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Aphorisms for Crisis

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (New York: Random House), 2010; pp xii+112, $18.

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Aphorisms for Crisis

Chandrashekhar G Ranade

I
n The Bed of Procrustes, the author of the bestsellers Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb offers his views on a variety of subjects in aphorisms and a short text at the end that he calls the “postface” (2010: 105). The aphorisms read like conclusive thoughts; though each might need hundreds of pages of thesis to arrive at its conclusion, they are not followed by any supporting references at the end. This is the uniqueness of the book. A reader new to Taleb’s views might need more support for these conclusions, but for that he or she would have to read the earlier work of Taleb, visit his web site and listen to his video presentations and discussions.1 The book is based on the Greek myth of Procrustes, who was passionate about inviting guests to his lodge, offering them a free stay, but with the condition that they would have to sleep on a bed he had

The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (New York: Random House), 2010; pp xii+112, $18.

specially created for them. This condition meant that Procrustes would either cut or stretch their body to fit the size of the bed. Taleb relates this story to the neoclassical passion for developing models and maps in order to describe the world, and, in so doing, squeezing reality into a distorted form to fit the black boxes of those models and maps. Through his aphorisms, Taleb effectively shows that this passion for creating patterns is futile and also dangerous, since no pattern can describe phenomena or a reality that contain low-probability high-impact events: Black Swans, otherwise dismissed as “outliers”.

In this short book of 112 pages, there are a total of 323 aphorisms contained in 22

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
june 11, 2011 vol xlvi no 24

short sections. These sections cover subjects from economics and finance to science and mathematics, and even ethics and philosophy. At least 45 aphorisms are related to the single subject of economics

and finance, all of them highly critical of (quantitative) economics, positing such economics not only as a non-science but also responsible for creating fragile financial markets and a fragile world. For example, Taleb writes, “[e]conomics cannot digest the idea that the collective (and the aggregate) are disproportionately less predictable than individuals” (2010: 7).

Taleb has always argued that anything fragile that grows can break and create havoc. He does not tell us how to use economics better; the reader must decipher that by reading between the lines. Taleb suggests that economists, philosophers and thinkers in other discipline should give due consideration to what they do not know, to the unknown reality that functions simultaneously with the world that they know. This parallel reality needs to be acknowledged and respected. The aphorisms are highly critical of the present

BOOK REVIEW

craze for over-information and, by implication, of data mining. As he puts it, “the calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits” (p 57).

Reflecting on the crisis of corruption and law as an instrument around the world, Taleb writes: “[m]y biggest problem with modernity may lie in the growing separation of the ethical and the legal” (p 62). Oddly, even though Taleb describes himself as a libertarian in the American sense in his earlier speeches and writings, he offers high praise to Karl Marx and does not even mention the father of laissez-faire economics, Adam Smith. For instance, he writes: “The four most influential moderns: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and (the productive) Einstein were scholars but not

Ahmed, Jaseem and Harinder K Kohli, ed. (2011): Islamic Finance: Writings of V Sundararajan (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xxxiii + 291, Rs 750.

Basu, Kaushik (2011): An Economist’s Miscellany (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xiv + 200, Rs 395.

Bateman, Anthony and Jeffrey Hill, ed. (2011): The Cambridge Campanion to Cricket (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xxvi + 282, Rs 395.

Baviskar, Amita and Raka Ray, ed. (2011): Elite and Everyman: The Cultural Politics of the Indian Middle Classes

(New Delhi: Routledge); pp xii + 468, Rs 895.

Chatterjee, Ashoke (2011): Rising/Utthan (New Delhi: B S Books), pp 204, Rs 395.

Chatterjee, Partha (2011): The Prince and the Sannyasi (Gurgaon: Hachette India); pp 650, Rs 395.

Dalmia, Yashodhara (2011): Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists in Their Own Words (Vol 1)

(New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xvi + 350, price not indicated.

– (2011): Journeys: Four Generations of Indian Artists in Their Own Words (Vol II) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xvi + 234, price not indicated.

Dietzgen, Joseph (2011): The Nature of Human Brain Work (Delhi: Aakar Books), pp 142, Rs 295.

Harford, Tim (2011): Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (Hachette India); pp 310, Rs 499.

Holt, John Clifford, ed. (2011): The Sri Lanka Reader: History, Culture, Politics (Durham: Duke University Press); pp xvi + 772, $34.95 (paperback).

Jalil, Rakshanda, ed. (2011): Qurratulain Hyder & the River of Fire (Delhi: Aakar Books); pp 248, Rs 595.

Jansen, Marion and Erik von Uexkull (2010): Trade & Employment in Global Crisis (New Delhi: Academic Foundation); pp 174, Rs 695.

Joshi, Deepali Pant (2011): The Financial Inclusion Imperative and Sustainable Approaches (New Delhi: Foundation Books); pp 282, Rs 695.

Kachru, Braj B, Yamuna Kachru and S N Sridhar, ed.

a cademics. It has always been hard to do genuine and non-perishable work within institutions” (p 79).

At the end of the book, Taleb writes a postface, synthesising the aphorisms. Blessed with more and faster information and armed with sophisticated quantitative models we may be, but no matter what kind of data mining we do, the world is more fragile and subject to the dangers of abstracting from mined data, like Procrustes trying to squeeze reality into models, and in the process distorting it.

Short and beautiful, the postface conveys Taleb’s love for classical history and for a life away from the slavery of time, technology and employment. Taleb praises the art of the aphorism, letting the reader reflect and find meaning independently.

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(2011): Language in South Asia (New Delhi: Cambridge University Press); pp xxvi + 611, Rs 895.

Kumar, Ravi, ed. (2010): The Heart of the Matter – Development, Identity and Violence: Reconfiguring the Debate (Delhi: Aakar Books); pp 136, Rs 295.

Kundu, Nivedita Das, ed. (2010): India-Russia Strategic Partnership: Challenges and Prospects (New Delhi: Academic Foundation in association with India Council of World Affairs); New Delhi, pp 167, Rs 595.

Madan, T N (2011): Sociological Traditions: Methods and Perspectives in the Sociology of India (New Delhi: Sage Publications); pp xxii + 306, price not indicated.

Miliband, Ralph (2011): The State in Capitalist Society (Delhi: Aakar Books); pp xxvi + 245, Rs 595.

Mukherji, Anjan and Subrata Guha (2011): Mathematical Methods and Economic Theory (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp xiv + 312, Rs 495.

Park, Gene (2011): Spending without Taxation: FILP and the Politics of Public Finance in Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press); pp xv + 321, price not indicated.

Parthasarathy, R and Ravindra H Dholakia, ed. (2011):

Sardar Sarovar Project on the River Narmada: History of Design, Planning and Appraisal (Vol 1)

(New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company); pp xxii + 256, Rs 750 per set.

  • (2011): Sardar Sarovar Project on the River Narmada: History of Rehabilitation and Implementation (Vol 2) (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company); pp 257 to 616 + xxiii, Rs 750 per set.
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    Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, David Maxifield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2011): Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success

    (Hachette India); pp xvi + 262, Rs 275.

    june 11, 2011

    Poets can communicate deeply about reality, Taleb argues, quoting the work of his fellow Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, author of The Prophet.2 Taleb writes as a flaneur, meditating in cafes across the planet.

    Chandrashekhar G Ranade (chandraranade@ gmail.com) is based in Centreville, Virginia, the United States.

    Notes

    1 For more on Taleb’s website, two books, and various speeches, see the letter by the author – Chandrashekhar G Ranade (2010), “Of Bubbles and Black Swans”, Economic & Political Weekly, 45(29): 4-5.

    2 The work of Kahlil Gibran is reminiscent of the Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi and the Marathi writer Vijay Tendulkar who rendered the economic conditions of India much more powerfully than any other past or present Indian economist.

    Raichowdhuri, Satyabrata (2011): Leftism in India 1917-1947 (Delhi and Mumbai: Macmillan Publishers); pp xiii + 254, Rs 375.

    Rao, N Chandrasekhara and S Mahendra Dev (2010): Biotechnology in Indian Agriculture: Potential, Performance and Concerns (New Delhi: Academic Foundations); pp 198, Rs 695.

    Reddy, Mohan K (2010): Indigenous Markets in India (A Study in Tribal Areas) (New Delhi: Serials Publications); pp xvi + 398, Rs 1,295.

    Roland, Alan (2011): Journeys to Foreign Selves: Asians and Asian Americans in a Global Era (New Delhi: Oxford University Press); pp x + 250, Rs 695.

    Roy, Arundhati (2011): Broken Republic – Three Essays (New Delhi: Hamish Hamilton, Penguin Books); pp xii + 220, Rs 499.

    Sen, Gitanjali (2010): Trade and FDI Related Reforms in the States, 1991-2007: The Case of Maharashtra (New Delhi: Academic Foundation in association with Observer Research Foundation); pp 130, Rs 595.

    Sen, Ranjit (2010): 1857: Visions Resurrected – Shaping Ideas from Oblivion (Kolkata: Maha Bodhi Book Agency); pp 206, Rs 450.

    Shastri, Paromita (2011): How India’s Small Town Live (or Die): Making Sense of Municipal Finances (New Delhi: Academic Foundation); pp 180, Rs 695.

    Siddiqi, Abdul Rahmanb (2011): Smoke without Fire: Portraits of Pre-partition Delhi (Delhi: Aakar Books), pp 306, Rs 695.

    Singh, N K (2011): The Tangy Taste of Indian Politics and Beyond (New Delhi: Konark Publishers); pp x + 424, Rs 795.

    Sinha Roy, Bhaktapada (2007): Rural Banking and Poverty Alleviation (Delhi: Abhijeet Publications); pp xii + 163, Rs 450.

    – (2008): Panchayati Raj and Rural Development (Delhi: Abhijeet Publications); pp viii + 220, Rs 640.

    Vadgama, Kusoom, ed. (2011): An Indian Portia: Selected Writings of Cornella Sorabji 1866 to 1954 (New Delhi: Zubaan); pp 702, Rs 1,200.

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