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WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION

HOW BIG DATA INCREASES INEQUALITY AND THREATENS DEMOCRACY

An unusually lucid and readable look at the daunting algorithms that govern so many aspects of our lives.

How ill-conceived algorithms now micromanage America’s economy, from advertising to prisons.

“Welcome to the dark side of Big Data,” writes math guru O’Neil (Doing Data Science: Straight Talk from the Frontline, 2013, etc.), a blogger (mathbabe.org) and former quantitative analyst at the hedge fund D.E. Shaw. In this simultaneously illuminating and disturbing account, she describes the many ways in which widely used mathematic models—based on “prejudice, misunderstanding, and bias”—tend to punish the poor and reward the rich. The most harmful such models, which she calls “Weapons of Math Destruction,” often have devastating effects on people when they are going to college, borrowing money, getting sentenced to prison, or finding and holding a job. For example: credit scores are used to evaluate potential hires (assuming bad scores correlate with bad job performance, which is often not true); for-profit colleges use data to target and prey on vulnerable strivers, often plunging them into debt; auto insurance companies judge applicants by their consumer patterns rather than their driving records; crime predictive software often leads police to focus on nuisance crimes in impoverished neighborhoods. As the author notes, the harmful effects are apparent “when a poor minority teenager gets stopped, roughed up, and put on warning by the local police, or when a gas station attendant who lives in a poor zip code gets hit with a higher insurance bill.” She notes the same mathematical models “place the comfortable classes of society in their own marketing silos,” jetting them off to vacations in Aruba, wait-listing them at Wharton, and generally making their lives “smarter and easier.” The author writes with passion—a few years ago she became disillusioned over her hedge fund modeling and joined the Occupy movement—but with the authority of a former Barnard professor who is outraged at the increasingly wrongheaded use of mathematics. She convincingly argues for both more responsible modeling and federal regulation.

An unusually lucid and readable look at the daunting algorithms that govern so many aspects of our lives.

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-553-41881-1

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: July 18, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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