from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: that sleeping Black Swan

August 10. Black swans are commonly found in SE Australia and West Australia. They are not threatened – I would even say they are fairly common. You don’t want to say any bird is ‘common’ – apart from our marauding silver gulls and pesky starlings. Birdlife-Australia notes that, ‘Over just 25 years of monitoring migratory shorebirds in Australia some species such as the Curlew Sandpiper have decreased by 50-80%’. The UK (2012 report) was reported as losing more than 44 million breeding birds in less than half a century. (RSPB). And the story is worse in the USA: ‘Nearly one-third of the wild birds in the United States and Canada have vanished since 1970, a staggering loss that suggests the very fabric of North America’s ecosystem is unravelling.’ (NY Times. September 2019) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/19/opinion/crisis-birds-north-america.html

This is not good news. The report went on to say, ‘Birds are indicator species, serving as acutely sensitive barometers of environmental health, and their mass declines signal that the earth’s biological systems are in trouble.’

Black Swans are big powerful birds and can be quite aggressive to humans and to one another. They can fly long distances to find suitable territory – but they might have to compete for it. Their plumage is not entirely black. The flight feathers have a broad band of white which is obvious as they take flight. Apparently, the white is a warning signal, so the flock will rise and depart when one or two birds are aware of danger. Swans are efficient swimmers – I have seen them off our coast and in one memorable Youtube video they were recorded enjoying surfing off a Queensland beach.

I did note that the Black Swan I saw recently in our Mount Lofty Botanic Gardens was resting and when I looked at him with my binoculars, I saw that he was closing his eyes.

I was first told about ‘Black Swan events’ by my brother, Mike Smithyman, sometime after 2007. I was amused because black swans originate in Australia and the first Westerner to see them caused, in part, the origin of the idea of a ‘Black Swan Event’.

In 1697, Dutchman Willem de Vlamingh was on a rescue mission along Australia’s west coast to look for survivors of a shipwreck two years earlier. He sailed up a river estuary river and was amazed to come across a flock of black swans. He named the river the Swan River which now flows through the centre of modern-day Perth.

The point is that until then swans were all assumed to be white. A black swan was inconceivable.

Apparently, we can go back to the second century Roman poet, Juvenal. He thought a ‘black swan’ would be “a rare bird in the lands”.

So, black swans were deemed to be impossible in nature until 1697.

Fast forward to 2007 when a Lebanese-American called Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called ‘The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable’ … with a new section: “On Robustness and Fragility”. Taleb is a risk manager and statistician, and has many other skills beside these.

Taleb says his aim is to encourage society to become more aware of the possibility of Black Swan events so that we are robust enough to survive them.

(Out of interest I read that Taleb is worth over $60 billion from his business in option trading. Oh! he also speaks 10 languages.)

When I read up about Taleb he was even more fascinating: he had called for the cancellation of the Nobel Prize for Economics as he held that economic theories can cause devastation. Perhaps we need to revisit his ideas!

Taleb gives examples of Black Swan events: World War 1, the impact of the personal computer, the rise of the Internet, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the 2001 terrorist event. The event has to be deemed unpredictable, an outlier; secondly, to have severe consequences and thirdly, to be an event that people will look at it with hindsight and say … it was predictable. He does say that Black Swan events depend on your viewpoint.

Obviously, some Black Swan events are catastrophic and some are beneficial. I wish there were more beneficial Black Swans.

The COVID-19 pandemic on this analysis, is not a Black Swan event. Currently, commentators love to repeat the word ‘unprecedented’ about the pandemic. However, it was predicted by many people, discussed in many books and some countries had pandemic plans in place. So Covid-19 fails on the first test.

The central idea of his (very readable) book ‘concerns our blindness with regard to randomness: particularly the large deviations’.

‘I … make a claim, against many of our habits of thought, that our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known and the repeated.’ (Taleb – The Black Swan)

We are asleep it seems, like the Black Swan in our Mt Lofty Botanic Gardens, but woe betide when it wakes and we are asleep.