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Book review – The Bed of Procrustes

Seduction without nerdiness

Chris Bacon
Chris Bacon
Chief Executive

Aphorisms, done well, convey the wisdom of the proverb, with the power of poetry. Similar in form to a tweet, the two should not, must not, be confused or conflated.

A tweet has always been an act of advertising, the eventual audience influencing the mind of the composer – sometimes faintly, often loudly. A tweet is inherently public; an aphorism is principally private.

The aphorism is the writer distilling his own thoughts, as his own first audience. The act of creation begins in the right hemisphere of the brain, the hemisphere of breadth and flexibility and open attention, the hemisphere that sees the whole, the totality, the world that is more than disparate elements. The left hemisphere – the speaking hemisphere, the domain of focus and utility – is then brought to bear. To capture the insight, and to convey it in words.

A tweet lives in the kingdom of billboards and wine labels and the curriculum vitae. The aphorism seeks the company of the sonata, to dance with the water around a bend in a stream. In that, the aphorism should be closer to art. And art is, as Nassim Taleb expresses it in The Bed of Procrustes, “a one-sided conversation with the unobserved”.

BEYOND THE UNIFORM STANDARD

Taleb has one big theme running through his work – the limitations of human knowledge. He’s interested in “the unobserved and the unobservables … what lies on the other side of the veil of opacity”. He is a thinker on risk and decision-making amid uncertainty, on foolishness, probability and luck.

The Bed of Procrustes is Taleb’s collection of his own aphorisms. It forms part of a five-volume work he calls the Incerto, alongside The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, Skin in the Game and Antifragile. Those new to Taleb are encouraged to start with Antifragile; those who like what they encounter should find at least something of value in The Bed of Procrustes. (While those who dislike Taleb the Caustic should read something else.)

Named after an innkeeper in an ancient Greek tale, The Bed of Procrustes challenges all who follow Procrustes in enforcing conformity to a uniform standard. The book’s subjects range from the scandal of prediction to the many forms of love, from the vulgarity of employment to the republic of letters.

There is practical advice – “To understand how something works, figure out how to break it.”

There are shortcuts to live by – “I trust everyone except those who tell me they are trustworthy.”

And there is the inversion of norms – “It is always good practice to apologise, except when you have done something wrong.”

CHALLENGING CHERISHED BELIEFS

Investors are in the business of reducing and processing information – in a world of complexity, uncertainty and non-linear outcomes. Humans are not well wired to do this. And our wiring creates problems, problems that get worse in an era of abundant information. In Taleb’s framing, more information means more delusions. It creates more false patterns that deceive us. There is more randomness to be fooled by.

As psychiatrist and scholar Iain McGilchrist puts it: “We’d rather deny obvious truths than let go of a cherished belief”. And it’s in challenging cherished beliefs – sometimes whacking at their foundations, sometimes pulling at their weak spots to lessen their grip – that The Bed of Procrustes is at its most useful.

The way usefulness is experienced will vary reader by reader. My cherished beliefs will differ from yours; you deny your obvious truths, while I deny mine. But we can both benefit from re-examining our own thinking. Probing our excessive certainties. And from acknowledging the places where we’re bending messy realities to fit a little too neatly into Procrustes’s bed.

Ruffer Review 2022
Download our 2022 edition of the Ruffer Review. We explore how turbulence lies ahead for investors as inflation volatility sets up to be the biggest challenge for investors in a generation. We also discuss risk and its repercussions, shifts in global politics and Great Power relations, a warming planet and shifting energy mix as well as financial disruption and regime changes.
Read

This article was first published in The Ruffer Review 2022.

The views expressed in this article are not intended as an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any investment or financial instrument, including interests in any of Ruffer’s funds. The information contained in the article is fact based and does not constitute investment research, investment advice or a personal recommendation, and should not be used as the basis for any investment decision. References to specific securities are included for the purposes of illustration only and should not be construed as a recommendation to buy or sell these securities. This document does not take account of any potential investor’s investment objectives, particular needs or financial situation. This document reflects Ruffer’s opinions at the date of publication only, the opinions are subject to change without notice and Ruffer shall bear no responsibility for the opinions offered. Read the full disclaimer.

London
80 Victoria Street
London SW1E 5JL
Edinburgh
31 Charlotte Square
Edinburgh EH2 4ET
Paris
103 boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris, France