Jan Rice's Reviews > The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
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it was amazing
bookshelves: audio, psychology, science-math

The first time through, I listened to this book with my husband, usually while I was cooking. Although I tried to stop and mark important passages, I ended up thinking the book was not very systematic. The second time through, chapter by chapter, the method in his madness is more apparent.

I continued to think Taleb is more a popularizer than an innovator. But even if so, that's not so shabby. He's trying to revolutionize the way we think, and the more we rehearse that, the better.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is working the same territory as Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. While they both have us investigating our thinking, for Kahneman, it's to make us own up, while Taleb has more direct emphasis on avoiding disaster.

He would like for us to realize our overuse of normal-curve thinking, which makes us minimize risk and have no expectations out of the ordinary: like the turkey whose experience all goes to show how human beings love him and care about him and prove it by feeding him--until Thanksgiving day arrives and he's dinner.

The normal curve tells us that the further out from the mean we go, the rarity of unusual events rapidly increases. Fine--when it applies. We are not going to meet any 20-foot tall people or anyone living to 150 years old. But the normal curve often doesn't apply. We can't predict which books will be best sellers or how how the sales count will go on one of them. We can't predict when a war will occur or just how one will transpire.

The world is not fair. Unfairness and inequality are no epiphenomena but part and parcel of reality.

Even in evolution, the fittest survive, thrive, and have more offspring. Take writing: before literacy, every town crier and performer had his day. With written methods, all the little guys are out of work. Then, one book may become a bestseller. It leaves even the other books in the dust. And when the author of the bestseller writes another book, it'll get more attention than those who didn't write a bestseller.

When we think normal curves apply but they don't, we are confusing what the world is like with how we would like it to be. We are shoving reality into the Procrustean bed of our idealized thinking. That distorts our vision of reality. By keeping an open mind, at least, we won't be walking blindly into risk. We can't prevent the unexpected, but we can at least turn the black swans into grey swans.

We are like the 13th fairy at the Sleeping Beauty's christening. We can't do away with the angry fairy's curse, but we can mitigate it. Grey swan, not black.

The difficulty with many kinds of prognosticators in our world is that they are spinning theories that purport to predict, but their theories are stories, and their stories connect the plot points and only sound as though they are predictive. We are lulled or, even worse, misled. We listen according to our preferred belief system. We listen to what we want to hear: confirmatory listening. We actively cherry pick reality to make it fit what we want to believe. The solution? Try the opposite, finding something that doesn't fit. A plethora of confirmatory evidence is exactly what the turkey had before Thanksgiving.

Taleb lauds two unexpected types of practitioners: military people and financial managers. They will know if their predictions are wrong or right. If they are wrong, they'll have to face the music. Their predictions matter. Not so the world of talking heads and stuffed shirts: they just adjust their stories and keep on going.

What those stories are, are predictions of the past.

If you see an ice cube sitting on a table you can predict the future: it will melt into a little puddle of water. But if you see a puddle on the table, and that's all you see, there could be a thousand stories of what it is and how it came to be there. The correct explanation may be 1001--or one which will never be found.

It could be that angry old fairy, melted.

As I said, most of the stories are not explanations. But theories are sticky. Once you have one you have a hard time seeing beyond it (remembering that sometimes no theory is best, if the theory is wrong). So, he recommends an empirical approach with art and craft, a less grand theory, and always an eye toward outcomes.

Right at the end it occurred to me that this is religion. He tells you how to sustain yourself in the absence of worldly support, how to stand up to others and say your piece, how to wait and be patient, and about the merits of surrounding yourself with like-minded souls.

To close, a rousing rendition of Kipling's If

He can't teach like Kahneman, but he gets it said.

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Quotes Jan Liked

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Remember that you are a Black Swan.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“It is my great hope someday, to see science and decision makers rediscover what the ancients have always known. Namely that our highest currency is respect.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“I use the example as computed by the mathematician Michael Berry. If you know a set of basic parameters concerning the ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly predict the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry's computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle of the universe needs to be present in your assumptions!”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Believe me, it is tough to deal with the social consequences of the appearance of continuous failure. We are social animals; hell is other people.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“You need a story to displace a story.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Living on our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination than we are made to have. We lack imagination and repress it in others.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Prediction, not narration, is the real test of our understanding of the world.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Beyond our perceptional distortions, there is a problem with logic itself. How can someone have no clue yet be able to hold a set of perfectly sound and coherent viewpoints that match the observations and abide by every single possible rule of logic? Consider that two people can hold incompatible beliefs based on the exact same data. Does this mean that there are possible families of explanations and that each of these can be equally perfect and sound? Certainly not. One may have a million ways to explain things, but the true explanation is unique, whether or not it is within our reach.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“We humans are the victims of an asymmetry in the perception of random events. We attribute our successes to our skills, and our failures to external events outside our control, namely to randomness.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“an ad hominen attack against an intellectual, not against an idea, is highly flattering. It indicates that the person does not have anything intelligent to say about your message.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“History is opaque. You see what comes out, not the script that produces events, the generator of history.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seem to write memoirs, and, if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more useful tricks than a story of success.* The entire notion of biography is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a causal relation between specified traits and subsequent events. Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera. Just like the population of millionaires. There may be some differences in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain luck.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Evidence shows that we do much less thinking than we believe we do—except, of course, when we think about it.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Alas, one cannot assert authority by accepting one's own fallibility. Simply, people need to be blinded by knowledge-we are made to follow leaders who can gather people together because the advantages of being in groups trump the disadvantages of being alone. It has been more profitable for us to bind together in the wrong direction than to be alone in the right one. Those who have followed the assertive idiot rather than the introspective wise person have passed us some of their genes. This is apparent from a social pathology: psychopaths rally followers.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Note that I am not relying in this book on the beastly method of collecting selective "corroborating evidence." ...I call this overload of examples naïve empiricism--successions of anecdotes selected to fit a story do not constitute evidence. Anyone looking for confirmation will find enough of it to deceive himself--and no doubt his peers.* The Black Swan idea is based on the structure of randomness in empirical reality.

*It is also naïve empiricism to provide, in support of some argument, series of eloquent confirmatory quotes by dead authorities. By searching, you can always find someone who made a well-sounding statement that confirms your point of view--and, on every topic, it is possible to find another dead thinker who said the exact opposite. Almost all my non Yogi Berra quotes are from people I disagree with.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“But promoting philosophical skepticism is not quite the mission of this book. If awareness of the Black Swan problem can lead us into withdrawal and extreme skepticism, I take here the exact opposite direction. I am interested in deeds and true empiricism. So, this book was not written by a Sufi mystic, or even by a skeptic in the ancient or medieval sense, or even (we will see) in a philosophical sense, but by a practitioner whose principal aim is not to be a sucker in things that matter, period.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event, and without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“This does not mean we cannot talk about causes; there are ways to escape the narrative fallacy. How? By making conjectures and running experiments, or as we shall see in Part Two (alas) by making testable predictions. The psychology experiments I am discussing here do so: They suggest a problem, and run a test.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Silent evidence pervades everything connected to the notion of history. By history, I don't mean just those learned-but-dull books in the history section (with Renaissance paintings on their cover to attract buyers). History, I will repeat, is any succession of events seen with the effect of posteriority.

This bias extends to the ascription of factors in the success of ideas and religions, to the illusion of skill in many professions, to success in artistic occupations, to the nature versus nurture debate, to mistakes in using evidence in the court of law, to illusions about the "logic" of history--and of course, most severely, in our perception of the nature of extreme events.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“A life saved is a statistic; a person hurt is an anecdote. Statistics are invisible; anecdotes are salient.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“(J)ust as we tend to underestimate the role of luck in life in general, we tend to overestimate it in games of chance.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“The problem is that our ideas are sticky: once we produce a theory, we are not likely to change our minds....”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“You view the world from within a model.”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“I am most often irritated by those who attack the bishop but somehow fall for the securities analyst--those who exercise their skepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists, and phony statisticians. Using the confirmation bias, these people will tell you that religion was horrible for mankind by counting deaths from the Inquisition and various religious wars. But they will not show you how many people were killed by nationalism, social science, and political theory under Stalin or during the Vietnam War. Even priests don't go to bishops when they feel ill: their first stop is the doctor's. But we stop by the offices of many pseudoscientists and "experts" without alternative. We no longer believe in papal infallibility; we seem to believe in the infallibility of the Nobel, though....”
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable


Reading Progress

June 14, 2015 – Started Reading
June 14, 2015 – Shelved
June 14, 2015 – Shelved as: audio
June 14, 2015 – Shelved as: psychology
June 14, 2015 – Shelved as: science-math
June 14, 2015 –
page 14
3.15% "I've been hearing references to this book for a long time. Is it going to be a narrative form of Kahneman (without the stats and research)? It's great fun. It's as though I've read parts already--yet also new & fresh. Kahneman's good at getting the reader to apply the concepts to him- or herself. Is Taleb going to do that, too?"
June 15, 2015 –
page 22
4.95% "p. 15--Categories, how people take them to be real. People "adapt," when the category they're in changes. They even forget they've "changed." Antidote: remember the reversals and changing bedfellows."
June 17, 2015 –
page 36
8.11% "Taleb is explaining how inequality--gross inequality--is programmed into human affairs via modern technology, indeed, before that by the alphabet, even by evolution. Yet those who usually would be up in arms at hearing such seem pretty malleable where this author is concerned."
June 22, 2015 –
page 15
3.38% "Classification-wise, Lebanon got moved from "the Levant" to "the Middle East, that is, from being contrasted with non-Mediterranean areas to being contrasted with--Europe. Cyprus: 60 mi away and very similar, but it is "European." --to which those living in each area became conditioned."
June 22, 2015 –
page 56
12.61% "(and p. 17): He's given up reading newspapers and TV. Reads more books instead. Newspapers very good at predicting some things--movie and theater schedules, ha ha. I still read the paper, however...."
June 24, 2015 –
page 48
10.81% "Pierre-Daniel Huet, Catholic bishop and member of the French Academy, who wrote his magnum opus in 1690, was an erudite who had a servant follow him with a book, reading out loud, during meals etc, so as not to waste time: early "audiobook" user! :)"
June 24, 2015 –
page 83
18.69% "Values experiments of empirical psychology over theory-based MRI scans of neuropsychologists--even tho the public thinks LESS scientific."
June 26, 2015 –
page 16
3.6% ""...some clever quantitative tests...show...that, in many subject matters, the distance between opinions is remarkably narrower than the distance between the average of opinions and truth.""
June 26, 2015 –
page 64
14.41% "Theorizing is the default position. It is not theorizing that is the act. "It takes considerable effort to see facts (and remember them) while withholding judgment and resisting explanations. And this theorizing disease is rarely under our control: it is largely anatomical, part of our biology, so fighting it requires fighting one's own self.""
June 26, 2015 –
page 69
15.54% ""...unlike art, the (stated) purpose of science is to get at the truth, not to give you a feeling of organization or make you feel better.""
August 2, 2015 –
0.0% "rarity, extreme impact, retrospective predictability"
August 2, 2015 –
0.0% "xxiii The people who prevent tragedy and catastrophe on a day-to-day basis get no credit."
August 3, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap. 1, 1st part: Sad story of what happened to Lebanon"
August 4, 2015 –
0.0% "p. 9 in the hardback (7 in paperback?) -- exile nostalgia"--relevant to Hannah Arendt?"
August 4, 2015 –
0.0% "Still Chap. 1: Hx jumps (not changes gradually); moves forward not backward. We create explanatory psudo-explanations. Mostly unpredictable--which it helps to know. '87 recession. He knew it could happen. Impact of being financially independent. 27 y.o. Chap 1 is autobiographical"
August 4, 2015 –
0.0% "End chap. 1 \n I experienced his tone as flippant or ironic in speaking of the Lebanese civil war when he was a teenager: the danger, funerals of friends."
August 6, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 2: very short. Uses the story of a fictional author to explain the "black swan" concept. Unpredictability. Narratives that purport to "explain" what happened. "Predicting" the past."
August 6, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 3: the nl curve vs the power distribution, not scalable vs scalable, in his language, or "Mediocristan" vs "Extremistan." Jobs by the hr, for which one must be present, vs. "idea" jobs. Prostitute vs speculator. In the latter, winner takes all. Luck. He claims that with modernity we are moving further and further into Extremistan."
August 6, 2015 –
0.0% "I think Pinker would disagree with him re past warfare and destruction not being scalable while today, w/instruments of mass destruction, it is.\n \n Insertion of inequality into the system. See status for p. 36, above. Life is not fair."
August 6, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 4: on the problem of predicting the future based on past experience--the turkey problem. Dif between the turkey's and the butcher's perspective. Hume's prob.\n \n A lot of pain under that glib and provocative manner?? Poignancy."
August 9, 2015 –
0.0% "Chapter 4 goes over the hx of the prob of induction. \n \n Coming up: Confirmation error; the narrative fallacy; acting as though Black Swan events don't exist; "What you see is all there is;" & "tunneling:" focusing on only a few, well-known sources of uncertainty."
August 9, 2015 –
0.0% "from Chap 5 (on confirmation error): The problem is chronic: if you tell people that the key to success is not always skills, they think that you are telling them that it is never skills, always luck." (p. 52) A lot of people get angry w/Taleb b/c of their own misinterpretation, & go ad hominem. On the other hand, teaching isn't his strong suit."
August 9, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 5, cont. We automatically seek to confirm. Need to take the opposite tack and use strategy of negative empiricism--look for instances that don't conform to your hypothesis, e.g. guessing the principle behind a number sequence. "one-sided semiskepticism", p. 57 Karl Popper."
August 10, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 6, the Narrative Fallacy: stems from our need to collapse info & retain it via story. He has a great deal on this but so far, Kahneman does a better job of defining. See quote above about escaping it by designing experiments such that the failure to predict must be faced. P. 75 re not blaming the media. It's we who want the stories. The facts may be checked yet woven into a narrative disguise."
August 11, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 6, concluded: He packs a lot into this chapter on the narrative fallacy. It doesn't coalesce too well or get to the heart of the issue. Re "fast" (intuitive) thinking, he more or less types it as bad, as does Haidt, and leaves out expertise and intuition. Also, why does he call probabilistic thinking "abstract," instead of simply what it is? These are issues related to getting his point across."
August 15, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 7, pp 85-99\n Hope. Mental fortitude. Dealing with "failure" while waiting. Attitude of others. Neurobiological impact. Hume took to his bed after being trashed by a reviewer who missed the points. Need for small reinforcers or an insular community. Waiting game. We reward "heroes," but those who prevent disasters are invisible, even to themselves."
August 17, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 8: The problem of what we don't see, the invisible evidence--like people who pray not to die in a shipwreck; they don't so they say prayer works. Those for whom it didn't work are drowned and silent. People feelin' in the groove, messianic, livin' a charmed life, thinking they are meant to succeed--but don't forget all those with similar qualities and attributes who are not still with us."
August 17, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 8 cont: Law of unintended consequences, road to hell paved w/ etc for ex: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/201... Also, Muller on rent control in Vienna between the wars: sounds as though it would have been caring and helpful, but through a series of unfortunate consequences, the landlords ended up supporting the right wing..."
August 18, 2015 –
0.0% "chap 8, still: pp 117-118 evolution & universes in his silent-evidence argument--not sure he hasn't lost his skeptical empiricism here, although in general the caution agst thinking of oneself and one's group as the pinnacle is well taken."
August 18, 2015 –
0.0% "Chap 9 p. 125 Classroom knowledge as getting in the way of seeing what's going on. P. 131 Neitzsche's bildungsphilisters--learned philistines. P. 128 better thinking b4 the Enlightenment drowned us in the "scientific" mentality? Military, like traders, honest w/risk--b/c gambling w/their own $ (putting their $ where their mouth is?). Footnote p 127--using rules to avoid seeing risk"
August 18, 2015 –
0.0% "chap 9 cont: p. 129, "the polemist Simon Foucher" from 1673 says one must exit doubt to produce science but often exits it prematurely. Usually oblivious to having done so. and, "We are dogma-prone from our mothers' wombs.""
August 21, 2015 –
0.0% "People don't know as much as they think they know, don't know they don't know, and don't want to know that they don't; they overestimate their knowledge; problem w/guessing; predicting the future is guessing. "Future ain't what it used to be," & "It's tough to make predictions, esp. about the future"--attributed to Berra"
August 28, 2015 –
0.0% "Current events:\n http://on.wsj.com/1Jr4RRi"
September 8, 2015 –
0.0% "I've finished my second time through and all of the book that's included in the 1st edition. So--I think I'll say "done" for now, and then at some later point pick up the 80 pages that come with the 2nd edition"
September 8, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-50 of 89 (89 new)


message 1: by Magdelanye (new) - added it

Magdelanye this may be a black swan occurrence in itself, that I, reading Black Swan Green, should pick up on your reference, assuming you were just using shorthand for the same book. Curious to know how it affected you, I soon realized my mistake,


message 2: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice David Mitchell; I knew it! May be a sign... ;)


Charlie Close I read this one awhile back. (Rather listened to it.) Yep, it's a good one. So are Taleb's others.


message 4: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice But quite a challenge to review, wouldn't you agree? Unwieldy and stuffed with ideas! I'm waiting for a suitable block of time.


Charlie Close Yes, quite challenging. Although if you wanted to take the easy way out you could just say, Taleb says: "Shit happens. Boy oh boy does shit happen."


message 6: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Charlie wrote: "Yes, quite challenging. Although if you wanted to take the easy way out you could just say, Taleb says: "Shit happens. Boy oh boy does shit happen.""

...Then I could add, "And he says, 'You can't predict it, but you may be able to turn it into...grey shit' (?)."


Charlie Close Exactly. See...the review practically writes itself. :)


message 8: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice :)


message 9: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Magdelanye wrote: "this may be a black swan occurrence in itself, that I, reading Black Swan Green, should pick up on your reference..."

And in my daily digest of notifications, Jan's review of this was immediately followed by another friend's review of Black Swan Green!

This is fascinating, Jan, but trying to take in this sort of information as an audio book strikes me as very tricky.


message 10: by Ted (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted Very interesting review, Jan. But a bit bemused by your comment, "this is religion"? In what way?

I like that phrase "bell-curve thinking"! Is that Taleb's, or yours? I hope I can remember it, it's very meaningful.


message 11: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Thanks, Ted. I couldn't find where I said "bell-curve thinking!" But I think it's mine. He speaks primarily of "Gaussian distributions" when speaking of the normal curve, as opposed to power-law distributions. He uses a lot of cute, idiosyncratic language as well--Mediocristan and Extremistan, for example, to apply to the territory in which the normal curve and power-law distributions respectively apply.

I really did a quick-and-dirty with this one. If I go back into it I'll include this link to a review that explained a lot that I didn't: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...

So I guess I need to add to the paragraph on religion. I mean at the end I was just struck it was hitting all those notes. Maybe I could add, helping people to keep faith in view of apparent failure, helping people to see, not failure, but persistence (to turn things around internally and not glom onto external rewards as the be-all and end-all). Inner sustenance. Does that help? (The author might be aghast that I said such a thing.)


message 12: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Cecily wrote: "Magdelanye wrote: "this may be a black swan occurrence in itself, that I, reading Black Swan Green, should pick up on your reference..."

And in my daily digest of notifications, Jan's review of th..."


Never fear, Cecily: I always have the hard copy as well in a case like this. It's just a method of using time wisely. Note my p. 48 status update. I don't have a servant to follow me around reading so must resort to audiobooks! ;)


message 13: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Yes, I saw that you then read it as well, but even attempting to do it via audio struck me as brave.


message 14: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice If that's brave, then I'm very brave. :)


message 15: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Great review Jan. You made me think.... I've never met an adult who hasn't had a story about their situation -is nowhere near the normal curve .. from that very rare disease - to their basic likes and dislikes.

Even conventional medical labs base 'normal readings' ... from more 'average' percentages rather than from superior health.

Oh... and a car service... what might be 'normal' for the car dealer service man - $3,000 due later- might not have been on an actual normal curve at all.

You got me thinking - and I'm just opening my eyes. Lol


message 16: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Elyse wrote: "Great review Jan. You made me think.... I've never met an adult who hasn't had a story about their situation -is nowhere near the normal curve .. from that very rare disease - to their basic likes..."

Thanks, Elyse. Thinking is good! :) My 1st recommendation along these lines is Thinking, Fast and Slow, not necessarily the end of it, which is more problematical, but the 1st 2/3 or 3/4--or maybe even just the first couple of chapters. Quite a revelation and without some of Taleb's baggage that makes him hard to take...for some...especially men. ...But wait....I think you said you are doing Kahneman in an upcoming book club, right?


message 17: by Lynne (new) - added it

Lynne King A beautiful review Jan,

I especially liked:

"The world is not fair. Unfairness and inequality are no epiphenomena but part and parcel of reality.

So true....


message 18: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Lynne wrote: "A beautiful review Jan,

I especially liked:

"The world is not fair. Unfairness and inequality are no epiphenomena but part and parcel of reality.

So true...."


Thank you, Lynne. It's so good to hear from you!


message 19: by Timothy (new) - added it

Timothy Miyahara Excellent review, Jan. Your insights and attention to detail remind me how much is gained from the perspective of another person.


message 20: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Timothy wrote: "Excellent review, Jan. Your insights and attention to detail remind me how much is gained from the perspective of another person."

Thank you, Timothy. I see you added it so when you get to it I can benefit from your perspective, too! ...I also saw you're reading 13 books now, so realize it may not be right away. :) (I've only got 4 or 5 going plus a couple I haven't posted.)


message 21: by Timothy (new) - added it

Timothy Miyahara I have to cut back. I let one book refer to another, start that book too, rinse, repeat, and before I know what's happening, I have a dozen books in progress.


message 22: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice I know just what you mean! Sometimes one must cut back and focus. But at other times you could be like Sherlock Holmes, hot on the trail from one book to another.


message 23: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Here is an article on commercial funding of research (pharmaceutical funding of research in particular) that was reprinted in my local paper Sunday.

“They are very focused on deliverables and less on the process of how you got there,” Grice said, referring to Janssen’s goal-oriented emphasis. “Whereas, in academia, it’s like, ‘Oh, you discovered this cool thing along the way and there is a whole separate story,’ they are very focused on what is in the contract.”


So, that would cut out the positive "black swans," right?

http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Oliv...


Michael Perkins The best review on here, in contrast to a lot of peevish "reviewers" with short attention spans and who have likely not read Kahneman either. I got interested in behavioral economics some years ago when I wrote my bestseller "The Internet Bubble" (HarperBusiness). (It's out of print, so not attempting a sales pitch here). It would seem obvious to take human irrationality into account in terms of finance and economics, but too often prognosticators are wedded to what they consider their logical systems. For example, about a month or so before the tech bubble burst, Myron Scholes, in a speech at Stanford said there was no bubble. Wrong!


message 25: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Well, thank you, Mike. I saw the two editions on Amazon, though.

I myself liked "Nick's" review, the second from the top in votes. What did you think about that one. I should have looked for yours.


message 26: by Derek (last edited Jan 29, 2016 02:09AM) (new)

Derek There seem to be some misconceptions about Normal curves both in the review and the comments. I trust that they don't actually come from Taleb. Of course "we can't predict which books will be best sellers or how how the sales count will go on one of them." However, the sales of books (from the traditional houses) probably do fit a Gaussian distribution: we can predict that, out of some number of books published, some will plummet, many will have modest sales, and some will be best-sellers (sales of self-published books, otoh, won't be Normal, as they'll be weighted far more to the "plummet" end of the scale).

Similarly, "I've never met an adult who hasn't had a story about their situation -is nowhere near the normal curve ." Of course they're on a Normal curve. They may be the unlikely outliers, but that's exactly the sort of thing that makes Normal curves so normal.

The book sounds interesting, but if Taleb is making those mistakes, I'll stick to Thinking, Fast and Slow


message 27: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Derek wrote: "There seem to be some misconceptions about Normal curves both in the review and the comments. I trust that they don't actually come from Taleb. Of course "we can't predict which books will be best ..."

Thanks for commenting, Derek! Perhaps what I should have emphasized is that we can't predict how many sales there will be of a best seller. Well, ha, I did say that! In other words it's not like height or weight of human beings. The issue is the inappropriate use of the normal curve.

Kahneman and Taleb constitute something of a mutual admiration society. Or, better, a mutual support society. They each cite the other a lot.

Check out the paragraph that begins, "The difficulty with many kinds of prognosticators...." (and the one after that). You can read looking for a reason, i.e., an excuse, to object. Many readers respond to Taleb that way. That's why I say Kahneman is the better teacher. But as for those readers too easily rubbed the wrong way, it's their loss.

I know I deflected Mike's (Perkinsmike's) compliment above, but it encouraged me.


message 28: by Derek (last edited Jan 29, 2016 02:10PM) (new)

Derek But that's the thing about Normal curves, they never apply to specifics, it's always about the likelihood of any single element of a crowd to be somewhere on the curve. Of course you can't predict where a specific book will be on the curve, but you can say it has a 50% chance of being smack in the middle. Which means it's just as likely to be above that point as below... To put it another way, the best you can hope for when predicting the likelihood of any specific occurrence is less than the odds of a coin toss! And you can say with confidence that it's highly unlikely to be at the right-end of the curve.

It seems to me, just from a basic understanding of statistics and not having read the book, that Taleb's message must be (at least should be) about what to do when you find yourself out on the tail ends of the normal curve, and not that much of your life doesn't fit on one.


message 29: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice There are two kinds of distribution, though. Pinker in Better Angels of our Nature uses a different name for the other kind--power distributions, I think. They have different characteristics. ...Remember, per Kahneman, this is not intuitive stuff. We don't naturally think statistically. You might give Taleb a try when you have a chance. He's nothing if not persistent. He'll hammer home his points. On that all agree.
Happy weekend, Derek!


Charlie Close Taleb's books are great fun. One way to summarize his argument in The Black Swan is to say that people mistakenly make normal distribution predictions in a power distribution world.


message 31: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Charlie wrote: "Taleb's books are great fun. One way to summarize his argument in The Black Swan is to say that people mistakenly make normal distribution predictions in a power distribution world."

Yep, you got it, Charlie. :)
I've read only this one. In fact I have the long essay at the end yet ahead of me, the part he added to the second edition. Have you read that?


Charlie Close Hi, Jan,

I don't know if I've read the essay at the end of the second edition or not. I read the book a few years ago in audiobook form. I've listened to his other two books as well. Similar style. Both fun.


message 33: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice It's not on the audiobook CDs I had from the library.
More power to you for being able to take it in from the audiobook alone. I needed to break it down. Same for Thinking Fast and Slow. I had the audio, and as soon as I began listening I got so excited I had to rush to the bookstore as fast as I could and get hold of the hardback, all that was out at that point. I know the audio form comes with pdf materials but I didn't think that would be enough.


message 34: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice A world-class rant by the author. Stand back; hard to tell who's a target. He responds later that it's satire.

https://medium.com/@nntaleb/the-intel...


message 35: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford My summary of Taleb's idea: there is no rational way to create equivalence between the different orders of statistics. So now you know.


message 36: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice It's hard to think in these terms, Taleb says for anybody, but particularly for those to whom mathematics does not come easily. So, I just reread my review plus all the comments, and I think, Michael, that you're correct.

When for example various paranoid scenarios are floated for America, such as those including Trump, people say, "But this is America!" as though those outcomes are outside the realm of probability....


message 37: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford That's right. In technical terms: standard deviation can't be compared with skew. But Taleb doesn't follow his own logic far enough. He worries about 'extreme' events which are in the tails of a probability distribution - that's more or less skew, which is a third order statistic (standard deviation, or 'spread' being the second order statistic; first order is the mean/average). But there are in fact an infinite number of potential relevant orders (fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.), none of which can be compared with each other. I've done tests with currency traders and lending officers for example to see how they view risk. By just adding different order statistics I could get them to contradict themselves within minutes. So project or strategy A would be considered riskier than B, which is considered riskier than C, which is in turn considered riskier than A. All risk statistics are a hoax, something Taleb doesn't want to admit, possibly because it would offend academia and put him out of a job. Deirdre McCloskey's Measurement and Meaning in Economics would be a good follow-up to Taleb. If you are unfamiliar with Deidre, she's the only transgender economist I know, and although a bit too conservative for my taste, makes one hell of a readable argument.


message 38: by [deleted user] (new)

I liked the image of a melted angry old fairy, Jan. Thanks! Seriously, I think you're right this work was of a "popularizer than innovator" but that's a good thing. Living with a logic professor I've seen how over the years fewer and fewer majors require such a course, although some have replaced it with "critical thinking". It does seem important to get better (and more general) education on logical *and* illogical fallacies. Excellent review, Jan, and excellent critique of it, Michael!


message 39: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Michael wrote: "That's right. In technical terms: standard deviation can't be compared with skew. But Taleb doesn't follow his own logic far enough. He worries about 'extreme' events which are in the tails of a pr..."

That is interesting that she considers economics a moral science, Michael. Although I guess it started as a branch of philosophy and calved off, like an iceberg off a glacier. That's a notion I got from a review of the book A Dream of Enlightenment--that as disciplines crystallize, they separate from philosophy. I know economics is considered the "hardest" of the "soft" sciences, which is why it gets that Nobel-like prize and not psychology, for example.

I still think Taleb is referring to a different sort of distribution altogether. And he knows about issues of prediction; see the 3rd quote above. And as to anything he says, the proof would be in the pudding--whether it predicts or not, hence the unlikely classes of practitioners he holds up.

He's very in-your-face and wise-ass, which leads to people, especially males, gunning for him. Don't forget what he's trying to do: get people to think outside the box--which you already can do--but it's not such a typical skill since we're more like creatures of the ant hill or beehive than most of us know.

I pulled out the book again and opened to the section on narrative fallacy, since I'm still on MacIntyre, and could use to take a look at that again. (I think MacIntyre may be left behind trying to do his work within philosophy, while all around him chunks have broken away and become the cognitive sciences.)


message 40: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Oh, and I meant "outside the realm of possibility. :)


message 41: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford Yes, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments almost 20 years before his Wealth of Nations. Re Taleb, I don't think he is talking about a different sort of distribution. My point is that he is trying to fit rationality into descriptive statistics, and it don't go. Kahneman and his pals in behavioural economics turn this approach on its head and derive rationality from what people actually do. Philosophically I prefer Kahneman, among other reasons because economic prediction is a sort of totalitarian game of power.


message 42: by [deleted user] (last edited Oct 02, 2016 06:16AM) (new)

Love the image of all fields of study calving off like big glaciers from philosophy as they "crystalize"! The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy sounds like a good one.


message 43: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Michael wrote: "Yes, Adam Smith wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments almost 20 years before his Wealth of Nations. Re Taleb, I don't think he is talking about a different sort of distribution. My point is that he ..."

Oh, but Michael, they're thick as thieves. You sound familiar w/both but I don't see them on your shelves--read BG ("Before Goodreads")? My review of Thinking, Fast and Slow is not in depth; I wrote it before I had been thoroughly enculturated, but I'm planning to read Michael Lewis' forthcoming book on Kahneman ad Tversky when it comes out and hope to revisit through that. But, if you recall, Kahneman cites Taleb repeatedly in his book--eight times for "taleb" and six for "The Black Swan;" I just checked.

Does Kahneman talk about the different sorts of distribution? Can't remember, but Pinker does. He calls them power-law distributions, as opposed to normal or Gaussian. I think this is accepted--despite that in his rant satire, Taleb accuses Pinker of not understanding the statistics he uses.

Both Taleb and Kahneman are pointing to aspects of irrationality, Kahneman through his "heuristics." And from another angle they are each showing how to get rationality out of the mix. :)


message 44: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Christy wrote: "Love the image of all fields of study calving off like big glaciers from philosophy as they "crystalize"! The Dream of Enlightenment: The Rise of Modern Philosophy sounds like a goo..."

I'm not even putting it on my list. Will look forward to your review, Christy!


message 45: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford I don't want to sound like a pedant but the various types of distributions are described by their various statistics a la my previous message. The designation of normal, Gaussian, etc, is shorthand for a whole set of typical first, second, third etc, order statistics.


message 46: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Michael wrote: "I don't want to sound like a pedant but the various types of distributions are described by their various statistics a la my previous message. The designation of normal, Gaussian, etc, is shorthand..."

Look, I can't go back to my statistics--too long ago and not at that level, anyway. So I have to approach it "archeologically," in a sense, connecting what he's saying w/what others I've read are saying, and if it's supported. So, while he has plenty of critics, apparently Kahneman and others who work/think along the same lines haven't caught him out; why not?

And if I ignore your statistical thinking that I can't follow, Taleb doesn't seem to be doing what you say--not in his book, that is, or in real life. Remember, he holds up traders as an example for whom consequences actually have some meaning. And he's said to have had successes himself, in real time.

And if you are finding he's made an error that invalidates his entire thinking, couldn't you be falling for the "halo" effect (or, in this case, its opposite)?

So many people on Goodreads are eager to do that in general, invalidate an author, that is, and then they can dismiss a thinker in his entirety. It's so typical. I'm not saying you don't know more than the author. Maybe you do. Maybe such assertions aren't on a normal curve, either. And maybe I'm falling into the very trap Taleb warns against by acting as though this instance of input--from you--is on such a curve. :)


message 47: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford I think you've got me wrong. I'm not saying Taleb is wrong, just that his logic leads somewhere that he probably doesn't want to go. Kahneman et al have a different point entirely, the logic of which leads to a very different place than Kahneman. So I don't want to 'invalidate' either school of thought. On the contrary, my point is that there is a distinct logic in each that brings into question the fundamental relation between statistical risk and value. As far as traders go, the ones I know wouldn't know a statistical theory from an armadillo. Which is where I start really.


message 48: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice Michael wrote: "I think you've got me wrong. I'm not saying Taleb is wrong, just that his logic leads somewhere that he probably doesn't want to go. Kahneman et al have a different point entirely, the logic of whi..."

I'm happy to hear that, Michael.

Still, I don't see the difference in logic that you see. I see a difference in what the two writers do. They both want to inform the public but Taleb often gets in his own way. For me the pivotal section of Thinking, Fast and Slow is the subsection "Can Psychology Be Taught?" in which Kahneman shows students can't learn from statistics but from individual cases. I think that's inductive reasoning, since they do generalize from their learning. They can memorize facts but not learn in an "Aha!" or life-changing manner from general cases. And he teaches that way throughout. He deemphasizes himself; the reader focuses on what he's saying not on him. For Taleb it's the opposite; he makes himself so central and jarring, and for many people he gets in his own way.

If you want to teach me how Taleb isn't mining the same territory and in fact is going in some other direction, you'll have to take a page from Kahneman and teach me, perhaps by particular examples on particular pages, since my experience has been they're in agreement and that it's Taleb's methodology that's the problem.


message 49: by BlackOxford (new)

BlackOxford You already got it, at least one part: Kahneman is an empiricist, looking to find what people think from what they do. Taleb is a rationalist, trying to find how people think badly from what they do.


message 50: by Jan (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jan Rice I just came back to write a P.S., and so I came across your comment right away.

What I was going to say was that Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis is also related in some way to what Kahneman is teaching (not as much as Taleb's stuff, and I'm too tired to reread whatever I may have said about The Happiness Hypothesis right now). But, because I had read Kahneman, I didn't have to be put off by Haidt. Whatever Kahneman taught enabled me to bypass defects in Haidt's or Taleb's teaching and to be able to learn from them.

Kahneman also demonstrates how people's thinking varies depending on what they see or are shown. His questions or examples at the end of each chapter help.

So you're saying what Taleb does is implying something besides what he's wanting to teach, as in actions speaking louder than words.


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