The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan book cover
Looks like a snake if you squint, dunnit?

You may or may not have noticed the “Currently reading” byline beneath the title of this blog, which because of the nature of its positioning, appears on every page. I started reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan at around the same time that interest in the film of (nearly) the same name starring Natalie Portman was peaking in its post-Oscars glow, which amusingly led to a large number of search hits.

It’s this kind of serendipity that Taleb (or NNT as he often refers to himself) champions in this book. The unpredictable occurances which in hindsight seem obvious; so obvious that our minds feel compelled to join the dots retrospectively and think that we could’ve somehow worked it forward if we’d only thought to look.

The author’s writing is very self conscious, often setting out structure, positioning the reader, etc. It gives the impression of a writer who is struggling to contain his idea, but is trying his best to ensure that the reader doesn’t get lost. He succeeds in that much, and I found the text more accessible than if it were a purely intellectual work. At first his laconic, laid-back style seemed pedestrian to the point of being boorish, but his idea was so compelling to me – crystalising many of thoughts that I myself had thought, that I was fully engaged for a good part of the book.

Then the topic of applying the Black Swan idea to reality. Buried right in the middle of the book – like the miserly contents of a cheaply made BBQ pork bun – is a few precious nuggets of practical advice that one might find useful, in the same sense as the 10 commandments against the rest of the Holy Bible. Even then it’s very begrudgingly given, but reasonably so because of the author’s unreserved antagonism towards false frameworks and formulae.

In fact, Taleb gets downright rude. The latter part of the book is almost solely dedicated to the intellectual destruction of his opponents: economists and academics participating in “the Great Intellectual Fraud” of Gaussian bell curve modelling. It’s by far the bitchiest content I’ve ever read in this genre. NNT basically lays the smack down on why virtually every model is wrong, how there’s not much you can do about it, and then proceeds to name names, especially those who have crossed the author in some way. Even the Nobel Prize (specifically the one for Economics) cops a hammering.

The Black Swan is one of those books that offers intellectual emancipation. But like a domesticated animal released into the wild, I found myself not knowing what to do with the newfound freedom, and as a result reverting back to my old ways. It has caused me to think differently about things, and look much more skeptically at certain “facts” presented by the media (although in that regard I needed no help. The media are already under full assualt by blogs like Grog’s Gamut and books such as Lindsay Tanner’s recently released Sideshow).

At least now I know better than to trust Economists.

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