Monday, March 18, 2013

Randomness and the Anti-fragile plan

Having just finished reading Fooled by Randomness, and in the middle of reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, I am currently a self-proclaimed expert in why we're wrong so much of the time.  Let me enlighten you.

First, definitions are in order.  Randomness refers to the difficulty we have in predicting what's going to happen in the future.  Predicting what happened in the past is pretty much 100% accurate, which is why we're always in trouble.  "It happened that way yesterday, so it should happen that way again today" is a fallacy that ignores randomness and why things don't happen as expected.  Random means unpredictable.

Fragility and Antifragility are the super-cool aunt and uncle that make randomness fun but keep it in its place if we pay attention long enough to their boring stories.  Something that's fragile is breakable. You knew that, right?  But the concept as applies to economics and every other facet of existence isn't about keeping hubby's hands off your priceless Precious Moments.  It's about which things (physical, emotional, mental, economic, political...whatever) will be most damaged by an unexpected, random, event.  Antifragile refers to those thing that are least damaged by randomness.

Got all that?  Now you're an expert too.

There is a concept called "synchronicity", which, in its essence, explains that just because two things happen at the same time doesn't mean they're related.  It's the coinciding ("coincidence") of events that fools us into believing that there's a relationship between them.  In the wrong hands, synchronicity has been to blame for a lot of religious dogma, bad stock purchases, and epic animal training episodes (both good-epic and epic FAIL).  "What are the odds that he  didn't move forward because I hummed a show tune?  It happened the same way yesterday!  Twice can't be a coincidence."

Sure it can.  And this is where we look at our training plan and the animal we're training and ask ourselves, "How fragile is this behavior?"  If something unexpected (that damned squirrel in the tree, for instance) is likely to completely upend it, it's very fragile.  If no upending is likely (or, even better, a random event might actually be of benefit, as in desensitizing a young horse who is so busy coping with the tires and tarps and balls you're throwing at him that he actually enjoys watching the haybine pass by because it's a break in the action)

We live in a world governed by a few natural laws (gravity is not our friend, but it's inescapable) and a bunch of trumped-up human embellishments meant to control the uncontrollable.  The horse world is governed by one law and one alone:  Horses will or they won't.  What we learn from the combination of concepts above is that we really need to stop trying to predict the unpredictable and focus on determining the level of fragility.  You can't guess what will happen six months from now as easily as you can determine whether anything untoward at all is likely to make your life hell for as long as it takes for you to sort it out.

Horses will fall down if they're leaning too far to one side.  That's gravity at work.  I had a horse that would fall down just standing around.  Nothing needed to happen for her to just kind of tumble, particularly if she was bored.  She was fragile that way.  I knew that, and I could predict only that it was likely to happen, not when or why.

There was no underlying meaning in Tuft's choice
of nap space.  He neither liked nor disliked American Profile;
it just happened to not slide off the ottoman when he applied himself to it.
As nothing would prevent him from accomplishing this nap moment,
he was antifragile in that regard.  The magazines not so much.  
Back to randomness and why we hate it so much. This is a statistical (that's math) theorem. Lots and lots of random-number generators (roulette wheels were an early version) have been developed over the centuries to help researchers get a handle on the business of disconnectedess, and few have been truly random because of something called "bias".  Bias is the slant that makes things slide one way or another because whoever is doing the developing can't quite get rid of gravity, inertia, friction, a predilection for quitting after 62,241 trials or whatever other bit of reality is impinging on the creation.  Because no one can really effectively test randomness to perfection, it's easier to just pretend it doesn't exist and roll with the fake causal relationship that seems so obvious.  We can just let bias take over and pretend we understand what we really don't.  What does exist is a very, very large group of interrelated events that you, as Basic Human, can't begin to sort out and react to in any meaningful way.  We'll just call that randomness for our purposes.

Look closely and you'll see that the beads on my playpen are
configured 1-6-4-3-6.  Random?  Or an intelligently designed message via my
past baby self to my present old-lady self regarding today's lottery?
We can get into the randomness groove and get that this is what keeps us moving forward, motivated to learn more and do more and manipulate our environment (including our equine partners) with more creativity.  Know that you can't possibly assume a connection between two events unless they are repeated together with 100% accuracy 100% of the time.  Know that.  It's reality.  It's why Fuzzbutt got on the trailer 87 times in a row but refused to load at the end of the show that was four hours away from home and you really needed to vacate the premises.  Turns out there was no connection between your use of the Special Pink Lead Rope and Fuzzbutt's loading prowess.  Who knew?  He did it because he wanted to for some reason, and today he doesn't because some random event intervened and broke the streak.  Now you get to thrash around for a bit until he's in the mood again and you can attribute his change of heart to some other behavior on your part (like wearing your lucky underwear or turning him three times to the left and once to the right) which you will repeat until it, too, fails, and so on.

What thrives on randomness is the spirit to move mountains.  To paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), we should long to be the fire and look forward to the wind. Embrace chaos and the unexpected, but be aware of how fragile your situation might be. You can't predict exactly what will happen or when, but you can certainly have a clue as to the likelihood that something unexpected can topple your house of cards.

In my opinion, the day we stop trying to attribute our training successes to brilliant (but unrelated) actions on our part is when we will really start to understand our relationship to horses (not to mention the rest of the planet).  The next time you're up against a training block and the thought "What are the odds?" crosses your mind, just repeat to yourself that they're a lot smaller than you think, and go on and try something different. Work on making your plan as antifragile as you can, knowing it will never be 100%.   Give yourself permission to ignore the odds and know that it's not about you; it's about thirty bazillion things going on that of which you're blissfully unaware, and it's as close to raalistic as you're ever going to get.

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