How Not To Be Wrong Table of Contents

The good people of Penguin House have cleared me to post the table of contents of How Not To Be Wrong!  And here it is:


 

Introduction: When Am I Going To Use This?

Part I: LINEARITY

1. Less Like Sweden
2. Straight Locally, Curved Globally
3. Everyone is Obese
4. How Much is That in Dead Americans?
5. More Pie Than Plate

Part II: INFERENCE

6. The Baltimore Stockbroker and the Bible Code
7. Dead Fish Don’t Read Minds
8. Reductio ad Unlikely
9. The International Journal of Haruspicy
10. Are You There, God? It’s Me, Bayesian Inference

Part III: EXPECTATION

11. What To Expect When You’re Expecting To Win The Lottery
12. Miss More Planes!
13. Where the Train Tracks Meet

Part IV: REGRESSION

14. The Triumph of Mediocrity
15. Galton’s Ellipse
16. Does Lung Cancer Make You Smoke Cigarettes?

Part V: EXISTENCE

17. There Is No Such Thing As Public Opinion
18. “Out of nothing I have created a strange new universe”

Conclusion: How To Be Right

Why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

Great open from Chris Hayes:

Imagine you’re a scientist in some sci-fi alternate universe, and you’ve been charged with creating a boot camp that will reliably turn normal but ambitious people into broken sociopaths more or less willing to do anything.

There are two main traits you’d want to cultivate in your recruits. The first would be terror: You’d want to ensure that the experimental subjects were kept off-­balance and insecure, always fearful that bad things would happen, that they would be humiliated or lose their position and be cast out. But at the same time, it would be crucial that you assiduously inculcate a towering sense of superiority, the belief that the project they happen to be engaged in is more important than anything and that, because of their remarkable skills and efforts, they are among the select few chosen to be a part of it. You’d want to simultaneously make them neurotically insecure and self-doubting and also filled with the conviction that they and their colleagues are smarter and better and more deserving than anyone else.

He’s writing about young investment bankers, whose lives, such as they are, are described in Kevin Roose’s new book “Young Money.”  But doesn’t this boot camp actually describe the Ph.D. experience pretty well?  And if so, why aren’t math professors sociopaths?

I can think of one reason:  in finance, the thing you are trying to do is screw over somebody else.  If you win, someone has lost.  Mathematics is different.  We’re all pushing together.  Not that there’s no competition; but it’s embedded in a fundamental consensus that we’re all on the same team.  Apparently this is enough to hold back the sociopathy, at least for most of us.

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Publishers Weekly on HNTBW

Another nice review of How Not To Be Wrong — starred, even — from Publishers Weekly:

In this wry, accessible, and entertaining exploration of everyday math, Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, shows readers how “knowing mathematics is like wearing a pair of X-ray specs” that reveal the hidden structure of the world. Too often, mathematics is taught as a “long list of rules” without any real-world application. Ellenberg stresses that even the most complex math is based on common sense and then proves it with examples that take the abstract and make it real. Lines and curves provide the foundation for explorations of the Affordable Care Act and the infamous Laffer curve (with a Ferris Bueller shout-out). The ancient and “extremely weird” Pythagoreans help us calculate the area of a tuna fish sandwich. The search for patterns in large, seemingly random data leads to a fascinating discussions of lotteries and of why “reading” sheep entrails isn’t a good way to predict stock prices. From discussing the difference between correlation and causation, to how companies use big data to predict your interests and preferences, Ellenberg finds the common-sense math at work in the everyday world, and his vivid examples and clear descriptions show how “math is woven into the way we reason.”

 

 

Reader survey: in what small way are you weird?

Lots of us are weird in big, noticeable ways, that’s for sure.  But I was looking the other day at a series of photographs of people’s fridges and I realized, you know what’s weird about me?  In a small, barely noticeable way?  I don’t have any beer in my fridge.  I never do.  In fact, I don’t really have any alcohol in the house of any kind.  Maybe a bottle of Trader Joe’s white wine I used a cup of for cooking at one point.  OK, I just looked and there’s a bottle of rum in the back of the cupboard.  Who knows where it came from or how long it’s been there?

It’s not that I don’t drink; I do.  But I don’t drink at home.  For me, beer is for drinking at bars, or at parties.  I would never sit and drink a beer and watch the ballgame, or drink a glass of wine with family dinner.  But I think this is actually slightly weird and almost all people have beer in the fridge.

Reader survey:  in what small way are you weird?

(Note:  this would make an excellent question for OKCathy!)

 

 

 

OKCathy

This week’s Aunt Pythia column features Cathy O’Neil’s take on what questions online daters ought to have to answer in their profiles:

How sexual are you? (super important question)
How much fun are you? (people are surprisingly honest when asked this)
How awesome do you smell? (might need to invent technology for this one)
What bothers you more: the big bank bailout or the idea of increasing the minimum wage?
Do you like strong personalities or would you rather things stay polite?
What do you love arguing about more: politics or aesthetics?
Where would you love to visit if you could go anywhere?
Do you want kids?
Dog person or cat person?
Do you sometimes wish the girl could be the hero, and not always fall for the hapless dude at the end?

I gotta say, thinking back to when I was single, during the second Clinton administration, I don’t think these are the questions I personally would most want to ask of my prospective dates.

On the other hand, I think the questions provide a near-perfect portrait of Cathy!  So let me offer my own suggestion:  maybe profiles shouldn’t have any answers.  Maybe they should just have questions.  And you contact the person whose questions you’d like to answer.

What would your questions be?

 

 

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1,000,000

By the way, sometime yesterday this blog received its millionth visit.

Meeting myself at 17

For something I’m writing I looked up a newspaper article I was interviewed in in, from June 7, 1989.  Here’s what I had to say:

Ellenberg on mathematics: “I always think of it — this is kind of crazy — as a zoo. There are a million different mathematical objects. They are like animals. Some are like each other and some are unalike, and they are all objects . . . . There are things in different guises. The amazing thing is, it all connects. Anything you prove with trig[onometry] is just as true if you do it with algebra . . . . I think it is kind of amazing actually, if you think of it from an emotional point of view.”
On learning math: “My feeling is that a lot of people expect not to be good at math. If you see calculus and trig, to a seventh-grader, they see it as something very difficult and very arcane, when maybe the trick is to relax a little bit . . . . Many things you can understand on two levels. If you look at a novel, a novel can be very hard to interpret, but you can still read it and see what happened. With math, there is no real surface level. It is already written in a sort of obscure language. You don’t have the comforting template. You only have the deep structure, and that can be very off-putting.”
On the practicality of math: “Why is it important to have read any Shakespeare for your everyday life? To tell the truth, I can get through the day without ever using a Shakespeare quote, but I think Shakespeare is useful, and I think math is useful.”

What a strange experience, looking at this.  In a way I seem very mentally disorganized.  But at the same time this is recognizably me.  Unsettling.

Guilt pangs

Not even going to link to this article but this is so magnificently dumb I had to share it with someone.

As everyone knows by now, GM’s entry into the electric car market–the Chevy Volt–costs $41,000 before tax breaks. After the tax breaks, you can happily drive one off the lot for $33,000 … if you can ignore those guilt pangs knowing your fellow Americans have chipped in $8,000 to your new ride.

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Booklist and Kirkus on How Not To Be Wrong

Some good pre-publication reviews are coming in!  From Kirkus:

Witty and expansive, Ellenberg’s math will leave readers informed, intrigued and armed with plenty of impressive conversation starters.

And Booklist (not available online, unfortunately:)

Relying on remarkably few technical formulas, Ellenberg writes with humor and verve as he repeatedly demonstrates that mathematics simply extends common sense. He manages to translate even the work of theoretical pioneers such as Cantor and Gödel into the language of intelligent amateurs. The surprises that await readers include not only a discovery of the astonishing versatility of mathematical thinking but also a realization of its very real limits. Mathematics, as it turns out, simply cannot resolve the real-world ambiguities surrounding the Bush-Gore cliff-hanger of 2000, nor can it resolve the much larger question of God’s existence. A bracing encounter with mathematics that matters.

 

 

 

 

Jordan and the Dream of Rogen

The other night I dreamed I was going into a coffeeshop and Seth Rogen was sitting at an outside table eating a salad.  He was wearing a jeans jacket and his skin was sort of bad.  I have always admired Rogen’s work so I screwed up my courage, went up to his table and said

“Are you…”

And he said, “Yes, I am… having the chef’s salad.  You should try it, it’s great.”

And I sort of stood there and goggled and then he was like, “Yeah, no, yes, I’m Seth Rogen.”

I feel proud of my unconscious mind for producing what I actually consider a reasonably Seth Rogen-style gag!

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