antifragile1If you have time to read just one book over the next decade, read this one.  Assuming, that is, that you are an artist, artisan, entrepreneur, home-schooling mom – anyone who lives by their wits and has “skin in the game,” as author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is fond of saying. 

On the other hand, if you are a banker, broker, captain of a Fortune 500 company, or a media pundit of the sort who predicted a Romney landslide in the last election – practically anyone who wears a necktie or its current feminine equivalent — stay away.  This book is likely to make you so depressed that you’ll feel your only recourse is to beat a hasty exit from the gene pool (another favorite Taleb expression).

Antifragile represents the next stage in the evolving thought of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, an academic/practitioner in the black art of financial risk management.  Taleb’s previous book,  The Black Swan, written in 2007 just as the financial crisis was beginning to rear its ugly head, focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques. This leads to catastrophes much larger than they would have been had these Black Swan events been given more respect (and a wider berth).  Part of what makes Black Swan events so deceptively deadly is that it is nearly impossible to predict their occurrence, or even estimate their likelihood.  While Taleb was not the first to discover these concepts, he certainly played a role in raising general awareness, making the phrase “Black Swan” an idiom in the financial world.

Now, Taleb blazes a completely new trail, saying that if we cannot predict the likelihood of Black Swan events, we can however distinguish entities (whether organizations, financial instruments, or health regimes) that are more or less vulnerable to Black Swan events.  The former are called “fragile”, the later “antifragile”. 

The difference is in how an entity responds to the volatility in its environment – fragile entities are damaged by volatility, ultimately breaking down under its onslaught, while antifragile entities are designed (or have figured out how) to profit from volatility – improving themselves in the process.  “Volatility” here means any factor that leads to changing circumstances – environmental changes, laws and regulations, weather, or even just the ravages of time.

Let’s take a simple example from the book.  John and George are two identical twins living in London.  John is a clerk in the HR department of a large bank with 25 years of seniority.  George makes his living by driving a taxi.  On the surface, John has the better situation – a regular check, health care benefits, a reputable position in his community.  But on closer examination, by insulating himself from small doses of volatility, he has set himself up to be vulnerable to much larger doses (aka Black Swans) such as a corporate layoff he could not predict, and would have no control over.  John’s post-layoff predicament, as we have learned over the past few decades, is precarious indeed.

Now let’s turn to George.  Like any self-owned business, he is subject to small daily doses of volatility.  Some days business is booming, others it just dries up.  The cash flow is irregular, the prospects uncertain from day to day.  Yet by accepting this daily uncertainty, George protects himself from the type of catastrophic Black Swan even that could ruin John.  It is impossible for his income simply to go to zero, unless he just stops driving.  His small doses of volatility provide him with daily information, which causes him to constantly re-assess his environment, his “business model”, and the correspondence between the two – he must constantly ask himself questions like “Am I driving at the right times?  In the right neighborhoods?  Am I doing enough to cultivate a regular clientele?  Do I need to upgrade my skills?”  The small course corrections are adaptations that keep the gap between business model and reality small, effectively forestalling the catastrophic events that result from a gap that has gotten too wide because it has been ignored.

The Black Swan focused on the fact that low-probability, high-impact (usually negative) events are frequently underestimated by classic statistical and risk management techniques.

George has the “optionality”, or freedom to choose his response to changing circumstances.  He can keep working as long as he desires.  He can respond to unusual opportunities that lie well outside the bounds of salaried employment – as when a rich client asked him to drive her 2,000 miles to a wedding in the south of France when air traffic was shut down a few years ago due to volcanic activity in Iceland. By embracing volatility, George makes volatility his friend, and avoids (at least some) catastrophic outcomes.  By insulating himself from small doses of volatility, John practically insures that it will come in big doses.  In short, George is antifragile, while John is fragile.

This is not to say that George occupies the optimal position in terms of winning his daily bread.  When it comes to personal economics, or investing, or just about any human endeavor, Taleb is an ardent advocate of what he calls the “barbell” approach – the bulk of your resources are allocated to a stable, risk-free (or as risk-free as you can manage) alternative, while the rest are allocated to risky alternatives with “asymmetric payoffs”, i.e. potential benefits that far outstrip their riskiness.  Therefore, , George might seek a day job as a bell hop or security guard, and limit his taxi driving to night life areas, where the clients are more lubricated and the tips (hopefully) larger.

Taleb’s book is the work of the kind of big picture thinker who is compelled to push his paradigm to the ends of the earth.  Here’s a synopsis of some of his points:

  • Through evolution, nature has become one of the most antifragile entities around.
  • We need to respect this – the burden of proof for any intervention against nature must fall on the intervention, not on nature.  Where this burden is not borne, we should emulate nature, not the artificial intervention.
  • The omnivorous character of the human diet is a perfect example.   It is antifragile – we can survive on either plant or animal material, though preferably both.  We are built to survive, and even benefit from, volatility in our food sources.
  • What benefits from volatility benefits most when there is variation, or even randomness.  Looking at nature, we should not expect to eat meat at every meal.  In fact, we should not even expect to eat a meal at every meal.  Periodic abstinence from meat and fasting from all food are likely to be beneficial, regardless of the currently reigning theory, because this is how animals live in nature.
  • Therefore, Taleb, who is a practicing member of the Greek Orthodox Church, adheres to their rigorous schedule of fasting, which can go as high as 200 days out of the year. 

The preceding line of reasoning is typical of Taleb in another respect.  Without identifying himself as a believer or a traditionalist, many of his arguments wind up in support of the “heuristics” (rules of thumb) advocated by tradition and religion, from periodic fasting to debt avoidance.  Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility.

Read Antifragile, all the way to the end, where you will find Taleb’s test to see if you are still alive – do you have a sense of adventure?  Does the optionality of the unknown still thrill you? If so, you are well on your way to becoming antifragile.  If not, you now know what you need to do to get there.

antifragile2Like nature itself, religion and tradition have had centuries and even millennia to hone in on the human practices that combat fragility. 

 by Albert Regensberger

(Photo Credit: Stuart Chessman, St. Gregory’s Society)

Togas in the Backyard

Dorothy GillI must confess: I’m not a particularly energetic, clever or imaginative homeschooler. I just have attitude. 

And while I’ve been at this for over 20 years, like the Velveteen Rabbit, I sometimes sit still in the bracken of stacked teacher’s manuals and hope that the other homeschool moms won’t notice.  As they hop sideways, on their hind legs and whirl round and dance, I am longing to join them, but am keenly aware of my lack of artistic legs.   So while scope and sequence recommendations and Common Core standards do not intimidate me, I have always longed for the creative flair.   

Above all, teaching history requires imagination.  While I generally detest for-classroom text books with their “read the chapter, answer the questions approach,” left to my own devices I can never seem to fully launch into the “living history” method that homeschooled kids love.

This is where belonging to a homeschool support group really pays off.  With all sorts of talented homeschoolers —   left-brain, right brain, and menopause brain — you are sure to find people who will complement your strengths, compensate for your deficiencies and create magic for your students. 

Ancient History assignments had my kids merrily creating maps, time-lines, poetry, vocabulary or costumes for the Big Day. We recited the bloody portions of “Horatius at the Bridge” (did I mention I have only boys?) 

Birthed in the crucible of necessity, the modern homeschool co-op harnesses this diversity (sorry, I usually avoid this word)  and yields a blend of arts & crafts, literature, research, home-ec,  drama, composition and public speaking — all rolled into performance art.  They don’t teach history to your kids, they invite them to discover history.

I experienced textbook-free, blended-age learning in an Ancient History co-op with families from Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, Oregon. My first clue that I was onto something special was my kids asking, “When do we get to go to co-op?”  They were actually begging to do history!  Soon, they became the enforcers of the schedule, hounding me for assistance as they prepared for the Big Day each week. The younger kids would listen to stories read out loud and maybe draw a picture while the older ones would work on reading a novel or encyclopedia article.  Their Ancient History assignments had them merrily creating maps, time-lines, poetry, vocabulary or costumes for the Big Day.

My math brain boggled at the cornucopia of offerings: carpentry, cooking, plays, painting, pottery, sewing, singing, sculpture, science, weapon making, architecture and games.   No one mom could hope to teach such a series of classes, and not collapse in exhaustion.  And yet, joined together, the burden was light as our kids experienced a culture distant in both time and space in a way that no text book could compete with.  It was memory-making magic.


In studying Ancient Rome, we examined the five century development of the Republic and worked through the Pax Romana.   But instead of only reading, we immersed ourselves. Tarquin brutally ruled over all in the household chores one day, which led to Brutus leading his overthrow, and the tension between the patricians and plebeians which led to a workers strike and no dishes getting done until terms of tribune representation were agreed upon.  We recited the bloody portions of “Horatius at the Bridge” (did I mention I have only boys?)  and constructed catapults and armor.

When our Ancient History adventure was over, we celebrated. The dads joined in, all of us wearing bed-sheet togas and declaiming in simple Latin.   We reclined in the backyard at our plywood table and guzzled grape juice “wine” from goblets as we were served by “slaves.”   We ate with our fingers off a common platter, dipping figs in honey and bread in olive oil.  

We will never forget these lessons and memories that our co-op adventures have brought us.  And while my legs remain as inartistic as ever, to my kids I am a dancing real homeschool mom.

The dads joined in, all of us wearing bed-sheet togas and declaiming in simple Latin.   We reclined in the backyard at our plywood table and guzzled grape juice “wine” from goblets as we were served by “slaves.”

pax2pax3ROMAN ‘SLAVES’ PREPARING FOR A BACKYARD FEAST: AnAncient History homeschooling co-op by parishioners at Holy Rosary Parish in Portland, Oregon culminated in a ‘feast’ for all who taught their kids about the legacy of ancient Rome.


by Dorothy Gill

First Communion, Roman-Style

In 155 AD – roughly 125 years after Christ’s death – St. Justin Martyr wrote to Emperor Antoninus to explain what Christians actually did during their rituals.  Christians were persecuted for their ‘atrocities’ and the Saint was appealing to reason, pleading for the Emperor’s clemency.

“On the day we call the day of the sun, all who live the country or the city gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read…when the reader has finished, he who presides (priest) over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things.

communion1communion2Then we all rise together to offer prayers for ourselves and for all others, wherever they might be, so that we might be found righteous by our life and actions. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine to him who presides over the brethren.  He takes them and offers praise and glory to the father of the universe through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts.

Because this bread and wine have been made Eucharist, no one may take part in it unless he believes what we teach is true…”


St Justin and second century Christians were carrying out the wishes of their master, Jesus of Nazareth. 

In the two thousand years since, Catholics have carried out Christ’s command by celebrating the memorial of His sacrifice.  In so doing, we offer to the Father what He has given us – fruit of the vine and work of human hands – bread and wine, which by the power of the Holy Spirit and by the words of Christ, become the body and blood of Christ. Catholic children wear white because it is the Christian color worn for Sacraments.

(Secret Catholic Insider’s Note: In the tradition of his Catholic ancestors, when England’s Prince Charles is crowned, he will wear white – the ancient symbol of a Christian King.)



A Parents’ Guide to First Holy    Communion 

Long after the party is on Facebook, your child will carry the memory of their First Holy Communion in their heart. Parents need to ensure that their children understand the high seriousness of the occasion and know the basic facts about the Faith when they take Holy Communion with Our Lord for the first time in their lives.

communion4Why age seven? For centuries, the Church has considered seven to be the “Age of Reason” – when a child can discern between right and wrong.

 Why First Confession? Confession – also called “Reconciliation” or “Penance” – is your child’s first experience with the great feeling of peace that Catholics have after they have unburdened their souls. Respect this sacrament, and teach your child to make a good confession.

For centuries, the Church has considered seven to be the “Age of Reason” – when a child can discern between basic right and wrong.


(Photo courtesy of Victor Di Corcia)




What can a young child have done that warrants this formal confession of sins? At the age of reason, children can understand a simple moral code – and they know when they have violated it. Also, the experience of seeing everyone go to Confession shows the child that we are all sinners – and that we are all forgiven because Jesus died for our sins.  Respect the Sacrament, and teach your child to make a good confession

What is an Examination of Conscience? Before the Sacrament, be sure they have quiet time to examine their conscience:

Why wear white for Communion? White is the Christian color, worn for all first sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, Holy Orders — and even the crowning of Christian monarchs!

How is the Catholic belief about Communion different from other Christian traditions? This is huge. Catholics – along with all Eastern Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic and Syrian Christians – believe in Transubstantiation. This means that the bread and wine are transformed in their substance to the Body and Blood of Jesus, by the actions of the priest who consecrates them at Mass.

Why is this such a big deal? Once consecrated, the Host and Wine are regarded by Catholics as the Real Presence of Jesus. This is why the priest carefully consumes all of the consecrated Host and Wine.

Catholics – along with Eastern Orthodox, Maronite, Coptic and Syrian Christians – believe in Transubstantiation. Once consecrated, the Host and Wine become the Real Presence of Jesus.

How should children be taught to behave when they receive Holy Communion? Catholics behave with utmost respect in the Real Presence. When the Host and the Chalice are raised, we are absolutely silent, eyes fixed on the Sacrament. Children should take Communion on the tongue if at all possible. They should also be taught to fold their hands reverently, keep their eyes down as they walk and never to chew the Host.

More questions? Google the Catechism of the Catholic Church for Children, the Baltimore Catechism or the Catechism of the Good Shepherd.

The Homeschooling Goddess

Can You Homeschool?

by Dorothy Gill

You have no clue what it’s all about, or what a real homeschooling family actually looks like, but you’re pretty sure that they’re a strange breed of survivalist apocalypse- types who live off the grid behind their ‘No Trespassing’ signs.

After all, what else could possibly possess a family to say “no, thank you” to a free education provided just down the street, and instead take on the full-time responsibility of teaching their own kids — if it wasn’t for their paranoid anti-social tendencies?

You might be surprised to learn that the most frequently-cited priority of families who take this road less traveled is the happiness of their children.  I’m betting that you can relate to that one, so here’s a look at the top three myths about the whole homeschooling phenomenon.

MYTH #1: What about socialization?

If you are asking this question, then you have probably not met many homeschooled kids.  Or you have met them but did not realize it, because you were looking in vain for those rumored telltale socially-awkward clues.

As it happens, kids who do not spend the majority of their waking hours in the exclusive company of their peers end up being perfectly comfortable relating to and spending time with people of all ages.  (This is similar to what they will encounter in the real working world, after all, so you can rest assured that your kids will be well-prepared to take their place in adult society.)

If in fact you did notice anything unusual, it might be that you were surprised by the child’s polite, unaffected manner. Chances are you were greeted by name while being looked in the eye and offered a hand to shake — all from a smiling face that didn’t seem to hold you in any particular contempt for your adulthood.

Frequently, homeschooled kids’ self-confidence is not as vulnerable to pressure from their peers, and therefore they may well be more individual in expressing their style. This self-expression might manifest itself as anything from geek to fashionista, though chances are it will not mirror what you’d see on the local school grounds.


 If you are asking this question, then you have probably not met many homeschooled kids.  


You may also notice that homeschooled kids are generally happy. Even the teens. This is because being able to use their time more efficiently, having access to home-cooked nutrition three times a day, adjusting their study schedule to accommodate their sleep needs, and the absence of the daily social ostracism, cliques and bullying which are huge sources of stress in the life of ordinary teens actually ‘dials down’ the usual teenage surliness.


You may also have noticed that homeschooled kids are generally happy. Even the teens. 


MYTH#2: Most people are not capable of homeschooling their children

If you’ve ever wondered if you have what it takes to homeschool, there’s only one question you have to ask yourself: “Got kids?”  If you do, then you qualify. 

In fact, the education of children in the home, by their parents, in the company of their differently aged siblings, is the most natural environment for learning. 

There is no automatic barrier that materializes in the mind of a child at the age of 5 or 6 that renders void the parent’s heretofore competence in directing the child’s discovery of her universe.  And there is no ingredient more important in the education of children than love.  In this, a parent is more qualified than any credentialed stranger can ever be. 

By virtue of your vocation as a parent, you are already endowed with everything you need to successfully homeschool your children.

MYTH#3: Homeschooling means re-creating ‘school’ at home

‘Home education’ is a much better description of this work than ‘homeschooling.’  This is because schools are where you load a room up with same-aged children sitting at desks and attempt to teach them all the same thing at the same time. This requires text books that are designed to facilitate 45 minute instruction segments, punctuated by a bell.

There is no need to replicate this dubious environment at home.  With education (as opposed to ‘school’) as your goal, you have access to the world as your text book and the rhythm of family life as your school bell.   And your local library, community center, the internet and the dozens of online curriculum providers will provide as much or as little assistance as you could possibly need. This approach accommodates any budget, and allows you to custom-tailor your approach to each child’s needs.


 With education (as opposed to ‘school’) as your goal, you have access to the world as your text book and the rhythm of family life as your school bell.


So, have the courage of your convictions. Turn off the TV and video games, harness your kids’ creativity, direct their natural curiosity and let the learning begin.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dorothy Gill is the mother of four sons, ages 11 to 26 and she has been homeschooling since 1992.  She is active in her parish  and lives in Vancouver, Washington with her husband and three of her four sons.

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