Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Manga Guide to Statistics: Maybe this will help me understand why the Bears suck

See, you gotta make a football reference when the Super Bowl is on.

Lots of other people have linked to this, but it's cool enough that I also feel the need to do so: you can download the first issue of Filipino artist Gerry Alanguilan's Elmer for free from his site.  It's about sentient, murderous chickens.  There's a selling point for you.

Okay, I'm sure everybody has been waiting for this one:

The Manga Guide to Statistics
"By" Shin Takahashi
"With" Trend-Pro, Co., Ltd. (scenario writer re_akino and illustrator Iroha Inoue)

Oh, those wacky Japanese.  They'll make comics about anything!  Or that's what we've been led to believe in the West; I've never seen these pachinko and mahjong manga that people talk about (not that I have any reason to doubt that they exist).  But with this book, we get a taste of the diversity of the comics that are available in Japan; it's hard to get more esoteric than a comics-format textbook.

And that's basically what this is, even if it does attempt to tell a sort of story amidst its math lessons.  The tale goes: teenage Rui becomes infatuated with a handsome coworker of her dad's named Mr. Igarashi, and after a brief discussion about population samples for survey purposes, she asks her dad to have an employee tutor her in statistics, hoping to spend more time with the handsome fellow.  But wouldn't you know it, instead of Igarashi, the bespectacled nerd Mr. Yamamoto shows up instead.  Ah, misunderstandings; what would comedy be without them?  But even though Rui doesn't get what she wanted, she decides to throw herself into the lessons, in hopes of swaying Igarashi's presumably numbers-obsessed heart.

And so the hilarity ensues, as Rui stumbles toward understanding and Yamamoto reveals himself as a dork who reads shojo manga (ouch!  I better not hit on any Japanese girls) and obsesses over schoolgirl uniforms, and they both learn lots of life lessons.  Well, not really; mostly they just talk about statistics a lot.  And it works pretty well, as a primer for the basics, although the first half is a bit more effective.  Things get more complicated in the later chapters, and try as they might, Rui and Yamamoto just can't quite make things like chi-square distribution, p-values, and hypothesis tests very easy to understand, and even topics like the standard score (a.k.a. "grading on the curve") could have benefited from some notes explaining how this translates to something Americans (especially students, who would be the ideal audience here) would be more familiar with.

But what the book does well works quite nicely.  The art is nicely clean and filled with just the right amount of detail, and the characters are quite expressive and given to funny asides.  I laughed every time Rui made a scared face at a complicated equation: 

And the way she and Yamamoto would whimsically switch to different costumes to illustrate a point (or a reaction to a certain idea, or just to be funny) is pretty enjoyable, livening up what could be a very dry subject:

Overall, it's not really enough to function as a textbook on its own, but as supplemental material for somebody who might be having trouble with a course (or somebody who just wants to know some basics), it works pretty well, especially in the first half, as mentioned above.  The early lessons benefit from some real-life examples, like comparing bowling scores or considering reader response cards from manga volumes.  It's not going to set the world on fire or anything, but it's nice to see something fairly unique in the West that doesn't really fall into any of the established genre categories but still has a Japanese personality.  If you're looking to learn about the harmonic mean and standard deviation, you could do worse.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.  If you're interested in more like this, the publisher's website has information about some of their other books, including manga guides to subjects like databases, calculus, physics, and electricity.