Taleb and the language of risk

Black Swan by T Mann courtesy of Wikipedia

The original Black Swan

Last night I read about The Black Swan a.k.a. Nassim Taleb on EL&U SE (English Language and Usage StackExchange website). Apparently Professor Taleb wants to introduce a new word to the vocabulary of global financial collapse, antifragility:

So let us coin the appellation “antifragile” for anything that, on average, (i.e. in expectation) benefits from variability.

Consensus on EL&U was that this was blatant tub-thumping by Taleb.

The original Black Swan

I agree with my EL&U comrades-in-arms: Antifragility will cause obfuscation. There are many adequate, extant words*that Taleb could use. Instead, he is intent on creating a term that will be uniquely associated with him. I am not convinced that there ARE any entities that benefit from variability. A delta hedge that is long volatility is the only construct that I can think of off-hand, and I don’t think something that contrived was what Taleb had in mind.

Nassim Taleb already co-opted “Black Swan”. If Thomas Mann were still alive, I think he would have a decent case for plagiarism or even theft of intellectual property. Couldn’t Taleb have thought of an expression that wasn’t previously used by someone who won a Nobel Prize in Literature, who wrote a book with the same title, and pertaining to an anomalous event, also known as a statistical outlier?

Anyway, after the briefest of browsing on a search engine or two for antifragility, antonyms and humor, I found Fragile Web Development with SQL on Rails

SQL on Rails, a humorous digression

Rails gives you a pure-SQL development environment. Finally!

SQL on Rails parody

Fragile, breakneck collaboration

Who’s using SQL on Rails?

Everyone from startups to non-profits to tyrannical governments are using Rails. Rails is all about RDBMSs so it’s a perfect fit for absolutely every type of web application, be it software for organized crime collusion, pornographic content distribution, torrent tracking, or even social networking.

What else do I need?

MySQL is the only stable option for SQL on Rails at the moment–the development team decided to tackle the gold standard first. However, work is underway to add support for a few more databases: Oracle™, DB2™, Fox Pro™, FileMaker Pro™, Lotus Approach™, Ingres, Sybase™, Oracle Berkeley DB™, and Microsoft Excel™. Just about any operating system will do, but we recommend one with Minesweeper.

If you need hosting, ask around.

That was followed by COBOL on Cogs.


Audio-cassettes and binders full of printouts: Re-live Y2K today

Modern browsers tolerated but unnecessary to view site in full green screen glory.  Click on image to view full-sized.

Anti-fragility makes me feel exasperated. Robust, durable, survivable as in “survival of the fittest”, flexible, having high tensile strength, adaptable or tempered like Damascus steel… any would be adequate.

Or, as others said on EL&U,

I don’t think there really is a single word term for something that breaks or dies or whatever when stress is removed from it. (Phoenix)


Taleb means resilient, but he’s confusing survival of the species/system with survival of the individual. In the end I see an almost wanton muddying of the difference between individual and “group” survival – where “group” could be any level from small partnerships to global corporations to capitalism to humanity itself. The higher levels effectively require potentially fatal changes to happen at lower levels – survival of the fittest is what drives evolution in the first place. (FumbleFingers)

I found an excellent review of The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, with a new section “On Robustness and Fragility”, on the Amazon website. Wading through Mediocristan is amusing, sarcastic, yet acknowledges the merits of Professor Taleb’s work.

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Published in: on February 1, 2012 at 6:28 am  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good information, thanks, I appreciate your thinking.

    • Hello Mr. Geiger! It seems like a long time ago, when I first started following your comments in the WSJ. Thank you for stopping by to say hello today.
      Regards, Ellie

  2. Great post! Curious waht you think of this: http://soberlook.com/2009/06/black-swan-of-jeane-dixon.html

    • Hello, NarrowTranche! Thank you for the compliment. I will have a look. I think I did, in the past, and forgot to follow up with you. I need to write a follow-up post to this one. N.N. Taleb himself has issued a comprehensive definition of anti-fragility, so I really don’t have much excuse for berating him now. Well, less of an excuse ;)

  3. ‘Resilient’ does not at all include the property of ‘robust’ – think Sillyputty. Trying to create a term uniquely associated with an author is not particularly blame-worthy – as Shakespeare showed thousands of times.

    • Hello Lou,
      You are correct. I have had something of a change of heart regarding all of this. I found something, two items, written by N.N. Taleb, PhD, that caused me to revise my previous point of view. I will update accordingly. Thank you for your comment, and for visiting again. I appreciate it.

  4. I don’t think that “antifragility” quite captures the concept. If Taleb has an example in mind, it should be named after that … sort of like “Black Swan”. By the way, I enjoyed this post.

  5. Engineers have used the term “robust” to describe the best system that will work as desired in the presence of noise. I would be depressed if their term predates and envelopes “anti-fragile”.

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