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Play the Numbers: Three (Useful) Books About Data

Everywhere you go, you are data. You purchase an apple and suddenly ones and zeros are racing through the clickstream like they're wearing superhero capes. Someone, somewhere now knows more about when people eat apples, the likelihood that you will purchase one again, how they correlate to your longevity, your salary, your risk of disease. You shape the universe as you go.

And you live in the Prague Spring of data — a time when you can study from your laptop in a coffee shop what procedures really heal, what great teachers really do, or what pitches end up in infielders' gloves in the bottom of the ninth — and then— click — you can share with a thousand others. There's much to be gained from that — better hospitals and schools, say. Since an intuition for data can move mountains, here are three books to help you make the most of your data-driven life.

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00110011: Three Books About Data


by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski

The first is from the world of sports. You may be expecting Moneyball, but baseball has always been ripe for analysis — too easy almost. Soccer, though: Now there's a game like the rest of your life — inscrutable, fluid and complex. Forget quantifying every hit or run; some games have no goals at all. Quantify that! But the geeks are starting to notice the beautiful game, and you can read all about it in Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski. Do blond-haired players get overvalued because their anomalous brightness makes them easier to track on the field? Are less glamorous industrial cities, like Manchester and Dortmund, more likely to produce and support champion teams? In a world with a diminishing sense of "local," how do people form attachments to their teams? Even if you're not a soccer fan, the analytics are rich.

The Ghost Map

by Steven Johnson

Mid-19th century cities often lacked basic infrastructure like sewers and were therefore awash in filth and disease such as cholera, a brutal killer that wiped out whole families in a day. The reigning theory was that it was spread by vapors, known at the time as miasmas. But in 1854, Dr. John Snow mapped the cases of cholera that had occurred in London that year, and he proved that they coalesced around water pumps — waste-infected water in those pumps was the killer. Eventually his heroic analysis saved millions of lives, and gave rise to the cities of today and to epidemiology itself. But Snow's story, as told by Steven Johnson in The Ghost Map, is also a reminder that bad ideas can endure — they gather vested interests, fight back against the numbers and soldier on, at unspeakable costs.

The Wisdom Of Crowds

by James Surowiecki

James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds sees the world as an information market, and the results are surprisingly populist. Under the right conditions, the aggregated knowledge of a group of partially informed people almost always outperforms the wisdom of the expert. As Surowiecki says, it's the reason why "when you go to the convenience store in search of milk at 2 in the morning, there is a carton of milk waiting there for you, and it even tells us something important about why people pay their taxes and help coach Little League." There's pretty much no endeavor where that can't make a difference. You just have to know how to engineer the flow of information. His book is your guide. I find myself going back to it to guide everything from whom to hire to how to beat traffic on the interstate.

Doug Lemov