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Summer Challenge Reading

Have you set a reading challenge for the summer? This is something different: challenge reading, not a reading challenge. Four books I've read recently that challenge our assumptions and normal ways of working in today's data-centric world. Have fun.

Programmed and dangerous
Weapons of math destructionFirst up is Cathy O'Neil's warning of the unintended consequences of giving decision-making authority to algorithms, Weapons of Math Destruction. Enlisting computers to take over the tedium of large-scale decision-making is great for efficiency, but the cost is the increase in systems that (1) harm the subjects of inquiry (2) at scale (3) without accountability. Absorbing her definition of a WMD, alone, is worth the price of admission.

Black-box scores are automating decisions about education, employment, credit, and even prison terms, using criteria that can be arbitrary, unfair, and unaccountable. Even the seemingly harmless work of ad targeting sometimes embodies the dark preferences of predatory businesses. This one's important for anyone working in analytics.

SensemakingChristian Madsbjerg wants us to toss the algos altogether in favor of older methods, arguing for the humanities in Sensemaking. More thought-provoking than how-to, he makes the case that we've inherited insights into human decision-making that have been developed over centuries (millennia, really) of effort in fields such as philosophy, psychology, and anthropology. As it turns out, work on understanding and anticipating human decisions didn't start with customer databases (who knew?).

Sensemaking is a bit heavy on promotion and light on description, but it's a quick and worthwhile read as a reminder that we have ways of knowing things that aren't packaged in software. His five principles are obvious but constructive, serving as a bit of antidote to big data's streetlight effect. His view of thick data would make a great starting point for a deeper dive.

Technology vs humanityMoving beyond the data-to-decision world, the futurist Gerd Leonhard wonders how we preserve our humanity—and what that even means—as the future invents itself from forces already unleashed. Technology vs. Humanity is one of those books that sets out to map the consequences of multiple sources of change, starting with readily observable technological changes that we already live with.

Leonhard makes much of that insight that changes are accelerating exponentially and affect us combinatorially. It's that combination of trends that happen "gradually, then suddenly" that threatens to change the world before we realize what's happening. Does it really add up to a future of us versus the machines? The point is that we should think about the possibilities before emergent characteristics of market-oriented developments make the big decisions for us.

Log out of Facebook
Deep workFinally, here's something completely different and relevant whether or not you work in the data mines. Cal Newport suggests that knowledge workers set aside distractions and learn to focus on Deep Work. The catch is that "distractions" are most of what we do now, from email and meetings to hallway conversations and—yes—social media. Even collaboration tools, which are meant to foster a certain kind of productivity in work environments, create the conditions in which the highest value work can't happen.

Newport starts with a definition and defense of deep work, which includes some of the highest value work people do: inventing, coding, designing, writing, discovering… As we're changing the typical work environment to make deep work more difficult to do, its value is increasing. Computers aren't good at it, and we've distracted most of the people, so the reward for those who can do it may be growing.

The rest of the book is how-to, and the good news is that the method isn't complicated. The bad news is that you'll have to change your habits. Deep work requires that we create the mental space for it, which means cutting out some of the distractions that we like. The reward is in becoming better at the parts of what we do that are most likely to make the highlights reel.

Where do you find books to read? Do you ask your friends, follow reviews or seller recommendations, or just go for the bestsellers? Whether you like your books on paper or downloaded, you have to know it exists to read it, and because we're in the twenty teens, there's a social way to do it online.

Start where you are?
An obvious way to learn about books online is to ask your social networks—wherever you're connected to people online, just ask 'em. If you use different networks for different purposes, that should inform where you ask, but you have the connections. Sometimes it's just as easy as asking.

But asking doesn't always work. A discussion on Facebook about paper and ebooks this week included just such a request, but no responses. So what else can we do?

Networking for readers
How about a social network specifically for readers of books? Goodreads is exactly that, a social network built entirely upon books and the people who read them. You can look through reviews and recommendations organized by books and authors, or approach it socially, with its friends, followers and groups.

I'm getting great ideas from some very smart people I follow on Goodreads. Because of its tight focus on books, I find it easier to maintain a careful approach to connecting in Goodreads than in other networks. In addition, Goodread's updates are tied to specific books, so it doesn't have the noise problem of other networks.

On another level, Goodreads creates yet another opportunity for public image tailoring, because its entries aren't automatic. Some of us might be a bit selective in what we choose to share—more professionally relevant titles than pop fiction, for example—but that actually improves Goodreads as a socially powered recommendation engine. If people I follow choose to share only the good stuff, they're effectively curating the recommendation lists.

Gems from Twitter
Goodreads runs on effort from people in its network; what about suggestions from people who haven't joined? BookVibe takes a different approach, pulling book mentions from a user's Twitter stream to generate its lists. It's not as far along as Goodreads, and there's some overlap, but it does have the advantages of pulling its recommendations from a network you've already assembled and using existing behavior as its raw material.

BookVibe strikes me as a worthy experiment, another startup finding useful information by applying a novel analytical lens to the flood of Twitter data. In this case, the startup is Parakweet , a natural-language processing specialist that set up BookVibe as a technology demonstration.

Remember blogs?
I've seen a few blog posts with suggested reading lists, such as these from the Oxford Martin School and Mention. If you don't have a source on a topic, try searching for "reading list" and a relevant keyword or two. It's not an unusual topic for a blog post or web page.

What about the big dog?
You can't talk about books without mentioning Amazon (I checked—it's a law). I remember an analysis years ago about the many social components of an Amazon product page, although I can't find it now. Product reviews, lists and wish lists are fairly obvious features, and it's possible to find more suggestions by following the creators of reviews and lists. Just find someone you'd like to hear more from and click through to their profile for more of their reviews, lists and tags. It's sort of social, if a bit too much effort.

Amazon has the makings of a really good social network for readers, except that it's missing the social network to run it. That may change, since it bought Goodreads last year. Until then, you can do a bit of social exploration with Amazon's existing features and some manual effort.

Old skool
If all those networks can't suggest good books faster than you read them, then you read too fast. :-) Oh, and the book I'm reading now? I found it on the New Nonfiction shelf at my local library. Curator was a word long before online sharing tools borrowed it.

It's not never too late to add something to the summer reading pile. What are you reading that people should know about?

Summer Reading (Summer Not)

As the kids go back to school and we ease back into more normal schedules, it's time to take a look back at some of what came off the reading pile in recent months. No novels this year, but if you're interested in learning something, I have a few suggestions.

Big data coverBig data, bigger questions
Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier's Big Data (2013) is an approachable introduction to the trendy topic for readers who need the introduction, but it also gets into important topics for people already in the space. After their very readable sections on the what, why, and how, the professor (Mayer-Schönberger) and the journalist (Cukier) move into the implications of following the big data path, including the risks to privacy and individual freedom. Even if the beginning of the book is a review for you, stick with it until the end. The last third of the book covers issues you—we—need to be thinking about.

Black code coverI thought the next book on the pile would be a change of subject, taking a deeper look into the freaky world of cyberwar and cyber criminals, but the beginning of Black Code (2013) was a smooth transition into even more implications of what we're doing with data and the online world. Ronald Deibert directs the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs, and he's found more than a few things to be concerned about online.

Writing before secrets started flowing from the NSA and elsewhere, Deibert links data mining, pervasive surveillance, and cyber crime/war (those last two, it turns out, are indistinguishable at the tactical level). If you use electronic communications for anything at all sensitive, you need to read this one. Even if you've read every bit of news out of the Snowden leak, you'll learn more from Deibert's global take on the same themes.

Analyzing the working of wetware
Thinking fast and slowI might have to mark up my copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) to change the name to Reading, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's book on how we have two competing systems for processing information—one reflexive and the other thoughful—was too good to read in the short time allowed by the public library. Now that I have my own copy, I'm taking my time with this one. It turns out that psychology didn't stop learning after my college psych class, and some of the observations have practical applications.

Not a summer book, but worth mentioning is Nassim Taleb's Antifragile (2012), which hides some thought-provoking nuggets in its pounds (kilos) of pages. Antifragile is the follow-up to The Black Swan (2007), and its point is either to illustrate how to deal with the dark birds or to send the reader running to a philosophy refresher course. Taleb never entirely escapes his roots as a trader, but he will make you think about your relationship with uncertainty and how to benefit from outcomes that most would consider negative.

On a lighter note
Ctrl alt delete coverI'm winding down with Mitch Joel's Ctrl Alt Delete (2013), an update on the intersection of business and trends in social media. For someone who reads a lot of blogs and other online discussions, it has a lot of review, but he puts pieces together in ways that should inspire new ideas for your business. Especially for those of us who have been working around social media for a long time, some of the observations are helpful for undoing our comfort level with what we already know. As it turns out, it's not 2007 any more, and how people interact with media and a company's marketing efforts is still changing.

This post has become a bit of a tradition. If you like this, you might enjoy these posts from previous years, too: 2012, 2011, 2010

The Summer Reading Post

It seems that I'm late posting this year's "what I read this summer" post. That's to be expected, since I'm behind on the reading pile, too. But summer is giving us an encore this week, so here's my chance to share some of the interesting things I've read with you.

Kill decisionAttack of the killer drones
I read mostly nonfiction these days, but I did take a summer diversion with two books by Daniel Suarez, who's making a run for the techno-thriller trophy. The first was Freedom™, which is more part two than sequel to Daemon (recommended in the 2010 list). If you liked Daemon and haven't read Freedom™ yet, you need to find out how the story ends.

Suarez's new book, Kill Decision, takes the same approach of combining current technology with a dose of near-future science fiction, but this time the threat is from autonomous swarms of killer drones. This one's weaker as a novel, but it raises serious issues: Black-hat PR in social media. The use, abuse, and proliferation of armed UAVs, persistent surveillance, and open-source intelligence. The attribution challenge of cyber warfare. By pushing these themes (and others) to an extreme, Suarez creates an opening to think about where the limits are, and where they should be.

If the dawn of the drone age interests you, you can balance the fictional portrayal with Wired for War, P.W. Singer's 2009 book on UAVs and ground-bound robot warriors. You'll wonder what war even is, when one side is far enough from the action to avoid harm. From there, pick up Rachel Maddow's Drift (2012), which—despite the author's well-known leanings—is a generally conservative take on the vanishing checks (in the U.S.) on executive power to make war.

What I like about Suarez is that his novels tie into real-world issues in a way that gets you thinking. These other books prove that the topics Suarez raises are real, even if the specifics include some science fiction.

Drunkards walkRandom difficulty
How improbable is an enjoyable read in statistics and probability? Leonard Mlodinow's The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (2008) demonstrates how much of what we interpret as cause and effect may be the result of the expected variation in random processes. Baseball stars and hedge-fund winners look a lot like coin tosses, if you look forward into the future instead of backwards into the hindsight.

The Drunkard's Walk gives the best explanation of Bayesian reasoning I've yet encountered, even while using the cancer-screening example that must be required. You also get a chapter on the Monty Hall problem, which is a bit of a mind-bender even after the light comes on. We're really not used to problems that break the rules of the discipline.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb's first book, Fooled by Randomness (2001), covers much of the same territory—people misinterpret randomness habitually—but it returns too often to the financial markets for its lessons and examples. Taleb's forthcoming Antifragile, on the other hand, looks like a must-read this fall. Systems that actually benefit from chaos and black swans? Time for some solid-surface counterintuitive.

Everything is obviousHow's that prediction working out?
Flipping the empirical method around, Duncan Watts tears into our habit of backfitting our analysis to fit past events and calling it common sense in Everything is Obvious (Once You Know the Answer) (2011). In so many different ways, the world is too complex to predict—oh, and randomness is a problem that we don't handle well.

The answer is to respect the unknown, build flexibility into our plans, and get better at reacting quickly instead of trying to predict the future. These are themes I keep running into, and they make a lot of sense. Or is that just my confirmation bias speaking?

The queue is winning
I started Rohit Bhargava's Likeonomics: The Unexpected Truth Behind Earning Trust, Influencing Behavior, and Inspiring Action (2012) this summer, and while I got surprisingly useful ideas from the first couple of chapters, events got in the way. I'll get back to you when I finish that one.

This post has become a bit of a tradition. If you like this, you might enjoy these posts from previous years, too: 2011, 2010

I have a pile of books on social media, measurement, and management that I'd like to get to. It sits next to another pile of books, and that's become a bit of a problem. While the social media books look potentially useful, my other exploration keeps adding books to the second pile. It's amazing stuff, so I thought I'd share them with you.

Complexity coverWell, that's random
Sometime last year, I decided I needed to start learning about complexity science. I knew that complexity and uncertainty were unavoidable, so I wanted to learn more about how to work through them. I thought that the emerging discipline might be helpful, and Melanie Mitchell's Complexity: A Guided Tour (2009) was the introduction that suggested I was on the right path.

You might not think you're interested in complexity (if you've heard of chaos theory, this is the next generation). It's still fairly obscure, and even its definition isn't completely settled. Because it's inherently interdisciplinary, you'll probably find parts you don't care about. If you're interested in social networks, though, guess what.

Linked coverConnect this
If you're up for a challenge, read two books by Albert-László Barabási, back to back. Start with Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means (2003), which fills in the background on ideas you know, such as social networks, network analysis, and power-law distributions (the math behind the long tail). Eight years after its initial publication, it's still an excellent source for anyone who has ever used the term social graph. You're using this stuff, so you may as well understand it.

Barabási's newer book, Bursts: The Hidden Patterns Behind Everything We Do (2010), digs into patterns in human activity and how much of what we do can be predicted. I'm not quite sure what this one means, but I suspect it's important. Bursts coverPlus, where else are you going to find a book about predictions that uses the story of a 16th century peasant uprising in Transylvania to make its point? Yes, it's full of math and theory, but this is a fun one to read, too.

One point I'm going to take to heart is based on the discovery of power-law distributions in communications patterns. It only emerges when people are overwhelmed and start to prioritize, but university emails and Einstein's correspondence show the same pattern. What it means is that bloggers don't need to apologize for quiet periods when they're busy behind the scenes.

Black Swan coverCatching up, adding more
Walking people through the framework I'm working on turns out to be bad for clearing the reading backlog. The first person who saw it suggested Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan (2007), which was sort of like The Long Tail (2006): one of those concepts that's been discussed so much that you feel like you've read it, even if you haven't.

The basic idea, if you're not familiar with it, is that improbable, high-impact events will occur, and they can't be predicted. Rather than trying to predict them, then, we should structure our environments (not just business) to minimize our exposure to the bad ones and maximize our benefit from the good ones. I'm not ready to give up on attempts to analyze the future, but it's a good reminder to incorporate a healthy dose of uncertainty into the process.

Which leads us to scenarios
Long View coverThe second person I told about the Omniscience framework heard the bit about planning methodologies and pointed me toward GBN and Peter Schwartz's The Art of the Long View (1991). It turns out that I had read the important parts on scenario planning when the book was new, which was reassuring. At some point, though, I need a more detailed source on that topic. Plus, the 20-year-old predictions of trends that are now obvious give the book a distinctly vintage feel.

Fortunately, scenario planning was already part of the mix. So far, it's holding up.

About that framework
I know, I've mentioned the Omniscience framework too many times, and I need to show it to you already. I will. But while that's in draft, I thought you might like some of these. If you feel stuck in the social media bubble, they're are a good antidote.

Update: The post introducing the Omniscience framework is now up.

More summer reading lists: 2012, 2010

Attacking the backlog of social media management/measurement books in 3… 2… 1…

What I Read This Summer


School started today, and I'm getting ready for a rush of productivity: new projects, new clients, and new writing projects. But first, let me recommend a few books I read this summer. It's not exactly "what I did on summer vacation," but they might just kick-start some ideas that aren't part of your typical day.

I read Jeffrey Carr's Inside Cyber Warfare back in the spring, so when Richard Clarke's Cyber War started getting mainstream coverage, I knew I needed to read it. Carr made the point that we need better computer security on systems that do important things, but Clarke really bangs the drum and demands attention. Plus, his background guarantees that he gets attention when he wants it.

Clarke emphasizes the nightmare scenarios—power outages, train wrecks, and refinery explosions—so it's not bedtime reading, but if you stick with it through the scary parts, he makes some good points. If you've never thought about how quickly the lights can go out, this might be a wake-up call.

Over dinner at a conference (what do you mean, cyber attacks aren't dinner conversation?), Clarke's book drew a laugh and the comment that I was reading science fiction after starting with the science (Carr). But the real science fiction scare came from Daniel Suarez's Daemon, recommended by my old friend Dave Thomas. Daemon is the story of an AI (articial intelligence) from the world of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) that takes over the world. If you believe this is possible, you might change your mind about the Internet off switch. Or at least check your offline contingency plans.

And oh, look, there's a sequel. Who needs sleep?

Vinnie Mirchandani's The New Polymath celebrates innovation in, and especially at the intersections of, various technology specialties. It's loaded with examples, and if you're like me—interested in too many topics to pick just one—it provides affirmation that that's ok.

The only problem I had with this book is that Mirchandani makes a major point about And not Or thinking, and people might think I got that from his book. It's really just something that becomes obvious when you regularly share ideas that cross boundaries. The New Polymath is great for pointing out ideas from many fields and connecting them to meaningful outcomes; read it and you'll be challenged and inspired, whatever your usual niche.

The summer's been long and hot—and realistically, we have another month to go before fall weather arrives here—but these books started the gears moving. Now we'll see what happens as a result.

More summer reading lists: 2012, 2011

About Nathan Gilliatt

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  • Voracious learner and explorer. Analyst tracking technologies and markets in intelligence, analytics and social media. Advisor to buyers, sellers and investors. Writing my next book.
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