Poundstone, William 1955-

views updated

Poundstone, William 1955-

(William Nicholas Poundstone, Jr.)

PERSONAL: Born September 29, 1955, in Morgantown, WV; son of William, Sr. (a coal executive) and Doris Mae (a homemaker) Poundstone. Ethnicity: “White.” Education: Attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

ADDRESSES: HomeNew York, NY. Agent—Mitch Douglas, International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019. E-mail[email protected] poundstone.net.

CAREER: Writer and editor. New York Times, New York, NY, critic, 1992; Dave Bell Assocs., Los Angeles, CA, coproducer, 1993-94, producer, 1994-95; Economist, London, England, critic, 1996.

MEMBER: PEN.

WRITINGS:

Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.

The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge, Morrow (New York, NY), 1984.

Bigger Secrets: More than 125 Things They Prayed You’d Never Find Out, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1986.

Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1988.

The Ultimate, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1990.

Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.

Biggest Secrets: More Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know, Morrow (New York, NY), 1993.

Secrets Revealed (television special), American Broadcasting Companies (ABC), 1994.

More Secrets Revealed (television special), ABC, 1995.

Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, Holt (New York, NY), 1999.

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle: How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 2003.

Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2005.

Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do about It), Hill and Wang (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor to periodicals, including Economist, Esquire, Harper’s, Harvard Business Review, New York Times Book Review, and Village Voice.

SIDELIGHTS: William Poundstone discusses various popular culture mysteries in his books Big Secrets: The Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know, Bigger Secrets: More than 125 Things They Prayed You’d Never Find Out, and Biggest Secrets: More Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know. Poundstone achieved mass-market popularity and invitations to appear on television shows as a result of these writings, yet the author looks into deeper issues, including the origins of life and global nuclear annihilation. In his more academic works such as Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge and Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb, Poundstone writes about philosophical issues related to human behavior and how individuals come to learn and accept what is considered reality.

Poundstone’s first book was Big Secrets. In this work, he reveals such closely guarded corporate secrets as the ingredients used in Kentucky Fried Chicken batter and Coca-Cola. The work also gives readers ways to cheat the Rorschach ink blot test and the lie detector. In Bigger Secrets Poundstone reveals more food-related secrets, such as how White Castle hamburgers are made and the ingredients of Twinkie filling. Other chapters discuss purported subliminal messages on music recordings and in film. In Biggest Secrets the author reveals the age of cosmetic-company magnate Estee Lauder as well as the reason that Las Vegas magicians Siegfried and Roy spent twenty-five million dollars to make an elephant disappear onstage. In a more practical vein, Poundstone also tells readers what those mysterious public-address system announcements in airports and hospitals really mean.

Poundstone turned to more weighty matters in The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge. “Recursive” is a mathematical term used to describe a calculation that repeats. The author examines the work of scientists engaged in formulating how the universe came into existence—some say through recursion, or the multiple repetitions of simple patterns that eventually yielded complex life forms. A central component of the book is Poundstone’s explanations of the invention of and investigations into the so-called Game of Life, developed in 1970 by a Cambridge University scientist. The game is played on a grid, and follows a few simple rules: each dot represents a cell, or an independent life form. If less than two neighboring cells are nearby, it dies; if more than three are nearby, it dies, too; and if three cells surround it, reproduction occurs. As Poundstone explains, scientists and amateurs alike have been fascinated by the complex societies the Game of Life eventually begets, leading some to wonder if indeed this is how complex life forms—and eventually human civilization—arose.

In other chapters of The Recursive Universe, Pound-stone discusses trivial and nontrivial reproduction, a theory developed in the 1950s by mathematician John von Neumann that asserts that organisms are either innately programmed to reproduce themselves (trivial reproduction), or might be able to reproduce much more complex entities (nontrivial reproduction). New York Times Book Review writer Roger Penrose, himself a leading name in this field, found fault with some of Poundstone’s explanations of physics as they relate to recursion. Penrose gave the book a mixed assessment, terming it “fascinating, compelling and instructive—yet, in its way, sometimes frustrating and irritating to read.” Benjamin Woolley of the Observer was more charitable in his review. Poundstone’s “reasoning is complex,” wrote Woolley, “and requires careful and concentrated attention, but his reward is substantial: glimpses of the most profound revelations about the laws of creation.” Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Lee Dembart termed The Recursive Universe “a tour de force in every area it touches…. This highly original and creative work provides a new way of looking at familiar facts.”

In Labyrinths of Reason Poundstone further investigates the basis of knowledge and its limitations. By taking on numerous paradoxes that mathematicians and philosophers have struggled over for years, the author attempts to demonstrate that human sentience is perhaps a temporal thing. For instance, if every single object in the universe immediately doubled in size, would anyone notice? In another chapter, Poundstone dissects the dilemma first posed by a physicist named William Newcomb in 1960 and energetically debated ever since: there are two boxes; one is clear, and holds a thousand dollar bill; the other is opaque, and either contains nothing or a million dollars. You have two choices: take both, or take only the mystery box. A higher power is responsible for the boxes, however, and if he or she knows you will be greedy and take both, then the mystery box will be empty. If the higher being knows you will forsake the one thousand dollar bill and take only the other box, there will be a million dollars. New York Review of Books contributor Martin Gardner explained the significance of Newcomb’s famous riddle. “This paradox leads into deep questions about decision theory—questions that bear on decisions in economics and politics, perhaps even on metaphysical questions about free will and determinism,” Gardner wrote. A Kirkus Reviews contributor noted in a review of Labyrinths of Reason that the “phrase ‘for all we know’ is in itself one of Poundstone’s favorite themes as he discourses on philosophical conundrums.” The reviewer also mentioned the book’s “pleasing riddles” and “entertaining explanations.”

Continuing the theme of Poundstone’s “secrets” books is The Ultimate, in which the author investigates and presents for readers the last word in many subjects, divided by categories such as games, Americana, the teenage years, and world records. Poundstone takes the debate about who was the world’s best ballplayer, or which is the best zoo in the U.S., and presents statistical evidence to back up his findings. In Prisoner’s Dilemma Poundstone interweaves biography, Cold War ethics, and timeworn philosophical queries. He begins by presenting the prisoner’s dilemma: If A tells on B, A will go free while B will serve three years; if both tell on each other, each will serve two years; if neither tell, each will serve only one year.

Such conundrums were formulated and investigated by scientists at the Rand Corporation, a California think tank set up to strategize about the possibility of nuclear conflict. In Prisoner’s Dilemma, Poundstone compares such theorems as the prisoner’s dilemma with the philosophical questions posed by the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union in the decades following World War II. Within this context he also chronicles the life of European scientist John von Neumann, considered the father of game theory. Game theory holds that the essential quagmires of conflict and choice can be investigated by looking into puzzles such as the prisoner’s dilemma, where the most advantageous outcome for both sides often loses out to logical thought. Poundstone provides insight into the life and theories of von Neumann who, as a member of the Pentagon’s Manhattan Project, created the hydrogen bomb.

Critiquing Prisoner’s Dilemma for the New York Times Book Review, Andrew Hodges declared that the author “explores the theory of games with thoroughness and wit. His story serves as a fine study of the scientific method for it illustrates just what a slow hard grind science is.” Elsewhere, Hodges praised Poundstone’s “strong, plain writing” and noted that “the real originality of his book lies in its colorful synthesis of logical material and historical and biographical narration.”

In Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, Poundstone examines the life of the popular scientist who did much to bring an awareness of the universe and space exploration to a mass audience. The book begins with the story of Sagan’s grandfather committing murder and escaping to America; it gives a detailed picture of how Sagan’s mother profoundly influenced his life, for good and ill. Sagan was a precocious and ambitious youth who entered the University of Chicago at the age of sixteen, where he studied physics, genetics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. Early in life he knew the value of making friends in high places, but his close relationships were often harmed by his childish, demanding attitudes, and many ended in irreconcilable differences. Sagan was a man of contradictions, who believed passionately in extraterrestrial life yet mocked others’ beliefs in unidentified flying objects, who defended women’s rights yet expected his own three wives to support him unquestioningly and completely. His wild ideas and willingness to present them won him much popular attention yet cost him the respect of his more cautious peers. Still, the value of his contribution to science—and especially the public’s awareness and appreciation of science—cannot be underestimated. His books and television programs captivated, inspired, and informed millions, and he was a key mover behind the Voyager and Viking space missions of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The author “lays out the details of Sagan’s life and work, revealing why some people idolized him and others disdained him,” commented a Publishers Weekly contributor. “Poundstone does not draw conclusions, but presents the evidence of Sagan’s life and allows readers to develop their own theories of what that life might mean to their own.”

The author’s next book is titled How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle: How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers. In this book, the author reveals for the first time more than thirty-five puzzles and riddles created by the Microsoft corporation for use in job interviews to discover the most brilliant thinkers so they can hire them for their company. In addition to the title question, questions include: How would you make an MM? and If you could eliminate one U.S. state, which one would it be? The author examines the roots of such logic questions and also supplies approaches to developing questions, as well as possible answers to them. A Publishers Weekly contributor called the book “a fun, revealing take on an unusual subject.” Stephen Turner, writing in the Library Journal, commented: “This book would appeal… to anyone who loves a good riddle.”

Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casinos and Wall Street is not just a book about a single formula that can help make a person rich. Rather, it explores commonalities among gambling, stock investing, and applied mathematics and profiles some of the brightest minds who have been involved in beating the system in these various arenas. For example, among the people profiled in the book are Claude Shannon, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who invented information theory, which uses mathematics and engineering for the quantification of information and is the scientific foundation for all digital media, including the Internet. The author also writes of John Kelly, a scientist at Bell Laboratories who developed a famous investment strategy known as the “Kelly criterion.” The author relates how Shannon and lab scientist Ed Thorpe used Kelly’s investing strategy in Las Vegas to make a fortune both by gambling and investing. The author also examines the modern debate surrounding the real efficacy of Kelly’s criterion. A Kirkus Reviews contributor referred to Fortune’s Formula as an enticing elucidation beneath good humored history.” Writing in the American Scientist, Elwyn Berlekamp commented that the book has something for all kinds of readers, noting: “General readers seeking a broad overview of certain aspects of the field of financial mathematics and its practitioners will find the latter portions of Pound-stone’s book the most informative. Readers who enjoy a gossipy approach to business history will find the earlier portions more to their liking.”

In his 2008 book, Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do about It), Pound-stone, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, explores “why the United States’s pluralistic voting system doesn’t always pick the ‘right’ winner—and… what could be done to make it better.” In his book, the author details how at least five U.S. presidential elections were actually won by the second most popular candidate due to a “spoiler” candidate who garners enough votes to cause the most popular candidate to lose the election. This spoiler effect, according to the author, is due to the “impossibility theorem” of Kenneth Arrow. In his theorem, the Nobel laureate economist demonstrated that the voting system in the United States is fundamentally unfair when three or more discrete options (in this case, candidates) are available to choose from. Poundstone relates in his book how, in an effort to secure a victory for their candidates, political consultants use polls, strategies, smear campaigns, and more to exploit the mathematical faults of the idea of a simple majority vote. For example, one tactic is to start funding ballot drives for other candidates who will likely take votes away from another more viable opponent. “His lively, accessible mix of high theory and low politics merits a thumbs-up,” wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor.

Poundstone once told CA: “My interests include the collection, appreciation, and promotion of what might, for lack of a better term, be called ‘outsider’ literature. My collection contains chain letters, self-published verse, novels written without using the letter ‘e,’ reports of statements of the mentally ill, tracts of fanatics, ‘crank’ letters to scientific journals, ephemera relating to religious miracles, works of forgotten ‘bad’ writers, and more. The best of this constitutes a great unknown literature, one with its own masters and masterpieces. There are passages from the writings of George Kayatta (mathematical crank) and Cyprian Ekwenski (Nigerian novelist), as well as case studies of hypergraphia (a condition that causes people to write obsessively on philosophical or cosmic matters) that I can quote from memory and admire as much as lines from Dickinson.

“Though most of these writings are prose, their appeal is closer to poetry. The authors are writing about the most important thing in their mental landscape. Aware that the people around them do not share this obsession, they stretch language to its limits, hoping somehow to find the words to express the inexpressible and bridge the chasm between minds. In a sense that is what all writers do. The difference is, as Dubuffet said of the creators of l’art brut, these authors must reinvent their means of expression on all levels. At its best, outsider literature is concerned with testing the power of language itself.”

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

American Scientist, November 1, 2005, Elwyn Berlekamp, “Bettor Math,” review of Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System that Beat the Casinos and Wall Street, p. 556.

Atlantic, December, 1988, Paul Hoffman, review of Labyrinths of Reason: Paradox, Puzzles, and the Frailty of Knowledge, p. 88.

Barron’s, January 2, 2006, Ann C. Logue, review of Fortune’s Formula, p. 32.

Booklist, February 15, 1992, Bryce Christensen, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma: John von Neumann, Game Theory, and the Puzzle of the Bomb, p. 1077; December 1, 1998, Gilbert Taylor, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 636; September 1, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, p. 5.

Bookwatch, November, 2005, review of Fortune’s Formula.

Business Week, September 26, 2005, “Get Rich: Here’s the Math,” p. 144.

Entertainment Weekly, June 18, 1993, Benjamin Svet-key, review of Biggest Secrets: More Uncensored Truth about All Sorts of Stuff You Are Never Supposed to Know, p. 53.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1988, review of Labyrinths of Reason, p. 1453; July 15, 2005, review of Fortune’s Formula, p. 781; December 15, 2007, review of Gaming the Vote: Why Elections Aren’t Fair (and What We Can Do about It).

Library Journal, November 15, 1984, P. Robert Paus-tian, review of The Recursive Universe: Cosmic Complexity and the Limits of Scientific Knowledge, p. 2152; January, 1992, Harold D. Shane, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 144; April 1, 1993, J. Sara Paulk, review of Biggest Secrets, p. 94; September 1, 1999, Gregg Sapp, review of Carl Sagan, p. 229; May 15, 2003, Stephen Turner, review of How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle: How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers, p. 100.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 23, 1984, Lee Dembart, review of The Recursive Universe, p. 1.

Mother Jones, January 2, 2007, Michael Mechanic, “The Verdict Is In: Our Voting System Is a Loser.”

New Republic, November 23, 1992, James Gleick, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 36.

New York Review of Books, March 16, 1989, Martin Gardner, review of Labyrinths of Reason, p. 26.

New York Times Book Review, March 17, 1985, Roger Penrose, review of The Recursive Universe, p. 34; March 1, 1992, Andrew Hodges, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 7; September 25, 2005, David Pogue, review of Fortune’s Formula.

Observer, February 1, 1987, Benjamin Woolley, review of The Recursive Universe, p. 31.

Publishers Weekly, September 16, 1983, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Biggest Secrets, p. 109; September 5, 1986, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Bigger Secrets: More than 125 Things They Prayed You’d Never Find Out, p. 96; October 12, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The Ultimate, p. 54; December 6, 1991, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 65; March 15, 1993, review of Biggest Secrets, p. 75; August 30, 1999, review of Carl Sagan, p. 62; April 7, 2003, review of How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, p. 59; June 6, 2005, review of Fortune’s Formula, p. 50; December 3, 2007, review of Gaming the Vote, p. 60.

School Library Journal, February, 1991, Mary T. Gerity, review of The Ultimate, p. 107.

Science News, January 28, 2006, review of Fortune’s Formula, p. 63.

Whole Earth Review, July, 1985, Steven Levy, review of The Recursive Universe, p. 25; summer, 1991, Steven Levy, review of The Recursive Universe, p. 123; fall, 1992, Steven Levy, review of Prisoner’s Dilemma, p. 46.

ONLINE

William Poundstone Home Page,http://home.williampoundstone.net (September 2, 2006).*