The Bed of Procrustes | Reflections & Notes

Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms. Random House, 2016. (156 pages)


REFLECTIONS


As the glut of information has coincided with a decline in wisdom and principles, we spiral in a doom loop of ignorance compounded by the lack of insight to recognize such ignorance and the absence of will to remedy such ignorance. The Procrustean bed—”an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.” [Wikipedia]—is one of the many symptomatic and tragic results. Aphorism and axioms are paradoxical remedies. On their own, they may suffer from the very same malady, making wisdom “fit” into the compact container of a quip. On the other hand, they may have the ability to expose the very bed upon which we lay, awakening our consciousness, opening our eyes, forcing us to see what has always been in front of us to which we have been blind. May we explicate and apply these nuggets of wisdom, eh… wisely.

One of the areas of convergence I appreciate most is when these sayings correspond to studies psychological elements such as shifting baseline syndrome, proximity effect, social comparison, confirmation bias, fundamental attribution error (correspondence bias) and others. That triangulation is always a delight and a reinforcing of wisdom. It speaks of deep patterns in our psychologies that are common amongst us all and can illuminate the very same truth from a different refraction of light, reinforcing our understanding, and expanding our grasp.

Self-referentially, I felt a personal confirmation in my own cataloging of axioms. It’s always a joy to find like-minded souls.

Last, I have found that apprehension of the truth of these axioms is actually contingent upon the experiences one has that can contextualize and make meaning of the postulate. In other words, if you “like” the saying, or find it powerfully insightful, it’s most likely because you have already experienced it in some manner, and the words are highlighters that help you see, understand, and make sense of your life experiences. Put another way, phenomenology begets wisdom, not the other way around. As such, my favorite sayings, recorded below, are not the best clips from the book, but rather, an insight into the life that I have lived thus far. That, in and of itself, was illuminating.


NOTES


Procrustes

Procrustes, in Greek mythology, was the cruel owner of a small stage in Corydalus in Attica, on the way between Athens and Eleusis, where the mystery rites were performed. Procrustes had a peculiar sense of hospitality: he abducted travelers, provided them with a generous dinner, then invited them to spend the night in a rather special bed. He wanted the bed to fit the traveler to perfection. Those who were too tall had their legs chopped off with a sharp hatchet; those who were too short were stretched (his name was said to be Damastes, or Polyphemon, but he was nicknamed Procrustes, which meant “the stretcher”). (xi)

| In the purest of poetic justice, Procrustes was hoisted by his own petard. One of the travelers happened to be the fearless Theseus, who slayed the Minotaur later in his heroic career. After the customary dinner, Theseus made Procrustes lie in his own bed. Then, to make him fit in it to the customary perfection, he decapitated him. Theseus thus followed Hercules’s method of paying back in kind. (xi)

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 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. Further, we seem unaware of this backward fitting, much like tailors who take great pride in delivering the perfectly fitting suit—but do so by surgically altering the limbs of their customers. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of schoolchildren through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse. (xii)

These are standalone compressed thoughts revolving around my main idea of how we deal, and should deal, with what we don’t know,… [My use of the metaphor of the Procrustes bed isn’t just about putting something in the wrong box; it’s mostly that inverse operation of changing the wrong variable. …](xii)

Notice

Aphorisms are different from conventional text. The author recommends reading no more than four aphorisms in one sitting. It is also preferable to select these randomly. (xiii)

PRELUDES

The person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself (3)

An idea starts to be interesting when you get scared of taking it to its logical conclusion. (3)

People are much less interested in what you are trying to show them than in what you are trying to hide. (3)

Pharmaceutical companies are better at inventing diseases that match existing drugs, rather than inventing drugs to match existing diseases. (4)

In science you need to understand the world; in business you need others to misunderstand it. (4)

Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous. (5)

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant, the opposite. (5)

Using, as an excuse, others’ failure of common sense is in itself a failure of common sense. (7)

COUNTER NARRATIVES

Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it. (11)

The only objective definition of aging is when a person starts to talk about aging. (11)

They will envy you for your success, for your wealth, for your intelligence, for your looks, for your status—but rarely for your wisdom. (12)

You never win an argument until they attack your person. (12)

[via: “Ad hominem is admitting defeat.”]

Most mistakes get worse when you try to correct them. (14)

We ask “why is he rich (or poor)?” not “why isn’t he richer (or poorer)?”; “why is the crisis so deep?” not “why isn’t it deeper?” (15)

[via: “Always measure the inverse,” not what is but what isn’t. Could we call this “the absence of comparative analysis delinquency?”]

Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with skillfully polished indifference. (16)

For the compassionate, sorrow is more easily displaced by another sorrow than by joy. (20)

[via: “Compassion fatigue.”]

MATTERS ONTOLOGICAL

Life is about execution rather than purpose. (22)

It is a very recent disease to mistake the unobserved for the nonexistent; but some are plagued with the worst disease of mistaking the unobserved for the unobservable. (22)

THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE

Paganism is decentralized theology. (25)

Religion isn’t so much about telling man that there is one God as about preventing man from thinking that he is God. (26)

You can replace lies with truth; but myth is only displaced with a narrative. (27)

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers. (29)

CHANCE, SUCCESS, HAPPINESS, AND STOICISM

The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping. (30)

You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master. (31)

Studying the work and intellectual habits of a “genius” to learn from him is like studying the garb of a chef to emulate his cooking. (32)

“Wealthy” is meaningless and has no robust absolute measure; use instead the subtractive measure “unwealth,” that is, the difference, at any point in time, between what you have and what you would like to have. (32)

Decline starts with the replacement of dreams with memories and ends with the replacement of memories with other memories. (33)

There is no clearer sign of failure than a middle-aged man boasting of his performance in college. (33)

The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich. (35)

[via: “Proximity effect” and “shifting baseline.”]

Someone who says “I am busy” is either declaring incompetence (and lack of control of his life) or trying to get rid of you. (36)

For most, success is the harmful passage from the camp of the hating to the camp of the hated. (37)

Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur. (38)

It is a good practice to always apologize, except when you have done something wrong.

[via: “Don’t apologize. Make it right.”]

They are born, then put in a box; they go home to live in a box; they study by ticking boxes; they go to what is called “work” in a box, where they sit in their cubicle box; they drive to the grocery store in a box to buy food in a box; they go to the gym in a box to sit in a box; they talk about thinking “outside the box”; and when they die they are put in a box. All boxes, Euclidian, geometrically smooth boxes. (42)

CHARMING AND LESS CHARMING SUCKER PROBLEMS

Rumors are only valuable when they are denied. (46)

Universities have been progressing from providing scholarship for a small fee into selling degrees at a large cost. (46)

There are two types of people: those who try to win and those who try to win arguments. They are never the same. (46)

People tend to whisper when they say the truth and raise their voice when they lie. (48)

For so many, instead of looking for “cause of death” when they expire, we should be looking for “cause of life” when they are still around. (48)

Executive programs allow us to watch people who have never worked lecturing those who have never pondered. (49)

Failure of second-order thinking: he tells you a secret and somehow expects you to keep it, when he just gave you evidence that he can’t keep it himself. (49)

All rumors about a public figure are to be deemed untrue until he threatens to sue. (50)

THESEUS, OR LIVING THE PALEO LIFE

A good book gets better on the second reading. A great book on the third. Any book not worth rereading isn’t worth reading. (52)

With terminal disease, nature lets you die with abbreviated suffering; medicine lets you suffer with prolonged dying. (54)

Some ideas are born as you write them down, others become dead. (55)

Life is about early detection of the reversal point beyond which you own belongings (say, a house, country house, car, or business) start owning you. (56)

For everything, use boredom in place of a clock, as a biological wristwatch, though under constraints of politeness. (56)

It is a curse to have ideas that people understand only when it is too late. (58)

Technology is at its best when it is invisible. (59)

Every social association that is not face-to-face is injurious to your health. (59)

I fail to see the difference between extreme wealth and overdose. (59)

THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS

What they call philosophy I call literature; what they call literature I call journalism; what they call journalism I call gossip; and what they call gossip I call (generously) voyeurism. (60)

Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered. (61)

You need to keep reminding yourself o the obvious: charm lies in the unsaid, the unwritten, and the undisplayed. It takes mastery to control silence. (62)

The exponential information age is like a verbally incontinet person: he talks more and more as fewer and fewer people listen. (67)

Today, we mostly face the choice between those who write clearly about a subject they don’t understand and those who write poorly about a subject they don’t understand. (68)

THE UNIVERSAL AND THE PARTICULAR

We unwittingly amplify commonalities with friends, dissimilarities with strangers, and contrasts with enemies. (72)

The fool generalizes the particular; the nerd particularizes the genera; some do both; and the wise does neither. (72)

True love is the complete victory of the particular over the general, and the unconditional over the conditional. (73)

For an honest person, freedom requires having no friends; and, one step above, sainthood requires having no family. (73)

FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS

Corollary to Moore’s Law: every ten years, collective wisdom degrades by half. (75)

Never rid anyone of an illusion unless you can replace it in his mind with another illusion. (But don’t work too hard on it; the replacement illusion does not even have to be more convincing than the initial one.) (75) [also p.78]

The ragedy is that much of what you think is random is in your control, and what’s worse, the opposite. (76)

[cf. The Black Swan]

The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits. (77)

Mental clarity is the child of courage, not the other way around. (78)

Probability is the interseciton of the most rigorous mathematics and the messiest of life. (78)

To rephrase, every human should at all times have equality in probability (which we can control), not equality in outcome. (78)

Never rid anyone of an illusion unless you can replace it in his mind with another illusion. (78) [also p.75]

AESTHETICS

Beauty is enhanced by unashamed irregularities; magnificence by a façade of blinder. (81)

Your silence is only informational if you can speak skillfully. (81)

If you want to annoy a poet, explain his poetry. (83)

[via: Those who know speak not. Those who don’t know, speak a lot.]

ETHICS

If we are the only animal with a sense of justice, it would clearly be because we also are about the only animal with a sense of cruelty. (85)

We are most motivated to help those who need us the least. (86)

Supposedly, if you are uncompromising or intolerant with BS you lose friends. But you will also make friends, better friends. (86)

Every angel is an asshole somewhere. (87)

Every asshole is an angel somewhere. (87)

The difference between the politician and the philosopher is that, in a debate, the politician doesn’t try to convince the other side, only the audience. (87)

We find it to be in extremely bad taste for individuals to boast of their accomplishments; but when countries do so we call it “national pride.” (88)

Avoid calling heroes those who had no other choice. (91)

Trust those who are greedy for money a thousand times more than those who are greedy for credentials. (93)

Pure generosity is when you help the ingrate. Every other form is self-serving. [Kantian ethics.] (93)

Trust those who trust you and distrust those who are suspicious of others. (93)

Virtue is when the income you wish to show the tax agency exceeds what you wish to show your neighbor. (94)

ROBUSTNESS AND ANTIFRAGILITY

General principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.  (99)

Nation-states like war; city-states like commerce; families like stability; and individuals like entertainment. (100)

The rationalist imagines an imbecile-free society; the empiricist and imbecile-proof one, or, even better, a rationalist-proof one. (100)

Failure-resistant is achievable; failure-free is not. (100)

The only valid political system is one that can handle an imbecile in power without suffering from it. (101)

THE LUDIC FALLACY AND DOMAIN DEPENDENCE

When you beat up someone physically, you get exercise and stress relief; when you assault him verbally on the Internet, you just harm yourself. (105)

Just as eating cow meat doesn’t turn you into a cow, studying philosophy doesn’t make you wiser. (105)

People like to eat fish by the water even if the fish was caught far away and transported by trucks. (105)

EPISTEMOLOGY AND SUBTRACTIVE KNOWLEDGE

Since Plato, Western thought and the theory of knowledge have focused on the notions of True-False; as commendable as it was, it is high time to shift the concern to Robust-Fragile, and social epistemology to the more serious problem of Sucker-Nonsucker. (108)

The problem of knowledge is that there are many more books on birds written by ornithologists than books on birds written by birds and books on ornithologists written by birds. (108)

Change your anchor to what did not happen rather than what did happen. (109)

[via: “Measure the inverse.”]

They think that intelligence is about noticing things that are relevant (detecting patterns); in a complex world, intelligence consists in ignoring things that are irrelevant (avoiding false patterns). (110)

THE SCANDAL OF PREDICTION

A prophet is not someone with special visions, just someone blind to most of what others see. (112)

The ancients knew very well that the only way to understand events was to cause them. (112)

BEING A PHILOSOPHER AND MANAGING TO REMAIN ONE

In twenty-five centuries, no human came along with the brilliance, depth, elegance, wit, and imagination to match Plato—to protect us from his legacy. (114)

It takes a lot of intellect and confidence to accept that what makes sense doesn’t really make sense. (117)

ECONOMIC LIFE AND OTHER VERY VULGAR SUBJECTS

A mathematician starts with a problem and creates a solution; a consultant starts by offering a “solution” and creates a problem. (119)

Economics is about making simple things more complicated, mathematics about making complicated things simpler. (122)

[via: Philosophy, too.]

It is easier to macrobullshit than to microbullshit. (123)

What makes us fragile is that institutions cannot have the same virtues (honor, truthfulness, courage, loyalty, tenacity) as individuals. (123)

[via: Institutions work by mechanistic forces.]

Saying someone is good at making profits but not good at managing risk is like saying someone is a great surgeon except for cases when the patients die. (124)

Bring the good news in trickles, the bad news in lumps. (128)

THE SAGE, THE WEAK, AND THE MAGNIFICENT

The traits I respect are erudition and the courage to stand up when half-men are afraid for their reputation. Any idiot can be intelligent. (131)

Contra the prevailing belief, “success” isn’t being on top of a hierarchy, it is standing outside all hierarchies. (133)

The two most celebrated acts of courage in history aren’t Homeric fighters but two Eastern Mediterranean fellows who died, even sought death, for their ideas. (134)

THE IMPLICIT AND THE EXPLICIT

You are guaranteed a repetition when you hear the declaration “never again!” (137)

You can only insult a barbarian in his own language. (138)

What organized dating sites fail to understand is that people are far more interesting in what they don’t say about themselves. (139)

A happier world is one in which everyone realizes that 1) it is not what you tell people, it is how you say it that makes them feel bad; 2) it is not what you do to them but how you make them look that gets them angry; 3) they should be the ones putting themselves in a specific category. (140)

The general principle of antifragility: it is much better to do things you cannot explain than explain things you cannot do. (141)

Knowing stuff others don’t know is most effective when others don’t know you know stuff they don’t know. (142)

ON THE VARIETIES OF LOVE AND NONLOVE

Love without sacrifice is like theft. (143)

What counts is not what people say about you, it is how much energy they spend in saying it. (144)

When people call you intelligent it is almost always because they agree with you. Otherwise they just call you arrogant. (146)

A good foe is far more loyal, far more predictable, and, to the clever, far more useful than the most valuable admirer. (147)

THE END

The problem with the last laugh is that the winner has to laugh alone. (148)

Postface

Thanks to our detections of false patterns, along with real ones, what is random will appear less random and more certain—our overactive brains are more likely to impose the wrong, simplistic narrative than no narrative at all. [This discounting of the unseen comes from the human “scorn of the abstract” (our minds are not good at handling the non-anecdotal and tend to be swayed by vivid imagery, making the media distort our view of the world).] (149)

| The mind can be a wonderful tool for self-delusion—it (149) was not designed to deal with complexity and nonlinear uncertainties. [Nor is science capable of dealing effectively with nonlinear and complex matters, those fraught with interdependence (climate, economic life, the human body), in spite of its hyped-up successes in the linear domain (physics and engineering), which give it a prestige that has endangered us.)] Counter to the common discourse, more information means more delusions: our detection of false patterns is growing faster and faster as a side effect of modernity and the information age: there is this mismatch between the messy randomness of the information-rich current world, with its complex interactions, and our intuitions of events, derived in a simpler ancestral habitat. Our mental architecture is at an increased mismatch with the world in which we live. (150)

| This leads to sucker problems: when the map does not correspond to the territory, there is a certain category of fool—the overeducated, the academic, the journalist, the newspaper reader, the mechanistic “scientist,” the pseudo-empiricist, those endowed with what I call “epistemic arrogance,” this wonderful ability to discount what they did not see, the unobserved—who enter a state of denial, imagining the territory as fitting his map. (150)

…my classical values make me advocate the triplet of erudition, elegance, and courage; against modernity’s phoniness, nerdiness, a philistinism. (152)

By setting oneself totally free of constraints, free of thoughts, free of this debilitating activity called work, free of efforts, elements hidden in the texture of reality start staring at you; then mysteries that you never thought existed emerge in front of your eyes. (156)

About VIA

www.kevinneuner.com

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