Critical Section

the white swan

Thursday,  11/27/08  02:35 PM

black and white swanWhen you're out in the ocean every once in a while you encounter a "rogue wave", a wave which is vastly larger than the average.  Such waves are caused by a random confluence of a number of difference factors, each unpredictable, and each coming together to create a freakishly large wave.  Nobody can predict such waves, they just happen, but if you're out at sea long enough, you'll encounter one.

An outlier like this is sometimes referred to as a "black swan", a term popularized by Nassim Taleb, in a book of the same name.  Nassim is writing about large-scale negative events which are unpredictable; just like rogue waves these are the result of a large number of different factors, each difficult to predict individually, and impossible to predict as a group.

Bob Beamon long jump at Mexico OlympicsSometimes such a rare event can be positive, maybe we could call that a white swan?  For example, it can happen in sports; on any given day a particular athlete might have the performance of her life.  Such deeds result from the confluence of many different factors, each hard to predict on their own and together as a group, impossible.  If the white swan performance just happens to come at the right time, it becomes legendary, as when Bob Beamon set the long job record at the 1968 Mexico Olympics - it stood for 23 years - or when Floyd Landis put seven minutes into the Tour de France peloton on stage 17 of the 2006 Tour. 

Of course, not every white swan occurs to a world-class athlete on the biggest stage.  It can happen to anyone at any time.  In fact, it could happen to me.  And today, it did. 

white swan flyingThere's a ride I like to do, from my house, down around Westlake, past Lake Sherwood, and through Hidden Valley.  It is a 25.3 mile loop with three sharp climbs and one gradual one, and in the past eight years I've done it dozens of times, maybe over a hundred.  I've gradually lowered my average time on this route to about 1:25, for an average speed of 18mph.  On any given day I might be a minute or two faster or slower, depending on how I feel, what I ate for breakfast, the wind, the heat, the road surface, traffic lights, etc.  There are a lot of factors, but they all sort of even out.  Except today, when they all came together.  Today I did the ride in 1:18, for an average speed of 19.5mph.  That's ridiculous.  It's... absurd.  It was a white swan.

From the moment I started out, the ride felt good.  It was a perfect day, crisp and clear, with yesterday's rain still pooled in pockets but the road mostly dry.  There was no wind at all, and no traffic; it's Thanksgiving and everyone was watching football :)  As I reached the first climb my split was great, well ahead of average, but not unusually great.  But then I just floated up the hill, using two more gears than usual.  I powered down the backside, looked at my computer, and realized I had a chance to do something special; I was three minutes ahead of my best split.  Whoa.  From that point on I really pushed myself, and steadily opened up time on my best splits.  I did get a bit tired on the last grade, but I pushed myself hard, knowing I had a white swan by the tail, and milking it.

Who can say why I felt so strong today?  Was it the burrito last night?  (doubtful)  Thanksgiving?  (possibly)  The music my DJ iPod chose for me?  (no doubt a factor)  The beautiful day?  The lack of wind, and traffic?  (likely)  Or all of the above?  I might never feel this strong on that ride again, but it sure was fun.  And you never know, tomorrow might just bring another white swan, and if not tomorrow, then the next day, or the next...


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