Taleb hammers home two or maybe three key ideas, padding them with an eclectic blend of autobiographical references and philosophical/literary yarns. When I put it down, I felt a little bit like I had just shared a brandy with a really smart guy who wanted to spend the evening talking about himself. Fortunately, it works because you get an unfettered (and not heavily filtered or re-edited) peek into a brilliant and well-read intellect. The best thing about Taleb, however in my opinion, is that he possesses that rare quality: he is an independent thinker. In fact, I view the book as having two underlying themes. One, it is a sort of a corny love letter to the massively underutilized science of statistics. I mean, the statistics discussed in the book are surprisingly basic but he reminds us that our everyday common sense doesn't really make sense. Two, it is an inspiring update of an ancient, heroic idea: that there is value to a thoughtful-even stoic-detachment in a world filled with noise and distraction.
The big ideas are simple. The usefulness of the book is that he shows you how we generally do not behave as if the simple ideas are true. The biggest idea is survivorship bias. It explains why my book reviews tend to be positive. I generally do not post a review unless I've read the entire book, and I tend to quit books that I don't like. So, my reviews are based on a sample that is infected by survivorship bias. I won't go into the other ideas (i.e., the problem of induction and "our genetic unfitness in the world") except to say that (i) the induction issue is arguably an extension of survivorship bias, so you may feel déjà vu here and (ii) the last section on the "human aspect of uncertainty" is the weakest section. This section really needs an editor to impose an organizing principle, and except for the touching, instructive conclusion, I thought is was one digression after another.
Don't expect any math or real depth in the statistics (an endorsing professor on the back cover says the book is "mathematically sound and...renders mathematics exciting for non-specialists." Deceptive endorsements are grating. There isn't any math in this book, to speak of!). However, the idea of survivorship is important enough to warrant a sincere recommendation of this book. How many books give you even a single idea that you can use forever? And, again, Taleb is very entertaining. I almost fell off my chair laughing when he recalls one the weekly meetings at an investment house, with economic strategists making all sorts of announcements and the rhetoric flying. He is so put off that he resorts to speaking a lot in hopes that he won't be invited back. Someone asks if he is bullish or bearish on the market, and he responds that he doesn't understand these words "outside of the their purely zoological consideration."