Friday, June 18, 2010

Trek, Black Swans, and the Tour of Washington County

Casinos, like cyclists, win when they manage risk. Casinos spend billions on risk at the card tables, at slots, and so forth. As an owner, if you understand risk at your games, you win.

That is, unless your daughter is taken ransom. Or Siegfried's previously docile tiger suddenly tries to eat him and cancels your most profitable show. And your accountant forgets to pay the IRS.

Such were the three largest money losses of the MGM Grand during one bad year. The house won where it controlled risk; it lost in the area outside, where risk was ignored. Siegfried's tiger, for example.

All the risk experts in the world would not have predicted these events, nor would they have been believed (or paid) had they done so. These events Nassim Taleb calls "black swans," since they are rare, unexpected, and of massive impact.

Our tendency to overlook and ignore black swans Taleb calls "the ludic fallacy." He finds examples of people committing the ludic fallacy everywhere: security experts before 9/11, financial experts before the housing and financial crises, and so on. He could include in this bunch cyclists, since we are especially guilty of assuming that the risks in a race are essentially those of any other game.

I think of years ago playing Monopoly with my older brothers. I believed winning was a matter of securing property and building hotels; it didn't occur to me that it might also be a matter of securing my younger sister in the other room so she would not rampage like King Kong across the board and make it impossible to finish our game. This black swan did not enter into my risk calculations.

Paris-Roubaix. A risk-filled race. If you were to name the variables, you might include rider fitness, cobbles, other crazed riders, weather, equipment, and team strength. Even the sheer distance makes it unpredictable, physiologically (your 5 minute power output may be 550watts, but what about your 7 hour power output?).

You would probably not include trains or steerer tubes.

Or plastic bags. Ask Thomas Wegmuller about plastic bags.

Lance Armstrong knows a thing or two about plastic bags.

This is not to say that Black Swans in bike races are plastic bags, or even trains. Black Swans are, by definition, things we don't even perceive as risks.

If this is the case, why bother thinking about them? I mean, how does it make you a better cyclist or person or investor to think about the unknown unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld once called them in a press conference?

Preparedness. One contingent of the U.S. defense establishment has decided that Taleb is right, and that the next threat to U.S. security will probably be a Black Swan. They decided to stop trying to predict where it will come from and started focussing on a broad, nimble ability to respond to as many threats as possible.

The Tour of Washington County will likely include some Black Swan events. No one will have foreseen them. A rider will appear that no one has seen, he will ride off the front and we will let him go, and he will disappear. Plastic bags will swarm our derailleurs. Tacks will be appear in the road. Steerer tubes will mysteriously shatter. Wild animals will wander into the path of the peleton. The best riders may not even show up, having been struck by a car (Mr. Fuentes, our thoughts are with you and we wish you a speedy recovery and a quick return to punishing us in the peleton as soon as possible).

I can't say what the Black Swans will be this weekend, but I can only hope that they are good. There is such a thing--lightning striking the clock tower...and sending you and your DeLorean back home.


Anonymous said...

I'd have more sympathy and respect for Bryan Vaughn if he hadn't sent this huge email the night before Poolesville telling everyone to tighten their stuff because the rough road could cause problems.

Then he overtightens his stuff and goes on a crusade to blame Trek.... I don't like dishonesty. I should forward the email to Trek. Instead I'll just lose respect for the materialistic, attention herding, asshole.

Calvini said...

I don't know Bryan, but he seems like a great guy and a great addition to the MABRA community. In fact, he could be a total jerk, and I'd forgive him because he records some great helmet cams. But he seems pretty decent.

I can see why he'd be pissed about the steerer tube, and, to be honest, it's only because guys like Bryan raise a stink that companies respond and make their products safer for you and I.

I mean, suppose the difference between a Trek steerer tube and every other steerer tube out there may be a 1% greater likelihood to fail in Trek tubes. That .1% is the difference between health and serious pain for 1 out of 1000 Trek riders. And that's enough for me to get behind Bryan, even if he is, as you claim a "materialistic, attention herding, asshole." I appreciate what he's trying to do--make the sport safer.