Archive for The Guardian

FALL [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 30, 2019 by xi'an

The “last” book I took with me to Japan is Neal Stephenson’s FALL. With subtitle “Dodge in Hell”. It shares some characters with REAMDE but nothing prevents reading it independently as a single volume. Or not reading it at all! I am rather disappointed by the book and hence  sorry I had to carry it throughout Japan and back. And slightly X’ed at Nature writing such a positive review. And at The Guardian. (There is a theme there, as I took REAMDE for a trip to India with a similar feeling at the end. Maybe the sheer weight of the book is pulling my morale down…) The most important common feature to both books is the game industry, since the main (?) character is a game company manager, who is wealthy enough to ensure the rest of the story holds some financial likelihood. And whose training as a game designer impacts the construction of the afterlife that takes a good (or rather terrible) half of the heavy volume. The long minutes leading to his untimely death are also excruciatingly rendered (with none of the experimental nature of Leopold Bloom’s morning). With the side information that Dodge suffers from ocular migraine, a nuisance that visits me pretty regularly since my teenage years! The scientific aspects of the story are not particularly exciting either, since the core concept is that by registering the entire neuronal network of the brain of individuals after their death, a computer could revive them by simulating this network. With dead people keeping their personality if very little of their memories. And even more fanciful, interacting between them and producing a signal that can be understood by (living) humans. Despite having no sensory organs. The reconstruction of a world by the simulated NNs is unbearably slow and frankly uninteresting as it reproduces both living behaviours and borrows very heavily from the great myths, mostly Greek, with no discernible depth. The living side of the story is not much better, although with a little touch of the post-apocalyptic flavour I appreciated in Stephenson. But not enough to recover from the fall.

Among other things that set me off with the book, the complete lack of connection with the massive challenges currently facing humanity. Energy crisis? climate change? Nope. Keep taking an hydroplane to get from Seattle to islands on Puget Sound? Sure. Spending abyssal amounts of energy to animate this electronic Hades? By all means. More and more brittle democracies? Who cares, the Afterworld is a pantheon where gods clash and rule lower beings. Worse, the plot never reaches beyond America, from the heavily focused philosophical or religious background to the character life trajectories. Characters are surprisingly unidimensional, with no default until they become evil. Or die. Academics are not even unidimensional. For instance Sophie’s thesis defence is at best a chat in a café… And talks at a specialist workshop switch from impressive mathematical terms to a 3D representation of the activity of the simulated neuronal networks. Whille these few individuals keep impacting the whole World for their whole life. And beyond… By comparison, the Riverworld series of Phillip José Farmer (that I read forty years ago) is much more enjoyable as a tale of the Afterworld, even if one can object at “famous” people been central to the action. At least there are more of them and, judging from their (first) life, they may have interesting and innovative to say.

Hippocratic oath for maths?

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2019 by xi'an

On a free day in Nachi-Taksuura, I came across this call for a professional oath for mathematicians (and computer engineers and scientists in related fields). By UCL mathematician Hannah Fry. The theme is the same as with Weapons of math destruction, namely that algorithms have a potentially huge impact on everyone’s life and that those who design these algorithms should be accountable for it. And aware of the consequences when used by non-specialists. As illustrated by preventive justice software. And child abuse prediction software. Some form of ethics course should indeed appear in data science programs, for at least pointing out the limitations of automated decision making. However, I remain skeptical of the idea as (a) taking an oath does not mean an impossibility to breaking that oath, especially when one is blissfully unaware of breaking it (b) acting as ethically as possible should be part of everyone’s job, whether when designing deep learning algorithms or making soba noodles (c) the Hippocratic oath is mostly a moral statement that varies from place to place and from an epoch to the next (as, e.g., with respect to abortion which was prohibited in Hippocrates’ version) and does not prevent some doctors from engaging into unsavory activities. Or getting influenced by dug companies. And such an oath would not force companies to open-source their code, which in my opinion is a better way towards the assessment of such algorithms. The article does not mention either the Montréal Déclaration for a responsible AI, which goes further than a generic and most likely ineffective oath.

Gene Wolfe (1931-2019)

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on May 19, 2019 by xi'an

Just found out that the writer Gene Wolfe, author of the unique New Sun series (and many other masterpieces) had passed away two weeks ago. (The Guardian has a detailed obituary covering his life and oeuvres. Where I learned that he developed the Pringle’s machine for Procter and Gamble, something he can be pardoned for his other achievements!) The style of the New Sun series is indeed unique, complex, carefully designed, crafted in a very refined and beautiful language (missing the translation of the more appropriate langue), and requires commitment from the reader as the story never completely unfolds and sets all details straight, with characters rarely if ever to be taken at face value, making me feel the urge to re-read the book once I was finishing its last page. Which I never did, actually, and should consider, indeed!

and it only gets worse…

Posted in Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 8, 2019 by xi'an

. ” The Texas state legislature is debating a provision that wouldn’t just outlaw abortion, but legally qualify it as homicide(…) This, incidentally, is exactly what pro-choice advocates warned about when they said that a law passed in the George W Bush era, the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, as well as the related state laws, could eventually be used to criminalize abortion(…) All of these laws are in violation of Roe v Wade, but it seems one goal is to take advantage of an increasingly conservative US supreme court and see if Roe could be overturned, or at least rendered meaningless.” The Guardian,  11 April, 2019

““At a rally in Ohio last month, Mr. Trump suggested that wind power was too unreliable to be useful. “Let’s put up some windmills,” he said. “When the wind doesn’t blow, just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind. Please turn off the television quickly!” The New York Times, April 3, 2019

“The US is threatening to veto a United Nations resolution on combatting the use of rape as a weapon of war, the Guardian’s Julian Borger reports. The US is objecting to language that says survivors of sexual violence should have access to comprehensive health services, including sexual and reproductive health. It’s part of a hard line taken by the Trump administration in recent months, refusing to agree to any UN documents that refer to sexual or reproductive health, on grounds that such language implies support for abortions (…) In recent months, the Trump administration has taken a hard line, refusing to agree to any UN documents that refer to sexual or reproductive health, on grounds that such language implies support for abortions. It has also opposed the use of the word “gender”, seeking it as a cover for liberal promotion of transgender rights.” The Guardian, 22 April, 2019

“A U.S. threat to veto U.N. Security Council action on sexual violence in conflict was averted on Tuesday after a long-agreed phrase was removed because President Donald Trump’s administration sees it as code for abortion, diplomats said. The U.S. veto threat was the latest in a string of policy reversals that some U.N. diplomats say has been driven by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, a conservative Christian who staunchly opposes abortion rights. The language promoting sexual and reproductive health is long-agreed internationally, including in resolutions adopted by the Security Council in 2009 and 2013 and several resolutions adopted annually by the 193-member General Assembly.” The New York Time, April 24, 2019

“We believe in freedom and liberty and the right to keep and bear arms. We know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy are the centre of American life… In America we don’t worship government; we worship God.” The Guardian, April 26, 2019

heart of Paris

Posted in pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2019 by xi'an

aftermaths of retiring significance

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, University life with tags , , , , , , on April 10, 2019 by xi'an


Beyond mentions in the general press of the retire significance paper, as in Retraction Watch, Bloomberg, The Guardian, Vox, and NPR, not to mention the large number of comments on Andrew’s blog, and Deborah Mayo’s tribune on a ban on free speech (!), Nature of “the week after” contained three letters from Ioannidis, calling for more stringent thresholds, Johnson, essentially if unclearly stating the same, and my friends from Amsterdam, Alexander Ly and E.J. Wagenmakers, along with Julia Haaf, getting back to the Great Old Ones, to defend the usefulness of testing versus estimation.

“Scientists find genetic mutation that makes woman feel no pain”

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2019 by xi'an

A frontpage title in The Guardian of yesterday led me to think this was yet another entry about the Brexit Mayhem. Explaining much of the current mess. After checking it appeared to be unrelated… although the patient’s name being Cameron makes one still wonder.