Author Archive

Alt Banking in Huffington Post #OWS

November 11, 2014 1 comment

Great news! The Alt Banking group had a piece published today in the Huffington Post entitled With Economic Justice For All, about our hopes for the next Attorney General.

For the sake of the essay, we coined the term “marble columns” to mean the opposite of “broken windows.” Instead of getting arrested for nothing, you never get arrested, as long as you work at a company with marble columns. For more, take a look at the whole piece!

Also, my good friend and bandmate Tom Adams (our band, the Tomtown Ramblers, is named after him) will be covering for me on mathbabe for the next few days while I’m away in Haiti. Please make him feel welcome!

Bitcoin provocations

Yesterday at the Alt Banking meeting we had a special speaker and member, Josh Snodgrass (not his real name), come talk to us about Bitcoin, the alternative “cryptocurrency”. I’ll just throw together some fun and provocative observations that came from the meeting.

  1. First, Josh demonstrated how quickly you can price alternative currencies, by giving out a few of our Alt Banking “52 Shades of Greed” cards and stipulating that the jacks (I had a jack) were worth 1 “occudollar” but the 2’s (I also had a 2) were worthy 1,000,000,000 occudollars. Then he paid me $1 for my jack, which made me a billionaire. After thinking for a minute, I paid him $5 to get my jack back, which made me a multibillionaire. Come to think of it I don’t think I got that $5 back after the meeting.
  2. There’s a place you can have lunch in the city that accepts Bitcoin. I think it’s called Pita City.
  3. The idea behind Bitcoin is that you don’t have to have a trustworthy middleman in order to buy stuff with it. But in fact, the “bitcoin wallet” companies are increasingly playing the role of the trusted middlemen, especially considering it takes on average 10 minutes, but sometimes up to 40 minutes, of computing time to finish a transaction. If you want to leave the lunch place after lunch, you’d better have a middleman that the shop owner trusts or you could be sitting there for a while.
  4. People compare bitcoin to other alternative currencies like the Ithaca Hours, but there are two very important differences.
  5. First, Ithaca Hours, and other local currencies, are explicitly intended to promote local businesses: you pay for your bread with them, and the bread company you give money to buys ingredients with them, and they need to buy from someone who accepts them, which is by construction a local business.
  6. Second, local currencies like the Madison East Side Babysitting Coop’s “popsicle currency” are very low tech, used my middle class people to represent labor, whereas Bitcoin is highly technical and used primarily by technologists and other fancy people.
  7. There is class divide and a sophistication divide here, in other words.
  8. Speaking of sophistication, we had an interesting discussion about whether it would ever make sense to have bitcoin banks and – yes – fractional reserve bitcoin banking. On the one hand, since there’s a limit to the number of overall bitcoins, you can’t have everyone pretending they can pay a positive interest rate on all the bitcoin every year, but on the other hand a given individual can always write a contract saying they’d accept 100 bitcoins now and pay back 103 in a year, because it might just be a bet on the dollar value of bitcoins in a year. And in the meantime that person can lend out bitcoins to people, knowing full well they won’t all be spent at once. Altogether that looks a lot like fractional reserve bitcoin banking, which would effectively increase the number of bitcoins in circulation.
  9. Also, what about derivatives based on bitcoins? Do they already exist?
  10. Remaining question: will bitcoins ever actually be usable and trustworthy for people to send money to their families across the world below the current cost? And below the cost of whatever disruptions are being formulated in the money business by Paypal and Google and whoever else?

Update: there will be a Bitcoin Hackathon at NYU next weekend (hat tip Chris Wiggins). More info here.

Categories: #OWS, economics, finance

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Holy crap! Aunt Pythia is in love with a new knitting pattern and has just completed her first reversible “flaming hat”:

The orange is cashmere. I got it on sale.

The orange is cashmere. I got it on sale. Ridiculously scrumptious.

The green is leftover from a sweater Aunt Pythia knitted for her husband years ago, a wool/silk blend.

The green is leftover from a sweater Aunt Pythia knitted for her husband years ago, a wool/silk blend. Also scrumptious.

And that’s all I got today, folks.

Just kidding! I’m here for you guys, of course! Let’s dig in. But before I forget,

please think of something

titillating, reversible, and scrumptious 

to ask Aunt Pythia

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,

This may be too broad a generalization, but I feel that current practices of teaching math were developed in an era when computers were not available. In an age where powerful, open-source tools are readily available and it’s even possible to do symbolic math using a computer, is it still useful to teach traditional pen-and-paper math to students who have no interest in becoming professional mathematicians? Does one really need to know that a trigonometric substitution would convert a tricky integral to a familiar one? As teachers, should we just focus on “big picture” concepts and use computers to explore problems on a larger scale than are feasible by hand (e.g. 1000 X 1000 matrices instead of 3 X 3)? Or, will lack of rigor in teaching have long term consequences (dubious application of math in real world)? Are there examples of the use of computers in mathematical education that you would recommend?

Obsessive Correlator

Dear OC,

I kind of agree. I never saw the point of cosines and sines until Taylor Series, even though they theoretically help ships navigate in the ocean. I mean, maybe, but that connection was never made clear to us.

If I had my way, we’d spend a lot more time doing simple data analysis, trying to understand what “statistical evidence” means, so we train people to read the newspaper and scientific research papers and not be cowed by the math, which is usually pretty simple.

Also, there are new tools like this one (hat tip Josh Vekhter) which are taking care of the rote arithmetic already:

The good news is, there are efforts underway to modernize the mathematics curriculum. The bad news is they’ve gotten caught in a web of politics. But I do expect this stuff to get sorted out over time.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m an undergrad freshman studying physics and math. I absolutely adore physics and it’s what I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I’d really, really love to become a physicist but I fear I’m just not smart enough. Reading your sample question has worried me. I had always thought if I work hard enough I could do it, but it’s always in the back of my mind that I’m not creative/intelligent enough. When (if ever) will I know if I have what it takes?

Unsure and Insecure

Dear U&I,

Short answer: never.

The long answer has four parts.

First, I have actually never met anyone who thinks they are smart enough to be a physicist or a mathematician at the level they want to be. Just get used to it and enjoy the love for the subject anyway. Also, knowing that nobody ever feels smart enough might be comforting.

Second, in general the more time you spend with something, the better you get at it, and the more you love something the more time you want to spend with it. Sometimes insecurity can be debilitating, but if you remember you love it aside from your ability, you can try to keep things cool.

Third, when your teachers and others encourage you, believe them. If you don’t get into a grad school for math or physics, take it as a sign – probably – that it might not be for you, but if you do get into a grad school, just trust that other people see something in you that you can’t see yourself, yet.

Finally, I am not sure what you mean by my “sample question”, did I ask something that made a bunch of people feel not smart enough for physics and math? If so, I apologize. I never mean to do that. I really don’t think any one question could possibly be sufficient to size someone up in this kind of deep way.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Lately I’ve been a bit of a hermit. I do go out sometimes, but I often don’t really talk to anyone because of the well-documented awkwardness involved in starting conversations with strangers (which somehow seems to not bother some people).

I have a work friend in a similar predicament, and we came up with the idea for a “woman scavenger hunt” (we’re both single straight men) designed to help us get over our discomfort with talking to strangers (specifically, women). The scavenger hunt would be a race to meet women with particular characteristics such as:

  • wearing a bandanna
  • reading a book in a bar at night
  • has a driver’s license from Hawaii or Alaska
  • knows sign language

We would have to talk to the person in question and secure some sort of evidence, such as a photograph (consensually, of course!)

My questions are:

  1. Does this sound creepy? For some reason it feels like we’re plotting to invade other people’s privacy, and it’s hard to decide if this is real or if I’m just antisocial.
  2. If you endorse the idea, can you add to our list? It has to be something for which one can collect evidence; we ruled out “met Elizabeth Warren”, for example.

Tired Introvert Mulling Interpersonal Development


First of all, I think it’s a goodish idea. I would like to suggest that you enlarge the goal to “meeting a person with the following characteristic” rather than a woman specifically, because the truth is you’re probably awkward meeting men and women, and this will give you practice, and although you are theoretically more interested in the women, meeting men is a good idea too. Plus, men have friends who are girls. If you give a good impression to the men you meet, the women will be like, “who’s this guy?”.

By the way, one of my good friends had a habit when she was single of hanging out with her girlfriends (wingwomen actually) and coming up with slightly artificial arguments at their table, which they would turn into “polls” for the entire bar. In other words, they’d argue aimlessly until they came up with something jicy enough to bring to every other group of men, women, and mixed groups at the bar and poll them. They might do this all night, gradually getting to know people at the bar, and they might have actually been interested romantically or sexually in only a few of the people they interacted with, but their friendliness and interactivity was a hit with everyone, assuming their polls questions were funny and smart, which they were.

In other words, it’s a good idea, and it’s quirky, and if you can play with it and have fun with it, and get other people to be into it and have fun with it, then it’s all good. You might not get laid, but in the worst case scenario you make friends.

Just to be clear, you gotta make sure the “characteristics” you’re looking for don’t get creepy or sexual. Don’t, for example, go up to women and say you’re looking for a woman with such-and-such sexual experience or physical attributes. Gross.

And never, ever, ever do anything this guy suggests.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’m applying for (academic) math jobs at the moment. I’m also female (obvious from my name) and a lesbian (unsurprising once you meet me).

Occasionally, as part of the job application, I’m asked to comment on how I might contribute to diversity in mathematics. This is obviously a broad question, but part of my answer inevitably involves a discussion of women in mathematics. The way I talk about this issue is naturally colored by the fact that I’m a woman.

One of the prompts explicitly mentions the GLBT axis of diversity. It is not as clear to me how or whether to address this in my statement. My personal experience is that anti-gay biases in mathematics aren’t as pernicious as racial or gender biases, so I tend not to raise this issue on my own.

If I come out while saying that I’m supportive of GLBT students, then it sounds like I’m looking for extra credit for being a minority. I don’t need brownie points for being queer. But on the other hand, I’m out in my personal life and so it seems weird to be closeted in a discussion touching on GLBT diversity. But then again it seems weird to be discussing sexuality at all in the context of a job application.

In summary: would you come out in a “statement of diversity”?

Closeted Around Diversity

Dear CAD,

Things have changed since I applied for jobs! We didn’t have diversity statements back then. And it’s weird to think they’d be prompting you to disclose stuff like your sexuality – in fact it sounds downright illegal.

After some thought and a minimal amount of googling, I think maybe you should interpret this as prompting your experience in promoting diversity in mathematics. This idea is backed up by the advice on this webpage, although I don’t know if that makes it a universal truth.

In other words, have you mentored women? Have minorities of one type or another felt comfortable enough around you to come ask you questions? Did you organize or give a talk at a Sonia Kovalesky Day somewhere? Were you the faculty advisor for some other group that was diverse? That kind of thing.

I guess I think there’s no reason to talk directly about your sexuality when you talk about your experience promoting diversity, even though it might be inferred, rightly or wrongly.

To sum up, I would not come out in a “statement of diversity.”

Auntie P


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

Click here for a form.

Categories: Aunt Pythia

Inflation for the rich

I’m preparing for my weekly Slate Money podcast – this week, unequal public school funding, Taylor Swift versus Spotify, and the economics of weed, which will be fun – and I keep coming back to something I mentioned last week on Slate Money when we were talking about the end of the Fed program of quantitative easing (QE).

First, consider what QE comprised:

  1. QE1 (2008 – 2010): $1.65 trillion dollars invested in bonds and agency mortgage-back securities,
  2. QE2 (2010 – 2011): another $600 billion, cumulative $2.25 trillion, and
  3. QE3 (2012 – present): $85 billion per month, for a total of about $3.7 trillion overall.

Just to understand that total, compare it to the GDP of the U.S. in 2013, at 16.8 trillion. Or the federal tax spending in 2012, which was $3.6 trillion (versus $2.5 trillion in revenue!).

Anyhoo, the point is, we really don’t know exactly what happened because of all this money, because we can’t go back in time and do without the QE’s. We can only guess, and of course mention a few things that didn’t happen. For example, the people against it were convinced it would drive inflation up to crazy levels, which it hasn’t, although of course individual items and goods have gone up of course:


Well but remember, the inflation rate is calculated in some weird way that economists have decided on, and we don’t really understand or trust it, right? Actually, there are a bunch of ways to measure inflation, including this one from M.I.T., and most of them kinda agree that stuff isn’t crazy right now.

So did QE1, 2, and 3 have no inflationary effect at all? Were the haters wrong?

My argument is that it indeed caused inflation, but only for the rich, where by rich I mean investor class. The stock market is at an all time high, and rich people are way richer, and that doesn’t matter for any inflation calculation because the median income is flat, but it certainly matters for individuals who suddenly have a lot more money in their portfolios. They can compete for New York apartments and stuff.

As it turns out, there’s someone who agrees with me! You might recognize his name: billionaire and Argentinian public enemy #1 Paul Singer. According to Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post, Paul Singer is whining in his investor letter (excerpt here) about how expensive the Hamptons have gotten, as well as high-end art.

It’s “hyperinflation for the rich” and we are not feeling very bad for them. In fact it has made matters worse, when the very rich have even less in common with the average person. And just in case you’re thinking, oh well, all those Steve Jobs types deserve their hyper-inflated success, keep in mind that more and more of the people we’re talking about come from inherited wealth.

Categories: economics, modeling, musing

Nerd catcalling

This is a guest post by Becky Jaffe.

It has come to my attention that I am a nerd. I take this on good authority from my students, my friends, and, as of this morning, strangers in a coffee shop. I was called a nerd three times today before 10:30 am, while I was standing in line for coffee – which is to say, before I was caffeinated, and therefore utterly defenseless. I asked my accusers for suggestions on how to be less nerdy. Here was their helpful advice:


Guy in coffee shop: “Wear makeup and high heels.”

Another helpful interlocutor: “Use smaller words.”

My student, later in the day: “Care less about ideas.”

A friend: “Think less like NPR and more like C-SPAN.”

What I wish someone had said: “Is that a dictionary in your pocket or are you happy to see me?”


What I learned today is that if I want to avoid being called a nerd, I should be more like Barbie. And I don’t mean the Professor Barbie version, which – get this – does not exist. When I googled “Professor Barbie,” I got “Fashion Professor Barbie.”


So many lessons in gender conformity for one day! This nerd is taking notes.

Categories: Becky Jaffe, guest post, rant

Going to Haiti next week

I’m off to Haiti next week, for a week, with my buddie and bandmate Jamie Kingston. I was trying to figure out what to do with the blog while I was gone, and so I asked sometimes-guest blogger Becky Jaffe to cover for me (some of you may remember her Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion series which to this day gets traffic) but by the time I’d explained my trip, she’d decided to come along too! Which is awesome. We’re staying at the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince:

It has a room called "the Mick Jagger room".

It has a room called “the Mick Jagger room”.

So two things. First, if you know of fun stuff to do in the Port au Prince area, please tell me. I tend to like talking to people, and music and crafts, and Becky and Jamie are more into nature and insects.

Second, if you have a lovely or inspiring suggestion for what should happen to mathbabe next week while we’re away, please tell me!

Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing

“Hand To Mouth” and the rationality of the poor

Here’s one thing that you do as a mathematician a lot: change the assumptions and see how wildly the conclusions change. You usually start with lots of assumptions, and then see how things change when they are taken away one by one: what if the ring isn’t commutative? What if it doesn’t have a “1”?

Of course, it’s easy enough to believe that we can no longer prove the same theorems when we don’t start with the same kinds of mathematical set-ups. But this kind of thing can also apply to non-mathematical scenarios as well.

So, for example, I’ve long thought that the “marshmallow” experiment is nearly universally misunderstood: kids wait for the marshmallow for exactly as long as it makes sense to them to wait. If they’ve been brought up in an environment where delayed gratification pays off, and where the rules don’t change in the meantime, and where they trust a complete stranger to tell them the truth, they wait, and otherwise they don’t – why would they? But since the researchers grew up in places where it made sense to go to grad school, and where they respect authority and authority is watching out for them, and where the rules once explained didn’t change, they never think about those assumptions. They just conclude that these kids have no will power.

Similarly, this GoodBooksRadio interview with Linda Tirado is excellent in explaining the rational behavior of poor people:

Tirado just came out with a book called Hand To Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America and was discussing it with Dr. John Cook, who was a fantastic interviewer. You might have come across Tirado’s writing – her essay on poverty that went viral, or the backlash against that essay. She’s clearly a tough cookie, a great writer, and an articulate speaker.

Among the things she explains is why poor people eat McDonalds food (it’s fast, cheap, and filling), why they don’t get much stuff done (their lives are filled with logistics), why they make bad decisions (stress), and, what’s possibly the most important, how much harder work it is to be poor than it is to be rich. She defines someone as “rich” if they don’t lease their furniture.

I’m looking forward to reading her book. As the Financial Times review says, “Hand to Mouth – written with scorching flair – should be read by every person lucky enough to have a disposable income.”

Categories: economics

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