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:

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Book Review & Discussion Guide: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Without You, There Is No Us is the title of a romantic drama in the same vein as Me Before You. However, the reality is a little more without-yousinister. In fact, “without you, there is no us” is a lyric in a patriotic song about Kim Jong-Il. Suki Kim is a journalist who goes undercover as an Evangelical Christian undercover as a teacher at Pyong-Yang University of Science & Technology (“PUST”). She teaches English to the children of (we assume) North Korea’s elite for half a year and writes a book about it. The book is fascinating because there simply aren’t that many memoirs about North Korea.

Most of the things that frustrated me about the book are more indicative of the North Korean political climate rather than Kim’s writing or experience. There just simply aren’t that many facts, statistics, or events in the book. Not a lot happens to Kim, because North Korea is controlling all of her experiences within Pyong-Yang: from group field trips to go hiking in the mountains to grocery shopping at approved markets for foreigners. However, I think Kim could have filled in some of the gaps with the political history of Korea or the history of the Korean War. I understand that to protect some of the people she met in North Korea, she had to change names and facts, but with so little facts already in the book, this rescrambling of information made the book less substantive than its alleged tell-all on the elite of North Korea.

A small thing that drove me (and my book club) crazy was Kim’s insertion of her “Brooklyn lover” into her memoir. While I understand that she felt isolated and cut off from her friends and family while in North Korea, I didn’t buy this connection to an ex-boyfriend. I was much more interested in Kim’s family’s reaction to and estrangement from her time in North Korea. Kim’s stories about her family’s time in Korea during the Korean War was so interesting and powerful, that I felt a much stronger investment in those relationships than in this arbitrary one that flutters in and out of her mind throughout the book. Our book club thought perhaps this was just a symptom of her solitude in North Korea — nostalgia for old flames. While it may have been true, I think she (or her editor) should have pushed through this a little more to get to the truth behind her experience.

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On Writing Negative Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative book reviews recently. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I have mostly negative things to say about a book. Granted, I’m no Michiko Kakutani and my opinions aren’t important enough to impact an author’s career. However should I, as someone who has never even tried to write a book, be able to criticize others’ attempts?

There was an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Banning the Negative Book Review” which argues that with so much negativity out there, do we really need to go out of the way to contribute to the “petty sniping” in the name of literary criticism?

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible (which I reviewed here), recently spoke on how she deals with negative reviews in an interview with the New York Times: “Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews.” In it, she has a helpful matrix that she uses to categorize reviews.

I think of reviews being mapped on a graph with four quadrants, and I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive, smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.

Curtis Graph

In Case You Need a Graph

So this leads to the question, what makes a smart negative review? Luckily, there are many articles out there on writing negative reviews. I especially liked J. Robert Lennon’s article, which lists the following thought-provoking suggestions.

  • Provide Context: “If you have space, try to characterize the shape of the writer’s career and show how the new book fits in it.”
  • Have Humility: “In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner.”
  • Provide a Path Forward: “Acknowledge what kind of excellence the writer might someday achieve, even if she didn’t this time out.”

I also came across art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s approach on works that he says aren’t “immediately congenial.” I thought that was a nice way to phrase this — something that may become congenial to you, with a little work.

I’ve got certain rules of thumb for work that isn’t immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively.

Schjeldahl acknowledges a book could be good but still not to your tastes. You don’t have to like every book that’s technically perfect or widely acclaimed. Part of the joy of reviewing a book is picking apart what works and why or imagining what kind of person would read or write this book. I think criticism is an art form in itself. I, for one, take a lot of pleasure in reading all sorts of reviews and spend  a lot of time thinking about what makes a review work. I don’t think books can really be rated on a scale of one to five, books generally aren’t all good or all bad. To me, reviews are a way to figure out what works and what can be better, both as a way to digest the work and to hold literary works to a higher standard. I’m still an absolute novice in constructing a good review, but it’s been a real pleasure to practice.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews? Does it make a difference whether the author is living or dead? Does it matter if you’re writing for a book blog or for the New Yorker? Is criticism a dying art? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book Review: Rain, Cynthia Barnett

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When I was a child, my father always told me that I would begin enjoying nonfiction books when I grew up. I never imagined I would begin to prefer nonfiction over fiction, but today, I am writing a review about a book on the natural and cultural history of rain, so I guess I am officially grown up. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain mainly caught my eye because Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice sentence about the book that was printed on the front cover: “A lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book.” I have a lot of respect for Kolbert, so while I won’t call her a liar, after I finished the book, I noticed she didn’t actually tell me the book was worth reading.

Rain: a Natural and Cultural History is an ambitious book that tries to cover a little bit of everything, such as explaining the rain cycle, the invention of waterproof raincoats, and whether rainy cities like Seattle spark creative genius. The book is half thought provoking and half fun trivia. It kept my interest, and I learned a slew of new facts that I used to impress my sister, the resident water-expert, such as the fact that Mobile, Alabama is the rainiest metro area in the country. However, the book was all over the place, jumping around in time, location, and themes. The book is broken into five seemingly arbitrary sections (for example Elemental Rain, Mercurial Rain, and American Rain.) Barnett tries to thread it all together by bringing up the same scientists every few pages throughout the book, but instead of creating a cohesive thesis, it makes the book seem disorganized and all over the place. While Barnett’s passion for her subject is palpable, I wish she would have spent more time editing and organizing the book. Some of the writing is confusing and unclear. Halfway through the book, Barnett starts writing in the first person to tell us about her travels chasing rain in Meghalaya, which both threw me off and annoyed me – where were you earlier?

I also have a bone to pick with nonfiction literature in general these days. Maybe it’s the law school rubbing off on me, but where are your footnotes and sources? I am a big fact checker and was disappointed at the glibness with which Barnett treats sources and studies. In the Introduction, for example, she tells us that rain had a huge impact on the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. According to Barnett, if it hadn’t rained, Gore would have won the election, but I didn’t see a study cited for this in the endnotes, and she didn’t expand further on this bold statement. I expected further elaboration on either rain’s impact on the election or on people’s decision making behaviors later in the book, but alas, much like Barnett’s search for rain in Meghalaya, the explanations never came.

Cynthia Barnett seems like someone I would love to have on my trivia team or to grab a cup of coffee with one day, but I think I’ll have to respectfully decline reading her next book. While I did learn a few new things and discovered an interest in understanding how urban planning can disrupt the rain cycle, I think there must be better book out there on these subjects. I don’t regret reading this book, but I don’t think I’d really suggest it to anyone else.

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I’d only recommend this book to people who spend hours perusing Wikipedia for fun or who are looking to brush up on their rain trivia for a geography bee.

Additional Reading:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • If you’re interested in urban planning and rain, I’d recommend starting with Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on The Siege of Miami.
  • In case you’re curious about rain’s impact on the 2000 election, the National Constitution Center writes about it.
  • In case you want to read this book and argue with me about whether it is actually the best science writing ever, you can find Rain on Amazon. Or if you ask me nicely, I may mail you my copy.

Book Review: The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts, Maja Säfström

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If you’ve been following along for a while, you know how much I love animal facts, illustrations, and reading nonfiction. The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts caught my eye the moment I saw it online. Maja Säfström is a Stockholm based architect and illustrator, and her style consists of fun, simple black and white drawings. Her new book is 120 pages of black and white illustrations accompanied by some facts, about 2-3 facts per animal. If you read as many animal facts as I do, you probably won’t learn anything new from this book, but to be honest, this isn’t the kind of book that you pick up to learn new things. I did learn a few new things though, like did you know that cockroaches don’t like to eat cucumbers and bees don’t sleep?

I think this book could actually make a pretty fun coloring book, so I will probably plan on doodling in it or maybe giving it to a friend’s daughter. Säfström also sells greeting cards, postcards, tea towels, etc, with her illustrations. I’m not a huge fan of decorative books or coffee table books, so I would recommend buying other things over buying her book since they also have a practical aspect. But if you’re a fan of looking at pretty things, this may be right up your alley.

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I’d recommend this book to people who like trivia, people who follow illustrators on Instagram, and people whose living rooms look like an Ikea catalogue.

Additional Resources:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • Check out Maja Säfström’s website here.
  • Buy the book here.

 

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

better than before

Wake up earlier, go to the gym, floss regularly – these are some of the habits that I often wish I had, but I told myself I didn’t have the time or energy to do these things. Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before was just the kick in the butt I needed to help me dive into building the habits I’d like to have. Gretchen (I feel like we’re on a first name basis now) is the perky, optimistic, and relentless life coach I wish I had in real life, but her book is a pretty good substitute. Her genuine enthusiasm for decluttering and goal setting leaps off the page.

This book doesn’t necessarily teach you anything new: it’s mostly common sense stuff your parents have been telling you your whole life. However, it doesn’t hurt to hear this stuff again reframed in ways that can help you feel less overwhelmed about starting a new habit. As Gretchen points out, what often motivates us is an individual story instead of the big picture science or data points. Sure, we technically know how to stop procrastinating, but it can be more illuminating to hear how one person stopped procrastinating. Don’t let the tagline of the book fool you, though, Gretchen isn’t the type of person who struggles with building habits. She seems to have an iron grip on her self control and she doesn’t fail at any of the habits she adopts. I related more to the stories about her sister and husband’s habit building attempts.

One thing I really liked about this book is that Gretchen doesn’t tell us what habits we should have. She leaves that up to us to decide, and she writes the book from a very judgment free zone. She emphasizes throughout the book that just because it should be good for you doesn’t mean it necessarily works for your life. However, I kind of wish she had a list in the back of the most common habits people want to adopt and to kick. After finishing this book, I felt this overwhelming urge to start something new, and I wanted her to tell me where to start! If you’re curious about this book but don’t want to commit yet, her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, covers a lot of the same material (and incorporates material from her previous two books) and includes other anecdotes and tips. I’d recommend starting there to see if Gretchen’s style is right for you. Her website also has a ton of other resources to help you get started – I love to dig around and see all the different charts and downloads she has made available! So, did Gretchen Rubin leave me Better than Before? Only time will tell, but I am about to head to the gym for the third day in a row now!

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I’d recommend this book to people who are always wishing they were the type of person who journals regularly, people who enjoy self improvement projects, and people who are looking for a quick and constructive book to read on a plane.

Additional Reading:

  • Take the Four Tendencies Quiz, which Gretchen developed to help us figure out what our habit-keeping tendency is, a handy framework that she developed to frame our motivations.
  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I’d like to point out that I bought her first book myself, so I would probably have read this book eventually anyway.
  • Buy the Book

Flower Workshop

This book is meant to inspire.

Ariella Chezar has certainly accomplished that and more with her book, The Flower Workshop. This book is full of beautiful photos full of color and texture, a reflection of Chezar’s belief that floral arrangements ought to be ‘painterly’ in composition. She is well known within the floral community (which I am learning is a thing) for her free-form and wonderfully natural work. Her book is a visual feast.

flowers

I loved looking through the photos, which comprise mostly of finished bouquets but also include a few step-by-step demonstrations and many sort of inspirational boards where she has lain out flowers, twigs and greenery, fruits, vases, and any other object that suits the theme of the chapter. The labeling of the flowers was helpful to me and will surely help all build their flower vocabulary. Chapters address topics such as focusing on color tones, highlighting specific and favorite flowers, using branches, fruits, or berries, and more. The text is fairly slim and is meant mostly to accompany the photos.

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What I liked: Again, the photos are really beautiful and inspirational in themselves (the photos above come from her website; I want the pictures in the book to be a surprise for those who choose read it!). Chezar includes many photos of bouquets along with the ‘recipe’ to go along with that were a lot of fun to look through. She includes some useful and basic tips on how to make bouquets, what tools she uses, and a chart in the back of which flowers are in which season (probably what I will use the most often).

My absolute favorite thing about the book are her double-page photos of flowers arranged by specific colors (‘smoky mauve’, ‘blue mood’, ‘luminous yellow’).

What I am not so sure about: There’s nothing I dislike about the book! The only thing I was unclear about is who exactly is the target audience? Buying and growing flowers take a good amount of time and money. For me, it will be a long time until I have the resources needed to collect the ingredients for making any single one of her arrangements, but it sure is nice to have this book to look at in the mean time.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review!