Over the course of an 18-month investigation, officials in the county’s Office of Children, Youth and Families (C.Y.F.) offered me extraordinary access to their files and procedures, on the condition that I not identify the families involved. Exactly what in this family’s background led the screening tool to score it in the top 5 percent of risk for future abuse and neglect cannot be known for certain. But a close inspection of the files revealed that the mother was attending a drug-treatment center for addiction to opiates; that she had a history of arrest and jail on drug-possession charges; that the three fathers of the little girl and her two older siblings had significant drug or criminal histories, including allegations of violence; that one of the older siblings had a lifelong physical disability; and that the two younger children had received diagnoses of developmental or mental-health issues.
Finding all that information about the mother, her three children and their three fathers in the county’s maze of databases would have taken Byrne hours he did not have; call screeners are expected to render a decision on whether or not to open an investigation within an hour at most, and usually in half that time. Even then, he would have had no way of knowing which factors, or combinations of factors, are most predictive of future bad outcomes. The algorithm, however, searched the files and rendered its score in seconds. And so now, despite Byrne’s initial skepticism, the high score prompted him and his supervisor to screen the case in, marking it for further investigation. Within 24 hours, a C.Y.F. caseworker would have to “put eyes on” the children, meet the mother and see what a score of 19 looks like in flesh and blood.
But what if an algorithm could predict death? In late 2016 a graduate student named Anand Avati at Stanford’s computer-science department, along with a small team from the medical school, tried to “teach” an algorithm to identify patients who were very likely to die within a defined time window. “The palliative-care team at the hospital had a challenge,” Avati told me. “How could we find patients who are within three to 12 months of dying?” This window was “the sweet spot of palliative care.” A lead time longer than 12 months can strain limited resources unnecessarily, providing too much, too soon; in contrast, if death came less than three months after the prediction, there would be no real preparatory time for dying — too little, too late. Identifying patients in the narrow, optimal time period, Avati knew, would allow doctors to use medical interventions more appropriately and more humanely. And if the algorithm worked, palliative-care teams would be relieved from having to manually scour charts, hunting for those most likely to benefit.
Every two years, the American valet-parking industry sends its best parkers—optimistically described as athletes—to compete in a head-to-head battle known as the National Valet Olympics. True to their Athenian namesake, the games push participants to the limit. Competitors sort keys. They pack trunks. They slalom through orange cones. They sprint across parking lots. Organized into corporate teams, they also dress in the snazzy uniforms of their trade.
At first glance, an Olympics organized entirely around valet parking seems absurd: a luxury service treated as a Decathlon. Yet the Valet Olympics draw attention to a line of work—or, as some would say, an emerging motorsport—that few ever pause to consider. Successful valets boast automotive skills unappreciated outside the parking lot. And valet parking is a hidden vein of economic opportunity that provides full-time work, first jobs, and summer employment to thousands. For immigrants from Nigeria, India, or Ecuador, or displaced by war in Iraq, the industry can supply a much-needed foothold in the United States, even launching a lifelong career. What’s more, as cities grow in size and complexity, America’s urban centers are becoming harder to navigate—with byzantine parking laws, dense downtowns that require real-life Tetris skills to park, and massive lots located blocks from the venues they serve. All of this makes valets, as they invisibly rearrange streets, the set designers of every busy cityscape. Giving them an arena to demonstrate their talents is, in this sense, a no-brainer.
I recall Noel Annan, the provost of University College London, declaring in the 1970s that the English literature department, historically the first such in England, was the “very heart” of the school. Any college president making such a claim as Annan’s today could await the men in white coats.
It’s with exhilaration, then, that one hails Martin Puchner’s book, which asserts not merely the importance of literature but its all-importance.
And precision — of observation, of language — is Hoby’s gift. Her sentences are sleek and tailored. Language molds snugly to thought.