Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Black Swan

After picking up a Nexus 7 tablet, I’ve started to get back into the habit of reading once again. With that, let’s take a look at an extremely fascinating read that I stumbled across, “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.”

I actually had been eying this book for quite a while, but had been compelled to read it because of the similarly named character in Jonathan Hickman’s excellent run on New Avengers. In that story, our clandestine heroes encounter a character named “Black Swan” as she saves the Earth from certain destruction, namely another universe colliding into our own. This is itself a “Black Swan event”, which the book of the same name defines well:

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact (unlike the [black swan] bird). Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.

Here, the collision (dubbed an “incursion”) is an outlier. It hasn’t been seen the Marvel Universe to this point, so nothing could have predicted it. Next, it trivially carries extreme impact, since it threatens to destroy the universe if not stopped within eight hours. This short time period is in itself enough to make our heroes compromise their morals, but as we’ve talked about that previously, I’ll skip over it here. Finally, despite these incursions being outliers, it seems probable (to me at least) that these incursions are the fallout of the damage to the time-space continuum done as a result of the Age of Ultron event from last year. This makes it explainable, predictable, and (as the book tells us) fits our need to establish a cause-effect relationship where one may not necessarily exist.

Like New Avengers, the book The Black Swan is a gem to read, although the book is far less dark. It’s extremely readable despite being so counterintuitive, and scores big points from me in its style. Its author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, treats the reader like an adult, moving the story along at a fast pace, but still providing the reader with a series of deep takeaways. It’s sufficiently deep that this will definitely take me multiple reads to get it all absorbed, and also currently holds the record for “most bookmarked pages”. To say the least, it’s thought provoking, and sends a strong message to the reader to slow down and take more stock of what they don’t know, and (much more importantly) what they don’t know they don’t know.

This last point is interesting because it’s also a starting point for how the heroes in New Avengers learn to deal with these Black Swan events. They don’t know really anything about these events, and they know that they don’t know anything about it, so they are able to look at what they do know and start developing a wide array of contingency plans. They experiment to see what works, what doesn’t, and (in more recent issues) simply watch other universes to see how their counterparts there deal with these Black Swans. Perhaps most interesting has been how they watch their counterparts fail to stop the destruction of their Earth, as it yields much more information on their shadowy adversaries.

I could delve into real-life Black Swans, but the book does a much better job of that, and comics are more my realm anyways. So go buy the book. It’s really good. To quote near the end of the book, it will teach you “plenty of ways to avoid being a sucker”, but of course, it’s easier said than done.