Monday, February 22, 2010

Random: The Drunkard's Walk

I've signed up for a Science book challenge, because Science is Cool. No, really. And I like reading (or sometimes, having read) books that connect directly to the world, instead of all books that connect through a mirror. Here's my first entry!

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers claimed that luck was a big component of success; that most big winners just happened to be in the right place at the right time, doing the right things. That's a conclusion Leonard Mlodinow also reaches in The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, a look at probability and randomness, and how we recognize and mistake them in daily lives.

He reviews the history of probability, which I hadn't ever really thought about. The idea of figuring out percentages and basing judgements on them is a lot newer than I realized. For one thing, if everything is an Act of God (and thinking otherwise is a sin), then there's not much use in figuring probabilities. But as math got more sophisticated, and calculus and actuaries and probability became hot topics, our understanding grew. Not that people's actions change much. Mlodinow is also interested in how we tend to judge things, and how people tend to see patterns in chaos. The gambler's fallacy is powerful -- how many people feel the urge to ride a lucky streak, or admire the "hot hands" of a sports player, or trust in the good history of a broker? Watching the Olympics, I heard an announcer mention that a skier had never had a serious accident, which was obviously a powerful jinx, and then I waved this book at the screen to rebut the jinx. And then the guy wiped out. But if he hadn't, this wouldn't be a story, right?

I like the entertaining tone, and the personal notes. When discussing variations in grades, he confesses to absent-mindedly rewriting his son's paper when asked for comments, and then noticing he had forgotten to do "save-as" at the beginning. So he just had the kid turn it in, and then to his son's smirking satisfaction only got an A-. But the point that teachers tend to grade to expectations -- good students get good grades, bad students worse ones, even when turning in the same work (sometimes literally), and that normal variation happens even in situations we'd like to think are more controlled was made without condescension. There aren't any equations that I remember, but it was a fun trip through some meaty flavors of mathematics.

Oh, and Mlodinow finds the idea that luck plays such a huge part in success comforting. The part that we control is how often we show up, so consistency and stubbornness really enhance your chances, and anyone can come up with those. B+

1 comment:

kmitcham said...

80% of life is just showing up. I blame much of my current situation on picking the right parents.