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The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" (Incerto) Paperback – May 11, 2010
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Guest Reviewer: Chris Anderson
Chris Anderson is editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and the author of The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.
Four hundred years ago, Francis Bacon warned that our minds are wired to deceive us. "Beware the fallacies into which undisciplined thinkers most easily fall--they are the real distorting prisms of human nature." Chief among them: "Assuming more order than exists in chaotic nature." Now consider the typical stock market report: "Today investors bid shares down out of concern over Iranian oil production." Sigh. We're still doing it.
Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex thing we don't--and, most importantly, can't--know. The truth is that we have no idea why stock markets go up or down on any given day, and whatever reason we give is sure to be grossly simplified, if not flat out wrong.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb first made this argument in Fooled by Randomness, an engaging look at the history and reasons for our predilection for self-deception when it comes to statistics. Now, in The Black Swan: the Impact of the Highly Improbable, he focuses on that most dismal of sciences, predicting the future. Forecasting is not just at the heart of Wall Street, but its something each of us does every time we make an insurance payment or strap on a seat belt.
The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the "millionaire next door," when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. He calls them Black Swans, which is a reference to a 17th century philosophical thought experiment. In Europe all anyone had ever seen were white swans; indeed, "all swans are white" had long been used as the standard example of a scientific truth. So what was the chance of seeing a black one? Impossible to calculate, or at least they were until 1697, when explorers found Cygnus atratus in Australia.
Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."
In full disclosure, I'm a long admirer of Taleb's work and a few of my comments on drafts found their way into the book. I, too, look at the world through the powerlaw lens, and I too find that it reveals how many of our assumptions are wrong. But Taleb takes this to a new level with a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature. --Chris Anderson
--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
More About the Author
He now spends most of his time in the intense seclusion of his study, or as a flâneur meditating in cafés. In addition to his life as a trader he spend several years as an academic researcher ( Distinguished Professor at New York University's School of Engineering, Dean's Professor at U. Mass Amherst).
He is the author of the Incerto (latin for uncertainty), accessible in any order (Antifragile, The Black Swan, The Bed of Procrustes, and Fooled by Randomness) plus a freely available technical version, Silent Risk. Taleb has also published close to 45 academic and scholarly papers as a backup, technical footnotes to the Incerto in topics ranging from Statistical Physics to International affairs. Taleb's books have more than 100 translations in 35 languages.
Taleb believes that prizes, honorary degrees, awards, and ceremonialism debase knowledge by turning it into a spectator sport.
""Imagine someone with the erudition of Pico de la Mirandola, the skepticism of Montaigne, solid mathematical training, a restless globetrotter, polyglot, enjoyer of fine wines, specialist of financial derivatives, irrepressible reader, and irascible to the point of readily slapping a disciple." La Tribune (Paris)
A giant of Mediterranean thought ... Now the hottest thinker in the world", London Times
"The most prophetic voice of all" GQ
Top Customer Reviews
Chapter 16 is excellent as an introduction to Mandelbrot's fractal geometry as an alternative to Gaussian based investment theory. He supports well that these mathematical tools do capture randomness (of non-stationary variables) far better than the Normal distribution. However, he admits that Mandelbrotian models are not predictive. When looking at the same data set, he and numerous colleagues each came up with different underlying parameters to build fractal-like models. And a small difference in such parameters makes a huge difference in outcome. That's why you will not hear much of fractal geometry within the quantitative financial community. Nevertheless, this is a fascinating subject that deserves further exploration. For this purpose, I recommend Mandelbrot's The Misbehavior of Markets
Within Chapter 17, Taleb further elaborates on the flaws of the Normal distribution. He underlines that half of the return of the stock market over the past 50 years was associated with just 10 days with the greatest daily change.Read more ›
The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist - all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront "the problem of induction," illustrated here by the story of the black swan.
Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement "all swans are white." There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our "knowledge" of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge.Read more ›
It is convincing argument, entertainingly presented with plenty of sarcasm, and indeed, anger, by Taleb. For example he rails against the academic community, economists (including specific names), and Nobel Prize committee. Considerable numbers of his arguments "ring true" to me, that is my experience in life confirms that they are more accurate than the traditional approach. Like any important work, 90% of what is in the book is not original; that does not make it less important. Taleb's contribution is in integrating the material together, and showing how these different ideas are tied to the Black Swan.
The themes include: winner-take-all phenonomen, numerous effects of randomness on the world, the invalidity of the Gaussian Bell Curve to most things in world, concepts of scalablity, numerous instabilities in the world, especially the modern world where information travels so quickly, the fallacies about people's inability to predict the future.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
This book had some very interesting and thought provoking concepts. However, most of the book tended to move very slowly. It practically crawled at some points. Read morePublished 1 day ago by yasemin kinay
Bombastically obvious. Forgive me but the photo he chose for the back cover tells the whole story. Mr. Taleb clearly relishes his role as an outsider but what is he outside of? Read morePublished 2 days ago by T. Maloney
Some great takeaways, but his arrogance was off the charts. Hardly a page turner, so be prepared to take 3-4 months to slog through it.Published 4 days ago
The primary purpose of this book seems to be for Taleb to convince you how much smarter he is than everyone else. Read morePublished 9 days ago by Charles Grayson
Mr. Taleb's views of randomness, luck and the impact of the occurrence of the highly improbable are fascinating and offer an unusual perspective on the world and human existence. Read morePublished 10 days ago by Bruce Bikin
This book is as engaging as it is infornational. I love his concept of the black swan" to illustrate naturally occurring irregularities of events. Read morePublished 18 days ago by Schiff
NNT discreetly drops hotshot names and s***s on them, drops some other names and worships them to disabuse the reader of the notion that NNT is crazy, and creates so many new words... Read morePublished 1 month ago by Sheng
Seriously one of my all-time favorite books. Should be required reading at business schools, but lessons are good for all. Read morePublished 1 month ago by echogrrl