## Europe Day

Posted in Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on May 9, 2023 by xi'an

## Number savvy [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2023 by xi'an

“This book aspires to contribute to overall numeracy through a tour de force presentation of the production, use, and evolution of data.”

Number Savvy: From the Invention of Numbers to the Future of Data is written by George Sciadas, a  statistician working at Statistics Canada. This book is mostly about data, even though it starts with the “compulsory” tour of the invention(s) of numbers and the evolution towards a mostly universal system and the issue of measurements (with a funny if illogical/anti-geographical confusion in “gare du midi in Paris and gare du Nord in Brussels” since Gare du Midi (south) is in Brussels while Gare du Nord (north) in in Paris). The chapter (Chap. 3) on census and demography is quite detailed about the hurdles preventing an exact count of a population, but much less about the methods employed to improve the estimation. (The request for me to fill the short form for the 2023 French Census actually came while I was reading the book!)

The next chapter links measurement with socio-economic notions or models, like unemployment rate, which depends on so many criteria (pp. 77-87) that its measurement sounds impossible or arbitrary. Almost as arbitrary as the reported number of protesters in a French demonstration! Same difficulty with the GDP, whose interpretation seems beyond the grasp of the common reader. And does not cover significantly missing (-not-at-random) data like tax evasion, money laundering, and the grey economy. (Nitpicking: if GDP got down by 0.5% one year and up by 0.5% the year after, this does not exactly compensate!) Chapter 5 reflects upon the importance of definitions and boundaries in creating official statistics and categorical data. A chapter (Chap 6) on the gathering of data in the past (read prior to the “Big Data” explosion) is preparing the ground to the chapter on the current setting. Mostly about surveys, presented as definitely from the past, “shadows of their old selves”. And with anecdotes reminding me of my only experience as a survey interviewer (on Xmas practices!). About administrative data, progressively moving from collected by design to available for any prospection (or “farming”). A short chapter compared with the one (Chap 7) on new data (types), mostly customer, private sector, data. Covering the data accumulated by big tech companies, but not particularly illuminating (with bar-room remarks like “Facebook users tend to portray their lives as they would like them to be. Google searches may reflect more truthfully what people are looking for.”)

The following Chapter 8 is somehow confusing in its defence of microdata, by which I understand keeping the raw data rather than averaging through summary statistics. Synthetic data is mentioned there, but without reference to a reference model, while machine learning makes a very brief appearance (p.222). In Chapter 9, (statistical) data analysis is [at last!] examined, but mostly through descriptive statistics. Except for a regression model and a discussion of the issues around hypothesis testing and Bayesian testing making its unique visit, albeit confusedly in-between references to Taleb’s Black swan, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem (which always seem to fascinate authors of general public science books!), and Kahneman and Tversky’s prospect theory. Somewhat surprisingly, the chapter also includes a Taoist tale about the farmer getting in turns lucky and unlucky… A tale that was already used in What are the chances? that I reviewed two years ago. As this is a very established parable dating back at least to the 2nd century B.C., there is no copyright involved, but what are the chances the story finds its way that quickly in another book?!

The last and final chapter is about the future, unsurprisingly. With prediction of “plenty of black boxes“, “statistical lawlessness“, “data pooling” and data as a commodity (which relates with some themes of our OCEAN ERC-Synergy grant). Although the solution favoured by the author is centralised, through a (national) statistics office or another “trusted third party“. The last section is about the predicted end of theory, since “simply looking at data can reveal patterns“, but resisting the prophets of doom and idealising the Rise of the (AI) machines… The lyrical conclusion that “With both production consolidation and use of data increasingly in the ‘hands’ of machines, and our wise interventions, the more distant future will bring complete integrations” sounds too much like Brave New World for my taste!

“…the privacy argument is weak, if not hypocritical. Logically, it’s hard to fathom what data that we share with an online retailer or a delivery company we wouldn’t share with others (…) A naysayer will say nay.” (p.190)

The way the book reads and unrolls is somewhat puzzling to this reader, as it sounds like a sequence of common sense remarks with a Guesstimation flavour on the side, and tiny historical or technical facts, some unknown and most of no interest to me, while lacking in the larger picture. For instance, the long-winded tale on evaluating the cumulated size of a neighbourhood lawns (p.34-38) does not seem to be getting anywhere. The inclusion of so many warnings, misgivings, and alternatives in the collection and definition of data may have the counter-effect of discouraging readers from making sense of numeric concepts and trusting the conclusions of data-based analyses. The constant switch in perspective(s) and the apparent absence of definite conclusions are also exhausting. Furthermore, I feel that the author and his rosy prospects are repeatedly minimizing the risks of data collection on individual privacy and freedom, when presenting the platforms as a solution to a real time census (as, e.g., p.178), as exemplified by the high social control exercised by some number savvy dictatures!  And he is highly critical of EU regulations such as GDPR, “less-than-subtle” (p.267), “with its huge impact on businesses” (p.268). I am thus overall uncertain which audience this book will eventually reach.

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

## borderline deaths

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on December 18, 2022 by xi'an

## UK vs. Horizon Europe [episode 23]

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 29, 2022 by xi'an

Just read in The Guardian that the UK Government or more exactly the PM hopeful Liz Truss  (since Boris Johnson has gone AWOL!) is starting a formal procedure against the EU for British scientists being excluded from Horizon Europe funding due to said Government renegading on its former signature of the Northern Ireland Protocol. (After the EU announced last June re-commencing its infringement proceedings against the UK.) Just stick to Science!

## hit by Brexit!

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 17, 2022 by xi'an

After realising while at ISBA²² that Probabilistic Numerics,  the book of Philipp Heinig, Michael Osborne, and Hans Kersting, had appeared, I requested a copy for review in CHANCE from Cambridge University Press, which they kindly sent me. However, I received it with a 21€ bill for the novel VAT tax the EU has just (re)established for goods imported from outside the EU. From now on, I will have review books delivered to my Warwick address or sent from within the EU! (I have attempted to complain about paying VAT on free goods, but customs were not at all sympathetic!!!)