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The Drunkard’s Walk, book review

November 30, 2011

The Drunkard’s Walk
How Randomness Rules Our Lives
by Leonard Mlodinow

This book was recommended in a physics course I took  so I thought it was going to be about quantum effects since those are so inherently random and what I was learning about. It was actually about how randomness effects our lives on the macro level! I’m going to talk about stuff from this book  which will be spoilers (can you have spoilers for nonfiction?) because well, it was interesting stuff!

A significant chunk of the book talks about the historical figures behind statistics and probability theories. It was weird learning about games of chance in Roman times when they didn’t know about probabilities yet. The best “hand” wasn’t actually the rarest in one of their games. The history of it was interesting for sure but I enjoyed the current examples more.

Mlodinow shows how much of an impact chance has on everything in our lives, and how our brains aren’t really wired to understand how much so, possibly for our own sanity. He talks about the law of large numbers and how it is relevant to our lives. I already knew that in a statistical study, the larger the sample, the less you have to worry about random outliers in the data. We may know this on an intellectual level but when it comes to our everyday lives, we are forced to make decisions with tiny sample sizes because we only have so much data. If I buy a vacuum from a certain brand and it doesn’t work, I may never buy from that company again even though a certain number of their products are bound to not work. I made this decision without enough information but that is no different than how most people make decisions.

Mlodinow talks about how success is often completely random. He urges others to judge people based on their skills and talents and not on past successes and failures as so much of that is up to chance. Famous people from actors to authors to business moguls are the ones that got lucky while the ones in obscurity have yet to be noticed and might never be.

Needless to say, the book was sort of depressing at this point but thankfully there were some inspirational quotes. One which I liked was about chances of success. Even if the odds of failure seem overwhelming and the chance of success so small, success is still possible! The randomness of the universe may be completely out of our control but there is one thing we have control over: the number of times at bat. Keep on swinging and maybe you’ll get lucky! Or, as Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”

Try and try again.

I enjoyed this book.


From → Books, nonfiction

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