Modes of transport

I think quite a bit about modes of transport.

Sometimes you are walking someplace. If you know where you are going, and the route, you can work out approximately how long it will take to get there. Perhaps you can walk faster, to get there a little sooner. Maybe you will get lost. But if you know how to get from A to B, you just have to put one foot in front of the other, over and over again, until you get there.

If you are travelling by train, things are a bit different. With a train, you just have to make it to the station on time, which might require a less-than-dignified jog. The key is knowing which train to catch, and then when to get off, when to catch another train and when to do something else altogether.

You might have gathered that this is a somewhat disorganised metaphor. People often talk about life as a journey, but I don’t think enough consideration is given to the mode of transport, which should really be framing the way you think about your trip. What makes things difficult is that not everyone is on the same route, and that the appropriate vehicle can change over time (I know, I’m getting a bit lost at this point too, but I guess what I’m saying is that there is no Google Maps and that is hard).

Regardless, I think it is all too easy to get lost in logistics, rather than enjoying the ride*. So I’m trying to get better at that.

*Sorry, this got a bit trite. What I am saying is that I run for trains a lot.

String of digits

I was travelling a few weeks ago in a place where my network’s fees for data usage were particularly extortionate, so I turned off data roaming for the weekend.

My phone was then quiet and unblinking for a few days, only coming to life when we came across WiFi. This added to my enjoyment of and immersion in my holiday, so that was good. But it also made me realise how little my phone was a phone these days.

Messaging was the first thing to go, losing out to WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook Messenger. Then calling my friends went too, as those same messaging apps added voice and then video calling. Meanwhile email, internet and other apps became the centre of gravity (including the emergence of a love-hate relationship with the Twitter app).

Recently the only thing I use my phone number for is contacting people or businesses I don’t know, receiving security codes from various internet accounts, being bothered by coldcallers and robocalls, and as the method of last resort when 4G isn’t playing ball.

It is a bit like landline telephone numbers, which went from being an end in themselves, to being a means to get internet access, to being a strangely compulsory add-on to internet access, to not being required at all. A mobile phone number feels increasingly surplus to requirements, and I wonder if they will go the way of the rotary phone.

Jeff gets it.

Yet for some reason I feel a strange attachment to my phone number. This may be a nostalgic function of my generation – I have had the same number since I got my first mobile phone in my teens. My phone number was my connection to the world and to my friends. It has been the most consistent way to reach me since then, as email addresses and social accounts came and went, and it would seem strange for that to end. It clearly serves some purpose, as a unique identity and identifier. It is my particular string of digits.

If it does go, I wonder what will come in its place.


Amir Efrati of The Information has an interesting piece on Waymo robotaxi customer satisfaction (or lack thereof). The article highlights existing services (Uber, Lyft) as a key benchmark for automated vehicles, and suggests that the comparison is currently unfavourable:

“Waymo rides received five-star ratings for 62.6% of 2,498 rides it completed in the first 10 weeks of the year… By comparison, as of 2017, users of Lyft’s ride-hailing service gave a five-star rating in about 94% of rides”.

I am not sure this comparison is a perfect one. When rating my Uber rides, five stars is my default. That is sadly not because I anticipate a blissful ride every time I ride with Uber, but because I am aware of the importance of a driver’s average score to their continued employment, and maybe livelihood, thanks to Uber’s policies and algorithms. I am therefore willing to put up with a swerve or two (or three), and still select a five star rating. I know I am rating the driver, not just the ride.

I am sure I am not alone in this. I expect that a lot of the riders in Waymo’s automated vehicles had a lower “default” score in their minds, once you took the humanity out of the car.

That being said, the article also highlights some specific customer feedback. My favourite: Jan. 16 “Mr toad’s wild ride! Go left then right then right then left then left the to far then not far enough……”

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.