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What Black Swan Theory has to do with Arab Spring uprising?

Posted on June 13, 2012

I have posted several articles on the Black Swan Theory and this link is in response to its application to Lebanon political/social structure

Zaher Yahya posted on Huffington Post an article (with slight editing) that is a general “refresher” post on the topic:

“The Arab Spring has been described and associated with a variety of symbolic designations.

At times, the term describes the series of protests that have swept across the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. It may also indicate a person’s political position on the wide and highly polarized spectrum.

The term ‘Arab Spring’ has even been criticized by some who support the pro-democracy (or anti-regime) protests, citing this description as being Orientalist and therefore inappropriate.

The ‘Arab Spring’  (protests and upheaval), which started on December 2010, has become a brand for the region, and has motivated and catalyzed many popular protest movements around the world.

International media generally refers to the term as a unified concept, largely citing its contagious aspects as well as the key links between the countries involved.

We now know that the Arab Spring will not be an easy ride for the countries that it has affected, though it cannot be denied that the region has been marked by a political paradigm shift.

People in the MENA region have:

1. Denounced the long-accepted principle that unelected officials and family dynasties can cling to power for decades without consequence.

2. People have broken the long-standing barriers of fear regarding corruption and intimidation,

3. People are adjusting to the ideological diversity of their societies (though many still have much to learn on this front).

For these reasons, I tend to be optimistic about the Arab Spring despite much rhetoric about it becoming an Arab “Winter.”

Having lived through the global financial crisis that has affected people of all walks of life, I view the Arab Spring as being related to these events that shook the world economy in 2007.

Are you surprised that I find a relation may exist between these two events, both vast and far-reaching, but seemingly distinct? It may appear a tad philosophical, but the answer lies with Nassim Taleb.

Nassim Taleb (see note 2) lays the foundations  in his two books Randomness (2001) and Black Swan (2007) for his theories about uncertainty, randomness and Black Swan events.

Black Swan theory describes unpredicted major-impact events that effectively appear sensible in hindsight.

Taleb theory is framed in a financial context, (many experts contend that Taleb forecasted the financial meltdown of 2007), and describes the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s as one of these Black Swan moments.

Black Swan moments are characterized as being rare, high-impact and paradoxically unpredictable occurrences at the time of their occurrence. Most of us would assume black swans don’t exist, simply because we were only accustomed to seeing white swans in pictures and videos…

In the terms of the financial crisis, speculators assumed there is only one way for the markets to go; asset values would rise indefinitely with no limit to the amount of debt people could incur.

It has become clear afterward that the reality on the ground was different of what was written on their balance sheets and portfolios bottom lines.

The impact of the debt crisis was colossal and wide-spread that no expert envisaged at the time, with many talking about the failure of capitalism as a result. This global crash has really shattered the image and ultimate authority of the dictators of the finance sector (i.e. investment banks and hedge funds).

The Arab spring proved as difficult to predict as the financial meltdown showing economists, intelligence agencies, policy makers and analysts clueless about their own business, simply because they have never considered a Black Swan moment for the MENA region.

The Arab Spring was triggered by what could initially have been interpreted as an isolated event, spread surprisingly fast over a vast region, and led to major and unexpected developments.

In the same way, norms of the banking system that was held for generations collapsed with stunning speed and magnitude, the image and privilege of Arab dictators were shattered by popular revolts in a movement that took the world by surprise.

A Black Swan moment was never considered in the experts’ minds to apply to the Arab States: many Arab dictators held a seemingly unshakable iron grip on power and ruled undeterred for up to four decades, all while preparing their sons to someday take the reins after them, unshaken by popular and economic conditions in their country.

So the public witnessed only their moukhabarat (secret service agents) running the show, as well as the brutal backstage of the regime if you were unlucky enough to pay them a visit.

Years of tradition made this construction of power a social norm, a backbone of society so persevering it was often assumed (and reasonable at the time) to be unshakable.

And this is exactly what Nassim Taleb focuses on, exactly on the things we don’t know rather than the things we think we do.

A small exception to a rule (events in the tails of the normal graph) in the future can have the ability to trigger large-scale change and dismantle norms, theories and paradigms that have been accepted for years.

The colossal impact of the Arab Spring across the region was beyond anyone’s realm of expectations – either idealistic or highly calculated.

In the world of risk management, this event appeared highly unlikely: The probability of such events spreading across such a vast region were not on the minds of political forecasters, in the same way so many bankers did not fathom their long-standing stability could be shattered so suddenly.

In hindsight, the Arab Spring may now appear to have been predictable.

How could we have assumed that despite torture, censorship, abuse, brutality, corruption, unemployment and poverty, regimes would remain sustainable?

Whatever your opinion of the Arab Spring, and whatever term you choose to designate it, what started in December 2010 has proven itself a Black Swan moment of the Middle East and North Africa, one that is far from over, and whose impact will perhaps take years to fully assess.

Note 1Michelle Ghoussoub, Blogger at Lebanon Spring, edited Yahya article.  Follow Zaher Yahya on Twitter:

Note 2: Nassim Taleb is a renowned Lebanese-American statistician, best-selling author and former Wall Street trader. His books Fooled by Randomness (2001) and Black Swan (2007) brought him to fame, with the latter described by The Sunday Times as “one of the twelve most influential books since World War II”.

Note 3: Opinion experts would like us to believe that the uprising were not expected by the US. Evidences are pointing that what was unexpected is the development, steadfastness and far-reaching movement of the Arab people to get away with their long established indignities and humiliation by usurping oligarchies.

Note 4: What is of most importance is to study how the colonial powers and Saudi Kingdom, and monarchic regimes went about taming this mass upheaval and re-instituting dictators power in the MENA region. Only the fomenting of the extremist religious movements were the major barriers in resuming these mass upheaval.

Antifragile: what can Gain from Disorder (Incerto)?  And Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the bestselling author of The Black Swan and one of the foremost thinkers of our time, reveals how to thrive in an uncertain world.

I have reviewed and developed on the Black Swan theory in several articles

Black Swan is a term coined after discovering a black swan a couple of years ago.  People firmly believed that all swans were white:  A few might have observed a black swan but refused to identify it as a swan; or black swans are common sight in particular regions and people had no idea that black swans are considered rarity all over the world and might be purchased for their weight in gold to be raised in zoos!

You know the adage: “If an event can occur, it will happen“, meaning, it does not matter how low the predicted probability of occurrence of the rare events, it will strike “unexpectedly”.

If there is a chance in a million for an asteroid to smash onto earth, an asteroid will fall on our head: Asteroid did fall and transform earth several times in the last four billion years.

Just as human bones get stronger when subjected to stress and tension, and rumors or riots intensify when someone tries to repress them, many phenomena in life benefit from stress, disorder, volatility, and turmoil.

What Taleb has identified and calls “antifragile” is that category of things that not only gain from chaos but need it in order to survive and flourish.

The Black Swan theory states: “In complex systems, especially man-made complex systems, it is not feasible to comprehend all the interactions among the hundred of variables affecting outcomes. In man-made systems, we have to allow natural fluctuations that are at work.

The rare predicted calamitous events  will strike unexpectedly, and we will fail to react accordingly and adequately if we consciously avoid to consistently take them into consideration in our analysis and reports.”

The unexpected events cannot be analyzed as odds in card games or casino games:  Human behavior with thousands of variability in moods, emotions, conventions, conviction, personal experiences… cannot be predicted as games are.

In The Black Swan, Taleb showed us that highly improbable and unpredictable events underlie almost everything about our world.

In Antifragile, Taleb stands uncertainty on its head, making it desirable, even necessary, and proposes that things be built in an antifragile manner.

The antifragile is beyond the resilient or robust. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better and better.

The antifragile is immune to prediction errors and protected from adverse events.

Why is the city-state better than the nation-state,?

Why is debt bad for you, and why is what we call “efficient” not efficient at all?

Why do government responses and social policies protect the strong and hurt the weak?

Why should you write your resignation letter before even starting on the job?

How did the sinking of the Titanic save lives?

The book spans innovation by trial and error, life decisions, politics, urban planning, war, personal finance, economic systems, and medicine.

And throughout, in addition to the street wisdom of Fat Tony of Brooklyn, the voices and recipes of ancient wisdom, from Roman, Greek, Semitic, and medieval sources, are loud and clear.

Antifragile is a blueprint for living in a Black Swan world.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said:

The most rewarding moment in an author’s career. Finally, I am no longer the author of several books. I am now the author of a single book in 4 volumes: INCERTO, plus technical companions.

Why does it matter? I don’t know, but it is a big, very big deal to see your work as a single large coherent and self contained unit, to which you keep adding pieces to, ultimately, leave very few stones unturned


Is “Black Swan Theory” applicable to man-made systems?

Has anyone seen a swan (baja3) physically? In the flesh, or even flying or walking?  If you are asked “what is the color of a swan?” I bet your answer is “White, obviously”.  Actually, a black swan was identified a few years ago.  Is it possible to eventually identify a multicolored swan?

You might say that finding a black swan, or even a tribe of black swans, or a mixture of black and white swans stand to reason, but is it feasible to have a green, blue… swan?  You might respond that genetic engineering can produce whatever colored swan you desire as a pet…

Why do you think all of us believed that a swan must be white, and nothing but white?  Most of us have not seen a swan, except in pictures, movies or documentaries; we might not even be able to identify a swan from a duck if the bird is not named…

If even nature, which changes slowly and its trends can be mostly predicted, has the potential of surprising us with rare events, a few of them catastrophic.

We got in the habit of expecting frequent disasters from man-designed and man-made systems, within a few years of their applications and usage by people…

The variability in living creatures and the behaviors of users are a thousand folds more numerous than variability in nature.  Wouldn’t you be appalled in total disbelief to hear any designer of systems claiming that the product is definitely designed and manufactured to be entirely controlled and managed according to users’ satisfaction, safety, and health?

The teams of designers of many professions such as scientists, engineers, psychologist, legal professionals… are aware of two things:

First, there will be frequent minor malfunctions to the system in terms of financial loss, safety and health casualties, but these malfunctions can be controlled and fixed.

Second, any system contains rare catastrophic malfunctions that will eventually occur (doud al khal minho wa fih) and predicting these rare events is very challenging and out of control and management.  When you hear of economic-safety analysis trade-off of a system, bear in mind that the study concerns the number of casualties and the financial cost that owners (more frequently the State or the tax payers) will have to set aside for these calamitous eventualities.

The funny part is that:

First, no money is ever set aside by the private shareholders for these catastrophes and the States or tax-payers will eventually cover up the expenses.

Second, transparency and full disclosure to the general public is never disseminated widely, if ever published.

Third, the public and communities in most countries have no say in the design and decision-making processes of vast man-made systems.

Fourth, no man-made system has instituted an independent specialized and dedicated team responsible of gathering data and analysing statistics of the various malfunctions.  Most malfunctions are barely reported and serious hazardous events are dusted-off under the carpet:  No read, never happened!

Do you know that the UN agency for health is forbidden to collect and report statistics on nuclear disaster consequences?  That the atomic UN agency is not to share statistics with other UN agencies concerned with health and safety of world population?

Note 1: Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a mathematician by formation wrote  “The Black Swan:  The power of the unpredictable” and “Savage hazard”.  Taleb was initially trying to explain the financial crisis since he is in the financial business.  The theory is fine and explains many fluctuations in man-made designs, for example the international financial system.

Note 2: This post is a re-edited version of the first part of a lengthy article related to claims that Black Swan Theory does not apply to the political/social structure in Lebanon

How rare are dangerous events? How dangerous are “rare” species? Unless extinct…

Dozens of living species, animals and plants, go extinct every day.  The number is many folds higher, since we don’t know all that exist in species.  And mankind has no clear idea of their importance to our survival and to earth sustainability.

In the last two centuries, mankind was the direct cause and main catalyst for the extinction of all kinds of species.  Hundreds of “savaged” tribes have vanished as samples of how mankind survived in various environment.  This rate of extinction has increased drastically in the last five decades, and the international community is helpless regulating the savage mass production of the multinational companies and financial institutions.  Texaco alone is responsible for the extinction of two human tribes in the Equatorial Forest, due to excessive and unsafe operations in the oil extraction processes, polluting the region and water sources and rendering the survival domain of the tribe extinct. (read link on note #1)

Let us face it: Over 50% of mankind is now living in urban setting.  If urban people are denied zoos or affordable access to zoos, how many do you think have seen even a live chicken? Most probably, in most urban cities in the “third world”, there are no zoos, and people catch rats for their daily consumption, the fatter the happier.

Are you aware of expensive rare dirt minerals?  They are called dirt because they are not excavated underground:  You scratch the surface of earth and you pour highly toxic acid to clean out the other non-precious minerals.  Vast zones of open lands are polluted and dead for generations, along with water sources, on the surface and under.  China has the monopoly of extracting and exporting those expensive eight rare elements found in dirt.

Are rare events and species always dangerous phenomenon, before and after they are extinct?  For example, why should an urban dweller care about a black swan, if he never saw a living duck or a goose?

There is a complete theory on the eventual occurrence of dangerous rare events in man-made complex systems; it is called the Black Swan theory, because a black swan was identified to exist a few years ago.  Anyway, do you expect a black swan to behave differently than white swan? We tend not to see but a color variation in animals:  Unlike other animal species, mankind see behavioral differences in human of different color complexion.

The designers of man-made systems know the consequences of the inevitable dangerous rare events in the functioning of the system.  For example, nuclear power plants, automated fast trains and airplanes, military highly dangerous complex systems of activation… Actually, the economic-safety trade-off studies are rarely made public and are mostly not transparent for serious examination.

Once built, the man-made systems are rarely assigned an independent team of specialists to follow-up on the frequency of near-accidents and near misses of calamities.  Only serious errors of dysfunctions are reported to a government agency in developed States.

These dangerous systems are funded by governments and ultimately turned over to private investors.  Once a catastrophe strikes, it is the State and people tax money that cover the expenses of damages done to health and safety of operators and users.

Do you know that the sole purpose of the UN atomic agency is to encourage building nuclear power plants?  Do you know that the UN health and safety organization is prohibited of collecting statistics on nuclear accidents and their health consequences?  It is as if the atomic agency has the monopoly for disseminating misinformation, ill-health, death, and disasters.

Almost every day, there are at least a near-accident in nuclear power plants, and governments love not to receive official reports on these accidents, especially the veto-power States in the UN security council.

We are to expect different kinds of rare events in a couple of decades.  For example, youth in Japan will be rarer than old people.  Many will jump to the conclusion: “Great, Japan is the ideal vacation destination.  It must be the safest location: I am sure that I can outrun an elder person holding a blade to my face…”  We are missing the fact that Japan is polluted with nuclear radiation for years to come.

Until the current UN atomic agency is disbanded and a new charter created for an agency corresponding to world community health and safety standards, I am not visiting Japan and its surrounding States such as China, Korea, the Philippines, Viet Nam… I am not visiting Ukraine and Belarus.  I am not visiting France and the USA.  I need accurate, credible, and naive data on the far-reaching consequences of the nuclear meltdowns.

The State of Lebanon is the source of bizarre and rare dangerous man-made institutions.  Unfold a world map and look for arrows pointing to a location: It is probably Lebanon. A dot smaller than New Jersey State, a suburb of New York City. This spot is the densest location for world most fantastic show case carnival of extravagant rarities.

Lebanon was recognized a State in the first UN session in San Francisco in 1946.  Since then, Lebanon wallowed in this amazing rarity of staying a Non-State:  Lebanon is de facto administered by 18 recognized theocratic sub-States.

If you visit Lebanon, you discover that for every 6 young girls there is a young male: The remaining young males have immigrated to greener pastures…

Funny, I saw a black Mercedes with three-digit numbers plate, (reserved for Deputies in the Parliament), and the plate has the code of the Balance, the pictogram for Judge.   I saw a clerics driving this car.  Civil judges drive cars with four-digit plates:  Are religious judges in religious court, assessed as higher in status or power than civil judges?

More on this bizarre “State” of Lebanon in follow-up articles.

Note 1:

Black Swan model: Can rare catastrophic events in complex man-made systems be controlled?

Note:  The application of the Black Swan model to the “Arab” Spring revolts and in southern Europe, and the financial crisis will be explained in the follow-up article.

Warning! Pay closer attention to the “predictable” but unexpected rare calamitous events!

Black Swan is a term coined after discovering a black swan a couple of years ago.  People firmly believed that all swans were white:  A few might have observed a black swan but refused to identify it as a swan; or black swans are common sight in particular regions and people had no idea that black swans are considered rarity all over the world and might be purchased for their weight in gold to be raised in zoos!

You know the adage: “If an event can occur, it will happen“, meaning, it does not matter how low the predicted probability of occurrence of the rare events, it will strike “unexpectedly”.  If there is a chance in a million for an asteroid to smash onto earth, an asteroid will fall on our head: Asteroid did fall and transform earth several times in the last four billion years.

Just think on the even lower probability of “being who we are, as an individual”.  You could naturally have been an inanimate object, a plant, another animal species, born somewhere else, lived after birth, survived to be 5 year-old…

The Black Swan theory states: “In complex systems, especially man-made complex systems, it is not feasible to comprehend all the interactions among the hundred of variables affecting outcomes. In man-made systems, we have to allow natural fluctuations that are at work.  The rare predicted calamitous events  will strike unexpectedly, and we will fail to react accordingly and adequately if we consciously avoid to consistently take them into consideration in our analysis and reports.”

The unexpected events cannot be analyzed as odds in card games or casino games:  Human behavior with thousands of variability in moods, emotions, conventions, conviction, personal experiences… cannot be predicted as games are.

Natural sciences such as engineering, physics, chemistry, architecture, astronomy, planet explorations…are within the linear domain of thinking life and the universe.  Social and human sciences, epidemics, economics… are within far more complex domains, and the linear methods that mankind was trained to resolving problems and fluctuations are not adequate to be transposed to complex systems.

We are better equipped to predicting lunar eclipses, but not stock evolution, or foreign political upheavals.  It is NOT the “last grain of sand that crashed the structure or the bridge…”  The last grain was the catalyst for the failure but not the cause.  The fault is in the designed system, and not in its components.

For example, the “subprime” was not the cause of the financial crisis in 2008: It was just the latest among the catalysts of hazardous financial tools.  The cause was a faulty financial system that the political decision-makers failed to redesign in due time, requiring courageous and determined positions to ironing-out the serious problems growing out of proportions in risky behaviors, in an unregulated system, and in instantaneous pouring of massive liquidity to “stabilizing” a fragile outmoded designed and faulty system.

There is this trend of confusing catalysts with causes:  The designers of a system do not necessarily have this confusion, but the political decision-makers and owners of the systems that purposely confuse the general public as catastrophes strike.  Two psychological biases are at the sources of confusing catalysts with causes:

The first bias is our illusion in our capacity to control volatility in man-made complex systems. For example, we focus on the “normal working” of a system and we delete from our analysis and reports the minor fluctuations or rare events that are occasionally occurring.  In a sense, if there are no variations, there are no information worth controlling.  This tendency of feeling very comfortable dealing with only a “stable” system leads to forgetting the consequences of calamitous rare events.

The second psychological bias is the illusion that acting on a factor is better than doing nothing and letting the system work-out its fluctuations.  For example, authorities think or are pressured to think that they were elected or appointed to act and react on any variations, instead of doing nothing when fluctuations are within the norm.  Consequently, it is these actions that usually exacerbate a system going bad and out of proportion.  For example, Alan Greenspan and later Ben Bernanke lowering the central bank interest rates to almost negative rates in order to “stabilize” a fragile faulty financial system that needed major redesign.

The Fukushima disaster of the melting down of three nuclear reactors is a typical example.  It is NOT the earthquake and the tsunami that are the causes of the meltdown:  They were the catalysts.  The cause is a faulty designed system for generating electricity that is highly dangerous and built in a region frequently exposed to high levels of earthquakes and tsunami.  The economic risk trade-off was meant for normal functioning of a nuclear plant, and the consequences of  a serious event striking was swept under the carpet for three decades.

The owner of the power nuclear plant and the government blamed natural phenomena as the causes and toned down the lethal exposure to radiation for over a month.  Why?  It is better not scare the people! What?  It is better to let people die peacefully than give them the proper information to decide on their own plan of actions?

It is normal for mankind to be wary of the volatile aspects in life.  In the past, mankind managed to block-out drastic fluctuations from their consciousness in order to survive:  Mankind figured out the major trends in hazard in order to foresee and adopt simple models they could control for administering and managing their lives and the survival of the community.

The behavioral model should allow normal fluctuations in behavior to react within normal realities.

Simple models have been replaced by complex models, but within the past linear mentality and comprehension.  You may understand a few interactions among three main variables, but when man-made design inserted hundreds of volatile factors in a system, we should no longer expect to have total control on the complex system.

If we are not ready to design reasonable fluctuations in a system, and be ready to take seriously the problems of rare occurrences, and be trained to react to calamitous rare events, then it is wise to stick to simple systems that individual operators can understand and can control.

A man-made system should not be designed to eliminate all the faults, ill-behavior, and limitations of mankind, but to factor them in, and be trained to react adequately to these variations:  The operator has to be constantly motivated to learn and be vigilant to minor fluctuations and comprehend the main interactions.

Note 1: Nassim Taleb, a mathematician, was a trader and worked for 20 years as consultant to large investment banks in New York and London. He created Empirica LLC for trading.  He is engineering professor at the polytechnic institute at the University of New York.  Taleb published “Savage hazard” and “The Black Swan:  The power of the unpredictable.”

Note 2: Mark Blyth is a Scottish professor of international political economy at the university of Brown (Rhode Island).  He published “Great Transformation: Economic ideas and institutional change in the 20th century”.  A new book is to be released “Austerity: The history of a dangerous idea




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