Review of reviews: Books
Book of the week
Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy
by Cathy O’Neil
Cathy O’Neil’s new book has been “haunting me since I read it,” said Evelyn Lamb in ScientificAmerican.com. A bracing dive into the world being created by Big Data, it illustrates “again and again” how the complex mathematical models that are increasingly being used by businesses and government to sort people into groups are reinforcing human biases instead of correcting them. O’Neil, who’s “an ideal person to write this book,” speaks passionately about individual victims: a teacher fired because assessment metrics discounted her talent; a college student who’s barred from a job by a personality test. To O’Neil, a former Wall Street quant, the greatest outrages occur when the models reinforce inequality— denying people credit, say, because they live in a low-income neighborhood.
Whoever you are, this is “a story about you,” said Danny Dorling in Times Higher Education (U.K.). If you use Facebook, or have been put on hold by a credit card firm, or have ever read an online ad, you will find some answers here about the kinds of judgments that Big Data’s models are making about you. O’Neil could have demystified such operations further by including some actual equations or algorithms. She also could have provided more detail to back up assertions like her claim that the reason today’s Republican and Democratic voters so often disagree about facts is that online news consumers are subjected to microtargeting by partisan political groups. Even so, this “entertaining” and “very valuable” book provides an important service: teaching us that data isn’t truth and that data tools can do real harm if we fail to police their use.
O’Neil’s sense of right and wrong can’t always be trusted, said David French in NationalReview.com. A veteran of the Occupy Wall Street movement, she often seems less concerned with the accuracy of any math model than with whether it harms groups she favors, like women, minorities, and the poor. But a “particularly disturbing” finding of her analysis is that Big Data tends to harm the marginalized in ways middle-class Americans may never notice, said Rana Foroohar in Time.com. Only the poor see online ads from predatory lenders or for-profit universities, and only residents of high-crime neighborhoods discover that their surroundings can silently cost them opportunities. Correcting such problems will require sustained effort, but “it’s time to stop pretending that people wielding the most numbers necessarily have the right answers.”
Novel of the week
Here I Am
by Jonathan Safran Foer
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28)
You might suspect while reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s new 600-page novel that he’s “determined not to tell a compelling story,” said Rebecca Steinitz in The Boston Globe. Not that the celebrated author’s first novel in 11 years doesn’t include some intriguing alternate history and side characters. But Foer returns over and over to the “plodding” story of a marriage’s dissolution, and even there, he cuts away from the action “whenever something is about to actually happen.” A lack of energy is hardly a problem, said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Sure, this ambitious novel about personal and cultural loss spends more time with Jacob and Julia and their boys in Washington, D.C., than it does on an existential threat to Israel brought on by an earthquake and a war. But the novel’s pathos is heartfelt, its jokes are funny, and it “has more teeming life in it than several hundred well-meaning books of midlist fiction put together.” Unfortunately, “its insistent winsomeness cloys,” rendering the book tantalizing, but not quite great.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life
by John le Carré
Don’t pick up John le Carré’s delightful new book expecting a straight memoir, said Kevin Sullivan in Entertainment Weekly. Yes, the legendary spy novelist shares memories from his tough 1940s childhood and from his brief career in British intelligence. But The Pigeon Tunnel is less a summing up than “the literary equivalent of a long night spent in the company of a grand storyteller who has saved up a lifetime of his best tales to share with you over several rounds of fine scotch.” Le Carré comes across in the book’s 38 reminiscences as a writer so committed to verisimilitude that he’s spent his life venturing into the world’s sketchiest corners in order to paint them on the page. It’s “a special kind of a treat” to be able to roam that world with him.
Be careful how much of it you believe, said Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. David Cornwell, the man behind the le Carré pseudonym, freely admits that he was practically born to favor fiction over truth. The “rawest, most emotional” chapter in the book recounts growing up as the son of a con artist. The author’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, beat his wife until she was driven away, then raised his two young boys on the proceeds from fraudulent schemes that landed him in jail in four countries. In the spy trade, David Cornwell found a line of work that valued practiced liars. Luckily, it also cultivated keen observational powers “that have served him well as a novelist.”
Some of The Pigeon Tunnel’s strongest passages are portraits of people le Carré has folded into his fictions, said Richard Davenport-Hines in The Wall Street Journal. We meet a Frenchwoman who survived a harrowing youth and established a Cambodian import-export business that allowed her to secretly aid victims of the Khmer Rouge. We meet an innocent Turkish-German man who was seized by U.S. allies, tortured by interrogators, and held for five years at Guantánamo Bay. Yasser Arafat appears, too, smelling of baby powder. You can’t trust every detail of this “powerful, punchy book,” but it’s “a smashing read.”