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Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives

ISBN: 978-0-470-62445-6
280 pages
March 2010
Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives (0470624450) cover image

What are the chances?

Find out in this entertaining exploration ofprobabilities in our everyday lives

“If there is anything you want to know, or remind yourself, about probabilities, then look no further than this comprehensive, yet wittily written and enjoyable, compendium of how to apply probability calculations in real-world situations.”
Keith Devlin, Stanford University, National Public Radio’s “Math Guy” and author of The Math Gene and The Math Instinct

“A delightful guide to the sometimes counterintuitive discipline of probability. Olofsson points out major ideas here, explains classic puzzles there, and everywhere makes free use of witty vignettes to instruct and amuse.”
John Allen Paulos, Temple University, author of Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper

“Beautifully written, with fascinating examples and tidbits of information. Olofsson gently and persuasively shows us how to think clearly about the uncertainty that governs our lives.”
John Haigh, University of Sussex, author of Taking Chances: Winning with Probability

From probable improbabilities to regular irregularities, Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives investigates the often-surprising effects of risk and chance in our everyday lives. With examples ranging from WWII espionage to the O. J. Simpson trial, from bridge to blackjack, from Julius Caesar to Jerry Seinfeld, the reader is taught how to think straight in a world of randomness and uncertainty.

Throughout the book, readers learn:

  • Why it is not that surprising for someone to win the lottery twice
  • How a faulty probability calculation forced an innocent woman to spend three years in prison
  • How to place bets if you absolutely insist on gambling
  • How a newspaper turned an opinion poll into one of the greatest election blunders in history

Educational, eloquent, and entertaining, Probabilities: The Little Numbers That Rule Our Lives is the ideal companion for anyone who wants to obtain a better understanding of the mathematics of chance.

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Preface v

1 Computing Probabilities: Right Ways and Wrong Ways 1

The Probabilist 1

The Probabilist's Toys and Language 4

The Probabilist's Rule Book 9

Independence, Airplanes, and Russian Peasants 14

Conditional Probability, Swedish TV, and British Courts 20

Liar, Liar 24

Total Probability, Used Cars, and Tennis Matches 28

Combinatorics, Pastrami, and Poetry 33

The von Trapps and the Binomial Distribution 37

Final Word 43

2 Surprising Probabilities: When Intuition Struggles 45

Boys, Girls, Aces, and Colored Cards 45

Goats and Gloats 50

Happy Birthday 52

Typical Atypicalities 57

Strategies, Shopping, and Spaghetti Westerns 61

The British Snob and I 65

Final Word 70

3 Tiny Probabilities: Why Are They So Hard to Escape? 71

Probable Improbabilities 71

Saddam and I 75

Taking Tiny Risks 80

A Million-to-One Shot, Doc, Million to One! 82

Monsieur Poisson and the Mysterious Number 37 84

Clumps in Space 89

Final Word 91

4 Backward Probabilities: The Reverend Bayes to Our Rescue 93

Driving Miss Daisy 93

Bayes, Balls, and Boys (and Girls) 96

Bayes and My Green Card 98

Objection Your Honor 103

Final Word 112

5 Beyond Probabilities: What to Expect 115

Great Expectations 115

Good Things Come to Those Who Wait 123

Expect the Unexpected 129

Size Matters (and Length, and Age) 132

Deviant Behavior 138

Final Word 143

6 Inevitable Probabilities: Two Fascinating Mathematical Results 145

Alea Iacta Est, Over and Over 145

Even-Steven? The Law Misunderstood 149

Coin Tosses and Freeway Congestion 155

Let's Get Serious 162

Bells and Bread 166

How a Toronto Quincunx Changed My Life 171

Final Word 173

7 Gambling Probabilities: Why Donald Trump Is Richer than You 175

French Letters 175

Roulette: A Classy Way to Waste Your Money 179

Craps: Not so Dicey After All 184

Blackjack: Money for Mnemonics 187

Math for Losers 193

Win Money and Lose Friends 200

Final Word 210

8 Guessing Probabilities: Enter the Statisticians 211

Lies, Damned Lies, and Beautiful Lies? 211

4 out of 10 Like the President 19 Times out of 20 215

Polls Gone Wild 220

The Lawsuit and the Lurker 225

Football Players and Geyser Eruptions 230

Snooping in the Abbot’s Garden 237

Final Word 242

9 Faking Probabilities: Computer Simulation 245

Mahogany Dice and Modular Arithmetic 245

Random and Not-So-Random Digits 252

Number One Is Number One 253

Is Random Really Random? 256

Final Word 261

Index 263

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PETER OLOFSSON, PHD, is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Trinity University. Dr. Olofsson is an active researcher in the field of applied probability and is an experienced teacher. He is the author of Probability, Statistics, and Stochastic Processes, also from Wiley.
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