Rabbits in a Cairo market

I recently finished Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I don’t know why I hadn’t before, having read Fooled by Randomness, Black Swan and recently Skin in the Game.

The core focus of the book is response to shock and volatility; whether something breaks (fragile), survives (robust) or grows stronger (the previously undefined eponymous “antifragile”). The importance of this response is in the fact that shock and volatility are inevitable for almost anyone or anything, given enough time.

This central premise is then expounded with explanations and motifs.

It is classic Taleb: caustic, thought-provoking (and quite verbose). As an occasional reviewer and sometime creator of business forecasts (for my sins), it gave me pause. Though even if I wanted to be just like Fat Tony, Taleb’s apocryphal antifragile New Yorker, I fear that a full metamorphosis would be beyond me.

I have been thinking quite a lot lately about education, so I noted his observation that at the country level, elite education tended to be a product, rather than a cause, of prosperity, as one to think about.

My reading context coloured my experience. I read the latter half of the book while travelling in Egypt, in Cairo and Alexandria. These are places where history puts things into perspective, which complemented Taleb’s frequent references to “the ancients” and his distaste for Neomania. The pyramids, and so many of the buildings there, are a testament to robustness and building in redundancy. Regional history also has plenty of examples of the risks of naive intervention and iatrogenics (“harm caused by the healer”).

But one thing that stayed with me was in light of Taleb’s turkey economists, making optimistic forecasts about their future on the farm up until Thanksgiving Eve (or Christmas Eve, for our British turkey friends). At which point things suddenly take a turn for the worse. We were walking through a market, where we came across a man with an open crate full of rabbits, sat happily on a bed of green leaves, munching away. Our friend, a local, indicated that they were not being sold as pet rabbits. The rabbits weren’t tied up, and were free to hop off at any time, avoiding their impending fate, but instead they sat and ate, seemingly confident of many salad-eating days ahead. A warning to all those of us complacently happy with our lot. While I know Fat Tony-esque antifragility may not be achievable, I can at least aspire not to be one of those rabbits.

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