Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Like a crystal ball, but more reliable

Having emerged from re-reading A la recherche… I needed a change of pace. James Lee Burke’s Cadillac Jukebox got me back to modern times which now resume with The Drunkard’s Walk or “How randomness rules our lives”.

This is not a clone of Eats Shoots and Leaves. It’s by a professor (Leonard Moldinov) and it explains the mathematics of probability and statistics. If you can add up you’re OK. Even readers of average curiosity should be interested because here mathematics solves what most lay people would regard as the impossible.

As well as illustrating the penalties for getting it wrong. The author was told by his GP that the chances were 999 out of 1000 he would be dead within the decade. This followed a blood test taken for a life insurance application. On a hunch the author had taken an HIV test and it came back positive. But his doctor “had confused the chances that I would test positive if I was not HIV-positive with the chances that I would not be HIV-positive if I tested positive.” With probability the words are as important as the figures.

Even given more than my self-imposed limit of 300 words I would risk traducing Moldinov’s carefully-worded prose. So read the book. The style is lively and non-technical and the examples are interesting (The somewhat maligned baseball player Roger Maris is sympathetically analysed). The examples include the mathematical side of coin tossing (with an empirical proof – new to me) and dice throwing, perversity in the face of overwhelming evidence, the danger of judging ability by short-term results and the fact that so-called “random”numbers are biased towards the lower digits.

Well-reviewed in The Guardian.

5 comments:

Sir Hugh said...

Sounds like a good read; I will be ordering this.

You may like The Millennium Problems (The seven greatest unsolved mathematical puzzles of our time) by Keith Devlin. Keith says in his intro "... I do not aim at a detailed description of the problems. It is just not possible to describe most of them accurately in lay terms-or even in terms familiar to someone with a university degree in mathematics. (That alone tells you something about the nature of these problems.)...

It is a brave try on Keith's part to convey something of these complex problems and certainly worth a read.

Barrett Bonden said...

I failed to mention its greatest disadvantage. It's only 200 pages long (plus Refs) yet costs £20. A loan?

I read the reviews of Devlin's book and was similarly attracted. There are quite a few of these type of books about at the moment, attempts at explaining science to lay people. I hope this is confirmation of a growing market.

Plutarch said...

Perhaps because I never shone at maths, I am greatly attracted to its exposition, and feel a childish delight in learning about the curious behaviour of numbers. For this reason I often dip into The Penguin Dictionary of Numbers, even though I don't contents. So thanks for this recommendation. Would Proust have enjoyed it, or even devoted one of those long analytical paragraphs to it and its contents?

Barrett Bonden said...

Plutarch: Proust? Very much so. The study of probability concentrated at first on the mechanics of life around us. Later mathematicians realised it could be used to explain and predict human behaviour, especially where people did things outside the norm. Proust is full of observations about people who say one thing and do another. I'm sure he'd have been fascinated to learn that such activity is often governed by rules. He was never afraid of difficult concepts and his language, although tortuous, would provide the necessary rigour that goes with probability study.

Zhoen said...

Picking it up at the library tomorrow.