Low-Probability High-Impact (The Black Swan)

In autumn I will be hosting a dinner event at Rhubaba in Edinburgh. I'm here right now for the festival, and so me and the directors are going to have a meeting tonight and talk about what's going to happen at the dinner event.

I thought I'd try and get it all clear in my head before then.


A while back a friend told me about a traumatic event that happened to him when he was young. He was in the high street of the town where he lived, in the middle of the afternoon, when a man attacked him with a knife and stabbed him in the back 17 times. By chance, none of his internal organs had been damaged by the attack and my friend survived. The attacker was a man with severe mental health problems who had escaped from a secure facility in the midst of a psychotic episode. He handed himself in to a police station later in the afternoon.

My friend went on to speak about some counselling or therapy he had received. As I understood it at the time, the therapist was a specialist in the psychological trauma caused by low-probability, high-impact events such as the random violent attack my friend had experienced. Other such events included being struck by lightning, surviving a plane crash or winning the lottery.

Part of the problem, according to his therapist, is that experiencing such unlikely events skews our already limited understanding of probability. I'd read about the human mind's limitations when it came to probability, for example, the fear of hypothetical terrorist attacks far outweighs the fear of being hit by a car, despite the mathematical probabilities of being affected by either event.

According to the therapist, the stress caused by experiencing such an unlikely event could manifest itself in several ways; you might believe that you were unlucky and that more of these unlikely events could happen to you, or you might believe that you were now invincible because you had survived something that very few people have ever experienced. Both of these ideas are a kind of psychosis - a misunderstanding of the real probability of events, but then our everyday understanding of probability is already psychotic in that sense.

I was fascinated by the idea that such different events as winning the lottery or surviving a plane crash were united by the psychological trauma that they could cause. And I was particularly fascinated by the interplay of abstract and empirical understanding. Experiencing a low-probability event gave the human mind an empirical insight into a reality where such things were possible, and yet the mind did not have the capacity to successfully abstract that knowledge into a rational understanding of probability.


When Rhubaba asked me to host a dinner event, I decided that I'd ask my friend to attend, along with some other people who had experienced low-probability, high-impact events. I would also ask a psychologist, or maybe a specialist counsellor of the sort my friend had spoken about, and maybe a mathematician who could speak about probability.

I spoke to my friend again, and it turned out that I'd got some of the details a bit wrong: the counselling wasn't specific to the kind of low-probability event that he had experienced, and the anxiety could be described as a form of Post Traumatic Stress which can be caused by many different kinds of events, not just unlikely ones. Also, my friend couldn't remember the term used by a psychiatrist to describe low probability events. The term I have been using - "low-probability high-impact" - is a bit unwieldy, so I'm trying to find something better.

Sian, one of Rhubaba's directors, suggested the term "Black Swan", taken from the book The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

A Black Swan event, according the wikipedia page, can be identified in three ways:

"1. The event is a surprise [...].
2. The event has a major effect.
3. [The event] is rationalized by hindsight [...]"

Taleb's writing is more concerned with economics and history - large scale, unpredictable events like the recent global recession, or the fall of Communism. Things that define the way the world is now, but that we could never have predicted. We rationalise them in retrospect - claiming them to be articulable in terms of cause and effect, but Taleb believes that their essence is in their unpredictability.

Although he is writing about things of a very different scale, the events I have been thinking about are similar in quality, and the post-rationalisation process is linked to the Post Traumatic Stress response. The inability of the human mind to adequately comprehend low-probability events causes a pathological rationalisation of the experience of such events.


So, although we have lots of work to do, maybe we have a title for the event. The Black Swan Dinner.

Stewart Lee on Writing

I'm in Edinburgh, watching a load of shows. More performance than I've ever seen in such a short amount of time.

It's making me think about how I'm going to write my performance (in collaboration with Eleanor Sikorski) for Experimentica13.

What I've noticed in the stuff I've seen is that the presentation of a show can often sublimate the content it is attempting to present.

Sometimes a lack of content is masked with complex presentation. And, a few times, great content is ruined by its presentation.


The above lecture by Stewart Lee on writing is great, just generally, but this section


is particularly good on the importance of good writing, presented simply and directly.

It's reminded me that I'm not one for staging, and also, it's reminded me that Stewart Lee's laugh is brilliant.

Implausible Imposters Installation Shots

All images by Anna Arca, courtesy of Ceri Hand Gallery

Object with Hair #1 (with bag) and Object with Hair #3 (balanced), home made play doh, found synthetic hair, plastic bag, spray adhesive, wood and gaffa tape, ~150cm x 50cm x 40cm, 2013

Object with Hair #2 (hanging), home made play doh, synthetic hair, food colouring, glue, wood, string, tape, nails, ~150cm x 50cm x 40cm, 2013

Object with Hair #4 (on plinth), home made play doh, human hair, wood, synthetic hair, cardboard, paint, nails, ~150cm x 50cm x 40cm, 2013

Three Drawings from An Infinitely Ongoing Series Cataloguing Every Object, Both Real and Imaginary, in the Entire Universe, all pen on paper, oak frame, 39.7cm x 31cm framed, 2013

Wholegrain Object

 Lars von Trier Object

Magnets Object

Photos I took at night in the estate where my parents live

My parents have lived in the same house for 30 years. It's on an estate of 60s brick houses.

I was back here for a week for a music job. On the Thursday I went out for a meal with an old friend, it was hot and we drank a lot of wine with ice. When we said goodbye I felt like I wouldn't see her again for a long time.

On the way back to my parents' place the air felt thick and hot. The streetlights glowed orange and the vegetation on the estate seemed to reach towards them like they were a surrogate sun. I took these photos and felt a kind of hovering freedom - I don't think I've inhabited those streets in that way since I was a kid.

The next morning as I walked back up to town to buy a birthday present for my nephew, a thunderstorm shattered the thick clouds and in the distance I saw fork lightning shooting from the sky down into the fields at the edge of the town.