On a long, isolated road in ancient Greek Attica, stood an inn for weary travellers.
The host, Procrustes, offered the finest hospitality for all who stayed.
Travellers praised Procrustes for the salvation his inn offered along such a stretch of isolated road. However, It wasn’t until they turned in for the night, that the true cost of their visit was unveiled.
The Bed Of Procrustes had a sinister magical ability. Travellers come in all shapes and sizes. The bed in one.
Procrustes, being the cunning host he was, had a solution for this problem. He would either stretch or chop off the limbs of the travellers to make them fit perfectly in his bed.
This metaphor, coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Bed of Procrustes, is used to illustrate the dangers of imposing arbitrary standards and trying to force reality to conform to our preconceived notions and expectations. Just like how Procrustes forced his guests to fit into his bed, we often try to force reality to conform to our own ideas and models, ignoring the inherent complexity and variability of the world around us.
The metaphor serves as a reminder to be flexible and adaptable in our thinking, to be open to new information and perspectives, and to recognize the limitations of our own understanding. Instead of trying to force reality to fit our preconceptions, we should strive to understand and embrace the inherent uncertainty and complexity of the world.
The occupant of the magical bed needed to fit perfectly.
Rather than the bed adjusting its size to fit the traveller. The traveller needed to adjust his size to fit the bed.
Procrustes would chop off overhanging feet should they be too long. And Procrustes would stretch the torso, should he be too short.
Not so hospitable after all…
This ancient story provides, for Nassim, a perfect analogy for the themes carried throughout Taleb’s five-part series… The Incerto.
Much like Procrustes, fitting the traveller according to the size of the bed. We, those who function in society, are squeezing our reality into existing models and modes of thinking.
Our systems are continually distorted to fit predetermined rules, rather than having our rules be allowed to ebb and flow to fit ever-changing systems.
“We are better off with no models, rather than false models“
“Because our minds need to reduce information, we are more likely to try squeeze a phenomenon into the Procrustean Bed of a crisp and known category (amputating the unknown), rather than suspend categorisations, and make it tangible.”
The Bed Of Procrustes is a bit of an ego wag from Taleb.
The contents of the book are not argumentative prose, like you read in the other four volumes of the Incerto. Rather, the writing is a series of aphorisms, well over one hundred in total.
An aphorism (maxim) is intended to surmise a concept or thought into a crisp, clean, turn of phrase.
Or as Taleb puts it…
“A good maxim allows you to have the last word without even starting the conversation“
There is an air of forced wisdom with the majority of the worlds aphorisms, and indeed, that waft of arrogant superiority does seep through many pages of this book.
Taleb is a very outspoken character, he dies on his shield, and his writing throughout the Incerto has emphasised ‘owning your opinions’ more feverishly than any other input I can recall. Refer to ‘Skin In The Game‘.
The content of this book does, however, with very few exceptions, really puncture through the Procrustean Bed BS of so many existing systems.
After all he named a chapter…
‘Economic Life and Other Very Vulgar Subjects’
So please do enjoy the brilliance of Nassim Taleb…
“The left holds that because markets are stupid, models should be smart, the right believes that because models are stupid, markets should be smart. It never occurred to both sides that both markets and models are stupid“
“To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers”
“Bureaucracy is a construction designed to maximize the distance between a decision-maker and the risks of the decision”
“The information-rich Dark Ages: In 2010, 600,000 books were published, just in English, with a few memorable quotes. Circa A.D. 0, a handful of books were written. In spite of the few that survived, there are loads of quotes”
“Every human should at all times have equality in probability (which we can control) not equality in outcome” (This rings of Jordan Peterson)
“The only valid political system is one that can handle an imbecile in power without suffering from it” (Donald Trump?)
“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbs and a monthly salary“
“Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee“
“You have a calibrated life when most of what you fear has the titillating prospect of adventure” (one of my favourite aphorisms of all time)
“Trust those who are greedy for money a thousand times more than those who are greedy for credentials” (Nassim and I share a disgust for bureaucracies)
“For soldiers, we use the term ‘mercenary’ but we absolve employees of responsibility with ‘everybody needs to make a living’”
“People are much less interested in what you are trying to show them than in what you are trying to hide”
“If someone is making an effort to ignore you, he is not ignoring you”
“By praising someone for his lack of defects you are also implying his lack of virtues”
“Anyone who likes meetings should be banned from attending meetings” (Agreed)
“To see if you like where you are, Without the chains of dependence, check if you are as happy returning as you were leaving”
“Wit seduces by signalling intelligence without neediness” (Most evident in the charm of Christopher Hitchens)
“The main disadvantage of being a writer, particularly in Britain, is that there is nothing you can do in private or public that wont damage your reputation“
On the brilliance of Plato…
“Most people can only hope to exceed their predecessors, plato managed to exceed his successors“
“A verbal threat is the most authentic certificate of impotence“
“Don’t talk about ‘progress’ in terms of longevity, safety, or comfort before comparing zoo animals to those in the wilderness”
“If you get easily bored, it means that your BS detector is functioning properly; if you forget (some) things, it means that your mind knows how to filter, and if you feel sadness, it means that you are human”
“In the medical and social domains, treatment should never be equivalent to silencing symptoms” (Antidepressants)
“The only problem with the last laugh is that the winner has to laugh alone”
Cheers for reading through to the end you legend!
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