Customer Reviews for

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility")

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Just as the negative space gives form to the objective in a work of art, so the unknown gives relevance to knowledge. In The Black Swan, Taleb shows that all human knowledge is but a collection of crude marks on a vast canvas of ignorance. We know much less than we thin...
Just as the negative space gives form to the objective in a work of art, so the unknown gives relevance to knowledge. In The Black Swan, Taleb shows that all human knowledge is but a collection of crude marks on a vast canvas of ignorance. We know much less than we think we know, and understand even that poorly. Further, our history, both personal and collective, is governed by events that we did not predict, could not have predicted, and really do not comprehend.

Taleb defines the black swan concept as an event with three characteristics: unpredictability, extreme impact, and (unfortunately) the power to inspire us to contrive ex post facto explanations. For much of history conventional wisdom held that all swans were white. When Europeans colonized Australia and found black swans, however, an entire body of knowledge was upended. That is a key concept. Some events out there will obliterate all prior understanding. These events reside in a province Taleb dubs "Extremistan."

Despite our blindness to high-impact black swan events, we always go back and contrive explanations that would have predicted those events. Narrative fallacy is a term the author uses to describe how we fit facts to a preconceived story. After the dust settles, we tell ourselves that we are smarter now, and wait for the next Black Swan, drunk with the false belief that we understand the risk and are somehow protected from it.

Taleb describes several other mental traps. Epistemic arrogance is a term he uses to tell us that we are not nearly as smart as we think, and confirmation error is the tendency to look for instances that confirm our beliefs. It is our nature to connect random facts, weave a story, and then force fit this crude mental model onto physical reality. We do this not only to make future predictions, but also to interpret the past. Causal stories we contrive to make historic events appear deterministic are in fact just a cherry picking of facts to fit a story. We can't even predict history well. The author cautions us to be very wary of any human explanations: he makes a strong argument that we should avoid making strong arguments.

Despite the shortcomings of our primitive mental processors, the situation is not entirely as hopeless. Though we can know little of the events that most impact our lives, we can profit from the delusion of others. Financial markets are driven by a great many people that underestimate the impact and likelihood of Black Swan events. We can profit by betting on long shots, doing it a lot, but placing only small bets. That way, the losses will be bounded and you never suffer from catastrophic black swan events. Taleb cashed in this strategy, and retired to pursue his passion for philosophy.

When someone writes with intensity and honesty, the reader invariably gets a sense of the writer's personality. So it is with Taleb. He is a brilliant and unconventional thinker with little respect for established and institutionalized knowledge. Platonified (compartmentalized) thinking incenses him and he despises the high priests of academia - the ministers of what Robert Pirsig called "The Church of Reason". Taleb disdains their sacraments (especially the Gaussian curve) and their holiest institutions (e.g. the Nobel Prize.) I went through most of the book believing the writer a man of very strong opinions, only to realize at the end that I was, of course, wrong. Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a man of extreme opinions.

posted by Jim-McInvale on March 26, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

7 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

'Never judge a book by its cover...'

I could hardly make myself finish the book. Mr. Taleb devotes thousands of words to weaving together quip anecdotal musings that struggle to support his loosely defined thesis statements. Using a short, choppy prose style we are forced to review Mr. Taleb¿s observations...
I could hardly make myself finish the book. Mr. Taleb devotes thousands of words to weaving together quip anecdotal musings that struggle to support his loosely defined thesis statements. Using a short, choppy prose style we are forced to review Mr. Taleb¿s observations of ¿nonlinearities¿ that seem to better highlight the authors worldly travels and successful friends than offer new insights. The popularity of this book simply illustrates our societal weakness for catchy titles and to ¿listen¿ to anyone who speaks authoritatively about the unknown.

posted by Anonymous on August 5, 2007

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 5, 2007

    'Never judge a book by its cover...'

    I could hardly make myself finish the book. Mr. Taleb devotes thousands of words to weaving together quip anecdotal musings that struggle to support his loosely defined thesis statements. Using a short, choppy prose style we are forced to review Mr. Taleb¿s observations of ¿nonlinearities¿ that seem to better highlight the authors worldly travels and successful friends than offer new insights. The popularity of this book simply illustrates our societal weakness for catchy titles and to ¿listen¿ to anyone who speaks authoritatively about the unknown.

    7 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 18, 2010

    Wandering, meandering, boring

    This is one of the worst audio books I have ever listened to. My wife agrees. The thesis is that it is only the things that we don't know about or can't anticipate that matter. The proof points given are 9/11 and the rise of Google. However, no proof is provided. Neither of these examples occurred out of nowhere - as the authors seem to think. For instance, all the elements of 9/11 were anticipated - the WTC was attacked previously, terror experts knew that attack with airplanes was possible - the failure was in the synthesis of the data. Same with Google - the importance of search had been established, and the importance of e-commerce: Google brought it all together.

    At any rate, these are just examples of what is not covered in this book while the authors ramble all over the place and don't provide a shred of evidence for their thesis.

    So, this is a work of fiction sold as if it reveals some type of scientific breakthrough.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2011

    Did Not Enjoy

    Author took way to long to make the (obvious) points: 1.People don't properly assess/quantify risk; 2. A low probability event doesn't mean that it cannot happen.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2007

    How did it get published?

    Honestly I have no idea how this book was published. It is clear that the author does not understand probability theory. We all know that normal distributions can not be used to describe all the possible phenomena in nature and society. But the author uses this argument to discard probability theory. The book is full of incomplete stories and ideas that hardly make sense. Don't bother to buy or read. There were other negative comments of this book but apparently were deleted. I hope they don't delete this one.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    I can't believe this is a best seller - the jokes on us who bought it.

    What a grind! "Unexpected life-changing things happen that can't be predicted with a bell curve." There - Now you don't have to waste the 10 or more hours it takes to plow thru this life-sucking experience. I can't believe the fawning reviews this book gets. Like it was an expensive wine with all the upscale adjectives. I also can't believe the dislike of the 1 star reviews which are telling a truth that you may not like to hear- that the blank canvas that you're looking at isn't really art at all.

    If you want specifics, I would use the key words, disjointed, long-winded, no-sequitur, unscientific, and axe-grinding.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2012

    Couldn't finish it

    Rehashed the same thought over and over - he doesn't like bell shaped curve

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