Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) by Cathy O’Neil looks at how sets of modelling equations can discriminate and cause other problems.
O’Neil looks at how financial models that were not correct helped cause the 2008 Financial crisis, how recidivism models effectively discriminate against US minorities, software that automatically writes up people who are late, how allowing advertising to target poor people is unfair, how policing algorithms may be unfair, how IMPACT teaching scoring is unfair, how car insurance based on models can be discriminatory and unfair, how recommendation and search algorithms have considerable power.
The book brings up some interesting questions but also O’Neil has a fairly strong point of view that comes through strongly. She also clearly downplays or ignores the upside to many of the algorithms she writes about and also sometimes doesn’t consider the alternatives. She also fails to contemplate what competition in the market can do.
The book definitely has some interesting examples of what algorithms and machine learning can do and provides some interesting material to think about. But the bias and lack of balance lets the book down.
A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman is a charming story of an old curmudgeon living in the Swedish suburbs somewhere. Ove is a well painted old man who is set in his ways and has an updated world force it’s way in. There is quite a lot of well told tragedy in the book. It’s also very PC and a bit twee. Still, it’s quite a sweet book.
Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives (2016) by Tim Harford praises disorder in getting things done and being creative. Harford is an excellent economics writer and the presenter of More or Less, a number checking radio show and podcast.
First Harford describes how messiness, disorder and surprise help in creativity and talks about how Brian Eno made musicians do things unexpectedly. Teams are next with a foray into the brilliance of Paul Erdos and how diverse teams do better than teams of similar people. Workplaces where serendipitous meetings happen and the futility of tidy desks make the next chapter. Improvisation and Martin Luther King then get a run.
The virtue of holding the initiative with unexpected boldness, personified by Rommel is then added into the mix. Problems with targets for performance and the way people handle then are then described. The perils of automation and the crash of Air France 447 and the problems with relying on ordered systems are also described. Harford finally describes how calendars can be a prison, how there simply isn’t a perfect formula for a perfect match and why we should value a bit of disorder in our conversation and that kids should play in a world with sufficient mess in order to become more resilient and more creative.
It’s well written but as in Adapt the book doesn’t quite hang together with a particularly strong thesis. Then again for a book about mess this is probably fine. It’s a fun read and any ‘loyal listeners’ out there would definitely enjoy it.
The Normans : From Kings to Raiders (2014) by Lars Brownworth is a highly readable account of the remarkable 200 year peak run of the Normans where the Normans went from settled princes in France to rulers of Sicily and much of Southern Italy and of England.
The achievements of the Normans read almost like a fantasy novel. They conquered new lands, fought off their own insurrections, murdered their brothers and some were even good administrators. Their impact is still around in language and the states that they developed altered history.
The book is well paced and never gets dull. It’s definitely worth a read for anyone looking for an interesting short European history book.
Hillbilly Elegy (2016) by JD Vance is a fascinating autobiographical work about the author’s life growing up in Middleton Ohio as a child in a family descended from Appalachian Hillbillies who moved to Ohio after WWII.
Vance is brought up by his mother, who has serious substance abuse problems and his older sister and his grandparents. Vance credits his older sister and grandmother as the main influence. His grandmother is also a great character who brightens the whole book. It’s all very moving. Vance’s story of making it through, joining the marines and going to law school is very readable.
The book interleaves Vance’s own story with sociology about the people he grew up with. It works really well. Vance is also a good writer and is writing about something that he knows intimately and that he is clearly passionate about. The book doesn’t provide answers that the author thinks would fix all the problems he sees but instead provides a very readable, intense and finally hopeful portrait of what he dealt with.
The book reminded me oddly of Barack Obama’s books. JD Vance mentions certain politicians and indeed writes praise about Barack Obama. But reading the book gave me an odd feeling that JD Vance is a name that will, in future, be connected with politics. If Vance can be half as good a politician as he is a writer he’ll make a valuable contribution.
The Sea Wolves (2014) by Lars Brownworth is a fairly compact history of the Vikings. The book is broken into sections describing the viking raiders, the explorers, traders and how the viking lands were ruled.
The vikings were an incredible group of people who used their seafaring skills to mount a series of raids against much of coastal Europe. Their plunder was enormous. Surprisingly initially their weapons were fairly small but their hit and run tactics were very effective. The vikings were also staggeringly violent, slaughtering people who they defeated on a regular basis. They also captured and traded slaves. Eventually they improved their weapons, their tactics and began to conquer parts of the British Isles and France. Here they quickly took on many of the local customs. The exploration carried out by the vikings was also remarkable, culminating in their discovery of the Americas.
The vikings also traded extensively across Europe and carried their boats as far as the Middle East. It’s truly amazing. As well as this they established a number of states including what would eventually become the Russian state.
The book goes over a lot of ground pretty quickly and the pace makes it a breeze to read. It’s really a remarkable story and the impact that the vikings had on Europe as sea raiders is made very clear. Just as the Mongols had a huge effect on the history of Asia the vikings radically altered Europe.
Hear the Wind Sing (The Rat, #1) (1979) by Haruki Murakami is Murakami’s first novel that has only recently been re-released in English.
The book feels very much like other Murakami books. The style, the characters and many of the scenes are things that reappear in his later books. The book is sparse and short and doesn’t stay too long like some of his later works. But also by being short and sparse it feels like it lacks a bit of the depth of later books like Norwegian Wood.
Nonetheless, it’s a good short read and definitely worth a look for anyone who like Murakami and it wouldn’t be a bad introduction to see if you like his style.