Nassim Taleb, author of the New York Times bestseller The Black Swan, was the first person ever to email me here at the Knackered Hack.

No, honestly, it’s true. In the annals of this blog, that was seen as something of a red-letter day (if not a black swan event). But its relative importance on the part of the sender was naturally quite insignificant. Let’s say, our relationship was perfectly asymmetrical. So, when I turned up to meet Taleb at his London hotel recently, without the more imposing affiliation of a national media title with which to introduce myself, it took a while for it to sink in just who in publicity hell I was.

Finally, after 10 minutes, the author exclaimed in his soft Levantine accent: “Ah, I remember! You’re the marathon guy with the picture!”

Rarely have I been so pleased to be recognised for so little. It was nice to know that I registered with Taleb less as a total “unknown, unknown” and more as just faintly forgettable. Taleb had been researching blogs with a view to publicising his latest book, and had hit on this humble site. “I saw you writing about my book Fooled by Randomness on a marathon blog. I said to myself, this guy’s interesting!”

Even better! It’s a rare journalist who gets an actual compliment from the The Black Swan author.

As we exchanged initial small talk about exercise, I explained that I was a bit annoyed by all this complexity stuff of his, because his work has devalued most of my post-graduate business studies. Moreover, after leaving business school I moved on to devote a lot of my spare time to marathon training. But lately, having suffered repeated illness and injury and read the blog of another student of complexity, Art De Vany, I’d been led to the conclusion that this marathon malarkey might be injurious to health as well.

At this point a jet-lagged, publicity-dazed Taleb came alive: “So you also read de Vany! So we read the same sites! Let me tell you. Art de Vany is a phenomenon!” And we were off into what seemed like a byway of distraction, but is actually central to what The Black Swan is all about: empirical medicine, serendipity, variation, fat tails, fractals, self-experimentation, and the potential value of blogs and bloggers to Taleb’s utopian world that he calls “Epistemocracy”.

The interview wasn’t supposed to be very long because Taleb was weary from his packed publicity schedule, but he suggested we grab some lunch, and I leapt at the chance. We headed for an Indian restaurant round the corner where the ensuing conversation was as rich and intense as my chicken jalfrezi, and it’s highly probable that I didn’t understand everything. Taleb’s notion of Epistemocracy is a world where we are all more circumspect about the quality of our own knowledge. So, very much in that spirit, this interview should be taken with the health warning that, while I’m sure Taleb knew what he was talking about, the interviewer may not have done. However, Professor Taleb, if he is still watching, always has the option of the comments section for redress and clarification.

On Diet, Art De Vany, Exercise and Empirical Medicine

I’d heard Taleb explain to an audience at the RSA a few days earlier that on a visit to Italy, where he talked about Umberto Eco’s library (as he does in The Black Swan), several people pointed out the physical likeness between him and the slightly portly Eco. It was at this point, Taleb said with a smile, that he decided to go on a diet. So, I was a little interested to see how healthy his appetite was.

Once seated in the restaurant, Taleb told me he had stopped commuting by bicycle to his offices at his trading fund Empirica LLC four years earlier. He had been doing 50km per day, every day. He started going to the gym instead, but no amount of work seemed to keep his weight down. So, when he decided to diet, De Vany’s ideas on fitness suddenly struck home.

I realised that bicycle riding was making me lose weight because along that route there were four of five spots that are so tough that you think you are going to die at the end. And that was the only thing that was useful. So now what I do is use my bicycle to go up one of the hills four or five times, once a week. That is sufficient. Or I go to the health club and bring my heart rate to the max for 15 minutes. So 15 minutes’ work out – and that I got from Art De Vany – and look, I automatically lost 15 pounds.”

The essence of De Vany’s ideas is that the body is a complex, adaptive system, so lots of variation is important. To quote De Vany:-

In fact, all bodily processes are highly non-linear and these non-linearities must be exploited in any effective fitness program. The key to exploiting the highly non-linear and dynamic adaptive metabolic processes of the human body is to achieve the right mixture of intensity and variety of activities: we are adaptive organisms that thrive on variety, not machines designed for high volume routine.”

As Taleb went on to say to me:-

Our expenditure of energy should be very fat tails. We should have a lot more variation.”

At this point, concurring with Taleb’s experience of the benefits of high-intensity activity – for instance, De Vany recommends sprints over long-distance slow running – I drifted into a little bit of theorising about why my co-ordination seemed to improve when my marathon training has reached the point where I run on hills or use sprint intervals. As we started to consider why this might be, Taleb brought us both up short:-

It’s experimental. Let’s not understand the mechanism. That is Menodotus de Nicomedia*. Now we are hitting on the centre of this book, which is empirical medicine. Don’t have theories. De Vany has theories, but the core of what he is saying is that this is how it seems to work. So existing theories are blind to empirical reality.”

Reference * Menodotus of Nicomedia , if you check out Taleb’s website, he confesses some bemusement about the significance of being in the New York Times bestseller list, but hopes it is some vindication for the forgotten ideas of various thinkers, including this Greek philosopher and physician. Menodotus regarded medicine as an art rather than a science, and thought empirical experience more important than theory, but held that even experience needed to be treated with a high level of scepticism. [Note: Encyclopedia Britannica has an entry for Menodotus, but Wikipedia so far does not.]

De Vany’s concept of evolutionary fitness argues for the reduction or removal of grains from the diet, because they are essentially agricultural products and would not have featured much on a hunter-gatherer’s menu. So when the waiter offered us onion bhaji as a starter, Taleb asked the waiter wryly, as if the poor man would know, “Does Mr De Vany agree with it?” And as the ordering was concluded without any utterance of pilau or naan, the waiter looked understandably puzzled: “No rice? No bread?” You just don’t get too many cavemen going for an Indian near Russell Square these days. But then two come along at once. Now, what are the chances of that?

Come back for the main course of CAVEMAN LUNCH WITH TALEB, and discover what Taleb has to say about journalism, blogs, video and TV.

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