Wind, Sand, Stars, Meditations and Superforecasting

Quite a combination…

I’ve just about been keeping up my book per week resolution but I haven’t quite managed to keep up writing about them. So here goes — a few notes about each of the last three books I’ve read.

The first was Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (yes, also the author of The Little Prince). Written in the 1930s it tells of the early days of aviation. I chose it because it came up when I searched for books about Patagonia — where we were heading on holiday. The author was stationed here as a station manager for Aeropostale in the late 1920s. I’m writing this looking out over the sea and the mountains a couple of hundred kilometres from his base. He probably flew over the small town we’re staying in many times.

I love flying but I also love that it’s the safest form of transport. It wasn’t always like that. In the days of Aeropostale hundreds of pilots and crew were lost just trying to find their way along new routes. In South America they had to find their way through the Andes with no pressurisation of the cabin or even heaters. They had no real navigation aids other than a compass. Descending into the cloud could be disastrous. You didn’t know whether there was clear air or a rocky mountain just below.

But those pioneer pilots changed the world. They connected places like Punto Arenas to the outside world. Messages and people could get here from Europe in a few days rather than the weeks or months they would take by sea. It’s an amazing book. I loved it.

Next up was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius which I also liked. It’s one of the three main books people point you to to learn about stoicism. Instinctively I’m attracted to it as a way of thinking. It’s not a rip-roaring read and is perhaps better suited to dipping in and out rather than reading cover to cover. It’s thought that Aurelius didn’t write it for others to read at all — it was simply a kind of notebook diary in which he jotted down thoughts about philosophy. My only criticism of stoicism is that as well as helping you weather the bad times it flattens some of the highs of the good times — I prefer to celebrate those.

Finally I read Superforecasting which is such a good book. Through their Good Judgement Project, Philip Tetlock and the team proved that ‘ordinary’ people could out-predict all of the so-called experts in prediction who dominate our news media as talking heads or columnists. They then set about learning how the superforecasters worked and seeing whether it was a process that others could learn. The book is full of useful tips based on real stories and data from the research. The authors are also self-aware enough to point out the limitations to their findings — in particular superforecasters’ ability to predict ‘unknown unknowns’ or ‘black swans’ as Nassim Taleb would call them.

Prediction is something that you have to do as an investor and I’d read a lot about avoiding cognitive biases but Superforecasting gave me lots of extra insights and techniques. Thoroughly recommended.