246 of 259 people found the following review helpful
on 19 June 2009
There are many reviews here already, so I'll keep this short:
- Content: makes insightful points on limitations of our knowledge, human temptation to identify false trends and narratives, follow herd mentality, blindly follow 'experts', and so forth. He calls this 'skeptical empiricism'.
- Style: long-winded and rambling, skipping from personal stories from Lebanon, to parables intended to represent the author, to dull discussions on history of mathematics. I didn't mind it, but some readers hate it.
- Author: massively arrogant and up himself. Thinks he's had the best idea since sliced bread. He's got a good idea, but he's not the first or the only one, just the one with the biggest mouth.
- Other reads: there are better books out there on similar subjects. John Kay (of the FT) writes essays from a similar position, much more concisely and more to the point.
Hope that helps!
522 of 552 people found the following review helpful
on 28 November 2007
Taleb has one good idea, a great idea even, and an infinite number of ways of talking about it. It is essentially the same idea as his last book, Fooled by Randomness: namely that life does not behave with regularity. Those who think it does, he says, will always be tripped up by the unexpected. Black Swan extends that idea, beyond the financial markets he concentrated on in Randomness, to just about all walks of life. He is a magpie for anecdote and stray pieces of supporting evidence wherever he can find them. He calls all this 'skeptical empiricism'.
The qualification is that his big idea is not original, though his numerous examples do help bring home its ubiquity. More problematically, he overstates its usefulness. For when it comes to calling your next move, the unpredictable and the unexpected are, by definition, not things we can anticipate. And though he is right that in the long run there will undoubtedly by high impact improbably events, it is also true, as Keynes said, that in the long run we are all dead: organising your life on the principle that something radical might come along doesn't solve the everyday problem of what to next.
In short, he exaggerates his own insight and the authority it gives him. That's a wicked irony, for the chief target of his ire is those with an exaggerated sense of insight and control over their lives.
Oh, and the tone... Taleb wants to be seen as a radical iconoclast. Every sentence drips righteousness and often irritation. He is the strutting, impatient sage, the rest of us blinkered morons. Apparently he doesn't like his editors trying to change this. A word of advice to the author: if you want your advice heeded, don't shout and sneer at your audience. For this reason, an interesting thesis, but in the end a wearisome read.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Everybody knows this is a lazy sequel to a succesful book.
But I never read Fooled by Randomness, and I hold a couple math degrees, and I even once took a class from a hydrologist, so I reckon I'm well-equipped to pass judgement.
The main issue with the book is that if you read the inside of the jacket carefully you don't need to read the rest of the book. There's one idea here and it's that you never know if you've looked at enough data. If you presume you do, you run the risk that you'll get a surprise which upsets your world theory. That surprise is a bit like the first time you encounter a black swan. Turning that core idea into a (second!) book is indeed a stretch.
The second issue is that the author appears to be rather conceited / self centered and just keeps repeating how right he's got this idea and how wrong everybody else has got it. It gets tiring. He does not even get that point entirely right either. Lots of people's job description is to project current trends an hour forward. It ain't their fault.
The third issue is that it's a quote a minute from all sorts of sources and after a while you get the feeling the author is kind of trying to convince you he's covered all the bases. Or maybe that he's a truly erudite renaissance man who's done a lot of reading. Hey, maybe he had a word limit. You can't get there just by playing with the margins like we all once did in college.
On the plus side, the book is not as dreadful to read as the critics have it, and THE MAN IS RIGHT about the point (note that I'm not using the plural) he makes.
If you're stuck on a plane and the guy sitting next to you puts down his copy of the Black Swan, don't be afraid to pick it up, it's OK.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Imagine you are a turkey being fed comfortably on one of those mass production turkey farms. You may well assume that the good food, good company, and pleasant surroundings will go on forever. If you are a quant-savvy turkey, you might even gobble together a mathematical model that predicts good times well into the future, beyond not just Thanksgiving, but past Christmas and New Years as well. Suddenly in November, unexpectedly, with life-changing consequences...things change. You just didn't see it coming. Pass the cranberry sauce.
Financial planners, economists and other more sophisticated turkeys don't see it coming either, argues author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His book highlights the danger of the unexpected. The unexpected will happen even if we have a comfortable model predicting only minor changes. After such a "black swan" catches us by surprise, we use our flawed hindsight to decide how we could have predicted the disaster using a better model. We are kidding ourselves, insists Taleb. We need better strategies to live in a world where truly random, unpredictable events occur. He goes to some trouble in this book, and his previous Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, to educate us.
The flawed basis of many formal models is "the great intellectual fraud" of the bell curve. We learn that highly constrained variables like height and weight cluster around an average and that extreme variations from the average are unlikely. We just aren't going to meet anybody that's half a foot or half a mile tall. These "Mediocristan" models are fine until we misapply their assumptions to unconstrained "Extremistan" phenomena like stock values, book sales and such. We are slow to see this problem. We persistently commit the "Ludic Fallacy," clinging to our formal models because they seem more real to us than the messy, real-world events they are meant to explain. Taleb illustrates this point with examples ranging from the events of 9/11 to the "off model" problems that cost casinos money. S. I. Hyakawa warned us in the early `70s that "the map is not the territory," but we haven't learned.
Taleb also warns us of the narrative fallacy based on our love of stories. We feel we understand something when we can tell a story about why it happened--even after the fact, with only part of the relevant information. When musicians achieve fame and dramatic financial success, we backtrack through their histories, explaining success by what we see along the path. We don't see the hidden cemetery of failed garage bands and starving artists who did all the same things to no avail. Because we believe this artificial story, we don't have to face the role of randomness in success or failure. Or consider its impact on our own plans.
Taleb offers some suggestions--though fewer than I'd hoped for. He advises us to be open to positive black swans and guard against negative ones. Lending money at interest, for example, opens us only to a high impact negative. This worst case is that the borrower will go bankrupt and we won't get our money back. But the very best outcome is that the loan will be simply repaid. If the borrower's entrepreneurial effort is wildly, off-the-scale successful, the lender doesn't get any more than this. An investor, on the other hand, suffers the same risk of loss, but participates fully in an "Extemistan" success. Readers are left to ponder the implications--and perhaps to hire Taleb as an investment consultant.
Although Taleb does not venture there, some of his ideas are useful in applied psychology. Personnel tests, for example, rely on the principle of "behavioral consistency," assuming that our past actions best predict our future actions. If someone is a poor performer, the safe bet is that this person will perform poorly in future employment. This may be fit a general model, but employers--and psychologists who advise them--might consider whether we commit Taleb's fallacies. Are we so comfortable with are general predictive models, with our stories about how people "are," that we close ourselves to possible change? Wouldn't it be better to seek the occasional "gray swan" of improvement and hire the flawed job applicant? The author has convinced me that this is worth considering. My time reading this book was well spent.
One final note: The author's condescending tone has been mentioned by other reviewers. It's there all right. Yes, he is condescending. Yes, he sneers at his fellow financial analysts. Yes, his citations veer into name dropping. And, yes, he finds ways to not-so-subtly complement himself as he praises Benoit Mandelbrot. But none of this matters. Taleb's message is valuable. I recommend you ignore his tone--or perhaps even be entertained by it. Stay on task and learn something about the nature of randomness and prediction.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 16 January 2010
A most engaging collection of anecdotes serving to illustrate Taleb's central Black Swan contention - that it's the unknowable (minute probability) big impact events that we must bear in mind when thinking about the course of the future (and we should avoid seeing causal patterns where there are none).
The back cover has Penguin Books designate this title under Economics, but Psychology would be more appropriate as most of the material deals with human decision-making - citing your favourite Kahneman-Tversky experiments along the way.
He makes a big effort to show how his idea is very much bound up with him as a person, so in that respect the autobiographical asides are justified. But towards the end he abandons all sense of modesty when he likens himself to the eminent mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Early on, he does explicitly state that he'd like to be considered a philosopher, and sometimes the pit-stop introspections seem out of place.
Definitely an intelligent thinker, but a little too eager to show just how well-read he is. His narrative is nicely sign-posted and he does a very good job of chronicling other people's work in light of his own ideas, so it also serves as a nice place to pick up commentary from intellectual figures you might not have previously heard of.
Contrary to what Chris Anderson is quoted as saying on the cover, it isn't "mindblowing" or "a masterpiece". You might already be aware of many of its ancillary insights.
Others here have commented on the messy style; to be fair it does read like a scrap-book of anecdotes. But I'm glad I read it. I won't remember much of the detail, as he does flit from one story to the next, but the central insights will help me to bear certain things in mind. So it deserves to be read, but you might find yourself rushing through some parts to get to the gist.
84 of 92 people found the following review helpful
on 29 May 2008
I must admit that I approached reading this book with some trepidation. I had read Taleb's earlier book "Fooled By Randomness" and whilst I found that book very interesting I also found it very exasperating. This book was the same, only more so.
The central theme of the book is that unexpected random events are much more likely to have far greater impact than is presumed by traditional statistics . In contrast he shows that there are domains where extreme events or values are more frequent and dominate overall. Taleb's arguments are convincing and he also shows why prediction in general is very difficult and describes human being's desires to post-rationalise events. Because prediction is thus impossible and because the impact of these extreme random events (the 'Black Swans') is so large his argument is that this makes a mockery of much of history, economics and financial theory.
The main problem with the book is the tone of the author. Taleb clearly does not suffer fools gladly and it seems that he considers most people in economics, finance, statistics and academia as fools. He comes across as believing that he is the only one who really gets these ideas. His constant attacks on the 'dark suits' and academics (not to mention several strange jibes at the French) become very wearing. Also his dismissal of the normal distribution is overdone since there are clearly areas where it works well.
All in all a very good book but I wish he would overcome his arrogance before the next one.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2008
I wanted to like this book and looked forward to reading it.
Starting with the positive points first. I think that the author's theory is extremely original. He seeks to show (with some success) how many attitudes to risk are based on very dodgy theories which are in themselves premised on totally wrong assumptions. This has very worrying implications for, to take only two examples, pensions and experts in all fields. He argues what we do not know (and as importantly what we do not know we don't know) is important and could well come and bite us!
One the negative side of things, I think the book starts well but then becomes hard to follow. In fact it becomes so hard to follow at points that I'm not sure I followed his arguments in any detail. The author does not show how each chapter follows from the past one and the book loses form (although I recognise that maybe this is a symptom of my `Platonic' thinking). I also found the continual references to various characters in the philosophical world eventually became tiring.
On balance I would recommend reading this book but I think the ideas of the author could have been expressed in a far clearer fashion, and, although I appreciate he is trying to overturn conventional thinking, he should start by using current concepts so his ideas can be followed (i.e. setting out clear chapters etc), then seeking to persuade us to change our ways of thinking.
58 of 64 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2008
As a statistician, the book and its premise struck me as an interesting read, but it is clear after a few chapters that the book itself is meandering nowhere. What is worse is that the evidence is always second hand philosophy and the book is peppered with uninteresting self promotion. If your idea of a good read is to re-read Bertrand Russell or to move towards a footnote where the author feels it important to tell you he doesnt wear a tie in meetings then, please, feel free to lap this up and all the sixth form anarchy that it attempts to promote.
As for the statistics, it is amateur stuff. The Black Swan itself is an improbable event on which the author places far too much emphasis. It soon becomes confused and contradictory. Originally boldly stating that bell curve analysis is all Information (or is it Intellectual?) fraud, in later chapters the author then splits outcomes up into factions, some of which are affected by the black swan and some that are not. It then becomes apparent that the author has taken five chapters to split outcomes into normal and non-normal. Ground breaking stuff, that has, errm, been around for centuries. Essentially this book ends up elaborating on the phrase 'Picking pennies in front of a steam roller' which is so familiar to all that, well, there is a phrase for it. This book is an irrelevance to statisticians. I cannot comment on the philosophy side, but, as far as I can see, there isnt a viewpoint that hasnt been borrowed from someone more famous. In short, this book is a huge disappointment.
It should also be noted that this book is unduly aggressive and self opinionated. I assume that this is to add gravitas to the subject. On this point it fails miserably. Instead it makes the author appear narcissistic, unbalanced, and, yes, a bit stupid. Its likely that many people who start this book will lack the desire to finish it. And that, sad to say, isnt a bad thing.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 8 May 2011
Like most of the other reviewers, I found author's style grating at first. But after a while I clicked with NNT's sense of humour and did end up laughing a number of times through the book (especially at the footnotes).
As I understood it, his central point is: Most of the key changes in all social economic fields occur owing to a very small number of extreme events. Invariably, these events are completely missed by the people you are paid to predict the future and identify the consequences of actions of governments and banks for example, signally fail to do so.
NNT is questioning the self supporting academic and professional business establishment who seem not to care that they consistently fail to predict events - with devastating consequences.
As far as the "rambling style" other mention: i thought that this was part of his point; we should not seek to explain Black Swam randomness with a elegant theory or impressive model, since these devices seek to reduce and simplify the complex reality.
There is no formula for working out this kind of randomness. We are invited to open our minds and trust in our common sense and perhaps think more defensively about the possibility of the unknown unknown.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 30 June 2008
I picked this up in a train station as it was top of the best sellers in Smiths and it seemed to be advertised everywhere. After the first few pages I was surprised that such a book was as popular as it is a paper on philosophy and mathematics. However, Taleb's writing is interesting and I was drawn in with the personal accounts, his anger at the bell shaped curve and disgust at those that seek false risk protection from equations they don't understand.
Although my background is not economics this book still relates to the management of risks and specifically changing the way you think about that pile of numbers on the spreadsheet. This is the point of the book as well, not to present the one solution to manage Black Swans (highly improbable events), but to look at your environment and be aware that there are other risks out there and to deal with them in a practicable way.
Above all the book is interesting for exploring the logic of his idea and although he worships a certain Mandelbrot, B the book is actually quite funny in places.