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Belmont Club

Conversations With History

March 27th, 2013 - 4:21 pm

It’s a problem familiar to anyone who has walked the hills: finding the easiest path from A to B. That is typically time to break out the topographic map and plot a course over the contour lines that never exceed your best sustainable gradient; to find the route you can walk without having a heart attack. That was the metaphor that suggested itself as I reviewed a friend’s book manuscript, whose thesis is simple: the world, he argues, is running out of cheap energy, peace and food.

He thinks the old order is fading. Unless we find a way to ‘transition’ to a new set of arrangements the world is doomed to a bleak future. For starters, the Pax Americana is falling apart. Security, even if it can be continued, will become more expensive and uncertain.

Secondly, Green politics is delaying the transition to sustainable nuclear energy. If we go back to a windmill world we’ll live at a windmill standard. Lastly, he argues that the world rather than warming may in fact be cooling, which if true would drastically reduce the amount of land available for productive cultivation. See that loaf of bread on your table? You may remember it fondly one day. If all three hit then the party is over.

Whatever one thinks of his particular predictions the central question it raises is evergreen: how does one survive or prosper in a discontinuity? The question is equivalent to Naseem Taleb’s formulation of fragility and anti-fragility.

“Simply, antifragility is defined as a convex response to a stressor or source of harm (for some range of variation), leading to a positive sensitivity to increase in volatility (or variability, stress, dispersion of outcomes, or uncertainty, what is grouped under the designation “disorder cluster”). Likewise fragility is defined as a concave sensitivity to stressors, leading a negative sensitivity to increase in volatility. The relation between fragility, convexity, and sensitivity to disorder is mathematical, obtained by theorem, not derived from empirical data mining or some historical narrative. It is a priori.”

Them’s a whole lot of words. Larry Prusak of the Harvard Business Review writes ” I am unqualified to evaluate Taleb’s use of statistics and probability (few are, to judge from the long list of technical papers on his CV) and even if I had the right education for it, I couldn’t manage a full defense in the space of a blog post.” But he gets the sense.

Essentially anti-fragile things get stronger with stress or competition while fragile things try to stay the same and build up stresses and eventually break in the process.

But the two most important words in the Taleb definition are “convex” and “concave”. A convex set is one in which you can go from any point to any point while remaining in the same set. You never leave it. But a concave set is different in one important way: you must sometimes leave the set to reach another part of it.



In an anti-fragile set you can move to better solutions without traversing a discontinuity. By contrast, in a fragile solution set, the system has to “break” or exit the set to get to the next resting place. In terms of our hillwalking metaphor, the fragile climber must traverse a route where he must risk a heart attack to get to the next safe place.

There’s ample evidence to suggest the world is changing. We learn from the New York Times that online courses are going to hammer the academy;  from Kofi Annan that it is “too late” for military intervention Syria;  from Foreign Affairs that R2P (“responsibility to protect”) is possibly discredited; that we may never have the time to detect an Iranian atomic weapon; that a worldwide front of totalitarian countries is coalescing; that Northern Lebanon is burning; hear from Mortimer Zuckerman that we are in worse than the Great Depression, we are in the Great Illusion; or that the military is wargaming a nuclear failed state in Korea. If the old world is passing away, if the maps are being redrawn then we have to ask: are we really safe?

Or are we in transition and if so, who is managing the transition from the old to new? Who is plotting the minimum energy path across the contour lines? Who is ensuring that our solution set is convex and does not depart into the concave wilderness of crisis and war? Who?

No one obvious is performing this task for the simple reason that the institutions which are supposed to manage these changes are themselves part of the changing system. They do not stand outside of things. They’re in the soup like the rest of us.

Thus, those think the EU or the Obama administration or Ben Bernanke will “save us” are probably going to be disappointed. It’s hard enough to save Cyprus. It may be impossible to “save” Syria. Who’s going to bet they’re gonna save you?

Yet people do win through. History shows that the world keeps spinning; even though the needle jumps the track a few times. This means  there exists in the world as it is anti-fragile elements that given enough time will fix stuff and rebuild. If the world comes to the brink  it never really ends.

How does it achieve this? Probably because elements of the current institutional system, parts of the academy, sections of the government, trends in culture, etc may constitute, albeit unconsciously the adaptive system that will succeed.

But although we are probably going to “make it” we are hard pressed to say how. One is tempted to say that any institution that claims to plot, with determinate accuracy, the solution to the problems of the world is almost certainly wrong.  Yet we have great confidence that, in interaction with the facts, and given a modicum of intelligence, we will almost certainly get it right in the end.

This suggests the idea that the intractability of the problem arises from missing information. We need information that has not yet arrived to find the solution to the coming crisis.  Humanity isn’t playing a game of Solitaire with itself. It’s playing against reality across the table. That is why a central planner who “knows the answer” to the future is probably in error. He cannot know the answer yet; he cannot even guess it until the player opposite turns his card.

That further suggests that the best strategy consists in knowing how to read the cards and having a pile of chips handy. History is replete with stories of commanders who, when faced with the uncertain, created a contingency force and waited to see what rumbled out of the mist. It didn’t always work, but knowing how to play and having a stash worked better than betting blind,  as if one knew what would happen when one didn’t.

The problem with most political institutions is that they are almost congenitally incapable of responding to a problem by saying “I don’t know”. Thus they spend on solutions as if they knew what the solutions were. Rather than building up a reserve they go into deficit. They bet the farm, spend all their chips, and then too often, they bet wrong. By acting beyond the actual extent of their knowledge institutions become fragile because they are Too Smart To Be Wrong (TSTBW).

We have to learn how to be Smart Enough to Know We Don’t Know.

Will the dire predictions in my friend’s book come true? Who knows. But it is not the specific predictions in it but the attitude it conveys that is probably its most important message. The world is an uncertain place. Just because we’ve enjoyed 70 years of peace and prosperity doesn’t the the Party won’t end.

You can plan on living the Life of Julia, the cradle to grave scenario beloved by the central planners, but the odds are that you can’t.

Cradle to Grave — Are You Sure?

The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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All Comments   (53)
All Comments   (53)
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The loss of history is important.

We have raised a generation or two of people who attribute the success of the west with the purity of their own character.

“I have overcome the barbarity of human evolution and am better than it… I am better than god”.

Self-esteem teaches us that are important. That the world was once barbaric but because of the ascendance of my own mine the world if a better place.

“…the Eloi have undergone significant physical and mental deterioration. Having solved all problems that required strength, intelligence, or virtue, they have slowly become dissolute and naïve…”

The psychology of the young seems to be one of partnerships with their parents in a rebellion against the collective morality of history as the ignorant shibboleths and old wives tales of olden times held together by the decrepit sinews of Christianity. They cite the corruptibility of man as the underlying proof that god is a failure and therefore an unsustainable myth.

Regulations, well-crafted, nudge the boundaries of the region into mutually beneficial forms but anti-fragile ones nonetheless. Is it evolutionary that we stop using the earth’s resources? Is it evolutionary that we stop using petroleum decades before new sources of power are put into place? Is it evolutionary that the working poor can afford fewer luxuries than those provided by the welfare state? That the interests of a nations citizens be subsumed by the rights of those who come from foreign lands to stake their claim? That the rules of engagement favor a deceitful adversary? How evolutionary is that?

The acolytes of Darwin rail against survival of the fittest at every turn. How could one believe in evolution and then fight its natural law? How much energy could one expend on damming the oceans?

All questions that must be left unanswered until the unsustainable bubble of false consciousness pops and leaves nature to once more strike out and build that which nature allows and nature is the collective will of all organisms plying for survival and not an infinitesimally small group of people in power who will see the collective effort centrally planned for the sake of high speed green and pyramids in the sky.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
".... attribute the success of the west with the purity of their own character."

I think many think of things in terms of "eras" as in hemlines and hair lengths, fads and trends. "It's time to do such and such," and "We don't do that any more" as if the date itself drove what works or is acceptable. The Nazis collapsed and Communism fell not because of inherent flaws in their ideology or hard work by those that opposed them, but because it was time.

Central planning did not work but that was then and this is now. They are the people they have been waiting for, and the impossible becomes possible because it's now time for it.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I would describe "anti-fragility" as also being "agility." Agile systems adjust more successfully and faster than non-agile (fragile) systems to major change. One of the requirements of agility in this context is decentralization.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
His jumping off point is adaptive biological systems, like muscles. They actually improve with change, rather than resist change or do comparatively better than other systems (agility). The fact is that these types of systems are normal in nature but humans don't have an inherent concept of it. It seems to be a limitation of psychology.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
If I understand Wretchrd's post correctly, as well as what I read of taleb's points, then I instinctively figured out some years ago that DHS was a "fragile" system. I came to that conclusion -- but articulating it differently -- from the whole Katrina debacle in 2005. The creation of a mega-security agency had the effect of slowing things down to disastrous effect. Three years earlier I had a letter-to-the-editor published in the Washington Times explaining why I thought this new "super agency" was a very bad idea, and the WT agreed with me. To put this into prespective, I supported the so-called "neo-con" anti-terror plan, right down to the Iraq invasion. I knew, though, that major military actions also spawn new, unkillable bureaucracies, and sclerosis sets in.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Mesocyclone: "but their operational value is unclear"

That is not a bug, that is a feature. The whole point of his commentary is that we try to predict outcomes and improve our lot. The antifragile theory is a metalevel higher than that, we should look at systems that work and assume their characteristics rather than their strategies.

My issue with his concept is not so much the idea, it is the implementation. He has shown that we lack the word for antifragile, but as complex organisms we may actually be hard-wired to assume a relatively stable environment. In an extinction event the elephants go first, the cockroaches are fine. It does no good for the elephants to know they are vulnerable to the volcano if they can't escape it.

There may be things that we can do, with extreme intention, to give us some advantage. Examples would be the building of more resilient (even potentially antifragile) local social structures. The crazy thing is that they are embattled by the fragilistas; the boy scouts, the black church, the state>federal power structure have all taken hits recently. So when I translate "operational value", I come up with "increase your local dependence at the expense of your distant dependence". So I defend the local, even if I disagree with it in substance.

To whit: I hate my Property Owners Association. They are a bunch of nosy retirees who get in my chili. But I am glad it is not the county sheriff I depend on to mediate my issues with the neighbor's cat. I am overjoyed it is not the department of homeland security.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The Obama Administration's gamble they it could take over the domestic energy business is undergoing its death throes in New Orleans at the BP trial. They bet a lot on getting Cap & Trade by scapegoating BP in May 2010 while the bill, already passed in the House, was pending before the Democrat controlled Senate. With a ready made evil oil company to pillory, all that stood between them and success was the chance that BP would "plug the damn hole". So when BP's drilling and completions engineer Kurt Mix got the flow of hydrocarbons into the Gulf stopped during the top kill operation (as reported by Admiral Thad Allen on Good Morning America), sabotage was called for.

Ken Salazar had a drilling moratorium drafted in the middle of the nght and Steven Chu overruled BP and aborted the operation before it could succeed.

Has anyone ever explained why a guy who had absolutely nothing to to with the blowout, the resulting deaths and the spill was the first (and for quite a while the only) person criminally charged? Charge the people who had influence on the events leading up to the event if you must, but someone who had nothing to do with the event??????

Ed Markey (D-MA) and his committee held a hearing immediately before BP started the top kill and spun the narrative that the blowout was the result of BP's failure to follow Halliburton's instructions regarding the number of centralizers. Now Halliburton has just admitted that the number of centralizers was not a safety concern.

And they are spinning as fast as they can the story as to why the evidence they were ordered by the court to produce somehow went "missing".

As a desperate doubling down of their bet, the DOJ has re-indicted Mix on even more stupid, trumped up charges as their LAST BLUFF!

Mix will be arraigned on April 3. If he can destroy these charges as effectively as he did the first two, Obama's flow rate narrative will implode. And it deserves to implode because the flow rate estimates that the government contends were accurate, while BP's were inaccurate, rely on flow up through the annulus at 17,200 feet, which we now know was not true due to the results of the interesection of the relief well with Macondo 252. The relief well was drilled by John Wright, of John Wright Co, a part of Boots and Coots, itself a part of Halliburton. So a Halliburton guy disproved Halliburton's alibi!!!!!!!

Halliburton's cement failed because it was improperly prepared by Halliburton employees, not the lack of centrailizers. As Halliburton's alibi burns, so does Markey's and Obama's credibility.




1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The modern structures of government are for the most part variations on the theme of central planning. I micro-manage, therefore I am. This tendency has accelerated at the same time that the actual social and economic currents have become more complex and dynamic and thus less amenable to being controlled by a slow, tiny little brain at the eating end of the dinosaur. This is the discontinuity. Central control for a complex system only scales to a certain point. There is a limit to how much information can be assimilated by a human being or a committee, much less analyzed. But the typical reaction to the failures of the system has been to increase the degree of power they wield which is much like trying to extinguish a fire by throwing gasoline on it.

In essence, there is no convex solution which would maintain the status and importance of the powers that be, only concave ones across waters which will drown them if they go that route.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment

I also live in TX and you reminded me of something back in the '70s. I did a pre-employment physical on a guy from OH who formerly worked in an auto plant and had been unemployed almost 3 years. He'd finally given up on the local scene and come to the little town where I practiced to get work, which was plentiful in my area at that time due to an oil boom.

So he passed his exam to work as a truck driver and I asked him what he had done and he said he'd been a machinist for many years. I told him of a machine shop in town that was practically kidnapping people, they had so much oil-field work.

He went down there and was right back for another physical for the shop, which I promptly filled out (collecting a second fee).

The guy honestly had tears in his eyes and said, ''When I call my wife she won't believe I got two jobs in less than an hour! Next thing I'm going to do is call her brother and get him down here!''
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I think that for many people it will take a step off the easy path to make them wake up. The big question is whether we have to go with them.

Our biggest problem is the huge number of people who have gone on the dole and think it their inalienable right. Food stamp enrolment is up 70% since 2008 – and the DoA is out advertising the availability of food stamps – in Mexico. The number of people on SS Disability has soared – up by on the order of 1000% over the last 50 years – despite the fact that we are healthier now and have so many mandatory safety devices – and all day long you see TV ads for legal firms who say they will get you your SS Disability.

Against this total of so many people who do not work are all kinds of “advocates” – lawyers, politicians, labor leaders, environmental advocates, government regulators, feminists, racial pimps, immigration advocates, who effectively are determined to make sure that those people will not get a job or shouldn’t have to.

On TV the other day they showed black woman who accused a man of raping her in high school. He was sent to jail for 5 years, his promising football career ruined. She sued the school and received a $750K judgment. And now she has admitted, to a candid video session, that he never raped her, and it has been revealed that the DNA evidence from the case showed he did not do it. The $750K is gone now; she has 3 kids and is broke.

I doubt most of these kind of people will ever come to their senses unless something truly shocking happens to them - and does so for an extended period.

On the other hand there are many hopeful signs. Technological developments, from fracking to Stanford’s announcement of a possible new cancer breakthrough. And the number of true craftsmen creating wonderful things at home with their own hands seems to have exploded. And the Internet is a intelligence force multiplier.

The question is: who will define the future? The innovators, the craftsmen, the creators - or the regulators and people who think someone else should pay for their Viagra?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
To pile on. I am a retired. I keep my hand in by working part time. I live in metro DC. I am making a good little side business out of leveraging cottage craftsmen. We will make anything you want. Period. If you want a production item at lowest cost, we probably are not very competitive. If, however, you need custom, unique and low volume (one!) we can do it. Name your material, name you part.
We do lots and lots of things with guys working in their garages or backyard shops, part time.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Wow! That is terrfic! You should go national with that idea.
I do not count myself as a craftsman but the older I get the more concerned I become that things be done right, with quality and care. I sit here at a corner desk I built myself 30 years ago and think how much better I could have done it.
I am maintaining and improving a 1946 airplane and building another, a biplane, although at glacial speed. I restore vintage radios for fun as well. Every once in a while I come up with an idea that works out.
Good luck with your efforts!
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
A Captain I once worked for used to tell people reporting for duty the following life lesson. When he arrived at NATO HQ he, like most Americans, worked long hours, weekends and holidays. About three weeks into his tour his German 0-6 boss told him "Rich, we Germans have learned that we have a war every 50 years of so and I assure you that anything you do today will have no bearing on its outcome so go home and enjoy life."

We in the West are conditioned to think the world advances on a smooth path by the relative stability of 19th Century (1815-1914). However, the times before and since have been dominated by discontinuity. As Captain Rich used to tell us every 50 years...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
An individual at the age of 70 brings a certain awareness of personal fragility to these speculations about our collective fragility. I stand on a promontory on one those arms of the concave set and can see that the other arm is far too distant in time for me to have any chance of reaching it in this life. The coming stess will perhaps jettison me into another dimension sooner than I'd like. Or I may join with the great company of the dead without any significant help from the present collective folly.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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