Customer Review

213 of 262 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Ironically, Opportunity Lost, December 31, 2002
By A Customer
This review is from: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in the Markets and in Life (Hardcover)
I'm very much of two minds about this book. There's little need to offer further comment on:
1. The author's ego (in one paragraph on page 59, he uses the perpendicular pronoun 7 times; the possessive first person another 5); or his hyperbolistic writing style: this might be too easily dismissed as an ad hominem attack.
2. The many glaring contradictions in this book: they appear so often (sometimes in the next sentence), they can hardly be viewed as a random event: this would take too long, and any intelligent reader can spot them.
3. The superfluous material: with so much impertinent opinion found between the covers, this would take too much effort.
4. The missed opportunities: another author can capitalize on this.
5. The delicious irony between the thesis and the content: this is for the discerning reader to perceive and enjoy.
If people wanted to be as nasty as Taleb is in dismissing those he disagrees with, they could use a subject line like "Clearly, not a Swan Song," or "A Highly Masturbatory Essay" or "This book is as fat as the argument is thin".
While there is much to complain about in this nauseatingly self-centered book, so filled with noise and so little signal (seriously estimated at 85:15), such comments would miss the point: this is actually a highly original work and is certainly thought-provoking. Although I give it only 2 stars, it's still worth reading, if only to argue against. A three-paragraph summary of his 200 pages follows:
1. Thesis: Today's virtual world measures success without sufficiently discerning luck from skill. Intelligence alone is deemed the necessary condition for wealth.
2. Antithesis: Too much of what is widely held to be worldly success should actually be attributed to luck; i.e., results hidden inside the vicissitudes of random variation. This "common sense" approach is naïve because it fails to establish the link between cause and effect and ignores the effect of variation, which, in one of its tails, can produce extraordinary results. Taleb explores the problem of induction and confronts the non-linearity of regret.
3. Synthesis: The trick is, of course, to determine post facto, what was random and what was skill, and more critically, to assess the nature of risk going into a decision. Mistakes in these areas can be extremely costly. Beware of the tails, especially if they are fat. If you want to be probabilistic, don't bet more than you can happily afford to lose. Question everything. Be humble. Accept adversity with good grace.
This is an interesting thesis; too bad Taleb doesn't focus on examining the evidence instead of talking about himself and offering unsupported opinions. He dabbles with epistemology, but equivocates on whether knowledge is arrived at by rational or empirical means. Despite frequent and inappropriate abuse of the word "clearly," he doesn't clarify the ontological considerations that lie at the heart of this book: sufficient cause and non-contradiction. Though he's personally fond of the Monte Carlo technique, many of us could be spared much of that bother by answering a few simple questions:
1. What is the worst-case scenario?
2. What is the best-case scenario?
3. What is the most likely scenario?
4. How confident am I in the assessments?
5. What can I afford to lose?
The author raises the work of Kahneman and Tversky, but hardly surveys it; the work of other key economic thinkers is ignored: Thaler and Arrow come to mind immediately; many others should appear but do not. No wonder Japanese librarians classify this work as literature: it's little more than an essay, largely devoid of footnotes or a meaningful bibliography.
Being unlettered in mathematical sciences, I ought to be cautious about questioning his math, as simple as it is, but must nonetheless question both Taleb's assumptions and his logic in the few examples he provides. He rails against "pseudo-science" but dabbles happily in many disciplines in which he lacks formal qualifications, jumping from lily-pad to lily-pad, seemingly unaware that his dilettantism is evident to even the fellow layperson. Despite his professed aversion for "borrowed wisdom," it abounds in this tome. Taleb's editor took a vacation, especially towards the end of the book, where there are many errors of punctuation.
Incidentally, in one of many delicious ironies of this book, Taleb uses the very Hegelian logic he rails against to make his point. It would be interesting to see John Horgan (he of The End of Science fame) interview Taleb. The ultimate irony is that Taleb has actually co-written a concise account of his thesis in 26 pages at his own web page.
Intriguingly, in some of the interviews also linked to his web page, he comes across as being lucid and pithy, and also a polished and gracious reviewer. Some of his other writings show a keen insight into human and abstract sensibilities. Sadly, the same cannot be said of this book, which appears to be more a transcript of a session with his psychoanalyst. This is an opportunity lost. A severe edit of this book could likely bring it up to the level (5 stars) for which it has the potential. But it's nowhere near there, yet.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 20, 2008 11:18:50 AM PDT
Soccerfan says:
"which appears to be more a transcript of a session with his psychoanalyst"

Too true. I started reading this book but I don't think I'll be finishing it. The author seems to have an inferiority confidence that he tries to overcome too hard by putting everyone else's ideas down. The "I'm really, really smart and everyone else who has more money or a better job than than me is just lucky" theme is wearing thin after the first few chapters.

Posted on Apr 11, 2010 11:31:00 PM PDT
Excellent review !

Wish I could read other reviews you made on other books.
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