Archive for Millenium

the girl with the spider’s nest [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2016 by xi'an

“..the Millennium Trilogy was messier and more eccentric than much popular fiction, a genre that can lean towards standardisation. Lagercrantz’s continuation, while never formulaic, is a cleaner and tighter read than the originals…” The Guardian

“…while Mr. Lagercrantz never makes the N.S.A.’s involvement in the case Salander and Blomkvist are investigating remotely convincing, he writes with such assurance and velocity in the later portions of the book that he powers through these more dubious passages.” The New York Times

Millennium is a bit like chocolate addiction, when I carefully pack away the remains of a Lindt tablet, only to get back to it for another row half-an-hour later… The style of the series is rudimentary, the story is just implausible, the message is shaky, as explained in my earlier reviews, and still, still, I just got back from binge reading a new volume, even though it was written by another author. David Lagercrantz. Who also managed to write a biography of both Alan Turing and a (former Paris) footballer competing with Chuck Norris…

I had misgivings, to start with, about another author taking over the commercial massive success of the previous author (towards a further commercial massive success, apparently, to judge from the 7,575 customer reviews there!). With much less legitimacy (if any) than, say, Brandon Sanderson taking over Robert Jordan to complete the Wheel of Time. (Although this sequel is completely legit, since Stieg Larsson’s family controls his literary estate and hired David Lagercrantz.)  On the other hand, I do not have the highest respect for the literary qualities of the series, beyond inducing a remarkable crave for the next page that kept me awake part of both nights when I read The Girl with the Spider’s web. A feature that, in my opinion, relates to the essentially commercial nature of the product (and that is compounded by the mere £3.00 it cost me in a Coventry supermarket!).

Without getting into spoilers, the current story revolves around the complicated family tree of Lisbeth Salander, the endless fight of the Millennium editors against market forces, the murky waters of hacking and of intelligence companies, plus some lines about NSA’s Egotistical Giraffe, quantum computing, public-key encryption, and resolution by elliptic curve factorization. Story that remains as enjoyable as the previous volumes, even though it may be lacking in the psychology of the characters.  Given the extreme implausibility of the intelligence central plot, I am rather surprised at the very positive reviews found in the press, as shown by both quotes reproduced above…

One of the threads exploited in the book is the threat represented by super-intelligence, that is when AIs become much more intelligent than humans. This should ring a bell as this is the theme of Super-Intelligence, the book by Nick Bostrom I reviewed a few months ago. Although this volume of Millenium only broaches upon the topic, and while there is no reason to imagine a direct connection between both books, even though Lagercrantz may have read the popular book of a fellow Swede, I find the setting both amazing and so representative of the way the book ingratiates itself into the main computer culture memes.

the devotion of suspect X

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by xi'an

“Ah, an adherent of Erdös, I see”

I read this book (I bought along with the House of Silk in Oxford) over a wee more than a day: it reads fast and it reads well! Really really well. The devotion of suspect X is a Japanese detective story where the reader knows the true murder story from the start and waits for the police to uncover the culprits, except there is a twist in the story. And another twist in the twist. And yet another one…

“That guy might be a genius mathematician, but he’s certainly a novice murderer.”
“They are the same thing,” Yokawa stated simply. “Murder probably comes even easier to him.”

The main characters are three graduates from the Imperial University in Tokyo: one in sociology (who acknowledged only visiting the library twice), one in physics who is still working as a researcher there and one in mathematics, who left the academic system to teach bored high school students—while still working on his free time on the Riemann conjecture. The X in the title is actually related with the mathematician, who handle the murder as a maths equation and the murderer as an unknown X.

“For instance, I give them a question that looks like a geometry problem, but is in fact an algebra problem.”

The book starts somehow sedately but, as the personalities of the mathematician and the physician unfold, it gets more and more gripping, to the point I could not let go (and was glad of my battery giving up during the flight to Montpellier so that I could keep reading!). I also appreciated very much the depiction of the Japanese society in the novel and found myself visualising the characters in some parts of Kyoto I visited last year (although the story takes place in Tokyo). The harsh condition of single women in this society is also well-exposed and central to the story.

“He had calculated that it would take him roughly another twenty years to complete his work on this particular theory. Possibly even longer. It was the kind of insurmountable problem worthy of an entire lifetime’s devotion. And of all the mathematicians in the world, he was in the best position to crack it.”

There are a few imperfections, of course, like the final scene which is both “necessary” and clumsy. Or the uncovering of the (brilliant) last twist by the physicist. But the plot holds solidly as a whole and makes me want tore-read the book again, to reanalyse every situation with the knowledge of the “full” truth. (I also disliked the connection with Stieg Larsson made on the front cover:  it differs very very much from Millenium in that the central female character Yasuko remains a victim throughout the book without ever taking over. There is no political perspective to be found in The devotion of suspect X.) The book was adopted into a movie, I wonder how well it translates…

The Redeemer (Jo Nesbo)

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , on April 28, 2012 by xi'an

I picked this book in Oxford two months ago with some reticence because of “The next Stieg Larsson” sticker on it… Indeed, I did not like the underlying message of the Larsson Millenium trilogy, even though I admired the efficiency of the story-telling. Now, The Redeemer is the first book by Jo Nesbo I read and I rather liked it, at least conditional on the serial killer genre. Maybe the fact that it takes place in Oslo, a city I particularly like, makes it more interesting. Maybe the convoluted psychological features of the detective Harry and of the killers are much more convincing than in Larsson‘s books.

And our prejudices solve cases. Because they are not based on lack of knowledge, but on actual facts and experience. In this room we reserve the right to discriminate against everyone, regardless of race, religion, or gender. Our defence is that it is not exclusively the weakest members of the society  who are discriminated against (…) Since we work with probabilities and limited knowledge, we cannot afford to ignore knowledge wherever we find it.” J. Nesbo, The Redeemer (p. 143)

The central character is the detective, Harry Hole, who is looking as much for his true self than for the murderer. He is fighting against alcoholism, which almost had him thrown out of the police, against religious fanaticisms, against corruption within the force, against turning sexual encounters into longer term relationships and against regrets about his separation from his girlfriend Rakel, but (minor spoiler!) falls short of winning all those battles. Other characters are also well-built, from the professional assassin to the highly various actors from the Salvation Army. And the underlying theme of young girls’ abuses make the quest for the assassin more dramatic, with the endings completely unexpected. (If somewhat unrealistic.) I also like the understated way the story unfolds, which sounds very suited to snow-encased Oslo (even though some of its harsher aspects emerge at times). I should have read the three previous novels by Jo Nesbo in the series, but The Redeemer can easily be read as a stand-alone. Not perfect, but quite enjoyable and definitely gripping.

1500th, 3000th, &tc

Posted in Books, R, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2012 by xi'an

As the ‘Og reached its 1500th post and 3000th comment at exactly the same time, a wee and only mildly interesting Sunday morning foray in what was posted so far and attracted the most attention (using the statistics provided by wordpress). The most visited posts:

Title Views
Home page 203,727
In{s}a(ne)!! 7,422
“simply start over and build something better” 6,264
Julien on R shortcomings 2,676
Sudoku via simulated annealing 2,402
About 1,876
Of black swans and bleak prospects 1,768
Solution manual to Bayesian Core on-line 1,628
Parallel processing of independent Metropolis-Hastings algorithms 1,625
Bayesian p-values 1,595
Bayes’ Theorem 1,537
#2 blog for the statistics geek?! 1,526
Do we need an integrated Bayesian/likelihood inference? 1,501
Coincidence in lotteries 1,396
Solution manual for Introducing Monte Carlo Methods with R 1,340
Julian Besag 1945-2010 1,293
Tornado in Central Park 1,093
The Search for Certainty 1,016

Hence, three R posts (incl. one by Julien and one by Ross Ihaka), three (critical) book reviews, two solution manuals, two general Bayesian posts, two computational entries, one paper (with Pierre Jacob and Murray Smith), one obituary, and one photograph news report… Altogether in line with the main purpose of the ‘Og. The most commented posts:

Post Comments
In{s}a(ne)!! 31
“simply start over and build something better” 30
That the likelihood principle does not hold… 23
Incoherent inference 23
Lack of confidence in ABC model choice 20
Parallel processing of independent Metropolis-Hastings algorithms 19
ABC model choice not to be trusted 17
MCMC with errors 16
Coincidence in lotteries 16
Bessel integral 14
Numerical analysis for statisticians 14

Not exactly the same as above! In particular, the posts about ABC model choice and our PNAS paper got into the list. At last, the top search terms:

Search Views
surfers paradise 1,050
benidorm 914
introducing monte carlo methods with r 514
andrew wyeth 398
mistborn 352
abele blanc 350
nested sampling 269
particle mcmc 269
bayesian p-value 263
julian besag 257
rites of love and math 249
millenium 237
bayesian p value 222
marie curie 221
bonsai 200

(out of which I removed the dozens of variations on xian’s blog). I find it rather sad that both top entries are beach towns that are completely unrelated to my lifestyle and to my vacation places. Overall, more than a  half of those entries do not strongly relate to the contents of the ‘Og (even though I did post at length about Saunderson’s Mistborn and Larsson’s Millenium trilogies). At last, the most popular clicks are

URL Clicks 1,243 1,039 583 575 531 529 505 404 395 372 298 298 288 282 279 257 256 253 243 216 203

which include links to my books on Amazon, Andrew Gelman’s, Terry Tao’s, Radford Neal’s and Romain François’s blogs, the CREST stat students collective blog, and a few arXiv papers of mine’s…

The Millenium Trilogy (tome 2)

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , on June 20, 2010 by xi'an

Salander was at a loss. She actually was not interested in the answer. It was the process of solution that was the point. So she took a piece of paper and began scribbling figures when she read Fermat’s theorem. But she failed to find a proof for it.

Enforcing a prediction made on the earlier post, I have read through the second Millenium Trilogy volume, Stieg Larson‘s The Girl who played with fire , due to a chance encounter in the convenience shop of the hotel in Benidorm. My overall impression is better than after reading The girl with the dragon tattoo, maybe because there are less raw cruelty scenes, maybe because the hunt-within-the-hunt plot is more compelling, maybe because the action mostly takes place in the present.

By the time Andrew Wiles solved the puzzle in the 1990s, he had been at it for ten years using the world’s most advanced computer programme.

The book feels much more fast-paced than the previous one, it only covers a few calendar days where the police is searching for the “asocial” Lisbeth Salander, who is searching for a Russian sex-trafficker, who is himself searching for Salander! The very first bit taking place in the West Indies is completely unnecessary and does not even play a role in the rest of the novel (except to let us know that Salander was away, can face a tropical storm, seduce a teenager, and kill an abusive husband!). This volume tells us a lot about Salander’s childhood and the reasons why she and her mother ended up in psychiatric institutions. I also like how the book depicts the way the gutter press presents the worst possible picture of Salander from the very few tidbits leaked by the chief investigator (“lesbian Satanist psychopath”).

And all of a sudden she understood. The answer was so disarmingly simple. A game with numbers that lined up and then fell into place in a simple formula that was most similar to a rebus. She gazed straight ahead as she checked the equation.

Now, the inconsistencies and implausibilities I deplored in the first volume are there to be found  as well. First and foremost, Salander is again acting as a super-woman in this novel, mastering parallel financial networks and computer hacking, fashionable clothing and German and Norwegian accents, home modelling (in case you cannot access an Ikea catalogue, the book provides the whole series of references, maybe a Swedish habit of replacing e.g. bookcase by Billy, etc…) and chess playing, fighting techniques (against two Hell’s Angels, no less!) and, best of all!, number theory. I do not understand the motivations of the author for including this mathematical connection (unless maybe he thinks autists all make good mathematicians [when the opposite is closer to the truth!]) but he presumably read some piece on Andrew Wiles’ resolution of Fermat’s Theorem and decided that Salander could as well get a go at it! Hence a sequence of (rather dumb) mathematical quotes about equations and a few idiotic sentences like the ones above. It sounds like the author (or at least Salander) believes that Fermat had a complete proof of his theorem…and of course that Salander, unlike the four-century-some of mathematicians who vainly tried before her, can recover this proof! I have no competence in hacking but the tricks used by Salander to penetrate the whole police force computer network sound rather primitive and unlikely to work, even when obtaining the password from a police officer. Similarly, the fact that private detectives get incorporated within the police team with no suspicion nor limitations and that the first leak ends up with one officer being incriminated instead of a private detective does not sound plausible. The greater picture, namely that all characters are connected, is a weakness of many detective stories, but the book seems to be recycling about every useful character from the previous volume! At last, the relation between Blomkvist and Salander is not well-done, as it is very predictable in Salander being over-reacting vis-à-vis Blomkvist’s long-term relation with Erika Berger and in Blomkvist being completely unaware of this…

The Millenium Trilogy (tome 1)

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on August 29, 2009 by xi'an

After watching so many people reading Millenium Trilogy in the Paris metro for more than a year, I decided—while in New York—to buy the first volume of Stieg Larson‘s The Girl with the dragon tattoo to check whether or not it was worth the hype. The book is definitely gripping: I started it yesterday late afternoon, read it till midnight and finished it tonight! I am nonetheless not completely impressed by the novel, nor do I understand the fundamental reason for its success (more than a million copies sold in France, where the three novels were apparently translated in 2006-2007, much earlier than in the US). The central mystery plot is a classical “huis-clos”, with a murder being committed in a closed place with no obvious murderer and no corpse to show, the solution being rather predictable (because of the flowers) and anti-climactic. Some elements of the financial plot are highly unrealistic, like the school failure Lisbeth Salander speaking Oxford English and perfect German, and breaking in a few minutes into any computer or off-shore bank account, or the major villain Wennerström keeping all the informations about his criminal activities on a single hard-drive. The side inquiry about an unsuspected serial killer is more interesting (for a while) but again not very innovative compared with the rather large current literature on serial killers and female detectives (like Sara Paresky’s V.I. Warshawski)…. This is particularly striking since I read the book in English rather than in French and I did not find much differences in the style and more globally in the setting between The Girl with the dragon tattoo and current American detectiitve storiites like Paresky’s or Cowell’s. (Of course, some Swedish specificities pop up from time to time, but it could almost take place in northern Maine!) In that regard, the criticism of the Swedish social-liberal model is much more present in the older series by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö… At last, and in connection with the previous point, while the character of the autistic and unlikely investigator Lisbeth Salander is a fairly interesting creation, her vigilante attitude of implementing her own justice does not really fit within the moral higher grounds of her associate Mikael Blomkvist. Nor with the author’s left-wing and non-violent positions. Nor with the feminist Similarly, the brand name-dropping, especially for Apple products, is a bit at odds with the author’s ideological principles. To be completely honest about this book, I must add that I will most likely read both next volumes of the Millenium Trilogy when they appear in paperback, because they still make for an enjoyable one afternoon read but, again, nothing to rank it as the [Swedish [detective [techno-killer]]] novel of the century!


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