The Black Swan – Andy is not going to try for wit or even tact. This book is shit.

September 17, 2009

The black swan is not a “quite ugly black bird”. The black swan is actually a quite impressive, arguably majestic black bird. I really like the black swan. I’m talking about the bird here, OK, the one I saw on the Yarra the other morning, down near Southgate on my way to work. That black swan. Not The Black Swan, the book by Nassim Taleb. I’m a big fan of the black swan, but The Black Swan is a piece of shit.

Taleb doesn’t get off to a good start. He’d offended me by the end of his first paragraph, and for no other reason than his description of the (native Australian) black swan as a quite ugly black bird. This has absolutely, literally, utterly no bearing on his argument whatsoever. But it fucked me off before I’d finished reading page 1. Actually, sorry, no. Not page 1. Page xvii.

Yup. It has a page xvii. With stuff on it that you’re expected to read. The Black Swan is that kind of book.

But anyway. Fuck off, Nassim. The black swan is not an ugly bird. Just Fuck Off.

I am not going to attempt to rebutt Taleb’s argument because although I disagree with it he’s obviously much more intelligent than I am and hey, look, there’s every possibility maybe even every likelihood that he’s right and I’m wrong. But I don’t agree with him. His argument (and here I will give what I think he is saying, along with what I think is the political subtext) is this: the world economy (as well as our experience of the world) is dominated by events we cannot predict and cannot control. Therefore attempting to control them is futile and therefore wrong. So efforts to ameliorate the impact of free markets and a globalised economy on local economies and local populations is misguided and doomed to failure.

Bullshit, fuckwit. Sorry, I didn’t actually want that to rhyme.

Taleb doesn’t dwell on it too much but the obvious black swan of our generation (pre-GFC, and his book came out a couple of years ago) is September 11. He talks about it a bit. Completely unpredictable, he seems to think. Actually I believe a thriller writer, a bloke who used to work for the CIA, Charles McCarry I think is his name, predicted something very similar to 9/11 in a novel he wrote in the 70s. But take that out of the equation. The simple reality is that 9/11 was predicted. Intelligence operatives were aware that something bad was in the wings months if not years in advance and the US administration was warned over the weeks before the attacks on the twin towers that a major terrorist attack was imminent. They did nothing. Conspiracy theorists will tell you there were reasons for that and they may have a point, others will tell you Bush was just completely incompetent and they’ve definitely got a point. My point is that 9/11 was not a Black Swan. Not even remotely. On the information that was available at the time the attacks on the twin towers could have been averted. Not definitely, not beyond a shadow of a doubt. But it did not come out of nowhere. It was the product of circumstances that could have been managed differently if the political will had been present. It wasn’t. Nearly 3000 people died.

The other Black Swan that Taleb doesn’t (quite) discuss (for obvious reasons) but I’m sure fans of his work will point to is the GFC, the Global Financial Crisis. Yeah baby, yeah. At one point while discussing this book long before we’d started reading it Netty described it as having been written by “the bloke that predicted the GFC”. Taleb would be appalled by that description because obviously, in his world, the GFC could not possibly be predicted. And yet on page 225 of his book he talks about dodgy banks and an establishment called Fanny Mae… ring a bell, boys and girls? Off the top of my head I can think of two Aussie economists, Andrew Charlton and Tim Colebatch, who did not necessarily predict the GFC but who certainly raised concerns in the years leading up to 2008 about the state of the global economy and what was likely to happen if things went pear shaped. The GFC was not a Black Swan. If those with power and influence had been prepared to listen to those with the nous the GFC would have been a non starter, or at least it would’ve been much more mild than it’s been.

The other thing about this book that shat me to tears, similar to my first somewhat superfluous objection, is that Taleb is a wanker of the solid gold variety. Last year I described Thomas Pynchon as a sort of “oooh look at me I’m so clever” kind of writer. Taleb falls into a similar category, except that he’s infinitely less interesting, colossally less engaging, monstrously less witty and – oh, probably not as clever. Taleb takes swipes at CEOs, academics, economists, the French (OK, he’s Lebanese, I suppose that might be excusable). Basically if you disagree with him you must be retarded and therefore deserving of his withering wit. Except his wit isn’t withering.  Or witty. It’s just irritating. And not in a good way. And an attempt in his closing pages to shoe-horn a point long made by evolutionists – including Richard Dawkins, who he references (atrociously) earlier on – is truly dismal. “Just being alive is an extraordinary piece of good luck”. Yes, it is, Nassim. Just as being tricked into reading your book is an extraordinary piece of bad luck.

Nobody reads this blog and so there’s little chance of my argument being torn to shreds although I’m sure it could be if anybody gave a fuck. If I was brainier and better informed and less drunk I would make more of an attempt to tear Taleb’s arguments so shreds (or who knows, maybe I’d agree with them) but I’m not going to make that attempt and I don’t really care.  If he’s right – and I’m dead fucking certain he isn’t – then he’s made his argument dismally. Our lives are not ruled by Black Swans. Government intervention is absolutely vital to the health of a modern economy, as the OECD has in the past day acknowledged about the Australian Government’s stimulus packages. If my life is going to be guided by a swan of any shape, form or colour, it will be the black swan I saw on the Yarra earlier this week, gliding across the river, sleek, magnificent, unflappable. Pardon the pun.

PS: For the record, I even read the sections Taleb said could be skipped by the “nontechnical” reader. Yup. Nontechnical. Fuck off. Funnily enough, one of those sections was actually more comprehensible than most of the rest of the book. Sadly, I can’t remember which one.

One comment

  1. Ha!

    You are an opinionated person, aren’t you? This is good 🙂

    Enjoyed reading your review.

    However, you misunderstood his main argument. You suggest it’s this …

    “the world economy (as well as our experience of the world) is dominated by events we cannot predict and cannot control. Therefore attempting to control them is futile and therefore wrong. So efforts to ameliorate the impact of free markets and a globalised economy on local economies and local populations is misguided and doomed to failure.”

    His actual argument is this …

    The future can be dramatically altered by events we cannot predict. Therefore, any analysis/prediction of the future, should be clearly understood for what it is—highly speculative. And it is humility in our predictive accuracy that provides the best means of dealing with the unpredictability of high-impact future events (black swans).

    He is not suggesting that governments should pack up shop and avoid making and implementing policy … He is merely providing an intellectual foil to those who try and persuade us all that the future is definable, predictable and easily accounted for through [XYZ] action/s taken today.

    The examples you raise—9/11 and the GFC (and the way you use them) further bolster his position. He also argues the following …

    WITH HINDSIGHT, we are able to construct a narrative in which the events that happened are understandable and logical. BUT THAT IS ONLY WITH HINDSIGHT. If this narrative is so understandable and logical, Taleb asks why was it missed before and during said events?

    The analysts and policy makers—despite all their expertise, resources and actual ability to implement preventative measures—were unable to predict these events. Therefore, how ‘understandable and logical’ were these events really?

    And, whilst it is true, there were some ‘voices in the wilderness’ who did accurately predict (give or take) these particular events before they happened … THEY WERE IGNORED by those with the power to actually do anything about it. And THAT is the point.

    To use his analogy …

    If you try and tell a person who believes that all swans are white, that ‘one day soon’ they’ll get to see a black one … you’ll be ignored (and most probably ridiculed).

    I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the book. I’ve found much of it very interesting and was in no way put off by his writing style.

    Lynette shared this link (because I’m just finishing up the book). Glad she did. Always enjoy hearing other people’s opinions of books. All though I don’t like arguing about them.

    All the best.



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