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Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math, and Probability
by Colin Bruce
Publisher: Perseus Books Group
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Edition: Paperback
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Editorial Reviews:
Some people who think they hate math are lucky to learn that they actually just can't abide its often dry, abstract presentation. Physicist Colin Bruce turns math teaching on its head by using conflict, drama, and familiar characters to bring probability and game theory to vivid life in Conned Again, Watson! Cautionary Tales of Logic, Math, and Probability. Using short stories crafted in the style of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, he lets Sherlock Holmes guide Watson and his clients through elementary mathematical reasoning. This kind of thinking is growing more and more important as poll numbers, economic indicators, and scientific data find their way into the mainstream, and Bruce's gambit pays off handsomely for the reader. Delving into such arcana as normal distribution, Bayesian logic, and risk taking, the stories never dry up, even when presenting tables or graphs. Holmes's quick wit, Watson's patience, and their various friends' and clients' dubious decisions unite both to entertain and to illuminate tough but important problems. Even the cleverest numerophile will probably still find a nugget or two of hidden knowledge in the book, or at least a few new ways to explain statistical concepts to friends and students. The rest of us can relax, enjoy the tales, and come away a little bit tougher to con. --Rob Lightner

Product Details
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Perseus Books Group; edition (Jan 15, 2023)
  • ISBN: 0738205893
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 Based on 8 reviews.
  • Sales Rank: 129693

Customer Reviews

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful:

5Holmes as a master educator in logic and deduction, May 25, 2023
Some time ago, Lamarr Widmer, the editor of the problem column of "Journal of Recreational Mathematics" submitted a review of this book to me, in my capacity as book reviews editor of JRM. As soon as I read the first two paragraphs of the review, I knew that I had to read the book. Sherlock Holmes is without question the greatest character to appear in fiction, the style of the stories still inspire many spin-offs. In the science fiction television series, "Star Trek: The Next Generation", the Holmes style of problem solving is used in many episodes. This book presents several stories where Holmes solves problems with a mathematical theme. Each of them is a delight to read and I did a good deal of head scratching as I tried to anticipate the solution to the puzzle.
My favorite story in the collection is "The Case of the Martian Invasion", which, set at the turn of the twentieth century, covers the possibility of heavier-than-air flying machines, "Martian" images on the Moon, crop circles and secret messages being embedded in biblical verse. The proponent of a Martian invasion believes that heavier-than-air machines are possible, putting forward the fundamental principle of using complex machines. That is of course redundancy, where multiple engines are placed on the aircraft in such a way that it can fly with any subset above a certain size. The explanation of the "secret messages" is easy, nothing more than a simple exercise in the probability of the frequency of the appearance of letters and looking hard enough.
The other stories were nearly as interesting and cover many areas of life, the probability of various events being the most common scenario. Game theory and decision theory is also used to solve the cases brought before the greatest detective of all time. Although they are set in the time of Holmes, the events described in the puzzles can still be applied to life in the twenty-first century.
I found this to be one of the best demonstrations of logical deduction based on sound mathematical principles that I have ever seen. Although he is constantly praised for his skill in logical deduction, Holmes also possesses another talent, that of a master teacher.

Published in the recreational mathematics newsletter, reprinted with permission.

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful:

5Watson we've got a winner!, Dec 31, 2022
If I could guarantee that the author of this book was as wise as his characters, I would marry him sight unseen.
Regardless, this is a book worthy of many readings.

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:

5A Wonderful, enjoyable book!, Dec 30, 2022
Unlike some other reviewers, I am neither a statistitian nor a Sherlock Holms lover. I never cared much for murder mysteries perse, but as a tool for exploring such interesting concepts I thought it worked well. Yes he took a few liberties with history (as he pointed out in the end notes)--so what?

The stories were not designed to top those of doyle but to make some interesting probability and decision making concepts approachable, relevent, and enjoyable. This they did wonderfully. As someone who was turned off to math after years of dull, abstract school lecture, my interest arose from my work in business and computer science. Some of these concepts were not new to me, but all were from new angles. I found .the math easy to follow(depressingly difficult to predict!) and only wished I had not run out of pages. I plan not only to check out the author's other work, but some of the additional reading he kindly suggests in the notes. Thank you Mr. Bruce for and enjoyable read.

12 of 15 people found the following review helpful:

4Excellent in illustrating mathematics through fiction, Mar 8, 2023
This is good enough at what it does: illustrating mathematical concepts under the guise of Sherlock Holmes stories. However, I have one beef and that is that Bruce, perhaps through lack of information on his own part, makes Holmes less intelligent than he should be.

My main example is that throughout the book, Holmes and Watson make reference to the year 1900 (their present year) as being the beginning of a new century. I feel certain that Holmes at least would know that centuries do not begin until the year one, in this case 1901. When Watson mentioned it, I felt sure that Bruce was taking the normal tack of making him obviously less intelligent than his partner (the man *is* a doctor, for crying out loud, give him *some* credit), but when Holmes mentions it later, I was duly perturbed.

Bruce also uses characters purely to tack on surprise endings to his stories, one of which did not work for this reviewer. In one story, the pair meet the Reverend Charles Dodgson, which any bibliophile knows is the real name of Lewis Carroll, but does not present this information until the last paragraph of the story. The surprise ending, using the pseudonym, was therefore lost on me.

In another story, there is no solution presented to a murder. This irked me no end at first, but then I realized that there being no solution to the mystery better illustrated the mathematical principle being explained. I still prefer my murders to have solutions, however.

All in all, this is an entertaining book. Bruce�s skills as a storyteller and his ability to mix lessons into his stories is commendable. The stories, as Holmes pastiches, ring true overall, only clunking during the details I have mentioned, such as certain actions that seem totally out of character. One other example is when Sherlock and Mycroft are explaining a principle and Sherlock pulls out a graph to illustrate. Bruce (as Watson) writes the following (to the best of my memory): �I jumped up, knocking over my chair, and cried, �I have a horror of algebra!�� I couldn�t help but laugh! This behavior from one of the most beloved characters in literature?

But, as I said, as a whole the book succeeds, and if you can overlook these details and engross yourself in the superb storytelling, you will enjoy yourself, and probably be educated in the process.

26 of 30 people found the following review helpful:

2I was expecting a lot more ? you probably are, too, Jul 12, 2023
I have not read any of Colin Bruce's previous books. They seemed to be highly acclaimed, and I bought this title based on that reputation and some strong reviews here at Amazon.

I have to say I disagree. There are just no "AHA!" moments in the book - an element that I enjoy myself in recreational mathematics and seek to bring to my math classroom. I wholly expected the Holmes metaphor to create some captivating mathematical mysteries with more than a few twists. Instead I found leaden storylines and transparent mathematics.

I can't guarantee this complaint because, uncharacteristically, I haven't finished the book (and probably won't); I have so far only read two of the "stories." I found the first one, which ought to be the "hook", to be absolutely flat... nada. Holmes explained a not-especially-intriguing concept of logic or probability to Watson and then stated it again and again and again as they move through some inconsequential action in an uninteresting narrative. Right to the end I kept waiting for the clever twist - in vain. I sighed and set the book aside, then, and did not plan to read any more. Of course there's nothing like having already paid for a book to bring one back to it. The second piece, exploring some rather counter-intuitive elements of probability that many gamblers fall prey to was a tad more engaging - but not close to gripping.

Bruce seems to have the Holmes'ian character and language down pretty well. So what? That establishes a baseline tonality for the book that Holmes fans might enjoy, but it does not supply the oomph that the real Holmes mysteries provide; and Conan Doyle managed that even though we all knew that Holmes would, in the end, get the bad guy and do it in a characteristic way.

There are no mathematical or more traditional mysteries solved here. I guess the "bad guy" in these stories is supposed to be generic ignorance and some sort of innumerate tendency in the reading population (expressed via the straw-man "Watson"). Math literate readers will, perhaps, enjoy the poke at the widespread probabilistic ignorance of Watson's "everyman", but where's the fun (or the discovery) in that? In the two pieces I read, Bruce repeated the pattern of giving away the point in the first bit and then just pounding it in to poor Watson's head and the helpless reader. This seemed a clumsy attempt to copy the original in which Holmes would drop some sly suggestion of his focal point and elegantly uncover it for Watson and the reader.

For more engaging mathematics I'd suggest Ivars Peterson's "The Jungles of Randomness"... for critiques of mathematical blindspots and cultural ignorance, John Paulos' s work.


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