There is always a light

There is always a light
Don't be afraid if you are alone or surrounded by darkness. In some part of the world, the day has just begun. There is a always a light waiting for you to find your way to touch its radiance.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Life at Random: Inspired By The Drunkard's Walk

By Sunita Chandrasekaran
This book is written by Leonard Mlodinow a former writer of Star-Trek and a physicist at California Institute of Technology. Mlodinow considers the question, “What are the odds?” The book is an excursion about a random walk on a line and about the choice of stepping on to the left or the right by a toss of a coin or roll of a dice. When I finished reading the book, I realized that the title was apt– How randomness can rule our lives! How chance and probability can dominate the extremistan within us! How our brain is wired to misinterpret the odds! How blindly do we follow patterns in life?

The sentence in the first chapter of the book was pretty interesting - “The outline of our lives, like the candle’s flame, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate.” Mlodinow conveys the message to the readers that these decisions taken due to our minds being driven by randomness can forcibly ignore the facts and truth of a given situation. It could prove to be fatalistic or may-be at times, not-so-fatalistic depending on the serious and not-so-serious circumstances.
Let’s look at how random a publishing house can be!
For instance, J. K. Rowling who wrote The Harry Potter series was rejected by 24 publishers before somebody published her book. John Grisham had the same taken place with his first book being published too! So now you start thinking, can randomness lead you to success too!
But Mladionw reminds us:
“So some things in life are random and some aren't”.
For example, let’s take an example of an old TV game show “Let's make a deal”. You are presented with three doors, behind one of which is a new car. You take your pick, but before your fate is revealed, the M.C. swings open one of the other doors, revealing a booby prize. So far, so good, but now comes the big decision. Do you stay with your original choice or switch to the other unopened door? It might not be a 50-50 proposition as you are now thinking. If you lay out the possibilities or create a sample space, you will see that your odds actually improve if you change doors. The key to this puzzle is that the door the M.C. opens is not chosen at random. (He’s not going to ruin the game by prematurely revealing the car.) So had the player chosen the door randomly, it means that he had trusted his instincts. He could go wrong or right. Nothing is certain. At that point, he would have been biased by random thoughts.
So instead of trusting your instincts, if you go by constructing a table or a sample space of all the ways a dice may fall, you are closer to being correct by all means. An important message that the author conveys is if you are able to back track your decision and reason it out, it means that you are pretty confident about your decision, if you are not able to relate to the causes that made you take a decision, it means that you have decided by chance. So now the chances that it could go wrong are higher than it being correct.
Another witty example mentioned is about if a woman has two children, and one of them is a girl, what is the chance that the other is a girl too? I did try this out with my friend whom I “barely” know and it worked out to be correct. It is merely by probability and statistics that is well explained in the book and means no conjectures!
The author explains how the mathematical laws of randomness can affect our lives. He narrates an incident that happened with him. Nearly 20 years ago, his doctor had told him, out of the blue, that it was 99.9 per cent certain that he was infected with H.I.V. Mlodinow had none of the risk factors (except for being human), but he had scored H.I.V.-positive on a test that had a false positive rate of one in 1,000. If his doctor had studied probability in medical school, he would have seen the situation in a different light. One in 10,000 people tested positive and was ultimately confirmed as carrying the virus. In addition, there were the statistical flukes — the 10 (one in 1,000) who were false positives. Compare those numbers, and the chance that Mlodinow was infected (he wasn’t) was one in 11. So look at the kind of impact an erroneous statistical thinking can have!?
Mladinow relates to people having a poor conception of randomness. While reading his book, I felt that we clearly misjudge the role of chances in our lives and make conclusions/decisions that are clearly misaligned with our interests. A real-life scenario which I could relate to the incidents in the book is a small story.
When my uncle was admitted to the hospital for lung cancer, I felt he was going to pass away in few days/months time. The reason behind why I felt this way was because I started relating his condition to few of other stories that I have heard of. They were all sick too with lung cancer and passed away in few days time. So I related the existing condition to that of the past and predicted how it would be in the near future. So I presumed that my uncle would pass away in a day or two. In fact, all those who were around were drawing a sad conclusion that he will live no longer. But much to our happiness and surprise, he did fight back and survived for almost 4-5 years.
I am sure, many of you might be gazing away from the blog and retrospecting what had happened with your relatives. Now don't you agree, what I went through was a psychological illusion? I was amazed the way our brain recognizes patterns and misjudges the role of randomness in our lives. I had misinterpreted valid data. I had created a hyphothetical situation based on preconceived notions and refused to think beyond that boundary. I was more focussed on finding and confirming patterns rather than scrutinizing the false conclusions.
Similarly a government, for example, faces a “should-have-known-it” blame game after every tragedy. Take the Mumbai terrorist attack 26/11 or the 9/11 attack at the United States. It is easier to predict what could happen in the future based on the past. Many stories can be concocted with stories of the past, the patterns can be recognized and dubious/real alarms can be created. But it would be pragmatic if the future is not led by mere predictions and patterns but by reviewing both explanations and prophecies with scepticism. Since it is not easy to predict the outcome of complex situations -they come with uncontrollable factors. Well, this thought is certainly not even pessimism or optimism.
The book comes with a strong message which is to analyze a situation, discuss the pros and cons, retrospect, avoid false assumptions/conclusions prior to taking a decision. It comes with a little psychology to portray how our brain is wired to fool us. It is well written enough for a lay man to appreciate the “take-away”. You do not need to know probability and statistics to understand the different experiments demonstrated in the book. You may not learn any new concepts (which may be most of us may not be looking at while reading a book enjoying some latte!). But you could definitely challenge your assumptions and realize how difficult it is to make reasonable conclusions! There are several quotes from famous theorists, I had not heard about most of them until I read this book, so I could not imagine that I was reading about a great person, but I think the experiments that the theorists discuss are worth the imagination.
The book is worth a good read!


  1. interesting... very interesting indeed :)am not sure whether this was written before Freakonomics... you might wanna chk that out too...

  2. Sure, The Drunkard's Walk is a fairly recent release, guess 2008. Freakonomics was a little earlier. I read it 3-4 years back, may be I should re-read it to relate things better.