Archive for book review

Casanova’s Lottery [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 12, 2023 by xi'an

This “history of a revolutionary game of chance” is the latest book by Stephen Stigler and is indeed of an historical nature, following the French Lottery from its inception as Loterie royale in 1758 to the Loterie Nationale in 1836 (with the intermediate names of Loterie de France, Loterie Nationale, Loterie impériale, Loterie royale reflecting the agitated history of the turn of that Century!).

The incentive for following this State lottery is that it is exceptional by its mathematical foundations. Contrary to other lotteries of the time, it was indeed grounded on the averaging of losses and gains on the long run (for the State). The French (Royal) State thus accepted the possibility of huge losses at some draws since they would be compensated by even larger gains. The reasoning proved most correct since the Loterie went providing as far as 4% of the overall State budget, despite the running costs of maintaining a network of betting places and employees, who had to be mathematically savy in order to compute the exact gains of the winners.This is rather amazing as the understanding of the Law of Large Numbers was quite fresh (on an historical scale) thanks to the considerable advances made by Pascal, Fermat, (Jakob) Bernoulli and a few others. (The book mentions the Encyclopedist and mathematician Jean d’Alembert as being present at the meeting that decided of the creation of the Loterie in 1757.)

One may wonder why Casanova gets the credit for this lottery. In true agreement with Stigler’s Law, it is directly connected with the Genoan lottery and subsequent avatars in some Italian cities, including Casanova’s Venezia. But jack-of-all-trades Casanova was instrumental in selling the notion to the French State, having landed in Paris after a daring flight from the Serenissima’s jails. After succeeding in convincing the King’s officers to launch the scheme crafted by a certain Ranieri (de’) Calzabig—not to be confused with the much maligned Salieri!—who would later collaborate with Gluck on Orfeo ed Eurydice and Alceste, Casanova received a salary from the Loterie administration and further run several betting offices. Until he left Paris for further adventures! Including an attempt to reproduce the lottery in Berlin, where Frederick II proved less receptive than Louis XIV. (Possibly due to Euler’s cautionary advice.) The final sentence of the book stands by its title: “It was indeed Casanova’s lottery” (p.210).

Unsurprisingly, given Stephen’s fascination for Pierre-Simon Laplace, the great man plays a role in the history, first by writing in 1774 one of his earliest papers on a lottery problem, namely the distribution of the number of draws needed for all 90 numbers to appear. His (correct) solution is an alternating sum whose derivation proved a numerical challenge. Thirty years later, Laplace came up with a good and manageable approximation (see Appendix Two). Laplace also contributed to the end of the Loterie by arguing on moral grounds against this “voluntary” tax, along Talleyrand, a fellow in perpetually adapting to the changing political regimes. It is a bit of a surprise to read that this rather profitable venture ended up in 1836, more under bankers’ than moralists´ pressure. (A new national lottery—based on printed tickets rather than bets on results—was created a century later, in 1933 and survived the second World War, with the French Loto appearing in 1974 as a direct successor to Casanova’s lottery.)

The book covers many fascinating aspects, from the daily run of the Loterie, to the various measures (successfully) taken against fraud, to the survival during the Révolution and its extension through (the Napoleonic) Empire, to tests for fairness thanks to numerous data from almanacs, to the behaviour of bettors and the sale of “helping” books. to (Daniel) Bernoulli, Buffon, Condorcet, and Laplace modelling rewards and supporting decreasing marginal utility. Note that there are hardly any mathematical formula, except for an appendix on the probabilities of wins and the returns, as well as Laplace’s (and Legendre’s) derivations. Which makes the book eminently suited for a large audience, the more thanks to Stephen Stigler’s perfect style.

This (paperback) book is also very pleasantly designed by the University of Chicago Press, with a plesant font (Adobe Calson Pro) and a very nice cover involving Laplace undercover, taken from a painting owned by the author. The many reproductions of epoch documents are well-done and easily readable. And, needless to say given the scholarship of Stephen, the reference list is impressive.

The book is testament to the remarkable skills of Stephen who searched for material over thirty years, from Parisian specialised booksellers to French, English, and American archives. He manages to bring into the story a wealth of connections and characters, as for instance Voltaire’s scheme to take advantage of an earlier French State lottery aimed at reimbursing State debtors. (Voltaire actually made a fortune of several millions francs out of this poorly designed lottery.) For my personal instructions, the book also put life to several Métro stations like Pereire and Duverney. But the book‘s contents will prove fascinating way beyond Parisian locals and francophiles. Enjoy!

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about capitalising on chance beliefs!]

a journal of the plague, sword, and famine year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 2, 2023 by xi'an

Read my very first Annie Ernaux piece and it was in English, in The New Yorker! A very short piece on a short visit to her mother. Beautifully written, carrying the bittersweet feeling of the impossibility to reconnect with earlier times and earlier impressions. I was much less impressed, however, by her Nobel discourse and the use of Rimbaud’s race (and Galton’s and Fisher’s…) in such a different context. A constant projection/fixation on her background and class inequalities, supplemented by an ethic of ressentiment, does not sound enticing, the more because auto-fiction has never appealed to me. (Sharing similar social and geographic [Rouen!] backgrounds sounds precisely as the wrong reason to contemplate reading her books.)

Cooked weekly butternut soups, red cabbage stews and squid woks as these are the seasonal best offers at the local market, along with plentiful Norman scallops, not yet impacted by inflation. Also restarted making buckwheat bread, with the side advantages of temporarily heating home (and a pretense to add the rice pudding dish in the oven!).

Watched Trolls, Wednesday (only on Wednesdays), and Decision to Leave. Apart from the Norge exposure, the first is terrible, esp. when compared with the earlier 2010 tongue-in-cheek Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren).Wednesday is a television series that centres on Wednesday Addams, the dead-pan daughter in the Addams family. I found the series hilarious, even though intended for YA audiences. The quality of the episodes varies, those from Tim Burton usually coming on top, but the main character (Wednesday, in case you are not paying attention!) is fantastic. (The fact that, Christina Ricci, the actor playing Wednesday in the 1991 movie is also involved in the series is a great wink to the earlier installments of this series.) And, final argument, a series where the heroin pogoes to a song by The Cramps cannot turn all bad! The Korean Decision to Leave (헤어질 결심) is a masterpiece (except for the ridiculous climbing scenes!) in deception and ambiguity (with a very thin connection to Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Far from his backup role in the stunning Memories of Murder, Park Hae-il is fabulous as a policeman torn between his duty and an inexplicable attraction for the main suspect, brilliantly played by  Tang Wei, who manages the ambiguous character till the very end.

the T-shirts I love [book/closet review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 26, 2022 by xi'an

When I first heard of Haruki Murakami’s book on tee-shirts, I found the concept sufficiently intriguing to start looking for the book and I eventually found on Amazon a cheap used sale that got delivered to a friend in the US (who was most perplexed by my choice!). Having gone through the book and its 110 photos of tee-shirts, I am feeling like I had a light late-evening conversation with the author and a window into the reasons why he keeps and seeks so many tees. This is a translation from Japanese, so I cannot say how colloquial Murakami was in the original, but this is most enjoyable (in a very light sense!). Having worn tee-shirts for all of my adult life (and none during my childhood), albeit not with any comparable collection, by far!, I can relate with some categories like

  1. race tees (which have now almost completely vanished, being replaced with synthetic running tops), of which my favourite is the 1988 Skunk Cabbage Classic tee celebrating the 5k race organised every year by the Finger Lakes Runners Club
  2. beer tees, like my favourites advertising Yellowstone’s Moose Drool brown ale [and supposedly dyed in the beer?!] and Salt Lake City Full Suspension [with the fantastically ironic motto Beers you can believe in!]
  3. bars/pubs tees, like the one I bought at the Clachaig Inn, Glencoe
  4. institution tees, with my favourite being the iconic U of T Austin ochre shirt with a longhorn skull
  5. and, to diverge from Murakami’s surfing section, mountaineering places/brand tees, of which the homemade þe Norse Farce is the obvious selection!

And neither shared tee spotted within the published 110 selected ones, nor any one I would desperately seek.

a journal of the plague, sword, and famine year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Running, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 9, 2022 by xi'an

Read two successive books about seeking lost sisters, The Last House on Needless Street and Second Sister, after finishing the third book in a row involving a dead god, aptly named Three parts dead. This third one was rather enjoyable, thanks to the world construction, except for a blah ending. The first one, by Catriona Ward, is perplexing, complex and frankly a bit stretched in its gradual exposition of a multiple personality (disorder) patient. The “horror” side never really set for me, which is fine as it never does. Furthermore, this is the very first book I ever read where I saw a few words (correctly) written in Breton, as well as a thread with the Breton myth of ar Ankou, the local Death personification. Kudos for that! The second one, a physical book that I picked rather instinctively / hurriedly in a Barnes & Noble in Philadelphia is a thriller set in Hong Kong. Despite a bit too much of infodump on internet (in)security and hacking, and some caricaturesque sides, incl. the final coup de théâtre!, I enjoyed it as a page-turner. (But I now wonder if I am not getting prejudiced against Kindle books..!) Except for the anti-protest paragraph. Also read a nice BD, Les Animaux Dénaturés, borrowed from Andrew, which is an adaptation the 1952 book by Vercors, that I saw eons ago as a theatre play. The interrogation on what constitutes humanity (vs. simianity) is the driving force of the story, but it is somewhat marred by the killing of a newborn child that seems to negate the whole fight of the main characters.

Thanks to a short (train) visit to Coventry, I stayed overnight in the center of the city and enjoyed a fabulous dinner with friends at Jinseon Korean BBQ Restaurant, recently reviewed by Jay Rayner in The Guardian. Marinated thin slices of beef, pork, and lamb almost immediately cooked on the white hot (ring) coals, along rice and plenty of kimchi and hot sauce. And a sip of soju. Not an everyday fare, for sure, but quite delightful (and even more as my single true meal over two days!)

Watched a fraction of Swedish Black Crab, with Naomi Rapace playing the central character, but despite potential connections with the current survival war of Ukraine against the Russian terror, I quickly lost interest in the very shallow plot and in the accumulation of unrealistic scenes and heavily programmed eliminations of the characters (sorry for the spoiler!). For one thing, expert skaters skating 100km should not take days to cover the distance. For another, a military commando operating in the far North should wear appropriate clothes, not a sweater and a loose scarf!  Luckily enough, I have had no screen nearby [me] to distract me on my round trip flight to NYC from reviewing Biometrika submissions. (The flight back to Paris amazingly took less than 6 hours, thanks to extremely strong tail winds.)

Casanova’s lottery is out!

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2022 by xi'an

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