The future of work

People who celebrate the monthly jobs report getting better nowadays often forget to mention a few facts:

  • the new jobs are often temporary or part-time, with low wages
  • the old lost jobs, which we lose each month, were often full-time with higher wages

I could go on, and I have, and mention the usual complaints about the definition of the unemployment rate. But instead I’ll take a turn into a thought experiment I’ve been having lately.

Namely, what is the future of work?

It’s important to realize that in some sense we’ve been here before. When all the farming equipment got super efficient and we lost agricultural jobs by the thousands, people swarmed to the cities and we started building things with manufacturing. So if before we had “the age of the farm,” we then entered into “the age of stuff.” And I don’t know about you but I have LOTS of stuff.

Now that all the robots have been trained and are being trained to build our stuff for us, what’s next? What age are we entering?

I kind of want to complain at this point that economists are kind of useless when it comes to questions like this. I mean, aren’t they in charge of understanding the economy? Shouldn’t they have the answer here? I don’t think they have explained it if they do.

Instead, I’m pretty much left considering various science fiction plots I’ve heard about and read about over the years. And my conclusion is that we’re entering “the age of service.”

The age of service is a kind of pyramid scheme where rich people employ individuals to service them in various ways, and then those people are paid well so they can hire slightly less rich people to service them, and so on. But of course for this particular pyramid to work out, the rich have to be SUPER rich and they have to pay their servants very well indeed for the trickle down to work out. Either that or there has to be a wealth transfer some other way.

So, as with all theories of the future, we can talk about how this is already happening.

I noticed this recent Bloomberg View article about how rich people don’t have normal doctors like you and me. They just pay out of pocket for super expensive service outside the realm of insurance. This is not new but it’s expanding.

Here’s another example of the future of jobs, which I should applaud because at least someone has a  job but instead just kind of annoys me. Namely, the increasing frequency where I try to make a coffee date with someone (outside of professional meetings) and I have to arrange it with their personal assistant. I feel like, when it comes to social meetings, if you have time to be social, you have time to arrange your social calendar. But again, it’s the future of work here and I guess it’s all good.

More generally: there will be lots of jobs helping out old people and sick people. I get that, especially as the demographics tilt towards old people. But the mathematician in me can’t help but wonder, who will take care of the old people who used to be taking care of the old people? I mean, they by definition don’t have lots of extra cash floating around because they were at the bottom of the pyramid as younger workers.

Or do we have a system where people actually change jobs and levels as they age? That’s another model, where oldish people take care of truly old people and then at some point they get taken care of.

Of course, much like the Star Trek world, none of this has strong connection to the economy as it is set up now, so it’s hard to imagine a smooth transition to a reasonable system, and I’m not even claiming my ideas are reasonable.

By the way, by my definition most people who write computer programs – especially if they’re writing video games or some such – are in a service industry as well. Pretty much anyone who isn’t farming or building stuff in manufacturing is working in service. Writers, poets, singers, and teachers included. Hell, the future could be pretty awesome if we arrange things well.

Anyhoo, a whimsical post for Thursday, and if you have other ideas for the future of work and how that will work out economically, please comment.

Categories: economics, modeling

Two great articles about standardized tests

In the past 12 hours I’ve read two fascinating articles about the crazy world of standardized testing. They’re both illuminating and well-written and you should take a look.

First, my data journalist friend Meredith Broussard has an Atlantic piece called Why Poor Schools Can’t Win At Standardized Testing wherein she tracks down the money and the books in the Philadelphia public school system (spoiler: there’s not enough of either), and she makes the connection between expensive books and high test scores.

Here’s a key phrase from her article:

Pearson came under fire last year for using a passage on a standardized test that was taken verbatim from a Pearson textbook.

The second article, in the New Yorker, is written by Rachel Aviv and is entitled Wrong Answer. It’s a close look, with interviews, of the cheating scandal from Atlanta, which I have been studying recently. The article makes the point that cheating is a predictable consequence of the high-stakes “data-driven” approach.

Here’s a key phrase from the Aviv article:

After more than two thousand interviews, the investigators concluded that forty-four schools had cheated and that a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation has infested the district, allowing cheating—at all levels—to go unchecked for years.” They wrote that data had been “used as an abusive and cruel weapon to embarrass and punish.”

Putting the two together, it’s pretty clear that there’s an acceptable way to cheat, which is by stocking up on expensive test prep materials in the form of testing company-sponsored textbooks, and then there’s the unacceptable way to cheat, which is where teachers change the answers. Either way the standardized test scoring regime comes out looking like a penal system rather than a helpful teaching aid.

Before I leave, some recent goodish news on the standardized testing front (hat tip Eugene Stern): Chris Christie just reduced the importance of value-added modeling for teacher evaluation down to 10% in New Jersey.

The Platform starts today

Hey my class starts today, I’m totally psyched!

The syllabus is up on github here and I prepared an iPython notebook here showing how to do basic statistics in python, and culminating in an attempt to understand what a statistically significant but tiny difference means, in the context of the Facebook Emotion study. Here’s a useless screenshot which I’m including because I’m proud:

Screen Shot 2014-07-15 at 7.04.05 AM

If you want to follow along install anaconda on your machine and type “ipython notebook –pylab inline” into a terminal. Then you can just download this notebook and run it!

Most of the rest of the classes will feature an awesome guest lecturer, and I’m hoping to blog about those talks with their permission, so stay tuned.

Surveillance in NYC

There’s a CNN video news story explaining how the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics is working with private start-up Placemeter to count and categorize New Yorkers, often with the help of private citizens who install cameras in their windows. Here’s a screenshot from the Placemeter website:

From placemeter.com

From placemeter.com

You should watch the video and decide for yourself whether this is a good idea.

Personally, it disturbs me, but perhaps because of my priors on how much we can trust other people with our data, especially when it’s in private hands.

To be more precise, there is, in my opinion, a contradiction coming from the Placemeter representatives. On the one hand they try to make us feel safe by saying that, after gleaning a body count with their video tapes, they dump the data. But then they turn around and say that, in addition to counting people, they will also categorize people: gender, age, whether they are carrying a shopping bag or pushing strollers.

That’s what they are talking about anyway, but who knows what else? Race? Weight? Will they use face recognition software? Who will they sell such information to? At some point, after mining videos enough, it might not matter if they delete the footage afterwards.

Since they are a private company I don’t think such information on their data methodologies will be accessible to us via Freedom of Information Laws either. Or, let me put that another way. I hope that MODA sets up their contract so that such information is accessible via FOIL requests.

Aunt Pythia’s advice

Aunt Pythia welcomes you after one week away celebrating her middle son’s and the nation’s birthday. She’s not sure she will be able to incorporate such a topic into the Q&A so she’s jumping on the opportunity to spread the love emanating from this video (hat tip Mike Hill):

It comes from this webpage entitled Putting the Crotch Into Crochet which you really need to check out if the above video titillates, which really how could it not.

To business! Aunt Pythia is doing a speed round today, after grabbing her oldest from a JFK redeye and before making said son his favorite breakfast of banana and chocolate chip pancakes.

You ready? Strap on your seat belts, we’re still driving the luxury Winnebego!

Without further ado, let’s begin. And please, after enjoying the on-board cheese and cracker snacks, do your best to

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

By the way, if you don’t know what the hell Aunt Pythia is talking about, go here for past advice columns and here for an explanation of the name Pythia.

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

Seven years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s grow in back four times since, once during chemotherapy. Doctors consistently toss around words like “inevitable” and “incurable” when talking about my tumor and its recurrence.

But still, I have probably at least a decade, maybe more, depending on how medical science goes. And that’s a long time to spend alone.

But when I go out on dates, I feel like I’m leading women on by not disclosing my potential expiration date. When in a relationship would you recommend revealing this key fact?

Not Left Brained

Dear NLB,

First of all, I am sorry this is happening to you, it sucks.

Second of all, this is your private information, and you have no obligation to tell people private stuff before you’re ready. When you go on a date with someone, that’s merely an offer to spend an evening with someone, and most people don’t think beyond that 4 hour obligation, nor should you.

At the same time, you do have the obligation to not mislead, as everyone does. So third of all, that means that you wouldn’t want to start living with someone or otherwise get serious without them knowing your status.

I imagine this kind of thing comes up almost immediately in relationships, possible even as soon as the first date, when a woman might ask you if you want children. My suggestion is to tell her, or anyone else mentioning long term plans, that you don’t have long-term plans for anything, nor are you expecting to. That is sufficiently vague – yet also sufficiently transparent – so nobody would accuse you of being misled. Women who want kids, say, or to get married, will interpret that appropriately. It will also sort out people who hang out with you simply to enjoy your company, which I assume is what you’re going for.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Auntie P,

I’m a woman in a graduate program which is heavily female-dominated (so not math, clearly). Like most grad students, I’ve got some dear friends and some real stinkers in my cohort, with plenty in between.

I was having lunch this week with one of the newer students, “Belle”, in the program. Ostensibly this was a working lunch, but somehow Belle managed to squeeze in the fact that she was in a new and exciting relationship with another woman in the program, “Linda”.

The problem is that I’m much better friends with Linda than I am with Belle, and Linda isn’t out. To anyone (or at least anyone in the program), including me. Well, until now.

How do I handle this? Do I gently inform Belle that Linda is closeted and she needs to get her approval before outing her, even to her friends? Or do I hope that she notices on her own what she’s doing, and notices before she does something damaging? Also, when I’m around Linda, do I continue to act as if I know nothing about her sexuality? (Honestly, this isn’t that hard, since her personal life is not something she brings up much.) Also, when I’m in a social situation where both of them are present, do I act as if I don’t know they’re together (and be awkward towards Belle) or as if I do (thus putting Linda in a bind)?

Closets Inform Every Lunch I Take Out

Dear CIELITO,

Nice sign-off! I had to use a Spanish dictionary, but I’m impressed.

OK so first I’ll give you good advice and then I’ll tell you what I’d do.

The good advice is to stay out of it and pretend you are oblivious. It’s really none of your business and you don’t want to get in the middle of something potentially messy.

The thing I’d do is tell Linda what happened, so she can address it with Belle if in fact it’s not what she wants. After all, Linda is your friend and she should know what’s going on.

Tell me what happens!

Auntie P

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

I still wonder if brute force, generate and test is a viable method for discovering good parameter settings for a system. I don’t like how long the programs take to run, but they seem to provide good information. I assume that you would have a better idea, just because you probably would be in the “neat” perspective, while I am definitely, and in long standing, a “scruffy”.

Lost in Space

Dear Lost,

I have practically no idea what you’re talking about but I like people who call themselves both lost and a scruffy. As for brute force optimization, yes go ahead but remember to have a clean data set to test your parameters on, because you’re surely overfitting.

Aunt Pythia

——

Dear Aunt Pythia,

To what extent are women obliged to “stand and fight” when working in fields that are male-dominated and where they feel slighted on a regular basis? I am tired of seeing people to go my male colleagues for information in which I have superior expertise, for example. And god forbid you should be a woman working in computational/applied mathematics since applied math is already looked down upon. Even male TA’s are disrespectful.

On the one hand, if all the women are pushed away, we have no women to serve as role models for the next generation. On the other, each of us has only one life to live. I feel that I deserve to be happy, deserve to be respected, and so on.

I am pretty fed up. I don’t want to become one of the bitter and bitchy ones, and I don’t want to give up my career goals. Any thoughts?

Woman in Computing

Dear WiC,

There is absolutely no obligation at all to stand and fight, by any woman or man, whatsoever. It’s a silly argument that one should role model for a position that’s miserable. It’s almost ludicrously bait and switch, in fact.

Having said that, there’s usually a reason that people are competitive with each other. In business it’s almost always about money (or status, but those two are highly correlated). In academics it’s all about status, and men do it to each other as well, although the fight is dirtier when it’s directed towards women.

So, I’m not sure this will help, but if you see the fighting and competition as a direct product of the system, it might help you to take it less personally. Personally, I’ve been in so many different contexts, and I exist as such a threat against other people (both men and women), that I recognize sexist pushback almost as a sport (how does sexist pushback work in journalism? Oh, that’s how).

I’m not saying it never gets to me, because it does, but not for long. Because in the end it’s an external distraction, and staying external is always a mistake, just look at the dieting industry.

My best advice is to keep your eyes on the prize: figure out what your agenda is, and go for it. And don’t be surprised that, as you get closer to the goal, people will be more threatened, not less, and they will embarrass themselves with bad behavior. Don’t get distracted, because you have to stay internally focused.

In other words, it’s not about some vague obligation to society. It’s about a very real obligation towards yourself, which you set.

Good luck!

Aunt P

——

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

 

Categories: Aunt Pythia

The Lede Program students are rocking it

Yesterday was the end of the first half of the Lede Program, and the students presented their projects, which were really impressive. I am hoping some of them will be willing to put them up on a WordPress site or something like that in order to showcase them and so I can brag about them more explicitly. Since I didn’t get anyone’s permission yet, let me just say: wow.

During the second half of the program the students will do another project (or continue their first) as homework for my class. We’re going to start planning for that on the first day, so the fact that they’ve all dipped their toes into data projects is great. For example, during presentations yesterday I heard the following a number of times: “I spent most of my time cleaning my data” or “next time I will spend more time thinking about how to drill down in my data to find an interesting story”. These are key phrases for people learning lessons with data.

Since they are journalists (I’ve learned a thing or two about journalists and their mindset in the past few months) they love projects because they love deadlines and they want something they can add to their portfolio. Recently they’ve been learning lots of geocoding stuff, and coming up they’ll be learning lots of algorithms as well. So they’ll be well equipped to do some seriously cool shit for their final project. Yeah!

In addition to the guest lectures I’m having in The Platform, I’ll also be reviewing prerequisites for the classes many of them will be taking in the Computer Science department in the fall, so for example linear algebra, calculus, and basic statistics. I just bought them all a copy of How to Lie with Statistics as well as The Cartoon Guide to Statistics, both of which I adore. I’m also making them aware of Statistics Done Wrong, which is online. I am also considering The Cartoon Guide to Calculus, which I have but I haven’t read yet.

Keep an eye out for some of their amazing projects! I’ll definitely blog about them once they’re up.

Great news: for-profit college Corinthian to close

I’ve talked before about the industry of for-profit colleges which exists largely to game the federal student loan program. They survive almost entirely on federal student loans of their students, while delivering terrible services and worthless credentials.

Well, good news: one of the worst of the bunch is closing its doors. Corinthian College, Inc (CCI) got caught lying about job placement of its graduates (in some cases, they said 100% when the truth was closer to 0%). They were also caught advertising programs they didn’t actually have.

But here’s what interests me the most, which I will excerpt from the California Office of the Attorney General:

CCI’s predatory marketing efforts specifically target vulnerable, low-income job seekers and single parents who have annual incomes near the federal poverty line. In internal company documents obtained by the Department of Justice, CCI describes its target demographic as “isolated,” “impatient,” individuals with “low self-esteem,” who have “few people in their lives who care about them” and who are “stuck” and “unable to see and plan well for future.”

I’d like to know more about how they did this. I’m guessing it was substantially online, and I’m guessing they got help from data warehousing services.

After skimming the complaint I’m afraid it doesn’t include such information, although it does say that the company advertised programs it didn’t have and then tricked potential students into filling out information about them so CCI could follow up and try to enroll them. Talk about predatory advertising!

Update: I’m getting some information by checking out their recent marketing job postings.

Categories: feedback loop, modeling
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