popularised (at least as far as I am aware) by Scott Alexander’s excellent blog, Slate Star Codex. The bailey, where Fragile Nassim wants to be, is frolicking around in complexity, nonlinearity, integrals, and the like. But the motte, the defensible fortress to which he can scurry back, is “simple”. He just means “simple”, guys, what’s wrong with that?
What’s wrong is that he is full of shit. Oh, the pseudo-religious sublimity in catching Taleb in the act of something first articulated in a paper titled, The Vacuity of Postmodernist Methodology. I hope you can feel it too, dear reader, for it is so very sublime. Shall we continue?
Pg. 217: “I mentioned before Terrence Kealey’s debunking of the so-called linear model.” The only reference given for this claim in the entirety of Antifragile is to Terrence Kealey’s, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, in which Kealey uses the word “linear” a lot to mean something a little more involved than “simple” — more like “simple and directed”. Y’know, like a line? In any case, it is clearly a metaphor — and a good one at that — and is not an allusion to complex systems. It certainly chimes with complex systems, and can be interestingly read in that light, but Kealey is not out to deceive.
A good introduction to Kealey’s core line of thought, “The Case Against Public Science”, which Taleb, l’autore, seems to be entirely on board with, by Kealey himself, is available here on Cato Unbound.
Pgs. 227–229: Here Fragile Nassim gives a fuller account of Kealey, and of valuable contributions to the same topic by David Egerton. The discussion on these pages is fascinating — Taleb, l’autore, in his element. Thumbs up!
Pg. 235: Pointless, snide attack on Vannevar Bush, characteristic of Taleb, il twittatore. Bush was far more intelligent and accomplished than Fragile Nassim, and Bush’s 1945 essay in the Atlantic, As We May Think, is infinitely better than anything Fragile Nassim has ever written. This time I mean the aleph-two infinity, which is fun because, in order to fully understand it, you need to know a lot more about functions than Fragile Nassim does.
Pg. 261: “What I did here is just debunk the Lecturing-Birds-How-To-Fly epiphenomenon and the ‘linear model,’ using among other things the simple mathematical properties of optionality, which does not require knowledge or intelligence, merely rationality in choice.” &, “the promoters of the Soviet-Harvard idea do not use optionality, or second-order effects.” As interesting as all this from Taleb, l‘autore, was, he did absolutely no such thing. He gave an interesting overview of a minuscule niche within the history of ideas. I enjoyed it. But he did not “debunk” anything. As for promoters of the Soviet-Harvard idea, that just sounds like a slur to me. I like Harvard but I don’t like the USSR. BUT HE’S EQUATING THEM! MIND = BLOWN!
Pg. 268: “my specialty was the link between volatility and nonlinearity.” In the context, the use of “nonlinearity” is correct, although I would argue this claim is wrong: his speciality is in running around yelling, “THE ESTABLISHMENT IS STUPID AND THEY ARE SCARED OF MY TRUTHS!” and blocking anybody who dares correct him because he has found a fat tail that they have not.
Given Fragile Nassim’s only source for his own truth is his own truth, we can safely infer that he is blissfully unaware of Tarski’s Undefinability Theorem, although there is always the possibility that the logic of NNT is insufficiently strong for this to be a problem. Regardless, this is a highly safe assumption to make for somebody who has already violated Farrington’s Heuristic, but you know what happens when you assume … within this formal system, we have now proven it.
Good work, class, this will all be on the midterm. Let’s continue.
Pg. 269: “Asymmetry is necessarily nonlinearity.” In the context, this is correct, but, in general it is false, amazingly for more than one reason. Back to the definition of linearity requiring a homomorphism between two spaces of the same algebraic type with a threshold of structure that the homomorphism preserves; first of all, “symmetry” is a property of a relation, not a function (functions are a specific kind of relation, possessing more stringent algebraic properties than most obvious relations) but it is likely he means “commutative” which captures the real idea here in any, more-structured-again, space of operations.
side bar: the 0.1% of readers who are super into this stuff will recognise that I said exactly this in the previous section.
But we didn’t need our operation to be commutative. For example, functional composition is almost never commutative. And yet we can easily create homomorphisms between spaces of noncommutative functions. Hence, asymmetry can easily be linear.
If we do in fact mean “symmetry” in the sense of a relation, then this can easily exist in an algebraic space so deprived of structure that the idea of linearity is not relevant. All you have to do is define a space with an asymmetric relation and without an operation, and you get this trivially. Hence asymmetry can fail to be linear or nonlinear.
So, “asymmetry is necessarily nonlinearity” is wrong in just about every conceivable way: you can have linear asymmetries, and you can have asymmetries that do not even rise to the level of linearity or nonlinearity. I’m just going to go ahead and say it’s morally wrong as well. It certainly feels wrong.
If you don’t know what any of this means, don’t worry, neither does Fragile Nassim.
p.s. when I finished the commentary on this specific incidence, it occurred to me that “asymmetry”, at 18 mentions in the index, is likely an even richer goldmine, but I think this essay is quite long enough.
Pgs. 274–275: “they call it ‘approximation.’ When you hear of a ‘second-order’ effect, it means convexity is causing the failure of approximation to represent the real story.” Oh shit. That’s a lot of big words. We are going to need a bigger boat.
I’m just kidding, the boat of sceptical empiricism is more than big enough. This is a fascinating passage — “Traffic in New York” — but Fragile Nassim here makes one silly mistake and one deadly mistake.
The silly mistake is the same thing for which I chastised him before beginning this audit. He says “second-order effects” when he means “effects”. It’s that simple. Oh, sorry, it’s that linear.
The deadly mistake is more nonlinear. Fragile Nassim is talking about the properties of a statistical observation as if they exist within the same phenomenal spectrum as physical causal mechanisms. It’s so stupid that it is probably not on purpose, but, for the sake of thoroughness (and I am nothing if not thorough), “convexity is causing the failure of approximation to represent the real story,” is much like saying, “temperature is causing the failure of the thermometer to represent the real trajectory of gas molecules.”
What Taleb, l’autore, should have said, and perhaps would have said if he were capable of deeper insight, or was less beholden to Taleb, il twittatore, is that any statistical measurement of a system will necessarily exclude some information pertaining to its dynamics, and that said information may or may not be critical to understanding a given question or for making informed predictions of a dynamical sub-manifold of a system’s phase space.
But, had he said that, the Talebites would be as confused as you are right now, dear reader, and we can’t have that, can we? This is a TED Talk! Gotta make ’em feel SMART!
A charitable assumption going forward might be that, whenever Fragile Nassim says something like, “it’s a fucking SECOND ORDER EFFECT you imbecile,” he really means the above.
Pg. 277: “For a long time, nobody even bothered to try to figure out whether variability in distribution — the second-order effect — mattered as much as long-term composition.” Once again, a fascinating point, but he doesn’t mean “second-order”. This is akin to calling a “derivative” second-order. Sure, variance is more complicated than the first order mean or the zeroth order total probability, and sure, you need a (kind of? If you are forcing it?) recursive (meta?) operation to calculate it, but it is the second moment of the distribution, not its “second-order effect”. Words have meanings. Second-order connotations, perhaps, but first-order meanings.
Pg. 292: “Once I figured out that fragility was directly from nonlinearity and convexity effects, and that convexity was measurable, I got all excited.” That’s cute and all, Fragile Nassim, and really good for you for entering the Library of Babel purely because you want to learn stuff. You are an inspiration to us all. But it wouldn’t hurt to read other people’s books rather than just your own. There are no new good ideas, but an endless supply of new bad ones.
And, again, we do not have access to analytic definitions of the functions under consideration, so by “nonlinearity” and “convexity”, he can only mean as inferred from statistical reasoning, and hence not capable of causing anything: IFSRAHNCOCA: ifsrahncoca—I can make up words too. Apart from the Teutonic ‘F’ and ‘H’, that almost looks Italian.
Pg. 333: “The problem with lack of recursion in learning — lack of second-order thinking — is as follows.” This is my single favourite extract; apologies to readers that I committed to going in chronological order. This is correct entirely by accident, as tantalisingly flagged above. We have established that by “second-order thinking” Fragile Nassim means “being a big ol’ smarty pants like me,” and also that Fragile Nassim doesn’t understand mathematical logic at all. So, it is really quite hilarious that he would refer to “recursion” in these terms. He is using the word metaphorically (and, I will admit, acceptably metaphorically) but little does he know, “recursion” is really a strictly logical concept that requires some notion of “second-orderliness” to make complete sense of. But Fragile Nassim doesn’t understand this.
Also, check out the biblical exegesis that covers most of this page. Did you know that Fragile Nassim has read the Bible? And not just the Sunday school bit — the Old Testament! The long, hard one with the questionable morality. None of this Yeezy gospel album weak shit. Gee whizz, what a big ol’ smarty pants.
Pg. 367: “the second-order effects (the variations in the intake)…” He means second moment, as above. ifsrahncoca!
Pg. 433: “Nonlinearities can be concave or convex, or a mix of both.” I don’t want to be too harsh here, because this is correct within the context and framework he has developed. But I’m not completely convinced that he is aware that any other frameworks exist, or indeed that he did not discover this framework, but rather made it up. ifsrahncoca!
Pg. 435: “We saw that everything nonlinear is either convex, concave, or, as in this graph, mixed.” Please make it stop. We are in the appendices now, so it will stop soon. Notice this is worse than the above, but also manages to implicate the above, which otherwise might have gotten away with it. Above he said “can be,” which is correct. Here is said “is,” which is not.
I have a challenge for Fragile Nassim. If I take the outer automorphism of any General Linear Group (I’ll let him choose his favourite — whichever he thinks is the most antifragile) and I change a single element to anything else at all, this function becomes nonlinear. Is it convex, concave, or mixed?
Pg. 450: “Model second order effects and fragility.” Very sneaky, Fragile Nassim, not including this in the appendix under “second order”, hiding it in a “very, very, very, very technical appendix”, and hoping I wouldn’t find it on my own! ifsrahncoca!
Why write it?, we might ask, but Taleb moves in mysterious ways. And there was only really one “very” in the title of the “very technical appendix” but I like to think that the use of one emphatic adverb phrase such as “very” represents an absorbing barrier in the dynamical system of a sentence’s semantics. When I am finished with Taleb, maybe I will start a research programme in ergodicity grammar. Maybe Ole Peters will help me as he will have much more time on his hands.
Anyway, sorry, no, this is stupid, please make it stop. There is no such thing as “second order effects”. As with the Ferguson rebuttal, although admittedly with the stakes infinitely lower here (aleph-three anybody? Or should we crank it up to an inaccessible cardinal and really get this party started?) this just gives us an entirely unnecessary reason to doubt the veracity of everything else that follows in what is, in fact, a fascinating discussion.
So, in English, sure, say whatever you want and be like a better, Shakespearean Feynman. But not in a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very technical appendix that begins, “when I said ‘technical’ in the main text, I may have been fibbing. Here I am not.”
Fibbus in uno, fibbus in omnibus …
“Second Order”, The Second Order Second Order Effects
Netflix must be killing it in the lockdown — The Family Survival Trust — Groups, Modules, Loops — They are trying to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids! — The Fire Sermon — Make him an offer he can’t refuse — The Vision Fund, I of XXI— Take the Orange Pi- I mean, make up and be friends again, Joe, you know you have no choi- I mean, you know you want to!
The problem with all of this is that “second order” does have a real meaning in a number of contexts. It means something in mathematical logic, but we have covered by way of Farrington’s Heuristic that Fragile Nassim doesn’t understand this at all. It means something in differential equations, which he surely does understand, but the discussion above around properly distinguishing speed and velocity throws this into strangely serious question too. He might know it in some contexts, but does he understand it?
He clearly wants to tap into this meaning in the context of complex systems, because complex systems are Very Impressive And Sophisticated And Important. And yet he misuses the phrase perhaps 90% of the time. He means “complicated” or “advanced” as the context permits. His observations have nothing whatsoever to do with complex systems.
I fully appreciate that a lot of this might seem petty. Yes, Fragile Nassim very probably does understand the difference between “complicated” and “complex”, “linear” and “simple”, and the like. That is not my real accusation. It is just fun to ponder in light of a mountain of circumstantial evidence, from the ink of his very own quill. If Carole Baskin’s diary isn’t enough to convince you that she fed Don Lewis to the tigers, then I guess every single God-damned misuse of “linear”, “nonlinear”, and “second-order” in Antifragile isn’t enough to convince you that Taleb doesn’t understand these concepts, either. And hey, Carole Baskin isn’t in jail. She’s out there, a free woman, harassing her enemies into induced insanity. Maybe she was inspired by Fragile Nassim.
No, my accusation is actually far worse, because, jokes aside, I know he understands this. My accusation is of willing deception. Of intellectual fraud. Of taking his audience for a sucker while he does a quick snatch and grab on their ability to think clearly. Then again, it’s actually much more like a cult initiation than a robbery.
“Hey you! Yeah you! Do you want One Big Idea that superficially explains everything? I’ll explain it to you in plain English and yet you’ll feel like you understand math! It won’t be within any recognised field, but it will make you feel like an expert in every field, and it will give you the deeply held idea that the so-called experts are really just bullshit vendors, hiding the truth from us all! Does that sound like what you want? Does that sound like what you need? It does? Good, then get in the van.”
And then, before you know it, you are yelling at friendly Internet strangers about the One True Faith and its Prophet Nassim, the Robust, supremum of the (partial) order of Talebism, imitating the cult leader’s mannerisms, feeling like part of a big, happy family. But really, inside, you are so awfully, terribly alone, waiting for a film crew from Netflix to give you a chance to pour your heart out to the world.
I think it is better to frolic among several hundred examples before having Fragile Nassim’s technique laid bare. It’s a lot more fun to have a magic trick explained after it has been performed.
Friends, Fragile Nassim does the following:
· He finds technical mathematical words which are necessarily also English words, but the technical meanings of which feel quite close to the English meanings.
Note he would have no chance of pulling this off if he said, “ring”, or “field”, but it works very nicely with “linear” and “complex”. It might also have worked nicely with “sets”, “categories”, or “measure”, for example, but he doesn’t go there because, as we have established, he has no grasp of set theory, category theory, or measure theory whatsoever.
· He sets up the discussion as if he is using the mathematical meaning, and therefore is talking about mathematical things. This creates the impression of a deep understanding of the inner workings of the universe.
· He then proceeds to use the English meaning of the words, and not their mathematical meaning at all. Demonstrating this beyond a shadow of a doubt was the point of my audit above.
· He anticipates being caught, but he has several compelling and pre-packaged comebacks:
- He understands the mathematical concepts.
- He is talking about the mathematical concepts.
- What he is saying also makes sense in English.
- He is a super-duper smarty pants, so you probably just don’t get it.
- YOU ARE A FUCKING RETARDED BULLSHIT VENDOR! HOW DARE YOU BE SO INSOLENT AS TO QUESTION THE MASTER OF THE UNIVERSE?!? MY GOLDEN CRUMBS ARE THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE, IF THE PHILSOPHER’S STONE COVERED NOT JUST PHILOSOPHY BUT EVERY SUBJECT KNOWN TO MAN AND SEVERAL NOT YET DISCOVERED! GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE, YOU BARELY CONSCIOUS BUG ON THE SOLE OF MY SHOE!
This last point may just seem funny, but it is absolutely key. It ties everything together and is the entire point of Fragile Nassim’s Twitter persona and, as many concerned tweeters pointed out without quite realising what they had stumbled upon, it is an extension of his writing.
But Taleb, l’autore, does not do this. He Jekyll-and-Hyde’s it to Taleb, il twittatore. By one interpretation, they are symbiotic philosophically ruminative organisms. But by a better one, Taleb, il twittatore, is a parasite, and Taleb, l’autore, an unwilling but impotent host, getting by just fine so long as he provides nourishment to his sadistic alter-ego.
As his cult initiates are more privately considering the seemingly legitimate excuses one through four, and before they have even said anything out loud, they have the nuclear option of number five in the back of their minds. They are absolutely petrified that Taleb will go full General Ripper on them and lock them into an even more perverse mutual assured destruction than that botched by Dr. Strangelove, because really, in all likelihood, Taleb will not be destroyed. And so, they say nothing. They self-censor. They stop after three imagined comebacks, four if they are really brave.
Nobody ever makes it to five, that we know of. I’m sure they exist, but they are suffering from PTSD, shivering on a porch somewhere, babbling incoherently about how all they wanted was to better understand options pricing and that they don’t know why the bad man was so mean.
“The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”
A number of early reviewers thought that, in this line of argument, I was implicitly telling them off. And for that matter, pretty much every English speaker who isn’t a set theorist. I would like to assure readers that I am not. If you use the phrase “second order” or “linear” or whatever, and you are not talking about abstract algebra, I am sure you are doing so perfectly legitimately. Here’s an example:
The first order effect of this essay is to debunk Taleb. The second order effect is to solicit donations from friendly Internet strangers to top up the Allen Ideas Fund.
That is perfectly legitimate. It’s just English. I refer to some obvious thing, and say that something else might be a more complicated, less obvious consequence. It’s reflexive, but the context makes everything clear (well, to Bitcoiners, at least). It’s what Kealey does with “linear”. He means “simple and directed … y’know, like a line.” No problem. If Bacon ever said “linear”, which I’m sure he must have at some point, he will have said it this way too.
But it is not what Fragile Nassim does. Fragile Nassim’s first order meaning is: something, something, this is simple. His second order meaning is: I’m a big ol’ smarty pants. But his third order meaning is: get in the van.
The flame of advanced mathematics is dangerous stuff. It is powerful if you can harness it, but if you don’t know what you are doing, you will get burned. Fragile Nassim got burned bad. And he is still burning. Burning burning burning burning. burning.
You might think this additional layer of conspiratorial hypothesising is cruel, or even fabricated in its essence. But, friends, you will not believe the reaction I got when I first advertised that this essay was in the works. There were several stages from normal people, as opposed to cult initiates. Normal people invariably experienced the following Thirteen Stages of Concern:
that’s the worst idea you’ve ever had.
you’re joking. haha. good one. I thought you were serious there for a minute.
you’re joking, right?
shit, you’re not joking.
are you okay? Is something else going on? Is this a covid thing?
I don’t approve of this and want nothing to do with it. DO NOT MENTION ME! I have a wife and kids!
I know, I don’t approve of his methods either but I approve of his results.
well, that result is less than optimal, now you mention it, but is obviously an outlier. you’re trying to fool me with randomness!
oh, you have two hundred and seventy-six more?
but I don’t know anything about [insert niche topic], so I can’t really judge.
oh, it’s not just being wrong? it’s completely failing to understand, harassing, and retreating, all as a foil for persistent dishonesty and deception? I see …
you know, in person, he’s a really nice guy.
what? why are you looking at me like that?
The following was a typical exchange with a Cult Initiate:
CI: you are full of shit!
AF: about what?
CI: about Taleb!
AF: what did I say about Taleb that you disagree with?
CI: well you are writing a God-damned hit piece about him, aren’t you? Or did you lie about that too because you are so full of shit?
AF: no, that’s correct. But I am writing it. I have not written it. So you haven’t seen anything you could possibly disagree with, have you?
CI: Fuck you, man. You have lost the plot. This is bullshit. This is gonna flop so bad. Do you realise who he is? But I’ve seen this before. You feel like you have him cornered but you are just making an enemy. A really fucking powerful enemy. If you tangle with him, he will dynamically go deeper. He will use multiple tactics, and they will be effective. You’re fucked, man. You’re so full of shit. In fact, you’re obsessed. This is pathetic. You’re only doing this because you want him to like you. I’m unfollowing you because I’ve had enough of this fucking bullshit. I’ll screenshot this conversation and publish it! Don’t I think I won’t fucking do it! That will fuck your little plan right up, won’t it? I’ll block you if you keep up all your bullshit fucking facts about computability theory, set theory, abstract algebra, mathematical logic, or anything else that I would totally understand if you would shut the fuck up for a second and just give me like 5 years to learn it all. Fuck you! … so … when is it coming out?
AF: about a week, but I’ll let you know. Thanks for reaching out, I really enjoyed our chat. Stay safe out there.
I had more than one of these, by the way, and almost all of this is (admittedly remixed) actual quotes or actual exercised threats from people who I will not name because if we manage to rescue them from the cult, they will be deeply embarrassed and will want to rebuild their lives in quiet anonymity.
I frankly don’t think Fragile Nassim cares so much about knowing things. It seems more likely to me that he is obsessed with the appearance of knowing things in full view of his enemies and his cult members alike.
This is absolutely key: even the apparently nastiest, snarkiest prior attempted attacks on Taleb, like this one in The New Statesman, still say stupid bullshit like, “the book’s best sections are about risk, which is Taleb’s central subject and area of expertise.”
Fragile Nassim has three areas of expertise: i) writing entertaining books about risk, ii) being an asshole on Twitter to people who usually know less than him but sometimes don’t, iii) harnessing i) and ii) on rare occasions to harass important people about their misunderstanding of risk.
I praise i) and iii) because why not? — they are praiseworthy. I will do so a few more times, when the mood takes me. ii) is not worthy of praise even if executed perfectly, which in this case it is not. It is unbecoming. It is not what Douglas Hofstadter would do, nor William Buckley, nor Benoit Mandelbrot. It is not what anybody who wants to be taken seriously as a public intellectual would do.
This is all fine.
BUT HE IS NOT AN EXPERT ON RISK. HE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THE MATHEMATICS THAT GOES INTO EXPLAINING ANY OF IT, AND HE DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THE MOST OBVIOUSLY USEFUL APPLICATIONS OF THIS KNOWLEDGE.
This is now indisputable as well as being why this essay is absurdly long. Were one an “expert on risk” one would:
- understand Bitcoin. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand ergodicity. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand volatility in capital markets. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand venture capital. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand the abstract algebra that is required to explain complex nonlinear systems. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand the measure theory, functional analysis, and fractal analysis that is required to explain nonstandard probability distributions with kurtosis over 3; that exhibit power law decay; that have an undefined mean or variance; that exhibit Pareto-like self-similarity, or any other reasonable high level categorisation of “fat tailed distributions”. Measure theory, functional analysis, and fractal analysis require set theory to be handled rigorously, which obviously the real pure mathematicians who work in these fields understand, if they ever even stop to contemplate something so obvious. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand that “convexity” and “nonlinearity” are properties of elements of dynamical systems we infer by statistical reasoning and are not physical phenomena that can enter into causal relations in the real world. Fragile Nassim does not.
- understand that “computational complexity” has nothing to do with risk. Fragile Nassim does not. Nor does he understand computational complexity. Nor does he understand risk.
Fragile Nassim does not understand any of this. I have proven it. It is proven.
and yet …
He maintains the illusion of “expertise” by scaring the living shit out of anybody who dares questions it. He understands enough to convincingly portray an expert most of the time.
And then he closes the gap with fear.
He is so effective at this that, for years now, nobody has even bothered. Steven Poole at The New Statesman didn’t bother. And why would he? Why not avoid a Twitter debacle if all it takes is to throw in half a sentence amidst a sea of snark, to the effect that, “Taleb is an expert on risk,” pay his protection money, stroke Fragile Nassim’s ego, and look forward to living the rest of his life in peace?
BECAUSE IT IS BULLSHIT, THAT’S WHY.
One day you pay for protection, the next day George Selgin gets slandered, the day after legions of dupes take Taleb seriously on Bitcoin, the day after that it’s impossible to generate interest in ergodicity economics, the day after that that we all rush to get our excuses in when he publicly shames people over private concerns relayed in friendship and confidence, and the day after that he invalidates his own academic paper that he is writing to try to save lives, purely because nobody has the guts to tell him, “no”.
HAVE SOME GOD-DAMNED GUTS AND DON’T PAY FOR PROTECTION IN THE FIRST PLACE.
Fragile Nassim’s cowardly, bullying, bullshitting charlatanism is actually a brilliant pre-emptive defence mechanism against his ignorance in his own professed specialty being exposed. It’s prestidigitation. It’s monkey pissing. It’s Son’s alleged advice to Neumann, “in a fight, it’s more important to be crazy than smart.” Either there is so much of a terrifying distraction that his opponent backs down, and Fragile Nassim seems to have won. Or, as in all the cases in this essay — exceedingly rare as I will note they are — he has unequivocally lost, so he pretends it never happened.
But what happens when the cult funds run dry? SoftBank is not going to bail you out anymore, Fragile Nassim. Your (brand) equity has gone negative. Disillusion is wonderful, I’ve been told, but it’s time to accept your implosion. Go back to your Black-Swan-shaped living room and cry a solitary, outlier tear.
The Pandemic Isn't a Black Swan but a Portent of a More Fragile Global System
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is "irritated," he told Bloomberg Television on March 31st, whenever the coronavirus pandemic is…
Now, NNT is certainly more readable than my explication of homomorphisms. But the snag is that I don’t use my writing as a way to initiate people into a cult; I don’t initiate people into a cult as a way of building up a profile as a cult leader; and I don’t build up a profile as a cult leader to turn around and start harassing people who aren’t in the cult.
Ignorance and obnoxiousness are relatively minor sins that may well be balanced out by entertainment. But harassing people without excellent and pressing reason is a major sin, and, even if entertaining, is exacerbated by a total lack of understanding and weird, culty vibes.
“Second Order”, The Rate Of Change Of Such Effects With Respect To Time
Taleb’s Second Syllogism: I am smart, therefore I am rich — Fooled By Randomness — The Black Swan — The Bed of Procrustes — Antifragile — Skin In The Game — I Am So Sorry, Allen (forthcoming)
But he knows about finance, right? He’s a big ol’ super-duper smarty pants options trader who double longs the gamma with a short theta and a Dynamic Hedge across the psis. Whatever the fuck that is supposed to mean. Readers are probably suspicious enough by now to suspect that it has no first order meaning at all. The meaning is entirely of the second and higher orders:
I am rich because I am smart. I am very rich because I am very smart.
I have a theory about this. I think Taleb is rich because his friends are smart. Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all. It’s nice to have friends who look out for you. But it’s back to the issue of presentation: Fragile Nassim very clearly wants his rags-to-riches story to appear to be a function only of time and his infinite intellect. That’s aleph-omega, since we are on the Greeks, and are getting super high in the infinities. And note that Taleb is already on shaky ground with infinities — imagine the chaos if we get stuck into functions as well. Functions of infinities! Infinities of functions! The mind, it boggles …
But this is back to wise master Selgin’s snarky, but deserved, remark. Taleb’s “investment advice” is, effectively: do convex things, yo!
Um … okay. I’m a professional investor and I don’t remember this coming up in any of my training. Oh, but wait, of course, The Establishment is out to suppress his truths, got it.
Fragile Nassim certainly gives the appearance of being a pseudoscientific doomsayer. His entire approach to financial pseudo-wisdom is to tell people to buy puts on everything, all the time, because fat tails, and then wait for a crash to prove he was right all along. There is an interesting digression into philosophy of science to be made here: what could possibly falsify this?
If you understand anything about how our financial system operates (Fragile Nassim does not, and neither do most financiers) then you know that, under the current setup, there will be a crash eventually. The absolutely most flattering light that Fragile Nassim’s approach can be put in is that of behavioural economics, which I think is mostly bullshit, and, hilariously, so does Fragile Nassim: the market has a behavioural bias against properly pricing the really, really, really bad. So this may very well work as an investment strategy, but only because it is a little less stupid than everybody else in a zero sum game. Not because it is smart.
Fragile Nassim is basically those kids in The Big Short, who admittedly did have a clever and profitable strategy, but otherwise had no idea what they were doing. I am Brad Pitt saying, “yes, that’s nice. Now shut up, let me handle it, and if it works, please try to be less of a dick.”
But fear not, friends, I am happy to keep up the role of plucky, naive investor, enormously out of my depth in the big bad world of finance. I will not go full Brad Pitt (‘s character in the movie) and advise extracting oneself from civilisation on account of its fragility, growing seeds with urine, and using cows as currency. No moo puzzle for me, please. I will not go full Talebite:
There is an easy way to settle this. Show us the returns. I challenge Fragile Nassim to publish his trading and “investing” returns, at the very least from the Black Monday incident recounted in The Black Swan, but certainly including the lifetime of the Empirica funds.
Friends, I know he will not do this. There is no Knightian uncertainty about it. I need to be very careful how I phrase the following so that I am not legally liable. But Eric Falkenstein told me all the juicy details of his falling out with Fragile Nassim. I will not relay them here, and, besides, Falkenstein has been very publicly hostile about all of this, and Taleb very publicly hostile in return.
See Falkenstein here, and see Fragile Nassim here. And just by the way, can you ever in your life imagine Fragile Nassim linking to the nemesis he is trying to destroy? I encourage readers to save these tabs and return to make up their own mind. I don’t need to smear Fragile Nassim, and neither does Falkenstein, really. Fragile Nassim’s behaviour smears itself.
And, to be honest, this Wolf Of Wall Street-esque, dirty, slimy shenanigans gives finance a bad name that those of us with real jobs trying to do real good have to suffer from. While Fragile Nassim is more than happy to stylise himself within the timbre of the world of showbiz, theatrical, parasitic finance that Leo and Scorsese did so well sending up, real finance, productive finance, good finance happens not in New York, but in Boston; not in London, but in Edinburgh.
But I will say that I strongly disbelieve that Fragile Nassim was any good at investing or trading whatsoever. I think he got lucky, once, and rather brilliantly spun that into several book deals and several hedge funds. As I described at the point below in a reasonably popular Twitter thread, it means he is a parasite:
Notice how I got “ergodicity” in there? Notice how I used it correctly?
Fragile Nassim is not rich because he has contributed capital to risky and successful enterprises. He is rich because he has skimmed the flow of others doing this. He is not a Master Of The Universe, he is just a collector of golden crumbs.
To move along a delicious tease at the start of this section, I am nearly ready to reveal who Fragile Nassim’s smart friend is. My friend Sacha and I recently cowrote an essay that was our desperate attempt to get inside this individual’s mind. We thanked a lot of very smart people for their inspiration: Saifedean Ammous, Ole Peters, and Andreas Antonopoulos, I have mentioned above. Ben Hunt, Preston Byrne, and Parker Lewis are hardly dummies, either (read their blogs!). And yet all fade into the background in the presence of Nick Szabo (hold your horses, it’s not Szabo either; it’s even better).
Szabo follows me on Twitter. I have no idea why. He is the most intimidatingly intelligent and well-read person I think I have ever come across in my life. I have never met him, but by all accounts, he is very nice, and even quite shy. He is like an Ayn Rand hero, if Rand had written any to be believably flawed as human beings rather than as shimmering vectors of ideas. But Szabo has the ideas. Fs in the chat for Nick.
Come to think of it, I recommend his blog Unenumerated (really a collection of essays) specifically as a kind of detox to Fragile Nassim. Take a week off work and go way back in the archives. Fragile Nassim makes you feel smart. Szabo will make you feel stupid. But it will be good for you. It will be a sign you are actually learning something.
And yet, Elizabeth-Stark-level-man-crush on Szabo entirely aside, there is one individual, cited in the tweet that followed, who towers over us all on this particular issue:
Most readers probably have no idea who Spitznagel is, which I would imagine is exactly how he likes it. Any skeptical Talebites out there might remember Spitznagel’s supporting role in Malcolm Galdwell’s entertaining but, in retrospect, sickening piece for The New Yorker, back when Taleb was still desperately shilling his brand and his ego following one surprise success of a book, one floundering hedge fund, and the grand injustice of Twitter having not yet been invented.
Taleb claims he left that life behind to become a flâneur not long after this New Yorker hagiography. We have already torn to shreds what he left it behind to do. But what of that which he left behind? Spitznagel moved on to become possibly the single greatest permabear of all time. I mean this entirely affectionately, by the way, while many would use this term snobbishly and derogatorily. The entire rationale of his new, Talebless, fund, Universa, is to provide institutional clients with a form of insurance against periodic market collapse, while most of the time their portfolios are going to the moon on artificial capital, inflated P/Es, and capital destructive buybacks, as all covered in mine and Sacha’s essay above.
long progress; short greed.
This all sounds pretty Talebian, if Taleb knew anything about economics; if Taleb really understood investing rather than calling trading “investing”, and calling investors bullshit vendors. I’m not gonna lie, The Dao of Capital isn’t that good. It’s pretty good, but it’s written for a popular audience, as a way of introducing them to an extremely niche and basically made-up subject: applying the good bits of the early Austrian school to long-term investing.
I lapped this book up. I read it in one sitting on a plane. Although they were probably four years apart for me, I actually think that The Bitcoin Standard is probably a great accompaniment. But Spitznagel’s is merely a good book, not a great one. It’s better than NNT, but it’s no GEB, and it’s arguably not even The Bitcoin Standard. But it’s good.
What is absolutely God-damned brilliant are the short thought pieces on the Universa website. If you haven’t read NNT, if you want to save 20 hours, and if you don’t want to slip into a cult by accident, read them. Spitznagel is a genius. He is better than Szabo on this. He is better than me. He is better than probably anybody who has ever lived. He is even better than Sacha. That’s why he did the below, from the Wall Street Journal, and nobody even knows how. Nobody can even recreate it!
Hedge Fund Star Behind 4,000% Coronavirus Return Peers Into Crystal Ball
Financial news outlets are full of predictions these days by investors who allegedly "called the coronavirus collapse"…
side bar: yes, Mark, you can use “long progress, short greed” as a slogan for Universa if you would like.
So here is my theory. Taleb fooled himself with randomness in ’87 because anybody who happened to have placed some stupid black swan fat tail convex whatever bullshit for even as long as the previous 10 years in a row got outrageously rich on Black Monday. In case you missed it,
Black Monday was the single biggest daily drop in recorded market history
If you are leveraged on massively out-the-money puts (and let’s call this Dynamic Hedging bullshit what it really is) and even if you don’t have the slightest clue what you are doing, this position on Black Monday would have made you a bajillionaire, allowed you to (black) swan around writing good but flawed books, chumming up to academics, and, eventually, keeping a list of made of made-up words that you can search Twitter for every hour. Obviously, you could do this with code, but you would have to know what “code” is.
After this, Taleb was lucky enough to bump into Spitznagel, who is very likely responsible for whatever good work was done at Empirica (which I have excellent reason to believe very little was), fighting for every inch against Fragile Nassim telling him to put on trades for reasons that made no sense at all and included a fair number of made-up words. Eventually, Fragile Nassim hit a Tipping Point with respect to his brand, and left “investing” (trading) behind to start down the road towards becoming the Internet’s biggest asshole, granting Spitznagel a chance to start doing real work, unafraid and free from Fragile Nassim’s toxic and stupid influence. I would wager most of Taleb’s money is in Universa.
side bar: the SPY combo, you morons, not the insurance alone. I know so much more about this than you it hurts.
Gladwell was a connector, Fragile Nassim a salesman, but Spitznagel was the maven all along. That’s why Fragile Nassim left; it’s why we know that Universa’s results are spectacular, while nobody knows Empirica’s, and Fragile Nassim may very well decide to threaten you with a defamation suit if you say they weren’t that good. Now, I would never say he would do that. I am merely saying what might happen in any number of possible universes, including our own in 2005.
There is a very easy way to disprove this theory, Fragile Nassim:
Publish your returns, with proof
Put up or shut up. Don’t piss and moan, don’t slander me, don’t slander my employer, don’t threaten to sue anybody, don’t write a nonsensical screed full of made-up words and fictional characters that sound like they come from a book written by a character written by Ayn Rand. Don’t be a bullying, cowardly, bullshitting charlatan as you are wont to do. Just publish the returns. With proof.
Live up to the Gospel According to Yaneer of Nassim, the Robust, supremum of the (partial) order of Talebism:
Don’t tell me what you think. Show me your portfolio.
How Fragile Nassim Will Respond To This Essay
It’s a trap! — YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! — Taleb is a strange loop — Death By Water — yippe-kay-ay motherf***er! — (‘fuck’ is fine, but we can leave the mothers out of this)
Cryptography is another field in which I know a great deal more than Fragile Nassim. And so rather than state my prediction outright, I am going to put it through SHA256 and post the hash.
For the uninitiated reader, this means that the string of gibberish below is an output of a cryptographic function that takes my plaintext prediction as an input, but which cannot be reversed. It is as close to mathematically impossible as can be hoped for without being a sure thing. And so, you cannot take the output below and derive the input, nor can you alter the input in any way whatsoever and predict what change this will make to the output. Therefore, once I tell you the plaintext input, you can be absolutely certain that it matches the output, and hence that I did in fact make this prediction.
UPDATE, April 20th, 2020: this was wrong! My mathematician friend Adam P. Goucher pointed out that it is actually trivially easy to recompute a SHA256 if you know the change to be made. What I was clumsily getting at here was the intractability of analytically solving a hash function rather than just computing it, that effectively makes my proposition unhackable. If I want to make any change whatsoever, there is no way I can fangle it such that I still get the desired output. The hash will change, and will be very, very different. This game can’t be cheated.
Note this is unlike the game of “did I make a mistake in my writing?” which can easily be cheated by changing the text of an old essay or deleting an old tweet. But I shan’t do such a thing. I admit mistakes and I engage with willing readers.
When you think about it, there is something beautifully Talebian about doing this at all, never mind doing it to Taleb. If Taleb is stupid enough, or unhinged enough, my payoff is huge because I compare all the things he actually did to my prediction, which I can prove I made before he did it. That’s the jackpot. That’s Universa-in-early-2020-esque. And if he doesn’t, I just say I’m not revealing it because my prediction was wrong. That’s maybe a tiny bit embarrassing, but so what? predictions are hard! Especially about such complex, nonlinear systems as Taleb’s mood. My downside is protected, while my upside is huge. It’s priced just like a massively out-the-money option. I am Dynamically Hedged.
Also, I unfortunately had to alter this prediction because Fragile Nassim caught wind of this and already did several of the things I predicted he would before I published the essay. Hilarious as this is, it would not be in good faith to still include those predictions. I absolutely made them, and was absolutely right, but the point here is to be able to prove I’m right. I’m not Fragile Nassim, remember. Fragile Nassim wants to appear right whether he is or not. I not only want to be right, I want to be able to prove it. I am intellectually honest, basically. Fragile Nassim is fragile. Here is the hash of my amended but honest and provable prediction:
And note, I timestamped this because Taleb started responding before publication and I needed to get ahead of it in a credible manner:
But wait! Now we have a kind of Hofstadterian paradox! Fragile Nassim knows I have predicted what he is going to do, so he can’t risk doing it and looking like a fool. In light of this new information, below is the hash of my Hofstadterian prediction of what he will do, knowing full well I have predicted it. Don’t try this at home, kids, this is some advanced Dynamic Hedging. But is it a second order Dynamic Hedge or A Gödelian Dynamic Hedge? The answer is in the preimage, so you’ll have to wait and see. Here is the hash:
Fragile Nassim and his merry band of complexity-riskateers tried to storm Nakamoto Plaza without being absolutely sure who was in the building. Now they know there is a spanner in the works; a wise-cracking New Yorker who can’t resist getting on the radio. And when you get down to brass tacks, it’s not even the kind of New Yoahka that Fragile Nassim pretends to be, from Brooklyn, but the kind Fragile Nassim pretends to hate, from New Joyzee.
Friends, this whole John McClane bit is much like thinking through an idea that Fragile Nassim claims is his own: every layer you peel back it gets more and more suspicious. You see, I’m only sort of from New Joyzee and Fragile Nassim is not at all from New Yoahk. I’m from Glasgow, really. Fragile Nassim would not do well in Glasgow. People don’t really deadlift there. They just headbutt you in the face if you sound like too much of a twat.
And so Fragile Nassim and the Talebites will try to bide their time amidst the fog of Knightian uncertainty, but we all know they are sweating. This is not how this was supposed to go down.
Ho ho ho, Taleb, now I have a hash function.
Il Conclusione Del Essayo
What about with a quantum speedup? — Let’s make it a hashtag! — I AM THE BLACK SWAN! I AM ANTIFRAGILE! — Answer my ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about what the bad man did as if you are ordering a pizza —I choose violence — I am Spartacus — I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss — What The Thunder Said
Friends, we are so close to the end, and we haven’t mentioned Hitler or the Nazis even once (that doesn’t count). Maybe that’s what the comments are for, as the essay itself cannot be infinitely long, hard as I might try to get there, and worth it as infinity-many infinity jokes would be.
Taleb, il twittatore, is a bullshitting charlatan. You may disregard everything he says. If he gets mad at you, treat him like the pissing little monkey he is and scream and shout and insult and demean until he inevitably blocks you and scurries back to his monkey pen. Here is what I suggest, just off the top of my head: “FUCK OFF YOU BULLYING, COWARDLY, BULLSHITTING CHARLATAN #FragileNassim”.
Now, readers might be suspicious of — even exhausted by — how niche all my monkey pissing happened to be in this essay. But keep in mind that I stay in my lane. Much as I am sure he will try to smear me as one, I am not an IYI. I know more than Fragile Nassim about free banking, Bitcoin, ergodicity, mathematical logic, computational complexity, venture capital, abstract algebra, finance, cryptography, and set theory. Those may very well be the only such areas. Also, everything described happened to me in the past two months: the Twitter feuds I stumbled into with Selgin, Peters, and Srinivasan, and the fact I have Antifragile to hand.
I must tell readers about an amusing and fascinating experience I had when sourcing disgruntled victims of Fragile Nassim’s as research for this essay. Most people, and even a few famous and successful people (more famous and successful than Fragile Nassim, in some cases! No, they do exist!) gave off what I can only think to describe as a weird domestic-abuse-victim vibe: “okay, yes, he beats the shit out of me when he’s drunk, but he’s soooooooo smart and he’s a good person, really! He does far more good than he does harm!”
Um … okay … but he gets drunk and beats the shit out of you, though, right? Couldn’t he, like … stop doing that? Then you notice that they are blinking in Morse code, “help me. I am in danger.”
Imagine if everybody followed my lead and thought really hard about what they absolutely know better than him. Everybody who is anybody is a Selgin on something. And quite a few Selgins have been monkey pissed on by Fragile Nassim. Imagine if all these people decided that, you know what, routinely getting drunk and beating the shit out of your wife is actually not a very nice thing for Fat Tony to do, no matter how swell he may otherwise be.
End the apologia for Fragile Nassim. End his cult. Burn it all down. If we all did this en masse — George Selgin, Claire Lehmann, Sam Harris, Phil Tetlock, Adam Kucharski, Charles Murray, Cass Sunstein, Steven Pinker, Richard Thaler, Geoffrey Miller, Jordan Peterson, everybody — it would really be the best possible outcome: Taleb, il twittatore, might simply disappear, and it would give Taleb, l’autore, more time to entertainingly explain other people’s ideas.
It would be a far, far better thing you do than you have ever done. It will be a far, far better rest you go to than you have ever known.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Follow me on Twitter @allenf32
But please don’t harass me. Twitter (and Medium) is not real life.
Thanks to Sacha Meyers, who has nothing better to do in a lockdown than edit my essays, to Hendrik Borginon, who I led to believe had a choice in the matter, and to Gemma Barkhuizen, who won’t leave us alone. None of these three have Twitter, but last I checked, Sacha and Gemma were considering getting a TikTok.
Thanks also to my Mum, who convinced me to far better signpost the Taleb mimicry. And also to all the poor souls who have endured the composition of this essay, most of all my Dad.
благодарение на Емичка, катеричката ми, принцесата ми, любовта ми, who doesn’t give a shit about Taleb, as normal people should not, but who believes in everything I do, no matter how stupid. If it wasn’t for you I never would have started writing. много те обичам.
Additional thanks to the many Twitter users who reached out and contributed to the essay. Many understandably wished to remain anonymous, shitting their pants as I am sure they are, but public thanks are due to Phil Tetlock, Eric Falkenstein, Matthew Pirkowski, and Twitter users, @agostino_harry, @mattigag, @clay_space, and @sebnem.
And to be clear, @agostino_harry, @mattigags, and @sebnem, were not critical of Taleb at all, and defended him to a greater or lesser extent, but their contributions are nonetheless appreciated and they are owed a mention. For those in the know, it will be no surprise that Pirkowski, Tetlock and Falkenstein are not in this camp.
L’Epilogo Del Essayo
There is a cryptic puzzle embedded in this essay for particularly astute and learned readers. But the puzzle is unsolvable. If anybody can tell me why it is unsolvable, I will be seriously impressed. If the essay gets enough traction I will consider a deadline for the reveal and a prize.
UPDATE, June 6th, 2020: I have in fact announced a deadline and a prize. see the twitter thread that begins below if are you are interested:
And no, it isn’t about contradictory self-reference in mathematical logic.
or is it?
no, it isn’t.
OR IS IT?!?
It is also not about computational complexity and what is or is not provably unprovable. Which is a shame, because that would have been amazing. I should have thought of that.
Or did I? Maybe I did …