Wednesday, July 29, 2020

now reading: Nassim Taleb's Antifragile

Taleb's Fooled by Randomness is one of my favourite books. It gave me frameworks and mental models that I've used extensively, so much so that they've slipped below the radar now. As far as I remember, it was where I discovered Karl Popper and epistemological skepticism (which is a fancy way of saying question and understand where your beliefs and certainties come from and don't be too attached to them). I had many epiphanies while listening to that book, which I did while driving to and from Seal sometime in late 2014. 

Detour: After a long time, the latest eureka moment I had in the presence of a formidable intellect was in one of Prof. Mehta's early Justice classes. I don't remember the exact topic of discussion now but when he was dissecting a social phenomena in mathematical fashion, it struck me that the point of education, the primary purpose of education, is to de-invisibilize the structures shaping our actions, desires and judgements. This is to go beyond first principles, which I believe are more conscious, and find the factors creating them. Infact, in retrospect, I think this realization first came into my consciousness while reading Erich Fromm's Man in the Age of Capitalist Society but I didn't recognise it then. A part of me sees that the triteness of that aphorism but possibly because it wasn't imposed on me and came from experience and struggle, I'm totally enamoured by its power. 

Anyway, I am about to start reading Antifragile, having abandoned Black Swan a few years ago because I found Taleb insufferable and yet because I find him a brilliant, idiosyncratic generalist, I thought I'd give him another shot. This post is as a thought diary of that book reading.

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I like the idea of chapter summaries. Yesterday, I heard Samanth Subramaniam talk to Amit Varma about writing (creative) non-fiction in this insightful interview and I had a couple of takeaways:
    1. Essays have primarily two aspects: themes and angles. You may bring a particular lens, economic, sociological, historical etc., to the proceedings, and you look to cover multiple themes- risk, public institutions, urban planning etc.
    2. Good writing has subtext. Themes are stacked in layers and a writer's primary duty is to weave the narrative through them.
Chapter summaries seem to be part of that design framework. And considering how discursive Taleb's writing is, as one reviewer wonderfully put it, fractal-like, it seems a good idea to share it with the reader.

Digression: My writing has always been bottom-up, literally, because I see myself as a transcriber of what floats up, from the depths of my mind, into my consciousness. 
"As if every thought that tumbles through your head was so clever it would be a crime for it not to be shared."- The Social Network
But finally I seem to be able to understand why top-down planning has it's uses. I'm particularly wary of these best-of-both-worlds type answers; The purist in me cringes but how many purists ever get much done? Not only does having the plot clothesline going to free me up from constantly worrying of the next steps of the story, it is going to bring writing into workmanship territory, something I've always admired and respected. 

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