I’m Reading: “Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil

We are surrounded by algorithms. We are constantly being evaluated by criteria that is invisible to us.

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What I see on Google is different to what you see. What I see on Facebook is different to your perspective and not just because I have access to different thing to you.

I pay for insurance for a number of things, the cost of that insurance is governed by a set of parameters that are unknown to me; many of which I can’t change or even validate whether they are correct.

Weapons of Math Destruction explores some of these algorithms and their impacts on individuals and society in general.

Statisticians have known that many statistics have a dark side creating unintended consequences and perverse outcomes. As we increasingly use data, and the associated statistical algorithms, we need to understand the dangers of the perverse outcomes that we are creating.

Cathy O’Neil uses examples to illustrate the challenges that we are facing. The bulk of the book is examples of Weapons of Math Destruction (WMD) that already exist. There are examples for algorithms being used for politics, employee candidate selection, criminal justice, insurance, education ratings and advertising, to name just a few. The extent of these algorithms means that it’s unlikely that you haven’t been impacted in some way by one of them, but how do you know that the assessment of you is fair, or even accurate. How do you know what parameters have been used to calculate your insurance premium?

In many of the areas outlined in the book the unintended consequences lead to significant mistreatment of individuals and whole people groups. Many of these people groups being the same people groups that have been mistreated by society for generations – the poor, those living in certain neighbourhoods, ethnic minorities and women being particularly negatively impacted.

The book talks about a lot of examples and raises a lot of questions and concerns, the book doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the potential resolutions to the issues raised. There are a few great thoughts in that direction but it’s not that primary topic for this book.

I’m quite sure that we don’t, yet, have the necessary regulatory framework in place for these algorithms. I’m also convinced that we will make progress towards the right framework, but in the interim, damage is being caused.

I read this book in the middle of a political and media storm about an organisation called Cambridge Analytica who collected data from Facebook on 50 million people. This story was pioneered by The Guardian with a lot of coverage on 17th March 2018 quoting whistleblower Christopher Wylie, but it’s worth noting that Cathy O’Neil’s book was published in September 2016 and contains many of the same details about Cambridge Analytica that we now regard as shocking. Perhaps news doesn’t travel as quickly as we think it does.

I was first prompted to read this book by Cathy’s TED talk which will give you an idea of the WMD that she has collected:

Office Speak: Super Excited

This may be a common term in other cultures, but I’m British and being excited about anything is something that we only attach to major family events. We find it somewhat baffling when we walk into a business meeting and the people in there tell us that they are super excited to be together.

It’s probably a stretch for most Brits to say that they are excited about a birthday, even a major birthday wouldn’t count as super excited.

The birth of a new child counts as excited. I’m not sure what would need to happen for someone to be super excited about a new birth? Perhaps a couple who have struggled to conceive would make it to super excited when a much desired offspring is born.

So what is it about a routine meeting in a grey room with limited air conditioning and a 1000 bullet point PowerPoint presentation that would make someone super excited?

I was recently given a mug that says:

Meetings: The place we discuss all the things which must happen but will never actually happen.

It doesn’t sound very exciting to me.

The various dictionary definitions of excited talk about being emotionally aroused, something I would expect to see in abundance in the people that tell me they are super excited. Emotional arousal is rarely something I see in the business context, perhaps I’m not as empathetic as I think I am, but I think I ought to be able to see super emotional arousal.

All that I can conclude is that this is Office Speak. It’s no longer good enough to say that you are pleased to be in a meeting, or even excited to be in a meeting, the constant ratcheting up of Office Speak means that people now need to be super excited. Ah well, that’s the way it goes, I wonder what will follow; colossally excited, gigantically excited or perhaps we’ll choose a different word to excited, orgasmic?

Off now to be super excited about a cup of tea.

Belated Blogging Birthday – Keeping Steady

On the 4th April 2005 I started this blog. Since then I’ve written nearly 2000 posts, I’m not the most prolific of writers, I regard myself as steady.

It’s interesting down the years how some posts come and some posts go, but some posts keep their interest. Some of the current long runners are:

Perhaps I should do some more Office Speak posts?

I’m Reading: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning: 1947 Cover

I have certain books that have sat in my “I must get around to reading that” list for a very long time.

Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is one of the books from that list.

In this book Victor Frankl talks through his experiences in the Concentration Camps during the Second World War and from those experience how he developed a school of psychological therapy.

It’s a book of huge insight that is derived from the most awful situation. This isn’t a morbid book, or even a bitter one, it’s full of gems that each of us can apply to our normal lives, but it is full for dreadful details.

A few quotes that struck me, although I hesitate to use them, because each one stands within a context for which the overall meaning may be missing by taking them out of that context:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

“So live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

“Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.”

“If there is meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.”

“It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future.”

“The salvation of man is through love and in love”

“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.”

For me the greatest thought is one that I already knew, but one I need to continually relearn and that is that I have control over my response to situations and that in that response is my strength. I don’t have control over the situation, only my response to it.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Because it’s Friday: “The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows” by John Keonig

I regularly find myself needing a word to describe something for which there isn’t yet a word. There’s are so many new experiences and life is changing all around us, yet we use the same old words to describe them, and these words are so often inadequate.

As an example, I have a family member who has a chronic illness and people ask me how she is and all I have to respond with is “OK”. I can’t say that she is “fine” because she isn’t, but she’s no worse than she was yesterday so it doesn’t seem right to say “ill” or “poorly” because somehow “poorly” describes a situation where someone is going to get better. So we resort to the inadequate “OK” and a facial expression that tries to indicate “OK Good” or “OK Not Good”.

John Keonig had the same experience and so he started collating The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows.

Watch John introducing the Dictionary and the idea behind it at TED:

There’s also a fabulous YouTube channel for the words:

Morii: The Desire to Capture a Fleeting Experience

This is something I regularly experience.

Sonder: The Realization That Everyone Has A Story

This is something I wish more people would experience more regularly.

 

How I made £10 when I was 14 (I think)

There seems to be a rash of news articles at the moment along the lines of:

How I made a gazillion when I was only 16

I never had that experience, but I did have a valuable life affirming experience that involved a £10 note.

In my teens, my daily routine before and after school was to get on my bike and cycle into the town where I lived to a small newsagent just off the market square.

There I would pick up a pile of newspapers which had already been labelled for me by the owner of the shop. The papers would be deposited into a large PVC messenger style bag which carried advertising for the local evening paper and I would head out.

My attire was entirely governed by the weather. Fine weather called for shorts and t-shirts. Rain called for a kagool and waterproof trousers, but no gloves because that slowed you down. Wintry conditions required a move to a thick coat, thick trousers and bikers gloves which, in those days, were long and came half way up your lower arm.

We delivered in all weathers. There was no option to call a parent and ask them to come round with you in their car.

Each of the rounds that we went on had a number, and an informal place in a league table from very good to quite bad. The place in the league being defined by three things – how many papers needed to be delivered, how many awkward deliveries their were, and how good the Christmas tips were. I started on a reasonably good round, eventually moving to a very good round. I can’t remember what number the round was, but think it was 7, it didn’t have too many papers, it was in the town so had few drives to go down and the Christmas tips were supposed to be excellent.

There was another huge advantage to this round, the people were pleasant.

There was one particular row of houses where you delivered the paper through the rear door because there wasn’t good access to the front. The rear gardens were relatively small yards and on most days when the weather was good the people who lived in these houses were in the back yard enjoying the sunshine or hanging out the washing. But even in poor weather they would look out for you and give you a wave as you went by. A smile and a wave goes a long way when you are wet through to your underwear and can’t feel your fingers. I would always return the greeting.

One year, at Christmas, I was delivering to the houses on the row and it was raining. There’s a particular type of rain in the area where I grew up which has travelled across the North Sea from the Baltic and slices through you as you travel through it.  As I reached the end of the row the older couple who lived there open the door for me and handed me an envelope. I thanked them for it and gave them a Christmas card whilst depositing the envelope in to my PVC messenger bag.

It was only when I got how that I open the envelope – it contained £10.

These people weren’t rich, but they were generous and £10 was a very generous tip.

That £10 didn’t make me rich, but it did teach me a very valuable lesson about generosity of heart as well as financial generosity. It wasn’t the £10 that made me remember them, it was their smile and their wave. The £10 was an unexpected bonus.