Why Nassim Taleb Walks

Nassim Taleb, of Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan fame, has a new-ish essay up on his site called Why I Do All This Walking, or How Systems Become Fragile. He ponders health and fitness strategy by thinking about our ancestors. Our ancestors walked aimlessly a lot and occasionally had to sprint if we were being chased or doing the chasing. Plenty of idleness, he says, some high intensity. He questions the modern obsession with regular exercise and discusses his own effort at sporadic weight lifting sessions followed by several weeks of being totally sedentary. At the end he links it back to his larger ideas around systems theory.

The footer says “do not quote” the piece, so I won’t excerpt here, except by providing a link to the free PDF. Thanks Seth Roberts for the pointer.

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At the bottom of Taleb’s homepage he posts his email address and invites readers to contact him. With some qualifications:

Concise messages are much preferable (say a maximum < 40 words) as I will not be able to read long letters. Please do not 1) send me your papers or other “interesting material” to read, 2) ask finance questions (not my specialty, 3) make me to rewrite sections of my books (I write books, not emails), 4) ask for a list of “other interesting books to read”, 5) ask me to provide career or educational advice, 6) send me passages from Tolstoy or the Ecclesiast on luck and randomness, 7) send me the list of typos in my drafts. Note that I almost always reply (but ONLY to short messages), time permitting (but once) –even to nasty emails. Finally, note that, thanks to my new keyboard, I sometimes reply in Arabic, particularly to academics. [Also please please refrain from offering to “improve” my web site].

He opens his piece on walking by noting that thanks to the “exposure” of his books he came onto theories about fitness by two authors. I imagine this happend by a reader writing in and sharing “interesting material” of the sort he says he does not want. I have never emailed Taleb, but I don’t take his qualifications seriously. It is, in fact, a very naked way to signal busyness and importance.

12 Responses to Why Nassim Taleb Walks

  1. Willy says:

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

  3. Ryan Holiday says:

    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 says:

    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 says:

    Dave,

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

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

  6. Ben Casnocha says:

    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 says:

    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. 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 says:

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

  10. Ben Casnocha says:

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

  11. ElamBend says:

    I actually got exposed to Taleb through De Vany.

    Vince,
    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. 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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