Your Input Needed: Hunting the Black Swan

“Ferreting out antilogics is an exhilarating activity.”

Do you agree with the above sentence? If so, you will probably enjoy the writing of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a polymathic gentleman whose new book is called The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Here’s how its dust jacket succinctly describes the thesis: “A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11.”

I am about a third of the way through The Black Swan, and am finding it to be one of the most fun and challenging books I’ve read in a long time. It barrels its way through history, psychology, philosophy, statistics, etc. You find yourself arguing Taleb every third sentence or so — but, to me, that is part of the great fun. He is a brash, stubborn, entertaining, opinionated, curious, cajoling writer and thinker. I also very much liked his previous book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets. The two books have similar worldviews but it is worth reading both of them. (FWIW, based on what he’s written, I think he would probably hate Freakonomics, and he explicitly hates the financial end of economics.)

I’m sure that some of you have already read The Black Swan, since it is a New York Times best-seller. If not, you can learn quite a bit about Taleb from his home page, as well as from this very good profile that Malcolm Gladwell wrote a few years back.

I e-mailed Taleb the other day and asked if he’d be willing to answer a Q&A to be posted on this blog. He agreed. So here’s what I’d like to propose:

Since so many of you had such good suggestions for questions to ask Bill Clinton (an opportunity that, alas, fell apart), I thought you might want to submit questions for Taleb. Please do so in the comments below. Then we’ll turn the questions over to Taleb and let him give us some answers. Be nice, have fun, think hard.

Addendum: You can find the answers to these questions here.

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  1. Caitlin says:

    Black swans are the default setting for swans in Australia (they’re a native bird)- I wonder if he’ll have to rename his book for publication Down Under?!

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  2. Caitlin says:

    Black swans are the default setting for swans in Australia (they’re a native bird)- I wonder if he’ll have to rename his book for publication Down Under?!

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  3. I’m not sure he would hate Freakononmics – it seems like Freakonomics is mainly concerned with activities that are not affected by Black Swans: names, crime statistics etc.

    my question:
    In Fooled By Randomness, you write about using a Monte Carlo simulator to do experiments and make trading decisions. How can you do that without having to assign probabilites to rare events, or if you do assign such probabilites, how do you avoid the very Black Swan problems you write about?

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  4. I’m not sure he would hate Freakononmics – it seems like Freakonomics is mainly concerned with activities that are not affected by Black Swans: names, crime statistics etc.

    my question:
    In Fooled By Randomness, you write about using a Monte Carlo simulator to do experiments and make trading decisions. How can you do that without having to assign probabilites to rare events, or if you do assign such probabilites, how do you avoid the very Black Swan problems you write about?

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  5. Matt W says:

    Has the hedge fund he runs, described in the Gladwell article, done well since then?

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  6. Matt W says:

    Has the hedge fund he runs, described in the Gladwell article, done well since then?

    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0