Archive for July, 2009

The mistborn trilogy

Posted in Books with tags , , , on July 26, 2009 by xi'an

“It’s like the chaos of normal random statistics has broken down (…) A population should never react this precisely—there should be a curve of probability, with smaller populations reflecting the expected percentages less accurately.” The Hero of Ages

Last night, I finished the third volume of Brandon Saunderson‘s Mistborn trilogy, The Hero of Ages. While I read the first volume, Mistborn: The Final Empire, with pleasure and excitement, and enjoyed the second volume, The Well of Ascension, I went through this last volume at a miserable pace, slowed down by boredom and disillusion, often reading nothing but a single page before falling asleep! Following another disappointing read of Elantris, this does not abide well for the incoming completion of The Wheel of Time.

“These numbers are just too regular to be natural. Nature works in organized chaos—randomness on the small scale, with trends on the large scale.” The Hero of Ages

Indeed, while both Mistborn and Elantris managed to create innovative universes and compelling characters (Mistborn more than Elantris), they both suffer from superficial plots and disappointing endings. Mistborn creates an interesting connection between metals and magical abilities, some magicians named mistings being able to use a single metal and others, named mistborns, being able to use all sixteen of them, and the different races (humans, terrismen, mistwraiths, koloss, kandras) introduced in the first book are well-designed (even though ska is a denomination also used in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse trilogy). The initial band of rebels found in Mistborn: The Final Empire is nicely balanced between characters and the teenage ska hero Vin is psychologically deep enough to be a central character, as is the rebellious son and future emperor, Elend Venture. The plot in The Well of Ascension starts deteriorating, with the predicted (and rather predictable) fight between father—reminding me of the Lannister father in George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire unfinished series—and son and a more interesting competition between Elend Venture and his mad half-brother for Vin’s love. This volume sees the appearance of the evil entity Ruin, released by a misled Vin, that will dominate the final volume. Both first volumes contain interesting reflections and subplots about political and religious aspects, not that deep—in that enlightened dictatorship always seems better than democracy, especially during crises—but nonetheless interesting, which is a relief for the completion of The Wheel of Time, where political maneuvering is a strong part of the plot. But the relation between Vin and Elend remains at a fairly superficial level and the lack of moral qualms in Vin for using her superpower to massacre entire armies unsettling.

The scribes didn’t have a large enough set from which to determine patterns. “This seems completely random.” The Hero of Ages

The final volume, The Hero of Ages, contains the resolution of the series and brings a complete explanation about the structure of the Mistborn universe, including the true nature of the kandras, the koloss and the Steel inquisitors. But it is done in such a pedestrian way that it is downright boring. The quest of Vin and Elend for the final cache of the special atium metal is unconvincing, the fights and battles are repetitive of earlier ones and the characters have lost all depth. The evil entity turns up having a benign double and the pantheon of the Mistborn universe ends up being of the Ying/Yang variety! The ending is appaling: both central characters Vin and Elend die and everything is set right, from stopping volcanoes to changing the orbit of the planet, to re-creating flowers by a single historian of religions… Disappointing to say the least! (I have added the quotes to indicate that the books contain interesting scientific undercurrents, trying (too much?) to explain the magic, not because those quotes are particularly deep!)

Nice bill

Posted in Statistics, Travel on July 25, 2009 by xi'an

danish_bill

I have had those two nice Danish 200 kroner bills on my shelf since the conference on Efficient Monte Carlo in Sandbjerg Estate, Sønderborg last year, celebrating the 70th birthday of Reuven Rubinstein. (As explained in the link, this manor is related to Isaac Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen, who is one of my favourite writers.)

Simulation of truncated normal variables [reprint]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , on July 24, 2009 by xi'an

As I do get on a very regular basis emailed requests for reprints of my 1995 Statistics and Computing paper “Simulation of truncated normal variables”, I decided to put a reprint of the original version on arXiv. As is (or was), i.e., in the TEX format of 1992… I take the opportunity, though, to recall here that a fundamentally identical solution was proposed by John Geweke in the Proceedings of the 23rd Symposium in the Interface in 1991. Although I was unaware of this paper until John pointed it out to me, it is the one deserving the citation.

Harry Potter and the half-blood prince [debate]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , on July 23, 2009 by xi'an

“The film is great, but it was made quickly and without true feelings. But it is a series, so it has good points.” Rachel

I watched the sixth Harry Potter movie in the series with my teenage kids last afternoon and I came back rather disappointed. My daughter does disagree and so here are our opposite views, written together.

On the [lack of] depth of the plot (in the movie rather than the book), we concur that (new) secondary characters are missing (and even a major character like Voldemort only appears through a few childhood memories), that the surroundings have shrunk to three or four places, that the little snapshots on the “usual” life of magicians that made the earlier movies so fun are missing (except for Fred and George’s Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes joke shop), that the students’ studies at Hogwart are almost inexistent, with much less students visible through the movie, and that the story is proceeding at a fairly chaotic pace, lacking a driving line. The central role of the half-blood prince’s book is clear at the beginning of the movie but it disappears too quickly with no clear explanation, except at the end when Rogue claims his crux back. This also makes the train scenes amazingly long given that they involve hardly any action (even though the views of Rannoch Moor are stunning).

The major characters are alas far from convincing in my opinion, including Harry himself who is mostly one-dimensional (with a surprising limited range of expressions and an impossibility to communicate with his friends) but who appears in about every scene, while my daughter thinks Ron and Hermione played well. We both agreed that Draco Malfoy may be the best role in the movie, with much more depth than others. Dumbledore is also mostly convincing, as well as the new professor, Horace Slughorn, especially in his armchair disguise (my opinion!). The obligatory Quidditch scene is rather well-set, although Ron turning into a champion thanks to a placebo is too unrealistic, even for a magician. My daughter enjoyed the special effects surrounding the flight of Ron and Ginny in the field, I did not. My own preferred scene may be the early one in the subway dinner when Harry is treated as a “normal” teenager…

The central issue is the prevalence of the “love scenes” over the action scenes. I find them simply unbearable because poorly managed and badly acted, while my daughter considers the main drawback to be less magic and less action. Both of us think that the relation between Lavender and Ron is completely botched, especially the breakup scene in the infirmary. (In my view, Ron confirms his total lack of acting abilities from previous movies!) And my daughter does not see the point in the magic birds being thrown by Hermione at Ron!

So, overall, maybe not the worst Harry Potter in the series (two was really bad), but a very unexciting one, way below the book

Little bonsai [day 66]

Posted in Kids on July 22, 2009 by xi'an

bonzai8

The outdoor adventures of the single remaining little bonsai are not very promising. As it stayed outside in the shade during our week away in Aosta, it got drenched by heavy rains and some branches got broken… Maybe we should cut them clean. Or buy a fully grown bonsai!

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