Archive for book review

poems that solve puzzles [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 7, 2021 by xi'an

Upon request, I received this book from Oxford University Press for review. Poems that Solve Puzzles is a nice title and its cover is quite to my linking (for once!). The author is Chris Bleakley, Head of the School of Computer Science at UCD.

“This book is for people that know algorithms are important, but have no idea what they are.”

These is the first sentence of the book and hence I am clearly falling outside the intended audience. When I asked OUP for a review copy, I was more thinking in terms of Robert Sedgewick’s Algorithms, whose first edition still sits on my shelves and which I read from first to last page when it appeared [and was part of my wife’s booklist]. This was (and is) indeed a fantastic book to learn how to build and optimise algorithms and I gain a lot from it (despite remaining a poor programmer!).

Back to poems, this one reads much more like an history of computer science for newbies than a deep entry into the “science of algorithms”, with imho too little on the algorithms themselves and their connections with computer languages and too much emphasis on the pomp and circumstances of computer science (like so-and-so got the ACM A.M. Turing Award in 19… and  retired in 19…). Beside the antique algorithms for finding primes, approximating π, and computing the (fast) Fourier transform (incl. John Tukey), the story moves quickly to the difference engine of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, then to Turing’s machine, and artificial intelligence with the first checkers codes, which already included some learning aspects. Some sections on the ENIAC, John von Neumann and Stan Ulam, with the invention of Monte Carlo methods (but no word on MCMC). A bit of complexity theory (P versus NP) and then Internet, Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix… Finishing with neural networks (then and now), the unavoidable AlphaGo, and the incoming cryptocurrencies and quantum computers. All this makes for pleasant (if unsurprising) reading and could possibly captivate a young reader for whom computers are more than a gaming console or a more senior reader who so far stayed wary and away of computers. But I would have enjoyed much more a low-tech discussion on the construction, validation and optimisation of algorithms, namely a much soft(ware) version, as it would have made it much more distinct from the existing offer on the history of computer science.

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

an elegant book [review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on December 28, 2020 by xi'an

“Handbook of Mixture Analysis is an elegant book on the mixture models. It covers not only statistical foundations but also extensions and applications of mixture models. The book consists of 19 chapters (each chapter is an independent paper), and collectively, these chapters weave into an elegant web of mixture models” Yen-Chi Chen (U. Washington)

The trouble with peace [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on December 26, 2020 by xi'an

This is the second volume of Joe Abercombie‘s The Age of Madness trilogy, which takes place (as usual) in a renaissance-like universe, except it now comes with Da Vinci’s like industrial innovations starting to disrupt its medieval social order (and the role of magic, almost gone) and making this admittedly ugly cover relevant. (Just like the rich quotes and titles from his previous books, Abercrombie is demonstrating a serious grasp of literature, since the title comes from a line of Bertold Brecht: “You know what the trouble with peace is? No organization.”)

“Enemies are like furniture, aren’t they? Better chosen for oneself than inherited.”

This book is just as good as the previous one, if a bit slow in building its climactic battle and somewhat predictable. The characters are as formidable as previously, if facing steep odds and declines of fortune, with hilarious scenes and dialogues (as always with Abercrombie), including some pastiches of Trumpian talks. And a more serious take on the standards of the genre, with workers becoming a revolutionary force ready to overthrown the antiquated power structure. Looking forward the last volume, planned to be published a year from now.

false value

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on November 23, 2020 by xi'an

A very pleasant eighth volume in the Rivers of London series after a few so-so episodes! The relentless deadpan of Peter Grant is back full shape, the plot is substantial and gripping, new and well-drawn characters abound, and the story offers an original retelling of the Difference Engine. (Not that I have reservations about Gibbson’s plus Sterling’s 1990 version!) Including mentions of Jacquard’s loom, card fed organ automates, Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville. Plus providing great satire on Ai companies with a hardly modified “Deep Thought” pastiche. Enjoyable all along and definitely a page turner that I read within three days..! And being strongly immersed in the current era, from the passing away of David Bowie to the dearful impact of Theresa May as home secretary. Presumably missing a heap of references to geek culture and subcultures, apart from Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy. And too many quotes to report, but some mentions of stats (“the Red Army had done a statistical analysis with demon traps just as they had with conventional minefields. The conclusions had been the same in both cases.” (p.50) and “Beverley climbed into the bath with a second-hand copy of Statistics for Environmental Science and Management” (p.69), which is a genuine book.) As often the end is a bit murky and a bit precipitated, but not enough to whine about. Recommended (conditional on having read the earliest ones in the series)!

“a rare blend of monster raving egomania and utter batshit insanity”

Posted in Books, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2020 by xi'an

“I don’t object to speculation or radical proposals, even to radical, grandiose speculative proposals; I just want there to be arguments to back them up, reasons to take them seriously. I don’t object to scientists displaying personality in their work, or staking out positions in vigorous opposition to much of the opinion in their field, and engaging in heated debate; I do object to ignoring criticism and claiming credit for commonplaces, especially before popular audiences who won’t pick up on it.”

A recent post by Andrew on Stephen Wolfram’s (mega) egomania led to a much older post by Cosma Shalizi reviewing the perfectly insane 5.57 pounds of a New Kind of Science. An exhilarating review, trashing the pretentious self-celebration of a void paradigm shift advanced by Wolfram and its abyssal lack of academic rigour, showing anew that a book recommended by Bill Gates is not necessarily a great book. (Note that A New Kind of Science is available for free on-line.)

“Let me try to sum up. On the one hand, we have a large number of true but commonplace ideas, especially about how simple rules can lead to complex outcomes, and about the virtues of toy models. On the other hand, we have a large mass of dubious speculations (many of them also unoriginal). We have, finally, a single new result of mathematical importance, which is not actually the author’s. Everything is presented as the inspired fruit of a lonely genius, delivering startling insights in isolation from a blinkered and philistine scientific community.”

When I bought this monstrous book (eons before I started the ‘Og!), I did not get much further into it than the first series of cellular automata screen copies that fill page after page. And quickly if carefully dropped it by my office door in the corridor. Where it stayed for a few days until one of my colleagues most politely asked me if he could borrow it. (This happens all the time: once I have read or given up on a book I do not imagine reopening again, I put it in the coffee room or, for the least recommended books, on the floor by my door and almost invariably whoever is interested will first ask me for permission. Which is very considerate and leads to pleasant discussions on the said books. Only recently did the library set shelves outside its doors for dropping books free for the taking, but even there I sometimes get colleagues wondering [rightly] if I was the one abandoning there a particular book.)

“I am going to keep my copy of A New Kind of Science, sitting on the same shelf as Atlantis in Wisconsin, The Cosmic Forces of Mu, Of Grammatology, and the people who think the golden ratio explains the universe.”

In case the review is not enough to lighten up your day, in these gloomy times, there is a wide collection of them from the 2000’s, although most of the links have turned obsolete. (The Maths Reviews review has not.) As presumably this very post about a eighteen-years-old non-event…