Book Review: The Black Swan

The Black Swan


Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My Rating

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a rebellious, uncompromisingly-skeptical philosopher who mercilessly tears chunks out of distinguished Nobel prize winners, incompetent Wall Street bankers and even the mathematically-enshrined bell curve in his 2007 bestseller the Black Swan.

This is a book in which Taleb relentlessly pushes his view that as a society we are insular and platonic - we look for regularity and precise delineation in a world that is driven hugely by randomness, and one in which boundaries, far from clean-cut and precise, are unquantifiably nebulous.

Black Swans, he explains, are events that people naively assume will not happen. Even when they do happen, he argues, we retroactively make them appear plausible rather than accept that randomness is a heavy influence.

I Agree With Many of Taleb’s Arguments

Taleb observes that communities and societies prefer confident naivety to measured imprecision - that we favour leaders who make strong claims regardless of how much knowledge they have, over leaders who are less confident but take many factors into consideration and are transparent in their honest decision-making.

I can only agree with Taleb based on my observations of the tech community in which we esteem “insightful” thought leaders who assert “You must do X”, “you should never do Y” or “Z is dead” in their attention-grabbing blog posts and conference talks.

Taleb relays the highly-compelling experience he has of visiting a friend’s enormous personal library. Taleb’s friend remarks with words to the effect that his library is so huge not because he likes to read….. but because he likes to be constantly reminded how much he doesn’t not know. I wish we lauded admirable people like that in the software development community.

Another evocative story of society favouring patterns and predictability whilst indulging in Black Swan ignorance is the turkey analogy. The example goes like this: for 999 days a turkey is greeted by its human owner to be fed a rich and nutritious diet.  On day 1000 the turkey expects the pattern to continue as-per the previous 999 days.  Yet instead the turkey is slaughtered and destined for the oven.

The turkey’s slaughter is a Black Swan - an unexpected event that the turkey did not see coming. And this, Taleb proclaims, is the analogy with the way society thinks - we expect patterns to continue because they have continually repeated for so long.

Questionable Opinions That Encourages Broad Thinking

I’m not qualified or experienced to confirm or deny many of Taleb’s assertions. In particular his deep dissection of the dysfunctional economics and finance communities is something I know almost nothing about. I’m also unable to gauge how valid Taleb’s deconstruction of the accuracy of the bell curve / normal distribution is.

So I can’t tell you that Taleb is right or wrong or whether you should read this book for the amazing insights. However, I am happy to admit that Taleb at-least makes me deeply contemplate things we take for granted and beliefs that I hold. I can definitely recommend the book for that.

I’m not saying Taleb is wrong, just I don’t know. He could be talking a load of rubbish to make a quick buck out of gullible fools. After all, with his opinionated-ranting, that’s what people want to hear.

His Relentless Ranting Gets Tiresome

Mid-way through the book I grew tired of Taleb’s incessant ranting. Unsparingly the second half of the book only increased in rage-intensity. I think I will need a long break and a few holidays before I read another Nassim Nicholas Taleb book, but I almost-certainly will because the deep contemplation and skeptical viewpoint have been a positive mental workout.

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