Author Archive

Links about big bad data

There have been a lot of great articles recently on my beat, the dark side of big data. I wanted to share some of them with you today:

  1. An interview with Cynthia Dwork by Clair Cain Miller (h/t Marc Sobel). Describes how fairness is not automatic in algorithms, and the somewhat surprising fact that, in order to make sure an algorithm isn’t racist, for example, you must actually take race into consideration when testing it.
  2. How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election by Robert Epstein (h/t Ernie Davis). This describes the unreasonable power of search rank in terms political trust. Namely, when a given candidate was artificially lifted in terms of rank, people started to trust them more. Google’s meaningless response: “Providing relevant answers has been the cornerstone of Google’s approach to search from the very beginning. It would undermine the people’s trust in our results and company if we were to change course.”
  3. Big Data, Machine Learning, and the Social Sciences: Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency by Hannah Wallach (h/t Arnaud Sahuguet). She addresses the need for social scientists to work alongside computer scientists when working with human behavior data, as well as a prioritization on the question rather than data availability. She also promotes the idea of including a concept of uncertainty when possible.
  4. How Big Data Is Unfair by Moritz Hardt. This isn’t new but it is a fantastic overview of fairness issues in big data, specifically how data mining techniques deal with minority groups.
  5. How Social Bias Creeps Into Web Technology by Elizabeth Dwoskin (h/t Ernie Davis). Unfortunately behind the pay wall, this article talks about negative unintended consequences of data mining.
  6. A somewhat different topic but great article, The MOOC revolution that wasn’t, by Audrey Watters (h/t Ernie Davis). This article traces the fall of the mighty MOOC ideals. Best quote in the article: “High failure rates and dropouts are features, not bugs,” Caulfield suggests, “because they represent a way to thin pools of applicants for potential employers.”
Categories: Uncategorized

Comparative advantage in international trade and in married life

What is Comparative Advantage?

You may have heard about comparative advantage. As a concept, it’s a neat and mathematically valid argument. It goes like this, as described in wikipedia:

Say you have two countries, England and Portugal, which both make and use cloth and wine, say at time 1. Their productivity is described in this chart:

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.35.35 AM

Which is to say that in England, it takes more work than in Portugal to produce one unit of either cloth or wine, maybe because of climate differences. In this sense, Portugal has an “absolute advantage” over England in both categories.

However, as I said, both England and Portugal make and use both products. So, if England needs one unit of each, it takes them 220 hours, and if Portugal wishes to consumer one unit of each, it takes them 170 hours to produce it.

Here’s where trade comes in. Starting at time 2, they decide to cooperate. Let’s say England focused on cloth, and make 2 units of cloth. That would take them 200 hours instead of 220 earlier. And let’s also assume Portugal focused on what it’s good at, namely making 2 units of wine. That would take them 160 hours, instead of 170. Then the countries could trade their extra units to each other, and both of them would have saved time and would have gotten the same amount of stuff.

Actually, there’s another way of thinking about it. Instead of working less, workers in England and Portugal could work the same number of hours and produce more stuff. They could use their extra stuff to trade for new things, and that excess would essentially be proof that this comparative advantage theory is a success.

Criticisms of Comparative Advantage

Comparative advantage is used as a reason that countries should engage whenever possible in free trade; it’s almost a religious belief for some economists. But, as you might have anticipated, there are some serious issues with comparative advantage. For example:

  • When comparative advantage kicks in for a given industry, the people in that industry lose jobs. Like wine-makers in England in the above example.  Even cloth makers in England might lose jobs if the actual demand for cloth is limited. Of course, the idea is that the economy of England as a whole benefits, so a few jobs lost should somehow be absorbed.
  • Also, you can’t simply expect the country that’s the best at a certain thing to be able to arbitrarily expand that industry and forget everything else. Think overfishing, or overgrazing: eventually there are diminishing returns.
  • Next, technology comes into play. When one country figures out how to be incredibly productive due to technological advantages, like for example huge farming machines and equipment, then it’s essentially impossible for other countries, without access to such technology, to compete, even if they have good climates. That means most farmers in other countries cannot compete with the United States from a productivity standpoint, for example, even putting aside the ludicrous farm bill, which subsidizes American farmers and further distorts their advantage.
  • Speaking of distortions, one argument against comparative advantage is that historically countries didn’t actually become powerful through exploiting comparative advantage and free trade. Instead, they imposed tariffs and such to nourish and grow internal industries.
  • If a country buys into comparative advantage, by need or by choice, they often find themselves overreliant on one product, the market of which could be volatile or fail. There’s plenty of historical evidence that this monoculture approach to economics is a bad idea. For example, Ireland went through a famine when there was a blight on their potatoes, even while it was exporting huge amounts of “money crop” grains to England, and more recently Ireland focused heavily on finance and technology, only to be severely hurt by the credit crisis.
  • Mostly, though, what is most troublesome about the modern worshipping of comparative advantage is that we end up using it as an excuse to exploit people. As my friend Jordan Ellenberg explained:

    If you apply comparative advantage to, say, the US and Bangladesh, what you get is “given existing conditions, the US should make computers, not work very hard, and be rich, Bangladesh should stitch T-shirts for Old Navy at 30 cents an hour, work really hard, and be poor.”

  • Not that they don’t want jobs in Bangladesh. They do, and generally speaking trade agreements with poor countries help people in those countries. It’s just that we have to also acknowledge our moral responsibility to people and to reasonable working conditions.

How does this relate to marriage?

Well, first let’s think about how to apply the theory of comparative advantage to a marriage, which people tend to do. The idea is that, instead of splitting up the chores with your spouse half and half, which causes unending arguments about whose turn it is, as well as wasted productivity, we instead decide “who’s good at what” and divvy up the chores in a more scientific manner.

Growing up, I did almost all the household chores while my brother did very few (and the ones we kids didn’t do, my mother did). it wasn’t because my parents told me that, as a girl, I was the natural choice, but because I just “seemed better” at everything. The result was that I did everything, and slowly my “advantage” over my brother – defined here as efficiency, not actual advantage – which was at first small, became large.

Of course nowadays parents rarely ask their kids to do chores, so chores have mostly become a marital dispute. And given that women are expected to be – and have been trained to be – both better at and more willing to do housework, they tend to have more practice at multi-tasking and the dishes.

We arrive at a problem similar to the Bangladesh/ US situation above. Again, Jordan nailed it:

In the sexist soup straight couples all swim in, “don’t keep score, everybody do what you’re best at” seems to invariably end up at the equilibrium “woman does 75% of the shitwork” and what the comparative advantage crowd says is you are not even allowed to be mad about this, women, it is ratified by science, accept that like the Bangladeshis you are in your proper place in the equilibrium state.

One of the problems with applying an economic theory to a marriage is that we don’t actually keep track of how much time it takes us to do various things, and even if we did do that we’d probably do it wrong. Just imagining watching the clock during dishes or laundry sounds silly, and never mind with being in charge of the grocery list, since depending on how you measure that, it could either take no time at all or take all your time. Plus, when you find yourself being petty about small things, you end up measuring your marriage along those petty lines, and even thinking about it that way.

My advice to married couples is to ignore scientific arguments, and instead think about a system that will minimize longterm resentment, which is poison in any marriage or relationship. And that might mean using comparative advantage in part, both as a way of figuring out what people are good at and what people like to do, but it will also probably include doing stuff that you hate and you’re bad at sometimes just to understand what the other person goes through.

After all, the essential ingredients in any marriage is a sense of teamwork, the dedication to alleviating the other person’s suffering, and a promise to encouraging one another’s fulfillment. And economics doesn’t have much to say about those things.

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Readers! Aunt Pythia is extremely pleased to tell you that she’s on vacation in beautiful but arid northern California. This morning we’re planning a walk to the Santa Cruz boardwalk, and Aunt Pythia is even imagining a ride on a roller coaster.


It’s all flights of fancy and whimsy over here, if you catch my drift, which is perfect for doling out the advice. Honestly, every Saturday is a vacation for Aunt Pythia, but giving out advice whilst on vacation just can’t be beat.

If you want to be kind to Aunt Pythia, let her know! Please please please:

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,

I’m in my early fifties, and my kids are teens. I’ve lived in a small, boring city since they were born, and would like a change of pace. I have a job that would allow me to spend two or three months per year elsewhere, but I would have to pay rent. Should I go for it, or is it my duty to save every penny for my kids’ futures?

If it helps, there’s more than enough to pay for (European) college for everybody; there’s by far not enough for them to live of it.

Inverted Matrix

p.s. I ran exercise sessions in linear algebra for so many years you can wake me up at 3am and I would remember the formula for inverting matrices.

Dear Inverted,

It occurs to me that “The Inverted Matrices” would be a good band name.

It is by no means obvious that we should make ourselves miserable for the sake of college costs. Even so, I’m wondering if it’s possible to think differently, and less dramatically, about your nice plan.

In terms of the economics: have you considered subletting your apartment while you’re away? That could easily earn you some money which could offset your travel costs. Or you could think about what other way you could either save or make more money, and imagine it going directly to the “travel pot.” Would that make it easier to plan for?

In any event, it’s not just economic; your kids will also benefit from seeing interesting places. Maybe they’ll get into the planning parts of it with you. Or maybe, being teenagers, they’ll find a friend back home to stay with while you go. That would also be great!

Also, consider going away for three weeks instead of three months, it might be enough for you. For myself, in spite of my nearly daily fantasies about travel, when I’m actually away (like I am right now) I long for the comforts and familiarity of home after about 5 days.

If you decide none of this applies to you, and you’re going to blow the college savings accounts on an awesome summer in Paris, just remember this: you won’t be nearly as badly behaved as my friend’s parents who didn’t help pay for college at all and even stole her identity to take out credit cards in her name while she was away, resulting in her having terrible credit from the get-go. Don’t be that person.

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I have reached a point where I have pretty much exhausted all my emotional currency for finding romance. I’m at the love casino with my last $10, and I can risk gambling it away or cash in my chips and leave.

I have been at this point for several years now, sending men away rather than open my heart even a little bit. I know what I’m doing is self-destructive, that I’m taking the slow path to suicide with self-destructive behaviors that stem from lack of love and affection.

I should be a winner at this game. I’m smart and pretty and funny and well-liked. Do men just assume that women like that don’t have feelings or that we cannot be hurt? More importantly, what does a person do when they have nothing more of their self-esteem to invest in this game? I have so much confidence in so many areas of life, but I am shaken and defeated by the roulette wheel of dating.

Given Up Real Love

Dear GURL,

My heart aches for you. Knowing nothing specific about you, I can promise you that you’re not alone. This dating system we have is ruthless and defeating. I’m sure you’ve read this recent article from Vanity Fair about the dating apocalypse, and just in case you missed it the reaction from Tinder. The article is likely too painful to read, but I’ll give you a quote from a young ex-Ivy League investment banker in the first paragraph explaining his multi-women night’s plans: “You can’t be stuck in one lane … There’s always something better.” Barf.

The truth is, it’s not fair to say that Tinder that’s doing this to dating; Tinder is just making it more obvious. We’ve entirely commoditized sex, love, and even affection, and especially in places like New York where there are so many beautiful and single women, the single man feels like an idiot for settling with one. And Tinder is making every place feel like New York.

Now to your questions. Do men assume women don’t have feelings, or can’t be hurt? In some sense, yes. Here’s why I say that.

I think (many) men are better at learning the rules of a system and exploiting them viciously to their benefit. It may be purely socialization here, I don’t want to be sexist, but I’ve always been amazed how quickly the men around me adapt to the petty and arbitrary rules of power and status, whether in academics, finance, or engineering startups. Maybe it’s the testosterone? Whatever the reason, it’s pounding one’s chest stuff everywhere you look.

Not all men, mind you. But enough for one to imagine that there is in some sense a standard approach to putting your brain and your heart on hold, and just following the rules for all you’re worth. It makes sense when you’re in the army, kind of, but it also seems to hold in the mating game, where’s it’s downright obnoxious.

So in other words, I think those men have repressed their feelings, often, in the name of “winning” dating. So they (might) imagine that anyone they come into contact – i.e. other men who they’re competing with, or women who they’re attempting to woo – will also have done the same.

Let’s talk about the other men now, though. The ones that aren’t on Tinder, and that find themselves actually feeling stuff like loneliness and also – gasp – consider other people’s feelings. They exist but they’re harder to find. You want to meet them somehow, though, so I’d seek them out at meetups, bridge clubs, Nerd Nites, and other places where – gasp!! – actual ideas are being discussed.

And I’ll give you the advice I give many people in your position: meet people with the expectation of being friends, and open your heart to that. You might have only $10 to spend on love, but you might have thousands of friend bucks in the bank. And who knows, you might find that friend bucks are (eventually) convertible currency.

Oh, and read Why Love Hurts to understand more about the sociology of the love market.

Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

  1. “modified because I use salted butter”
  2. “1 slightly rounded teaspoon of salt”

Why the extra salt?

And, Aunt Pythia, what kind of butter did Marlon Brando’s character use in The Last Tango in Paris? Salted or unsalted?

Maria Schneider

Dear Maria,

I’ve decided you’re referring to my recent recipe for identity crisis crepes. However, you misunderstood. The recipe calls for more salt, but I cut it down because I use salted butter.

Never watched that movie because it seemed nasty. And now that I have read the wikipedia article about it, I’m sure I’m right. But as you’re a character in it, I should think you’d remember the kind of butter used. Sheesh.

Auntie P


Aunt Pythia,

Do you like big butts, or can you lie?

Music Is eXcellent – Always Like Appreciating Tunes


Sir, I love big butts, thanks for asking! Also, I can absolutely lie; I’m amazing at lying, thanks for reminding me!

But I’m not lying about my love for big butts. Here’s how I feel in song:


Aunt Pythia


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Aunt Pythia

The seven work languages

You might have heard about “the five love languages.” They come from a ridiculously popular book by Gary Chapman by the same name, and they are purportedly the following:

  1. gifts,
  2. quality time,
  3. words of affirmation,
  4. acts of service (devotion), and
  5. physical touch.

Chapman’s idea is that, in order to be happier with your loved one, you figure out how they like to receive your love, instead of just doing to them what you’d have done to yourself. So you might like hugs and physical touch the most, but they might need you to say kind things to them. So you say nice things, and then they give you hugs, and everybody’s happy.

I like this list because it really does seem like some people respond more to certain things than others. Personally I’m a touch person, and someone who likes gifts seems almost fake to me, but putting them both on a list makes me realize that maybe we’re just wired differently. It helps me understand other people a bit more and reserve judgment.

I want to do the same thing but for work instead of love. The question changes from “how to you want to receive love” to “what motivates you to work?”. I’ve come up with the following list:

  1. money
  2. security
  3. status
  4. social connection
  5. making a positive contribution to the world
  6. relief from boredom/ organizing framework
  7. passion

Ideally an employer would offer to people what they care about. Personally I care about making a positive contribution to the world, but most employers only offer money.

I’m the freak here, I guess. Most people would say they work because they get paid. But really it’s not that simple when you think about it. Some people value money past the point of security, which is why I separated out those two. For that matter, some people care about money as status, but on the other hand academics (generally) care about status beyond money, which is why I made status a separate category too.

The next three are self-explanatory, and I think independent, and for the last category I’m including musicians and artists, people who do stuff in spite of having no reason to think it will ever pay.

Well, my list might be imperfect, but I think it’s good enough to make one point. Namely, that most of those reasons are actually pretty much independent of money after all, so maybe I’m not such a freak.

The work versus money issue matters because of the countless discussions about what might happen if we ever get to the “Star Trek economy” stage of existence, where our basic needs are met and we’re capable of doing other stuff. When we have free time and the resources and security not to worry about food or shelter, what would happen next?

Would we all just play video games 12 hours a day and eat too much? Would we feel useless and dried up and depressed?

I think the answer is, it depends on your personality. If you are the type of person who works out of passion, this new world order wouldn’t slow you down a bit; you’d have even more time to pursue your thing. If you want to contribute to the world, or create meaningful social connections, you’d find a way to do that with likeminded people. If you’re an academic who wants to be the smartest person in the world, you’ll have even more time to do that (but probably way more competition for the title).

My guess is that the only people that would be deeply disappointed are the people who now really really like money for its own sake. I don’t really think there are too many of these people, but they are the very people who might create obstructions to the Star Trek economy’s existence, because they are both powerful and rich in this setup, and potentially have the most to lose.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Chef Shortage, Explained

This is a guest post by Sam Kanson-Benanav, a chef who has managed restaurants in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York City. He spent two years in the studying global resource marketplaces in the Amazon rainforest, and his favorite food is a french omelet. 

Despite my desperate attempts at a career change, I’ve become fairly inured to the fact I work in one of the most job secure industries in America. And I’m not a tenured professor.

I am a professional restaurant person – cook, manager, server, and bartender (on nights when a bartender doesn’t show up). As a recent Washington Post article highlights: it has become increasingly more difficult for kitchens to staff their teams with proper talent. We could ponder a litany of reasons why talented cooks are not flocking to the kitchens, but if you prefer to stop reading now, just reference Mathbabe’s entirely accurate post on labor shortages.

Or, we could just pay cooks more. As it turns out, money is a very effective motivator, but restaurants employ two cannibalizing labor models based on fundamentally contrasting motivators: tipping and wages. I’ll take these on separately.

Tipping servers suppress wages for the kitchen                 

We already know tipping is a bad system, which bears less correlation to the actual quality of service you receive than to the color or gender of your server. It’s an external rewards based system akin to paying your employees a negligible wage with a constant cash bonus, a historically awful way to run a business.

In other words, restaurant owners are able to pass off the cost of labor for employing servers onto their consumers. That means they factor into their menu prices only the cost of labor for the kitchen, which remains considerable in the labor-intensive low margin restaurant world. Thankfully, we are all alcoholics and willing to pay 400% markups on our beer and only a 30% markup on our burgers. Nevertheless, the math here rarely works in a cook’s favor.

For a restaurant to remain a viable business, a cook (and dishwasher’s) hourly wage must be low, even as bartenders and servers walk away with considerable more cash.

In the event that a restaurant, under this conventional model, would like to raise its prices and better compensate its cooks, it cannot do so without also raising wages for its servers. Every dollar increase in the price of line item on your receipt increases a consumers cost by $1.20 , the server happily pocketing the difference.

Unfair? Yes. Inefficient? Certainly. Is change possible? Probably not.

Let’s assume change is possible

Some restaurants are doing away with this trend, in a worthy campaign to better price the cost of your meal, and compensate cooks more for their work. These restaurants charge a 20% administration fee, which becomes part of their combined revenue—the total pool of cash from which they can pay all their employees at set hourly rates.

That’s different then an automatic service fee you might find at the end of your bill at a higher end restaurant or when dining with a large group. It’s a pre tax charge that repackages the cost of a meal by charging a combined 30% tax on the consumer (8% sales tax on 20% service tax) allowing business owners to allocate funds for labor at their discretion rather than obligate them to give it all to service staff.

Under this model cooks now may make a stunning $15-18 an hour, up from $12-$13, and servers $20-30, which is yes, down from their previous wages. That’s wealth redistribution in the restaurant world! For unscrupulous business owners, it could also incentive further wealth suppression by minimizing the amount a 20% administration fee that is utilized for labor, as busier nights no longer translate into higher tips for the service staff.

I am a progressive minded individual who recognizes the virtue of (sorry server, but let’s face it) fairer wages. Nevertheless, I’m concerned the precedents we’ve set for ourselves will make unilateral redistribution a lofty task.

There is not much incentive for an experienced server to take a considerable pay cut. The outcome is likelier to blur the lines between who is a server and who is a cook, or, a dilution in the level of service generally.

Wage Growth

Indeed wages are rising in the food industry, but at a paltry average of $12.48 an hour, there’s considerable room for growth before cooking becomes a viable career choice for the creative minded and educated talent the industry thirsts for. Celebrity chefs may glamorize the industry, but their presence in the marketplace is more akin to celebrity than chef, and their salaries have little bearing on real wage growth of labor force.

Unlike most other industries, a cook’s best chance and long term financial security is to work their way into ownership. Cooking is not an ideal position to age into: the physicality of the work and hours only become more grueling, and your wages will not increase substantially with time. This all to say – if the restaurant industry wants more cooks, it needs to be willing to pay a higher price upfront for them. This is not just a New York problem complicated by sky high rents. It’s as real in Wisconsin as it is Manhattan.

Ultimately paying cooks more is a question of reconciling two contrasting payment models. That’s a question of redistribution.

But “whoa Sam – you are a not an economist, this is purely speculative!” you say?

Possibly, and so far at least a couple of restaurants have been able to maintain normal operations under these alternative models, but their actions alone are unlikely to fill the labor shortage we see. Whether we are ultimately willing to pay servers less or pay considerably more for our meals remains to be seen, but, for what its worth, I’m currently looking for a serving job and I can tell you a few places I’m not applying to.

Aunt Pythia and Sister of My Sister’s advice

Dearest Readers,

Oh My God! Holy crap!! I’ve got incredible news for you all. Namely, my best friend, who will be henceforth known as Sister Of My Sister, is here with me today to help dole out incredibly unhelpful, entirely silly, and possibly hurtful advice. Congratulations to all of you for receiving it!!

Before we begin, I need to mention my new hero, the woman who has slept with 3000 men:


Captivating! Is that a pole? What is that pole for?

You can read all about her here, my friends. Tell me in comments how much you love her too. What vim! What vigor! Also high on the my-list-of-favorite-people: this lady.

On with the main event! Readers, remember when I complained last week about running out of questions? Well, you’ve responded, for which I am very grateful. My trust Google Spreadsheet (soon to be the “Alphabet Spreadsheet”) is happily filled in with a dozen or so new questions. But that’s not to say it should stop! Please continue to add to my list, because why? Because it is a real pleasure of my life, which I look forward to all week and I am ever so grateful for it.

So please do a sweet Auntie a good turn and:

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,

I’m on the verge of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and suddenly I’m wondering whether going to grad school is the right thing to do – there are a few subjects (mostly in Complex Analysis) which I really like, and I definitely will keep reading about them in the future. Thing is, I really don’t know if I have what it takes to do research in math. I don’t know whether I should try going to grad school and drop out if it doesn’t work out, or whether I should just be content with my bachelor’s degree and keep reading Ahlfors in my free time.

Thanks for any reply,

Dear E,

Here’s the thing. We never know whether we have what it takes for anything. At least we who are not crazy narcissistic don’t. So I’d say, if you love something, and if the signals are good that you are capable (i.e. your profs are encouraging), then follow your instincts. It’s a very good sign that you want to read math in your spare time! Go with that.

Or, in the words of my good friend Jordan Ellenberg, do what you’d do if you weren’t insecure.

Sister of My Sister says: go to culinary school.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

I find this article disturbing. Here’s an excerpt:

[O]ne of academia’s little-known secrets is that private college admissions are exempt from Title IX’s ban on sex discrimination—a shameful loophole that allows some of the most supposedly progressive campuses in the nation to discriminate against female applicants.

Consider my own alma mater, Brown University. In 2014, 11 percent of men were accepted at Brown versus 7 percent of women, according to U.S. Department of Education data.

Brown is hardly the only, or the worst, offender. At Vassar College, the 34 percent acceptance rate for men was almost twice as high as the 19 percent rate for women. At Columbia University, the acceptance rate was 8 percent for men versus 6 percent for women. At Vanderbilt University, it was 15 percent versus 11 percent. Pomona College: 15 percent versus 10 percent. Williams College: 21 percent versus 18 percent. This bias in private-college admissions is blatant enough that it can’t be long before “gender-blind admissions” becomes the new campus rallying cry.

Colleges won’t say it, but this is happening because elite schools field applications from many more qualified women than men and thus are trying to hold the line against a 60:40 ratio of women to men. Were Brown to accept women and men at the same rate, its undergraduate population would be almost 60 percent women instead of 52 percent—three women for every two men. . . .

Today’s [admissions] officials . . . fear though that if enrollments reach 60 percent women, it will scare off the most sought-after applicants, who generally want gender balance for social reasons. “Once you become decidedly female in enrollment, fewer males and, as it turns out, fewer females find your campus attractive,” Kenyon College’s dean of admissions, Jennifer Delahunty Britz, wrote in The New York Times in 2006.

Any comments?

Smart Guy

Dear SG,

Interesting. So you’re saying there’s a de facto affirmative action policy for men taking place in elite colleges.

The statistician in me needs to make the following caveats: some of these statistics could be explained away if we found out that high-achieving girls tend to apply to more places than high-achieving boys on average. Then you’d see many of the same girls applying to a bunch of places, for example, and the boys might apply to fewer.

As a thought experiment, say girls apply to twice as many colleges as boys. From the perspective of the college, among their best applicants they see twice as many from girls. Their acceptance rates, even if they had consistent standards across genders, would be lower for girls. Does that make sense?

Also, keep in mind that a college’s acceptance rate isn’t the same thing as kids actually showing up at college. It could be – and we know it is likely true, in fact – that the same kids are being accepted at a bunch of places and then saying no to all but one. Again, we have to be smart about this, which is all a crazy and inflated system. And without being on the admission committee myself, I really don’t know what’s going on.

Having said all that, I don’t know of any statistics that would make us think girls do apply to more places. I conclude that the stats from the article definitely warrants more investigation.

Here’s another thing to keep in mind. Girls, statistically speaking, are better students than boys, but boys tend to do better on SAT’s at the high end. Personally I don’t think this is all that meaningful one way or another, because both “grades” and “SAT scores” are somewhat arbitrary systems of judgement, neither of which are particularly convincing to me of inner intrinsic worth. Even so, it might be partly responsible for college admissions; colleges might care more about SAT scores than about grades.

I guess that’s what it comes down to: how do colleges decide who to accept? What are their acceptance guidelines like, and are they gender specific? I mean, we might find them discussing the “too many girls” situation, or, more likely, we might just find them trying out different processes until they come upon one that results in “a satisfactory student body.”

A cynical person would point out that what colleges really care about is future endowment contributions, and in our sexist society men are more likely to be the contributors to that. I’m not saying it’s not a factor, but I’m not sure it could possibly be that explicit; it’s more likely to be embedded in an algorithm or at least a process, as many such assumptions are. In any case I’d love someone with more experience in the admissions process at an elite school to weigh in.

Sister of My Sister says she believes that our worst suspicions about the college admissions process are true.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Which question that you’ve answered most affected you, and what was the effect?

Curiously Hunting And Obviously Sympathetic


Thanks for the question, it’s brought me great pleasure in thinking back at all the wonderful questions I’ve had the pleasure to answer. I hope it won’t bother you terribly if I admit that my favorite piece of advice wasn’t actually in an Aunt Pythia column at all, but rather was a mathbabe post called How do I know if I’m good enough to go into math?which, come to think of it, I should have referred my friend E above to as well. Hey E, go look at that post!

Here’s why that post affected me. I met the wonderful young person who wrote the question to me, afterwards, and she told me quite earnestly how much it helped her. She’s now a thriving and ambitious math major at an elite school. What a pleasant experience, to be able to encourage someone like that!

Moreover, when I went to visit my math camp earlier this summer, I was told that this note had been shared with quite a few of the participants as a way to ward off annoying and competitive behavior; hopefully it helped, but in any case I was super astonished at how much it is needed.

I guess I’m saying that, this is the piece of advice that is closest to that fantasy you have, that you could get in a time machine and go back to your previous self and say something like, hey self! Don’t worry so much, everything’s going to be okay, and you can go ahead and start feeling good now! Because there’s really no time to lose when it comes to just getting on with your life. And that’s really the best feeling that an inveterate advice giver like myself could possibly feel.

Sister of My Sister says that that post and every other is why mathbabe is her hero.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Dear Aunt Pythia,

My wife of 5 years is a lesbian and I’m not a woman. We’ve known this for about 3 years.

As you might imagine this eliminates the kinds of sex that we find convenient to share with other people in most social settings.

We’ve taken to pretending we’re sexually conventional, even to close friends, because we fear that they’d be really awkward about it if we ever let on. Everyone we have told so far has made a point of avoiding the subject, as if they simply don’t know what to say, understandably I suppose. They’ve been supportive and kind, but awkward.

How can we avoid widespread social awkwardness without feeling like we’re deceiving our friends and families?

Accidentally Asexual Humans

Dear AAH,

Why are you two still married? Are there kids? If I’m a friend of yours, and you tell me this, and you don’t have kids, i’d be anything but quiet. I’d say, get the fuck out!

And that holds for anyone who tells me they aren’t getting regular sex from their partner – unless they have a very good reason, like an illness – and they don’t have kids. If they have kids, then fine, make an arrangement with your spouse to get some outside action while you keep a stable household and until the kids are in college. But for an unromantic atheist such as myself, marriages are not simply friendships, they are sexual arrangements. Moreover, to live a full life you want to at least have the option to get action.

You say you’ve been married for 5 years, and for more than half you’re not having sex. Moreover, it doesn’t seem to be ending soon. I just don’t get it. Your friends are too polite and confused to say what I’m saying now: get out, remain friends, and go find someone who can’t resist your manly self. There are plenty of women looking for a good man that would love to enjoy your company.

Sister of My Sister agrees with me wholeheartedly, but suspects there is some other compelling reason you’ve stayed with your wife and would like you to write back and tell us what that is.

Aunt Pythia and SoMS


Readers? Aunt Pythia loves you so much. She wants to hear from you – she needs to hear from you – and then tell you what for in a most indulgent way. Will you help her do that?

Please, pleeeeease ask her a question. She will take it seriously and answer it if she can.

Click here for a form for later or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

Four Strategies to Delay Child Marriage

Yesterday I went to a fascinating discussion at the Population Council on child marriage in sub-saharan Africa. Specifically, we heard about the effectiveness of four strategies to delay the age at marriage among girls aged 12–17 in parts of Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Burkina Faso in regions with a high prevalence of child marriage (around 12-18%). The strategies were:

  1. holding community conversations about the benefits of delayed marriage,
  2. helping pay for school supplies to keep girls in school,
  3. giving families with girls aged 12-17 a goat or two chickens in exchange for an agreement that they keep her unmarried for two years, and
  4. doing all of the above.

They also had control areas where they did nothing except poll the girls at the beginning and end to see what percentage of them overall were married, had sexual experience, and had been pregnant. There were typically about 2500 girls in each of the three areas.

They also split the girls further, into two age ranges: 12-14, and 15-17. There are, sadly, many girls in that younger group getting married, sometimes without even knowing in advance that they were to marry, and not knowing or even meeting their husband in advance of their marriage day.

The researchers kept track of effectiveness as well as cost for each of the strategies, both per vulnerable girl and per “avoided child marriage”. A few comments:

  • A local economic condition in one region – I think it was Tanzania – namely a situation where all the local coffee farmers were swindled out of their pay, resulted in worsening poverty and dramatically increased child marriage in that region.
  • While giving a family a goat or two chickens might sound like a bizarre incentive to avoid marrying their daughter, it is common in Burkina Faso (but not in Ethiopia) to offer dowries in the form of livestock.
  • In fact, the reasoning is often desperate and economic: I need these cows, I will give up my daughter for them.
  • In Ethiopia, if I remember correctly, it’s a social bonding issue, where you are bound to marry your daughter to a neighbor’s son out of a sense of neighborliness. It’s also hard to refuse these requests.
  • There’s also fear that parents have that their daughter might become pregnant before they are married, so they marry her off before that can happen.
  • They also worry about their girls becoming “old maids” if they’re not married by 18.
  • Different strategies to delay marriage seemed to work for the younger girls than for the older girls.
  • Often the young girls who are going to be married young are also not going to school, so it makes little sense to focus efforts only on girls in school.
  • As the closing speaker pointed out, these girls’ sexuality has been utterly commoditized for the marriage market, and their autonomy is basically nonexistent. In that sense, even delaying marriage from 12 until they are 16 makes a real difference in their negotiating power.
  • Not to mention that, the younger they are married and start having babies, the more likely they are to live in poverty for another generation.

It’s refreshing to see scientific experimental design and data collection being used for such a good cause! I was really impressed by their approach and intelligence over at the Population Council, and I just subscribed to be notified of their future events and research announcements here.

Categories: Uncategorized

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