Why Nassim Taleb Walks

12 responses

  1. Willy
    January 17, 2010

    I really enjoyed reading that essay, and a few days later I came across this (which is along the same lines): link to nytimes.com

    I preferred Taleb’s essay, but the NY Times article is worth a read too.

  2. Jackie Danicki
    January 17, 2010

    Wow, that guy annoyed me before I even cracked open one of his books. Now I won’t waste my money.

  3. Ryan Holiday
    January 17, 2010

    I’ve heard this before and it’s interesting but I think we gloss over the analysis too much. Like there wasn’t prolonged periods of exertion too? What about when people needed to travel distances quickly? You can’t crack a book of Greek history without reading about some city dispatching a runner to a different city to pass along a message. Or what about long hunts or tribal warfare?

    Not to mention, people don’t work out at the gym to closely recreate their ancestral roots. They’re there precisely because they need to fit as much fitness into a short amount of time as possible. Most of us are best selling authors or college professors whose days are free to experiment with recreating the Savannah.

    On another note, I believe Taleb cites Art De Vany as the source for most of his thoughts on diet and health, an author he talks about in The Black Swan because he wrote a very interesting book about Hollywood economics.

  4. DaveJ
    January 18, 2010

    Ben, two things:
    – Do you recommend his books? I’ve avoided them thus far because they seemed pop-culture-ish, but it sounds like the ideas might be interesting. Or maybe the ideas can be explained in two paragraphs without reading the books?

    – Note that he doesn’t say not to send him links to interesting material – he just doesn’t want you to send the material. So perhaps that’s what people sent him regarding fitness?

  5. Ben Casnocha
    January 18, 2010


    I would recommend them. Fooled by Randomness is better. Brad also loved that

    Links vs the source material itself — I'm not sure there's a huge

  6. Ben Casnocha
    January 18, 2010

    Good points all around. I am not too familiar with ancient history but
    sending a runner to a different city to pass along a message proves the
    point not disproves — it's a designated person who's doing the running,
    everyone else isn't. Long hunts also involved walking not running.

  7. Michael Clemens
    January 18, 2010

    Thanks Ben. Fresh and provocative ideas are inherently valuable, so I love this.

    But it is truly incredible how someone like Taleb, who (as he says) makes his living critiquing “intellectual hubris”, could be so certain that his own ideas are correct — based only on wild guesses about prehistoric life coupled with one data point of evidence.

  8. Vince Williams
    January 18, 2010

    I was entertained by Nasim Taleb’s essay, and appreciated his comic touches, as when he says, “Unpleasant experiences, like working out without external stimuli (say in a gym), or spending time in New Jersey, need to be as concentrated and made as intense as possible.”

    That’s hilarious.

    But when Taleb writes that he was “capable of recreating 90% of the benefits of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle with minimal effort”, it certainly sounds like a Platonic projection of wishes into the world to me.

    Perhaps ivory towers do work very well as “insanity field-generators”.

    The first three quarters of Taleb’s essay discusses these ideas on diet and exercise and the obtuseness of modern medicine, using evolutionary arguments to make his case of the fallacy in treating human diet and exercise as simply a matter of thermodynamics.

    So he rests his whole thesis on the assumption that human metabolic efficiency hasn’t evolved in the twelve thousand years since the end of the Pleistocene.

    And he says that before he had this epiphany, he “was brainwashed while having all the facts in my head.”

    I would ask if the development of agriculture has affected gene expression in humans.

    Then I would want to know if an Australian aborigine is less able to digest complex carbohydrates than the Iraqi villager whose ancestors invented the cultivation of cereal crops and introduced these carbohydrates to the human diet.

    I was relieved when he finally got around to connecting this idea of trading duration for intensity in exercise to his assertion that economists make the same mistake as medicine when they look at complex systems (like the economy) as a web of simple links.

    I thought all this was a rather involved way to make his most salient and unassailable point:

    “Philistines (and Federal Reserve Chairpersons) mistake periods of low volatility (caused by
    stabilization policies) for periods of low risk.”

    After reading that, I felt inspired to fantasize chasing the bankster Robert Rubin with a big stick myself.

  9. Ted
    January 18, 2010

    Taleb’s ideas come from his friend Art De Vany.

  10. Ben Casnocha
    January 18, 2010

    That Jersey quote is indeed hilarious — I had missed that. Thanks, Vince.

  11. ElamBend
    January 30, 2010

    I actually got exposed to Taleb through De Vany.

    This Question is good:
    “Then I would want to know if an Australian aborigine is less able to digest complex carbohydrates than the Iraqi villager whose ancestors invented the cultivation of cereal crops and introduced these carbohydrates to the human diet.”

    I don’t believe it has been tested exactly, but there is plenty of evidence that suggests that Europeans and Africans both have not adapted significantly to the ingestion of grains and that the reduction of such has several health benefits. Gary Taube’s book “Good Calories, Bad Calories” talks about much the same, though through a completely different approach than De Vany. Taube’s book rests on a lot of study that was conducted in the first half of the 20th century (and then for the most part ignored).

    It’s interesting in that we, as humans, owe a lot to the cultivation of grains, but it seems as if our bodies haven’t fully coped.

  12. Vince Williams
    January 30, 2010

    Thanks, Elam. My body hasn’t fully coped with the Scotch Bonnets I just ate, but I know what you mean.;-)

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