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Book Review of: Randomness

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Review of Randomness, by Deborah J. Bennett (Hardcover, 2011)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


In all probability, you will like this book.

Professor Bennett took a subject that most people consider dry and made it interesting. Randomness, in case you don't know, is a concept fundamental to the application of statistical science. Along with other statistical concepts, it's commonly misunderstood. Professor Bennett made a solid contribution to the literature, by making an understanding of randomness accessible to the lay person.

It's a fairly short book, and didn't take me long to read it. No dense text, no complex math, no mind-numbing problems to work out. The book has a small form factor (8.5H x 6.5W) and runs only 188 pages. So if you've had a fear of statistics, don't worry. You can dive right into this book and gain an understanding of randomness without breaking a sweat.

Professor Bennett writes in a conversational style. I think that, with this particular topic, it's a struggle to write in a way that eliminates all possible "eyes glazed over" moments for every possible reader. But Professor Bennett seems to have met that challenge.

The real meat of this book doesn't take 188 pages. What I mean by that is most of the book doesn't directly explain randomness. Most of it provides an historical overview of how mathematicians and others contributed to, or sidetracked, our modern understanding of the subject. Personally, I find this interesting. The history does help show how you can arrive at wrong conclusions, and that additional depth in the book just reinforces the much smaller content that explains what randomness is.

So this book on randomness spends most of its time explaining what randomness is not. And that's probably just as important as understanding what it is, if you want a solid understanding rather than a superficial one. The bulk of this pertains to gaming (mostly games of dice).

I did say there's no complex math and there are no mind-numbing problems to work out. But there is math and there are problems. These are mostly to illustrate the points being made. I think a book on a statistical science topic would be confusing if it didn't use math to show you how the concepts actually work. So, fairly simply math plus some "Think about it" kinds of problems help make the concepts clear.

It's good that Professor Bennett explains related concepts, such as probability, the theory of errors, uncertainty, random numbers, and calculating odds. I would have liked to see more about Chaos Theory, as it's related to randomness. But she didn't go into it except for touching on its edges in Chapter 7 (Order in Apparent Chaos).

This book consists of 10 chapters. It has extensive notes and an extensive bibliography. It makes a good foundation stone for anyone considering a course of study that involves anything to do with statistical science.

I think it is also good for anyone who tries to draw conclusions from anything that presents any sort of data. The rampantly poor use and presentation of data is, to me appalling. People make non-existent associations, see random sequences as patterns, see patterns as random sequences, see correlations that do not exist, and see causal relationships where it's actually randomness they are looking at. As I neared completion of this book, it dawned on me that these problems exist because people don't understand what they are looking at because they don't have exposure to the concepts involved.

The kinds of errors I just described lead to bad decisions. They are, effectively, detuning a person's brainpower by a large number of IQ points. When you aren't misled by poor presentations of data, it's like having an IQ boost of a few dozen points. This book can help bring that kind of boost about, though I also recommend grabbing a few of the titles from the bibliography so you can get a primer on the related topics.

Add it to your collection. It's a tiny investment that will pay for itself many times over, plus you will just seem smarter to everyone around you when your interpretation of events or data or news or whatever is on a more solid foundation than theirs and you can explain "what is wrong with this picture."

Why I like stats:

When I was obtaining my MBA, one of the professors held a PhD in statistical analysis. He had honed his abilities in the Navy, where this kind of thing finds important uses in seemingly impossible situations. It's hard to wrap your head around some statistical concepts, while others are just obvious. And some things that seem obvious simply are not true. Of the professors I had, this professor was my favorite. We stayed in touch for several years after I graduated. His statistical background gave him a wonderful way of clearly viewing the world. A good understanding of statistical concepts, if not the math and its application, can help you avoid becoming a victim of obfuscation.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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