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Soup of This Day #241: I Met A Strange Lady, She Made Me Nervous

August 30, 2012

Black Swan
Do not adjust your screen for colour – This swan is normally black. It’s all the other swans which are unusual – Photo: Nevit Dilmen, 2006. Nevit Dilmen is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

Black swans are not mythical.

I want to clarify this because until Dutch explorer-type Willem de Vlamingh went for a bit of a sail in 1697 it was considered in the Old World that a black swan was simply impossible.

It was a reasonable if inaccurate assumption – Almost all of the folk that had observed swans would have only seen white 1s. It’s a small step from there to ‘all swans are white’ and therefore ‘no swans are black’. And before you know it your deductive reasoning has concluded that black swans are not going to happen without some sticky tar and 1 pissed off Mute Swan.

Except that there are naturally occurring black swans. Quite a few of them in fact.

They can be found here in Australia, most specifically in the south west of the continent and in the south east. It was while visiting the former that de Vlamingh set eyes on them. He had sailed up a river and observed several groups of the ebony waterbirds. He promptly christened that waterway the Swan River – A name that it holds today, along with a fairly healthy population of what we now know as Black Swans, Cygnus atratus.

de Vlamingh wasn’t always as accurate though. Landing on an island just off the mouth of the Swan River he observed lots of what he thought were giant rats and thus named it Rotte nest (Dutch for ‘Rat Nest’). Which became Rottnest Island even though it transpired it did not have rats, giant or otherwise. What the Dutch explorer had actually seen were quokkas, marsupials that are sort of the same colour as rats but that’s where the resemblance ends. I know this because I’ve seen them many times and never once thought:

‘@#$% me, there’s a giant rat that looks like a small wallaby. No wait… It’s just a quokka.’

To be fair to good ol’ Willem he was possibly still in shock at finding black swans, which logic clearly had espoused was not possible.

So not possible in fact that the term ‘black swan’ had become a stock phrase for referring to something which could not be. As in:

Cornelius: Do you think that Willem will find any strange land down under yonder?

Luuk: What, with giant hopping rats? He might as well look for black swans while he’s there!

All: [Hearty Dutch laughter] Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Such was the certainty that there could be no black swans that there now exists a business theory that labels unexpected outlier events that have a major impact and can be retroactively rationalised as ‘black swans’.

An example of this could be the Red Sox implosion that started around this time a year ago.

Was it an unexpected outlier of an event? Yes – It was the biggest September collapse ever recorded in the big leagues.

Did it have a major impact? Well, it did shock a Nation to its core so I think we can check that criteria off too.

Can we retroactively rationalise the happening? I believe we can – In hindsight the weakness in starting pitching had been there for all to see throughout the season. It was masked somewhat by a stellar year with the bat but eventually the numbers being laid down by the starting rotation were always going to bite.

So clearly a black swan then. This is possible – As de Vlamingh learned – Black swans can and will happen. What allows them to occur is an organisation that is not looking at the right analytics – Perhaps focusing too much on batting or relief pitching. They might recognize that starting pitching is a problem but believe that it will take care of itself and that they have it under control. In holding that view warning signs are missed or glossed over and you get a type of ethos that is called black swan blindness.

And this seems to have been an issue for the Red Sox across Spring Training. They failed to address the weakness in the starting rotation, instead choosing to believe that minor tweeks and patches would yield a better result, that they had this inherent flaw under control. In essence, they refused to believe that swans could be black, even though 1 had charged them and bitten them on the arse just 6 months previous.

As an aside. Never get to close to a swan’s nest around hatching time. They don’t like that. It will be painful for you.

So have the Sox now worked out that their swans might be black?

Maybe. You’d like to think that was the reason they recently fired pitching coach Bob McClure and happily shipped off the currently un-ace-like ace Josh Beckett to the Dodgers. The money saved from the latter, along with the departures of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford frees up serious salary wriggle room – If that windfall is used on building up the pitching stocks then you just know that the Red Sox have made a cygnificant discovery.

Bad swan joke intended.

If the Red Sox are still having trouble picking out the black swans in their midst then they could always head on down here – To Australians, and Western Australians in particular, black swans are a commonplace, if welcome, sight. We in fact don’t have much in the way of swans who are not black.

In a way we’re just a little bit proud down here that our swans are so different. In Swan Lake, the white swan is the lovely and pure Odette, the heroine of the piece. The black swan is the sultry and seductive Odile. Sure she’s a little bit on the side of the bad but she’s hot and I’m sure she can change. Anyway, who hasn’t tried to seduce a prince so that her evil sorcerer of a father can continue a curse for unspecified reasons? Odile is just misunderstood.

And sultry.

And so we have adopted the Black Swan as our State emblem – It takes pride of place on our flag, a black swan on a badge of yellow. It can also be found on our coat of arms, which feature 2 kangaroos holding a shield bearing a Black Swan in pride of place. Because we’re a little bit misunderstood, a little bit sultry and seductive, and we’re hot – There’s no denying that – Marble Bar, in Western Australia’s north frequently has temperatures exceeding 45°C (113°F) and – This bit seriously impresses me – for 6 months of the year the daily maximum temperature exceeds the normal human body temperature (37.0°C or 98.6 °F).

That last fact for me defines hotness. The Red Sox could use some of that heat in their pitching right now.

I Met A Strange Lady, She Made Me Nervous

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