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Customer Review

117 of 127 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A bad book for all the wrong reasons., July 23, 2007
This review is from: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) (Hardcover)
I really wish this were a good book, because the basic idea behind it is original, important and clever. That makes Taleb's careless handling of his topic all the more disturbing.

The rock-solid foundation of this book is Taleb's insight that the most important events in history, and presumably to come in the future, are essentially unpredictable; they can't be forecast using the information we have prior to their occurrence. That's a huge point and Taleb goes on to offer some compelling evidence that it is indeed true. He uses the analogy of a Turkey deciding that humans must have his best interests at heart because they show up every day of his life to feed him a good meal, he projects that - based on all of his evidence - this will continue. This works great until a couple of days before Thanksgiving. Suddenly his predictions have failed him catastrophically.

Great idea, and - I believe - true. But Taleb undercuts his own thought baby with shoddy writing, poor research and personal opinion masquerading as evidence.

The writing: A well-written book allows a reader to flow naturally from one paragraph to the next and from one idea to the next, even when the subject matter is complex. Taleb's writing is tough to follow and slow to get through. Beyond that, you really struggle to comprehend what he is trying to get across to you for huge portions of this book.

The research: When Taleb used examples to back his ideas that came from fields with which I was unfamiliar, I felt pretty good about them. However, whenever he used examples from areas where I have deeper knowledge, I noticed that his knowledge was lacking badly (being a trader comes to mind). This started to make me question all of his supporting evidence.

The opinion: Taleb leans heavily on the idea that most of what happens in the world is luck, even when we try desperately to ascribe some sort of tangible cause to it. At one point he uses the example of Mac operating software being far superior to that of Windows, but Windows being dominant in the market. He chalks it up entirely to luck! I'm sure he'd say I'm falling prey to a logical fallacy, but Apple and Steve Jobs had a huge head start on Microsoft, but refused to let anyone else run their operating system - so to run it, you had to buy a Mac. Microsoft let anyone run their operating system and consequently took the dominant share of the market.

This book is really a shame. The idea is just too good to be used this poorly. It made me sad to read this thing. Taleb the thinker deserved a far better writer than Taleb the author. What a waste.

You might still try reading this to understand Taleb's idea, because it's a huge insight, but watch all of his other content because it's riddled with holes.
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Showing 1-7 of 7 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jul 26, 2007 9:46:27 AM PDT
ericvann says:
Yes, exactly right. And it is a shame, because I really enjoyed his first book. That one must have done really well, because the author really seems full of himself now. I recognized the importance of the core idea, but was nevertheless unwilling to read more than a few pages.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 29, 2007 5:56:48 AM PDT
A. Schmitz says:
I agree with the spirit of your review entirely. Taleb is not the best writer in the world but I have chosen to overlook this (even though I get smacked in the face every time I start reading it.) I'm choosing to use this book for what I think is it's only true use: as a springboard to further thinking about reality's true nature and to give me a list of reading material. Taleb has many great points it must be admitted: he's spot on with regard to academics, I love him dishing a blow to Plato. Although, the writing doesn't flow, he doesn't flush out many of his arguments, he glosses over some counter-arguments. My advice: read it and move on.

Posted on Jan 31, 2008 3:41:03 PM PST
Dr. French says:
You are forgetting that the Thanksgiving event is only unpredictable for the turkey, not the humans who are feasting on it. By proxy then, we are the turkeys in this World while there are a small group of people constantly feasting on us (some think literally...) by manipulating World events. Nothing in politics or economics is ever random. Predicting future events is simply knowing the agendas of the Elite, which can only be accomplished if you run in their circles. The Elite have various requirements for "membership" and various secret societies for recruiting in order to severely limit the rest of us turkeys from getting too close to their circles.

Posted on Oct 10, 2008 4:58:18 AM PDT
Incomer says:
Thanks for your review. It saved me having to write something similar.
Hie shortcomings as a man (smugness, pomposity, silly prejudices etc) undermine the quality of the thought that underpins the book.

Posted on Feb 12, 2009 10:27:34 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 12, 2009 10:28:31 AM PST
Rewrite says:
This review would have been much better if specific examples had been giving (something beyond being a trader). I read this book thoroughly and did not see all the holes the reviewer mentioned.
I did find Taleb a little smug or angry at times, but it was refreshing. If one is going to limit ones reading by the tone of the author, then one will be missing out on a great deal. It seems like this reviewer couldn't get past that.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 18, 2009 6:37:56 AM PST
M. Strong says:
Richard... I'm glad you enjoyed the book. I got some good insight out of it myself. Having read the book almost two years ago now, my ability to recall any more specific examples is limited, but in the review itself I give three examples from the book; the turkey, trading, and Apple vs. Microsoft. Good golly, what more do you want from me? Beyond that, while I didn't like the tone of this book, I obviously didn't "limit my reading" by skipping it as you suggest. Books with bad tone are made to be less than they could be, this one goes beyond that with bad writing, sloppy examples and opinion stated as reasoning. Those are problems that go well beyond tone.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 3, 2010 8:37:30 PM PDT
Dear M Strong.
I am not quite as smart as all you folks but I agree with you on Mr. Taleb's foundation premiss. I coined my own phrase for it back when I watched TV on 9/11 as the second plane hit the towers. It makes a little better case than the turkey! Thanks
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