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The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbableby Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Author Q & A
The Black Swan is an intriguing title — can you give us an overview of what a black swan looks like?
The Black Swan is about these unexpected events that end up controlling our lives, the world, the economy, history, everything. Before they happen we consider them close to impossible; after they happen we think that they were predictable and partake of a larger scheme. They are rare, but their impact is monstrous. My main problem is: Why we don't know that these events play such a large role. Why are we blind to them?
What is your favorite example of a black swan?
I had to write one for the book, with the fictional character of Yevgenia Krasnova. She starts as an unsuccessful writer, becomes famous and creates a new style --later people found her so obviously talented and believed that the emergence of such style was unavoidable. Most successful stories in the arts and letters are Black Swans. Outside the arts, my favorite one is the emergence of the computer and the internet. Also, almost all drug discoveries are Black Swans. The existence of the universe is a Black Swan...
What first got you interested in the world of uncertainty and probability?
I have been thinking about the neglected role of luck and our overestimation of knowledge ever since I can remember, though not in clear form. You know, children philosophize more than adults --and they are critical of adults. I hated school because I liked to daydream and the system tried to stop me from that. Later, I figured out that that the system taught you what little certainties we think we had, and trained you to become a sucker by making you ashamed of saying "I don't know". The world is too ambiguous --the Black Swan comes from believing in crisp and neat texture of reality, and from the overestimation of our skills in mapping the world. But I was only able to express my idea after I started working in the city of London and in Wall Street. It seemed so obvious that people in Wall Street didn't know what was going on, yet thought that they did. It was so blatant that they overestimated their explanations, the role of "skills", yet didn't realize it. So I kept a tally of predictions and realized they can't predict but somehow manage to convince themselves they could. The Black Swan, that rare, high-impact event, was the main reason for their failure to predict and understand the world. It was both a psychological problem (we didn't know) and an empirical one; so I approached the problem from both ends.
What do you want people to take away from reading your book?
How not to be a fool for things that matter. You can take advantage of uncertainty if you know how to look it in the eye, and know the limits of what we understand. You should learn to accept fuzziness and know that we know very little in some domains --but that it can be so useful a guidance to reality. How to avoid taking seriously the "faux experts" (those who wear suits and act in a pompous way). How listening to the media,or studying economics, degrades your knowledge of the world.
How do you write? Do you have a special room in which you work and a set routine?
My principal activity is daydreaming, so I may write mostly in my head. I have no routine, no work ethics. For years I had an upper limit of 50 minutes a day of actual writing so I would keep enjoying it. If I am bored, I stop right away, or I try to change the subject. You can easily fool yourself, not the reader: if you don't enjoy what you are writing about, the reader will somehow figure it out. So I may go for a long time without writing anything except a check. Also, I need an aesthetic environment. I write in my " literary library", the one that does not have technical books and technical papers --it is like a sacred space. I also like to write in cafes away from business people, with bohemian people around. Writing is sacred, other activities are profane, and I don't want them to corrupt my writing.
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