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.

Habits and habitat

I got back from San Francisco on Tuesday. It was a good trip, but between the time difference and the unfamiliar surroundings, my normal routine was thrown off somewhat.

I wouldn’t say I have always thought that much about routine, but reading Principles by Ray Dalio last year gave me a renewed appreciation of the importance of habits – what he calls “the most powerful tool in your brain’s toolbox … If you do just about anything frequently enough over time, you will form a habit that will control you”.

Since then I have made a concerted effort to build certain habits, with some success. Though as Ray says in Principles, “developing this skill takes some work”. This is particularly the case when you are away from home, and while I was away last week, a few of my newer habits fell by the wayside.

I have picked them back up from the wayside now, which is good. But I am reminded of a nice turn of phrase my sister used when we talked about this a while back, resolving “to make my habits into my habitat, keeping them with me as I go”.

I didn’t quite manage to do that on this trip, but I am hopeful that next time round I will do better.

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.