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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives Paperback – May 5, 2009
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“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 Book Review“A wonderfully readable guide to how the mathematical laws of randomness affect our lives.”—Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time"[Mlodinow] thinks in equations but explains in anecdote, simile, and occasional bursts of neon. . . . The results are mind-bending."—Fortune"Even if you begin The Drunkard's Walk as a skeptic, by the time you reach the final pages, you will gain an understanding-if not acceptance-of the intuitively improbable ways that probability biases the outcomes of life's uncertainties."—Barron's“Delightfully entertaining.”—Scientific American “A magnificent exploration of the role that chance plays in our lives. The probability is high that you will be entertained and enlightened by this intelligent charmer.” —Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness“Mlodinow is the perfect guy to reveal the ways unrelated elements can relate and connect.”—The Miami Herald“A primer on the science of probability.”—The Washington Post Book World“Challenges our intuitions about probability and explores how, by understanding randomness, we can better grasp our world.” —Seed Magazine“Mlodinow has an intimate perspective on randomness.”—The Austin Chronicle
About the Author
Leonard Mlodinow received his doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, was an Alexander von Humboldt fellow at the Max Planck Institute, and now teaches about randomness to future scientists at Caltech. Along the way he also wrote for the television series MacGyver and Star Trek: The Next Generation. His previous books include Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, and, with Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time. He lives in South Pasadena, California.
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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.
Its amazing that a professor of math could make such a statement, and it says something about those who may have edited or previewed this book before it was read that this wasn't questioned. He goes on at length about how the Greeks used letters of the alphabet to represent numbers, and how that was way too cumbersome to do math with. Same with the Romans. The Hebrews, by the way, still do so, but that hasn't hindered Israeli mathematicians in the least. Why? Because they have what the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians had, namely calculators. In the ancient world it was the abacus, which had small stones to mark the units, tens, hundreds, etc. Indeed, the very word 'calculate' and 'calculus' comes from the Latin for 'pebble'.
Romans and Greeks and Egyptians and Jews, all used the abacus, and the speed at which abaci calculate rivals modern electronics. In Taiwan right now there are contests for high school kids every year where kids wielding abaci are pitted against kids with electronic calculators. It's often a toss up.
Indeed, abaci were not only 'easy to work with', they were far easier than the paper and pencil manipulation of Arabic numbers we (and presumably Mlodinow) all learned in school.
This isn't a minor point, by the way, Mlodinow goes on at length to make sweeping disparaging statements about these civilizations based on this ignorance.
The Romans didn't build their aqueducts with a steady grade that runs with a precise drop for miles, buildings that have stood for thousands of years, and roads across the European world without calculating, and they used abaci to do it. The same applies to the Greeks, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians.
Furthermore, the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians were great mercantile civilizations, and indeed, calculating and arithmetic, percentages, discounts, and interest, amortization and credit, and the keeping of careful records thereof, cannot be dispensed with in any kind of organized trading society. It was all done with the abaci. Mlodinow is so off base when he talks about these people it hurts to read it, its so embarrassing.
Mlodinow is one of those people for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Because he knows that the Greeks used letters from their alphabet to write the numbers down. His knowledge stops there though. He never bothered to learn that this was simply a recording device for representing numbers that had been calculated on the abaci.
I had other problems with this book. He tends to make the same point over and over in a slightly different way, for example. He also uses questionable psychological studies, like those of Kahneman and Tversky, unquestioningly.
Don't buy this book. The guy has certain axes to grind and he grinds them. He thinks he knows more than he does, and if you know a little more than he does you can spot him bloviating immediately. I really wonder why people gave it so many stars. He proves that a one eyed man is king in the land of the blind.