Black Swans and Benzene

ICIS aromatics editor Peter Salisbury warns us to expect the unexpected …

Earlier this year I gave a presentation at the ICIS Phenol and Acetone Conference in Budapest. Reception to the paper was frankly mixed, as it tried to link a relatively obscure philosopher/quantative analyst with benzene forecasting. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say.

“Black Swans, Benzene, and the Pitfalls of Forecasting” described the effect of random or unexpected events on just about everything but not least spot benzene prices, which in turn affect contract prices in the phenolic and styrenic chains (spot the former literature student with a speciality in postmodernism).

A “black swan” is an event which overturns previous orthodoxy merely by happening, as explained by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of a book by the same name, and the basis of my presentation. He has been giving interviews recently, talking about how he predicted the current financial crisis (and made quite a lot of money from it), and how this fits in with the dark anatidae.

In particular, he gave an interview to The Times, entitled “I Told You, Bankers Are Brainless” which made for great reading in tough times.

Also worth a look/listen are an interview he gave in July with a particularly notable quote – “The only way you can say ‘**** you’ to fate is by saying it’s not going to affect how I live. So if somebody puts you to death, make sure you shave.” – and this interview which he gave to Newsnight on BBC 2.

Is it just me or is it rather refreshing to have someone say, “I wake up every morning knowing that I don’t understand what’s going on”?

Please understand that Mr. Taleb’s views do not reflect those of the Blog’s, or indeed this writer’s; we have some very brainy friends who work in banking.

Rather, it is quite nice to see that someone has benefited from the recent mess, and that there was someone clamouring about the potential financial market disaster all along, other than fellow blogger Paul Hodges.

For some more mainstream views on the economy, and indeed benzene, we have some great speakers lined up for our seventh European Aromatics Conference this November, where you can meet Mr. Hodges although alas not Mr. Taleb, and have the whole thing explained to you.

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