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227 of 273 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Wading through Mediocristan, February 10, 2011
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This review is from: The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable: With a new section: "On Robustness and Fragility" (Incerto) (Paperback)
To get to the substance of "The Black Swan," you must first get beyond the author's overweening self-regard. But when you have done that--if indeed you can--you find there is very little substance after all. Much of the book is little more than the author's confession of worldliness and refinement. We are guided to understand that he is at once immersed in man's strife-torn existence ("This is not an autobiography, so I will skip the scenes of war") and steeped in les belles lettres ("My point, I repeat, is not that Balzac is untalented, but that he is less uniquely talented than we think"). What arguments he makes regarding "black swans"--rare events with outsized impact--are mostly arguments of assertion rather than demonstration, and what insights he provides into the nature of these events are far from profound. In most cases they are but a short distance removed from common sense.

Nonetheless, some readers may enjoy the spectacle of a grown man displaying the sort of braggadocio not normally seen in males above age fourteen. It is lowbrow entertainment to watch the pompous make asses of themselves, but it is still entertainment. And pomposity is in every chapter of the book. Do you have any idea how many world cities Nassim Nicholas Taleb sips coffee in? No? Voila, he will tell you! New York, Beirut, Lugano, Rome, Paris, Athens, Venice, Sydney, and many more! "I was transiting through the Frankfurt airport on my way from Oslo to Zurich. I had time to kill and it was a great opportunity for me to buy dark European chocolate...."

Or, do you know how many languages Nassim Nicholas Taleb speaks? No? Voici, he will tell you this too! French, Arabic, English.... Alas, his Italian is weak, so he augments it with hand gestures. And Latin: "I am carrying Seneca on all my travels, in the original, as I relearned Latin--reading him in English did not feel right. It would be equivalent to reading Yeats in Swahili." The author's only nod to modesty here is that he did not then claim to have actually read Yeats in Swahili.

Taleb's erudition in language is at the heart of one of the most egotistically comical paragraphs of the book. During a meeting with his close friend, Benoit Mandelbrot, Taleb recounts that,

"Mandelbrot mentioned one of his friends, the aristocratic mathematician Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger [who] insisted on the clear cut distinction in the French language between `hasard' and `fortuit.' We went to the Petit Robert dictionary. `Fortuit' seems to correspond to my epistemic opacity, `l'imprevu et non quantifiable'; `hasard' to the more ludic type of uncertainty that was proposed by the Chevalier de Mere in the early gambling literature. Remarkably, the Arabs may have introduced another word ...."

If you had a Petit Robert yourself, you might be tempted to look up "poseur."

Oh, yes, the substance. These "black swans" are statistical outliers, and thus invite a discussion of statistical modeling and its application to the real world. This the author provides, sort of, in chapters 15-17. Here he proposes to be technical ("The nontechnical reader can skip this chapter...," he helpfully cautions), maybe even mathematical. But beyond the not very surprising demonstration that the tail of a bell curve becomes miniscule more quickly than that of a power-law curve of modest degree, there is little in here that passes for analysis. There is a discursion into the fractal geometry of Mandelbrot, however, and a none-too-clear assertion that power-law distributions are scalable (true) and therefore "Mandelbrotian" (I suppose so). All this might make sense on some level, but it is not a demonstration of the superiority of power laws or the inferiority of the bell curve. It seems rather to be a flattering tribute to his friend Mandlebrot.

In chapter 17 the knives come out. Here Taleb takes on "Locke's Madmen," those benighted economists who at some point foolishly used the bell curve in their modeling and analysis. These include Paul Samuelson. Of him and three other notables Taleb says, "All four were Nobeled. All four were in a delusional state under the effect of mathematics...." I'm quite certain that Taleb knows more about economics than I do. I am even more certain that Samuelson does. To me this is an intra-disciplinary feud, which, at bottom, seems to be the reason for the book. It is the rant of an iconoclast against orthodoxy.

The book is not without value. There are very sensible observations on the inability of most gamblers to realistically imagine the odds against them, for example, the unintended consequences of government regulation, and the wisdom of not permitting economic entities to become "too big to fail." There are practical illustrations of statistics that do not fit the bell curve: distribution of income, for example. There are also a number of bons mots scattered throughout the book: calling egalitarianism "the glorification of mediocrity," and observing that "Forecasting by bureaucrats tends to be used for anxiety relief rather than for adequate policy making." But it is doubtful that the discovery of these baubles, whatever their value as wisdom or amusement, is worth wading through the rest of Mediocristan.
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Comments

Tracked by 4 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 9, 2011 9:24:06 AM PST
jmp2115 says:
Couldn't agree more. I'm 66 pages in and I'm afraid this one is headed for the dustbin.

Posted on Apr 2, 2011 10:51:02 AM PDT
Michael says:
This is a superb review. I visited the author's stunningly ugly website and was so amused by the "overweening self-regard" to which you refer ("Finally, note that, thanks to my new keyboard, I sometimes reply in Arabic, particularly to academics."), I briefly supposed that the whole thing was a spoof.

Posted on Jun 15, 2011 4:47:26 PM PDT
J. Avellanet says:
F. Mullen - your review is absolutely perfect. I was going to write my own review; read yours and thought - "Nope, no point - F. Mullen summed it up perfectly."

Posted on Jun 18, 2011 6:24:25 AM PDT
Jazi Zilber says:
This is competely ad miminem. Personal attack for so long!

Maybe you teenager can grow up and concentrate on essense? They say that this is what growing up is about

Posted on Jul 13, 2011 3:07:07 PM PDT
"Chapeau" to you, Mr. Mullen - I'd buy you a delightful little pastis if I could! Your review is fair, for Mr. Taleb asks us to judge him by the highest of standards, and you do and find him wanting (a little more airy nougatine or a dizzying whiff of rich Corinthian leather (sic), perhaps?) Thank you!

Posted on Jul 26, 2011 8:51:02 PM PDT
Ray Gardner says:
All in all this reviewer seems to have more of a problem with the author's personality than the book itself.

Posted on Aug 10, 2011 5:49:15 PM PDT
Caricature says:
Great review. I listened to Fooled by Randomness and thought the exact same thing. There is no way I could have read the book because I wouldn't have gotten past page 20 it was so bad. But as an audio book is was "readable" and there were a few useful ideas. Enough for a magazine article.

Posted on Aug 13, 2011 1:33:20 PM PDT
Excellent review. My only changes would be to give it one star, and point out some of Talebs arrogant ignorance on subjects from corporate 5 year planning to evolution. You saved me the trouble of writing a review.

Posted on Aug 14, 2011 12:07:33 PM PDT
I really liked the book and in fact thought that much of the astounding arrogance was sort of funny, and so was predisposed to be critical of this review. But you know what? You're absolutely right! He is preposterously up himself to the degree that his message, which I think is important, gets lost. So thank you for this well done review and hopefully ( though hopelessly ) he'll be a bit more on topic, less self-promoting in the next book.

There are some really good things in it though; I agree with you that these should be acknowledged.

Posted on Oct 25, 2011 9:58:46 AM PDT
dan farmer says:
I'm pretty sure I enjoyed your delightfully composed and pithy review more than the book (the hand gesture bit was great ;)), which was a bit of a slog... albeit entertaining at times, a bit repetitious at others. I'd give it another star than you, but at that point we're just splitting hairs - or perhaps black feathers.
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F. Mullen
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Location: Boston, MA

Top Reviewer Ranking: 859,845