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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly…

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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5,039113895 (3.73)1 / 80

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This is an important book, one that could change your way of thinking.

The premise is quite basic: reality isn't modeled well by the Gaussian curve, and this is a difference that makes a difference. I think the argument is solid, too.

However, I found the writing style very irritating. The author is constantly insulting everybody that doesn't get his point right away, and as it's a point that is in direct opposition to many things we have been taught, that means almost everyone, including the reader. It's no fun reading a book that constantly scolds you for not getting it yet.

That said, do read this book, if you can stand it. ( )
  wester | Jul 13, 2014 |
From the beginning, I could tell this book was going to be tough going. I’ve read several similar books attacking conventional wisdom, including Freakonomics (right before starting this project) and Wrong (reviewed here). Of the three, this book was by far the least conversational and most intellectual (ie most difficult to read!). The book took a lot of time to make a few simple points. There were also many chapters that started with anecdotes not clearly related to the subject of the book. This gives the disorienting sensation of having walked into a room and realizing you don’t remember why you decided to head to that room in the first place!

Read the rest here... ( )
  DoingDewey | Jun 29, 2014 |
Taleb picks up Hume's project and extends it — there is only the certainty of uncertainty. It's what we don't know that is the real problem; if we can be certain that a problem is a problem is a problem. A great read despite the glaring pitfalls of such a total epistemology. If Taleb's thesis is taken as a part of a larger understanding of existence, it makes perfect sense, but as a model of operational strategy for everything? Nah. ( )
  chriszodrow | Jun 8, 2014 |
[The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable] by Nassim Nicholas Talib is for most of its length a philosopher/statistician's squeal of fury that so many people get things so wrong so often. He is speaking most about those pundits who pontificate about what is going to happen in the economy, politics, and other areas of life without what he would say is proper regard for the real origin of risk. Of course, our recent economic history is the most obvious example of his thesis, although not the only one.

And his thesis is that for the most part, statistics is, as Mark Twain said, just the most egregious type of lie. (The quote is 'lies, damned lies, and statistics'.). Talib's opinion is that the famous bell curve, or Gaussian distribution, is no more predictive than sheep's entrails, that no one really understands what the mathematics surrounding it means, and that those who pretend to be able to apply data using it or any other charting method to come up with predictive results are just so many snake oil salesmen.

I don't think I'm exaggerating his intention, and certainly not his pique.

Whether you would like to believe that or not, his second thesis is scarier. It is that the risks we should really be worrying about are the ones we cannot anticipate, or more ominously, the ones we are unwilling to anticipate. And again, this applies most obviously to the recent economic crisis, but could apply equally to medical research, global warming, weather predictions, etc. These are what he calls the black swans, the things we KNOW can't happen, can't exist, but somehow appear anyway. The term comes from the European conviction stretching back to the Greeks that all swans are white, which was suddenly and magically disproven when Europeans happened upon Australia. It's his way of saying 'never say never'.

Eventually, he grudgingly agrees to give some advice to the shell-shocked reader, which mainly consists of: question every assumption, concentrate on safety, don't risk anything you can't lose, and don't listen to the pundits. Not revolutionary. But advising us in that way is not his goal. His goal is to try to make the reader see the folly of prediction, the incompetence of applied statistics, and the childish wishfulness of any hope of predicting the future.

OK. I get it. It goes on a little too long, in sometimes numbing detail, with the snarkiest of tones and attitude. Every once in a while he tells the less than superbly educated reader they can skip ahead - they don't have to bother themselves with the technical bits. He is of course the smartest guy in the room, and everyone else (except for a select few mathematicians and icononclastic thinkers) is an idiot. Or a fraud.

I like reading some of the works by those other select folks. I like the behavioral economists and their insistence on puncturing assumptions by actually testing them. And I totally sympathize with Talib's quarrel with academic economic theory as just that, academic instead of reflecting real life. But it would have been a little better if he hadn't hit me over the head with these ideas quite so much. ( )
  ffortsa | May 8, 2014 |
An interesting and thought-provoking book.

But it's far too long and repetitive, and the author lets his ego show through a bit too much and sometimes appears arrogant. ( )
  Pondlife | Mar 31, 2014 |
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Since the book was written prior to the current situation, many of the insights will seem prophetic. For instance, “regulators in the banking business are prone to a severe expert problem and they tend to condone reckless but (hidden) risk taking.” Some might think that the book specifically predicted the current market and economic crisis—wrong. The book is about the expectation that it could occur.
added by dtw42 | editBusiness Economics, Gerald L Musgrave (pay site) (Aug 11, 2011)

» Add other authors (15 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nassim Nicholas Talebprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Pietiläinen, KimmoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Benoît Mandelbrot, a Greek among Romans
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Before the discovery of Australia, people in the Old World were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence.
Information from the German Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to the English one.
Die beste Strategie besteht also darin, möglichst viel auszuprobieren und möglichst viele Chancen, aus den sich Schwarze Schwäne ergeben könnten, zu ergreifen.
Die narrative Verzerrung ist Ausdruck unserer eingeschränkten Fähigkeit, Reihen von Fakten zu betrachten, ohne eine Erklärung in sie hineinzuweben oder, was dasselbe bedeutet, gewaltsam eine logische Verknüpfung, einen Beziehungspfeil zwischen ihnen herzustellen. Erklärungen binden Fakten zusammen. Sie sorgen dafür, dass wir uns viel leichter an sie erinnern können, dass sie mehr Sinn ergeben. Diese Neigung kann uns aber in die Irre führen, wenn sie unseren Eindruck, dass wir verstehen, verstärkt.
Wir sind soziale Tiere; die Hölle sind andere Menschen.
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Table of Contents from Worldcat:

Umberto Eco's antilibrary, or how we seek validation. The apprenticeship of an empirical skeptic ; Yevgenia's black swan ; The speculator and the prostitute ; One thousand and one days, or how not to be a sucker ; Confirmation shmonfirmation! ; The narrative fallacy ; Living in the antechamber of hope ; Giacomo Casanova's unfailing luck : the problem of silent evidence ; The Ludic fallacy, or the uncertainty of the nerd -- We just can't predict. The scandal of prediction ; How to look for bird poop ; Epistemocracy, a dream ; Appelles the Painter, or what do you do if you cannot predict? -- Those gray swans of Extremistan. From Mediocristan to Extremistan and back ; The bell curve, that great intellectual fraud ; The aesthetics of randomness ; Locke's madmen, or bell curves in the wrong places ; The uncertainty of the phony -- The end. Half and half, or how to get even with the black swan -- Epilogue : Yevgenia's white swans.
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"A Black Swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives." "Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities. We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don't know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the "impossible."" "For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. Now, in this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know about what we don't know. He offers surprisingly simple tricks for dealing with black swans and benefiting from them."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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