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The Black Swan

March 18th, 2009 · Posted by Skuds in Life · 1 Comment · Life

I have just finished reading The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which has left me reeling a little bit.

It is sort of about maths and economics but also about philosophy and science generally.  I think that somebody recommended it to me in a comment on this site, but I can’t remember who that was.  The recommendation was probably based on my enjoyment of books like Freakonomics, Blink and The Wisdom of Crowds.  While it is similar to books like those and The Long Tail, it is a whole lot more idiosyncratic and uncompromising in some respects.Unfortunately it is not one of those books where you can easily absorb the ideas and incorporate them into your own world view: the author really wants his readers to totally accept his ideas and totally change their world view to revolve around them.  That is not something many people are prepared to do.

The tone of the book is interesting to say the least.  Taleb is not keen on most mathematicians. Or philosophers.  Or statisticians, businessmen, politicians, economists (especially Nobel winners), traders, and experts in general.  Large sections of the book reminded me of two things: one that will be familiar to quite a few people and the second will ring a bell for a much smaller population.

Remember the Christmas special of Father Ted, where Ted was awarded the Golden Cleric award for rescuing a group of priests from Ireland;s largest lingerie department?   His acceptance speech was not the traditional litany of thanks but instead was a multi-hour diatribe against people, subdivided into sections like “liars”, “frauds” and “people who have really fecked me over down the years”.    Well this book reads a bit like that in large parts. And don’t get him started on the Gaussian bell curve!

The other thing it reminds me of is the writings of Hugo Rune, when they are referred to or quoted in Robert Rankin’s books when he takes every opportunity to slag off the ‘greybeards’ and ‘charlatans’ in the scientific establishment.

At times I found that the general tone of score-settling distracted from the ideas, but at other times I found it amusing.   Above all it is thought-provoking as well as just provocative and iconoclastic.  I am going to have to take some time to think about the ideas in there.

For example, Taleb makes a very good case for not bothering to read a newspaper, how all the information you pick up actually impairs rather than improves your decision-making.  I particuarly like that as I find very little time to read the papers now and it helps me to stop feeling bad about that.

The concept of how hard it is to predict the past is especially mind-blowing as it casts doubt on the accuracy of most history books.  I also liked the whole notion of the futility of looking for causes and what he calls the narrative fallacy.

So plenty to enjoy in there, despite my dislike of several aspects – not least the author’s technique of using invented examples to ‘prove’ points.

I have another of  Taleb’s books in the waiting-to-be-read pile, but I think I will give my brain a rest by reading Necrophenia (the new Robert Rankin) and The Time Traveller’s Wife first.  I’m not sure I can take two non-fiction books in a row.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • snowflake5

    I’ve stopped following the news too – completely stopped watching broadcast news, which I find is too emotive, still browse online papers, but really just scan headlines (which usually tell you most of what you need to know). As well as saving a lot of time, I find that not consuming news makes me more objective because am basing perceptions of what is happening on what I see around me. I think this is a big trend (people not consuming news I mean), and will have implications for politics.