Archive for CRC Press

surprises in probability [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2018 by xi'an

A very short book (128 pages, but with a very high price!) I received from CRC Press is Henk Tijms’ Surprises in Probability (Seventeen Short Stories). Henk Tijms is an emeritus professor of econometrics at the Vrije University in Amsterdam and he wrote these seventeen pieces either for the Dutch Statistical Society magazine or for a blog he ran for the NYt. (The video of A Night in Casablanca above is only connected to this blog through Chico mimicking the word surprise as soup+rice.)

The author mentions that the book can be useful for teachers and indeed this is a collection of surprising probability results, surprising in the sense that the numerical probabilities are not necessarily intuitive. Most illustrations involve betting of one sort or another,  with only basic (combinatorial) probability distributions involved. Readers should not worry about even this basic probability background since most statements are exposed without a proof. Most examples are very classical, from the prisoner’s problem, to the Monty Hall paradox, to the birthday problem, to Benford’s distribution of digits, to gambler’s ruin, gambler’s fallacy, and the St Petersbourg paradox, to the secretary’s problem and stopping rules. The most advanced notion is the one of (finite state) Markov chains. As martingales are only mentionned in connection with pseudo-probabilist schemes for winning the lottery. For which (our very own!) Jeff Rosenthal makes an appearance, thanks to his uncovering of the Ontario Lottery scam!

“In no other branch of mathematics is it so easy for experts to blunder as in probability theory.”  Martin Gardner

A few stories have entries about Bayesian statistics, with mentions made of the O.J. Simpson, Sally Clark and Lucia de Berk miscarriages of justice, although these mentions make the connection most tenuous. Simulation is also mentioned as a manner of achieving approximations to more complex probabilities. But not to the point of discussing surprises about simulation, which could have been the case with the simulation of rare events.

Ten most beautiful probability formulas (Story 10) reminded me of Ian Steward 17 formulas that changed the World. Obviously at another scale and in a much less convincing way. To wit, the Normal (or Gauss) density, Bayes’ formula, the gambler’s ruin formula, the squared-root formula (meaning standard deviation decreases as √n), Kelly’s betting formula (?), the asymptotic law of distribution of prime numbers (??), another squared-root formula for the one-dimensional random walk, the newsboy formula (?), the Pollaczek-Khintchine formula (?), and the waiting-time formula. I am not sure I would have included any of these…

All in all this is a nice if unsurprising database for illustrations and possibly exercises in elementary probability courses, although it will require some work from the instructor to link the statements to their proof. As one would expect from blog entries. But this makes for a nice reading, especially while traveling and I hope some fellow traveler will pick the book from where I left it in Mexico City airport.

ABC in print

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 5, 2018 by xi'an

The CRC Press Handbook of ABC is now out, after a rather long delay [the first version of our model choice chapter was written in 2015!] due to some late contributors Which is why I did not spot it at JSM 2018. As announced a few weeks ago, our Handbook of Mixture Analysis is soon to be published as well. (Not that I necessarily advocate the individual purchase of these costly volumes!, especially given most chapters are available on-line.)

Handbook of Mixture Analysis [cover]

Posted in Books, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , on August 15, 2018 by xi'an

On the occasion of my talk at JSM2018, CRC Press sent me the cover of our incoming handbook on mixture analysis, courtesy of Rob Calver who managed to get it to me on very short notice! We are about ready to send the manuscript to CRC Press and hopefully the volume will get published pretty soon. It would have been better to have it ready for JSM2018, but we editors got delayed by a few months for the usual reasons.

computational methods for numerical analysis with R [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by xi'an

compulysis+R_coverThis is a book by James P. Howard, II, I received from CRC Press for review in CHANCE. (As usual, the customary warning applies: most of this blog post will appear later in my book review column in CHANCE.) It consists in a traditional introduction to numerical analysis with backup from R codes and packages. The early chapters are setting the scenery, from basics on R to notions of numerical errors, before moving to linear algebra, interpolation, optimisation, integration, differentiation, and ODEs. The book comes with a package cmna that reproduces algorithms and testing. While I do not find much originality in the book, given its adherence to simple resolutions of the above topics, I could nonetheless use it for an elementary course in our first year classes. With maybe the exception of the linear algebra chapter that I did not find very helpful.

“…you can have a solution fast, cheap, or correct, provided you only pick two.” (p.27)

The (minor) issue I have with the book and that a potential mathematically keen student could face as well is that there is little in the way of justifying a particular approach to a given numerical problem (as opposed to others) and in characterising the limitations and failures of the presented methods (although this happens from time to time as e.g. for gradient descent, p.191). [Seeping in my Gallic “mal-être”, I am prone to over-criticise methods during classing, to the (increased) despair of my students!, but I also feel that avoiding over-rosy presentations is a good way to avoid later disappointments or even disasters.] In the case of this book, finding [more] ways of detecting would-be disasters would have been nice.

An uninteresting and highly idiosyncratic side comment is that the author preferred the French style for long division to the American one, reminding me of my first exposure to the latter, a few months ago! Another comment from a statistician is that mentioning time series inter- or extra-polation without a statistical model sounds close to anathema! And makes extrapolation a weapon without a cause.

“…we know, a priori, exactly how long the [simulated annealing] process will take since it is a function of the temperature and the cooling rate.” (p.199)

Unsurprisingly, the section on Monte Carlo integration is disappointing for a statistician/probabilistic numericist like me,  as it fails to give a complete enough picture of the methodology. All simulations seem to proceed there from a large enough hypercube. And recommending the “fantastic” (p.171) R function integrate as a default is scary, given the ability of the selected integration bounds to misled its users. Similarly, I feel that the simulated annealing section is not providing enough of a cautionary tale about the highly sensitive impact of cooling rates and absolute temperatures. It is only through the raw output of the algorithm applied to the travelling salesman problem that the novice reader can perceive the impact of some of these factors. (The acceptance bound on the jump (6.9) is incidentally wrongly called a probability on p.199, since it can take values larger than one.)

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

errors, blunders, and lies [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2017 by xi'an

This new book by David Salsburg is the first one in the ASA-CRC Series on Statistical Reasoning in Science and Society. Which explains why I heard about it both from CRC Press [as a suggested material for a review in CHANCE] and from the ASA [as mass emailing]. The name of the author did not ring a bell until I saw the line about his earlier The Lady Tasting Tea book,  a best-seller in the category of “soft [meaning math- and formula-free] introduction to Statistics through picturesque characters”. Which I did not read either [but Bob Carpenter did].

The current book is of the same flavour, albeit with some maths formulas [each preceded by a lengthy apology for using maths and symbols]. The topic is the one advertised in the title, covering statistical errors and the way to take advantage of them, model mis-specification and robustness, and the detection of biases and data massaging. I read the short book in one quick go, waiting for the results of the French Legislative elections, and found no particular appeal in the litany of examples, historical entries, pitfalls, and models I feel I have already read so many times in the story-telling approach to statistics. (Naked Statistics comes to mind.)

It is not that there anything terrible with the book, which is partly based on the author’s own experience in a pharmaceutical company, but it does not seem to bring out any novelty for engaging into the study of statistics or for handling data in a more rational fashion. And I do not see which portion of the readership is targeted by the book, which is too allusive for academics and too academic for a general audience, who is not necessarily fascinated by the finer details of the history (and stories) of the field. As in The Lady Tasting Tea, the chapters constitute a collection of vignettes, rather than a coherent discourse leading to a theory or defending an overall argument. Some chapters are rather poor, like the initial chapter explaining the distinction between lies, blunders, and errors through the story of the measure of the distance from Earth to Sun by observing the transit of Venus, not that the story is uninteresting, far from it!, but I find it lacking in connecting with statistics [e.g., the meaning of a “correct” observation is never explained]. Or the chapter on the Princeton robustness study, where little is explained about the nature of the wrong distributions, which end up as specific contaminations impacting mostly the variance. And some examples are hardly convincing, like those on text analysis (Chapters 13, 14, 15), where there is little backup for using Benford’s law on such short datasets.  Big data is understood only under the focus of large p, small n, which is small data in my opinion! (Not to mention a minor crime de lèse-majesté in calling Pierre-Simon Laplace Simon-Pierre Laplace! I would also have left the Marquis de aside as this title came to him during the Bourbon Restauration, despite him having served Napoléon for his entire reign.) And, as mentioned above, the book contains apologetic mathematics, which never cease to annoy me since apologies are not needed. While the maths formulas are needed.

testing R code [book review]

Posted in R, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , on March 1, 2017 by xi'an

When I saw this title among the CRC Press novelties, I immediately ordered it as I though it fairly exciting. Now that I have gone through the book, the excitement has died. Maybe faster than need be as I read it while being stuck in a soulless Schipol airport and missing the only ice-climbing opportunity of the year!

Testing R Code was written by Richard Cotton and is quite short: once you take out the appendices and the answers to the exercises, it is about 130 pages long, with a significant proportion of code and output. And it is about some functions developed by Hadley Wickham from RStudio, for testing the coherence of R code in terms of inputs more than outputs. The functions are assertive and testthat. Intended for run-time versus development-time testing. Meaning that the output versus the input are what the author of the code intends them to be. The other chapters contain advices and heuristics about writing maintainable testable code, and incorporating a testing feature in an R package.

While I am definitely a poorly qualified reader for this type of R books, my disappointment stems from my expectation of a book about debugging R code, which is possibly due to a misunderstanding of the term testing. This is an unrealistic expectation, for sure, as testing for a code to produce what it is supposed to do requires some advanced knowledge of what the output should be, at least in some representative situations. Which means using interface like RStudio is capital in spotting unsavoury behaviours of some variables, if not foolproof in any case.

a concise introduction to statistical inference [book review]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 16, 2017 by xi'an

[Just to warn readers and avoid emails about Xi’an plagiarising Christian!, this book was sent to me by CRC Press for a review. To be published in CHANCE.]

This is an introduction to statistical inference. And with 180 pages, it indeed is concise! I could actually stop the review at this point as a concise review of a concise introduction to statistical inference, as I do not find much originality in this introduction, intended for “mathematically sophisticated first-time student of statistics”. Although sophistication is in the eye of the sophist, of course, as this book has margin symbols in the guise of integrals to warn of section using “differential or integral calculus” and a remark that the book is still accessible without calculus… (Integral calculus as in Riemann integrals, not Lebesgue integrals, mind you!) It even includes appendices with the Greek alphabet, summation notations, and exponential/logarithms.

“In statistics we often bypass the probability model altogether and simply specify the random variable directly. In fact, there is a result (that we won’t cover in detail) that tells us that, for any random variable, we can find an appropriate probability model.” (p.17)

Given its limited mathematical requirements, the book does not get very far in the probabilistic background of statistics methods, which makes the corresponding chapter not particularly helpful as opposed to a prerequisite on probability basics. Since not much can be proven without “all that complicated stuff about for any ε>0” (p.29). And makes defining correctly notions like the Central Limit Theorem impossible. For instance, Chebychev’s inequality comes within a list of admitted results. There is no major mistake in the chapter, even though mentioning that two correlated Normal variables are jointly Normal (p.27) is inexact.

“The power of a test is the probability that you do not reject a null that is in fact correct.” (p.120)

Most of the book follows the same pattern as other textbooks at that level, covering inference on a mean and a probability, confidence intervals, hypothesis testing, p-values, and linear regression. With some words of caution about the interpretation of p-values. (And the unfortunate inversion of the interpretation of power above.) Even mentioning the Cult [of Significance] I reviewed a while ago.

Given all that, the final chapter comes as a surprise, being about Bayesian inference! Which should make me rejoice, obviously, but I remain skeptical of introducing the concept to readers with so little mathematical background. And hence a very shaky understanding of a notion like conditional distributions. (Which reminds me of repeated occurrences on X validated when newcomers hope to bypass textbooks and courses to grasp the meaning of posteriors and such. Like when asking why Bayes Theorem does not apply for expectations.) I can feel the enthusiasm of the author for this perspective and it may diffuse to some readers, but apart from being aware of the approach, I wonder how much they carry away from this brief (decent) exposure. The chapter borrows from Lee (2012, 4th edition) and from Berger (1985) for the decision-theoretic part. The limitations of the exercise are shown for hypothesis testing (or comparison) by the need to restrict the parameter space to two possible values. And for decision making. Similarly, introducing improper priors and the likelihood principle [distinguished there from the law of likelihood] is likely to get over the head of most readers and clashes with the level of the previous chapters. (And I do not think this is the most efficient way to argue in favour of a Bayesian approach to the problem of statistical inference: I have now dropped all references to the likelihood principle from my lectures. Not because of the controversy, but simply because the students do not get it.) By the end of the chapter, it is unclear a neophyte would be able to spell out how one could specify a prior for one of the problems processed in the earlier chapters. The appendix on de Finetti’s formalism on personal probabilities is very much unlikely to help in this regard. While it sounds so far beyond the level of the remainder of the book.