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REVIEW: "Against the Gods", Peter L. Bernstein

Rob Slade, doting grandpa of Ryan and Trevor
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"Against the Gods", Peter L. Bernstein, 1996, 0-471-29563-9,
%A Peter L. Bernstein
%C 5353 Dundas Street West, 4th Floor, Etobicoke, ON M9B 6H8
%D 1996
%G 0-471-29563-9
%I John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
%O U$19.95/C$30.95/UK#11.95 416-236-4433 fax: 416-236-4448
%P 383 p.
%T "Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk"

The story of risk is, indeed, remarkable, and many times Bernstein
skates right up to the point of saying something really profound--
but, regrettably, never actually does so. The introduction points out
the importance of risk analysis, especially quantitative, to the
development of modern civilization. This explains the emphasis, in
the early chapters, on milestones in the evolution of mathematics.
(The latter part of the work makes it clear that the author limits
"civilization" to the formation of the stock market.)

The book is divided into five parts, but since the first 70% of the
text is historical and biographical, the divisions are rather
arbitrary. Chapter one gives us Bernstein's opinion that gambling and
fatalism prevented Greece and Rome from developing risk analysis, the
attempted proof being circular and uncompelling. The same amusing but
pointless erudition is provided in chapter two, ostensibly about
Fibonacci and arabic numerals.

Chapter three moves more solidly into biographical territory, with
some history of gambling and the beginning of statistics serving as an
introduction to Cardano and Italian mathematical schools. In short
order we then look at Pascal, Graunt, Halley, statuarial studies,
Lloyd's of London, the first steps towards economics, a subjective
look at the concept of utility, the law of large numbers (increased
confidence in analysis with increased instances), Gauss (and although
the point is obvious Gaussian distribution we never quite get there),
and Galton and normal distribution. At this point the book almost
abandons its previous polish and moves largely into promotional
realms, looking at the short and long term activities of stock
markets, a brief detour into Victorian studies of economics, more on
statistics and reliability, a comparison of Knight and Keynes that
isn't really clear on either, game theory as applied to chance, stock
portfolios, psychological factors in risk choice, the irrationality of
investors, and derivative financial instruments.

The book provides some fascinating bedtime reading and a peek at a
number of concepts related to statistics, but ultimately does not
provide much in the way of an understanding of risk, risk analysis,
risk assessment, or risk management.

copyright Robert M. Slade, 2003 BKAGNGDS.RVW 20031006

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