Sleepy-Eyed Book Reviews: The Drunkard’s Walk
Posted July 20, 2010on:
The Quick Review: Wow! Buy now!
The Long Review: Wow! Buy now!
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow. It’s one part history book, one part math text, one part puzzler, and one part philosophy book. And a whole lot of awesome. The best part is, even though I would not technically describe it as a business book, the points Mlodinow hits on are immensely useful for business.
Here’s an example: Mlodinow explains that producers and lead execs for Hollywood movie studios are evaluated by their ability to choose and predict winners. He then describes one exec who had this amazing knack for picking the biggest grossing films to greenlight, but then one year, she had a bunch of flops. She was fired. The next year, that studio put out mega-blockbusters. Of course, because of how the movie industry works, those were films that she, the old exec, had okayed production on. How did that year of flops occur? Answer: Simple randomness. The probability of a year of flops was just high enough for it to actually happen.
The book is full of examples like that, but it is also so much more. Mlodinow goes back in time to study where the theories of randomness came from, introducing us to history’s greatest mathematicians, often humorous characters in and of themselves, such as Pierre-Simon de Laplace, a French mathematician who lived during the French Revolution and Napoleon’s time by basically saying whatever was popular (and would let him keep his head) as vehemently as possible.
The Drunkard’s Walk also is a decent math text, as long as your goal is to learn concepts and not actually make proofs. Ever wondered what Pascal’s triangle is? Well, Mlodinow will tell you, as well as how to make your own and what to use it for. As a tid-bit, it looks like this:
Then there are the great puzzles. For instance, what are the chances that given one twin is a girl that both will be girls? Well, the chances that there will be two girls is 25%, right? (50% x 50% = 25%) But the answer to this question is 33%. Want to know why? Pick up the book. It’s described on page 52, right amongst other great puzzles.
This is a fantastic book that describes many of the laws at work around us. From movie block-busters to twin girls, it’s all written in a fantastically conversational tone with dashes of humor that make math interesting. I wish my high school math teachers had used this book!