weapons of math destruction

new job with lots of commuting time so romping through a few books, latest is “weapons of math destruction” – showing the role that mathematical modeling now plays in society, with examples of how Big Data and complex algorithms actually effect us in practice, like

  • The effect of the US News and World Report algorithm for college ranking, as colleges try and game the algorithm, while well-off families are at work gaming the complexities of elite college admissions systems.
  • The effects of targeted advertising, especially the way it allows predatory advertisers (some for profit educational institutions, payday lenders, etc.) to very efficiently go after those most vulnerable to the scam.
  • The effects of predictive policing, with equality before the law replaced by an algorithm that sends different degrees of law enforcement into different communities.
  • The effects of automated algorithms sorting and rejecting job applications, with indirect consequences of discrimination against classes of people.
  • The effects of poorly thought-out algorithms for evaluating teachers, sometimes driving excellent teachers from their jobs .
  • The effects of algorithms that score credit, determine access to mortgages and to insurance, often with the effect of making sure that those deemed losers stay that way.

The end chapter is on Facebook and the way political interests are taking advantage of the detailed information it provides to target their messages, to the detriment of democracy and reality.

Facebook is the most worrisome of all the Big Data concerns in the book. It exercises an incredible amount of influence over what information people see, with this influence sometimes being sold to the highest bidder. Together with Amazon, Google and Apple, our economy and society have become controlled by monopolies who also monitor our every move. In the context of government surveillance, Edward Snowden remarked that we are now “tagged animals, the primary difference being that we paid for the tags and they’re in our pockets.” A very small number of huge extremely wealthy corporations have even greater access to those tags than the government does, recording every movement, communication, and even every train of thought as we interact with the web.

The Silk Roads

The Silk Roads is a fascinating read, written with flair and the result of serious scholarship, it inverts received wisdom and charts mankind’s flirtation with global disaster. It feels like history has been distorted to fit the western agenda’s and the real terrorists are European by decent and claim that ‘freedom’ is the reason they oppress the rest of the world.

If you want to understand why the world has ended up where it is, then just reading the conclusion will help you understand.

a month of reading

So February and most of March have been filled with studying and reading. I highly recommend udacity for some free learning, easy sign up and the courses are made up of YouTube vids and tutorials – works for me. Been learning Visual Encoding and playing with dimple.js as part of the Introduction to Data Science.

Been reading lots too – started with “Philosophy of Boredom” by Lars Svendsen which is an academic paper turned into a book so quite heavy going but very interesting. Are you aware of how much you do that is out of boredom?

“A utopia cannot, by definition, include boredom, but the ‘utopia’ we are living in is boring.”

Next up was “The Path” by Michael Puett which is along the lines of a large-print self-help book based on readings of ancient Chinese wisdom. Each chapter draws lessons for modern life from a particular Chinese thinker – Confucius, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Laozi – and you reach the end wondering why life is so complicated and why can’t it be this simple.

Finally “Irresistible” by Adam Alter which i am half way through and can’t wait to read more. The crux “People have been addicted to substances for thousands of years, but for the past two decades, we’ve also been hooked on technologies, like Instagram, Netflix, Facebook, Fitbit, Twitter, and email—platforms we’ve adopted because we assume they’ll make our lives better. These inventions have profound upsides, but their appeal isn’t an accident. Technology companies and marketers have teams of engineers and researchers devoted to keeping us engaged. They know how to push our buttons, and how to coax us into using their products for hours, days, and weeks on end.”

Behavioural Addiction will become a very prevalent phrase as we wake up to the mass addiction we have all got.