The black swan

When Aise was born, she was 50 centimeters long. When she was 15, she was 150 centimeters tall. In 15 years she grew threefold. When she turns 30, how tall will she be? The answer based on experience is better than the one based on mathematics.
There was a turkey. She used to love Pierre, the farmer. Because Pierre loved the turkey so much, he provided her with the best fodder. He had nourished the turkey with great affection since she hatched. This turkey grew up to become the most beautiful turkey on the farm. All the other turkeys envied the farm’s star turkey, who was the happiest and healthiest turkey of all. One morning, the star turkey got up; the sun was shining and the grass was green; it was a perfect day. The farmer approached the star turkey — but with a knife in his hand rather than fodder this time. The turkey thought, “He would never chop off my head, I guess he is going to cut some branches from the trees.” This was her final thought.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable” gives interesting examples of unsuccessful induction and reasoning. We have difficulty in understanding what is happening at the actual time; most of the time we understand something only after it has occurred.
In the 1930s none of the French could conceive that Hitler would start a war that would result in more than 50 million casualties. Suppose that farmer Pierre is a happy farmer, visiting the town on his bicycle. Last year’s crop was very good, and Pierre is in good financial condition. Pierre and the turkey have much in common. Both of them think that the future is bright; however, it is not.
Taleb chooses an interesting example — the black swan — to describe the improbable. The animal most identified with whiteness is the swan. We suppose that all swans are white. There is no probability of other colors for ordinary people. They have visual evidence — all of the swans they have ever seen were white. In spite of these experiences, there are black swans in limited numbers in our world, too.
A black swan is improbable, and it turns all of our assumptions upside down. It catches us unprepared. The day the farmer comes with a knife in his hand is the black swan day for the turkey. On that day, the turkey finds out that all of her beliefs were false.
Taleb thinks that Sept. 11 is a black swan moment in world history. There are black swans in every field, such as technology, business and politics, and in our personal lives. The sudden crash of a stock exchange with a trend towards growth was a black swan moment. The bankruptcies of giant corporations in the United States were also black swan instances.
Black swans, however, are not always negative. They are sometimes positive. At the end of World War I, a military officer by the name of Mustafa Kemal founded modern Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. It was a black swan moment for the Turkish nation. When everybody was pessimistic about the country’s future, Mustafa Kemal organized the nation and changed its destiny. European countries did not expect any leader from Turkey to be capable of foiling their plans for these lands. Barack Obama is a black swan, too. Nobody in the 20th century could have foreseen that one day an African-American could be the US president. The success of Apple iPhones and Samsung against Nokia are also black swans. Most of the people believed that Nokia was an unshakable giant in the communications market, till it was challenged by Apple and Samsung.
It is a very interesting book full of theories and fascinating stories. Together with this, the author warns us about stories. Although they may be very persuasive, they may be based on insufficient and unreliable data.
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One comment on “The black swan

  1. I never seen them in germany. I also thhogut they are only white. Looks like the darker swans are called Trauerschwan (Cygnus atratus). After researching I found out their natural habitat is in australia, tasmania and in new zealand this swarn is naturalized. They are also seen in netherland and nordrhein-westfalen but they are set out there and savaged. Thats what I found on wikipedia 🙂

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