Archive for book reviews

Practicals of Uncertainty [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , on December 22, 2017 by xi'an

On my way to the O’Bayes 2017 conference in Austin, I [paradoxically!] went through Jay Kadane’s Pragmatics of Uncertainty, which had been published earlier this year by CRC Press. The book is to be seen as a practical illustration of the Principles of Uncertainty Jay wrote in 2011 (and I reviewed for CHANCE). The avowed purpose is to allow the reader to check through Jay’s applied work whether or not he had “made good” on setting out clearly the motivations for his subjective Bayesian modelling. (While I presume the use of the same P of U in both books is mostly a coincidence, I started wondering how a third P of U volume could be called. Perils of Uncertainty? Peddlers of Uncertainty? The game is afoot!)

The structure of the book is a collection of fifteen case studies undertaken by Jay over the past 30 years, covering paleontology, survey sampling, legal expertises, physics, climate, and even medieval Norwegian history. Each chapter starts with a short introduction that often explains how he came by the problem (most often as an interesting PhD student consulting project at CMU), what were the difficulties in the analysis, and what became of his co-authors. As noted by the author, the main bulk of each chapter is the reprint (in a unified style) of the paper and most of these papers are actually and freely available on-line. The chapter always concludes with an epilogue (or post-mortem) that re-considers (very briefly) what had been done and what could have been done and whether or not the Bayesian perspective was useful for the problem (unsurprisingly so for the majority of the chapters!). There are also reading suggestions in the other P of U and a few exercises.

“The purpose of the book is philosophical, to address, with specific examples, the question of whether Bayesian statistics is ready for prime time. Can it be used in a variety of applied settings to address real applied problems?”

The book thus comes as a logical complement of the Principles, to demonstrate how Jay himself did apply his Bayesian principles to specific cases and how one can set the construction of a prior, of a loss function or of a statistical model in identifiable parts that can then be criticised or reanalysed. I find browsing through this series of fourteen different problems fascinating and exhilarating, while I admire the dedication of Jay to every case he presents in the book. I also feel that this comes as a perfect complement to the earlier P of U, in that it makes refering to a complete application of a given principle most straightforward, the problem being entirely described, analysed, and in most cases solved within a given chapter. A few chapters have discussions, being published in the Valencia meeting proceedings or another journal with discussions.

While all papers have been reset in the book style, I wish the graphs had been edited as well as they do not always look pretty. Although this would have implied a massive effort, it would have also been great had each chapter and problem been re-analysed or at least discussed by another fellow (?!) Bayesian in order to illustrate the impact of individual modelling sensibilities. This may however be a future project for a graduate class. Assuming all datasets are available, which is unclear from the text.

“We think however that Bayes factors are overemphasized. In the very special case in which there are only two possible “states of the world”, Bayes factors are sufficient. However in the typical case in which there are many possible states of the world, Bayes factors are sufficient only when the decision-maker’s loss has only two values.” (p. 278)

The above is in Jay’s reply to a comment from John Skilling regretting the absence of marginal likelihoods in the chapter. Reply to which I completely subscribe.

[Usual warning: this review should find its way into CHANCE book reviews at some point, with a fairly similar content.]

Réquiem por un campesino español [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2017 by xi'an

Thanks To Victor Elvira, I read this fantastic novel by Ramón Sender, a requiem for a Spanish peasant, Pablo, which tells the story of a bright and progressive Spanish peasant from Aragon, who got shot by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. The story is short and brilliant, told from the eyes of the parish priest who denounced Pablo to the Franco falanges who eventually executed it. The style is brilliant as well, since the priest keeps returning to his long-term connection with Pablo, from his years as an altar boy, discovering poverty and injustice when visiting dying parishioners with the priest, to launching rural reform actions against the local landowners. And uselessly if understandably trying to justify his responsibility in the death of the young man, celebrating a mass in his memory where no one from the village attends, except for the landowners themselves. A truly moving celebration of the Spanish Civil War and of the massive support of the catholic church for Franco.

Children of Time [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by xi'an

I came by this book in the common room of the mathematics department of the University of Warwick, which I visit regularly during my stays there, for it enjoys a book sharing box where I leave the books I’ve read (and do not want to carry back to Paris) and where I check for potential catches… One of these books was Tchaikovsky’s children of time, a great space-opera novel à la Arthur C Clarke, which got the 2016 Arthur C Clarke award, deservedly so (even though I very much enjoyed the long way to a small angry planet, Tchaikosky’s book is much more of an epic cliffhanger where the survival of an entire race is at stake). The children of time are indeed the last remnants of the human race, surviving in an artificial sleep aboard an ancient spaceship that irremediably deteriorates. Until there is no solution but landing on a terraformed planet created eons ago. And defended by an AI spanned (or spammed) by the scientist in charge of the terra-formation, who created a virus that speeds up evolution, with unintended consequences. Given that the strength of the book relies on these consequences, I cannot get into much details about the alternative pathway to technology (incl. artificial intelligence) followed by the inhabitants of this new world, and even less about the conclusive chapters that make up for a rather slow progression towards this final confrontation. An admirable and deep book I will most likely bring back to the common room on my next trip to Warwick! (As an aside I wonder if the title was chosen in connection with Goya’s picture of Chronus [Time] devouring his children…)

the nihilist girl [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by xi'an

When stopping by an enticing bookstore on Rue Saint-Jacques, in front of La Sorbonne, last July, I came across a book by the mathematician Sofia Kovaleskaya called the nihilist girl. Having never heard of non-mathematical books written by this Russian mathematician whose poster stood in my high school classroom, I bought it (along with other summer reads). And then discovered that besides being a woman of many “firsts”, from getting a PhD at Heidelberg (under Weirstraß) to getting a professor position in Stockholm, to being nominated to a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, she also took an active part in the Commune de Paris, along with many emigrated Russian revolutionaries (or nihilists). Which explains for this book about a nihilist girl leaving everything to follow a revolutionary deported to Siberia. While not autobiographical (Sweden is not Siberia!), the novel contains many aspects inspired from the (amazing if desperately short) life of Sofia Kovaleskaya herself. A most interesting coincidence is that Sofia’s sister, Anna, was engaged for a while to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Demons takes the opposite view on nihilists. (As a feminist and anarchist, Anna took a significant part in the Commune de Paris, to the point of having to flee to Switzerland to escape deportation to New Caledonia, while her husband was sentenced to death.) The book itself is not particularly enjoyable, as being quite naïve in its plot and construction. It is nonetheless a great testimony of the situation of Russia in the 19th Century and of the move of the upper-class liberals towards revolutionary ideals, while the exploited peasant class they wanted to free showed no inclination to join them. I think Dostoyevsky expresses much more clearly this most ambiguous posturing of the cultivated classes at the time, yearning for more freedom and fairness for all, but fearing the Tsarist police, unable to connect with the peasantry, and above all getting a living from revenues produced by their farmlands.

wet summer reads [book reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by xi'an

“‘Oh ye of little faith.’ Rebus picked up his lamb chop and bit into it.” Ian Rankin, Rather be the Devil

Rebus’ latest case, a stray cat, a tree that should not be there, psychological worries in Uppsala, maths formulas, these are the themes of some of my vacation books. I read more than usual because of the heavy rains we faced in Northern Italy (rather than Scotland!). Ian Rankin’s latest novel Rather be the Devil reunites most of the characters of past novels, from John Rebus to Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Big Ger’ Cafferty, and others. The book is just as fun to read as the previous ones (but only if one has read those I presume!), not particularly innovative in its plot, which recalls some earlier ones, and a wee bit disappointing in the way Big Ger’ seems to get the upper hand against Rebus and the (actual) police. Nonetheless pleasant for the characters themselves, including the City of Edinburgh itself!, and the dialogues. Rebus is not dead yet (spoiler?!) so there should be more volumes to come as Rankin does not seem to manage without his trademark detective. (And the above quote comes in connection with the muttonesque puzzle I mention in my post about Skye.)

The second book is a short story by Takashi Hiraide called The Guest Cat (in French, The cat who came from Heaven, both differing from the Japanese Neko ko kyaku) and which reads more like a prose poem than like a novel. It is about a (Japanese) middle-aged childless couple living in a small rented house that is next to a beautiful and decaying Japanese garden. And starting a relation with the neighbours’ beautiful and mysterious cat. Until the cat dies, somewhat inexplicably, and the couple has to go over its sorrow, compounded by the need to leave the special place where they live. This does not sound much of a story but I appreciated the beautiful way it is written (and translated), as well as related to it because of the stray cat that also visits us on a regular basis! (I do not know how well the book has been translated from Japanese into English.)

The third book is called Debout les Morts (translated as The Three Evangelists) and is one of the first detective stories of Fred Vargas, written in 1995. It is funny with well-conceived characters (although they sometimes verge so much on the caricature as to make the novel neo-picaresque) and a fairly original scenario that has a Russian doll or onion structure, involving many (many) layers. I was definitely expecting anything but the shocking ending! The three main characters (hence the English translation title) in the novel are 35-ish jobless historians whose interests range from hunter-gatherers [shouldn’t then he be a pre-historian?!] to the Great [WWI] War, with a medieval expert in the middle. (The author herself is a medieval historian.) As written above, it is excessive in everything, from the characters to the plot, to the number of murders, but or maybe hence it is quite fun to read.

The fourth book is Kjell Eriksson‘s Jorden ma rämna that I would translate from the French version as The earth may well split (as it is not translated in English at this stage), the second volume of the Ann Lindell series, which takes place in Uppsala, and in the nearby Swede countryside. I quite enjoyed this book as the detective part was is almost irrelevant. To the point of having the killer known from the start. As in many Scandinavian noir novels, especially Swedish ones, the social and psychological aspects are predominant, from the multiple events leading a drug addict to commit a series of crimes, to the endless introspection of both the main character and her solitude-seeking boyfriend, from the failures of the social services to deal with the addict to a global yearning for the old and vanished countryside community spirit, to the replacement of genuine workers’ Unions by bureaucratic structures. Not the most comforting read for a dark and stormy night, but definitely a good and well-written book.

And the last book is yet again a Japanese novel by Yôko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which title in French is closer to the Japanese title, The professor’s favourite equation (博士の愛した数式), is about a invalid maths professor who has an 80 minutes memory span, following a car accident. His PhD thesis was about the Artin conjecture. And about his carer (rather than housekeeper) who looks after him and manages to communicate despite the 80 mn barrier. And about the carer’s son who is nicknamed Root for having a head like a square root symbol (!). The book is enjoyable enough to read, with a few basic explanations of number theory, but the whole construct is very contrived as why would the professor manage to solve mathematical puzzles and keep some memory of older baseball games despite the 80mn window. (I also found the naivety of the carer as represented throughout the book a wee bit on the heavy side.)

Not a bad summer for books, in the end!!!

Das Kapital [not a book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2017 by xi'an

A rather bland article by Gareth Stedman Jones in Nature reminded me that the first volume of Karl Marx’ Das Kapital is 150 years old this year. Which makes it appear quite close in historical terms [just before the Franco-German war of 1870] and rather remote in scientific terms. I remember going painstakingly through the books in 1982 and 1983, mostly during weekly train trips between Paris and Caen, and not getting much out of it! Even with the help of a cartoon introduction I had received as a 1982 Xmas gift! I had no difficulty in reading the text per se, as opposed to my attempt of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason the previous summer [along with the other attempt to windsurf!], as the discourse was definitely grounded in economics and not in philosophy. But the heavy prose did not deliver a convincing theory of the evolution of capitalism [and of its ineluctable demise]. While the fundamental argument of workers’ labour being an essential balance to investors’ capital for profitable production was clearly if extensively stated, the extrapolations on diminishing profits associated with decreasing labour input [and the resulting collapse] were murkier and sounded more ideological than scientific. Not that I claim any competence in the matter: my attempts at getting the concepts behind Marxist economics stopped at this point and I have not been seriously thinking about it since! But it still seems to me that the theory did age very well, missing the increasing power of financial agents in running companies. And of course [unsurprisingly] the numerical revolution and its impact on the (des)organisation of work and the disintegration of proletariat as Marx envisioned it. For instance turning former workers into forced and poor entrepreneurs (Uber, anyone?!). Not that the working conditions are particularly rosy for many, from a scarsity of low-skill jobs, to a nurtured competition between workers for existing jobs (leading to extremes like the scandalous zero hour contracts!), to minimum wages turned useless by the fragmentation of the working space and the explosion of housing costs in major cities, to the hopelessness of social democracies to get back some leverage on international companies…

Berlin [and Vienna] noir [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2017 by xi'an

While in Cambridge last month, I picked a few books from a local bookstore as fodder for my incoming vacations. Including this omnibus volume made of the first three books by Philip Kerr featuring Bernie Gunther, a private and Reich detective in Nazi Germany, namely, March Violets (1989), The Pale Criminal (1990), and A German Requiem (1991). (Book that I actually read before the vacations!) The stories take place before the war, in 1938, and right after, in 1946, in Berlin and Vienna. The books centre on a German version of Philip Marlowe, wise cracks included, with various degrees of success. (There actually is a silly comparison with Chandler on the back of the book! And I found somewhere else a similarly inappropriate comparison with Graham Greene‘s The Third Man…) Although I read the whole three books in a single week, which clearly shows some undeniable addictive quality in the plots, I find those plots somewhat shallow and contrived, especially the second one revolving around a serial killer of young girls that aims at blaming Jews for those crimes and at justifying further Nazi persecutions. Or the time spent in Dachau by Bernie Gunther as undercover agent for Heydrich. If anything, the third volume taking place in post-war Berlin and Wien is much better at recreating the murky atmosphere of those cities under Allied occupations. But overall there is much too much info-dump passages in those novels to make them a good read. The author has clearly done his documentation job correctly, from the early homosexual persecutions to Kristallnacht, to the fights for control between the occupying forces, but the information about the historical context is not always delivered in the most fluent way. And having the main character working under Heydrich, then joining the SS, does make relating to him rather unlikely, to say the least. It is hence unclear to me why those books are so popular, apart from the easy marketing line that stories involving Nazis are more likely to sell… Nothing to be compared with the fantastic Alone in Berlin, depicting the somewhat senseless resistance of a Berliner during the Nazi years, dropping hand-written messages against the regime under strangers’ doors.