Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

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I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

Additional resources:

Pulitzer Project: The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck (1932)

The Good Earth.jpgA Brief Summary: Wang Lung is a poor farmer who has dreams of a better life. In the beginning of the book, he lives in a small two room mud hut with his elderly father. The book opens on his wedding day, where he has finally been able to purchase a slave, O-lan, from the wealthiest family in town, to bring home as a wife. Together, Wang Lung and O-lan toil to build a life together. We follow Wang Lung’s rise to fortune, lands, and wives. As Wang Lung slowly amasses land and fortunes, he slowly becomes the same kind of  corrupt landowner that he grew up hating. Meanwhile, China is undergoing the turbulence of famines and revolutions – the Xinhai Revolution.

Setting: Anhui, China

Time Period: 1911-ish

A Fun Fact: Not sure if this fact is “fun” but Anna May Wong was denied the role as the leading lady in the film adaptation because she was “too Chinese.” Instead, the role went to American/German actress Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.

Luise_Rainer_in_The_Good_Earth_trailer_2

Review: The legacy of this book is pretty controversial. Writer Celeste Ng has written a pretty scathing essay on all the reasons why she hates this book.

I hate The Good Earth because, all too often, it’s presented not as a work of fiction but as a lesson on Chinese culture. Too many people read it and sincerely believe they gain some special insight into being Chinese. In one quick step, they know China, like Neo in The Matrix knows kung fu.

I agree with Ng in a lot of ways. If I am being generous, I would say that maybe in the 1930s, this book was seen as revolutionary or insightful on life in a foreign country. I think that like Oliver La Farge and Julia Peterkin, the authors’ hearts are in the right place. Pearl S. Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent a good part of her life actually living in China (about 42 years.) She was even awarded the Nobel Prize for “her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

anna may wong

Anna May Wong

But, like Scarlet Sister Mary, I don’t think this book really stands the test of time. It’s important to keep in mind, that at the time this book came out, there were still miscegenation laws in America, so that a Chinese actress could not kiss a White actor on screen. So of course it’s logical for 1930s-America to accept at face-value that Buck is an expert on China. While I didn’t find her writing as ridiculous as Peterson’s, the tone of the book seemed very judgmental. She writes like an anthropologist observing uncultured heathens in their natural environment.

 

But the writing and story itself, if we examine it strictly from plot and character development, are quite compelling. Wang Lung is a pretty fully fleshed out person; he’s flawed, selfish, ambitious, and hard working. The story of a man’s rise from rags to riches is common and crosses cultural identities. I would honestly have been more interested if Buck wrote more about life as a missionary in China, and I would have perhaps found her observations more compelling in a different medium (memoir? essays?). I’m sure she’s written other books, but it does irk me, as a Chinese-American, that Pearl S. Buck’s name is so synonymous with Chinese fiction.

My only other criticism is that by the end of the book, Buck has beaten the metaphor of “good earth” to death. She is obsessed with the idea of land as provider, the Good Earth. There are better books to read about farmers, about the Chinese revolution, and about how people can become corrupt or greedy as they become wealthier.

“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself – clothes upon the body of his son.”

The importance of diversity and representation is that no single book becomes the defining book of a culture or nation. I’ve probably said this a million times, but I think what we need to do is read widely, so that we can see a cross-section of a time or culture. I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to Chinese culture, but then again, I wouldn’t recommend any single book as an introduction to Chinese culture (or any culture).

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Pulitzer Project: Laughing Boy, Oliver La Farge (1930)

the pulitzer project

laughing boy.jpgA Brief Summary*: At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive “American”-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences

Setting: T’o Tlakai, a fictional town in Southwestern America

Time Period: 1914

A Fun Fact: The book was adapted into a movie in 1934.

Review: After the disappointment of Scarlet Sister Mary, I was hesitant to pick up Laughing Boy when I saw it was a “Navajo” love story written by a rich white guy from Rhode Island. But, I gave La Farge a chance, and I was pleasantly surprised. I wasn’t completely blown away, but I enjoyed the book much more than I expected. Turns out, La Farge was an anthropologist who spent most of his life fighting for Native American rights. I think it was this interest and devotion that helped him create complex characters, especially in comparison to the caricatures we saw Julia Peterkin create.

This book tells the love story of Laughing Boy and Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is jealous of Slim Girl’s American education, while Slim Girl is trying to learn the traditional Navajo skills to fit into the community. It’s endearing to see the two of them try to figure out their place in society together, but neither of them ever feel like they fit in. I related to this predicament, as I’m sure most children of immigrants would. As Laughing Boy introduces Slim Girl to a lot of Navajo traditions, such as dances, horse taming, and blanket weaving, La Farge gives us a very basic primer as well. La Farge writes respectfully; for example, he keeps a lot of the traditional songs in the Native Navajo language instead of trying to translate into English. The book has a timeless feel, and I think part of this is due to such a narrow cast of characters and plot. Most of the story revolves around the two main characters, but we get a few glimpses into other people’s lives here and there. One scene I really liked happens when a few young Navajos go into a general store to play a prank on the storeowner.

I think there is an interesting trend going on in the Pulitzer awards. Between 1928 – 1932, four of the five books are about non-White people (even though they all had very White authors). We have just visited Peru in The Bridge of San Luis Rey, the Gullah people in Scarlet Sister Mary, we are visiting the Navajo here, and in just two short years, we’ll be out of the country, in China, with Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. I am always thinking about the importance of diversity, and it’s nice to see the Pulitzer juries valued this even 100 years ago. However, I will definitely be eagerly looking forward to the first person of color to win the Pulitzer! Just taking a brief glance at the list, I’m not sure when this is – does anyone know?

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I would recommend this book to people who are curious about Native American literature, but honestly, if you are, I would suggest you start with Native American authors, like Louise Erdrich, for starters. While I enjoyed the book more than expected, I don’t think I would recommend this to friends or revisit this book in the future.

Review: Martha Stewart’s Vegetables

Sorry for the radio silence over here, friends. I was feeling pretty uninspired all of October, I don’t think I even finished a single book. And then this past week has been a doozy, hasn’t it? I am emotionally and spiritually exhausted. I have been pottering around the kitchen and taking a lot of naps. I thought I’d focus some of my energy away from politics and the news by adding what I hope becomes a regular column about Learning to Cook. Here, we will be doing our usual cookbook reviews, but also (hopefully) sharing other recipes and stories with you as well. What better way to start a culinary adventure than with Martha Stewart?


Martha Stewart, domestic and culinary goddess, recently released a new cookbook on Vegetables. I have been searching for ways to bring more veggies into my life. While I love salads and stews, sometimes you just want something different. Do not be fooled by the title, this is not a book for vegetarians. I was a little disappointed by this, because while veggies are in every recipe, they are not necessarily the star of each meal. I don’t need Martha to tell me I can add onions to a stir fry, do you?

The book is organized by types of vegetables – flowers, tubers, legumes, etc. While I can understand this categorization, I think I would have preferred the book to be organized by season. (I know, I know, you could also argue that different types of vegetables are also a form of eating seasonally.) There are photographs of each recipe, which I really loved. The food is all beautifully plated and presented – the photographs alone are worth flipping through the book to look at.

The first recipe I tried was her Roasted Pork Chops with Sweet Potatoes and Apples, because I was feeling the autumn crisp in the air and excited for fall produce. I’ve shared the recipe below, along with some of my notes:

Ingredients:

  • 4 bone-in pork chops, each about 1 inch thick (about 2 1/2 pounds total)
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium sweet potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1 large sweet onion, such as Vidalia, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
  • 1/3 cup apple-cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup apple cider
  • 1 teaspoon caraway seeds
  • 2 apples, preferably Honeycrisp, thinly sliced, seeds removed

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Season pork with salt and pepper. Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat; swirl in oil. Cook chops until golden brown, turning once, about 8 minutes. Transfer to a plate. Remove all but 2 tablespoons fat from skillet.

  2. Reduce heat to medium. Add potatoes and onion; season with salt. Cook until golden in spots, about 10 minutes. Add vinegar and cider. Cover and simmer, stirring a few times, until potatoes are tender, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with caraway seeds. Return pork and juices to skillet; tuck apple slices between chops. Roast until a thermometer inserted into thickest part of chops (without touching bone) registers 138 degrees, about 10 minutes. Serve pork, vegetables, and apples with pan juices.

Jessica’s Notes:
I am not especially a fan of sweeter dishes. I generally prefer savory, spicy, & salty things. That being said, this recipe made some very juicy and tender pork chops. I think the combination of sweet potato, apples, and apple-cider vinegar was a little too much for me. I think next time, I would replace the sweet potato with normal potatoes and throw in some jalapenos or star anise for an extra kick. The recipe suggests you could use apple juice instead of apple cider vinegar, but I think the acidity of the vinegar is really necessary. As I’ve been cooking more and more, I have become feeling more confident about modifying recipes. I might try tweaking and writing my own recipes in the future.

The recipes in Martha’s book range from very simple salads to slightly more complex meals. I think it’s a pretty safe choice for beginner cooks like me, because you could slowly build a repertoire that you feel confident about. There are a wide range of recipes, so there will be something for any palate. I like that there are a manageable number of recipes, so that you don’t feel completely overwhelmed the way you might when you’re browsing online.

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I would recommend this book to people who love beautiful cookbooks and who are looking for ways to incorporate more veggies into their lives. However, like most recipes, a lot of these are available on Martha’s website.

  • I’d like to thank Blogging for Books for sending me this book in return for an honest review.