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9 January 2008

Return of the Cygnus Atratus

Walking home over the poorly-lit Jesus Green tonight (Nowheresville City council still haven't sorted the lighting situation), the black swan scared the hell out of me. To be fair, I did have the Smiths playing very loudly in my ears but it was dark enough that although the white ducks were visible, I only spotted Cygnus atratus when he (looks male) leapt up at me flapping his wings and squawking like crazy. Obviously thought I was a dog. Charming. I shrieked and jumped at least two feet in the air.

It must be lonely being the only black swan in Nowheresville. Having renounced my twitcher days of the Young Ornithologists' Club, I'm more interested in Nicholas Nassim Taleb's black swans: those large-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events beyond the realm of normal expectations. I suppose in some ways, my encounter tonight was a black swan involving a black swan: there I was, minding my own business when an unpredictable event cropped up; I suppose the impact was minor, really, but who am I to judge?

I still haven't read Taleb's book (it's still not out in paperback) and yet somehow, I can't quite take my mind off these black swans - a term so easily applied with the acuity of hindsight to events of months past. Of course, if people were better at picking up clues, reading the environment in which they find themselves and being less self-involved, perhaps black swans (which are surely conceptually-based and stored in the mind) would become an endangered species; the "high-impact" events could be avoided altogether or, at least, the impact could be reduced. Massive over-reactions could be calmed and life could carry on as usual.

Or would the black swan then evolve into some super black swan, which occurred even more rarely but which had an even bigger impact, as our black swan-prediction/shooting skills improve? My faith in humanity to behave rationality or logically has long since been destroyed so I would guess that we will never find out.

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