An Expert Called Lindy
Don’t eat their cheesecake– Meta-experts judged by meta-meta-experts– Prostitutes, nonprostitutes, and amateurs –
By Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Jan 9 2017
Lindy is a deli in New York, now a tourist trap, that proudly claims to be famous for its cheesecake, but in fact has been known for the fifty or so years of interpretation by physicists and mathematicians of the heuristic that developed there. Actors who hung out there gossiping about other actors discovered that Broadway shows that lasted, say one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, two hundred more. The heuristic became known as the Lindy Effect.
Let me warn the reader: while the Lindy effect is one of the most useful, robust, and universal heuristics I know, the cheesecake is… much less distinguished. Odds are the deli will not survive, by the Lindy Effect.
There had been a bevy of mathematical models that sort of fit the story, though not really, until yours truly figured out that the Lindy Effect can be best proved using the theory of fragility and anti-fragility. Actually the theory of fragility directly leads to the Lindy Effect. Simply, my collaborators and I managed to define fragility as sensitivity to disorder: the porcelain owl sitting in front of me on the writing desk, as I am writing these lines, wants tranquility. It dislikes shocks, disorder, variations, earthquakes, mishandling by dust-phobic cleaning service operators, travel in a suitcase transiting through Terminal 5 in Heathrow, and shelling by Saudi Barbaria-sponsored Islamist militias. Clearly, it has no upside from random events and, more generally, disorder. (More technically, being fragile, it necessarily has a nonlinear reaction to stressors: up until its breaking point, shocks of larger intensity affect it disproportionally more than smaller ones).
Now, crucially, time is equivalent to disorder and resistance to the ravages of time, that is, what we gloriously call survival, is ability to handle disorder.
Is fragile what has an asymmetric response to volatility and other stressors, that is, will experience more harm than benefit from it.
The idea of fragility helped put some rigor around the notion that the only effective judge of things is time –by things we mean ideas, people, intellectual productions, car models, scientific theories, books, etc. You can’t fool Lindy: books of the type written by the current hotshot Op-Ed writer at the New York Times may get some hype at publication time, manufactured or spontaneous, but their five year survival is generally inferior to that of pancreatic cancer.
And the operation of time is necessarily done through skin in the game. Without skin in the game, via contact with reality, the mechanism of fragility is disrupted: things may survive for no reason for a while, then ultimately collapse causing a lot of side harm.
A few more details –for those interested in the intricacies, the Lindy Effect has been covered at length in Antifragile. There are two ways things handle time. First, there is aging and perishability: things die because they may have a biological clock, what we call senescence. Second, there is hazard, the rate of accidents. What we witness in physical life is the combination of the two: when you are old and fragile, you don’t handle accidents very well. These accidents don’t have to be external, like falling from a ladder or being attacked by a bear; they can also be internal, from random malfunctioning of your organs or circulation. On the other hand, animals that don’t really age, say turtles and crocodiles, seem to have a life expectancy that remains constant for a long time.
Only the nonperishable can be Lindy-compatible. When it comes to ideas, books, technologies, procedures, institutions, political systems, there is no intrinsic aging and perishability. A physical copy of War and Peace can age (particularly when the publisher cuts corner to save 20 cents on paper for a $50 book); the book itself as an idea doesn’t.