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The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives Hardcover – May 13 2008

4.1 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon (May 13 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424040
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424045
  • Product Dimensions: 16.3 x 2.7 x 24.3 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 544 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #251,810 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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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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Format: Hardcover
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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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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Format: Paperback
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 understanding of all cause and effect to our existence. How about the success of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerbergs of the world Surely, they are deserving of the billions of dollars they have earned and the accolades that have been poured down on them. Mr. Mlodinow will argue otherwise. Our successes and failures have more to do with chance and stubborn stick-to-itiveness than anything having to do with cause and effect. When we get a lucky break, that's exactly what it is, a lucky break. The numbers will prove this to be so. Mr. Mlodinow argues that our ability to understand the past is practically perfect but our ability to predict the future using those same cause and effect indicators is very poor. In fact, chance and random numbers would be a better predictor. When the performance of Mutual Fund managers is measure against the performance of random numbers, the result is the same. Individual behavior mirrors that of the drunkard's walk, the path of an individual molecule as it travels through a gas or liquid. We can only predict the probability of a certain behaviour, not its final outcome. Our own path through life involves a series of chance events that have lead us to where we sit at the present moment. To think back and understand that existence as having been determined by individual factors from the past is to suffer from the illusion of control. We like to think we have it. In fact, our very existence can depend upon it but in point of fact, it doesn't exist. The likelihood of publishing that book or getting that next promotion or finding that perfect partner has more to do with chance than anything to do with what we can control so we'd rather pretend than accept.
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