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With the born storyteller's command of narrative and imaginative approach, Leonard Mlodinow vividly demonstrates how our lives are profoundly informed by chance and randomness and how everything from wine ratings and corporate success to school grades and political polls are less reliable than we believe.

By showing us the true nature of chance and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives us the tools we need to make more informed decisions. From the classroom to the courtroom and from financial markets to supermarkets, Mlodinow's intriguing and illuminating look at how randomness, chance, and probability affect our daily lives will intrigue, awe, and inspire.

 


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Published: Pantheon Books an imprint of Random House Publishing Group on
ISBN: 9780307377548
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If you already know the meaning of terms like "standard deviation" and "regression to the mean," then read this book for Mlodinow's colorful and fluent writing.more
Vague memory: enjoyed it, mostly. Some interesting tidbits on the nature of randomness and human beings' instincts for creating patterns out of nothing. I don't think I finished it, and had to return it to the library. Might want to read again sometime.more
A surprisingly accessible and readable book, which I enjoyed more than I had expected. Mlodinow uses humor, anecdotes, examples, and thorough explanations to delve into how everything and everyone is affected by randomness and how and why most people -- in fact, at some point or another, all people -- are subject to illusions, denial, and downright refusal to accept this as a fact of life.

He spends a good deal of the book revealing the history of science, economics, and mathematics (among other things) as they relate to his subject. His purpose is to "pull back the curtain" so his reader can discover all the methods used to prevent illusions from leading us to make poor or even dangerous decisions. It's not a self-help book, but the information can be used by readers.

There are a lot of big, complicated ideas in this book, especially for those (like me) who find mathematics difficult and headache-inducing, but that didn't get in the way of my enjoying the book (which is just plain surprising). While he's juggling physics, high level finance, and calculus, Mlodinow did something else that really surprised me -- he introduced himself as a sort of character, a personality, a likable individual, and just as subject to the illusions and delusions he is pointing out as anyone else. I found it very surprising to have such an emotional connection to the author of a fairly dry non-fiction book, and that helped a lot while reading through subject matter which I so assiduously avoided in highschool.

A unique reading experience. I borrowed the copy from the library, but I may have to purchase one for myself, so I can read it again and refer to it later. I'll be looking out for more of Mr. Mlodinow's books.more
A friend chose this for bookclub, and not a single person in the bookclub could finish it. I happen to find the statistical ideas that the book covers interesting, but the book is so poorly written that those ideas were overshadowed by looooooong, dull historical narratives.more
Mlodinow uses probability and statistics to explain how events that occur in our lives are usually nothing more than random occurrences and usually informed by chance. He begins the book with a brief primer on the basic principles of probability and charts the history of chance. The 2nd half of the book moves into looking at the illogicalities of our modern lives. "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" provides an entertaining an insightful explanation of probability in our lives. I have incorporated examples from this book into my lesson on probability and sample sets before. My students love the Monty Hall problem and trying to prove it wrong. The book is an easy read for any layperson.more
This is indeed a fascinating book, and very well written. I like the way that Leonard has clearly explained the concepts of probability, and has linked them to the events in our daily life. Many of us, me included, have over time, tended to solve questions on probability using formulae. In this, we often forget to analyze the situation and the problem at hand, and make mistakes that later seem to be elementary.Yes, indeed, probability does rule our lives more than we often care to realize, and I am indeed thankful to Leonard for showing this to us in a clear and concise manner. This is a book that most people will follow and enjoy without too much of a problem.more
I stopped half way through the audio. While probability theory and his stories were interesting it could not hold my interest. I may listen to this in the future if I ever need to learn about this topic.more
Speaking as someone who hasn't taken a math course since 11th grade, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could follow the concepts and finally associate them with my verbally oriented world. I have gained confidence with common statistical terminology, and I am strangely reassured by the research that asserts we have far less control than we imagine. I now feel justified in selecting my wine on the basis of the label design.more
The Drunkard's Walk is science writing at its best.You start with someone who knows what their talking about. Mlodinow has a PhD in physics from the Berkeley and teaches at Caltech. If that's not enough for you, he co-wrote A Briefer History of Time with Stephen Hawking.The second element in good science writing is an interesting topic. Randomness fits the bill perfectly since it permeates every area of our lives. This allows Mlodinow to tell interesting stories about everything from Let's Make A Deal to the track record of investment bankers.This book is well structured, too. Rather than follow some text-book method of teaching, Mlodinow has organized the chapters around the history of this field of study. As you continue through the chapters, you encounter all the major theorists who have led the study of randomness.The last element in a good science book is simply good writing. The quality of Mlodinow's prose is excellent. Don't expect flat technical writing here—he composes his sentences artfully.This was the first book I've read by Mlodinow but it won't be the last.more
A must read for everybody.more
The first half of Leonard Mlodinow’s essay on randomness charts the history of chance and gives a primer on the basic principles of probability. This is mildly interesting insofar as it recounts the endeavours of oddball enlightenment characters (many of the French, like Bernouilli family) and how they stumbled on the idea of probability, and iteratively worked out its implications, and hated each other all the while. Mlodinow briefly states and, to my mind, under-emphasises, the historical and cultural significance of probability in the scientific worldview: it affords us an alternative to reductionism: not only is the need to delve ever further into microscopic (and atomic) detail to find “essential” qualities avoided; the importance of cause and effect at all is significantly relegated. No longer must we establish “this caused that”; probability cares simply that “the occurrence of this” is *correlated* with “the occurrence of that”. Old habits die hard, of course, and the reductionist crowd does tend to draw a causative deduction from a strong correlation. The great Enlightenment sceptic David Hume (who sadly does not rates a mention here) would surely spin in his grave. Having armed the reader with some rudimentary knowhow about normal distributions and standard deviations (it is well, and lightly explained: I wish my high school maths teacher had made it this simple), in the second half of the book Mlodinow takes anecdotal pot-shots at the illogicalities of our modern life. They are legion. Some of his examples are fascinating (the probability of *someone* beating Babe Ruth’s record *at some time* are far greater than you’d think) some are a little old hat (the surprisingly high chance of footballers on the same field sharing a birthday), others are enlightening (the same manager night have consistently beaten the January/December annual performance of the Dow, but not the April/March annual performance), the implication being the parameters, periods and frequencies selected to a sample a data set (often chosen after collection of the data) can help to fit the data to a more compelling story) and some are jaw-droppers (in a period, the distribution of a set of mutual fund managers is exactly as you’d expect - some outperformers, some under performers most bunched around the middle: on the other hand, the comparison over two discrete periods was utter chaos: implication: performance across the sector is “volatile” (their word) or “more or less random (“Mlodinow’s”) if this is right, as stated, it is a matter of international outrage.However, I don’t think it is quite the full picture. Firstly, the data set Mlodinow uses to illustrate this point is precisely two. Having spent the first half of the book elegantly explaining how “false positives” - conclusions as to randomness (or non-randomness) should not be drawn from extremely small samples, this looks like a bit of an own goal. Were Mlodinow’s sample 100 periods, and the relative performance between the managers still all over the place, there would be a better case for outrage. Secondly, in lionising the normal distribution, which he says “rules our lives”, Mlodinow skates over the tendency of human interactions – of which are lives are comprised, after all – to be interdependent (that is, not truly random at all). A normal curve plots the distribution of discrete events (i.e., events whose occurrence do not affect each other’s probability). But, if you yell “fire” run for the exit in a cinema, you make it more likely other people will too. If a stock starts falling, its price will drop and people will be inclined to sell. This is why market crashes and bank runs happen. Writers like Phillip Ball and Benoit Mandelbrot have written compellingly about this interdependence. Where there events are reflexive in this way, probabilities follow a “power law” distribution (this looks rather like a normal curve in the middle, but crucially has a much longer, fatter tail at each end). Here, things can and do happen which are so far outside the realms of random probability as to be impossible. These are the “Black Swans” of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent book. The lesson the financial community has learned (well: apparently *hasn’t* learned) is that one models interdependent events as if they were randomly distributed at one’s utter peril: the events accounting for Long Term Capital Management and Lehman Brothers should not have happened in hundreds of millennia.It is a little unwise, therefore, to write off portfolio theory purely on the basis of normal distributions (there are plenty of other grounds on which to write it off). On the other hand, Mlodinow may well be right to suspect that the “wisdom of crowds” aspect from which markets undoubtedly suffer (and markets are well represented by investment managers) conceals a singular lack of differentiation. The interesting exercise, not done, would be to compare the bell curves of individual investment managers. A particular succession of home runs may be put down to the size of a given hitter’s standard deviation, but a batter still has to earn his own bell curve: It may have been unlikely in the extreme for Roger Maris to hit 61 home runs in a season, but it would have been as good as flat out impossible for me to.That said, Mlodinow’s central thesis - that we habitually mistake expertise and talent for a “lucky streak” - is an attractive one and it is interesting exercise to apply it to one’s own sacred cows. And, for that matter, one’s bêtes noires.more
Excellent book. The author provides an entertaining and insightful explanation of probability in our lives. I strongly recommend this book based on the useful insight and basic life lessons one can obtain from an understanding of randomness.more
The book reads easier than other math publications...it is typical of any math book that someone will review it and say "the author is good at presenting the material to the lay man," when in most cases that is a dubious claim at best. In this case it would be an accurate claim.The humor is great and lightens it up; the technical aspects of the math are well-placed along with historical and other developments. He is clearly not your typical "geek"--not that anybody is, but it helps a reader to know the author is human and has interests like he does--often referring to sports and popular culture and making the text therefore highly relevant.I loved Keith Devlin's The Unfinished Game, which covers much of the same material--notably Pascal's correspondence with Fermat--but this book is superior in many ways.more
I've read yet another in this genre....yes, this one was pretty good, but it might better be graded 3.5, since I think I had to try a second time to finish this one (started it many months ago and it went back to the library; saw it in a bookstore and couldn't remember if I'd finished -- happens when all these books blend together, or you get to be my age (?) -- and saw that the second half had some more entertaining stories that were new. The first half was kind of repetitive for me, but is a fairly concise treatment of the development of probability. So.....readable? Check. Personal stories included that add some human interest and give you a bit more than the same exact experiments that every other book in this genre mentions? Check. Some history? Check. Not too much technical jargon and with good pacing? Check check check check.....So, which out of this genre (probability/decision-making/history/theory) do you read? This one might be second-ish for me. I still iiked Jonah Lehrer's book, though this one is more geared towards the history of math and probability, while Lehrer's is more around psychology.more
This book is written by a professor at Caltech. He talks a lot about probability and chance and how it affects our lives. It also talks about the interesting history of some of the giants in the field, Bayes, Laplace, Gauss, De Moivre, Bernoulli, etc.The book succeeds when it sheds light on common situations in our society. For example, the author talks about the wine ratings system and what a scam it is. It is less successful when it gets a little too jokey and informal.more
Mlodinow explores the role of randomness in our lives and probability and how the brains of human beings are unskilled at detecting such things. In addition to a lively and richly illustrated discussion of statistics there is a considerable amount of the history of mathematics and science, which the history geek in me enjoyed. A good book with a good message I'm sadly certain I'll soon forget.more
I was fascinated by this book. What began with a discussion about probability and how easy it is to lie with those statistics, ended up with a rather philosophical look at whether it is prudent or necessary to make life plans - since the author claims that a great deal of what happens in life is a result of random events, both good and bad. Every chapter in between was another gem - not a single dud. Basically, he claims that we generally refuse to admit how much of what happens is strictly random - and even when we are told and shown that something is random, we still act as though it is not. So, we keep plugging coins into the slot machine because "it is due" even though, regardless of how long it has been since it paid off, it is no more likely to yield a jackpot in the next spin, or 10 or 50 spins, than it was on the last spin. Outstanding sports teams will sometimes have a dismal season, and firing the coach will have no impact because it wasn't his fault - it was a combination of random occurances. By the same token, poor teams will sometimes have amazing seasons - and the chances of either of those events occuring can be computed with accuracy. Very ordinary people sometimes rise to amazing heights in their fields, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because they happened to be in the right place at the right time - due to a series of random events. He cites Bill Gates and Bruce Willis as examples of this. Even though both men are talented in their fields, they are not extraordinarily talented - they were simply fortunate and got lucky breaks. He also talks about our desire not only to deny the role of randomness in the world, but to seek to find order in the randomness. This is one of the causes of "20-20 hindsight". When considered in isolation, and after the fact, there is obvious evidence that authorities ought to have known about the Pearl Harbor bombing and the 9-11 attacks in advance. However, without the perspective of hindsight, much of that "evidence" was just random information without context. Likewise, mistakes are made everyday, usually without any lasting consequence. The chances of an entire chain of such mistakes, happening in just the right sequence, and with the right timing, leading to a catestrophic event are small, but measurable according to laws of randomness. This is what happened in the Three Mile Island incident. Perhaps not for everyone, but I found the book very thought-provoking.more
This book excels at explaining statistics and "randomness" in meaningful and practical way for the non-mathematician. The reader still needs to think, but Mldinow brings as much clarity to this topic as he did to physics in "A Brief History of Time." I especially appreciate the way he balances the theory, the history, and the practical use. And his writing is in many places more humorous than you ever find in this genre.more
Mlodinow offers more of a history of statistics and chance - with a few modern examples of chance events - than anything else. Regardless, his writing and stories really grasp the reader and may create an interest in the topic. While this may be an interesting read, many readers may not learn much other than the history of the topic.more
This is the kind of book I unwaveringly recommend to everyone. Most things I read and like have audience segments. I can't really recommend Dumas to my friend who really loves YA novels; I don't think David would be into Jane Austen. But this book? Read it, read it, read it. All right, I will concede to one factor. I never took statistics. I have an intuitive grasp on probability and have taken calculus, but my mathematic foundation is not the best and is beset by termites. So it is feasible that Mlodinow's explanations of the rules of probability--refreshingly clear and concise--might not be quite as "ah-ha!" to every reader. But the relevant examples and stories and narrative are first-rate across the board. Mlodinow's thesis shines a light on the common fallacies we, due to inherent human nature, make. He covers human weaknesses in recognizing and generating random data, assigning astronomical odds to something seemingly miraculous, believing in our ability to "beat the market", falling victim to confimation biases and otherwise looking for pattern and control when there is none or we have none.Along the way we get to re-visit with my personal bugaboo, the "Monty Hall" problem. We see how chance more than anything underlies meteoric success streaks for sports figures, actors, and writers. We get to know (sometimes in a bit too much depth) about the lives of the mathematicians who figured this stuff out, from Platonic Greece to modern times. Though Mlodinow's argument never wavers--chance, and chance alone, dictate far more of the outcomes in our lives and world than we generally realize--he manages to deliver this potentially depressing argument with a sincere dollop of hope, urging us to remember that it's the stubborn and the perservering who leave a mark of genius on this world.Mlodinow tells us about John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole never lived to see his book published: he killed himself after the 11th rejection notice. His mother kept at it, and ultimately it was published, posthumously. It sold like hotcakes and won the Pulitzer Prize. This, specifically, is meaningful to me. After all, my signature cry of "My tubes!" during bouts of Crohn's ickiness is derived directly from protagonist Ignatius Reilly's bellow: "My Valve!" To think that the world could exist without such farcical genius makes the notion of "don't quit" more powerful.more
Mlodnow applies theories of probability and statics to modern circumstances after describing the environment in which each theory was created. While the biographies were a bit tedious at times, it was nonetheless interesting to see what drove the individuals towards the development of these theories. The book focused more on the historical development of theories than it did on "how randomness rules our lives." While the last two chapters start to hit on this subject, the reader is left to apply these theories to their own lives and infer what they deem appropriate.more
Mlodnow sets out to prove that in many cases, past performance is not an indication of future returns. We've all seen that disclaimer on mutual fund advertisements, but it also applies to movie studio execs, sports coaches, and Fortune 500 CEOs. The avowed purpose of the book is to demonstrate how and why it is incorrect to predict the future based on the past; however, he really doesn't offer much of an alternative method. Still, The Drunkard's Walk is a nice overview of the science of probability and statistics. Some of the content is rehashed from Stephen Jay Gould and others, so some of the examples were actually familiar to me. It's Mlodnow's explanation of the title concept, "the drunkard's walk" (describing a system of sequentially random data points) and "the butterfly effect" (how a seemingly trivial event can snowball in to major consequences down the line) that are the best parts of the book.more
An interesting look at randomness on our lives and how we ofter misinterpret its effects. Its interesting, although uneven.more
This was a delightful romp through the history of the development of the mathematics for determining probability and statistics. We used it as our car book for our trip north for Thanksgiving with me being the narrator, reading aloud to my husband who was driving. We both enjoyed it because the language was in “laymen’s” terms so I had no trouble understanding the math and the anecdotes the author uses to illustrate his points were interesting enough that they entertained my scientist husband and created several discussions for us. In some ways it was even better than a book on CD because it was easier to stop and discuss a point without losing the next part of the narration. Highly recommended for those who are interested in math and science for the layman--4 starsmore
I found this a bit heavy on the biographies of dead mathematicians, and a bit light on the surprising effects of probabilities and how they really work. There were some examples of how our intuition can be wrong about probabilities, but I didn't find much that is useful for actually refining my intuition.The point made in the subtitle ("how randomness rules our lives") was barely addressed. The main message was an admonition to judge people on their ability rather than their success or failure. Unfortunately, no tips on how to actually do that.more
Delightful romp through some of the history of probability and statistics as it pertains to how our brains are wired to misinterpret odds. The book periodically suggests why evolution favored such wiring and how it benefits us in fast-act situations, and it tricks us in others.Mlodinow frequently starts an interesting anecdote, only to jump to something else that is interesting and related so as to "bait" the reader who is eager to find out the answer and the rest of the story. After completing the related topic he then completes the original anecdote. I loved this! While it was maddening to not jump to finish the original anecdote, because I was so curious, I also enjoyed the excursions and had fun with this style.I WILL read other of Mlodinow's books, based on my experience with this one.For those of us that had statistics in high-school and college, this is a special treat, because it brings back memories of our studies (without the tedious math that turns some people off), but with particularly interesting real-world stories, such as the "Monty Hall" problem of a game show with 3 doors with two goats and a new car, each behind a different door. Suppose you pick one door, and before opening it the host opens another behind which is a goat. Should you switch doors? You should!This doesn't usually make intuitive sense, but Mlodinow shows in a very clear and easily readable way why you should switch....but not until he explains some interesting related historical background... You are hooked!And, for those wondering why some people make it big, while other similarly talented individuals go unnoticed, Mlodinow shows that usually just chance explains the discrepancy. Lest one feel that this is too fatalistic, he points out that hard work and preparations can increase one's odds for success. What about rankings of colleagues at work, done be many companies? Mlodinow shows that the usual sample sizes used to make the ranking render the results meaningless. (100 individuals is too small a sample size...) All-in-all, a GREAT read!more
Mr. Mlodinow has written a book about probability that is easy to understand and interesting to read. His main contribution to the general public's understanding is how streaks of success or failure (or even the sequence 1-2-3) could be random events. He explores how a lack of understanding of probability theory and randomness has affected both clinical and criminal trials.Not to mention the famous (among probability lovers) "Monty Hall Problem", finally explained so that most people will understand why to switch doors if you ever find yourself on Let's Make a Deal.more
Ok, I'm weird and the one of my favorite types of math has always been probability and statistics. So, this book was just a lot of fun to read.I can't give it 5 stars for one reason. In one of the first chapters, the author describes a situation that is supposed to explain how even doctors make mistakes understanding probability. Looking up the actual article he references, he's right. But the way he words the problem in the book makes the doctors *possibly* correct. It bothered me enough to look up the article and to check with a friend of mine who's in the process of getting a math-related PhD.It was really just sloppy wording, but I almost didn't bother reading the rest of the book because I was worried there'd be the same type of slip-up over and over again. AFAIK, there wasn't, though.It drives me crazy when people can't seem to understand elementary stats and probability. I wish this book could be required reading for high school math!more
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Reviews

If you already know the meaning of terms like "standard deviation" and "regression to the mean," then read this book for Mlodinow's colorful and fluent writing.more
Vague memory: enjoyed it, mostly. Some interesting tidbits on the nature of randomness and human beings' instincts for creating patterns out of nothing. I don't think I finished it, and had to return it to the library. Might want to read again sometime.more
A surprisingly accessible and readable book, which I enjoyed more than I had expected. Mlodinow uses humor, anecdotes, examples, and thorough explanations to delve into how everything and everyone is affected by randomness and how and why most people -- in fact, at some point or another, all people -- are subject to illusions, denial, and downright refusal to accept this as a fact of life.

He spends a good deal of the book revealing the history of science, economics, and mathematics (among other things) as they relate to his subject. His purpose is to "pull back the curtain" so his reader can discover all the methods used to prevent illusions from leading us to make poor or even dangerous decisions. It's not a self-help book, but the information can be used by readers.

There are a lot of big, complicated ideas in this book, especially for those (like me) who find mathematics difficult and headache-inducing, but that didn't get in the way of my enjoying the book (which is just plain surprising). While he's juggling physics, high level finance, and calculus, Mlodinow did something else that really surprised me -- he introduced himself as a sort of character, a personality, a likable individual, and just as subject to the illusions and delusions he is pointing out as anyone else. I found it very surprising to have such an emotional connection to the author of a fairly dry non-fiction book, and that helped a lot while reading through subject matter which I so assiduously avoided in highschool.

A unique reading experience. I borrowed the copy from the library, but I may have to purchase one for myself, so I can read it again and refer to it later. I'll be looking out for more of Mr. Mlodinow's books.more
A friend chose this for bookclub, and not a single person in the bookclub could finish it. I happen to find the statistical ideas that the book covers interesting, but the book is so poorly written that those ideas were overshadowed by looooooong, dull historical narratives.more
Mlodinow uses probability and statistics to explain how events that occur in our lives are usually nothing more than random occurrences and usually informed by chance. He begins the book with a brief primer on the basic principles of probability and charts the history of chance. The 2nd half of the book moves into looking at the illogicalities of our modern lives. "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" provides an entertaining an insightful explanation of probability in our lives. I have incorporated examples from this book into my lesson on probability and sample sets before. My students love the Monty Hall problem and trying to prove it wrong. The book is an easy read for any layperson.more
This is indeed a fascinating book, and very well written. I like the way that Leonard has clearly explained the concepts of probability, and has linked them to the events in our daily life. Many of us, me included, have over time, tended to solve questions on probability using formulae. In this, we often forget to analyze the situation and the problem at hand, and make mistakes that later seem to be elementary.Yes, indeed, probability does rule our lives more than we often care to realize, and I am indeed thankful to Leonard for showing this to us in a clear and concise manner. This is a book that most people will follow and enjoy without too much of a problem.more
I stopped half way through the audio. While probability theory and his stories were interesting it could not hold my interest. I may listen to this in the future if I ever need to learn about this topic.more
Speaking as someone who hasn't taken a math course since 11th grade, I was pleasantly surprised to find I could follow the concepts and finally associate them with my verbally oriented world. I have gained confidence with common statistical terminology, and I am strangely reassured by the research that asserts we have far less control than we imagine. I now feel justified in selecting my wine on the basis of the label design.more
The Drunkard's Walk is science writing at its best.You start with someone who knows what their talking about. Mlodinow has a PhD in physics from the Berkeley and teaches at Caltech. If that's not enough for you, he co-wrote A Briefer History of Time with Stephen Hawking.The second element in good science writing is an interesting topic. Randomness fits the bill perfectly since it permeates every area of our lives. This allows Mlodinow to tell interesting stories about everything from Let's Make A Deal to the track record of investment bankers.This book is well structured, too. Rather than follow some text-book method of teaching, Mlodinow has organized the chapters around the history of this field of study. As you continue through the chapters, you encounter all the major theorists who have led the study of randomness.The last element in a good science book is simply good writing. The quality of Mlodinow's prose is excellent. Don't expect flat technical writing here—he composes his sentences artfully.This was the first book I've read by Mlodinow but it won't be the last.more
A must read for everybody.more
The first half of Leonard Mlodinow’s essay on randomness charts the history of chance and gives a primer on the basic principles of probability. This is mildly interesting insofar as it recounts the endeavours of oddball enlightenment characters (many of the French, like Bernouilli family) and how they stumbled on the idea of probability, and iteratively worked out its implications, and hated each other all the while. Mlodinow briefly states and, to my mind, under-emphasises, the historical and cultural significance of probability in the scientific worldview: it affords us an alternative to reductionism: not only is the need to delve ever further into microscopic (and atomic) detail to find “essential” qualities avoided; the importance of cause and effect at all is significantly relegated. No longer must we establish “this caused that”; probability cares simply that “the occurrence of this” is *correlated* with “the occurrence of that”. Old habits die hard, of course, and the reductionist crowd does tend to draw a causative deduction from a strong correlation. The great Enlightenment sceptic David Hume (who sadly does not rates a mention here) would surely spin in his grave. Having armed the reader with some rudimentary knowhow about normal distributions and standard deviations (it is well, and lightly explained: I wish my high school maths teacher had made it this simple), in the second half of the book Mlodinow takes anecdotal pot-shots at the illogicalities of our modern life. They are legion. Some of his examples are fascinating (the probability of *someone* beating Babe Ruth’s record *at some time* are far greater than you’d think) some are a little old hat (the surprisingly high chance of footballers on the same field sharing a birthday), others are enlightening (the same manager night have consistently beaten the January/December annual performance of the Dow, but not the April/March annual performance), the implication being the parameters, periods and frequencies selected to a sample a data set (often chosen after collection of the data) can help to fit the data to a more compelling story) and some are jaw-droppers (in a period, the distribution of a set of mutual fund managers is exactly as you’d expect - some outperformers, some under performers most bunched around the middle: on the other hand, the comparison over two discrete periods was utter chaos: implication: performance across the sector is “volatile” (their word) or “more or less random (“Mlodinow’s”) if this is right, as stated, it is a matter of international outrage.However, I don’t think it is quite the full picture. Firstly, the data set Mlodinow uses to illustrate this point is precisely two. Having spent the first half of the book elegantly explaining how “false positives” - conclusions as to randomness (or non-randomness) should not be drawn from extremely small samples, this looks like a bit of an own goal. Were Mlodinow’s sample 100 periods, and the relative performance between the managers still all over the place, there would be a better case for outrage. Secondly, in lionising the normal distribution, which he says “rules our lives”, Mlodinow skates over the tendency of human interactions – of which are lives are comprised, after all – to be interdependent (that is, not truly random at all). A normal curve plots the distribution of discrete events (i.e., events whose occurrence do not affect each other’s probability). But, if you yell “fire” run for the exit in a cinema, you make it more likely other people will too. If a stock starts falling, its price will drop and people will be inclined to sell. This is why market crashes and bank runs happen. Writers like Phillip Ball and Benoit Mandelbrot have written compellingly about this interdependence. Where there events are reflexive in this way, probabilities follow a “power law” distribution (this looks rather like a normal curve in the middle, but crucially has a much longer, fatter tail at each end). Here, things can and do happen which are so far outside the realms of random probability as to be impossible. These are the “Black Swans” of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s recent book. The lesson the financial community has learned (well: apparently *hasn’t* learned) is that one models interdependent events as if they were randomly distributed at one’s utter peril: the events accounting for Long Term Capital Management and Lehman Brothers should not have happened in hundreds of millennia.It is a little unwise, therefore, to write off portfolio theory purely on the basis of normal distributions (there are plenty of other grounds on which to write it off). On the other hand, Mlodinow may well be right to suspect that the “wisdom of crowds” aspect from which markets undoubtedly suffer (and markets are well represented by investment managers) conceals a singular lack of differentiation. The interesting exercise, not done, would be to compare the bell curves of individual investment managers. A particular succession of home runs may be put down to the size of a given hitter’s standard deviation, but a batter still has to earn his own bell curve: It may have been unlikely in the extreme for Roger Maris to hit 61 home runs in a season, but it would have been as good as flat out impossible for me to.That said, Mlodinow’s central thesis - that we habitually mistake expertise and talent for a “lucky streak” - is an attractive one and it is interesting exercise to apply it to one’s own sacred cows. And, for that matter, one’s bêtes noires.more
Excellent book. The author provides an entertaining and insightful explanation of probability in our lives. I strongly recommend this book based on the useful insight and basic life lessons one can obtain from an understanding of randomness.more
The book reads easier than other math publications...it is typical of any math book that someone will review it and say "the author is good at presenting the material to the lay man," when in most cases that is a dubious claim at best. In this case it would be an accurate claim.The humor is great and lightens it up; the technical aspects of the math are well-placed along with historical and other developments. He is clearly not your typical "geek"--not that anybody is, but it helps a reader to know the author is human and has interests like he does--often referring to sports and popular culture and making the text therefore highly relevant.I loved Keith Devlin's The Unfinished Game, which covers much of the same material--notably Pascal's correspondence with Fermat--but this book is superior in many ways.more
I've read yet another in this genre....yes, this one was pretty good, but it might better be graded 3.5, since I think I had to try a second time to finish this one (started it many months ago and it went back to the library; saw it in a bookstore and couldn't remember if I'd finished -- happens when all these books blend together, or you get to be my age (?) -- and saw that the second half had some more entertaining stories that were new. The first half was kind of repetitive for me, but is a fairly concise treatment of the development of probability. So.....readable? Check. Personal stories included that add some human interest and give you a bit more than the same exact experiments that every other book in this genre mentions? Check. Some history? Check. Not too much technical jargon and with good pacing? Check check check check.....So, which out of this genre (probability/decision-making/history/theory) do you read? This one might be second-ish for me. I still iiked Jonah Lehrer's book, though this one is more geared towards the history of math and probability, while Lehrer's is more around psychology.more
This book is written by a professor at Caltech. He talks a lot about probability and chance and how it affects our lives. It also talks about the interesting history of some of the giants in the field, Bayes, Laplace, Gauss, De Moivre, Bernoulli, etc.The book succeeds when it sheds light on common situations in our society. For example, the author talks about the wine ratings system and what a scam it is. It is less successful when it gets a little too jokey and informal.more
Mlodinow explores the role of randomness in our lives and probability and how the brains of human beings are unskilled at detecting such things. In addition to a lively and richly illustrated discussion of statistics there is a considerable amount of the history of mathematics and science, which the history geek in me enjoyed. A good book with a good message I'm sadly certain I'll soon forget.more
I was fascinated by this book. What began with a discussion about probability and how easy it is to lie with those statistics, ended up with a rather philosophical look at whether it is prudent or necessary to make life plans - since the author claims that a great deal of what happens in life is a result of random events, both good and bad. Every chapter in between was another gem - not a single dud. Basically, he claims that we generally refuse to admit how much of what happens is strictly random - and even when we are told and shown that something is random, we still act as though it is not. So, we keep plugging coins into the slot machine because "it is due" even though, regardless of how long it has been since it paid off, it is no more likely to yield a jackpot in the next spin, or 10 or 50 spins, than it was on the last spin. Outstanding sports teams will sometimes have a dismal season, and firing the coach will have no impact because it wasn't his fault - it was a combination of random occurances. By the same token, poor teams will sometimes have amazing seasons - and the chances of either of those events occuring can be computed with accuracy. Very ordinary people sometimes rise to amazing heights in their fields, not because they have done something extraordinary, but because they happened to be in the right place at the right time - due to a series of random events. He cites Bill Gates and Bruce Willis as examples of this. Even though both men are talented in their fields, they are not extraordinarily talented - they were simply fortunate and got lucky breaks. He also talks about our desire not only to deny the role of randomness in the world, but to seek to find order in the randomness. This is one of the causes of "20-20 hindsight". When considered in isolation, and after the fact, there is obvious evidence that authorities ought to have known about the Pearl Harbor bombing and the 9-11 attacks in advance. However, without the perspective of hindsight, much of that "evidence" was just random information without context. Likewise, mistakes are made everyday, usually without any lasting consequence. The chances of an entire chain of such mistakes, happening in just the right sequence, and with the right timing, leading to a catestrophic event are small, but measurable according to laws of randomness. This is what happened in the Three Mile Island incident. Perhaps not for everyone, but I found the book very thought-provoking.more
This book excels at explaining statistics and "randomness" in meaningful and practical way for the non-mathematician. The reader still needs to think, but Mldinow brings as much clarity to this topic as he did to physics in "A Brief History of Time." I especially appreciate the way he balances the theory, the history, and the practical use. And his writing is in many places more humorous than you ever find in this genre.more
Mlodinow offers more of a history of statistics and chance - with a few modern examples of chance events - than anything else. Regardless, his writing and stories really grasp the reader and may create an interest in the topic. While this may be an interesting read, many readers may not learn much other than the history of the topic.more
This is the kind of book I unwaveringly recommend to everyone. Most things I read and like have audience segments. I can't really recommend Dumas to my friend who really loves YA novels; I don't think David would be into Jane Austen. But this book? Read it, read it, read it. All right, I will concede to one factor. I never took statistics. I have an intuitive grasp on probability and have taken calculus, but my mathematic foundation is not the best and is beset by termites. So it is feasible that Mlodinow's explanations of the rules of probability--refreshingly clear and concise--might not be quite as "ah-ha!" to every reader. But the relevant examples and stories and narrative are first-rate across the board. Mlodinow's thesis shines a light on the common fallacies we, due to inherent human nature, make. He covers human weaknesses in recognizing and generating random data, assigning astronomical odds to something seemingly miraculous, believing in our ability to "beat the market", falling victim to confimation biases and otherwise looking for pattern and control when there is none or we have none.Along the way we get to re-visit with my personal bugaboo, the "Monty Hall" problem. We see how chance more than anything underlies meteoric success streaks for sports figures, actors, and writers. We get to know (sometimes in a bit too much depth) about the lives of the mathematicians who figured this stuff out, from Platonic Greece to modern times. Though Mlodinow's argument never wavers--chance, and chance alone, dictate far more of the outcomes in our lives and world than we generally realize--he manages to deliver this potentially depressing argument with a sincere dollop of hope, urging us to remember that it's the stubborn and the perservering who leave a mark of genius on this world.Mlodinow tells us about John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Toole never lived to see his book published: he killed himself after the 11th rejection notice. His mother kept at it, and ultimately it was published, posthumously. It sold like hotcakes and won the Pulitzer Prize. This, specifically, is meaningful to me. After all, my signature cry of "My tubes!" during bouts of Crohn's ickiness is derived directly from protagonist Ignatius Reilly's bellow: "My Valve!" To think that the world could exist without such farcical genius makes the notion of "don't quit" more powerful.more
Mlodnow applies theories of probability and statics to modern circumstances after describing the environment in which each theory was created. While the biographies were a bit tedious at times, it was nonetheless interesting to see what drove the individuals towards the development of these theories. The book focused more on the historical development of theories than it did on "how randomness rules our lives." While the last two chapters start to hit on this subject, the reader is left to apply these theories to their own lives and infer what they deem appropriate.more
Mlodnow sets out to prove that in many cases, past performance is not an indication of future returns. We've all seen that disclaimer on mutual fund advertisements, but it also applies to movie studio execs, sports coaches, and Fortune 500 CEOs. The avowed purpose of the book is to demonstrate how and why it is incorrect to predict the future based on the past; however, he really doesn't offer much of an alternative method. Still, The Drunkard's Walk is a nice overview of the science of probability and statistics. Some of the content is rehashed from Stephen Jay Gould and others, so some of the examples were actually familiar to me. It's Mlodnow's explanation of the title concept, "the drunkard's walk" (describing a system of sequentially random data points) and "the butterfly effect" (how a seemingly trivial event can snowball in to major consequences down the line) that are the best parts of the book.more
An interesting look at randomness on our lives and how we ofter misinterpret its effects. Its interesting, although uneven.more
This was a delightful romp through the history of the development of the mathematics for determining probability and statistics. We used it as our car book for our trip north for Thanksgiving with me being the narrator, reading aloud to my husband who was driving. We both enjoyed it because the language was in “laymen’s” terms so I had no trouble understanding the math and the anecdotes the author uses to illustrate his points were interesting enough that they entertained my scientist husband and created several discussions for us. In some ways it was even better than a book on CD because it was easier to stop and discuss a point without losing the next part of the narration. Highly recommended for those who are interested in math and science for the layman--4 starsmore
I found this a bit heavy on the biographies of dead mathematicians, and a bit light on the surprising effects of probabilities and how they really work. There were some examples of how our intuition can be wrong about probabilities, but I didn't find much that is useful for actually refining my intuition.The point made in the subtitle ("how randomness rules our lives") was barely addressed. The main message was an admonition to judge people on their ability rather than their success or failure. Unfortunately, no tips on how to actually do that.more
Delightful romp through some of the history of probability and statistics as it pertains to how our brains are wired to misinterpret odds. The book periodically suggests why evolution favored such wiring and how it benefits us in fast-act situations, and it tricks us in others.Mlodinow frequently starts an interesting anecdote, only to jump to something else that is interesting and related so as to "bait" the reader who is eager to find out the answer and the rest of the story. After completing the related topic he then completes the original anecdote. I loved this! While it was maddening to not jump to finish the original anecdote, because I was so curious, I also enjoyed the excursions and had fun with this style.I WILL read other of Mlodinow's books, based on my experience with this one.For those of us that had statistics in high-school and college, this is a special treat, because it brings back memories of our studies (without the tedious math that turns some people off), but with particularly interesting real-world stories, such as the "Monty Hall" problem of a game show with 3 doors with two goats and a new car, each behind a different door. Suppose you pick one door, and before opening it the host opens another behind which is a goat. Should you switch doors? You should!This doesn't usually make intuitive sense, but Mlodinow shows in a very clear and easily readable way why you should switch....but not until he explains some interesting related historical background... You are hooked!And, for those wondering why some people make it big, while other similarly talented individuals go unnoticed, Mlodinow shows that usually just chance explains the discrepancy. Lest one feel that this is too fatalistic, he points out that hard work and preparations can increase one's odds for success. What about rankings of colleagues at work, done be many companies? Mlodinow shows that the usual sample sizes used to make the ranking render the results meaningless. (100 individuals is too small a sample size...) All-in-all, a GREAT read!more
Mr. Mlodinow has written a book about probability that is easy to understand and interesting to read. His main contribution to the general public's understanding is how streaks of success or failure (or even the sequence 1-2-3) could be random events. He explores how a lack of understanding of probability theory and randomness has affected both clinical and criminal trials.Not to mention the famous (among probability lovers) "Monty Hall Problem", finally explained so that most people will understand why to switch doors if you ever find yourself on Let's Make a Deal.more
Ok, I'm weird and the one of my favorite types of math has always been probability and statistics. So, this book was just a lot of fun to read.I can't give it 5 stars for one reason. In one of the first chapters, the author describes a situation that is supposed to explain how even doctors make mistakes understanding probability. Looking up the actual article he references, he's right. But the way he words the problem in the book makes the doctors *possibly* correct. It bothered me enough to look up the article and to check with a friend of mine who's in the process of getting a math-related PhD.It was really just sloppy wording, but I almost didn't bother reading the rest of the book because I was worried there'd be the same type of slip-up over and over again. AFAIK, there wasn't, though.It drives me crazy when people can't seem to understand elementary stats and probability. I wish this book could be required reading for high school math!more
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