Monday, February 22, 2010

One Black Feather

For many years, I worked on a series of poems called Parables of Famous Economists - think Pokemon-style trading value with Garbage Pail Kids sensibilities. A few of the poems were published, but the trading cards stayed a dormant project, and the parables dwindled in frequency.

When The Economist magazine published a special report on financial risk Feb. 13, I was motivated to write a new parable because of the story of value-at-risk theorists pondering on the frequency of "black swans" - unusual events that were supposed to happen once a millenium - except that the experts at quant theory never anticipated events folding into each other like a feedback loop. The quote from the two economists involved in such theories seemed applicable to environmental theory, energy theory, any chaotic oscillatory loop that had moved into a past-equilibrium state of near-catastrophic breakdown. That, of course, is what happened to our financial system in 2008, and is what is happening to many human systems that are near or beyond tipping points. I'm surprised the black swan analogy has not been applied more generally.

Then I started to think about grains of sand and avalanches. And surfing beaches in Kauai. And blue bottles, the Pacific Ocean equivalent of the Portuguese man o' war jellyfish. And how blue bottles swim in swarms when they sting. And how, if black swans have moved from rarities to commonplace creatures, maybe they sting in flocks. Like a protein kinase cascade, tumbling toward a cancer. Except we're already there. Here's the latest parable:

Parables of Famous Economists - #37 in the occasional series

One Black Feather

(for Peter Bernstein and Till Guldimann)

“Financial markets are not only vulnerable to black swans, but have become the perfect breeding ground for them” – T. Guldimann

Ha’Ena crest bubbles on each breaking wave
Burst in the kinase cascades Judy calls frothy
Blue bottles call ‘tase-me-bro’
Or domino – either form of paralysis

In the beached fever dream I can only insist that
Swans never bred in salt water
Silly mistake,
Lagoon or tsunami, this breeding ground swells
To embrace debt swaps and ice melts and the
Single-nucleotide polymorphs
(you insisted had flown)
That sang in a chorus of tase-me-bro

The one grain of Ha’Ena sand
That became a cascade
Mistaken for blue bottle sting
Since they all swim in swarms
Stings cascading hurt
And the black swan so rare
It was only that fever dream suggesting a flock
No proof, a black feather
Feedback storm

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