To Be And To Last #27

This week we explore uncertainty, the scientific method, and how we can build better lives with these principles in mind.

Predicting the unpredictable

What we can predict doesn’t matter; what does matter, we can’t predict.

Barely 100 years ago, humans were launching dynamite into the air to create rain, and now our watches can tell us the hourly rain forecast. Our world has probably never been as predictable, which makes us feel in control.

Unfortunately it’s completely misleading.

Because we’re good at predicting small things like the weather, our brains assume that scales up to bigger things. But then outlier events like COVID drop in out of nowhere and break airlines’ ability to maximize profit.

In this vein, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books on uncertainty.

In The Black Swan, Taleb explores how poorly we account for unknown unknowns. We often look at games like poker as examples of risk management, yet poker only accounts for known risks (eg, what’s the chance they have a better hand than you) while real life contains more impactful unknown risks (eg, does this building have proper fire escapes).

Then in Antifragile, Taleb shares how to build a system that isn’t merely resistant to disruption or resilient in the face of problems but that actually benefit from disturbance (the opposite of fragile = antifragile).

The challenge? The antifragility of a larger ecosystem (city, country) is generally proportional to the acceptable fragility of individual elements (people, companies). For example, an economy that bails out individual companies is transforming this individual risk into systemic risk. The result will likely appear positive for some period of time, until eventually that systemic risk builds into a single massive disruption (a black swan).

New York Times on your wall

In my humble opinion, combining tech + art is generally a mistake. Tech nearly always diminishes the art’s longevity without adding much in return. This beautiful NYT e-ink display is an exception. Roughly the size of an unfolded physical newspaper, the display automatically updates daily with the actual current NYT front page.

(h/t Nick Gray)

Getting back into the laboratory

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. - Richard Feynman

I’ve been diving into Tim Ferriss’ wonderful podcast series again, and his conversation with Naval Ravikant touched on many important topics from the value of the scientific method to building a life that matters.

One element that stuck with me: we’ve started using “science” to describe so many things (social “science”, computer “science”) that aren’t actually based on the scientific method, and this has degraded our ability to do actual science where it matters. We need more educated skepticism and more individual fluency in the scientific method.

Also, Richard Feynman’s book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is one of my all-time favorite books. Definitely worth a read or listen.

To Be And To Last: Thinker Nate Desmond’s weekly roundup of long reads, contrarian thoughts, and hidden jewels that aren’t getting enough attention.

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