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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives [Hardcover]

Leonard Mlodinow
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 13 2008 0375424040 978-0375424045
In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.

The rise and fall of your favorite movie star of the most reviled CEO--in fact, of all our destinies--reflects as much as planning and innate abilities. Even the legendary Roger Maris, who beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, was in all likelihood not great but just lucky. And it might be shocking to realize that you are twice as likely to be killed in a car accident on your way to buying a lottery ticket than you are to win the lottery.

How could it have happened that a wine was given five out of five stars, the highest rating, in one journal and in another it was called the worst wine of the decade? Mlodinow vividly demonstrates how wine ratings, school grades, political polls, and many other things in daily life are less reliable than we believe. By showing us the true nature of change and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives fresh insight into what is really meaningful and how we can make decisions based on a deeper truth. From the classroom to the courtroom, from financial markets to supermarkets, from the doctor's office to the Oval Office, Mlodinow's insights will intrigue, awe, and inspire.

Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance, and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar.

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From Publishers Weekly

A drunkard's walk is a type of random statistical distribution with important applications in scientific studies ranging from biology to astronomy. Mlodinow, a visiting lecturer at Caltech and coauthor with Stephen Hawking of A Briefer History of Time, leads readers on a walk through the hills and valleys of randomness and how it directs our lives more than we realize. Mlodinow introduces important historical figures such as Bernoulli, Laplace and Pascal, emphasizing their ideas rather than their tumultuous private lives. Mlodinow defines such tricky concepts as regression to the mean and the law of large numbers, which should help readers as they navigate the daily deluge of election polls and new studies on how to live to 100. The author also carefully avoids veering off into the terra incognita of chaos theory aside from a brief mention of the famous butterfly effect, although he might have spent a little more time on the equally famous n-body problem that led to chaos theory. Books on randomness and statistics line library shelves, but Mlodinow will help readers sort out Mark Twain's damn lies from meaningful statistics and the choices we face every day. (May 13)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


“A wonderfully readable guide to how the mathematical laws of randomness affect our lives.”--Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time
"The Drunkard's Walk is a magnificent exploration of the role that chance plays in our lives. Often historical, occasionally hysterical, and consistently smart and funny, this book challenges everything we think we know about how the world works. The probability is high that you will be entertained and enlightened by this intelligent charmer."--Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University, and author of Stumbling on Happiness

"Fast, chatty, very readable, and a fine introduction to ideas that everyone should know." --David Berlinski, author of A Tour of the Calculus

“A primer on the science of probability.”–The Washington Post Book World

“Mlodinow writes in a breezy style, interspersing probabilistic mind-benders with portraits of theorists ...The result is a readable crash course in randomness.”–The New York Times Book Review

“A jaunty read worthy of any beach or airplane. . . . Mlodinow has an intimate perspective on randomness. . . . He draws direct links from the works of history's greatest minds to the deeds of today's not-so-great ones, explaining phenomena like the prosecutor's fallacy (which helped acquit O.J. Simpson) and the iPod shuffle function (eventually programmed not to be truly random, lest songs hit upon eerie playing streaks).”–The Austin Chronicle

“Please read The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow, a history, explanation, and exaltation of probability theory. . . . Mlodinow . . . thinks in equations but explains in anecdote, simile, and occasional bursts of neon. . . .The results are mind-bending.”–Fortune

“Challenges our intuitions about probability and explores how, by understanding randomness, we can better grasp our world.”–Seed Magazine

“[Mlodinow is] the perfect guy to reveal the ways unrelated elements can relate and connect.”–The Miami Herald

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Book on Randomness in Everyday Life May 16 2008
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
I just love books like this - especially when they're as well-written as this one. The author, a physicist, proceeds to show the reader how randomness plays a much greater role in everyday life than one might think. As he discusses the basics of probability and statistics, he provides wonderful illustrations from fields as wide-ranging as sports, medicine, psychology, the stock market, etc., etc. He does an excellent job in driving home the fact that the true probability of events is not intuitive. Perhaps because of this anti-intuitiveness, I had to read a few paragraphs more than once to allow the point being made to sink in. One enigma that is particularly well explained is the Monty Hall (Let's Make a Deal) problem. The writing style is clear, accessible, very friendly, quite authoritative, engaging and often very witty. This book can be enjoyed by absolutely everyone, but I suspect that math and science buffs will savor it the most. By the way, the math-phobic need not fear: the book does not contain a single mathematical formula.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Wild guesses codified as likely outcomes" July 11 2010
Format:Audio CD
For those of us who trust our instincts, this book will show us the error of our ways. You may wonder whether a book about probability could hold your interest but physicist and author Leonard Mlodinow starts out gently and builds his argument that life is more random than we ever knew. At the same time he offers some reasoning tools that can improve our decision-making.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is structured loosely around a history of probability theory. Some of the biographical material about early thinkers in the field--Cardano, Fermat, Pascal to name a few--is essential to the story of how our modern concepts developed, but more forgettable than the concepts arising from their work. Mlodinow uses a wide variety of examples to illustrate the availability bias, the meaning of the sample space, and the law of large numbers; the latter states that the larger the sample, the more the average converges toward the expected value. The more times you toss a coin, in other words, the closer the number of heads will be to 50% of the tosses. That's one you could assume through intuition, but did you know that it took Jacob Bernoulli 20 years to prove it mathematically? And while the probability of flipping five heads in a row is ... well, not small (this is not a book about math), the odds of the sixth coin toss being a head is still 50%.

Mlodinow makes fairly interesting work of the "Monty question:" if you are on "Let's Make a Deal" and choose door #1 for a grand prize, and before revealing your choice Monty Hall opens door #2 to reveal a goat, then offers you the chance to switch to door #3, should you switch?
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
By Donald Mitchell #1 HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Have you ever flipped a coin 100 times to see the sequence of heads and tails that comes up? If you have, you know that there can be long streaks of heads and tails. Random results that end up 50-50 don't look that way in the short term.

Human perception is such that we like to find patterns where none exist. I remember the CEO of a company I worked for would draw a trend line through one data point with great authority, totally unaware of what he was doing.

More often, we judge by samples of behavior and time that are too short to be representative. Professor Mlodinow does a good job of showing how executives are often fired just before they get their best results, and how seldom the new executive does any better than the prior one.

In sports, we get all excited about streaks. Professor Mlodinow dampens that enthusiasm by pointing out that like streaks can occur randomly. We need to check to see if the streak exceeds the expected degree of variation before deciding that something significant has taken place. (But don't stop cheering on your favorite team and players.)

The book also provides lots of thumbnail sketches of the human side of those who have advanced the science and math behind our ability to measure and understand randomness. In fact, I don't recall a book on this subject with better anecdotes about the scientists and mathematicians. That's the reward in this book if you already know about randomness.

If you know nothing on the subject, this book is the gentlest possible introduction.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good mental exercise May 5 2014
Format:Audio CD|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book very much as it challenged and sharpened my ability to reason. Forget Luminosity, get your brain cells humming by reading this book. I had to go back a re-read most chapters to really allow the logic to sink in and be able to explain it to others.
This book may be easier if you had some basic understanding of statistical fundamentals, but a good grasp of problem solving would suffice.
I recommend this for anyone who wants to improve their ability to recognize "junk" stats from sound reasoning.

Love the OJ example!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Making sense out of the lottery of life Jan. 14 2009
By Stephen Pletko TOP 50 REVIEWER

"I have tried in this book to present the basic concepts of randomness, to illustrate how they apply to human affairs, and to present my views that its effects are largely overlooked in our interpretations of events and in our expectations and decisions. It may come as an epiphany merely to recognize the ubiquitous role of random processes [including chance and uncertainty] in our lives; the true power of the theory of random processes, however, lies in the fact that once we understand the nature of random processes, we can alter the way we perceive the events that happen around us."

The above is found in this revealing, engaging, and readable book by Leonard Mlodinow, PhD (physics) who now teaches about randomness to future scientists at the California Institute of Technology. (He also co-authored with Dr. Stephen Hawking the book "A Briefer History of Time.")

This book's title comes from a mathematical term describing random motion (such as the paths molecules follow as they fly through space, bumping and being bumped by, their sister molecules).

All chapters are meant to lead up to the book' final chapter (that has the same title as the book's title). Generally, the beginning chapters look in a historical context at basic but important concepts in probability theory and statistical inference.

(Probability is a numerical value that measures, estimates, or predicts the degree of uncertainty in which an event will occur. Statistical inference {also called inductive statistics} deals with inferences about a population based on a sample {that is, based on limited data} of that population.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read
Fantastic book on the evolution of mathematics.
Published 10 days ago by Andrew J Jenkins
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
A great read, although not in def enough for me.
Published 3 months ago by Ben
5.0 out of 5 stars Randomness and opportunity.
I've listing to this book 3 times... Brilliant!

If you are interested in probability and randomness this is the book for you. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Wixit
5.0 out of 5 stars Should be required reading for everyone!
Clearly and completely explains how little control we have over events in our lives. The author writes in an entertaining fashion with many good examples in addition to the... Read more
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4.0 out of 5 stars worth stumbling upon
This book nudges us along the way. There is no guarantee it will make us smarter or more successful, but it might just be one of those events in our lives we will look back on... Read more
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5.0 out of 5 stars What, we don't have control of our existence?
We all like to think that we determine our own destiny, that we are the all-mighty purveyors of our success and failure, that through the illusion of control we can gain an... Read more
Published on Feb. 19 2012 by Len
5.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected, but pleasantly surprised nonetheless.
Excellent book on the history of statistics. Mlodinow does a beautiful of job of going through a basic course in statistics with insightful applications, while looking at the lives... Read more
Published on Feb. 13 2012 by Juan S. Morales
4.0 out of 5 stars An important error in Molodinow's book?
Mlodinow shows two graphs comparing the performance of a large number mutual fund managers for a one year period and a longer period. Read more
Published on Dec 1 2011 by Skypilot1969
1.0 out of 5 stars student review
i ordered a hard cover thinking it would stand a better chance of surviving the shipment process - since i've ordered soft covers before which arrived slightly bent before i had... Read more
Published on Oct. 11 2011 by flora
3.0 out of 5 stars Drunkards Walk
Great start and well written but never did quite take me down the paths I thought it might. I guess randomness dictated that too.
Published on Nov. 2 2010 by Young Guns
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