Author Archive

Join Occupy the SEC in Pushing Congress to Reject Dodd-Frank Deregulation

There’s some tricky business going on right now in politics, with a bunch of ridiculous last-minute negotiations to roll back elements of Dodd-Frank and aid Wall Street banks in the current budget deal. Hell, it’s the end of the year, and people are distracted, so the public won’t mind if the banks get formal government backing for their risky trades, right?

Occupy the SEC has a petition you can sign, located here, which is opposed to these changes. You might remember Occupy the SEC for their incredible work in public comments on the Dodd-Frank bill in the first place. I urge you to go take a look at their petition and, if you agree with them, sign it.

After you sign the petition, feel free to treat yourself to some holiday satire and cheer, namely The 2014 Haters Guide To The Williams-Sonoma Catalog.

Categories: #OWS, finance

Video cameras won’t solve the #EricGarner situation, but they will help

As many thoughtful people have pointed out already, Eric Garner’s case proves that video evidence is not a magic bullet to combat and punish undue police brutality. The Grand Jury deemed such evidence insufficient for an indictment, even if the average person watching the video cannot understand that point of view.

Even so, it would be a mistake to dismiss video cameras on police as entirely a bad idea. We shouldn’t assume no progress could be made simply because there’s an example which lets us down. I am no data evangelist, but neither am I someone who dismisses data. It can be powerful and we should use its power when we can.

And before I try to make the general case for video cameras on cops, let me make one other point. The Eric Garner video has already made progress in one arena, namely public opinion. Without the video, we wouldn’t be seeing nationwide marches protesting the outrageous police conduct.

A few of my data nerd thoughts:

  1. If cops were required to wear cameras, we’d have more data. We should think of that as building evidence, with the potential to use it to sway grand juries, criminal juries, judges, or public opinion.
  2. One thing I said time after time to my students this summer at the data journalism program I directed is the following: a number by itself is usually meaningless. What we need is to compare that number to a baseline. The baseline could be the average number for a population, or the median, or some range of 5th to 95th percentiles, or how it’s changed over time, or whatnot. But in order to gauge any baseline you need data.
  3. So in the case of police videotapes, we’d need to see how cops usually handle a situation, or how cops from other precincts handle similar situations, or the extremes of procedures in such situations, or how police have changed their procedures over time. And if we think the entire approach is heavy handed, we can also compare the data to the police manual, or to other countries, or what have you. More data is better for understanding aggregate approaches, and aggregate understanding makes it easier to fit a given situation into context.
  4. Finally, the cameras might also change their behavior when they are policing, knowing they are being taped. That’s believable but we shouldn’t depend on it.
  5. And also, we have to be super careful about how we use video evidence, and make sure it isn’t incredibly biased due to careful and unfair selectivity by the police. So, some cops are getting in trouble for turning off their cameras at critical moments, or not turning them on ever.

Let’s take a step back and think about how large-scale data collection and mining works, for example in online advertising. A marketer collects a bunch of data. And knowing a lot about one person doesn’t necessarily help them, but if they know a lot about most people, it statistically speaking does help them sell stuff. A given person might not be in the mood to buy, or might be broke, but if you dangle desirable good in front of a whole slew of people, you make sales. It’s a statistical play which, generally speaking, works.

In this case, we are the marketer, and the police are the customers. We want a lot of information about how they do their job so when the time comes we have some sense of “normal police behavior” and something to compare a given incident to or a given cop to. We want to see how they do or don’t try to negotiate peace, and with whom. We want to see the many examples of good and great policing as well as the few examples of terrible, escalating policing.

Taking another step back, if the above analogy seems weird, there’s a reason for that. In general data is being collected on the powerless, on the consumers, on the citizens, or the job applicants, and we should be pushing for more and better data to be collected instead on the powerful, on the police, on the corporations, and on the politicians. There’s a reason there is a burgeoning privacy industry for rich and powerful people.

For example, we want to know how many people have been killed by the police, but even a statistic that important is incredibly hard to come by (see this and this for more on that issue). However, it’s never been easier for the police to collect data on us and act on suspicions of troublemakers, however that is defined.

Another example – possibly the most extreme example of all – comes this very week from the reports on the CIA and torture. That is data and evidence we should have gotten much earlier, and as the New York Times demands, we should be able to watch videos of waterboarding and decide for ourselves whether it constitutes torture.

So yes, let’s have video cameras on every cop. It is not a panacea, and we should not expect it to solve our problems over night. In fact video evidence, by itself, will not solve any problem. We should think it as a mere evidence collecting device, and use it in the public discussion of how the most powerful among us treat the least powerful. But more evidence is better.

Finally, there’s the very real question of who will have access to the video footage, and whether the public will be allowed to see it at all. It’s a tough question, which will take a while to sort out (FOIL requests!), but until then, everyone should know that it is perfectly legal to videotape police in every place in this country. So go ahead and make a video with your camera when you suspect weird behavior.


FATML and next Saturday’s Eric Garner protest

At the end of this week I’ll be heading up to Montreal to attend and participate in a one-day workshop called Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in Machine Learning (FATML), as part of a larger machine learning conference called NIPS. It’s being organized by Solon Barocas and Moritz Hardt, who kindly put me on the closing panel of the day with Rayid Ghani, who among other things runs the Data Science for Social Good Summer Fellowship out of the University of Chicago, and Foster Provost, an NYU professor of Computer Science and the Stern School of Business.

On the panel, we will be discussing examples of data driven projects and decisions where fairness, accountability, and transparency came into play, or should have. I’ve got lots!

When I get back from Montreal, late on Saturday morning, I’m hoping to have the chance to make my way over to Washington Square Park at 2pm to catch a large Eric Garner protest. It’s actually a satellite protest from Washington D.C. called for by Rev. Al Sharpton and described as “National March Against Police Violence”. Here’s what I grabbed off twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 7.09.31 AM

Categories: #OWS, modeling

Aunt Pythia’s advice

It’s been a tough week, friends. Aunt Pythia is both excited and anxious for the future of the country. What with the Ferguson situation, and the Eric Garner protests, there’s very little time to knit. I’ve got nothing of my own to show you today, so instead I’ll just post this:

OK now let’s get to your questions! And don’t forget to

ask Aunt Pythia your question 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,

What are your thoughts on the push to eliminate the algebra requirement for college students (see the AMATYC statement on “Alternative Pathways”)? This is different from simply beefing up statistics education, I’ve looked fairly closely at several of these alternative pathways (Quantway and Statway and the Math Lit textbooks of Almy and Mercer) and they are mathematically very weak. This appears to be a cynical ploy to keep pushing students through the (very expensive) process of getting a degree without actually completing worthwhile work.

I think that Algebra is the grammar of mathematics and that it should be a prerequisite for any course in statistics that is at all useful.


Dear ES,

I couldn’t find that statement, so I don’t really know what’s at stake. The problem – or maybe it’s not a problem, because I’ve used it when developing curriculum myself – is that two people probably wouldn’t agree on what “algebra” means.

For example, I was at a talk recently where a woman from Microsoft was advocating a new way of teaching computer science in high school, and she made a point of saying it wouldn’t involve algebra but would introduce students to formalized thinking and, in particular, formal manipulation of symbols. For me, that was a ridiculous statement, because that’s what algebra is. But I say that knowing there are probably a huge number of things being stuffed into an “Algebra” course that have little to do with my definition.

There’s another problem, which is pinpointing exactly what is useful and what isn’t useful for a non-mathematician to understand later in life. It’s a fuzzy issue, and honestly I’m probably someone who would rather see people be able to read, understand, and dissect statistical statements about medical research than solve the quadratic equation from scratch, on the grounds that it’s more important to their actual health and well-being to understand accuracy than to understand square roots, especially of negative numbers.

Not sure that helped, but if you want more explicit opinions, please write back with links.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My wife and I have been married 5 years (no children). Last year she changed jobs. She became friendly with a girl at her new job, “Janet.” Janet has since been over to our house several times and she and my wife have a “girl’s night out” (GNO) once or twice a month.

Last week after another GNO my wife was subdued. The next night after dinner, my wife told me that Janet had made a pass at her. She had turned Janet down but now wanted my permission to pursue Janet.

When I asked if she was suggesting a threesome, she said that she wanted it to be just the two of them. When I asked if that meant I could find a girl on the side, she became angry and said that this was different.

I had no previous indication of my wife’s bisexuality. What should I do?

Not Open to Sharing With Individuals Nor Groups


Nice sign off!

So wait, let me get this straight. Would you have been into a threesome? Would you have been OK with the Janet stuff if you also got to play outside? I mean, I am seeing your sign-off as a signal of unhappiness, but I’m not sure what the flavor of the unhappiness is.

Look, every marriage figures out its own way in these things. The good marriages are the ones that figure out ways that work for them, and the bad marriages are the ones that don’t. As far as I know there is no lasting marriage that never gets tested at all. Contrary to modern opinion, most marriages don’t instantly dissolve when someone has a fling or even an affair. Good marriages take things in stride, at least if things don’t get too intense and both parties actually want things to work out and stay in the marriage.

In other words, there is no absolute answer, there is only the negotiation you come up with with your partner. And the definition of “it’s working” is “it’s working for us.”

So basically, my advice is to not take any advice. But if you want my advice, it would be to spend more time asking why your wife gets to try out Janet and you don’t get to look around as well. It’s not obvious to me why Janet is “different”; after all, she’s a person, and she’s not in your marriage, and as such she’s a potential threat to you, and a potential cause of jealousy. If you are willing to put up with those things, your wife should be too.

Which is not to say your negotiation should end there, where neither of you get to do anything, but that there should be some sense of equity. Otherwise you will feel resentful, and resentment kills relationships.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia:

I am a mom. My daughter is a first year at a women’s college (let’s call it B) affiliated with an Ivy league institution (let’s call it C) in a major metropolitan market.

My daughter has always appeared to have a very strong aptitude for patterns and puzzles. Yet given the nature of our home school district (not good), she probably did not have the quality of math prep that kids at other schools benefited from. In general, she has always been a very good student, though not a extraordinary standardized test taker, i.e. SATs.

She is showing a strong interest in math and computer science. However, the women’s college (B) does not seem to be the place where the MAT and SCI stuff occurs. Instead, the B students are required to go to the neighboring co-ed institution (C) where male students with 800s on their math SATs likely dominate those classes in their potentially intimidating manner.

My question is rather vague: But what is your advice about how I can help her navigate this challenge? I am wondering if it’s not true that many students who would be excellent math students in many environments will be scared away from this one?

(And I know you can’t answer this one but: In an era when B is touting female empowerment and the world is conscious of the need to get women involved in MAT and CompSCI, wouldn’t it be great to see B offer more math and csi?)


Wants a Girl to Code or Do Math

Dear WaGtCoDM,

When I was at Barnard, I started a course called “Introduction to Higher Mathematics” which was exactly addressing the problem that most male math majors came in with lots of experience from high school math camps and math competitions in how to write proofs, but most women interested in math came in just interested and excited about math, but very little background in writing proofs.

The course was a huge success, and was mainly attended by women, although there were men of course, since both Barnard and Columbia classes are open to everyone (except Barnard first year seminars). I wrote about it here, go take a look.

Some good news: the class is still offered. I’d suggest you tell your daughter about it, or about a class like it, if I’m wrong about where she goes to college.

Go nerd girls!!

Auntie P


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I am in a quandary. My Ph.D. supervisor is a lazy man. Sometimes when I go to him he starts talking to me about non-thesis related topics. Commenting on Politics is his favorite job. We have diametrically opposite ideologies.

Listening to his right wing rants takes a serious toll on my well-being. I am not a very articulate speaker so I do not think I would go very far if I decided to have a political argument with him. I am quite happy if he would discuss only maths with me. I don’t know how to bear his diatribes about morality and meritocracy. I feel like taking a shower every time I come back from visiting his office.

Please help me or I shall have to drop the idea of PhD completely.

Politically Against Thesis Supervisor

Dear PATS,

Get another advisor! I’m sure the other professors in the department know all about this guy and his evasive, lazy, right-wing ways. Go to another professor whose work you admire and whose field you find interesting, and tell him that things are not working out with your current advisor, and ask for advice. She or he They will give you good advice, and if they don’t, go to yet another professor in the department and ask for advice.

This is your life and  your career, you have to advocate for yourself. Don’t give up before you’ve tried everything.

Aunt Pythia


Please submit your well-specified, fun-loving, cleverly-abbreviated question to Aunt Pythia!

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

White progress

It’s pretty hard to find solace in the Eric Garner situation, but since I have been thinking almost exclusively about this stuff, and since by nature I don’t like to be consistently hopeless (it’s too exhausting), I have come up with some positive thinking around it.

Namely, basically what Chris Rock has been saying: it’s exposing white progress, and it’s been a long time coming. The number of Facebook friends I have, who are very comfortably upper middle class and white, and who are outspoken, ashamed, and disgraced by the Eric Garner decision is meaningful. The protests are widespread and are multiracial. It is not a black person’s problem anymore.

In my Occupy group, which meets weekly on Sunday afternoons, we’ve been talking a lot about white privilege, and whether that phrase is appropriate, and whether we can come up with a better one. Because for the most part, “white privilege” really refers to the rights white people have, which everyone should have, but which not everyone has.

For example, it is my white privilege not to worry about my three sons getting shot by the police. But that’s not a privilege, it’s a right. I’m entitled to that security. Everyone is, but not everyone gets to have it. Maybe we should call it “white entitlement.”

[There’s a problem with that name too, of course, which is that the Republicans stole the word “entitlement” away from us and made it a dirty word. So, Social Security is an “entitlement”, for example, which we should maybe be ashamed of. But not really, since we pay for it. So we should take that word back anyway, so let’s just kill two birds with one stone.]

But every now and then “privilege” is exactly appropriate, and no better examples exist than what we are now seeing on Twitter under the hashtag #crimingwhilewhite, which was also covered in the Times. Examples:

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 7.41.26 AM

Screen Shot 2014-12-05 at 7.42.18 AM

So yeah, white progress. I’m looking for a way to be proud to live in this country, and white progress might be the way I can do it.

Categories: #OWS, white privilege

Staten Island Goddam #EricGarner

This is all I got this morning:

Categories: #OWS, news

Neil deGrasse Tyson at NJPAC

Last night I went to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) with my 12-year-old son to see Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom we both love from the Cosmos series. I also loved this rant on women and blacks in science:

So here’s what he talked about last night, which was stimulating and interesting. I’m not covering absolutely everything, of course, and I am doing my best to summarize what he said:

  • You can follow scientific progress by who gets to name things, because naming follows discovery.
  • For example, looking at the history of the discovery of the periodic table, you learn a lot. Except for Sweden, which just had a lucky break with some weird cave.
  • By this token, from 800 AD to around 1100 AD, mathematical and scientific advancements were happening in the Middle East (see for example the history of algebra and mathematician Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who invented the terms algebra and algorithm). Then some imam decided it was anti-religious to do anything like that, and progress – scientific and otherwise – stopped.
  • Cultures that embrace science have more growth.
  • In the U.S., about half of the people don’t acknowledge evolution, and that’s a bad sign for our future.
  • In fact we are a hugely prolific scientific force, like Europe and Japan, but unlike them, our power is shrinking rather than expanding.
  • We should go back to the 1960’s, at least in terms of the way we promoted and dreamed about scientific progress, and bottle up the energy and enthusiasm, and bring it back to today.
  • Space flight is a great thing and we should reinvest in it as an inspiration for science in this country and in the world.
  • We should stay curious, and investigate things we don’t understand, and talk to people about their beliefs even if we don’t agree. Childlike and insatiable curiosity and wonderment is the goal.
Categories: education, women in math

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,284 other followers