Reverting to the Mean

This has already been a real grab bag of a year, reading-wise. Some books have been great! Some books have been disappointing! Taken as a whole, though, so far they've averaged out to be, well, average. If only I could read a book that explores popular applications of mathematics and how they might lead you astray! Oh wait, I just did, and it was...average.

First, though, I followed a recommendation to check out Miriam Toews' 2014 novel, All My Puny Sorrows. Let me say up front that I had no expectation that this would be a rollicking hoot. It's told from the point of view of Yoli, a down-on-her-luck woman doing her best to juggle the pressures of life, but with the added complication of a gifted sister (Elfrieda) who seems determined to commit suicide. Elfrieda is a talented pianist, a fierce intellectual, and is happily married, but has inherited the strain of self-destruction that has afflicted several members of the family. Yoli is determined to save her sister one way or another, but doesn't know how best to assist, wondering if the best thing she can do for her sister is to help give her the release she so desperately craves.

There's a lot of meat to explore in this type of story, but I'm afraid it just didn't catch on with me. Toews' style is fluid and poetic, and I'm coming to realize that I prefer a more straightforward method of writing. There's also a certain amount of Hard To Watch: Based on the book “Stone Cold Bummer” by Manipulate going on with this one. I understand that a story about a family being steadily disintegrated by mental illness can't be all sunshine and rainbows, but it'd be nice if Yoli could score even a minor break in absolutely any area of her life. This is one of those books that I can easily understand appealing to other people, but as for me, I can't deny that the clang as it fell to the bottom of the library return bin was the happiest sound I've heard in a while. Excellent book cover art, though.

So, back to math. I like math, so it drives me up the wall when I hear mathematical arguments in ads or political debates that are transparently being twisted to fit a certain narrative. "75% of customers who switched to Geico saved money!!!!" Well, of course they did. BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO WOULDN'T HAVE SAVED MONEY NEVER SWITCHED IN THE FIRST PLACE. AAAAARRRRGHHH! When I read a review of Jordan Ellenberg's 2014 book, How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking, I was very excited to read all about these traps and how to avoid them. What I got instead was a puzzling book that was by turns too simplified to be useful and too esoteric to be accessible.

There were some gems hidden here and there, including a chapter that explains why democratic elections can be so damned complicated, and the dangers of mathematical slippery slopes. For the most part, though, I couldn't discern who Ellenberg's audience is supposed to be. If it's aimed towards an average reader, then this book is needlessly complicated. If it's aimed toward mathematics aficionados, then it's needlessly elementary. While Ellenberg may be a brilliant mathematician, when it comes to communication, he could use some work.

I'm sure I'll read some more stellar books this year, and I'm sure I'll run across some clunkers as well. But as these two books prove all too disappointingly, a lot of the material out there is just plain meh.

All My Puny Sorrows: C+
How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking: C+


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