Book Reports · Probability and Statistics

“The Black Swan” is a Black Swan

This post consists of just a few notes on Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan.” I really thought I was going to enjoy the heck out of this book and was looking forward to reading it. In my session, I was very excited by what the prologue seemed to be setting up. In my second session though the writing started to come off as very pompous, and then I ran into chapter two, where Taleb gives a “Black Swan” example related to an author named Yevgenia Krasnova, who Taleb claims went from being an unpublished hobbyist to creating a whole new literary style despite repeated rejection from the existing community. It is a great story, but I was surprised I hadn’t heard of the author or style before, having dipped into modern literary theory a bit, so I looked it up and found, like many reviewers of the book, that the entire chapter is made up. Taleb includes a footnote at the start of the next chapter admitting this, but does not provide any explanation to why he did so or what service a fictional example serves in the book. While some may find that somehow palatable, I was immediately turned off and will not finish the book. That said, some excerpts that caught my eye before that point:

p. xxv: “The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. So I disagree with the followers of Marx and those of Adam Smith: the reason free markets work is because they allow people to be lucky, thanks to aggressive trial and error, not by giving rewards or “incentives” for skill. The strategy is, then , to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.”

p. 8: “The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:

  1. the illusion of understanding, or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated (or random) than they realize;
  2. the retrospective distortion, or how we can assess matters only after the fact, as if they were in a rearview mirror (history seems clearer and more organized in history books than in empirical reality); and
  3. the overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritative and learned people, particularly when they create categories – when they ‘Platonify.'”

p. 10: “…events were unexplainable, but intelligent people thought they were capable of providing convincing explanations for them – after the fact. Furthermore, the more intelligent the person, the better sounding the explanation. What’s more worrisome is that all these beliefs and accounts appeared to be logically coherent and devoid of inconsistencies.”

What did you think of the book? Should I have excused the “Krasnova” gaffe and kept reading?


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