Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Weapons of Math Destruction


Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases inequality and threatens democracy.
Cathy O'Neil (Crown, 2016)

   Cathy O'Neil is a math nerd who, in 2007, left her academic career to do math for a major hedge fund. She thus had a front row seat for the financial catastrophe of 2008, which was in large part a product of the kind of mathematical processes people like her were engaged in. "The housing crisis, the collapse of major financial institutions, the rise of unemployment–all had been aided and abetted by mathematicians wielding magic formulas.What's more, thanks to the extraordinary powers that I loved so much, math was able to combine with technology to multiply the chaos and misfortune, adding efficiency and scale to systems that I now recognized as flawed."

   After leaving D. E. Shaw, O'Neil recast herself as a data scientist, working on models in the Big Data economy, and once again privy to the magic formulas that are taking over in so many areas of our lives, from college admissions to parole recommendations. She started her blog, MathBabe, "to mobilize fellow mathematicians against the use of sloppy statistics and biased models that created their own toxic feedback loops."

   In Weapons of Math Destruction, she expands that warning to general readers, including the mathematically challenged. In fact, for the kind of algorithm she describes as a WMD, the math is usually opaque, anyhow: it's proprietary to the company that is profiting from it, whether by sorting your resume by the ZIP code you come from, or selling your search clicks to on-line marketers. The black-box quality is part of what makes WMDs so dangerous: the numbers they spit out are nearly impervious to challenges, even though the numbers that went into them may be biased, false, or completely spurious.

   Another dangerous aspect of WMDs is its potential to damage people's lives. O'Neil has a case study about the Washington, D.C., school department's program of rewarding teachers whose students improve, and firing those whose students don't. Such a practice can (and did) lead to the firing of good teachers, if the previous year's teachers cheated by padding their students' scores. The school hierarchy got what it wanted, to be seen as weeding out underperforming teachers, but since they didn't do any external checking to see if that's actually what they had done, they don't know how many good teachers they lost in the process. A healthy model would have an independent way of looking at the results to see if they made sense.

   That's unlikely to happen, however, when the third destructive effect starts to work: scale. If your credit report were managed by your own bank, you could speak with them about it face to face, and presumably establish that you were not the same John Bradshaw who had defaulted on that electric bill three years ago. But scale it up to the size of the big three credit bureaus, over billions of data points, and you are unlikely to find a person who can fix mixups; but you may very well pay for the errors not only in higher interest rates, but also in difficulty getting a loan, or a job, at all.

   And that's to mention only the official credit bureaus, which are governed by requirements that let you see the data they're using, and challenge it. E-scores generated by studies of internet use, or assumption about the street you live on, are under no such constraint, and their feedback loops tend to make unfairness worse. "There's a very high chance that the e-scoring system will give the borrower from the rough section of East Oakland a low score. A lot of people default there. So the credit card offer popping up on her screen will be targeted to a riskier demographic. That means less available credit and higher interest rates for those who are already struggling."

   Most WMDs embody corporate goals such as efficiency and profit; if corporations are persons, they tend to be sociopathic ones. Human beings are much better at thinking about justice than computers are, still, and perhaps always–if we choose to, and if we know what we're up against. Weapons of Math Destruction is disturbing, and distressing, but I couldn't put it down. Cathy O'Neil is a warrior for economic justice, and we ignore her at our peril.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Bad English


Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation
Ammon Shea (Perigee, 2014)

   The t-shirt that says "I'm silently correcting your grammar" has my name on it. I come by it honestly: I have linguistically sensitive forebears on all sides. My father winced at sentence adverb 'hopefully'; my maternal grandmother loathed the word 'tasty'; and I have recently felt utterly compelled to fix the number disagreement in the last sentence of the Lord's Prayer.

   But I really don't want to be a jerk about it, so I'm delighted to add Ammon Shea's Bad English to my 'language wars' shelf. Shea has taken a serious historical look at a the usage rants and grammar guides of the past century and a half. English, it turns out, changes so quickly that no guide can hope to be the last word. The peeves of the nineteenth century very often look strange to us now; the expressions that were then considered beyond the pale have either sunk out of sight or become commonplace and unobjectionable.

   Such a change doesn't even need centuries. Remember 'Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should'? "Here we have an extraordinarily clear line of linguistic demarcation. People either feel that using like as a conjunction marks one as essentially subliterate or they have absolutely no idea what you are talking about and fail to see why this would be a problem of any sort." There were many more of the first group around when I was little, and there are many more of the latter now. 
 
   We will always have doomsayers, and yet, says Shea, "English is not dying. It is behaving exactly as it should, which is to say that it is changing. All living languages change–it is one of the things that indicate that they are still in use by a large number of people. The problem is that, while many people accept that our language is subject to change, they want to dictate what sort of changes will take place and that is a very difficult thing to do."

   The rules and roadblocks set up by fourth-grade English teachers frequently have perverse effects, as either the teacher or the student remembers the rule but not the principle. Years of drilling students not to say 'Jimmy and me are going to the pool' has led to generations of people who say 'Between you and I.' Shea makes an amusing example of George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," which promulgates six reasonable-sounding rules, and breaks five of them with abandon. There must be some sort of rule about that...

   Shea is not out to stop you speaking English the way you want to. If you prefer never to split an infinitive or strand a preposition, more power to you; but don't imagine that you are defending rules handed down on stone tablets. And feel free to set a picket fence around unique and perfect, but you may also want to "accept that certain words... are used by some people in a less semantically exact manner than you would yourself employ and hope that they have some other redeeming qualities that make up for this lapse."

   Shea is being contrarian here, and a little argumentative; but I think I prefer that attitude to the certainty and superiority of the self-appointed guardians of the language. English is doing just fine; it can look out for itself.


Email edition 11/1/16

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Cold Antler Farm


Any Good Books
October 2016

Cold Antler Farm: A Memoir of Growing Food and Celebrating Life on a Scrappy Six-Acre Homestead
Jenna Woginrich (Roost Books, 2014)

    "I didn't need something for a magazine shoot or a remodeled kitchen with steel appliances. I needed land, water, grass, and possibility. The little house was a blessing, a perfect fit. I didn't care about my furniture sitting level, but I did care about the pasture, barns, forest, pond, stream, and outbuilding crying for a caretaker. It became home the moment I pulled into the driveway."

    Jenna Woginrich is a writer who farms six and a half acres in the hills north of Albany, New York; or should I say, she's a farmer who blogs and writes books. Cold Antler Farm is structured around a year on the farm, from spring around to winter. That is, from seed catalogs to planting, to weeding and cultivating, to harvesting the garden. At all times there is firewood to split and stack, as heating a house in upstate New York is no small task. 

    Woginrich likes a fresh vegetable, but her first love is clearly animals. Mail-order chicks start out in the warm kitchen, but grow up to enjoy free-range lives all over the place, providing eggs and the occasional chicken dinner. A couple of pigs eat their way through the summer, eating their way from "the size of a cocker spaniel to a high school wrestler, 190 to 225 pounds." (Woginrich sells their meat on shares so she can afford their feed.) The sheep are smarter than their reputation would have it, with a weather eye out for a weak spot in the fence. After they've had their riot, in the lettuce bed or the neighbor's flower bed - oops, sorry! - they can be bribed with grain back into their proper quarters. 

    It's an isolated life, in a way, and a lot of responsibility. There are no farm-sitters, able to take on all fifty head of assorted livestock to give Woginrich a break for a weekend in the city. On the other hand, she has people she buys hay from, a guy who droves over from Vermont to shear her flock, and local butchers for her hogs and chickens. Her neighbors are generous with help and advice, and she's more and more able to reciprocate with help and hospitality of her own. 

    Cold Antler Farm carries a whiff of the excited amateur, in over her head; but on balance, you have to believe in Woginrich's dream, because she's putting in the work every day. And, with company or alone, she makes her own fun. She noodles on the fiddle, practices archery, and slips into a clear, cool pond on the hot summer days. She keeps a couple of horses, who earn their keep helping haul firewood out of the woods. Who knows what she'll try next?

Emailed 10/1/16

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Off the Leash; Dog Medicine

By chance I picked up two different dog memoirs this month - it's rather fun, how different they are.

Off the Leash: A year at the dog park.
Matthew Gilbert (2014, Thomas Dunne Books)

Dog Medicine: How my dog saved me from myself. A memoir.
Julie Barton (2015, Penguin)

    Matthew Gilbert's Off the Leash is an anthropology of his local dog park, in Brookline, Massachusetts. Amory Park is an idyllic place, where dogs can roam and romp off-leash till one p.m. every day. Of course, there are a few mosquitoes in paradise, like the dog owners who won't clean up after their dogs, or acknowledge that they have an unusually aggressive one. If either of those characters sticks around for any length of time, the human pack will exert pressure till they either shape up or move on. 

    Gilbert was not used to being a pack animal. He's the tv critic for the Boston Globe, i.e. a professional couch potato; before he got married, he had not been a dog person at all. Partly under the influence of his dog park friends, he picks up the baby-talk ventriloquism that he had formerly scorned. 

    "It was crazy, of course, and shameless. The tangle of self and dog was intimate, psychodynamic, and pleasingly neurotic. Some people developed actual voices for their dogs, just as they'd translate their dogs' actions and facial movements into human traits." Oblique, side-by-side conversations make strangers friends.

    Gilbert tunes into his Labrador's friendliness and endless appetite for play, and it does him good. "Toby had made me a more contented, freer person, someone who lives and loves despite the outcome, someone who risks play and who no longer needs to forge excuses." Gilbert knows he is likely to outlive Toby, but the joy and love make it all worthwhile.


     Julie Barton was younger, and in far worse straits, when she acquired her Golden Retriever, Bunker. She'd moved to New York after college, following a boyfriend, and it was proving to have been a bad idea. Suffering a full-on nervous breakdown, she called her mother, who drove straight from Ohio to take her home. 

    A couple of therapists and some Prozac later, she became determined to get a puppy. A good idea, and the first productive idea she'd had in months, but it came with a wave of doubt and anxiety. How to choose? "He walked over toward me, then paused, still watching me, before coming closer and sitting down at my feet. He looked up into my eyes, his own mud-brown eyes nestled under expressive little eyebrow nubs, his tiny chin hairs glowing in the light, his orange-red paws caked with mud. In that moment, of course, I knew."

    Having a fellow-creature who needs her and cheerfully loves Barton opens up possibilities. Bunker goes with her when she starts a new life in Seattle. I don't want to say as much as I usually do about what happens from there on; Barton is a gifted story-teller, and it's her story to tell. Bunker remains a real sweetheart, and their mutual devotion remains Barton's lifeline to trust, health, and joy.

Barton's Dog Medicine is the deeper, better book, but if you're not in the mood for an emotionally intense experience, pick up Off the Leash instead.

Any Good Books
September 2016 email edition

Monday, August 1, 2016

Internal Medicine


Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories
Terrence Holt (Liveright, 2015)

Terrence Holt conceived of his account of internship and residency not as a memoir, but as a series of parables, "seeking to capture the essence of something too complex to be understood any other way." Not only are the patients composites of his imagination, the narrator is a transformation of Dr. Holt. "He struggles differently from the way I did, but in the end he learns things that it took me much longer to figure out." This narrator is good company. He sheds light on the uncertainty of the enterprise, both from a medical point of view – the same few symptoms apply to so many conditions – and on an interpersonal level: How do you keep listening to the patient who's been labeled a whiner, or whom you just don't like?

Part of the goal of training is to teach the young doctors how to appear confident even when they' are, inevitably, uncertain. "During those years, I always felt that I knew nothing. And no matter how much you did know, there was always more you didn't. In that vast desert of ignorance always lurked that one detail waiting to kill somebody." He's in a teaching hospital, so he is often without the complete medical record, because patients are being admitted by the house staff rather than their own doctors. Much can go amiss in this process; the history may be too complicated for the patient to remember or explain; she may be confused, demented, in shock or unconscious.

Or she may be lying, concealing something she's done, like the girl who swallowed a handful of Tylenol and damaged her liver. To assume she is lying leads to a certain cynicism that may lead directly to hardness of heart. It's always a breakthrough when the young doctor looks up from his lab results and sees a human being, but if they thought about that all the time, they'd be unable to do the work. "There is so much death and suffering and grief, and in the midst of it we still need to fill out forms, subject the sick to indignities and pain, try to eat and sleep and keep all these needy people at some kind of distance."

Dr. Holt has a chapter about some of the neediest, the patients in a mental hospital. He works a rotation in intensive care, where matters are somewhat simplified: keep the patients alive, with oxygen and antibiotics. (Or is it, kill them slowly?) And he goes out on hospice calls, where the patients are on the far side of need. But the families need something, and a doctor actually arriving with the nurse gives them a strange sort of comfort.

Three out of three people die, it's been said. Surrounded by family or alone, dimmed by morphine or amid the turmoil by a Code Blue, "in the middle of a scene with all the dignity of a food fight in a high school cafeteria. We can't cure everybody, but I think most of us treasure as a small consolation that at least we can afford people some kind of dignity at the end, something quiet and solemn in which whatever meaning resides in all of this may be – if we watch and listen carefully – perceptible."

If we watch and listen carefully. Here's hoping we can.


Any Good Books
August 1, 2016