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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto)
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Random House, 2007
366 pp., $35.00

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Greg Cootsona

In Extremistan

The impact of the highly improbable.

One impossibly sunny September day in Manhattan, I was making my way to work, and—appropriately enough for a New Yorker—dropping off dress shirts. My extremely pleasant dry cleaner eschewed the usual greeting and exclaimed, "A plane has hit one of the Twin Towers." That was it. He moved on and didn't seem especially agitated. Surprised but not unduly distressed, I hopped on my bike and continued to the church office. Just another normal day.

I'm going to assume that the day before, somewhere in the vicinity of Boston, eager hands grabbed another set of dry-cleaned clothes in preparation for a trip to Los Angeles. This customer had been getting ready for United Flight 175 and was flying overhead as I leisurely pedaled in Central Park on the way to Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. That 767 would collide with the South Tower. Who would have known? Who could have predicted that set of events?

Routinely we operate on the understanding that life in general and our own lives in particular are governed by the predictable, the consistent. But such was hardly the case on that beautiful September morning. In The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the case that

Our world is dominated by the extreme, the unknown, and the very improbable (improbable according to our current knowledge)—and all the while we spend our time engaged in small talk, focusing on the known, and the repeated.

This emphasis on the predictable leads us to make all sorts of false assumptions, about matters large and small. Before people in the Old World encountered Australia, all swans were assumed to be white. Then they saw a black swan.

Taleb is himself an idiosyncratic character—a high-stakes trader and an autodidact with a taste for philosophy. (The Wall Street Journal says that his previous book, Fooled by Randomness, "enjoys cult status in the hedge-fund industry.") His style has the flavor of Umberto Eco and Milan Kundera: jumpy, sprightly, ...

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