Book reviews

Older book reviews

"A computational Approach to Statistical Arguments in Ecology and Evolution" by G. Estabrook, to appear in "The Quarterly Review of Biology"


"A computational Approach to Statistical Arguments in Ecology and Evolution" by G. Estabrook

George F. Estabrook’s “A Computational Approach to Statistical Arguments in Ecology and Evolution” has the goal of teaching students and research scientists how to make statistical arguments using computational approaches. With the computational approach, predicted probability distributions are calculated via simulations, which according to Estabrook should allow the reader to ”[…] make inferences from data, free of the burden of unwanted mathematical assumptions”.

After a brief introduction to the history of statistical concepts and computer programming, the reader is introduced to the Microsoft Excel macro programming language Visual Basic for Application, the software and language chosen by Estabrook to implement computational approaches in this book. Then follows an example-driven introduction to hypothesis-testing using computations, and brief chapters describing the most common statistical distributions emerging in ecology and evolution, the linear model, how to analyze non-independent data, and contingencies. Almost every chapter starts with a (fully reproducible) empirical example that is analyzed using computational approaches. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on random variables and statistical distribution, where Poisson and Normal distributions are introduced starting from natural phenomena.

I consider the use of Excel to be a weak point of the book. While it is probably true that most students without previous exposure to coding and programming concepts and practices would be more comfortable using Excel and macro programming than other more powerful (but with longer learning time) software/languages, for the ambitious student or researchers the possibilities (libraries, communities of users) offered by tools like R or Matlab/Octave far outweigh the initial struggle.

However, the book is much more about statistical arguments, and how to develop them using a computational approach, than about computer programming. I recommend the book to students and researchers looking for an easy, interesting, and condensed introduction to a computational approach to statistics.


Older book reviews

****(*) Excellent with Honorary Mention **** Excellent *** Nice ** Readable * Not suggested

Oren Harman. The Price of Altruism.

Kevin Cook. Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything.

Susan Casey. The Wave.

Tony Dungy. The Mentor Leader.

John Bonner. Lives of a Biologist.

Aida Donald. Lion in the White House.

Katò Lomb. Polyglot.

Robert Sutton. Good Boss, Bad Boss.

Leo Babauta. Focus.

Ken Robinson. The Element.

Karen Pryor. Don't Shoot the Dog.

David Grann. The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.

Timothy Ferriss. The 4-hour Body.

David Kessler. The End of Overeating.

George W. Bush. Decision Points.

Spencer Wells. Pandora's Seed: the Unforeseen Cost of Civilization. **

Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars. ***

Arthur Koestler, Arrow in the Blue.

Gary Kamiya, Shadow Knights: The Secret War Against Hitler. ***

If you liked Skorzeny's "My Commando Operations", you'll enjoy also this slim book about English Special Operation Executives. A life full of dangers, almost every second behind the enemy lines. Our present (big) problems look like a stroll in the park compared to what these tough men endured.


William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Not rated, yet, running for the Honorary Mention. The heaviest history book in the world (maybe 5 pounds?) One of the most interesting, also. This magnificent work is full of semi-unknown facts and forgot official documents.The relationships between Hitler, his closest men (Himmler, Goering, Goebbels, Rohm, Ludendorff) and his madness are well described, as well as the difficult relationship with the generals of the Wermacht (Beck, just to cite one). Interesting fact: after his years in Spandau (for the Munich putsch) he was fatter than before. Some powerful people were looking after him. First lesson (Hitler): persistence pays off. Second lesson (others): it is better to cut the tree before it has grown to full size (England, France and US were all responsible for not avoiding WWII when it was easy to stop German military - then explosive - growth, as before the remilitarization of the Ruhr in 1936.)


Charles Simenon, Intimate Memories.

James Watson, Avoid Boring People.

William James, The Vareties of Religious Experience.

David Crystal, How Language Works.

Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, What Darwin Got Wrong.

Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.

Margo Wilson and Martin Daly, Homicide.

Nicholas Carr, The Shallows. ***

Thought-provoking. Is internet changing our brain circuits? I think so, the author too. He provides very interesting studies and researchs on the connection between medium and message (McLuhan docet), attention span, horizontal and vertical learning. Interestingly, while I was reading "The Shallows", I read in the introduction of Koestler's autobiography how he had to go to the Times of London to look for his secular horoscope (he was born in 1905). Now the research would be a little bit faster, wouldn't it? As a side note, Carr mentions in the book that Larry Page started programming in Artificial Intelligence when he was in middle school. Zuckerberg, of Facebook's fame, even before. Put the hours in, the message seems to be.


Elliott Aronson, Not by Chance Alone: My Life as a Social Psychologist. ***

Aronson has been of the most successful social psychologist ever. From Stanford to Harvard to University of California Santa Cruz, only interesting experiments, especially on cognitive dissonance. His mentor in early career was Leon Festinger, who formulated an early version of the cognitive dissonance theory.


Michael Phelps, No Limits: The Will to Succeed.  ***

What about three 3 workouts in 5 years or so (2 for a wisdom tooth extraction)? When enormous talent is not enough.

Guy Deutscher, The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind's Greatest Invention. ****

This gem of a book was an excellent introduction to the field of linguistic. Why do we say"at all" at the end of a question, as in: "do you want a bag, at all?" Read the book and you will find the answer (and why in a couple of generations "at all" might become "tall".) Or why the auxiliary "gonna" is not an auxiliary in a question (we don't say: Gonna we watch a movie?)

Some of the books read during the summer 2010

Iain Pears, Stone's Fall. ****(*)

With Ian Pears you cannot go wrong. He clearly enjoys presenting different versions of the same story (as he did in "An Instance of the Fingerpost") and I enjoy reading them. Stone is a whealty and powerful man, Elizabeth a mysterious and charismatic woman. Stone dies falling down an open window and an awesome, intriguing story begins.


Ransom Riggs, The Sherlock Holmes Handbook. **

Robert Dilts and Todd Epstein, Dynamic Learning. ****

Theory and methods of learning is one of my favourite subjects. Despite the technological (not necessarily computer or electro-related) advancement of the last centuries, our institutional programs are still in the Middle Ages. We need new ways of looking at the dynamics of learning, Dilts and Epstein provide very interesting ones.

Jacques Hadamard, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field. ***

Linda McCabe and Edward McCabe, How to Succeed in Academics. **

Massimo Carlotto, L'Alligatore. ****

Jerry Lynch, The Way of the Champion. ***

Matt Fitzgerald, Run.

Jerry Weintraub, When I stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead. ***

Weintraub was an interesting character. Born in Brooklyn and raised in the Bronx, he soon discovered his vocations, making money, organizing events and being a good friend to famous people. One of the most successful producers of all times (Elvis - with the Colonel, of course - the great and sad John Denver and the Ocean's movie series.) It seems that everyone enjoyed his presence on the scene, I bet it is not the truth (the title continues with "useful stories from a very persuasuve man", not for nothing.)

Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising. ***

Robert Anton Wilson, Quantum Psychology. ***

Philip Kerr, The Dead Rise Not. ****(*)

Kerr is one of my favourite authors, well researched and incisive writing, awesome historical fiction, a private dectective in the best of "Marloweian" tradition (no, I don't forget Dashiell Hammett.) The Berlinese trilogy is a modern masterpiece, the adventures of private investigator Bernie Gunther are breathtaking, historically accurate and lots of fun. Between hard-boiled and noir, the Berlinese trilogy is set during the Nazi regime. The other Gunther's novel span over Cuba (under Batista and where "The Dead Rise Not" is mostly set), Russia (comrade Stalin) and Argentina (Juan Peron and the nice lady, who rested in peace in Italy under the name of Maria Monti - it was a Trivial Pursuit question I still remember). 

Jonathan Chase, How to Make Friends with Yourself and Influence People. **

Kathy Barker, At the Helm. **

J.C. Pool and R.M. La Roe, The Instant Economist. ***

Maxwell Maltz, Psycho-Cybernetics. ****

Among the few really profound and well-thought "self-help" book. Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics applied to psychology. Convincing.

James Austin, Zen and the Brain. ***

Joseph Fogel, The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death. ****

Fogel won the Nobel Prize for Economics in the early 90s for his work on the economic value of slavery (slave agriculture was efficient compared to free agriculture, according to this often heavily criticized research) and on railroads and american economic growth. Fogel invented the term techno-pysio-evolution to explain the increase in height and other physical metrics and the lower mortality experienced by humans in the last 150 years. An impressive scholarly work,"The Escape From Hunger and Premature Death" is a longer version of his Nobel Prize Lecture. According to his extrapolations, centenarian will be common at the last quarter of the 21st century (good for me.)

Rober Coram, Boyd. ****(*)

As the title says "The fighter pilot who changed the art of war". A little bit late for WWII, in full combat mode during Korea, too old for Vietnam, Boyd was a master pilot, a master teacher and a master researcher. He put his fighter career on hold to go to University studying engineering. Developer of the Energy-Maneuverability (E-M) theory, he was the man behind much of the research in the development of fighter planes and the art of aerial combat. Late in life was deeply interested in the art of war (read about the Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action loop and Boyd's incisive explanation of German Bliztkrieg in WW2 in his 5-hour briefing "Patterns of Conflict") and in the origins of innovation and creativity (look for Destruction and Creation.) Boyd reminds me of the Gregory Peck's character in "Twelve o' clock high", an awesome movie, in case you were wondering.

Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works. ***

Dan Ariely, Unpredictably Irrational. ***

Harry Browne, How I Found Freedom in an Unfree  World.

Don't explain, don't justify and don't organize.

Edward Mann and Edward Hoffman, The Man Who Dreamed of Tomorrow. *

So and so book about Wilhem Reich.

Norman Cousin, Anatomy of An Illness. **

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Rework. ****

Mary Roach, Packing for Mars. ***

Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power. **

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossibile. ***