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March 3, 2013 @ 10:13 pm

Cracking the Spine on Antifragile

Sitting at Tate St. Coffee while my son and his friend are probably still lying on the floor of my living room, using a $7 app to build their dream Pokemon:

“Dude, I gave him Arialase and Shockwave and blah blah blah (Dad was only half listening).  None of his attacks will ever miss!”

I am hugely proud of my boy at this moment.  He has gone beyond thinking about particular instances in his favorite game to thinking about the rules of the game, what gamers call meta-gaming.  There are two levels of metagaming.  First is what my friends and I call “rules whoring,” how to manipulate the rules for your own selfish advantage, so you win more often.  That’s what my son is doing right now.  It’s a developmental stage, an annoying one, but probably a necessary one.  The second and higher level of meta-gaming is game design, which also has two levels.  There’s “house ruling,” where you are optimizing the rules of an existing game to improve the fairness, flow, and enjoyment of the game for everyone involved.

No Stress Chess, which we started playing when my son was about five, is a great example.  Each turn the player draws a card to determine which piece he’s allowed to move; then he chooses how to move that piece.  The random element introduced by the cards means that an adult like me (an unskilled adult, but still an adult) can honestly lose to a five-year-old, making the game more fair and more fun for both of us.

Then there’s full-on game design, where you’ve invented a whole new game.  “Invented” is a tricky, troublesome term when you think in terms of evolution.  Most likely that new game is a recombination of elements from other games you’ve played before.  The trick is to bring in enough new elements to make it novel and interesting, but not so many as to make it unrecognizable.


Having finished my last book (podcast review of that up tomorrow), I’m starting Nassem Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile.  He’s a rules-level thinker, no doubt.  Here’s a quote from the Introduction:

Now we aim – after some work – to connect in the reader’s mind, with a single thread, elements seemingly far apart, such as Cato the Elder, Nietzsche, Thales of Miletus, the potency of the system of city-states, the sustainability of artisans, the process of discovery, the one-sidedness of opacity, financial derivatives, antibiotic resistance, bottom-up systems, Socrates’s invitation to overrationalize, how to lecture birds, obsessive love, Darwinian evolution, the mathematical concept of Jensen’s inequality, optionality and option theory, the idea of ancestral heuristics, the works of Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke, Wittgenstein’s anti-rationalism, the fraudulent theories of the economics establishment, tinkering and bricolage, terrorism exacerbated by the deaths of its members, an apologia for artisanal societies, the ethical flaws of the middle class, Paleo-style workouts (and nutrition), the idea of medical iatrogenics, the glorious idea of the magnificent (Megalopsychon), my obsession with the idea of convexity (and my phobia of concavity) the late-2000s banking and economic crisis, the misunderstanding of redundancy, the difference between tourist and flaneur, etc.  All in a single – and, I am certain, simple – thread.

Wow.  A reminder of how my students feel when they’re reading their biology textbooks.

Now, many of those words I have heard somewhere.  I won't claim to understand them, but I had at least heard of them.  The links?  Those I had to look up.  My point here is that one could read a list like that, recognize how opaque it currently is, how ignorant I currently am, and give up.  That’s what my students often do.  Some even take it a step further and say “Well, if I can’t understand it immediately, then it’s just stupid,” in order to protect their own egos.  The other, opposite, response is to recognize how ignorant I currently am of these issues, and to be excited at the chance to learn.

I feel certain I am going to enjoy this book.


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