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am 18. Februar 2000
Bernstein has written a thorough book that traces the linear progression of man's understanding of probability and risk.
This is a journey that begins with the importatioin of the arabic numbering system to the West and ends with super-computer crunched chaos theory. In between lie the fathers (all men) of mathamatical understanding. These individuals are the story of AGAINST THE GODS. Bernstein survey's the intellectual contrubutions of each as man strives to understood basic probability, the law of large numbers, bell curves, regression analysis, uncertainty theory and everything else you dimly remember from college statistics classes. He spends the latter quarter of the book on risk and probability theory in the financial world, where theorists have developed portfolio analysis, volitility studies, hedging and sidebets and other quantatative market plays.
Credit to the author for balancing his story against the very high probability that much of what these thinkers sought may be unattainable. He frequently mentions the humanity that these people try to explain with laws formulated from observations in the natural world. Although rightly impressed with his intellectual frontiersmen, Bernstein has no problem recognizing that the uncertainty that has always eluded explanation is us and that it helps make life worth living and progress possible.
This book is interesting for what it is. A story of the development of theories. I would have enjoyed more of a focus on the applications of this intellectual progression that led to the development of insurance and financial markets. Though these elements are mentioned often, they provide the backdrop for Bernsteins survey of theory. I suspect another book awaits someone who will reverse the order and use theory as a backdrop for the mechanisms that have allowed the modern economy to flourish and develop. The story of insurance, speculation, the beginning of capital markets, a monied economy and the like spring from the intellectual movements so well chronicled by Bernstein. However, they are not the focus, which has the habit of making the reading dry and sometimes uninteresting to those not captivated by the actual numeric analyses and proofs which are amply offerred over the course of the book.
If you like intellectual history and are looking to tie the building blocks of probability and risk analysis together over the last four centuries than this book may well captivate you. If you are seeking an understanding of how these discoveries were applied to forge the modern economy we now take for granted you will find parts interesting but may well feel that the story is incomplete.
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am 24. Mai 2000
it must be taken with large sums of salt. Basically the book is based upon and it is about math and history, or it is a history of applied mathmatical probability. Fine and good. But Bernstein is niether a mathmatician nor a historian. Perhaps this is why it is so accessible to most--as most are neither anyway. (In some ways, the blind can lead the blind very well, but not to good effect.)
The first obvious error occurs on page 31, where an ancient algebra problem is solved with the wrong answer. Perhaps a typo, but such typos continue. More egregious is Berstein's proof through assertion or simple dismissal. Eg., "Without the concept of zero...a negative number is a logical impossiblity." Perhaps true, but I guess we must take your word for it...
The book is really at its best when it is at its worst; or you will learn from this book when someone who really 'knows' tears it apart. As it is, it provokes thought, and although much of it is erroneous, even a fallacious thought is more than most books stir.
It is a fun and provacative book, but like most maverick things, it is in itself a big risk. Some of his gambles pay off, others don't. This book needs an expert to tidy it up (and he might just throw it out the window).
But in the final analysis, more academics should take risks like PB and risk making mistakes--over-professionalization so favored and demanded by most is making academia a most stale and dessicated place: all know more and more about less and less. PB is not academic (he seems to know a little about a lot) and ironically this gives him the oportunity to experiment and fail, at least with books and ideas, with relative impunity. Or to put it another far more blunt way, a historian or a mathmatician could lose his tenure over authoring this book. I recommend this book.
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am 2. September 2013
My title would be: A History of Probability.
Bernstein describes the developement of the perception of risk in the course of history.
It is a very good read for everybody who is interested in the history science.
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TOP 500 REZENSENTam 21. Dezember 2007
Vertrauen - Hoffnung - Vermutung: so sah das Risikomanagement ganz am Anfang aus und das ist noch gar nicht so lange her in der Geschichte der Menschheit. Man glaubte an Götter und fragte das Orakel oder Priester um Rat. Verständlich, denn beim Risiko spielen Zahlen eine große Rolle und das Zahlenverständnis entwickelte sich erst spät. Die Zahlensysteme der alten Römer waren extrem unbrauchbar und umständlich, was jeder im Selbstversuch ausprobieren kann: XXVI multipliziert mit IX ist? Erst als die indischen Zahlen via Arabien auch Europa eroberten, inklusive Erfindung der Null, die es im römischen System nicht gab, hatte die Mathematik eine Chance. Bernstein beschreibt in seinem Buch den Weg der Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung über die Jahrhunderte hinweg: Gelebte Geschichte. Dieses Buch ist spannender, lebendiger geschrieben, als alles was ich je im Schulunterricht zur Mathematik hörte. Von Luca Pacioli, einem Franziskanermönch, der das "Problem der Punkte" (die Aufteilung des Einsatzes bei vorzeitigem Abbruch des Glückspiels) über die französischen Mathematiker Blaise Pascal und Pierre de Fermat, die sich ca. 1 1/2 Jahrhunderte später mit der Wahrscheinlichkeit beschäftigten. Und vor allem auch Bernoulli, Daniel Bernoulli, der endlich die Instrumente fand, welche die Basis für die heutige Wahrscheinlichkeitsrechnung sind. Ob die dargelegten Formeln im Buch immer richtig sind - ich habe es nicht nachgeprüft. Für mich war dieses Buch Geschichtsunterricht von einer anderen Art als in der Schule / Studium. Sehr unterhaltsam und spannend beschrieben, gut lesbar und auch für einen Nicht-Englisch-Muttersprachler verständlich. Mein Tip: Kaufen und Lesen!
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am 9. Mai 2000
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. In it, Bernstein "tells the story of a group of thinkers whose remarkable vision revealed how to put the future at the service of the present. By showing the world how to understand risk, measure it, and weigh its consequences,, they converted risk-taking into one of the prime categories that drives Western society." Bernstein organizes his material within an historical framework:
To 1200: Beginnings
1200-1700: A Thousand Outstanding Facts
1700-1900: Measurement Unlimited
1900-1960: Clouds of Vagueness and the Demand for Precision
Degrees of Belief: Exploring Uncertainty
Bernstein examines hundreds of situations throughout history in which human beings found themselves against the gods and against the odds...some "winning" and others "losing" but all somehow contributing to an understanding of what risk is, of how it can be accurately measured, and of what the consequences of a given risk could be. As Bernstein suggests, many of the most heroic acts in history were undertaken without such understanding.
In the final chapter, Bernstein reiterates his central theme: "the quantitative achievements of the heroes we have met shaped trajectory of progress over the past 450 years. In the beginning, medicine, science, finance, business, and even in government, decisions that touch everyone's life are now made in accordance with disciplined procedures that far outperform the seat-of-the-pants methods of the past. Many catastrophic errors of judgment are thus either avoided, or else their consequences are muted." All of us are the beneficiaries of those "quantitative achievements" and of this book in which they are discussed with compelling eloquence.
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am 7. April 1999
Not what I expected at all. Very much an accompaniment to Fermat's Last Theorem rather than the analysis of risk I was expecting. Risk from risi care meaning to dare: i.e. risk is a choice not a fate. Mathematically blending new information into old to help make better decisions. Probability: ratio of favourable outcomes to total opportunities. Odds: ratio of favourable outcomes to unfavourable outcomes. A F M Smith "Any approach to scientific inference which seeks to legitimises an answer in response to complex uncertainty is for me a totalitarian parody of a rational learning process". Order is impossible to find unless disorder is there first. Changes in stock prices - normal distribution but based on unpredictable information so stock prices move in unpredictable ways. Reality contains sets of circumstances that people had never contemplated before. Reality violated the symmetry of the bell curve regressing to means that were unstable. Consequences of decisions rather than just inputs to decisions need to be evaluated. Patterns of the past do not always reveal the path to the future. Any given instance is so unique that there are no others similar in sufficient numbers to tabulate to draw any inferences of probability of results. Whatever had a measurable probability yesterday has an unknown probability tomorrow. We are not prisoners of an inevitable future, uncertainty makes us free. As we make decisions we change the world. Whether those decisions, make things better or worse depends on us. Game theory: true source of uncertainty lies in the intentions of others.
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am 24. Februar 1998
I don't mind reading laymen accounts of the history of science, but this book contained so many misleading themes and faulty applications that they overwhelmed the whimsical anecdotes of famous historical figures. For example, there's the issue of mean reversion. Bernstein implies that this phenomenon has significant application to financial markets (what goes up must come down). The evidence of this in finance is pretty meager in spite of mounds of data mined by researchers over the last 50 years, and mentioning DeBondt and Thaler only proves the author's selective and uncritical reading of the current literature (sort of like a popular anthropology text citing Margaret Meade's thoroughly discredited Coming of Age in Samoa). Khaneman and Tversky's work gets great mention, but its application towards financial markets is purely anecdotal, as reflected by his continual references to WSJ articles as confirmation. How about the CAPM debate or the equity premium puzzle? These are the big puzzles in current finance. A casual reader looking for an insight into the current state of affairs in finance, including lots of anecdotal biographical sketches, would do much better reading Malkiel's classic Random Walk Down Wall Street, which through updates hasn't lost its edge.
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am 26. April 1999
Against the Gods is an outstanding book about the evolution of risk and man's attempt to understand it. Bernstein begins with ancient times and traces the history of numbers and probability leading eventually to today's seemingly complex financial world of portfolio theory, derivatives, and risk management techniques. Readers will learn about revolutionary thinkers including John von Neumann (inventor of game theory), Isaac Newton, Harry Markowitz (grandfather of portfolio theory), and the late Fischer Black (Black Scholes option formula) among others. Readers will also find enlightening stories about game theory, fibonacci numbers, chaos theory, the bell curve, regression to the mean, and more. Yet despite all the intelligence, computer power, and sophisticated techniques, Bernstein presents us with the growing body of evidence discovered by researchers including the late Amos Tversky and others that "reveals repeated patterns of irrationality, inconsistency, and incompetence in the ways human beings arrive at decisions and choices when faced with uncertainty." Against the Gods was chosen as one of Business Week's top 10 books of the year for 1996.
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am 5. April 2000
A good history of the mathematics, economics and psychology that goes into how humans have come to control risk and face down the fear of an uncertain future. I particularly enjoyed the humanizing portrayal of the mathematics involved in risk assessment. The section on financial derivatives I think will help the public at large understand the importance and utility of these instruments, despite their ability to be abused.
One drawback of the book was that the mathematics was not always presented clearly. This is the case with the discussion of regression to the mean, where we are left with an impression that it is easier to get heads after tails is tossed. The representation of Chaos Theory as a belief system and not a science subject is also troubling.
Note: "Mohammedan" is a derogatory term and Omar Khayyam was Persian, not Arab.
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am 9. April 2009
Against the Gods is a fantastic book for people who love to read the history of risk, dating back as far as to the greeks. Bernstein's passion to the topic makes it a clear 5 star book. And he's passions shows on almost every page. Example: if you are just interested in the Markowitz formula, don't buy this book. But if you wanna read that Markowitz's methodology is a synthesis of the ideas of Pascal, de Moivre, Bayes, Laplace, Guass, Galton, Daniel Bernoulli (especially since he's had the same nationality than me) and von Neumann & Morgenstern. Furthermore, that Markowitz's methodolgy draws on probability theory, on sampling, on the bell curve and dispersion around the mean, on regression to the mean, and on utility theory. If this history is what interests you, this book is for you (if not only for the great title & book cover) !
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