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I’ve posted “What are you reading this week?” threads in the past, but reading is a slower process and probably deserves a longer gap between threads.


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    Right now I’m reading “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O'Neil, and really enjoying it (insofar as one can enjoy a book so filled with horror). It’s a book about the ways in which algorithms (and, more broadly, math) are used to give a veneer of subjectivity and rightness to good old human bigotry, carelessness, and evil.

    Examples include:

    • The DC school district’s value-added teacher evaluation formula, which failed to take into account things like teachers in previous years falsifying student scores (causing the teacher in the next year to appear to be bad when the scores are suddenly not falsified).
    • The “algorithms” used by the financial ratings agencies (S&P, Moody’s, Fitch) to rate bad housing bonds in the run up to the Great Recession (that is, the claim that they used complicated subjective algorithms, when in actuality the agencies were captured by the banks, who were both their clients and the organizations whose goods the rating’s agencies were supposed to fairly evaluate. The algorithms were little more than rubber stamps.)
    • Sentencing algorithms that give disproportionately harsher sentences to black defendants and include legally-protected information that would be grounds for an appeal if used by a human in sentencing.

    And that’s just the first 100 pages!

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      How did they justify the algorithm giving harsher sentences to black defendants? What input affected that?

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        Things like:

        • Income
        • Number of police interactions
        • Number of convicts in neighborhood

        I am not finished with the section yet, but the gist is that these algorithms use a variety of inputs which disproportionately disadvantage black convicts. For example, black people are more likely than white people to be stopped by police, and such a stop would then later factor into this algorithm, resulting in its recommendation of a harsher sentence. In each case, these sorts of variables would be thrown out if used by a human. How much money you make or how many convicts live in your neighborhood should have no bearing on how much prison time you do for a crime.

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          I could see someone making a case for number of police interactions (I’d disagree with them, but I could see someone doing it)…but income and number of convicts in your neighborhood just seems straight-up Pre-Crimey.

          Anyway, I’ll have to check out the book. Thanks.

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      On the non-technical side, I am re-reading Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. This is an incredible non-traditional fantasy novel that breaks free of the usual Tolkienian cliches that hurt the genre. I highly recommend it. I also very recently started reading The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie, which I’ve heard good things about.

      As for technical reading, I am slowly making my way through Working Effectively with Legacy Code by Michael Feathers. It is full of great advice on how to gradually transform nasty codebases into unit-tested and well-factored ones. I have a bad habit of trying to completely rewrite rather than gradually refactor legacy code, and this book has been very helpful in that regard.

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        The Blade Itself is a good read. If you enjoy it, for something very different but equally fantasy trope breaking, have a look at The Vagrant by Peter Newman, and on the sci-fi end, Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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          I will definitely check those out, thanks for the suggestions!

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        The Art and Science of Cause and Effect by Judea Pearl. For practical purposes, it’s to jumpstart Papers We Love Philly again. For self-edification, I’m trying to understand the philosophical foundations for a theory of causal inference from the perspective of a computer scientist/statistician.

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          Finished The Ethical Slut, which left a mixed taste in my mouth (shush). Perhaps it’s just the times and communities that I’m aware of, but a lot of the book seemed to be defensive and oddly patronizing about what it covered (the practice of polyamory). During its initial publication, it kinda makes sense that they’d pick language and constantly reaffirm their readers, but at this point it just reads as kinda bubbly, overly sentimental, and a bit out of touch with the times.

          That said, I’d still reccommend it to others for the same reason it was reccommended to me: exposure to a very different way of thinking about people and relationships.

          Other than that, continuing my grind through the Programming Phoenix book. Sad thing is that anything I learn from it will probably be out-of-date in like six months, but hey, might as well try. :)

          Anybody have good recs for military fantasy or science fiction? I need some popcorn reading (and yes I’ve read everything related to the Slammerverse). Maybe I should pick up one of the translations of the Legend of Galactic Heroes novels…?

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            My favorite science fiction book is Diaspora by Greg Egan, and I recommend it whenever I can. It’s hard sci-fi, though.

            For popcorn sci-fi, I like everything by Brian Daley. He’s written many Star Wars novels, but he writes other stuff too.

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              I just started Distress by Greg Egan and enjoyed it so far, even if for a non native english speaker the first chapter is challenging to keep up with.

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                I love Egan’s work. Have you had a chance to read Permutation City? Absolutely fantastic work about cellular automata and the hard problem of consciousness.

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                  Not yet! So far I’ve only read Diaspora and Teranesia, but I plan to read his other work. Books pile up so quickly…

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                    If you liked diaspora, you will also enjoy permutation city and schild’s ladder.

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                If you haven’t read the Imperial Radch trilogy by Anne Leckie, you should check it out.

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                Peter Gilliver’s new book The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary. There’s so much new stuff in here I’m reading it once through for pleasure then I’ll go through it again, dissecting it thoroughly to update the Wikipedia article on the OED.

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                  • The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia. This is a fascinating book. Originally written in French in the 30s, it was translated to English in the 70s. It’s considered one of the best texts in its field, and I can see why! I’ve never read such a thorough and comprehensive narrative of history. It’s an interesting region of the world, because the Eurasian Steppe was a sort of horselord superhighway connecting so many different cultures.

                  • Alpha Generation and Risk Smoothing Using Managed Volatility. I’ve taken an interest in stock trading, and might try my hand at writing a program with Quantopian APIs. For now I’m doing a lot of reading. This paper focuses on leverage, and why the standard 1x leverage isn’t always ideal.

                  • I Am a Strange Loop. I’ve been fascinated by loops since reading the foreword to Gödel, Escher, Bach.

                  • A Clash of Kings. For fun :)

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                    The Complete Gospels (aka The Scholars Translation). I’m not religious, but I enjoy studying the history of Christianity and it’s a well-done translation that also includes new translations of fragmentary gospels from the first Christian century and a proposed reconstruction of the Q source.

                    On the technical side of things, I found an old copy of The Programmer’s Guide to the Amiga at the used book store for $0.50, and I’m knee-deep in nostalgia.

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                      I read Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority awhile back and found it compelling, so I bought another of his books, Ethical Intuitionism, to learn more about the method he uses to drive his arguments. Still waiting for it to arrive.

                      ‘Ethical intuitionism’, as I understand it, is that there exist certain moral truths that can be intuited by almost anyone and agreed upon by almost everyone. Non-controversial intuitions about straightforward situations then tend to be reliable and useful for analyzing the ethics of more complicated problems. I found this style of reasoning to be persuasive in The Problem of Political Authority, which argues that the notion of political authority is mostly, if not entirely, illusory.

                      In the meantime I’ve been re-reading bits and pieces of The Problem of Political Authority and Steven Pinker’s well-known The Better Angels Of Our Nature, which argues that violence has declined over time, hypothesizes some reasons for this, and is one of my favourite books.

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                        Ben Lindbergh, The Only Rule is it Has To Work. About baseball, useful for software developers, they try to implement better rules but get foiled by personalities.

                        Joe Peta, Trading Bases.

                        NK Jemisin, The Fifth Season

                        Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

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                          I’m reading I Am a Strange Loop since I found it in the library at work, and was interested after having had read GEB seven or eight years ago. I’m not reading any fiction at the moment, but might be soon, since some of the fantasy series mentioned in this thread look interesting!

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                            The Last Rhinos, a book about how Lawrence Anthony, a South African conservationist, made efforts to save the now lost northern white rhino . This took him to negotiating with the Lord’s Resistance Army, a terrorist Christian cult that has been waging civil war for over 25 years in central Africa. Ultimately the negotiations failed, but he was the first outsider to be invited into the LRA’s jungle base to discuss peace prospects.

                            The book has kind of made me want to do something more useful with my life than writing software and doing mathematics. I don’t want us to lose another rhino species (or any other species). The rhino problem is really stupid because Vietnam is driving the killing the rhinos with superstitious beliefs of the healing properties of rhino horn. I feel like we sit here solving the most trivial of problems while our planet burns and our life dies.

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                              I’m getting back on the reading train, so I won’t bore folks with everything I’m reading, but greatest hits I’ve finished so far this month have included “A Tale for the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz, and “Ratfucked” by David Daley. The next few books on my list are “Bowling Alone” by Robert Putnam, “Hopscotch” by Julio Cortazar, and “Altered Carbon” by Richard Morgan. I also recently received the new Jonathan Safran Foer book in the mail, so I might have to rearrange my queue to squeeze it in.

                              For everything I read you can follow me on goodreads.

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                                I’m reading the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolf, It’s a much more interesting book than I first thought it would be, I’m about ¾ through Shadow and Claw.

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                                  Just finished: The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. Probably the #1 self-help/productivity style book I’ve ever read. I immediately ordered more of his stuff when I finished.

                                  Currently reading: Pre-Suasion by the legendary Robert Cialdini. I don’t see it topping Influence, but it still has a lot of great insights.

                                  Next: Probably one of the following of…

                                  • Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday
                                  • Antifragile by Nassim Taleb
                                  • Bold by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler