Archive for book reviews

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.

Great North Road [book review]

Posted in Books, Running, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2017 by xi'an

As I was unsure of the Internet connections and of the more than likely delays I would face during my trip to India, I went fishing for a massive novel on Amazon and eventually ordered Peter Hamilton’s Great North Road, a 1088 pages behemoth! I fear the book qualifies as space opera, with the conventional load of planet invasions, incomprehensible and infinitely wise aliens, gateways for instantaneous space travels, and sentient biospheres. But the core of the story is very, very, Earth-bound, with a detective story taking place in a future Newcastle that is not so distant from now in many ways. (Or even from the past as the 2012 book did not forecast Brexit…) With an occurrence of the town moor where I went running a few years ago.

The book is mostly well-designed, with a plot gripping enough to keep me hooked for Indian evenings in Kolkata and most of the flight back. I actually finished it just before landing in Paris. There is no true depth in the story, though, and the science fiction part is rather lame: a very long part of the detective plot is spent on the hunt for a taxi by an army of detectives, a task one would think should be delegated to a machine-learning algorithm and solved in a nano-second or so. The themes heavily borrow from those of classics like Avatar, Speaker for the Dead, Hyperion [very much Hyperion!], Alien… And from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for an hardcore heroin who is perfect at anything she undertakes.  Furthermore, the Earth at the centre of this extended universe is very close to its present version, with English style taxis, pub culture, and a geopolitic structure of the World pretty much unchanged. Plus main brands identical to currents ones (Apple, BMW, &tc), to the point it sounds like sponsored links! And no clue of a major climate change despite the continued use of fuel engines. Nonetheless, an easy read when stuck in an airport or a plane seat for several hours.

Amazonish warning

Posted in Books, Kids, R, Statistics with tags , , , , , on March 11, 2016 by xi'an

As in previous years, I want to repost a warning to ‘Og readers that all http links to [and much more rarely to] products found on this ‘Og are actually susceptible to reward me with an advertising percentage if a purchase is made by the reader in the 24 hours following the entry on Amazon through this link, thanks to the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Here are some of the most Og-unrelated purchases, less exotic than in previous years (maybe because of a lower number of items):

Once again, books I reviewed, positively or negatively, were among the top purchases… Like a dozen Monte Carlo simulation and resampling methods for social science, half a dozen Statistics done wrong, and Think Bayes: Bayesian Statistics Made Simple [which also attracted a lot of visits when I reviewed it], and still a few copies of Naked Statistics (despite a most critical review.) Thanks to all readers activating those links and feeding further my book addiction, with the drawback of inducing even more book reviews on the ‘Og…

exoplanets at 99.999…%

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , on January 22, 2016 by xi'an

The latest Significance has a short article providing some coverage of the growing trend in the discovery of exoplanets, including new techniques used to detect those expoplanets from their impact on the associated stars. This [presumably] comes from the recent book Cosmos: The Infographics Book of Space [a side comment: new books seem to provide material for many articles in Significance these days!] and the above graph is also from the book, not the ultimate infographic representation in my opinion given that a simple superposition of lines could do as well. Or better.

¨A common approach to ruling out these sorts of false positives involves running sophisticated numerical algorithms, called Monte Carlo simulations, to explore a wide range of blend scenarios (…) A new planet discovery needs to have a confidence of (…) a one in a million chance that the result is in error.”

The above sentence is obviously of interest, first because the detection of false positives by Monte Carlo hints at a rough version of ABC to assess the likelihood of the observed phenomenon under the null [no detail provided] and second because the probability statement in the end is quite unclear as of its foundations… Reminding me of the Higgs boson controversy. The very last sentence of the article is however brilliant, albeit maybe unintentionaly so:

“To date, 1900 confirmed discoveries have been made. We have certainly come a long way from 1989.”

Yes, 89 down, strictly speaking!

Statistics done wrong [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2015 by xi'an

no starch press (!) sent me the pdf version of this incoming book, Statistics done wrong, by Alex Reinhart, towards writing a book review for CHANCE, and I read it over two flights, one from Montpellier to Paris last week, and from Paris to B’ham this morning. The book is due to appear on March 16. It expands on a still existing website developed by Reinhart. (Discussed a year or so away on Andrew’s blog, most in comments, witness Andrew’s comment below.) Reinhart who is, incidentally or not, is a PhD candidate in statistics at Carnegie Mellon University. After apparently a rather consequent undergraduate foray into physics. Quite an unusual level of maturity and perspective for a PhD student..!

“It’s hard for me to evaluate because I am so close to the material. But on first glance it looks pretty reasonable to me.” A. Gelman

Overall, I found myself enjoying reading the book, even though I found the overall picture of the infinitely many mis-uses of statistics rather grim and a recipe for despairing of ever setting things straight..! Somehow, this is an anti-textbook, in that it warns about many ways of applying the right statistical technique in the wrong setting, without ever describing those statistical techniques. Actually without using a single maths equation. Which should be a reason good enough for me to let all hell break loose on that book! But, no, not really, I felt no compunction about agreeing with Reinhart’s warning and if you have reading Andrew’s blog for a while you should feel the same…

“Then again for a symptom like spontaneous human combustion you might get excited about any improvement.” A. Reinhart (p.13)

Maybe the limitation in the exercise is that statistics appears so much fraught with dangers of over-interpretation and false positive and that everyone (except physicists!) is bound to make such invalidated leaps in conclusion, willingly or not, that it sounds like the statistical side of Gödel’s impossibility theorem! Further, the book moves from recommendation at the individual level, i.e., on how one should conduct an experiment and separate data for hypothesis building from data for hypothesis testing, to a universal criticism of the poor standards of scientific publishing and the unavailability of most datasets and codes. Hence calling for universal reproducibility protocols that reminded of the directions explored in this recent book I reviewed on that topic. (The one the rogue bird did not like.) It may be missing on the bright side of things, for instance the wonderful possibility to use statistical models to produce simulated datasets that allow for an evaluation of the performances of a given procedure in the ideal setting. Which would have helped the increasingly depressed reader in finding ways of checking how wrongs things could get..! But also on the dark side, as it does not say much about the fact that a statistical model is most presumably wrong. (Maybe a physicist’s idiosyncrasy!) There is a chapter entitled Model Abuse, but all it does is criticise stepwise regression and somehow botches the description of Simpson’s paradox.

“You can likely get good advice in exchange for some chocolates or a beer or perhaps coauthorship on your next paper.” A. Reinhart (p.127)

The final pages are however quite redeeming in that they acknowledge that scientists from other fields cannot afford a solid enough training in statistics and hence should hire statisticians as consultants for the data collection, analysis and interpretation of their experiments. A most reasonable recommendation!

top posts for 2014

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , on December 30, 2014 by xi'an

Here are the most popular entries for 2014:

17 equations that changed the World (#2) 995
Le Monde puzzle [website] 992
“simply start over and build something better” 991
accelerating MCMC via parallel predictive prefetching 990
Bayesian p-values 960
posterior predictive p-values 849
Bayesian Data Analysis [BDA3] 846
Bayesian programming [book review] 834
Feller’s shoes and Rasmus’ socks [well, Karl’s actually…] 804
the cartoon introduction to statistics 803
Asymptotically Exact, Embarrassingly Parallel MCMC 730
Foundations of Statistical Algorithms [book review] 707
a brief on naked statistics 704
In{s}a(ne)!! 682
the demise of the Bayes factor 660
Statistical modeling and computation [book review] 591
bridging the gap between machine learning and statistics 587
new laptop with ubuntu 14.04 574
Bayesian Data Analysis [BDA3 – part #2] 570
MCMC on zero measure sets 570
Solution manual to Bayesian Core on-line 567
Nonlinear Time Series just appeared 555
Sudoku via simulated annealing 538
Solution manual for Introducing Monte Carlo Methods with R 535
future of computational statistics 531

What I appreciate from that list is that (a) book reviews [of stats books] get a large chunk (50%!) of the attention and (b) my favourite topics of Bayesian testing, parallel MCMC and MCMC on zero measure sets made it to the top list. Even the demise of the Bayes factor that was only posted two weeks ago!