Fooled By Randomness
Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Aerial Telly is a spectacularly gifted gambler. Defeat is as foreign a concept to him as oral hygiene is to Eva Wiseman. So as well as being the finest TV critic of his generation and making your girlfriend so wet she flew off his Johnson, bouncing off every wall in your crib, somersaulting across the room then through the window before landing in the hedge outside, he is also the man who leaves Britain’s bookmakers shaking like Judy Finnigan on a 30 second link whenever he walks through their doors or logs on to their websites under any number of assumed identities. So he will often spend time reading around the subject, devouring any number of texts recommended by the gambling intelligentsia.
"Aerial Telly is the man who leaves Britain’s bookmakers shaking like Judy Finnigan on a 30 second link whenever he walks through their doors."
One such influential book is Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s Fooled By Randomness – the hedge fund trader’s reflection on luck and misperception in the financial markets, the book that made Fortune’s Smartest Books We Know list. The starting point is that "noise" (ie random events with no special cause) is consistently perceived as non-random (ie explicable by the faddy theories of the day). He argues largely through anecdote and example which makes this accessible for the casual reader. If we take it as read that anyone interested in the financial markets is a priori sub-human illiterate scum then such widening of the book’s appeal is essential.
“People tend to see causality in preceding events where there is in fact none. Everybody’s a smart-arse with hindsight, is the broad point.”
He talks about the "black swan" phenomenon. Black swans are high-impact bolt from the blue events that shake up markets, politics or national security – stockmarket crash, 9/11 and the like . Such highly improbable random events, he argues, happen more frequently than people think. People tend to backwards rationalise the shock event and see causality in preceding events where there is in fact none. Everybody’s a smart-arse with hindsight, is the broad point he makes.
Likewise, there’s the trap of survivorship bias, a common problem in the finance world where studies of traders are often unduly focused on successful traders, the unfortunate or incompetent practitioners having gone out of business or being sacked. The failures are frequently not included in such studies, which of course is wack science and potentially devastating to your portfolio. He mocks those suits reading The Wall Street Journal on the subway on the way to a day’s trading, noting how journalistic values of eye-catching novelty and daily topicality are fundamentally opposed to the sound long-term trading strategy.
"Much of these cautionary tales appeal to your own prejudices about those who trade for a living and there’s no question that this has a certain seductive power."
What he gains in readability he sometimes loses in theoretical rigour. There’s a limit to the number of flashy traders you can laugh at, amusing though these passages are. And his tone often borders on a smug scholarly arrogance which makes you question the veracity of his arguments. You wonder if he’s motivated by personal dislike of the fly-high fall-hard burn-out victims with their trashy ostentation and God complex. Much of these cautionary tales appeal to your own prejudices about those who trade for a living and there’s no question that this has a certain seductive power.
“In a sense, he’s making cunts out of us all. But at least he’s kind enough to tell us about it, giving us the opportunity to learn from our folly.”
Nonetheless, his arguments ring true. Humans in general see patterns when there are none. Whether it’s Christ crucified in a Mexican taco or a new Babyshambles album as the third sign of the Apocalypse we’d much rather the world be ordered and explicable than random and indifferent. Taleb trades on the unexpected and catastrophic – he did very well out of the 1998 stockmarket crash. So, in a sense, he’s making cunts out of us all. But at least he’s kind enough to tell us about it, giving us the opportunity to learn from our folly.
But you know we won’t.
The best thing about it: Laughing at cocky trader scum losing everything
The worst thing about it: Occasionally, it’s just a little too pleased with itself.
The verdict on Fooled By Randomness: Good, readable primer in the randomness of rare events.
Marks out of 10: 7.5