Archive for book review

Infomocracy [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on June 17, 2017 by xi'an

Infomocracy is a novel by Malka Older set in a near future where most of the Earth is operating under a common elective system where each geographical unit of 100,000 people elect a local representative that runs this unit according to the party’s program and contributes to elect a Worldwide government, except for some non-democratic islets like Saudi Arabia. The whole novel revolves around the incoming election, with different parties trying to influence the outcome in their favour, some to the point of instating a dictature. Which does not sound that different from present times!, with the sligth difference that the whole process is controlled by Information, a sort of World Wide Web that seems to operate neutrally above states and parties, although the book does not elaborate on how this could be possible. The story is told through four main (and somewhat charicaturesque) characters, working for or against the elections and crossing paths along the novel. Certainly worth reading if not outstanding. (And definitely not “one of the greatest literary debuts in recent history”!)

The book is more interesting as a dystopia on electoral systems and the way the information revolution can produce a step back in democracy, with the systematisation of fake news and voters’ manipulation, where the marketing research group YouGov has become a party, than as a science-fiction (or politics-fiction) book. Indeed, it tries too hard to replicate The cyberpunk reference, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, with the same construct of interlacing threads, the same fascination for Japan, airports, luxury hotels, if not for brands, and a similar ninja-geek pair of characters. And with very little invention about the technology of the 21st Century.  (And a missed opportunity to exploit artificial intelligence themes and the prediction of outcomes when Information builds a fake vote database but does not seem to mind about Benford’s Law.) The acknowledgement section somewhat explains this imbalance, in that the author worked many years in humanitarian organisations and is currently completing a thesis at Science Po’ (Paris).

the long way to a small angry planet [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2017 by xi'an

When leaving London last week, I went through the (very nice) bookstore in St Pancras International and saw this book by Becky Chambers. And bought it as I had read nice criticisms and liked both the title and the cover. I have been reading it at every free minute since then and eventually finished it last night. It is a very enjoyable novel, very homey despite it taking place mostly in interstellar space, as it goes through the personal stories of the members of a tunneller crew (tunnels meaning shortcuts between distant points in space, the astrophysics being a bit vague on how those are possible!). It is far from a masterpiece but the succession of scenes and characters is enjoyable enough to be enjoyable, with a final twist of a larger magnitude. Nothing profoundly innovative like Ancillary Justice [except for the openness about interspecies sex, this could have been written in the 50’s] or era-defining like Ender’s Game, or The Road, but a pleasant read by all means!

the fifth season [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on May 14, 2017 by xi'an

When in Oxford two months ago, I dropped by the original Blackwell bookstore on my way to the station and rather hurriedly grabbed a few books from the science-fiction and fantasy section! One of them was The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin, which sounded exciting [enough] from the back cover and gave a sort of reassurance from the Hugo Award label on the front cover.

While I end up being rather disappointed with the whole book, there are redeeming features, from the universe conception, where massive earthquakes destroy civilisations now and then and where some races can locally control or unravel telluric forces, to the multifaceted conception of the story, with three women blessed or plagued with this ability, to the exposition of the exploitation of those women by the ruling class and the rejection by most of their society. This ends up however too much of a ping-pong game, when moving from one character to another character is more and more of a nuisance, with a predictable reunification of the three viewpoints at the end and just too many deus ex machina moments, even for people controlling earthquakes.

Coincidentally [not really!], the author, N.K. Jemisin, also happens to be the science-fiction and fantasy book editor for The New York Times, with a compilation of her favourite titles every trimester or so. And a tendency towards short stories, anthologies and graphic novels that makes the entries mildly appealing to me. But still managed to signal to me a recent publishing of some short stories by Ursula Le Guin.

lost in translation [oops]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , on April 20, 2017 by xi'an

In my latest book review for CHANCE, I published my review of Michèle Audin’s Une Vie Brève. However, for a reason I cannot remember, I (?) added that the translated edition of the book was One Hundred Twenty-One Days, which is an altogether different book by the same author! (I actually cannot find a trace of this reference in my submitted LaTeX file, although this does not signify I did not add the remark when I got the proofs.) This was pointed out by the translator, Christiana Hills, so apologies to the author and to the readers for this confusion!

The Handmaid’s Tale [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 1, 2017 by xi'an

Following a newspaper article where this book was referred, along Brave New World and 1984, as an essential novel for this time of trumpism, I read this 1986 book by Margaret Atwood of a dystopian America where Christian fundamentalists have taken over a region around Harvard and imposed a dictatorial society, plagued by pollution-induced sterility, inter-state wars, and the omnipresence of a fascist state. The central and brilliant idea of the novel is that the bodies of fertile women are no longer theirs to conceive babies [with the obvious and immediate question rising as to when they actually were…] and that the State allocate them to men from the ruling class, their babies been “adopted” by these men’s family once they are born. With a deadly dose of religious blather to justify this enslavement of bodies (and in most cases minds). Ten years ago, Joyce Carol Oates wrote a detailed commentary on the book that perfectly exposes its strength, using the almost mundane journal of one nameless handmaiden to describe the absolute horror of the Gilead Republic.

Since this book has become a classic, often in high school reading curricula (albeit almost as often challenged by conservative parents and organisations), I wonder why I did not read it earlier. Reading it today is however very much appropriate to stress the point that such extremes could essentially happen anywhere, anytime, not necessarily far from here or from now. And to also see the book as a warning parabola about the omnipresent threats on women and reproductive rights. Although the tale is set in the current era, the connection with the (first?) Puritan Massachusetts state through the (red) costume of the Handmaiden [acknowledged by Atwood] and the rigid control of the community over the individuals reminded me of Hawthorne’ Scarlet Letter, a beautiful book that keeps its relevance in present days.

In conjunction with the novel been adapted as a TV Series starting next month, Margaret Atwood wrote in the NYT a post-Trump analysis of the themes and prospects in The Handmaid’s Tale that is certainly worth reading. (I have no opinion about the TV Series, just hoping it keeps this feeling that such things could be just around the corner.)

Mördar-Anders och hans vänner [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on February 25, 2017 by xi'an

“The medieval city of Visby and its shops were preparing for the approaching Christmas season. Interest rates were down to 0.0, which encouraged people to spend money they did not have so that Christmas sales would break records once again.” (p.332)

Thanks to these forced 24 hours in Schiphol, I bought and read a third book by the Swedish author Jonas Jonasson. Which title is Hitman Anders and the meaning of it all. The themes are almost exactly the same as in the previous novels, namely an improbable bunch of losers, growing like a dustball during the story, being unexpectedly provided (like the hundred-year old man) with a huge sum of money by illegal means and managing to keep it from the reach of the State and of a whole collection of gangsters, with a bit of a road movie outside Stockholm and the same fascination for camper-vans [without an elephant this time] and some mild reflections on the role of religion in Swedish society. Plus the customary appearance of the King and Queen. Not absolutely unpleasant but not superlatively funny and somewhat repetitive. (Like the 20th novel of Paasilinna!)

a concise introduction to statistical inference [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by xi'an

[Just to warn readers and avoid emails about Xi’an plagiarising Christian!, this book was sent to me by CRC Press for a review. To be published in CHANCE.]

This is an introduction to statistical inference. And with 180 pages, it indeed is concise! I could actually stop the review at this point as a concise review of a concise introduction to statistical inference, as I do not find much originality in this introduction, intended for “mathematically sophisticated first-time student of statistics”. Although sophistication is in the eye of the sophist, of course, as this book has margin symbols in the guise of integrals to warn of section using “differential or integral calculus” and a remark that the book is still accessible without calculus… (Integral calculus as in Riemann integrals, not Lebesgue integrals, mind you!) It even includes appendices with the Greek alphabet, summation notations, and exponential/logarithms.

“In statistics we often bypass the probability model altogether and simply specify the random variable directly. In fact, there is a result (that we won’t cover in detail) that tells us that, for any random variable, we can find an appropriate probability model.” (p.17)

Given its limited mathematical requirements, the book does not get very far in the probabilistic background of statistics methods, which makes the corresponding chapter not particularly helpful as opposed to a prerequisite on probability basics. Since not much can be proven without “all that complicated stuff about for any ε>0” (p.29). And makes defining correctly notions like the Central Limit Theorem impossible. For instance, Chebychev’s inequality comes within a list of admitted results. There is no major mistake in the chapter, even though mentioning that two correlated Normal variables are jointly Normal (p.27) is inexact.

“The power of a test is the probability that you do not reject a null that is in fact correct.” (p.120)

Most of the book follows the same pattern as other textbooks at that level, covering inference on a mean and a probability, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, p-values, and linear regression. With some words of caution about the interpretation of p-values. (And the unfortunate inversion of the interpretation of power above.) Even mentioning the Cult [of Significance] I reviewed a while ago.

Given all that, the final chapter comes as a surprise, being about Bayesian inference! Which should make me rejoice, obviously, but I remain skeptical of introducing the concept to readers with so little mathematical background. And hence a very shaky understanding of a notion like conditional distributions. (Which reminds me of repeated occurrences on X validated when newcomers hope to bypass textbooks and courses to grasp the meaning of posteriors and such. Like when asking why Bayes Theorem does not apply for expectations.) I can feel the enthusiasm of the author for this perspective and it may diffuse to some readers, but apart from being aware of the approach, I wonder how much they carry away from this brief (decent) exposure. The chapter borrows from Lee (2012, 4th edition) and from Berger (1985) for the decision-theoretic part. The limitations of the exercise are shown for hypothesis testing (or comparison) by the need to restrict the parameter space to two possible values. And for decision making. Similarly, introducing improper priors and the likelihood principle [distinguished there from the law of likelihood] is likely to get over the head of most readers and clashes with the level of the previous chapters. (And I do not think this is the most efficient way to argue in favour of a Bayesian approach to the problem of statistical inference: I have now dropped all references to the likelihood principle from my lectures. Not because of the controversy, but simply because the students do not get it.) By the end of the chapter, it is unclear a neophyte would be able to spell out how one could specify a prior for one of the problems processed in the earlier chapters. The appendix on de Finetti’s formalism on personal probabilities is very much unlikely to help in this regard. While it sounds so far beyond the level of the remainder of the book.