From the Library Stacks

Because when you are supposed to be moving house, it's always better to read a book..

Nassim Taleb, author of Antifragile appears to be slightly crazy. He is passionate, prejudiced and ranty. He makes up words and ideas with abandon, writes in a disjointed fashion and keeps getting sidetracked by how much he hates bankers, economists and statisticians. And yet, somehow, from the confusion of a completely hyperactive tirade, Taleb spins a compelling case for creating a better world.

I am all about heading towards a better life so I paid as much attention as I could.

Imagine dropping a glass from a table onto the floor. It will shatter. It is fragile. Drop a ball on the floor and it will bounce back unchanged. It is resilient. Imagine a human being jumping onto the floor from a table. Weight bearing exercise is actually good for us, so that drop to the floor should only make us stronger. In this situation we are antifragile - thriving in adversity (although not if it was me. I would likely fall off the table and break an ankle).

Antifragile explores the idea of fragility built into systems, institutions, even individual habits. Taleb's thesis is that modern life has produced much more in the way of fragile systems, and that historically we managed to live in a much more resilient or antifragile society. Globalization with its huge corporations may be efficient, but when they fail, those corporations take so much down with them. Contrast this with the multitude of small local businesses that have traditionally dominated the market place. Yes, many small businesses fail, but when they do they affect only a handful of individuals.

In fact, inefficiency significantly underpins antifragility. Humans have two kidneys and two lungs. We could make do with one of each, and yet two gives us a margin of error. And that margin of error makes us antifragile in many spheres. If I live in a cold climate and rely completely on electric heating from the power company and the power goes out, I am in a pickle. If I add a gas hotplate with extra gas bottles to boil the kettle and fill up the hot water bottles to keep me toasty in my down sleeping bag, then I am resilient. If I add a wood stove with wood that I produce from my own wood lot then I am antifragile in the area of heat production - I am producing heat that costs me nothing, and I am getting warm twice what with all the wood chopping, and getting fitter as well, and possibly able to do brisk business selling firewood during the powercut. In this case I am actually profiting from the disaster which has blindsided the fragile individuals who relied on a large efficient corporation to keep them warm. That is antifragile behaviour.

The example above is one of the ways that I have applied the theory of antifragility to my own life. I am about to move from a large house powered by grid-tied solar and heated with electricity, to a small house heated only by wood. I won't have a wood lot, but I can tell you this - trees are in much greater supply in Tasmania right now than electricity is. We have two sources of electricity in this state, hydro-electric power, and a cable running across Bass Strait which imports coal-fired electricity from Victoria, and exports our hydro-electric power when we have an excess. We produce about 60% of our own power and import the rest. But, oh dear, the too-amazing-to-fail cable across Bass Strait broke. It has so far taken 4 months to find the fault, and will take at least 2 more months to fix. At the same time we have had a record-breaking dry spring and summer. The huge lakes in the centre of Tasmania which feed the hydro-electric dams have shrunk to record lows. It is the perfect storm for Tasmania's electricity production, and now we are going in to winter with less electricity capacity than we have ever had. When I moved to Tasmania 20 years ago, nearly everyone heated their house with wood. These days almost everyone heats with electricity. I feel very much safer moving to a place where I can heat, and at a pinch, cook with wood.

After I finished Antifragile I read Nassim Taleb's most well-known book, Black Swan (I ordered it from the library first, but it turned up later than Antifragile). Europeans had only ever known white swans. If they had been asked to predict, on past observation, what colour swans would be known for into the future, they would have predicted white swans, always white, with absolute confidence. But then Europeans visited Australia and found black swans.. a completely unanticipated and extraordinary flying-in-the-face-of-reason discovery. So too with the events of history, claims Taleb. We are blindsided by the improbable and unknowable with alarming frequency. World wars, the ascent of the internet, 9/11, the GFC - for the average person in the street these anomalies came out of nowhere and had a huge impact on our lives. Taleb is not kind to the art of prediction, which underpins much of the socio-economic activity of modern life. We can predict probabilities, but not unprobabilities, and it is the unprobabablities that have the most impact. How then, can we haul ourselves through a life plagued by uncertainties? I think this may be the most important take home message from both books (which are quite similar in message, though Antifragile is more comprehensive):

This idea that in order to make a decision you need to focus on the consequences (which you can know) rather than the probability (which you can't know) is the central idea of uncertainty. You can build an overall theory of decision making on this idea. All you have to do is mitigate the consequences. 

Black Swan Ch 13

I can't know the probability of Tasmania running out electricity, but I can make sure that I mitigate the consequences of not having enough electricity to do vital things this winter, such as keeping warm and being able to cook. If you live in Tasmania you might want to think about this too...

The Art of Manliness site posted a useful review of Antifragile here, with pictures, which is very helpful. Really, it is much better than this review. Do read it.

And then, for something completely different, The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. A children's story for grown-ups. If you were ever captivated by the children's fantasy novels of the sixties and seventies, where our world and the world of magic lived side by side (think Madeleine L'Engle and Susan Cooper) then I believe you will really enjoy this. Neil Gaiman does a more adult and edgy version of the same.

A man returns to his childhood town for a funeral and goes in search of his childhood home, and his childhood friend, Lettie. In doing so he stirs up forgotten memories of a episode of his childhood which catapulted him into the magical world of the farmhouse down the end of the lane.. marvellous storytelling, a wonderful book to read all day at home in bed with the dog when really you should be doing something else completely, such as packing..

Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

You don't pass or fail at being a person, dear.


Damo said…
Good luck with the packing! We are moving house as well. In a week, if all goes well, we shall be on the Spirit with only our most prized possessions (for myself, 2 boxes of books and motorbikes on a trailer!). A short stay in Brisbane to donate the car and a few other things to family members and then overseas. Hopefully, in a few years when we come back Tasmania will have its electricity sorted. But then, as you say, a wood stove is not so bad either :-)
Fernglade Farm said…
Hi Jo,

A fine rant! Hope the house move is going smoothly too. I have moved too many times for one person in one lifetime (about 19 different addresses and hopefully no more please, I'm totally done!).

Exactly correct: Efficient and Resilient are contradictory objectives! :-)!

I feel for you as I have been watching that bass link issue with increasing concern. At Christmas which was three months ago, they were announcing that the problem would be fixed within two months (and I'm not good with maths so such calculations are way over my head - However, if I said to you that 2 - 3 = +1 you'd start to doubt my credibility!). Trees as firewood can be very sustainable. They have to be - you can see them with your own eyes. Cooking with wood is actually quite fun - and very forgiving despite what everyone says. Just make sure your youngest knows how hot the steel can get so is ultra careful around the unit.

Actually as a hint I have a pair of welding gloves for handling any firewood emergencies that may arise (such as a burning log falling out of the firebox). They are very cheap to buy and are good for very high temperatures and have long sleeves so that you do not burn your forearms and/or clothes. Just a suggestion to have to hand...


Jo said…
Damo, yes I saw your news on Chris's blog. All the very best with your giant and excellent undertaking. I love that your necessities of life consist of two boxes of books:)

Chris, welding gloves, of course.. I am pretty sure I saw some in the shed. Will retrieve them and pop them in the 'taking to the new house' pile. What a very practical idea:)
fran7narf said…
I am reminded of my father and my upbringing when I read this post. When we were kids we didn't wear shoes at home. We lived on 100 acres of bushland and paddocks with dams and one edge facing a road, the other edge facing a large body of water. We had no phone and our water came from tanks and sometimes when you turned on the tap nothing happened. You had to just let the pressure behind the dead and decomposing frog build up a bit to allow physics to coax it out... I spent years wandering like Kung-fu in no shoes surrounded by tiger snakes and thorns and cars on one side and the threat of drowning (several times over and my siblings and I didn't know how to swim) and by some amazing coincidence, I am alive and well at 52.

My father didn't believe in anyone or anything being wrapped in swaddling cloth. He left his cooked legs of lamb out on the counter for days on end. Although I don't suggest that anyone copy my (bolshie) dad, I am just saying that we have become so very precious about our security, our safety, our gut health and social media would have us believe that we are all much more fragile than we are. Resilience is learning how to be antifragile. Learning from the lessons that life hits you over the head with and finding a way to not make the same mistake twice. It's knowing that there are other ways to do things that will allow you to affect change but that might not be trending on Facebook.

We were fed the line that wood fires caused asthmatics to expire (the same government that pushed this were supporting a pulp mill...) and thus "buy back" offers were made and many people got rid of their wood fires and bought electric heat pumps, tying them into the grid and ensuring a ready supply of willing customers for Aurora. I listened to politicians on the radio the other day. They were saying that "With current demand we will have enough hydro power to last us". The problem is, it's getting colder, more quickly, and "current demand" is going to spike as people turn on their heat pumps and plug in their electric blankets and heaters. We are heading for rolling power cuts and only now are we being told a tiny bit of the truth about the dire conditions and how "we can help" to minimise power use in the state.

Being antifragile means making decisions to look out for yourselves and for those around you and to do so in the most sustainable way (I would add). I might have to go hunting for that Neil Gaiman book at the library. I figure, when rolling power cuts start being inevitable rather than "scaremongering" we will all have the time to sit down and read a good book. Who knows, it might be a real antifragile moment for many Tasmanians who will suddenly stop putting their faith and their lives in the hands of governmental advice that is skewed towards big business, and will start to think about the big picture and their place in it.

Thank you for a most interesting post Jo. You always find a way to make us think and a positive shine to stark situations. We use welding gloves here to pull out blackberries and Scotch thistles. They are excellent for the job :)
Jo said…
Fran, I always look forward to your comprehensive comments:) I'm with your dad, although he seems to have been further along the continuum of 'parenting via benign neglect' than I am. I figure that a certain amount of incompetence and non-action on my part encourages independence and antifragility in my children. They learnt to cook mainly in self-defence I think. Recently I decided that moving house is more of a priority than cooking, so the girls have been responsible for quite the number of meals..

I do have a whiz bang European wood stove in the new house, which theoretically will not produce smoke.. we will have to see how that goes. But yes, I am sure that Tasmania could sustainably manage its forests in such a way as it could provide firewood for what is, after all, quite a small population.
I'm having a good chuckle at your dig at the Tas Govt and the power bungling. It makes me angry that they are bringing in diesel generators - what's going to happen to our 'clean, green' reputation? and why doesn't someone install wind generators. yesterday was so gusty here in Hobart, the whole venture would have been paid for in half an hour :-)
Jo said…
e, I am hearing you. They didn't name our latitude 'The Roaring Forties' for nothing..
Meg said…
Hi, Jo. Antifragile sounds like a most interesting read, sometimes a rant is a good thing! I didn't have the foggiest idea about Tassie's electricity woes...will have to read more about that. I grew up with wood stoves and they were amazing in the winter. I remember my father boiling water for our bath on a wood stove and my mother cooking on it. I remember too getting dressed for school in front of wood stoves in the Winter. I think there might be lots of Tasmanians wishing they had one!
GretchenJoanna said…
I ordered that book by Gaiman, based on your review. It will be my first by him! Thanks for sharing!
Jo said…
Meg, boiling water for the bath on the stove - that is wonderfully Little House on the Prairie!

GJ, hope you enjoy it - parts of it are quite dark..
Anonymous said…
I love reading somethings at makes me go, "Whoe. That's s totally different way of thinking." Or something I never considered before.

Your review did that. Might have to hunt the book up. Will look at the other review now.

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