March 28th, 2020

Book 21 - 2018

Book 21: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb - 435 pages

Description from
The Black Swan is a standalone book in Nassim Nicholas Taleb's landmark Incerto series, an investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision-making in a world we don't understand. The other books in the series are Fooled by Randomness, Antifragile, Skin in the Game, and The Bed of Procrustes. A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives. Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities. We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don't know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the "impossible." For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. In this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know about what we don't know, and this second edition features a new philosophical and empirical essay, "On Robustness and Fragility," which offers tools to navigate and exploit a Black Swan world. Elegant, startling, and universal in its applications, The Black Swan will change the way you look at the world. Taleb is a vastly entertaining writer, with wit, irreverence, and unusual stories to tell. He has a polymathic command of subjects ranging from cognitive science to business to probability theory. The Black Swan is a landmark book--itself a black swan.

This is a really, really important book, but man is it a slog to read! Taleb's idea throws a lot of ideas about forecasting and prediction completely out the window, but his idea makes sense! It's a book that everyone in Finance should read and have to be tested on (though they'd probably changes careers after reading it - and I say that as someone who works in Finance). The main problem, and the reason why I've given this book 4 rather than 5 stars, is that its a hard read. Partly a result of Taleb's writing style, which feels like you are on one of his walks, listening to him talk, as he meanders from scientific fact to story to his point and back again. Taleb acknowledges that his writing style is more storyteller than academic in the acknowledgements and while normally I'd love this, at times it resulted in some of the world's longest sentences, or very odd sentence construction that made it hard to read. Secondly, the content, particularly the mathematical content, went a little over my head at times. This made the story side of the book important, but nonetheless, I still had to put the book down after two or three pages very often simply to absorb what it was telling me. So it took me ages to read it! Putting that aside, Taleb's ideas about the impact of highly improbable events and how we are just so bad at considering these explains much of human history (the end of the Cold War anyone!), and it makes you look back at all you know and reconsider it in light of that. It was also rather gratifying to read about as someone who is often shut down for taking the long term view on things because 'that doesn't matter right now, or is highly unlikely'. The bell curve also gets a beating in this book (yay!) and I know its flaws are a key takeaway for me. Overall, a really important book that could do with a little less bloat in its text to ensure that the message hits the maximum number of readers.

21 / 50 books. 42% done!

6498 / 15000 pages. 43% done!

Currently reading:
- Journey to the West
by Cheng-En Wu - 673 pages
- Sizzling Sixteen
by Janet Evanovich - 307 pages
- A Closed and Common Orbit
by Becky Chambers - 364 pages

And coming up:
- The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Volume 3: White Gold Wielder
by Stephen Donaldson – 500 pages
- The Odyssey
by Homer – 324 pages
- The Help
by Kathryn Stockett - 451 pages
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