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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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  • Posted March 26, 2010

    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 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.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 4, 2007

    Taleb 's Message... Keep Your Eyes Wide Open!

    Easy enough to understand but rarely used in practice... Taleb's overwhelming point in this entertaining book is simple... 'Keep your eyes wide open'. Through his anecdotal reasoning Taleb illustrates case after case and historical reference after historical reference with a unique narrative style that is slightly fragmented yet nearly as entertaining as what you might expect from a work of fiction often leaving the reader with a discernable smile while mumbling to himself: 'Hmmm... You know this guy's got a point!¿ With an impressive understanding of the human social condition and our psychological tendencies, Taleb lays good claim to how we fail to anticipate, react to and make sense of the random events that have the greatest impact on our lives. In the end Taleb offers no specific solution or process by which one can profit or gain from the unexpected... however, the reader invariably learns the value of 'skepticism' and can easily see how this primarily philosophical dogma can be applicable to real life and of course, the financial markets! The Black Swan does more to re-align one's perspective than anything else, but few books do as good a job in this regard.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 9, 2013

    In his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

    In his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Dr. Nassim Nicholas Taleb illustrates the truly unpredictable nature of black swan events. He shows how the limits of human imagination and available information hide the possibility of these events from us regardless of the retrospective assertions made by `the experts.' Dr. Taleb goes on to reveal micro-level black swans that influence the day-to-day success and failure of companies and individual employees.

    The Black Swan brings to the forefront the reality of unpredictable events. Through his proof of their existence, Dr. Taleb creates a mandate for executives and managers to examine and prepare their organization to deal with black swan events at the corporate and employee level.

    The one shortcoming of Dr. Taleb's book is the absence of a set of guiding protocols or principles for effectively dealing with black swan events once they occur. This remains as an outstanding research and development project for the reader with no initial direction provided.

    I like The Black Swan for its exposure of unpredictable events and the inferred call to action to prepare one's organization to deal with these catastrophes commensurate with the organization's overall risk profile; making The Black Swan a StrategyDriven recommended read.

    All the Best,
    Nathan Ives
    StrategyDriven Principal

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2010

    If you can get past the author's tone, it's an extremely worthwhile read

    The book's underlying premise is that we truly cannot- given our limited ability to note/visualize/comprehend/understand anything that happens in the physical world in terms of cause-effect- truly and truthfully understand why events happen. NNT notes that 'We don't know nuthin' . He is absolutely correct, and I would recommend this book to any true skeptic as long as they can get by the author's supercilious tone.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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