Assignations, Burning Men and Black Swans

Another BLACK SWAN is out now!


The Burning Man story is much like the Arizona shooting story to me; it has nothing to do with my normal areas of interest or my expertise – if there is such a thing – but both stories are so gripping that it is difficult to avoid thinking about them.  As of today, there have been 10 acts of Radical Political-Self-Expression in North Africa.  Except for Tunisia, there has been no noticeable affect on the political situation in any of the three other countries – Algeria, Mauritania and Egypt.  However, it has spurred debate all over the region – all of the major national newspapers have covered the stories, including Saudi Arabia with as much detail as the more liberal press in Lebanon for example.  All are cautious, even the pan-Arab press – Al Jeezera, Al Arabiya and Asharq Alawsat is careful, but they still discuss the possibility that other states could be affected by the events in Tunisia.  However, for me the best overall coverage comes from Germany and Der Spiegel; Spiegel has a survey of the German press by political positioning – the left wing press warning of dire consequences for all but left leaning Arab states, the right sees the story as more of a general and long, slow move toward more liberal democracies and the business press thinks a new government will encourage foreign investment and improve the national economy in Tunisia, but sees not particular impact on the Arab world in general.

As I have said before, I don’t have a horse in this race, but I do see some things to think about for the economy in the United States and the rest of the world.  In the my blog about the book Black Swans, I tried to describe some of characteristics of a “black swan” as described by the author Nassim Taleb (he is a product of such an event in his home country of Lebanon); first because you find no evidence for a black swan, does equate to evidence for no black swans; second black swans are unpredictable – as the previous statement indicates nearly invisible – and therefore catch us off guard.  The only explanations for such surprising and unpredictable events is an after the fact explanation.

The events in Tunisia have caught everyone in the world off guard, no one could or would have predicted anything like it before December 16th.  After the fact explanations, list all of the signs that we might have seen, should have seen, but of course did not see.  That is much like what happened to the world economy with the last recession; after the fact we can all see and list the signs of impending doom, but before the fact those same signs signaled something very different to all but a very tiny minority of the people in the world, as we rushed to take on more debt and flip one more house.

That is my take away message from the last couple of weeks, there is no way to predict the future, except in those instances where everything remains the same – the longer the time frame we are projecting, the less likely that outcome is – and that means radical switches in direction are always possible and in some environments probable.  Financially, I think that means we need to think of ways to expand our economy on minimum amounts of debt, to invest in smaller projects or projects that can be divided into smaller units to reduce our risks.  In terms of careers, I think that means we need as wide and variable skill sets and a wider set of options.

Of course no single vendor pushing his cart down Pennsylvania Avenue could bring down the American government, just like no airplane could ever fly into the side of skyscrapers and change the conditions of air travel for ever.  There is no way to legislate against a mad-man with a gun at a political rally, a terrorist in an airplane or a Burning Man in an act of Radical Self-Political-Expression; but we can remember to think about the unimaginable when we are planning our future.  I guess these stories are so significant to me because for most of my life the world has seemed stable and unchanging to me; except for the assignations of the 1960s, there did not seem to be any threats to prosperity, gold watches and glorious retirements, did there?


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January 2011
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