I math for a living. I mathed, both amateurly and professionally, at school. I math quite a bit. And as a math teacher, I like reading "pop math" bookI math for a living. I mathed, both amateurly and professionally, at school. I math quite a bit. And as a math teacher, I like reading "pop math" books that try to do for math what many science writers have done for science. So picking up How Not to Be Wrong was a no-brainer when I saw it on that bookstore shelf. I’ve read and enjoyed some of Jordan Ellenberg’s columns on Slate and elsewhere (some of them appear or are adapted as chapters of this book). And he doesn’t disappoint.
I should make one thing clear: I mainlined this book like it was the finest heroin. Partly that’s because I just love reading about math, but in this case I was also days away from moving back to Canada from the UK when I started this, and luggage space was at a premium, so I was on a deadline to finish this book. I injected chapters at a time into my veins, revelling in that rush as Ellenberg charismatically and entertainingly explores the math behind a lot of everyday concepts and ideas. Unlike similar attempts, however, Ellenberg doesn’t pull the punches. He’s more than willing to go into the higher-concept ideas behind the math, and when it starts getting too esoteric or academic even for this venue, he’s always ready with a book recommendation for those interested in some further reading.
Early in my reading, I tweeted I had already decided to give this book five stars because Ellenberg alludes to Mean Girls in a footnote. (Specifically, he says, “As Lindsay Lohan would put it, ’the limit does not exist!’”) That’s really all you need to know about Ellenberg’s writing style and sense of humour. Actually, I’m not all that enamoured with the footnotes in general; they interrupted the flow of my reading and the symbols used to mark them were slightly too small, so I kept missing them in the text—but that’s a design issue. The content of the footnotes themselves is often informative or, as in the case above, humorous. Ellenberg might be a university math professor, but he also has a sense of humour and an awareness of pop culture that helps to make his writing accessible.
I’m impressed by the way Ellenberg effortlessly straddles pure and applied mathematics. The child of two statisticians, he clearly has a good grasp and appreciation of the way applied math drives so many areas of society. From economics to gambling, he makes passionate appeals for informed perspectives over simplistic analogies or fallacies. His first chapter criticizes analogies that promote linear thinking about taxation when the very same economists writing these analogies know that taxation probably isn’t linear. He doesn’t argue for or against an increase in taxes, but rather he points out that it’s wrong to oversimplify the concept when trying to sell it to the public. Is a curve really all that much harder to understand than a line?
There’s also some great chapters on odds and the lottery, in which Ellenberg recounts how a group of MIT students set up a legitimate operation to bulk buy lottery tickets from a certain game that actually gave them good odds of winning. They made a profit, because they used math to turn a game of chance into a predictable investment strategy (which is more than we can say for the stock market). So, you know, stay in school kids.
But actually, the parts about the lottery that impressed me were more towards the purer end of the math spectrum. Ellenberg started discussing, for example, how best to pick the numbers on one’s tickets so that one could maximize the chance of winning at each tier of prizes. It turns out that it’s possible to represent the way of picking these numbers geometrically (yes, as in pictures) and that it’s related to the way we create error-correcting codes (which allow us to send instructions to spacecraft, and compress data in JPEGs, MP3s, and on discs). He goes into quite a bit of detail about the more advanced concepts behind these ideas. Later, he points out how correlation on scatter plots corresponds to an ellipse—and we know how to deal with ellipses algebraically, which gives us a good toolset for talking about correlation algebraically too.
So, How Not to Be Wrong makes an effort time and again to belie the impression that we often get in school that math consists of a series of discrete topics: arithmetic, geometry, statistics, and the dreaded algebra. We teach it that way because it’s easier to lay out as a curriculum and focus on the essential skills of each discipline. And also because we are boring. If you’re lucky, like me, then as a student you’ll start to see the connections yourself. Circles and pi start showing up everywhere, to the point where suddenly you feel like you’re being stalked, and no amount of infinite series or integration is going to save you. But really, good teachers start showing these connections as soon as possible. We fail students and leave them behind because, in our rush to equip them with the skills we’ve been told they need, we rob them of the idea that math is a creative process, instead fostering this false impression that math is a sterile, difficult, procedural slog. If it is, then you might be a computer.
Ellenberg never demands a knowledge of integral calculus, of set theory, or of transfinite numbers. What he does demand is an open mind, a willingness to be convinced that not only does math have a useful place in life (it’s pretty obvious to most people that someone needs to know how to math; they just don’t see why it should be them) but that a deeper understanding of the roles and uses of math can enrich anyone’s life. One can be a believer in the power of mathematics without necessarily worshipping at its altar, and it’s this quest for adherents rather than acolytes that makes this popular math book successful. It helps that Ellenberg’s style is witty. It helps that he is passionate without sounding too evangelical. He weaves in enough history, anecdotes, and allusions to demonstrate that mathematicians’ journeys and the development of mathematics as a discipline has been just like everything else in life: alternately dramatic and dull, intense, occasionally acrimonious. We don’t like to admit it, but we mathematicians are people too. And occasionally we’re wrong, very wrong (like those nineteenth-century French eugenicists…). The title here is tongue-in-cheek, and How Not to Be Wrong can’t guarantee your future correctness with great certitude. All it can do is help you think more critically, more logically, but more creatively about the problems and questions that you’ll face in the future. Because mathematics is a tool for helping us to do amazing things. You can be a novice, or you can be a proficient user of this tool, but either way you’ll need to pick it up at some point to do a little handiwork. Don’t fear it: embrace it.
I had to add a new shelf for this book: "deliciously quotable." That admirably summarizes Fool, a bawdy comedic interpretation of Shakespeare's King LI had to add a new shelf for this book: "deliciously quotable." That admirably summarizes Fool, a bawdy comedic interpretation of Shakespeare's King Lear. Not for the faint of heart, Fool puts the reader through a whirlwind tour of Shakespearean clichés mixed with a healthy dose of anachronisms and sexual innuendo.
I love any sort of irreverent Shakespearean fun. It's all well and good to call the Bard one of the greatest writers of the English language, but I've never agreed with scholars who treat Shakespeare's writing as sacred. After all, I'm sure good ol' Will wasn't looking to become the most lauded British playwright--he just wanted to make some money and have a good time. And we all know that Shakespeare, although a master wordsmith, was far from original--almost all of his plays are based on earlier works anyway. So it's more homage than heresy to reinterpret the Bard's own work.
King Lear is my favourite of Shakespeare's plays; however, even if it isn't your favourite, or even if you've never read it, you'll still enjoy Fool (just maybe not as much as I did). Christopher Moore draws on inspiration and quotations from several of Shakespeare's plays "largely to throw off reviewers, who will be reluctant to cite and criticize passages of my writing, lest they were penned by the Bard hisownself." It's King Lear sprinkled with Macbeth and Hamlet and a happy ending. I'm not suggesting that a happy ending is better for King Lear—I'm looking at you, Nathan Tate—but it's better for the King Lear reimagining that is Fool.
Take Fool with a grain of salt and suspend your disbelief and you'll be rewarded with a funny and entertaining story. I laughed out loud at several parts of the book, something I very rarely do, and was ready to grant the book five stars when I was less than halfway through (contingent on the book remaining awesome, which it did). Not only is Fool fun and easy to read, but it makes Shakespeare accessible to people who might otherwise never find time for the Bard—I'm looking at you, vapid Twilight-enslaved teenage populace. Fool isn't a replacement for King Lear, and maybe I'm just being too idealistic here, but I hope it'll stir up more interest in Shakespeare, who could be every bit as bawdy as Christopher Moore.
Yes, I loved hearing Regan described as "sadistic (but erotic-fantasy-grade-hot)" and several independent discussions of her "shaggacity." My taste in comedy runs more toward the cerebral, so I hope my enjoyment of Moore's wordplay is all the more convincing a testimonial. It's simply brilliant: "We've been rehearsing a classic from antiquity, Green Eggs and Hamlet, the story of a young prince of Denmark who goes mad, drowns his girlfriend, and in his remorse, forces spoiled breakfast on all whom he meets." As that quotation indicates, Moore peppers Fool with anachronisms. He doesn't go out of his way to describe the mythical medieval Britain he's conjured into existence; Fool is very light on description and heavy on dialogue. Moore sets the stage prior to the beginning of the book: "generally, if not otherwise explained, conditions may be considered damp" and then rarely goes on to describe the environment except when required by the plot. And I don't mind the scant description; it fits the quick-paced, witty tone of Pocket's narration and his banter with enemies and allies alike.
In keeping with the wit and dialogue, another reason Fool appealed so much to me is that it's very meta. The characters occasionally break the fourth wall—usually when Pocket criticizes their behaviour as a stock character:
"So," said Oswald, "you lived through the night?"
"Of course, why wouldn't I?" I asked.
"Well, because I told Cornwall of your rendezvous with Regan and I expected him to slay you."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, Oswald, show a little guile, would you? The state of villainy in this castle is rubbish, what with Edmund being pleasant and you being straightforward. What's next, Cornwall starts feeding orphans while bloody bluebirds fly out of his bum? Now, let's try it again, see if you can at least keep up the pretense of evil. Go."
"So, you lived through the night?" said Oswald.
"Of course, why wouldn't I?" I asked.
This sort of meta-repartee can only work in a certain type of book—it would be out of place in a deeply serious piece of literature, for instance, but is fine for something like Fool or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Moore goes further and interposes a page-length "intermission" scene consisting of fourth-wall-breaking dialogue between Pocket and Edmund at the end of Act IV:
"Bloody ghost is foreshadowing, innit?"
"But all the gratuitous shagging and tossing?"
"You're having me on."
"Sorry, no, it's pikeman's surprise for you in the next scene."
"I'm slain then?"
"To the great satisfaction of the audience."
Lest you think Fool is only vapid innuendo, I'd argue that there is a more profound level to this novel. Although it transforms King Lear from tragedy to black comedy, in the course of doing so it makes some very touching observations (this was particularly the case with Pocket's recount of his relationship with the anchoress). My favourite, hands down, is this dialogue between the banished Kent and Pocket:
"I'm beginning to wonder," said Kent, sitting down now on an overturned wooden tub. "Who do I serve? Why am I here?"
"You are here, because, in the expanding ethical ambiguity of our situation, you are steadfast in your righteousness. It is to you, our banished friend, that we all turn—a light amid the dark dealings of family and politics. You are the moral backbone on which the rest of us hang our bloody bits. Without you we are merely wiggly masses of desire writhing in our own devious bile."
"Really?" asked the old knight.
"Aye," said I.
"I'm not sure I want to keep company with you lot, then."
Not only is this funny, but it actually provides a great look at the character of Kent from the original King Lear. The most anomalous aspect of the original play is the fact that Lear's kind of a jerk, so it's curious that Kent stays loyal to him even after banishment. Here Pocket attempts to give an answer to that question, with his usual graphically disturbing diction. The characters in Fool are slightly thinner than cardboard, with very little development. Yet it's easy to forget that most of Shakespeare's characters are like that too. Fool is, at some level, an allegory with a paper-thin cast.
Fool is my first, but definitely not my last, Christopher Moore book. Friends of mine who like Moore, and many of the reviewers on this site, seem to concur that Fool is not one of his best novels. If that's the case, then I'm in for a treat; since I loved Fool, I can't wait to get my hands on Moore novels that don't suck!
There's a certain subset of people who will pan this book because their sense of humour isn't compatible with it—they'll find it childish, or perhaps even repugnant. I respect their differing opinion, but if you don't share that opinion, then you must read this book. It is awesome....more