Thursday, June 03, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 120 (6/3) -- How Math Can Save Your Life by James D. Stein

I should have a long and detailed review here, really digging into the strengths and weaknesses of this book -- and it has plenty of both, as most books do -- and explaining what's good and bad about it. But How Math Can Save Your Life was published by a certain operation in lovely Hoboken, NJ -- an operation to which I have a certain professional connection myself -- and so I really don't think it's appropriate to say even mildly negative things about it. (And, knowing the way I blog, even if I started off fully intending to be entirely laudatory, some element of harsh criticism or unexpected bile would creep in before I was done.)

So, just the facts: Stein is a math professor in the Cal State system, and he wrote this book about how to use basic arithmetic -- the kind all of us learned in grammar school -- to make things easier and better in all aspects of our lives. (The full title is How Math Can Save Your Life (and Make You Rich, Help You Find The One, and Avert Catastrophes.) There's some game theory, some calculation of expected values, and probably more math than you're used to in a book for general audiences. (There's not a lot of math, and it's not particularly hard math, but the rule of thumb I always heard in publishing is that each equation reduces the potential audience for a book by half -- that's a very cynical rule of thumb, I must admit.)

And it was acquired by an editor in the same building as me -- I don't know him, but I'm sure he's a fine, upstanding chap, and excellent at his work. And a marketer I might even have talked to is responsible for getting it out into the world and bringing it to the attention of consumers. (I'm not sure who that person is, so I'm being vague. I can't check that stuff from this computer anyway.) So I hope How Math Can Save Your Life gets a huge, adoring worldwide audience, for partially self-serving reasons.

It's somewhat in the vein of John Allen Paulos's classic Innumeracy, though Stein focuses much more on solutions, and assumes that his audience wants to use math to make their lives better. It's not perfect, of course -- what book is? -- but it does have a lot of useful, concrete ways that anyone could use math in their daily lives to help quantify risks, rewards, and possibilities. So I look upon it like a distant but sentimental uncle, and can offer no impartial review of it at all.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: The Mountain Goats - Red River Valley
via FoxyTunes

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