Notes for Week 13 of 2021

I was wrapping up my last week at a startup1. A lot of documentation writing happened, but not many new discoveries.

I’ve delayed sending a newsletter for the last month. I struggle to set SPF/DKIM records correctly. The temporary solution is to stop quarantining spoofed emails, but I’d prefer to fix this. Since I am going to pay for a sending service to some of my side projects, I may migrate from TinyLetter and write my own simple wrapper. I’d rather pay, but the pricing of everything seems to be aimed at businesses, not hobby projects.

Random

  • MySQL shell (at least on Windows) now defaults to „JS shell“. I am not sure who goes to work with relational database and hopes for Mongo experience, but you can switch it back using the \sql command
  • Leaving a startup meant leaving Notion behind with a sigh of relief. In a quarter, I put in enough content for the search to have multi-second delays. Since one of the core features of a note-taking system and knowledge base is frequent linking, waiting few seconds every time I do /link is really not a good experience. Weirdly enough, the application seems to be much worse than the web version in this regard
  • It’s apparently possible to have SPF and DKIM checks passing, yet DMARC policy to fails. I haven’t figured out how that’s possible and plan to investigate more this week

Books Finished

Incerto

Incerto is not a single book, but a series. Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, Antifragile, and Skin in the Game by Nassim Nicolas Taleb. I read them one after another and they interact and touch on the same issues so much that I think it’s fairer to treat it as one book in four volumes2.

I’d love to focus on the substance, but Taleb makes it deliberately hard not to talk about the form. Let’s get it out of the way first. The series started as a pure braindump. The author proudly announces his resistance to suggestions by editors and how he only wrote what was easy to write, just skipping the hard parts. There is a description for that: “lazy writing”. As the series develops, Taleb either improves his writing or hires an editor that’s better at persuasion. Either way, the writing form substantially improves over the series.

The same goes for the author. The rate of personal attacks goes from one a sentence in Fooled by Randomness to almost under a one a page in the Skin in the Game. The series was written in almost two decades and the development of maturity shows. The initial mix of arrogance and insecurity is almost mellow at the end. Reading this in one go makes the issues stronger: I get the author’s dislike for academia, but after being reminded fifty times during the last hour, it gets old very quickly. I was rolling my eyes very often since I mostly agreed with the author, but the repetition was almost making me start disagree just on the principle. Another major feature is Taleb’s insistence of resistance to social pressure (in the form of “I have fuck you money and I don’t need to impress anyone, especially those particular people that have high social credit”) and excessive name-dropping.

I recommend reading the books with a smirk. That way, you will also get used to Taleb’s particular sense of humor.

If you can push through those issues and you don’t mind going through a lot of pages that could use a lot of editing, you have a series worth reading.

The main themes are:

  • A lot of the “common knowledge” is inferred from creating stories around random data, inventing causations where there are none.
  • The course of history is driven by the consequences of low-probability, but high-impact events.
  • The ability to gain profit or grow stronger on those events is how all living structures developed, down to the very molecular level.
  • What is old is proven and must have done something right. The series could be read like a bible of Conservatism and this time, I mean it in a good way. This is reflected all over the series, including Taleb’s love for his home Levant and its history

The book is intentionally written as a series of essays. Authors self-describes Incerto as treatise, but I’d call it an aspirational goal. It is much closer to a popular series.

Taleb is a master of marketing though. He employs at large a proven strategy: assigning neologisms to his ideas and employing them as linguistic weapons. This works very well for all discussions about the book as it gives a dictionary to people and it also works well to create ingroups. Whether that’s good or bad is up to you.

If you are interested, I recommend starting with the Skin in the Game. It’s the most mature piece in terms of both writing and Taleb’s approach. It builds upon the themes of the previous books, but it has its own legs. Not at least, with 300 pages, it’s comparably short. It also resonated with me the most, but that may be the nature of my job and putting a dictionary on top of a lot of my existing efforts.

See? It may all be just a confirmation bias.

If you like your books to look nice, I can recommend the Deluxe Edition. You can feel the difference in quality.

Rating: 3/5. Series homepage


  1. I am writing more about events like this in my newsletter ↩︎

  2. The Bed of Procrustes is an exception: a short book of aphorisms. As far as I can tell, its main intent is to establish Taleb as a wise man. It was not a bad read, but there isn’t much that’s isn’t covered in the rest of the series. ↩︎

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