Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

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Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the MarketsNassim Nicholas Taleb

Standard deviations, repetition, but no hesitation

Amazon provides an interesting statistical commentary on this and all other products on its site: a graphic of the relative proportions of different star ratings assigned by customer reviews. If you flip this on its side it looks a lot more like what it is: a statistical representation of customers’ views of the book.

Nassim Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness has an unusual “curve": a short “head” of 5-star reviews and a long tail of lesser ratings which doesn’t tail off. A large standard deviation, then, against a mean of four stars, compared to Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives - also a four-star average, but a much more conventional distribution of grades with a tighter standard deviation (a consistent curve from 50% five-star to 2% one-star, against Taleb’s 46% five-star and 11% one-star).

So I have learned something from this (or Mlodinow’s) book.

Having being equally entertained and aggravated by Taleb’s more recent The Black Swan, I was leery of picking up this earlier effort. While Taleb undoubtedly would be stimulating company, he verges on being a crashing bore, often crossing the verge and ramming the odd letterbox. He also harbours some unremedied professional grievances: the award of Nobel prizes, in particular, mightily irks him. Taleb’s writing is constantly grandiose and egotistical, but he is self-aware enough to not only realise but celebrate that fact.

So a real vegemite, love-him-or-hate-him sort of writer. Fooled By Randomness is, if anything, *more* bombastic, and its content less interesting. Its first half comprises mainly dubious anecdotes about unnamed colleagues, and Taleb’s repeated efforts to persuade you what a voracious reader he is. (Interestingly, in the Black Swan he places great store in his anti-library — the books he has not read). Taleb’s early observations about probability are pat, under-explained and have been more thoroughly and less idiosyncratically expounded by others (such as Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives).

On occasion, Taleb’s love of anecdote contradicts his own preaching. At one point he recounts a bit of “anecdotal empiricism” as to “anchoring” of expectation. “I asked the local hotel concierge how long it takes to go to the airport. “40 minutes?” I asked. “About 35” he answered. Then I asked the lady at the reception if the journey was 20 minutes. “No, about 25” she said. I timed the trip: 31 minutes.

Two paragraphs later, in his next anecdote, Taleb rails against the stupidity of a man who derives conclusions from a single observation.

There is a seam of useful information in the second half of this book, but you must wade through quite a lot of self-aggrandisement to find it, and none is unique: as mentioned, there are better presented and less irritating accounts of the same information elsewhere, so Mr. Taleb may be disappointed to see yet another equivocal assessment of his book.

Except, he tells us, he won’t be: he doesn’t read or care about “amateur” reviewers anyway, so no harm done.