Archive for book review

Prague fatale [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on November 9, 2019 by xi'an

Another Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novel I order after reading [and taking place after] Prussian Blue, again with a double entendre title and plenty of smart lines representative of berliner Witz and Schnauze. But much darker than Prussian Blue, as the main character, Bernie Gunther, is getting more morally ambivalent, as a member of the SS, having participated in the mass murders of the Einsatzgruppen on the Eastern Front before his return to Berlin as a member of the intelligence branch of the SS. Under direct orders of Reinhard Heydrich, whose role in the novel is almost as central as Gunther’s. It is thus harder to relate to this anti-hero, and his constant disparagement of Nazis, when he is at the same time a significant if minor part of the Nazi State. It is also unplesant that most characters in the novel are mass murderers, to end up being executed after the war, as described in a post-note. Still, the story has strength in both the murder inquiry itself (until it fizzles out) and the immersion in 1942 Germany and Tchecoslovakia, a strength served by the historical assassination of Heydrich in May 1942. An immersion I do not wish to repeat in a near future, though…

As a side story, I bought this used book for £0.05 on Amazon and received a copy that looked as if it has been stolen from a library from East Renfrewshire, south of Glasgow, as it still had a plastic cover, the barcodes and the list of dates it had been borrowed. I thus called the central offices of the East Renfrewshire libraries to enquire whether or not the book had been stolen, and was told this was not the case, the book being part of a bulk sale of used books by the library to second hand sellers. And that I could enjoy reading the book at my own pace! (As a second order side story, East Renfrewshire is the place in Scotland where Rudolph Hess landed when trying to negociate on his own a peace treaty with Great-Britain in 1942.)

ravencry [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2019 by xi'an

After enjoying Ed McDonald’s Blackwing this summer, I ordered the second volume, Ravencry, which I read in a couple of days between Warwick and Edinburgh.

“Valya had marked all of the impact sites, then numbered them according to the night they had struck. The first night was more widely distributed, the second slightly more clustered. As the nights passed, the clusters drew together with fewer and fewer outliers.”

Since this is a sequel, the fantasy universe in which the story takes place has not changed much, but gains in consistence and depth. Especially the wastelands created by the wizard controlling the central character. The characters are mostly the same, with the same limited ethics for the surviving ones!, albeit with unexpected twists (no spoiler!), with the perils of a second volume, namely the sudden occurrence of a completely new and obviously deadly threat to the entire world, mostly avoided by connecting quite closely with the first volume. Even the arch-exploited theme of a new religious cult fits rather nicely the new plot. Despite of the urgency of the menace (as usual) to their world, the core characters do not do much in the first part of the book, engaged in a kind of detective work that is rather unusual for fantasy books, but the second part sees a lot of both action and explanation, which is why it became a page-turner for me. And while there are much less allusions to magical mathematics in this volume, a John Snow moment occurs near the above quote.

perspectives on Deborah Mayo’s Statistics Wars

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , on October 23, 2019 by xi'an

A few months ago, Andrew Gelman collated and commented the reviews of Deborah Mayo’s book by himself, Brian Haig, Christian Hennig, Art B. Owen, Robert Cousins, Stan Young, Corey Yanofsky, E.J. Wagenmakers, Ron Kenett, Daniel Lakeland, and myself. The collection did not make it through the review process of the Harvard Data Science Review! it is however available on-line for perusal…

holy sister [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2019 by xi'an

Third and last volume in Mark Lawrence’s series, this book did not disappoint me, as often conclusions do. Maybe because I was in a particularly serene mind after my month in Japan! The characters were the same, obviously, but had grown in depth and maturity, including the senior nuns that were before somewhat caricatures of themselves, the superposition of two time lines was helping with the story tension, as was the imminent destruction of the spatial apparatus keeping the planet from freezing, with some time spent under the Ice (although the notion of permanent tunnels there was rather unrealistic!) and the petty fantasy boarding school stories had all but vanished (or remained with a purpose). But also unpredictable twists and a whole new scale for the magical abilities of the characters, some sad deaths and happy survivals. While Lawrence somehow specializes in anti-heroes, the central character is very much redeemed of the blackness that could have been attached with her, especially when [no-spoiler!] occurs! The book is also so well-connected with the previous two volumes that this would almost make re-reading these compulsory. If anything, this last volume could have benefited from being thicker!

Les Indes Fourbes [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2019 by xi'an

Among the pile of Le Monde issues I found when I came back from Japan, I spotted a rather enthusiastic review of a bédé (comics) by Alain Ayroles and Juanjo Guarnido called les Indes Fourbes, which is the pastiche of the continuation of a 16th century picaresque (Spanish) novel El Buscon by Francisco de Quevedo. While picaresque novels often end up being overwhelming by the endless inclusion of stories within stories, this one is quite amazing and does not suffer from its length (200 pages) or the continuation of switches in the plot, the end being particularly terrific. The author of the scenario also wrote the De Cape and De Croc series, which I enjoyed and which takes place at about the same time, inspired from Cyrano de Bergerac and his trip to the Moon. The drawings are however made by another author, more in tune with the story and quite elaborate. Definitely enjoyable!

9 pitfalls of data science [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2019 by xi'an

I received The 9 pitfalls of data science by Gary Smith [who has written a significant number of general public books on personal investment, statistics and AIs] and Jay Cordes from OUP for review a few weeks ago and read it on my trip to Salzburg. This short book contains a lot of anecdotes and what I would qualify of small talk on job experiences and colleagues’ idiosyncrasies…. More fundamentally, it reads as a sequence of examples of bad or misused statistics, as many general public books on statistics do, but with little to say on how to spot such misuses of statistics. Its title (It seems like the 9 pitfalls of… is a rather common début for a book title!) however started a (short) conversation with my neighbour on the train to Salzburg as she wanted to know if the job opportunities in data sciences were better in Germany than in Austria. A practically important question for which I had no clue. And I do not think the book would have helped either! (My neighbour in the earlier plane to München had a book on growing lotus, which was not particularly enticing for launching a conversation either.)

Chapter I “Using bad data” is made of examples of truncated or cherry picked data often associated with poor graphics. Only one dimensional outcome and also very US centric. Chapter II “Data before theory” highlights spurious correlations and post hoc predictions, criticism of data mining, some examples being quite standard. Chapter III “Worshiping maths” sounds like the perfect opposite of the previous cahpter: it discusses the fact that all models are wrong but some may be more wrong than others. And gives examples of over fitting, p-value hacking, regression applied to longitudinal data. With the message that (maths) assumptions are handy and helpful but not always realistic. Chapter IV “Worshiping computers” is about the new golden calf and contains rather standard stuff on trusting the computer output because it is a machine. However, the book is somewhat falling foul of the same mistake by trusting a Monte Carlo simulation of a shortfall probability for retirees since Monte Carlo also depends on a model! Computer simulations may be fine for Bingo night or poker tournaments but much more uncertain for complex decisions like retirement investments. It is also missing the biasing aspects in constructing recidivism prediction models pointed out in Weapons of math destruction. Until Chapter 9 at least. The chapter is also mentioning adversarial attacks if not GANs (!). Chapter V “Torturing data” mentions famous cheaters like Wansink of the bottomless bowl and pizza papers and contains more about p-hacking and reproducibility. Chapter VI “Fooling yourself” is a rather weak chapter in my opinion. Apart from Ioannidis take on Theranos’ lack of scientific backing, it spends quite a lot of space on stories about poker gains in the unregulated era of online poker, with boasts of significant gains that are possibly earned from compulsive gamblers playing their family savings, which is not particularly praiseworthy. And about Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Chapter VII “Correlation vs causation” predictably mentions Judea Pearl (whose book of why I just could not finish after reading one rant too many about statisticians being unable to get causality right! Especially after discussing the book with Andrew.). But not so much to gather from the chapter, which could have instead delved into deep learning and its ways to avoid overfitting. The first example of this chapter is more about confusing conditionals (what is conditional on what?) than turning causation around. Chapter VII “Regression to the mean” sees Galton’s quincunx reappearing here after Pearl’s book where I learned (and checked with Steve Stiegler) that the device was indeed intended for that purpose of illustrating regression to the mean. While the attractive fallacy is worth pointing out there are much worse abuses of regression that could be presented. CHANCE’s Howard Wainer also makes an appearance along SAT scores. Chapter IX “Doing harm” does engage into the issue that predicting social features like recidivism by a (black box) software is highly worrying (and just plain wrong) if only because of this black box nature. Moving predictably to chess and go with the right comment that this does not say much about real data problems. A word of warning about DNA testing containing very little about ancestry, if only because of the company limited and biased database. With further calls for data privacy and a rather useless entry on North Korea. Chapter X “The Great Recession“, which discusses the subprime scandal (as in Stewart’s book), contains a set of (mostly superfluous) equations from Samuelson’s paper (supposed to scare or impress the reader?!) leading to the rather obvious result that the expected concave utility of a weighted average of iid positive rvs is maximal when all the weights are equal, result that is criticised by laughing at the assumption of iid-ness in the case of mortgages. Along with those who bought exotic derivatives whose construction they could not understand. The (short) chapter keeps going through all the (a posteriori) obvious ingredients for a financial disaster to link them to most of the nine pitfalls. Except the second about data before theory, because there was no data, only theory with no connection with reality. This final chapter is rather enjoyable, if coming after the facts. And containing this altogether unnecessary mathematical entry. [Usual warning: this review or a revised version of it is likely to appear in CHANCE, in my book reviews column.]

Japan’s Kumano Kodo pilgrimage [book review]

Posted in Books, Mountains, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2019 by xi'an

When preparing our hiking trip to the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route, I was extremely pleased to find a dedicated guidebook that covered precisely the region we wanted to explore and provided enough background material to make the walk sound feasible. However, once I found the Kumano Travel reservation website, run most efficiently by the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, the information contained in this site made the guidebook less relevant. And when we arrived in Tanabe at the start of the trail, I found that the Bureau was also distributing free leaflets in English for each of the three main routes, which described day-by-day the stages of the hikes, as well as recommendations and tips. Making in the end or a posteriori the guidebook superfluous. (As the detailed description of the routes was not necessary, given how clearly they are identified. The leaflet managed to stand the five days on the trail despite rain, humidity, frequent consultations and a general lack of care, as shown above!)  Hence, while there is nothing wrong with the guidebook which also includes an extra day-hike along the Eastern coast of the Kii peninsula and another one from Koyasan to the bottom of the cablecar [again covered by leaflets at the local tourism bureau], I would not strongly recommend it. Interestingly (?), when I stated these mere facts as a review on Amazon, I was rejected as contravening their review guidelines without further precision… (I can only post comments on the French portal of Amazon as my associate gains mean that I never “buy” anything on the US portal!)