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The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

The_Modern_Bed_of_Procustes

The Bed of Procrustes, the title of Nassim Taleb’s book of aphorisms, takes its title from Greek Mythology.

Procrustes (“the stretcher”) owned a small estate along the sacred way between Athews and Eleusis. He invited every passer-by to spend the night in his iron bed. No one ever fit the bed exactly (because he had two) so he would physically alter his visitors so they would fit by stretching or amputating. Eventually he was fitted to his own bed by Theseus.

Even in myth, that sounds pretty grotesque. Who would do such a thing? Who would take something that doesn’t fit and make it fit.

We do this all the time. Not with people but with ideas. I think that’s Taleb’s point.

Taleb contrasts the ideal classical values against “modern diseases of nerdiness, philistinism, and phoniness.”

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

You can consider this a stand alone, yet synthesized, version of Taleb’s other works: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile. All of these books deal with how to live in a world we don’t quite understand (or as Taleb would put it, “how we deal, and should deal, with what we don’t know.”)

Education

Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.

Erudite

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant the opposite.

Anger

If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice; if it increases, you suffered injustice.

Advice

When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice so we can blame someone else for the failure.

Winning Arguments

You never win an argument until they attack your person.

Listening

Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with a skillfully polished indifference.

On Our Need For Stimulation

Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.

Newspapers

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.

Freedom

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

Montaigne makes a similar point.

Modernity

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

Inversion
You can tell a lot about people from their heroes. Taleb inverts this.

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

Debates

In most debates, people seem to be trying to convince once another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves.

Addiction

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

Writing

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Book Reviews

It is much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Information Age

The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.

This is a point he elaborates on in detail:

The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher the noise to signal ratio. And there is a confusion, that is not psychological at all, but inherent in the data itself.

Via negativa

Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.

Trust

Don’t trust a man who needs an income—except if it is minimum wage. (Those in corporate captivity would do anything to “feed a family.”)

Convincing Others

You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.

What do you do When Nobody is Looking?

The difference between magnificence and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking.

Those are only some of the highlights throughout my copy of The Bed of Procrustes, which I regret having putt off reading until now.

(image source: wikipedia)