Last year at Thanksgiving I wrote a post about the Tale of the Turkey. It referenced the problem we all have as people. We believe tomorrow will be like today. Most days that’s true; then the unexpected occurs. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell sort of put it…
“For a thousand days the turkey is well fed and tended by human beings.
Life is both comfortable and predictable.
On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving a major event occurs.
As the Red Queen put it, "Off with his head!"
There is little data is the turkey’s first thousand days that offers him any hope of predicting or even understanding the consequences of a human holiday.”
“In the real world these improbable events occur.
We are not naturally well equipped to deal with the problem of The Black Swan.”
The unexpected – The Black Swan isn’t good or bad. A Black Swan is neither positive nor negative. A Black Swan still requires a response or not. The “not” is the more common initial response.
“When I ask people to name three recently implemented technologies the most impact our world today, they usually propose the computer, the Internet, and the laser.
All three were unplanned, unpredicted, and unappreciated upon their discovery, and remained unappreciated well after their initial use.
They were consequential.
They were Black Swans."
- Nassim Nicoloas Taleb
I pulled the above from an important book (it was a non-fiction best seller) The Black Swan – The Impact of the HIGHLY IMPROBABLE written by the skeptic philosopher and noted mathematician Nassim Nicoloas Taleb. He is both a quant savant and a nemesis to populist economists, pseudo-science hucksters, and the like. The Black Swan (which has NOTHING to do with the movie by the same name) is well worth the read since it is both entertaining and enlightening. You will be required to think while you read.
A Search For Black Swans in Real Time
For my own entertainment I thought I might toss the pizza of the recent series of events against the wall of The Black Swan.
First I DO have to explain that the “unexpected” obviously happens all the time. For the most part the “unexpected” stuff “statistically” balances out in the real world. That methodology is how the quants figure out what to charge you for insurance, taxes, and almost everything else these days. The approach fundamentally underlies poll results, weather prediction, financial management practice, and even Google search results you get as you look for the best place to shop on Brown Thursday or Black Friday this year.
We and our computers are making the world more predictable. Therefore, we are all now able to live with less risk and more security.
BUZZZZZZZZZZZZZ Thanks for playing.
Our false sense of surety and security is an illusion and a dangerous one at that. It’s an illusion of method, perception, and hubris.
Unfortunately the real world does NOT really behave as described above. Things occur all the time that cannot be accounted for by these means. There are always “Outliers” which the statistical methods discussed above must by BOTH definition and practice must almost completely ignore.
Why are the Twilight or Harry Potter books a rage?
These vagaries are NOT confined to “irrational” human and social behaviors. They occur everywhere in the physical world every day. An awful lot of “scientific progress” occurs because we stumble over these very unexpected things.
A lava lake cools just so and we get an unbelievable Scottish rock formation that appears to be created by design.
We live on a Goldilocks planet where everything is just exactly “right” for what you see out the window.
Welcome to the Quantum Universe whose physical “laws” themselves depend on specific Black Swan events. Really? Really.
Most of us don’t understand the math behind the numbers that are advocated. This really isn't the issue.
Few even among the educated and the experts understand the misapplication of the tools. Simply put, if you employ a tool all the time and it works – you believe it will always work. We see what we expect. If we have a goal to discover a trend we find it. We overlook the outliers.
For reasons that should be obvious this seems to happen more in economics, the social sciences, environmental science, and biology these days.
This is probably because it pays.
No Swan in the Election
The Republican party’s polling models differed from the Democratic polling models. The President was reelected so therefore the Democratic polling models were “better” because those models “predicted” the real world results.
Hogwash. More votes were tabulated for Obama in the right places. Statistically the election was a dead heat.
2-6 billion of ad spend later the people voted NOT to change much of anything. This is may be more substantive than the visible and proclaimed "results".
Two men drive into town. One offers a truckload special of two for one fish. One fish is free and maybe the guy next to you will pay for the other. The other guy is selling fishing poles and angling instruction. It’s instructive to consider that in the vote count both pitches did almost as well as the other.
An Imperfect Storm
Hurricane Sandy stormed in the week before the election. Maybe the disaster tipped the election scales - maybe not. Sandy became a “superstorm” and so “bad” because of global warming according to some.
The storm followed a fall tropical storm track that seems to reoccur cyclically every few decades as far back as we can see. We can't see very far either.
Sandy was a collusion of weather, lunar tide cycle, geography, and population density at the edge of the statistical norms.
Is New York City the new New Orleans?
Notably the federal, state, and local governments seem to be little better at responding to the “unexpected” weather even after the country’s relatively recent Katrina experience.
No surprises here.
Bigger is no advantage when we must deal with the unexpected whose details are also inherently specific and the effects are often localized.
"Too Big to Fail" often means it will. When becomes the issue.
Plan for the Preposterous?
Hardly a person alive is around anymore to remember when storms like Sandy last happened more frequently in the northeast. Who in authority would listen to old fishermen and the stories of those beach dwellers who sit by the dock on the bay.
Those lines high on the walls of the oldest seaside restaurants in New England are only there to impress the tourists after all.
In many places those lines were banned or erased because they might scare away people.
Blame the Swans on God or Circumstance
“This can’t be happening man! This can’t be happening!”
my favorite movie line from Aliens
All Acts of God are not Black Swans simply by default although we want or often perceive that to be true. A series of Sandy events in August, September, and October in a single year would be an outlier to remember, but we don’t.
People chose to forget. Denial is a human thing. Without it we would not be who we are or do what we do.
Can I interest you in some beachfront property in New Jersey?
This is move on human phenomenon is another remarkable and critical human aspect of our personal and social response to all Black Swan events.
The Unexpected is Personal
I personally think almost everyone has personal Black Swan events – “Stuff happens”. Events have different weights for different people. If you are a “victim” of a storm like Sandy, a forest fire, or other personal disaster you’ll never forget. You must however learn to behave like it won’t happen again tomorrow. If you don’t, you will have “issues”. Our internal response can mess with our life more than the event and loss itself.
We’ve even invented a new term to describe the effect – Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
As for Black Swans, I can speak from experience. My personal tragic and positive Swan details don’t matter. I understand while they may make a good tale to share and that the act of sharing IS important to me - my details themselves aren’t the most important thing.
The Human Process
Sharing the details with someone willing to give the time to listen is important to us as individuals. The telling of the tale, the listening, and the act of bearing witness are all personally and socially important.
These aspects “leak out”, manifest themselves, and erupt all around us every day.
Let's say the power of "social media" isn't a new thing which is why it works for some things.
Do I make the conscious moral choice to pay personal attention?
I am NOT personally responsible for all things and all others everywhere all the time.
In our media drenched world it takes active work to see, choose, and act wisely.
Do I understand my part in the moment of the present?
Is it my time to speak; to hear; or to bear witness and say, “Amen”.
Each of these are different. I hope I don’t have to belabor the difference between the first two.
I am delivering a Roundtable at AU 2012 that bears on that topic.
When do I say, “Amen”?
Am I accountable to ACT as I have publically proclaimed?
When I “agree” publically before others I KNOW I must act OR suffer the internal consequences?
One of the nasty and false aspects of the religion of modern secular humanism is that the collective “we” pretends to get you personally off the hook. This belief may work as an intellectual exercise, but it doesn’t work out that way inside our heads. Read more about this philosophic sophistry here.
If we believe in the humanist’s way, the Black Swans, and the tragedy of others, and all Life may be reduced to a form of disassociated “entertainment”.
Yes we probably all complain about that. But "why is it happening?" isn't asked to often.
In the humanist world view “We shall overcome” quickly becomes I am overwhelmed.
We all know how THAT feels.
Is there a way out? Of course.
Do not miss out on the personal acts of human accountability that do produce an internal sense of personal accomplishment.
Those become things you KNOW and own.
For the “best” ones it doesn’t even matter if no one else ever sees or knows about them.
The Best Test of Did I Get It Right?
Always the healthy human process produces a sense of gratitude.
I must joyfully say, “Thanks.”
That is worth celebrating and we do.