Wednesday 4 September 2013

Book Review: Antifragile

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is an exceptional writer - though not entirely in a good way. He is variously described as a "superhero of the mind" (Boyd Tonkin) and "Wall Street's principal dissident" (Malcolm Gladwell), and much commentary focuses on his style more than his content. Few dispute that he is brilliant, though he feels compelled to demonstrate this with striking frequency.

His most recent book Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder is an exciting challenge to received wisdom about adopting middle-of-the-road strategies in personal health and finance, macroeconomics and much more besides. But it comes with a strong dose of personal advertisement and gratuitous demonstration of Taleb's breadth of learning.

It is worth putting up with this though. The essence of his argument is that a spectrum runs from fragility through robustness to antifragility, and that we should seek to develop antifragility - the ability to become stronger through challenges - in our bodies, our finances, our politics and our economies.

With examples from a wide variety of disciplines Taleb illustrates that we often describe certain things as good or bad when in fact the key consideration is dose. By careful dose control we can increase our tolerances of many things that would otherwise be very harmful to us - and in doing so we increase our antifragility. Taleb himself reacts to this insight by training with streetfighters rather than personal trainers and investing in a contrarian portfolio.

His arguments have fascinating ramifications for individuals and policy makers. For example, he suggests that our public health systems are riven by agency risks and the malign influence of what he calls "iatrogenics". He praises entrepreneurs as the heroes of humanity - the people who knowingly or unknowingly take risks that probably condemn them to losses but drive forward progress for the societies to which they belong.

One of Taleb's interesting conclusions is that we are terrible at making complex judgements and that we should therefore trust the only reliable assessor of quality - time. In other words, we should suspend judgement on things (foods, medicines, concepts, philosophies) until they have stood the test of time. He points out that the best predictor of how long something will last is how long it has already lasted. As a result, he advocates drinking wine and coffee but avoids all processed foods.

This is an exciting and bold book and it may change your behaviour in any of several ways. You may consider changing your diet, your attitude to saving and investment and even your career. It is well worth reading.

Book Review: Connected

Connected: The Amazing Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler is an accessible exploration of the fundamental role of networks in our world. These respected academics bring together research from a wide variety of sources to demonstrate the importance of networks to our health, wealth, thoughts and fashions.

Without resorting to jargon the authors explain the extent of influence in networks (typically significant to 3 degrees of separation) and the breadth of factors that demonstrate contagious behaviour within networks (including divorce and obesity). I wonder what influences Kevin Bacon and I may be having on each other...

The book touches on the network significance of religions in which adherents have a direct relationship with God. They explain how this increases the interconnectedness of faith networks since all believers are only one remove from each other through their direct connection with God. Through outbreaks of contagious laughter and disease to discussion of the wealth of nations, this book has plenty to stimulate the thoughts of policy-makers and casual readers alike.

I found "Connected" encouraged me to have greater sympathy for individuals as the product - to a greater extent than I had imagined - of the networks in which they develop.

Book Review: Thinking, Fast and Slow

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman is a must read book. Kahneman synthesises the lessons of his 60 year nobel prize-winning career into this tome. As one of the fathers of Behavioural Economics he has been at the forefront of exposing the inherent illogicality of the human mind - features such as loss aversion (the endowment effect) and our tendency to see coherence and causation where there is none.

Kahneman fills this book with quick exercises that illustrate our habitual jumping to flawed conclusions - the "fast" thinking of the title. He explains that this is a fundamental and sometimes useful characteristic of our brains and suggests ways to mitigate the consequences and harness the "slow" thinking which buys us time to correct our instinctive mistakes.

This book is bristling with challenges to the rational economist, and provides tempting insights for the salesman and the potential criminal. It is playfully written and although the author has been an eminent academic since the 1950s, it is modern and engaging for the non-technical reader like me.

Kahneman reflects on happiness. His suggestions are fascinating. Two notable points:
  1. Choose your goals carefully so that they are achievable. Kahneman singles out those who aspire to success in the performing arts as particularly prone to disappointment.
  2. Spend time with friends. This, Kahneman asserts, is the key to happiness. Read the book to find out more, then come over for supper to discuss it!

Book Review: A Voyage for Madmen

This summer we spent a wonderful week on the Devon coast at East Prawle, a few miles West of Start Point. On our first evening the yachts of the Fastnet Race swept past our window on their outward leg, and on the bookshelf beside the window I found a book I had heard of but never read: A Voyage For Madmen

Peter Nichols' book follows the nine diverse characters who set out to be first to sail around the world non-stop. The race started in 1968 and Nichols does a great job of exploring the characters of these extraordinary men, and the dynamics of the race that developed, fuelled by the growing interest of the media. It held particular interest to me as I have met two of the survivors of the race, John Ridgway and Robin Knox-Johnson, who eventually won the race.

First to start was John Ridgway, an early celebrity favourite having rowed across the Atlantic two years earlier with Chay Blythe. Like most of the other competitors, Ridgway was sailing in a fundamentally unsuitable craft, the bilge keeled English Rose IV, and after a collision with a press boat as he leaves Ireland he was baling out all the way south through the Atlantic. He pulled out after only 6 weeks at sea.

Ridgway and Blythe (who set sail a week or so later) were both early casualties of the malign influence of sponsors - both were sailing boats provided by manufacturers eager for publicity for inshore cruisers that were not fit for the Southern Ocean. But much greater pressure was to befall the last competitor to set sail, Donald Crowhurst, who beat the race deadline of 31 October by only a few hours. He had gambled his house on winning the competition for the fastest circumnavigation, and set sail in a boat that was entirely unfit for the storms ahead.

Nichol tracks Crowhurst's lonely preparations, departure and, eventually, his decision to cheat in order to save his family. After months at sea and a surreal episode when he goes ashore in South America and has a fine meal with customs officers, Crowhurst's log records his descent into madness. His abandoned craft was found sometime later. He is presumed to have stepped overboard.

Meanwhile, Robin Knox-Johnson, with his radio and self steering gear broken, is relentlessly progressing through the mountainous seas of the Southern Ocean, and eventually returns to a hero's welcome as the only competitor to complete the circumnavigation. In a remarkable act of generosity he gave his winnings to Donald Crowhurst's widow. Psychologists' reports of Knox-Johnson commissioned by his media sponsors before he left described him as "distressingly normal".

Nevertheless, this is an excellent and entertaining study of 9 remarkable men and their endeavours in a bygone age in which it was possible to be without contact with any other human for more than 4 months. I heartily recommend it to anyone interested in the study of determination and adventure.

I worked for John Ridgway in 1990 as an instructor at his adventure school in the highlands of Scotland and so it was a special treat for me to read an account of one of his earlier exploits. I spent a very enjoyable evening with Robin Knox-Johnson more recently at an event where he was presenting on the challenges of raising sponsorship for sporting events. When I mentioned that I had worked for John before becoming a Royal Marine, he collected us some drinks and regaled me with tales of his encounters with Royal Marines in Norway and elsewhere for the rest of the evening.