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252 of 262 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book on Randomness in Everyday Life
I just love books like this - especially when they're as well-written as this one. The author, a physicist, proceeds to show the reader how randomness plays a much greater role in everyday life than one might think. As he discusses the basics of probability and statistics, he provides wonderful illustrations from fields as wide-ranging as sports, medicine, psychology, the...
Published on May 16, 2008 by G. Poirier

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512 of 559 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Competent but unoriginal
Promising prologue "... when chance is involved, people's thought processes are often seriously flawed .... [this book] is about the principles that govern chance, the development of those ideas, and the way they play out in business, medicine, economics, sports, ..." but a disappointing book. The book consists of a range of topics already well covered in a dozen...
Published on May 17, 2008 by David J. Aldous


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252 of 262 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book on Randomness in Everyday Life, May 16, 2008
By 
G. Poirier (Orleans, ON, Canada) - See all my reviews
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I just love books like this - especially when they're as well-written as this one. The author, a physicist, proceeds to show the reader how randomness plays a much greater role in everyday life than one might think. As he discusses the basics of probability and statistics, he provides wonderful illustrations from fields as wide-ranging as sports, medicine, psychology, the stock market, etc., etc. He does an excellent job in driving home the fact that the true probability of events is not intuitive. Perhaps because of this anti-intuitiveness, I had to read a few paragraphs more than once to allow the point being made to sink in. One enigma that is particularly well explained is the Monty Hall (Let's Make a Deal) problem. The writing style is clear, accessible, very friendly, quite authoritative, engaging and often very witty. This book can be enjoyed by absolutely everyone, but I suspect that math and science buffs will savor it the most. By the way, the math-phobic need not fear: the book does not contain a single mathematical formula.
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512 of 559 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Competent but unoriginal, May 17, 2008
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Promising prologue "... when chance is involved, people's thought processes are often seriously flawed .... [this book] is about the principles that govern chance, the development of those ideas, and the way they play out in business, medicine, economics, sports, ..." but a disappointing book. The book consists of a range of topics already well covered in a dozen previous popular science style books: history of probability (Cardano, Pascal, Bernoulli, Laplace, de Moivre) and of demographic and economic data; statistical logic (Bayes rule and false positives/negatives; Galton and the regression fallacy, normal curve and measurement error, mistaking random variation as being caused); overstating predictability in business affairs (past success doesn't ensure future success) and perennials such as Monty Hall, the gambler's fallacy, and hot hands.

These topics are presented in a way that's easy to read -- historical stories, anecdotes and experiments, with almost no mathematics. So it's a perfectly acceptable read if you haven't seen any of this material before before, but it doesn't bring any novel content or viewpoint to the table. Other books are equally informative and well written but have more interesting individual focus and panache:
Dicing with Death: Chance, Risk and Health shows hows to add analysis to anecdote,
Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk has more intellectual discipline (staying focused on the current topic),
Struck by Lightning: The Curious World of Probabilities gives a thorough treatment of implications of textbook theory,
The Jungles of Randomness: A Mathematical Safari gives snippets of contemporary research,
Chances Are: Adventures in Probability has less hackneyed history,
and Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets is an engagingly opinionated view of chance in the stock market and life.
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246 of 272 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Chances are good you'll like this one, May 18, 2008
By 
Julie Neal (Celebration, Fla.) - See all my reviews
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This smart book will make you think. Academic yet easy to read, it explores how random events shape the world and how human intuition fights that fact. I found this point fascinating. It never occurred to me that our brains naturally want to see patterns and order, and life doesn't necessarily work like that.

It's comforting to think of an orderly world, with everything in its place, running according to plan. It dovetails into our yearning for meaning and control, and the need to feel that we are important. The idea of randomness is frightening. If the world is shaped without conscious decision, it's a pretty chilly prospect.

Author Leonard Mlodinow examines the importance of randomness in diverse situations, including Las Vegas roulette tables, "Let's Make a Deal," the career of Bruce Willis, and the Warsaw ghetto after Hitler invaded Poland. The author does a good job explaining how chance and luck are vital factors in how things turn out.

The cover has a nice touch. On the dust jacket, several die-cut holes reveal letters on the hardback underneath. The letters are the R and D in "Drunkard's," the A in "Walk," the N in "Randomness," the O in "Our" and the M in Mlodinow. These letters are connected by a thin red line. They spell out "RANDOM."

Here's the chapter list:

1. Peering through the Eyepiece of Randomness
2. The Laws of Truths and Half-Truths
3. Finding Your Way Through a Space of Possibilities
4. Tracking the Pathways to Success
5. The Dueling Laws of Large and Small Numbers
6. False Positives and Positive Fallacies
7. Measurement and the Law of Errors
8. The Order in Chaos
9. Illusions of Patterns and Patterns of Illusion
10. The Drunkard's Walk
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88 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars BEST NON-FICTION BOOK THIS YEAR, May 26, 2008
I do not know how to explain this book because it is so good. Its lessons are useful in business strategy, in evaluating the Iraq war, in deciding whether the Feds should lower interest rates and in planning one's own career. It is simply put the Best Book of the Year.

The author covers the growth and evolution of theories of probability, what he calls theories of randomness, and ties it together with anecdotes one cannot find in any other book on the subject. Yes, it is just as readable as Peter Bernstein's classic Against the Gods and far more thoughtful (and less arogant) than Fooled by Randomness by Nasim Taleb. The author is the co-author with Stephen Hawking of the Briefer History of Time and unless he has a ghost writer, is easily the best writer of non-fiction of the serious kind. His prose is perfect, his choice of anecdotes appropriate, his domain expertise unmatched.

The book ends unexpectedly but poignantly, about his aunt's awful fate at a Nazi death camp. Honestly, I respect the author's prerogative but I wish it was in an epilogue. It is too serious a subject and takes the mind to another dimension, to be read at the last minute, that too in a book with so much to think about anyway.

THIS SHOULD BE AN ADDITIONAL READING IN EVERY COURSE IN BUSINESS SCHOOL, SCHOOL OF GOVERNMENT, SCHOOL OF PUBLIC AFFAIRS, MILITARY INSTITUTION, BESIDES IN EVERY COLLEGE AND COLLEGE CAREER'S COUNSELING. AND IN EVERY HOSPITAL WAITING ROOM. AND IN PLACES OF WORSHIP TOO. NO PERSON CAN BE IN THE MODERN WORLD WITHOUT CONSIDERING THE ARGUMENTS IN THIS BOOK
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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Best for Probability/Statistics Novices, June 22, 2008
By 
Joel K. Santella (Detroit, Michigan) - See all my reviews
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If you're not versed in probability this is an excellent book to introduce you to the history and importance of probability in daily life. Its an easy and interesting read. Much of the book however is dedicated to explaining mathematical basics & history. If you already know what a normal distribution is, this book falls a little short in really linking randomness and how we perceive success. Only one or two chapters at the end are devoted to this.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Marvelous! Marvelous! Marvelous!, October 1, 2008
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As a teacher of high school mathematics and statistics, I have read many such books on the subject at hand. Few of them are as readable and enjoyable as The Drunkard's Walk.

What Mlodinow's brings to the table is a great sense of humor and a writing style that is entertaining and engaging, with great stories to go along with the mathematical ideas he shares. He brings in historical anecdotes and psychological research to highlight how mathematical truth and human perception clash. I found myself very impressed by his ability to bring in the perfect study or story to illustrate a point.

Essentially, the book is a course in Statistics 101, but reading it, you'd never know. It is geared to the average intelligent reader, but there are few mathematical formulas or abstractions. Enjoy!

Other related books and how they compare:
Against the Gods- The Remarkable Story of Risk: Much drier. More detail, less fun.

Fooled By Randomness: Arrogant writing style, too philosophical for my taste. Focus on the markets.

Damn Lies and Statistics: Narrow focus on how Statistics can mislead. Good examples, though not as entertaining.

Chances Are: A good read, similar content, though this is more engaging.

Innumeracy: A must read classic by Paulos.

Predictably Irrational: Fun book, similar style but more about behavioral economics (overlaps last chapter of this book)

Sway: Pretty good, but not as overarching as Predictably Irrational

SuperCrunchers: Unimpressive book that I thought didn't prove thesis well.
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63 of 77 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating, humbling (even potentially disturbing), June 1, 2008
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The author says nothing new on the topic, nor does he say it in a way that is apt to make a dent in the "willful consciousness" of many who insist on a world of clear-cut cause and effect or on a Divine Will that keeps its eye not merely on a sparrow but on a nation's military actions or on human behaviors provoking retributions (hurricanes, etc.) upon its godless practitioners. In all such instances, the distinction between cause-effect thinking and predestined events that happen by necessity is lost. Instead, it all comes down to the pragmatic need of an inherently egocentric human nature to impose order where circumstances may not justify it.

The author writes to the layman, making the language of statistics, probability, randomness a fascinating read. It's clear that he's well aware of the fallacies and delusions (and consequent harm) to which most of us are easy prey. But he leaves it to the reader to draw any philosophical-theological inferences about the need for greater humility. His immediate goal is to help the reader understand the distinction between 1. the "common-sense" logic employed by self-serving finite beings coping with problems in the material world and 2. a "scientific method" that takes nothing for granted in a universe of perpetual flux. More miraculous than either the accomplishments of the romantic hero or the intercessions of a supreme being (everyday stuff for most of us) is the rare discovery that two things (or "events" in the spatial-temporal order) suspected of being connected (a hypothesis) in fact cannot be shown "not" to have such a relationship (the proof).

Such a small yield is unlikely to satisfy most of us, let alone a creationist or a supporter of intelligent design--in other words, it's not more propagandist "proof-texting" and weird science; it's "real" science. And those who take it upon themselves to help us understand the universe as it is, merit a reader's undivided attention. Highly recommended for the genuinely curious.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read, not exceptionally profound, August 2, 2008
Some unorganized reactions.

The Drunkard's Walk owes much to a classic in this field, Innumeracy by John Paulos. This book borrows much from that work in its discussion of misleading use of probabilities, with at least one story lifted directly from it, and most others coming more indirectly from Innumeracy. To those who have read that book it still offers some in terms of unintuitive probabilities, including a discussion of the infamous Monty Hall problem.

It touches areas that Innumeracy didn't though discussing psychology, statistics, and offering a history of probability/statistics. The historical ranting are rather tedious and most likely already known to the readers of this type of material or unwelcome. The dabbles into psychological aspect of why we have trouble perceiving randomness, among other such issues discussed, provide the most interesting and original aspects of the book.

The book falls very short of its stated goal of revealing how randomness runs our lives. In fact, only his discussions of statistics and anecdotes seem to bring us closer to his goal. The other points are enjoyable to read, but deal little with the supposed purpose of the book.

A good read, mostly for those unfamiliar with the Mathematics, but I find the psychological aspect of the book will make an acceptable read for those who have prior understanding of probability and statistics.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thought-Provoking Examples of Randomness in Our Lives, July 11, 2008
Instead of repeating other reviewers, let's focus on other content.

Arguments about the astronomical improbably of a DNA chance match are disingenuous. A false match can also occur because of lab error, and this is far, far more likely than a genuine DNA chance match.

Mlodinow illustrates the Bayesian principle: "...the probability that A will occur if B occurs will generally differ from the probability that B will occur if A occurs." (p. 117) About 1 in 10,000 heterosexual non-IV-drug-abusing white males are infected with HIV. As for tests of HIV infection, the rate of false negatives is about zero, and that of false positives is 1 in 1,000. So, out of 10,000 tested subjects, there will be 9, 989 negatives. Of the 11 positives, 10 will be false and 1 will be true. So only 1 in 11 individuals who test positive for HIV actually are infected with HIV. (pp. 115-116)

During WWII, German V-2 rockets often hit near each other, prompting fears that the Germans had perfected pinpoint accuracy in their targeting. It turned out that the clusters of hits were random. Most geographical clusters of cancer occurrence also are random clusters.

We learn about such things as regression toward the mean, Pascal's wager, the gambler's fallacy, and the scratched (and therefore biased) roulette wheels at Monte Carlo. Also, election recounts in very close elections are bound to differ with each recount owing solely to small random errors operating on millions and millions of votes. So no recount is necessarily more accurate than the original count.

Life expectancy applies to groups, not individuals. For instance, if the life expectancy of a 90 year-old is 6 years, it only tells us that half of 90-year olds will still be alive at 96. It does not tell us which particular 90 year-old individual will still be alive at 96.

When there are hundreds of coin tosses, it is common for strings of consecutive "heads" and "tails" to arise solely by chance. Likewise, a string of good luck or bad luck in our lives can be completely random, yet easily misinterpreted as something meaningful.

When experimental subjects are told that, by pressing a button, they are controlling actually randomly-flashing lights, they readily believe it. We want to believe that we are in control because a lack of control, or perceived lack of control, leads to stress. This is especially true in extreme situations. For instance, concentration-camp victims who survived tended to be those who established some measure of control over their horrible experiences.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Drunkard's Walk, June 3, 2008
An amazing traverse across the landscape of randomness that makes sense to scientist and layperson alike. I thought Euclid's Window was readable and clear, but Drunkard's Walk makes sense of an incredibly random world in a concise, clear, and thoughtful way. A "should read" for everyone in a management job who is looking for those insights that could propel your operations beyond the ordinary by understanding the universe as it is. The examples are concrete and compelling.
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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow (Paperback - May 5, 2009)
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