Anant Jain

The Bed of Procrustes

Book Review

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series consists of 4 books: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes and Antifragile. This is the third in the series, and the only book I hadn’t gotten around to until now. The Bed of Procrustes is not a traditional non-fiction book. Instead, it’s a collection of philosophical aphorisms, with the overarching theme being the contradictions that we encounter in the world around us.

According to Taleb, the book “contrasts the classical values of courage, elegance, and erudition against the modern diseases of nerdiness, philistinism, and phoniness.” The title refers to Procrustes, a figure from Greek mythology who abducted travelers and stretched or chopped their bodies to fit the length of his bed. For instance, few realize that we are changing the brains of school children through medication in order to make them adjust to the curriculum, rather than the reverse.

I’ll leave you with about 30 of my favorite aphorisms from this book — they show how the world acts more and more like a Procrustean bed. The bold ones are 5 of my top:

When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice so we can blame someone else for the failure.

Your reputation is harmed the most by what you say to defend it.

Most of what they call humility is successfully disguised arrogance.

Nothing is more permanent than “temporary” arrangements, deficits, truces, and relationships; and nothing is more temporary than “permanent” ones.

I wonder whether a bitter enemy would be jealous if he discovered that I hated someone else.

The main reason to go to school is to learn how not to think like a professor.

Hatred is much harder to fake than love. You hear of fake love; never of fake hate.

In your prayers substitute “Protect us from evil” with “Protect us from those who improve things for a salary.”

The dream of having computers behave like humans is coming true, with the transformation, in a single generation, of humans into computers.

By praising someone for his lack of defects you are also implying his lack of virtues.

Unrequited hate is vastly more diminishing for the self than unrequited love. You can’t react by reciprocating.

Wisdom in the young is as unattractive as frivolity in the elderly.

Some people are only funny when they try to be serious.

The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping.

You will never know for sure if someone is an asshole until he becomes rich.

Karl Marx, a visionary, figured out that you can control a slave much better by convincing him he is an employee.

The fastest way to become rich is to socialize with the poor; the fastest way to become poor is to socialize with the rich.

To succeed in journalism requires an inability to think about matters that have even an infinitesimally small chance of being relevant next January.

To succeed in life requires a total inability to do anything that makes you uncomfortable when you look at yourself in the mirror.

The difference between love and happiness is that those who talk about love tend to be in love, but those who talk about happiness tend to be not happy.

Charm is the ability to insult people without offending them; nerdiness the reverse.

Did you notice that collecting art is to hobby-painting as watching pornography is to doing the real thing? Only difference is status.

If someone gives you more than one reason why he wants the job, don’t hire him.

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

The most important aspect of fasting is that you feel deep, undirected gratitude when you break the fast.

For pleasure, read one chapter by Nabokov. For punishment, two.

A genius is someone with flaws harder to imitate than his qualities.

Just like poets and artists, bureaucrats are born, not made; it takes normal humans extraordinary effort to keep attention on such boring tasks.

An economist is a mixture of 1) a businessman without common sense, 2) a physicist without brains, and 3) a speculator without balls.

For company, you often prefer those who find you interesting over those you find interesting.

One of the problems with social networks is that it is getting harder and harder for others to complain about you behind your back.

Used skillfully, a compliment will be much more offensive than any disparagement.

And finally,

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

This is #42 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site.

“opened book on brown wooden surface” by Roman Trifonov