The Black Swan Discussion Questions

by Josh Hanagarne on August 2, 2010

Good morning gang. In July for the book club we read Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact Of The Highly Improbable. It is a book about uncertainty. A very concise summary:

We are not very good at predicting things and life is more random than we want to admit. Also, it is the things that are unpredictable to the extreme–sudden terrorist attacks, abrupt stock market crashes, etc–that have the greatest impact on societies and our lives.

For anyone who read it or has read it in the past:

1. What did you think of Taleb’s style?

The man is pretty sure of himself, that goes without saying. I read a lot of Amazon reviews, and nearly all of the negative reviews mention the author’s “arrogance” or “disdain for ideas that are not his own.”

I thought he was consistently funny and consistently confident. I’m not sure arrogant is exactly the word I would use, although it certainly applied at times.

2. Do these ideas actually matter? How applicable are they?

I have sat through a lot of university lectures where someone droned on and on about great ideas and theories. There are times when I can realize that I am hearing a Big Idea but don’t really care because I can’t figure out how it matters to me in my own life.

I didn’t feel that way about The Black Swan. My favorite exercise from the book is Taleb’s suggestion that we try to take the narrative away from events when we try to interpret them. Is it possible to view a succession of events without imposing a story on them? I’ve been trying it since I read the book.

It is a very interesting way of looking at things. Is it helpful? I don’t know yet. But it is a challenge for anyone who loves stories, and it seems like telling stories is ultimately a poor method of predicting.

3. Who would you recommend this book to?

Janette kept asking me if I like the book. Then she asked if she would like it. I realized I was not sure who I would actually recommend this book to. A lot of it is pretty technical-sounding. And yet it is those academics who love big words who get a lot of Taleb’s disdain, so they may not be the ones reading the book.

I think most of the book is pretty accessible, but it isn’t exactly easy reading either.

So I’m really not sure who this book is for. It has information in it that could be useful to anyone, but I don’t know exactly what “type “of person will read this book, enjoy it, and apply it.

What say you?

Josh

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Christopher August 2, 2010 at 11:19 am

Sounds like Taleb’s more interested in making his point than helping people deal with uncertainty. If you want practical techniques for solving such problems, I suggest you go here:

wiki.lesswrong.com

I think you’ll enjoy what’s there.

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Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010 at 10:43 am

Thanks Christopher.

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Kira August 3, 2010 at 1:32 am

I actually just read this book the other month.

I liked it. I’m a bit of a fan-boy of one of the author’s Gurus (Benoit Mandelbrot) … and this book deals with issues that Mandelbrot has been talking about for a long time.

I can understand why people might be put off by his writing style, but I wasn’t.

I don’t agree with everything he says, particularly regarding narrative. We have been, are, and always will be a story-telling species. The key is to remember that narrative is extremely prone to inaccuracy. And needs constant revision. Simple as that.

K

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Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010 at 10:43 am

I know, and now we’re both duplicating numbers and books!

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Boris Bachmann August 3, 2010 at 9:26 am

Loved the book. Yes, he reads like he’s a little full of himself and that can be off-putting, but I still loved it.

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Josh Hanagarne August 3, 2010 at 10:37 am

I really, really enjoyed it. Have you read his other stuff? His Fooled By Randomness has gotten some great reviews, but I haven’t read it.

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Boris Bachmann August 3, 2010 at 9:28 am

Oh, and it’s helpful if you’re one of those people that have a tendency to think “Now I have it ALL figured out”.

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Bill Jones August 8, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Running behind in everything right now but catching up! I’m glad you suggested the book or I probably wouldn’t have picked it up!

1. Style…everyone has one…his can be considered arrogant, conceited or…how about confident? My choice on how to judge the guy and since I don’t know him I’ll consider him confident.

2. Not sure if the ideas “matter” but since they are an alternative to things I’ve heard before I’ll say “Yes” (at least for me) and I’ll be open to “finding” my “Black Swan”.

3. I’m in the same boat as you. I’m not quite sure who would enjoy it for sure. I wouldn’t classify this as a “beach read” so that leaves out a bunch of folks.

I have recommended it to 2 people. One is a geologist and one is an IT security guy. At least that is what they do to bring the food in…the common denominator is…they think…

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Josh Hanagarne August 9, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Thanks Bill. How have your two guys taken it? do you know yet?

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Bill Jones August 11, 2010 at 5:18 am

One (the geologist) jumped in quickly with a Facebook post a couple of days ago:

“For philosophy lovers only. Bill Jones brought up the Black Swan as an explanation for Facebook. After reading about the Black Swan (a book by Taleb) I’m convinced Taleb’s Ludic Fallacy is spot on. Most math models consider the “known” unknowns, but ignore the “unknown” unknowns. If only we could develop an equation fo…r unknown unknowns. One problem. If we know the unknown, it’s not unknown anymore. Quite a dilemma.”

Actually another freind of mine expressed an interest after we were discussing a couple of other books…SuperFreakonomics and Selling the Invisible (Beckwith)…

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