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Well hidden treasure
on 19 November 2013
In the 500 pages of this book there is a really good 50-page extended essay, which is a bit obscured by the increasingly idiosyncratic writing. I can't complain because I knew what I was letting myself in for, having previously read the Fooled by Randomness and Black Swan books and this is really just a continuation in both content and style. In fact one of his earlier books has actually changed my life in a very real way - about five years ago I gave up reading newspapers after decades of ploughing through at least one of the broadsheets every day - so I don't take him lightly.
I think it is fair to say that Taleb could do with a strong-willed editor. There is a well-known principle in presentations that you need to reinforce an ide through repetition (tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you have told them) and this takes that idea to extremes with a list of contents that spans nine pages, then three pages of chapter summaries and then a prologue that basically summarises the whole book in a few pages. Each section of the book has a brief summary as does each chapter in the section. In addition to that there is an appendix to the prologue (!) an epilogue and 80 pages of index, appendices, notes, bibliography and acknowledgements. The point is that you can cutout 20% of the pages and still be left with the whole book to read.
As for the actual meat of the book, it can get a bit ranty. The author has a long list of people he doesn't like and misses no opportunity to lay into them. His targets include bureaucrats, bankers, experts, risk managers, journalists, Alan Greenspan, economists (he refers to them as "economists and other lunatics"), 'ivy-leaguers', academics, Aristotle, scientists (who he refers to as "so-called scientists") and Davos attenders. While many of us might not have a lot of time for many on the list (especially journalists and bankers) Taleb seems to make it all very personal.
At the very least it makes the book read like Father Ted's acceptance speech for the Golden Cleric awards, at worst it makes the book read like the rantings of a conspiracy theorist. It does not help that he invents grand-sounding names for people and then capitalises them, so he refers to 'the Soviet-Harvard Delusion' or the 'Central Fragilista Delegation' or refers to Alan Greenspan as the 'Uber-Fragilista Alan Greenspan'. Normally, if you hear somebody delivering something in this style (the style of David Icke or a bearded bloke yelling on a street corner) you switch off. That would be a shame here because there are some interesting ideas hidden away.
Fortunately, all this ranting is as amusing to read as it is annoying. I kind of picture Victor Meldrew reading it.
There are a few people that Taleb seems to like, but not many: Benoit Mandelbrot, Thales, Seneca, Steve Jobs and Ayn Rand.
I don't think Taleb would like me. Not because of this review (he says he likes criticism) and not (just) because my day job is in risk management, but because I appreciate the points he is making but don't ever intend to completely buy into his philosophy. Yes the ideas of optionality and asymmetry seem to work but I'll add them to many of the other theories out there and adapt them. I think Taleb would prefer some ideal world where everything and everyone just followed his ideas.
Unfortunately, his ideas carried to the logical conclusion are not practical. He considers the ideal way of life to be some sort of mediterranean agrarian life with everybody living an artisan lifestyle and no employees, which is not practical with out huge populations and our collective expectations as consumers.
None of this is to say the book is rubbish. The author is the current in-vogue thinker with the in-vogue big idea (Black Swans) which replaces 'Nudge' as the big idea, which replaced 'Tipping Points', 'The Wisdom of Crowds' and 'Long Tails' as previous big ideas, and this big idea does really get you thinking about some pretty big ideas - some of them pretty scary if Taleb is right.
Anybody who has read and enjoyed books by writers such as Levit & Dubner, Daniel Kahneman, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely or Jonathan Haidt would enjoy this book, or at least appreciate it. Anybody else mightdo, but should probably try something friendlier first and start with Freakonomics or Thinking Fast and Slow.