Viewing the COVID-19 Pandemic through the Lens of Fragility

I recently read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s four-book Incerto collection.

In the first book, Fooled by Randomness, Taleb posits that we know much less about the world than we think. Published just months before 9/11, he infamously floated the scenario of terrorists flying planes into the Twin Towers.

In the second book, The Black Swan, Taleb discusses low-probability, high-impact events like the 9/11 attacks and explains how our current models (investment, economic, political) fail to account for them. Published a few months before the Great Recession, Taleb confidently asserts that the financial system of the United States will to crash, as it has simply built up too many risky bets.

The third book, and I would argue Taleb’s best, is Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. While the first two books mainly describe the world we live in – a world dominated by uncertainty and subject to Black Swan events – Antifragile lays out concrete tips for how to survive and thrive in the face of this uncertainty.

Incidentally, in Taleb’s fourth book, Skin in the Game (published in 2015), Taleb asserts matter-of-factly that the world will experience a global pandemic in the coming years. The current COVID-19 pandemic is thus not a “Black Swan” event, but rather something that anyone paying attention could have seen coming.

While Taleb has gained fame for his predictions, he cautions that the key is not to predict the future, but rather to structure our lives in such a way as to best handle the inevitable uncertainty and randomness of life.

According to Taleb, everything can be divided into one of three categories: fragile, robust, and antifragile. Fragile things, like teacups, break under stress and uncertainty. Robust things, like rubber balls, can withstand stress and uncertainty. Antifragile things, like human muscles, actually get stronger when subjected to stress and uncertainty (but only up to a point).

To use some examples from mythology, fragility is the sword of Damocles – hanging over our necks, just waiting to hurt us. Robustness is the phoenix, rising from the ashes. But antifragility is the hydra, growing back two heads for every one that is severed.

Common sense dictates that we arrange our lives, our societies, and our world in such a way as to at the very least minimize fragility and maximize robustness, with the added goal of antifragility. However, many of the things we are currently doing actually “fragilize” the system. The natural world understands robustness and antifragility, and the complex workings of many moving parts. The modern, man-made, globalized world oversimplifies things into models or theories that then break when subjected to stress.

Corporations prefer optimization to redundancy. In the words of Apple CEO Tim Cook, “Inventory is evil.” Well, maybe — when things are going according to plan. But in the face of a pandemic, when supply chains are disrupted, inventory is a blessing; its lack a curse that costs lives.

Here are some additional takeaways from Antifragile that we can apply to the current coronavirus pandemic:

  1. Don’t interfere with things you don’t understand.

Our first instinct is often to intervene in a crisis. However, certain interventions actually do more damage than the situation they are trying to address. Examples of this phenomena include unnecessary surgeries, micromanaging forest fires, urban planning, and overprotective parenting.

Often it is better to leave the system alone and let nature run its course. Let your body heal itself, let smaller forest fires occur, and let your kids make some mistakes every now and then.

Now, in the current crisis it would appear that non-intervention is actually riskier than intervention at the macro-level. However, at the individual level, most people who contract COVID-19 will be perfectly capable of fighting it off without needing to visit the hospital at the risk of spreading the infection.

Furthermore, we should seriously weigh the costs and benefits of any major interventions to our economic and political systems, carefully considering the downstream effects.

  1. Embrace Stoicism.

Stoicism has often been described as indifference to fate. However, Taleb views it more as antifragility to fate. Success brings fragility, as a successful person has more to lose than to gain from the unknown. This fact is compounded by the negativity bias, whereby we feel losses more deeply than gains. Many of us feel we have much to lose from the current crisis.

To counteract this predicament, Taleb directs us to Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and statesman, who advised mentally writing off one’s possessions in advance. This way, if we indeed lose them in real life, it hurts less. In other words, assume the worst, and be happy when the actual result is better.

Many people are financially stressed by the recent blow to their stock portfolios, or just depressed at the cancellation of sporting events and concerts. But as long as we have our basic needs met, we should view surplus income and recreation as icing on the cake.

Don’t take anything for granted.

  1. Adopt a “barbell strategy.”

Taleb uses the metaphor of the barbell as an antidote to bell curve thinking. Barbells take the extremes into account, while bell curves largely ignore them.

How does one survive in an uncertain world?

First, decrease your downside by lowering your exposure to negative events. Second, increase your upside by making some limited, high-risk bets. Taleb advises putting 90% of your money in boring, safe investments like bonds, while investing the other 10% in high-risk, high-reward options. His own options-heavy portfolio is structured so as to benefit from volatility. Banking on this strategy, he was one of the few winners in 2008.

Taleb illustrates the concept of optionality using the example of Thales of Miletus. Tired of being derided as a do-nothing philosopher, Thales put a down payment on the seasonal use of every olive press in the region, thus taking on a small risk. When the olive harvest turned out to be extremely bountiful, he released the owners of the olive presses on his own terms, earning himself a large reward.

Barbell-style investors like Taleb are probably doing just fine during this crisis, while the bell-curvers are suffering.

  1. Embrace trial and error.

Historically-speaking, more innovations have come from tinkering than from formal research. According to Taleb, “America’s asset is, simply, risk taking and the use of optionality, this remarkable ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no comparative shame in failing, starting again, and repeating failure.”

This latest coronavirus outbreak was not the first, and will not be the last. We have to be prepared to learn from our mistakes. If history is any guide, we will not be saved by central planning, but by grassroots trial and error.

  1. Understand that fragility is nonlinear.

In other words, negative effects increase not arithmetically, but rather exponentially. Much like infection rates from COVID-19, they compound over time. Anyone who has ever sat through a traffic jam understands this.

We should identify the potential traffic jams in our supply chains and act accordingly. Resisting globalization might cost more in the short-term and/or when things are running smoothly, but localism is a more robust long-term strategy.

  1. Follow the Via Negativa, or addition by subtraction.

Let’s say you have a problem: you are overweight. It is both cheaper and more effective to eliminate the unhealthy things from your life – junk food, smoking, drinking – than to add in healthy options – expensive gym memberships, diet plans, etc.

Simpler is better.

Less is more.

Increasing complexity also increases fragility. Hopefully the coronavirus pandemic will help teach us to simplify our lives where we can by showing us all the things we really can live without.

  1. Avoid neomania; opt instead for what has stood the test of time.

Taleb defines neomania as being too quick to embrace the latest (often-untested) thing. For example, books have been around for a long time, e-readers much less so. While the e-reader user might seem smarter in some situations (consider how many books you can fit on one device!), the traditional book-reader does better in the event of a power outage.

  1. If something is too big to fail, it should be too big to allow.

Taleb notes that large corporations and nations are actually weakened by their alleged advantage – their size – as they are more subject to Black Swan events. Smaller entities like city-states and small businesses are often more robust in a crisis. We should remember this during normal times, when people start advocating mergers, acquisitions, and various other economies of scale. It is easier to turn a small ship than a large one.

(Anecdotally, I can attest that smaller school systems have responded better to the coronavirus pandemic than larger ones. Likewise, larger businesses will likely have to lay off workers first.)

  1. The need for skin in the game.

Heroes take on the downsides of others, putting themselves at risk for the greater good. Charlatans and frauds keep the upside for themselves while passing on the risk to some larger group. Ethically speaking, we should not allow any entity to privatize its profits while socializing its losses.

Conclusion

This is not a pointless philosophical exercise. All of this matters; it matters a lot. According to Taleb:

Black Swan effects are necessarily increasing, as a result of complexity, interdependence between parts, globalization, and the beastly thing called “efficiency” that makes people sail too close to the wind… The world is getting less and less predictable, and we rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate, let alone predict.

We must consider – individually, communally, and globally – how best to navigate an increasingly unpredictable world. We can take steps to increase our resilience, and even antifragility, but this will likely necessitate certain sacrifices that seem unnecessary or even detrimental in the short-term.

At the micro-level, relying on the medical system makes us fragile. Learning basic first aid makes us more robust. Improving our body’s health through exercise utilizes our natural antifragility.

At the macro-level, there is a natural inclination to prop up the existing system. But perhaps we should utilize this crisis to build in various redundancies and fail-safes. This way, when the next crisis comes rolling inevitably along, we will all be better prepared to manage it. Instead of trembling in anxiety at the fragilities inherent in our daily lives, we can draw strength from traditional sources of wisdom and comfort – our communities, our families, and our faiths.

 

Featured Image Credit: DonSpencer1 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87998491

Eating Nature’s Diet

With another school year drawing to a close, getting back to a healthy diet was high on my priority list. I knew I had been slipping lately, making one too many trips through the drive-through as we raced from swim practice to soccer or T-ball. I told myself that if I just made it to summer break, I could finally ditch convenience and focus on eating whole, healthy foods again. Graduation couldn’t get here soon enough.

The day after cheering on the class of 2019, I laid out three simple rules for myself:

1. No processed carbs,

2. No processed meats, and

3. No dairy.

This is essentially a version of the anti-inflammatory diet. For years I had been wary of fully embracing the ketogenic diet, or any other plan that restricted carbohydrates indiscriminately. I love beans and rice and steel-cut oats too much for that. But even eating a “healthy” breakfast of “whole grain” toast was starting to take a toll on my waistline. I would be hungry again an hour or two later, triggering a cycle of snacking. So all bread was out, along with the crackers and pretzels that seemed better than cookies or potato chips, but honestly weren’t. I would continue to allow myself as much fruit as I wanted, despite their high sugar count. My rationale: if nature made it (and not scientists in a lab somewhere), it couldn’t be that bad.

For me, the decision to cut out processed meats came after reading the book Animal Factory by David Kirby. Factory farming is probably one of the worst ongoing disasters in America, the consequences affecting not only our health but also our environment and local communities. Accelerating dramatically in the 1990’s, small farms have been largely replaced by gigantic concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFO’s) which pollute our water with animal waste and often sicken local inhabitants. Millions of cows, chickens, and especially pigs are subjected to appallingly miserable living conditions and doused with antibiotics to reduce the inevitable infections that come with crowding so many animals together. The “product” is cheap, tasty (but only when mixed with salt, sugar, and chemical additives and/or deep fried), and hazardous to human health.

I have stopped eating pork altogether, taking a page out of Leviticus. But I will still consume organic chicken and beef, and have recently started eating more healthy fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines. And eggs are most definitely in.

When many Americans contemplate a life without processed carbs, the first thing they reach for is the cheese. Last night I broke my cheese fast with a delicious wedge of manchego to go with my lazy dinner of celery, hummus, pistachios, red wine, and dark chocolate. But I don’t plan to go back to topping every meal, from salad to eggs, with shredded cheddar. And I’ve decided I can live without milk and ice cream. My morning coffee now gets a splash of almond milk. The idea that a healthy diet must include dairy is a myth subsidized by the industry and propped up by dubious politics. Dairy is highly inflammatory, and should especially be cut out if one is prone to acne.

So, if dairy, processed carbs, and processed meats are out, what’s in? Fresh vegetables: cucumbers, celery (often with almond butter), beets, carrots, tomatoes, onions. Nuts, but not peanuts (which aren’t even real nuts). I’ve added walnuts and pecans to my fruit and oatmeal routine, which might occur at any time of day. Dark chocolate (85%) and the occasional glass of red wine let me indulge without triggering inflammation. Two recipes I’ve found highly delicious are red lentil curry with sweet potatoes and super-easy crockpot chicken with artichokes and sun-dried tomatoes.

I’ve noticed that when I’m not eating processed carbs or dairy, I’m not hungry as frequently. I also don’t eat directly upon rising, but rather wait a couple hours to break the fast. Historically, only field laborers ate directly upon rising. But the breakfast wars remain controversial.

I’ve only been on this eating plan for a week, and I already feel thinner, healthier, and more energetic. I’ve also experienced more gratitude at the range of choices available to me, when our ancestors were limited to only what was in season locally. I’m sure I’ll eventually add back in certain carbs like whole wheat bread and waffles, and I’ve already indulged in some cheese, but I hope I never eat a hotdog again. I hope I can sustain this healthy lifestyle through both the enjoyment of delicious foods and the fear of a host of ailments (cancer, mad cow, heart disease).

What could sabotage this plan? Perhaps the unholy triumvirate of temptation, convenience, and cost. But I’ve found that it’s easier to resist the first cupcake than the third, and some healthy foods can be convenient (I’m fond of telling my children that bananas come in their own wrappers). While buying organic costs more, you save money on fast food and the 80% of the grocery store that’s now off-limits.

Despite the invariable costs, the benefits of healthy eating are more than worth it. Improving your diet also improves your mood, energy, skin tone, immune system, digestion, and mental clarity. In America we eat a poor diet of “cheap” foods and spend millions on energy drinks, expensive skin care products, and pharmaceuticals. The personal benefits of healthy living are clear, but I wonder, how many of our social problems could be improved with improved diets?

As soon as my high school students walk through the door, they are handed prepackaged bags of sugary juice, sausage, pancakes, milk — everything from my three “no’s” of dairy, processed meats, and processed carbs. Despite everyone at my high school receiving free breakfast, free lunch, and (if they stay) a free afternoon snack, they are constantly eating and constantly starving. They also have a hard time concentrating, which I’m sure is exacerbated by the very foods we are feeding them. It’s sad to see high schoolers already struggling with obesity and poor health.

The problem with the well-intentioned initiative of Michelle Obama to improve school lunch is that the new “healthy” choices just aren’t that tasty. Fresh fruits and salads and grains taste good; iceberg salad that was sliced a week ago and sad, shriveled carrots do not. Would it be too much to ask that students be given a hot bowl of steel-cut oats, to which they could add fresh fruit and nuts, in the morning? Or scrambled eggs mixed with freshly sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onion, and garlic (a new favorite of mine)? If this seems unlikely, then we as a society have sacrificed too much at the altar of convenience and profit.

I thank you for indulging me if you’ve read this far; I know how obnoxious it can be to read someone rambling on about what they’re eating or not eating. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist. This blog is not intended to cure, treat, or prevent disease. What works for me may not work for others. But now I’d like to make a more philosophical observation.

Basically, we disrespect nature at our own peril. Scientists are just now discovering things like the importance of the microbiome to mood and overall wellness. It seems the overuse of antibiotics has come at a steep price. Years ago, scientists thought they had found a “formula” that was just as good for a developing infant as mother’s milk. It turns out they were wrong. As Michael Pollan notes in In Defense of Food, mother’s milk contains substances that are indigestible to humans, but vital food for a certain microbe that populates an infant’s gut and prevents harmful microbes from causing disease. No formula will ever be as good as what nature provides.

In what other ways do we disrespect nature? Feeding animals to natural herbivores in CAFO’s, a common practice that may cause Alzheimer’s. Tricking the female body’s reproductive system into thinking it’s pregnant for years, when in fact it’s not. Spending our days indoors when we are designed by nature to need fresh air and sunlight. Living sedentary lifestyles, driving for hours to sit at desks for hours when we were designed to walk, run, crawl, jump, swim, and climb.

Science and religion are often presented as being at odds, but in the realm of nutrition the natural law tradition embraced by the Catholic Church gets us to the same destination as the evolutionary theory of Darwin: humans were designed/ evolved to eat and do certain things that we can’t change, even with all our science and technology.

In the Bible God says: “Behold, I have given you ever seed-bearing plant on the face of all the earth and every tree whose fruit contains seed; they will be yours for food (Genesis 1:29).” For most of human history, we were hunters and gatherers. Only recently did we adopt agriculture and only very recently did we adopt the combination of a sedentary lifestyle and highly processed, chemically altered diet. The results: skyrocketing rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression, and host of other ailments.

I am reminded of the following lines from Wordsworth, which seem an adequate closing to these musings:

To her fair works did Nature link

The human soul that through me ran;

And much it grieved my heart to think

What man has made of man.