Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Black Swan - The improbably avoidable book event of 2008

When someone writes "Fooled by randomness" for a debut, they earn the right to have newfound fans wait with barely contained anticipation for their next master-piece. They also earn the right to think they are on to a good thing, and maybe, just maybe, they can explore some finer, lesser appreciated corrolaries of their theory. What they do not earn, is the right to parade themselves as the only original thinker left on the intellectual map. They do not earn the right to indulge in self-promotion thinly disguised as scholarship. And they do not earn the right to take their readers around a 300 page walk-around only to drop them back where they were after 30. In short, they don't earn the right to get away with "The Black Swan".

The high points first.

I loved the title of the book. This is one of the (surprisingly) few books where the title vividly and visually captures the central thesis. Two other books come to mind - the classic "Where are the customer's Yachts?" and the more recent "The Long Tail". The thesis of The Black Swan is delightfully simple. There are random events that are highly unpredictable, have massive impact, and engender post-facto explanations that make them appear less random than they were. These are the Black Swan events. Events that, if acknowledged for what they were, would force one to rethink a long held belief that all swans are white. I find the thesis simple, stark and one of those things that you know are true the moment they are uttered. For an intellectual thesis to base a book on, this is a great one.

As in Fooled, Taleb is witty, full of interesting anecdotes, and irreverant. It makes for interesting reading, as I found myself reading breathlessly, waiting for which intellectual or investment titan might be the subject of Taleb's next roast. It is like sitting backseat with Simon and waiting for the next hapless singer to turn in a bad performance on American Idol.

Which is where things start going downhill.

The acerbic tone and the incredulous 'can you really believe that Nobel laureate said that!!' voice of Taleb starts off being hilarious, Stephen Colbert funny. But soon, I found myself mildly annoyed at how much of the book was that tone, and how little was the actual thesis. And once you find yourself not sitting shotgun with the writer of a book, it is not a long stop to disillusionment-land. I counted myself a fan of Taleb after Fooled, but here, halfway into the book, I found myself rooting for the opposing team. It was clear to me that The Black Swan was written more to impress than to express.

Two concepts bring this out starkly for me and are worth pointing out in Brick and Rope. In the Chapter called 'Giacomo Casanova's unfailing luck', we are introduced to the concept of 'Slient Evidence'. We are also introduced to the 'self-sampling assumption' and the 'reference point argument' and of course, Casanova's unfailing luck. Through the 20 page chapter, you are often entertained, mostly impressed, but never given the chance to suspect that this might be the concept of 'survivor bias' that one might have read of elsewhere. Taleb is so focused on ensuring that he comes across as the only truly original thinker around, that he coins new terms for any concept that might have been explored by others before. He takes care to avoid ever using the phrase 'survivor bias', not even to point out how his ideas are different or more nuanced than survivor bias. Similar are the attempts at coining new terms like 'naive empiricism', 'negative empiricism', and 'round trip fallacy' - all within one chapter designed to avoid any references to terms by which you might already know the central concept of that chapter. If you only read the dizzyingly long bibliography of The Black Swan, you might be forgiven for assuming that the book itself would be a humble acknowledgement of how the writer stands on the shoulders of giants. Once you read the book of course, it is clear that the Bibliography is a lengthy list of everyone whose work is either ignored or insulted in the previous pages.

And then of course there is Yevgenia Krasnova. Much has been said about this character elsewhere. To me, pitching a long story of a person as a startlingly real illustration of what a Black Swan could look like in real life, but then stating in a small footnote later in the book that the whole example was completely made up, is dangerously close to intellectual duplicity. I am sure there were real 'real-life' examples that Taleb could have picked from. Why he chose a fake one is beyond me.

So there it is. I waited long for this book. Bought it with great expectations. And came away with one 'that is so interesting' moment (which came with the explanation of the title), a few other moments of thought-provoking insight, and an overwhelming sense of having spent most of an otherwise good party unable to escape a conversation with a loud, foul-talking, braggard.