Lessons From Black Swans

by James Wallace Harris, Wednesday, March 18, 2020

We always learn something from black swan events, such as the 9/11 attacks and the 2008 financial collapse. First, we’re always shocked by changes that many predicted and see the obvious warnings in hindsight. With the current pandemic, we’re now realizing just how many books and movies imagined an event like this one, and we asked ourselves “Why weren’t we prepared?” There were those who warned us about terrorist attacks and economic bubbles but we didn’t listen to them either.

Basically, people are hopeful. Or at least, they need to turn a blind eye to fear of the future. After the black swan lands, we become so fearful of another similar landing that we become paranoid for decades. We’ve spent trillions on worrying about terrorism since 9/11, and whenever Wall Street got the sniffles we’ve freaked out worrying about another giant economic downturn. Singapore was better prepared for COVID-19 because it had already experienced a SARS outbreak. We do learn, it just takes a big kick in the head first. On the other hand, some groups like Boomers and the Faithful are still living in denial about the current black swan. And preppers are having a big “I told you so” moment.

It now looks like this pandemic will hurt more Americans than terrorisms and wars, and damage the economy far more than any shenanigans of big business. We hope the coronavirus will clear up in weeks, but it could change the country for decades, just like other black swans. Events like this pandemic will also identify the grasshoppers and ants in society. Aesop’s fable told us not to always party and put away for tomorrow. This plague is going to sicken more people financially than medically. Far from everyone heeded the advice to set aside six months of living expenses, but really, how many ever imagined they would be told to stay home for months? I expect the lessons learned from surviving this pandemic will affect how people live for decades to come. And that too could affect the long term economic outlook. And I bet getting vaccinated for everything offered will become a lot more popular.

You’d think we’d start learning how to handle black swans. We’ve known for a very long time that if some people eat bats in China or monkeys in Africa diseases that previously only existed in animal reservoirs would jump the dam to dwell in us. We’ve had decades of experience containing these pathogen breakouts, knocking them back, and knowing if we failed the disease would become part of our regular lives. Every year cold and flu viruses flare up and travel around the world because so viruses are entrenched in us. If we don’t contain the coronavirus it could house itself permanently in Homo sapiens and either become an annual flareup or a chronic problem like TB. We don’t know enough yet, to say which.

For the year 2017, the CDC said these were the leading causes of deaths in the U.S.:

  • Heart disease: 647,457
  • Cancer: 599,108
  • Accidents (unintentional injuries): 169,936
  • Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 160,201
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 146,383
  • Alzheimer’s disease: 121,404
  • Diabetes: 83,564
  • Influenza and Pneumonia: 55,672
  • Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 50,633
  • Intentional self-harm (suicide): 47,173

If the coronavirus isn’t contained, and it looks like it won’t be, it could become another regular item on this list. The $64,000 question is where it will rank. Until we develop herd immunity and the experience of many years of living with mutated versions of the SARS/coronavirus, we won’t know. Eventually, it might become no more deadly than the other annual influenzas. But if it is truly ten times more deadly than the flu, it will come in at #3 behind heart disease and cancer. To handle that will require a complete transformation of our medical system. My guess is coronaviruses won’t be that deadly once humans develop natural and vaccinated immunities, but it will rank above Influenza and Pneumonia, or it will expand that category greatly.

What we have to do now is learn how to avoid COVID-19 until a vaccine can be developed. That means avoiding people for the next one to two years. I’m not sure we’re prepared to do that. But it also means learning to live in a new way — a much more germ conscious way. Should we allow so much airline travel if it confers such potential danger? So many economies depend on tourism. China has already announced bans on eating wild animals, but can they make hundreds of millions of people give up a multi-billion dollar industry that people have relished for centuries?

Can we invent personal bunny suits that protect us from diseases? Ones that are reusable, machine washable, and even fashionable? Can we invent vaccines that anticipate new diseases? Do we really need to congregate by the thousands? Will we just accept a certain level of death in society for the activities we love? We embrace cars knowing that 1.25 million people are killed by them every year — so maybe we’ll embrace gathering in sports arenas for ball games and rock concerts and just accept the related fatalities. Who knows what we will decide.

At first, I thought we were overreacting to the coronavirus. Everything is shutting down in my city which has only two infected people. I worried that thousands of people will be crushed financially. But the more I read about how European hospitals are being overrun by pandemic patients, and what it’s like to need a respirator to survive, that I now worry that we’re not panicking enough. I also assume if political leaders are freaked out enough to do all the things they are doing, then it’s probably going to be much worse than I feared. Political leaders aren’t known for quick action.

The die has been cast. Our society has committed to sheltering in place. Some people are thinking it will be for three weeks, but I don’t see how that’s possible. If the disease disappears with summer, I can see us getting a reprieve until next winter, but that means we need to hunker down for three months. Then we can run around for four months before taking shelter again. The goal is to wait it out until a vaccine is tested and distributed. Can we shelter in place for that long?

What if vaccines aren’t ready until Fall 2021? It means we have to learn a new way to live. How do we do our food shopping? How do people work and get paid? How do you go to the dentist or get your car repaired in the middle of a pandemic? If you need non-critical cataract or prostate surgery do you still go? It’s not going to be as bad as living through the Blitz in London or surviving Stalingrad, but it might be as challenging and inconvenient as living in America during WWII.

That’s the shocking thing about black swans — normalcy is suddenly disrupted — but we adapt. At least the people in history have. I’m already skilled at staying home for days at a time, so I don’t see learning to do it for weeks or months being a problem. But I do know most people might go crazy with cabin fever. And I worry about all my single friends. Sheltering at home for long periods by yourself might be deeply psychologically damaging. Many of my single friends also sneer at Facebook, but it might be a great social outlet during the plague months.

I’m lucky Susan moved back home last year after working a decade out of town. I’m also lucky that I have a wide-ranging set of internet friendships to keep me socially active. And I’m further lucky in that I have a long list of things I’ve been meaning to do. I generally ignore my to-do lists in favor of socializing, so maybe I’ll actually get some of the things done from those lists.

The most fascinating thing is we don’t know how this will change us. It’s another black swan about to land.




12 thoughts on “Lessons From Black Swans”

  1. Hey, James…
    You do know you have let loose the hounds of hell with this discussion.
    But you might wanna revise to your “leading causes of death”. Here’s the link, etc., and just one paragraph:

    The third-leading cause of death in US most doctors don’t want you to know about
    PUBLISHED THU, FEB 22 20189:31 AM ESTUPDATED WED, FEB 28 20189:39 AM EST
    Ray Sipherd, special to CNBC.com

    “According to a recent study by Johns Hopkins, more than 250,000 people in the United States die every year because of medical mistakes, making it the third leading cause of death after heart disease and cancer.”

    James, stay safe and be well.

      1. And look at what you and I have done (and as always, James, this is always in good fun from me…at least when it is you and your website):
        We have brought into question “who” we believe and “why” this guy, that source, etc., but not “that one” over there.
        I.E., “Hey, James. Look what I read on CNBC.com. They are a reliable news source. It has to be true.”
        You: “No, they aren’t.”
        Then fill in the blanks. You know the routine: Left wing, right wing, blah blah blah.
        But back to the topic and making it completely personal, I find it very easy to believe that doctors, i.e., hospitals, would be the 3rd leading cause of death. Hell, based just on my experience just since 2013, I’d put ’em at the top of the list.
        But that is to go back to the beginning of our time on this planet and trace the history of how much things have changed. From hating to go to the doctor because he would give a shot to “I’ll write you a prescription for this pill and that,” from me being born before “health insurance” became ubiquitous (6 days 5 nights, Cesaerean section, $179.30) to, oh dear God, whatever it is today. From one vaccine, polio, to whatever it is today.
        And yep, people are indeed living longer than ever before…so long, in fact, that they are now developing Alzheimer’s disease and…yep, more “strain on the economy”. So let’s do everything we can to help people live longer but, at the same time, sure, abortion is fine.
        And just like that, we go from one topic, medical, medicine, etc., to another, politics, governance, and the such.
        But where you and I do differ…as always…you still do remain “hopeful”. You see that “dark side” of human nature, yes, but you still cling to the certainty that…one day…. One day, it, life, they, “people” will do “better”.
        I don’t.
        In fact, I’m gonna let you peek into my journal again. I wrote the following as dated…yeah, after a rather lengthy rant:
        Thursday 02/09/12
        “…Let me put it this way: I’ve laid to rest the one remaining whisper of grace in my life. I have lived by, and practiced, a feeling, an intuition, a “moral code” I’ve always called the “benefit of the doubt”. Today, I buried that son of a bitch…” [end]
        6,000 years of recorded human history. 67 years of personal life on this planet. And it is always, always the same story, one that reduces to tales wars, crime, rape, pillage, and plunder, of “man’s inhumanity to man”. Then, take a short break and pick-up where they left off.
        Evolution or Creation, the story is the same: It is always, always a sometime in the future that humans will (a) create Utopia or (b) die and be in “heaven”. But it is never now, is it? It is always (!) sometime…in the future.
        And then I think of that famous Stanley Milgram experiment. Out of 100 people, 60-70 will, in order to “obey authority,” shock others (so they think) to the point where they are screaming, begging them to stop. So two-thirds will do exactly as they are told, regardless of the consequences to others. One-third will refuse.
        I see no “hope” for the animal called man.
        So I was born and raised in the south…before the end of segregation. Yeah, that meant I had a lot of “convictions,” those “prejudices,” I had to get over. And I did.
        And now, the “authority figures” are telling me, “Oh, forget all that. Go back to the way it was you were a young lad, you know, keep your ‘social distance’ from other people.” So on one hand, I am to be “nice” to people but, at exactly the same time, avoid them like, well, the plague.
        James, you reference books. Me? It’s movies. In this case, it is the dialogue between Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in “Men in Black”:
        Smith: “Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.”
        Jones: “A person is smart. People are dumb, dangerous, panicky animals and you know it.”
        And all that does is lead me back to my younger days when yeah, even I was known to read a book or two. And that introduced me to Ayn Rand and her “rants” about the individual v the collective.
        And now it is back to me:
        I have always been that kid, now old man, people would call a “loner”. I avoided parties, “group” settings as much as other people in my life would allow me to get away with. And now, after being told for my entire life that I should “get along” with people, that *I* needed to “get over it”…now (!) they, those damned “authority figures,” are now telling everyone else…to be like I have always been.
        And that’s why, now that I am retired, I leave my house one day a week…to “go shopping”.
        After that, I ain’t stepping foot out there into that “real world”.
        And I did it again, didn’t I?
        Sorry ’bout the rant, James…but again, with you, it is at least mostly in good fun or to state it even more clearly: It ain’t worth starting a fuss or parting company.
        James, stay safe and be well.

        1. Randy, I’m sort of a loner too. I do socialize with a fair number of people, but I crave spending most of my time alone. I’m also pessimistic a lot, but like you point out, I do have a smidgen of hope. Maybe you’ve had more bad things happen to you than I have. Or maybe you are a bit older, and thus a bit gloomier.

          Have you read any biographies of Mark Twain or his later works? Twain became extremely cynical in the last part of his life. Mainly because his favorite daughter died, and then his wife, and then another daughter. I was very into Twain when I was young and noticed how bitter he got with old age. I’m cynical but not bitter. I’ve tried to avoid becoming bitter because of what I learned from Mark Twain. However, as my body wears down I fear I might become bitter. I’m trying to fight it though. I’m not Pollyanna, but I try to keep positive.

          It’s funny, Randy, that you see me as being optimistic, but many of my friends see me as a pessimist. It’s all relative. My friends think I dwell on the morbid things in life, but I tell them I just love realism.

          1. Hey, James…
            It’s me. Didn’t have a “reply” button to keep it context but no, I did not know that about Mr. Twain.
            But you wrote this:
            “It’s funny, Randy, that you see me as being optimistic, but many of my friends see me as a pessimist. It’s all relative. My friends think I dwell on the morbid things in life, but I tell them I just love realism.”
            You? A pessimist? Wow. You are one of the strongest voices I know for being optomistic, for clinging to that “hope”. Sure, sometimes I am left wondering, “Seriously, James? You actually believe that?” But at the end of the day, yes, you struggle with it from time to time, but it is that determination you have to be hopeful, hell, to “see the best in people” that keeps me reading the stuff you write.
            Or put this way: Do you think I’m gonna search for stuff written by cynics and misanthropics…like me? Pfft. Why bother? I’ve been writing this stuff for now over 40 years. Most of them piss me off because they have nothing new or original to say…at all.
            True story, then I go away:
            In September ’90, Lisa and I went to visit a pal, actually, a fellow correctional officer I had gotten to know back in ’78 when I worked at a prison facility here in Virginia. He and his wife had divorced and he wanted us to meet the new lady in his life. I wrote a brief version of this tale this way in my journal:
            “Five minutes after Janet and I had been talking, she looked at me and, without reservation, said frankly, ‘Randy, you are a tortured soul, aren’t you?’
            “I have this odd habit. When someone speaks truth, I tend to agree without hesitation. All I said was ‘Yes.’
            “I know tortured souls when I see one because I am one.”
            And now, as only I can do, care to guess how that story played out?
            I never heard from him again.
            So there is “that” part of me that says, “Hope he rots in hell.” But there is that “other” part of me that hopes he did indeed find his “happy ever after”.
            James, as always, stay safe and be well.

  2. Hi James,
    Infectious diseases are that one threat that seem to stoke the greatest fears in our imagination. Many other causes of death become an acceptable risk tradeoff over time, as you noted. Just another part of living.
    It’s when the unseen enemy we label the pestilence comes around that we shudder and accept what in most cases would be unacceptable measures imposed by the state for the common good. In real terms such actions are taken not out of fear of the disease but the consequences that would ensue if persons in authority did not take the measures thought to be required.
    Of course, we know that life itself is a risk proposition, and that what we call infectious disease is just another act of survival and reproduction on behalf of just another biological life form that we share the biosphere with. Of course, our survival is more important. As it should be. The ongoing competition for survival, in which the fittest shall survive.
    Survival is something we sapiens have done very well at since the break with our nearest cousins the Pygmy and lowland Chimpanzee’s about 6.5 million years ago. We’re still here, and so are the viruses and other infectious agents. I noted in an earlier post that infectious disease has been no match for human technology over the past 100 years. Viruses et al will take their toll, however in the end they are relegated to the background, as just another acceptable risk tradeoff removed from our moment to moment existence as we pursue our way of life. We always win. At least for now.
    That said I think there are 4 broad points that make this particular round of pandemic infection different since the 1918-20 Flu pandemic:
    1) The willingness of authorities to take unprecedented levels of action to meet the threat. So, in a sense we are more prepared than ever to enforce measures that impact the day to day life of individuals across all societies, and for periods of time unheard of in the past.
    2) Again, in terms of preparedness, the demonstrated value of vaccines will once again be highlighted. When the latest vaccine is developed and implemented as part of our response to this event, those who refrain from vaccination will come under even more stringent measures to comply or risk further sanctions including access to schools…
    3) The fact that some societies still practice consumption and close association with other animals, at no fault of their own, must none the less, come under a concerted effort to modify these practices with the support of others. All should in the end benefit from what we know and the technology available to meet the best self- interests of all concerned.
    4) In the US a strategic oil reserve is maintained for times when supply might be adversely affected for any number of catastrophic events. The same level of preparedness should apply to combat the inevitable cycle of pandemic infections. Maybe we keep a strategic reserve of basic and necessary medical equipment that can be accessed and shared when peak requirements dictate.
    Finally, if there is one other point here, it maybe how much a common threat unites not just citizens within a given nation state, but all humans around the world. At times like this we realize how much we are all in this thing called life together.

    1. I’ve been surprised by how quickly we’ve made changes, and really big changes. I know people claim we didn’t react quickly enough, but once we did, it was fast. And I expect even more transformations. I bet there will be crash efforts to manufacture medical equipment and develop medicines and vaccines.

      1. …Just to echo what Randy was saying in that I would take you for an optimist too James! I’m known among my friends as the eternal optimist. My wife says she is a realist and I say there is no such thing as we all exist in the real world. It’s how our imagination perceives the real world that will place us on either end or closer to the middle of the spectrum. Philosophically speaking I’m a hard determinism so the future will unfold in the only way it can. I hope for the best turnout and at the same time I’m resigned to what the future turns out to be. No worries just reality. When I call my wife a pessimist, she says no, she is still a realist, oh well 🙂

  3. During this Time of Coronavirus, I’m getting a lot of reading done. Books that I’ve had on my shelves for years are now in my Current Reading queue. We’ve stocked up on plenty of food and water in case the supply chain breaks down. We’re using our FACEBOOK Portal to keep in touch with our kids. Friends call us every day. The big difference in our life is this sheltering-in-place. No movies (Regal and AMC are closed), no restaurants (only Take-Out or Delivery), no theater, no concerts, no mall shopping (our malls are closing down). I’m sure Netflix is doing great. The same for HULU, HBO, Showtime, and Disney+. We’ll adjust to this new Normal. Just stay safe and well!

  4. Honestly…it’s the financial/economic ruin that has be the most worried. This country’s done an awful job (dismantling the CDC team??) at preparing for it, and it feels like it was almost done intentionally. I worry greatly for the people who can’t afford to sit this out.

    Stay healthy and safe. I hope your friends do too.

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