At the risk of indigestion — though with a fitting break since the last serving — we reach the final course that has left the Knackered Hack out to lunch with Nassim Nicholas Taleb for so very long. One of the quant-professor-turned-essayist’s most digestible dictums is “don’t run for trains”. So, in full keeping with the Slow Food movement, this nutritional saga continues, unhurried yet inexorable, to its wafer-thin mint conclusion. Continue reading ‘caveman lunch with taleb – part 3′

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Taleb on Journalism, Blogs, and TV

Back in his days as a mathematical options trader, Nassim Taleb used to watch financial TV with the sound turned off. That way he could remind himself that the journalists and pundits — with their endless commentary and market predictions — were more noise than substance. He made that confession in his second book, Fooled by Randomness (2001).

As a former financial newswire journalist, with some 15 years’ Fleet Street experience, I have found his indifference to the fruits of my toil a little unnerving. But, there are some grounds for hope. Taleb has also written that journalism is important because it’s the way we find out about the world. But every time I’ve heard him speak, he is always quick to mention that he doesn’t read newspapers — so one should not ask what he thinks about the news, a Google IPO, or whether US real estate is in a bubble.

Real-time journalism has mushroomed since Fooled by Randomness was published, and besides the plethora of news providers, there are more blogs and self-appointed experts out there than you can shake a stick at. So I felt safe with the assumption that Taleb would still be screening out unnecessary sound and fury, that he’d be dismissive of this new technological Tower of Babel. But as he tucked into his Tandoori chicken, The Black Swan author told me that he’s actually an avid reader of blogs. Continue reading ‘Caveman lunch with taleb – part 2′

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Nassim Taleb, author of the New York Times bestseller The Black Swan, was the first person ever to email me here at the Knackered Hack.

No, honestly, it’s true. In the annals of this blog, that was seen as something of a red-letter day (if not a black swan event). But its relative importance on the part of the sender was naturally quite insignificant. Let’s say, our relationship was perfectly asymmetrical. So, when I turned up to meet Taleb at his London hotel recently, without the more imposing affiliation of a national media title with which to introduce myself, it took a while for it to sink in just who in publicity hell I was.

Finally, after 10 minutes, the author exclaimed in his soft Levantine accent: “Ah, I remember! You’re the marathon guy with the picture!”

Rarely have I been so pleased to be recognised for so little. It was nice to know that I registered with Taleb less as a total “unknown, unknown” and more as just faintly forgettable. Taleb had been researching blogs with a view to publicising his latest book, and had hit on this humble site. “I saw you writing about my book Fooled by Randomness on a marathon blog. I said to myself, this guy’s interesting!”

Even better! It’s a rare journalist who gets an actual compliment from the The Black Swan author.

As we exchanged initial small talk about exercise, I explained that I was a bit annoyed by all this complexity stuff of his, because his work has devalued most of my post-graduate business studies. Moreover, after leaving business school I moved on to devote a lot of my spare time to marathon training. But lately, having suffered repeated illness and injury and read the blog of another student of complexity, Art De Vany, I’d been led to the conclusion that this marathon malarkey might be injurious to health as well.

At this point a jet-lagged, publicity-dazed Taleb came alive: Continue reading ‘Caveman lunch with taleb’

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A three part interview with Nassim Taleb can be found here.

It is very tempting to declare that The Black Swan(subtitled The Impact of the Highly Improbable) by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the most important book of the century so far. I might say this for the bibliography alone. But the flaw in such a statement, which the book makes clear, is that I could not possibly know this without having read all the books that have been published to date. Even more challenging is the fact that, even if I were an accomplished speed reader, I would not be able to inwardly digest all the unpublished works, which are legion. This raises the problem of the “unknown unknowns”, an expression coined by Taleb and (in)famously adopted by Donald Rumsfeld, but from which Taleb understandably prefers to distance himself.

Black swans can be positive or negative, a blockbuster book like Harry Potter or a stock market crash. They are defined as rare events with an extreme impact, which are only retrospectively predictable. That last bit is crucial. Overestimating one’s own knowledge (what Taleb describes as “epistemic arrogance”) is central to our inability to handle and anticipate black swan events. Whether it is 9/11 or Virginia Tech, we retrofit a narrative to tell ourselves that someone should have seen it coming because we ourselves could not have been that stupid. And yet, we are no better prepared for the next one.

Why call these things “black swans”? It was Karl Popper’s notion that no amount of sightings of white swans can prove that all swans are white. It is falsifiable with just one observation of a black swan. Just because you have not seen it before does not mean it can’t or won’t exist. Continue reading ‘black swans and icebergs’

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