Leonard Mlodinow has managed to condense a lot into the 219 pages of The Drunkard’s Walk. Not only is his book a deconstruction of the seemingly unpre...moreLeonard Mlodinow has managed to condense a lot into the 219 pages of The Drunkard’s Walk. Not only is his book a deconstruction of the seemingly unpredictable forces that interact with us on a daily basis, it provides a brief history of the mathematics of chance and the various players who created the studies of statistics and probability. To avoid sounding like a lecture on logic, Mlodinow interjects with fitting examples and anecdotes to illustrate key points.

In order to explain randomness, Mlodinow takes an ironic turn and creates order to what we would consider outliers in statistical evidence. He talks about Roger Maris’ record-breaking season and how he was, put simply, a product of a numbers game. He debunks many faulty uses of statistics and probability, namely by showing that many people tend to view individual stats as isolated, when they are part of a greater set of wider parameters. He does this in one example by looking at dazzlingly successful mutual fund managers and stock market guru Bill Miller’s winning streaks. Mlodinow describes these wealthy, almost clairvoyant financial experts as faulty benchmarks because the public tends to view their success as overcoming billion to one odds, when they were instead the inevitable extreme in the normal distribution curve.

In other words, if you were to ask 1,000 people to flip a coin 100 times, there will inevitably be someone who flips 70-80 heads and another who only flips 20-30. Were these people blessed with coin-flipping skills? Unlikely. Can you expect them to repeat their performance in another 100 flips? Also unlikely.

While discussing the relationship between order and chaos, Mlodinow introduced me to several interesting concepts. One of which his the idea of regression toward the mean, which states that people have a base level in any particular skill, and sometimes, for reasons entirely unknown, will have instances where they excel more than usual at that skill and instances when they don’t do as well. However, after these fluctuations, they will revert back to that base level, to the mean. Mlodinow uses this concept to explain Maris’ record-breaking season and his lack of a sensational career afterward. This also explains the apparently random height of the offspring of a couple and why unusually tall people should not expect to have tall children.

It’s a very interesting book, but it falls below the 5-star rating because it often gets a little muddled by tackling too many things. Mlodinow does provide the best possible explanations for the Monty Hall and Zeno paradoxes and a fun history of the who’s who of probability (Gerolano Cardano, Galileo, Blaise Pascal and Jakob Bernoulli to name a few). But I found myself trying to remember why he was talking about them in the first place. His narrative becomes a bit tangential, which can make an already mind-bending topic too convoluted. Despite this gripe, I enjoyed the walk.(less)

Disclaimer: This is not a 0-star review, it's a ?-star review.

I can't accurately rate this book because, quite frankly, the majority of it was way ove...moreDisclaimer: This is not a 0-star review, it's a ?-star review.

I can't accurately rate this book because, quite frankly, the majority of it was way over my head. You know you're in for a tough read when the author himself can't properly summarize the holistic point of his work. Reviewers can't seem to agree, and categorizing it is near impossible. Here's my take on the book:

Hofstadter attempts to unify three figures' works from one interwoven concept to another. Known for his books on strange loops, he starts there, expounding on the paradox of a string that changes, yet can be looped into itself seamlessly. He notes how Johann Sebastian Bach would compose his canons in this way; visual artist M. C. Escher’s famous pictures routinely blur the starting or ending points of its components; and finally mathematician Kurt Gödel put this concept in terms of logic.

Another interesting point was that of positive and negative space. For example, the white space on a page is negative, and the black text on top is positive. However, sometimes you can play with these spaces, as in with this image, which might at first look like random black images, but one finds "FLY" upon inspection of the white space. Hofstadter notes that Bach would use his melodies (positive) and accompaniment (negative) almost interchangeably, thus creating a slightly paradoxical work where there is neither positive or negative space. By no stretch of the imagination can we see the same effect in M.C. Escher's works of blurred reality and interlocking parts. However, once he gets into Gödel, then my mind turns off.

And that’s where I stopped really “getting” the book. Hofstadter’s math- and programming-heavy approach was too great an assault on the left side of my brain. After hundreds of pages on number theory, recursion, Zen Buddhism, and many other metaphysical subjects, I stopped understanding the words on the page. By no means is this a negative review – I just don’t feel at all qualified to deal judgment on this rigorous mental exercise.

Had Steph not recommended this book so feverishly, I doubt I would have picked it up. Now I either wonder if my girlfriend had confused this book with some other work of shocking intelligence, or worry that she has a monolithic intellect that makes my own musings in non-fiction seem like a child putting the square block into the circular opening.(less)

Game theory is a concept that has come up several times in particular conversations, usually leaving me stupefied because I didn't really know what it...moreGame theory is a concept that has come up several times in particular conversations, usually leaving me stupefied because I didn't really know what it meant. Honestly, after reading Len Fisher's book, I'm still a little dumbfounded, but I have a better grasp now than I did before starting.

Fisher's approach is a simple one to follow. He outlines the different situations, problems or "dilemmas" that can arise in the study of game theory, and then promptly gives simple, quotidian examples of them. He talks about the classic Prisoner's Dilemma, the game of Chicken, the Stag Hunt, and many other situations that stem from John Nash's study of cooperation and defection, draws them out with simple graphs, and then relates them to our lives in tangible ways. From there, he describes the ways in which we can either "solve" or devise a strategy in which to bring the parties involved closer to the most positive state. It's not always very straightforward, but that's because the subject matter can get a little complex, especially when Fisher decides to venture into quantum mechanics.

All in all, it was a fun read. Just today, I emphatically called out "Game theory!" in the middle of a conversation. I instantly felt a little smarter, which validates this book completely.(less)