Kansas redistributes money from the poor to the banks

Take a look at this article (hat tip Felix Salmon), which has me absolutely raging this morning, about new legislation in Kansas that prevents poor people on welfare from taking out more than $25 per day using their state-issued debit cards.

To be clear, you have to round up to the nearest $20 if you want to take out money from an ATM, so that’s really the limit.

And to be clear, there’s a $1 fee to take out money, and then typically an extra $2.50 fee if you don’t have a bank account, which many of the affected people do not.

So altogether, they’re giving $3.50 for every $20 of their welfare benefits, which I’d characterize as a bank tax of 17.5%. Because poor people don’t need that money, never mind the convenience of paying their actual bills.

For fuck’s sake, Kansas.

Categories: Uncategorized

Nobody can keep track of all the big bank fraud cases #TBTF #OWS

If you’re anything like me, this week’s announcement that 5 banks – JP Morgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS, and UBS – have pleaded guilty to manipulating foreign exchange markets is both confusing and more than vaguely familiar.

It was a classic price fixing cartel, and it went along these lines: these big banks had all the business, being so big, and the traders got on a chat room and agreed to manipulate prices to make more money. The myth of the free market was suspended, and eventually they got caught, in large part because of leaving stupid messages like “If you aint cheating, you aint trying”.

But hold on, I could have sworn that these same banks, or a similar list of them, got in trouble for this already. Or was that LIBOR interest rate manipulation? Or was that for mortgage fraud? Or was that for robosigning?

Shit. I mean, here I am, someone who is actively taking an interest in financial reform, and I actually can’t remember all the fines, settlements, and fake guilty pleas to criminal charges.

I say “fake” because – yet again – nobody has gone to jail, and the banks found guilty have immediately been given waivers by the SEC to continue business as usual. According to this New York Times article, the Justice Department even delayed announcing the charges by a week so those waivers could be granted in time so that business wouldn’t even be disrupted. For fuck’s sake.

But again, same thing as all the other “big bank events” that we’ve grown tired of in the last few years. What it comes down to is fines, but then again, the continued quantitative easing has essentially been a gift of cash to those same banks, so I wouldn’t even count the fines as meaningful.

In fact I’d call this whole thing theater. And really repetitive, boring theater at that, where we all nod off because every scene is the same and they’ve turned up the heat too high.

The saddest part is that, given how very little we’ve improved about the integrity of the markets – I’d argue that we’ve actually gone backwards on incentives not to commit fraud, since now everything has been formalized as pathetic – we are bound to continue to see big banks committing fraud and then not getting any actual punishment. And we will all be so bored we won’t even keep track, because nobody can.

Categories: #OWS, finance

Gender And The Harvard Math Department

This is a guest post by Meena Boppana, a junior at Harvard and former president of the Harvard Undergraduate Math Association (HUMA). Meena is passionate about addressing the gender gap in math and has co-lead initiatives including the Harvard math survey and the founding of the Harvard student group Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM).

I arrived at Harvard in 2012 head-over-heels in love with math. Encouraged to think mathematically since I was four years old by my feminist mathematician dad, I had even given a TEDx talk in high school declaring my love for the subject. I was certainly qualified and excited enough to be a math major.

Which is why, three years later, I think about how it is that virtually all my female friends with insanely strong math backgrounds (e.g. math competition stars) decided not to major in math (I chose computer science). This year, there were no female students in Math 55a, the most intense freshman math class, and only two female students graduating with a primary concentration in math. There are also a total of zero tenured women faculty in Harvard math.

So, I decided to do some statistical sleuthing and co-directed a survey of Harvard undergraduates in math. I was inspired by the work of Nancy Hopkins and other pioneering female scientists at MIT, who quantified gender inequities at the Institute – even measuring the square footage of their offices – and sparked real change. We got a 1/3 response rate among all math concentrators at Harvard, with 150 people in total (including related STEM concentrations) filling it out.

The main finding of our survey analysis is that the dearth of women in Harvard math is far more than a “pipeline issue” stemming from high school. So, the tale that women are coming in to Harvard knowing less math and consequently not majoring in math is missing much of the picture. Women are dropping out of math during their years at Harvard, with female math majors writing theses and continuing on to graduate school at far lower rates than their male math major counterparts.

And it’s a cultural issue. Our survey indicated that many women would like to be involved in the math department and aren’t, most women feel uncomfortable as a result of the gender gap, and women feel uncomfortable in math department common spaces.


The simple act of talking about the gender gap has opened the floodgates to great conversations. I had always assumed that because no one was talking about the gender gap, no one cared. But after organizing a panel on gender in the math department which drew 150 people with a roughly equal gender split and students and faculty alike, I realized that my classmates of all genders feel more disempowered than apathetic.

The situation is bad, but certainly not hopeless. Together with a male freshman math major, I am founding a Harvard student group called Gender Inclusivity in Math (GIIM). The club has the two-fold goal of increasing community among women in math, including dinners, retreats, and a women speaker series, and also addressing the gender gap in the math department, continuing the trend of surveys and gender in math discussions. The inclusion of male allies is central to our club mission, and the support from male allies at the student and faculty level that we have received makes me optimistic about the will for change.

Ultimately, it is my continued love for math which has driven me to take action. Mathematics is too beautiful and important to lose 50 percent (or much more when considering racial and class-based inequities) of the potential population of math lovers.

In Camden, New Jersey

Yesterday and today I’m in Camden, New Jersey, working on a data task force for the Camden County Police Department. Yesterday we learned about how they currently run their systems and today we are hopefully going to address how they will do so in the future.

I got to see President Obama when he came here yesterday and talked about the Camden Police as a role model for the nation. The New York Times covered his visit as well and wasn’t so sure, given its record of accusations of excessive force by the police.

The way they collect those records and, to some extent, the way they respond to complaints are part of what I’m helping them think about, so I’ll know more soon, and I will be sure to write about it.

The Chief of Police, Scott Thomson, certainly says the right things. You can get to know him a bit through this interview, but I was struck yesterday by his emphasis on morality and community trust over the culture of an occupying force. Even so, Camden is a tough place, and not everything suddenly gets better even with a police force doing their best.

Another way of saying that is that, if we take the problems with the police away from a troubled city, you expose a whole pile of other problems.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Dearest Aunt Pythia readers! Do you know what makes Aunt Pythia super happy, blissful beyond belief? Aunt Pythia will tell you the answer to that right now: sweet letters from amazing nerd girls.

As you may or may not know, Aunt Pythia lives with and cares for a veritable brood of nerd boys – three of them, and four if you count her husband – but longs for a maternal role with nerd girls, her absolute favorite people in the world. But it just didn’t work out that way, no it didn’t. And she tried, oh yes.

So, given the reality of the situation, Aunt Pythia did her very best to make do. And make do she has done! In fact, the good news is that she has officially succeeded, as of yesterday, when she received this letter (which the writer has kindly agreed to allow me to publish):

Hi Mathbabe,

I just wanted to send you a fangirly email saying THANK YOU for publishing your blog. I’m going back to university for computer science after deciding years ago in high school that I just “wasn’t a math person,” and it’s been so reassuring and inspiring and FUN to read your blog and realize that …

a) I’m not the only person who feels inadequate sometimes!

b) It’s okay to study math even if you’re a little slow so long as you still like doing math!

c) It’s possible to study topics like math and computer science with a social justice angle and engagement with the world around me! (Sometimes it all seems so abstract and money-grubbing, you know?)

Anyway you rock. Whenever I feel down in my first-year calculus class, I check out your blog and feel good about my life again. You are a great role model.

Seriously, people, this is the stuff. It’s awesome.

Hey, and here’s the thing, Mathbabe a.k.a. Aunt Pythia has just started. She’s raring to go, in fact. So please, after enjoying today’s column:

ask Aunt Pythia any question at all at the bottom of the page!

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Do you have a position on trigger warnings in higher education?

The issue seems to have provoked a lot of controversy lately, and the controversy seems to have fallen along partisan lines. The argument on the left is that trigger warnings are a way to support the diversity of identities and experiences in the classroom and they are just as innocuous as movie ratings or “slippery when wet” signs. The argument on the right is that trigger warnings infantilize students and potentially have a chilling effect on open discussion in the classroom.

My opinion is that it is polite to warn someone before showing them disturbing images in any context, including and especially the classroom, but I am rather nervous about formal university policies which require trigger warnings or recommend the removal of triggering material. What do you think?

To Resist Image Gore? or Guarantee Everything Revealed?


I remember being in high school. I think it was my junior year, and in social studies we were reading the Greek myths. It seemed like every other story was about an earth woman who was super attractive, was raped by a god, and then punished for her seductive powers by the god’s jealous wife. I kept on getting outraged and stuck on this idea that women could be punished for being attractive and even for being raped.

Here’s the thing, though. I had a good teacher that year, who allowed me to declare my dismay at the story. We had a discussion in class about how morals change with culture. We talked about blaming victims and the inequity of those stories, from our perspectives. We even talked about the nature of human existence and desires, and of course the nature of godliness, and how that might have or might not have changed since the Greeks. Or at least that’s how I remember it. In other words, what started out as shocking became a learning experience.

I feel like my kids, when they become juniors in high school, might not get shown this stuff at all, depending on who the teacher is and what the climate is. That would be a shame. I think I benefitted a lot from that discussion, especially since I can still remember it, and especially because it was the first time I can remember examining brutality through the lens of intellectual inquiry. So I’m a firm “no” on removing material that would have a theoretical trigger warning on it, at least by the time they’re 15.

As for actual trigger warnings, I’m ambivalent. On the one hand I like the idea of girding people for oncoming tough moments, especially if signals people to pay more attention. On the other hand, I feel like sometimes they wouldn’t help, because the outrage is there whether or not you’ve mentally prepared, and trigger warnings might serve as a way for people to opt out of being engaged.

But my main problem with trigger warnings would be if they were seen as a replacement for the discussion of what’s so fucked up about punishing rape victims, or whatever it is. The point is that, as learners, we each must consume and metabolize the things we read, and a well-led discussion is when that all happens. It’s critical we don’t replace that with a tepid catch-all phrase that renders our rage unarticulated.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am a heterosexual male, and I’m facing a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, I would like to consider myself a feminist, or at least sympathetic to feminism (perhaps one must engage in public activism to earn the title “feminist”). On the other hand (sometimes literally), I like porn.

Of course these two sensibilities are in tension because the pornography market is overall one of the most hyper-masculine, patriarchal, and misogynistic industries on the planet. And the problem is not limited to the product – porn actresses are systematically mistreated and underpaid, and having appeared in porn is a scarlet letter which can follow you around for the rest of your life.

One step which I took a long time ago was to never pay for porn or click on advertisements so that I could claim to have never directly supported the industry. It turns out that limiting yourself to only free porn is not much of a limitation at all, but I wonder if this is really as much of a stand as I make it out to be. Also, it doesn’t address the rather idiotic standards of content that seem to be rather universal in the industry. Sometimes on a Friday night all I want is to get drunk and relive the amazing sex I had with my ex-girlfriend, but this sex did not involve her wearing boots the whole time or me ejaculating on her face at the end.

This is turning into a bit of a rant, so let me cut to my actual question. Is there such a thing as ethical porn, and if so where does one find it? More generally, is it possible to be a consumer of porn without participating in offensive industry practices?

People Of Responsible Nudity, Never Overly Tormented Sexually; Can One Remedy Needs?


So, you’re not alone. Lots of people look at porn, and many of them want to feel like good people too. So what steps can you take? I’m afraid I have to start out by saying that, by refusing to pay, you might have done the opposite of what you should have been doing.

For example, take a look at the advice described here for ethical porn consumption:

  1. Stick with porn from big brands, who have higher standards for their actors. You will have to pay for this.
  2. Stick with performers you know and who control their careers and have their own websites.
  3. In fact, pay for their content directly from their websites, and don’t watch pirated versions on YouPorn.
  4. Finally, if you want alternatives, find home-made sexy time videos and pay for them. This sounds harder to validate.

Another couple of ideas: watch porn cartoons, where there’s no real people, or watch content from kink.com, where they interview the actors and you can feel somewhat relieved (but perhaps not entirely) that the stuff they just did was not coercive.

Here’s Aunt Pythia’s feelings about porn, that for the most part turns her off, and this is even ignoring the coercive and seedy sides of it, in a way. Very very very little of it concerns the woman’s pleasure. In fact there’s quite a bit of it, in her statistical sampling, that concerns blowjobs, or anal sex, or what have you, that is almost entirely not directly stimulative for the female partner (Deep Throat’s premise notwithstanding). On top of that, lots of it has embarrassingly unconvincing grunts and moans coming from the woman. Horrible.

It’s almost like the viewer is being trained to ignore what woman actually want in bed. For that reason alone she thinks it’s bad news for men, especially young men who don’t know what to expect with a real live woman.

I feel like there is a niche out there for this stuff, and maybe that’s what the “home-made videos” are all about, where the people involved actually know and enjoy each other’s naked body, and they aren’t ashamed, and both of them have a great time. I’m pretty sure it will cost money though, and that’s fine.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

What skills might I need to be a credible candidate for a big data job? I just applied for one, although I seem to be missing a lot of what they asked. I program in Python, Java, Smalltalk, and Clojure. I could probably do Jython, as well, as there is a market for it, seemingly. There are groups in the Dallas area that are using NoSql databases, MySQL, Hadoop, Ruby on Rails, and Python. I found this opportunity by searching with Python. I think that they want Python and Django experience, while I only have Python right now.

Lost in Space

Dear LiS,

I’m not sure what kind of “big data job” you’re referring to. As an engineer? As a data scientist?

The thing is, you’ve listed programming languages, but I think the main thing people are looking for is problem solving experience and ability. Languages are the medium through which you formalize your solutions to problems, but they are only that; the main obstacle to most data questions is thoughtful approaches. And the way you develop them is by having lots of experience in knowing how to define and refine questions using data, how to measure and interpret signals, which algorithms do what, and so on. What language you’re using isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the first thing I’d be talking about.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I was talking to a fellow academic about the under-representation of women in some areas of academia. He started with the typical “there is no sexism in academia, there might have been, but all those professors are about to retire.” I have arguments for this, like all the studies showing that women are judged harder than men with the exact same CV. But before I could respond, he continued with “and besides, we all know that women like babies and fluffy things more than hard math. By the way, do you want to go on a date with me?”.

Is there any possible response other than punching him in the face?

Female Mathematician

Dear FM,

Violence doesn’t solve anything! Or rather, why do with violence what can be accomplished much more easily with words?

I would suggest the following words in this scenario:

Hahahahahahaha! Oh my god you really got me there! For a moment you had me convinced that you really were the most horrifying asshole ever, and then to top it off, asking me out like that! What a HOOT!

Seriously, do you do stand-up? Is this your persona? It’s dead on.

Oh wait, were you kidding? You weren’t? You actually think that stuff? And you think that, in any universe, that would be attractive to women? How bizarre. I’m afraid I have to leave, I’m late for a meeting of women in math, where we discuss the cool math we’re doing, and afterwards we have pizza and gossip about conversations like this one.

Seriously, it takes some courage, but be direct. Tell the guy – through humor, if it helps – that this attitude is a direct obstacle for him getting what he wants. Make him reevaluate what he’s trying to achieve. If you punch him, it becomes all about you, thus defeating the purpose.

And good luck!

Aunt Pythia


People, people! Aunt Pythia loves you so much. And she knows that you love her. She feels the love. She really really does.

Well, here’s your chance to spread your Aunt Pythia love to the world! Please ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Starting work at the GovLab soon

Guys! Exciting changes are afoot.

I’m extremely happy to say that I finished my first draft of my book, and although it’s not the end of that story, it’s still rather exhilarating. As of now the publication date is May 2016. My editor is reading it this week. Fingers crossed, everyone.

In the meantime, I’ve also recently heard that a grant proposal that I was on came through. This will have me working on interesting data questions from the Department of Justice out of the GovLab, which is run by Beth Noveck. It’ll be part time for now, at least until my book is done and until the Occupy Summer School is over, which is taking place more or less across the street from GovLab in downtown Brooklyn.

One thing that’s particularly great about being almost done with the book is that I’m looking forward to getting back to short-form writing. I’ve been so involved in the book, but as you can imagine it’s a very different mindset than a blogpost. When you write a book you have to carry around in your head an enormous amount of context, but when you write a blogpost you just need to have one idea and to say it well. It also helps if you’re annoyed (right, Eugene?).

Anyhoo, I’m pretty good at being annoyed, and I love and miss being mathbabe, so I’m more or less psyched to be coming back more consistently to this format soon. Although the life of a book writer is pretty awesome too, and I will definitely miss it. My favorite part has been the magical ability to connect with people who are experts on subjects I’m trying to learn about. Turns out people are extremely generous with their time and expertise, and I am grateful for that!

Categories: data science

Jordan’s here!

I’m excited as always to see my buddy Jordan Ellenberg, who’s in town accepting a Guggenheim Fellowship.

You might have thought that Guggenheims were awarded to starving artists, and you would be mostly right, but they also give them out to a couple of math people each year as well.

Since Jordan has kids and I have kids, we got to talking about how fantastic our kids are, which led Jordan to show me this adorable video involving him and his son C.J.:

It’s in reference to the National Math Festival, which was held in April in D.C.. Jordan spoke there about his book How Not To Be Wrong, which I reviewed a while ago. A couple of comments:

  • If you look carefully, you will also see my buddy Rebecca Goldin with one of her (many) adorable kids in the video,
  • My favorite part (and Jordan’s) is where he puts his head inside a Fibonacci sequence, even though that makes no sense,
  • My sons would never be this math positive. They enjoy talking about how much they hate school in general and math in particular.
  • I’m kind of proud of how I’m raising them to be “independent thinkers,” though, which is what I call that.
Categories: Uncategorized

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