Writing

When people get rich, they shed their skin-in-the game driven experiential mechanism. They lose control of their preferences, substituting constructed preferences to their own, complicating their lives unnecessarily, triggering their own misery. And these are of course the preferences of those who want to sell them something. This is a skin-in-the-game problem as the choices of the rich are dictated by others who have something to gain, and no side effects, from the sale. And given that they are rich, and their exploiters not often so, nobody would shout victim.

I once had dinner in a Michelin-starred restaurant with a fellow who insisted on eating there instead of my selection of a casual Greek taverna with a friendly owner operator, his second cousin as a manager and his third cousin once removed as a receptionist. The other customers seemed, as we say in Mediterranean languages, to have a cork plugged in their behind obstructing proper ventilation, causing the vapors to build on the inside of the gastrointestinal walls, leading to the irritable type of decorum you only notice in the educated upper classes. I note that, in addition to the plugged corks, all men wore ties.

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The best enemy is the one you own by putting skin in his game and letting him know the exact rules that come with it. You keep him alive, in the knowledge that he owes this to your benevolence. The notion that an enemy you own is better than a dead one was perfected by the order of the Assassins, so we will do some digging into the work of that secret society.

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Looking the Part

Say you had the choice between two surgeons of similar rank in the same department in some hospital. The first is highly refined in appearance; he wears silver-rimmed glasses, has a thin built, delicate hands, a measured speech, and elegant gestures. His hair is silver and well combed. He is the person you would put in a movie if you needed to impersonate a surgeon. His office prominently boasts an Ivy League diploma, both for his undergraduate and medical schools.

The second one looks like a butcher; he is overweight, with large hands, uncouth speech and an unkempt appearance. His shirt is dangling from the back. No known tailor in the East Coast of the U.S. is capable of making his shirt button at the neck. He speaks unapologetically with a strong New Yawk accent, as if he wasn’t aware of it. He even has a gold tooth showing when he opens his mouth. The absence of diploma on the wall hints at the lack of pride in his education: he perhaps went to some local college. In a movie, you would expect him to impersonate a retired bodyguard for a junior congressman, or a third-generation cook in a New Jersey cafeteria.

Now if I had to pick, I would overcome my suckerproneness and take the butcher any minute. Even more: I would seek the butcher as a third option if my choice was between two doctors who looked like doctors. Why? Simply the one who doesn’t look the part, conditional of having made a (sort of) successful career in his profession, had to have much to overcome in terms of perception. And if we are lucky enough to have people who do not look the part, it is thanks to the presence of some skin in the game, the contact with reality that filters out incompetence, as reality is blind to looks.

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(Background. The Black Swan explains the domain-dependence of expertise: why the electrician, dentist, are experts, while the journalist, State Department bureaucrat, and macroeconomist are not. Since then, there has been a global movement against the pseudo-expert, the serial incompetence of a certain class of babbling and pompous operatives across bureaucrato-academic professions. Which leads to the question: who is the real expert? Who decides on who is and who is not expert? Where is the metaexpert? Time it is. Or, rather, Lindy.)

Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for the fifty or so years of interpretation by physicists and mathematicians of the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect.

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There is inequality and inequality.

The first is the inequality people tolerate, such as one’s understanding compared to that of people deemed heroes, say Einstein, Michelangelo, or the recluse mathematician Grisha Perelman, in comparison to whom one has no difficulty acknowledging a large surplus. This applies to entrepreneurs, artists, soldiers, heroes, the singer Bob Dylan, Socrates, the current local celebrity chef, some Roman Emperor of good repute, say Marcus Aurelius; in short those for whom one can naturally be a “fan”. You may like to imitate them, you may aspire to be like them; but you don’t resent them.

The second is the inequality people find intolerable because the subject appears to be just a person like you, except that he has been playing the system, and getting himself into rent seeking, acquiring privileges that are not warranted –and although he has something you would not mind having (which may include his Russian girlfriend), he is exactly the type of whom you cannot possibly become a fan. The latter category includes bankers, bureaucrats who get rich, former senators shilling for the evil firm Monsanto, clean-shaven chief executives who wear ties, and talking heads on television making outsized bonuses. You don’t just envy them; you take umbrage at their fame, and the sight of their expensive or even semi-expensive car trigger some feeling of bitterness. They make you feel smaller.

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Nassim will present his first medical paper on antifragility on Monday, November 28 at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. On Facebook, Nassim says that this is “basically, a more technical version of the book Antifragile.” He also adds “Note that this is not making any standalone empirical point, rather gluing various phenomena under the convexity argument, with necessary connections (if… then necessarily).”

Nassim has posted another article on Medium, this one the foreword to an unnamed book on strength training:

I was honored to be asked by Mark Rippetoe to write the foreword of [book]. But the reader may ask the following: What does someone whose research is on the risk of random events, particularly extremes, have to do with strength training?

Milo of Croton

Well, the Starting Strength approach is precisely about extremes, what people in my business call the “tails,” the rare events that are consequential though of low probability. Just as systems learn from extremes, and for preparedness, calibrate themselves to withstand large shocks, so does the human body. Indeed, our body should be seen a risk management system meant to handle our environment, paying more attention to extremes than ordinary events, and disproportionally learning from these.

You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.

Likewise, to train pilots, we do not make them spend time on the tarmac flirting with flight attendants, then switch the autopilot on and start daydreaming about vacations, thinking about mortgages or meditating about corporate airline intrigues — which represent about the bulk of the life of a pilot. We make pilots learn from storms, difficult landings, and intricate situations — again, from the tails.

So when it comes to physical training, there is no point engaging in the time-consuming repetitive replication of an active environment and its daily grind, unless you need to do so for realism, therapy, or pleasure. Just calibrate to the extreme and work your way down from there.

The other reason Rip asked me to write this foreword is because I am myself engaged in a variant of his exercise program — and the ethics of skin in the game dictate that one should be eating his own cooking, tell us what you think and what you do. I learned that what you do for training needs to be separate from what you do for pleasure. I enjoy hiking, walking, ocean swimming, riding my bicycle, that sort of things; but I have no illusion that these activities will make me stronger. They may be necessary, but for other reasons than the attainment of strength. I just consider walking necessary therapy, like sleeping.

It also happened that part of my research in risk overlaps with complexity theory. The first thing one learns about complex systems is that they are not a sum of body parts: a system is a collection of interactions, not an addition of individual responses. Your body cannot be trained with specific and local muscle exercises. When you try to lift a heavy object, you recruit every muscle in your body, though some more than others. The heavier the weight, that is, the more in the tails, the higher number of muscles involved. You also produce a variety of opaque interactions between these fibers.

This complex system method applies to all situations, even when you engage in physical therapy, as I did for an injured shoulder. I discovered that doing the more natural barbell presses and (initially assisted) pull-ups, works better and more robustly than the complicated and time consuming multi-colored elastic bands prized by physical therapists. Why don’t physical therapists make you do these robust barbell exercises? Simply, because they have a rent to pay and, just as with gyms, single-exercise machines look fancier and more impressive to the laity.

Further, muscles are not the whole story. In a line of research pioneered by Gerard Karsenty and his colleagues, the skeleton with its few hundred bones has been shown to be endocrine apparatus, regulating blood sugar, fertility, muscle growth, and even memory. So an optimal exercise would need to work, in addition to every muscle in your body, every bone as well, by subjecting the skeleton to weight stressors in order to remind it that the external world exists.

Finally, the body is extremely opaque; it is hard to understand the exact physiological mechanisms. So we would like to make sure our methodology is robust and can stand the judgment of time. We have had theories of how muscles grow; these come and go. We have theories of nutrition; these come and go — the most robust is the one that favors occasional periodic fasts. But we are quite certain that while theories come and go, the phenomenologies stay; in other words, that in two thousand years the method of whole-body workout in the tails will still work, though the interpretation and “scientific” spin will change — just as two thousand five hundred years ago, Milo of Croton carried an ox on his shoulders and got stronger as the ox grew.

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