Skip to main content

The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb ***

I have a strange relationship with this book. Back in 2008 I was having a talk with my then-agent about what to write next. He said to me ‘You ought to write something like The Black Swan,’ proving, as we shall see, that he hadn’t read the book. I duly bought a copy, had a quick flick through it, decided it was pretentious tosh and put it to one side. So it has sat there unread for four years, until I was needing a bit of light relief from physics books and decided it was time it was reviewed.
I quickly discovered this is in many ways a very readable book, though with some serious reservations I’ll mention in a moment. Nassim Nicholas Taleb really only makes one point in the entire 292 pages, but it is a very important point: that there are two types of randomness, and the sort physicists and economists deal with bears very little relationship to the kind of randomness that drives everything from the weather to sales of books and the success or failure of traders.
This is a hugely significant point, and Taleb has no end of fun pointing out the idiocy of those who try to use predictions based on the normal distribution bell curve in situations that are dominated by huge unexpected discrepancies. As he points out, a turkey trying to predict the future given its normal distribution of life’s ups and downs in the past would never predict the day when Christmas looms on the horizon and it gets the chop.
So far, so good. And Taleb uses some great examples and makes some excellent points along the way. (Or rather scores some excellent points as this is very much a ‘me versus the world’ book.) But, despite this flash of genius there are good reasons for this book only getting three stars.
One is the style. It is often pompous, didactic, nit-picking and irritating. There is far too much of the author in it – I really don’t care about him or want to know about him. The other is the lack of content. My agent was wrong about ‘writing another Black Swan‘ because the whole point of mega-successful books is you can’t predict their coming. And Black Swan also proves him wrong as one of his tests of a successful non-fiction book was to say ‘Is it a book or is it an article?’ I.e. does it have enough material to make a book? Black Swan is definitely an article posing as a book – it makes the one point over and over and over again, because there is really very little else to say. There is no real defence against this kind of randomness (though he gives a couple of pages of vague suggestions) and so it is just a warning of things going wrong, repeated indefinitely.
As such it shouldn’t have worked as a book – but it did (sorry, agent). I find it difficult to recommend it because I disliked so much of it,  but I have to admire that key would-make-a-great-article point, so in the end it’s a book I would probably go out and buy anyway.
Paperback:  
Audio CD:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Adam Roberts - Four Way Interview

Adam Roberts is commonly described as one of the UK's most important writers of SF. He is the author of numerous novels and literary parodies. He is Professor of 19th Century Literature at Royal Holloway, London University, and has written a number of critical works on both SF and 19th Century poetry. His latest novel is The Real-Town Murders.

Why science fiction?

Because it's the best thing in the world. I work for the University of London, which is to say: in effect, I'm paid to read books (and teach them, and write about them) and that means I read a lot of books; and that means you can believe me when I say that SF/Fantasy, and especially (even though it's not something I write) YA SF/Fantasy, is where all the most exciting writing is happening nowadays. You might wonder why I think so: but that's a whole other question, and you've already used up your four ...

Why this book?

So, I came across an account of one of Alfred Hitchcock's (many) unfinished projec…

UFO Drawings from the National Archives - David Clarke ***

This is a lovely little book that, sadly, not every reader will see the point of. If somebody’s anecdotal account of a presumed alien encounter is obviously a misperception of a mundane occurrence, or else too vague – or too far-fetched – to be taken seriously, then it’s all too easy to dismiss it as worthless. But that’s missing the point. The fact that so many incidents are reported in these terms makes the witnesses’ testimony worthy of serious study – to teach us, not about extraterrestrial civilisations, but about our own culture.

That was the core message of David Clarke’s excellent How UFOs Conquered the World published a couple of years ago. Now Clarke is back with another take on the same basic theme.  His day job is Reader and Principal Lecturer in Journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, but for the last ten years he’s also acted as consultant for the National Archives project to release all of Britain’s official Ministry of Defence (MoD) files on UFOs. Throughout the Cold…

Crashing Heaven (SF) - Al Robertson ****

There's an engaging mix of powerful thriller and science fiction in this impressive novel. After the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, human life is limited to vast space station. Our central character, Jack, has a symbiotic artificial intelligence, Hugo Fist, designed to destroy other AIs in a mysterious collective that is said to have committed an atrocity - but with a kick in the tail that because of an unbreakable contract, Fist will take over Jack's body in a few weeks' time.

Al Robertson packs remarkable technology concepts into the cyber side of this story, from AI corporations that act as a pantheon of gods to the 'puppet' that is Fist (he usually come across as a virtual cross between Mr Punch and an evil ventriloquist's dummy). Robertson does all the cyber stuff so well that it's easy to miss that this is, in effect, a myth in electronic clothing - you could substitute the myths of 'real' Greek gods and magic for what happens here. Alt…