Skip to main content

Big Data - Brian Clegg ****

I first became involved with what we now term big data when providing some mathematical assistance to a major supermarket.  They wanted to know what products would suffer, or benefit, if another product were put on special offer – the victims and victors as they called them.  As an example, if fresh meat pies are put on buy one get one free, should the supermarket plan on stocking more fresh vegetables? That sort of thing.  The supermarket in question had a lot of data concerning historical sales, and what had previously been put on special offer, so it was just a case of designing a set of algorithms to analyse this data to provide the necessary forecast, and also to have the system learn through what we would now call reinforcement learning over time.  This was back in the mid 90s. One can imagine how things - in all camps - should have vastly improved since then.  That’s just one example of where Big Data transparently impacts our lives.

In Big Data, Clegg sets out an assortment of examples from the success of Netflix and the prediction of crime locations to algorithms that have lost people their jobs or caused stock market crashes, examining the mechanisms and implications of each.  Taking the supermarket example - although this is my example and not his - we might ask ourselves who really benefits here – who exactly are the victims and victors (or villains perhaps) in real life?

Big Data is here to stay - should we be afraid of it or embrace it?  As always, Clegg writes with an easy clarity that draws us in - no technical expertise required to understand his exploration of this essential subject - and throughout Big Data’s highly enjoyable pages, the spread and range of material is highly impressive – dizzying in fact.  I personally found entirely new perspectives on the subject that will keep me pondering for quite some time.  

I should add that, if I were still a statistics lecturer at Oxford, I would recommend the book to my students as bedside reading.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  

Review by Peet Morris
Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Ancestral Night (SF) - Elizabeth Bear *****

Only a couple of weeks ago, reviewing a 1960s SF book, I bemoaned the fact that science fiction novels of ideas are less common now. Although it is correctly labelled a space opera, Ancestral Night delivers ideas with aplomb.

Let's deal with the space opera aspect first. Elizabeth Bear provides some excellent adventure scenes in space, and we've the usual mix of huge spaceships and interesting aliens. Main character Haimey Dz is an engineer on a ship that salvages wrecks - but, as we gradually discover - she also has a forgotten past. A major feature of the storyline (one that seems to link to the medieval idea of the lost wisdom of the past) is ancient technology from a long-dead race with capabilities, notably manipulating spacetime mentally (Bear has yet to point out that the travel technologies used here could manipulate time as well as space), which fit well with Arthur C. Clarke's magic definition.

I particularly liked the (surely intentional) nods to the much-misse…

The Future of Fusion Energy - Jason Parisi and Justin Ball ***

There is no doubt that fusion, the power source of the Sun, has the potential to be a significant contributor to our future energy needs. It's clean, green and continuous, able to fill in the gaps where wind and solar simply can't deliver. It uses cheap fuel and doesn't produce much in the way of nasty waste. And it can't undergo any sort of runaway reaction. So it's certainly a worthy topic for a popular science title. This book covers one aspect of fusion power - tokamak reactors - in great depth for a relatively non-technical book. But as we will see, it will only really work for a limited audience.

You won't necessarily realise it from the cover, which I interpreted as emphasising that Homer Simpson will still have a job when Springfield Energy converts to fusion power, but Jason Parisi and Justin Ball have packed The Future of Fusion Energy with information on the detail of how fusion reactors work, and all the difficulties that are faced in getting a stabl…

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schr√∂dinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…