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

WEAPONS OF MATH DESTRUCTION

HOW BIG DATA INCREASES INEQUALITY AND THREATENS DEMOCRACY

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 19, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2016

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Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

GOOD ECONOMICS FOR HARD TIMES

“Quality of life means more than just consumption”: Two MIT economists urge that a smarter, more politically aware economics be brought to bear on social issues.

It’s no secret, write Banerjee and Duflo (co-authors: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way To Fight Global Poverty, 2011), that “we seem to have fallen on hard times.” Immigration, trade, inequality, and taxation problems present themselves daily, and they seem to be intractable. Economics can be put to use in figuring out these big-issue questions. Data can be adduced, for example, to answer the question of whether immigration tends to suppress wages. The answer: “There is no evidence low-skilled migration to rich countries drives wage and employment down for the natives.” In fact, it opens up opportunities for those natives by freeing them to look for better work. The problem becomes thornier when it comes to the matter of free trade; as the authors observe, “left-behind people live in left-behind places,” which explains why regional poverty descended on Appalachia when so many manufacturing jobs left for China in the age of globalism, leaving behind not just left-behind people but also people ripe for exploitation by nationalist politicians. The authors add, interestingly, that the same thing occurred in parts of Germany, Spain, and Norway that fell victim to the “China shock.” In what they call a “slightly technical aside,” they build a case for addressing trade issues not with trade wars but with consumption taxes: “It makes no sense to ask agricultural workers to lose their jobs just so steelworkers can keep theirs, which is what tariffs accomplish.” Policymakers might want to consider such counsel, especially when it is coupled with the observation that free trade benefits workers in poor countries but punishes workers in rich ones.

Occasionally wonky but overall a good case for how the dismal science can make the world less—well, dismal.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-61039-950-0

Page Count: 432

Publisher: PublicAffairs

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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