Indemnity only by Sara Paretsky

December 27, 2020

Picked up thanks to the recommendation of Harriet Gilbert in A good read of BBC4. Enjoyed it!

The Searcher by Tana French

December 16, 2020

A very good read — if you like mysteries — and I have no hesitations in recommending; it has been long since that I read through a book at this pace. Enjoyed it a lot!! Here is a review!

How to make the world add up by Tim Harford

December 8, 2020

More or less from BBC Radio 4 is a programme that I have been enjoying for the past couple of years. Some of my students from the data analysis course that I teach have also found the episodes of this programme very useful, at times moving, and occasionally, so powerful that they changed some of their own views after listening to the episode. So, it is no wonder that his recent book subtitled “Ten rules for thinking differently about numbers” is such a great read!

Of course, there are rules such as thinking “How does this make me feel?” when we encounter data — which sounds more like a Zen philosophical teaching than some statistical tool or trick. However, it is the uber rule chapter about curiosity that I enjoyed the best! All the ten rules are subsumed in “Be curious”. The chapter is also a great tip for technical communicators — it clearly explains why it is important to communicate our findings through stories — humorous or mysterious — and stories, with sympathetic characters and a great story arc.

Finally, in this day and age, when all of us are being misled our political and cultural identities — by discarding evidence and reaching the conclusions we want to reach and not what the data is telling us, it is comforting that we are not alone in committing this folly; what is more, I find it all the more reassuring that with some training and mental practices, we can broadly overcome this shortcoming and train ourselves to be better!

Needless to say, a wonderful read and strongly recommended!!

A gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

November 20, 2020

A very nice read! Reminded me of Wodehouse at places and of McCall Smith in some places. I think I learnt about the book through BBC Radio 4’s A good read — though I am not able to locate the episode. In any case, a good read and strongly recommended!

The library book by Susan Orlean

October 10, 2020

Susan Orlean’s “The library book” is remarkable, and, a must-read book. I love reading about books, about reading itself and about the writing process. After reading this book, I realised that I also love reading about libraries. The book is an ode to libraries and librarians. It is a book about books and readers. It is a book about patrons of library. It is a book about openness, kindness, shared spaces, communities, and the remarkable people who love knowledge sharing in general and books in particular! An extraordinary read and strongly recommended!

The rest of this post is a personal reflection on my relationship to libraries triggered on reading the book — which, of course, you may skip and go read Orlean instead!!

The first public library I used in the Panchayat Library in a village about 3 kms from my home; this village housed the library as well as the high school I attended.

If I remember correct, the librarian’s name was Mr. R Chinnathambi and there was a staff member — Mr Vellaichamy. Mr. Chinnathambi was from a nearby village and came in his motorbike. Mr. Veillaichami came from a nearby town in the opposite direction and came by bus. Mr. Vellaichami was more regularly seen at the library — but for more important decisions, like, for example, if you are allowed to borrow the more colourful, cloth bound Uncle Tom’s cabin, Tom Brown’s school days, and Little women or hard bound novels such as Ivanhoe, you needed Mr Chinnathambi — at least at the beginning.

Being allowed to borrow the English books and the colourful ones at that, was of course a privilege that was not available to every member. At first, you borrow the usual books and return them on time — in the same condition in which you borrowed. After about an year or so of such regular borrowing and returning, when your credentials as a good reader and member is established, you will be allowed for short durations into the locked room which housed these English books with Mr. Vellaichami hovering around at the back. You needed to make quick decisions about what you wanted to borrow. Of course, over time, you were allowed to spend as much time as you want in the room — and, at times, even if Mr. Chinnathambi is not around.

Even though I have had access to a couple of school libraries, several college / University / research institute libraries (the library at Raman Research Institute and the reading room in Kavalur are the ones which are unforgettable!), a few private libraries (such as Eloor and Just books), others (such as USIS when I was doing my Masters in Madras, and the British council here in Mumbai till recently) and the public library at Evanston — not to mention the large number of books that we has at home when I was growing up, when I think of a library and the excitement that comes with it, the first thing that comes to my mind is the Panchayat Library — which was a 10 feet by 20 feet plus a locked room of 10 feet by 10 feet next to a noisy elementary school and on Mondays, super noisy thanks to the weekly village market (sandhai).

Of course, the other memorable library is the Evanston public library — which was very large, where access was super easy — on the very second day of reaching the place I could get a membership card, there was no limit to the number of books that one could borrow (oh! the feeling of carrying 10 or 12 books — all of which you were looking forward to reading — is heavenly), and, one could borrow not just books but video cassettes and music CDs. The library also had a children’s section, arranged programmes to attend to and had a computer room and palatial reading space!

One thing that I miss in the Indian urban-scape is the visit to the library; I remember a colleague visited a public library in Paris and was in awe of the place for months afterwards! I hope we strengthen our public library system and make them true hubs of knowledge! I hope we will also build some of the best libraries in our villages, towns and cities; I hope that we populate them with books from as many different languages as possible; I hope that these places will also be public spaces where there will be free and unfettered access and I hope that these spaces will become important points of interaction among the citizenry!! On that hopeful note, let me end this blog post!!!

Sundara Ramasamy’s Kavimani Ninaivodai

September 10, 2020

This books is primarily based on the reminiscences of Sundara Ramasamy about Kavimani Desiga Vinayagam Pillai.

Growing up, I loved Kavimani’s poems; they were simple, rhythmic, fun and very poetic. The poems such as “paattiyin veetil pazham panai” or “thottaththil meyudhu vellaip pasu” are the rare ones in our text book that we enjoyed so much that we recited them at home, discussed them with friends, and sang them so many times that they have become part and parcel of our childhood.

Sundara Ramasamy’s memories bring up the image of a poet who was at once innocent, slightly conservative, non-confrontational, and, with wide spectrum of friends. There are some interesting historical anecdotes including the meeting of EMS with him (and their interesting conversation about communism and how much is sufficient) and the controversy associated with Ma Po Si’s modifications of Kamban’s poems without proper research. It would be interesting to locate some of Kavimani’s books now after reading this piece!

A very interesting and nice read which packs so much in such a short space! Strongly recommended!!

Louise Penny’s All the devils are here

September 10, 2020

This is a bit different from the others — it is not set in Three Pines but in Paris. It is also a racy read. However, like all racy reads, nuances are missing; and, there are things which do not feel real or lacking in satisfactory explanations! But with all these, it is still a very good read and recommended!

Raya: Krishnadevaraya of Vijayanagara by Srinivas Reddy

September 2, 2020

Srinivas Reddy’s book is a very interesting and quick read; the notes are also full of interesting information. I enjoyed the read and strongly recommend the book!!

In my recent read, History men, I was surprised to learn that Maratha army, when moved, also took family members on pilgrimages. But, from Raya, it is clear that this is an old custom. Krishnadevaraya, apparently took a detour in his campaign against King Prataparudradeva, and, travelled with his wives and retinue to Tirupati temple! From the book, I also learn that the depiction of Krishnadevaraya in the sculptures differs from eye witness accounts of how the king looked.

The book is fascinating in its details — be it the dancers whose arms were so heavily bedecked that they needed others women to support their arms, or the Varaha inscribed Viajayanagara golden coins known as Varahas which were highly valued (I have personally seen that when gifts are in marriages and other functions, the amount is announced as varahas — though I did not know of this connection), or the Portuguese proverb that when you see your neighbour;s beard on fire, better soak your own in water!

Finally, there are also many interesting avenues which would be interesting to pursue; for example, I was surprised to note that use of rockets and fire works mentioned during the Navaratri functions in Vijayanagara! Did they also use these rockets as weapons? There is a passing mention about Krishnadevaraya’s connection to Vyasatirtha. It is also given that Raya himself was influenced by Vishishtadvaita. It would be interesting to know the details of the influence of these two schools of Vaishnavism, if any, on the King!

As usual, a good read for me is a book that leads to more books; in this case, it is Rayavacakamu, Amuktamalyada, Parijatha Apaharanamu and Manu Caritramu that I want to check out! I read the diaries of Nunes and Paes — with the glorious Narasimha photo on the cover –long back and I would love to revisit the book now!! I look forward to reading some of these in the days to come!!

Muriel Spark’s The girls of slender means

September 2, 2020

A quick and interesting read!

David Salsburg’s The lady tasting tea

August 2, 2020

One of the pleasures of the campus life is the book and movie recommendations that you get from friends and colleagues; once in a while, these books and movies blow your mind away! Salsburg’s book is subtitled How statistics revolutinized science in the twentieth century and, it is one of those recommendations that blew my mind. It is full of interesting details, anecdotes and lucid descriptions of statistical concepts, techniques and models. There are plenty of biographical details too. So, this semester, when I am teaching, some of this material is going to make it to my course and I am thankful to the colleague from IDC who recommended the book to me!

Now what follows is a long post of some interesting thoughts, anecdotes and quotes from the book along with my comments. You can either read this now, or, read the book (very strongly recommended) and come back here for comparing notes.

There is a story about Laplace: when asked about the place of God in his model, he answered Napoleon that he did not find the need for that hypothesis. However, Salsburg informs us that Laplace had to introduce a function called error function to account for small, random deviations. It was his hope that as measurements were made more precise, the need for error function will diminish. But, it so happened that as measurements were made more precise, the contribution of the error function increased. This book is the story of this transformation and how scientists, engineers, statisticians and mathematicians tackled this new challenge. Interestingly (and, somewhat ironically), the error function of Laplace has morphed into God now; Ian Stewart has a new book called “Do Dice Play God?”.

Salsburg’s book not only describes the story of the development of statistical techniques and their deployment, but also talks about the philosophy and the anthropology of science. Very early in the book, Salsburg, for example, says this:

Unfortunately, whatever nonscientists may think about science and its importance, my experience has been that most scientists engage in their research because they are interested in the results and because they get intellectual excitement out of the work. Seldom do good scientists think about the eventual importance of their work. (…)

What I discovered working at Pfizer was that very little scientific research can be done alone. It usually requires a combination of minds. This is because it is so easy to make mistakes.

And then, somewhere about the 100 page mark, Salsburg has this to say about science writing:

Although the reader may not believe it, literary style plays an important role in mathematical research.

There is also some interesting information about how the language and terminology can play a crucial role in development and deployment of ideas:

The Russian word for random variable translates as “accidental magnitude”. To the central planners and theoreticians, this was an insult. All industrial and social activity in the Soviet Union as planned according to the theories of Marx and Lenin. Nothing could occur by accident.

Of course, this is not true not only for Russian bureaucracy but also for managers of American industrial research centres; Salsburg indicates how one of a senior executives in the drug industry refused to send a report prepared by him to Food and Drug administration because the first column of the table was called “error “.

“How can we admit to having error in our data?”, he asked.

Salsburg had to replace the word with “Residual” before the report was accepted!!

The contrast with Soviet Union is, of course, the case of India:

In India, P. C. Mahalanobis became a personal friend of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the early days of the new government of India. Under his influence, Nehru’s attempts to imitate the central planning of the Soviet Union were often modified by carefully conducted sample surveys, which showed what really was happening to the new nation’s economy. In Russia, the bureaucrats produced false figures of production and economic activity to flatter the rulers, which encouraged the more foolish excesses of their central economic plans. In India, good estimates of the truth were always available.

What is also important is that people in the government assert their independence. Here is the case of Janet Norwood who became the Commissioner of Labor Statistics:

Before Norwoord became commissioner, it had been the practice of the Department of Labor that a representative of the policy arm of the department sat in on all reviews of the press releases planned by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Norwood informed the representative that he would no longer be welcome at these meetings. She believed that the economic information produced by the bureau not only had to be accurate and nonpartisan, it had to appear to be so.

One of the advice that is commonly given for attaining master over mathematics is that you should try to solve problems on your own before looking up the answer. Salsburg describes a totally different method (and this is the first time I heard it) used by I J Good:

Good was fascinated with books of mathematical puzzles, but he preferred to look at the answers first and then find a way to get from the puzzle to the proposed answer.

Salsburg gives many examples of Stigler’s law of eponymy — mostly in the footnotes; if the wrong naming of distributions, curves and concepts is ubiquitous, I am also surprised by how many of them can be traced to the Bernoullis!!

We are in an age where availability of large data is not uncommon; even in this time and age, small sample sizes is ubiquitous and knowing how to deal with them is important. This problem of small sample size goes back to at least a century:

In Gosset’s experience, the scientist seldom had the luxury of such large samples. More typical was an experiment yielding ten to twenty observations. (…) In one of his letters … he writes “If I am the only person that you’ve come across that works with too small samples, you are very singular. It was on this subject that I came to have dealing with Stratton -a fellow at Cambridge University, where] … he had taken as an illustration a sample of 4!”

That reminded me of a story of Dharma Kumar:

There are some marvellous stories in Dharma’s unpublished memoirs. She recalls a conversation with Nicholas Kaldor, an eminent Cambridge economist who advised the Government of India en route to a British peerage. After meeting a beautiful Indian girl named Lata Sen, Kaldor told Dharma: “I have done some research on your country, and discovered that all women named Sens are gorgeous and all men named Sens brilliant’’.

But Nicky, you know only two Sens,’’ she protested. “Yes,’’ admitted Kaldor, “but my other generalisations are based on even less evidence.’’

Like everything else, statistics is a very human endeavour and hence subject to all our follies and foibles:

According to some who knew Fisher, …Pearson and his friends effectively froze Fisher out of the mainstream mathematical and statistical research. According to others, Fisher himself felt rebuffed by Pearson’s cavalier attitude and by his failure to get a similar paper published in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (the other prestigious journal in the field); and he proceeded to use other journals, sometimes paying the journal to have his paper appear in it.

Upon a time, doing computations involved physical labour; apparently, Fisher used a hand cranked calculating machine to do his computations, and,

If it took about one minute to complete a single large-digit multiplication, I estimate that Fisher needed about 185 hours of work to generate that table. There are fifteen tables of similar complexity and four large complicated graphs in the article. In terms of physical labour alone, it must have taken at least eight months of 12-hour days to prepare the tables for this article.

One of the important lessons from the book is the sanctity of data and how imposing our views on data instead of learning from data can lead to disaster:

Although Kolmogorov and his students made major contributions in the mathematical theories of probability and statistics, the Soviet Union gained little from the statistical revolution. Why this was the case provides an example of what happens when the government knows the “correct” answer to all questions.

There is another story — as to how Japan benefited from statistical methods of quality control:

He told them that , with the proper use of statistical methods of quality control, they could produce products of such high quality and low price that they would dominate markets all over the world. Deming noted in later talks that he was wrong in predicting this would take five years. The Japanese beat his prediction by almost two years.

As with the Soviet story, Deming could not get these methods implemented in his home country, USA, though –mainly because upper echelons of managements would not play ball!

I also learnt from the book about the observer influencing the results effect that exists in statistics called Hawthorne effect; apparently, an experiment tried to choose between two methods failed because, they workers, knowing that they are under constant scrutiny performed extremely well in both!!

There is much more of interest in this extremely well written book; I wish more textbooks on statistics are written with this clarity and style. Once again, strongly recommended! Have fun!!