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The Black Swan

The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Nassim Taleb

The event is a surprise (to the observer) and has a major impact. After the fact, the event is rationalized by hindsight.

What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes. First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.

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Taleb uses the example of the turkey who has a perfectly reasonable expectation that life will consistently deliver, day after day, a supply of tasty food with little or no effort required. Then, a week before thanksgiving, he gets a very unpleasant surprise.

A small number of BSE's explain almost everything in our world, both on a historical scale and at personal level.

Specifically your own ancestry and the series of random meetings between your ancestors which led to you.

Virtually every scientific discovery and technical advance has come from BSE's - none from design or planning

In the movies, what we call 'talent' actually comes from success., rather than the other way round. It has been established by many studies (Art de Vany) that much of what we ascribe to skills is an after-the-fact attribution. The movie makes the actor, and a large dose of non-linear luck makes the movie.

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"I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative," said John Stuart Mill.

An engineer, an economist, and a philosopher are hiking through the hills of Scotland. On the top of a hill they see a black sheep. "What do you know," the engineer remarks. "The sheep in Scotland are black." "No, no", protests the economist. "At least one of the sheep in Scotland is black." The philosopher considers this a moment. "That's not quite right. There's at least one sheep which is black from one side."

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