Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Cleverly titled and fun read about how data scientists are wielding their WMDs in finance, education, prisons, government, hiring, and ecommerce. O’Neil points out that WMDs tend to punish the poor because the rich are processed more by people and the unwashed masses processed by machines. One signature of a WMD is that the model contributes to a toxic cycle and helps sustain it, not pulling in enough feedback to allow it to correct itself.

Models are opinions embedded in mathematics.

Great anecdotes throughout, from the DC school teacher who lost her job due to an algorithm based on her students’ test scores, to the rejection that a Vanderbilt-dropout got from several part-time minimum wage jobs due to personality tests (Kyle was tested for extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to ideas).

She covers wellness programs and their invasive tracking, along with social media tracking, search behavior logging, all adding up into bits that go into the Big Data cauldron to be sipped at leisure by the WMDs or other interested parties.

Little Dorrit

Little Dorrit (Penguin Classics)

If everyone started the day by reading an hour of Dickens, I’m convinced the world would be a better place—in good humor and with eyes twinkling. This 800+ page tale envelopes you, luring you into its cozy layers, tales within tales. Dickens serialized this between 1855-7 when he was in his forties, getting better with each foray into the printed world. The characters pile up fast and furious, and if you’re not paying attention, you have to flip back several hundred pages to wonder where it was that you first heard of Mrs. Merdle (not to be confused with Mrs. Meagle, although their stories do slightly cross) and her squawking parrot. The eponymous character, Little Dorrit, is Amy Dorrit, daughter born to a gentleman in debtors prison and raised all her life there until fortune smiled on him with his friends uncovering the fact that he was heir to a title and lots of money. Mr. Dorrit immediately wants to forget the previous 25 years of his life and turns his back on those who helped him, but Amy still yearns for those simpler days with Arthur Clennam and Maggy (the 80 year old child). Dorrit dies in Rome along with his brother, and this seems fortuitous, releasing Amy from the need to “marry well” and removing the threat of having Mrs. General as her stepmother.

There’s a mystery laid down at the beginning, when Arthur returns from China after his father’s death to ask his mother if there were some sort of wrong that he had done to someone that needed reparation. His wheelchair-bound mother sniffs off this suggestion and turns her back on him to solely run their business with Mr. Flintwinch when Arthur gives up his claim. Spoiler alert: she’s not really his mother! And the mystery is that she’s withholding £1000 that should rightfully be Little Dorrit’s, although I’m a bit confused about the circumstances.

Dickens is at his best when he pokes fun of the obtuse inflated flaccid bureaucratic arms of government, here represented by the Circumlocution Office. “Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving – HOW NOT TO DO IT.” He goes on to detail the red tape, paperwork, forms, and in general abhorrence to “doing things” in preference to “not doing” anything. Much of this rings true about our illustrious Congress in the early 21st century.

His writing is always entertaining, secret jabs and pokes that make you laugh like “his genius, during his earlier manhood, was of that exclusively agricultural character which applies itself to the cultivation of wild oats.” His description of Pancks as a tugboat steaming away always brought a smile to my face whenever he appeared. And when describing Mr. Baptist/Signor Cavalletto, “He looks to me as if every tooth in his head was always laughing.”

You also pick up random bits of life from mid-19th century, like the fact that bakers kept their ovens going continuously and would cook food in it for people for a small fee (like a leg of mutton stuffed with oysters in this case). Refrigerators were in use (and called such); at this time they were vessels filled with cold water or any cool place.

Once again I’m amazed at the variety of names. A sampling: Mr. Pancks, Mr. Rugg, Mrs. Chivery, Plornish, Flora Finching, Meagles, Doyce, Clennam, Merdle, Gowan, Tite Barnacle, Stiltstalkings, Barnacle Junior, Mrs. Bangham, Flintwinch, Mrs. Tickit.

The Thirteen Travellers

Delightful collection of stories about the residents of a posh apartment home (Hortons) in the center of London, all figuring out how to live post-war in 1919. Published in 1920, this provided a fantastic glimpse into the chaos and psychic mess that people had to deal with.

1. There’s Absalom Jay, the man at his best in the 1890s who simply withers without funds/social engagements/society in the post-war world.

2. Fanny Close is the highly competent portress who takes over the job when all the men ship off for war, and retains it when they come back; she’s quite pleasant to everyone because compared to her sister Aggie, everyone is dreamy.

3. The Honorable Clive Torby is a silly chit of a man who spends his parents money without care until the day that it runs out and then he cheerfully goes out and learns how to be a (one-armed) house-painter.

4. Miss Morganhurst is an old spinster who only cares for her tiny dog and who effectively seals off her brain from any war news; she goes insane and dies after her dog dies and she’s unable to keep the vivid horrific war images from her brain, insisting that she was there: “I was there, you know.”

5. Peter Westcott is a has-been novelist who borrows the flat of a rich and successful author; he snubs modern authors for their cheap tricks and says he could do it as well as they: “Write in suspensive dots and dashes, mention all parts of the human body in full, count every tick of the clock, and call your book ‘Disintegration,’ or ‘Dead Moons,’ or ‘Green Queens.’ ”

6. Lucy Moon comes to visit her aunt in Hortons on the eve of her wedding, discovers that she knows nothing and has not yet begun to live. She exchanges glances with a strange man at the symphony and realizes she will not marry the older man she’s said yes to.

7 & 8. Mrs. Porter and Miss Allen have a bit of a ghost tale in them, haunted by the apparition of dead Mr. Porter who swore that as soon as Mrs. Porter began to enjoy her life without him, he’d come steal her for death.

9. Lois Drake is one of those hard, modern women who thrived during this time, whooping it up with men and living loud, drinking whiskey, flaunting convention. Only it turns out that her best friend falls in love with the man Lois is in love with, leaving her alone and weeping.

10. Mr. Nix is the manager of Hortons who begins having bad dreams after the war. This rings quite true for me in 2017: “everyone was having bad dreams just now, that it was the natural reaction after the four years of stress and turmoil through which we have passed.” His wife decides to leave him and assert her independence, at which point he falls madly in love with her again and vows never to take her for granted.

11. Lizzie Rand is an old maid whose last job as a companion netted her a boatload of money from the woman who wanted to spite her nephews and nieces. She meets a widower who struggles to let go of his wife’s image, and he soon proposes to her. Lizzie turns him down because she sees how easy it is to dominate him and just wants to stay pals.

12. Nobody is actually Tom, back from the war thrice wounded and inheriting a pile of money from his uncle. He’s dead on the inside until he has a chance meeting where he helps an old couple get home in the rain to their squalid home.

13. Bombastes Furioso is the storyteller who cannot seem to tell a completely true story about himself but does not think he is lying. His stories are threatened to come to an end when he falls in love with a woman who says she’ll marry him if he stops lying.

Double Game

Sophie Calle: Double Game

My Sophie Calle obsession continues as I followed the breadcrumbs from Paul Auster’s Leviathan to her response here in this volume. For backstory, Auster based one of the characters in Leviathan (Maria) on Sophie, using examples of her real work but also making up a few projects which she hadn’t done. In response, she does the projects that he made up, and also invites him to create another project for her that she’d focus on for up to a year. Auster pens four pages of a Gotham Handbook, with instructions for Sophie—smile at people and count how many you give/receive, talk to strangers, hand out sandwiches and cigarettes to the needy, and cultivate a spot somewhere.

She dutifully takes on all of these, and commandeers a phone booth at Greenwich and Harrison in Tribeca by painting the floor, installing flowers, kleenex, snacks, orange juice, ashtray/cigarettes, comment card, magazines, folding chairs. Every day she swings by for an hour and tapes the phone conversations, tidies up and re-installs things that go missing.

Paul’s directive about talking to stranger has some lyrical passages about the importance of talking about the weather, “the great equalizer…. To discuss the weather with a stranger is to shake hands and put aside your weapons. It is a sign of good will, an acknowledgement of your common humanity with the person you are talking to.”

The rest of the book is filled with images and text explaining the other projects that Auster had referenced, some new details overlain on things I already had seen. Most blown out was The Hotel, with pictures and descriptions of every hotel room she cleaned during her 3 weeks in Venice.

Moments of Being

Moments of Being

There was a frenzy of publication of VW’s unpublished works once she died, this collection of memoir writing no exception. This edition is comprised of  Reminiscences (written about Vanessa for her unborn child, Julian, with lots of detail about Julia, their mother ), A Sketch of the Past (100-odd pages written in 1939 in gulps taking a break from writing Roger Fry’s biography), and three pieces VW launched at the Memoir Club—22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I A Snob?

It’s a hodgepodge, and the bits of greatest interest to me are, as usual, around her voracious reading habits. She mines the vein of her complex feelings about her father, rehashes details she can remember about her lovely mother, and gives us rich detail about the daily lives of Victorians and Edwardians, including the existence of a town crier at St Ives that was actually used by one of their guests who lost a brooch, shuffling along with a bell crying “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

There’s also a phrase that rings particularly true in 2017 w/r/t Vanessa as she rejects George’s efforts to bring her into high society, (emphasis mine):

“But poor George was no psychologist. His perceptions were obtuse. He never saw within. He was completely at a loss when Vanessa said she did not wish to stay with the Chamberlains at Highbury; and would not dine with Lady Arthur Russell —a rude, tyrannical old woman, with a bloodstained complexion and the manners of a turkey cock. He argued, he wept, he complained to Aunt Mary Fisher, who said that she could not believe her ears. Every battery was turned upon Vanessa. She was told that she was selfish, unwomanly, callous and incredibly ungrateful considering the treasures of affection that had been lavished upon her—the Arab horse she rode and the slabs of bright blue enamel which she wore. Still she persisted.

On Leslie Stephen:

Yes, certainly I felt his presence; and had many a shock of acute pleasure when he fixed his very small, very blue eyes upon me and somehow made me feel that we two were in league together. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I cam into the study with a book I had done; and asked him for another.

Later, still trying to understand her relationship with her father:

But from my present distance of time I see too what we could not then see—the gulf between us that was cut by our difference in age. Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age. We were not his children; we were his grandchildren. There should have been a generation between us to cushion the contact. Thus it was that we perceived so keenly, while he raged, that he was somehow ridiculous. We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future.

Elizabeth and Her German Garden

The first book by Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Mary, the one that gave her the name “Elizabeth” forever, is like a sandwich at tea time, crusts cut off the bread, proper, yet lacking. There are some good bits, such as when she first begins, glorying in her solitude for six weeks as she fixes up the house by overseeing those who are actually doing the work, and spending all of her time reading alone in the garden. She affectionately nicknames her husband Man of Wrath and after thoughtfully capturing baby owls for him to train, he is shocked at the idea, Elizabeth remembers that phrase “Two paradises ’twere in one to live in Paradise alone.” But no, she has 3 babies and a husband, and scores of people who insist on visiting. When conversation at a dinner party in a neighboring town veers towards Elizabeth being “abandoned” in her house, she insists that she enjoys it and is quite happy “buried” in her home. She almost mentions that she was surrounded by books but “reading is an occupation for men; for women it is reprehensible waste of time.” So she pretends with them that she is not happy. The rest is a diary of her garden, what blooms, what is planted, and then the last half taken up by a Christmas visit of a friend, Irais, and a stranger brought in because she is a friend-of-a-friend, Minora. Unfortunately, Minora is an Englishwoman intent on writing a book, and she whips out her notebook to record the many amusing things Elizabeth and Irais say. There’s a brief interlude where the Man of Wrath lectures about why women are inferior, and then the women leave after a month. It’s a curious artifact, pub’d in 1898.

The Women’s Room

The Women's Room: A Novel

One of the signs of enjoying a book is when I prolong its completion, choosing to sip at the bubbly goodness instead of gulping it in one sitting. Thus went reading this one, a feminist classic from 1977. Brilliant in parts, somewhat draggy and long-winded in others, but overall a gem. The narrator inserts herself into the story in 3rd person as Mira, revealing her dual identity at the end as she’s writing this book over the summer break along the Maine coast, the months free from her teaching gig. Throughout there is a recurring theme of string beans and shit, “years spent scraping shit out of diapers with a kitchen knife, finding places where string beans are two cents less a pound…” —the image is referenced seven times through the book. “When your body has to deal all day with shit and string beans, your mind does too.”

Mira at the beginning is hiding in the women’s room at Harvard, unable to face the fact that, as a 40-year-old woman in graduate school, people look right through her. We then whirlwind back to her previous 15 years, a marriage that breaks up with two sons in tow, but more importantly a grim and extremely detailed view of the madness gripping suburban white women that Friedan covers in Feminine Mystique. All the women in the group Mira joins end up going insane, attempting suicide, or just being beaten (or beaten down). After Norm, the husband, asks for a divorce, Mira tots up a bill for her services over the fifteen years and gets a nice settlement for herself.

On pregnant women: “It is this sense of not being a self that makes the eyes of pregnant women so often look vacant. They can’t let themselves think about it because it is intolerable and there is nothing they can do about it.”

“I wanted my life to be a work of art, but when I try to look at it, it swells and shrinks like the walls you glean in a delirious daze. My life sprawls and sags, like an old pair of baggy slacks that still, somehow, fits you.”

The acronym “mcp” (male chauvinist pig) was so common in 1977 that it’s scattered throughout these pages without any explanation.

A couple of great scenes:

  • Early mansplaining: The party where Mira discovers Harley is a monologuist and cannot carry a conversation. When two men are speaking together, “it was not dialogue, it was one-upmanship… it was two monologues carried on simultaneously…. He was interesting as long as he was explaining things…”
  • Val’s radicalization after her daughter is raped, where she resigns from all her social justice work and only focuses on radical feminist causes (which ends up getting her killed by the police when they try to free a prisoner, a woman who stabbed her rapist and was convicted of murder).
  • Description of Mira’s visit to her parents where conversation rules kept things extremely boring. This reminded me painfully of the gulf between myself and family, a gaping void into which real conversation is not permitted. “But still she had to listen to the boring recital of actions performed by strangers, or people she could barely remember. They were actions without motive and without consequence, and about as interesting as the parts list for an atomic submarine… But on and one they went. They could fill three days with it.” More telling, “They shuddered at the word socialism, and even socialized medicine seemed to them something tinged with evil… She tried, in simple language to suggestion something of this to her parents, but they could not hear her. The things were in two different categories in their minds: capitalism was good, high medical bills were bad, but they had no connection with each other. She gave up. By nine thirty, Mira’s head ached. She longed for ten o’clock, when the Wards would turn on the news, after which they would go to bed.”

Also interesting to note that it was a common practice for people to bring their TVs over when they visited people, or to rent them when her sons were in town visiting. The portable sets of the 60s and 70s would just plug in and get the channels the antennae fetched.

Leviathan

Leviathan

It’s been over twenty years since I read any Paul Auster and I’m convinced I need to do a reboot after finishing this delightful book. I came to Leviathan by way of Sophie Calle, who figures as Maria Turner in the book, with several of her real life projects featured. Dedicated to his pal, Don DeLillo, I wondered what kind of post-modern treat I’d be subjected to, but very much enjoyed it. Well-written and a tasty tale to boot…. the best book written by a man that I’ve consumed in months/years? Perhaps there is hope for them yet. (Although the women are slightly cardboard, at least there is a lack of overt misogyny and his writing smooths away my wrinkled brow)

The narrator, Auster thinly disguised as “Peter Aaron,” hurriedly writes the book of Benjamin Sachs’ life in the weeks following his death by accidental explosion when the bombs he’s setting off across the nation at all the Statue of Liberty replicas goes off before he’s ready. There are some hard lefts in the plot, such as when Ben is swallowed up by the earth, e.g. disappears for years. Entertaining and well written. Putting Auster on my list again.

The Givenness of Things: Essays

The Givenness of Things: Essays

Ms. Robinson’s brain jumps out of this collection as if it’s a pop-up book to entertain children. She’s smart, not just “like, a smart person” smart, but actually intelligent and a great writer. Unfortunately, despite the grand premise of this book, my eyes got too squinty trying to follow her through the parade of religious figures and Shakespeare and Marx and discussions of ontology. The book begins with a bang, a strong cry in defense of the humanities that are being flushed down the toilet by current culture. This phrase in particular haunted me: “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency…” While meandering through the Reformation, she brings up an interesting point about how in addition to bringing knowledge to the masses by way of freeing it from obscure Latin, an immediate result was “The emergence of the great modern languages out of the shadow of Latin, with their power and beauty and dignity fully demonstrated in the ambitious uses being made of them.”

Sophie Calle: And So Forth

Sophie Calle: And so Forth

A gorgeous art book collecting dozens of Calle’s works, interspersed with interviews, photographs, yellow pages with three hole punches, details on her performance art pieces, close-ups of her showings in galleries. The book is edged with a metal plate on three sides of the cover (both front & back). The design of everything is overall stunning, a pleasure to read and provides the right atmosphere for absorbing Calle and her work over many decades. Not much was new to me, except the piece where she took her mother’s jewels to the North Pole and buried them there, a tribute to her dead mother who always had wanted to go.

Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

This was mildly entertaining. His constant interspersing with exclamations from his young daughter Josephine were sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing. A Berkeley writer with the luxury of working from home and raising his child decides to dig into the natural world around them, investigating the mundanities of squirrels, ants, crows, turkey vultures, etc. I enjoyed the Ginko chapter the most, getting a book rec or two (Seeing Trees by Nancy Ross Hugo, and Marie Stopes’ Ancient Plants– curiously I’d just discovered Stopes vis-à-vis Woolf’s letters where she credits Stopes’ book on parenting for giving her lessons in birth control).

The Journey to the Western Islands Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides

I am finally ready to give this one back to the library, it having lulled me to sleep many nights over many months. A unique pairing of Samuel Johnson’s Journey to the Western Islands Scotland with Boswell’s much more entertaining Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, two works that cover the same trip the two of them undertook in 1773. I had to shove my way through Johnson’s prose, lines not holding up well to the inspection of modern times. Boswell much more lively, giving bursts of personality throughout. On the whole it made me dread less the reading of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, since most of the laughable bits were those of quoting dialog straight from SJ’s mouth, including frequent coining of new words. Their journey seemed arduous, plagued by rain and wind, and resulted in several cozy fireside chats about God and sundry.

South Riding

South Riding (Virago Modern Classics)

Let’s not get too carried away here. The 500+ pages of tweener life (in between the wars) in a village in England are of occasional interest but such melodrama! A spinster headmistress (Sarah Burton) comes to take over the local school, working wonders, butts heads against the landed gentry, falls in love with said gentry (Robert Carne) who is busy selling off his ancestral goodies to pay for fancy treatment for his mad wife. There’s a cast of supporting characters, old Mrs. Beddows the woman Alderman being top of the list and most fleshed out. The others just are scarecrow versions of characters who dance and frolic and do as you’d expect. That’s perhaps the most disappointing part, nothing is unexpected here. Except perhaps the death of Carne 100 pages from the end, failing to consummate the romance with Burton. I see that VW shared this opinion, saying of the book, “One’s never pulled up by a single original idea.”

Entirely skippable, though some weirdos have likened it to Middlemarch.

Glass House: The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town

I wanted to like this book, but a light, barely perceptible tinge of woman-hating wafts through the pages, skimming along and occasionally stinging. The author is from the town he writes about, Lancaster, OH, and feels obligated to insert himself into the story, which combined with the misogyny, makes you wish you were reading a better version of this book. The best part is when he hits his stride, sadly only a few page from the end, thundering proclamations about how the social contract has been destroyed by three decades of greed: “The ‘vicious, selfish culture’ didn’t come from small towns, or even from Hollywood or ‘the media.’ It came from a thirty-five-year program of exploitation and value destruction in the service of ‘returns.’ America had fetishized cash until it became synonymous with virtue.” (The “vicious, selfish culture” quote from a Kevin Williamson National Review article March 2016 wherein he says “The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”)

By inserting himself into the story, I feel compelled to slap him, especially when he mocks one of his subjects in person. “When I left them, I needled Brian. ‘Keep opening those boxes!’ I said, referring to his work at Drew [shoe factory]. ‘I think a little of Brian just died when you said that,’ Chris said. ‘Yeah dude,’ Brian said. ‘ A piece of my heart just fell on the floor.’ ”

My biggest problem with the book was that he didn’t knit the various pieces together in a cohesive argument (until the very end… way too late… you lost my interest). Over here we have drugs, cheap heroin, junkies, dealers. Then over here we have the corporate raiding of the town’s glass factory, decimating jobs. Only at the end does he connect the two, corporate greed ransacking the town, pulling away any opportunities for a decent wage/schools/life. This younger generation has NOTHING to look forward to. “The problem wasn’t caused by drugs at all, or government handouts, or single-parent families. While addiction could be as individual as people, common themes included alienation and disconnection.” Earlier in the book, he gives us a hint of this direction, saying that drug dealers were the visionaries who knew that they lived “in a global, rootless, gadget-coveting, atomized, every-man-for-himself world in which money trumped all other considerations.”

I didn’t bother to track his anti-women comments from the beginning, so I won’t do a catalogue of them, but I can summarize by saying women were mostly not named, only given “X’s girlfriend” or “Y’s wife”. One that is named is Lora Manon, who appeared to the author to be “a steely stickler, a middle-aged, pants-wearing schoolmarm.” His distaste for the young girls who had several babies by various fathers: “And the babies. All those young women pushing charity-store strollers around town, playing mix-and-match paternity.” Being the white, privileged male, even in the midst of unraveling this tale of social ills, he fails to understand the feminist perspective, or even empathize about the fourteen-year-old girl who walks up to him “with a sashay that showed off her too-small denim shorts. Amanda was pretty enough that the missing bottom half of her left arm was not necessarily the first thing most people noticed. She’d taken care to apply mascara, and a little pale, glossy lipstick. She glanced up at me with the eyes of a coquettish puppy.” Yes, jerk, this fourteen-year-old is well versed in how the world works already and knows that the only thing she’s got that is worth anything to the world is sex. I don’t suppose you took your eyes off her “too-small denim shorts” long enough to ask her any questions?

The Gentleman from San Francisco

The Gentleman from San Francisco and Other Stories (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)

I was primarily interested in this 1923 collection of Bunin stories because D.H. Lawrence and S.S. Koteliansky translated it for the Hogarth Press, and Leonard contributed some of the other story translations with Kot. The story wasn’t particularly interesting to me, the unnamed family known as either the Gentleman from San Francisco or his wife or daughter. They voyage to the Old World, ready to spend some of his hard earned cash. He dies, and immediately all respect for the family disappears, the hotel proprietor insists that the body be disposed of immediately. The women voyage home with the body. The end? Perhaps the most interesting part was the couple who were paid by the ship company to voyage on this or that cruise ship and pretend to be deeply in love.