Recent Reads: Weapons of Math Destruction

Weapons of Math Destruction

Cathy O’Neil

Nonfiction | Social Justice

math-destruction

A former Wall Street quant sounds an alarm on the mathematical models that pervade modern life — and threaten to rip apart our social fabric

We live in the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives—where we go to school, whether we get a car loan, how much we pay for health insurance—are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. In theory, this should lead to greater fairness: Everyone is judged according to the same rules, and bias is eliminated.

But as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this urgent and necessary book, the opposite is true. The models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable, even when they’re wrong. Most troubling, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can’t get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he’s then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a “toxic cocktail for democracy.” Welcome to the dark side of Big Data.

Continue reading/purchase on Amazon

Weapons of Math Destruction turned out to be one of those books that will stick with me for a long time… shifting my lens on the world, questioning my Google search decisions, making me even more leery of click-bait articles and ads, forcing awareness of how my online behaviors subtly shape the social opportunities of those that are “like me,” contrasting with those that are not.

I read this book for the “social justice” book club I joined a few months back.  We’ve been reading a blend of genres, all somehow tied to a social justice theme (some more loosely than others).  Weapons of Math Destruction was selected by the lone biostatistician in the group.  Very fitting.  I felt somewhat anxious to start, considering the focus on “big data” was something out of my comfortable wheelhouse of expertise (or even remote knowledge).  I was nervous it’d be over my head, dry, and a chore to page through.

While it was absolutely ripe with new information, it was laid out so eloquently and with such conviction that this 218-page persuasive essay turned into an engrossing page-turner.  I read only a chapter at a time to keep my mind in the game, but it took me a brief week to get through it all.

I found myself gasping outloud, furious with new enlightenment on how algorithms have widened the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”  I felt like I was back in my undergrad sociology classes, just rife with anger and frustration with the powers outside of my control.  I kept on bringing this book up in conversation the moment I saw any sort of connection to the content.  (“Oh, you went to college?  Well let me tell you how big data has completely screwed full populations out of equal education and is forcing them into lives of joblessness, loan defaults, and a cruel cycle of despair!”  ….what, too much?)

Early on in the book, Cathy O’Neil describes her definition of “Weapons of Math Destruction” (or WMDs).  They are mathematical models and algorithms that (as most mathematical models) use proxies to stand in for qualitative information (such as a person’s zip code or language to stand in for their potential to pay back a loan or handle a job.) Now, mathematical models are not inherently evil.  Look at baseball statistics.  Totally legit. The difference is that WMDs are discriminatory, lacks any feedback loop, is opaque to the impacted person, and is scalable… it grows to hit mass populations.

I’ve tried summarizing one of her arguments in a short and digestible format, but it honestly won’t do it justice here. Just pick up the book – pick up one chapter – and read through her insights.  She’ll make you question your assumptions, and force you to look at the injustices woven through our systems.

Go get mad.

Accolades include…

  • The Guardian, Best Books of 2016
  • Boston Globe, Best Books of 2016, Non-Fiction
  • New York Times, 100 Notable Books of 2016 (Non-Fiction)
  • New York Times, Best Seller
  • Long listed for the National Book Award
  • Goodreads reviews available here.
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Recent Reads: Me Before You

So… I’m a bit behind posting my “Recent Reads.”  But I did consume a handful of pretty good ones over the past couple months.  In an effort to pass on those good reads, I’ll post a book every other Friday to catch up.  Total transparency: the reviews will be pretty brief, but I hope you find a gem to add to your own library.

Up first:

 

Me Before You

JoJo Moyes

Fiction

Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn’t know is she’s about to lose her job or that knowing what’s coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he’s going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn’t know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they’re going to change the other for all time.

I’d say Me Before You is a perfect beach read, book club, or chic-lit option.  Sucks you in with easy prose – amusing characters – some sexual tension – terrible tragedies.  While I didn’t cry while reading this book, I know many that had.  But believe you me – I was absolutely ugly-crying when I saw the movie in the theater.   (Thanks to the “Mother of Dragons,” Emilia Clarke and the musical stylings of X Ambassadors.  I could just not control myself.  Embarrassing.)

The sequel, After You, got fair reviews, as well – hoping to add that one to my library soon.

2017 – The Year of the Rested

Stay rested, my friends.

Original Post: Richards, Carl. “Let 2017 Be The Year of Working Hard and Resting Hard.” The New York Times, 19 Dec 2016. 

Let 2017 Be the Year of Working Hard and Resting Hard.


I’m tired — really tired — and I’m tired of being tired. In fact, it feels like I’ve been tired ever since I read Andrew Grove’s book “Only the Paranoid Survive” a decade and a half ago.

That book was the beginning of a sea change in my thinking about work, business, hustling and survival itself — so much so that I’ve been working like a fanatic ever since.

Up at 5 in the morning? Tried it! Daily workouts? Yep. Paleo, bulletproof, gluten-free, cold showers? Check. Build a business, start a side hustle, dominate Twitter, Instagram and Facebook? Yeah, all that too! Make my family a priority? Of course. Serve in my community? Definitely.

For 5,478 days, I’ve been hitting repeat, and it’s killing me.

I know I’m not alone. The last 10 years have felt like the #CrushIt decade. Every time you turn around, somebody is crushing something. Gary Vaynerchuk wrote the book on it, and according to him, people “need to work harder. And faster. There’s really nothing else to it. I’m exhausted every day, but I’m making all sorts of things happen in my 18 hours.”

Carl’s Confession

The Sketch Guy, on resolving to rest more in 2017.

He added, “And I’m prioritizing what’s important and what’s not.”

So, there we have it. We can add “exhausted” to words like “cynical” and “busy” that we wear as badges of honor. As crazy as it all sounds, I have to admit to having believed it. A part of me in some dark corner of my mind whispers: “This is all true, Carl. If you don’t keep hustling, you’ll end up falling behind, and no one will listen to you. Ever. Again. Then, you’ll just be another failure, left to crawl under a rock, cold and alone to die!”

But since I’ve appointed myself King of Permission Granting, I hereby grant everyone the permission to declare the #CrushIt decade finished. January 2017 will be the official start of the “Work Hard, Rest Hard” decade. We are going to hustle, sure. But we’re also going to rest. In fact, we’re going to be as good at resting as we are at crushing things.

We’re going to become pros at turning off social media, getting great sleep, working less and living more.

We’re going to make being rested cool. We’re going to write about, share and celebrate people like Jason Fried, who switched his company to a four-day workweek during the summer. Then, when people ask how you’re doing, you can say, “Sit down. Let’s talk about it for a minute, because I have time for you, my friend.” At minimum, you should be able to answer, “Rested, and how are you?”

I know this sounds like crazy talk, but we can do it. Make it a priority to be human again — to work hard and to rest hard without buying into the idea that we’ll fail at life if we rest.

And please send me your stories of how you plan to make the switch to hello@beingcarl.com.

 

Adieu, 2016. Salut, 2017.

Inspired by Gala Darling’s au revior to 2016, let’s say our final goodbye’s to 2016, and welcome 2017 with some visual meanderings.

Here’s my lookback on the past year, and intentions for the next.

My biggest inspiration in 2016 started something like this:

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But to be honest, 2016 actually looked a lot like this:

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So adieu 2016!  And let’s march on to 2017, where my vibe is going to be more like:

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And I’ll show more of my authentic self, which is something like:

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When I’m feeling unsure, I’ll remember to channel…

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…with a little bit of

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I’ll spend more time doing:

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And I’ll take care of myself by:

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So that at the end of 2017, I feel like:

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Onward, 2017.  Here we go.