Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: The Black Swan

I just finished reading the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The book is about the disproportionate effect on our world of highly improbable events, and the difficulty of predicting those events. The name comes from David Hume's observation that many generations of Britons' only seeing white swans was not proof that there is no such thing as a black swan (which do, in fact, exist).

I found the book very disappointing. It started out with so much promise; I looked forward to reading all sorts of anecdotal stories of these so-called black swans, and about the disproportionate effect on our world.

Instead, what I got was a 300 page diatribe by one statistician against all the others in the world who disagree with him, punctuated by an occasional gratuitous insult of the French.

After enduring several hundred pages of personal stories about the author's quest to make his statistical theories known (which are not quite as controversial as he would make you believe, by the way), finally in Chapter 15 it seems that he will get to the meat of the matter. Unfortunately, even though the next three chapters were laden with graphs and figures, I encountered no such explanations. Or, if there were any, they were muddled at best.

Even the anecdotes were disappointing. I was excited to start reading about a great vindication of his - the collapse of LTCM in 1998 (which was run by several of his statistical nemeses) - expecting to find a wonderful explanation of what went wrong, and all the financial turmoil which resulted. Instead, he simply stated "it went bust." Duh.

I have no idea why this book has been so highly touted. Perhaps it is because it came on the heels of 9/11, and just before the credit turmoil which started in 2007. But it's not worth your time.

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