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Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk Paperback – 29 Sep 1998


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Product details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: John Wiley & Sons; New Ed edition (29 Sep 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0471295639
  • ISBN-13: 978-0471295631
  • Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 91,848 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Review

"...provides an excellent history about risk and it′s vital role in markets." ( Wall Street Journal , August 7, 2006) “…an excellent book on what can be a dry subject…” ( Financial World , 1 st December 2005) "A comprehensive history of man′s efforts to understand risk and probability, from ancient gamblers in Greece to modern chaos theory." ( The Washington Post Book World , September 20, 1998) "I must say that I enjoyed the book, it was written in a light–hearted manner". ( Money Matters , April 2001) No. 7 bestseller in ′Risk′ ( erivativesreview.com , December 2001)

"...provides an excellent history about risk and it′s vital role in markets." ( Wall Street Journal , August 7, 2006) “…an excellent book on what can be a dry subject…” ( Financial World , 1 st December 2005) "I must say that I enjoyed the book, it was written in a light–hearted manner".( Money Matters , April 2001) No. 7 bestseller in ′Risk′ ( erivativesreview.com , December 2001)

From the Back Cover

A Business Week, New York Times Business, and USA Today Bestseller "Ambitious and readable . . . an engaging introduction to the oddsmakers, whom Bernstein regards as true humanists helping to release mankind from the choke holds of superstition and fatalism." — The New York Times "An extraordinarily entertaining and informative book." — The Wall Street Journal "A lively panoramic book . . . Against the Gods sets up an ambitious premise and then delivers on it." — Business Week "Deserves to be, and surely will be, widely read." — The Economist "[A] challenging book, one that may change forever the way people think about the world." — Worth "No one else could have written a book of such central importance with so much charm and excitement." —Robert Heilbroner author, The Worldly Philosophers "With his wonderful knowledge of the history and current manifestations of risk, Peter Bernstein brings us Against the Gods. Nothing like it will come out of the financial world this year or ever. I speak carefully: no one should miss it." —John Kenneth Galbraith Professor of Economics Emeritus, Harvard University In this unique exploration of the role of risk in our society, Peter Bernstein argues that the notion of bringing risk under control is one of the central ideas that distinguishes modern times from the distant past. Against the Gods chronicles the remarkable intellectual adventure that liberated humanity from oracles and soothsayers by means of the powerful tools of risk management that are available to us today. "An extremely readable history of risk." — Barron′s "Fascinating . . . this challenging volume will help you understand the uncertainties that every investor must face." —Money "A singular achievement." —Times Literary Supplement "There′s a growing market for savants who can render the recondite intelligibly—witness Stephen Jay Gould (natural history), Oliver Sacks (disease), Richard Dawkins (heredity), James Gleick (physics), Paul Krugman (economics)—and Bernstein would mingle well in their company." —The Australian

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Customer Reviews

4.1 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

98 of 102 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on 19 April 1999
Format: Hardcover
This is full of highly entertaining anecdotes, pithy quotations and useful snippets of knowledge which add up to a cogent argument only by making some outrageously sweeping assumptions.
It is difficult to argue with the excellent summary of risk management during the course of this century, and anyone looking for a thought-provoking introduction to Markowitz and all that need look no further.
However, to get there you need to get past a broad swipe at the History of Ideas which attempts to show you how clever we are compared to the ancients. The author's basic premise is that in The Olden Days when we were unable to accurately measure risk, people cheerfully put their faith in the lap of the gods, blindly setting to sea during storms, building their houses next to flood-prone rivers, all the while serenely unaware of how the odds stacked up against them. Then, as we became increasingly aware of the beauty of zeroes, Arabic numerals and standard deviation, we were increasingly able to measure what was going on and therefore control it. Well, that assumes that you cannot control risk without first being able to accurately measure it. I just don't believe that the Greeks never spotted that their unevenly-shaped dice fell more often on one side than the other - kids in playgrounds spot that kind of thing easily. I also rubbed my eyes in disbelief at the idea that the period of Columbus was the first time in history that wealth was created by mutually beneficial trade, rather than by conquest and pillage - is this a commonly held belief? And while we're being pedantic, Pascal's Pensées are not his "autobiography", nor is it safe to make assumptions that the fragments in them are all expressions of his own beliefs.
Nevertheless, an enjoyable read that is satisfyingly thought-provoking.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By bassman3000 on 21 Nov 2013
Format: Paperback
You might think from the title that you are getting a sweeping story of risk from ancient games of dice through renaissance ideas of probability through to modern ideas of risk management in all areas of life, and the opening chapters also give that impression.

You get good little potted histories of several mathematicians at the start, and you tend to forgive his naive attempts to explain away historical attitudes to risk even though he seems to be embarking on a historical journey.

Then he starts getting onto the real mathematics. Bernstein is clearly one of those people who think "it's better that I'm not an expert in this as it will make me more able to explain it to a lay audience". Peter, Peter, Peter... you can't explain something if you don't understand it. Bernstein is all at sea from the moment he references the earliest and simplest writings on probability and risk, but when it comes to more subtle stuff he is terrible. For example, he is happy to go on and on about the normal distribution when he clearly does not understand what produces a normal distribution and when and where it is applicable, and then later he goes on at even greater length about regression to the mean, which he fundamentally does not understand either.

This book contains numerous boring digressions including his own tedious and naive numerical experiment, some of his irrelevant experiences in investing, and a foggily-understood political hobby horse.

Eventually you slog through to what this book is really about. He believed that risk had been banished from the stock markets. He has a good few examples that demonstrate palpably that this is not the case, and yet he fails to come to his own conclusion; no - risk is dead. Long live everlasting prosperity!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By J. adams on 4 April 2010
Format: Paperback
Who dares wins. Bernstein puts the emphasis on winning: "higher risk should in time produce more wealth, but only for investors who can stand the heat."

The title of this book promises the story of risk. The story he tells, he tells very well, but it should be called a story of risk with significant omissions. The missing parts can best be described in terms of three categories of risk:
* directly perceived risk - climbing a tree, riding a bike, or driving a car to the channel tunnel,
* quantified risk - probabilistic estimates of failure, such as those made for new vaccines, bridges, or the reinforced concrete in the tunnel, and
* virtual risk - the scientists and statisticians don't know or cannot agree: the likelihood of a terrorist planting a bomb in the tunnel that will kill hundreds of people.

The management of the first category of risks has probably changed little since our ancestors climbed down from the trees. The particular dangers that we have to cope with are different - fierce animals have been replaced by cars. But we still respond to them intuitively in ways that have been programmed into us by evolution - we all duck if we see something about to hit us. The fact that, for this category, we are all risk managers, makes the official risk manager's job frustrating. If officaldom requires cars to be fitted with better brakes, we do not drive the same way as before and enjoy an extra margin of safety; we drive faster or start braking later. The potential safety benefit tends to get consumed as a performance benefit.

The management of virtual risks is guided by belief, conviction and superstition. These risks remain the realm of the gods.
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