Sunday, April 3, 2016
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.