Archive for book review

The one-hundred year old man who climbed out of the window and disappeared [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , on September 11, 2016 by xi'an

Scandinavian picaresque, in the spirit of the novels of Paasilinna, and following another book by Jonas Jonasson already commented on the ‘Og, The Girl who saved the King of Sweden, but not as funny, because of the heavy recourse to World history, the main (100 year old) character meeting a large collection of major historical figures. And crossing the Himalayas when escaping from a Russian Gulag, which reminded me of this fantastic if possibly apocryphal The Long Walk where a group of Polish prisoners was making it through the Gobi desert to reach India and freedom (or death). The story here is funny but not that funny and once it is over, there is not much to say about it, which is why I left it on a bookshare table in Monash. The current events are somewhat dull, in opposition to the 100 year life of Allan, and the police enquiry a tad too predictable. Plus the themes are somewhat comparable to The Girl who …, with atom bombs, cold war, brothers hating one another…

Darwin’s radio [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 10, 2016 by xi'an

When in Sacramento two weeks ago I came across the Beers Books Center bookstore, with a large collection of used and (nearly) new cheap books and among other books I bought Greg Bear’s Darwin Radio. I had (rather) enjoyed another book of his’, Hull Zero Three, not to mention one of his first books, Blood Music, I read in the mid 1980’s, and the premises of this novel sounded promising, not mentioning the Nebula award. The theme is of a major biological threat, apparently due to a new virus, and of the scientific unraveling of what the threat really means. (Spoilers alert!) In that respect it sounds rather similar to the (great) Crichton‘s The Andromeda Strain, which is actually mentioned by some characters in this book. As is Ebola, as a sort of contrapoint (since Ebola is a deadly virus, although the epidemic in Western Africa now seems to have vanished). The biological concept exploited here is dormant DNA in non-coding parts of the genome that periodically get awaken and induce massive steps in the evolution. So massive that carriers of those mutations are killed by locals. Until the day it happens in an all-connected World and the mutation can no longer be stopped. The concept is compelling if not completely convincing of course, while the outcome of a new human race, which is to Homo Sapiens what Homo Sapiens was to Neanderthal, is rather disappointing. (How could it be otherwise?!) But I did appreciate the postulate of a massive and immediate change in the genome, even though the details were disputable and the dismissal of Dawkins‘ perspective poorly defended. From a stylistic perspective, the style is at time heavy, while there are too many chance occurrences, like the main character happening to be in Georgia for a business deal (spoilers, spoilers!) at the times of the opening of collective graves, or the second main character coming upon a couple of Neanderthal mummies with a Sapiens baby, or yet this pair of main characters falling in love and delivering a live mutant baby-girl. But I enjoyed reading it between San Francisco and Melbourne, with a few hours of lost sleep and work. It is a page turner, no doubt! I also like the political undercurrents, from riots to emergency measures, to an effective dictatorship controlling pregnancies and detaining newborns and their mothers.

One important thread in the book deals with anthropology digs getting against Native claims to corpses and general opposition to such digs. This reminded me of a very recent article in Nature where a local Indian tribe had claimed rights to several thousand year old skeletons, whose DNA was then showed to be more related with far away groups than the claimants. But where the tribe was still granted the last word, in a rather worrying jurisprudence.

Think-A-Lot-Tots [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2016 by xi'an

I got contacted by an author, Thomai Dion, toward writing a review of her children books, The Animal Cell, The Neuron, and a Science Lab’ Notebook. And I thus asked for the books to get a look. Which I get prior to my long flight from San Francisco to Sydney, most conveniently. [This is the second time this happens: I have been contacted once by an author of a most absurd book, a while ago.]

I started with the cell, which is a 17 pages book with a few dozen sentences, and one or more pictures per page. Pictures drawn in a sort of naïve fashion that should appeal to young children. Being decades away from being a kid and more than a decade away from raising a kid (happy 20th birthday, Rachel!), I have trouble assessing the ideal age of the readership or the relevance of introducing to them [all] 13 components of an animal cell, from the membrane to the cytoplasm. Mentioning RNA and DNA without explaining what it is. Each of these components gets added to the cell picture as it comes, with a one line description of its purpose. I wonder how much a kid can remember of this list, while (s)he may wonder where those invisible cells stand. And why they are for. (When checking on Google, I found this sequence of pages more convincing, if much more advanced. Again, I am not the best suited for assessing how kids would take it!)

The 21 pages book about the neurons is more explanatory than descriptive and I thus found it more convincing (again with not much of an idea of how a kid would perceive it!). It starts from the brain sending signals, to parts of the body and requiring a medium to do so, which happens to be made of neurons. Once again, though, I feel the book spends too much time on the description rather than on the function of the neurons, e.g., with no explanation of how the signal moves from the brain to the neuron sequence or from the last neuron to the muscle involved.

The (young) scientist notebook is the best book in the series in my opinion: it reproduces a lab book and helps a young kid to formalise what (s)he thinks is a scientific experiment. As a kid, I did play at conducting “scientific” “experiments” with whatever object I happened to find, or later playing with ready-made chemistry and biology sets, but having such a lab book would have been terrific! Setting the question of interest and the hypothesis or hypotheses behind it prior to running the experiment is a major lesson in scientific thinking that should be offered to every kid! However, since it contains no pictures but mostly blank spaces to be filled by the young reader, one could suggest to parents to print such lab report sheets themselves.

even dogs in the wild

Posted in Books, Mountains, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on August 10, 2016 by xi'an

A new Rankin, a new Rebus! (New as in 2015 since I waited to buy the paperback version.) Sounds like Ian Rankin cannot let his favourite character rest for his retirement and hence set in back into action, along with the new Malcom Fox [working in the Complaints] and most major characters of the Rebus series. Including the unbreakable villain, Big Ger Cafferty. This as classical as you get, borrows from half a dozen former Rebus novels, not to mention this neo-Holmes novel I reviewed a while ago. But it is gritty, deadly efficient and captivating. I read the book within a few days from returning from Warwick.

About the title, this is a song by The Associates that plays a role in the book. I did not this band, but looking for it got me to a clip that used an excerpt from the Night of the Hunter. Fantastic movie, one of my favourites.

Bayesian Essentials with R [book review]

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on July 28, 2016 by xi'an

[A review of Bayesian Essentials that appeared in Technometrics two weeks ago, with the first author being rechristened Jean-Michael!]

“Overall this book is a very helpful and useful introduction to Bayesian methods of data analysis. I found the use of R, the code in the book, and the companion R package, bayess, to be helpful to those who want to begin using  Bayesian methods in data analysis. One topic that I would like to see added is the use of Bayesian methods in change point problems, a topic that we found useful in a recent article and which could be added to the time series chapter. Overall this is a solid book and well worth considering by its intended audience.”
David E. BOOTH
Kent State University

Extending R

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 13, 2016 by xi'an

As I was previously unaware of this book coming up, my surprise and excitement were both extreme when I received it from CRC Press a few weeks ago! John Chambers, one of the fathers of S, precursor of R, had just published a book about extending R. It covers some reflections of the author on programming and the story of R (Parts 2 and 1),  and then focus on object-oriented programming (Part 3) and the interfaces from R to other languages (Part 4). While this is “only” a programming book, and thus not strictly appealing to statisticians, reading one of the original actors’ thoughts on the past, present, and future of R is simply fantastic!!! And John Chambers is definitely not calling to simply start over and build something better, as Ross Ihaka did in this [most read] post a few years ago. (It is also great to see the names of friends appearing at times, like Julie, Luke, and Duncan!)

“I wrote most of the original software for S3 methods, which were useful for their application, in the early 1990s.”

In the (hi)story part, Chambers delves into the details of the evolution of S at Bells Labs, as described in his [first]  “blue book” (which I kept on my shelf until very recently, next to the “white book“!) and of the occurrence of R in the mid-1990s. I find those sections fascinating maybe the more because I am somewhat of a contemporary, having first learned Fortran (and Pascal) in the mid-1980’s, before moving in the early 1990s to C (that I mostly coded as translated Pascal!), S-plus and eventually R, in conjunction with a (forced) migration from Unix to Linux, as my local computer managers abandoned Unix and mainframe in favour of some virtual Windows machines. And as I started running R on laptops with the help of friends more skilled than I (again keeping some of the early R manuals on my shelf until recently). Maybe one of the most surprising things about those reminiscences is that the very first version of R was dated Feb 29, 2000! Not because of Feb 29, 2000 (which, as Chambers points out, is the first use of the third-order correction to the Gregorian calendar, although I would have thought 1600 was the first one), but because I would have thought it appeared earlier, in conjunction with my first Linux laptop, but this memory is alas getting too vague!

As indicated above, the book is mostly about programming, which means in my case that some sections are definitely beyond my reach! For instance, reading “the onus is on the person writing the calling function to avoid using a reference object as the argument to an existing function that expects a named list” is not immediately clear… Nonetheless, most sections are readable [at my level] and enlightening about the mottoes “everything that exists is an object” and “everything that happens is a function” repeated throughout.  (And about my psycho-rigid ways of translating Pascal into every other language!) I obviously learned about new commands and notions, like the difference between

x <- 3


x <<- 3

(but I was disappointed to learn that the number of <‘s was not related with the depth or height of the allocation!) In particular, I found the part about replacement fascinating, explaining how a command like

diag(x)[i] = 3

could modify x directly. (While definitely worth reading, the chapter on R packages could have benefited from more details. But as Chambers points out there are whole books about this.) Overall, I am afraid the book will not improve my (limited) way of programming in R but I definitely recommend it to anyone even moderately skilled in the language.

the Grisha trilogy [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , on July 3, 2016 by xi'an

And yet another series [suggested by Amazon] I chose at random after reading the summary… The Grisha trilogy was written by Leigh Bardugo and is told by Alina Starkov, a teenage orphan from the fantasy land of Ravka [sounds like Russia, doesn’t it?!] who suddenly discovers powers she did not suspect when fighting supernatural forces. And embarks on a bleak adventure with her childhood friend to safe their country from dark forces. A rather standard trope for the fantasy literature.. The books read well, in a light sense (or mind candy variety, to borrow from the Three-Toed Sloth blog) if addictive. I went over the first one, Shadow and Bone, within a travel day to München and back. Certainly not a major trilogy. And still, those books attracted massive and enthusiastic reviews (one for each book, from different young readers) in The Guardian! And another one in the NYT, nothing less… The explanation is that what I did not get before starting the trilogy [but started suspecting well into the first volume] this is a young adult (or teenager) series. Or even a children’s book, according to The Guardian! So do not expect any level of subtlety or elaborate plots or clever connections with our own world history. Even the Russian environment is caricaturesque with an annoying flow of kvas and tea and caftans. One character is closely related to Rasputin, the ruling family reminds me of the Romanovs, old and grumpy babushkas pop in now and then, the heroes hunt a firebird, &tc.  And still the addiction operates to some level. [Try at your own risk and give the books to younger readers if it does not work!]