Antifragile Erratum

‘Antifragile’, the latest volume in the work ‘Incerto’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, came out last week. Naturally I pre-ordered it, and today I read the final pages. For now, I will leave out my pontifications, and just mention the error that I spotted on page 236:

“In the fragile case of negative asymmetries (turkey problems), the sample track record will tend to underestimate overestimate the long-term average; it will hide the defects and display the qualities.”

The author has confirmed the error and put it in the book’s official errata.*

5 Tips for Taming the Stream

A friend of mine wrote up a very interesting experiment of going cold turkey with Facebook.* I recommend you go read it for yourself. To his list of findings I’d like to add some tricks I’ve discovered myself to curb Facebook (and more generally ‘information stream’) usage and found useful:

  1. One way to get rid of the stream is to simply “hide” everyone’s updates from your main page – a bit cumbersome when you have hundreds of friends, but very effective. However, I’ve found that for me personally that is too hardcore. Sometimes I want the distraction of the Facebook stream. So I use this half-way solution instead: primo, assign all your friends to 1-2 different lists (for a total of 5-10). Secondo, you hide everybody’s updates from your main page. Remember, you can still surf to people’s Facebook page if you really want to know what they’re up to…which is surprisingly less often then your usual Facebook usage would suggest!
  2. Delete Facebook from your mobile phone. Yes, you can still access it via the browser, but everything you do to make this access less easy results in less checking. Plus it ensures you don’t get push notifications, which suck you back in faster than the speed of light. Which leads us to…
  3. …switch off Internet on your phone entirely. Make it the default, so you don’t have to think about it. In fact, this will curb WhatsApp and Internet usage in general. Best yet: leave your phone at home sometimes!
  4. If you have a Mac: install Anti-Social (if not: install your operating’s system equivalent). This program blocks access to a whole range of social and news websites for a period of time you specify, e.g. 8a.m.-5p.m. If you can’t reach your precious streams without rebooting your computer, you’ll think about it (and hopefully decide against it), rather than typing those two ‘fa’ letters and hitting “Return” (which bring you directly to Facebook) and then it’s too late..
  5. And finally, remove yourself from screens whenever possible. When you’re sitting behind a computer the whole day, it’s difficult to not feel the urge to go to Facebook and the like. Print stuff out if possible (especially PDFs), have a book beside your desk (instead of reading fluffy blog posts and news articles), take a walk when your mind is wandering from your work, etc.

The Newcope Technology Stacks

In 2009 I co-founded a company that not only got invited to Seedcamp in London, but also received funding from the prestigious Y Combinator fund (W10). Last week my former co-founder Coen Stevens gave a nice presentation covering the design and language choices we made. The first iteration of our startup was an Analytics Suite for social games & MMOs, and we chose Ruby. After our pivot to Virtual Goods Auctions for social games we switched to Node.js and MongoDB. Read up on the ‘why’ below!

To not be a Sissy in your Writing

“When I started taking fish oils in 1996, they looked at me like a freak, ate a ‘healthy’ candy bar and laughed. When I was talking about Paleo at 1997, they were ‘one step ahead of me’ with their high-carb-low fat-calorie-counting meals. When I was talking about Crossfit at 2003 – they thought I was a lunatic and that it was a passing trend. When I started playing around with Handbalancing, Gymnastics and combined it with heavy squatting and Olifting as well as organic movement disciplines at 2004 – they were training in the local high tech health club and incorporated hot yoga and machine training to get an ‘obvious edge’ on me. I am still amazed by people’s inability to SHUT THE FUCK UP AND LISTEN. ~ Ido Portal

I have a soft spot for thinkers like this. It is the style of my favorite writers: they take a position and do not try to preempt criticism by listing all the (insignificant) instances where their statement is not valid. There is confidence, even boldness in this attitude.

Goethe already said that it is extremely self-evident that to any general rule there are exceptions. It is simply not necessary to point them out.

Why I Endorse Gidsy

Last week it was announced that the startup Gidsy had received a significant round of funding from high-profile investors.* Gidsy is a marketplace where people organizing activities are matched with people looking for things to do.

I’m a satisfied Gidsy user myself. Also, I’ve worked with the two brothers behind it on my own startup, and they are the real deal. Most importantly however, while I have reservations about a lot of startups being a net win for society, I think Gidsy definitely is.

Active

Over the past years I have become a bit alarmed by the inactivity that modern day society induces, and technology in particular. This is what the so-called Paleolithic Lifestyle is all about. It means we should be critical of many things that are qualified as “progress”, if they take us further away from the life our genes expect for us.

Services like Gidsy encourage people to get out of the house. Not only that, in many instances they encourage them to be active. The bulk of the population sits all day in offices, only to come home to spend the evening – again sitting of course – behind the TV or on Facebook. This to me does not constitute a real life. Contrast this with the Gidsy activity ‘Primal Fitness’, where people get in touch again with how to move naturally and learn how to cooperate on practical physical tasks.*

Social

When you go out and do something, often you are not just by yourself. You go with people you know, or you meet new people as a nice side effect. Like going to a cocktail party. Compare this to merely going to networking events. These are often unrelaxed settings where people are social in a forced way, because they have some agenda.

Freedom

Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains that if people have an income source on which they are dependent (say a job), other than minimum wage, then most of them are not free.* They become afraid to bite the hand that feeds them so to say, and adapt their beliefs to their actions (instead of vice versa, which is the ethical thing to do). Companies like Airbnb, Zaarly, and TaskRabbit provide a platform where anybody can supplement their income.

Gidsy too helps people become less dependent. It stands out however, because it does so by letting them earn money doing what they love. Others it gives alternatives to passivity and isolation. That’s why I think it is a net win for society, and I sincerely wish the company and the team all the best.

Getting Smarter

This weekend I flew back from Amsterdam to Berlin, a trip I take on a monthly basis. I picked up a Newsweek print edition, and came across an article that promoted 31 ways of getting smarter, including a lot of hacks.* Unlike many people, “hacking” something does not have a positive ring to me. I believe in solid basics, and this is often harder, more time-consuming, or expensive than looking for the easy way.

Let’s take intelligence, the focus of the article. There is this idea that you can hack this as well, by solving Sudoku puzzles, practicing mental arithmetic, eating certain foods, playing video games, etc.

While I’m sure you can identify some metric on which you will perform better after doing these activities, why bother in the first place? If you focus on the basics – like the simple joy of walking – you will score better on these arbitrary metrics too (if that’s your goal).

Therefore, here is my list of things worth doing in their own right. And oh, they will also make you smarter. As a side-effect.

  1. Eat well
  2. Sleep a lot
  3. Walk a lot
  4. Move naturally*
  5. Low-information diet
  6. Go into nature
  7. Off-path hiking
  8. Write by hand
  9. Seduction
  10. Learn a new language

Sports

The cost of competitive sports: people start seeing a game/activity as an end in itself, specializing (and hence fragilizing) their bodies to some artificial situation & acquiring skills that hardly carry over to other activities, trying to “beat” others on some totally arbitrary metric. More generally, sports are a domesticated substitute for physical adventure & conflict.

Software Developers and Antifragility

“Antifragile” is the title of the new book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, coming out September 2012. It’s about having uncapped upside while simultaneously limiting your downside. In effect, this puts you in a position to benefit disproportionally from volatility in outcomes.

Software developers are antifragile. Hard to imagine a skill more widely demanded across industries (robust), plus there’s always the possibility of being hired (for equity) by a software startup (also antifragile entities) or being a key member in starting one.