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182 BOOK REVIEWS

the fore in recent years. He suggests some Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen: An Explo-
considerations for models and priors which ration of Mathematical Connections. By
make robust an important subset of proce- Peter M. Higgins. Oxford University Press, Ox-
dures based on the posterior. In addition, he ford, 2007. $35.00. viii+247 pp., hardcover.
makes a remark which, though pragmatism ISBN 978-0-19-921842-4.
is correctly the rule in both camps, goes
to the heart of the conceptual dierence Any book seeking an educated popular au-
between Bayesians and frequentists: dience confronts the author with a number
of hard choices at the outset. For example,
. . . robustness is crucially dependent on
how much background is it safe to assume
the dualism between things under con-
trol of the Statistician and things not for the readers? Given that experts will
under his control. . . Bayesian statistics also likely read the bookperhaps with an
on the other hand tries to do away with eye toward recommending it to casual ac-
the parts that are not under control of quaintances interested in the subjecthow
the Statistician. . . . much detail need be included? How rigor-
ous should proofs be? Should the topics
It is fair to say, I think, that, given its include well-beloved chestnuts of the eld,
success, robustness theory has recently been and how much liberty can be taken to im-
less a subject of research than in the era in bue the central concepts with enough dazzle
which Huber did his principal work. The and air to keep the beginner intrigued?
current focus is on high-dimensional and This reviewer could generate many more
complex data. The line between good questions of this sort and presumably, with
and bad data has become blurry. But a few moments of thought, all who teach or
there are new issues which have some of the who ever explain their work to others, in-
avor of robustness: stability in the face of cluding strangers on airplanes, may well be
high dimension, when, again, classical pro- able to come up with a list more comprehen-
cedures can behave very badly, just as the sive and pointed. The point of this exercise
mean becomes worthless in the presence of is simply to set the stage for understand-
even mild contamination. There are curi- ing how to interpret Peter M. Higginss
ous, apparently formal but probably deeper, excellent book.1 Rather than aspiring to
connections between so-called soft thresh- reach the great unwashed masses, Higginss
olding and the inuence function of the book targets the many scattered pockets
Huber estimate [1] and between Tychonov of washed, educated people who crave in-
regularization and robustness. Stability is sights into their daily experiences and want
also manifesting itself as a criterion to be to understand unifying threads that braid
focused on in machine learning [2]. together certain kinds of systems, problems,
I hope the reissue of this important book and solutions.
will, by bringing the fundamental issues of As such, Im a near perfect person to
robustness to the fore again, spur research review the book at hand. Im a slightly im-
in areas of substantial current concern. pure mathematician endowed with only a
cursory knowledge of graph theory. I came
to Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen knowing a
REFERENCES
bit about Euler circuits and Hamiltonian
paths, a few odd facts about the nonembed-
[1] P. Bickel, Minimax estimation of the dability of classes of graphs in the plane,
mean of a normal distribution when and a vague sense from a colleague who
the parameter space is restricted, Ann. teaches discrete math that solving one of
Statist., 9 (1981), pp. 13011309.
[2] O. Bousquet and A. Eliseef, Stability 1 Ive
and generalization, J. Machine Learn- noticed in recent years that museums
ing Res., 2 (2002), pp. 499526. and other sites and repositories of historical
importance oer interpretive tours. This is
a shift from merely oering guided tours. In
PETER BICKEL that spirit, this review is a brief interpretative
University of California, Berkeley tour of the book.

Copyright by SIAM. Unauthorized reproduction of this article is prohibited.


BOOK REVIEWS 183

the marriage problems involves graph the- with a few students in addition to professors
ory in some way. I wanted to learn more, from English, psychology, neurology, and
and, in particular, I hoped that I would computer science. We take turns present-
learn things I could carry back for use in ing on topics such as Chomskys universal
my own studies. grammar, natural languages and learning,
To begin to address the questions asked recursive functions, perception, and brain
in the rst paragraph, Higgins assumes no structure. Although it may have been a
real math knowledge beyond that acquired stretch, I decided to present on de Bruijn
by bright middle-school children who have directed graphs, a topic I learned about in
embraced their studies. The book would not Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen. For the unini-
be an easy read for a tweener or high school tiated, the nth-order de Bruijn graph has
kid interested in, say, math, sudoku, mazes, 2n1 nodes, which are labeled distinctly by
marriages, or ecient routes between des- the 2n1 binary strings of length n1. Each
tinations, but all terms are dened, all new node has precisely two distinct edges com-
ideas are carefully introduced, many exam- ing in, labeled 0 and 1, respectively, and two
ples are provided, and Higgins takes care, distinct edges exiting, similarly labeled. It
even with sophisticated topics, to ground is due to how these directed edges connect
them in concrete settings. Similarly, for a the nodes that interesting things happen.
college-educated liberal artist or social sci- For example, one remarkable property of de
entist, if the will to understand is there, Bruijn graphs is that, to paraphrase Hig-
reading Higginss book will likely bring rich gins, you can always get there from here.
rewards to a dedicated reader. In other The graph clearly admits an Euler circuit,
words, Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen may be for each node is of even degree, but the
safely recommended to all and sundry. property is considerably more striking: re-
My elds of origin are smooth dynamical gardless of which node you are at, to reach
systems and topology, and, as indicated a labeled node, you simply follow the edges
above, Im far from an expert in discrete labeled by the binary digits as the node you
matters. A staple in topology for advanced are trying to reach. For example, if you are
undergraduates/beginning graduate stu- at any node in a de Bruijn graph of order 5,
dents is Brouwers xed point theorem, and youd like to arrive at the node labeled
which says, in its most basic form, that 1101, you need only sequentially follow the
any continuous map f from the closed unit exit edges labeled 1, 1, 0, and 1, and this is
disk in R2 to itself must have at least one guaranteed to take you there. It may not
xed point; that is, there must exist at be the shortest path, but it will be a path
least one p R2 such that f (p) = p. The of length n 1 culminating at the desired
standard proofs tend to rely on at least one node of the de Bruijn digraph.
nontrivial result, and thus it was a breath of Another thing worthy of note about de
fresh air when Higgins introduced Sperners Bruijn graphs is that the computer scientist
lemmaa result Id never bumped into in the seminar had never heard of them.
and used it in conjunction with ideas of He thought that they were nifty and hoped
compactness and continuity to obtain the to use them in his future research (his
result. As such, it was a gesture toward specialty is AI and learning). Along with
readership by experts or, as Higgins would that, the other professionals also found de
have it in the last chapter, connoisseurs.2 Bruijn graphs worthy of their time and
In recent years, Ive had the opportunity consideration, and, nally, it was easy to
to regularly participate in a small seminar dream up problems based on them for the
students in the seminar. Put dierently,
2 By there was material in the book that was
the way, this is Higginss thoughtful
solution to the problem of how much detail to new to experts and appealed to novices: a
include, particularly with an eye toward sophis- nice trick to pull o!
ticated readers: rather than unduly burdening In a similar vein, the sections on au-
his exposition with footnotes or endnotes, the tomata and languages proved to be a good
last chapter of the book continues a number of introduction, both for me and the other
topics and proofs. participants in the seminar. In particular,

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184 BOOK REVIEWS

the students were motivated by examples read on, though, it became apparent that
crafted from Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen, there was a well-thought-out ow to the
and they uniformly enjoyed sinking their ideas in Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen, and
teeth into problems generated from it. Hig- that, in fact, the orchestration constituted a
gins also gave a good sense of some of the well-developed theme. Lemmas, theorems,
directions research in this area might take, and denitions that might have been one-
including links with abstract algebra, semi- time throwaways were used later on in the
groups, and monoid theory.3 book and, as a reader, I found this deeply
One more item that stood out for this satisfying. I am pleased to recommend the
reviewer was the proof of the five-color the- book to both novices and experts.
orem for suitable graphs embedded in the
WILLIAM GOLDBLOOM BLOCH
plane or on a sphere. The up-and-down, is-
Wheaton College
it-solved-or-isnt-it history of the four-color
problem justies its inclusion in the book,
and it was nice to see, both as a powerful
application of the ideas and as a historical Prime-Detecting Sieves. By Glyn Harman.
lesson, the simple and elegant proof pro- Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2007.
vided by Higgins. $75.00. xvi+362 pp., hardcover. ISBN 978-0-
I have only one reservation about the 691-12437-7.
book, and it is not so much a critique of
Higginss work as it is an indictment of soci- Everyone knows what a prime number is
ety. Nets, Puzzles, and Postmen is carefully a positive integer greater than 1 that is
written in language elevated signicantly divisible only by 1 and itself. Beyond the
above that of tweets and postings in the denition, there are few simple statements
blogosphere, and wonderfully dry humor is we can make about primes. For example, it
sprinkled throughout the book. If it is to is dicult to recognize them, to count them,
be recommended to civilians or strangers to know where they lie, or to deal with such
on a train, it would be good to caution curious questions as the Goldbach conjec-
them in advance that rather than embark- ture that every even number exceeding 4 is
ing on a James Gleick-like mythologizing of representable as the sum of two odd primes
a subject and its practitioners, its a tour of (who adds primes?).
mathematics oering ways to organize and Problems such as these are deep mat-
understand a large collection of complex ters that tantalize the mind and take the
systems, puzzles, and ideas under a unify- reader into distant reaches of higher mathe-
ing set of ideas. (This is not to suggest that matics, as Harmans monograph illustrates
Gleicks books arent enjoyable.) admirably. Turn its pages and read the
Higgins covers the classicsmeaning, statements of the numerous theorems pre-
again, results previously known to meand sented, and you get the avor of the tasks
provides a solid overview of many dierent that workers in this eld have set them-
kinds of problems that either have roots in selves; at the same time you will realize
the eld or that can be protably attacked how much remains to be done. Then look
by recasting the problem in terms of nets at the proofs, and unless you are an expert
and graphs. Indeed, for a while, it seemed in this area or seriously aspire to become
to this reviewer that Higgins was simply one, you will put the book aside as being
cherry-picking diverse results and throwing too technical.
them pell-mell into the manuscript. As I The aim of the book is to exploit iden-
tities of R. C. Vaughan and of D. R.
Heath-Brown, especially the former, for the
3 It is dicult to maintain a judiciously mag- weighted prime detecting function (n) (de-
isterial tone throughout a book, and as much as scribed in Chapter 2) to simplify many and
this reviewer enjoyed the section on automata
diverse investigations involving primes. The
and language, this was the one spot in the
book where it seemed as though Higgins either
treatment extends beyond the usual prime
rushed through the exposition a trie or, per- numberslater chapters provide interesting
haps due to his expertise in the material, was applications to the distribution of Gaussian
less careful than otherwise. primes and even of prime ideals.

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