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book reviews

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2023 by xi'an

“I believe neither in luck nor in destiny, I trust only the science of probabilities. I have studied mathematical statistics, combinatorial analysis, mass functions, and random variables, and they never have held any surprise for me.”

Over the past weeks, I read  both second and third volumes of The Mirror Visitor series, by Christelle Dabos, keeping to the (remarkable) English translation. With a new dramatic challenge and a new location facing the heroine in each volume, following the classical unities!, although the overall goal of defeating “God” remains. Enjoying both the universe building and (mostly) the heroine’s perspective, much less the repeating pattern of her interactions with her almost abusive husband. And even less the communitarianisation of people by their magical skills (albeit a common flaw in fantasy literature!). While possibly slowing down, the third volume remains a page turner and reenacts another common feature of YA fantasy books, namely the magician school, albeit with a welcome distanciation from Ophelia who suffers it to reach the “finis Africae” of the Babel library (which obviously reminded me of Borges). And still enjoying the covers by Laurent Gapaillard!

I also read Peter May’s Black House, a detective story about an perplexing (of course!) murder, coupled with a trauma reminisced by the main (?) character (or the reverse). The scene is the Isle of Lewis, Scotland, part of the Outer Hebrides along with Harris, of tweed fame. And quite distinct from the rest of Scotland. Inducing well-done if somewhat repetitive descriptions of the landscape and the weather. Actually the book insists way too much on these peculiarities and seems intent in going through all of them (crofters, chessmen, peat harvesting, rigid Presbyterianism, Gaelic speakers, and gannet hunting). Nonetheless, it presents an interesting triangle between the main characters and, while the reasons leading to the murder require some suspension of belief due to the excessive accumulation of terrible deeds, the reminiscence (and lack thereof) of the adult detective of his childhood is well done, although he does not emerge that well from the unraveling of his younger self, even when comparing with other Tartan noir characters like McIlvanney’s Laidlaw and Rankin’s Rebus. I hope the following volumes keep the same tension, despite the idiosyncrasies of the place being exhausted…

a journal of the plague, sword, and famine year

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 2, 2023 by xi'an

Read Brent Weeks’ The Way of Shadows, a rather traditional tale of an orphan boy learning assassin’s skills from a master, within a crime guild organisation tolerated by a feudal structure itself ruled by a below-par king, with the usual dilemma between dedication to the (gory and amoral) job and love+friendship+loyalty constraints. Both collide when the love+friends+kingdom come under actual threat from a neighbouring total-evil kingdom. Some aspects of the dilemma are interesting, other are not and weaknesses in the scenario abound. The final climax of this first volume is quite disappointing, but cannot be discussed as a sequence of major spoilers. I wonder whether the following volumes will see some improvement. And Gone to Dust by Matt Goldman, a somewhat enjoyable detective novel but… lacking a proper level of surprise, with whiffs of Marlowe emanating from the central character, Nils Shapiro, an annoying tendency to brand name dropping, detailed descriptions of itineraries that should bore even the locals, and the of-so-convenient! recourse to Somali terrorism in the middle of Minneapolis, to solve the day. Plus a painful insistence on how foul Winter is in Minnesota…

Had a week of Venetian fare at Da’a Marisa, the de facto cantine of Ca’Foscari! And a sampling of neighbouring cannoli, not always successful and not competing with the cannoleria I visited in Milano, which made me cook a batch myself for Easter weekend. With the result that the tubes were reasonable but the ricotta filling too liquid.

Watched the last season of the BBC series His Dark Materials, while wondering whether or not the third volume of the Book of Dust would ever appear. And Kill Boksoon (길복순) which is a manga style movie playing on the hardship of being a single mother when working full time as a contracted killer! Very light (and gory) if rather funny.

a journal of the plague, sword, and famine year [far North]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2023 by xi'an

Read Le sabre des Takeda (Furin kazan, 風林火山) by Inoue Yasushi, a very interesting book set between Japanese history and feudal novel, with surgical descriptions of battles and psychological tensions. This book reminded me in some aspects of a novel of Yoshimura Akira on the earthquake of Kantô by its insistence on minutiae. Even though the style may be destabilizing, the central character, Yamamoto Kansuke, is fascinating. This is the first book by the author that I read, but I am now considering reading his Hunting Gun (as well as watching the 1969 movie with Mifune that was inspired from that book, if I can locate a copy). I also came across A Winter’s Promise, by Christelle Dabos. This is the first volume in The Mirror Visitor, which I bought in the airport in Milano. In English, despite the original being in French, which may help in distancing from the YA tone that sometimes permeates the style. An interesting creation nonetheless, hopefully keeping up till the fourth volume! As an aside, I found my Kindle inexplicably covered by condensation one evening, although this did not prevent it from working. Possibly correlated with my falling asleep while reading from it the night before.

Had great reindeer dishes in Lapland, as well as poorly cooked Arctic crab, despite magnificent specimen displayed in the aquarium of the restaurant. And made a trip back to the Ethiopian restaurant we visited for my 60th B party, this time without the excitement of having our laptops stolen and then retrieved. (Just as well since Tony Lelièvre was not part of the dinner party this time!)

Watched World War Z on a lazy Sunday night upon my return from Lapland, which I found appalling at many levels and unbearably US-centric (or just plainly racist). The scene where the zombies assail the West Bank separation wall is particularly shocking! I also watched Steel Rain, a South Korean manga turned into a movie about a fantasy coup in North Korea. Very fantasist and detached from reality, but still manageable.

Number savvy [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2023 by xi'an

“This book aspires to contribute to overall numeracy through a tour de force presentation of the production, use, and evolution of data.”

Number Savvy: From the Invention of Numbers to the Future of Data is written by George Sciadas, a  statistician working at Statistics Canada. This book is mostly about data, even though it starts with the “compulsory” tour of the invention(s) of numbers and the evolution towards a mostly universal system and the issue of measurements (with a funny if illogical/anti-geographical confusion in “gare du midi in Paris and gare du Nord in Brussels” since Gare du Midi (south) is in Brussels while Gare du Nord (north) in in Paris). The chapter (Chap. 3) on census and demography is quite detailed about the hurdles preventing an exact count of a population, but much less about the methods employed to improve the estimation. (The request for me to fill the short form for the 2023 French Census actually came while I was reading the book!)

The next chapter links measurement with socio-economic notions or models, like unemployment rate, which depends on so many criteria (pp. 77-87) that its measurement sounds impossible or arbitrary. Almost as arbitrary as the reported number of protesters in a French demonstration! Same difficulty with the GDP, whose interpretation seems beyond the grasp of the common reader. And does not cover significantly missing (-not-at-random) data like tax evasion, money laundering, and the grey economy. (Nitpicking: if GDP got down by 0.5% one year and up by 0.5% the year after, this does not exactly compensate!) Chapter 5 reflects upon the importance of definitions and boundaries in creating official statistics and categorical data. A chapter (Chap 6) on the gathering of data in the past (read prior to the “Big Data” explosion) is preparing the ground to the chapter on the current setting. Mostly about surveys, presented as definitely from the past, “shadows of their old selves”. And with anecdotes reminding me of my only experience as a survey interviewer (on Xmas practices!). About administrative data, progressively moving from collected by design to available for any prospection (or “farming”). A short chapter compared with the one (Chap 7) on new data (types), mostly customer, private sector, data. Covering the data accumulated by big tech companies, but not particularly illuminating (with bar-room remarks like “Facebook users tend to portray their lives as they would like them to be. Google searches may reflect more truthfully what people are looking for.”)

The following Chapter 8 is somehow confusing in its defence of microdata, by which I understand keeping the raw data rather than averaging through summary statistics. Synthetic data is mentioned there, but without reference to a reference model, while machine learning makes a very brief appearance (p.222). In Chapter 9, (statistical) data analysis is [at last!] examined, but mostly through descriptive statistics. Except for a regression model and a discussion of the issues around hypothesis testing and Bayesian testing making its unique visit, albeit confusedly in-between references to Taleb’s Black swan, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (which always seem to fascinate authors of general public science books!), and Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory. Somewhat surprisingly, the chapter also includes a Taoist tale about the farmer getting in turns lucky and unlucky… A tale that was already used in What are the chances? that I reviewed two years ago. As this is a very established parable dating back at least to the 2nd century B.C., there is no copyright involved, but what are the chances the story finds its way that quickly in another book?!

The last and final chapter is about the future, unsurprisingly. With prediction of “plenty of black boxes“, “statistical lawlessness“, “data pooling” and data as a commodity (which relates with some themes of our OCEAN ERC-Synergy grant). Although the solution favoured by the author is centralised, through a (national) statistics office or another “trusted third party“. The last section is about the predicted end of theory, since “simply looking at data can reveal patterns“, but resisting the prophets of doom and idealising the Rise of the (AI) machines… The lyrical conclusion that “With both production consolidation and use of data increasingly in the ‘hands’ of machines, and our wise interventions, the more distant future will bring complete integrations” sounds too much like Brave New World for my taste!

“…the privacy argument is weak, if not hypocritical. Logically, it’s hard to fathom what data that we share with an online retailer or a delivery company we wouldn’t share with others (…) A naysayer will say nay.” (p.190)

The way the book reads and unrolls is somewhat puzzling to this reader, as it sounds like a sequence of common sense remarks with a Guesstimation flavour on the side, and tiny historical or technical facts, some unknown and most of no interest to me, while lacking in the larger picture. For instance, the long-winded tale on evaluating the cumulated size of a neighbourhood lawns (p.34-38) does not seem to be getting anywhere. The inclusion of so many warnings, misgivings, and alternatives in the collection and definition of data may have the counter-effect of discouraging readers from making sense of numeric concepts and trusting the conclusions of data-based analyses. The constant switch in perspective(s) and the apparent absence of definite conclusions are also exhausting. Furthermore, I feel that the author and his rosy prospects are repeatedly minimizing the risks of data collection on individual privacy and freedom, when presenting the platforms as a solution to a real time census (as, e.g., p.178), as exemplified by the high social control exercised by some number savvy dictatures!  And he is highly critical of EU regulations such as GDPR, “less-than-subtle” (p.267), “with its huge impact on businesses” (p.268). I am thus overall uncertain which audience this book will eventually reach.

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will potentially appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE.]

a journal of the plague, sword, and famine year [no end on sight]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 12, 2023 by xi'an

Read the second volume of The Craft Sequence, Two Serpents Rise, by Max Gladstone,  with great difficulties as I found the story (again) poorly constructed, despite some characters being mostly well-designed (no connection with volume 1, except for taking place in the same universe, if at another time period). Mixing steampunk and hard fantasy involving gods does not work well in general and particularly there…. Following a New York Tĩmes review of the sequel, I also went very quickly through the Unwanted Dead, a first volume by Chris Lloyd, HWA Gold Crown for Best Historical Fiction winner for 2021, following a (s)hell-shocked PTSD-ed Paris police detective during World War II, when German troops arrive in the city. Not very realistic imho, as the nosy inspector happens to cross paths with Hitler during his very brief and unique visit to Paris as well as in Compiègne, and with a disappointing resolution of the wagon murders, but well-documented and with no obvious anachronism (except the unlikely presence of bathrooms in all apartments!, and the detective drinking whisky). (A wee nitpicking: Neuilly-sur-Seine (west of Paris) seemed to be confused with Neuilly-Plaisance (east of Paris), but the author acknowledged to me a general tendency to confuse east and west, just like I usually confuse right and left…) Overall, I found the Berlin Noir (Philip Kerr’s) novels more impressive and engaging!

Had a matcha flan in Paris, following a tip from Le Monde!, but was somewhat disappointed by its mild flavour, if comforted by the hojicha kokicha (made solely of tea stems) they served. And an excellent Filipino dinner in Kenilworth. And a yummy lamb Turkish Gözleme next to the ATI in London. While snacking the rest of week on Mysore dosas made on the street next to the Statistics Department at Warwick.

Watched (via a neighbour screen, on the flight to Martinique!) La Nuit du 12, a French thriller that got elected as Film of the Year (2022) by the Le Masque & La Plume (France Inter) audience, following a police investigation in the Maurienne valley after a particularly grisly murder of a young girl, one of the most fascinating aspects being that the crime remains unsolved despite the police efforts. In an impromptu home-made (!) Michelle Yeoh cycle, rewatched Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon after reading a particularly positive article in The Guardian. While the fighting scenes are definitely worth watching, esp. the trio fight on ice, the story remains rather lame. And Everything Everywhere All at Once, which I had also partly watched in the plane, but found highly unsatisfactory overall as lacking purpose, despite some great scenes between Michelle Yeoh and Jamie Lee Curtis ! Concurring with the strongly critical analyses in The New Yorker and the Guardian at the failure of the Daniels to find a purpose and a pace. (To quote from the latter, “these often impressively nutso formal backflips land in a position of pedestrian sentimentality, and then upbraid anyone resisting the viscous flood of sap for their cynicism.”) The scenes around the Everything Bagel are interminable…

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