Monday, June 7, 2010

This is not a Black Swan

I am aghast, angry, and depressed over the events in the Gulf of Mexico that began with the catastrophic, tragic fiery destruction of the British Petroleum Deep Water Horizon oil drilling platform and the unimaginably horrific deaths of eleven of its workers.

This will very likely turn out to be far and away the most severe man-made environmental calamity of my lifetime. The Gulf of Mexico (and perhaps far beyond) faces biological and economic ruination that may well be at this point beyond human capacity to truly remediate.

"Act of God"? As more than one fatuous politician has lamely proffered? No "God" that I would care to consort with or submit to. Forget it. This was the culmination of a series of acts by identifiable men (All of them by now all suitably lawyered up).

WELL, PERHAPS A "BLACK SWAN" EVENT?

Citing Nassim Nicholas Taleb:
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. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability...

Notwithstanding my extreme affinity for the philosophical/theoretical/empirical insights and works of Taleb, I would have to seriously demur were anyone to argue Black Swan here. To wit:
  1. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations...
  2. Second, it carries an extreme impact.
  3. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
Only the second of these proffers legitimately obtains here.

"Black Swan" is an analogy, perhaps to the point of metaphor. So, let me offer another.

RUSSIAN ROULETTE

Six chambers, one live round. Place your bet, load the weapon, spin, place the business end of the barrel against your temple, pull the trigger. The probability of blowing your brains out in the wake of each attempt is one in six. Would you do it?

Of course not (unless you're suicidal). The negative "expected value" (obliteration) -- i.e., probability times the "payoff" -- remains essentially "infinite" irrespective of the well-below 50/50 (1/6th) nominal, non-accruing independent "chance" (a concept which utterly explains fear of flying).


Now, assume the revolver has not six, but, say, 10,000 chambers. Moreover, the barrel is pointed not at your temple but at beaches, marshes, pelicans, turtles, shrimp, shrimpers, and the rest of the inhabitants of a region writ large.

Place your bet. By the time you "lose," you will have made plenty of bank. Unlike those uninvolved in the game.
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"Years of Internal BP Probes Warned That Neglect Could Lead to Accidents"
A series of internal investigations over the past decade warned senior BP managers that the company repeatedly disregarded safety and environmental rules and risked a serious accident if it did not change its ways...

No, this horrific event fails Black Swan postulates 1 and 3 above. It may indeed have been "outside the realm of regular expectations," but only to the conveniently, expediently dilettante executive mind. And (3), there is nothing to "concoct" here. There exists a record -- one that points to criminal negligence. (see 2 - "extreme impact").
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For now, consider an earlier post of mine. We have alternatives. BTW, I am in fact a "Drill, Baby, Drill" kind of guy.

No need to idle all those drillers. There's plenty of heavy industrial work to be done.

UPDATE

This is hard to watch.


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MORE TO COME

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