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Bumps and shocks make the world more resilient

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Things That Gain from Disorder

By Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Random House, 518 pages, $33

IF modernity can be characterized in part by a tendency toward ordering, prediction and systematization, then it is little wonder that Nassim Nicholas Taleb displays a marked fondness for ancient writers.

Best known for his 2007 book The Black Swan, an investigation of low-probability, high-impact events, the Lebanese-American author and academic again mixes formal philosophy with on-the-street pragmatism.

The "antifragile" is anything, according to Taleb, that improves from shocks, random stressors or a lack of information. This is in contrast to the fragile or robust, which are either hurt or remain unchanged in response to pressures.

Taleb, a former trader who became independently wealthy during the 2008 financial crisis, is able to speak with authority on fragile systems.

His overarching goal is to encourage the development of systems that do not require faultless prediction but instead operate under opaque conditions. Without regard for traditional disciplinary boundaries, Taleb traverses biology, architecture, business, economics and medicine in his endeavour to identify and rectify hidden fragilities.

There is much to appreciate here. At its best, Antifragile is a plea for radical honesty: to see the world as it is, not how we wish it to be, and to acknowledge the limits of our ability to definitively identify and control the random. Antifragile presents both pragmatic and theoretic discussion, and the chapter on ethics is particularly powerful.

Taleb makes a very convincing case for adopting an antifragile perspective in the realms of medicine, biology and economics. Consider the abundance of information on health and medical treatments available to the average person. Taleb argues that this has lead not to improvements but to over-intervention with unforeseen, often dangerous side-effects.

His solution is simple and elegant: reserve treatment for severe cases with obvious, definitive benefits and allow the body's own resources to address less significant illnesses. A very similar argument is found in other areas. Not surprisingly, Taleb is against governments stabilizing faltering businesses, preferring to let the stronger, more competitive survive.

At times it becomes difficult to maintain enthusiasm reading Antifragile. At over 500 pages, one gets the sense that a crisper, leaner version might be less repetitive and more engaging.

Taleb's abundant sense of humour helps, but an element of self-indulgence remains. This too is evident in the degree of self-reference. The reader, whether interested or not, will learn much about Taleb's personal preferences and idiosyncrasies.

Off-the-cuff attacks on both specific people and generalized fields abound. Taleb is never shy of leading with his chin, even if this risks pettiness or reductive thinking.

Problematic too is the lack of footnotes. There are literally dozens of claims on everything from the health effects of bicycling to cultural practice that are not easily verified.

Considering the breadth of Taleb's argument, it is interesting that he never hits upon language as one of the most antifragile systems. Nevertheless, Antifragile is a powerful, persuasive work by a writer who is clearly well-read and possessed of diverse interests.

It is at times a slog and the reader will learn far more about Taleb's antipathies than they might wish, but will also find a window opened to seeing the world from a fascinating perspective that is, one hopes, more resilient in the face of the random and unexpected.

Jarett Myskiw is a Winnipeg teacher.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 J7

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