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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Taleb's book is certainly one of the most interesting books I've read in a while. In it he argues a very simple point- many things in life happen on exponential scales, and because huge events on those probability distributions are also very rare, we're ill-equipped to understand or deal with them. That's really the central point of this book and he does a very good job presenting a very forceful argument for its adoption. Taleb focuses frequently on economics and business as areas that lack such knowledge. Rightly so. For years, I could not believe that an academic discipline could even exist when it was founded on the argument that human behavior was rational. It took a psychologist to teach them it wasn't (versus them reading a psychology article or two). Clearly, we have ample evidence from all financial walks of life that markets are all but unpredictable. Financial "experts" are generally just lucky. Throw 100,000 people into business and sheer dumb luck will ensure that some will achieve regular success. Taleb says that's all well and good, but not if we start to believe that it's skill and prediction that makes the difference. Because we get fooled into thinking we can predict the future, and then 2007/8 comes along and smacks the financial world into near-oblivion.

Taleb discusses when and where Black Swans (unknown, unlikely, but powerful events) are likely to occur and what we should do about them. If they are expected to be positive (e.g., scientific discoveries) then we should do things to maximize our exposure to them (i.e., have diverse and open research groups). If they are negative, we should do things to guard ourselves against them (e.g., purchase insurance, temper average predictions, etc.). There could be more depth here, and the additional chapters of this 2nd edition to add some of that. But if you're looking for a book with specific predictions about how to live your life or conduct your finances, this isn't it.

My biggest problem with this book is the relentless polemics and strong doses of arrogance. It's ironic in many cases. Taleb repeatedly bashes financial fields (especially economics) and then turns around and says one of his biggest sources of consolation against attacking academics is that he's made far more money than them. So which is it- knowledge is key or money is key? He also bashes the social sciences at every turn. I agree that many social "sciences" are in fact social arts (most economics being a great example). They are poor at predicting and fail to use the scientific methods. But many social sciences (e.g., psychology) as well as biology (he frequently mentions evolutionary psychology positively, but somehow misses this connection in his polemics) do indeed use rigorous scientific methods and their use of the bell curve is appropriate for their measures (e.g., personality). Black Swans are most common in large, complex structures such as weather, history, or economics. Also, any good scientist should know that we never know everything, that any theory can be toppled, and to expect the unexpected from research. Taleb also attacks tenured professors, but the system of tenure allows for the open research Taleb claims as necessary for detecting or even just thinking about Black Swans. His name-dropping, of both foes and friends, is annoying and detracts from his otherwise intellectual arguments.

Overall then, I think this is a fantastic book about how we think. It's very similar to Malcolm Gladwell's or Daniel Kahneman's works on why our minds are easily fooled, only the topic is larger and more elementary (the basic nature of probability and knowledge). It's not a simple book to read, but it is engaging as the ideas within are very powerful. Unfortunately, it is marred by a deeply aggressive, reactive, and polemic style of writing. Fortunately, in the additional 2nd edition chapters, he realizes that he can make much more headway by telling researchers and practitioners when their arguments/theories/models work (i.e., when the distribution is bell curved) versus when they need to realize they aren't in Kansas anymore (i.e., exponential-type distributions with Black Swans). That approach fits much better with the human psyche and is thus a more effective way of delivering one's message. And it's how I'll wrap up this review. Buy this book if you want to know what we don't know and why that really matters. Because surprisingly, what we don't know can sometimes be much more important than what we do know!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2011
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. The Swedish academy gave another round of Gaussian-based Nobel Prizes to Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton, who had improved on an old mathematical formula and made it compatible with the existing grand Gaussian general financial equilibrium theories'hence acceptable to the economics establishment."

It's not the easiest book to read through (the philosophical references come fast and furious) and Taleb's style is sometimes discontinuous, sometimes wordy, and sometimes longwinded, however, there are some great ideas in this book.

7 of 10 (which rounds down to 3 stars)

I'll definitely be reading Taleb's earlier book, Fooled by Randomness.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 15, 2010
This is a great book to read as it helps expand the context in which you view historical events and market movements. This book is not designed to show you the ins and outs of the market. I beleive this book is helpful in looking at your portfolio critically and to plan for events that may not fall within the parameters of your model. This is not a book that requires a PhD to read and find relevent, just a healthy interest in self development and education of ones flaws. An open mind is required when reading a book such as this that forces one to question the very fabric of what they deem to be reality.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 30, 2012
The book is very uneven. There are some very interesting sections, but unfortunately even more sections are highly repetitive, verbose, and unrelated to what the author is presumably trying to say. Instead of several hundred pages that largely repeat the same message over and over, the interesting (even though somewhat controversial) substance could be more usefully communicated in about one tenth of the current length.

I am also disturbed by (occasionally personal) attacks on people who don't share the author's opinions, name dropping (which the author criticizes in others), by inaccuracies (in my view even mistakes), and ridiculous statements, probably exaggerations intended to emphasize a point. I am uncomfortable with the fact that although the book promises wide applicability of the central ideas (and I agree with that) it much too often slips into illustrating and justifying the points on examples of financial markets and achieving personal wealth.

In summary, I enjoyed the interesting points that the author makes, but the style and orientation of the book don't agree with me.
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41 of 48 people found the following review helpful
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.

The book concentrates on helping you understand why such a potentially harmful bias exists (brain structure plays a large role). We also assume a continuance of what's in front of us, even when there's obvious evidence to the contrary.

I was pleased to see these descriptions. I constantly run into the same problem with executives who are subject to stalled thinking and don't see opportunities right under their noses to accomplish 20 times as much. I liked Professor Taleb's points about overcoming our ignorance of antiknowledge . . . our tendency to discount what we haven't experienced or measured. I frequently see executives estimate that the best anyone will ever do at a level that someone already exceeded in 1880. In fact, in many important areas such as herbal health remedies, our actual knowledge is receding very rapidly, turning into antiknowledge.

To help break you free of how you think now, he uses a metaphor (a black swan -- is that really a swan?) and new terms (Mediocristan -- where the bell curve is the right way to think about things and Extremistan -- where powerful in effect black swans lurk). I found this tendency to be both helpful and not. It made it clearer to me what he was talking about the first time, and then made things seem muddier after that.

I suspect that for most people, the metaphor itself will be the biggest problem. Do you really care about black swans, per se? I don't. I think Professor Taleb would have done better to use two metaphors (one positive -- perhaps like formation and attraction of wealth to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the foundation's effects on world health, and the other negative -- perhaps like a tsunami) than to focus on one that is mostly about definitions (black swan).

If you agree with Professor Taleb's main points, you will probably want to get lots of advice about how to do so. He's specific only in regard to two areas (wealth management and book publishing opportunities). That's a shame. Perhaps he will write a future book that will go more into solutions.

I was surprised to see that the book pretty much ignores the scenario work that many organizations use to identify the large impact, unlikely occurrence events and to devise strategies that work better under all possibilities. If that subject interests you, I suggest that you read books like The Art of the Long View and Inevitable Surprises by Peter Schwartz, Scenarios by Kees van der Heijdan, and The Irresistible Growth Enterprise by Carol Coles and me.

I was pleased to see that Professor Taleb also feels that many black swans can become "grey swans" by employing new prediction methods (although we cannot predict specifics, we can often predict up or down reasonably well in some situations). That has been my experience is seeing that Modern Portfolio Theory makes no sense in unsettled market conditions while more refined methods built stock-by-stock can be quite predictive over the short run in identifying over and under performers, even during unsettled market periods.

Check your models before you use them each day. Otherwise, you've just checked into work without your brains intact.

Keep your eyes and ears open whenever you are away from bell curves!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 50 REVIEWERon December 10, 2014
Taleb provides us with a very interesting book that is perhaps more interesting than useful. His main argument is pretty well known - infrequent, high impact events determine much of what happens in financial markets, the environment and other parts of life. Those events are fundamentally unpredictable by their very nature. Therefore, fools will use models to predict the future while the wise will minimize their exposure to bad "black swans" and maximise their exposure to good ones. Practical implementation of this principle is a little faulty here - where advice is given it is nearly unintelligible. Sometimes Taleb resorts to ad hominem attacks and is otherwise unnecessarily insulting. If he's such an advocate of humility, perhaps he should practice some.

For better insights, look at Jim Collins' Great by Choice where he profiles businesses in volatile industries that have protected themselves and benefited from Black Swans. 3M, I think, would be a prime example of a company that is primed to benefit from highly unpredictable innovations. Taleb, on the other hand, tends to get lost in the weeds. In the end, he is more hedgehog than fox, knowing one big thing rather than many little things.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Taleb`s main idea, is that we do not live in a linear world. Many people prefer to believe, that we do live in a linear world. In fact, it is a much more comforting way to go through life. The idea of not being able to fully comprehend a particular subject, is rejected by a lot of people. Most of the time, people search for a simple black and white answer. Taleb wishes to challenge readers into, "having the guts to admit, they just don`t know". Yes there are ideas out there, that are beyond our current understanding.

Talib labels these surprise revaluations;Black Swans. These are game changing ideas. Things that in the past, could never be considered possible.
Talib lists all sorts of examples of Black Swans. Most of the examples, will make for very good reading.

This was a very interesting book. Talib however, does have some very sharp opinions. Talib appears to suffer from some form of arrogance. It is quite possible, that the perspective reader may be offended.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on February 3, 2011
I am writing this review solely to warn anyone who reads the one star review of the fact that the reviewer patently did not read the book. Or if he did, he did not get past the prologue.
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on June 16, 2015
This book is the epitome of self-aggrandizement. The author dismisses entire professions, e.g., philosophy professors and most academics in general, arguing that no patterns in history or the sociopolitical process are discernible. The implication is that nothing is knowable. Here is a typical passage: "I felt in my spine the weight of the epistemic arrogance of the human race." In reality, it is the epistemic arrogance of the author that strikes me as the point of this book. Only he knows it all, which is a paradox because he claims that knowing it all is impossible. He looks down on puny humans who try to make sense of their lives.

Despite my criticism, the author does make some interesting points about unpredictable events and randomness. To be sure, randomness, chaos and freak accidents do affect history and our daily lives, but to say that this is all there is... The narcissistic tone of the book overshadows much of what the author tries to communicate.

Finally, he overuses cute (and often contrived) stories as examples instead of sticking to his points directly. I am disappointed. The Wisdom of Crowds is a far better pick on a related topic.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon February 17, 2013
Imagine you are a turkey being fed comfortably on one of those mass production turkey farms. You may well assume that the good food, good company, and pleasant surroundings will go on forever. If you are a quant-savvy turkey, you might even gobble together a mathematical model that predicts good times well into the future, beyond not just Thanksgiving, but past Christmas and New Years as well. Suddenly in November, unexpectedly, with life-changing consequences...things change. You just didn't see it coming. Pass the cranberry sauce.

Financial planners, economists and other more sophisticated turkeys don't see it coming either, argues author Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His book highlights the danger of the unexpected. The unexpected will happen even if we have a comfortable model predicting only minor changes. After such a "black swan" catches us by surprise, we use our flawed hindsight to decide how we could have predicted the disaster using a better model. We are kidding ourselves, insists Taleb. We need better strategies to live in a world where truly random, unpredictable events occur. He goes to some trouble in this book, and his previous Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, to educate us.

The flawed basis of many formal models is "the great intellectual fraud" of the bell curve. We learn that highly constrained variables like height and weight cluster around an average and that extreme variations from the average are unlikely. We just aren't going to meet anybody that's half a foot or half a mile tall. These "Mediocristan" models are fine until we misapply their assumptions to unconstrained "Extremistan" phenomena like stock values, book sales and such. We are slow to see this problem. We persistently commit the "Ludic Fallacy," clinging to our formal models because they seem more real to us than the messy, real-world events they are meant to explain. Taleb illustrates this point with examples ranging from the events of 9/11 to the "off model" problems that cost casinos money. S. I. Hyakawa warned us in the early `70s that "the map is not the territory," but we haven't learned.

Taleb also warns us of the narrative fallacy based on our love of stories. We feel we understand something when we can tell a story about why it happened--even after the fact, with only part of the relevant information. When musicians achieve fame and dramatic financial success, we backtrack through their histories, explaining success by what we see along the path. We don't see the hidden cemetery of failed garage bands and starving artists who did all the same things to no avail. Because we believe this artificial story, we don't have to face the role of randomness in success or failure. Or consider its impact on our own plans.

Taleb offers some suggestions--though fewer than I'd hoped for. He advises us to be open to positive black swans and guard against negative ones. Lending money at interest, for example, opens us only to a high impact negative. This worst case is that the borrower will go bankrupt and we won't get our money back. But the very best outcome is that the loan will be simply repaid. If the borrower's entrepreneurial effort is wildly, off-the-scale successful, the lender doesn't get any more than this. An investor, on the other hand, suffers the same risk of loss, but participates fully in an "Extemistan" success. Readers are left to ponder the implications--and perhaps to hire Taleb as an investment consultant.

Although Taleb does not venture there, some of his ideas are useful in applied psychology. Personnel tests, for example, rely on the principle of "behavioral consistency," assuming that our past actions best predict our future actions. If someone is a poor performer, the safe bet is that this person will perform poorly in future employment. This may be fit a general model, but employers--and psychologists who advise them--might consider whether we commit Taleb's fallacies. Are we so comfortable with are general predictive models, with our stories about how people "are," that we close ourselves to possible change? Wouldn't it be better to seek the occasional "gray swan" of improvement and hire the flawed job applicant? The author has convinced me that this is worth considering. My time reading this book was well spent.

One final note: The author's condescending tone has been mentioned by other reviewers. It's there all right. Yes, he is condescending. Yes, he sneers at his fellow financial analysts. Yes, his citations veer into name dropping. And, yes, he finds ways to not-so-subtly complement himself as he praises Benoit Mandelbrot. But none of this matters. Taleb's message is valuable. I recommend you ignore his tone--or perhaps even be entertained by it. Stay on task and learn something about the nature of randomness and prediction.
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