The Black Swan

The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  To begin with, this is an incomplete review of the book.  I have the second edition of the book, to which Taleb added a new section “On Robustness & Fragility.”  I will eventually read the last section, but I’m going to take a break from it.

The Black Swan is a non-fiction book dealing with Philosophy and its application to Business.  The first thing that I’m going to say about this book is that it is not an easy read.  There is a lot of information in this book, and Taleb writes in an academic style, which means it isn’t the most accessible book to read.  There were several sections where I found myself re-reading some sentences before I saw what Taleb was getting it.  This isn’t necessarily a weakness of the book as long as you’re prepared for it.

The book discusses what Taleb calls a Black Swan.  A Black Swan is an event that is statistically extremely unlikely but has a huge effect.  The quintessential example of this is September 11th.  No matter what you may have read or heard to the contrary, there was nothing we could have done to predict 9/11 from happening, but it had a huge impact on our lives (and still does to this day).

The book is split into several sections, and while I enjoyed the book, I would suggest that you only read the first two sections.  The first section deals with the ways that we seek validation for what has happened, and the second section deals with the reasons that we can’t predict what is going to happen.

As an example of these, I’ll quickly discuss some of Chaos Theory, specifically the Butterfly Effect.  You may have heard of the idea that in a simulation, a very minor detail can quickly render the entire simulation ineffective.  The example commonly given is that omitting (or adding) a butterfly in Australia can lead to a hurricane in the U.S. years later.  This works well as an idea of what caused something, but you cannot look at a butterfly today and determine that it will cause a hurricane two years later, there are simply too many other variables to take into consideration, so we cannot effectively predict anything.  For validation, we can look back and blame the butterfly, even though it was impossible to see at the time.

The third section of the book was the weakest part of it to me.  The third part was essentially just calling out people who have disagreed with Taleb.  The book lost focus at this part and became a train wreck.  If you’re going to read the book, just skip part 3.

With any non-fiction book, it’s less about what the book says and more about the way that the book says it.  This is the reason that Malcolm Gladwell is brilliant, he takes a complicated topic and writes about it eloquently.  This book has an interesting topic, and it discusses it in detail, but Taleb lacks the eloquence that Gladwell possesses.

Overall Grade

I’m giving this book two different grades, one for the first two sections and one for the complete first edition of the book.  I’ll either update this or more likely do a second post after I read the added section and give that part a third score.

Sections 1 & 2 – 8/10

Entire First Edition – 5/10