What are the chances of that?

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 13, 2022 by xi'an

What are the chances that I review a book with this title, a few months after reviewing a book called What is luck?! This one is written by Andrew Elliott, whose Is that a big number? I reviewed a wee bit earlier… And that the cover of this book involves a particularly unlucky sequence of die as in my much earlier review of Krysz Burdzy’s book? (About 10⁻⁶ less likely than the likeliest draw!)

The (relative) specificity of this book is to try to convey the notions of chance and uncertainty to the general public, more in demonstrating that our intuition is most often wrong by examples and simulations, than in delving into psychological reasons as in Barbara Blatchley’s book. The author advances five dualities that underly our (dysfunctional) relation to chance: individual vs. collective, randomness vs. meaning, foresight vs. insight, uniformity vs. variability, and disruption vs. opportunity.

“News programmes clearly understand that the testimonies of individuals draw better audiences than the summaries of statisticians.” (p. xvii)

Some of the nice features of the book  are (a) the description of a probabilistic problem at the beginning of each chapter, to be solved at the end, (b) the use of simulation experiments, represented by coloured pixels over a grey band crossing the page, including a section on pseudorandom generators [which is less confusing that the quote below may indicate!], (c) taking full advantage of the quincunx apparatus, and (d) very few apologies for getting into formulas. And even a relevant quote of Taleb’s Black Swan about the ludic fallacy. On the other hand, the author spends quite a large component of the book on chance games, exhibiting a ludic tendency! And contemplates biased coins, while he should know better! The historical sections may prove too much for both informed and uninformed readers. (However, I learned that the UK Government had used a form of lottery to pay interests on premium bonds.) And the later parts are less numerical and quantified, even though the author brings in the micromort measurement [invented by Ronald Howard and] favoured by David Spiegelhalter. Who actually appears to have inspired several other sections, like the one on coincidences (which remains quite light in its investigation!). I finished the book rather quickly by browsing though mostly anecdotes and a lesser feel of a unified discourse. I did not find the attempt to link with the COVID pandemic, which definitely resets our clocks on risk, particularly alluring…

“People go to a lot of trouble to generate truly random numbers—sequences that are impossible to predict.” (p.66)

The apparition of the Normal distribution is somewhat overdone and almost mystical, if the tone gets more reasonable by the end of the corresponding chapter.

“…combining random numbers from distributions that really have no business being added together (…) ends up with a statistic that actually fits the normal distribution quite well.” (p.83)

The part about Bayes and Bayesian reasoning does not include any inference, with a rather duh! criticism of prior modelling.

“If you are tempted to apply a group statistic derived from a broad analysis to a more narrow purpose, you run the risk of making an unfair judgement.” (p.263)

The section about Xenakis’ musical creations as a Markov process was most interesting (and novel to me). I also enjoyed the shared cultural entries, esp. literary ones. Like citing the recent Chernobyl TV drama. Or Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or yet Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Overall, there is enough trivia and engagement to keep reading the book till its end!

What is luck? [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2021 by xi'an

I was sent—by Columbia University Press—this book for a potential review in CHANCE: What are the chances? (Why we believe in luck?) was written by Barbara Blatchley, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. I have read rather quickly its 193 pages over the recent trips I made to Marseille and Warwick. The topic is truly about luck and the psychology of the feeling of being luck or unlucky. There is thus rather little to relate to as a statistician, as this is not a book about chance! (I always need to pay attention when using both words, since, in French chance primarily means luck, while malchance means bad luck. And the French term for chance and randomness is hasard…) The book is pleasant to read, even though the accumulation of reports about psychological studies may prove tiresome in the long run and, for a statistician, worrisome as to which percentage of such studies were properly validated by statistical arguments…

“…the famous quote by Louis Pasteur: “Dans les champs de l’observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés”s (…) Pasteur never saw a challenge he couldn’t overcome with patience and preparation.” (p.19)

Even the part about randomness is a-statistical and mostly a-probabilist, rather focusing on our subjective and biased (un)ability to judge randomness. The author introduces us to the concepts of apophenia, which is “the unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied with a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”, and of patternicity for the “tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”. She also states that (Neyman-Pearson) Type I error is about seeing a pattern in random noise while Type II errors are for conclusion of meaningless when the data is meaningful (p.15). Which is reductive to say the least, but lead her to recall the four types of luck proposed by James Austin (which I first misread as Jane Austin).

“There is a long-standing and deeply intimate connection between luck, religion, and belief in the supernatural.” (p.28)

I enjoyed very much the sections on these connections between a belief in luck and religions, even though the anthropological references to ancient religions are not strongly connected to luck, but rather to the belief that gods and goddesses could modify one’s fate (and avoiding the most established religions). Still, I appreciate her stressing the fact that if one believes in luck (as opposed to sheer randomness), this expresses at the very least a form of irrational belief in higher powers that can bend randomness in one’s favour (or disfavour). Which is the seed for more elaborate if irrational beliefs. (For illustrations, Borgès’ stories come to mind.)

“B.F. Skinner believed that superstitious behaviour was a consequence of learning and reinforcement.” (p.85)

There are also parts where (a belief in) luck and (human) learning are connected, but, unfortunately, no mention is made of the (vaguely) Bayesian nature of the (plastic, p. 188) brain modus operandi. The large section on the brain found in the book is instead physiological, since concerned with finding regions where the belief in luck could be located. In relation with attention-deficit disorders. (Revealing the interesting existence (for me) of mirror neurons, dedicated to predicting what could happen! Described as “predictive coding”, p.153). The last chapter “How to get lucky” contains a rather lengthy account of “Clever Hans”, the 1990 German counting horse (!). Who, as well-known, reacted to subtle and possibly unconscious signals from his trainer rather than to an equine feeling for arithmetic…

One of the clearest conclusions of the book is (imho) that a belief in luck may improve the life of the believers, while a belief in being unlucky may deteriorate it. The Taoist tale finishing the book is a pure gem. But I am still in the dark as to whether or not my exceptional number of bike punctures in the past year qualifies as bad luck!

“Luck is the way you face the randomness of the world.” (p.191)

As an irrelevant aside, one anecdote at the beginning of the book brought back memories of the Wabash River flowing through Lafayette, IN, as it tells of the luck of two Purdue female rowers who attempted a transatlantic race and survived capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic. It also made me regret I had not realised at the time there was a rowing opportunity there!

the biggest bluff [not a book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 14, 2020 by xi'an

It came as a surprise to me that the book reviewed in the book review section of Nature of 25 June was a personal account of a professional poker player, The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova.  (Surprise enough to write a blog entry!) As I see very little scientific impetus in studying the psychology of poker players and the associated decision making. Obviously, this is not a book review, but a review of the book review. (Although the NYT published a rather extensive extract of the book, from which I cannot detect anything deep from a game-theory viewpoint. Apart from the maybe-not-so-deep message that psychology matters a lot in poker…) Which does not bring much incentive for those uninterested (or worse) in money games like poker. Even when “a heap of Bayesian model-building [is] thrown in”, as the review mixes randomness and luck, while seeing the book as teaching the reader “how to play the game of life”, a type of self-improvement vending line one hardly expects to read in a scientific journal. (But again I have never understood the point in playing poker…)

and it only gets worse…

Posted in Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2018 by xi'an

“…in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” Donald T.

“President Trump is building a wall of tariffs around the domestic economy, attempting to protect American jobs by limiting imports. But a tire factory that opened last year in Richburg, S.C., offers a reminder that globalization is hard to stop.”  NYT, Sep 18

“Worried their chance to cement a conservative majority on the Supreme Court could slip away, a growing number of evangelical and anti-abortion leaders are expressing frustration that Senate Republicans and the White House are not protecting Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh more forcefully from a sexual assault allegation”  NYT, Sep 20

President Trump rejected the official estimate from the Puerto Rico government that nearly 3,000 people died from Hurricane Maria through a series of misleading or false claims: He cited an outdated tally that officials had acknowledged almost immediately was too low, misleadingly suggested that doubt over the tally did not emerge until “a long time later,” accused Democrats, without evidence, of inflating the figures and wrongly described the current official estimate as counting all deaths on the island, regardless of whether they were related to the storm.” NYT, Sep 13

“The Trump administration is rolling back Obama-era standards to limit planet-warming methane pollution from oil and gas operations on federal lands (…) In a separate action, the Environmental Protection Agency last week finalized a plan to eliminate the Obama administration’s requirement that oil and gas companies monitor and fix methane leaks for new operations.” The Guardian, Sep 19

and it only gets worse…

Posted in Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 23, 2018 by xi'an

“David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, recently summed up the “Trumpian world-view” writing, “Trump takes every relationship that has historically been based on affection, loyalty, trust and reciprocity and turned it into a relationship based on competition, self-interest, suspicion and efforts to establish dominance.” NYT, June 14

“Donald Trump has dismissed concerns about the widely condemned human rights record of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un, praising him as a “tough guy”, a “smart guy” and a “great negotiator”.” The Guardian, June 14

“Clinics that call themselves crisis pregnancy centers are not obliged to tell women when state aid may be available to obtain an abortion, according to a US supreme court ruling that represents a blow to pro-choice groups (…) All three of the court’s female members dissented.” The Guardian, June 27

“A resolution to encourage breast-feeding was expected to be approved quickly and easily by the (…) United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly. Based on decades of research, the resolution says that mother’s milk is healthiest for children and countries should strive to limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes. Then the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations. The intensity of the administration’s opposition to the breast-feeding resolution stunned public health officials and foreign diplomats, who described it as a marked contrast to the Obama administration.” NYT, July 8

“President Trump on Tuesday pardoned a pair of Oregon cattle ranchers who had been serving out sentences for arson on federal land (…) The pardons undo an Obama administration appeal to impose longer sentences for the Hammonds and show that, at least in this case, the Trump administration is siding with ranchers in the battle over federal lands.” NYT, July 10

“President Trump stood next to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Monday and publicly challenged the conclusion of his own intelligence (…) “No prior president has ever abased himself more abjectly before a tyrant,” Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said in a statement. “Today’s press conference in Helsinki was one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory.” ” NYT, July 16

“The Interior Department on Thursday proposed the most sweeping set of changes in decades to the Endangered Species Act, the law that brought the bald eagle and the Yellowstone grizzly bear back from the edge of extinction but which Republicans say is cumbersome and restricts economic development.” NYT, July 20