Sunday mornings tend to provoke me to write the most whimsical posts of the week. I’ve usually gotten enough sleep for the first time in seven days, unless I’m hung over from Saturday late-night karaoke (but I usually like to do that on Fridays), and I can actually remember some of my dreams.
Especially on a glorious sunny Spring morning like today, I can’t abide any bad news or ranting. So today it’s only gonna be good news. Here goes.
1) Chocolate Fondue
Did you know that you can buy chocolate fondue machines for like $9.00? I found this out because at some point I realized my kids hadn’t had chocolate fondue in ages (trust me, it was all about the kids), and I wanted to find a place in New York City where we could go eat fondue, but the only places offering it were like $300 meals for a family of five. So I went on Amazon instead, and paid for the whole shebang for under $30, including the little sticks, and that silly little machine still works. It’s like a happiness machine.
2) Star Trek
There’s a new Star Trek movie, Into Darkness, coming out starting on May 15th. Do not beware the ides of May.
Sherrod Brown and David Vitter introduced an “end too-big-to-fail” bill this week and they wrote about it in an Op-Ed for the New York Times. It doesn’t mean it’ll be passed, or that it’s perfect, but the momentum is gaining, which is good.
This is in the category of “good news for me” and you might not care, but after years of worrying that it would be too twine-y, I’ve taken the plunge into knitting with linen and I love it. I’m making this sweater in black linen, and I’ve already finished the back panel:
I’m gratified to find a few new questions in Aunt Pythia’s in box this morning – I really thought I’d have to retire her persona, since I plumb ran out of questions last week, and that was making me sad. Thanks for the questions, friends! And please don’t forget to:
Submit your question for Aunt Pythia at the bottom of this page!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I was recently on a flight where the person sitting next to me found it appropriate to hit on me. Now, he was a reasonably intelligent and nice person (up until the time that he mentioned that most of his recent dates were “short fat pigs” and asked me if I was single, despite previously indicating in his conversation that he thought I was 20 yers younger than he is).
However, now he has hunted down my email address and started contacting me. Is there anything wrong with getting my friends to anonymously pay him back for his objectification and slight harrassment of me (putting him on spam email lists, sending him fake magazine subscriptions, etc.), and if not, can you recommend things for us to try?
Sexy, If Not Going for Lame Extra-masculine-creeps
I have to ask a couple of things here for the sake of clarity.
First, I need to assume you expressed a lack of interest in this guy when he started hitting on you – either by saying “I’m not interested, thanks” or something along those lines, or by lying outright when he asked you whether you’re single (“I’m married with 14 kids, if it’s you who’s asking the question”). I would include the possibility of an evasion of all things romantic/sexual, but if he didn’t ask enough of a direct question to have you respond like that, then I’m not sure I’d call it hitting on you. And if he did hit on you and you didn’t say no thanks, then maybe he felt like your signals weren’t negative, so why not give it a shot.
As for hunting down your email address, if you mentioned you work at a certain math department, say, and he found your email address on that website, and then wrote to you, that’s a different level of hunt then if you have a private email address which he found god knows how. I’m not saying there’s no creep factor at all in emailing you, but if he felt a connection that he didn’t want to assume was only him, than this whole thing might be kind of sweet and explainable and not really creepy (from his perspective).
I guess my point is that you do have to say no at some point for someone’s wishful thinking to get on track. I realize this isn’t exactly fair, since you never asked for the attention in the first place, but a lot of people, especially men, are trained to assume they’re right unless they’ve been explicitly told they’re wrong.
On the other hand, if you did say “no thanks” in one way or another, and/or if he really hunted for your email address, then I’d agree that it’s too much. I hope the very first time he wrote to you you responded by saying, “I’m not interested. Please do not write to me again.”
Now, assuming that the above happened, and he still wrote a second and third time, pressing his case, I’d say you and your friends definitely sign him up for all sorts of stuff. Especially Viagra stuff. Plus, one of your other friends should write to him telling him to back the fuck off. And then block his emails using a filter.
Hope that helps,
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Thanks for the kind words!
I don’t invest my money in an active way. And it annoys me to think about how much the managers of retirement accounts get paid to do nothing with people’s money, but on the other hand I sympathize with people who don’t change that set-up, because it would require some real research, and in the end the retirement industry isn’t set up to let people invest in things they actually care about – instead we’re supposed to think that the only thing we care about is when we retire, which is supposed to translate magically into a risk appetite.
One more thing: I’m not regretting any of this. I never, ever want to become one of those people who check their stocks all the time.
BORING!! You people are BORING!!!
Almost as boring as people who talk about exercise and/or dieting all the time!!!!
Instead I am grateful that I have a job that helps me pay my bills and allows me to not think about money very much.
This might mean I don’t have enough money at retirement, but first of all I’m not planning to retire, and second of all there are a hell of a lot of people in this country way worse off than I am, and we’re all going to have to figure this out somehow (expand Social Security!).
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I am in my late twenties and have begun thinking about saving for retirement.
I am a public school teacher and I make around 35k/year. I currently have a small amount of money in a generic target-year retirement Roth IRA. I would like to do so in a way that helps my money grow but also is not supporting unethical banks or other companies that contribute to social/environmental degradation. Is this possible?
Now that I am looking into “socially responsible investing,” it seems like a rabbit hole. For example, I found a Vanguard fund that was billed as “socially responsible” that avoided oil company and tobacco company holdings, but that meant that most of its top holdings were in financial institutions that have been in the headlines for their mismanagement of money and power.
Other funds I have found (Domini), require a larger up-front contribution that I can make at this time. I have also heard that investing (as I would do it) is value-neutral because you’re not actually buying the company or benefitting directly from their profits, but I am suspicious of this reasoning. Anyhow, as someone with background in finance and an eye towards making money decisions that take a broad view of “cost benefit analysis”, do you have any insight into so-called “ethical investing”?
You already know way more than I do about this stuff (see previous answer). I’d love to hear from readers who have even more knowledge of “ethical investing”, specifically if it’s a scam to take advantage of people who want to consider themselves environmentally conscious (probability: 99.3%).
As you can see I don’t have a lot of faith in this industry. I don’t even think it should be an industry – I think we should provide for retired people directly through Social Security and stop feeding all these funds to the market.
Speaking of this question, has anyone seen the new Frontline called “The Retirement Gamble”? Producer Marcela Gaviria told me my previous Frontline interview inspired her to make it (I’m so fucking proud!), and the questions today inspired me to watch it just now. It contains a really great explanation of why I don’t trust the assholes in this industry, nor do I have much hope for it to change any time soon. Everyone should watch it! Caveat: a bit too much of an advertisement for Vanguard, but otherwise excellent.
I wish I could be more encouraging.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Have you seen this crazy letter from a sorority member to the rest of her sorority? Is this your typical sorority? If so I really missed something in college but that was so long ago that reptiles walked the earth.
Oh my god I was hoping someone would ask me about that. For those of you who haven’t read the letter, here’s the critical part:
I do not give a flying fuck, and Sigma Nu does not give a flying fuck, about how much you fucking love to talk to your sisters. You have 361 days out of the fucking year to talk to sisters, and this week is NOT, I fucking repeat NOT ONE OF THEM. This week is about fostering relationships in the Greek community, and that’s not fucking possible if you’re going to stand around and talk to each other and not our matchup. Newsflash you stupid cocks: FRATS DON’T LIKE BORING SORORITIES. Oh wait, DOUBLE FUCKING NEWSFLASH: SIGMA NU IS NOT GOING TO WANT TO HANG OUT WITH US IF WE FUCKING SUCK, which by the way in case you’re an idiot and need it spelled out for you, WE FUCKING SUCK SO FAR.
My take on this: for whatever reason, and it’s a total mystery to me, these sorority members feel like they have to win the approval of a bunch of men in a fraternity. And it’s not a mystery what kind of approval:
“Ohhh, I’m now crying because your email has made me oh so so sad”. Well good. If this email applies to you in any way, meaning if you are a little asswipe that stands in the corners at night or if you’re a weird shit that does weird shit during the day, this following message is for you:
DO NOT GO TO TONIGHT’S EVENT.
I’m not fucking kidding. Don’t go. Seriously, if you have done ANYTHING I’ve mentioned in this email and have some rare disease where you’re unable to NOT do these things, then you are HORRIBLE, I repeat, HORRIBLE PR FOR THIS CHAPTER. I would rather have 40 girls that are fun, talk to boys, and not fucking awkward than 80 that are fucking faggots. If you are one of the people that have told me “Oh nooo boo hoo I can’t talk to boys I’m too sober”, then I pity you because I don’t know how you got this far in life, and with that in mind don’t fucking show up unless you’re going to stop being a goddamn cock block for our chapter. Seriously. I swear to fucking God if I see anyone being a goddamn boner at tonight’s event, I will tell you to leave even if you’re sober. I’m not even kidding. Try me.
Okay so it’s a sexual kind of thing, judging from the phrasing. Although I’m not sure exactly what being a boner means.
My take is: whatever social currency these women are hoping to capture, it involves impressing men with their friendliness, flirtatiousness, and possibly their actual sexual promiscuity, if I’m not reading too much into it.
If I’m not wrong, what’s being described sounds like a piece of a larger system whereby sororities compete with each other for the approval of fraternities. And a system in which the sorority members get yelled at if they weren’t brazen enough with their attentions.
Here’s a shot in the dark: this competitive currency system, whatever the hell it is, was set up by the fraternities.
Please explain to me if you can!!
Please submit your question to Aunt Pythia!
The Alternative Banking group of OWS is still meeting every Sunday at Columbia from 3-5pm to discuss financial reform. We also often have pre-meeting talks open to the public. The normal meeting is open to the public as well, but it can get pretty wonky. This week’s pre-meeting talk is an update on Greece.
We just found out our proposal for a panel at the Left Forum got accepted (here we are on their website). In case you don’t know much about the Left Forum, it’s a conference taking place on June 7-9th at Pace University in New York, which brings together a huge number of lefties and progressives and activists together to talk about their work. It used to be called the Socialist Scholars Conference. Noam Chomsky and Cornel West are scheduled to be there this year.
Our plan for the panel is to have a “regular meeting” at the conference. So anyone in our group can come (I think they have to register first), which means anyone at all, since our group is open to the public. Our probably topic will be “Breaking up the megabanks” or something along those lines.
I’ll update when we find out when we’re scheduled to go on. Here’s a full list of approved panel topics.
While I was away in D.C. attending a congressional hearing on big data (blog post on that will come soon!) my Alt Banking peeps staged a protest outside the Citigroup annual shareholder meeting in New York. Here’s some coverage:
- Financial Times
- Dealbreaker: Spandex-clad roller-girl
- Dealbreaker: Spandex-Clad Roller Girl Was Not Only Prepared To Put Citi Execs Over Her Knee But Read Them Their Rights
- La Jornada
- Marni’s recent essay in the Huffington Post
Here’s a picture of the whole group:
And here’s a picture of Marni, who was a huge hit:
Final thing: we’re writing a book in Alt Banking, called Occupy Finance, and modeled after the Debt Resistor’s Operation Manual, which we adore. Please volunteer to be a writer or an editor if you have time!
Note: you don’t need to be a specialist in finance to be an editor, that’s the point. We’re writing it for the interested public. Email me if you want to be part of it – my email is on the “About” page.
This is a guest post by Josh Snodgrass.
As the Mathbabe noted recently, a lot of companies are collecting a lot of information about you. Thanks to two Firefox add-ons – Collusion (hat tip to Cathy) and NoScript — you can watch the process and even interfere with it to a degree.
Collusion is a beautiful app that creates a network graph of the various companies that have information about your web activity. Here is an example.
On this graph, I can see that nytimes.com has sent info on me to 2mdn.net, linkstorm.net, serving-sys.com, nyt.com and doubleclick.net. Who are these guys? All I know is that they know more about me than I know about them.
Doubleclick is particularly well-informed. They have gotten information on me from nytimes.com, yahoo.com and ft.com. You may not be able to see it on the picture but there are faint links between the nodes. Some (few) of the nodes are sites I have visited. Most of the nodes, especially some of the central ones are data collectors such as doubleclick and googleanalytics. They have gotten info from sites I’ve visited.
This graph is pretty sparse because I cleared all of my cookies recently. If I let it go for a week and the graph will be so crowded it won’t all fit on a screen.
Pretty much everyone is sharing info about me (and presumably you, too). And, I do mean everyone. Mathbabe is a dot near the top. Collusion tells me that mathbabe.org has shared info with google.com, wordpress.com, wp.com, 52shadesofgreed.com, youtube.com and quantserve.com. Google has passed the info on to googleusercontent.com and gstatic.com
I can understand why. WordPress and presumably wp.com are hosting her blog. Google is providing search capabilities. 52shadesofgreed has an ad posted (You can still buy the decks but even better, come to Alt-Banking meetings and get one free). Youtube is providing some content. It is all innocent enough in a way but it means my surfing is being tracked even on non-commercial sites.
These are the conveniences of modern life. Try blocking all cookies and you will find it pretty inconvenient to use the internet. It would be nice to be selective about cookies but that seems very hard. All of this is happening even though I’ve told my browser not to allow third-party cookies. If you look at cookie policies, it seems you have two alternatives:
- Block all cookies and the site won’t work very well
- Allow cookies and we will send your info to whomever we choose (within the law, of course).
So, it would be nice if there were a law that constrained what they do. My impression is that we Americans have virtually no protection. Europe is better from what I understand.
I’m trying to access a site and there are scripts waiting to run from:
- Po.st Scorecard.com
Clearly a lot of those are about tracking me or showing me ads. As with cookies, if you block all the scripts, the site probably won’t function properly. But the great thing about NoScript is that is makes it easy to allow scripts one by one. So, you can allow the ones that look more legitimate until the site works well enough. Also, you can allow them temporarily.
NoScript and Collusion are great. But mostly they are making me more aware of all the tracking that is going on. And they are also making it clear how hard it is to keep your privacy.
This isn’t just on the internet. Years ago, an economist had an idea about having people put boxes on their cars that would track where they went and charge them for driving, particularly in high congestion times and places. The motivation was to reduce travel that causes a lot of pollution while no one is going anywhere. But people ridiculed the idea. Who would let themselves be tracked everywhere they went.
Well, 40 years later, nearly everyone who has a car has an EZ-pass. And, even if you don’t, they will take a picture of your license plate and keep it on file. All in the name of improving traffic flow.
And, if you use credit cards, there are some big companies that have records of your spending.
What to do about this?
I don’t know.
I like conveniences. Keeping your privacy is hard. DuckDuckGo is a search engine that doesn’t track you (another hat tip to Cathy). But their search results are not as good as Google’s.
Google has all these nice tools that are free. Even if you don’t use them, the web sites you visit surely do. And if they do, google is getting information from them, about you.
This experience has made me even more of a fan of Firefox and add-ons available in it. But what else should I use. And, none of these tools is going to be perfect.
What information gets tracked? A lot of privacy policies say they don’t give out identifying information. But how can we tell?
Just keeping on top of what is going on is hard. For example: what are LSOs? They seem to be a kind of “supercookies”. And Better Privacy seems to be an add-on to help with them.
“Our emails may contain a single, campaign-unique “web beacon pixel” to tell us whether our emails are opened and verify any clicks through to links or advertisements within the email”
Who knew that a pixel could do so much?
The truth is, I want to see these sites. So I am enabling scripts (some of them, as few as I can). The question is how to make the tradeoff. Figuring that out is time consuming. I’ve got better things to do with my life.
I’m going to go read a book.
You know how, every now and then, you hear someone throw out a statistic that implies almost all of the web is devoted to porn?
Well, that turns out to be a false myth, which you can read more about here - although once upon a time it was kind of true, before women started using the web in large numbers and before there was Netflix streaming.
Here’s another myth along the same lines which I think might actually be true: almost all of big data is devoted to surveillance.
Of course, data is data, and you could define “surveillance” broadly (say as “close observation”), to make the above statement a tautology. To what extent is Google’s data, collected about you, a surveillance database, if they only use it to tailor searches and ads?
On the other hand, something that seems unthreatening now can become creepy soon: recall the NSA whistleblower who last year described how the government stores an enormous amount of the “electronic communications” in this country to keep close tabs on us.
Back in 2011, computerworld.com published an article entitled “Big data to drive a surveillance society” and makes the case that there is a natural competition among corporations with large databases to collect more data, have it more interconnected (knowing now only a person’s shopping habits but also their location and age, say) and have the analytics work faster, even real-time, so they can peddle their products faster and better than the next guy.
Of course, not everyone agrees to talk about this “natural competition”. From the article:
Todd Papaioannou, vice president of cloud architecture at Yahoo, said instead of thinking about big data analytics as a weapon that empowers corporate Big Brothers, consumers should regard it as a tool that enables a more personalized Web experience.
“If someone can deliver a more compelling, relevant experience for me as a consumer, then I don’t mind it so much,” he said.
Thanks for telling us consumers how great this is, Todd. Later in the same article Todd says, “Our approach is not to throw any data away.”
Fast forward to 2013, when defence contractor Raytheon is reported to have a new piece of software, called Riot, which is cutting-edge in the surveillance department.
The name Riot refers to “Rapid Information Overlay Technology” and it can locate individuals with longitude and latitudes, using cell phone data, and make predictions as well, using data scraped from Facebook, Twitter, and Foursquare. A video explains how they do it. From the op-ed:
The possibilities for RIOT are hideous at consumer level. This really is the stalker’s dream technology. There’s also behavioural analysis to predict movements in the software. That’s what Big Data can do, and if it’s not foolproof, there are plenty of fools around the world to try it out on.
US employers, who have been creating virtual Gulags of surveillance for employees with much less effective technology, will love this. “We know what you do” has always been a working option for coercion. The fantastic levels of paranoia involved in the previous generations of surveillance technology will be truly gratified by RIOT.
Lest we think that our children are not as affected by such stalking software, since they don’t spend as much time on social media and often don’t have cellphones, you should also be aware that educational data is now being collected about individual learners in the U.S. at an enormous scale and with very little oversight.
This report from educationnewyork.com (hat tip Matthew Cunningham-Cook) explains recent changes in privacy laws for children, which happen to coincide with how much data is being collected (tons) and how much money is in the analysis of that data (tons):
Schools are a rich source of personal information about children that can be legally and illegally accessed by third parties.With incidences of identity theft, database hacking, and sale of personal information rampant, there is an urgent need to protect students’ rights under FERPA and raise awareness of aspects of the law that may compromise the privacy of students and their families.
In 2008 and 2011, amendments to FERPA gave third parties, including private companies,increased access to student data. It is significant that in 2008, the amendments to FERPA expanded the definitions of “school officials” who have access to student data to include “contractors, consultants, volunteers, and other parties to whom an educational agency or institution has outsourced institutional services or functions it would otherwise use employees to perform.” This change has the effect of increasing the market for student data.
There are lots of contractors and consultants, for example inBloom, and they are slightly less concerned about data privacy issues than you might be:
inBloom has stated that it “cannot guarantee the security of the information stored … or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted.”
The article ends with this:
The question is: Should we compromise and endanger student privacy to support a centralized and profit-driven education reform initiative? Given this new landscape of an information and data free-for-all, and the proliferation of data-driven education reform initiatives like CommonCore and huge databases of student information, we’ve arrived at a time when once a child enters a public school,their parents will never again know who knows what about their children and about their families. It is now up to individual states to find ways to grant students additional privacy protections.
No doubt about it: our children are well on their way to being the most stalked generation.
One of the reasons I’m writing this post today is that I’m on a train to D.C. to sit in a Congressional hearing where Congressmen will ask “big data experts” questions about big data and analytics. The announcement is here, and I’m hoping to get into it.
The experts present are from IBM, the NSF, and North Carolina State University. I’m wondering how they got picked and what their incentives are. If I get in I will write a follow-up post on what happened.
Here’s what I hope happens. First, I hope it’s made clear that anonymization doesn’t really work with large databases. Second, I hope it’s clear that there’s no longer a very clear dividing line between sensitive data and nonsensitive data – you’d be surprised how much can be inferred about your sensitive data using only nonsensitive data.
Next, I hope it’s clear that the very people who should be worried the most about their data being exposed and freely available are the ones who don’t understand the threat. This means that merely saying that people should protect their data more is utterly insufficient.
Next, we should understand what policies already in place look like in Europe:
Finally, we should focus not only the collection of data, but on the usage of data. Just because you have a good idea of my age, race, education level, income, and HIV status doesn’t mean you should be able to use that information against me whenever you want.
In particular, it should not be legal for companies that provide loans or insurance to use whatever information they can buy from Acxiom about you. It should be a highly regulated set of data that allows for such decisions.
The Alternative Banking group of #OWS is showing up bright and early tomorrow morning to protest at Citigroup’s annual shareholder meeting. Details are: we meet outside the Hilton Hotel, Sixth Avenue between 53rd and 54th Streets, tomorrow, April 24th, from 8-10 am. We’ve already made some signs (see below).
Here are ten reasons for you to join us.
1) The Glass-Steagall Act, which had protected the banking system since 1933, was repealed in order to allow Citibank and Traveler’s Insurance to merge.
In fact they merged before the act was even revoked, giving us a great way to date the moment when politicians started taking orders from bankers – at the time, President Bill Clinton publicly declared that “the Glass–Steagall law is no longer appropriate.”
2) The crimes Citi has committed have not been met with reasonable punishments.
From this Bloomberg article:
In its complaint against Citigroup, the SEC said the bank misled investors in a $1 billion fund that included assets the bank had projected would lose money. At the same time it was selling the fund to investors, Citigroup took a short position in many of the underlying assets, according to the agency.
The SEC only attempted to fine Citi $285 million, even though Citi’s customers lost on the order of $600 million from their fraud. Moreover, they were not required to admit wrongdoing. Judge Rakoff refused to sign off on the deal and it’s still pending. Citi is one of those banks that is simply too big to jail.
3) We’d like our pen back, Mr. Weill. Going back to repealing Glass-Steagall. Let’s take an excerpt from this article:
…at the signing ceremony of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley, aka the Glass Steagall repeal act, Clinton presented Weill with one of the pens he used to “fine-tune” Glass-Steagall out of existence, proclaiming, “Today what we are doing is modernizing the financial services industry, tearing down those antiquated laws and granting banks significant new authority.”
Weill has since decided that repealing Glass-Steagall was a mistake.
4) Do you remember the Plutonomy Memos? I wrote about them here. Here’s a tasty excerpt which helps us remember when the class war was started and by whom:
We project that the plutonomies (the U.S., UK, and Canada) will likely see even more income inequality, disproportionately feeding off a further rise in the profit share in their economies, capitalist-friendly governments, more technology-driven productivity, and globalization… Since we think the plutonomy is here, is going to get stronger… It is a good time to switch out of stocks that sell to the masses and back to the plutonomy basket.
5) Robert Rubin – enough said. To say just a wee bit more, let’s look at the Bloomberg Businessweek article, “Rethinking Robert Rubin”:
Rubinomics—his signature economic philosophy, in which the government balances the budget with a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, driving borrowing rates down—was the blueprint for an economy that scraped the sky. When it collapsed, due in part to bank-friendly policies that Rubin advocated, he made more than $100 million while others lost everything.
That $100 million was made at Citigroup, which was later bailed out because of bets Rubin helped them make. He has thus far shown no remorse.
6) The Revolving Door problems Citigroup has. Bill Moyers has a great article on the outrageous revolving door going straight from banks to the Treasury and the White House. What with Rubin and Lew, Citigroup seems pretty much a close second behind Goldman Sachs for this sport.
8) The bailout was actually for Citigroup. If you’ve read Sheila Bair’s book Bull by the Horns, you’ll see the bailout from her inside perspective. And it was this: that Citigroup was really the bank that needed it worst. That in fact, the whole bailout was a cover for funneling money to Citi.
9) The ongoing Fed dole. The bailout is still going on – and Citigroup is currently benefitting from the easy money that the Fed is offering, not to mention the $83 billion taxpayer subsidy. WTF?!
10) Lobbying for yet more favors. Citi spent $62 million from 2001 to 2010 on lobbying in Washington. What’s their return on that investment, do you think?
Join us tomorrow morning! Details here.
I wanted to give this advice today just in case it’s useful to someone. It’s basically the way I went about reinventing myself from being a quant in finance to being a data scientist in the tech scene.
In other words, many of the same skills but not all, and many of the same job description elements but not all.
The truth is, I didn’t even know the term “data scientist” when I started my job hunt, so for that reason I think it’s possibly good and useful advice: if you follow it, you may end up getting a great job you don’t even know exists right now.
Also, I used this advice yesterday on my friend who is trying to reinvent himself, and he seemed to find it useful, although time will tell how much – let’s see if he gets a new job soon!
- Write a list of things you like about jobs: learning technical stuff, managing people, whatever floats your boat.
- Next, write a list of things you don’t like: being secretive, no vacation, office politics, whatever. Some people hate working with “dumb people” but some people can’t stand “arrogant people”. It makes a huge difference actually.
- Next, write a list of skills you have: python, basic statistics, math, managing teams, smelling a bad deal, stuff like that. This is probably the most important list, so spend some serious time on it.
- Finally, write a list of skills you don’t have that you wish you did: hadoop, knowing when to stop talking, stuff like that.
Once you have your lists, start going through LinkedIn by cross-searching for your preferred city and a keyword from one of your lists (probably the “skills you have” list).
Every time you find a job that you think you’d like to have, take note of what skills it lists that you don’t have, the name of the company, and your guess on a scale of 1-10 of how much you’d like the job into a spreadsheet or at least a file. This last part is where you use the “stuff I like” and “stuff I don’t like” lists.
And when you’ve done this for a long time, like you made it your job for a few hours a day for at least a few weeks, then do some wordcounts on this file, preferably using a command line script to add to the nerdiness, to see which skills you’d need to get which jobs you’d really like.
Note LinkedIn is not an oracle: it doesn’t have every job in the world (although it might have most jobs you could ever get), and the descriptions aren’t always accurate.
For example, I think companies often need managers of software engineers, but they never advertise for managers of software engineers. They advertise for software engineers, and then let them manage if they have the ability to, and sometimes even if they don’t. But even in that case I think it makes sense: engineers don’t want to be managed by someone they think isn’t technical, and the best way to get someone who is definitely technical is just to get another engineer.
In other words, sometimes the “job requirements” data on LInkedIn dirty, but it’s still useful. And thank god for LinkedIn.
Next, make sure your LinkedIn profile is up-to-date and accurate, and that your ex-coworkers have written letters for you and endorsed you for your skills.
Finally, buy a book or two to learn the new skills you’ve decided to acquire based on your research. I remember bringing a book on Bayesian statistics to my interview for a data scientist. I wasn’t all the way through the book, and my boss didn’t even know enough to interview me on that subject, but it didn’t hurt him to see that I was independently learning stuff because I thought it would be useful, and it didn’t hurt to be on top of that stuff when I started my new job.
What I like about this is that it looks for jobs based on what you want rather than what you already know you can do. It’s in some sense the dual method to what people usually do.
I’m catching up with reading the “big data news” this morning (via Gil Press) and I came across this essay by E. O. Wilson called “Great Scientist ≠ Good at Math”. In it, he argues that most of the successful scientists he knows aren’t good at math, and he doesn’t see why people get discouraged from being scientists just because they suck at math.
Here’s an important excerpt from the essay:
Over the years, I have co-written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, so I can offer the following principle with confidence. Call it Wilson’s Principle No. 1: It is far easier for scientists to acquire needed collaboration from mathematicians and statisticians than it is for mathematicians and statisticians to find scientists able to make use of their equations.
Given that he’s written many papers with mathematicians and statisticians, then, he is not claiming that math itself is not part of great science, just that he hasn’t been the one that supplied the mathy bits. I think this is really key.
And it resonates with me: I’ve often said that the cool thing about working on a data science team in industry, for example, is that different people bring different skills to the table. I might be an expert on some machine learning algorithms, while someone else will be a domain expert. The problem requires both skill sets, and perhaps no one person has all that knowledge. Teamwork kinda rocks.
Another thing he exposes with Wilson’s Principle No. 1, though, which doesn’t resonate with me, is a general lack of understanding of what mathematicians are actually trying to accomplish with “their equations”.
It is a common enough misconception to think of the quant as a guy with a bunch of tools but no understanding or creativity. I’ve complained about that before on this blog. But when it comes to professional mathematicians, presumably including his co-authors, a prominent scientist such as Wilson should realize that they are doing creative things inside the realm of mathematics simply for the sake of understanding mathematics.
Mathematicians, as a group, are not sitting around wishing someone could “make use of their equations.” For one thing, they often don’t even think about equations. And for another, they often think about abstract structures with no goal whatsoever of connecting it back to, say, how ants live in colonies. And that’s cool and beautiful too, and it’s not a failure of the system. That’s just math.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t be fun for mathematicians to spend more time thinking about applied science. I think it would be fun for them, actually. Moreover, as the next few years and decades unfold, we might very well see a large-scale shrinkage in math departments and basic research money, which could force the issue.
And, to be fair, there are probably some actual examples of mathy-statsy people who are thinking about equations that are supposed to relate to the real world but don’t. Those guys should learn to be better communicators and pair up with colleagues who have great data. In my experience, this is not a typical situation.
One last thing. The danger in ignoring the math yourself, if you’re a scientist, is that you probably aren’t that great at knowing the difference between someone who really knows math and someone who can throw around terminology. You can’t catch charlatans, in other words. And, given that scientists do need real math and statistics to do their research, this can be a huge problem if your work ends up being meaningless because your team got the math wrong.
Aunt Pythia is happy to be be here, striving as always to answer your questions helpfully and wisely. Even if they have nothing whatsoever to do with sex (single tear running down her face).
Please submit your PG questions at the bottom of this column!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
What are your thoughts about the use of amphetamines or other stimulants (specifically as performance enhancing drugs) in academia or the workplace? Clearly, there are legal issues that one could bring up should a person be obtaining them illicitly; so let’s say for the sake of argument that you read an article online interviewing an academic who has a doctor that knowingly prescribes her/him ritalin for its use as a “performance enhancer” (as opposed to prescribing it for ADD). The doctor assures the interviewer that she carefully monitors the academic’s use of the drug so as to minimize the effects of physiological dependence or addiction and that, from all observations she has made, the academic is responsible about taking the drug and does not abuse it. The interviewer then asks the academic why she/he uses it, and the academic responds that taking the drug allows for a level of productivity that is at or above the level of others in their field, and they fear they could not be as competitive as others in the job market should they stop taking it. What reaction are you left with after reading the (hypothetical) article?
Ever Reflect on the Debate On Speed
It’s no secret that Erdos was a benzedrine addict. My parents knew him when I was a kid (my dad wrote a paper with him) and so even if I hadn’t heard it through the grapevine I’d know it through that channel. It’s totally true. Moreover, he wasn’t the only mathematician who was popping pills beck then, or for that matter even now. It’s widespread.
In terms of my opinion, I have no moral opinion about it. As far as I’m concerned drug use isn’t a moral issue at all, unless it leaks out into people’s responsibilities to others, which as far as I know never happened with Erdos.
But I do have a personal theory about who does that and why, and Erdos is a great example for my theory. Namely, people who really don’t have any other interests in their lives except math. They are single-mindedly pursuing theorems at the exclusion of having a family, or love, or sex. They’re willing to forgo sex in order to prove theorems faster.
Note I say faster, because I don’t actually think drugs make you smarter, they just let you focus more efficiently. I might be wrong about this, it’s a guess. It would be interesting to see evidence one way or the other.
That’s a pretty huge sacrifice, since I usually think the way things work is something like: be good at something, so you can be successful, so you can get laid. Someone who is forgoing sex for the sake of being good at something is therefore, in my framework, sacrificing the end for the means. But all that means is that other people have different ends than I have.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
My son’s teacher was fretting about how dangerous it is to teach in view of sandy hook. Of course anytime you are in public someone could shoot you. But if you are alone you might choke with no one to help you. So it is it more likely to be saved or killed by a stranger when you are in public
Kill or be Killed
A more gruesome statistical question you’re never gonna see. I don’t know the answer either, especially if you consider the case where the guy was pushed into the subway tracks and nobody helped him. And if the killer has a gun, then what’s a bystander to do?
In general I think people who really want to kill each other are pretty good at doing it, at least the first time they try. Considering that, we are pretty lucky how rare that is. I’d also add that staying inside all the time is also pretty safe, but your quality of life is pretty low.
As far as the case at hand, namely teachers, I’d worry more about standardized testing and the vilification of my profession than about armed killers.
Dear Aunt Pythia,
Do you think introverts stand a chance when it comes to working up the ladder at a cutthroat large corporation?
Quiet in Seattle
If you’d stopped at “large corporation” then I’d have said, “sure, why not?” since all corporations rely on the work of a bunch of different types of people, and introverts are bound to find a place there as well.
But you added “cutthroat” so it’s all about that word. I think you’re kind of answering your own question: if by cutthroat you mean you need to play politics with the sales guys and win, then no, introverts have no chance in such a place.
But if that’s the way it seems from your seat, I’d suggest there might be a different place in your company where you’d find plenty of introverts. Maybe you could switch your division. If not, then just get out altogether, it doesn’t sound healthy!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I have been writing Smalltalk programs that use heuristics to make lottery predictions. The process entails creating competing rankings of numbers and then using wheels to generate combinations. Numbers are ranked using rules about history patterns. The process is deterministic and a combination in a particular position is always generated with the same process. I collect winning information by block and by line. I play the best blocks or the best lines in the next drawing. Do you have a better system?
Lost in Space
Yes, yes I do have a better system. I call my system “don’t play the lottery.”
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’ve been interviewing at a lot of different places in data science in several major cities lately. One thing that really sticks out is that there has been literally zero female technical representation amongst the interviewers — besides myself, everyone is a [Caucasian/Asian] male. Where are all the chicks [and Hispanics/Latinos/African-Americans]? We’re such a huge chunk of the population, seems like I should be seeing more different types of people. And do you think this diversity thing matters much anyway?
I hear you! I think data science is a ton of fun, and I’d love to see more diversity in our midst. I’m getting feedback on my company’s upcoming bootcamp that we should make it for women, or at least make a version for women. That might help, And it would be a lot of fun.
In terms of whether I think it “matters,” I do think there’s an enormous amount of selection bias in the ways companies think about their users and what they want, and they shrink their potential by having only narrow views. So yes, I think it matters. But more immediately the question is how to improve it.
What do you think?
Please submit your question to Aunt Pythia!
Almost a year ago now I wrote this post on being an alpha female. I had only recently understood that I was an alpha female, when I wrote it, and it was still kind of new and weird.
For whatever reason it’s been coming up a lot recently and I wanted to update that post with my observations.
Who’s burning which bridges?
Last week I wrote an outraged post about seeing Ina Drew at Barnard.
Mind you, I had anticipated I’d find the event objectionable. I had even polled my Occupy friends for prepared questions for her. But when I got there I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be able to ask her anything. I was just too disgusted with the tone and conceit of the event to participate in it reasonably. Instead I live tweeted the event and seethed.
I lost sleep that night fuming about Drew-as-role-model, and I was grateful to be able to get some of my frustration out on my blog.
One of the first comments I received was this one, which said:
Boy Cathy, you sure do know how to burn bridges.
This was, for me, kind of a perfect alpha female moment. My immediate reaction was to think to myself,
They burned bridges with me, you mean.
Since that sounded too arrogant, at the moment anyway, I said something else just slightly less obnoxious. Three points to make here:
- Anyone who doesn’t agree with me about whether Ina Drew should be celebrated can go suck it.
- That post got linked to from Reuters, FT.com, and Naked Capitalism. Which doesn’t happen when you’re worrying about burning bridges.
- When I’m in a certain kind of mood, I’m simply not concerned with other people’s judgments. I think that’s just part of being an alpha female, and I’m grateful for it.
Why grateful? Because lots of shitty things happen when people go around worrying about “burning their bridges” instead of speaking up about bullshit or evil-doing. Or, as Felix Salmon tweeted recently:
Best point made on this #waronwhistleblowers panel: failure to leak has cost many more lives than leaking ever has.
— felix salmon (@felixsalmon) April 17, 2013
Taking notes from an uber alpha female
A few months ago I got an email inviting me to speak in a Python in Finance conference. The email was somewhat weird and kind of just came out and said they need women speakers. I was put in a position of being asked to be a token woman, which is a mindset I don’t enjoy.
I thought about it though, and although I use python, and I used to work in finance, I don’t work in finance any more, and I don’t really think about python too much, I just use it. So I said to the organizer, no thanks, I don’t have anything to say at that conference.
Fast forward to the week before the conference, when I got wind of the agenda. It turned out my friend Claudia Perlich, Chief Data Scientist at m6d and one of the contributors to my upcoming book with Rachel Schutt, was the keynote speaker. I decided to go to the conference essentially because I wanted to see her.
Well, it turned out Claudia had gotten a similar email, and she had accepted the invitation, even though she doesn’t work in finance and doesn’t even use python (she uses perl).
She gave a great talk about modeling blind spots, which everyone enjoyed. It was quite possibly the best talk of the day, in fact. Plus, she wasn’t at all token - having her on the schedule was what made me come to the conference, and I probably wasn’t the only one. And judging by the crowd at the Meetup I gave last night, I would have drawn my own crowd too, if I had been speaking.
I made an alpha female note to myself that day to accept any invitation to a conference that I’d enjoy, even if my expertise isn’t completely within the realm of the conference. I’m learning from Claudia, a master alpha female. Or is it mistress?
Alpha females and self-image
Chris Wiggins recently sent me this essay entitled “A Rant on Women” by Clay Shirky, a writer and professor who studies the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. Here’s the first paragraph:
So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.
Guess what? That student is male.
Shirky goes on to vent about how women don’t oversell themselves enough compared to men and how it’s a problem. An excerpt:
There is no upper limit to the risks men are willing to take in order to succeed, and if there is an upper limit for women, they will succeed less. They will also end up in jail less, but I don’t think we get the rewards without the risks.
This made me think about my experience. First, as a Barnard professor, I certainly saw this effect. I’d have men and women come talk to me about letters of recommendations, and not only would I prepare myself for the difference in posture, I’d try to address it directly, by encouraging women to learn how to brag about their accomplishments. I might have tried to convince men a couple of times to stop bragging quite so much, but quickly found that to be a huge waste of time.
But beyond corroborating that this is typical behavior, the essay made me remember myself as a college student.
When I met my thesis advisor, Barry Mazur, who was on sabbatical at UC Berkeley, I remember telling him a math problem I had worked on and solved. He expressed something about liking the problem and being impressed that I’d explained it so well, and I said back,
“Yeah, I’m awesome”
I remember this because of his reaction. At the time, the word “awesome” was widely used among teenagers, but evidently he hadn’t gotten the teenager memo, and he was taken aback by the way I used it. At least that’s what he said. But now that I think about it, maybe he was taken aback that I’d said it at all.
Alpha females and body image
My friend and guest poster Becky recently sent me this video:
It’s about how women have a biased view on their looks, or at least describe their looks to other people in a consistently negatively biased way.
There’s a great critique of this video here (hat tip Avani Patel), wherein fashion and style guru Jennifer Choy complains that the underlying message to the above video is that, in any case, beauty is about all women have going for them, so they should not underestimate their beauty. Plus that all the women in the video were skinny, young, and white.
Great points, but my take was somewhat different.
My immediate reaction to the video was to say, these women need to spend less time thinking about being fat or ugly, and more time thinking about what they think is sexy and attractive. Why is it always about finding flaws in ourselves? Why don’t we spend more time thinking about what turns us on or what we think is beautiful?
I’ll be honest: I think if I had been interviewed in that setting, I would have said something like, “Gorgeous and sexy as hell” and gone on to list my best features. I am not sure I’d have even been able to describe what I look like in any detail, with any accuracy. Most likely I would have just started bragging about my sexy grey streaks. Even more likely: I wouldn’t have had the time to sit down for this interview at all.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve dabbled in being insecure in my looks: puberty sucked, as did all three post-natal periods until the baby was weaned*, in addition to any time I was ever on the pill**. I’ve concluded that my inherent arrogance is directly related to my hormones, which in turn makes it undeniably tied to my alpha femaleness.
Suffice it to say, when my hormones are not messed up I have “body eumorphia,” where I ignore or downplay any non-perfect parts of my body. It’s a nice feeling.
It kind of makes me want to develop an alpha female hormone treatment. Business model?
UPDATE: Please watch this new spoof video, it’s perfect (except it should be alpha females and men, not just men):
* It gets better when you know it’s going to go away. By the third kid I was like, “gonna cry every day at 3:00pm for the next six weeks. Must schedule that into my calendar.”
** Note to doctors: you need to tell women that the real reason birth control pills work so well is that you lose interest in sex when you’re on them!
As Rortybomb reported yesterday on the Roosevelt Institute blog (hat tip Adam Obeng), a recent paper written by Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin looked into replicating the results of a economics paper originally written by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff entitled Growth in a Time of Debt.
The original Reinhart and Rogoff paper had concluded that public debt loads greater than 90 percent of GDP consistently reduce GDP growth, a “fact” which has been widely used. However, the more recent paper finds problems. Here’s the abstract:
Herndon, Ash and Pollin replicate Reinhart and Rogoff and find that coding errors, selective exclusion of available data, and unconventional weighting of summary statistics lead to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and GDP growth among 20 advanced economies in the post-war period. They find that when properly calculated, the average real GDP growth rate for countries carrying a public-debt-to-GDP ratio of over 90 percent is actually 2.2 percent, not -0:1 percent as published in Reinhart and Rogoff. That is, contrary to RR, average GDP growth at public debt/GDP ratios over 90 percent is not dramatically different than when debt/GDP ratios are lower.
The authors also show how the relationship between public debt and GDP growth varies significantly by time period and country. Overall, the evidence we review contradicts Reinhart and Rogoff’s claim to have identified an important stylized fact, that public debt loads greater than 90 percent of GDP consistently reduce GDP growth.
A few comments.
1) We should always have the data and code for published results.
The way the authors Herndon, Ash and Pollin managed to replicate the results was that they personally requested the excel spreadsheets from Reinhart and Rogoff. Given how politically useful and important this result has been (see Rortybomb’s explanation of this), it’s kind of a miracle that they released the spreadsheet. Indeed that’s the best part of this story from a scientific viewpoint.
2) The data and code should be open source.
One cool thing is that now you can actually download the data – there’s a link at the bottom of this page. I did this and was happy to have a bunch of csv files and some (open source) R code which presumably recovers the excel spreadsheet mistakes. I also found some .dta files, which seems like Stata proprietary file types, which is annoying, but then I googled and it seems like you can use R to turn .dta files into csv files. It’s still weird that they wrote code in R but saved files in Stata.
3) These mistakes are easy to make and they’re mostly not considered mistakes.
Let’s talk about the “mistakes” the authors found. First, they’re excluding certain time periods for certain countries, specifically right after World War II. Second, they chose certain “non-standard” weightings for the various countries they considered. Finally, they accidentally excluded certain rows from their calculation.
Only that last one is considered a mistake by modelers. The others are modeling choices, and they happen all the time. Indeed it’s impossible not to make such choices. Who’s to say that you have to use standard country weightings? Why? How much data do you actually need to consider? Why?
[Aside: I'm sure there are proprietary trading models running right now in hedge funds that anticipate how other people weight countries in standard ways and betting accordingly. In that sense, using standard weightings might be a stupid thing to do. But in any case validating a weighting scheme is extremely difficult. In the end you're trying to decide how much various countries matter in a certain light, and the answer is often that your country matters the most to you.]
4) We need to actually consider other modeling possibilities.
It’s not a surprise, to economists anyway, that after you include more post-WWII years of data, which we all know to be high debt and high growth years worldwide, you get a substantively different answer. Excluding these data points is just as much a political decision as a modeling decision.
In the end the only reasonable way to proceed is to describe your choices, and your reasoning, and the result, but also consider other “reasonable” choices and report the results there too. And if you don’t like the answer, or don’t want to do the work, at the very least you need to provide your code and data and let other people check how your result changes with different “reasonable” choices.
Once the community of economists (and other data-centric fields) starts doing this, we will all realize that our so-called “objective results” utterly depend on such modeling decisions, and are about as variable as our own opinions.
5) And this is an easy model.
Think about how many modeling decisions and errors are in more complicated models!
This is a guest post by Justin Wedes. A graduate of the University of Michigan with degrees in Physics and Linguistics with High Honors, Justin has taught formerly truant and low-income youth in subjects ranging from science to media literacy and social justice activism. A founding member of the New York City General Assembly (NYCGA), the group that brought you Occupy Wall Street, Justin continues his education activism with the Grassroots Education Movement, Class Size Matters, and now serves as the Co-Principal of the Paul Robeson Freedom School.
Yesterday was tax day, when millions of Americans fulfilled that annual patriotic ritual that funds roads, schools, libraries, hospitals, and all those pesky social services that regular people rely upon each day to make our country liveable.
Millions of Americans, yes, but not ALL Americans.
Some choose to help fund roads, schools, libraries, hospitals in other places instead. Like the Cayman Islands.
Don’t get me wrong – I love Caymanians. Beautifully hospitable people they are, and they enjoy arguably the most progressive taxes in the world: zero income tax and only the rich pay when they come to work – read “cook the books” – on their island for a few days a year. School is free, health care guaranteed to all who work. It’s a beautiful place to live, wholly subsidized by the 99% in developed countries like yours and mine.
When they stash their money abroad and don’t pay taxes while doing business on our land, using our workforce and electrical grids and roads and getting our tax incentives to (not) create jobs, WE pay.
We small businesses.
I went down to the Caymans myself to figure out just how easy it is to open an offshore tax haven and start helping Caymanians – and myself – rather than Americans.
Here’s what happened:
When I first met Chris Wiggins of Columbia and hackNY back in 2011, he immediately introduced me to about a hundred other people, which made it obvious that his introductions were highly stereotyped. I thought he was some kind of robot, especially when I started getting emails from his phone which all had the same (long) phrases in them, like “I’m away from my keyboard right now, but when I get back to my desk I’ll calendar prune and send you some free times.”
Finally I was like “what the hell, are you sending me whole auto-generated emails”? To which he replied “of course.”
Feeling cheated, I called him to tell him he has an addiction to shell scripting. Here’s a brief interview, rewritten to make me sound smarter and cooler than I am.
CO: Ok, let’s start with these iphone shortcuts. Sometimes the whole email from you reads like a bunch of shortcuts.
CW: Yup, lots of times.
CO: What the hell? Don’t you want to personalize things for me at least a little?
CW: I do! But I also want to catch the subway.
CO: Ugh. How many shortcuts do you have on that thing?
CW: Well.. (pause)..38.
CO: Ok now I’m officially worried about you. What’s the longest one?
CW: Probably this one I wrote for Sandy: If I write “sandy” it unpacks to
“Sorry for delay and brevity in reply. Sandy knocked out my phone, power, water, and internet so I won’t be replying as quickly as usual. Please do not hesitate to email me again if I don’t reply soon.”
CO: You officially have a problem. What’s the shortest one?
CW: Well, when I type “plu” it becomes “+1”
CO: Ok, let me apply the math for you: your shortcut is longer than your longcut.
CW: I know but not if you include switching from letters to numbers on the iphone, which is annoying.
CO: How did you first become addicted to shortcuts?
CW: I got introduced to UNIX in the 80s and, in my frame of reference at the time, the closest I had come to meeting a wizard was the university’s sysadmin. I was constantly breaking things by chomping cpu with undead processes or removing my $HOME or something, and he had to come in and fix things. I learned a lot over his shoulder. In the summer before I started college, my dream was to be a university sysadmin. He had to explain to me patiently that I shouldn’t spend college in a computercave.
CO: Good advice, but now that you’re a grownup you can do that.
CW: Exactly. Anyway, everytime he would fix whatever incredible mess I had made he would sign off with some different flair and walk out, like he was dropping the mic and walking off stage. He never signed out “logout” it was always “die” or “leave” or “ciao” (I didn’t know that word at the time). So of course by the time he got back to his desk one day there was an email from me asking how to do this and he replied:
CO: That seems like kind of a mean thing to do to you at such a young age.
CW: It’s true. UNIX alias was clearly the gateway drug that led me to writing shell scripts for everything.
CO: How many aliases do you have now?
CW: According to “alias | wc -l “, I have 1137. So far.
CO: So you’ve spent countless hours making aliases to save time.
CW: Yes! And shell scripts!
CO: Ok let’s talk about this script for introducing me to people. As you know I don’t like getting treated like a small cog. I’m kind of a big deal.
CW: Yes, you’ve mentioned that.
CO: So how does it work?
CW: I have separate biography files for everyone, and a file called nfile.asc that has first name, lastname@tag, and email address. Then I can introduce people via
% ii oneil@mathbabe schutt
It strips out the @mathbabe part (so I can keep track of multiple people named oneil) from the actual email, reads in and reformats the biographies, grepping out the commented lines, and writes an email I can pipe to mutt. The whole thing can be done in a few seconds.
CO: Ok that does sound pretty good. How many shell scripts do you have?
CW: Hundreds. A few of them are in my public mise-en-place repository, which I should update more. I’m not sure which of them I really use all the time, but it’s pretty rare I type an actual legal UNIX command at the command line. That said I try never to leave the command line. Students are always teaching me fancypants tricks for their browsers or some new app, but I spend a lot of time at the command line getting and munging data, and for that, sed, awk, and grep are here to stay.
CO: That’s kinda sad and yet… so true. Ok here’s the only question I really wanted to ask though: will you promise me you’ll never send me any more auto-generated emails?
A couple of people have sent me this recent essay (hat tip Leon Kautsky) written by Elijah Mayfield on the education technology blog e-Literate, described on their About page as “a hobby weblog about educational technology and related topics that is maintained by Michael Feldstein and written by Michael and some of his trusted colleagues in the field of educational technology.”
Mayfield’s essay is entitled “Six Ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong”. He’s referring to the recent announcement, which was written about in the New York Times last week, about how professors will soon be replaced by computers in grading essays. He claims they got it all wrong and there’s nothing to worry about.
I wrote about this idea too, in this post, and he hasn’t addressed my complaints at all.
First, Mayfield’s points:
- Journalists sensationalize things.
- The machine is identifying things in the essays that are associated with good writing vs. bad writing, much like it might learn to distinguish pictures of ducks from pictures of houses.
- It’s actually not that hard to find the duck and has nothing to do with “creativity” (look for webbed feet).
- If the machine isn’t sure it can spit back the essay to the professor to read (if the professor is still employed).
- The machine doesn’t necessarily reward big vocabulary words, except when it does.
- You’d need thousands of training examples (essays on a given subject) to make this actually work.
- What’s so really wonderful is that a student can get all his or her many drafts graded instantaneously, which no professor would be willing to do.
Here’s where I’ll start, with this excerpt from near the end:
“Can machine learning grade essays?” is a bad question. We know, statistically, that the algorithms we’ve trained work just as well as teachers for churning out a score on a 5-point scale. We know that occasionally it’ll make mistakes; however, more often than not, what the algorithms learn to do are reproduce the already questionable behavior of humans. If we’re relying on machine learning solely to automate the process of grading, to make it faster and cheaper and enable access, then sure. We can do that.
OK, so we know that the machine can grade essays written for human consumption pretty accurately. But it hasn’t had to deal with essays written for machine consumption yet. There’s major room for gaming here, and only a matter of time before there’s a competing algorithm to build a great essay. I even know how to train that algorithm. Email me privately and we can make a deal on profit-sharing.
And considering that students will be able to get their drafts graded as many times as they want, as Mayfield advertised, this will only be easier. If I build an essay that I think should game the machine, by putting in lots of (relevant) long vocabulary words and erudite phrases, then I can always double check by having the system give me a grade. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try again.
And the essays built this way won’t get caught via the fraud detection software that finds plagiarism, because any good essay-builder will only steal smallish phrases.
One final point. The fact that the machine-learning grading algorithm only works when it’s been trained on thousands of essays points to yet another depressing trend: large-scale classes with the same exact assignments every semester so last year’s algorithm can be used, in the name of efficiency.
But that means last year’s essay-building algorithm can be used as well. Pretty soon it will just be a war of the machines.
A couple of sad updates on Aunt Pythia.
First, someone hacked my Aunt Pythia spreadsheet and added hundreds of bizarre and offensive questions (at least they seemed intended to offend, but luckily Aunt Pythia doesn’t offend easily), which I then erased in huge blocks. This means if you actually had a valid question in the last week it has been, sadly, removed.
Second, possibly because of all the removed stuff, Aunt Pythia has no smutty sex questions to answer and has resorted to answering sober and serious leftover questions. But don’t fear! Aunt Pythia will do her best to sex up the answers anyway.
Please submit your smutty sex (or otherwise) questions at the bottom of this column!
What do you think of Sheryl Sandberg and Malissa Mayer as role models/advice givers to young women? I ask you because I am confident you will give a measured response, not the reflexively pro or reflexively con reactions they seem to get.
Female enduring mostly masculine explanations
I’m going to preface my remarks by admitting I still haven’t read Sandberg’s book. But I have read enough reviews to get a feeling for what she’s going for. I have a bunch of comments:
- Do women sometimes undermine themselves by not going for things whole-heartedly and holding back? Yes, yes they do. So do men, of course. There are lots of people in this world who have missed opportunities by not giving things a real chance. Maybe this happens more often for women – I’d not be too surprised to hear that (but I also think I have an explanation, see below).
- On the other hand, I fundamentally question how bad we should feel when highly educated women choose not to try for a promotion that will require them to travel half the time and work 80 hours a week. Why would someone want that lifestyle? Why would that be their route to happiness? This is a death bed consideration, and if you ask me I’d rather not have death bed regrets about missing out on all of my personal interests, hobbies, adventures, friends, and family because I was so sure that promotion was important.
- In fact, I think highly educated women like Mayer and Sandberg, and myself for that matter, are luckier than the men they compete with. The truth is women actually have more options than men because society’s expectations are so much narrower for men. Want to leave the corporate scene after your second kid and start writing children’s books? Ok fine. That would be really weird for a man to do.
- In fact, where are the academic papers which assume that women leave the rat race by choice, to maximize their utility functions? Why don’t we assume that women have different options than men and that the fact that only 15% of women run large companies is a result of most qualified women deciding “I’d rather not, thank you”? I’m not saying that’s the only underlying effect but I honestly think it’s part of it. Plus, if we looked at it that way then the culture inside the corporation could be analysed a bit more, and we might start to understand what’s so unappealing about it. If we made it more appealing to women, they might decide to stay longer.
- Or for that matter, that women have different utility functions altogether, and that they leave the rat-race or stay in a job which doesn’t require 80 hours a week because they are (locally) maximizing their utility?
- It wouldn’t surprise me, if such a study were done, to figure out that (highly educated) women are actually happier than (highly educated) men in general, at least the women who have quality daycare.
In other words, I get some of their advice but I question their narrow perspective and narrow definition of success.
I hope that helps!
Dear Aunt Pythia,
I’m almost finished with my masters in pure math. But now I’m doubting about becoming a high school teacher or do something in companies. I like children and I dislike most aspects of corporate culture, but the burn out rate for teachers is very high. Can you give me pros and cons about either career path?
It’s a tough time for teachers out there. Read this resignation letter (h/t Chris Wiggins) if you haven’t already. An excerpt:
With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.
On the other hand, there’s definitely a severe need for good math teachers. So I don’t want to utterly discourage you. One possibility is to try out teaching for a couple of years and then decide whether to stick with it or not (although the learning curve for teaching is steep, so keep in mind it gets easier over time). Have you talked to people at Math for America?
Also, do some research about where you want to teach, and make sure you land in a school which values their teachers and gives lots of clear feedback and doesn’t just submit blindly to the testing borg. Talk to the principal about that stuff beforehand.
My wife and I have been enjoying a politico/sci-fi drama called Continuum, which features model and actress Rachel Nichols, a Columbia University grad with a double major in math and economics. What’s more, the show has serious undertones implying the Occupy movement is spot-on. Now I have this fantasy of a series of action movies centered around a demure blogger by day and a sexy fighter for the people by night who uses her succubi powers to enervate and destroy evil banksters. Isn’t this something we should get on Kickstarter right away?
Distinguished Opinion Maker
I haven’t seen the show, but I dig the idea of a superhero blogger, bien sûr!
Just one quibble about the use of “succubi” though:
succubi plural of suc·cu·bus
Are you suggesting that the main character flies around at night sleeping with banksters for the good of society (note I threw in the ability to fly because that’s what awesome superheroes do)? I’m a bit confused on that point, because I don’t think it makes for good TV. Not to mention I’m not sure how that shows the banksters the error of their ways. Here’s the image I found when I google image searched “banksters”:
I mean they’re healthy enough but I’m not sure they’re porn star material. It’s all about taste though. Whatever floats your boat.
Tell me if and when you’ve started the Kickstarter campaign, please! I want to keep tabs on how much money people will contribute towards this fetching concept.
I’m defending my dissertation soon! Woohoo! I’m curious to know what Aunt Pythia thinks about the following things: (a) board vs. slide talk, (b) how to pitch a talk about your research to mathematicians who aren’t specialists in your field, and (c) what to wear. It seems to me like (c) can’t possibly be separated from the issue of gender, so let’s pretend I’m female. (The underlying question is: how do I impress a room full of people in 40 minutes without spewing jargon or dressing like PhD Barbie?)
Nervous in Nebraska
This one’s easy. The answer is that it doesn’t matter one bit because we all know this is a formality and you’re all done! You’re getting your degree! YEAH!! Congratulations.
If I were you I’d wear something bright and celebratory, like the peacock you must feel yourself to be. And I’d say slide so you don’t get your bright clothes chalky.
Please please please submit questions!
I’m returning from two full days of talking to mathematicians and applied mathematicians at Cornell. I was really impressed with the people I met there – thoughtful, informed, and inquisitive – and with the kind reception they gave me.
I gave an “Oliver Talk” which was joint with the applied math colloquium on Thursday afternoon. The goal of my talk was to convince mathematicians that there’s a very bad movement underway whereby models are being used against people, in predatory ways, and in the name of mathematics. I turned some people off, I think, by my vehemence, but then again it’s hard not get riled up about this stuff, because it’s creepy and I actually think there’s a huge amount at stake.
One thing I did near the end of my talk was bring up (and recruit for) the idea of a panel of mathematicians which defines standards for public-facing models and vets the current crop.
The first goal of such a panel would be to define mathematical models, with a description of “best practices” when modeling people, including things like anticipating impact, gaming, and feedback loops of models, and asking for transparent and ongoing evaluation methods, as well as having minimum standards for accuracy.
The second goal of the panel would be to choose specific models that are in use and measure the extent to which they pass the standards of the above best practices rubric.
So the teacher value-added model, I’d expect, would fail in that it doesn’t have an evaluation method, at least that is made public, nor does it seem to have any accuracy standards, even though it’s widely used and is high impact.
I’ve had some pretty amazing mathematicians already volunteer to be on such a panel, which is encouraging. What’s cool is that I think mathematicians, as a group, are really quite ethical and can probably make their voices heard and trusted if they set their minds to it.
Last night I went to an event at Barnard where Ina Drew, ex-CIO head of JP Morgan Chase, who oversaw the London Whale fiasco, was warmly hosted and interviewed by Barnard president Debora Spar.
[Aside: I was going to link to Ina Drew's wikipedia entry in the above paragraph, but it was so sanitized that I couldn't get myself to do it. She must have paid off lots of wiki editors to keep herself this clean. WTF, wikipedia??]
A little background in case you don’t know who this Drew woman is. She was in charge of balance-sheet risk management and somehow managed to not notice losing $6.2 billion dollars in the group she was in charge of, which was meant to hedge risk, at least according to CEO Jamie Dimon. She made $15 million per year for her efforts and recently retired.
In her recent Congressional testimony (see Example 3 in this recent post), she threw the quants with their Ph.D.’s under the bus even though the Senate report of the incident noted multiple risk limits being exceeded and ignored, and then risk models themselves changed to look better, as well as the “whale” trader Bruno Iksil‘s desire to get out of his losing position being resisted by upper management (i.e. Ina Drew).
I’m not going to defend Iksil for that long, but let’s be clear: he fucked up, and then was kept in his ridiculous position by Ina Drew because she didn’t want to look bad. His angst is well-documented in the Senate report, which you should read.
Actually, the whole story is somewhat more complicated but still totally stupid: instead of backing out of certain credit positions the old-fashioned and somewhat expensive way, the CIO office decided to try to reduce its capital requirements via reducing (manipulated) VaR, but ended up increasing their capital requirements in other, non-VaR ways (specifically, the “comprehensive risk measure”, which isn’t as manipulable as VaR). Read more here.
Maybe Ina is going to claim innocence, that she had no idea what was going on. In that case, she had no control over her group and its huge losses. So either she’s heinously greedy or heinously incompetent. My money’s on “incompetent” after seeing and listening to her last night. My live Twitter feed from the event is available here.
We featured Ina Drew on our “52 Shades of Greed” card deck as the Queen of diamonds:
Back to the event.
Why did we cart out Ina Drew in front of an audience of young Barnard women last night? Were we advertising a career in finance to them? Is Drew a role model for these young people?
The best answers I can come up with are terrible:
- She’s a Barnard mom (her daughter was in the audience). Not a trivial consideration, especially considering the potential donor angle.
- President Spar is on the board of Goldman Sachs and there’s a certain loyalty among elites, which includes publicly celebrating colossal failures. Possible, but why now? Is there some kind of perverted female solidarity among women that should be in jail but insist on considering themselves role models? Please count me out of that flavor of feminism.
- President Spar and Ina Drew actually don’t think Drew did anything wrong. This last theory is the weirdest but is the best supported by the tone of the conversation last night. It gives me the creeps. In any case I can no longer imagine supporting Barnard’s mission with that woman as president. It’s sad considering my fond feelings for the place where I was an assistant professor for two years in the math department and which treated me well.
Please suggest other ideas I’ve failed to mention.
Warmup: Automatic Grading Models
Before I get to my main take-down of the morning, let me warm up with an appetizer of sorts: have you been hearing a lot about new models that automatically grade essays?
Does it strike you that’s there’s something wrong with that idea but you don’t know what it is?
Here’s my take. While it’s true that it’s possible to train a model to grade essays similarly to what a professor now does, that doesn’t mean we can introduce automatic grading – at least not if the students in question know that’s what we’re doing.
There’s a feedback loop, whereby if the students know their essays will be automatically graded, then they will change what they’re doing to optimize for good automatic grades rather than, say, a cogent argument.
For example, a student might download a grading app themselves (wouldn’t you?) and run their essay through the machine until it gets a great grade. Not enough long words? Put them in! No need to make sure the sentences make sense, because the machine doesn’t understand grammar!
This is, in fact, a great example where people need to take into account the (obvious when you think about them) feedback loops that their models will enter in actual use.
Job Hiring Models
Now on to the main course.
In this week’s Economist there is an essay about the new widely-used job hiring software and how awesome it is. It’s so efficient! It removes the biases of of those pesky recruiters! Here’s an excerpt from the article:
The problem with human-resource managers is that they are human. They have biases; they make mistakes. But with better tools, they can make better hiring decisions, say advocates of “big data”.
So far “the machine” has made observations such as:
- Good if candidate uses browser you need to download like Chrome.
- Not as bad as one might expect to have a criminal record.
- Neutral on job hopping.
- Great if you live nearby.
- Good if you are on Facebook.
- Bad if you’re on Facebook and every other social networking site as well.
Now, I’m all for learning to fight against our biases and hire people that might not otherwise be given a chance. But I’m not convinced that this will happen that often – the people using the software can always train the model to include their biases and then point to the machine and say “The machine told me to do it”. True.
What I really object to, however, is the accumulating amount of data that is being collected about everyone by models like this.
It’s one thing for an algorithm to take my CV in and note that I misspelled my alma mater, but it’s a different thing altogether to scour the web for my online profile trail (via Acxiom, for example), to look up my credit score, and maybe even to see my persistence score as measured by my past online education activities (soon available for your 7-year-old as well!).
As a modeler, I know how hungry the model can be. It will ask for all of this data and more. And it will mean that nothing you’ve ever done wrong, no fuck-up that you wish to forget, will ever be forgotten. You can no longer reinvent yourself.
Forget mobility, forget the American Dream, you and everyone else will be funneled into whatever job and whatever life the machine has deemed you worthy of. WTF.
This morning I’m being driven crazy by this article in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal entitled “Workers Stuck in Disability Stunt Economic Recovery.”
Even the title makes the underlying goal of the article crystal clear: the lazy disabled workers are to blame for the crap economy. Lest you are unconvinced that anyone could make such an unreasonable claim of causation, here’s a tasty excerpt from the article that spells it out:
Economic growth is driven by the number of workers in an economy and by their productivity. Put simply, fewer workers usually means less growth.
Since the recession, more people have gone on disability, on net, than new workers have joined the labor force. Mr. Feroli estimated the exodus to disability costs 0.6% of national output, equal to about $95 billion a year.
“The greater cost is their long-term dependency on transfers from the federal government,” Mr. Autor said, “placing strain on the soon-to-be exhausted Social Security Disability trust fund.”
The underlying model here, then, is that there’s a bunch of people who have the choice between going on disability or “joining the labor force” and they’ve all chosen to go on disability. I wonder where their evidence is that people really have that choice, considering the unemployment numbers and participation rate numbers we see nowadays.
For example, the unemployment rate for youths is now 22.9%, and the participation rate for them has gone from 59.2% in December 2007, to 54.5% today. This is probably not because so many kids under the age of 25 are disabled, I suspect. If you look at the overall labor participation rate, it’s dropped from 66.0 in December 2007 to 63.3 in March 2013. Most of the people who have left the work force are also not disabled. They’ve been discouraged for some other mysterious reason. I’m gonna go ahead and guess it’s because they can’t find a job.
Here’s another example from the article of a seriously fucked-up understanding of cause and effect:
With overall participation down, the labor force—a measure of people working and people looking for work—is barely growing.
They consistently paint the picture whereby people decide to stop working, and then yucky things happen, in this case the labor force stops growing. Damn those lazy people.
They even bring in a fancy word from physics to describe the problem, namely hysteresis. Now, they didn’t understand or correctly define the term, but it doesn’t really matter, because the point of using a fancy term from physics was not to add to the clarity of the argument but rather to impress.
The goal here is, in fact, that if enough economists use sophisticated language to describe the various effects, we will all be able to blame people with bad backs, making $13.6K per year, on why our economy sucks, rather than the rich assholes in finance who got us into this mess and are currently buying $2 million dollar personal offices instead of going to jail.
Just to be clear, that’s $1,130 a month, which I guess represents so enticing a lifestyle that the people currently enjoying it ‘are “pretty unlikely to want to forfeit economic security for a precarious job market”‘ according to M.I.T. economist David Autor. I’d love to have David Autor spell out, for us, exactly what’s economically secure about that kind of monthly check.
The rest of the article is in large part a description of how people get onto SSDI, insinuating that the people currently on it are not really all that disabled or worthy of living high on the hog, and are in any case never ever leaving.
How’s this for a slightly different take on the situation: there are of course some people who are faking something, that’s always the case. But in general, the people on SSDI need to be there, and before the recession might have had the kind of employers who kept them on even though they often called in sick, out of loyalty and kindness, because they didn’t want to fire them. But when the recession struck those employers had to cut them off, or they went out of business completely. Now those people can’t find work and don’t have many options. In other words, the recession caused the SSDI program to grow. That doesn’t mean it caused a bunch of people to get sick, but it does mean that sick people are more dependent on SSDI because there are fewer options.
By the way, read the comments of this article, there are some really good ones (“What were people with injuries and no high-value job skills to do? Is the number of people in the social security disability program the problem or the symptom?”) as well as some really outrageous ones (‘The current situation makes the picture of the “Welfare Queen” of the 1980s look like an honest citizen’).
Do you remember when you were just entering puberty, and absolutely everything was embarrassing? Even your mere existence twisted you in agony?
Well, I just brought my nearly-11-year-old and just-barely-13-year-old sons to their yearly checkups, and let me tell you, it’s painful to be within 10 feet of such exquisite awkwardness: how can you poke and prod this body to some universal understanding of science if I don’t even know its functions or potential grace? If I can’t even imagine it ever being graceful??
I deleted a post (“Papers I’ve been reading lately”) which had some offending unknown characters that WordPress couldn’t handle, and most people can now read mathbabe again on their readers, except for some reason for people who read mathbabe via WordPress itself. My advice to those people: start using some other reader. Maybe feedly?
I’m giving three talks in the next two weeks.
- The first one is this Thursday at the Cornell math department, where I’m once again talking about Weapons of Math Destruction.
- The second one is in Emanuel Derman’s Financial Engineering Practitioner’s Seminar next Monday at Columbia, where I’ll talk about recommendation systems and MapReduce, taking material from Doing Data Science, specifically the chapters contributed by Matt Gattis and David Crawshaw.
- Finally, I’ll be giving the NYC Machine Learning Meetup next Thursday. The announcement of this
is going to be posted some time later this morningis now up, and the content will be similar to the Columbia talk.