Book Review: The Black Swan

Posted by at 4:05PM

41TF4H15VEL._AA240_.jpgFirst, the title: it refers to the long-held Western belief that “All swans are white.” This was a belief given up in a second once Australia was discovered and a black swan sighted. What the experts had counted upon was untrue and it unsettled ornithology. That anecdote is the whole point of the book: you cannot predict anything with any great degree of accuracy.


Condi Rice’s statement “No one saw it coming” in reference to 9/11 is perhaps the classic remark in illustrating this attitude. And now that 9/11 has happened, it assumes a disproportionate importance in our minds: most of our security measures are devoted to preventing 9/11, while it seems more reasonable to assume that the next terrorist attack will be of a completely different, unforeseen type.
Taleb thinks that most of our world falls into matters of “Extremistan” while we assume it falls into “Mediocristan.” In Extremistan, an extreme occurrence can alter the entire playing field; in Mediocristan, no one occurrence is enough to disrupt everything. Our assumption of Mediocristan is one of the world’s predictability, but few of our wars, our technologies, our tragedies and triumphs were foreseen ahead of time as Taleb amply demonstrates.
What is to be done, according to Taleb, is to assume the world is unpredictable and put yourself out there to take advantage of the randomness that controls the world: go to lots of events, act on the spur of the moment and see what happens.
Taleb’s arguments are essentially a practical, formalized version of David Hume’s arguments against knowledge. Hume used the examples of billiard balls and the sun (why should we count on a billiard ball going into a hole or the sun rising tomorrow just because it’s happened before?). Hume’s arguments are true, but they seem profoundly unhelpful, like a “Yeah, so what? Great, there’s uncertainty in everything. I’ll get over it.” But through a barrage of real-life examples, Taleb ends up convincing us fairly well of his point. My favorite example of his is the turkey story: suppose you’re a turkey who’s been living for a thousand days. Through those thousand days, you might be convinced that you’ll always be fed by humans; humans are great, generous, magnanimous beings. Unfortunately for the turkey, Thanksgiving is coming up; you’re killed on the thousand and first day. Oops.
As far as that goes, Taleb’s advice and arguments are pretty good. But Taleb’s argument is partially polemical and overstates the strength of his argument. He totally denies the usefulness of planning, saying that almost all plans end up failed anyway. But this seems a somewhat strange conclusion to make. We don’t do things just for the hell of it; rather, we must have some idea of what we want, even if we’re following Taleb’s advice. Essentially, what a plan is, is a formalized discussion of what we think we’ll gain and what we think we’ll lose. We shouldn’t owe fealty to the plan, but we should make one; otherwise we’d just be engaging activities because it might help us out, and that makes little sense.
Prose-wise, Taleb carries on as a highly competent polemical writer. He has some very funny anecdotes and examples and is highly readable (a huge plus given the technicality of some of the math examples). On the other hand, his writing can become a bit stale: you’ll tire of the thousandth mention of neckties.
Overall, I highly recommend The Black Swan

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2 Responses to “Book Review: The Black Swan”

  1. Jason says:

    It’s funny because a lot of business books are written so the authors can go on a lucrative book tour and talk about the ideas within their book, but the Black Swan seems like a hard sell. “Pay to hear my plan for your company – Don’t Plan”. What?

  2. Lesile charles says:

    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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