Beating the Odds

So I just got back from USENIX '04, and I had planned to spend the flight writing up some observations on the conference. Unfortunately, these observations -- as pithy as they no doubt will be -- will have to wait: I ended up spending the flight inhaling Bringing Down the House by Ben Mezrich. While the book itself is not very well written,1 the subject is fascinating: a well-disciplined (and apparently successful) card-counting team from MIT. The book was brain candy in the purest sense: it was exhilerating and fun -- but it definitely ruined my dinner.

If you're looking for something with a little more meat in it, check out Tom Bass's classic, The Eudaemonic Pie. Bass's subjects are more interesting to me, if only because the problem they're solving is so much harder: a group of physicists and computer scientists develop a device to give them an advantage over roulette. (After all, it's just Newtonian physics, right?) And if the idea sounds incredibly implausible, just wait until you see how they implemented it. And while the "Bringing Down the House" protagonists seem destined for a life of overpaid corporate consulting and/or 12 step programs, the leader of the "Eudaemonic" tribe, Doyne Farmer, now writes papers for academic journals like Quantitative Finance from his roost at The Santa Fe Institute. Meatier stuff, to be sure.


1The author had an incredibly difficult time separating himself from the story -- I don't particularly care if a stripper was "on his lap" for an interview, and I care even less that he knew the principal protagonist through "a friend from Harvard." I didn't drop fifteen bones to read "The Making of 'Bringing Down the House'"...
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