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Mirkat

Mirkat Always Reading

I'm always reading something, usually multiple books at a time.

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Killing Commendatore
Haruki Murakami, Kirby Heyborne

Skin in the Game (is the phrase I never want to hear again!)

Skin in the Game: The Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life - Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Joe Ochman

Here is how I came to read this book:  There is a blurb from Taleb on the back of Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, which I think very highly of.  Back in November, as we were about to go on a family trip, my husband asked me to see if I could get Skin in the Game from the library for Kindle.  It wasn't available, so he decided he wanted to re-read a couple of Taleb's earlier books, which I loaded on the Kindle for him.  While I was on the library's e-collection site, I decided to put a hold on the audio version of Skin in the Game.  After all, Taleb had thought highly of Kahneman's work, and my husband had found value in Taleb's earlier books.

 

Oh, my God.  Where to start?  I feel a little bad going with a one-star rating, since Taleb did convey some valuable concepts.  But to me, anything of value was counteracted by sheer nastiness against public intellectuals he has decided to dismiss or feud with, along with hypocrisy (engaging in the very approaches he rails against).

 

"Skin in the game" (I got to a point where I had heard the narrator say "skin in the game " SO many times, I now recoil anytime I hear it): basically, the idea is risk sharing. If I take advice from you, and I have a poor outcome, there should be a negative consequence for you.  In that way, you have skin in the game.  Taleb insists one should not take advice from someone who gives advice for a living, unless the person is in a position to suffer in some way from a poor outcome.  But wait a minute.  Isn't Taleb issuing advice in this book?  Isn't he administering advice as a profession?  So shouldn't I NOT take his advice?  But then if I don't follow his advice about advice....  Do I circle back to TAKING his meta-advice?  PARADOX.  Also, how does Taleb have SitG when it comes to this book?  He keeps reminding the reader that he has "f**ck-you money."  He clearly doesn't need the book to do well for his own financial well-being.

 

One of his examples to illustrate his SitG position was when he was part of a roundtable discussion, and participants were asked to comment on Microsoft.  Taleb reports that he said, “I own no Microsoft stock, I am short no Microsoft stock [i.e., would benefit from its decline], hence I can’t talk about it."  Wait a minute, what?!?!  You know who I DON'T want to hear from, regarding Microsoft?  A person who owns stock or who shorts Microsoft stock.  Such a person would have a conflict of interest.  A person with MS stock would have a motive to say nice things about the company, to increase the value of the stocks, while the person who shorts MS stock would have a motive to make negative comments about the company.

 

At one point, Taleb warns against conflating SitG with conflict of interest, but he offers no guidance on disambiguating them, and his Microsoft comment leads me to suspect he doesn't have a solid idea on the difference.  Example:  I work in continuing medical education (CME).  It is standard procedure to have faculty and planners of a CME program to disclose any relevant financial relationships that could potentially cause a conflict of interest.  An example would be a speaker who has received a research grant from Pfizer, planning a presentation that discusses medications produced by Pfizer.  The speaker would need to disclose that relationship, and the CME provider would need a mechanism to resolve the conflict of interest.  Like having the content peer-reviewed by non-conflicted individuals and recommend changes if appropriate, to avoid bias.

 

I was disappointed to find that Taleb has decided that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of Nudge, fit into his reviled category "IYI" (intellectual yet idiot).  Though everything he complains about regarding people he lumps into this category seem to apply to him.

 

Taleb shares an anecdote about meeting Susan Sontag.  Reportedly, she literally turned her back on him when he said he was a trader, declaring that she did "not believe in the market system."  Oh, wait a minute.  She was dismissing someone based on his profession?  As Taleb does with academics, journalists, economists, psychologists, and most intellectuals?  Does his own medicine taste bad?

 

He has a weird section on distrusting people who "look the part" for their profession.  He gives the example of surgeons, declaring that he would prefer a surgeon who "looks like a butcher," rather than looking however he thinks surgeons are expected to look.  His explanation is that a surgeon who looks like a butcher must be good to overcome his looks.  Bwuh?  And what part does Taleb think he looks?  Oh, right.  He thinks he looks "like a bodyguard."  Instead of F. Murray Abraham's understudy.

 

And his belief that he looks like a bodyguard takes me to another fixation of his.  Weightlifting.  Did you know that Taleb LIFTS WEIGHTS?  Well, he DOES.  And this makes him superior to all of the professions he disdains.  Because no one who belongs to any of those professions could possibly LIFT WEIGHTS.  (Take a moment to consider whether you actually know someone from one of those professions who does lift weights.  Quietly chuckle to yourself, while it also occurs to you that the person you know probably does not think weightlifting makes him [or her--not that Taleb would acknowledge female weightlifters] special.)  Oh, and when Taleb LIFTS WEIGHTS, he lifts with REGULAR PEOPLE.  He has even....  I'll give you a moment to prepare.  He has even lifted weights with people who speak with a cockney accent.  (I KNOW.  So salt-of-the-earth, regular-guy of him.)

 

Related to the weightlifting, he made an offhand remark about what activities "low-testosterone people" engage in.  LOW-TESTOSTERONE PEOPLE?  What, like WOMEN?  No, surely this was his macho-man way to disparage men he considers less macho (and therefore less valuable) than himself.

 

This is turning out much longer than I intended!  I have noticed that many readers who thought Taleb's earlier books in his "Incerto" series were valuable were disappointed in this one.  Especially when it comes to the nastiness and score-settling.  Some who have noted this disappointment in reviews have still given this latest book high (or relatively high) ratings, based on the valid points that exist between the nasty stuff, while others have gone with low (or relatively low) ratings because the viciousness is such a turn-off.  My feeling right now is that I won't read another Taleb book, but I suppose I might change my mind.

 

Side note about the narrator:  I swear he read this book as though he had a near-constant sneer on his face.  I can kind of see why the narrator made this choice, but I think it made the experience even more painful than it would have been, otherwise.