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The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

No, no, no, no, no! The Black Swan is NOT the book version of the Natalie Portman movie – something I’ve had to clarify a number of times. How unfortunate for its author, Nassim Taleb (and for me because of all the explaining I’ve had to do) that his book should have faded to the background when the other, far inferior, Black Swan, appeared in the market.


The Black Swan is THIS book:


And it is a non-fiction book, categorised as Economics/Philosophy by Penguin, but I think it surpasses either genre. It is, to me, a work of art, a guide to life, and one of the best books to have come out in the past 10 years at least.

But that’s just my opinion.

The book is about randomness and unpredictability, and is a 300 page report on what is (probably) a very common theme to us in Singapore, but less common in the West – that luck is a very important part of success, and we never know what’s coming. It’s a long explanation of the Chinese curse, “May we live in interesting times”, although Nassim Taleb doesn’t mention any Chinese belief or superstition at all – that’s just my opinion.

His title The Black Swan is reflective of humanity’s discovery of the first black swan, after a thousand years of thinking all swans are white. His point is: We think all swans are white because we’ve never seen a black one. All it takes is ONE black swan to shatter a thousand years of misconceptions.

And this theory can be applied to economics, stock markets, government, politics, our daily lives, etc etc. He goes on to show, in a somewhat anti-establishment manner that really agrees with me, that those people who claim to be able to “predict” things (outside the realm of astrology: my own addition) but doing countless studies (such as economists) are quite useless at their jobs because their task is just impossible. He also thrashes the bell curve in quite a severe way, providing me some comfort (misery loves company) after having been tormented by that stupid, useless, good-for-nothing curve in the university.

To illustrate his points, Nassim Taleb gives anecdotes. He is also of the opinion, it seems, that fiction is often more accurate at depicting the world compared to non-fiction, and that allegories and anecdotes are effective methods of getting a point across. Hence, in his book you find a number of characters such as Fat Tony the Brooklyn tycoon, the story of some unknown writer here and there, and some peculiar asides about Michel de Montaigne – all described as if they were characters in a novel. Highly entertaining.

Oh, The Black Swan was on, the last I know, on the Borders Top 100 list – Nassim Taleb seems to have shot to fame after making a killing in the financial markets during the crisis. Here’s a video of him speaking – somehow his manner of speech really agitates me, but I like him anyway.