Archive for book review

errors, blunders, and lies [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2017 by xi'an

This new book by David Salsburg is the first one in the ASA-CRC Series on Statistical Reasoning in Science and Society. Which explains why I heard about it both from CRC Press [as a suggested material for a review in CHANCE] and from the ASA [as mass emailing]. The name of the author did not ring a bell until I saw the line about his earlier The Lady Tasting Tea book,  a best-seller in the category of “soft [meaning math- and formula-free] introduction to Statistics through picturesque characters”. Which I did not read either [but Bob Carpenter did].

The current book is of the same flavour, albeit with some maths formulas [each preceded by a lengthy apology for using maths and symbols]. The topic is the one advertised in the title, covering statistical errors and the way to take advantage of them, model mis-specification and robustness, and the detection of biases and data massaging. I read the short book in one quick go, waiting for the results of the French Legislative elections, and found no particular appeal in the litany of examples, historical entries, pitfalls, and models I feel I have already read so many times in the story-telling approach to statistics. (Naked Statistics comes to mind.)

It is not that there anything terrible with the book, which is partly based on the author’s own experience in a pharmaceutical company, but it does not seem to bring out any novelty for engaging into the study of statistics or for handling data in a more rational fashion. And I do not see which portion of the readership is targeted by the book, which is too allusive for academics and too academic for a general audience, who is not necessarily fascinated by the finer details of the history (and stories) of the field. As in The Lady Tasting Tea, the chapters constitute a collection of vignettes, rather than a coherent discourse leading to a theory or defending an overall argument. Some chapters are rather poor, like the initial chapter explaining the distinction between lies, blunders, and errors through the story of the measure of the distance from Earth to Sun by observing the transit of Venus, not that the story is uninteresting, far from it!, but I find it lacking in connecting with statistics [e.g., the meaning of a “correct” observation is never explained]. Or the chapter on the Princeton robustness study, where little is explained about the nature of the wrong distributions, which end up as specific contaminations impacting mostly the variance. And some examples are hardly convincing, like those on text analysis (Chapters 13, 14, 15), where there is little backup for using Benford’s law on such short datasets.  Big data is understood only under the focus of large p, small n, which is small data in my opinion! (Not to mention a minor crime de lèse-majesté in calling Pierre-Simon Laplace Simon-Pierre Laplace! I would also have left the Marquis de aside as this title came to him during the Bourbon Restauration, despite him having served Napoléon for his entire reign.) And, as mentioned above, the book contains apologetic mathematics, which never cease to annoy me since apologies are not needed. While the maths formulas are needed.

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!)