Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane has given us an amusing, engaging, in depth, and surprisingly approachable explanation of how AI works, what it’s good for (and not good for) and why. This is one of those unique books about technology that’s written for non-technologists, yet manages to be in-depth enough to be a resource for those whose knowledge ranges from “I heard about AI once” to “the concepts are familiar, but coding AI is not my day job.” While I build software systems, and have worked around AI and Machine Learning systems, I’ve not built or worked on their internals. This book inspired me to want to learn more.

As AI (and Machine Learning) in its various forms touches many aspects of our lives, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to know more what AI does well, what it does poorly, and why . You’ll learn about the difference between narrow and general AI, basic concepts like Neural Nets and Markov chains, and how AI’s learn, including the impact of training data on how well they do.

You’ll also learn about how AI systems can go astray, either through incidental issues (poor training data, for example) or malicious actions. While the concepts sound technical. Shane makes them very approachable though clear language, and memorable through humor. Since it’s not a text book on the subject, there may be a few places where more technical minded readers may see a few conceptual details skipped over, but between the notes and references, and the context the book gives you to do a good web search, this is not a major problem.

The style of this book reminds me of some of Mary Roach’s books on science, such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, in how it easily mixes humor in with important factual information. At various times in the book Shane provides examples of some AI-Generated “recipes” to show how the wrong training data can lead to bizarre results. My family read some of these aloud and could we on the floor laughing.

In addition to being an excellent primer on AI concepts, I also started thinking about how many of things that set AIs astray are also things that lead humans to the wrong solutions too, even as we are better equipped to compensate. Some recurring themes are being given the wrong definition of the problem (consider incentives at work and how they often lead to the wrong global results) and introducing biases through the examples we learn from, which lead to the wrong solutions. While Shane doesn’t seem to set out to make people understand how to learn better, I can’t help but think that there are lessons in the book for how we can be better at problem solving.

This amusing, thought provoking and educational book got be excited to learn more about the subject. As I read the book, I wanted to slot time into my schedule to experiment with some machine learning code to better understand the ideas. But even if that isn’t something you are likely to do, the book can inspire you to think more critically about your experiences with Chatbots, recommendation engines, and other places where AI and ML technologies touch your life.

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Friday, January 3, 2020

Review: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concept of “Psychological Safety” is both often misunderstood, and essential to effective (and even innovative) groups. “Psychological Safety” is about how comfortable people are sharing and challenging ideas. Psychological Safety is a very practical matter. It can be related to physical safety as well (for example, a factory when team members are reluctant to point out safety issues), and business success and innovation. Timothy Clark’s new book (which I got an advance copy of) explains the concept in a clear way and defines a framework you can use to understand where your group -- be it a work group or a social group -- stands, and how it can get better.

After an overview, the book goes through the 4 stages: Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, and Contributor safety, and Innovator safety, defines each and explains impact on the team dynamic, and what is necessary for each to exist. The book helped me to better understand why some groups I’ve worked with felt pleasant and productive, and why others felt less so. The framework makes reference to other concepts you may have heard, such as Grit, Teaming and safety culture.

At the core, the book is about business, but the author used examples and analyses from a range of domains, which is both good and bad. The good is that it makes it clear how universal these ideas are, in school, work, and interpersonal life. The bad is that the book lacks a bit or coherence that could have made it a great book. As the book progresses from discussing inclusion safety to challenger safety, the focus shift more toward business teams, but maintains connections toward more global society issues.

Personal, and third party stories from the business and non-business contexts as well as ideas from the literature on safety and related fields. Chapters end with summaries of key points and actions to take, and end notes and references can point you in the right direction if you wish to go deeper.

This book is a quick, actionable read. You’ll learn things you can (and should) to do move your group to the higher levels in the framework, and understand the situations that might be less salvageable. Those in a leadership role, such as managers will find it useful to understand . And those not in that explicit role will benefit both from the context it provides to help you to understand why you might be feeling some discomfort in your work place, and also the small things you can do on your own to make it better.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn’t planned to read this book, but since it came as a bonus in a Next Big Idea Club box I gave it a read, and I was glad that I did. Gladwell uses stories of situations gone wrong to illustrate how our our interactions with strangers sometimes fails, and why. Through a number of stories bookended by the tragic Sandra Bland incident, we see the challenges of interacting with people when we assume that we understand their motivations, the downsides of our default to trust people, and the risks of being being too suspicious.

The two main themes of the book are that transparency (the idea that you can “read” people) is rarely reality, and that“defaulting to truth” (basically trusting people) has pros and cons, but the pros outweigh the cons. Gladwell uses stories of spies, terrorist interrogations, and policing to illustrate how things go wrong when we misunderstand how transparency and trust work.

In terms of Transparency, these stories put something important in the context of my personal and professional life into a larger context: It’s hard to guess what people are thinking based on externalities, and acting based on them without checking yourself-- especially when you have an opportunity to ask -- is a good way for interactions to go down hill. It can be difficult to guess what a spouse, colleague, or neighbor is thinking, even when you share a common context. When interacting with people you never met from different cultures and/or backgrounds it’s probably impossible, and curiosity is more likely that not the best approach.

Defaulting to Truth, the idea that people generally believe what others are saying is accurate, is more interesting. Gladwell give us a number of examples of how being too trusting let spies and other bad actors evade detection, even in the face of (in retrospect) obvious clues. On the other hand going the other way and being overly skeptical can lead to dysfunction, and bad things. While sometime bad things happen when we engage in Truth Default behavior, it is also necessary for us to function as society, community, and in interpersonal relationships.

My two main take-a-ways from the book are that, while Truth Default can sometimes lead you astray, the alternative can be worse , and that transparency is a myth, and curiosity is better. We need to understand when to apply healthy skepticism, both of others, and of our own perceptions to thrive as a community. With endnotes and footnotes for those who want to dig deeper, Talking to Strangers is an engaging book that is very topical. Anyone who wants to think about how to build better interactions, at any scale, should find this book valuable.

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and more recently, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, I was skeptical that there was much more I could discover about habit and motivation by reading another book. I was wrong. Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood is an insightful exploration of science behind how and why habits form, and how we can use this information to improve our work and personal lives, as well as our health, told from the perspective of someone who has studied the subject from a scientific and social perspective.

Wood describes habits as a kind of automation, which allows us to focus our mental energy on more “important” things, as well providing us for default behaviors in times of stress. In some cases the habits serve us well, in others our habit behavior can be the wrong thing for the moment. Wood Explores how habits help us move forward, how they can lead us into “ruts” and how to use our tendency to form habits to our benefit, and for growth rather than letting them keep us static.

A recurring theme in the book is the relationship between habit and “context”. Those who do well on avoiding distractions and deferring immediate, if not beneficial, rewards (“The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control) succeed less because they are actively ignoring the temptation, than because they are good at setting up contexts where they don’t notice temptation. The relationship between context and habit provides useful guidance in how we can create good habits and change bad ones; by setting maintaining (or changing) our contextual triggers, we can affect our automatic behavior.

With examples of how habits apply in the workplace, our personal lives, and in our relationships, Good Habits, Bad Habits is an engaging book that can help you think about how you do what you do, and how to influence yourself and others to form productive dynamics. For those who want to dig deeper, there are many end notes pointing to research, as well as a good bibliography. We all have habits, and our habits, and those of those around us affect the quality of our lives, so it is worth understanding how they work. Wendy Wood’s book gives you that information.

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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Do Disrupt: Change the status quo. Or become it.

Do Disrupt: Change the status quo. Or become it. Do Disrupt: Change the status quo. Or become it. by Mark Shayler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface this Is a book about business, but its message is relevant to other changes as well. It opens by explaining why “Disruptive” is over used, and what it really means and continues with motivating ideas, prompts and exercises.

This short book -- which the author encourages you to write in to complete the exercises-- would be useful for someone thing of doing something entrepreneurial ,either on their own or in the context of an organization they are a part of. Change agents of all sorts (consultants, as well as internal ones) might also find some of the exercises Inspiring.

I plan to revisit this book later for inspiration should I decide to become an independent consultant. I also find my self inspired to apply some of the thinking to make some aspects of my current job even better.

Also consider

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Monday, October 21, 2019

Review: Indistractable

Indistractable is an exploration of the reasons why we get distracted and strategies we can use to avoid the distraction. Based on research on motivation and compulsion, the information in the book is similar the things I learned in Drive and The Power of Habit, but from a different angle: being mindful of habits and motivators that take our focus away from important things. Or put another way, the things same inner mechanisms that motivate us, and encourage productive behavior can also have the opposite effect. The key, Eyal tells us, is to focus on the triggers.

I like that the book starts out by saying that technology is not the problem, even as we often place blame on the accessibility and draw of electronic devices. This resonates with me, as I can recall times when, as a child, the newspaper or radio was a way for a parent to ignore me, and now as a parent, when my child was able to ignore those around him while doing “good” tasks” like reading. The historical record bears this out as well, as the book quotes an article bemoaning the impact of the Gramophone on the ability of children to focus. There will always be distractions, and while strict rules about avoiding them can help, it’s more sustainable to solve the core reasons for why you are distracted.

As is appropriate for a book on the subject, the chapters are short, and thus easier to feel like you are making progress as you learn to manage your distractions. The book is both inspiring and actionable. After working through the framework there are sections dedicated to how you manage distractions in your various life domains, including work, relationships, and children. The section on making Indistractable children is particularly worth while (though will be more valuable if you read the earlier sections).

If you are an employee, manager, parent, or any combination, you are likely to find value in this book.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sapiens is a thought provoking and insightful exploration of the physical and cultural evolution of our species.

The central theme of the book is that Homo Sapiens have the capacity to create and believe in abstract ideas, which enables larger groups to be coherent. This ability to conceive and believe in abstract ideas enables religion, financial systems, and social systems, all of which enables larger group coherence, but also allow for things like racism (or as the author suggests, “culturalism,” as the biases are often about “otherness” rather than simply race) to creep into our belief system. The book’s analysis of suggests that racism and animal cruelty and similar bad acts often enter into culture less out of malice and hatred than lack of thought -- though their persistence has other, less positive, motivators.

A mix of social history, science history, anthropology and social commentary, Sapiens is an engaging and though provoking read. Even if you don’t agree with the conclusions the author makes, the book can frame a though process. And for all the depth and comprehensiveness, the book is quite approachable and easy to read.

This thought provoking read about the history, and future of or species ends with an exploration of the future of humanity, our impact on the ecosystem, and the importance of being more thoughtful as we use the powers we’ve developed to change our world. If you read the book, consider getting it in physical form for the photos and illustrations, which add to the experience.

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Review: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle...