Archive for book review

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

and

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!]

Statistical rethinking [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 6, 2016 by xi'an

Statistical Rethinking: A Bayesian Course with Examples in R and Stan is a new book by Richard McElreath that CRC Press sent me for review in CHANCE. While the book was already discussed on Andrew’s blog three months ago, and [rightly so!] enthusiastically recommended by Rasmus Bååth on Amazon, here are the reasons why I am quite impressed by Statistical Rethinking!

“Make no mistake: you will wreck Prague eventually.” (p.10)

While the book has a lot in common with Bayesian Data Analysis, from being in the same CRC series to adopting a pragmatic and weakly informative approach to Bayesian analysis, to supporting the use of STAN, it also nicely develops its own ecosystem and idiosyncrasies, with a noticeable Jaynesian bent. To start with, I like the highly personal style with clear attempts to make the concepts memorable for students by resorting to external concepts. The best example is the call to the myth of the golem in the first chapter, which McElreath uses as an warning for the use of statistical models (which almost are anagrams to golems!). Golems and models [and robots, another concept invented in Prague!] are man-made devices that strive to accomplish the goal set to them without heeding the consequences of their actions. This first chapter of Statistical Rethinking is setting the ground for the rest of the book and gets quite philosophical (albeit in a readable way!) as a result. In particular, there is a most coherent call against hypothesis testing, which by itself justifies the title of the book. Continue reading

causality

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2016 by xi'an

Oxford University Press sent me this book by Phyllis Illari and Frederica Russo, Causality (Philosophical theory meets scientific practice) a little while ago. (The book appeared in 2014.) Unless I asked for it, I cannot remember…

“The problem is whether and how to use information of general causation established in science to ascertain individual responsibility.” (p.38)

As the subtitle indicates, this is a philosophy book, not a statistics book. And not particularly intended for statisticians. Hence, I am not exactly qualified to analyse its contents, and even less to criticise its lack of connection with statistics. But this being a blog post…  I read rather slowly through the book, which exposes a wide range (“a map”, p.8) of approaches and perspectives on the notions of causality, some ways to infer about causality, and the point of doing all this, concluding with a relativistic (and thus eminently philosophical) viewpoint defending a “pluralistic mosaic” or a “causal mosaic” that relates to all existing accounts of causality as they “each do something valuable” (p.258). From a naïve bystander perspective, this sounds like a new avatar of deconstructionism applied to causality.

“Simulations can be very illuminating about various phenomena that are complex and have unexpected effects (…) can be run repeatedly to study a system in different situations to those seen for the real system…” (p.15)

This is not to state that the book is uninteresting, as it provides a wide entry into philosophical attempts at categorising and defining causality, if not into the statistical aspects of the issue. (For instance, the problem whether or not causality can be proven uniquely from a statistical perspective is not mentioned.) Among those interesting points in the early chapters, a section (2.5) about simulation. Which however misses the depth of this earlier book on climate simulations I reviewed while in Monash. Or of the discussions at the interdisciplinary seminar last year in Hanover. I.J. Good’s probabilistic causality is mentioned but hardly detailed. (With the warning remark that one “should not confuse predictability with determinism [and] determinism with causality”, p.82.) Continue reading

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