OF AIRSHIPS AND EARTHQUAKES—AND OF UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS
When I was writing about airships the other day—and commented on the advantages of the Airlander hybrid airship in disasters (particularly because such a hybrid aircraft is unaffected by buckled roads and broken bridges, and does not require a runway—yet can carry many tons of cargo), my mind quickly recalled that such a disaster is highly likely to hit Seattle—where I happen to be living right now.
This is earthquake territory with a vengeance—and sooner or later the Big One will hit.
Gulp! Pause… while fingers of fear do what such things do.
But earthquakes are a predicable hazard—even if difficult to predict with any precision—so if the ground shakes and is ripped open; and if I fall six floors before the roof falls on me—into Lake Washington where drowning seems highly likely on top of my being crushed—I shall be able to console myself with the thought that such an event was not entirely unexpected—though a little warning would have been nice. In effect, I will have died in my comfort zone. What a relief!
In truth, I am much more concerned (and interested) about the unpredictability of life—in a more fundamental sense of the threat being unknown—and I am somewhat of a believer in Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory. Here is what Wikipedia says about it:
The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that is a surprise (to the observer), has a major effect, and after the fact is often inappropriately rationalized with the benefit of hindsight.
The theory was developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb to explain:
- The disproportionate role of high-profile, hard-to-predict, and rare events that are beyond the realm of normal expectations in history, science, finance, and technology
- The non-computability of the probability of the consequential rare events using scientific methods (owing to the very nature of small probabilities)
- The psychological biases that make people individually and collectively blind to uncertainty and unaware of the massive role of the rare event in historical affairs
Unlike the earlier philosophical "black swan problem," the "black swan theory" refers only to unexpected events of large magnitude and consequence and their dominant role in history. Such events, considered extreme outliers, collectively play vastly larger roles than regular occurrences.
The question now is whether I am thinking of all this from a personal point of view, or as a writer. Am I revealing some of my own inner fears—or am I thinking in terms of plotting another story? Frankly, I am damned if I can tell the difference.
I find it hard to express the joy that last sentence gives me. My life, and my writing life, have now become one (and it only took a few decades).
But let me close with a quote that encapsulates the very essence of what I feel about good books. They are not just a pleasure to read, or an inspiration to the intellect—marvelous though that is: They are a call for action. Ideas are what move us forward.
“ A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting. ”
- Henry David Thoreau