Carver Mead in his forward to Sanjoy Mahajan‘s Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving writes, “I have spent my life trying to find direct and transparent ways of seeing reality and trying to express these insights quantitatively, and I have never knowingly broken my promise.” What an admirable ambition for a young man and what an amazingly productive life it produced. A book with Mead’s recommendation is surely a book worth reading.
It is a book about making good guesses about things and giving the results some provisional acceptance upon which ideas with testable results might be developed. It gives you some tools for solving problems which you might encounter and how to identify those problems and approach them in ways which will yield results. Setting boundaries within which the real world solution must lie gives one the ability to avoid massive mistakes and large wastes of time and energy exploring the mistakes.
A first step in any comparison of things is to make sure you are comparing the same aspect of one thing to the same aspect of the other thing. If your comparisons are measuring different things your results will be meaningless. “Make sure to mind your dimensions and units.”
I blogged about this book a couple of months ago in Mysterious product labeling of Ivory soap and Capsaicin and occasionally dip into it for a quick challenge. It’s based on a full semester course at MIT, so there are challenges that require time to mull over. There are take-home problems which are designed to keep you watching the media for faulty math. There is so much in the media that is faulty that it is hard to know where to go in. These mathematical errors are harder to explain than simple challenges of fact or spelling errors. In the world of media and especially TV where we see real humans doing incredibly stupid things, apparently trying to win their Darwin Awards by killing themselves, a little thing like a mathematical blunder is always ignored. Cartoon physics becomes reality to people who have been raised on that drivel and they are functionally insane even though they have normal brains. Action movies also are loaded with impossible physics which becomes reality for an hour but unfortunately it also corrupts the mind into believing it relates to reality.
Street Fighting helps real people cut through the wimpy nonsense.