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Millions, Billions, Zillions: Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers Hardcover – Illustrated, November 6, 2018
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"Having a healthy skepticism toward numbers and giving readers the tools to think about math more logically is the purpose of this easily read, slight book. Brian W. Kernighan adroitly distills complex issues. His tone is more that of a mellow friend breaking down a concept that flummoxes you rather than an Ivy League professor expounding on the elegance of numbers."---Jacqueline Cutler, NJ.com
"I can wholeheartedly recommend reading this book, because of the infectious way the author describes his interaction with numbers."---J. Herret, International Mathematical News
"This is a must-read for anyone looking to cure their “number numbness”"---Tibi Puiu, ZME Science
“The indispensable guide to numerical trickery, deception, and flimflam!”―Harry Lewis, coauthor of Blown to Bits: Your Life, Liberty, and Happiness after the Digital Explosion
“A delightful introduction to an important topic, this book will appeal to far more than technical readers and could become a classic.”―Jon Bentley, retired Distinguished Member of Technical Staff, Bell Labs Research
- Item Weight : 10.4 ounces
- Hardcover : 176 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0691182779
- ISBN-13 : 978-0691182773
- Dimensions : 4.6 x 0.9 x 7.6 inches
- Publisher : Princeton University Press; Illustrated edition (November 6, 2018)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: #882,476 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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It’s so easy to be presented with false information today (either intentionally or unintentionally) that I’m happy books like this are out there.
I gave this book 4 stars instead of 5 because I think that this subject matter would be more digestible for all audiences if there were a lot more illustrations to help people visualize what’s being discussed.
For anyone who wants to understand how to effectively use data in the world of information security, the definitive guide is Measuring and Managing Information Risk: A FAIR Approach, by Dr. Jack Freund and Jack Jones. For those that want to understand how the media often misuses numbers and statistics, a much lighter and more entertaining read is Millions, Billions, Zillions Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers, by noted computer scientist Brian Kernighan.
In this short and enjoyable reference, Kernighan shows how the media often uses numbers, graphs, figures and more; but far too often either misreports them, or uses them in misleading ways. There are many reasons for this, including rushed deadlines, their inherent misunderstanding of how to use statistics, not understanding the underlying issue and much more.
Kernighan gives many examples where billions and trillions are swapped. He also provides many examples of where conversions to/from metric values are done incorrectly, where orders of magnitude errors are erroneously reported.
The bigger issue is not simply that the wrong figure is used by reporters, rather people and businesses act on them, and policy decisions are based on them. Once implemented, they are often hard to correct.
In the book, Kernighan give many examples and provides ways to detect being fooled by suspect figures. The often inability of popular media to effectively use numbers and statistics, combined with the rise of fake news, makes it an imperative for readers to be skeptical when these numbers are being reported.
Be it from the media, politicians or clueless neighbors, numbers and statistics are often used to confuse us. This in turns makes it important for readers not to take these figures at face value. By be numerically illiterate, a person runs the risk of being manipulated.
Numbers, graphs and statistics can often be misleading and misrepresented. In Millions, Billions, Zillions Defending Yourself in a World of Too Many Numbers, Kernighan provides the reader with an entertaining and useful guide to avoid becoming a victim of number abuse.
Kernighan's bio calls himself "a professor of computer science at Princeton University," which is true, but that's kind of like saying that Steve Jobs was a businessman in Silicon Valley. Kernighan is one of the creators of the Unix operating system, a co-author of the "awk" Unix tool, and the co-author of "The C Programming Language" (along with Dennis Ritchie). He teaches an extraordinarily popular course in introductory computer science at Princeton University, from which many examples in this book are presumably taken.
This book tells you to make a crude estimate to see if it makes sense. Two million tons is 4 billion pounds. In 1996, there were roughly 300 million Americans. Dividing 4 billion pounds by 300 million Americans we get 13 pounds per American per day. Does a family of four get 52 pounds of junk mail a day? Could the mail carrier lift the mail for a five-house block if it contained 260 pounds of junk mail (plus the nonjunk mail)? The columnist’s number is obviously junk itself. Maybe the columnist meant 2 million tons per YEAR. That would be 52/365 = 0.14 pounds/day, which is about 2 ounces (roughly 60 grams) per house per day. That at least passes the smell test.
The book is about making sense of large numbers that appear in the media all the time. And many of them are wrong—very wrong, often by huge amounts, like a factor of 1000 due to confusing trillion with billion or using the wrong units (like tons/day instead of tons/year). In an era when we are inundated with numbers, looking at them critically is a vital skill that this book teaches.
The book isn’ t difficult to read. In fact, it is easy and fun to read, with numerous examples of statements in newspapers, magazines, and other media outlets that make no sense. In many cases, it is easy to estimate if the number makes sense. None of the examples and calculations requires anything more than third-grade arithmetic. It is highly recommended for anyone who wants to have a better grasp of the really big numbers one sees in the media every day and whether to believe them. Well worth reading.