The Black Swan       

Let’s consider the curious qualities of probability, as it applies to free will and how we interact with the world around us. We will begin with this thought from the late professional curmudgeon Andy Rooney, regarding what he calls “The 50-50-90 rule”:  “Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you will get it wrong. “

“Chaos umpire sits, 
And by decision more embroils the fray 
By which he reigns: next him high arbiter 
Chance governs all.”
   - from Paradise Lost, by John Milton

"Mere opinions, in fact, were as likely to govern people's actions as hard evidence, and were subject to sudden reversals as hard evidence could never be. So the Galapagos Islands could be hell in one moment and heaven in the next, and Julius Caesar could be a statesman in one moment and a butcher in the next, and Ecuadorian paper money could be traded for food, shelter, and clothing in one moment and line the bottom of a birdcage in the next, and the universe could be created by God Almighty in one moment and by a big explosion in the next--and on and on.”

    - from the novel Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut 

"Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder 'why, why, why?'
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand."

    - from the novel Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut


So many possibilities.

We examine possibilities and use our free will to nudge ourselves this direction and that.

But before the nudge, we quietly calculate the probabilities of pursuing one possibility or the other. It is probability that the thing we call free will is built upon.

We call upon our accumulated wisdom, examine the probabilities of some pursuit and take action based on those probabilities.

Our brains are in many ways probability calculators, constantly working the odds.

This is what we do to make choices in our lives. We consider past experiences and predict what might happen in the future.

And just how accurate are our predictions?

Once upon a time I did some calculations on a course of action, engaged this thing we call free will, and found myself taking a journey that was a veritable case study in the foibles of possibility and probability. Let’s consider that trip this morning.

When I was a young man hitchhiking wasn’t commonplace, but it wasn’t as extraordinary as it is today. Even then their was an element of risk that one unavoidably had to acknowledge when standing alone on the highway, thumb akimbo.

Hitchhiking is a social transaction, a ride exchanged for company on lonely highways. One couldn’t help but imagine that their might be a darker motivation behind this social transaction. Perhaps the driver had a quid quo pro in mind, barter of a perverse kind. And the driver certainly considered that the hitchhiker was in his position because of dubious deeds in his past. Probabilities.

The hitchhiking adventure in question was a misguided trip from Charleston to Dekalb, 35 years ago this summer. Coincidently, it included the occasion of my very first trip to the fair community of Joliet, and was the longest, and final trip of my short career as a hitchhiker.

I planned the trip a month in advance to correspond with a short school break. I had dallied with short hitchhiking trips before, but looked for something a bit more extravagant to scratch the thrill seeking itch that college sophomores suffer from. I was anxious as the date for the adventure approached, but for a 19 year old, desire trumps caution. 

I’ve always been an inveterate newspaper reader, and a few days before the trip I picked up the morning paper to discover that their had been a horrible double murder on Interstate 57 north of Champaign. A couple had been forced off the road, made to lie in the grass, and were each shot in the head. There were reports of other people having been accosted along I57 and just escaping with their lives.

The murderer had not been caught, and the press, eager to stir emotions and sell papers, had labeled him the Interstate 57 Murderer.

Those of you with a knowledge of geography know that Interstate 57 is the thoroughfare  I would be hitchhiking on, alone.

Each day until my planned trip up I57 arrived, the morning newspaper’s front page headline would scream in bold letters, “Interstate 57 Murderer Still at Large”

My dilemma was no long desire versus caution, but rather desire versus rip roaring fear.

Now I am conservative in many ways, especially regarding safety. Yet I wanted to visit my pal so badly that I leveraged my powers of reason to consider the odds and somehow determined that the odds were with me in this adventure. The I57 Murderer, I deduced, surely had a Modus Operandi that would exclude the casual murder of a long haired knucklehead operating with less than a full deck. 

So one dewy morning off I went.

Hitchhiking is obviously a risky proposition. But if you are looking for absorbing and disturbing interludes with strangers, it is the veritable end of the rainbow.

My first ride was from a gentleman in a gigantic Cadillac convertible, a humongous white whale of a car. The top was down and the roar of the wind made small talk difficult. After 5 minutes or so he shouted at me and I had difficulty making it out. Something about his hair and the dash compartment. This was confusing. I couldn’t make a connection in my mind between his hair and the dash compartment, and much of the exchange was lost in the slipstream.

Suddenly, he put his hand to his head, jerked off his hair, held it out to me while gesturing frantically at the dash box. This was a bit startling. He apparently wanted me to put his heretofore unnoticeable wig safely in the dash rather than risk losing it onto the interstate.

I am not sure if you have ever handled another person’s wig, especially a stranger’s, but trust me, it is creepy. 

It occurs to me that a quick google search might confirm that this move with a wig and a dash box was a secret proposition known only to people involved in some depraved conservative subculture.

At any rate, this kind but odd gentleman dropped me off near Champaign, where I stuck my thumb out again in the ritualistic lottery that is hitchhiking.

My next ride came from a talkative business type who regaled me with his opinions on every topic under the sun, with an emphasis on the shortcomings of groups he found fault with. This got tiresome very quickly, but, as he loved the sound of his own voice, I was not required to speak, so I just offered the occasional nod and grunt.

It was apparent that this guy was a world class bore, and it was becoming ever more evident he was a spectacular bigot. Just nodding and grunting became a burden. I began to tune him out and daydream.

Suddenly, he demanded my attention and it took me a moment to register that I was being instructed. “I said reach under the seat” he commanded. I cringed at the thought of what might be under there, but his instruction was aggressively assertive. He was a big guy. I thought I had better do as he said.

I reached down and discovered that the space under the seat hid a large machete. “That’s my first line of defense” he remarked with a grin.

He then reached under his own seat, obviously pleased with himself, and pulled an impressively substantial handgun out, holding it low, right next to my thigh, so it couldn’t be seen by other cars.

“This is for the n-----s” he said with a smirk on his face.

This was the first, but regretfully, not the last time on my trip that the fact that I had a young man’s urethra saved an accident that would have affected my standing with the car’s driver.

I immediately calculated the probability that a opinionated racial bigot with a gun might also find fault with a longhaired hitchhiker.

It also occurred to me that this could be the I57 murderer and I had won some perversely improbable lottery of the road.

But no, the well armed bigot’s reveal of his weaponry was apparently the thrill he was after. He soon dropped me off near Rantoul and out came my thumb once again.

Not long after I was picked up by a fellow in an Air Force uniform, not unusual since Rantoul had an airbase then. I vividly recall the car, it was a Chevy Vega, a car renowned for it’s multiplicity of engineering and design flaws. But it was going north and that was my only consideration.

The airman was a genial sort, oddly apologetic about his car, concerned about my comfort. As is so often the case when hitchhiking, I was immediately drafted into the role of a listener. He had a story he apparently needed to tell and in our social transaction I owed him for the ride, and the surcharge was to be a set of ears.

He told me about the travails of being in the military. The challenging tours of duty, the difficulty in maintaining romantic relationships, the low pay, the long hours, the heartbreaking separations from family and friends.

In fact, he said, he was just coming back from a long tour out west, cleaning up some personal matters, and was heading to Chicago.

He began to tell me about his great and abiding love for his wife, how difficult separations were for both of them, this last separation in particular. As his soliloquy continued a recurring theme was his great love for his wife. He expressed it  in such a wistful fashion that I began to get concerned. Had something happened to her? After my previous ride I felt it best to keep my mouth shut.

He began to tell me about his best friend, a pal so great his friend always took it upon himself to look after the airman’s wife while he was on tour. He quickly interjected, although I hadn’t inquired, that their was nothing going on between his wife and friend, that it was a platonic relationship that had grown out of a sense of duty. While he was away from Rantoul, he went on, his friend, to lift his wife’s lonely spirits, began to take her out on motorcycle rides. Again he assured me that their was nothing going on between them. But one terrible day they had a motorcycle accident and the wife was grievously injured. To spare the airman unnecessary heartache, the wife and friend did not tell him about the accident, and the airman’s friend, despairing of his inadvertent culpability in almost destroying the airman’s very reason for existing, took it upon himself to nurse the wife back to health. He visited her every day in the hospital for weeks to ensure that her health returned, stopping at nothing to make sure that his friends’ great love would be rehabilitated for his return. A friend indeed.

At this point their was a pause.

More than a pause actually, because, burdened with considerably more uncomfortable information than I had any interest in hearing, I sensed an unbearable tension fill the car.

The pause continued interminably. His face was blank. I realized I could hear my heart pounding.

At last he spoke.

“Damned if they didn’t fall in love.”

Oh no.

This was the personal matter he was clearing up.

My fevered imagination was unlocked in an instant. This was the I57 killer, roaming the interstate looking for innocent victims to mock and ravage, spitting at the fates that had torn his love from him. This time I had really won a grotesque lottery and this nutbag had pegged me as his next victim of karmic retribution.

I looked away from him as he fell silent, and I groped stealthily for the door handle and considered my chances of survival if I jumped out of the car to the asphalt.

I am not making up what happened next. Don’t even consider probabilities, since it couldn’t happen. But it did.

Without warning, their was a huge explosion in the car. I literally levitated, banging my head with a loud thump into the roof of the Vega, and shrieked like a 7th grade girl getting goosed in the lunch line.

I looked at the airman, and he shrieked in return, looking at me like I was a madman, with obvious terror in his eyes.

And then, excepting our labored breathing, silence again filled the car. As I gasped for air, I did a quick mental inventory of my vital limbs and organs and noted a welcome absence of pain or shredded flesh.

“What was that sound?” I demanded, my voice the pitch of an Byzantine castrato.

“The car backfired”, he quickly stuttered, his voice a full octave higher than during his long soliloquy.

“I’ve never heard a car backfire at speed before” I answered, too quickly and too loudly.

His reply?

“But it’s a Vega”.

After he regained his composure he was compelled to fill me in on the details of the aftermath of his wife and friend falling in love but all I could process was the sound of tympani pounding out my pulse rate in my temples. Our paths soon diverged and he dropped me off. 

My next ride was from 3 young men with buzz haircuts that, in those days, labeled them as soldiers on leave. The driver confirmed that they were indeed marines and that they were hell bent on partying until the leave ended the next day. In fact, the marine sitting next to me in the back seat’s first words were, and I quote, “You got any dope?”.

Uh oh.

“I am afraid not,” I replied.

In respect to the setting I will not quote him exactly at this point, but he asked me to perform an act upon myself that is physically impossible.

He then informed me that they had just snorted the last of their PCP, and that the only reason they picked me up was because they needed some weed, and again I quote, “to take the edge off of the PCP”.

PCP, for the uninformed, is the most viscously savage drug in Christendom, a horse tranquilizer with psychedelic properties that the Manson family rejected as too dangerous for their psychedelic needs.

I noted, to my chagrin, that the driver was running off of the edge of the road, and unfortunately, it was the left side of the road, the one with cars coming directly toward us. 

Again I computed the probability of survival if I leaped from the moving car and wondered what the tipping point might be for my urethra. I had quite obviously accepted a ride from a bunch of drug addled psychopaths that were killing strangers along the interstate as part of a drug induced thrill kill cult. Inexplicably, in a spontaneous moment that belied my expanding terror, I calmly told the driver that the exit up ahead, about a 3/4 of a mile from where I was picked up, was my destination. He agreeably pulled over and let me out. Apparently they weren’t the I57 Killers, and PCP apparently alters the perception of distance and time.

The next ride is the last ride I will inflict upon you because it was the ride that brought me for the first time to the unique city of Joliet, a city that fate would intercede to make a part of my life decades hence. The remarkable thing about this ride was that it was given to me by the first demonstrably normal person I had ridden with all day. He picked me up and drove me through Joliet while we engaged in a reasonable and stimulating conversation about things big and small, none of them salacious, disturbing, or indicative of an underlying antisocial disorder. It was wonderfully refreshing. All I knew of Joliet was that it was a rough river town filled to the brim with prisons, not a place I would seek out for a vacation stop. He filled me in on it’s history and it’s many modest but intriguing attributes.

As we neared where he would drop me off I asked what he did for a living. 

“I’m at the prison”, he said.

“Are you a guard, or an administrator?” I asked.

“No, I am at the prison”

“I don’t understand” I said.

“I am a prisoner, on work release during the day. I’m headed back there now.”

This was followed by another one of those uncomfortable pauses.

I am a curious type, I just couldn’t help myself.

“What did you do to be sent to prison?” I asked.

“I hurt some people”.

I returned the conversation to the charms of Joliet.

He soon let me out and I must tell you he was, on that day anyway, a good and decent person who made for great company.

My rides began to come more slowly  and eventually I had to walk the last few exhausting miles to Dekalb in the growing darkness, past corn and wheat fields that seemed to never end, all the while repeating a mantra over and over in my head.

This is the mantra: “If I live through this trip I will never hitchhike again, “If I live through this trip I will never hitchhike again, “If I live through this trip   . . . .

The great scientist and philosopher Francis Bacon noted that we should "beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Not the least of which is, he said: "Assuming their is more order in chaotic nature than actually exists."

If I may paraphrase, Bacon was wise to the fact, nearly 400 years ago, that we aren’t nearly as perceptive and reasoned as we think we are, nor is the world as predictable as we presume it to be.

I had calculated some probabilities of what my journey might bring, and assumed more order in the universe than was actually there. As the chaos of my trip played out virtually every conclusion I drew from my initial observations was wrong. Every unexpected event led, in my mind, to the I57 murderer, an example of a pre-conceived notion providing a script for random experiences.

Scholar, mathematician, and financial theorist Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book about probabilities called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

In the book Taleb makes an argument that confounds conventional wisdom regarding observations and predictions. He examines how humans use past experiences to predict future phenomena, and the reliance crucial elements of human endeavor place upon this approach to decision making. Taleb dissects decision making in finance, politics, human interaction, and life choices through the prism of a dominating idea, which is this: “our  understanding of the world is undermined by our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly phenomena that deviate fantastically from what we consider to be the norm. “

If I may paraphrase: Humans are like children who are perpetually surprised when coiled spring snakes burst out of the mock peanut jar. The unexpected is the norm, Taleb insists, and it is prudent to acknowledge that unexpected events are what molds life experience, not the things that we plan to happen.

The title of the book comes from the assumption, up to 300 or so years ago, that all swans are white, an assumption famously used by Aristotle to make a point regarding improbability. Every swan ever seen by a European was white, therefore the accumulated wisdom of western society was that swans were exclusively white. When the English began transporting their prison population to Australia in the late 1600’s they were astonished to find black swans, and created a sensation when they took some of them back to England. Experience proved the certainty that all swans were white, yet experience was wrong.

Taleb uses Black Swans as a metaphor to examine how events in our personal lives and in world history, especially profound events, are almost entirely unpredictable, completely disconnected from past lessons. He suggests that life as generally practiced is an exercise in applying old scripts to new problems, a strategy fraught with deficiencies.

A Black Swan, then, is an unexpected event that confounds expectations, an event that we explain by applying preconceived and usually inaccurate notions. 

You note that when confronted with the unexpected on my curious trip I inevitably applied the script of the I57 murderer, a script that, mercifully, was utterly inaccurate.

Some ideas from the book: what he calls the “millionaire next door”, in which we try to replicate the actions of someone who has become financially successful when, in fact, we are trying to reproduce unrepeatable chance, the Black Swan that crossed paths with our neighbor before we did. Tell that to the financial self help marketers that litter our television dial.

He suggests that our brains are wired for narrative, always looking for the theme to tie strands of experience together, when in fact it is statistical uncertainty that drives much of life. This passage from the book illustrates how, even when acknowledging an entirely unpredictable event, we try to massage it into a digestible narrative: "A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was." 

Taleb continues: “Just imagine how little your understanding of the world on the eve of the events of 1914 would have helped you guess what was to happen next. How about the rise of Hitler and the subsequent war? How about the precipitous demise of the Soviet bloc? How about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism? How about the spread of the Internet? How about the market crash of 1987 (and the more unexpected recovery)? Fads, epidemics, fashion, ideas, the emergence of art genres and schools. All follow these Black Swan dynamics.” 
Just about everything of significance in crafting the life you lead you might qualify as a black swan. Consider how you met your significant other as an example. Very few relationships result from a plan, a grand design. They almost universally happen as the result of exceptional circumstance - a black swan. Consider your profession, where you live, your friends. More likely the result of a black swan than a matter of choice.
Here is a passage that suggests the difficulty in predicting a phenomena, even a phenomena that you have experienced countless times in your life. When playing billiards, he writes, “The first impact is fairly easy to access with enough information about the balls, the table, the force of the cue ball, etc.” The second is more difficult, but "to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table."

Another idea from the book is the problem of silent evidence. Cicero wrote about Diagoras, a non-believer in the gods, who was shown painted tablets and was told that they were portraits of grateful pilgrims, saved from a storm by praying to the gods. “I see,” answered Diagoras, “but where are the portraits of those who prayed and drowned anyway?” This absent evidence might have told a very different story, surely would have altered conclusions about the effectiveness of prayer.

In one of his most chilling thoughts the author cautions us to be wary of a embracing a belief that only has to be wrong once in your life to cripple you in some fashion. This reminded me of the time I watched in horror as a child stepped into a busy street, the horror amplified when his father announced not to worry, the Lord would look after the child.

Taleb earns his daily bread as a hedge fund manager and financial advisor. He thinks that most planning and investing relies on computing probabilities based on past experiences, and as we have learned, he thinks that is absurd. He has established a prosperous career focusing on highly unlikely events as leverage points for investing. 

He notes the complex and rigorous computer controls that are in place to prevent a trading debacle like the one that caused the Stock Market Crash of 1929. He finds this amusing since he believes that, while the computers will prevent a repeat of 1929’s circumstances, they can’t possibly predict and mitigate a set of fantastically improbable circumstances that Black Swan theory suggests almost certainly will occur to the world’s economic marketplace. In fact, given the sub-prime mortgage fiasco, investors in Bear Stearns and the Lehman Brothers might be open to embracing the theory of Black Swans. Financial institutions and governments, like armies, are always preparing for the last war.

Since I established long ago that I am oblivious to the mechanics of wealth building, I hesitate to inveigh on his application of uncertainty to finance, but I can note that he thinks that the University of Chicago’s school of economic thought regarding the infallibility of a free marketplace, universally embraced by political conservatives, is rooted in self-serving  illusion. For that, those of us on the receiving end of trickle down economics owe him a great debt of gratitude.

Uncertainty friends, is the only certainty in this fascinating world of ours. If you compose your life on the assumption that you will make choices and navigate yourself from point A to point B with great confidence, you may be in for surprise and disappointment when you inevitably cross paths with a Black Swan.

Life will give you information, you will analyze it and draw conclusions, you will consider the probabilities of future phenomena in your life, and you will usually get it all wrong. You will be sure that the future holds a white swan, and a black swan will appear. Don’t despair. That is the glorious design of the universe.

It is worth noting that Francis Bacon, the 16th century scientist and philosopher I quoted earlier, who cautioned us on the folly in believing you can cover all the angles, is the rare scientist who died as the result of his own experiment. He was assessing the use of snow to slow the spoiling of food, specifically the game birds he had recently killed. He got damp and chilled while gathering snow, caught pneumonia, tried to rally by eating some of the birds that he had chilled, and he promptly died. 

Bacon, one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, a scientist who warned us to be wary of certainty and fallacy of thought, was killed by a moment of certainty and fallacy of thought. One only hopes the bird he ate wasn’t a swan, or I fear for the irony meter.

Black Swans, friends, are everywhere. On Wall Street, in Sarejevo, in the portraits of prayerful survivors, under the roof of your wealthy friend, on Bacon’s death bed, on the sand swept terrain of Iraq, and, in compressed form, along the length of Interstate 57. They provide proof that the glue that holds the universe together is irony, suggesting that a hearty sense of humor and the confidence that comes from an acceptance of the unexpected are the characteristics that natural selection will ultimately find most desirable in the human creature.

The lesson today isn’t about lounging on clouds or spending eternity in bliss, I’ll leave that to others with more determined imaginations than me.

Here is today’s lesson: be prepared for the unexpected, for the unexpected is an unavoidable consequence of life.

Accept that you will almost certainly misinterpret unexpected experiences since the human brain persistently draws conclusions based on pre-conceived notions.

Embrace the reality that our obliviousness doesn’t detract from the wonder and beauty of life’s journey, provided we accept life for the mysterious, sensual, confounding gift of creation that it is. 

I counsel you all to embrace the Black Swan, and accept that on more occasions than we might want to admit, someone else is in the driver’s seat, and we find ourselves passengers, no longer considering a destination, but rather the indecipherable wonder of the journey. 

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