Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Self-Education and Doing the Math (Ep. 41 — Live at Mercatus)

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Though what Nassim Nicholas Taleb was really after was a discussion with Bryan (read that here), the philosopher, mathematician, and author most recently of Skin in the Game also generously agreed to a conversation with Tyler.

They discuss the ancient Phoenicians and the Greco-Roman heritage of Lebanon, philology, genetics, the blockchain, driverless cars, the advantages of Twitter fights, defining religion, fancy food vs. Auntie Anne’s pretzels, autodidactism, The Desert of the Tartar, why Taleb refused to give a book tour, inverse role models, why math isn’t just a young man’s game, and more.

Listen to the full conversation

Read the full transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity. If you notice an error, please send us an email.

COWEN: We’re very honored today to have with us the great Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

I’m reminded of the words of the Hall of Famer Ernie Banks from Chicago, who used to always say, “Let’s play two,” when there was the possibility of a doubleheader. Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been gracious enough to agree to this dual event. First, he and I will converse, and then he will talk with Bryan Caplan.

Just to be clear, as always, this is the conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb I want to have, not the one that you want to have.

[laughter]

Historically, a very basic question: on page 7 of The Black Swan, you mention the 1975 Lebanese Civil War as having been a black swan of sorts.

If we think back to the earlier history of the region — the growing role of the PLO in the country; the end of the Eisenhower Doctrine, which meant maybe the US would not intervene; the prior conflict in 1958; ongoing differences in birth rates with more Muslims being born — wasn’t it, in a sense, actually fairly predictable and not a black swan?

How do you see the history of your own country in this way?

NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB: No, it’s going to surprise everybody. It might have been predictable, but not on that scale for several reasons. The first one is that nobody understood the effect of modern weapons because previous conflicts were more local, and more confined. You didn’t have artillery, and then things died down quickly.

Then, you have another thing — that these idiots brought in the PLO. After 1973, as a way that Lebanon wanted to stay neutral with Israel — not neutral, but engaged, to say, “OK, you guys can fight from here, but we’re not going to fight Israel.”

Then, they didn’t realize that these guys were going to is try to take over the place. So the imbalance came not from within. It came from a huge number of armed Palestinians in Lebanon that disrupted the balance and caused immediately, as a reaction, the Christians to go and get gone.

COWEN: What’s the role of the Phoenicians in your thought?

TALEB: There was a recent thing circulating that Phoenicia didn’t exist, which is not true, I think. Of course they didn’t call themselves Phoenicians, but Canaanites. Just like Greeks didn’t exist. That was some kind of confederation, Arcadian confederations, and not the small, little city-states with their hinterland.

We know that, genetically, the Phoenicians seem to have come from Anatolia largely, and Anatolia is the same place the Greeks came from. So there is a connection that was just discovered a year ago. Maybe in five years from now, we’ll have a clearer view, rewriting history based on ancient DNA.

But that would not explain the people. Why was it that Phoenicians had some kind of great working relation with the Greeks? It looks like they were similar, maybe the same. They had the same grandparents, to put it this way. Also, there’s some mysterious thing. Why is it that the only people in Athens who were not metics, foreigners. A metic is basically an H1B. You can’t vote.

[laughter]

TALEB: The only ones who were not metics were the people from Sidon. That’s why I like to call these people Greco-Phoenicians, the modern version of the Phoenician, Greek Phoenicians. Of course, now we know from DNA that the DNA of the past 3700 years hasn’t changed much, that the local population is a pretty ancient one.

COWEN: I was talking with Eric Weinstein recently, and I suggested the following to him. The way I read your work, on one hand, it was trying to explain what happened to Lebanon, and so it’s a very regional concern. But you are also trying to put forward a vision of what an alternative Lebanese history would look like, a Phoenician one.

That positive program was the underdiscussed part of understanding your work. You’re trying to lay out how Lebanon could be seen or could be a Phoenician culture in the future.

TALEB: It is an eastern Mediterranean culture, and it is very easy to convince people it’s an eastern Mediterranean culture in Lebanon, despite the textbooks writing the opposite. Let me tell you really what happened.

In 1860, the Christians of Lebanon did not write in Arabic. They wrote in a character called garshounè. The American University in Beirut came in and tried to recruit Muslims, and it didn’t work. At the time it was called Syrian Protestant College. They couldn’t convert Muslims, so they decided to convert Christians.

They translated the first translation of the Bible, the whole thing, into Arabic, which was done by the surgeon called Van Dyke. An attempt had been done years earlier and failed. So this Arabization that started in the 1860s in Lebanon, when the Turks were around, is, in fact, a distortion of history, a perception of habit.

It’s trying to bring that part of the world away from the Ottoman Empire, which was a Balkan eastern Mediterranean world, in which the place had spent 500 years, and before that, a thousand years under Greco-Romans — trying to move it closer to Arabia. People bought the narrative because the Christians wanted to be non-Muslim, yet have the same rights.

So they invented themselves some genetic story that they came from Yemen, they came from a tribe called the Banu Ghassan. The Christians invented themselves some kind of story, “Yeah, the Phoenicians were here, but the Arabs kicked them out, and we, the Christians, come from . . .” and it’s totally genetically bogus that the population had to move.

In fact, there is the same people. I see that you brought a book about Charles Corm. Charles Corm was the opposite narrative, the Western narrative that we are Greco-Roman. We had the School of Beirut, the religious school in Beirut that for 500 years made or unmade laws, the only place where laws were made in the Roman Empire.

We are Greco-Romans by culture. Let’s go back to the Greco-Roman world, away from 150 years of Arabization. If you look at Lebanon, you realize that 150 years of Arabizing people had no effect.

On the Greeks and the Maronites

COWEN: You’re Greek Orthodox by background. If I were to ask, how did the Maronites fit into your schema? There’s a long-standing tension between these groups. It seems to me often that the Greek Orthodox would actually side with the Muslims, wanting a more stable Lebanon, suspicious of the Crusades, suspicious of the Maronites themselves. What’s your take on this?

TALEB: I’m glad you asked me because finally someone really understood the problem… When a lot of people, a lot of factions in Constantinople in the 1400s, the Church was already in the area surrounding Constantinople for 250 years before that, and it was just a different country before, different countries. There was a battle, but it was not . . .

Initially, the Turks came in as the Byzantine Empire, and they were very upset that the Russian one called themselves caesars, “What do you mean caesar? We are . . . the sultan is the continuation of the Byzantine Empire.” There was that tension East-West.

And this manifests itself through religion. Let me explain it, what I saw. The coastal Levant was monstrously Arabized except for Beirut, which was Latinized because of the language of Beirut. And the people were horrified to see that they use Latin because there was a school of law, but the rest was Greek. The countryside spoke Aramaic.

If you see the religion schisms, they map to Aramaic speakers versus Greek speakers. The Maronites were one of the lines of the first schism. Earlier, of course, you have the Nestorians as a schism. You look at the line of how people have the schism in Asian Minor, and you see that these schisms were entirely driven by ethnicity, like the English Protestant versus Irish Catholic.

If these English were Catholic, I bet you then the Irish would have been Protestant, definitely.

[laughter]

That’s like what happened along these lines. Of course, the Byzantines were very suspicious of the West, and they saw Islam as a . . . Effectively, it was not an unrealistic thought because if you look at what happened, there’s 500 years under the Ottomans. Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greece State Orthodox, Romanian Orthodox — these parts are Orthodox.

The idea, when you look at the world, the division East/West and Christianity/non-Christianity — at that time there were three blocks. There were the French, those Westerners. There were the East Meds. And then there were the Easterners — Arabs, Persians — and that was how it was seen.

Of course, the people identify along these lines, and then progressively, when you had the heresy, people would go to Rome because “the enemy of my enemy.” So the Maronites — and Gibbon tells this story beautifully — how they came down to Tripoli to do a deal with the Franks, with a group of crusaders, to do a deal with Rome because they wanted to move away from that.

The tension is not a tension that is modern. It is a tension — the one between the Maronites and the Greek Orthodox — is a tension that has been there forever.

One more comment, since we’re talking about it. First, I didn’t know you know this stuff. I’m honored that you’re interested in the same thing I’m interested in.

If you look at what happened also in the Levant, people fail to understand a few things, that you have Nestorians, basically the Syriacs, the Orthodox, and non-Chalcedonian. If you look at these people, the Syriac speakers, who absolutely hated the Greeks, just like the Copts hated the Byzantines.

People forget that before the Arabs conquered the Levant . . . Actually they didn’t really conquer the Levant. They just went through the Levant, and it’s not interesting. There’s olive oil and nothing else.

[laughter]

You had two generations of Persians in Lebanon. The Persians came, and they brought with them Nestorians. Nestorians are similar to Maronites — different heresy — and they brought with them Zoroastrians, and then they left. The Persians were kicked out by the Byzantines.

Those who stayed were Zoroastrians and Nestorians. By some mysterious thing, you find Zoroastrianism, as a Shiite Islam, born in Lebanon and converting the Persians in the same place where these guys were brought in.

The Shiites were in Lebanon, though it seems to me that the population of Zoroastrians who came, because the Byzantine hated Zoroastrians and non-Chalcedonians, and they stayed, or at least the religion came in and there’s a big connection between Zoroastrianism and Shiite Islam.

COWEN: Let me give you a purely subjective impression I have reading your latest book, Skin in the Game. There’s this long-standing tension with the Maronites, and you also have a very interesting discussion of why, in terms of Christology, Christ must in some way be at least part a man for God to have skin in the game.

[laughter]

I read that, almost as your part of intellectual reconciliation, that the new element for your big vision of what Lebanon could have been and maybe will be, that you finally found a way of integrating the Maronites into your basic story, that you yourself are willing to accept and indeed embrace.

TALEB: OK yeah, mea culpa.

[laughter]

Two things about the Maronites: The first one is I was convinced until about seven years ago that the Maronites were migrants who came to Lebanon from the East because the fact of it, their language, their liturgical language is not Aramaic, but Syriac, which is Eastern Aramaic, and that brand, that of course came.

But it turned out that, in fact, it’s only the religion. The DNA is as local as it can be. The Maronites are the descendants of the Phoenicians. So are the Shiites of Lebanon. We Greek Orthodox and the Sunnis have a little more Greek or stuff like that. When I realized that, then I realized that they were a part of us so it was already something.

Second point, let’s talk about skin in the game. To connect to this, as I was watching Donald Trump debate the other guys wearing suits . . .

[laughter]

I knew he was going to win. I was certain he was going to win.

I couldn’t figure out why I was so convinced he was going to win, at least at that stage of the primary. And it turned out, I figured it out and said, “Yes, people love . . .”, then I had heard the day before the news that were effectively not that correct, that he lost more than a billion dollars of his own money.

I thought about it. I said, “OK, is there anything more human than showing a scar, to say, ‘At least I’m real, and you guys are just like pencil-pushers,’ or whatever?” I thought about it, and I said that his skin in the game, exhibiting risk-taking, is effectively what elevates you over . . . Traditionally, you exhibit a scar or have some kind of scar or some kind of sign of devastation coming from war.

Effectively, it didn’t hurt or harm him. I was a practitioner coming from trading, the trader that lost a lot of money, at least it’s real. It’s not a bad thing. So I realize immediately that, and then I thought about it.

I had trouble figuring out why is it that the Christian religion, we have that Trinity, which makes absolutely no sense to Muslims and makes no sense to anybody who’s not Christian. It makes so much sense to you if you are Christian.

Why is it that it makes so much sense to have a Trinity? Then the Christ, is he God? Well, he’s sort of like God, but he’s not God. Then you figure it out. If I go to the circus and I have a fellow walking on a tightrope with a parachute, I ask for my money back.

[laughter]

That’s not how it works. The Christ was sufficiently man to have skin in the game and sufficiently God to be God, so it worked. For that, we had to concoct a story that appears to be absurd, but is necessary. It kept coming back to the Trinity, no matter what they tried.

COWEN: Let me try comparing you to another best-selling Lebanese author. Are you the anti-Kahlil Gibran?

[laughter]

COWEN: You both have books of sayings. You’re both, in a sense, offering sermons from exile. You both moved to America, but he was a Maronite. His influences are maybe Baha’i and the Sufis. You’re, in a sense, doing everything in reverse and rebelling against him. Is that true?

TALEB: Not quite because when you grow up in Lebanon, you don’t have a lot of . . . We think that Gibran’s kind of New-Age stuff for Americans.

[laughter]

TALEB: Plus, the other thing is he comes from an area right above my village, like 30 miles away, 20, 30 kilometers away, and they invaded us two or three times.

[laughter]

The last Byzantine outpost, and they’d come and invade us. So maybe you want to do some psychology on that.

[laughter]

But Gibran has never been in high standing in my . . . A lot of people are in high standing from the area, but not Gibran.

On learning to be meaningful

COWEN: Let me try a question a reader emailed to me, and I quote, “What advice could you give to the timid and unconfident? Does one seeking conventional employability and respect out of lack of imagination or lack of confidence deserve only contempt? How does one begin to learn meaningfully if you’re not awesome?”

[laughter]

TALEB: It’s the exact opposite. The point is that we are imperfect. And the way you can function best is accepting we’re imperfect. It’s why we have theology. You want perfection, you can find it in theosis and find a lot of things.

Incidentally, to go back to the idea of being orthodox, theosis is a way for us humans to rise above our condition as human, and it’s given to us openness, this equal opportunity for anyone. If you consider that we are imperfect, and the way you can arise, this sense of honor, by doing duties or self-sacrifice, then you have a lot of risk in the game.

It’s taking risks for the sake of becoming more human. Like Christ. He took risks and he suffered. Of course, it was a bad outcome, but you don’t have to go that far. That was the idea.

I didn’t talk about theosis. I just mentioned it in one footnote. It’s like we understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

Some people take risks and some people labor in the fields. You have the option of doing either one or the other. But my point is you should never have someone rise in society if he or she is not taking risks for the sake of others, period. That’s one rule.

We understand that we’re not in here to eat mozzarella and go to Tuscany. We’re not in here to accumulate money. We’re in here mostly to sacrifice, to do something. The way you do it is by taking risks.

The second one, you should never be a public intellectual if any statement you make doesn’t entail risk-taking. In other words, you should never have rewards without any risk. That’s the thing. Then you can accept inequality if the person who’s unequal is taking risks because that would make things rotate.

For example, if someone becomes a billionaire, it’s fine. It’s unequal, but they’ve got to keep taking risks.

You cannot be locked into a frozen upper-class condition, and then use your situation to use the government to prop you up there. And that’s the good thing about America is the rotation that you have.

COWEN: When it comes to childbearing decisions, do men have enough skin in the game?

[laughter]

TALEB: I don’t know if we can divide things so narrowly because men have low life expectancy and have had, in history, low life expectancy. I don’t know about today in Washington, DC, it’s not reversed. Of course, we have more criminals among men — one ratio is 10 to 1 — and in jail, incarceration, so you have a high rate, maybe not in the bearing of the child, but in doing something else less dangerous.

COWEN: Let me ask you another question about religion. Is volatility, including exchange rates, is it a problem?

[laughter]

TALEB: When it comes to religion, I wrote in here we don’t know what the eff we’re talking about when we talk about religion. People start comparing religion, and the thing is ill-defined. Some religions are religions. Some religions are just bodies of laws. Judaism and Islam are not religions like Christianity is a religion, the exact opposite. Let me explain.

The foundation of Judaism was law, but it was minuscule, it was for a tribe. It was law: “you should not go and do this or that.” Then in Islam, the same word, din , in Arabic means law in Hebrew, but not in Syriac, which is a Semitic language used by Christians, where they use two different words, one nomos, law, and one, din, for religion. Why is it so?

Islam and Judaism are laws. It’s law — there’s no distinction between holy and profane — whereas Christianity is not law. Why isn’t it law? A simple reason — you remember the Christ said what is for Caesar and is not for Caesar? It’s because the Romans had the laws. You’re not going to bring the law because they already have the law, and very sophisticated law at that, the Romans.

With Christianity was born the separation of church and state. It’s secular, so it’s effectively a secular religion that says that when you go home, you do whatever you want. Of course, Christianity, they got to have theocracies, a few, but it was all cosmetic.

For example, when you have the codes, whether Theodosius or Justinian Code — you take Justinian’s code, you look at it. You see, just cosmetically, he said you were blessed by the grace of God , et cetera — two pages.

TALEB: The rest is intact, the Roman law. When you talk about religion, when people are talking about Salafi Islam — it’s not a religion in the sense that Mormon Christianity is a religion. It is a body of laws. It’s a legal system. It’s a political system. It’s a legal system.

So people are very confused when they talk about religion. They’re comparing things that are not the same. Effectively, when I say that I’m Christian, it’s very different from saying I am something else.

The same weakness that I see sometimes describe ethnicity. Being Greek Orthodox is more ethnicity than something else, or being Serbian versus Croatian. Sometimes religion becomes an identity, sometimes law, sometimes very universal.

And sometimes you have pagan tendencies hidden under some kind of Taqiya that you see in the north, you have the monastic religions. Comparing religions naively is silly, it’s heuristic and leads to things like saying, “Well, he has a right to exercise his faith.”

Some faiths should not have the right to be exercised, like Salafis or extreme jihadism because they’re not religions. They’re a legal system. They’re like a political party that wants to ban all other political parties. If you go with that, you’re repeating certain mistakes.

COWEN: How has the Aramaic language influenced or helped structure your thought?

TALEB: Zero. I picked it up later. It’s always interesting. I’m doing some philology, and I discovered two or three things that are not skin in the game. I discovered there are two kinds of people — hopefully we’ll talk about it again with Bryan — people who come from practice and people who come from theory.

This planet doesn’t have a third category of people who have both. So you have linguists who absolutely don’t know what the fu — sorry, what the hell they’re talking about when they talk about religion. I noticed in the description of categorization of languages, linguists are not fluent in the languages they’re categorizing, and it makes a huge difference.

I think that Levantine is close to Aramaic, but linguists don’t accept it because they have their metrics that don’t work. If you use a statistical method, then you realize that it’s Aramaic. Or, if you use practice, you realize that.

On things fragile and antifragile

COWEN: I’d like to toss out the names of just a few countries or regions. You tell me whether or not you think they’re antifragile. Singapore?

TALEB: Singapore has size going for it. You see that we’re talking about a city-state.

COWEN: Isn’t it a vulnerable city-state that relies on our protection, and we don’t always care?

TALEB: Who’s gonna invade it? One thing I’ve learned from history, particularly the Phoenicians. The Phoenicians don’t really have an army or an empire. At some point they had some army, but you might say it’s not economically viable. Why? When you come to invade them, unless you’re Nebuchadnezzar, and supposedly the history books say that he was very nasty, but then fact-checking take place. The genetics don’t actually show what really may have happened.

A guy comes in, very bloodthirsty, comes to you, and you tell him, “Listen, what do you want? You kill us all, you get nothing. Land is not interesting. What are you going to get? We’ll give you 5 percent. What do you want, 5 percent of something or 100 percent of nothing?”

That’s how the Phoenicians operated. Someone would come in. They had a hiccup with Alexander, one pound higher than a hiccup with Alexander.

[laughter]

TALEB: They had an ego problem on both sides, but other than that, it worked very well as a system.

COWEN: The Seleucids did conquer the Phoenicians, right ?

TALEB: The Phoenicians? No, the Seleucids came in, they said, “OK.” The system, at the time, was patronage. You come in, you’re a vassal state.

You guys here, you don’t understand. I live in New York City, so I have two options. One, pay the state — with all of this now, it’s going to go 50-some percent taxes — and you almost get nothing. Or, you can go to mafia now and give them 2 percent, and you get protection.

[laughter]

You get all the things that you want done for 2 percent. That’s exactly what happened. Think about the defense budget if it were run by the mafia.

[laughter]

The guy would come in, and the system at the time was the system of — when you say “conquer,” the imperial methods everywhere, including the Ottomans, before them the Romans, before them the Seleucids and the Ptolemies. The Ptolemies had more integration.

The whole technique was, you come in . . . And remember that government role, the GDP was, at the turn of the century in France, 5 percent, OK, last century. So having been, you’re not part of anything, you’re just paying taxes to someone you’ll never see — that was the thing. The integration usually was through commerce, not through military conquest.

The idea of Singapore, someone invaded — let’s say Malaysia decides to take over Singapore. What are they going to do with that? They’ve got nothing. It’s much better for you to go to Singapore, tell them, “We want 2 percent.” Or “We want 10 percent.” And then they will break it down to 3 percent.

COWEN: Putin of Russia, fragile or antifragile?

TALEB: I did a study on countries when we wanted to look at . . . There is metrics in this town [Washington, D.C.]of predicting stability of countries based on past stability, which to me is absurd because the metric would tell you that Saudi Arabia, when you’re right at the black swan actually, I came here, I told him. I said I took seven countries, same government for 40 years, 40 governments in 40 years. Which country is more stable?

Two sets of countries on the right, one on the left. They said the one that has the same government, same families actually — people here in this town, at the Wilson Center.

I said that these guys have things backward. The countries on the right were Syria and Saudi Arabia. Now, we’re, so far, waiting for a second shoe to drop. The other one was Italy. Last time I checked, Italy was still standing, and the mozzarella was excellent.

[laughter]

The idea of countries that have too much stability become weaker, particularly if it’s propped up, sort of like companies. You see companies that go bust, you get companies that have zero volatility, compressed volatility.

Many of them really should have a little volatility, but some of them would be sitting on dynamite.

COWEN: You’re smoothing to cover things up, right?

TALEB: Or if, for example, someone has a very stable salary, he or she is employed as an antifragile by day. But then you’re laid off, at 65, after 30 years of employment, and basically can’t do anything, whereas someone who has a little volatile income is more adaptive.

When I looked at countries, we looked at countries that are in the Eastern bloc. These countries had effectively two properties. One, they took a lot of heat during that period. Post-Soviet phase was very, very, very rough.

All of them — Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Romania — all of them, in fact, improved through that phase. Currently, it makes me believe that they could take another economic crisis, any crisis, and survive. They have proved the ability to survive. I’m not sure France can manage tomorrow the same disruption.

All of them — Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Romania — all of them, in fact, improved through the [Post-Soviet] phase. Currently, it makes me believe that they could take another economic crisis, any crisis, and survive. They have proved the ability to survive. I’m not sure France can manage tomorrow the same disruption.

COWEN: Erdoğan’s Turkey, fragile or antifragile?

TALEB: I’m going to Turkey in two weeks, so I’d rather answer when I come back.

[laughter]

OK, but from my feeling that what you see, the Turks are very happy because they got washing machine, they got stuff. They attribute it to Erdoğan, so Erdoğan is associated with growth, not so much with religion.

COWEN: PLO, fragile or antifragile?

TALEB: PLO?

COWEN: Palestinian Liberation Organization.

TALEB: Yeah, they were antifragile. Also, when they were in Lebanon, they had nothing to lose, which is why they have no skin in the game. That’s really, that was the idea of a group that always has nothing to lose, so they can get into civil war.

In Lebanon today, every time someone sneezes in downtown Beirut, people are afraid of a civil war. But they don’t realize that everyone is up to here in real estate. Nobody has any interest in waging war. It’s not like, say, 1975, or 1973.

COWEN: What’s it like housing six Syrian refugees?

TALEB: It is very nice. They’re Sunnis. My mother hates Assad, and they love Assad, so the fights between my mother and the Sunnis . . .

[laughter]

One of them went to Syria to vote for Assad and couldn’t come back, just to tell you how devoted he is. So what I do is, I talk to him to know what’s going on, he calls his brothers, his siblings.

He’s violently Sunni. Why? He said that he’s religious Sunni. He said because at least for him, Assad represents stability. The fact that for a lot of Syrians, you got to look at Syria from Syria, not Syria from Saudi Arabian–financed lobbies here, OK? You get a different story.

People want stability. I don’t know. One lesson I learned from Syria, that he’s complaining. He said, “You know, cellphones, I go here in Lebanon. This guy’s selling for $200, this guy, $220, $240.” He said, “Syria’s perfect. Same price everywhere.”

[laughter]

Let me tell you, the Ba’aths have indoctrinated people to the point of maybe no return. People understand that Assad is not a god, but I bet you a lot of Iraqis would like Saddam to come back after what they saw.

The idea that they all have regarded as saying — if you were on the ground, you don’t have this theoretical thing. “This guy is an asshole.” OK, fine. You’ve got to realize what scissors. You got to look at both sides of the scissors.

That when you have civil war you have two groups fighting, so you take the least asshole becomes someone good in your eyes, but you’re only analyzing one portion.

Assad, his father blew up my house. My grandfather was a member of parliament, and voted for pro-Israeli candidate Gemayel, and he came in and blew up our house. So I have a hatred for Assad’s family, but at the same time I just realize I have a bigger hatred for the jihadis and for the clients of Obama.

This is how we can analyze it, comparatively, not naively like one-sided.

On wisdom

COWEN: I have a series of quick questions to ask you about the topic of wisdom. I’ll just shoot these out. Feel free to pass if you don’t want to address them. First, what is the biggest mistake people make when they go to the gym?

TALEB: They exercise too much.

COWEN: What’s the best way to find and consume dark chocolate?

TALEB: What chocolate?

COWEN: Dark chocolate.

TALEB: One thing is that you’re 10 years too late with me on that.

[laughter]

TALEB: Somehow I lost the taste for chocolate. But the best way to find and consume is not those labels, the fancy things made in Brooklyn.

[laughter]

TALEB: I’m past chocolate. I’m sorry, but . . .

COWEN: If he were here today, what would you ask Umberto Eco?

TALEB: What he would think of Trump.

COWEN: What can we learn from Sufism?

TALEB: Sufism?

COWEN: Yes.

TALEB: How to have a branch of Islam, effectively peaceful, allows drinking. I don’t know if you know that.

[laughter]

TALEB: So that’s very convenient.

[laughter]

The problem, that it was destroyed by Saudi Arabian funding. What can we learn from them is how your religion can be destroyed without anybody noticing. The number of Sufis —take Tripoli in Lebanon, it was Sufi. Why did it become non-Sufi? Because of funding from Saudi Arabia — you indoctrinate two generations, and that’s it.

COWEN: How do you find the right mentors in life?

TALEB: I don’t know, but I know how to find inverse mentors.

COWEN: How do you do that?

TALEB: People — you know they’re doing something wrong, and you figure out what makes them do something wrong. There’s a fellow I worked with, and I knew that he was a complete failure but a nice person. When he would do something wrong, he was always caught into details. I realized that there’s only one set of details. You cannot get into more than one set of detail. So that’s one thing I learned.

Also, I find inverse role models, people you don’t want to be like when you grow up.

[laughter]

You pick someone and you go with it. You have an instinct to know what you don’t want to look like. Look at what they’ve done, what they do, and then you counter-imitate. You do a reverse imitation, and it works.

[laughter]

COWEN: What’s the best thing to do on an airplane?

TALEB: Twitter fight.

[laughter]

I tried, but the problem is nobody fights with me anymore.

[laughter]

I tried to fight with a fellow who was . . . You have the problem with the pseudo expert . . . My worst are microeconomists because you can macro-bullshit more easily than they micro-bullshit.

There’s no attachment, there’s no feedback, so I tried to get into some fights with macro people. I tried to get in a fight with an Indian fellow who’s repeating that story that we’re refusing expertise at all. Remember that cartoon? They’re imitating that cartoon in The New Yorker that shows people with the sign that they don’t need the expertise of the pilot.

You cannot compare a macroeconomist to a pilot. There are two classes of experts. Belly dancers are experts at belly dancing. The people who steal radios from cars are experts at stealing radios from cars. Dentists are experts at dentistry. I’m not sure macroeconomists know anything about anything.

Because there’s no feedback, so we don’t know. Maybe they know. Policymakers or people in the State Department, I’m not sure they know anything because there’s no feedback. We definitely know that a carpenter is an expert at carpentry, you see?

I tried to have a Twitter fight with a fellow because usually Twitter fights, number one, makes you look forward to sitting down and opening your computer.
And it kills time like nothing. But no one will engage me any more.

I tried to have a Twitter fight with a fellow because usually Twitter fights, number one, makes you look forward when sitting down and opening your computer.

And it kills time like nothing. But no one will engage me any more.

[laughter]

On cryptocurrencies and AI

COWEN: Could we put our trust in cryptocurrencies?

TALEB: I have no idea, but one thing for sure that’s working with cryptocurrencies is that it’s forcing those fucks here in Federal Reserve to understand that they don’t have a monopoly over our lives. So that’s one thing.

And they are scared of it, believe me. That’s one. Sorry if I used the Latin.

[laughter]

COWEN: Does the blockchain worry you? Once it’s written, you cannot rewrite it or appeal to an external authority. That’s that. Or if enough miners in northern China somewhere decided to collude and hit 51 percent, it seems in some ways a quite nonrobust system. Maybe under small probabilities, but not . . .

TALEB: The system’s been robust, typically. We have had the equivalent of blockchain with letter credit. We’re practicing letter credit at two levels, the first one, the recent one, since commerce in 500 years.

Of course, over time, you find you developed. So long as you don’t have a lot of transactions on one single model. Then you figure out if it doesn’t work, that someone will bring something with a counter — a trick that will have other flaws.

So there will be barriers. If you take earlier, the blockchain would resemble Phoenician model trading: “I’ll call your mother if you don’t do the merchandise.”

The whole idea, the minute the whole concept of a currency that’s triggered . . . In other words, we have now Visa payments that are triggered by receipt of merchandise, or coupled with the receipt of merchandise, is a brilliant idea. This is why, at some point, we will discover the flaws of blockchain. There are plenty of flaws, of course, but we don’t know all of them.

COWEN: Self-driving cars, are they fragile or antifragile?

TALEB: I have a self-driving car. I mean semi self-driving, the Tesla thing. I drive it. The problem is, they don’t know how self-driving cars will react to other self-driving cars. The sum, it’s like flocks of birds.

It behaves differently from the sum of birds, like markets behave differently from individuals. When you have flocks of drones, typically, it’s one computer running all these drones. If one computer ran all the self-driving cars, that may work, but then someone could take over the world that way. “I own the world.”

[laughter]

I don’t know. I have no idea. I think it’s a great idea to have self-driving cars if someone in the car is responsible if there’s an accident. Someone I can sue or someone I can blame if something . . . someone who is in the vehicle. Not saying your self-computer, not some anonymous person.

On social media

COWEN: Should we someday just go all collectively and turn our back on social media?

TALEB: No, because social media is Lindy. Let me tell you . . . Lindy means that there are things that are robust in time, like some basins that are robust in time. You realize that for example, this cup of coffee . . . OK, I’m not going to go back to Phoenicians — .

[laughter]

COWEN: You can, You can.

TALEB: No, no. OK, the book is 500 years old under this form, and maybe several thousand years old under a different form. So Lindy means that they’re robust in time, and they come back. Until they disappear, they tend to come back.

Now, it so happens that at no point in history, except during the postwar period, did people receive news without being conveyors of news. That nuclear family, where people — pop, mom, 2.2 kids, one dog — are watching TV, receiving information and not transmitting.

The solitude of big city blocks — that was the idea. Well, it’s gone because traditionally, you get the news and you purvey the news. So you’re a recipient and a purveyor, with a little bit of alteration in the process.

There, we get back to the social media. I knew very quickly to learn to identify that there was a false alert yesterday in Saudi Arabia, as if there was a coup or something. You can figure out that there are some people you can trust, others you can’t trust. Those you can’t trust, you quickly identify them — those who cry wolf all the time.

Social media is bringing us back to a naturalistic environment because, say, in Athens, what was the newsroom?

The newsroom was the barbershop — you go in, you give information, and you take information. Or a fish market — you go in, you get fish, you get information and give information. And funerals, where you go in and chat, fake like you’re crying, and then you’re getting all the gossip.

[laughter]

We’re gossip machines. Social media is great in that respect. I love it. I don’t know if you were told. I refused to have a book tour. I refused to give media interviews. You asked at least. I gave one by accident.

[laughter]

Send my book to newspapers. Random House said, “What?!” I said, “OK, fine, other authors. It’s OK.” They agreed, although they cheated, I think, by sending some people the book.

[laughter]

Social media is bringing us back to a naturalistic environment because, say, in Athens, what was the newsroom?
The newsroom was the barbershop — you go in, you give information, and you take information. Or a fish market — you go in, you get fish, you get information and give information. And funerals, where you go in and chat, fake like you’re crying, and then you’re getting all the gossip.
We’re gossip machines. Social media is great in that respect. I love it.

So there was no book review in US, my book, on social media. And it opened number 12 on best-seller list. It tells you that you don’t need the New York Times to exist as an author, that Twitter is sufficient, Twitter and some Facebook. That’s it.

On the Nassim Nicholas Taleb production function

COWEN: For our final segment, I have a few questions on what I call the Nassim Nicholas Taleb production function. You’ve written a few times that you’ve described yourself as an ascetic, in some ways. How did you become an ascetic early in your life?

TALEB: Ascetic?

COWEN: A-s-c-e-t-i-c.

TALEB: You mean like a tomato or . . . ?

[laughter]

COWEN: Yes.

[laughter]

TALEB: I’m not that ascetic. It depends on what you’re ascetic about, but I discovered . . . Let me give you an anecdote that’s in the book.

One day, I went with someone to dinner. I wanted go to a taverna, and, “Oh, no. We’ve got to go to a better restaurant.” So I ended up having a meal, which you have to realize the look of a meal in a three-star Michelin restaurant. We sit down. There’s farming people, microscopic organs. It’s work, we’re doing work. You’re concentrating, afraid, biting too much, and you get all this sophistication for nothing.

[laughter]

Then I realize that as people get rich, they get controlled by the preferences, they’re controlled by the outside.

It was $200 a person. I said, “OK, I’d rather pay $200 for a pizza and would pay $6.95 for the same meal except that by social pressure.” This is how we use controlling preferences. It’s the skin in the game. You discover that your preferences are . . . People are happier in small quarters. You have neighbors around you and narrow streets.

I’d rather eat with someone else a sandwich, provided it’s good bread — not this old bread — than eat at a fancy restaurant. It’s the same thing I discovered little by little. Even from a hedonic standpoint, sophistication is actually a burden.

Aside from that, there is something also that, from the beginning, you realize that hedonism — that pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake — there’s something about it that gives me anxiety. On the other hand, doing something productive — not productive in the sense of virtual signaling, but something that fits a sense of honor — you feel good.

COWEN: What books influenced you early in life, say before you were 15 years old?

TALEB: The book I kept rereading was The Desert of the Tartar.

COWEN: Even before you were 15?

TALEB: Before 15, and I reread it many times. I’d say, before 15, I read Dostoyevsky and I read The Idiot. There’s a scene that maybe I was 14 when I read it. Prince Myshkin was giving this story. Actually, it was autobiographical for Dostoyevsky.

He said he was going to be put to death. As they woke him up and were taking him to the execution place, he decided to live the last few minutes of his life with intensity. He devoured life, it was so pleasurable, and promised himself, if he survives, to enjoy every minute of life the same way.

And he survived. In fact, it was a simulacrum of an execution, and Dostoyevsky . . . effectively that says the guy survived. The lesson was he no longer did that. It was about the preferences of the moment. He couldn’t carry on later. He forgot about the episode. That marked me from Dostoyevsky when I was a kid, and then became obsessed with Dostoyevsky.

COWEN: What was your favorite part of the Bible as a boy?

TALEB: I’m going to be honest. The Bible didn’t play into a lot of this. It’s too complex. There’s too many names in the Bible, so it wouldn’t do too many things.

COWEN: Final question. What is it that you do in your moments of solitude?

TALEB: Math.

COWEN: Math? That pleases you? Or that’s a form of work that relieves anxiety?

TALEB: No, I only develop anxiety when I go to fancy restaurants.

[laughter]

TALEB: . . . when I’m not doing something right.

The math is — I like it. People tell me that, as people age, they like math less and math is a young man’s game. Yes, it’s more and more enjoyable. I do math.

Mostly, there’s a Twitter math that I’m part of. So there’s always something to solve. Usually, really, that’s totally unpredictable. It takes between one minute and one day to solve one problem. You don’t know. Then this thing comes in, and then I stop.

COWEN: Based on your own upbringing as a boy, if you were giving advice to someone raising a child through the age of 18, what would be the takeaway you would offer from your own life experience up to that age?

TALEB: Get a degree from school, but become an autodidact. Don’t waste time trying to get an A because you’re not going — we’re gonna talk about it with Bryan — you’re not going to remember all that shit. You always remember what you try to read by yourself.

Read as much as you can, and try to get the lowest possible passing grades you can at school.

I remember the stuff I read by myself, that I was driven. I don’t remember stuff that was given to me at school. It’s an allocation of time.

I discovered that I wanted to be a writer as a kid. I realized to have an edge as a writer, you can’t really know what people know. You’ve got to know a lot of stuff that they don’t know.

I started reading books voraciously, and also read books that, with some instinct, that would be helpful 20 years from now. Therefore, it’s not the latest nonfiction best seller.

So I read a lot of stuff. And I think that I would recommend doing the same. Read as much as you can, and try to get the lowest possible passing grades you can at school. Don’t study stuff like history because it’s going to be revised.

[laughter]

Geography, history, all these. For instance, chemistry or stuff like that. Math is, I think, probably the only thing you can pick up at school that’s useful.

COWEN: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, thank you very much.

[applause]


The conversation continues! Click here to read Taleb’s discussion with Bryan Caplan about his book The Case Against Education.