Black Swan for Black and White Thinkers

Swan Header

Scene from Alexander Ekman’s ‘A Swan Lake’





For Virginie

Money and not morals is what counts most of all in the United States. If you do not have it you are nobody of note, no matter what you do, and if you have enough of it you may become President of the United States, whatever you happen to do. Yet, no matter who you are, your days on this earth are numbered, and your number may come up as quite a surprise to you although the statisticians have taken your demise into account when devising their mortality and accidental death tables for the insurance industry. And there is a chance you might win the $500 million lottery.

Enjoy the day the best you can because, as a matter of fact, you may be gone tomorrow as a result of some random, unexpected event, say, a bridge collapsing on your head, a plane crash, or perchance a terrorist attack. And on a larger scale, there are natural disasters, and do not rule out a pre-emptive nuclear attack. The planet itself is not perfectly secure since it might be encountered by a comet. I think it was Voltaire who remarked that this planet of ours might be a speck of dust in the road to be unexpectedly flattened by the hoof of a passing horse. So a lot of good your money will do you then.

Yes, there are some events even statisticians may not predict no matter their theories and how much historical data they may have. Every schoolboy knows that the mathematician and scientist Charles Sanders Peirce thought that nothing was determined for certain despite the habitual behavior we observe as laws. Chance events beyond the scope of those natural laws might irregularly occur. That is, there is such a thing a chance operating in the universe, the theory for which is dubbed ‘Tychism,’ after Tyche, the Greek goddess of luck, who was known to the Romans as Fortuna. Peirce, needless to say, was not a conventional man, though he was a great logician. His advanced scientific perspective aroused the jealousy of colleagues. He made some unfortunate choices including an unrewarding investment. Although he was helped out by relatives and his great friend William James, the successful philosopher who marketed his Pragmatism brand of philosophy, he fell upon hard times before he died destitute.

More recently, a nerdish Lebanese immigrant and Wharton School grad by the name of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who said he made enough “f*** you” money as a quant and securities trader to say “f*** you” to people, enlarged his small fortune by writing his best-selling book, The Black Swan. A so-called black swan or unexpected event, because almost all swans are white, had come out of nowhere to embroil Lebanon in war.

The same sort of swan might be to blame for financial crashes, the budding probability theorist proposed as he developed his Black Swan or reverse-probability theory into a nice day job for himself because he discovered that everyone including himself was incompetent when it came to predicting future market prices. An investor might as well hire a monkey to throw darts at a list of securities than trust his money to experts, but without those experts there would not be a secondary securities market.

I like Taleb. He preferred to study instead of pursuing an infinite number of dollars. Indeed, he said he was ashamed when he engaged in the pursuit of wealth. The “inelegant, dull, pompous, greedy, unintellectual, selfish, and boring” business world literally disgusted him. Journalists “cluster” around the same subjects. Everyone consumes the same “news,” the last thing one should do to know what is really going on; the more news consumed the less the cookie-cutter society knows about things except for things of “dubious value.” The “achievers” in suits who do not read books and who become more sycophantic the higher their income are even more ignorant than cab drivers because cab drivers know they are ignorant.

He was so ashamed of his business that he did not want to tell people what he did for a living:

“When people at cocktail parties asked me what I did for a living, I was tempted to answer, ‘I am a skeptical empiricist and a flâneur reader, someone committed to getting very deep into an idea,’ but I made things simple by saying I was a limousine driver.”

A flâneur was an 18th century artistic character or literary type who wandered Paris incognito without purpose, a random walker absorbed by the crowd although detached and somewhat cynical while experiencing the urban environment. He becomes blasé and disappears as the city is transformed into a modern capitalist hub and he into an insatiable shopper hypnotized by window displays. The whole of France may be said to heading in that direction as it is losing its distinct character to the European Union, much to the horror of Virginie in Nord France and millions of other French people.

I was an anachronistic flâneur some years ago, randomly walking the streets of New York City as its distinct neighborhoods were gradually being absorbed by big stores. In fact, my life has been a random walk. I knew people were supposed to have goals in order to succeed, and success was determined by wealth, by the things and people one owned, but even as a young boy I rebelled against “being somebody” in that bodily sense.

No way was I going to have goals and plans. When I was a little boy I was angered when people asked me “what” I was going to be when I grew up. Why should be other than “who” I am? I ran away from home for good two weeks after I turned thirteen years of age, and proceeded to wander the streets of Chicago. I was lucky that I was a tall boy who loved to read and seemed intelligent to others as I eventually lied my way off the mean streets into steady employment, falling, by chance, into office jobs, and, ultimately, into accounting, where I, ironically, used some common sense I had picked up as a kid in Kansas and my Chicago street smarts to help my employers devise plans to achieve goals.

I might have done very well if I had taken my own advice, but I was not interested in success, except perhaps to be the greatest author the world would ever or never know. As it is, I am what one might call a successful loser, an idler who loves to think about what others do and to write about it in my own way. I guess I am, like Taleb, a flâneur. I was on a random walk. I ventured to New York City from Chicago and took a liking to it because the drinking age was 18 back then. Turned down for a job on Wall Street because they found out I lied about my formal education, I randomly walked around, and chanced by the construction site for the World Trade Center. I was angry that my application was rejected, so I cursed the pit upon which the twin towers would be set. I knew I would have performed as well as the college grads if I had been given a chance to analyze businesses and pick the best securities to invest in. I did not know at the time that the market was on a random walk, and that a monkey with darts could do as well as the average expert.

If I had been hired that day, I would have enough “f*** you” money to write a Black Swan book! As it were, I crunched numbers, was luckily paid well for that, and otherwise applied myself to reading and the theatre arts, i.e. dancing, singing, and acting, dance being my favorite because it allowed the animal to express itself, without a goal in mind. My studies were as always at random. It appeared to me that everything was connected, that one could start with any detail within the book of life and tell quite a tale no matter how pointless it might be to sharpened pencil heads. Theoretically, dancers who actually dance instead of just doing technique make good writers because they are exhibitionists, and writing is thinking out loud.

Now the problem with the exercise of my aimless avocation in the city was that it was difficult to explain and seemingly absurd to everyone with plans and goals. Even after I ventured to Hawaii to marry and lead a straight life, my wife had difficulty explaining what I did for a living although I did well enough financially thanks to a German wheeler-dealer whom I helped make millions in real estate.

“What do you do for a living?” had required a short answer in Manhattan, especially when asked by beautiful Jewish American Princesses on the West Side, and I, like Taleb, preferred not to identify myself with money grubbing! I was, after all, a flâneur, if you please.

“Once, on a transatlantic flight,” wrote Taleb, “I found myself upgraded to first class next to an expensively dressed, high-powered lady dripping with gold and jewelry who continuously ate nuts (low-carb diet, perhaps), insisted on drinking only Evian, all the while reading the European edition of The Wall Street Journal. She kept trying to start a conversation in broken French, since she saw me reading a book (in French) by the sociologist-philosopher Pierre Bourdieu—which naturally, dealt with the marks of social distinction. I informed her (in English) that I was a limousine driver, proudly insisting that I drove ‘very upper-ended’ cars. An icy silence followed, and, although I could feel the tension, it allowed me to read in peace.”

That particular paragraph convinced me that Taleb is a kindred spirit. I would rather study than work, and study on my own at that. I do not write for money, I write to live, to avoid the end. I do not begrudge people their wealth, their escapes into matter no matter how professional. Whether I like it or not, man is a goal-seeking animal, and the goal of life is to avoid the goal fated for all things, with the possible exception of fundamentalist Christians.

I am too engaged in writing to market my work, and that does not matter. People ask me what I do for a living, and I just say I am retired, because if I say I am an author, they want to know right away if I have been published by major publishers. If not, I am immediately demoted, albeit politely, and find myself treated disrespectfully. Whatever happened to the importance of Being over Doing?

The woman on the plane who wanted to know what Taleb did for a living may have just been curious, or perhaps she just wanted to pass the time in conversation, which is most likely. He did not say how many rings she had on her fingers. According to my favorite songstress, Alicia Keys, a Real Man will know A Woman’s Worth and lay some diamonds on her.

Look, I took courses on the street in the school of hard knocks. I am not one to go around calling women prostitutes for renting their bodies when men are engaged in renting out their souls as well. People naturally want power, status has power, and wealth today buys the highest status in the minds of many competitors.

I lived on the Upper West Side, where I habituated a popular restaurant and bar on West 79th Street called Wilsons, and I cannot remember how many times a women asked me “What do you do?” and did not get around to asking my name after I answered. Clubs like Wilsons were called “meat markets” by guys who cruised meat markets to meet women.

The ladies were on the hunt as well, and usually for something more permanent than a handsome hunk of meat. A qualified man should have a substantial income, therefore, “What do you do?” No matter how smart or helpful a man might be, his “character” is determined by his wealth and how “generous” he is with it. I actually saw many women take the tips their dates had left on the bar as they departed, the gentleman leading the way, of course.

I did not like to be pegged down. I experimentally lied to assess the reactions, and discovered that if I loudly said, “I am a surgeon,” almost every girl at the bar took inordinate interest. If I wanted to be left alone, perhaps because I did not like the girl I encountered, I would just say, “I am a file clerk,” and she would turn her back on me to talk to someone else.

Now there was a jazz lounge on Upper Broadway, in the Nineties, called J’s or Judy’s, I think, where some great musicians appeared. It was not a meat market, far from it, so I was surprised when a woman I was chatting with asked:

“What do you do?”

“I’m a file clerk.”

“Did you say a file clerk?”



“Not only do I file things, I retrieve them as well.”

“You are just what I have been looking for, in my business,” she said, handing me her business card. Would you mind coming to my office on Fifth Avenue tomorrow?”

SWAN Petersburg

I may relate what happened afterwards in a novel, where personal truths are always better told as fiction. Yet another version of Swan Lake might do.

Taleb is probably right about the Black Swan. Dark matter is invisible so its effects seem to come out of nowhere. He relates that people were walking about shocked and dazed by the unexpected “Black Monday” stock market crash on 19 October 1987 when the average of the index decreased 29.2%, a virtually impossible event according to the Efficient Market Hypothesis; the odds against that happenening at the time were 1 in 10 followed by 45 zeros. I noticed something strange about the mood on the sidewalk when I came out of the Fisk Building near Columbus Circle. I stopped by a bar and asked what was going on. The stock market had crashed! Thirty-three years after I observed the foundations being laid for the World Trade Center, the twin towers had tumbled down! Who would have imagined such a disaster was forthcoming?

Swan Natalie Portman Black Swan

Natalie Portman as White Swan in Black Swan movie

We can never make ourselves completely secure from the untoward events fostered by the Black Swan. She is supernatural. We find no instrument between her as cause and her effects. Note that the Black Swan can be a male even though males like to characterize the opposite sex as hysterical.

The Black Swan is within so may not be walled out. Taleb arrived with the virtue of an immigrant after he became an ascetic rebel in a luxurious Lebanese setting “with a vastly sophisticated lifestyle, a prosperous economy, and temperate weather just like California, with snow-covered mountains jutting above the Mediterranean. It attracted a collection of spies (both Soviet and Western), prostitutes (blondes), writers, pimps, drug dealers, adventurers, compulsive gamblers, tennis players, après-skiers, and merchants—all professions that complement each other….”

And then…. “The Lebanese ‘paradise’ suddenly evaporated…. A Black Swan, coming out of nowhere, transformed the place from heaven to hell.”

The only exception I might take at length to Taleb’s classical thesis is the association of catastrophes with color and gender. Some lucky people think success is entirely their own doing, while others confess that luck played a large part. Lady Fortuna has been called a bitch because she is faithful to no man or woman regardless of race, color, or creed. She can bring incredible luck as well as misfortune. Besides, the Goddess of Night conceals not only criminals but lovers.

Is the Black Swan, the “dark side” or alter ego of the American ego, its death instinct, soon to be its suicidal undoing? Will the “Platonic” boxes people think in come tumbling down? Is the American ‘paradise’ about to suddenly evaporate?

SWAN black stallion poster 1979

Black Stallion 1979

The subtitle of The Black Swan is ‘The Impact of the Highly Improbable.” The highly improbable is still probable. The problem is too complex for the computers to figure out. We might enjoy the day before meeting our maker. We might remove the motive for hate with love and stop looking on people as numbers to be manipulated. The Black Swan might then become our Black Stallion.


SWAN Black Stallion 1979


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