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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly…

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (edition 2008)

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

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Title:The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable
Authors:Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Info:Penguin (2008), Paperback, 480 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


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English (113)  Spanish (3)  Italian (3)  Dutch (3)  French (1)  German (1)  Czech (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (126)
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I'm a bit hesitant to summarise this book as the author says in a postscript essay that much of the reaction to the book has misunderstood it, but here goes.

The Black Swan of the title refers to the European belief that all swans are white until the Europeans got to Australia and found that there were indeed black swans. Hence, the author coins the phrase "Black Swan event" for rare events that cannot be foreseen and which have massive consequences. Although the odds of a particular event might be very small, the odds of something among the many possibilities happening is not. Whether they cannot be foreseen because it is intrinsically impossible or because we don't have enough information is irrelevant. Although after the event people will come up with 'causes' that is due to the way our minds work, we can't cope with just dumb luck.

Actually the problem is made worse by the illusory confidence produced by the use of sophisticated statistical projections based on probabilities because such tools are being used by people who don't really understand them and being applied to situations which they are not really suitable for. They work fine for controlled situations like calculating the odds in a casino or for physical attributes where the amount of possible variation is limited but not for the complex situations real life offers.

All we can do is attempt to reduce the harm done by unforeseen catastrophic events but an inter-related globalised system where certain entities are "too big to fail" magnifies the damage rather than reduces it.

A mind-stretching book, partly because of the subject matter and partly because clarity of exposition is not always the author's strong point. For example, if you haven't already read the book or aren't familiar with the author's work, the introduction/prologue is very hard to follow. ( )
  Robertgreaves | Nov 13, 2015 |
The author wants us to know that he is well-connected, went to some very fancy schools, and, at least at one point, was making a whole lot of money.

He also has a point, but is a little too convinced that his thinking is novel. I've read so many books that point out that the success or failure of a corporation may not have too much to do with its CEO. Taleb is not the first to think of that, but he seems to think he is.

His writing is full of cheap shots which ceaselessly undermine and distract from the points he is trying to make.

And I'm not sure that prostitutes generally get paid by the hour, they do what is essentially piecework.

"The Drunkards Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives" is not nearly as egotistical and has much the same points to make. I think Mlodinow probably never had the income that Taleb had when he was really raking it in, though.

What is novel in this book is his discussion of prior thinkers, for instance his mention of Cicero. The fact that he makes up half the people he talks about is not really that useful.

He comes across as a bit lazy, more of a ranconteur than a serious author.

Of course, the book "The Black Swan" itself qualifies as a black swan in the sense of the author. ( )
  themulhern | Sep 27, 2015 |
Changed my life by introducing me to probabilistic thinking. Taleb has a habit of talking too much and parts of the book are a chore to get through, but the message is superb. ( )
  nvenkataraman1 | Aug 31, 2015 |
I think that the main reason why I even started reading this book was because I thought it would be more interesting than it actually was. Not to say that it was terrible...it just wasn't what I thought it would be. Taleb comes off at a little presumptuous sometimes...actually, all the time.

There is a main point to the entire book, and it's the fact that life is unpredictable. He reiterates this same point in different parts of his book, with some examples drier than others. I actually found it to be more interesting the more I read, but some parts were just completely over my head, such as the Gaussian framework, or stuff that dealt with the bell curve. To his credit, he does tell the reader that certain chapters can be skipped over if one doesn't really know or care for some of the hard facts.

Anyway, I'd recommend this book for those that are more interested in statistics, analyzing (political analysts, financial analysts, etc.), philosophers, and more simply because I want to know what your opinion on his writing would be. ( )
  jms001 | Jun 14, 2015 |
This is the first book of philosophy I have ever actually understood - this after several attempts. This pleased me to no end. The reason I was able to understand is because Taleb lays out his grand vision, then explains it very, very well. I even understood all the bell curve mathematics. The book isn't perfect, however. He could have spent about 100 more pages explaining everything further to perfection, his distaste for the bell curve is not fully parlayed to the reader in proper context, and well, some things ARE predictable (if Black Swans don't happen - a possibility!), but Taleb doesn't get into that discussion too much. Still, a great thinking book and a fine read.
  MartinBodek | Jun 11, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
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)

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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 your language.
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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