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Song of a Traveller: the courtesan's salon - [Book Reviews] Spies, damn spies, and statistics
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[Book Reviews] Spies, damn spies, and statistics
I have enjoyed many of Nate Silver's articles about statistical analysis... he's one of the few people out there doing a really good job on risk analysis who has a wide audience. (Bruce Schneier and the Freakonomics blog, also both good and popular.) So when I heard he was coming out with a book, I was enthusiastic. "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- But Some Don't" is the worthwhile read that I had expected, and simultaneously validating and deeply depressing for me. (I am a fox and not a hedgehog. I am better at drawing likely conclusions than more deeply ideologue pundits are. My methods are largely valid! Aaaaand nobody really wants to listen to that because it's way less compelling for most humans than people who are expressing simpler philosophies with greater certainty... even if they are also demonstrably wrong far more often than I am. Aaagh!) I didn't find his sections on game stats particularly engaging, which is weird since I suspect that those were the interesting part for many people reading the novel. But those areas seem sufficiently covered by people who are interested in mathematical analyses of games and betting -- the MIT casino crowd comes to mind -- and just don't hold the interest for me that sociological models of real world predictions do. There's more fuzz in human behavior, and I think that's where Silver's skills as a modeler particularly shine -- he's excellent at mathematically modeling complex systems with more human fuzz than almost anyone else I know of working in the field, and figuring out how he comes up with those algorithms is fun to read about. Four "more possibilities than there have been moments in the universe" out of five.

I picked up Charles Heal's "Sound Doctrine: A Tactical Primer" on the recommendation of one of the martial arts blogs I read, and I don't think I'll be believing any of their recommendations again in future. This book might as well have been titled "Tactics for people who aren't very smart, can't think very far ahead, and also have never thought about this before". I mean, I realize that a primer is intended to be an introduction and not an advanced text and that most people need the low-hanging fruit more than anything else, but reading this was just painful. Not only did I not learn anything in the doing, but feeling like I was being talked down to throughout made me feel as if I were somehow vaguely stupider after having read it. One backup plan out of five.

I am still a sucker for the French romantics, and thus when I happened across a translation of an Alexandre Dumas (père) that I hadn't yet read, I pounced on "The Womens' War". It didn't disappoint. Intrigue, courtliness, covert operations, dastardly plans, buckles swashed, swashes buckled. I would have been happier if I'd skipped the whole lit-crit analysis in the introduction... not only do I disagree with the introducer, but he worried me in ascribing gender roles to the story which I didn't find to be the case at all when I read it. So I actually had less fun than I otherwise would have because of his analysis. (The argument of whether the female martial protagonists are modern heroines or romantic ones, that I can see going either way. But this is not a story about how women are all terrible at war and should go home and stop trying to be leaders. There's one woman who is terrible at it. There are several who are not. Not the same thing!) Once it comes out in paperback, I am so all over "The Black Count", and I have two of Dumas's novels in French that I picked up in Montreal which are as yet unread. In the meantime, I'm glad I read "The Womens' War" -- four and a half desperate night gallops out of five.

After having read some of his later work, I finally went back and read Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven". It does come off as somewhat less polished than his later work, but that's not a bad thing in a collection of stories largely about life for young men on the reservation. I can see why it made such an impact when it first came out. I particularly enjoyed Alexie's tongue-in-cheek commentary in the introduction about the process of publication, getting and working with an agent, and the pitfalls of being a writer. (His interaction with his mother there is the funniest. I could so easily see that being myself and my mother!) He manages to do magical realism in a way that doesn't annoy me, and that's a feat. Four youthful basketball stars out of five.

Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps was a loaner from mimerki that it took me months to get around to reading. Despite my slackitude, it's a relatively easy read, if horrifying in places. It usefully describes the sunset of an empire and the attempts to keep it in place by force of arms. While none of the historical figures depicted here are hugely sympathetic (basically, most of the people who managed to get into power in that era behaved pretty badly by modern standards), they were certainly colorful in deed and thoughtful in the face of social upheaval. The author does a good job of finding interesting sources that I hadn't encountered before in reading about the Meiji Restoration, and while his external commentary on the subject is a little more weighted than I normally expect in a history book, it was still a relatively easy read. Three and a half bushels of rice out of five.

I am still very much enjoying Cora Harrison's series about Mara, Brehon of the Burren, though I am waiting for it to get to the point of ridiculousness that all ongoing cottage mystery series face. ("Just how many people can die in this sleepy little community in the middle of nowhere in a series of unrelated murders?") "Eye of the Law" is another pleasing installment, with Mara's young scholars aging and learning, character development among the recurring folks, progression of her relationship with Donal, and a bunch of well-chosen uses of Irish triads, out-takes from Brehon Law texts, and other cultural touchstones. I love all the research that the author has clearly done into her setting, and her gentle gift for characterization really makes the townspeople and their world believable. Four plays upon mythology out of five.

On the flip side, I also really did not enjoy Fred Burton's "Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent". I was interested in the commentary from someone with a history in the Diplomatic Security Services, but his hard line black and white views about morality seemed really unfitting to someone doing the job that he was doing. I recognize that he was in part playing that up to highlight the moral conflicts he later felt in doing that job, but he still ended up far on the "us versus them" pole from where I am, or where anyone that I know that works in a related field is. I did find what little he could say from the inside of working the Middle East in the 80's interesting, but it's still pretty obviously highly classified or redacted. His commentary on the toll that working a job like that takes on you, though, that was spot-on with my experiences. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to bear that kind of responsibility before (or without!) any kind of critical incident stress debriefing. I'm glad he had a friend to talk it all over with, but I still was left kind of disappointed by the book. Two and a half ways to shake a tail out of five.

"The Edge of Never: A Skier's Story of Life, Death, and Dreams in the World's Most Dangerous Mountains" was one of my impulse used-book purchases at Lamplighter... I'm not particularly interested in skiing, but I did find the story of a son skiing the route that his father died on to be compelling enough to give it a read. (And having done enough silly extreme sports things myself, I am sympathetic to the desire to do things that make all of your friends think you're crazy.) It's well narrated, and while it's probably the only skiing book I'll read for some time, I'm not sorry that I spent the time I did on it. I was less than thrilled with the "bratty teenager is bratty" parts, and he's kind of the hero, but, well, what are you going to do? Three trips to Chamonix out of five, would have been more if I were more interested in skiing myself.

The other Lamplighter impulse buy was local author Ed Viesturs's "No Shortcuts to the Top: Climbing the World's 14 Highest Peaks". This one I particularly enjoyed, in part because I like hiking much better than I like skiing, in part because it dovetails well with and references other climbing/hiking/mountaineering books that I have read, and in part because Viesturs is a careful and methodical hiker that I can relate to. His stories about turning back a hundred feet from summits resonated with me... I've made that call on much smaller summits and have not regretted it. While his experiences profoundly exceed my own, there were enough similarities in thought process and experience ("I hiked all the way up here for the view and now it's CLOUDY?") that I found him a sympathetic and funny protagonist. I'll keep an eye out for other writing that he's done; four steady ascents out of five.

I picked up Lavie Tidhar's "Osama" because it is a book that Christopher Priest didn't hate, and I found that quite remarkable. I then promptly forgot what it was, and went looking for it when I had just read a bunch of very depressing books and was looking for comfort reading. My roommate cracked up laughing when I said, "At least I have a comic book! Oh, it's not even a comic book! And it's about Osama bin Laden! Aww, forget it...." Despite this less than auspicious start, I did find "Osama" a non-depressing read. It exhibited enough of the characteristics of magical realism that I figured out pretty early what was meant to be going on, and while I didn't find it as novel (ha!) or original a read as Priest did, I still did think it was a perfectly decent book. I'm told that if you have a fondness for pulp, it shines more, but that's never been a genre particularly dear to my heart. It sort of reminded me of a less well done "Palimpsest" in feel, but with more politics and less sexuality. Three and a half dimensional cops out of five.

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Comments
marzipan_pig From: marzipan_pig Date: December 26th, 2012 05:00 am (UTC) (Link)
Hah ha ha your 'Tactical Primer' review is killing me ded laughing :)
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 26th, 2012 09:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sometimes bad is just bad. [grin]
jalenstrix From: jalenstrix Date: December 26th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ooh, I am reading Nate Silver's book now with my Dad! It is lovely to see your review of it. My favorite parts are definitely the real world applicability history & discussion. (I never realized how much harder earthquake prediction is, compared to weather prediction, for example. Also, power law distributions in action - so cool! I have a whole spiel I do for my language acquisition classes about Zipf's law and such distributions in language. :) ) The only minor letdown for me was the overview of Bayesian inference - clearly, Silver knows his stuff since he makes such great stat models, but it seemed like a very unintuitive way to present it ("Look, some variables that we add and divide, just because!"). I'm of course horribly biased though, since I also cover basic Bayesian inference in my classes, and (for me), the way the calculation is done corresponds so beautifully and intuitively to the concepts of prior, likelihood, posterior, and evidence, and how they relate to each other. But anyway, yay predictions of hard, messy human stuff!
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 26th, 2012 09:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
What does your Dad think of it? I agree on the favorite parts... I forgot to mention that I also liked the section on earthquakes, though I knew some of it from my favorite weatherman's blog. (He talks about prediction models and weather systems a good bit too.) I didn't find the Bayesian explanation particularly challenging, but that might be because I'm in that middle ground of already understanding how it works well enough but not being a teacher of the subject as you are.
jalenstrix From: jalenstrix Date: December 27th, 2012 04:51 am (UTC) (Link)
My Dad is also quite fond of the historical overview stuff, but I think he was hoping for more in-depth coverage of the stat modeling. It's my turn to pick what we read next, so I might try to find something like a gentle introduction to Bayesian inference, or something similar. ;)
moodyduck From: moodyduck Date: December 27th, 2012 01:07 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, you liked Viestur's book for the same reason I did. He also seems to give credit where credit is due to luck, which many people don't...but it is also clear how his methodical and cautious nature led to success. I've read his other books but didn't like them as much. But then I'd generally rather read first-person accounts than third person assessments of other people's adventures or misadventures. You may like those more than I did.

I got Signal and the Noise for Christmas and am looking forward to reading it. Felt obligatory, for my line of work. Which includes a lot of not just doing the math but figuring out how to express it to people who can't or won't put in the effort to fully understand it.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 27th, 2012 01:41 am (UTC) (Link)
I like the misadventure stories when they're well told from a third party perspective -- Accidents in North American Mountaineering is split between first person and third person accounts, and I still find that interesting and valuable in the Don't Do This sense. I think I apply different bias filters to first party and third party accounts... they have Venn diagram-like blind spots. Personal bias and not willing to admit to your own mistakes in the outside on one side, lack of visibility into what happened because you weren't there and can't reconstruct it on the other. So, yeah, there's the armchair generaling that often happens with third parties who feel themselves superior/invincible, but to me that's a different filter for the unknown unknowns rather than a lesser mode. I will eyeball his other books when next I come across them in a physical books bookstore, but I'm not running right out to buy absolutely everything else he ever did tomorrow. [grin]

I look forward to hearing your opinion on Signal and the Noise... I can totally see how that's relevant to your work!
moodyduck From: moodyduck Date: December 27th, 2012 01:59 am (UTC) (Link)
Because of your interest in the Accidents book and thing-going-wrong-in-the-wilderness in general, I thought you might like the others more than I do. I'm more interested in how people mentally deal with their challenges and how it integrates with their lives, than with the raw events themselves, hence the reduced interest in third party accounts unless they are very well done.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 27th, 2012 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)
[nods] That part is interesting too, I agree. The integrating with their lives particularly, since so many of us don't have life or death in our day jobs.
cipherpunk From: cipherpunk Date: December 27th, 2012 03:10 am (UTC) (Link)
One of my own benchmarks for tactical primers is, "Does this book hammer into you the importance of putting this book down and drilling these responses?" Few, I've found, do that. The importance of simple but effective responses, thoroughly drilled, cannot be overstated.
thewronghands From: thewronghands Date: December 27th, 2012 03:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Rory Miller! Wrote a whole mini book of drills encouraging you to do just that. [grin]
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