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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

How to Lie with StatisticsHow to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

My Rating★★★★☆

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics: The Pirates of the Powerpoint

Darrell Huff uses a simple, but effective literary device to impress his readers about how much statistics affect their daily lives and their understanding of the world.

He does this by pretending that the book is a sort of primer in ways to use statistics to deceive, like a manual for swindlers, or better, for pirates. He then pretends to justify the crookedness of the book in the manner of the retired burglar whose published reminiscences amounted to a graduate course in how to pick a lock and muffle a footfall: The crooks already know these tricks; honest men must learn them in self-defense.

This keeps the book interesting and entertaining, though for anyone even partly trained in statistics, it has very little educational value.

Of course, the title of this book and Huff’s little charade would seem to imply that all such operations are the product of intent to deceive. The intelligent reader would be skeptical — it is the unfortunate truth that it not chicanery much of the time, but incompetence. On the other hand, Huff is pretty clear that the ‘errors’ if that is what they are always seem to come down on the side of the interested party. As long as the errors remain one-sided, he says, it is not easy to attribute them to bungling or accident.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

After being fellow pirates for much of the book, in the concluding chapter Huff finally lets go if his pet charade and faces up to the more serious purpose of the book: explaining how to look a phony statistic in the eye and face it down; and no less important, how to recognize sound and usable data in that wilderness of fraud to which the previous chapters have been largely devoted. He lays down some thumb rules, which in the end comes come down to asking intelligent questions of the stats, especially of the conclusions. Asking such questions require the readers to be aware of the tendency of stats to mislead and to not be dazzled by the numbers.

Huff’s book is primarily an attempt to pull down the high estimation automatically awarded to anybody willing to quote numbers. It is a fun evening read for the expert, who may then roll his eyes and say that there is nothing of real value in the book. But as its popularity attests to, it seems to be an important book for the lay reader, just by serving a reminder that the pirates are still out there — wielding their charts.

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Posted by on May 11, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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The Economist Presents: Economics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

Economics: Making Sense of the Modern EconomyEconomics: Making Sense of the Modern Economy by Simon Cox

My Rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is easy to be stunned by the manifest foresight that a book like this can showcase. But the reader has to remember that in a magazine like The Economist, a number of contrasting ideas about the current world economy would always be sloshing around. To later make a selective compilation of those articles that proved to be ‘prophetic’ is an exercise in exclusion that is designed to present a false sense of confidence or analytical foresight. Just because a collection of articles from a magazine turned out to be quite close to the mark, there is no reason to believe that any random article you might pick up from this week’s Economist will be of equal predictive value.

I have nothing against the magazine or the book. I greatly enjoy the magazine and to a more moderate extent liked the book as well. But the blatantly triumphant endnotes trumpeting the date of each article and a further note on how the world actually played out was grating to say the least.

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Posted by on July 15, 2013 in Books

 

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India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

India: The Emerging GiantIndia: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya

My Rating★★★★☆

After having read Sen (Development as Freedom) and having been greatly influenced by his ideas, it was only fair to Bhagwati that I read one of his books next. But I decided to start with his collaborator’s work before moving into his own. Having read Dasgupta‘s views on this recently helped in this decision.

Am planning to be reading the two new works by the contending clans next…

In this book Panagariya offers an analytic account and interpretation of the major economic developments in postindependence India along with a detailed discussion of where the policies currently stand and a road map of the future reforms necessary to accelerate and sustain growth.

The principal problem with such a specific and policy oriented book that is grounded on empirical data than on any purely ideological or theoretical grounds is that the stats need to be updated every two years or so to maintain relevance, not just of the recommendations but of the argumentative underpinnings as well.

I am tempted to write a detailed review on the policy recommendations and the outlines provided by Panagariya but I have to refrain till I catch hold of a decent book with a more recent treatment.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic EconomicsEconomics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic Economics by Henry Hazlitt

My Rating★★★☆☆

 

This is a true ‘Economics or Dummies’ book. It can be useful in case you want something handy to bang over an economic nit-wit’s head on short notice. Only such a dummy would be unable to puncture your simplistic arguments or need them in the first place. Beyond that, it is hard to envisage much use for this volume, whether for serious discussion or for serious reflection. So if the initial bang was not good enough and if you pack no other arsenal, you might as well get out of there, and fast. This failing is primarily for want of breadth of scope and an explicit avoidance of addressing possible arguments.

After all, any book that promises to redue an antire discipline to ‘one lesson’ should not expect to have much more efectiveess than a poorly aimed sledge hammer.

Of course, there is a case for reading a book like this. Firstly, it might have been useful and even an essential book back then. Textbooks lack bite. Sometimes a book needs to come along that takes a point of view and is not shy of an argument, and of drilling in a single pov to the point of exhaustion. Which is probably why this book has lasted 50 odd years and is still only moderately outdated.

But to a modern student, such an unqualified approach can only seem like sophistry. He is too jaded to believe in panaceas.

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Posted by on July 13, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Calcutta Chromosome by Amitav Ghosh

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & DiscoveryThe Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery by Amitav Ghosh

My Rating★★★★☆

What was that Mr. Ghosh? An attempt at a new genre? A bold stroke at creating a uniquely Indian view on science and how it would have been if science research was driven by mystics and cults? A spi-sci-fi book?

***Spoiler Alert*** . It is a pity that all the science falls flat the moment it wanders beyond the known and the proven. It could have been so much better. However, because Ghosh keeps all the science strictly to the unreliable Murugan, it seems acceptable or at least pardonable – even when it is utter nonsense, we can take it as a man’s eccentricities and carry on in the ride he has created for himself.

If the narrator had not climbed aboard the same train for the ride, not to mention adding the unnecessary ghost train (or did I miss its significance all together?) and the comic book ending, I would have given the book an additional star to complete a fiver – it entertained me that much, and when unexpected entertainment finds you, it is exhilarating. The book under-delivered on literary merit but over-delivered on pure fun and that works, sometimes.

I fully expect it to be the worst of Ghosh’s works but I also know that I will not approach anything by him with the faint dread-steeped respect with which we approach most modern literary giants for the first time.

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books

 

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Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Meditations: A New TranslationMeditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Marcus Aurelius must have been a prolific reader. He sure was a prolific note-taker, for these meditations are surely his study-notes(?- after all he was a ‘philosopher’ from age 12). I don’t know of the publishing system at the time but where are the detailed footnotes and references? Marcus Aurelius is quite a wise man or at least he read enough wise men. He sure nailed it as far as boring a reader is concerned. No better way to establish your book’s wisdom quotient.

I am being needlessly caustic of course(do note my rating above). The book is quotable in almost every page and is good to dip in to now and then, you might well find an aphorism that fits the mood just right every time. And that is why the book is a classic and so well-loved.

Don’t read it as a scholar, you will end up like this reviewer. As I said earlier – He is like the wisdom of ages. Aargh 🙂 Not that it is all bad – it is like reading an old uncles’s notes after he has been preaching to you all your life.

Good that I am a stoic too. All ills are imaginary. Yes.

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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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Ah, Bartleby. Ah, Humanity.

Bartleby, the ScrivenerBartleby, the Scrivener by Herman Melville

My Rating★★★★★

At first, as I tried to contain my surprise that Melville, who awed me in Moby Dick, was now writing with such humour and lightness, I felt that Bartleby was a Heroic figure, someone to be admired and emulated – and a welcome break from the complicated characters of the doomed ship.

On second thought, with a slight sinking feeling, I felt he might be a Romantic figure, someone to be eulogized and applauded.

Then, still upbeat about the simplicity of the novella, I was sure that he was meant to be an Ironic figure, someone to be understood and assimilated.

Soon, as the comic aspects faded into melancholy and unexpected depth started invading the short narrative, I started feeling that he might instead be intended as an Absurd figure, someone to be pondered and puzzled over.

Towards the end, as I too devolved with the spirit of the poor man, I felt that he must certainly be a Tragic figure, someone to be pitied and parodied.

Finally, along with the narrator, I was on the brink of concluding that he is a Villainous figure, someone to be excluded and ostracized.

But, in the end, in the tragic and evasive end, the novella had proved itself to be anything but simple and he was none of this and all of this, of course. He was probably the essential human present in the most inscrutable of strangers, in the inner life of the other. He might also be the scion of capitalism, a representation of its many wonders, and an idle. early sacrifice at the altar of pacifism and non-violence. He was some mysterious combination of the heroic and the ironic, and the rest too, in all probability – of the incongruous and the inevitable. A Gandhi without an audience.

He was Bartleby, the Scrivener.

I would prefer not to classify or understand him any further. It will be too discomforting.

.

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Posted by on December 30, 2012 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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