Monday, November 28, 2011

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

…is an interesting read, that requires, among others, patience  to deal with what appear to be superfluous repetitions at times, after key concepts have been advanced.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (NNB, as the author likes to refer to himself in some instances)  has prefaced each of the chapters in the book with intriguing summaries that mimic techniques employed by French writers.

The preamble of Chapter One, "The Apprenticeship of an empirical skeptic" reads:

 "Anatomy of a Black Swan - The triplet of capacity - Reading books backwards - The rear view mirror - Everything becomes explainable - Always talk to the driver (with caution) - History doesn't crawl, it jumps - "it was so unexpected" - Sleeping for twelve hours."

The Prologue of the book introduces us to the Black Swan - an event with three main attributes:
  • "it is an outlier"  (an event "outside of the realm of regular expectations")
  • "it carries an extreme impact"
  • " in spite of its outlier status human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact."
To the writer of these notes, the book's intent is, apart from dwelling in the realm of black swans, to invite the reader into a journey in which preconceived ideas and mannerisms are tossed aside in favor of doubt, humility and creative thinking. 

It's an area where the author both succeeds and - at times - fails. The few low points appear to stem from an overdose of irony which feels out of place with the out-of-the-box thinking suggested by the author:

"Traditionally, bankers of the lending variety have been pear-shaped, clean-shaven, and dress in possibly the most comforting and boring manner."

The wealth of information to be found in the book fortunately masks some of the faux-pas that may grate at our sensitivities.

Here are some of my take-aways from this book. 
I enjoyed these lines on my first go-around of the chapters and felt compelled to go back to them later:

"There are two varieties of rare events: a) the narrated Black Swans, those that are present in the current discourse, and b) those that nobody talks about since they escape models. "

"Some blindness to the odds… is necessary for entrepreneurs to function."

"To be able to focus is a great virtue if you are a watch repairman, a brain surgeon or a chess player. But the last thing you need to do when you deal with uncertainty is to "focus"…"
"Prediction, not narration is the real test of our understanding of the world."

"Just as we tend to generalize some matters but not others, so there seem to be "basins of attraction" directing us to certain beliefs. Some ideas will prove contagious, but not others..."

And - at the end of this post -  the question of whether the book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable may become such a "basin of attraction", should perhaps be posed.

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