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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoying and beguiled by 'Fooled By Randomness' I was keen to read the author's 2nd effort. The first I had found compelling, not least as I found his slightly too confident tone quite attractive; I liked the way I supposed he condescended to City types. The central point is a simple one, made against the background of High Finance believing post 1970, that risk is eliminable in financial markets. He uses a concept known to all readers of Karl Popper's work on science: in the Problem of Induction, if you hypothesise that 'All Swans are White' no matter how many times you observe White Swans, this will only verify your hypothesis, which is not meaningful, he thought. Here Popper introduced his concept of Falsifiabilty: that one sighting of a Black Swan renders all verified white swans insignificant. (That is, no amount of white swans will ever conclusively Verify that they are essentially white; just one sighting of a black one refutes the hypothesis, a.k.a.: Yesterday's tomorrow tells us nothing about any today's tomorrow). For Popper a hypothesis must be Falsifiable to qualify as Scientific: Black Swans therefore denote scientific significance. Thus Taleb, seeing the much vaunted , putatively clear skies of the money markets in the 1990s, presciently noted that the money markets and high finance awaited their inevitable Black Swan. Merton and Black-Scholes etc. notwithstanding, early on Taleb pointed out that risk had NOT been eliminated from trading and crashes are inevitable; a Black Swan was eventually inevitable. He was not alone, but fair play for noticing early the enormous hubris even Alan Greenspan later called "irrational exuberance" and crying havoc.
This book has the jump on 'Randomness' in that the catastrophe has happened; as a thesis it does not develop the idea of the earlier book, although he is spectacularly vindicated by the events of 2007/8. Worth a read, but go to his first book, when he was already a self-confident Cassandra, for a leaner, fitter read.
on 10 September 2009
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, once an ex-trader, is now Professor of the Sciences of Uncertainty (what a job title!).
The basic idea behind the book is that people ignore highly improbable events because they are unpredictable. However some of these event can have a massive impact, and in these cases people then try to suggest that it was after all predictable. The book is topical because it argues that traders and financial markets ignore the unpredictable and don't even learn from past mistakes (however this book is not an analysis of the recent meltdown in financial markets). The author argues that the "unlikely" tail of a distribution of likely events is disproportionately important. I would have thought everyone knew that, even if we tend to be bad at estimating the exact size of "rare" risks.
There are literally 100's of reviews on this book, and opinions are very divergent. My guess is that the more people know about the ideas of uncertainty and predictability the more negative their review. For others, every line and anecdote is a revelation. The most astute reviewers accept that randomness produces unpredictability, but they understand that we must build our lives around a good degree of predicability. We all accept that the author does a reasonably job describing (with lots of repetition) this situation but does nothing to tell us how to cope with and better manage uncertainly and its consequences. Lets face it, we build homes even if they might be struck by lightning, but we try to mitigate their potential impact through good building practices and we also create emergency service to help out when such random and unpredictable events occur (in my opinion what was missing in the recent mess in financial markets was the understanding of good practices enforced through a strong regulator). I also agree with those reviewers who found the authors tone at times irritating, as if he has the word of God and people are just not intelligent enough to listen to him.
To conclude, I like the overall idea behind the book, but I was expecting a real analysis and some suggestions as to how to understand and better manage rare and catastrophic events. But sadly all a got was a short article masquerading as a book.