Time as the Best Judge of Empirical Value

If you’ve talked to me in the last two weeks, you probably caught on that I’m mildly (read:extremely) obsessed with a guy named Nicholas Nassim Taleb.

Taleb is the author The Black Swan, and more recently, Antifragile. The main idea behind Taleb’s philosophy in both books is that an increasingly large number of systems in our modern world are increasingly fragile. Fragile in the sense that when things go wrong, they suffer disproportionately large, negative consequences.

I did my senior thesis on American foreign policy during the Cuban Revolution and the whole structure of American Foreign Policy during the Cold War is a good example of Taleb’s theory. Washington and the CIA believed they could engineer capitalism in the 3rd world. A long list of examples including Cuba, Iran and Afghanistan make it pretty obvious how that worked out in the long run.

We have the delusion that we’re capable of understanding and making predictions when in reality the number of inputs and outputs into the systems we’re trying to make predictions about is far too great. Taleb instead advocated creating systems that are “Antifragile:” or ones that gain from disorder.

Entrepreneurship, as a system is an obvious example. While most start-ups fail, all other start-ups are able to learn from this and so they system as a whole benefits from the individuals failure. The Lean Startup movement seems to be an attempt to take this from a macro-level within the field of entrepreneurship to a micro-level within individual organizations.

He said something in Antifragile that I think is one of the most useful and immediately applicable heuristics I’ve read.

“The best filtering heuristic, therefore, consists in taking into account the age of books and scientific papers. Books that are one year old are usually not worth reading (a very low probability of having the qualities for “surviving”), no matter the hype and how “earth-shattering” they may seem to be. So I follow the Lindy effect as a guide in selecting what to read: books that have been around for ten years will be around for ten more; books that have been around for two millennia should be around for quite a bit of time, and so forth.”

The Lindy Effect is

“For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy. So the longer a technology lives, the longer it can be expected to live.”

So the idea being that if something has been around a long time, it’s because is is empirically valuable.

He gives the example of cooking pots and pans found in a Pompeii kitchen from two millenia ago looking nearly identical to more modern versions.

I’ll let Taleb explain further.

“Evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper).

So if a book has been around for 50 years and a lot of people are still recommending it, it’s more likely to be worth reading than one that came out a few weeks ago. (Taleb’s book came out last year and thus does not currently pass his own heursitical test. Irony noted.)

We’re living in a world where the noise in the signal/noise ratio is growing at an exponentially increasing rate. There’s that statistic that in 24 hours, more content is published on the internet than was published in the history of mankind up until the invention of the internet.

The value is increasingly in being able to detect the signal from the noise. We’re plagued by neomania, an obsession with the new, even though on the whole, the new doesn’t provide nearly the same value as the old. It’s not time-tested.

Putting this whole philosophy into practice though is a lot easier said than done. I always feel compelled to click on each of 23 different blog articles with variations of the title “10 tips to double your productivity.”

Part of the failure of publishing platforms right now is that the things that most demand our attention (Blogs, Facebook, Twitter) are the things which provide the least value per unit of our time/attention.

I went back and read some of Paul Graham’s essays a few days ago. Holy Shit. That stuff is so good. (I really liked How to Lost Time and Money). But, you have to actively seek it out. Paul Graham isn’t spamming your Twitter feed with it.

The Guardian recently ran a really good piece on why reading the news is bad for you. I used to read the NYT everyday, until I had an epiphany one day that I couldn’t remember a single useful or meaningful thing in the last month.

I’ve been working on setting up systems that account for this.

Some that I’ve found useful:

  • Read a book for at least 30 minutes everyday – I like to do it right after I wake up. Take notes on the good ones.
  • Block out things that demand more attention than they provide value – I just did a ruthless RSS reader and Podcast subscription purge and replace that time with more books and audiobooks. I just signed up for Audible and started listening to Walter Isaacson’s Einstein biography. (which I finally caved to and is awesome). I also use this chrome plugin to block myself off of all social media until after 6pm.

There is the problem that with a lot of technology platforms, you do need more timely content. I’ve been playing around with some LinkedIn marketing lately and the time heuristic isn’t as useful since the platform is changing so rapidly.

I think the judgement in that case is that you should go towards whatever the most foundational piece of content in the field is.  Consume something that gives you a framework for understanding the platform and then go experiment with it instead of just reading a bunch of blog articles that provide tips instead of frameworks.

P.S. Since starting to write this post and actually publishing it, I’ve read Scientific Advertising and The Boron Letters. If you’re interested in foundational stuff for Copywriting, both are highly recommended.

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  • http://twitter.com/lkr Laura Roeder

    Really interesting post – last year I sold everything I owned and kept only a handful of business books, and they’re all 10+ years old despite the fact that I run an online company that specializes in social media.

    • http://www.frontierlivin.com/ Taylor Pearson

      Haha. I have a list of books that I’ve read over the past ~2 years and after reading this Laura, I read back over them and thought about which ones have made the biggest impact on my life. Just like you, it was all the ones that were at least 10+ years old.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matjnewton Matthew Newton

    Very interesting post Taylor, your blog is always awesome.

    I read Taleb’s the Black Swan a while ago and it continues to have a big influence in how I think about the world and risk taking in general.

    I have to disagree with him on one thing though:

    “Accordingly, wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper).”

    This conclusion ignores iteration. It assumes that the business school hasn’t adopted already any of my grandmother’s wisdom or the accumulated wisdom of her generation which in itself should – by his own measure – be empirically vastly superior than my grandmother’s wisdom.

    It also assumes that my grandmother’s wisdom is appropriate for today’s world, which it is in some parts and is not in others.

    There must come a point where my father’s wisdom outstrips his mothers in terms of appropriate application to his own world.

    Overall Taleb’s the absolute bomb but that specific point seems flawed.


    • http://www.facebook.com/matjnewton Matthew Newton

      PS. I have massively stripped down my Facebook account, deleting well over 50% of my friends, in the last month. It’s pared back down to the DC, family and old friends and that’s about it.

      I also did the same thing to my RSS account.

      Antifragile is on my reading list. I should get to it this year.

      • http://www.frontierlivin.com/ Taylor Pearson

        I went through a massive podcast and RSS purge after reading the book as well and it’s already been a great decision. I like Siver’s “Fuck Yes or No” heuristic. Everything I was consuming that didn’t make me say “fuck yes this is really valuable” I threw out.

        Let me know when you read the book Matt. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

  • Ahmed Fasih

    You say, “Taleb’s book came out last year and thus does not currently pass his own heursitical test. Irony noted.” I wouldn’t say that. Taleb waxed poetic on Cicero et al. and the Lindy effect (without giving its modern name) in Fooled by Randomness, which I remember reading around 2003. There is much more wisdom poetry there than in Black Swan or Antifragile, I think. Recommended.

    In #122 at http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/notebook.htm which is his “not a blog” page, he writes, ‘After years reading prose in social science with strange theories, with seemingly empirical “evidence” but computed in a nerdy way, I surmise that everything that works in social science has to have an antecedent in the Latin (& late Helenistic) moral literature (moral sciences meant something else than they do today): Cicero, Seneca, M. Aurelius, Epictetus, Lucian, or the poets: Juvenal, Horace or the later French moralists (La Rochefoucault, Vaugenargues, La Bruyere, Chamfort, Bossuet, Montaigne even ….) — we are witnessing a slow but certain degradation of wisdom.’ The name we use to identify the Lindy effect is younger than the first descriptions of the effect—how fitting.

    • Ahmed Fasih

      I found the tidbit in Fooled by Randomness, chapter 3.

      “The applicability of Solon’s warning to a life in randomness, in contrast with the exact opposite message delivered by the prevailing media-soaked culture, reinforces my instinct to value distilled thought over newer thinking, regardless of its apparent sophistication—another reason to accumulate the hoary volumes by my bedside (I confess that the only news items I currently read are the far more interesting upscale social gossip stories found in Tatler, Paris Match, and Vanity Fair—in addition to The Economist). Aside from the decorum of ancient thought as opposed to the coarseness of fresh ink, I have spent some time phrasing the idea in the mathematics of evolutionary arguments and conditional probability …” (he goes on like this for a while :)