©2007 Nassim Nicholas Taleb; (P)2007 Recorded Books, LLC
"[Taleb] administers a severe thrashing to MBA- and Nobel Prize-credentialed experts who make their living from economic forecasting." (Booklist)
"The hubris of predictions - and our perpetual surprise when the not-predicted happens - are themes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb's engaging new book....It concerns the occurrence of the improbable, the power of rare events and the author's lament that 'in spite of the empirical record we continue to project into the future as if we were good at it.'" (The New York Times)
Old & fat, but strong; American, Chinese, & Indian (sort of); Ph.D. in C.S.; strategy, economics & stability theory; trees & machining.
The book assumes that you sort of know that the normal distribution is grossly overused in all kinds of science and pseudo-science. It explains in very easy to understand terms why this leads to a host of misunderstandings about the way the world really works. Examples include the recent sub-prime problems.
At some level this is something that serious students of mathematics have understood for a long time, but few are able to explain it this well and this systematically.
The style of the book will strike many who prefer more traditional prose as juvenile and narcissistic. But the brilliance of the book tends to overcome these annoyances.
OK, you'll get the basic point of this book about 1/3 of the way through: The impact of the highly improbable is like to be much greater than the cumulative impact of the probable and predictable.
But Taleb makes this so much fun to read/listen to that you'll find yourself drawn into example after example of the silly presumptions that lead us to live as though we can predict the world around us.
The author is a little full of himself, but that's part of what makes it fun.
You don't have to be a math/statistics techie to get the concepts in this book. It will reduce your dependence on precise prediction and give you a chance to live free of the tyranny of precision.
Max Fisher of Rushmore Academy
I spent most of my time with this book cursing the author for his ego and inability to get to the point.
Yet, I stuck with it until the end.
That's because the story Taleb tells is fascinating, relevant, and probably worth the mediocre job he does telling it.
And he really does do a mediocre job.
I recommend this book, but also recommend looking for an abridged version first.
I have mixed feelings about the book. It is very repetitive, and approaches its thesis from many angles. Yet, it is a very interesting subject matter.
The reading of the book is good, although someone who is not familiar with the mathematics may have trouble following the tables read aloud in the final chapters.
mostly nonfiction listener
I think that Taleb is probably an S.O.B. and a nut....but his argument that the world (and our lives) is in reality ruled by unpredictable large-scale events (black swans) is intriguing and forcefully argued. Taleb's background is in quantitative trading...and while arrogant beyond belief his arguments seem hard to dismiss.
A good book but the author could have shared the message in about half the time. Gets a little wordy and I found myself saying "I get it, move on" during the second half of the book.
I focus on fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, science, history, politics and read a lot. I try to review everything I read.
The author has one good point then rants rather incessantly about a wide variety of people and subjects.
So you will not have to read this turkey, here is the meat;
If you suspect the variance of something might be inconsistent, you can’t rely on history plus a Bell-type curve to predict outcomes or risks. That is it. Fourteen hours. It is said many times, many ways, but that is it. Now, this is a very good point. The bell-curve is massively abused, particularly in government and finance. So now, when you see a prospectus or government report prognosticating about risks or costs, ask yourself, is the variance of oil prices, or gold prices, or medical costs, or whatever it is about, really likely to be consistent? If not, disregard the prophecies. Good to remember! Nevertheless there are plenty of places, other than casinos, where using the Bell curve is safe and effective. The author does not say the normal curve should never be used, but one could get that misimpression from the author’s unremitting attacks.
Unfortunately The Black Swan is also laced with assaults on multitudes. The attitude of the author is so pompous and pretentious and tinged with insecurity and even self-loathing that it is literally uncomfortable to listen to. I could go on and on, barely a page went by without something causing me to cringe, shake my head, or groan. I agree with the author’s main point and the narration was good, considering the problematic writing. There were just too many things wrong with this book to allow me to recommend it to anyone.
In some ways Taleb's style is that of an angry overconfident doctoral student: arrogant, full of cutesy headings and overly broad contemputuous attacks on perceived fools, but often thin on defense of his thesis. It can be hard to see beyond the stylistic limitations to his argument's merits.
Scholars familiar with the concept of epistemic uncertainty (the possible discrepancy between nature and our concept of it) may perceive that the black swan broadly overlaps the idea. Taleb's contribution, and what I like about the phrase "black swan" as opposed to epistemic uncertainty, may be his argument that in many domains of life the black swan swamps the mathematically familiar uncertainties which we sometimes call aleatoric.
One chapter may make the frequently painful slog worthwhile: in the middle of the book Taleb introduces the ludic fallacy, by which he means the false idea that uncertainties in life are like uncertainties in casino games. In a casino, the rules are well established and the uncertainties readily quantified. Taleb convincingly argues that in many aspects of real life (even as he engagingly shows in the real financial life of a casino) the uncertainties that drive history are not the ones of which we are aware and plan for.
It is for the phrase "black swan" and the idea of the ludic fallacy that I am glad to have read the book. Had Taleb had a better editor, or perhaps that he had listened to the editor he did have, I would have given the book another star.
I decided to write a review after listening to the book twice and enjoying it greatly both times. I didn’t think readers were getting a fair representation of this book’s contents by just reading the previous reviews.
Perhaps this book doesn’t strike a cord with everybody. The concepts are presented intertwined with personal stories and often come across as strongly stated opinions. One will certainly appreciate the book much more if one has had his or her own fair share of struggles with the concepts of knowledge, our perception of truth, our biases in framing the truth, and ultimately the false sense of confidence that we often have as to why things are the way they are.
Unless you thought about, for example, why financial markets are ridden with extremes, or why beginners seem to be lucky, why intelligence does not seem to matter much, why some risk taking pays off, and you didn’t like the typical answers given to these questions, you probably won’t enjoy the book a whole lot.
No book can truthfully tell you how to make money. This one is no exception. The greatest benefit of this book, if it stays with you, is to make you conscious of how little you know about the reality, and how little statistics can be trusted. Hopefully, this in turn, will make you a better decision maker especially when stakes are high.
Taleb’s genius is to provide a single framework for understanding of many of our observations in mostly unrelated disciplines. He (or his narrator) may sound angry or condescending at times. Perhaps he shouldn’t, but most people would, if they subscribed to his school of thoughts and examined events around them as skeptical empiricists.
l'enfer c'est les autres
The author says he's a mathematician philosopher trader and if you tend towards that mode of thinking as I do this book will forever change your world view.
The book was written a year before the financial crisis of 2008 and really predicts that kind of event completely. His bottom line is that most of what we model (all financial products, for example) does not follow a normal distribution and extreme events which lie outside of the model will happen much more frequently than the mathematics would predict.
He tells you up front that he's going to pick and choose philosophers, economist and mathematicians who agree with his thesis. He's up front about the fact that the only modern philosopher worth knowing is Karl Popper and he explains why.
I don't understand why other reviewers don't love this book as much as do. Perhaps, because they read it before 2008 and didn't get the benefit of hindsight like I have.
"A magazine article posing as a book"
I had high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, it was way too long for the very simple message that the author tries to convey. The book is split into four sections - by the end of the first section it was a 5-star triumph, after the second section it had dropped to a passable but somewhat repetetive 4-star text, but by the end of the book it had collapsed to a teetering-on-3-star irritation. As a driving listener, by the time the books last paragraphs are being squeezed out, I was fighting the compulsion to drive into a hedge, just so the noise would stop.
The reader also conveyed the impression that the author was intensely arrogant and self-satisfied, which put me off somewhat.
"Best left unread in Umberto Eco's library"
The author recommends leaving many books unread in the library. This should probably be one of them. The style is arrogant, condescending with frequent personal attacks on those he disagrees with. His idea that extreme unpredictable events occur, are often of enormous significance, need to be considered and are routinely ignored is a point worth making and elaborating. The first part of the book explains this idea at a length that sometimes becomes tedious. He then goes on a tirade against use of statistics. But instead of explaining how stats are used badly he launches an attack on the tools themselves, particularly the Normal distribution, not its use but the tool itself as if it were evil incarnate. I thought that maybe he did understand something about the mathematics he was ranting against although he so often seemed to get it wrong but gradually changed my mind as his interpretations became more misleading. What underlies his apparent hatred for Carl Frederick Gauss is not clear but I gave up with any sympathy for his approach when he started attacking the Uncertainty Principle as not relevant because (he says) it is Gaussian. He litters the book with the names of famous people, many of them mathematicians, he appears to adore Benoit Mandelbrot and Henri Poincare but oddly enough not Rene Thom. I found the book quite objectionable not because I disagreed with it or because of its style but because it has so much disinformation; this is presumably intentional as the author tells us early on that information is nearly always bad for us. If there is an abridged version of the book, cut down to less than fifty pages it might be worth reading, otherwise give it a miss.
"highly entertaining moderately informative"
Nietzschean high tone sneer alternating nicely with carefully constructed argument. Sound if somewhat over worked presentation of the problem of induction. Fascinating extension from this to normative conclusions that are appealingly straightforward. Good to see some old favourites getting coverage but I dont think Mandelbrot, Popper and Poincarre are as hard done by as he seems to suggest. I'll be thinking about some his ideas for quite a while.
"Engaging story format making subject come alive"
Robust and expertly written. Naseem's position as philosopher and practitioner provides a practical viewpoint for dealing with a difficult but necessary subject.
"A challenging read, but insightful"
This book has been interesting but at times a strike, couldn't have read it all
"Only just started it but I'm not impressed so far."
I hate the narration. The sounds really arrogant. It makes Taleb sound like soomeone who is really really pleased with himself. Is he?
At the start of the first chapter he gives an example of a black swan event... and then tells us it's fictional. What!? Did I hear that right? I might have to go back and check it, maybe I wasn't paying enough attention.
Not sure yet, probably not at the moment, I'll see if it grows on me.
"I'm so clever"
This is an interesting read if you can get past his bragging. You've probably heard of it and it does a pretty good job of demonstrating (a) the fierce power of the unexpected to trip up the unwary and (b) how much cleverer the author is than anyone else. Not necessarily in that order.
I re-listen to this book once every month or so. The author prides himself on his original thinking. This pride comes over as smugness, but that aside this is a very interesting take on the world we live in.
Thoroughly enjoy this and highly recommend it.
"Basics of life - should have been taught at school"
As someone who is told I have a high IQ, I ask myself why I'm not out performing my peers by a huge margin - and I've come to realise that an IQ is nothing more than potential... One must be given the tools and be educated; this book does that! Certainly one I'll be listening to again
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