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78 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book somewhat spoiled by the tone of the author
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...
Published on 29 May 2008 by David Barton

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221 of 231 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In a nutshell: insightful but rambling
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...
Published on 19 Jun 2009 by A. Schaffer


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221 of 231 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars In a nutshell: insightful but rambling, 19 Jun 2009
By 
A. Schaffer "theschaff" (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
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!
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511 of 540 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars right, interesting, but extremely irritating, 28 Nov 2007
By 
Dean Swift (Hertfordshire) - See all my reviews
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.
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78 of 84 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book somewhat spoiled by the tone of the author, 29 May 2008
By 
David Barton (London) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
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.
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Tiresome and Unoriginal, 25 Nov 2008
By 
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars There are no simple answers: trust common sense not theories, 8 May 2011
By 
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
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.
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars An a interesting article masquerading as a book, 10 Sep 2009
A Kid's Review
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
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.
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103 of 116 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars surprise: the ego trips a fuse, 8 Jan 2009
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
Never before have I felt the urge to advise amazon buyers not to buy a book. But there's a first time for everything. Sadly, this book is an intellectual and stylistic mess.
In contrast to Mr Taleb's previous book (Fooled by Randomness) Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Marketswhich I rate as a five star buy this book has nothing new and isn't even funny.
The basic argument is apparent from the title: just because you've never seen it before doesn't mean you won't see it tomorrow. Swans were assumed to be always white, until the discovery of black swans in Australia.
There are lessons to be drawn from this critique of what philosophers call the problem of induction, but not enough to fill a book. Instead, the author lets off a scattershot at several bats in a belfry.
First in the firing line is Plato. (Perhaps it's neo-Platonists, but an argument constructed on terms such as "What I call Platonicity" makes it hard to tell. The level of debate has already descended to the sophistication of a coconut shy.)
Second is the normal distribution. True, a roll of the die shows you one to six with equal probability. But two dice? Now we're talking a bell curve. The author seems to think that noone has wrestled before with the problem of extreme odds-against results, but's that's the future for you: hard to predict. A 95% confidence level is just that: once about every twenty times you're going to get an unexpected result. Surprise? Often. It is argued that these unusual unwelcome results are discounted from conventional thinking, and that the catastrophic consequence makes the tail of the distribution disproportionately important. Very true, but not new. Mountaineers and medical researchers (to name but two) have been confronting this problem for a century.
Not quite argued (but implied) is that all statistics is balderdash. Well, it's a branch of mathematics that deals with uncertainty, so we can't be sure.
Stylistically the book is all over the place. Reminiscence of the author's time as a "quant" (a statistical analyst of financial markets) elbow aside pseudo philosophical discussion, only to give place to some boasting about conferences he's addressed on the strength of his previous book. In between we get some noveletish stuff about "Fat Tony", "Yevgenia" (author of a bestseller that sounds unreadable), and a "fictional" character called Tulip. (Who is surely a direct descendant of Lupin, Mr Pooter's son in diary of a Nobody.)
We just can't predict, is the sum of all this. Indeed not, but we can bet that this book will be out of print just as soon as financial bestsellers go from "whoever would have thought it?" to next year's conspiracy theories.
The author thanks his editor, a certain Will Murphy. Mr Murphy, you didn't do your job, did you?
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars No empirical evidence presented, 26 Aug 2011
By 
J. Sharpe "a reader" (england) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
This is an interesting read and likely worth it. The main point is there are a lot of people in finance who have no clue about statistics.

One of the key points is that many financial markets follow power law distributions. I was disappointed to see that no empirical evidence is presented to support this. So I tested it myself. 108 years data of equity returns in 5 countries (the DMS data set). There is no evidence to suggest annual equity returns follow a power law distribution. A much better fit is achieved with exponential.

Best to check oneself; free data is available from yahoo; R statistics program is free online; the fExtremes packages quickly tests if data follows a power law distribution.

Very disappointing and left me suspecting the other unsupported arguments in the book are similarly flawed.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just finished it, can't stop thinking about it, 1 July 2012
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This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
I have read the reviews after I read the book, and I am pleased I did. I might not have read it.

The concepts in the book put it in my top three (non-fiction) books I have ever read. It's possible it's all c&@p, but I don't think so, clearly others do. Other reviews cover the content more than adequately, I will just say that it is as people/culture challenging as it is billed, if you buy in to it. And I pretty much have. However his style is very poor. NNT's method of a vaguely academic structure (the is a lot of "as I said in chapter 14" etc) does not make for easy going over often quite rough academic terrain. I sometimes had to dig for the good stuff, and frequently I found an argument made is more restatement than new interpretation, but hey-ho. And a lot of his narrative tales of Nero et al should have been left out. I agree with the reviewer who said the editor, whatever his name was, should have tried harder.

Simply put it comes across as if written by someone who has been shouting at the deaf for a very long time, and has lost a little of his coherence in the process.

But that doesn't make him wrong or not insightful or that you shouldnt listen just because he is out numbered. Like other reviewers I found elements extraordinarily enlightening, and often worked thinking on subjects I had been amateurishly exploring myself.

I believe he underestimates the value of being frequently wrong but getting on with it and doing it together, which has shepherded us humans quite far so far. And he leaves religion and mental health well alone, both big targets for his narrative fallacy critique. Maybe he's got enough enemies already.

Don't read this review. Buy the book, think about it, then check out the reviews. They add to the experience.
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48 of 56 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Extremely irritating., 20 Jan 2009
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Paperback)
One star may seem harsh but TBS (as the author likes to call The Black Swan) shows how hype and pretension can trimuph over clear analytical argument. Anyone who has already read the less self-indulgent "Fooled by Randomness" will not find anything new here. Indeed despite its age and a similar lack of succinctness "fooled" is the far better book.

Taleb defines black swans as unforecastable events. So the media and the brokerage community's obsession with offering their own "black swan" forecasts suggests that Taleb hasn't really explained "his" key idea well. TBS is also often lauded as predicting the current financial crisis. Of course it doesn't. Indeed if had it would have made TBS somewhat pointless since afterall it emphasises how much in life is unpredictable.

Not only is Taleb's thesis poorly elucidated but, as Taleb admits, it is not even an original idea, having been discussed by philosophers and economists for centuries. Black swan risks are commonly known as Knightian uncertainty in economics or, to quote Rumsfeld, "unknown unknowns" by everyone else. His "gray swans" are analagous to Rudi Dornbusch's "peso risks". I'm not sure sure Taleb adds a lot of value by renaming these concepts and then telling you how brilliant he is over 300 odd pages.

Despite, or perhaps because, Keynes, Knight and Dornbusch were writing far more intelligently about these concepts before him, Taleb has a pathological hatred of economists. Indeed he suggests putting rats down their shirts if they try to talk to you.

However, Taleb does make an exception. In a footnote he argues that "the smartest book I've seen in economics is Gave et al. since it transcends the constructed categories in academic economic discourse". This book argued that there was no bubble in the US or UK housing market, that volatility and risk premia in financial markets would go on being low thanks to a more sophisticated financial system. It was clearly nonsense when I read it three years ago and now looks just laughable. But Taleb's praise for it in TBS shows a key insight into his mind. He so dislikes economic pundits who offer forecasts (lots of whom had been worrying about global imbalances) that he was prepared to latch on to an idea that suggested that they were all wrong.

Taleb makes extremely valid points about the limits to human knowledge. It is just a shame that he doesn't recognise that this also applies to him.
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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Paperback - 28 Feb 2008)
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