Taking for granted

One can get into taking for granted when things go well. Taking India, for example, it pays to remember the quagmire of the License Raj. The nation was in dire straits in 1991 after decades of centralized mismanagement. It had come to the brink of defaulting on its obligations. The central government had to use the nation’s gold bullion as collateral in return for a loan from the IMF. Under the able leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao, India was able to adhere to the terms of the IMF and liberalize the economy in return for getting bailed out. In doing so, Narasimha Rao was saving the civilization from economic collapse. Today, India is seeing a return to some level of prosperity, although it is by no means out of the woods yet.

A much worse scenario was seen in other countries like Romania. As part of a government mandate, women were required to have as many children as possible. Given the overall poverty, children ended up getting abandoned and orphanages overflowed. Many lives were lost because of centralized mismanagement.

What decentralization and the great benefits property rights brings to societies cannot be underestimated. Central planning and central management bring no accountability and any mistakes made affect vast numbers of people. On the other hand, economies that are antifragile are managed locally. Any mistakes made only affect locals and such mistakes are corrected because it is much easier to enforce accountability.

Intentions

Many people start off with good intentions and like to like to think they have a lot of compassion for others. However, there is a common saying: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

Good intentioned actions could have a temporary effect of partially alleviating suffering. However, they can also lead to some unintended consequences.

Some of the consequences can include:

  • Enabling self-destructive behavior in individuals
  • Unintended systematic failures causing groups of peoples or even societies to collapse in the long run

On the other hand, looking towards antifragility builds better than robust solutions.

Sprint vs marathon

Running has seen an uptick in popularity in many parts of the world over the past few decades. To someone in the 1950s or 1960s, it would have seemed strange to see people running all over the neighborhood for no apparent reason. Beginning in the 1970s in the US, a boom in popularity was triggered by such popular runners as Steve Prefontaine. Today, it is one of the most popular outdoor activities. 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons and marathons are among the most popular events.

Running marathons requires long periods (up to a few hours) of steady, level intensity activity. This activity results in a lot of the body mass being reduced, including muscle and fat.

On the other hand, sprinting is an activity in which the human body is subjected to short bursts of high intensity activity. One can imagine our cave dwelling ancestors on their hunting expeditions doing such fast bursts of activity on going in for the kill. After such a burst, muscle growth tends to occur rapidly. In this way, the body reacts in an antifragile way to short bursts of volatility resulting in large upside.

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As can be seen above, the bodies of sprinters and marathon runners can turn out in the end to be very different.

Ancient principles

The idea that anything new is exciting and fascinating seems to have taken root in a few places. However, it must be noted that most “new” things tend to break and the novelty wears out in a matter of weeks or, sometimes, a few years.

For example, the concept of car-ownership has been sold to the citizens of the US as quintessentially “American” for nearly a century. However, with upcoming technologies such as self-driving cars and improved mass-transportation, it seems that owning cars might not remain attractive for long. So, without owning cars, people may start walking more or using bicycles to get to nearby places. Note that both walking and bicycling are much older modes of transport than cars.

Another example could be the fact that paper books – a technology which is a couple thousand years old – remain as popular as ever in spite of the emergence of ebook readers.

With the emergence of artificial intelligence, one of the results of automating most of the tasks is that the masses will have more time for leisure. In centuries preceding the industrial revolution, people tended to have more time for leisure and “play”. Regular people who subsisted on farming tended to only work to produce enough for their family’s sustenance. The remaining time was spent doing nothing mostly. Of course, the nobility too had plenty of leisure time.

However, with the arrival of the factory system, people were forced to work longer and longer hours. Thanks to the effort of some people, the eight hour work day and having weekends off became the norm.

But now, thanks to AI (and, possibly, some form of basic income which replaces the welfare state), the concept of leisure and not “working for the sake of work” envisioned in Bertrand Russell’s essay may come true.

The idea that as some things get older, they tend to have a longer life is called the Lindy effect. This effect applies to technologies and ideas.

As Nassim Taleb argues in Anti-Fragile, time is a great fragilizer. Things which are fragile break down eventually with time. However ideas and technologies which are antifragile become stronger and more prevalent as time passes.

So it is apparent that the ideas of leisure time, paper books and walking, among others, have grown stronger over time and will continue to do so.

Protecting against black swans

“To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” – Seneca

A black swan event is a sudden large deviation event which results in high volatility. Such events occur rarely and are difficult to predict. Most human social interactions and natural systems follow this rule.

In nature, this phenomenon is known as self-organized criticality. It is known that, for example, earthquakes are notoriously difficult to predict.

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Physicists have made several observations and experiments on certain systems such as sandpiles. Based on these, it was concluded that when building up a sandpile, as the number of grains of sand increased, after a certain point – known as the criticality – avalanches began to occur.

These sand avalanches occurred in different places and varied in number and intensity. It is difficult to come up with any sort of equation or algorithm to accurately predict these avalanches. Every avalanche is triggered by a certain grain of sand based on it’s position and the state of it’s neighbors.

At the beginning, when the sandpile is being built, it is still relatively flat and there are few disturbances. But at a certain point, a criticality is reached which makes the system susceptible to avalanches.

Another important observation is that though there are many avalanches, the high intensity ones are fewer but very devastating.

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In nature, the phenomenon of earthquakes follows the Gutenberg-Richter law which describes the relationship between the magnitude and number of occurrences of earthquakes. This is a power law, which means there is an exponential relationship between the magnitude and the number of occurrences. There are a large number of low intensity earthquakes happening all the time. But the high intensity ones only occur very rarely but cause catastrophic destruction.

Such a phenomenon is not limited to nature. Whenever and wherever humans (also technically part of nature) interact in large numbers, i.e., whenever socioeconomics is involved, a similar non-normal, non-Gaussian distribution is observed.

As a side note, the normal distribution was originally used as a way to come up with actuarial tables with average human life expectancies etc to figure out how much premium to charge people so that insurance companies can make profits. However, when natural catastrophes like earthquakes and floods occur, most insurance companies either refuse to pay or go bankrupt.

So, a non-normal, power law distribution is seen in human socioeconomic history. Rare events occur unexpectedly and change the course of history. For example, no one could have predicted the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan and sack of Baghdad, which ended the golden age of Islam. Events such as the Great Depression and the late 2000s recession also could not have been predicted but they caused immense damage nonetheless.

In 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapsed and could not honor the commercial paper issued by large US corporations, which meant they could not meet payroll. This potential disaster was averted by Federal government intervention.

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It is evident from history that it is impossible for any government intervention to predict or prevent such socioeconomic catastrophes.

However the concept of antifragility helps to think of systems which have some properties which actually love randomness and volatility. For example, human bones are strengthened with the application of small stressors (like sprinting or deadlifting). Of course the application of a 1000 pound stressor would be deadly. So our bones are antifragile to relatively small stressors and fragile to both inactivity (causing brittleness) or immense stressors.

Similarly, a political system like Switzerland has lasted for nearly eight hundred years in spite of massive wars and destruction going on all around it. One reason could be the Canton system where the local government bodies hold each other together with trade and mutual economic benefit. There is minimal centralized federal government. Compare this with a centralized massive system like the USSR which collapsed in a matter of decades.

Note that an antifragile system is different from a robust system in that a robust system does not gain or benefit from volatility, but an antifragile system does. A fragile system, on the other hand, cannot stand any volatility and is immensely harmed by it.

From an individual standpoint, the philosophy of stoicism could perhaps be considered an antifragile philosophy. Stoicism is a system of personal ethics which gives utmost importance to how one reacts to the world rather than what the world does or doesn’t. A core concept is apatheia, which means equanimity. Similar ideas are found in Buddhist and Vedantic philosophies. These philosophies advise their followers to maintain equanimity in the face of joy and sadness and to develop patience.

Overall, thinking about building antifragile systems is important. This is both from an individual and socioeconomic standpoint. Such thinking may help to reduce fragility and reduce exposure to human-caused black swans. When it comes to nature-caused black swans like earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes (having witnessed the aftermath of a tornado) I am not aware of things which could protect against such things.

When science failed

Science is a useful tool for human beings to explore and understand the world. However, as with all tools, people have misused science for their own detriment.

Albert Einstein wrote a letter in 1939 to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to build the atomic bomb, believing the Germans would make one soon. But later on, after the devastation had been caused by the US dropping the atomic bomb in Japan, he regretted this letter, saying:

Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger.

In medicine too there have been several such cases.

Thalidomide was marketed as a cure for morning sickness to pregnant women. However this resulted in children being born with malformed limbs and only 40% surviving.

Taking a lot of antibiotics has been proven to cause major problems. Bacteria inside such a person’s body develop immunity towards the drugs, thus making diseases harder to cure.

When it comes to food, there are several cases too.

Trans fats were invented in the lab in the early 1900s by hydrogenating vegetable oil and marketed as a modern wonderfood. They were said to stay soft when refrigerated and thus, very convenient to use. However, after several decades of widespread use, in the 1990s, people started to realize the connection between trans fats and cardiovascular diseases which had increasingly begun to occur in the population.

Processed foods have been repeatedly shown to cause major problems. As a way to fight such artificial foods, we even have the Paleo diet movement today which tries to follow the diet of our caveman ancestors.

So, on the whole, it seems that from a risk evaluation perspective, humans are better off following the natural and ancestral methods when it comes to food and avoiding phamaceutic drugs (unless facing major and urgent problems). Our body becomes stronger and develops immunity as a result of contacting some minimal infections. Similarly our bones get tougher when subjected to minor stressors which can be caused by walking, sprinting and deadlifting.

Building bone strength

When I had gone hiking to Shivaganga with some friends during my college years, I was feeling a bit tired as I slowly made my way to the peak.

On the way I came across a young fellow who was around 10-12 years old, who was running up the hill carrying a pot of water. We saw him run down as well. One of us asked him how he did that. He replied he climbed up and down the hill many times as day and he was used to it.

Considering how tired I was feeling just going up the hill, I was almost a bit jealous of this boy. But now I realize:

  • by climbing up and down that hill on his bare feet he was building stamina and his leg bones
  • and by carrying the pot of along the way, he was building his upper body bones

It is well known that human bones are antifragile: they become stronger if we subject them to small stressors.

It is remarkable how strong and healthy the villagers and manual laborers can be because they walk constantly and lift heavy objects regularly. Also their diets consist of quite simple fare.

It used to be said that diabetes, caused mainly via obesity and lack of exercise, is a rich man’s disease  But it is becoming more prevalent among the urban population, no matter how rich one may be. According to this study, the rate of occurrence in the urban population of India is four times that of the rural. This disease can be prevented by reducing obesity and following the exercise routine of the young man from Shivaganga: just walk and lift heavy objects.

Overall, his was a truly wholesome workout and it is something a city-slicker like me should aspire to.

A feature of FOSS

An important feature observed in systems built on FOSS like Bitcoin and Linux is that they evolve over time by a process, more or less, of trial and error.

Although there may have been a single architect or a group of architects behind the initiation of these projects, the software design has evolved over time by being touched upon by multiple contributors. In way, these systems have lost their fragility.

There is a saying formulated by Eric Raymond:

Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow

Or more formally:

Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone.

Both the above statements point to the fact that problems which otherwise may escape a centralized team of architects and developers may be found and fixed when the code is exposed to multiple eyeballs.

So the design of the software evolves over time in a natural, organic fashion, which makes the system antifragile.

Antifragility

The concept of antifragility, introduced by Nassim Taleb, refers to a system or an entity which gains by variability or randomness.

A simple example is the human body in which the bones gain in strength because of regular stresses and mild shocks. If one stays in bed for six months, the bones become brittle and fragile. So, our body is both fragile (if it is not subject to regular small dosages of stresses) and antifragile (if we exercise regularly, for example).

There other related examples:

  • A house which is not lived in will go to ruin
  • A plane which is not at all flown will rust and become useless. On a related note, the airline industry as a whole gains in robustness by studying the failures of previous crashes, and so, planes have today become the safest mode of transportation.

Result of living through tough times

The key part of living through tough times seems to be the “living through” part.

Since one has lived through the tough times, it means that one has learned potentially valuable things while going through the experience.

Such things, if taken in the right spirit, can make one robust enough to be able to avoid past mistakes and help others.

This of course assumes one does not keep repeating the same mistakes that led to problems before.