Monday 19 March 2012
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan
I usually choose library books at random, picking whatever takes my fancy, but this time was different. I came across the term 'black swan event' when reading about solar storms and was instantly captivated. I checked for the origins of the term, found Taleb's book and - oh lucky me! - they had it in my library's catalogue!
To put it short and sweet, a black swan event is something unpredictable that has a high impact on the world and is explainable only in retrospective. Think - a war, disaster or market crash. The book does not really focus only on those dramas, it has more to do with mathematical probability and philosophy of randomness (which makes it slightly tiring in the long run, unless you happen to be technically minded).
I believe the only real contribution it makes is linguistic - I have a funny feeling that 'a black swan event' is here to stay - but I liked the book nevertheless. I don't particularly need a 300-pages long essay to tell me that the world is chaotic and can kick you in the teeth anytime, but I enjoyed the book for two other reasons:
- subtle, often autoironic sense of humour - I'd even call it Pratchettesque, and if you know anything about me at all you'll know it is a highest possible praise I can bestow on a human being :)
- political incorrectness - not that Taleb touches on any sensitive issues, but I loved how he's being openly venomous about people he doesn't like. The usual decorum forces authors to pretend they like their opponents and any suggestions they may have are purely non-personal. Not in this instance - Taleb attacks and attacks furiously. While it may not add to his authority, it surely is refreshing.
I frankly admit I don't really get all the implications of the black swan theory. Maybe I'm not intelligent enough, maybe his theories are just a string of blah blahs, maybe to really grasp The Black Swan you need to be interested in stock markets or trained in statistics, I don't know. I do know that the book is worth reading even for pure entertainment. And if you can take some good advice out of it - all the better.