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)

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.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Hibernation

hibernating dormice

June 24.  Hibernation.  Tuesday’s public announcements, reinforced in my case by a personal letter from the NHS, have merely highlighted the collapse of trust in governing bodies in the UK.

According to Boris Johnson, the era of hibernation is over in England.  Pubs and hairdressers will open, the two-metre rule is halved.  The ‘shielded’ will be allowed to visit family from July 6, and permitted to roam freely from the beginning of August.

In better times, a public statement by the Prime Minister in Parliament, reinforced by a press conference attended by both the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Officer, plus an official three-page letter, should be enough.  Who am I, a toiling historian, entirely innocent of a medical education, to dispute these authoritative statements?

But before I will move an inch from my current uneventful but secure lockdown I will consult every newspaper I can find, sundry blogs to which I subscribe, my neighbours, my friends (particularly two who actually are scientists), my younger brother who is playing a major regional role co-ordinating trace and test regimes and sits on the board of two hospital trusts, my grown-up children (especially), my lawyer, my astrologer, anyone who might be able to triangulate the official message.  Then I will discuss the matter with my similarly sceptical wife, and between the two of us I expect we will decide to change nothing in our daily ritual until the consequence of the relaxation becomes evident in the infection rates (see Add Mss below).

This is tiring.  A healthy democracy requires a questioning electorate, but only so far.  If we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to invest confidence in those to whom we delegate fundamental decision-making powers.  The education we have received since the beginning of the year tells us that the administrative competence of ministers appointed not for their abilities but for their position on Brexit is low, that the government machine which should support them is not firing on all cylinders (no controlling ‘deep state’ here, anymore than there is in the USA), that the Prime Minister is careless of detail and the truth, and that the scientists and medical specialists argue with each other, including about the current topic of the safe rate to relax restrictions. 

And if we are to get on with the business of our lives, we have to walk down a street or enter a public building without viewing every stranger as a potential threat to our health and wellbeing.  Amongst the many inherent contradictions in the new policy is allowing alcohol to be consumed in a ‘mitigated’ form.  Someone somewhere has forgotten that the point of drinking is that is a means of throwing off the mitigations of the daily round.  It promotes personal interaction, reduces inhibitions, and in extreme, but far from uncommon, cases leads to profoundly anti-social behaviour (there is a reason why the business of Accident and Emergency Departments has sharply declined in the pandemic lockdown).  

In the end the calculation of risk will be largely personal.  In two months we expect the arrival of a new grand-daughter a hundred-and-fifty miles away in London.  It is likely to be that event, not further iterations of official advice and guidance, that will cause us to emerge from the burrow in which we have been sleeping.

Add Mss 3.  June 10 Staying Alive: “When the final calculations are made, it is likely that those dying alone because they are alone will be far exceeded by those dying in company because they are in company.In Australia a lifting of the lockdown has been suspended in large parts of Melbourne because of a resurgence of infections blamed on family gatherings and birthday parties.

from David Vicent in Shrewsbury, UK: Unlocking

May 5, 2020. 

We are now into the beginning of the unlocking of Britain.  The prospect is raising the question of where the power lies in this crisis.

The Guardian reported at the weekend that ‘Fewer than one in five of the British public believe the time is right to consider reopening schools, restaurants, pubs and stadiums. The findings, in a new poll for the Observer, suggest Boris Johnson will struggle to convince people to return their lives to normal if he tries to ease the lockdown soon..’

You can be certain that Johnson and his advisers took this information very seriously.  It is a truism long known to politicians and political historians, that successful social reform follows rather than changes public opinion.  This was the case for instance with Roy Jenkins’ epochal tenure of the Home Office in the mid-1960s when he radically reformed the law on homosexuality, abortion, race relations and censorship.  In each case popular sentiment was more than ready for such changes.  The same is true, more recently, of the liberalising reforms in the Republic of Ireland.

It is not just a matter of a government avoiding grief in polls and subsequent elections.  If a society is not, with the exception of inevitable die-hards, largely in favour of reform, it will not observe the new legal framework, and no amount of punitive policing or judicial intervention will be effective.

In the speeded-up metabolism of successive social changes in the coronavirus pandemic, the same rules apply.  Johnson held back from imposing the lockdown until it was evident that the population would accept what a month previously had been unimaginable changes to its behaviour.  For all the protests by Conservative backbenchers, the occasional arrests on beaches or in other public spaces have been largely symbolic. 

The question is how far has the calculation of risk on the part of the general public changed.  There is a case for arguing that fear of infection has increased since the onset, despite recent evidence that the peak has been passed.  In March we knew that coronavirus was a serious form of flu.  We did not know just how easy it was to catch it, just how unpleasant it was to be in intensive care, just how terrible a form of dying it was, and just how ineffective the government would be in key areas such as testing or the provision of PPE. 

The government has been rightly criticised for allowing the Cheltenham Horse-racing Festival to go ahead in the week before it imposed the lockdown.  A quarter of a million people jostled together on the racecourse. Now Cheltenham, an otherwise prosperous town, is a coronavirus hotspot. It is worth asking whether, were a similar event to be sanctioned this month, anything like this number of spectators would choose to attend.  Gambling on horses is one thing.  Gambling on your life is something else [this reminds me of the character of Sammy the Gonoph in Damon Runyan’s stories.  Sammy was a professional bookmaker who could set odds on any competition, even life itself, which he calculated was, in the round, 5 to 4 against].

There are two conclusions to be drawn.  The first is that a successful navigation out of this storm will be more in the hands of we the people than our hapless governors.  When we decide to change, change will be feasible, and it is unlikely to be much influenced by public service announcements and daily press conferences.

The second is that the debate which is now taking place will once more highlight the issue of the coherence of British society.  We have temporarily forgotten the Brexit divide, but there are still immense variations by class, race and gender in the experience of coronavirus.   Those locked in small flats, those for whom the shutdown is wrecking their businesses or family economies, will be a good deal less patient with the lockdown than the retired historian who is writing this, looking out at Spring unfolding in his garden.

  • With regard to David Maughan Brown’s entry yesterday on the Johnson interview in the Sun on Sunday, if Johnson’s prospects were aligning with The Death of Stalin, the question, for those who saw the entertaining film, is who would be the Lavrentiy Beria of the event, the head of the secret police who attempted to take over after Stalin’s death and was murdered by his henchmen?  My money is on Michael Gove.