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It’s hard to protect us from ourselves.

January 28, 2013

A couple of weeks ago, I blithely headed for Santa Fe, leaving late with no margin for error but expecting the trip would be as usual. While stopped for gas in Antonito, there seemed to be a lot of cars milling about—the “border was closed.”

The border? What was this, the U.S.-New Mexico border? Exactly the perception New Mexico Magazine has joked about for decades.

Highway 285 was closed for blowing snow, but 17 was still open to Chama. Okay, go that way. That the pass was open seemed an oversight, though. It was 60 miles of blizzard, eventually encouraging four-wheel-drive. I arrived late.

Upon my return, I found a frozen water meter and some frozen pipes under the house, as well. Thanks in part to faithful city workers, that turned out fine, but when I stopped in the library later, I thought I’d better leave the faucet dripping.

After midnight, a problematic sink stopper closed. Even a trickle of water adds up fast. By morning, we had a little flood. So, the rumors that the library had flooded on New Year’s Eve were simply premature.

Some water made it into the oft-despised basement Annex. We lost about a hundred books. All told, things could have been worse.

Of course, I reflected on Nassim Taleb’s new book, “Antifragility,” and one of his statements, which I’ll paraphrase for lack of the text at hand: Not seeing a tsunami coming is excusable, but building something fragile to it is not.

Basically, the world is full of asymmetrical consequences. Building a nuclear power station for an 8.0 earthquake but not a 9.0 is a foolish gamble. The added cost for the safer plant would have been negligible compared with the costs of the Fukushima calamity.

Probably the direst potential consequences on my trip were faced driving through the blizzard. Everything else was in the range of annoyance: arriving late for a long-planned event, never considering the pipes freezing, never considering a sink drain stopping up unattended. Certainly, things could have been worse.

In the back of my mind, I’d considered our home immune to frozen pipes after a previous winter living elsewhere without the pipes freezing. Thus, this year’s experience is a bit like the dramatic events that Taleb calls Black Swans: rare, unpredictable events with large consequences.

Unpredictable doesn’t mean unimaginable. Taleb asks us to consider in “Antifragility” the asymmetry of risk and how to reduce our exposure. He has ideas about it. What’s interesting is that part of remaining antifragile is emotional.

Even though some intelligence is needed, Taleb also says “All we need is the ability to accept …” I found this interesting, because acceptance is extra-rational; it is a practice of the heart. Such reflections in the book soften the often acerbic authorial voice and make his writings seem like works of self-discovery as much as intellectual inquiry.

I’m almost tempted to say antifragility requires a “glass is half empty” point of view. It’s useful to consider that things may go wrong and to consider one’s exposure before they do.

There is great freedom in reducing that exposure, as I might have done in 1997 when those sink stoppers first annoyed me. I could have replaced them. (Except that they’re heavy, which means they’re valuable.)

Taleb saves his greatest scorn for political and socio-economic fragility, such as banking systems, from which we can all be better protected—a proper role for government. However, it’s hard to protect us from ourselves.

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