Reading in place

I often find that I forever associate books I read with the place in which I read them.

Reading Principles by Ray Dalio on a flight to Tel Aviv. Poor Economics on the Northern Line in rush hour. Thunderball on a beach in Devon. Reading Barbarian Days, a surfing autobiography, while on a surf trip in Portugal (sadly my own surfing didn’t do the book justice).

I have read a few books in lockdown, which I am sure will always remind me of this time. Two stand out as reminders of that other crisis we must not forget about – with this week’s CO2 readings the highest on record:

Drawdown lays out available solutions for global warming. The most uplifting thing I have read on the topic, full of the things we can do to reverse the buildup of atmospheric carbon.

Let my people go surfing, about the life of Yvon Chouinard, and the philosophy of the environmentally-minded business he built (Patagonia).

Both highly recommended, if you’re looking for something to read in isolation, or anywhere else.

Wash your hands

COVID-19 is the headline right now, and justifiably so. The full range of predictions is on offer, so your confirmation bias will find what it needs on the internet. But Howard Marks said it already:

Nobody knows.

Exceeding hospital capacity is a key tipping point if things do go south:

Credit: Trent McConaghy

Pascal’s wager would suggest that caution is a pretty good option here, whatever you believe.

This feels like a very collective moment – as around the globalised hyper-connected world, we contemplate this new threat together, in real-time. I am certainly aware of my humanity.

Wash your hands.

A storm by any other name

I am down in Cornwall this weekend with Becca. We were down at the same time last year, and were blessed with unseasonal sunshine. This time we have been less fortunate, with our visit coinciding with the arrival of Storm Dennis.

I found myself wondering about how storms get their names, which it turns out was very far from an original thought. Regardless, I was interested to learn about the father of the practice, Clement Wragge. How it started in the 1950s, with hurricanes receiving women’s names, before moving to alternating men’s and women’s names in 1979.

UK storms meanwhile started receiving names as recently as 2015, the upshot of a campaign to raise awareness of severe weather. We also alternate men’s and women’s names in alphabetical order, all submitted by members of the public. After Dennis we have Ellen, then Francis and Gerda to look forward to. We have never yet gone past K (Kitty, if we are so unlucky).

I wonder whether there are any lasting effects of this naming, beyond a few namesake jokes. Whether, echoing a Princeton study of hurricanes, people’s response to a storm is influenced by its name. Whether more or fewer children will be called Dennis this year as a result.

It is pretty windy here tonight. I hope everyone is staying safe out there.

Surprising Detail

I read an excellent article off the back of an open question from Paul Graham on Twitter: Reality has a surprising amount of detail, by John Salvatier. It uses building stairs and boiling water to demonstrate that things are almost always more complicated than they seem:

Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with realityBefore you’ve noticed important details they are, of course, basically invisible. It’s hard to put your attention on them because you don’t even know what you’re looking for… This means it’s really easy to get stuck.

This was a good aperitif to Can Anyone Reshape the State? by Nicolas Colin, which looks at Dominic Cummings’ prospects for reshaping the British state, an undertaking full of hidden complexity if there ever was one. I appreciated his invocation of Gall’s Law, which I hadn’t heard of before:

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

Nicolas agrees that the state could do with a make-over, but expects that Cummings’ efforts will fail. If so, I am sure that surprising detail will have played a part.

Working backwards

It’s the start of a new year and a new decade, which means that the internet is awash with hopes, plans and resolutions. I don’t have anything specific to share here, but I have taken the opportunity to think about goals and achieving them. I was interested to come across two different approaches of the same name – Working Backwards.

The first is the more intuitive way to Work Backwards, which is to simply think about a large goal, and the time by which you would like to achieve it, then work backwards to identify interim goals and checkpoints along the way. To take a potentially lofty goal and translate it into more short-term actions.

The second way to Work Backwards is also known as Inversion, which I came across by way of Farnam Street (a generally excellent resource). A favourite of Charlie Munger, this involves thinking about the things that might stop you achieving your goal, or of achieving the opposite:

“Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want” — Charle Munger

Pithily described as “avoiding stupidity” (which is “easier than seeking brilliance”), this simple change in perspective can make a problem seem more addressable, and less effortful.

Neither way of Working Backwards is a silver bullet, of course. But as I start 2020, I am glad to have both.

Got rhythm

We are approaching the end of December, which (in the UK) means short days, cold weather and a ubiquitous festive season as the year comes to an end. While it seems in many ways a strange time to think about new beginnings (in the dead of winter, during the coldest, darkest days), a new year is often cause for resolution and reflection.

I once worked in a lab that was researching circadian rhythms, the twenty-four hour intrinsic cycles present in every one of our bodily cells, as the earth spins on its axis. I have thought quite a lot this year about the importance of rhythm for human beings, above and beyond that physiological clock. The power of daily habits, and the higher level weekly and monthly cadences required to really get things done. The magic of music, or the beautiful beat intrinsic to swimming, or running.

The turning of the seasons, and the passing of the years is the earth’s higher rhythm, and it feels just right. A year is short enough to grasp, but long enough to see change in yourself and in the world (whether you like it or not). As we hurtle around the sun, we dance to its cosmic beat.

Efficiency and legitimacy

Any political system is a compromise between efficiency and legitimacy, balancing a government’s ability to act against the certainty that its citizens support the government’s actions. So says Against Elections: The Case for Democracy*, a book I first read a few years ago but which I have been reminded of ahead of the UK elections on the 12th December.

The UK selects its Parliamentary representatives through a First Past The Post electoral system which errs on the side of efficiency (it reliably produces governmental majorities, recent history excepted), but perhaps with a loss of legitimacy (there hasn’t been a party winning more than 50% of overall votes since 1935).

Meanwhile a key factor in the election is the Brexit referendum. We can all agree that referendums aren’t an efficient way to govern a country, but the legitimacy of the Brexit referendum is in the eye of the beholder. Some argue that it is the UK’s most legitimate political result in living memory, voted for by 17.4 million people (more than have ever voted for a single political party in a General Election). While others question its legitimacy on grounds of misinformation (based on what we know now) or technicality (it’s not legally binding). One thing which is clear is that our Parliamentary system is not designed to deliver on the outcome of referendums if there is ambiguity involved, and I don’t know if this election will change that.

Regardless, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we are currently living in a rarefied period of time:

“The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.” ― Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract

That seems a little drastic to me. But either way please remember to vote on December 12th.

* More broadly the book talks about the mistaken conflation of elections and democracy, proposing a deliberative democracy alternative, but that’s not for now.