Fun reading for nonmathematicians.

HUMBLE PI

WHEN MATH GOES WRONG IN THE REAL WORLD

A pleasant exploration of our deeply held incompetence at mathematics.

Comedian and YouTube performer Parker (Things To Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician's Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More, 2014), who hosts a show on the Science Channel called Outrageous Acts of Science, claims bluntly that humans are stupid at dealing with numbers. “We were not born with any kind of ability to understand fractions, negative numbers, or the many other strange concepts developed by mathematics,” he writes, “but, over time, your brain can slowly learn how to deal with them.” Ironically, it is engineering and computer glitches, not pure math, that make up much of the book. Buildings and bridges collapse because someone gets the numbers wrong. A squadron of advanced jets crossing the Pacific suddenly lost their electronics because their navigation computer program, which must keep track of time, couldn’t deal with crossing the International Date Line. They followed an older plane nearby to a safe landing. A corporation, searching for an employee named Jack Null, could never find him because “null” to a computer means “no data.” People named Blank, Sample, and Test also cause trouble. A number divided by a really tiny number becomes very large. The result of dividing by zero is meaningless; no proper computer will deal with it. Humans yearn to predict the unpredictable; the author shows how a truly random event (a lottery draw, a coin flip) has no influence on the following event. No matter how many times heads appears, the chance of tails remains 50-50. The only way to increase your chance of winning the lottery is to buy more tickets. If black comes up four, five, or 10 times in a row on the roulette wheel, gamblers rush to bet on red because it is “due”—but it isn’t. Nonsense, blunders, and delusions make for good reading, so Parker’s relentless litany will have a wide appeal.

Fun reading for nonmathematicians.

Pub Date: Jan. 21, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-593-08468-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2019

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DEAR MR. HENSHAW

Possibly inspired by the letters Cleary has received as a children's author, this begins with second-grader Leigh Botts' misspelled fan letter to Mr. Henshaw, whose fictitious book itself derives from the old take-off title Forty Ways W. Amuse a Dog. Soon Leigh is in sixth grade and bombarding his still-favorite author with a list of questions to be answered and returned by "next Friday," the day his author report is due. Leigh is disgruntled when Mr. Henshaw's answer comes late, and accompanied by a set of questions for Leigh to answer. He threatens not to, but as "Mom keeps nagging me about your dumb old questions" he finally gets the job done—and through his answers Mr. Henshaw and readers learn that Leigh considers himself "the mediumest boy in school," that his parents have split up, and that he dreams of his truck-driver dad driving him to school "hauling a forty-foot reefer, which would make his outfit add up to eighteen wheels altogether. . . . I guess I wouldn't seem so medium then." Soon Mr. Henshaw recommends keeping a diary (at least partly to get Leigh off his own back) and so the real letters to Mr. Henshaw taper off, with "pretend," unmailed letters (the diary) taking over. . . until Leigh can write "I don't have to pretend to write to Mr. Henshaw anymore. I have learned to say what I think on a piece of paper." Meanwhile Mr. Henshaw offers writing tips, and Leigh, struggling with a story for a school contest, concludes "I think you're right. Maybe I am not ready to write a story." Instead he writes a "true story" about a truck haul with his father in Leigh's real past, and this wins praise from "a real live author" Leigh meets through the school program. Mr. Henshaw has also advised that "a character in a story should solve a problem or change in some way," a standard juvenile-fiction dictum which Cleary herself applies modestly by having Leigh solve his disappearing lunch problem with a burglar-alarmed lunch box—and, more seriously, come to recognize and accept that his father can't be counted on. All of this, in Leigh's simple words, is capably and unobtrusively structured as well as valid and realistic. From the writing tips to the divorced-kid blues, however, it tends to substitute prevailing wisdom for the little jolts of recognition that made the Ramona books so rewarding.

Pub Date: Aug. 22, 1983

ISBN: 143511096X

Page Count: 133

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Oct. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1983

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Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis...

THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE

50TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION

Privately published by Strunk of Cornell in 1918 and revised by his student E. B. White in 1959, that "little book" is back again with more White updatings.

Stricter than, say, Bergen Evans or W3 ("disinterested" means impartial — period), Strunk is in the last analysis (whoops — "A bankrupt expression") a unique guide (which means "without like or equal").

Pub Date: May 15, 1972

ISBN: 0205632645

Page Count: 105

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1972

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