The Black Swan


The first time through, I listened to this book with my husband, usually while I was cooking. Although I tried to stop and mark important passages, I ended up thinking the book was not very systematic. The second time through, chapter by chapter, the method in his madness is more apparent. I continued to think Taleb is more a popularizer than an innovator. But even if so, that's not so shabby. He's trying to revolutionize the way we think, and the more we rehearse that, the better.

Nassim

The first time through, I listened to this book with my husband, usually while I was cooking. Although I tried to stop and mark important passages, I ended up thinking the book was not very systematic. The second time through, chapter by chapter, the method in his madness is more apparent. I continued to think Taleb is more a popularizer than an innovator. But even if so, that's not so shabby. He's trying to revolutionize the way we think, and the more we rehearse that, the better.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is working the same territory as Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While they both have us investigating our thinking, for Kahneman, it's to make us own up, while Taleb has more direct emphasis on avoiding disaster.

He would like for us to realize our overuse of normal-curve thinking, which makes us minimize risk and have no expectations out of the ordinary: like the turkey whose experience all goes to show how human beings love him and care about him and prove it by feeding him--until Thanksgiving day arrives and he's dinner.The normal curve tells us that the further out from the mean we go, the rarity of unusual events rapidly increases. Fine--when it applies. We are not going to meet any 20-foot tall people or anyone living to 150 years old. But the normal curve often doesn't apply. We can't predict which books will be best sellers or how how the sales count will go on one of them. We can't predict when a war will occur or just how one will transpire. The world is not fair. Unfairness and inequality are no epiphenomena but part and parcel of reality. Even in evolution, the fittest survive, thrive, and have more offspring. Take writing: before literacy, every town crier and performer had his day. With written methods, all the little guys are out of work. Then, one book may become a bestseller. It leaves even the other books in the dust. And when the author of the bestseller writes another book, it'll get more attention than those who didn't write a bestseller.

When we think normal curves apply but they don't, we are confusing what the world is like with how we would like it to be. We are shoving reality into the Procrustean bed of our idealized thinking. That distorts our vision of reality. By keeping an open mind, at least, we won't be walking blindly into risk. We can't prevent the unexpected, but we can at least turn the black swans into grey swans.

We are like the 13th fairy at the Sleeping Beauty's christening. We can't do away with the angry fairy's curse, but we can mitigate it. Grey swan, not black.The difficulty with many kinds of prognosticators in our world is that they are spinning theories that purport to predict, but their theories are stories, and their stories connect the plot points and only sound as though they are predictive. We are lulled or, even worse, misled. We listen according to our preferred belief system. We listen to what we want to hear: confirmatory listening. We actively cherry pick reality to make it fit what we want to believe. The solution? Try the opposite, finding something that doesn't fit. A plethora of confirmatory evidence is exactly what the turkey had before Thanksgiving. Taleb lauds two unexpected types of practitioners: military people and financial managers. They will know if their predictions are wrong or right. If they are wrong, they'll have to face the music. Their predictions matter. Not so the world of talking heads and stuffed shirts: they just adjust their stories and keep on going.What those stories are, are predictions of the past.If you see an ice cube sitting on a table you can predict the future: it will melt into a little puddle of water. But if you see a puddle on the table, and that's all you see, there could be a thousand stories of what it is and how it came to be there. The correct explanation may be 1001--or one which will never be found.It could be that angry old fairy, melted.As I said, most of the stories are not explanations. But theories are sticky. Once you have one you have a hard time seeing beyond it (remembering that sometimes no theory is best, if the theory is wrong). So, he recommends an empirical approach with art and craft, a less grand theory, and always an eye toward outcomes.Right at the end it occurred to me that this is religion. He tells you how to sustain yourself in the absence of worldly support, how to stand up to others and say your piece, how to wait and be patient, and about the merits of surrounding yourself with like-minded souls.

To close, a rousing rendition of Kipling's If

He can't teach like Kahneman, but he gets it said.
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