July 26, 2015

Terms of service by Jacob Silverman

Terms of service by Jacob Silverman
Social media and the price of constant connection

Author calls for social media users to take back ownership of their digital selves from the Silicon Valley corporation who claim to know what’s best for them. Explaining how social media companies engineer their products to encourage shallow engagement and discourage dissent.

A key element of the new digital ideology is that everything can be personalized and made social. Nothing needs to be done alone or anonymously. Consequently, like the data tracking firms they partner with, new features on social media trend to be opt-out rather than opt-in. Whenever a new feature will cause a user to share more data, it is likely to be opt-out.

In the case of Facebook, the company’s Like buttons, for example, track browsing information even for people who haven’t signed up for the site. And so, so early in the company’s history, they established profiles for people who hadn’t joi9ned yet. With Open Graph, Facebook has the capacity to know everything that you are doing online,

Google began signing up its users for Google+, whether they liked it or not. By late Nov 2011, a person signing up for a Google account also had to create a Gmail account, a Google profile, and a Google+ account and the user was also prompted to input for more personal info. Users searching for would now see more personalized results, including things their Google+ accounts had shares, while Google+ profiles also began appearing in search results. This might be annoying for someone searching for ‘Cancun’ and finding photos from a friend’s vacation at the top of the results.

Some call centers and customer service lines are investing in computational voice analysis, allowing them to detect the moods of the callers. The pitfalls of this practice are obvious - the software may not be accurate, customers may be sorted into categories in which they don’t want to be, people’s moods can change from call to call or even within a single call - but it gives companies more control over how they manage incoming calls.

Security agencies such as the FBI, which has the technical capability to remotely and surreptitiously activate the microphones in many smartphones, as well as the webcams o=in computers, could see if a surveillance target is lying or anxious.

Google Glass could become a kind of roving emotion-meter providing you with a voice analysis of everyone you meet. The writer Nicholas Carr envisions a system that ‘automates the feels: “Whenever you write a message or update, the camera in your smartphone will read your eyes and your facial expressions, precisely calculate your mood and append the appropriate emoji”

Photography has always been ‘acquisitive as Sontag called it, as way of appropriating the subject of the photography. Online you can find a perfectly lit, professionally shot photos of nearly anything you want, but that doesn't work for most of use. We must do it ourselves. Taking photo of Mona Lisa (most photographed work of art in human history) and sharing it in social media, indirectly says, “I was here, I went to Paris and saw that Mona Lisa’. The photo shows that you could afford the trip and that you are cultured ...

Taylor Chapman’s video that she thought will go viral, did go viral, but went totally they she never expected and ended up very badly for her.

Aleksey Vayner was another victim. In 2006, Vayner, a Yale graduate who had emigrated as a child with his mother from Uzbekistan sent a video resume as part of an application to the Swiss bank UBS. Vayner called this video ‘impossible to nothing’ and it went wrong in a totally unexpected way.

Lena Chen went through a similar gauntlet, but made it to the other side. Chen began writing about her sex life after arriving as a freshman in Harvard in 2005, which went viral and caused lots of trouble to her. She ended up in relocating to Germany to safeguard her life.

One of the earliest Facebook groups to achieve some measure of viral fame was started by a college student named Brody Ruckus. His group had a long attention grabbing name: “If this group reached 100,000 people my girlfriend will have a threesome”. Within three days, its membership swelled to more than 100,000 people. The next posting was “if the group reaches 300,000 members, his girlfriend would let him take and share picture of the vent. If the group reaches the biggest Facebook group, then, there would be a video in it for all Ruckus’s fans. Ruckus also offered links to a site he had made selling T-shirts and other merchandise promoting himself and his sexual odyssey. A problem soon emerged: Brody Rucks did not exist nor his girlfriend. The whole campaign was a fiction, concocted by the marketing department of Ruckus Network, a digital music service.

As Tim Wu writes: “One of the stranger consequence of the electronic age is that almost any word or image reiterated a million or billion times can become a valuable asset”. The writer and game designer Ian Bogost describes:”We do tiny bits of work for Google, Facebook, Tumbler, Twitter all day and every day”. They in turn have all the profit from our work.

There are firms who could add fictitious followers or friends or liking your Facebook posts or re-tweeting your tweets.

Attention grabbing is the most sought-after commodity and the motto of its purveyors might as well be “Ask for forgiveness, not permission”.

Bleacher Report produces 800+ articles each day, but don’t expect to find any original reporting: company policy declares that writers are not allowed to break news. It is much more profitable to aggregate others work and use search engine optimization techniques to make sure that their version of the same story shows up at the top of Google search. Bleacher Report is a perfect distillation of social ideology. It produces easily shareable, worthless viral content for very low cost and it produces immense amounts of it, all while claiming total faith in its data. As one critic remarked in Columbia Journalism Review, “Here is a labor force that creates the product for free or for very low pay, and the owners reap almost all the reward” that happens to be the business model of nearly every social network.

The US postal service, for example, doesn’t require you to use your legal name to mail a letter; however social media companies are requesting to have real names. Why  should digital media be any different?

Given a traditional legal system that often seems rigged for the wealthy and the powerful, online speech, despite its quirks and limitations, feels like a more honest, democratic place in which to litigate one’s problem.

The importance of online reputation has proved to be a useful weapon for public officials looking to deter bad behavior and less scrupulous actors searching for a quick profit. The problem with this kind of reputation are overlooked in Silicon Valley. Reputation services promise to return value for the unpaid labor of tending to social media profiles.

Klout, which has emerged as the most visible, if frequently mocked, arbiter of online reputation, casts all social-media users as unacknowledged public figures waiting for their spotlights. “Earn recognition for your influence” the site says. The implication is that your influence is already there, quietly pervading your social network. “The internet has democratized influence and we want to help everyone share in the rewards,” company CEO told a reporter. Klout parses users’ social-media profiles, examining what they talk about and the size of their social graphs and then grants them influence scores, ranging from 1 to 100. It also provides a list of topics about which it thinks that user is influential. For a time, American Airlines allowed anyone with a Klout score greater than 55 to access its Admiral Club loungers. Klout’s also given away Cirque Du Soleil tickets, gift cards, hotel upgrades and other rewards such as access to Spotify before it launched in the US. Marketing firms have used Klout scores in making hiring decisions.

Klout is a exemplary social-media site. Relying on superficial metrics, it creates its own hierarchies or simply reinforces existing ones, since interacting with high-scoring users can raise your score. Some hotels have experimented with providing upgrades to guests with higher Klout scores - without telling the guests. The software companies Saleforce.com and Genesys have integrated Klout into customer-service programs allowing their enterprise customers to check consumers Klout scores when they tweet complaints or call s service number. The implication is that consumers with higher Klout scores will receive more attention and more perks, in the hopes that they won’t use their online influence to badmouth the company. Similarly some e-commerce sites have used Klout scores to offer influential customers greater discounts. Next time you wait for an hour on a customer service line, it could be that you have a poor Klout score.

Tracking industry works with advertisers and social media companies to leverage users’ insecurities. In Oct 2013, a marketing firm called PHD released a report about when women feel least attractive, encouraging advertisers to target women with ‘quick beauty rescues’ on Sundays and Mondays and social opportunities (including the expensive accessories and clothing society says they require) later in the week.

In a better world, constant connection wouldn’t represent a burden; it wouldn’t ask us to sacrifice our autonomy or the most positive details of our lives. But what would be the fun in that?

July 20, 2015

Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler

Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler
The colorful history and precarious fate of the world’s greatest tea.

Darjeeling is known for its single-estate teas, unblended and unflavored. If Darjeeling is the champagne of teas, Makaibari is the Krug or Henri Giraud - Time magazine proclaimed in 2008.
Makaibari Silver Tips Imperial is the most expensive tea in the world.

Today tea is grown in 45 countries around the world and is the second most commonly drunk beverages after water. It is a $90 billion global market. Until just a few years ago, India was the world’s largest producer of tea. Although overtaken by China, it still produces about a billion kilograms a year. Tea can generally be classified into six distinct types: Black, Oolong, green, yellow, white and Pu-erh. All come from the same plant. The difference lies in processing. Nearly all of India’s black tea, which means that the leaves have been withered and fermented and certain character is flavors allowed to develop. Green tea is neither withered nor fermented and Oolong is only semi fermented.

Darjeeling tea is orthodox black tea. The leaves are withered rolled, fermented and fired in the traditional method. Orthodox now implies premium teas that have been hand-plucked and hand-processed. More than 90 % of the world’s (majority of India’s) black teas are produced by a method called  CTC (cut, tear and curl).

According to ancient legend, tea was discovered by Bodhidharma (C.A.D 460-534), the wandering, devout Buddhist monk from near the modern southern city of Chennai who founded the Zen school of Buddhism. In the fifth year of a seven-year sleepless contemplation of Buddha, he began to feel drowsy. To keep from falling asleep, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. In the spot where they landed, tea bushes grew.

Tea’s actual history predates Bodhidharma. It goes back at least 2500 years to the mountains around Yunnan, in southwestern China, where it was initially blended with herbs, seeds and forest leaves (1046-256 BC).

Tea arrived in Europe in 1580 when a Portuguese trader brought a chest of it along with other Chinese luxury goods. According to Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word tea - or rather, its early variant chaa - dates back to 1598. The spelling quickly ran through various form - tay, tey, the, teee, thea - before finally landing on its more familiar form tea. Dutch(thee), German (thee), Swedish (te) Spanish (te), Italian (te), French (the), Hindi (chai), Bengali (cha), Japanese (cha), Arabic (shai or chai), Persian (chay), Russian (chai), Portugal (cha).

In August 1608 an East India Company ship landed on the north west coast of India Surat, the principal Mughal port.  

Book continues with history of British colonization and forcing Indian farmers to cultivate opium for Chinese market, which is used to buy Tea as it was only available in China. Without opium, British needed to pay in silver which was very critical foreign currency in those days and hence found cheaper option (opium) to buy tea from China].

At the end of 18th century, tea was more profitable than all other goods combined, accounting for 60% of the company’s total trade.

In order to find other places for Tea, British planted tea in Darjeeling which has similar climate as Chinese tea estate and the result was astonishing - the tea produced from Darjeeling was much much better than Chinese tea. The British Tea Committee declared: “We have no hesitation in declaring this discovery (Darjeeling Tea) to be far the most important and valuable that has ever been made on matters connected with the agricultural or commercial resources of this empire”.

Darjeeling estates vary greatly in elevation from top to bottom, where the tea in the higher section has more delicate flavor, but lower yields. The special climate makes all the difference in making Darjeeling tea premium one. Secondly, tea leaves are plucked by hand, and judging fermentation can only be done by nose. In short, human touch is in every step. Experienced workers can tell by touch when the correct wither has been reached.

Fermentation acts as a catalyst for the flavors and colors associated with Darjeeling tea. The tea develops the pungency, strength, and aroma that will be in the final cup.

The last stage in the factory is sorting and grading the tea. The four categories in descending order of size, are whole leaf, broken leaf, fannings and dust. The last two are used to fill tea bags. Most Darjeeling garden aim for 60 or 70% leaf-grade tea. Whole-leaf teas are graded using a string of letters - essentially the more the better - that refers to the size of the processed leaf, rather than the quality or flavor of the tea. The highest level is FTGFOP, which stands for “Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe”. Wits say, though, that the acronym means, “Far Too Good for Ordinary People”. On occasion the acronym gets a prefix and/or a suffix. A S is added at the beginning for “superfine” and a 1 at the end to show the highest possible grade: “SFTGFOP -1”. These are exalted tea.

The British tradition of afternoon tea originated with Anna Maria, the 7th Duchess of Bedford (a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria), in the early 19th century as she began having a little pick-me-up between the then-standard two meals a day, breakfast and dinner.
Some Brits enjoyed the tea Mughal style with spices and the ‘Raj at the table’ offers a rather baroque recipe that includes palm starch (sago) almonds, cardamom, rosewater, or dried rosebuds, milk sugar and ‘just sufficient tea leaf”.

Every British house lady supposed to have ‘The Complete Indian Housekeeper and Cook’ book which contained 43 chapters that instructed on every element of housekeeping and colonial life on the subcontinent, from getting a piano to the Himalayas for the summer to throwing a perfect garden party. The British in India likes gin and Charles Henry Baker Jr offered for pink gin in his indispensable book: The Gentleman’s Companion.

In the early days, only those Englishmen who failed to make it as soldiers, sailors, clerks, and by default with nothing else to lose and nowhere else to go, took up life as a ‘tea planter’. They knew nothing whatsoever about tea and it is doubtful if they had even set eyes on a tea bush. Scoundrels, rascals and scallywags enlisted to become lord and master of a little fiefdom called a tea garden in the exotic misty hills of Darjeeling.

When India gained independence on August 1947, many European owners sold their estates to wealthy Indians, perhaps believing they would never enjoy the same authority they had before.

UK now gets 60% of its tea from Africa. Today, Kenya is the continent’s tea giant and the world’s 4th largest producer.  When India lost the UK market, the USSR and Europe stepped in to replace it. Majority of Darjeeling tea is exported and majority goes to Europe.

German and other European blenders have already begun marketing a ‘Himalayan tea’ made with Nepalese leaves that cost a third of what Darjeeling does. WTO awarded ‘geographical indication (GI) status and Darjeeling tea was then awarded Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) from the European commission, one of the first non-European products to receive such designation. Darjeeling tea is now geographically protected product like Scotch Whiskey, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and saffron from L Mancha, Spain.

According to the tea Board of India, ‘Darjeeling tea’ means - only and specially - tea that has been cultivated, grown, produced, manufactured and processed in the orthodox manner on Darjeeling’s 18 estates.

Green tea, being un-fermented is a very rich source of antioxidants.

“The best black tea in the world is from Darjeeling. No one is near here. But while there are.  Top-drawer teas in Darjeeling, they can’t compare with the best Chinese greens’ says Girish Sarda.

Silver Needle tea is the finest, and most delicate white tea, which is made solely with buds plucked when they are about to unfold.  Silver Needle is a traditional, but rate style from China’s Fujian province, where it is known as Bai Hao Yin Zhen. The plucked buds get a gentle wither to reduce the moisture content gradually and avoid sudden shrinkage of the leaf cells, and then are dried. No rolling, no fermentation.

Makaibari tea estate in Darjeeling is the oldest tea estate and they are still selling their brand of tea with the same old Makaibari symbol (http://www.makaibari.com/).

How to prepare Darjeeling tea:
Bring a kettle of freshly drawn (or bottled) water to a boil. Rinse out a teapot and quickly discard the water. Add 1 level  teaspoon - about 1/12 ounce or 2.5 grams - of pure long -leaf Darjeeling tea per cup to the teapot. Pour the water over the leaves, cover the pot and steep for 3 to 3.5 minutes, letting the leaves breathe and stretch. Strain into warmed teacups.

Darjeeling’s nuanced flavor is best appreciated without milk, sugar, because of its light natural astringency, lemon. But if it is impossible to drink it straight, increase steeping time to 4 minutes for adding sugar and to 5 minutes for milk.

July 5, 2015

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Things that gain from disorder

[An iconoclast indeed!)

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire. Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them,not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind. This summarizes this author’s nonmeek attitude to randomness and uncertainty. The mission is how to domesticate, even dominate, even conquer, the unseen, the opaque, and the inexplicable.

It is far easier to figure out if something is fragile than to predict the occurrence of an event that may harm it. Fragility can be measured; risk is not measurable.

In every domain or area of application, we propose rules for moving from the fragile toward the antifragile, through reduction of fragility or harnessing antifragility. And we can almost always detect antifragility (and fragility) using a simple test of asymmetry: anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragile; the reverse is fragile.

(First ethical rule: If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud.)

Antifragile is composed of seven books and a notes section.

Book I, The Antifragile: An Introduction, presents the new property and discusses evolution and the organic as the typical antifragile system. It also looks at the tradeoff between the antifragility of the collective and the fragility of the individual.

Book II, Modernity and the Denial of Antifragility, describes what happens when we starve systems— mostly political systems— of volatility. It discusses this invention called the nation- state, as well as the idea of harm done by the healer, someone who tries to help you and ends up harming you very badly.

Book III, A Nonpredictive View of the World, introduces Fat Tony and his intuitive detection of fragility and presents the foundational asymmetry of things grounded in the writings of Seneca, the Roman philosopher and doer.

Book IV, Optionality, Technology, and the Intelligence of Antifragility, presents the mysterious property of the world, by which a certain asymmetry is behind things, rather than human “intelligence,” and how optionality drove us here. It is opposed to what I call the Soviet- Harvard method. And Fat Tony argues with Socrates about how we do things one cannot quite explain.

Book V, The Nonlinear and the Nonlinear (sic), is about the philosopher’s stone and its opposite: how to turn lead into gold, and gold into lead. Two chapters constitute the central technical section— the plumbing of the book— mapping fragility (as nonlinearity, more specifi cally, convexity effects) and showing the edge coming from a certain class of convex strategies (skipped from summary)

Book VI, Via Negativa, shows the wisdom and effectiveness of subtraction over addition (acts of omission over acts of commission). This section introduces the notion of convexity effects. Of course the first application is to medicine. I look at medicine only from an epistemological, risk- management approach— and it looks different from there.

Book VII, The Ethics of Fragility and Antifragility, grounds ethics in transfers of fragility, with one party getting the benefits and the other one the harm, and points out problems arising from absence of skin in the game.

(The only modern dictum I follow is one by George Santayana: A man is morally free when . . . he judges the world, and judges other men, with uncompromising sincerity. This is not just an aim but an obligation.)

Book I

To counter success, you need a high offsetting dose of robustness, even high doses of antifragility. You want to be Phoenix, or possibly Hydra. Otherwise the sword of Damocles will get you.

It is not well known that many colors we take for granted had no name for a long time, and had no names in the central texts in Western culture. Ancient Mediterranean texts, both Greek and Semitic, also had a reduced vocabulary of a small number of colors polarized around the dark and the light—Homer and his contemporaries were limited to about three or four main colors: black, white, and some indeterminate part of the rainbow, often subsumed as red, or yellow..

How do you innovate? Naturally, there are classical thoughts on the subject,with a Latin saying that sophistication is born out of hunger (artificia docuit fames).The idea pervades classical literature: in Ovid, difficulty is what wakes up the genius. The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates!

This message from the ancients is vastly deeper than it seems. It contradicts modern methods and ideas of innovation and progress on many levels, as we tend to think that innovation comes from bureaucratic funding, through planning, or by putting people through a Harvard Business School class by one Highly Decorated Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship (who never innovated anything) or hiring a consultant (who never innovated anything). This is a fallacy—note for now the disproportionate contribution of uneducated technicians and entrepreneurs to various technological leaps, from the Industrial Revolution to the emergence of Silicon Valley, and you will
see what I mean.

It is said that the best horses lose when they compete with slower ones, and win against better rivals. Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor, inverse hormesis, absence of challenge, degrades the best of the best. In Baudelaire’s poem, “The albatross’s giant wings prevent him from walking”—many do better in Calculus 103 than Calculus 101.

This mechanism of overcompensation hides in the most unlikely places. If tired after an intercontinental flight, go to the gym for some exertion instead of resting. Also, it is a well-known trick that if you need something urgently done, give the task to the busiest (or second busiest) person in the office. Most humans manage to squander their free time, as free time makes them dysfunctional, lazy, and unmotivated—the busier they get, the more active they are at other tasks. Overcompensation, here again.

I find it better to whisper, not shout. Better to be slightly inaudible, less clear. One should have enough self-control to make the audience work hard to listen, which causes them to switch into intellectual overdrive.The management guru Peter Drucker and the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, two persons who mesmerized the crowds the most in their respective areas, were the antithesis of the polished-swanky speaker or the consonant-trained television announcer.

Layers of redundancy are the central risk management property of natural systems. We humans have two kidneys (this may even include accountants), extra spare parts, and extra capacity in many, many things (say, lungs, neural system, arterial apparatus), while human design tends to be spare and inversely redundant, so to speak—we have a historical track record of engaging in debt, which is the opposite of redundancy (fifty thousand in extra cash in the bank or, better, under the mattress, is redundancy; owing the bank an equivalent amount, that is, debt, is the opposite of redundancy). Redundancy is ambiguous because it seems like a waste if nothing unusual happens. Except that something unusual happens—usually.

The dictum by Seneca in De clemencia about the inverse effect of punishments. He wrote: “Repeated punishment, while it crushes the hatred of a few, stirs the hatred of all … just as trees that have been trimmed throw out again countless branches.” There is an Irish revolutionary song that encapsulates the effect:The higher you build your barricades, the stronger we become.

The crowds, at some point, mutate, blinded by anger and a sense of outrage, fueled by the heroism of a few willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause and hungry for the privilege to become martyrs. It is that political movements and rebellions can be highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, or find more astute ruses, as Heracles did with Hydra.

Like tormenting love, some thoughts are so antifragile that you feed them by trying to get rid of them, turning them into obsessions. Psychologists have shown the irony of the process of thought control: the more energy you put into trying to control your ideas and what you think about, the more your ideas end up controlling you.

The wily Venetians knew how to spread information by disguising it as a secret. Try it out with the following experiment in spreading gossip: tell someone a secret and qualify it by insisting that it is a secret, begging your listener “not to tell anyone”; the more you insist that it remain a secret, the more it will spread.

With complex systems, interdependencies are severe. You need to think in terms of ecology: if you remove a specific animal you disrupt a food chain: its predators will starve and its prey will grow unchecked, causing complications and series of cascading side effects. Lions are exterminated by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Romans, and later inhabitants of Mount Lebanon, leading to the proliferation of goats who crave tree roots, contributing to the deforestation of mountain areas, consequences that were hard to see ahead of time.

I feel anger and frustration when I think that one in ten Americans beyond the age of high school is on some kind of antidepressant, such as Prozac.There may be a few good reasons to be on medication, in severely pathological cases,but my mood, my sadness, my bouts of anxiety, are a second source of intelligence—perhaps even the first source. Had Prozac been available last century, Baudelaire’s “spleen,” Edgar Allan Poe’s moods, the poetry of Sylvia Plath, the lamentations of so many other poets, everything with a soul would have been silenced.… There is another danger: in addition to harming children, we are harming society and our future. Measures that aim at reducing variability and swings in the lives of children are also reducing variability and differences within our said to be Great Culturally Globalized Society.

The random element in trial and error is not quite random, if it is carried out rationally, using error as a source of information. If every trial provides you with information about what does not work, you start zooming in on a solution—so every attempt becomes more valuable, more like an expense than an error. And of course you make discoveries along the way. Every plane crash brings us closer to safety, improves the system, and makes the next flight safer—those who perish contribute to the overall safety of others. Both your failures and your successes will give you information. But, and this is one of the good things in life, sometimes you only know about someone’s character after you harm them with an error for which you are solely responsible.

Book II

The more variability you observe in a system, the less Black Swan–prone it is. Let us now examine how this applies to political systems with the story of Switzerland.

Switzerland is the most antifragile place on the planet; it benefits from shocks that take place in the rest of the world. The most stable country in the world does not have a large central government. And it is not stable in spite of not having a government; it is stable because it does not have one. Ask random Swiss citizens to name their president, and count the proportion of people who can do so— they can usually name the presidents of France or the United States but not their own. Its currency works best (at the time of writing it proved to be the safest), yet its central bank is tiny, even relative to its size. It is perhaps the most successful country in history, yet it has traditionally had a very low level of university education compared to the rest of the rich nations. Its system, even in banking during my days, was based on apprenticeship models, nearly vocational rather than the theoretical ones. In other words, on techne (crafts and know how), not episteme (book knowledge, know what).

A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.” The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving. The key here is that such a surprise will be a Black Swan event; but just for the turkey, not for the butcher. So our mission in life becomes simply “how not to be a turkey,” or, if possible, how to be a turkey in reverse—antifragile, that is. “Not being a turkey” starts with figuring out the difference between true and manufactured stability.

The northern Levant, roughly today’s northern part of Syria and Lebanon, stayed perhaps the most prosperous province in the history of mankind, over the long, very long stretch of time from the pre-pottery Neolithic until very modern history, the middle of the twentieth century. That’s twelve thousand years—compared to, say, England, which has been prosperous for about five hundred years, or Scandinavia, now only prosperous for less than three hundred years. Few areas on the planet have managed to thrive with so much continuity over any protracted stretch of time, what historians call longue durĂ©e. Other cities came and went; Aleppo, Emesa (today Homs), and Laodicea (Lattakia) stayed relatively affluent.The northern Levant was since ancient times dominated by traders, largely owing to its position as a central spot on the Silk Road, and by  agricultural lords, as the province supplied wheat to much of the Mediterranean world, particularly Rome.

Then two events took place. First, after the Great War, one part of the northern Levant was integrated into the newly created nation of Syria, separated from its other section, now part of Lebanon. The entire area had been until then part of the Ottoman Empire, but functioned as somewhat autonomous regions. Then, a few decades into the life of Syria, the modernist Baath Party came to further enforce utopias. As soon as the Baathists centralized the place and enforced their statist laws, Aleppo and Emesa went into instant decline

There is a Latin expression festina lente, “make haste slowly.” The Romans were not the only ancients to respect the act of voluntary omission. The Chinese thinker Lao Tzu coined the doctrine of wu-wei, “passive achievement.”

In the United States, we burn twelve calories in transportation for every calorie of nutrition; in Soviet Russia, it was one to one. One can imagine what could happen to the United States (or Europe) in the event of food disruptions. Further, because of the inefficiency of housing in the Soviet state, people had been living in close quarters for three generations, and had tight bonds that ensured—as in the Lebanese war—that they stayed close to each other and lent to each other. People had real links, unlike in social networks, and fed their hungry friends, expecting that some friend (most likely another one) would help them should they get in dire circumstances.

Most explanations that are offered for episodes of turmoil follow the catalysts-ascauses confusion. Take the “Arab Spring” of 2011. The riots in Tunisia and Egypt were initially attributed to rising commodity prices, not to stifling and unpopular dictatorships. But Bahrain and Libya were wealthy countries that could afford to import grain and other commodities. Further, we had had considerably higher commodity prices a few years earlier without any uprising at all. Again, the focus is wrong even if the logic is comforting. It is the system and its fragility, not events, that must be studied —what physicists call “percolation theory,” in which the properties of the randomness of the terrain are studied, rather than those of a single element of the terrain.

Book III

When you become rich, the pain of losing your fortune exceeds the emotional gain of getting additional wealth, so you start living under continuous emotional threat.

Seneca said that wealth is the slave of the wise man and master of the fool. Provide for the worst; the best can take care of itself

Fragility implies more to lose than to gain, equals more downside than upside, equals (unfavorable) asymmetry and Antifragility implies more to gain than to lose, equals more upside than downside, equals (favorable) asymmetry.

(In finance, I stood in 2008 for banks to be nationalized rather than bailed out, and other forms of speculation not entailing taxpayers left free.)

What do we mean by barbell? The barbell (a bar with weights on both ends that weight lifters use) is meant to illustrate the idea of a combination of extremes kept separate, with avoidance of the middle. In our context it is not necessarily symmetric: it is just composed of two extremes, with nothing in the center. A barbell can be any dual strategy composed of extremes, without the corruption of the middle—somehow they all result in favorable asymmetries.

So just as Stoicism is the domestication, not the elimination, of emotions, so is the barbell a domestication, not the elimination, of uncertainty.

Book IV

Harvard’s former president Larry Summers got in trouble (clumsily) explaining a version of the point and lost his job in the aftermath of the uproar. He was trying to say that males and females have equal intelligence, but the male population has more variations and dispersion (hence volatility), with more highly unintelligent men, and more highly intelligent ones. For Summers, this explained why men were overrepresented in the scientific and intellectual community (and also why men were overrepresented in jails or failures). The number of successful scientists depends on the “tails,” the extremes, rather than the average.
Steve Jobs at a famous speech: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.” He probably meant “Be crazy but retain the rationality of choosing the upper bound when you see it.” Any trial and error can be seen as the expression of an option, so long as one is capable of identifying a favorable result and exploiting it

Option = asymmetry + rationality

in business, people pay for the option when it is identified and mapped in a contract, so explicit options tend to be expensive to purchase, much like insurance contracts. They are often overhyped. But because of the domain dependence of our minds, we don’t recognize it in other places, where these options tend to remain underpriced or not priced at all.

we had been putting our suitcases on top of a cart with wheels, but nobody thought of putting tiny wheels directly under the suitcase. Can you imagine that it took close to six thousand years between the invention of the wheel (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) and this brilliant implementation (by some luggage maker in a drab industrial suburb)?

the Mayans and Zapotecs did not make the leap to the application. They used vast quantities of human labor, corn maize, and lactic acid to move gigantic slabs of stone in the flat spaces ideal for pushcarts and chariots where they built their pyramids.Meanwhile, their small children were rolling their toys on the stucco floors.

The same story holds for the steam engine: the Greeks had an operating version of it, for amusement, of course: the aeolipyle, a turbine that spins when heated, as described by Hero of Alexandria. But it took the Industrial Revolution for us to discover this earlier discovery.

The story of the wheel also illustrates the point of this chapter: both governments and universities have done very, very little for innovation and discovery, precisely because, in addition to their blinding rationalism, they look for the complicated, the lurid, the newsworthy, the narrated, the scientistic, and the grandiose, rarely for the wheel on the suitcase.

Just as great geniuses invent their predecessors, practical innovations create their theoretical ancestry.

There is something sneaky in the process of discovery and implementation—something people usually call evolution.  We talk big but hardly have any imagination, except for a few visionaries who seem to recognize the optionality of things.

implementation does not necessarily proceed from invention. It, too, requires luck and circumstances. The history of medicine is littered with the strange sequence of discovery of a cure followed, much later, by the implementation

As per the Yiddish saying: “If the student is smart, the teacher takes the credit.”

So we are blind to the possibility of the alternative process, or the role of such a
process, a loop: Random Tinkering (antifragile) → Heuristics (technology) → Practice and
Apprenticeship → Random Tinkering (antifragile) → Heuristics (technology)
→ Practice and Apprenticeship …

In parallel to the above loop: Practice → Academic Theories → Academic Theories → Academic Theories →Academic Theories … (with of course some exceptions, some accidental leaks,
though these are indeed rare and overhyped and grossly generalized).

The Soviet-Harvard illusion (lecturing birds on flying and believing that the lecture is the cause of these wonderful skills) belongs to a class of causal illusions called epiphenomena. What are these illusions? When you spend time on the bridge of a ship or in the coxswain’s station with a large compass in front, you can easily develop the impression that the compass is directing the ship rather than merely reflecting its

It would seem a reasonable investment if one accepts the notion that university
knowledge generates economic wealth. But this is a belief that comes more from
superstition than empiricism

Traders trade → traders figure out techniques and products → academic
economists find formulas and claim traders are using them → new traders
believe academics → blowups (from theory-induced fragility)

There were two main sources of technical knowledge and innovation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the hobbyist and the English rector, both of whom were generally in barbell situations.

An extraordinary proportion of work came out of the rector, the English parish priest with no worries, erudition, a large or at least comfortable house, domestic help, a reliable supply of tea and scones with clotted cream, and an abundance of free time. And, of course, optionality. The enlightened amateur, that is. The Reverends Thomas Bayes (as in Bayesian probability) and Thomas Malthus (Malthusian overpopulation) are the most famous. But there are many more surprises, cataloged in Bill Bryson’s Home, in which the author found ten times more vicars and clergymen leaving recorded traces for posterity than scientists, physicists, economists, and even inventors. In addition to the previous two giants, I randomly list contributions by country clergymen: Rev. Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom, contributing to the Industrial Revolution; Rev. Jack Russell bred the terrier; Rev. William Buckland was the first authority on dinosaurs; Rev. William Greenwell invented modern archaeology; Rev. Octavius Pickard-Cambridge was the foremost authority on spiders; Rev. George Garrett invented the submarine; Rev. Gilbert White was the most esteemed naturalist of his day; Rev. M. J. Berkeley was the top expert on fungi; Rev. John Michell helped discover Uranus; and many more. Note that, just as with our episode documented with Haug, that organized science tends to skip the “not made here,” so the list of visible contribution by hobbyists and doers is most certainly shorter than the real one, as some academic might have appropriated the innovation by his predecessor.

The Industrial Revolution, for a refresher, came from “technologists building technology,” or what he calls “hobby science.” Take again the steam engine, the one artifact that more than anything else embodies the Industrial Revolution. As we saw, we had a blueprint of how to build it from Hero of Alexandria. Yet the theory didn’t interest anyone for about two millennia. So practice and rediscovery had to be the cause of the interest in Hero’s blueprint, not the other way around.

Kealey presents a convincing—very convincing—argument that the steam engine emerged from preexisting technology and was created by uneducated, often isolated men who applied practical common sense and intuition to address the mechanical problems that beset them, and whose solutions would yield obvious economic reward.

In some cases, because the source of the discovery is military, we don’t know exactly what’s going on. Take for instance chemotherapy for cancer, as discussed in Meyers’s book. An American ship carrying mustard gas off Bari in Italy was bombed by the Germans 1942. It helped develop chemotherapy owing to the effect of the gas on the condition of the soldiers who had liquid cancers (eradication of white blood cells). But mustard gas was banned by the Geneva Conventions, so the story was kept secret— Churchill purged all mention from U.K. records, and in the United States, the information was stifled, though not the research on the effect of nitrogen mustard.

Almost everything theoretical in management, from Taylorism to all productivity stories, upon empirical testing, has been exposed as pseudoscience—and like most economic theories, lives in a world parallel to the evidence:

For an illustration of business drift, rational and opportunistic business drift, take the following. Coca-Cola began as a pharmaceutical product. Tiffany & Co., the fancy jewelry store company, started life as a stationery store. The last two examples are close, perhaps, but consider next: Raytheon, which made the first missile guidance system, was a refrigerator maker (one of the founders was no other than Vannevar Bush, who conceived the teleological linear model of science we saw earlier; go figure). Now, worse: Nokia, who used to be the top mobile phone maker, began as a paper mill (at some stage they were into rubber shoes). DuPont, now famous for Teflon nonstick cooking pans, Corian countertops, and the durable fabric Kevlar, actually started out as an explosives company. Avon, the cosmetics company, started out in door-to-door book sales. And, the strangest of all, Oneida Silversmiths was a community religious cult but for regulatory reasons they needed to use as cover a joint stock company.

In the antifragile case (of positive asymmetries, positive Black Swan businesses), such as trial and error, the sample track record will tend to underestimate the long-term average; it will hide the qualities, not the defects

In the fragile case of negative asymmetries (turkey problems), the sample track record will tend to underestimate the long-term average; it will hide the defects and display the qualities.

Rules based on the chapter so far. (i) Look for optionality; in fact, rank things according to optionality, (ii) preferably with open-ended, not closed-ended, payoffs; (iii) Do not invest in business plans but in people, so look for someone capable of changing six or seven times over his career, or more (an idea that is part of the modus operandi of the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen); one gets immunity from the backfit narratives of the business plan by investing in people. It is simply more robust to do so; (iv) Make sure you are barbelled, whatever that means in your business.

The biologist and intellectual E. O. Wilson was once asked what represented the most hindrance to the development of children; his answer was the soccer mom. His argument is that they repress children’s natural biophilia, their love of living things. But the problem is more general; soccer moms try to eliminate the trial and error, the antifragility, from children’s lives, move them away from the ecological and transform them into nerds working on preexisting (soccer-mom-compatible) maps of realit

it is indeed with Socrates that the main questions that became philosophy today were first raised, questions such as “what is existence?,” “what are morals?,” “what is a proof?,”
“what is science?,” “what is this?” and “what is that?” Socrates went even as far as questioning the poets and reported that they had no more clue than the public about their own works

Nietzsche is also allergic to Socrates’ version of truth.  “What is not intelligible to me is not necessarily unintelligent” is perhaps the most potent sentence in all of Nietzsche’s century—and we used a version of it in the prologue, in the very definition of the fragilista who mistakes what he does not understand for nonsense. This argument is precisely what Nietzsche vituperated against: knowledge is the panacea; error is evil; hence science is an optimistic enterprise.

Philosophers talk about truth and falsehood. People in life talk about payoff, exposure, and consequences (risks and rewards), hence fragility and antifragility. And sometimes philosophers and thinkers and those who study conflate Truth with risks and rewards.

Book VI

For the Arab scholar and religious leader Ali Bin Abi-Taleb (no relation), keeping one’s distance from an ignorant person is equivalent to keeping company with a wise man.

Finally, consider this modernized version in a saying from Steve Jobs: “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Antifragility implies—contrary to initial instinct—that the old is superior to the new, and much more than you think. No matter how something looks to your intellectual machinery, or how well or poorly it narrates, time will know more about its fragilities and break it when necessary.

“Time has sharp teeth that destroy everything,” declaimed the sixth-century (B.C.)
poet Simonides of Ceos. Franco-Russian poetess Elsa Triolet said, “time burns but leaves no ashes”. An interesting apparent paradox is that, according to these principles, longer-term predictions are more reliable than short-term one.

The classical role of the prophet, at least in the Levantine sense, is not to look into the future but to talk about the present. He tells people what to do, or, rather, in my opinion, the more robust what not to do.

humans discovered how to make fat products (trans fat) and, as it was the great era of scientism, they were convinced they could make it better than nature. Today trans fat is widely banned as it turned out that it kills people, as it is behind heart disease and cardiovascular problems.

For another murderous example of such sucker (and fragilizing) rationalism, consider the story of Thalidomide. It was a drug meant to reduce the nausea episodes of pregnant women. It led to birth defects. Another drug, Diethylstilbestrol, silently harmed the fetus and led to delayed gynecological cancer among daughters.

Statins. Statin drugs are meant to lower cholesterol in your blood. But there is an asymmetry, and a severe one. One needs to treat fifty high risk persons for five years to avoid a single cardiovascular event. Statins can potentially harm people who are not very sick, for whom the benefits are either minimal or totally nonexistent

Antibiotics. Every time you take an antibiotic, you help, to some degree, the mutation of germs into antibiotic-resistant strains. Add to that the toying with your immune system. You transfer the antifragility from your body to the germ. The solution, of course, is to do it only when the benefits are large. Hygiene, or excessive hygiene, has the same effect, particularly when people clean their hands with chemicals after every social exposure.

Here are some verified and potential examples of iatrogenics (in terms of larger downside outside of very ill patients, whether such downside has been verified or not)4: Vioxx, the anti-inflammatory medicine with delayed heart problems as side effects. Antidepressants (used beyond the necessary cases). Bariatric surgery (in place of starvation of overweight diabetic patients). Cortisone. Disinfectants, cleaning products potentially giving rise to autoimmune diseases. Hormone replacement therapy. Hysterectomies. Cesarean births beyond the strictly necessary. Ear tubes in babies as an immediate response to ear infection. Lobotomies. Iron supplementation. Whitening of rice and wheat—it was considered progress. The sunscreen creams suspected to cause harm. Hygiene (beyond a certain point, hygiene may make you fragile by denying hormesis—our own antifragility). We ingest probiotics because we don’t eat enough “dirt” anymore. Lysol and other disinfectants killing so many “germs” that kids’
developing immune systems are robbed of necessary workout (or robbed of the “good” friendly germs and parasites). Dental hygiene: I wonder if brushing our teeth with toothpaste full of chemical substances is not mostly to generate profits for the toothpaste industry—the brush is natural, the toothpaste might just be to counter the abnormal products we consume, such as starches, sugars and high fructose corn syrup. Speaking of which, high fructose corn syrup was the result of neomania, financed by a Nixon administration in love with technology and victim of some urge to subsidize corn farmers. Insulin injections for Type II diabetics, based on the assumption that the harm from diabetes comes from blood sugar, not insulin resistance (or something else associated with it). Soy milk. Cow milk for people of Mediterranean and Asian descent. Heroin, the most dangerously addictive substance one can imagine, was developed as a morphine substitute for cough suppressants that did not have morphine’s
addictive side effects.

Perhaps what we mostly need to remove is a few meals at random, or at least avoid steadiness in food consumption. The error of missing nonlinearities is found in two places, in the mixture and in the frequency of food intake.

the Greek Orthodox church has, depending on the severity of the local culture, almost two hundred days of fasting per year; and these are harrowing fasts

Book VII

We are witnessing a fundamental change. Consider older societies—those societies that have survived. The main difference between us and them is the disappearance of a sense of heroism; a shift away from a certain respect—and power—to those who take downside risks for others. For heroism is the exact inverse of the agency problem:

someone elects to bear the disadvantage (risks his own life, or harm to himself, or, in milder forms, accepts to deprive himself of some benefits) for the sake of others. What we have currently is the opposite: power seems to go to those, like bankers, corporate
executives (nonentrepreneurs), and politicians, who steal a free option from society. In other words, what is called sacrifice. And the word “sacrifice” is related to sacred, the domain of the holy that is separate from that of the profane.

Heroism has evolved through civilization from the martial arena to that of ideas. Initially, in preclassical times, the Homeric hero was someone principally endowed with physical courage—since everything was physical. In later classical times, for such people as the great Lacedaemonian king Agiselaus, a truly happy life was one crowned by the privilege of death in battle, little else, perhaps even nothing else. Finally, a new form of courage was born, that of the Socratic Plato, which is the very definition of the modern man: the courage to stand up for an idea, and enjoy death in a state of thrill, simply because the privilege of dying for truth, or standing up for one’s values, had become the highest form of honor.

If you take risks and face your fate with dignity, there is nothing you can do that makes you small; if you don’t take risks, there is nothing you can do that makes you grand, nothing. And when you take risks, insults by half-men (small men, those who don’t risk anything) are similar to barks by nonhuman animals: you can’t feel insulted by a dog.

The asymmetry (antifragility of postdictors): postdictors can cherry-pick and produce instances in which their opinions played out and discard mispredictions into the bowels of history. It is like a free option—to them; we pay for it.

I want predictors to have visible scars on their body from prediction errors, not distribute these errors to society.

Never ask anyone for their opinion, forecast, or recommendation. Just ask them what they have—or don’t have—in their portfolio.

Look at it again, the way we looked at entrepreneurs. They are usually wrong and make “mistakes”—plenty of mistakes. They are convex. So what counts is the payoff from success.

Romans forcing engineers to spend time under the bridge they built (skin in the game)

Never listen to a leftist who does not give away his fortune or does not live the exact lifestyle he wants others to follow. What the French call “the caviar left,” la gauche caviar, or what Anglo-Saxons call champagne socialists, are people who advocate socialism, sometimes even communism, or some political system with sumptuary
limitations, while overtly leading a lavish lifestyle, often financed by inheritance—not realizing the contradiction that they want others to avoid just such a lifestyle.

Shaiy’s extraction was: Everything gains or loses from volatility. Fragility is what loses from volatility and uncertainty. The glass on the table is short volatility