Monday, April 18, 2011

"The Bed of Procrustes," by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

A better title for The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms might have been "Crusts of Bread from a Pro."

The classically accented moniker refers to a character in Greek mythology who fed guests at his road house and, afterward, either cut off some part of their body to fit the bed he offered them, or stretched them to achieve the same.

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb resorts to Procrustes' bed as a parable for modern thought. Taleb says his collection of disparate aphorisms are about the Procrustean bed in which humanity currently reclines, "facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen, resolve the 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."

Fair enough, although it was not easy for highwayscribery to see a way that, "You never win an argument until they attack your person," however true, fits into the author‘s main idea of “how we deal, and should deal, with what we don‘t know...”

Not to say that there are no engaging or provoking passages found in this mélange of thoughts plucked from Taleb’s mind. highwayscribery liked this one and found it fitting the author’s purposes:

“Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases.”

Then there is this one, which many would probably take issue with:

“To understand the liberating effect of asceticism, consider that losing all your fortune is much less painful than losing only half of it.”

Tell that to Bernie Madoff’s clients. As a journalist, highwayscribery took exception to this offering as well: “An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite.”

In fact, if you’re a businessperson or academic or, worse, hold down a job, you may find yourself among those polluting the purity of classical thought Mr. Taleb so reveres:

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

“The Bed of Procrustes,” is littered with criticisms of those who aren’t lucky enough to have Random House pay them for musings conjured during long, carefree walks through a blessed and jobless existence.

There may be, for certain readers, something off-putting about the author’s deigning to know what is right from wrong. These aphorisms imply that Taleb is on the side of the angels he hopes to hook us up with.

To wit: “I suspect that they put Socrates to death because there is something terribly unattractive, alienating, and nonhuman in thinking with too much clarity.”

(The way I, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, do).

Anyway, this assembly of vaguely organized sentiments possesses its gems and is usually entertaining, which may or may not have been the author's intent. You don’t have to agree with every thought you read to be engaged.

Besides, if nobody assumed they were smarter than the rest of us, there'd be no books attempting to advance our thinking.

Perhaps affecting this assessment is the fact highwayscribery is unfamiliar with Taleb’s earlier effort, “The Black Swan,” which appears to be his signature work and the foundation upon which “The Bed of Procrustes” is built.

Which is another way of saying those who seek this book may gain more from than those who are found by it.

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