Book review: Big Data Analytics: A Management Perspective by Francesco Corea

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I stumbled upon Francesco Corea’s writings on Medium and I started following his posts about Data Science and AI strategy. They are concise, clear and no-nonsense. Intrigued, I plunged into his book. To my disappointment. Let me explain.

Blog posts such as his are compelling exactly due to their straight statements, clarity and conciseness.  One does not expect a thorough treatment of the subject matter, but a precise statement of opinion.

A book is a different story. It offers the space and time to delve deeper into the subject, provide proper arguments and evidence, illustrate through the use of a multitude of real examples. All of this lacks from Corea’s Big Data Analytics: A Management Perspective. Indeed, it is only 48 pages long. The penultimate chapter titled “Where are we going? The path toward an artificial intelligence” is four-paragraph long, plus a paragraph for the abstract.

Don’t take me wrong. The book does make sense and it offers good advice and a quick overview of the trends and key terminology of big data analytics, but it feels just like a sketch, a book outline more than a proper book.

Book critique apart, I will continue reading Corea on Medium. I’m curious to see where he is going, since I perceive a certain strong ambition to become a key thought leader in this area. But the road is still long.

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Book review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport

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After having read Deep Work, been a follower of Study Hacks, and checked the Top Performers course (yet to take it though), I was curious to read Cal Newport’s book about career advice: So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

It does punch like the title, delivering immediately actionable advice on how best to steer, improve and leverage your career to get your dream job.

How does it all play out then? By following four simple rules (and corollary laws).

Rule #1: Don’t follow your passion.
First of all, we very rarely know what our passions truly are. It’s more the norm to become passionate about something we do really well. Secondly, passion is dangerous, since it can lead you to jump onto options for which you do not have the necessary skills. Thirdly, by trying to follow your passion, you end up assessing each job opportunity according to what it offer you, instead of what value your are producing.

Rule #2: Be so good they can’t ignore it (or, the importance of skill)
One needs to develop rare and valuable skills, a career capital, in order to trade them for better and better jobs. These skills are best acquired via the craftsman mindset, “a focus on what value you’re producing in the job” and through deliberate practice, “an approach to work where you deliberately stretch your abilities beyond where you’re comfortable and then receive ruthless feedback on your performance.” (more on this in Deep Work).

Rule #3: Turn down a promotion (or, the importance of control)
So now that your have built up your career capital, what do you trade it for? One of the most powerful traits to acquire is control over what you do, and how you do it. Deciding how much and where to work. Control has it traps though.
The first control trap states that “control that is acquired without career capital is not sustainable.”
The second control trap is that “the point at which you have acquired enough career capital to get meaning control is exactly the point when you’ve become valuable enough to your current employer that they will try to prevent your from making the change.”
In order to avoid these traps, one should follow the Law of financial viability, which briefly states that you should always check your desired changes against the willingness of people to pay for it.

Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big (or, the importance of mission)
Another fundamental source of satisfaction of your work is having a mission, but finding such a mission is not an easy task. Like control, mission also requires career capital: having a clear defined mission but no skills to carry it out will only leave you unsatisfied and looking for another job to pay for your bills. Ok. You’ve got the necessary skills, but still lack a driving mission. How do you find it? Cal argues that great missions are found in the adjacent possible of your field, meaning you first need to become an expert to spot new fruitful directions. Exactly like in science. Great discoveries are found at the edges of the current knowledge. Good. You found a possible direction. Do you jump head on into it? No, you take small bets in many of these direction, in order to probe what’s truly feasible, and also remarkable. A small bet is transformed into a compelling mission and then into a great success if it satisfies the law of remarkability, “which requires than an idea inspires people to remark about it, and is launched in a venue where such remarking in made easy.” Example? Intriguing scientific discoveries in peer-review journals and innovative software in open-source GitHub repositories.

That’s a quite concise summary of the book. In order to dig deeper into the arguments behind these rules and laws, and read many peoples’ stories, successful and not, you ought to read the whole book. At 230 pages at large font is a fast read, but you’ll come back to some chapters multiple times, to adjust your understanding to your current career situation.

Personally, I found the advice clear, which is not always the case, sound, which is even less so, and immediately applicable. Overall, what’s best about the book is that it frames career development and finding the dream job in very practical and no-nonsense terms.

Buy it here.

Review: A Treatise on Probability by John Maynard Keynes

Keynes_TreatiseProbabilityA Treatise on Probability by Keynes is a very important book, one of its kind, in setting the philosophical and logical foundations of probabilistic reasoning.

Firstly, Keynes address key philosophical questions about the nature of probability, its interpretation and its measurement. Keynes’s conception of probability is that it is a strictly logical relation between evidence and hypothesis, a degree of partial implication. Furthermore, probability is not necessarily numerical and often it is impossible to compare degrees of probability. Numerical probability which allows precise quantification and comparison is a special case.

Secondly, he establishes a rigorous logical framework, along the lines of Russel and Whitehead’s approach to the foundations of mathematics in the Principia Mathematica.

Thirdly, inductive reasoning and the role of analogy are dissected in the established new perspective.

Fourthly, some general semi-philosophical questions are addressed with the new probabilistic understanding.

Finally, the scene is ready for Keynes to delve into statistical inference and elucidates the flaws in the methods proposed so far. While he dismantles the “just compute” approaches, he also presents a constructive alternative, based on comparing multiple, and not just one, series of events.

I wish I had kept notes while reading the book, and wrote this review in a stage-wise process, so that I could comment more deeply about key passage. Nonetheless, I believe the Treatise will accompany me for many years to come, as it contains such lucid and insightful arguments about what we should mean when we talk about probabilistic reasoning.

God, Chance & Necessity by Keith Ward

god_chance_necessity_keith_wardGod, Chance and Necessity is a book I wish I had read in my early twenties, at the same time when I was immersing myself in Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene and popular scientific accounts of cosmological theories, such as Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe.

Keith Ward argues against the materialism advocated by the aforementioned books, but mostly focuses his response to Dawkins’s books and to Peter Atkins’s Creation Revisited.

Ward defines materialism as saying “that the only things that exist are material things in space. There is no purpose or meaning in the universe. Scientific principles are the only proper forms of explanation.” Dawkins and Atkins are firm believers in materialism, which leads them to state that God is superfluous. I was also a strongly believer in materialism, so much so that it brought me to have strong arguments against my mum’s spiritual perspective.

Conversely, the theistic hypothesis is “the idea of just one basis of all possible finite beings, which originates all other realities for good reasons, and realises the highest compossible set of values in itself.”

The great, and for me surprising, qualities of God, Chance & Necessity, is that it firstly elucidates that materialism is not a scientific theory, but a metaphysical hypothesis, and therefore should be treated as such and compared to other metaphysical hypotheses. Secondly, that the current understanding of cosmology and of the evolution of complex, and conscious, life leaves much room for metaphysical explanations of why things turned out as they are. Thirdly, that the pure materialistic hypothesis yields a very low probability for the current state of affairs on this universe. Consequently, Ward argues that we should consider the theistic hypothesis as a better one, since it makes the emergence of conscious life almost a necessity.

Personally, I think that while science is the best tool we have to investigate and understand how things work, it will never gives a satisfactory account of why things exist and work in the way they do. Furthermore, I do not agree with who says that there is no point in trying to find answers to “why” questions, since we would never be able to confirm or refute them. As human beings, we constantly ask ourselves why things happen, and constantly interpret in a teleological way events and actions, especially of fellow humans. It is not possible to altogether avoid forming a metaphysical hypothesis of why the universe exists and why it developed conscious intelligence that asks these sorts of questions.

God, Chance & Necessity, gave me a more sophisticated framework to discuss and analyse answers to these questions, and I’m now more inclined to accept the theistic hypothesis as a valid one, and perhaps a very good one.

As I normally do, I will wear the theistic hypothesis for some time, testing it against my other beliefs, and like some piece of clothing, I will see whether it fits well or must be discarded in favour of something better. What this could be, I have now not the slightest clue.

Apology, Symposium and Phaedo by Plato

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Apology, Symposium and Phaedo are three dialogues by Plato that I recently read.

Apology is Socrates self-defense against the allegations of impiety and corruption. His discourse concerns the true nature of knowledge and of righteous behaviour. In contrast to many of his accusers, who are unaware of their ignorance, and pursue earthly riches and fame, Socrates had embarked on discovering true knowledge. Incessantly questioning the superficial knowledge of many people, and believing that the only knowledge worth pursuing is about the soul and the true nature of things, he attracted many enemies that eventually brought him to court.

Symposium describes a convivial dinner where several philosophers, among which Socrates, each in turn present an eulogy for Eros, the god of love. Thus, different views on what is the true nature of love are expressed, ending in the contraposition of Socrates’ highly idealistic stance and Alcibiades’s passionate account of his love for the old master.

Phaedo recounts Socrates’s last day, in company of his beloved disciples, when he discusses with them his ideas about the immortality of the soul. A philosopher’s lifelong endeavour is to elevate the soul from the corrupted, and corrupting, body. His disciples need not to mourn his imminent death, because he will finally reach that realm and that perfection that he had strived for his entire life.

Despite being two and a half millennia old, these philosophical discourse still retain their vividness and incredible relevance today. Definitely worth reading.

On Information Minimalism

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, has written a must-read mini-series on digital minimalism on his blog, see 1 2 3 4.

I also advocate a more comprehensive information minimalist approach, which in essence consists in continuously assessing and selecting sources of information very carefully.

I do not read newspapers, nor magazines, believing that high-frequency news writing is bound to bring a lot of noise with the signal (see also Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb, where he makes a similar point, especially with financial time-series, but not only).

The important news always reach me, one way or another, so it’s not so crucial to actively look for them, since by doing so, I might be exposed to too much noise, therefore wasting time, and precious attention (which, by the way, has been proved to be a very limited resource. See Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. And think hard about how much effort is put in trying to grab Your attention.)

Regarding the digital world, I follow few blogs, which I read via Feedly.
From time to time, if I see that I spend more time discarding posts than actually reading them, I prune a source or two. If a blog I really like often links to another blog or source, I might add it to my feeds.
I use Whatsapp and Facebook’s Messenger to keep in touch with friends, and I am very happy I can access the latter from a browser without having to go through the main website. The few times I do, I feel like drowning.
No Twitter either. I had tried few years back, but tweets are too superficial and noisy. I gave up and don’t miss it. Same story with Instagram.

In order to avoid unwanted, and very disruptive, interruptions, I turned off all notifications from my smartphone. If you want to contact me immediately, you truly have to call me (or walk to my desk, if you happen to be a colleague).
Indeed, the cost of even a very brief cognitive switch can be up to 20 minutes of lost concentration [1,2]
Furthermore, I use a 5-year old smartphone, that by the golden rule of planned obsolescence, is getting slower day after day. Its slowness helps me be even more selective of when using it and what I do with it.

That leaves me with ample time to read proper books, mostly non-fiction.
Given this selective approach, I manage to read 15 to 20 books per year, with high satisfaction and retention. Check out my 2016 list.

What is your strategy to keep your attention under control?

AI: Its nature and future

AI: Its nature and future is a little book by Margaret Boden, research professor of Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex. It is a quick (too quick?) overview about the history of artificial intelligence (AI) from the first symbolic reasoning systems to the more recent recursive deep neural networks. Boden discusses philosophical and social implications of AI advances and also delves into the hotly debated singularity idea. Boden is a self-declared Singularity-skeptic, but that doesn’t prevent her from acknowledging the threats that AI could pose to society in the near future. I wish she had gone deeper into her arguments, to better motivate her position and offer a clearer understanding of the topics covered.