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The Stubborn Hope of an Urban Teacher

Yesterday I read a book written by Carole Marshall which she called Stubborn Hope: Memoir of an Urban Teacher (thanks to Ernest Davis for sending it to me). Just to give you an idea of how quick this read is, I read it before class. I think it took about 1 hour and 10 minutes in all.

In a nutshell, it was the story of a really hard-working and dedicated urban school teacher who learned how to teach reading skills, and prose and poetry writing skills to her poverty-stricken students in the urban Providence, RI area. She develops curriculum, making it relevant to the kids, and gets them to read every night and to aspire to college. The school that she mostly taught at is profiled in this article from the Brown Daily Herald.

She’s a really good writer herself, and she profiles a bunch of her students with enough details to make you feel enormous empathy for their struggles. In other words, she makes this shit very very real. After reading this you stop wondering why we see a strong negative correlation between standardized tests scores and poverty levels, because it is so obvious.

You might want to check out this video to get a satirical idea of what this woman was like and what she was dealing with (hat tip Jenn Rubinovitz):

Here’s the thing. We need nice white ladies in our schools! And of course nice other people too.

But we are presently losing such dedicated people. Carole Marshall, the author of these memoirs, quit teaching after the school system she worked in was taken over by the mindless testing zombies. She describes her experience like this:

After spending years refining strategies for getting my students to become enthusiastic readers and writers on thoughtful, relevant curriculum, I was being forced to teach canned curriculum purchased for millions of dollars from textbook publishers who knew nothing about urban teaching.

School and district administrators roamed the halls and classrooms, taking notes on shiny new iPads, to make sure teachers were on the same page every day as every other teacher in our grade and subject in the district. All the activities we had used in the past to open our students to a world beyond the narrow constraints of their neighborhoods were no longer permitted; they were seen as time wasted. Every path to good teaching was effectively blocked off.

It had become impossible to do the things with students that I believe teachers need to be able to do. What was going on in the classrooms could no longer be called teaching. When I realized that, it was a sad day. At the end of that year, I left teaching.

That was in 2012, I believe. Since then she’s become more aware of the national disaster that is defined by the testing insanity. She even worked for a time with a test prep company based in Florida that was clearly scamming for the $5 million consultant fee and removing cherry-picked students from important classes so the school would look like it had improved based on the arbitrary measure of the month.

We are so used to pointing at examples of bad and defeated teachers and saying that they are the problem, and that a strict and regimented system of curriculum will improve the classrooms for the students of such teachers. And maybe in some cases that is true.

But when we do that we also push out really talented and inspirational teachers like Carole Marshall. It is painful to imagine how many great teachers have left the educational system because of No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top. Come to think of it, that would be a great data journalism project.

Categories: Uncategorized

Gillian Tett gets it very wrong on racial profiling

Last Friday Gillian Tett ran a profoundly disturbing article in the Financial Times entitled Mapping Crime – Or Stirring Hate? (hat tip Marcos Carreira), which makes me sad to say this given how much respect I normally have for her regarding her coverage of the financial crisis.

In the article, Tett describes the predictive policing model used by the Chicago police force, which told the police where to go to find criminals based on where people had been arrested in the past.

Her article reads like an advertisement for racist profiling. First she deftly and indirectly claims the model is super successful at lowering the murder rate without actually coming out and saying so (since she actually has only correlative evidence):

And when Weis launched the programme in early 2010, together with a clever policeman-cum-computer expert called Brett Goldstein, it delivered impressive results. In the first year the murder rate fell 5 per cent and then continued to tumble. Indeed by the summer of 2011 it looked as if Chicago’s annual death toll would soon drop below 400, the lowest since 1965. “The homicide rates for that summer were just crazy low compared to what we had been,” Weis observes.

 

But then, following his departure from the force, the programme was wound down in late 2011. And, tragically, the murder rate immediately rose again.

Here’s the thing, it’s really hard to actually know why murder rates go up and down. In New York City we’ve been using Stop & Frisk as the violent crime rates have been steadily lowering in this city (and many others), and for a long time Bloomberg took credit for that through the Stop & Frisk practice. But when Stop & Frisk rates went down, murder rates didn’t shoot up. Just saying. And that’s ignoring how reliable the police data is, which is another issue. Let’s take a look at her evidence for a longer time frame:

She's talking about that small uptick at the end.

She’s talking about that small uptick at the end, which to the naked eye could well be statistical noise.

The reason I’m pointing out her bad statistics is that she needs them to set up the following, truly disturbing paragraphs (emphasis mine):

But while racism is rightly deemed unacceptable, computer programs pose more subtle questions. If a spreadsheet forecast has a racial imbalance, is this likely to reinforce existing human biases, or racial profiling? Or is a weather map of crime simply a neutral tool? To put it another way, does the benefit of using predictive policing outweigh any worries about political risk?

 

Personally, I think it does. After all, as the former CPD computer experts point out, the algorithms in themselves are neutral. “This program had absolutely nothing to do with race… but multi-variable equations,” argues Goldstein. Meanwhile, the potential benefits of predictive policing are profound.

No, Gillian Tett, there is no such thing as a neutral tool. No algorithm focused on human behavior is neutral. Anything which is trained on historical human behavior embeds and codifies historical and cultural practices. Specifically, this means that the fact that black Americans are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested on charges of marijuana possession even though the two groups use the drug at similar rates would be seen by such a model (or rather, by the people who deploy the model) as a fact of nature that is neutral and true. But it is in fact a direct consequence of systemic racism.

Put it another way: if we allowed a model to be used for college admissions in 1870, we’d still have 0.7% of women going to college. Thank goodness we didn’t have big data back then!

This is very scary to me, when even Gillian Tett, who famously predicted the financial crisis in 2006, can be fooled. We clearly have a lot of work to do.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice: the sex edition

Holy crap it’s already been an eventful morning and it’s not even 10am. Aunt Pythia blew a bike tire on the George Washington Bridge and had to walk back across and find the 1 train near 181st street, which was hidden from view. Seriously, it was.

Now, if Aunt Pythia ever asked for advice herself, she would know to carry a spare tire and tools to change a flat. But does Aunt Pythia ever ask for or take advice? I think not. Shame on you, Aunt Pythia, shame on you.

In spite of that obvious flaw, Aunt Pythia is super excited to finally be warming up the advice bus engine. Vroom vroom! Put the pedal to the medal, Auntie P!

As it happens, all the questions are about sex today, and yes that was by design, things this awesomesauce don’t “just happen”. Aunt Pythia makes them happen, please keep this in mind.

After this most ridiculous and sexy ride, please don’t forget to:

please think of something to ask Aunt Pythia at the bottom of the page!

I am almost out of questions!!!

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.

——

Dearest Aunt Pythia,

I’ve been dating this guy for a couple of months, and we always have a lot of fun when we go out on dates together. We see each other at least once or twice a week, but we’ve only been intimate 4 times. Those 4 times have been great, and I don’t mind moving slowly, but a few nights ago something happened that made me question some things:

After a nice dinner-and-a-movie date, I invited him up for a drink (knowing it was a weekend and he would probably be sleeping over). We watched some Hulu, had a drink or two, and then both declared that we were tired and should move to the bedroom. I slipped into the bathroom to put on something a little more “comfortable” (read: I took my pants off), and when I came back into the room, he was in bed wearing boxers and a t-shirt. I got in bed with him, expecting things to heat up, but instead he FELL ASLEEP! That’s right: he had a smart, funny, beautiful and PANTS-LESS girl lying next to him in bed, and he made no attempts to initiate contact. He slept on one side, I slept on the other, with absolutely zero touching. When we woke up the next morning, he acted like his sweet old self and just said he “passed out” because he was “so tired.”

What’s the deal!? Was he really THAT tired? Is he gay? Is he homeless and needed a bed to crash on!? Or maybe worst of all: is he already so comfortable in this “relationship” that he no longer feels the need to be intimate every time we have a sleep over?

I like this guy a lot, but I also like when guys touch me a lot. Have you ever been through this? Any advice?

Lonely on the bathroom side of the bed

Dear Lonely,

First of all, it’s important to know if this is a one-time, “special occasion” thing or a regular occurrence. If, say, he had competed in a triathlon that day, for example, then it would actually make sense for him to be too tired. On that night.

On the other hand, if he does this regularly – and judging by the numbers you gave me, whereby he has seen you about 20 times but you guys have only gotten down 4 times, there does seem to be some regularity to his reluctance – I’m gonna have to conclude that yes, he’s gay.

Haha, no, just kidding. What it really means is that he’s less sexual than you are. Or that he’s not that into you, although since you are smart, funny, beautiful, and pants-less, it’s hard to really imagine that. There are just so many ways I start imagining that and then the imagining just doesn’t move in that direction at all. Nope, it doesn’t.

Here’s a fun theory, that I’ll just throw out there because “not as sexual as you” is so depressing and final: he’s really into kinky sex but hasn’t gotten the nerve up to tell you. Although, to tell you the truth, I’m not seeing evidence for that. Usually people really into kinky sex are agitated and nervous, and hoping you notice their leather bracelets and suchnot, and they typically don’t accidentally fall asleep. Poop.

So, here’s an idea. When you’re next with him and you want to get sexy, take off your shirt and start rubbing your boobs on him. See if that works. After all, why are you waiting for him to initiate? That’s old fashioned and silly. And that also answers the other question you asked near the end of your letter! Why wait passively when you can make it happen? So yeah, go ahead and make the first move, and see if that works.

And if it doesn’t, then you know with a clear conscience that you’ve given it a valiant effort, and he’s just Not Very Sexual. In which case I suggest you run straight for OK Cupid. Or Tinder. Or my slutty friends’ favorite, HowAboutWe.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I’ve recently encountered a few men who refuse to wear condoms. One actually said to me: “I’d rather never have sex again than have sex with a condom.” (Spoiler alert: I didn’t have sex with him). I’ve even had guys try to bully me into going bareback by saying things like “Come on, are we in high school?”

What’s the deal? Unless we are in a monogamous situation in which both parties have been tested AND I am regularly taking birth control (or we are ready to have children), there is no way we’re having condomless sex. Aunt Pythia, do you have any go-to sassy remarks I can whip out when confronted with this aversion to safe sex?

Not Obliging Boys Acting Bullyish In Ejaculating Situations

Dear NOBABIES,

HOLY CRAP I LOVE YOUR SIGN-OFF!!!! It’s perfect. I am ordering a plaque with that on it from zazzle.com.

I am also very in love with you for not taking that bullying crap. YOU ARE AWESOME.

And yes, I do have advice. Sex is not defined as vaginal intercourse. Tell him you guys can have sex without vaginal intercourse, and that it’s fine with you because it might even increase the probability of your overall enjoyment (read: more attention to your clitoris). And if he is super interested in vaginal intercourse, he will have to wear a condom. Because that’s how grownups who do not want to monogamous or have children have vaginal intercourse. But again, since there are lots of other ways to enjoy each others’ bodies, it’s all good.

Key phrase: “only middle schoolers define sex so narrowly as vaginal intercourse! Hahaha, can you IMAGINE!?!” Conversation over.

UPDATE: use condoms during oral sex as well to avoid oral HPV or gonorrhea!

Aunt Pythia

——

Aunt Pythia,

Thanks for all the love. I owe you many hugs. Share with me your take on an approach for the mid-life male discussing the warm-and-fuzzy male experience of age-related sexual dysfunction with a new female partner.

To maximize my affectionate partner’s satisfaction level, I’m fine with my future use of vitamin V (or Cialis or whatever’s been approved), but maybe the relationship honesty/trust thing is also served with a moment of “this stuff happens too.” My last girlfriend, a very loving, lovely, talented woman (also a clinical pharmacist) did not seem able to process the facts of male life-cycle physiology, instead framing the issue as “you’ve lost interest in me,” which cranked up the performance pressure.

Maybe that didn’t help the sex=fun equation & it definitely didn’t help the relationship. I think a plan to focus on showing more interest in multiple ways in the future is called for. But maybe it’s a good moment for some Auntie insight.

Mid-Life Laughs Every Minute

Dear Mid-Life Laughs,

First of all, here’s some more love and hugs.

Next, let’s talk about sex. Here’s the thing about Vitamin V: I’m so glad it exists. It’s another tool in the sex toolbox, sitting there right next to KY Jelly and the feather duster.

Every post needs at least one picture.

Every post needs at least one picture.

Is there a female version of Vitamin V? Not sure, and maybe I could go on a rant about that, but not today. Instead, I want to spend today appreciating just how much fun we can all have if we are understanding and forgiving and loving and sexy.

I think the new lady will – or should – understand the difference between the will and the reality of such things, especially if your words are consistently positive regarding the former, and especially if you go ahead and prepare yourself with a complete toolbox, including the above pictured feather duster. In other words, make it about her pleasure. Who can resist that? Answer: nobody.

Good luck!

Auntie P

——

Hi lovely Auntie P,

This is really good, so I thought I’d share.

Someone recently shared with me their list of “books that changed my life”. The first one I’m reading is called “Passionate Marriage” and has indeed the potential to be life-changing. It is a synthesis of sex therapy and marital counseling supposed to help one enhance their sex life. That sounds theoretical but I suggest you pick it up if you haven’t already.

Since I’m actually supposed to ask a question and cannot merely plug my latest page-turner, here are two, totally unrelated.

  1. Does Auntie P have a list of books that changed her life and can she, in her transfinite wisdom, share that list with her readers?
  2. What would you say constitutes “great sex”?

By the way, I loved your bit about everyone having crushes on one another. The world is such a beautiful place. You’re doing your part. I love you for that.

Getting Reads On Wishlist

Dear GROW,

I love you too! And thanks for the book suggestion, I will definitely check that out. After all, who doesn’t want an enhanced sex life? Answer: nobody.

As for the questions, let me think about it after I look up the word “transfinite”…

OK I’m back, and still somewhat confused, but I’ll let it pass.

  1. Here’s the thing, I can’t remember any book I’ve ever read. For some reason I have an excellent memory for ideas but not people, and remembering where I first heard an idea is nearly impossible for me. I know that’s crazy but it’s true. If I had to say which book affected me the most, I’d have to say The Brothers Karamazov, when I was 15, but I only remember how much I loved the book, not anything about the actual content. Well, I do remember the brothers names and their general characters, but not much more. In general, though, I like books that make me think differently and challenge my assumptions. And I don’t like books with scenes in which people are mean to children.
  2. This one is easy. Great sex is when both people feel great about it. It is characterized by generosity, empathy, and fun. Not so different, really, from a great dinner or a great bike ride with someone.

Hey, readers, what are your answers to these questions?

Warmly,

Aunt Pythia

——

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

Categories: Uncategorized

Jeff Larson kills it at the Lede Program

August 22, 2014 Comments off

So, Jeff Larson from ProPublica came yesterday to talk to us at the Lede Program, and damn that guy is awesome.

My data journalism hero!

Jeff Larson, my data journalism hero!

First, he showed us his work with the ProPublica Message Machine, where they first crowdsourced, then reverse engineered Obama’s political targeting algorithm. Turns out they used decision trees for that, so we got to talk about decision trees. But since it was an awesome project important to democracy, we also got to talk about democracy.

After that lengthy discussion, Jeff told us about using clustering algorithms to find interesting emails in foreign languages (and in particular, to sort out the spam). He mentioned both cosine similarity and k-means, which was cool because the Lede students already knew about those, and for a moment the class was like, “hey we can do this!” and it was true.

But just then, he showed us how to bypass captcha pages, at least 90% of the time, using neural networks. He seemed to somehow remain humble whilst explaining that he did this over a lunch break. Then the class was like, “holy shit this guy is a crazy genius!” and that was true too. 

Then Jeff led the entire program downtown to the ProPublica offices and gave us a tour of the office, and some of the other data journalists came in and told us what they were up to, which was super awesome but also top secret so I can’t tell you anything else about it. Suffice it to say they were all very awesome and that only one of them had formal CS training (Jeff was a lit major!), so the day was overall very inspiring and thought provoking.

Categories: Uncategorized

The next time I’m a criminal

Next time I’m tried for a criminal act, I think I’d like to be tried as a big bank.

Then I can pay a smallish fine for my misdeeds – pocket change for me, a cost of doing business really – and be assured that none of my business partners will stop hanging out with me or stop doing business with me, and in fact all punishments will likely be waived.

In any case, I’d prefer not to be tried as a poor person, where I’d likely be charged money I don’t have for my free lawyer, for any time I spend in jail, and possibly extra for a full jury. And if I didn’t have the money I’d have to spend extra time in jail, until I came up with the money I don’t have.

And since all people are equal under the law, even corporations, it shouldn’t matter who I choose to be, so I choose to be a big bank.

Categories: Uncategorized

The sun goes around the earth

Periodically you have people conducting surveys to prove how dumb people are. Questions are of the form: Is Germany in Africa? Is the earth less than 1000 years old?

I hate these surveys, and I’m usually able to ignore these obnoxious and unscientific nature of them, except when they also ask the following question: Does the sun go around the earth?

Here’s my reproduction of the imaginary conversation if I encounter such a pollster:

Pollster: Does the sun go around the earth?

Me: It depends on your frame of reference, but yes, if I’m standing on the earth, and I look up in the sky, I will observe the sun going around the earth in a wobbly path, although before I let you go I need to make the point that it would be quite a bit simpler to understand the model of the solar system whereby the earth and other planets revolve around the sun and spin while they do so.

Pollster: Yes or no question, ma’am, what’s it gonna be?

Me: Yes, I guess.

Pollster: You are so ignorant!

Categories: Uncategorized

Big Papi is my boyfriend

image

Kind of awesome to be in Boston today.

Categories: Uncategorized
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