Archive for book review

What are the chances of that?

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2022 by xi'an

What are the chances that I review a book with this title, a few months after reviewing a book called What is luck?! This one is written by Andrew Elliott, whose Is that a big number? I reviewed a wee bit earlier… And that the cover of this book involves a particularly unlucky sequence of die as in my much earlier review of Krysz Burdzy’s book? (About 10⁻⁶ less likely than the likeliest draw!)

The (relative) specificity of this book is to try to convey the notions of chance and uncertainty to the general public, more in demonstrating that our intuition is most often wrong by examples and simulations, than in delving into psychological reasons as in Barbara Blatchley’s book. The author advances five dualities that underly our (dysfunctional) relation to chance: individual vs. collective, randomness vs. meaning, foresight vs. insight, uniformity vs. variability, and disruption vs. opportunity.

“News programmes clearly understand that the testimonies of individuals draw better audiences than the summaries of statisticians.” (p. xvii)

Some of the nice features of the book  are (a) the description of a probabilistic problem at the beginning of each chapter, to be solved at the end, (b) the use of simulation experiments, represented by coloured pixels over a grey band crossing the page, including a section on pseudorandom generators [which is less confusing that the quote below may indicate!], (c) taking full advantage of the quincunx apparatus, and (d) very few apologies for getting into formulas. And even a relevant quote of Taleb’s Black Swan about the ludic fallacy. On the other hand, the author spends quite a large component of the book on chance games, exhibiting a ludic tendency! And contemplates biased coins, while he should know better! The historical sections may prove too much for both informed and uninformed readers. (However, I learned that the UK Government had used a form of lottery to pay interests on premium bonds.) And the later parts are less numerical and quantified, even though the author brings in the micromort measurement [invented by Ronald Howard and] favoured by David Spiegelhalter. Who actually appears to have inspired several other sections, like the one on coincidences (which remains quite light in its investigation!). I finished the book rather quickly by browsing though mostly anecdotes and a lesser feel of a unified discourse. I did not find the attempt to link with the COVID pandemic, which definitely resets our clocks on risk, particularly alluring…

“People go to a lot of trouble to generate truly random numbers—sequences that are impossible to predict.” (p.66)

The apparition of the Normal distribution is somewhat overdone and almost mystical, if the tone gets more reasonable by the end of the corresponding chapter.

“…combining random numbers from distributions that really have no business being added together (…) ends up with a statistic that actually fits the normal distribution quite well.” (p.83)

The part about Bayes and Bayesian reasoning does not include any inference, with a rather duh! criticism of prior modelling.

“If you are tempted to apply a group statistic derived from a broad analysis to a more narrow purpose, you run the risk of making an unfair judgement.” (p.263)

The section about Xenakis’ musical creations as a Markov process was most interesting (and novel to me). I also enjoyed the shared cultural entries, esp. literary ones. Like citing the recent Chernobyl TV drama. Or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or yet Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, there is enough trivia and engagement to keep reading the book till its end!

the odyssey of the Endurance [book review]

Posted in Books, Mountains, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2022 by xi'an

While I knew of the Endurance crew’s extraordinary story of resilience in the toughest imaginable conditions, I had not yet read Shackleton’s South, a depiction of the many challenges met by the expedition after the Endurance got stuck in the ice pack. (The title in French is the Endurance Odyssey.) The above map describes the path of the crew once the boat became stuck, on 14 February, two months after it had left South Georgia on 5 December 1914. The ice pack carried the immobilised ship until 25 October 1915, when the ice crushed the boat hull beyond repair and it sank a few days later. (Incidentally, its remain were found at the bottom of the Weddel Sea last month!) For five months, the crew would camp on the ice, along the three lifeboats of the Endurance, drifting westwards until the ice pack broke and forced them to get on the boat on 8 April 1916, sailing in the heart of the Southern Winter with -30 temperatures and reaching the desolate Elephant Island on 14 April. As there was no hope to be rescued by a passing whaler, Shackleton decided to sail back to South Georgia Island with five crew members and against all odds, battled the worst possible weather and sea conditions for 14 days to reach the Island on 5 May. They were in terrible conditions and could not afford to circle the island to reach the Norwegian whaling station. Three crew members, Shackleton, Worsley and Crean, then undertook to cross the mountainous center of South Georgia with no map and no equipment, in another epic feat, and reached the whaling station in a 36 hour trek, on 20 May 1916. From there, they were able to rescue the other three sailors left on King Haakon Bay. Shackleton left almost immediately to rescue the rest of the Endurance crew, but due to ice conditions, it took him four attempts on four different boats to reach Elephant Island on 30 August 1916 and evacuate the twentysome sailors, who had been running short on food, with only two days left of supplies. Most amazingly, no crew member died of the endless hardships met by the men, albeit Perce Blackborrow lost his toes to frostbite… While the text is not written in the highest literary style, but built from the expedition journals, the plain depiction of the two years spent on the ice is telling most vividly of one of the most astounding survival epics of all times. (Most of the crew would survive till the 1960’s, earlier deaths being primarily due to WW I and WW II. Except for Shackleton, who died from a heart attack at the beginning of a subsequent Antarctic expedition, while on South Georgia Island, once again.)

a journal of the plague and pestilence year

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2022 by xi'an

Saw our fist Ukrainian applications for graduate studies at Dauphine, presumably numbers are going to rise in the coming weeks as the Russian aggression continues in the East and South of Ukraine…

Read The Unbroken by Cherae Clark, in part because it had been nominated for the 2022 Locus Award. The universe is vaguely inspired from the French colonisation of North Africa, with additional layers of magic and royals (the French occupation of Algeria actually started in 1830, during a monarchic intermede, but went full blast when the Republic resumed). And the central character is a colonial soldier, stolen from her parents at a young age and trained in the dominating kingdom, called Balladaire. (This sounds vaguely French if meaningless in the vernacular and there are a few French locations in the story. The suppression of religion in the empire could also be inspired from the French secular laws of the late 19th Century, even though it is unclear to me that secularism was at all enforced in North Africa, witness the existence of muslim courts, as most inhabitants were not French citizens.) While this could have been a great setting, the story falls flat (and even one-dimensional) as it is driven by a tiny number of characters that sadly lack in depth. To the extent of feeling like a school-yard conflict.

Cooked mostly curried butternut soups over the past month! And just restarted making radish stem pancakes as radishes are back on market stalls, often at a bargain.  Plus made an attempt at panak paneer and aloo gobi, just missing the paneer (I did not have time to make) and using mascarpone instead!

Watched Partners for Justice (검법남녀) a sort of Korean NCIS, between judicial prosecution and legal medicine, pleasant enough if burdened by too many coincidences and plenty of red herrings. Especially the second season, with darker sides of corruption, murder, and child abuse. A shocking moment was when the young (and central) prosecutor asks for death penalty during a trial, as I had not realised capital punishment was still a possibility in Korea (although not implemented since 1997). There was also an episode with a schizophrenic suspect where the scenaric treatment of his condition was abyssal… Hopefully not reflecting on the societal perception.

Klara and the Sun [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 22, 2022 by xi'an

Klara and the Sun is the latest book of Kazuo Ishiguro. I am a big admirer of Ishiguro’s books and always moved by their bittersweet exploration of humanity (or humanness?!). The remains of the day is one of my favourite books, competing with Graham Greene’s The end of the affair,  and I deeply enjoyed When we were orphans, Never let me go, and The buried giant. While this latest book exhibits the same craftsmanship in depicting human feelings and incomplete (in the sense of unsatisfactory) relations, I feel like I missed some component of the book, too many hints, the overall message… Not that I rushed through it, contrary to my habit, reading a few chapters at a time during lunch breaks. But I cannot set the separation between the subjective perception of Klara [the robotic friend], which is very clearly limited, both by her robotic sensors [lacking a sense of smell for instance] and her learning algorithm, furthermore aggravated by her wasting (?) some material to sabotage a machine, and the real world [within the novel, a vague two-tiered USA]. Because the perspective is always Klara’s. This confusion may be completely intentional and is in that sense brilliant. But I remained perplexed by the Sun central episode in the novel, which I fear reveals a side of the story I did not get. Like Джозі в якийсь момент перетворилася на робота? [Using Ukrainian to avoid spoilers for most readers!]  (In a way, Klara and the Sun is a variation on Never let me go, both dealing with a future where copies of humans could be available, for those who could afford it.)

a journal of the plague and pestilence year [stop the war!]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2022 by xi'an

Still standing, impotent, facing Ukrainian cities shelled by Russian bombs…

Read the third & last volume of Arnaldur Indriðason‘s Inspector Konrad new trilogy, Tregasteinn, with no further enthusiasm… There are even more repetitions than in the previous volumes, including recaps from these previous volumes. If this is a literary style, it should be discontinued! If the author thinks the reader has trouble remembering what he wrote a few pages earlier, he should think again. If the author himself cannot remember what he wrote, this is worrying..! Also read Spinning silver by Naomi Novak, a mix of Eastern Europe tales, like Rumpelstiltskin, and of centuries of anti-Semitic persecutions, from a feminist viewpoint where all leading characters are women. While the book has been praised and nominated for the Nebula and the Hugo awards, and won the Locus award,I found it hard to keep up with the rather thin story and fell asleep while the characters were taking yet another sleigh among a fantasy version of Russia or Ukraine… Speaking of whi(t)ch(es):


Watched Juvenile Justice, a 2022 very dark and graphic Korean series on judges in charge of juvenile delinquents. The story is a wee bit thin and the many connections between the characters a cheap trick, with long static shots of the main judge lost in her thoughts and endless passages about her annotating mountains of reports on the case, but the resulting zoom on the judicial procedure and on the harsh penal system make it worth watching.

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