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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Paperback – 2008


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Product Details

  • Paperback
  • Publisher: Penguin (2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141034599
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141034591
  • Product Dimensions: 19.6 x 12.7 x 3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 299 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #672,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jeff Nijsse on Aug. 25 2011
Format: Hardcover
After reading the Black Swan I'm not really sure what just happened. At first I wasn't sure I was going to get through the whole thing. The prose is very different for a non-fiction-science-and-probability book. At least not what I was expecting. The book has small parts of memoir woven throughout, some of which seem to fit, others seem like filler, and others yet are probably over my head and just add to the confusion.

In the 3rd chapter Taleb tells a story about an obscure, unpublished novelist Yevgenia Krasnova and how the success of her novel was a highly improbable event'a Black Swan. Not having heard of this unique success story I put down my book and went to Amazon for more info. After a few minutes of unsuccessful searching in circles I kept reading only to find a footnote at the beginning of Chapter 3 telling me that Yevgenia is fictional!

This didn't sit well with me, especially because my internet search behaviour was predicted and footnoted on the very next page. I began to wonder what other sorts of liberties Taleb was going to take but I kept going because I didn't want to be the type of 'Sucker' Taleb talks about. (Yevgenia's character comes up again and I'm curious how purely fictional or perhaps partially autobiographical her character is.)

Taleb is clearly a very well read and studied man and is not shy about letting you know it. But through this self confidence (possibly arrogance) comes a very lively and passionate dissection of economics as a science and those in it's business, specifically market and economic theorists, traders, investment bankers, portfolio managers, etc.

It's great to read Taleb call out the Economics Nobel Prize committee. One section titled "More Horror" starts:

"Things got a lot worse in 1997.
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40 of 47 people found the following review helpful By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on Aug. 13 2007
Format: Hardcover
Do you agree that being hit with a tsunami has a totally different effect from a normal high tide? If so, you'll be glad that Professor Taleb has decided to point out that all tsunamis (low probability, high impact events) need special attention, even if they occur infrequently. His advice: Minimize exposure to large potentially harmful events while taking maximum exposure to large potentially helpful events.

I was particularly thrilled to see that Professor Taleb points out the foolishness of economists in preparing theories without checking the data to see if the theories work in practice . . . the greater foolishness of the Nobel committee granting prizes for such work . . . and the greatest foolishness of relying on the advice of such economists.

Why all the fuss? Many phenomena display high predictability and the differences from the average usually don't make all that much difference to you and me (that quality is captured by a statistical display called a bell curve where most cases cluster near the average and vary symmetrically from the average). But in some cases, there are rare events that change the reality so strongly (like a tsunami can do on the negative side or a selection as an Oprah book of the month can do on the positive side) that it would be the height of foolishness to ignore the possibilities.

When it comes to assets, wealth, book sales, athlete pay, and lots of other places where there is lots of competition, there are geometric rewards for a few while the mass do poorly. These are long-tail events (the way statisticians talk about lots of variation from the norm). But almost all human decision making assumes that there is little variation from the norm.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mr. Taleb is disagreeably enamoured with his own intellect and rather disdainful of that of the rest of us. He presents as the living embodiment of the "Master of the Universe" persona depicted by Tom Wolfe in "Bonfire of the Vanities." Apparently such massive egos really do exist.

I suppose Mr. Taleb deserves kudos for tackling a topic, probability and statistics, which is most easily described in mathematical terms without once resorting to mathematical formulae and for minimizing the use of figures and graphs but any benefit is quickly nullified by Mr. Taleb's opaque writing style and his tendency to wander off into unrelated side issues. That wandering feels suspiciously like padding.

Happily, arrogance and abstruse writing does not mean Mr. Taleb is incorrect or does not have something important to say. He does. His main point, that the Gaussian (or Bell) Curve is overused which leads to damaging errors, is well taken and we can all profit from the knowledge. Plus there are a few other nuggets such as his discussion of common shortcomings in critical thinking. I might have nudged my rating up to four stars if Mr. Taleb had managed to include a few concrete examples of applying his black swan model to real, everyday situations but, alas, with one or two exceptions, they are conspicuously absent; surprising, perhaps, from an author claiming to be a "bottom-up" sceptical empiricist.

I wish I could recommend an alternate author or book that covered Mr. Taleb's topic more agreeably but I can't. Proceed with caution.
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