Archive for Bill Bryson

AIQ [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2019 by xi'an

AIQ was my Christmas day read, which I mostly read while the rest of the household was still sleeping. The book, written by two Bayesians, Nick Polson and James Scott, was published before the ISBA meeting last year, but I only bought it on my last trip to Warwick [as a Xmas present]. This is a pleasant book to read, especially while drinking tea by the fire!, well-written and full of facts and anecdotes I did not know or had forgotten (more below). Intended for a general audience, it is also quite light, from a technical side, rather obviously, but also from a philosophical side. While strongly positivist about the potential of AIs for the general good, it cannot be seen as an antidote to the doomlike Superintelligence by Nick Bostrom or the more factual Weapons of Maths Destruction by Cathy O’Neal. (Both commented on the ‘Og.)

Indeed, I find the book quite benevolent and maybe a wee bit too rosy in its assessment of AIs and the discussion on how Facebook and Russian intervention may have significantly to turn the White House Orange is missing [imho] the viral nature of the game, when endless loops of highly targeted posts can cut people from the most basic common sense. While the authors are “optimistic that, given the chance, people can be smart enough”, I do reflect on the sheer fact that the hoax that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child sex ring was ever considered seriously by people. To the point of someone shooting at the pizza restaurant. And I hence am much less optimistic at the ability for a large enough portion of the population, not even the majority, to keep a critical distance from the message carried by AI driven media. Similarly, while Nick and James point out (rather late in the book) that big data (meaning large data) is not necessarily good data for being unrepresentative at the population at large, they do not propose (in the book) highly convincing solutions to battle bias in existing and incoming AIs. Leading to a global worry that AIs may do well for a majority of the population and discriminate against a minority by the same reasoning. As described in Cathy O’Neal‘s book, and elsewhere, proprietary software does not even have to explain why it discriminates. More globally, the business school environment of the authors may have prevented them from stating a worry on the massive power grab by the AI-based companies, which genetically grow with little interest in democracy and states, as shown (again) by the recent election or their systematic fiscal optimisation. Or by the massive recourse to machine learning by Chinese authorities towards a social credit system grade for all citizens.

“La rage de vouloir conclure est une des manies les plus funestes et les plus stériles qui appartiennent à l’humanité. Chaque religion et chaque philosophie a prétendu avoir Dieu à elle, toiser l’infini et connaître la recette du bonheur.” Gustave Flaubert

I did not know about Henrietta Leavitt’s prediction rule for pulsating stars, behind Hubble’s discovery, which sounds like an astronomy dual to Rosalind Franklin’s DNA contribution. The use of Bayes’ rule for locating lost vessels is also found in The Theorem that would not die. Although I would have also mentioned its failure in locating Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. I had also never heard the great expression of “model rust. Nor the above quote from Flaubert. It seems I have recently spotted the story on how a 180⁰ switch in perspective on language understanding by machines brought the massive improvement that we witness today. But I cannot remember where. And I have also read about Newton missing the boat on the precision of the coinage accuracy (was it in Bryson’s book on the Royal Society?!), but with less neutral views on the role of Newton in the matter, as the Laplace of England would have benefited from keeping the lax measures of assessment.

Great to see friendly figures like Luke Bornn and Katherine Heller appearing in the pages. Luke for his work on the statistical analysis of basketball games, Katherine  for her work on predictive analytics in medicine. Reflecting on the missed opportunities represented by the accumulation of data on any patient throughout their life that is as grossly ignored nowadays as it was at Nightingale‘s time. The message of the chapter [on “The Lady with the Lamp”] may again be somewhat over-optimistic: while AI and health companies see clear incentives in developing more encompassing prediction and diagnostic techniques, this will only benefit patients who can afford the ensuing care. Which, given the state of health care systems in the most developed countries, is an decreasing proportion. Not to mention the less developed countries.

Overall, a nice read for the general public, de-dramatising the rise of the machines!, and mixing statistics and machine learning to explain the (human) intelligence behind the AIs. Nothing on the technical side, to be sure, but this was not the intention of the authors.

Roberts and Speed elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Society

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , on May 4, 2013 by xi'an

I just found out that Gareth Roberts and Terry Speed have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS). Congratulations to both for this prestigious recognition of their major contributions to Science! (Another Fellow elected this year is Bill Bryson, in recognition of his scientific popularisation books. Including one on the Royal Society I reviewed for CHANCE a few months ago.)

cobbler’s son

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , on June 3, 2012 by xi'an

A marginalia I forgot to mention in my review of Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society is that I discovered therein that George Boole FRS was the son of a cobbler. George Boole’s story and fundamental contributions to logic and probability theory is covered in Ian Stewart’s chapter, who is lauding him as a founder of theoretical computer science and of abstract algebra (along with the slightly older Evariste Galois). Anyway, I appreciated the tiny and completely irrelevant connection with Boole, in that my father also was a cobbler!

the universe in zero words

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 30, 2012 by xi'an

The universe in zero words: The story of mathematics as told through equations is a book with a very nice cover: in case you cannot see the details on the picture, what looks like stars on a bright night sky are actually equations discussed in the book (plus actual stars!)…

The universe in zero words is written by Dana Mackenzie (check his website!) and published by Princeton University Press. (I received it in the mail from John Wiley for review, prior to its publication on May 16, nice!) It reads well and quick: I took it with me in the métro one morning and was half-way through it the same evening, as the universe in zero words remains on the light side, esp. for readers with a high-school training in math. The book strongly reminded me (at times) of my high school years and of my fascination for Cardano’s formula and the non-Euclidean geometries. I was also reminded of studying quaternions for a short while as an undergraduate by the (arguably superfluous) chapter on Hamilton. So a pleasant if unsurprising read, with a writing style that is not always at its best, esp. after reading Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society“, and a book unlikely to bring major epiphanies to the mathematically inclined. If well-documented, free of typos, and engaging into some mathematical details (accepting to go against the folk rule that “For every equation you put in, you will lose half of your audience.” already mentioned in Diaconis and Graham’s book). With alas a fundamental omission: no trace is found therein of Bayes’ formula! (The very opposite of Bryson’s introduction, who could have arguably stayed away from it.) The closest connection with statistics is the final chapter on the Black-Scholes equation, which does not say much about probability…. It is of course the major difficulty with the exercise of picking 24 equations out of the history of maths and physics that some major and influential equations had to be set aside… Maybe the error was in covering (or trying to cover) formulas from physics as well as from maths. Now, rather paradoxically (?) I learned more from the physics chapters: for instance, the chapters on Maxwell’s, Einstein’s, and Dirac’s formulae are very well done. The chapter on the fundamental theorem of calculus is also appreciable.

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Seeing Further, &tc.

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2012 by xi'an

I can tell you at once that my favourite fellow of the Royal Society was the Reverend Thomas Bayes, from Turnbridge Wells in Kent, who lived from about 1701 to 1761. He was by all accounts a hopeless preacher, but a brilliant mathematician.” B. Bryson, Seeing Further, page 2.

After begging for a copy with Harper and Collins (!), I eventually managed to get hold of Bill Bryson’s “Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery, and the Genius of the Royal Society“. Now, a word of warning: Bill Bryson is the editor of the book, meaning he wrote the very first chapter, plus a paragraph of introduction to the 21 next chapters. If, like me, you are a fan of Bryson’s hilarious style and stories (and have been for the past twenty years, starting with “Mother Tongue” about the English language), you will find this distinction rather unfortunate, esp. because it is not particularly well-advertised… But, after opening the book, you should not remain cross very long, and this for two reasons: the first one is that Bayes’s theorem appears on the very first page (written by Bryson, mind you!), with enough greek letters to make sure we are talking of our Bayes rule! This reason is completed by the above sentence which is in fact the very first in the book! Bryson took for sure a strong liking to Reverent Bayes to pick him as the epitome of a FRS! And he further avoids using this suspicious picture of the Reverent that plagues so many of our sites and talks… Bryson includes instead a letter from Thomas Bayes dated 1763, which must mean it was sent by Richard Price towards the publication of “An Essay towards solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances” in the Philosophical Transactions, as Bayes had been dead by two years at that time.

What about my second reason? Well, the authors selected by Bryson to write this eulogy of the Royal Society are mostly scientific writers like Richard Dawkins and James Gleick, scientists like Martin Rees and many others, and even a cyberpunk writer like Neal Stephenson, a selection that should not come as a surprise given his monumental Baroque Cycle about Isaac Newton and friends. Now, Neal Stephenson gets to the next level of awesome by writing a chapter on the philosophical concepts of Leibniz, FRS, the monads, and the fact that it was not making sense until quantum mechanics was introduced (drawing inspiration from a recent book by Christia Mercer). Now, the chapters of the book are quite uneven, some are about points not much related to the Royal Society, or bringing little light upon it. But overall the feeling that perspires the book is one of tremendous achievement by this conglomerate of men (and then women after 1945!) who started a Society about useful knowledge in 1660…

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