Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow

With the born storyteller's command of narrative and imaginative approach, Leonard Mlodinow vividly demonstrates how our lives are profoundly informed by chance and randomness and how everything from wine ratings and corporate success to school grades and political polls are less reliable than we believe. By showing us the true nature of chance and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives us the tools we need to make more informed decisions. From the classroom to the courtroom and from financial markets to supermarkets, Mlodinow's illuminating look at how chance and probability affect our daily lives will intrigue, awe, and inspire.

I'm back! And this is one of the many reasons I've been gone for almost a month - this book. This sucker took me over three weeks to finish (and probably more than that, as I do believe I started it before my last post). Why did it take so long to read? Let's start with the blurb, shall we?

Mlodinow does not have a "storyteller's command of narrative and imaginative approach." He's dull, bordering on coma-inducing. For some reason, I was under the impression that this book would be, at the very least, slightly humorous. I have no idea where I got such an impression, and believe me, I was dead wrong. In addition to being dull, this book does not give us "the tools we need to make more informed decisions" - not if everything is as random as the author claims. I mean, that seems to be his whole point: there's nothing you can do to change the outcome of a lot of things in your life due to the "randomness" of it all. So how on earth can you make a more "informed decision" if it doesn't really matter what decision you make?

I think my biggest problem with this book was the math. Yes, math. After all, this book is really a history of probability theory and statistics, and that's part of what makes it boring. I will say the author did a very good job of presenting the histories of the various mathematicians and scientists and such, but that's not what I was hoping to read about when I first picked this up. I loathe math in pretty much all its forms, and I'll be the first to admit that I almost flunked Finite Math in my freshman year at college, all due to the section on probabilities. And guess what? There's even a quote in this book that says that's no big surprise! According to "a Harvard professor who specializes in probability and statistics, `Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well.'" Now you tell me! And given that quote, it amazes me that the author spent over 200 pages doing just that: giving me probability problem after probability problem.

No wonder I got so many headaches trying to read this.

Now, having said all that, I will admit that I kept going back to the book and yes, I did finish it. I don't know if I was really that interested, if I truly believed at some point that it would "click" with me (I wish it had), or if I was just being some sort of glutton for punishment. And I'm not entirely convinced that the author really believes that life is as random as he says it is. In the final chapter, he postulates that success is just as random as anything else, that Stephen King didn't sell nearly as well when he wrote under Richard Bachman, that the guy that came up with string theory only did so because he didn't give up on said theory. But while it's true that chance does often have a role in success (think of that old phrase "in the right place at the right time"), I also believe that it's necessary to have some talent - and that people who believe they have talent keep working to hone that talent and improve it. Successful people are not successful by chance alone; they work hard at being successful every day. And I'm not talking about "rich" people here; I'm sure you know people you consider "successful" that have achieved their success through hard work. I consider myself successful (and often wish I was rich!); I will admit that some of it has been "luck" (or chance, as the author would say) but the majority of my "success" is due to the fact that I have worked my a** off.

Overall, I can't say I enjoyed this book on any level. If you like math, maybe it would be up your alley. If you like history, it might be interesting to read the biographies of all those historical math geeks. But if you're looking for something philosophical, I suggest picking up something by Malcolm Gladwell.

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