Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Refreshing Sample: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow

If you remember anything about high school statistics or probability, some of this book should feel familiar. Whether this familiarity is a fond nostalgia or a kind of nervous queasiness comes down a matter of individual experience. Yet whether you hunger for a greater exploration of practical math, or tend to have difficulty stomaching it, The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives is worth a try.

The eponymous metaphor of The Drunkard’s Walk refers to “a mathematical term describing random motion,” covering everything from the skittish dance of subatomic particles to the jolting and jarring of unexpected career paths. This exploratory explanation of chance comes to us from Leonard Mlodinow, a physicist whose random life experiences include lecturing at Caltech, co-authoring two books with Stephen Hawking, and writing for Star Trek: The Next Generation. With the goal of conveying the influence and chaotic beauty of randomness to those of us without such backgrounds, Mlodinow samples a wide range of mathly problems and their unexpected solutions. He shows us how the laws of mathematics permeate every aspect of our lives, touching on the predictable topics (sports, stocks, and surveys) and the not-quite-so-predictable (seances, online dating, McDonald’s).  This mix of subjects keeps each chapter unique, while Mlodinow’s writing manages to flow despite the periodic awkward transition or stilted paragraph.

Somewhat appropriate to the title, The Drunkard’s Walk takes a while to find its feet, occasionally stumbling around a topic I wished the author would explore more deeply, or an argument I wish he would defend more robustly. A book with ‘randomness’ in the title seems oddly served by waiting until several chapters in to thoroughly define a ‘random sample’. According to Mlodinow, then, it would seem that randomness is the opposite of pornography: we don’t know it when we see it. This might have prompted my confusion, although a clear definition from the outset might have helped, particular as the book often appears to use chance, randomness, and predictability interchangeably. Glossing over certain subtleties misses the opportunity to bring further clarity to the work; disappointing when The Drunkard’s Walk constructs several solid ‘aha!’ moments for the reader as well. This is especially true of Mlodinow's explanation of the controversy and logic surrounding the famous Monty Hall problem (why, as a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal, does switching doors after my initial guess make me more likely to win a Maserati than a goat?)

Author Leonard Mlodinow
Between colourful examples I found the occasional passage a little dry, with many historical characters brought in for flavour yet few really flushed out. Those Mlodinow did discuss ranged from Blaise Pascal – he of the famed Triangle and flawed Wager – to William the Conquerer – he of, surprisingly enough, the first English census. Mlodinow also finds a variety of straightforward examples to give life to the numbers, finding interest in the statistics behind technological invention, death by plague, and even the winding career of a little-known bartender named Bruce Willis. Perhaps the best of these come from the author’s own family, giving a much-needed humanity to a subject often thought to be cold and heartless. Mlodinow proves the world of random numbers to be quite the opposite, showing how many random processes lie at the core of the most human of pursuits: chasing love, fortune, and happiness.

Many of the book’s statistical subjects, such as confirmation bias, the illusion of patterns, and the law of errors, can prove paramount to informed decision making in many aspects of life. In one example, Mlodinow uses solid research to challenge our intuitions surrounding luck, showing how repeating an action where all outcomes are equal – whether tossing a coin, spinning a slot machine, or playing the stock market   does not improve the odds of success (or a financial windfall). Careful observation can only sometimes reveal how one possibility is weighted against the others, and even then, you’re not statistically ‘due for some luck’. Understanding this, and other counter-intuitive facts of randomness, can save us a lot of time and grief in the long run, even if these rules take a while to wrap our heads around.

For those of us who struggled to keep our eyes open in math class, Mlodinow’s delectable refresher course on these topics is not only entertaining, but a healthy reminder of the importance of understanding probability. It’s also a solid introduction to the subject of randomness for those of us with a taste for popular mathematics, but without the resolve to take on a heavier volume. Although The Drunkard’s Walk trips up from time to time – and ends in a bit of an uncomfortably abrupt slump – it is nonetheless a fascinating and concise tour through our strange, familiar world of chance.

Catharine Charlesworth is an avid lover of books, the web, and other inventive outlets for the written word. She has studied communication at the University of Toronto while working as a bookseller, and is currently employed in online advertising in downtown Toronto.

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