Weapons of Math Destruction (2016)

If you enjoyed Freakonomics, I think you’ll really enjoy Weapons of Math Destruction by Cathy O’Neil. This book is crucial as we become an increasingly data-driven, automated world.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy

While it’s very exciting that we have machine learning and big data, O’Neil highlights how important it is to realize that the algorithms that we allow to run our lives in an attempt to avoid human biases are, in fact, developed by biased humans. Or they run in a biased context. And it’s important to think about this, especially in the wake of things like social media algorithms that keep us in echo chambers of people repeating shared opinions back at us and with more and more tasks becoming automated to the point where we don’t know why things happen anymore – we can only point to the computers and say “the algorithm did it”. Although the book came out before the 2016 US presidential election, she touches on the danger of our News Feeds and the fake news that can circulate in these echo chambers, which has become a huge topic of late. She also touches on how Weapons of Math Destruction were involved with the 2008 housing crisis, which was why she left the hedge fund she previously worked at.

O’Neil is not afraid to name names, either. She calls out specific companies that enable and encourage data-based biases, like police predictive software and teacher evaluations. This book really opens your eyes to the kinds of injustices that we are no longer able to say is the fault of people and, instead, just shrug and say, “Well, the numbers don’t lie.”

And it’s true, numbers don’t lie. But the thing with the Weapons of Math Destruction, which are carried out at a huge scale, is they often don’t receive feedback as to whether or not they’re working. Unlike sports statistics, which O’Neil thinks is an ideal use of data because they are constantly calibrated based on whether or not the predictions were correct, these WMDs plow forward with no regard to whether or not the predictions are correct. This is all the more dangerous if they are written with biases in them or designed as self-fulfilling prophecies.

This was one of my favorite reads this year because I am fascinated but apprehensive about the role that big data is taking in our world. While I was busy worrying about what companies can do with my data (still a valid concern!), it’s so important to understand the the lack of transparency with how some of these big data predictions and decisions are made have very serious consequences.

I highly highly recommend you pick up this book and learn about how companies are using data to perpetuate biases and to learn ways that we can start critically thinking of solutions to avoid just that.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Women in Science (2016)

I am a woman.
I am in science.


But you don’t have to be either to appreciate the women who have contributed to our collective body of scientific knowledge! And in fact, it’s important to take time to appreciate them because their work has frequently been trivialized or overshadowed by their male colleagues. I am grateful that we are finally able to give at least some women the recognition for their work.


For example, I’m really thrilled about the new trailer for Hidden Figures (definitely watch this!), which focuses on the black women whose work allowed an American astronaut to complete an orbit around the Earth. Women in Science has a feature on Katherine Johnson (who will be portrayed by Academy nominee Taraji P. Henson) if you’re interested in her story in advance of seeing the film!


I also liked how informative the book was about science as a whole field. Not only does the author and illustrator talk about each woman and her role in shaping our knowledge of science, but she talks about science itself. You can look at a timeline of events…Read More »

Street of Eternal Happiness (2016)

What do you think about when you think of China? One of the oldest civilizations, China today is full of contradictions. It’s a world power that is still ruled by the Communist Party while seeing incredible wealth and even more incredible poverty. You hear about Chinese tourists bringing shame to a nation of one billion people, remember the incredible displays of sheer manpower during the Olympics, and raise an eyebrow regarding most news stories that come out of the Middle Kingdom.

I have a lot of feelings when I think about China, because it does seem to be in a huge transition, and has been since the Communist Party took over. What I feel even weirder about is the fact that much of what I have learned about China’s modern history has been not from my family who lived through it but from white outsiders like reporters and historians, or through my (white) teachers at school. I didn’t know about the  Cultural Revolution until high school, and it occurred to me that my grandparents were probably reeducated. (They were.) It’s not something that would just come up in casual conversation with my family. Can you imagine a conversation going:

Hey Dad, was grandpa reeducated in the countryside because he was a judge?
Yes, and most of the friends he made died of starvation, along with millions of other Chinese.
Oh. And did you really kill sparrows during the Great Famine?
Yes, all of us children would pile the bodies of the birds. It wasn’t until later that we learned that eliminating sparrows was allowing worse vermin to destroy crops and worsen the famine.

Not really a conversation that just comes up. But I always wondered about how China became what it is today. What’s the context for all of the growth and suffering that occurs in China today? What is the context for everything I see when I go back to visit my family?

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2011)

In college, I taught a colloquium course to incoming freshmen to let them know about the resources and opportunities available to them on- and off-campus. We also encouraged freshmen to read a book that was selected every year to be the freshman book of the year, where we often invited the author and other people affiliated with the book to campus in a series of events.

One of the years that I taught this colloquium, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was our book. I was really keen on reading it, as a pre-med student who had just started developing an interest in social issues. (I was becoming, as the kids may say, woke.)Alas, while I worked hard to secure copies of the book for all of my students, and encouraged them to see author Rebecca Skloot and relatives of Henrietta Lacks when they were on campus, I never managed to read the book myself. (I gave my copy to a student.) So, I was really glad to have the opportunity to read a book that everyone loved that year and in the years that followed…

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