Sunday, October 14, 2018

Good Math + Bad Drawings = Great Book!

   At some point awhile back I wrote that Ben Orlin’s mind was either a marvel or a mutation… and I wasn’t sure which. Having finished his marvelous new book I’ll now opt for the former (though a final check with his wife and 23-and-Me might still be in order).
Won’t do a full review of “Math With Bad Drawings” but just make some comments/blurbs about the volume. The first of which is simply, BUY this book, if you enjoy math… or, want to enjoy math. It is suitable for a wide swathe of readers, from young people to college professors — all will gain insights from it, just different ones depending on your age and knowledge. Younger folks can be introduced to a lot of real life math, while adults/teachers/profs can learn new ways/examples with which to approach or think about topics. Its broad possible appeal reminds me a bit of Steve Strogatz's "The Joy of X," another sort of everyman book.
Despite only 5 sections (comprising 24 chapters) the volume touches on an impressive array of topics… with consistent wit, insight, humor, clarity. If you’re not already a Ben Orlin fan you’ll be one by the time you finish these 350 grin-inducing pages. You can figure on 4 chuckles per page (OK, so maybe 7 chuckles on some pages and 1 on others). Ben is simply one of the cleverest writers of math content going… you know this already if you’ve followed his blog for some time.
Amazingly, the book is all NEW material. When he originally announced the volume I assumed it would be a compendium of the best stuff from his blog — something surely to look forward to. Then he said it was all fresh material not from the blog, and I was amazed, even skeptical… and sad to think that so much great prior content would not be included; BUUUUT, it does not disappoint!  I especially like the middle parts on probability and statistics, which represent a large percentage of the book, and which are frequent/vital topics these days, that Ben still manages new ways to present.
Indeed Dr. Orlin seems incapable of writing bad or boring content; you get a feeling of precision, quality, tight control throughout this volume, despite the ever-present quirkiness… and bad (or, deceptively good) drawings. And the publisher, Black Dog & Leventhal, has simply done a fabulous job of presentation here — seriously, one of the best publishing feats in popular math I’ve ever seen, with, shall I say, oddball material. When I interviewed Ben back HERE, he mentioned the publisher did a great job, noting:
…they make gorgeous, colorful books so luscious you want to eat them. Having seen the final product I am 300% sure it was the right call.”
I thought he might be exaggerating… but, no, he wasn’t. The book is luscious (initially I had an urge to slather it with whipped cream ;).
My only beef at all with the volume is that there is no index provided. Dr. Orlin covers a rollicking range of topics, but if you want to look one up to see if it’s included and go directly to it, you’re out of luck (though the table of contents at front gives at least some guidance).
I’d be hardpressed to think of any math volume as original and creative as this one. And the best news may be that Ben is working on a followup volume, introducing calculus… with, of course, deliciously bad drawings. Pass me the derivatives and gravy!

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