Math-Frolic Interview #26
"Our inability to recognize or produce randomness is the most invisible of problems. Randomness is like air, all around us and never noticed until the gale hits. We are not prepared to connect our difficulty with randomness to the real world of missed tennis serves, bad passwords, and Ponzi schemes."
-- William Poundstone, from the Epilogue to "Rock Breaks Scissors"
William Poundstone is one of my favorite writers (twice nominated for a Pulitzer), and one of the more eclectic folks I've had the pleasure to interview here. He has explored an odd and wide range of topics in his writing, but is not a mathematician nor mathematical writer per se, so many readers here may be unfamiliar with him. Still, his topics often impinge on underlying mathematics, while having an uncanny way of also sliding between the boundaries of science, logic, psychology, philosophy, and finance/economics. I reviewed (and enjoyed) his latest work, "Rock Breaks Scissors," HERE. Another of his books, "Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?" was dedicated to the memory of Martin Gardner.
His homepage is here:
and I found an interesting podcast interview from 2011 with him here:
If you're not already familiar with him I hope his responses below may entice you to check him out further (but if they don't, then maybe knowing that he is Paula Poundstone's cousin WILL! -- though I can't imagine what genes they could possibly share ;-)):
1) Information on your background has been surprisingly hard to come by! (though I did learn that you studied physics at M.I.T. before becoming a writer). Your book bios and Wikipedia page don't have much info on your past, and even the quirky "about me" page at your personal website doesn't divulge much. Is that because you're secretly a CIA-operative? ;-) Seriously, can you fill readers in a little on your background and how you arrived at the interests/writing-life you have today?
Well, without saying too much about my age, I have been a full-time author for longer than the World Wide Web existed(!) I suppose that's why there's not much web presence for my pre-author life. I did spend a year as an editor (with Brentwood Publishing, now defunct, which produced trade journals). I found that very useful as it taught me fine points of grammar and usage that I never learned in my formal education ("that" v. "which," "vale of tears" not "veil of tears," etc.) As to my interests, I was a big reader from the time I could read, in science especially.
2) My favorite work of yours is an older one, "Labyrinths of Reason." And like it, many of your volumes touch upon human reasoning or logic to some extent. How did you go from M.I.T. physics to such a psychological/philosophical focus?
I'm glad to hear you mention Labyrinths. It remains one of my favorites too. The book is about how we know what we know, and that's always an issue in physics. Things like quarks started out being a mental shorthand, a way of getting the right answer. By pretending that quarks, which you can never see or isolate, exist, you can make accurate predictions about the entities that you can see and measure. So it started out as fiction and became "nonfiction"—at least, we agree to call it that.
One of my favorite Stephen Hawking quotes: "Reality is not a quality you can test with litmus paper."
3) As a full-time writer what is your typical (if there is such a thing) workday like? Do you have a set routine?
I get up about 6 AM, read the news, work out on a treadmill, and am generally at work by 8. I work until about 5, but it's not all writing/editing. I do a lot of reading, I do interviews (of people I'm writing about, or giving interviews to promote my books).
4) Your agent is John Brockman. I've long-enjoyed his books and Edge website. What can you tell us about the experience of working with John and the Edge group? Is it forever-stimulating, fun, argumentative, thought-provoking….?
John is a great guy, and all those adjectives apply. BUT let me clarify that I'm on the opposite coast and see or speak with him only infrequently. (In movies, the writer-character sees his agent every day, and they live down the street from each other. That's generally not the reality!)
5) Many of your books hover around mathematics, but without being too mathematical or technical. Can you say how math fits into your daily or intellectual life… is it front-and-center to a lot of your thought, or more lurking in the shadows of the things that most interest you?
Also, do you still follow physics these days, and have any thoughts on the controversies/debates surrounding modern cosmology -- especially in terms of certain recent writers who argue that some high-level physics is bordering on metaphysics or pseudoscience?
I do take a quantitative approach to a lot of things — not to everything, which would be nuts, but to things where many others might not. Counting grams of saturated fat and carbohydrates comes to mind. And definitely, as I say above, I think the (meta)physics debate over what is real is interesting. How can one show that string theory, or the many-worlds interpretation are worth pursuing? Everybody says they're for Occam's razor, but that 14th-century implement doesn't cut it in today's physics! For one thing, it's not always clear what it means to minimize assumptions in physics far removed from direct human experience. Also, as a practical and even careerist thing, you often have to put an awful lot of work into a theory before you find out how simple it is—or isn't.
6) One curiosity note: Your latest work is entitled, "Rock Breaks Scissors," but the chapter in the book on the betting game 'rock, paper, scissors' is actually only a small portion of the book -- just wondering if there's some story behind how that ended up as the title for the volume?
"Rock, paper, scissors" is a game that almost everyone has played in which you're trying to predict someone else's "random" choice (which in fact isn't all that random…) Though this element exists in many other games and situations and conflicts, you encounter it in its purest form in RPS.
I had thought of using the title "The Outguessing Machine," but that implies it's about machines predicting, when you can actually do a lot of the predicting in your head.
7) You've written over a dozen books, but only one biography… that of Carl Sagan. Are there any other figures you've considered doing a biography of?
I had thought of doing a standard Claude Shannon biography… but this evolved into Fortune's Formula, exploring just a tangent of his best-known achievements.
[hmmm... interesting, "Claude Shannon" another person with the initials "C.S." ...perhaps Cat Stevens next ;-)]
8) Are you currently working on a new book, and if so, what can you tell us about it?
I'm doing a book addressing the question: How important is it to know facts in the digital age, when it's easy to look up any fact? Part of the research involves demographically balanced polling. I look at what people know—about school subjects, current events, and pop culture—and how that knowledge correlates (or doesn't) with things like income, relationship status, self-reported happiness, and sources of news and information (TV, newspapers, Internet, etc.)
...sounds interesting, as this is a debate currently going on within mathematics education: how much rote memorization is still necessary given the ease with which such information is digitally accessible; should children spend more time on working mathematically/algorithmically, and less time committing facts to memory?
9) Who are some of your own favorite current authors (nonfiction) to read, and what are some of your favorite books for learning or inspiration?
I read more fiction than nonfiction, and at least half of what I read isn't necessarily "current." I recently read Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and (from this century) Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham's Magical Mathematics and Edward Tufte's Visual Explanations. In fiction I'm reading Don Delillo's Underworld.
I suppose I should take the opportunity to plug Harry Stephen Keeler. He was an eccentric American novelist that a group of friends and I "rediscovered." Keeler would break all the rules of detective fiction, in one case introducing the guilty party, for the first time, in the last sentence of the book. One novel concerns the "Flying Strangler-Baby," a little person who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter. There is a Harry Stephen Keeler Society with a newsletter at http://site.xavier.edu/polt/keeler/.
Like I said, Bill is a bit of an eclectic fellow. Wikipedia describes him as "an American author, columnist, and skeptic," which hardly does him justice. You can check out all his books at Amazon here: http://tinyurl.com/lq87gko
Anyway, THANKS for taking some time with us here Bill, but I'm still gonna try to figure out either your age or a CIA connection...