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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) Hardcover – April 17, 2007
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Bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb continues his exploration of randomness in his fascinating new book, The Black Swan, in which he examines the influence of highly improbable and unpredictable events that have massive impact. Engaging and enlightening, The Black Swan is a book that may change the way you think about the world, a book that Chris Anderson calls, "a delightful romp through history, economics, and the frailties of human nature." See Anderson's entire guest review below.
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
In business and government, major money is spent on prediction. Uselessly, according to Taleb, who administers a severe thrashing to MBA- and Nobel Prize-credentialed experts who make their living from economic forecasting. A financial trader and current rebel with a cause, Taleb is mathematically oriented and alludes to statistical concepts that underlie models of prediction, while his expressive energy is expended on roller-coaster passages, bordering on gleeful diatribes, on why experts are wrong. They neglect Taleb's metaphor of "the black swan," whose discovery invalidated the theory that all swans are white. Taleb rides this manifestation of the unpredicted event into a range of phenomena, such as why a book becomes a best-seller or how an entrepreneur becomes a billionaire, taking pit stops with philosophers who have addressed the meaning of the unexpected and confounding. Taleb projects a strong presence here that will tempt outside-the-box thinkers into giving him a look. Gilbert Taylor
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top customer reviews
This is such a book.
This book makes the problem of knowledge come alive. It basically
addresses the question of what knowledge and the acquisition of
knowledge mean especially when it's what we don't know, the black
swans, that impacts us the most. This problem comes alive in the story
of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's (NNT) life and how he grew up in war-torn
Lebanon, a country reputed for its long-lasting peace. In turn, I can't help but
finding "black swans" in my life as well. I wonder how many people have
black swans in their closet so-to-speak.
The black swan problem leads to skepticism toward science and
causality. Religion and faith are the alternatives. Erudition is
necessary to keep an open mind. Scholarship w/o erudition leads to
disaster: platonicity and simplification. NNT does seem to take
pleasure to display his erudition.
While this book does not propose new theoretical paradigms for
predicting black swans (that wouldn't make sense), it gives some
practical advice for making decisions in an uncertain world. One such
advice is to "maximize the serendipity around you" and another is to
"worry less about embarrassement than about missing an opportunity."
In this context, the chance aspects of success ("success is a
cummulative advantage") are clearly exposed and for that, this book gets 4 stars.
I bought this book with Mandelbrot's Behavior of Markets, and for the same purpose. I wanted to get a strong intuitive understanding of the consequences of the difference between the actual behavior (power-law) and the assumed behavior (Gaussian) of markets. I wanted to know what the power-law relationships were, so that I could build my own statistical models. And I wanted an analysis of real data showing that, in fact, markets in question do follow power-law relationships. Were I to rate this book solely on its ability to deliver on these expectations, I would have to give it two stars; for this book has nothing to do with the actual empirical facts. It is, instead, a highly rhetorical appeal to us to use empirical facts in making decisions about the market while it nevertheless manages to completely dodge the task of presenting any real market data.
The inquiry here is much broader. Taleb is painstaking, almost encyclopedic, in his enumeration of ways in which our understanding of information breaks down. He draws on ideas from Greek, Roman, Arab, French, and English thinkers spanning more than two millennia. He also draws from the fine work of contemporaries Kahneman and Tversky which demonstrates how - when guessing about things - we all systematically underestimate our probability of being wrong by about a factor of twenty. He asserts that people with MBA's and those running large financial institutions do so a great deal more than, say, taxicab drivers and trash collectors.
He visits physical models which prove that we cannot know much about the physical world, such as the three-body problem. The point is that when even physical systems that can be described very exactly in mathematical equations cannot be predicted with arbitrary accuracy, what's the hope of predicting things for which we don't even know the variables or the math one might use in describing them? Here he misses some opportunities by needlessly scoffing at the uncertainty principle, and by failing to include comments by one towering physicist of the twentieth century, probably Von Karman*, about how no physical phenomenon seemed spookier - i.e. more difficult to describe accurately using mathematics - than turbulent flow in fluids. This is an unfortunate omission since Mandelbrot actually uses the term "turbulence" to describe the fluctuations in market prices of goods and securities.
One reaction to Taleb's arguments about how little we can ultimately know and on what shaky ground our beliefs lie is to stand, like a deer in the headlights, waiting for better information. Taleb argues that this is a mistake. It might be a bit better to proceed, looking for evidence that would prove one's course of action wrong, then modify one's model of reality and repeat the process. Doing this has the advantage that one can learn quite quickly about how any problem is bounded, and get some sense for the shape of the space inside. He quotes Warren Buffet: it is a great deal better to be approximately right than it is to be precisely wrong. And when choosing among things to believe, he advises us to rank beliefs not by their implausibility but by the harm they might cause. Although there are robust methods that draw on both judgments, this is generally very sound advice.
The book is highly irreverent. In financial circles it is seen as blasphemous, not just because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but because the author has so much fun demolishing revered ideas. Anyone who can take it seriously and follow its advice ought to be much better at evaluating information and making decisions. This quality gives you a much better chance of becoming rich and famous like Taleb - though as Taleb might explain, there is still a vanishingly small chance of this happening. The down side is that following Taleb's advice is likely to make one a great deal less promotable (especially in financial firms) because - according to Taleb - reaching high levels of a company depends almost exclusively on making others believe you know things about which you are actually completely clueless; and only sociopaths and very self-deluded people do this convincingly.
This suggests that one would read the book for the sole joy of knowing that you're the only person in the room who is sane enough to understand how little you actually know about pretty much anything.
*Taleb makes great use of footnotes, and I recommend reading them all. Some of the best material in the book is in them. Van Karman is most famous, perhaps, for his role in adjudicating what to do after the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge - arguably a Black Swan event. One day not long after this long suspension bridge was erected, it began twisting and oscillating in a 50 MPH wind. Some minutes later it collapsed. Von Karman was called in to evaluate what happened. He told the town council that the vortex shedding frequency of the bridge in a 50 MPH wind happened to closely match the natural vibrational frequency of the bridge. The bridge had gone into harmonic oscillation which created stresses that were much higher than those created by static loads for which it was designed, and this was why it failed. Although it is to avoid collapsing bridges via harmonic oscillation that British soldiers fell out of step when crossing bridges over several centuries prior, the town council had never heard of anything like this happening before. They declared "It was a very well-built bridge" and therefore "we shall build it exactly as it was before." To which Von Karman replied "If you build it exactly as it was before, it shall collapse exactly as it did before." To their credit, they had the bridge re-designed.