Archive for book review

prime suspects [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by xi'an

I was contacted by Princeton University Press to comment on the comic book/graphic novel Prime Suspects (The Anatomy of Integers and Permutations), by Andrew Granville (mathematician) & Jennifer Granville (writer), and Robert Lewis (illustrator), and they sent me the book. I am not a big fan of graphic book entries to mathematical even less than to statistical notions (Logicomix being sort of an exception for its historical perspective and nice drawing style) and this book did nothing to change my perspective on the subject. First, the plot is mostly a pretense at introducing number theory concepts and I found it hard to follow it for more than a few pages. The [noires maths] story is that “forensic maths” detectives are looking at murders that connects prime integers and permutations… The ensuing NCIS-style investigation gives the authors the opportunity to skim through the whole cenacle of number theorists, plus a few other mathematicians, who appear as more or less central characters. Even illusory ones like Nicolas Bourbaki. And Alexander Grothendieck as a recluse and clairvoyant hermit [who in real life did not live in a Pyrénées cavern!!!]. Second, I [and nor is Andrew who was in my office when the book arrived!] am not particularly enjoying the drawings or the page composition or the colours of this graphic novel, especially because I find the characters drawn quite inconsistently from one strip to the next, to the point of being unrecognisable, and, if it matters, hardly resembling their real-world equivalent (as seen in the portrait of Persi Diaconis). To be completely honest, the drawings look both ugly and very conventional to me, in that I do not find much of a characteristic style to them. To contemplate what Jacques TardiFrançois Schuiten or José Muñoz could have achieved with the same material… (Or even Edmond Baudoin, who drew the strips for the graphic novels he coauthored with Cédric Villani.) The graphic novel (with a prime 181 pages) is postfaced with explanations about the true persons behind the characters, from Carl Friedriech Gauß to Terry Tao, and of course on the mathematical theory for the analogies between the prime and cycles frequencies behind the story. Which I find much more interesting and readable, obviously. (With a surprise appearance of Kingman’s coalescent!) But also somewhat self-defeating in that so much has to be explained on the side for the links between the story, the characters and the background heavily loaded with “obscure references” to make sense to more than a few mathematician readers. Who may prove to be the core readership of this book.

There is also a bit of a Gödel-Escher-and-Bach flavour in that a piece by Robert Schneider called Réverie in Prime Time Signature is included, while an Escher’s infinite stairway appears in one page, not far from what looks like Milano Vittorio Emmanuelle gallery (On the side, I am puzzled by the footnote on p.208 that “I should clarify that selecting a random permutation and a random prime, as described, can be done easily, quickly, and correctly”. This may be connected to the fact that the description of Bach’s algorithm provided therein is incomplete.)

[Disclaimer about potential self-plagiarism: this post or an edited version will eventually appear in my Books Review section in CHANCE. As appropriate for a book about Chance!]

the grey bastards [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on July 21, 2019 by xi'an

Another almost random read, The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French is a light (if gritty) fantasy book that should appeal to Warhammer players. Including the use of hogs as mounts. In that the main characters are half-orcs, in a Universe where lots of species (also found in Warhammer) co-exist, if not peacefully. The idea of reverting the usual perspective on orcs as dumb killers was already found in Stan Nicholls’ Orcs, which I found better than the current Grey Bastards, especially because there is not much to distinguish these from humans, sentiments included, apart from their appearance, but this makes for an enjoyable travel read. Since the characters are rather well-drawn, the story is rather (too?) simple and one can see where it is heading. (Some reviews commented on the Tolkien-meets-Sons-of-Anarchy aspect of the book, but as I have not watched the series…) There is at least one central weakness to the plot that I will not reveal, which first comes as a great shocker but is then later explained by a rather lame arm bending blackmail, that makes the story not as strong as it could have been. Upon finishing the book I found out that (a) there was a second book in the series about to appear and (b) it has won the 2016 Self-published fantasy blog-off prize, a prize started by Mark Lawrence (author of Red Sister) to “shine a light on self-published fantasy” which sounds like a great idea, in that it helps the authors towards commercial publishing. The jury is made of 10  fantasy bloggers going through a rather time-consuming process.

a hatchet job [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on July 20, 2019 by xi'an

By happenstance, I came across a rather savage review of John Hartigan’s Bayes Theory (1984) written by Bruce Hill in HASA, including the following slivers:

“By and large this book is at its best in developing the mathematical consequences of the theory and at its worst when dealing with the underlying ideas and concepts, which seems unfortunate since Bayesian statistics is above all an attempt to deal realistically with the nature of uncertainty and decision making.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.569

“Unfortunately, those who had hoped for a serious contribution to the question will be disappointed.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.569

“If the primary concern is mathematical convenience, not content or meaning, then the enterprise is a very different matter from what most of us think of as Bayesian approach.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.570

“Perhaps in a century or two statisticians and probabilists will reach a similar state of maturity.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.570

Perhaps this is a good place to mention that the notation in the book is formidable. Bayes’s theorem appears in a form that is  almost unrecognizable. As elsewhere, the mathematical treatment is elegant. but none of the deeper issues about the meaning and interpretation of conditional probability is discussed.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.570

“The reader will find many intriguing ideas, much that is outrageous, and even some surprises (the likelihood principle is not mentioned, and conditional inference is just barely mentioned).” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.571

What is disappointing to me is that with a little more discipline and effort with regard to the ideas underlying Bayesian statistics, this book could have been a major contribution to the theory.” B. Hill, JASA, 1986, p.571

Another review by William Sudderth (1985, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society) is much kinder to the book, except for the complaint that “the pace is brisk and sometimes hard to follow”.

end of the game

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 28, 2019 by xi'an

While I have not watched a large part of the Game of Thrones episodes (apart from the first season I had time to follow while in the hospital), I decided to subscribe for one [free] month to OCS to get the last and final season [unlike a NYT critic who watches the entire eight seasons in five weeks!]. And witness how far it has diverged from the books, at least those already published. The first two episodes were unbearably slow and anti-climactic, the [mentionable] worst part being the endless discussion by a chimney fire of half a dozen of the main characters who would all be better sleeping. And the antagonism between Sansa and Daenerys sounding almost childish…The last battle in Winterfel was both fantastic and disappointing, fantastic in its scale and furia and impetus, a cinematographic feat!, possibly the best in the whole series, disappointing for the terrible military choices made by the best fighters in the seven kingdoms and beyond, for the disproportionate imbalance between the living and the dead, for the whole thing depending on the two seconds it took for the Ice King to shatter  [no longer a spoiler!], and for the absurd and lengthy scene of the zombies in the castle library. I just don’t like zombie movies as I find them a easy lazy plot element, especially when they can be resuscitated over and over… They have not yet appeared (on that scale) in the books and I hope they remain dead still! Some scenes are furthermore too reminiscent of video games, which cuts even deeper into the realism (!) of the battle. The scenario of the fourth episode is definitely botched and hurried, for the sudden and radical reversal of fortune being once again so much against basic military concepts (and basic physics as well!). Contrary to most reviews I read, maybe because I had little expectation about the characters in the show, I found the fifth episode quite impressive, in its vivid description of the sack of a city, the instantaneous switch from victorious to rapist and murderer, and the helplessness of those very few who wanted to stop the slaughter of the inhabitants. (By contrast, I found most of the individual scenes appalling, except for Arya’s which remains consistent with her parabola in the plot. So far. But we could have been spared the white horse in the end!) And then the last and final episode…! Which I definitely enjoyed, primarily for the bittersweet feeling this was the last hour spent with the (surviving) characters, even for the unrealistic developments and predictable conclusions, and the feeling that some scenes were made up in someone’s grand-father’s backyard, by the same someone’s teenage nephews… Although I was hoping for a glorious ending in line with the one of Monty Python and the Holy Grail… Alas, no police van, no delegation of bankers or lawyers showed up at the eleventh hour!

[Uninteresting coincidence: in this NYT pre-finale analysis, I read the very same sentence “Power resides where people believe it resides” pronounced by Mikhail Gorbachov in the daunting Chernobyl series which I watched a few hours earlier.]

Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2019 by xi'an

Just found out that the writer Gene Wolfe, author of the unique New Sun series (and many other masterpieces) had passed away two weeks ago. (The Guardian has a detailed obituary covering his life and oeuvres. Where I learned that he developed the Pringle’s machine for Procter and Gamble, something he can be pardoned for his other achievements!) The style of the New Sun series is indeed unique, complex, carefully designed, crafted in a very refined and beautiful language (missing the translation of the more appropriate langue), and requires commitment from the reader as the story never completely unfolds and sets all details straight, with characters rarely if ever to be taken at face value, making me feel the urge to re-read the book once I was finishing its last page. Which I never did, actually, and should consider, indeed!

Statistics and Health Care Fraud & Measuring Crime [ASA book reviews]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by xi'an

From the recently started ASA books series on statistical reasoning in science and society (of which I already reviewed a sequel to The Lady tasting Tea), a short book, Statistics and Health Care Fraud, I read at the doctor while waiting for my appointment, with no chances of cheating! While making me realise that there is a significant amount of health care fraud in the US, of which I had never though of before (!), with possibly specific statistical features to the problem, besides the use of extreme value theory, I did not find me insight there on the techniques used to detect these frauds, besides the accumulation of Florida and Texas examples. As  such this is a very light introduction to the topic, whose intended audience of choice remains unclear to me. It is stopping short of making a case for statistics and modelling against more machine-learning options. And does not seem to mention false positives… That is, the inevitable occurrence of some doctors or hospitals being above the median costs! (A point I remember David Spiegelhalter making a long while ago, during a memorable French statistical meeting in Pau.) The book also illustrates the use of a free auditing software called Rat-stats for multistage sampling, which apparently does not go beyond selecting claims at random according to their amount. Without learning from past data. (I also wonder if the criminals can reduce the chances of being caught by using this software.)

A second book on the “same” topic!, Measuring Crime, I read, not waiting at the police station, but while flying to Venezia. As indicated by the title, this is about measuring crime, with a lot of emphasis on surveys and census and the potential measurement errors at different levels of surveying or censusing… Again very little on statistical methodology, apart from questioning the data, the mode of surveying, crossing different sources, and establishing the impact of the way questions are stated, but also little on bias and the impact of policing and preventing AIs, as discussed in Weapons of Math Destruction and in some of Kristin Lum’s papers.Except for the almost obligatory reference to Minority Report. The book also concludes on an history chapter centred at Edith Abbott setting the bases for serious crime data collection in the 1920’s.

[And the usual disclaimer applies, namely that this bicephalic review is likely to appear later in CHANCE, in my book reviews column.]

haunting of tramcar 105 [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2019 by xi'an

A mix of steampunk and urban magic in a enlightened 1912 Cairo sounded like a good prolegomena and I bought P. Djèli Clark’s The haunting of tram car 015 on this basis. As it happens, this is actually a novella of 123 pages building on the same universe as a previous work of the author, A dead djinn in Cairo, which however is even shorter and only available as a Kindle book… I really enjoyed the short read and its description of an alternate Cairo that is competing with Paris and London, thanks to the advantage brought by the supernatural powers of djinns. (And apparently also gaining the independence Egypt could not secure under the British protectorate.) The English suffragettes have also their counterparts in Egypt and the country is about to decide about women right to vote. The story itself is nice if not stratospheric, with mostly well-drawn characters and good dialogues. (The core of the plot relies on smuggling sweets from Armenia, though, a rather weak link.) As in an earlier order, the book itself was not properly printed, with a vertical white band of erased characters on most odd pages, presumably another illustration of the shortcomings of the  print-on-demand principle. (Which means that I sent the book back to Amazon rather than leaving it in the common room.)