(Note: This is not a review of the best-selling book, The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb : I shall merely discuss its relevance to the practical side of ‘Eventrics’.  S.H.)

The chief drawback of this otherwise very interesting and insightful book, The Black Swan, is that it is too negative.  It tends to focus on catastrophic Black Swan events and argues that such events are strictly unpredictable, inherently so, not just because we lack the necessary information or computing power. In my own lifetime I have witnessed incredible turnanouts that strictly noone saw coming, the sudden collapse of communism in Eastern Eureope, the advent of the Internet, 9/11, the financial meltdown of 2008, the sudden emergence of China as the 21st century’s superpower, the list is endless. I was personally a witness of the May 1968 ‘Student Revolution’ when a scuffle between students and the police in the Sorbonne rapidly led on to a general collapse of law and order and the longest General Strike in a Western country during the 20th century. The amazing thing was that all the Left (and Right) political groups and parties didn’t know whether they were coming or going : this was an entirely unforeseen and above all spontaneous movement emerging from nowhere (Note 1).
For these and other reasons, I had no difficulty in agreeing with Taleb’s main  thesis that history moves by jumps, not small steps, and that the big jumps are caused by events few people, if any, predicted, by what he calls ‘Black Swan events’. [To recap : a Black Swan event is an event that is rare, sudden, unexpected and has extreme impact).
But what about one’s personal life? Can anything be done about Black Swan events, the unpredictables of life, apart from getting out of the way when they start looming up and you don’t like the look of them ? That Taleb thinks something can be done is shown by the uncharacteristic aside made on p. 206 “As a matter of fact, I suspect that the most successful businesses are precisely those that know how to work round inherent unpredictability and even exploit it“.  I entirely concur with this, except that I would remove the word ‘even‘.
In the active professions (business, warfare, invention, living  by your wits, staying alive when you should be dead &c,), it is essential not only to fully recognize the role of the unexpected but to be prepared to turn it to one’s (apparent or real) advantage.  This is an extremely difficult skill that may need a lifetime of practice but it is worth learning because it can lead to outcomes that  otherwise would be unthinkable  — this is why it is called ‘Not-Doing’ in the Tao Te Ching , to distinguish it from ‘Doing’ which requires the use of force and/or intellect.
The “modest tricks” (Taleb’s term) that Taleb has gleaned from his life as an option trader and sceptical observer of humanity are given on pp. 206-11 of his book, The Black Swan (Penguin edition). The key principle which may be called Taleb’s Wager derived from Pascal’s rather dubious ‘wager’ concerning the existence of God, goes as follows :
“I will use statistical and inductive methods to make aggressive bets, but I will not use them to manage my risks and exposures.”
Taleb, Fooled by Randomness p. 130

I am not sure that this principle  quite follows  from the author’s basic principles, it sounds more  like a ‘rule of thumb’, the sort of thing Taleb in other contexts tends to look down on since Taleb has little time for instinct and ‘gut reactions’. But the logical argument seems to go something like this :
“It makes sense to use conventional wisdom when calculating likely positive outcomes because the conventional economic wisdom works (up to a point) if we entirely disregard the possibility of potent unexpected events, Black Swans. Now, if a Black Swan event is fortunate (for us) we don’t need to take it into account because it will happen when and if it will happen : all we need to bother about is the everyday events which are, up to a point, predictable. But the reverse applies to an unfortunate Black Swan : we can’t stop it, no one can say when and if it will strike, so the best thing to do is cover ourselves against such an occurrence and completely disregard received opinion in the matter because it almost always discounts such events.”
The ensuing ‘life-strategy’ is to ‘make oneself available to fortunate Black Swans’ while ‘covering one’s defences against unfortunate ones’ e.g. by having a Plan B, not putting all one’s eggs in one basket and so on. Taleb claims that “all the surviving traders I know seem to have done the same …..They make sure that the costs of being wrong are limited (and their probability [i.e. the probability of the unfortunate Black Swan events S.H.] is not derived from past data)” (op. cit.).
Taleb’s Wager seems to have worked in his particular case. He tells us at one point, without giving the details, that he made a substantial amount of money during the shock 1987 Wall Street ‘Black Monday’ crash and he has also succeeded in publishing a  book which turned out to be a best-seller without any prior literary credentials — no small feat given the exclusiveness and current jitteriness of the  publishing industry.
    How do you get yourself into a position of ‘maximum exposure’ to positive Black Swans ? Well, one way is via chance encounters in bars which is how  James Dean and Rock Hudson got ‘spotted’ —  Rock Hudson was a truck-driver at the time.) Consequently, according to Taleb, it is advantageous to live in (or at least assiduously frequent) a big city because serendipitous chance encounters are much more likely to happen there. It also pays to ‘go out’ : as he remarks, diplomats, a fortiori spies, know the rich spoils to be had from hosting or attending parties. But even more bread-and-butter professionals should take note : “If you’re a scientist, you will chance upon a remark that might spark new research” . Learned societies, including the Royal Society itself, were originally informal get-togethers of enthusiastic amateurs and often took place in inns; Paris owed its central cultural (and political) position for two whole centuries not so much to its progressive educational system as its unique cafe ambiance. You could still see Sartre sipping coffee at Les Deux Magots on occasion when I first hit the Boulevard Saint-Germain and Cocteau recounts meeting at La Rotonde, a cafe I used to frequent, a funny little man with a pointed beard who, when asked what he wanted to do in life, replied, to general hilarity, that he was trying to bring down the Russian government — it was Lenin.
A point not mentioned, I think, by Taleb is that a negative Black Swans, if it doesn’t completely finish you off completely, can morph into a positive one : losing a battle could make you seriously revise a defective strategy, dismally failing to make a go as a commercial traveller might propel you into a less lucrative but much more satisfying profession. Even one might hazard the guess that a Black Swan turned on its head so to speak is more effective than a straightforward fortunae Black Swan. Steve Jobs lost the fight with Bill Gates over PCs but this prompted him to move into mobile phones, iPods and so on : the result is that Apple is, so I have been told, currently rated as an even bigger licrative company than Microsoft. Hitler transformed the complete fiasco of the BeerHall putsch into a resounding success using his appearance in court as a  way to broadcast his poisonous views to the nation, and it is said that it was to prevent this happening again that the Marines were told not to take Bin Laden alive.
Another useful tip from Taleb is not to be too precise about the sort of positive Black Swan you’re looking for. Since Black Swan events are by definition unexpected, they will appear in unexpected disguises — even, or above all, to those who are out hunting for them.
Certain other pieces of advice, especially those relating to probability and ‘rational decision-making’ I find a good deal less useful : they may be of value on Wall Street but not in the sort of places I’m used to frequenting. The entire apparatus of traditional logic, ‘straight thinking’, probability theory, even mathematics, is almost completely irrelevant to the hurly-burly of ‘real life’ which is one reason why so many people with little formal education e.g. Edison, Bill Gates and Richard Branson have been spectacularly successful in business. Mathematics creates a (virtually) foolproof little world closed off to the exterior : this is its strength, sometimes beauty, also its hopeless limitation. In real life, you generally have totally inadequate, even untrustworthy data, and there is no time to fit the data to equations, no time to quantify what you’ve got in front of you. You have to make quick qualitative decisions — exactly what mathematicians and logicians spurn — sign or don’t sign that document, fight or flee if you’re attacked in the street. ‘Rules of thumb’ based on experience are a good deal more use out in the real world than training in formal logic. Amusingly, someone I knew who worked in information technology told me that his firm does not welcome mathematicians, is indeed rather wary of them. The reason is not hard to guess : used as they are to perfectly well set-up situations, they are flummaxed by the unexpected and are no better at everyday decision-making than other people, often worse.
But betting on your own life’s best option is completely different to betting on the Stock Exchange. Why? For a start (as Taleb mentions in passing), in most professions you pay for your bad business decisions because the money’s your own and this clarifies the mind (or alternatively destabilizes it). Traders don’t, the big fish anyway, since even if they fail lamentably, they exit with golden handshakes.  But, even laying this aside, there are several other differences. On the Stock Exchange, a single action of a single individual, unless he is Warren Buffet or Geroge Soros, will not have much effect; however, in one’s own personal life, a single decision at a decisive point may count for more than years of effort. Retrospectively — though usually not prospectively — one sees certain key choices sticking out like signposts. Again, there is in real life no objective standard, no Moody publishing objective commercial ratings since one man’s wine may be another man’s poison.
Real life Black Swan situations also have a complication which seemingly does not apply to the Stock Exchange or the Board Meeting (though maybe it does after all) : at the beginning it is almost impossible to distinguish between a very favourable and a very unfavourable occasion, a negative or a positive Black Swan. Not only do you have to learn to deal with the unexpected, but must learn to cope with not knowing into which category the event cluster you find yourself committed to falls. Is the charming man or woman you have just met, and whom you feel you know so well already after only twenty minutes, going to be the person who will waft you out of obscurity to fame and fortune (if that’s what you want) or maybe tell you an important secret about the meaning of life? Or is he/she simply a confidence trickster or, which is almost as bad, someone who’s going to almost deliberately put you on the wrong track ?  In the fascinating but lethal hothouse habitat of big cities, it  pays to hone your ability to sum people up quickly and accurately : Richard Branson is on record as saying that he sums up a potential customer in the first two minutes and has rarely had reason to regret his verdict. It is also important, in many present-day chance encounters,  to be ready to run away if and when things turn nasty (fleeing is usually safer than fighting).
Taleb does mention an important defence stratagem : setting in advance for yourself a “cut-off point”, the moment when you will stop lending someone more money, (or stop asking someone for more and so lose him as a friend, which is more difficult to practice). “[In trading circles] this is called a ‘stop loss’, a predetermined exit point, a protection from the black swan. I find it rarely practised.” (Taleb, Fooled by Randomness p. 131).
Personal human situations are, anyway, very different from the complex physical systems such as the weather studied by chaos theory and complexity theory : there is a further layer of complexity added on since human beings are at one and the same time players and  observers, are inside the game and on the side-lines. They can in theory, if not in practice, “learn by their mistakes”. This happens in nature as well, of course, but the time-scale is rather longer — for a species it might be millions of years.
I disagree with Taleb’s strictures against what he calls the ‘narrative fallacy’, the tendency of human beings to jump to the conclusion that “where there is pattern, there is significance”.  This faculty doubtless has deep evolutionary origins : it goes back to the days when it was essential to interpret rapidly scarcely perceptible visual or auditory patterns which might well betray the proximity of a predator. Even on the cultural/intellectual level, pattern interpretation on the grand scale, though fraught with danger, has been incredibly productive even when it has turned out to be quiye misguided : scarcely anyone today believes in Plato’s, on the face of it, fantastic doctrine of Eternal Forms  but the approach has been extremely useful in the development of science — the very concept of an ‘ideal gas’ is thoroughly Platonic.
In any case, fom the point of view of Ultimate Event Theory, even ‘meaningless’ transitory patterns are significant since they are the result of ephemeral associations and dissociations of events :  the point is not whether these patterns are ‘spurious’ or ‘real’ — everything that has occurrence is real — but  whether they persist or not. Mandelbrot, who, like Taleb, warns against seeing significant patterns in financial price shifts says more than he realizes when he remarks that such changes “can be persistent, meaning that they reinforce each other; a trend once started tends to keep going. (…) Or they can be amti-persistent, meaning they contradict each other; a trend once begun is likely to reverse itself” (Mandelbrot, The(Mis)Beahviour of Markets p. 245). From my point of view, what this shows is that there are varying hidden forces of consolidation and dispersion at work, not unlike the tiny electro-magnetic forces between molecules in a gas (Van des Waals forces). It is strange that, although many writers are quite prepared to view the ‘market’ as a ‘living system’ not unlike a bacterial colony, no one seems prepared to view the components of such a system, events, as in some sense ‘alive’. But it is these myriad independent events, decisions, forecasts, sales &c. which direct everything and which, when and if they come together and act in unison cause a boom or a crash.
A more serious limitation of Taleb’s nonehtless excellent book is that he tends to view human beings as essentially passive victims of the unforeseen rather than as deliberate activators of change. You do not have to just sit waiting for a fortunate event to happen : you can sometimes deliberately put yourself in the way of a likely Black Swan event or even manufacture one deliberately, a technique which I call ‘Doing the Opposite’. If you are naturally an orderly, rational sort of person, do something wild and completely out of character like the woman who, after working in the City for many years, rowed single-handed across the Atlantic (Note 2) ; if you are naturally a spontaneous and romantic person, enrol for a course in calculus or Business Studies, you might even find you enjoy it. Such an unexpected course of action administers a severe shock to the system and, if it recovers (which is usually does), you will find yourself thoroughly invigorated.
Do I practice what I preach on this last point ? Pretty much. Last year, to the stupefaction of everyone who knows me, including myself, I suddenly decided to buy a ticket I couldn’t really afford to travel for the first time to a country that has always repulsed me (America), using a form of transport I disapprove of (air),  in order to engage in an activity I detest (trying to flog some of my work to strangers) in an environment I’d been warned I would absolutely loathe (Hollywood). I didn’t land an option with Warner Brothers but I view this decision as one of the most fruitful I’ve ever made in my life simply for the experience, and even plan going back for more punishment this year. (Actually, contrary to their reputation, I found almost everyone I met in LA charming and parts of downtown Los Angeles hauntingly beautiful, choc-a-bloc with the most incredible Art Deco buildings slowly crumbling into the dust, the whole area  suffused with the faded glamour of  the lost Golden Era of Los Angeles, the Twenties.)   S.H.

Notes :  (1) My reminiscences of these events, under the title Le Temps des Cerises : May ’68 and Aftermaths, have been published in The Raven, Anarchist Quarterly, Vol. 10 Number 2 Summer 1998

(2) “In 2005 Roz Savage became the first solo woman to compete in the Atlantic Rowing Race. She set out from the Canaries to row 3,000 miles alone and unsupported, and eventually arrived in Antigua after 103 days alone at sea.
What really intrigued me about her story was the process that led to her embarking on this extraordinary adventure. (…) After University, she followed a typical career path working her way up the corporate ladder, firstly as a Management Consultant and then moving on to be an Investment Banker. (…) In her early thirties, she started to get a niggling feeling that something was missing and that perhaps ther was ‘more to life than this’ ”  
From 52 Ways to Handle It, by Annabel Sutton (Neal’s Yard Press 2007)