Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

I too have had this impression.

For a long time I've been very curious about how this kind of king-making occurs and what the underlying political machinery looks like. I don't buy that it's random or organic.

Being a middle class hick from the American Midwest and having attended a regular-tier non-coastal school, it's a bit outside my domain... though I did live in Boston for a while and work a lot around the MIT/Harvard orbit. That gave me a definite sense that there's a caste system at work but not exactly how it works or how one goes about gaining entry (or is tapped for entry). Being admitted to the Right School seems to usually be a prerequisite, though there are exceptions.

I'm not saying Taleb is a fool. He's certainly very interesting, but he's not the only thinker in this field by any stretch of the imagination. People have been talking about this stuff since back in the 60s when it was called cybernetics. Then they called it complexity, dynamical systems, evolvable systems, and so forth. Taleb might have added some things, but he did not found the field any more than Stephen Wolfram founded the study of cellular automata.

I'm not comparing Wolfram and Taleb. Actually I think they're opposites. Wolfram has a lot of money and a big ego (probably bigger than Taleb's), and he certainly is very smart, but his work doesn't seem to have received the nod of the establishment while Taleb's obviously has. Wolfram is more like a tycoon trying to buy his way into a circle that... well... <sniff sniff>... those who are truly in the club would never stoop that low.

Who makes these decisions?

If you look at Taleb's background, he certainly has gone through or at least been affiliated with all the right schools. The top-tier (Ivy League if you're in the USA) academic network is (in my opinion) the most powerful aristocratic network in the modern world.


I think what fascinates me the most about the aristocratic networks that run through the top-tier universities and their corporate and governmental orbits is how silent they are. You can make kings with millions in paid PR too, but that's noisy and conveys at least some impression that the PR is indeed being "driven." The real power networks of society seem able to make kings with a wink and a nod and it looks completely organic, often giving the impression that these individuals rose to prominence on pure merit and hard work.

Again not saying these individuals don't have merit or that they don't work hard-- I'm sure they do both. But so do millions and millions of other people, and they never get the kind of success the "tapped" or "knighted" see.

P. S. You'd probably find Peter Thiel interesting. He's known for being a skeptic of the whole "fooled by randomness" line of thinking. Search for his name on YouTube and select ">20 minutes" length and you can find many interesting talks. I'm looking forward to his book:


I don't always agree with Thiel, but even when I don't he's one of those people who always makes me think.

He sent an early copy to Taleb to get his review. Your point is nulled.

"“When a risk taker writes a book, read it. In the case of Peter Thiel, read it twice. Or, to be safe, three times. This is a classic.” - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan

Just to point to you, you seem to mis-characterize him as saying "Everything is random!" Here is a complete quote.

"The point we will be making here is that logically, neither trial and error nor "chance" and serendipity can be behind the gains in technology and empirical science attributed to them. By definition chance cannot lead to long term gains (it would no longer be chance); trial and error cannot be unconditionally effective: errors cause planes to crash, buildings to collapse, and knowledge to regress.

The beneficial properties have to reside in the type of exposure, that is, the payoff function and not in the "luck" part: there needs to be a significant asymmetry between the gains (as they need to be large) and the errors (small or harmless), and it is from such asymmetry that luck and trial and error can produce results. The general mathematical property of this asymmetry is convexity (which is explained in Figure 1); functions with larger gains than losses are nonlinear-convex and resemble financial options. Critically, convex payoffs benefit from uncertainty and disorder. The nonlinear properties of the payoff function, that is, convexity, allow us to formulate rational and rigorous research policies, and ones that allow the harvesting of randomness."


> I suppose random king-making could be an example of just the kind of black swan events he talks about.

I feel reminded of the George RR Martin quote that "chaos is a ladder". I don't think the rise of Antifragile is a truly chaotic event though, it's largely due to whatever the opposite of the Black Swan idea should be called. I guess the words to use would be planning and brute force...

> Is it really organic? I'm skeptical of that. I suppose it's possible...

Initially, these things are probably orchestrated by influential PR connections. It can't be entirely predetermined, but I guess some careful research was done to map out the pop-intellectual vacuum where this book was going to position itself.

What really put me off was the arrogance with which he casually claims to be the first one to understand what would have to be pretty old concepts in chaos theory, risk management, and engineering. However, I think it's also a clue that he knew exactly what area he was going to successfully claim ownership of.

My guess is this book was helped along massively from the outside, but how ever that came to be, at some point the critical mass was reached anyway. By now it doesn't really matter anymore except to a few of us (including me) who bemusedly like to analyze how things are expertly steered by powerful forces.

The point is, no matter what my personal feelings about the book and its heritage, it's now the reference everybody has to use when addressing a whole slew of things. Which makes it required reading. Which perpetuates its authority.

Yeah, this sort of "takeover of a field" infuriates a lot of people. I know Wolfram got a ton of flak for implying in A New Kind of Science that he basically invented the study of CAs. He didn't.

Like I said: what Taleb is talking about was talked about under the name "cybernetics" in the 60s and "complexity" or "chaos theory" in the 90s.

It was a major field of interest for me when I was a student, and the more I think back on it the less I think "antifragile" is anything more than a vapid neologism for ideas that have already been out there.

Here's some rough synonyms for antifragile from days gone by: autoadaptive, evolvable, autoconstructive, chaordic, etc. I think autoadaptive is the closest, basically a perfect synonym.

Well, the positive aspect in these cases is that worthwhile concepts are disseminated more broadly.

It's interesting that you mention Wolfram in this context. I remember the criticism he received for his book, most of which probably justified. I also remember I liked reading it, in contrast to Antifragile which felt in equal parts tedious and frustrating. Of course I was comparatively young at the time and many of the concepts in it were new to me, but now even in hindsight I still like his presentation and his viewpoints.

While on a fundamental level Wolfram, Gladwell, and Taleb may all three technically be in the business of claiming ownership to pre-existing ideas, A New Kind of Science still holds a lot of memorable nuggets for me, while after most chapters of Antifragile I honestly couldn't tell whether I had just consumed any actual content or not.

I still hold that Wolfram's book contains vastly more intellectual workmanship than Taleb's, but it may well be the case that Antifragile seemed extra trite because I felt a strong sense of deja vu where A New Kind of Science simply contained immeasurably more (fascinating) stuff I wasn't familiar with.

This is the sort of critique in pass that demonstrates that you have not spent 10 minutes researching a topic that you would like to so vehemently critique. Read the italized parts below, which explicitly states it is Not chaos theory.

Here is a more complete quote from "Common errors in the interpretation of the black swan"

Many readers who have too much baggage (or perhaps not enough) tend, when reading for "work" or for the purpose of establishing their status (say, to write a review), rather than to satisfy a genuine curiosity, to read quickly and efficiently, scanning jargon terms and rapidly making associations with some pre-packaged ideas. (THIS RESULTS IN THE SQUEEZING in the squeezing of the ideas exposed in The Black Swan into some commoditized well know framework, as if I partook of the off-the-shelf-re-warmed-ideas-with- some-new-wrinkle traditions that give a bad name to academia, or as if my positions could be squeezed into: standard skepticism, empiricism, essentialism, pragmatism, Popperian falsificationism, Knightian uncertainty, behavioral economics, CHAOS THEORY, etc.


So by his own words, it is not.

Autoadaptive does not work as well because Antifragility, which was prior to the name-change was called tinkerng. It is more "Convex option like decision making"

>So by his own words, it is not.

"By his own words" is probably the worst way to define what a man or a work is.

Of course he would say his work is original and not derived. Just like any snake-oil saleman will speak of his amazing medicine...

It's also not chaos because because it's not(!).

Mandelbrot had a lot to do with that era/chaos theory and was associated with it, him at Taleb were good friends. Do you think it's as simple as that? Why doesn't some one post something legitimate as opposed to trying to catch some offhand remark that I didn't fix as opposed to trying to desperately nitpick.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact