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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives Paperback – 2 Apr 2009
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'Delightful ... Our lives may be shaped by chance, but they are enriched by awareness - just the sort of awareness that this fascinating book will give you' -- Guardian
'Mlodinow writes in a breezy style, interspersing probabilistic mind-benders with portraits of theorists ... The result is a readable crash course in randomness' -- The New York Times
'Please read The Drunkard's Walk by Leonard Mlodinow, a history, explanation, and exaltation of probability theory ... The results are mind-bending'
I do feel a little sheepish recommending two science books in a row - not to mention surprised at myself, for last week's recommendation, Quantum, contains passages of rather hard science, and I thought that I could do with a break as much as you.
But this book is different. It is in the nature of science books to contain science, and this is no exception; but it is unusual for them to contain humour and highly readable prose - not to mention very useful and practical insights which will help you live your life with a greater understanding of the world about you.
People, as Leonard Mlodinow reminds us, are not always that smart, and in fact our mental processes can lead us to the wrong conclusions. Try this one yourself: ask someone if there are more six-letter words in the English language whose fifth letter is N, or more six-letter words ending in "-ing"? You will discover that most people say there are more words ending in "ing" but just think about it for a bit.
That might not sound like a problem in probability, but it is related to it. And the reach of this book is extraordinary. Read it carefully and you may discover how to start a winning lottery syndicate (you need a mathematically ignorant lottery provider, like the Virginia State lottery in 1992), win with profitable consistency at roulette (and, if you're a casino owner, how to stop someone winning with profitable consistency), evaluate evidence in a criminal trial correctly, detect frauds and bullshitters, not give up when your manuscript has been rejected by 27 publishers, and assess the veracity of Bill Clinton's tax returns for the past 13 years. (I'll spare you the bother of that one: thanks to the careful application of Benford's Law, he's probably honest.) As Mlodinow quotes a Harvard professor: "Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well," but this is just the book to help us to do them better.
The charm of the book also resides in the quality of the writing. It is a good idea to use humour to help the mathematical medicine slip down, and Mlodinow does it as well as I've ever seen it done. There are bits that make you laugh out loud, but they never obscure the facts he is trying to convey. "If psychics really existed, you'd see them in places like [Monte Carlo], hooting and dancing and pushing wheelbarrows of cash down the street, and not on websites calling themselves 'Zelda Who Knows All and Sees All' and offering 24-hour free online love advice along with about 1.2 million other web psychics (according to Google)." He has, according to the inside cover of the book, written for MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation, which may have something to do with this.
Another remarkable thing about the book, which may also have something to do with his extra-scientific writing experience, is that he is not simply content to leave it at the maths, and scoff at the scientifically illiterate. He goes on to explain why it is that we often get things wrong - and why it may be advantageous for us to do so. One experiment seemed to prove that if you think you're in control of your environment, you'll live longer - even if you have, in reality, no such control. And this is what gambling is all about: our belief that we can see patterns in chaos. (Actually, the question whether there is in fact such a thing as chaos or true randomness is one tackled by Mlodinow.)
Even given this, the book still manages to surprise and delight until the very end. It is also - and this is something you really don't get in other science books, particularly the mathematically inclined - moving. Bracketed by stories about his parents' survival of the Holocaust, this is a work which goes beyond its brief to tell us how to live our lives in hope and knowledge. I do not exaggerate. When Beckett said that all he could hope to do was "fail better", he was more right than he knew. "Even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success," says Mlodinow. So don't give up.-- Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
'Delightful ... Our lives may be shaped by chance, but they are enriched by awareness - just the sort of awareness that this fascinating book will give you'See all Product description
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As a beautiful side-effect of reading this book, you'll:
1) Stop trusting or believing bankers, hi-risk investors, market analysts or people who predict anything related to systems which aren't rigidly understood (financial markets, success of the film industry, fashion).
2) Realize there is so little correlation between which team is superior and which team wins the game that you'll practically lose interest in any kind of sporting contest which involves randomness-prone factors (namely people).
3) Learn to question the potential of false-positives whenever confronted by a member of the medical profession concerning any bad news you're given, particualrly when dealing with extreme cases of numerical disparity. This is not a criticsm towards doctors; more a statement that their understnding of statistics is lacking. (And understandably so, there's enough medicine for them to learn without teaching them statistics too)
An excellent book with almost no scientific background required. Easy to read through, very little bias in ideology or viewpoint, with plenty of highly informative examples from antiquity to the modern days. A must buy.
Alternatively, you can trust in wild chance to make one literally fall into your lap, like I did. Such is the nature of randomness!
- author did not seem to take the trouble to provide facts (numbers) aside from bad quotes from books he has read, better to just read the books referenced where the wording surely is clearer.
- author either does not understand conditional probability himself, or, if he does, he does a terrible job of explaining. I have a maths university degree in probability but most of the time I had to re-read sentences what the author exactly meant.
- The points the author brought to the table, for example the fact the signals were not interpreted before the pearl harbor attack - would be served with what the noise was, then.
- The story of the old lady and the renter was new, but to try to use conditional probability and how it was applied, bad idea. The correct underlying theory is survival rate (hazard rate etc), so please say what you mean. An old lady having proven that she survived 80 years has a higher chance of reaching 110 than anyone younger. Would be better to provide both mortality rates. Same for some courtroom examples mentioned.
- it is endearing to see how the author struggles time and time again to describe in words what the unnamed formula represents, and how he fails, because takes so many words that the goal is overshot. Conditional probability is counter-intuitive, and it simply, ehm, takes time to understand.
- the best test was to let 2 students hand in an identical paper and voila, they get graded differently.
- book has no actionable advice how to see Randomness _when_ it tries to rule our life. Or how to apply at stock market.
- it could be read as a highschool essay, and now wonder why the author corrected the paper of his son and got a C (=fail), oh i get that now ;-)
- the book starts and ends with some story about concentration camps, why do Jews always need to bring that up. Non jews never feel the need to do that.
Finally let me save you the trouble of reading with this:
1. Life is random. Random how, is unknown. Your achievements are partly based on luck, and how partly is also unknown. So get out more often.
2. By some Brownian motion there is a chance you land on top, so do it more often.
3. do not apply large sample probabilities on your one-time event. AKA just buy that lottery ticket!
4. Every graph or scoring shown by journalists or teachers is far less precise than they think. Ignore both.
There! Saves you reading 250 pages.
Unlike other books that have dated badly, the examples that the author uses to illustrate his points are recent and relevant, and communicated with a light-hearted sense of humour that turns a dry subject matter into something surprisingly engaging. I got through it quite happily in a couple of sittings.
It loses a star as occasionally Mlodinow does go into a little too much detail on the history of probability and the personal lives of the mathematicians on whose theories this book is based. I didn't think this was necessary (or particularly interesting) and would have liked to have seen this space filled instead with wider content. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the book is abosrbing and so is well worth picking up.
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Most recent customer reviews
This book is a strange mix of history and statistics, but is a weirdly motivating read at the same time.Read more
The best laid plans of mice and men (wot Shaxpere said!)
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