#356 - Algorithms, Big Data and the Modern Economy

With just days remaining in 2017, the Jill on Money holiday extravaganza continues this weekend as we rerun some of our favorite interviews from this past year.

I love math and statistics...but I am nothing compared to the brilliant Cathy O’Neil. I have been a fan girl of Cathy’s since discovering her blog, mathbabe.org and then hearing her on the Slate Money podcast. Cathy, whose New York Times bestselling book Weapons of Math Destruction is out in paperback, is the ultimate math geek, but more importantly, she is one of the most thoughtful intellectuals that I have encountered.

Cathy’s resume is impressive: a Ph.D. in math from Harvard, a postdoc at the MIT math department, a professor at Barnard College, where she published a number of research papers in arithmetic algebraic geometry and then a short-lived stint on Wall Street, before she launched her consulting firm, ORCAA.

When I heard Cathy explain complicated topics and then read the hardcover edition of the book last year, I knew we had to have her on the show. It’s such a fascinating read about how big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. From how teachers are graded to how policing strategies are developed to credit scores and health insurance...it’s going to blow your mind when you hear how algorithms (mathematical models), dictate so much of our day-to-day lives.

But what happens when these models are out of whack...opaque, unregulated and incontestable? Unfortunately, the already unlucky and struggling among us, get the short end of the stick. What can individuals do about these unproven mathematical equations? As you’ll hear Cathy explain, it starts by asking some basic questions.

How many of you rode an elevator in 2017? Or Googled something? Or use index funds in your financial lives?

I’m going to guess all of you did at least one of those things. I’m also going to guess that you probably didn’t realize that those three things are among the 50 inventions that shaped the modern economy.

That’s according to the list compiled by BBC and Financial Times journalist Tim Harford, our guest this week in hour two and author of the recent book, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy.

The book paints a picture of change by telling fascinating and compelling stories of the tools, people, and ideas that had far-reaching consequences for the global economy. From the plough to air conditioning, from Gillette’s disposable razor to IKEA’s Billy bookcase, Tim is able to recount each invention’s own curious, surprising, and memorable journey.

We also touched on Tim’s previous book, Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, which is now out in paperback. As someone who could be described as a bit compulsive, especially when it comes to my email inbox, I loved this book because it celebrates the benefits of messiness in our lives: why it’s important, why we resist it, and why we should embrace it.

Little did I know that a bit of mess lies at the core of how we innovate, how we achieve, how we reach each other – in short, how we succeed.

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