Trusting the Terrain

This picture does not indicate a non-stop train. One would think, if one did not speak Dutch, that you boarded the train at Tilburg, and de-trained at Den Haag Centraal. (My actual origin point was Eindhoven a few hours earlier, but that’s part of the story.)

To expand. If one grew up on New York’s Long Island Railroad, where if you boarded a train bound for a certain station – barring disaster that train would pull into the promised station – then one would bring that unarticulated experience and associated expectations to Holland. (If you boarded West of Babylon, you knew you would always change trains there for points East, as the track electrification did not begin until Babylon.)

Where, say, one boards a train in Eindhoven that glides in almost silently under a station sign that reads: Den Haag Centraal. One then settles in the foyer area of the car, content to not wrestle luggage into a seat. Out of sight of car notification signs and not speaking the language of the occasional announcement? Sure. But that sign said Den Haag Centraal, so the only mistake would be getting off this particular train.

The email load was significant, the book was interesting, I was buried in it. And never noticed the mass exodus when we reached Rotterdam. Nor the prolonged wait before the train started moving again.

In the opposite direction.

Wait, you say. How on earth did I not notice it was now moving in the wrong direction? I don’t fully know the answer, but as there is no American equivalent to the smoothness of European trains, I can honestly say I was not terribly aware of any movement. And the book was interesting. And I was on the right train – remember that sign in Eindhoven? And the app seems to be reinforcing that the Intercity would “Richting” Den Haag Centraal at 14:37. (Only writing this do I check the translation of Richting, which feels like a verb, but really only means ‘direction.’)

All the indicators upon which I relied for train travel – all the more important since I do not speak the language – told me I was on my way to my preferred destination. Despite a host of clues screaming that I was simply wrong. After two hours aboard the Intercity, I finally checked my position on my maps application, trying to see where I was. Only then did I notice the dot was moving not only away from Den Haag, but was already nearing a return to Tilburg (one station short of my origin point of Eindhoven). On the ‘return’ journey (the source for my screen capture image), I paid attention at each stop and finally noticed the exodus at Rotterdamn, along with the station sign above the train that no longer promised Den Haag. I even had to (gasp) ask a passerby for the number of the transfer platform.

Recently, minutes from U.S. Federal Reserve minutes were released that give us more detail into the conversations inside the Fed as the 2007 recession began to take hold. There are minority views trying to explain they were living in an outlier scenario, but these were outvoted repeatedly. From the NYT article: “The Fed’s understanding of the crisis…was clouded by its reliance on indicators that tend to miss sharp changes in conditions.” Clouded by its indicators.

If you think my idiocy on the Rotterdam platform was remarkable, consider how the Fed officials continued to fret about inflation as the market and housing prices crashed and unemployment began to rise. When we are predicting, the failure to question our indicators could just mean it takes us five hours to traverse a two-hour journey – or it could mean we miss a catastrophe unfolding around us.

In the movie Gravity, the stranded astronaut believes she has sufficient resources aboard a Soyuz capsule, until she senses a change in the environment that causes her to tap on an analog gauge (an old pilot’s trick, as vital needles tended to freeze unhelpfully in obsolete positions). As she taps, the needle falls to a more correct reading, ostensibly nearer to zero.

In these three stories – only the fictional character reacts appropriately by first

questioning her indicators. I had forgotten (and the fine economists on the Fed never learned) an old lesson I first read regarding an admonition in the Swedish Army Manual: “Where the terrain and the map disagree, trust the terrain.” Even when riding the famously efficient and wonderful trains of Europe, we should be careful to not become clouded by our indicators.

Just imagine how we need to think differently in less structured endeavors.

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