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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007)

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Incerto (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
7,414173933 (3.73)1 / 102
Examines the role of the unexpected, discussing why improbable events are not anticipated or understood properly, and how humans rationalize the black swan phenomenon to make it appear less random.
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English (155)  Dutch (5)  Italian (4)  Spanish (3)  German (2)  French (2)  Czech (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (173)
Showing 1-5 of 155 (next | show all)
For my job, I work in a technical field with high-level people in medical research who make important decisions that impact many. Thus, though I am not a primary decision-maker, anything I can do to better understand their mindsets and the impact of their decisions benefits my organization and my career. It is with this perspective that I approach this book. In it, Taleb uses a rare philosophical approach to business by addressing how we think. Many high-impact events (like, say, 9/11), when forecasted, are immediately and instinctively dismissed as “highly improbable.” Yet they have the potential to shift the future dramatically, for better or for worse. These events, nicknamed “black swans,” receive the focus of this book.

This book’s central metaphor comes from an observation many in history made about swans. For a long time, Europeans observed that swans were always white and therefore never black. No one thought to do a conclusive study to prove or disprove the potentiality of black swans. They just made an immediate leap from observation to rule. And that leap was incorrect. Eventually, people saw black swans in Australia. Thus, a highly improbable event happened (fortunately without life-or-death impact).

Managing risk is a central theme in the modern world. Rare events often prove to be a crux of history. Most of the time, those events are originally dismissed because they do not meet the center of a bell curve. Nonetheless, because of their potential to have great impact, planning for these events should be attended to. Through philosophical discussion, Taleb seeks to change our thoughts to instead focus on these events as potentially impactful. He relies on research of the mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot (of fractal fame) to illustrate how seemingly unlikely random events occur when looked at prospectively.

Professionally, I spend a lot of time with data and value Gaussian bell curves immensely for biomedical applications. However, I also recognize their limitations – especially, that the data has to be shown to be “normal” to begin with in order for Gaussian analysis to be valid. Many behavioral and financial researchers skip this step of rigor in their statistical analysis. Taleb is writing for a business/finance market that can dismiss outcomes as improbable. The biomedical world, of course, has its own black swans in the form of adverse health events (like cancer), but the threat of litigation and cultural accountability often keep these events on the forefront of diagnostic minds. Nonetheless, it’s good practice to consider potential outcomes when considering risk, regardless of small probabilities. Taleb addresses this thought process directly in this book and seeks to help us all manage an uncertain world more wisely. ( )
  scottjpearson | Oct 17, 2021 |
I just didn't like this book enough to take the time to provide a review. My stubbornness was the only reason I ended up finishing the book. Nassim makes the point that random, unexpected events can and do occur, and that we have to recognize that in our evaluations. But he could have done this in a short magazine article. To me, he just beat the idea to death.
( )
  rsutto22 | Jul 15, 2021 |
At times this is a difficult to read polemic on uncertainty. Paragraph whilst the authors charm and obvious erudition come through it is not the easiest of books to read. I do find some parts of it difficult to follow and I would recommend not reading this when tired. However some of the stipulations suppositions and theories within our very intriguing and definitely worthwhile looking at. Selfishness ( )
  aadyer | Jun 27, 2021 |
I cannot recall another book where the author praises himself more while continually dismissing the work of others. This running comparison of the author's brilliance with the incompetence of others would be easier to swallow if he had provided references to his and others' work. (Names of the author's friends and his life experiences are not adequate references.)
The primary example upon which he based the book (the turkey story) is a beautiful example of statistics with a sample size of one! With no more data than one turkey's growth and death records a year for each of the past few years (or a few turkeys from last year), elementary statistics would be adequate to predict the turkey's Black Swan event to the day. ( )
1 vote Brown | Apr 24, 2021 |
I got stuck on page 128 when reading this back in 2013.
I am not an expert in probability.
My impression was that the author used a great number of anecdotes to get his point across -- somewhat contradictory. So I had mixed feelings about his claim and am happy to defer to other people's opinion. ( )
  BesterikEz0815 | Mar 29, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 155 (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)
 
Some of his presentation is incendiary in criticizing economics, finance, and many of its most honored practitioners. Because the book is viewed as being partly about Taleb himself and because of the style of the presentation, some react to the author's persona. If you are forewarned and forearmed, it is easier to focus on the ideas in the book. Because the arguments are controversial, it is understandable that he has chosen to have sharp elbows in getting to the front of the stage.
 
Taleb and his publishers clearly believe the success of Fooled by Randomness is going to come again. But that book had a persuasive sobriety. The same cannot be said for The Black Swan, which despite the great utility of its insights is badly structured and hurriedly written.
added by Jozefus | editThe Guardian, Giles Foden (May 12, 2007)
 
"The Black Swan" has appealing cheek and admirable ambition, and contains such wise observations as: “We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control.” But the book exhibits shortcomings, the first being lack of structure.
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Nassim Nicholas Talebprimary authorall editionscalculated
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.
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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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Examines the role of the unexpected, discussing why improbable events are not anticipated or understood properly, and how humans rationalize the black swan phenomenon to make it appear less random.

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Book description
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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