Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.

Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.

A Mind for Numbers by Barbara Oakley

mind for numbersBook – I read this book as a companion to the Coursera course “Learning How to Learn,” which is taught by the author and is, in fact, nearly identical to the book. But for once I wouldn’t brush it off as unnecessarily repetitive; in fact, I’d recommend both the video lecture-based course and the book together. Reading the book really helped drive home some of the key points from the lectures by actually putting them into practice. Spaced repetition and recall – reviewing material some time after you’ve learned it – are easy to do when the book and lectures are covering the exact same material, but you’re a little behind in the book where you are in the lectures, and vice versa. Oakley also recommends trying to recall the material in a different setting than you originally learned it, to build flexibility into your understanding – easy to do when I was watching the lectures at home on my computer and reading the book at work over lunch.

I’m not in school any more, but I’ve been trying to improve my math skills (I got good grades in school by avoiding math wherever possible), and this book & course have offered me some useful techniques for learning, partially just by making it clear what I was already doing instinctively to learn things that come easily to me. Now that I know what those things are, it should be easier to apply them in situations where I have to stretch myself a little more.

How Not to be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg

how notBook – Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written a book about math: not how you learned it in high school, but how it really is. We’re not talking about addition and subtraction here, or even algebra or calculus. (Well, a little calculus.) What Ellenberg is talking about in this book is the way math works, the way math shapes the world, and the way we can use math to change how we understand the world.

As a bonus, Ellenberg is pretty entertaining while he’s teaching. Examples range from baseball statistics to politics to con artists, and the book is liberally scattered with amusing footnotes. For example, from a description of how not to add percentages, using the Florida 2000 election results as an illustration:

Yes, I, too, know that one guy who thought both Gore and Bush were tools of the capitalist overlords and it didn’t make a difference who won. I am not talking about that guy.

This is a massively enlightening and entertaining book, and if you like having your mind blown but always suffered through trig by looking things up in the back of the book and praying you’d remember the formulas long enough to get through the test, you may enjoy How Not to be Wrong more than you might think.