A short video here on our off day (we normally publish here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday) from Time magazine: ten questions for the patron saint of Strong Towns thinking, Nassim Taleb. Some Talebian thoughts include:

  • The next crisis we face will be over debt.
  • The core of capitalism has an agency problem, where the payoff for key people is disproportionate to their risk. It is an asymmetrical situation that is not financially sustainable.
  • Over-specialization creates fragility.
  • Anti-fragility: how do we create human systems that improve with adversity, like evolution?
  • Are complex systems actually better off without constant human tinkering?

This conversation takes place in the realm of economics and finance, but Taleb is truly a philosopher. His insights are easily correlated to cities, towns and neighborhoods and I have gained a ton by reading and listening to him. His latest book, The Bed of Procrustes, is a collection of aphorisms. Love it. And even the premise of the book presents a brilliant analogy.

Procrustes is a figure from Greek mythology. His story from mythweb.com is as follows:

Procrustes was a host who adjusted his guests to their bed. He kept a house by the side of the road where he offered hospitality to passing strangers, who were invited in for a pleasant meal and a night's rest in his very special bed. Procrustes described it as having the unique property that its length exactly matched whomsoever lay down upon it. What Procrustes didn't volunteer was the method by which this "one-size-fits-all" was achieved, namely as soon as the guest lay down Procrustes went to work upon him, stretching him on the rack if he was too short for the bed and chopping off his legs if he was too long.

Taleb equates the bed to our knowledge and understanding of the world and the people who lay in it to the facts and figures that accompany complex systems. When faced with complexity, instead of adjusting our knowledge (the bed), we act like Procrustes and simply stretch or shape the facts and figures (the person) to make them fit. This is quite backwards, of course, but very consistent with human nature, especially in an era of "experts" and hyper-specialization (see posts from Monday and Tuesday on these topics).

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