Monday, September 17, 2007

Follow-up on game theory topic

If you enjoyed yesterday's show on game theory and want to know more, I have a few items to recommend.

As I mentioned on the show, the movie A Beautiful Mind stars Russell Crowe as John Nash, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of game theory. The movie itself only superficially covers Nash's ideas, but it might be more interesting to watch once you understand what he was working on.

William Poundstone's book, Prisoner's Dilemma, alternates between in-depth discussions of game theory, and a biography of mathematician John von Neumann. Although I didn't get to explain this point on the show, game theory was developed partly as a way of discussing global politics in the face of potential nuclear war. This book focuses largely on that application.

I first encountered the prisoner's dilemma years ago while reading Metamagical Themas by Douglas Hofstadter. The book is a collection of Scientific American columns and does not focus primarily on game theory. However, Hofstadter is a brilliant and wildly entertaining author who makes technical subjects very accessible. The chapters on game theory, which occur toward the end of the book, are introduced with a very interesting fictional story about a small town which is threatened by a demon who has a bizarre fetish for receiving postcards. Sending large numbers of postcards is the only way to protect the town from eventual destruction. Instead of a flurry of writing, the townspeople wind up making a lot of excuses for their apathy. You can read an excerpt of this story here at Google Books.

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