Monday, March 15, 2010

Singular happenings

In my novel entitled All the Earth is Mine, the young mining engineer Jacob Rose has to transport equipment (including a small helicopter) and a handful of colleagues from Western Australia to Israel. So, he decides to use company funds to purchase

[...] a splendid sixty-foot deep-sea trawler, built five years ago at the Fremantle dockyards for an over-optimistic shrimp merchant who went bankrupt because he operated systematically in the wrong waters. Named Black Swan, this vessel was in perfect shape, since her owner had never been fortunate enough to have an opportunity of subjecting the trawler to the wear and tear of harsh seasons of shrimping. Jake, of course, was not interested in catching seafood. He intended to travel to Israel in this vessel, and to use it there both as a floating home and as a supply ship for his forthcoming operations. Prior to purchasing the trawler, Jake asked the owner to move the vessel to the Fremantle dockyards so that it could be inspected with a view to being fitted out with living quarters for six people. Jake also wanted to install a steel deck over the hold where nets full of shrimp were meant to be dragged into the vessel, enabling him to envisage folding the blades of his Ecureuil, hoisting the helicopter aboard and tying it down securely, under tarpaulins, for the trip to Israel. There would also be room underneath the tail section of the helicopter to stack a small Zodiac on the deck. In this way, the Black Swan would be an ideal mother ship for future operations at Caesarea. Fortunately, it would be possible to have these transformations carried out in a remarkably short period of time, meaning that Jake would be able to envisage their departure within about two months.

Here's my vision of Jake's converted trawler after its transformations in the Fremantle dockyards:

It wasn't particularly original of me to imagine the name Black Swan for Jake's trawler, since this creature is the celebrated symbol of Western Australia.

When I was a child, I remember hearing that the black species of Cygnus was found only in Australia, but this information didn't impress me greatly, for two obvious reasons: (1) I had never seen animals in any other natural environment beyond Australia, and (2) there are so many strange creatures in Australia that we have become blasé concerning adjectives such as "exotic" and "unique".

Recently, our famous bird acquired a new symbolic status through a best-seller entitled The Black Swan by the Lebanese intellectual Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He considers that certain unexpected happenings, of a spectacular nature, can be designated as Black Swan events [BSE]. They are defined by three characteristic features:
(1) BSE are totally unexpected.
(2) BSE give rise to profound effects with vast consequences.
(3) Such events can indeed be explained... but only retrospectively.

We can see why Taleb refers to black swans. In earlier centuries, it was thought that black swans simply did not exist. Then, in 1697, a Dutch navigator discovered that such birds did in fact exist in Western Australia. Consequently, the notion of a black swan came to designate something that went through these two phases, from total disbelief to astonished belief, followed by an a posteriori process of rationalization.

The culmination of my novel (which was completed several years before the publication of Taleb's book) is the transformation of Israel into a giant vessel that sails around the world. Funnily enough, this is a splendid example of a BSE! More realistic examples of BSEs, proposed by Taleb, are the Great War, personal computers and the Internet.

A fortnight ago, an interesting article entitled America, the fragile empire appeared in the Los Angeles Times [display]. Written by a Harvard historian, Niall Ferguson, the article had an even more eye-catching subtitle: Here today, gone tomorrow -- could the United States fall that fast? The gist of this short article is that the USA is a relatively fragile entity, which is capable of disintegrating unexpectedly and rapidly. In a nutshell, Niall Ferguson imagines that the fall of America could take the form of a Black Swan event.

Here's an excellent video in which TV host Harry Kreisler talks at length with Niall Ferguson about his book entitled The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World:

I must admit that I know little about the reputation of Ferguson among his peers, but I find that his style and assertions are startling, to say the least. But isn't that the very essence of a BSE?

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