Reforming the data-driven justice system

This article from the New York Times really interests me. It’s entitled Unlikely Cause Unites the Left and the Right: Justice Reformand although it doesn’t specifically mention “data driven” approaches in justice reform, it describes “emerging proposals to reduce prison populations, overhaul sentencing, reduce recidivism and take on similar initiatives.”

I think this sentence, especially the reference to reducing recidivism, is code for the evidence-based sentencing that my friend Luis Daniel recently posted about. I recently finished a draft chapter in my book about such “big data” models, and after much research I can assure you that this stuff runs the gamut between putting poor people away for longer because they’re poor and actually focusing resources where they’re needed.

The idea that there’s a coalition that’s taking this on that includes both Koch Industries and the ACLU is fascinating and bizarre and – if I may exhibit a rare moment of optimism – hopeful. In particular I’m desperately hoping they have involved people who understand enough about modeling not to assume that the results of models are “objective”.

There are, in fact, lots of ways to set up data-gathering and usage in the justice system to actively fight against unfairness and unreasonably long incarcerations, rather than to simply codify such practices. I hope some of that conversation happens soon.

Categories: data science, modeling

AAPOR Big Data Report

February 18, 2015 1 comment

I was recently part of a task force for understanding the practices of “big data” from the perspective of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), which is an organization that promotes good standards for studying public opinion.

So for example, AAPOR has a code of ethics for how to track public opinion, and a set of understood methodologies for correctly using surveys. They involved themselves last year when they criticized the New York Times and CBS for releasing the results of a nationwide poll on Senate races where the opt-in survey method had “little grounding in theory” and for a lack of transparency.

But here’s the thing, the biggest problem facing the world of public opinion research isn’t that online opt-in polls, but rather the temptation to troll twitter to “see what people are thinking.” And that’s exactly what’s happening, in large part because it’s cheaper. Thus the AAPOR Big Data Report that I helped with.

I think we did a decent job of describing some of the intrinsic difficulties with using big data, specifically around quality control issues, and for that reason I recommend this report to anyone entering the field, or even people already in the field who haven’t thought through this stuff. If you don’t have time to read the full report, here are our recommendations:

1. Surveys and Big Data are complementary data sources not competing data sources.

There are differences between the approaches, but this should be seen as an advantage rather than a disadvantage. Research is about answering questions, and one way to answer questions is to start utilizing all information available. The availability of Big Data to support research provides a new way to approach old questions as well as an ability to address some new questions that in the past were out of reach. However, the findings that are generated based on Big Data inevitably generate more questions, and some of those questions tend to be best addressed by traditional survey research methods.

2. AAPOR should develop standards for the use of Big Data in survey research when more knowledge has been accumulated.

Using Big Data in statistically valid ways is a challenge. One common misconception is the belief that volume of data can compensate for any other deficiency in the data. AAPOR should develop standards of disclosure and transparency when using Big Data in survey research. AAPOR’s transparency initiative is a good role model that should be extended to other data sources besides surveys.

3. AAPOR should start working with the private sector and other professional organizations to educate its members on Big Data.

The current pace of the Big Data development in itself is a challenge. It is very difficult to keep up with the research and development in the Big Data area. Research on new technology tends to become outdated very fast. There is currently insufficient capacity in the AAPOR community. AAPOR should tap other professional associations, such as the American Statistical Association and the Association for Computing Machinery, to help understand these issues and provide training for other AAPOR members and non-members.

4. AAPOR should inform the public of the risks and benefits of Big Data.

Most users of digital services are unaware of the fact that data formed out of their digital behavior may be reused for other purposes, for both public and private good. AAPOR should be active in public debates and provide training for journalists to improve data-driven journalism. AAPOR should also update its Code of Professional Ethics and Practice to include the collection of digital data outside of surveys. It should work with Institutional Review Boards to facilitate the research use of such data in an ethical fashion.

5. AAPOR should help remove the barrier associated with different uses of terminology.

Effective use of Big Data usually requires a multidisciplinary team consisting of e.g., a domain expert, a researcher, a computer scientist, and a system administrator. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of Big Data, there are many concepts and terms that are defined differently by people with different backgrounds. AAPOR should help remove this barrier by informing its community about the different uses of terminology. Short courses and webinars are successful instruments that AAPOR can use to accomplish this task.

6. AAPOR should take a leading role in working with federal agencies in developing a necessary infrastructure for the use of Big Data in survey research.

Data ownership is not well defined and there is no clear legal framework for the collection and subsequent use of Big Data. There is a need for public-private partnerships to ensure data access and reproducibility. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is very much involved in federal surveys since they develop guidelines for those and research funded by government should follow these guidelines. It is important that AAPOR work together with federal statistical agencies on Big Data issues and build capacity in this field. AAPOR’s involvement could include the creation or propagation of shared cloud computing resources

Categories: Uncategorized

When non-mathematicians judge the math major

I was going to blog about some serious stuff this morning but then someone (specifically, my cousin Anne Hall) sent me this socialist and feminist redo of 50 Shades, which made me forget everything else. Favorite line:

“You need to go away and sit and think about commodity fetishism and the compensation of emotional labour. Also your obvious issues with women. By the way, how did you get this number?”

Oh wait, I guess I still have 18 minutes to say something.

So yesterday my Facebook page lit up with mathematicians discussing this USA Today list of top 10 colleges for math majors:


These are some fine schools, but not at all the typical list one would consider. That makes you wonder, how does one decide where the best place is for a math major? Scanning this list, I have no idea, and it certainly doesn’t correspond to the places that produce the most research mathematicians. But maybe that’s not what USA Today cares about.

In fact, it isn’t. The methodology is outlined here, and the “full methodology,” which doesn’t actually explain much, is here. But as for figuring out what is actually valued, we get some glimpse:

Factor Weighting Description
Graduate Earnings
Early-Career Salary High Average salary of bachelors degree graduates from the college in that major with 0-5 years of experience.
Mid-Career Salary Med Average salary of bachelors degree graduates from the college in that major with 10+ years of experience.
Major Focus
Major Focus % Med Percentage of students at the college studying that major.
Bachelors Degree Market Share Med Percentage of all U.S. bachelors degree graduates in that major represented at that college.
Masters Degree Market Share Low Percentage of all U.S. masters degree graduates in that major represented at that college.
Doctoral Degree Market Share Low Percentage of all U.S. doctoral degree graduates in that major represented at that college.
Related Major Concentration
Related Major Focus (mPower Index) Med Measure of how much all the other majors at the college are related to the major.
Related Major Breadth Low Number of closely related majors offered at the college.
Relevant Program Specific Accreditation Med Whether or not the major is accredited by a relevant accrediting body (ie. ABET for engineering). If no obvious accrediting body for a major, this factor is ignored for that major’s rankings.
Overall College Quality
Best Colleges Ranking High The College Factual Best Colleges ranking, a measure of overall college quality.

So here’s the thing. We mathematicians think that money doesn’t buy happiness, and we don’t care so much about early career salaries. That’s the first thing that sticks out.

But also, and I’d say just as importantly, we do care about the extent to which the average undergraduate math major is exposed to research mathematics, which is why we care much more deeply about the “doctoral degree market share” than this ranking does. I mean, I guess to the non-expert, it makes sense to care way more about the undergraduate focus of a college for judging the quality of an undergrad math major, but it all depends on what you want to have happen next.

I’m enjoying how different this list is from the typical inside baseball list. I don’t even know who it’s for, if anyone, but as a thought experiment it’s interesting to imagine what would happen if suddenly all the math departments everywhere suddenly tried to game this particular system, like colleges do with the US News ranking.

So, for example, we’d throw out pure math majors altogether in order to focus our attention on applied math majors that will make loads of money out of college. We’d also compete for students against other majors, something very few math departments actually do. It would be interesting, but I’m not holding my breath.

Categories: Uncategorized

Things I’m reading

Really into writing right now but I’d still like to share my reading list with y’all.

  1. The review of 50 Shades I wish I’d written (hat tip Chris Wiggins). I still can’t decide whether the net effect of the film is bad, because the characters are so terribly stereotypical and stalkerish, or good, because it at least forces people to ask the question, what do I desire and how is that different from other people’s desires.
  2. Alexis Goldstein’s newest piece in about the newest pawn in the financial lobbyist’s chess set, community banks.
  3. Remember SketchFactor? Well now there’s PlaceToLive (hat tip Jordan Ellenberg).
  4. I’m researching the toxic industry that is for-profit colleges. On the other hand, the Washington Post seems to be shilling for that same industry: here, here, and here (hat tip Auros Harman).
  5. If you’re a listener, try this interview with Edward Baptist, author of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American CapitalismI’ve heard great things about this interview and its explanation of the earlier versions of “financial innovations” that directly involved slaves. This piece and many many more can be found on the Alt Banking website.
Categories: Uncategorized

Aunt Pythia’s advice: 50 Shades edition

Readers! Dearest readers! Welcome! And a very warm welcome as well to anyone coming from the Slate Money podcast “Exotic Fantasies” edition, where Aunt Pythia was delighted to be featured this week.

Aunt Pythia is so very happy to welcome you (and your Inner Goddesses) onto the bus today. Please enter single file, find an empty seat, or sit on someone’s lap, or lie across a series of laps, and then apply the “restraints” (otherwise known as seat belts) to yourself and others. I’ll wait. Oh, and before Aunt Pythia forgets, please sign this consent form before we begin. Yes, that’s what I said. It’s an unusual column today, people.

Because, dear readers, although Aunt Pythia does not believe in Valentine’s Day in general, she is making an exception this year for the opening weekend of 50 Shades of Grey, simply because it has created an extraordinary opportunity to talk about sex nonstop for a week:


The movie is entirely sold out all day today, so I’m going first thing tomorrow morning, kind of like church.

After you read the column, but before you go to the movie, please:

ask Aunt Pythia a question 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,

Now that you’ve been out of the ivory tower for a few years, do you have any particular advice for smart math phd’s who want to leave academia?

I’m asking because one of my students is more interested in having a permanent job after her Ph.D. than doing a research post doc and moving several times. She’s a decent programmer, but with little formal training beyond a few classes and a lot of experience with Magma.




Dear Cutie-Patootie,

Sounds like your students is not psyched for the nomadic, monastic, and frugal lifestyle of the mathematician. I get that.

And here’s the thing, I wrote Doing Data Science for people like her. She should take a look and see if that is her style. And if yes, she should learn python and do a few data projects and exhibit them online.

If not, she should take the following quiz:

  1. Are you boring?
  2. Are you evil?

If she said “yes” to #1, she might consider actuarial math. If she said “yes” to #2, she should think finance. If she said “no” to both, she should consider moving to Canada.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Dear Aunt Pythia,

Couldn’t tolerate the thought of that picture getting posted again next week, so. . .

What are your suggestions for getting better at sex? I’m sure open communication, mutual exploration and play will be at the top of your standard list. Problem is that my partner doesn’t want to do any of that. I think the reasons are a mix of shame and an idealized romantic notion that this should be effortlessly perfect.

No More Bouncy Castle Genitalia Pics


Do you mean this picture?

I could post this every week and die a happy woman

I could post this every week and die a happy woman

As to your question, here’s what I’ve noticed. A lot of people complain about their sex life and when I ask them whether they’ve tried various things, they tell me their partner “doesn’t want that.” But when I ask whether they’ve asked their partner, explicitly, about that, they admit they haven’t. It makes me wonder if their partner also goes around saying exactly the same thing.

The thing about open communication is that having it clears up these kinds of mutual misunderstandings. It’s worth double checking sometimes, in other words.

And if you do double check, and she agrees she doesn’t like open communication, mutual exploration, and play, then I’d say find a new girlfriend.

Good luck!

Aunt Pythia


Hello Aunt Pythia,

So this is a tricky question to phrase, or to ask at all, but I will give it a try.

I met my girlfriend online and for the first two years, all of our interactions were carried out that way. All of them. There was something I could do that she liked, and it IS kinda fun, once in a while. I didn’t know it was rare, but she assured me it is, and that it excited her enormously.

Now we are together, and of course she wants me to do it ‘in the flesh’. I worried that it wouldn’t be nearly such a turn-on for her as it was online … but she absolutely loved it. Now she wants me to do it every time, and even while I’m inside her. As I’ve said … I enjoy it sometimes … but not every time, plus I am a bit worried about the hygiene element of the whole ‘inside’ aspect of it.

I don’t want this to be something that dents our relationship, but nor do I want it to happen every time. I know it’s stupid, but occasionally I even think this might have been what brought her to me, and in those moments, I can’t countenance NOT doing it for her, in case I lose her. Most of the time I know that last sentence isn’t true, but that 1% of the time when I don’t rather carves me up.

Dear Aunt Pythia – can you help me retain my lovely girlfriend, and also help us both to get the maximum enjoyment from sex?

Hopefully yours,
Finding Our Unusual Net Techniques Aren’t Intimate Nirvanas


First of all, amazing sign-off. Possibly the best one ever.

Next, it’s not clear if you’ve ever expressed to your girlfriend that you’d like to try sex without this. For all she knows, you might like this as much as she does. So the first thing to do is to talk to her about how it would be nice to have sex without this element once in a while. She might be fine with that!

Third, it’s not ok for someone to insist on something, anything, to happen every time, unless both people want it. It borders on abusive, in fact. So keep in mind it’s totally OK to tell her what you need. Or another thing you might do is discover a kink of your own and agree to alternate between your two kinks, thus naturally creating balance.

Finally, here’s what I’d actually do if I were you. I would just “forget how to” do that thing that you do once or twice and see what happens and see what conversations emerge, if any.

After all, penises are mysterious things that women don’t have direct experience with and thus don’t understand. They don’t always do what you want them to do (we all know that from our experiences in 7th grade!), with all those myriad valves and fittings. It’s perfectly reasonable to believe that this specific thing sometimes just doesn’t work. Not that I want you to be consistently devious, but try it out and see whether the sex can be good for both of you.


Aunt Pythia


Aunt Pythia,

You seem to have a great and helpful perspective on sex. I’d love to ask a sex question or three. And you seem desperate for sex questions. But I’m afraid that the closest I can come right now is more of a disappointingly meta sex question.

In particular, how can people safely ask their sex questions? Aren’t they thinking ahead and afraid that their letter will be immortalized online and someone, someday, will read it and figure out who wrote it? Do people play tricks like reversing the genders? Would that really be convincing, like “I can’t get my wife to help with the dishes. Can you help?” Most of the time gender issues are raised that would not allow this. 

I think part of what makes your answers great is that you don’t always insist on the idea that one must necessarily share with one’s partner anything one might think, fantasize about, etc. Thus the worry.

Perhaps this has brought me closer to a sex question: what is your general guidance about when one should and should not share thoughts and fantasies about sex with a partner? That seems safe enough for starters.

ME Think Ahead

Dear META,

First of all, I’d advice you to stop worrying so much. Everyone thinks about sex all the time, so by the pigeon hole principle most people think for at least a few minutes a day about any one question, and might find themselves asking any old sex advice columnist that question. So you are well camouflaged here on earth.

Plus, if you are worried you could always just change your handwriting a little bit like students do on end-of-semester evaluation forms, which totally doesn’t work.

As to your eventual question, I’ve got three rules. First, share when it will make your partner hornier. Second, keep it to yourself if it will make your partner angry or jealous or less horny. And third, change it ever so slightly to bring it from the second category to the first. Become an erotic story teller!

Good luck,

Aunt Pythia


Well, you’ve wasted yet another Saturday morning with Aunt Pythia! I hope you’re satisfied! If you could, please ask me a question. And don’t forget to make an amazing sign-off, they make me very very happy.

Click here for a form or just do it now:

Categories: Uncategorized

Rebellious Lawyering Conference

In a bit more than a week I’ll be on a panel at Yale’s Rebellious Lawyering Conference 2015, otherwise known as RebLaw. If you’re wondering what that is, here’s a description:

RebLaw is the nation’s largest student-run public interest conference. Every year the conference brings together practitioners, law students, and community activists from around the country to discuss innovative, progressive approaches to law and social change. The conference, grounded in the spirit of Gerald Lopez‘s Rebellious Lawyering, seeks to build a community of law students, practitioners, and activists seeking to work in the service of social change movements and to challenge hierarchies of race, wealth, gender, and expertise within legal practice and education.

The panel I’m on is entitled Using Law To Occupy Wall Street, and I’ll be on the panel On Saturday the 21st at 10am with my friend Akshat Tewary, of Occupy the SEC, as well as Rebecca Wilkins, who I’m excited to meet. The panel is organized and moderated by Zorka Milin, who is both a kick-ass lawyer and a math nerd. The other panels look amazing as well.

Categories: Uncategorized

Guest post: a survey of mathematical podcasts

This is a guest post by Samuel Hansen, a podcast producer and the director of the ACMEScience podcast network. He spends his spare time listening to podcasts that he did not produce, playing soccer, and hoping more people would pitch him podcast ideas. He isn’t kidding, if you have ideas for a podcast he wants to hear them.

My name is Samuel Hansen and I love podcasts. This might not seem like that crazy of a confession, but I would like you to keep in mind that I am currently subscribed to 97 shows and am caught up on all but 10.

I started listening to them around the time I started my undergraduate studies, so 2005 or so. It might seem odd, but a huge amount of the good things that have happened to me in the past 10 years are because of podcasts. Most of my closest friends I have met because we are all fans of a certain podcasting network, the best working collaboration I have ever had came out of an interview that I did, and I have had the opportunity to travel around the world producing a show.

My journey down the mathematical podcast rabbit hole started when I started to apply to graduate schools. Being a huge fan of podcasts I went looking for a podcast that would help me better understand the world that I was about to enter into, the world of the mathematical graduate student. While there were a couple of shows, none of them were exactly what I was looking for so when I started graduate school I knew it would be up to me to make the show for the next person that went looking.

I will admit that first show was silly, very very silly, and quite vulgar, but I had to start somewhere. Since then I have produced shows featuring interviews with mathematicians, round ups of the week’s mathematical news, and multi-voice stories from the mathematical domain.

I am not the only mathematical podcaster though, there is a whole community of producers out there making great content for us to consume. I have collected all of the mathematical podcasts that I know of here. Not all of them are still running, and some formats will appeal to you more than others, but they are all wonderfully mathematical.

Regularly Released Podcasts

  • One of my current favorites is Taking Maths Further from Peter Rowlett and Katie Steckles. Produced for the Further Maths Support Program the show takes a different field from mathematics every episode and features an interview with a mathematician working in that field.
  • Wrong, But Useful is the brain child of Colin Beveridge and Dave Gale. New episodes come out around monthly and feature mathematical stories that they came across in the previous month with a bit of focus on the UK and UK mathematical education. Each episode also features a problem of the month.
  • Conversational interviews with people who live mathematical lives, at least that is what I always envisioned Strongly Connected Components as being. The second podcast that I created, Strongly Connected Components is only recently relaunched and I am so happy to be producing new episodes and talking to yet more wonderful people from the world of mathematics.
  • Math Mutation is a series of quick hit podcasts about the fun and interesting mathematics that is not usually talked about in school.
  • Tim Harford, the Financial Time’s Undercover Economist, helms the BBC’s More Or Less , a radio show that does everything it can to examine and interpret numbers and statistics that appear in the news and everyday world. The podcast feed features both the full length Radio Four episodes as well as the shorter BBC World Service episodes which are produced even when the show is between series.

Irregularly Released Podcasts

  • I am more proud of this podcast than anything else I have ever done. Relatively Prime is a podcast that features 8 episode series of stories from the mathematical domain. The first series had episodes about Chinook the AI that defeated checkers, my favorite mathematical building La Sagrada Familia, mathematicians favorite numbers, and first hand accounts of working with Paul Erdos. I am in the middle of producing the second Kickstarter funded series and believe me, it is going to be good. You can expect it late spring or early summer of this year.
  • Inspired By Math is a podcast by Sol Lederman featuring long form interviews with mathematicians, educators, authors, and other people that are inspired by mathematics.
  • Plus Magazine tries to bring the beauty and applications of mathematics to all who read it. Their podcast features interviews with mathematicians talking about their work and their lives.
  • Both the AMS and the MAA have podcasts that feature interviews with mathematicians talking about their work.
  • From the math blog The Aperiodical, The Aperiodcast features editors Peter Rowlett, Katie Speckles, and Christian Perfect discussing stories they had recently featured on the blog and was as aperiodical as its name would suggest.
  • Math/Maths was a show that I co-hosted with Peter Rowlett where we discussed the past week’s news from the world of mathematics. It was very topical and could be odd to go back and listen to now, but there were some non-topical episodes mixed in. The show is sadly no more, but I have heard from a good source, myself, that the people behind it are working to bring it back in a slightly tweaked format.

The following mathematical shows are sadly no longer being produced. That should not stop you from going back and checking them out though, with the exception of my first show, Combinations and Permutations, which I give you free reign to skip.

  • There were two podcasts about the history of mathematics and oddly enough both were produced in England. Bite Sized History of Mathematics was produced by Noel-Ann Bradshaw, Tony Mann, and Mark McCartney and was part of a project that was funded by HE Academy MSOR Network. It featured episode, and accompanying pdfs, about important theorems, important numbers, and important mathematicians. The other podcast, Brief History of Mathematics, was a BBC production presented by Marcus du Sautoy and focused on the biggest mathematicians from the past few centuries.
  • If you like swearing, bad jokes, pop culture references, and a host that heavily relies on wikipedia during a show then Combinations and Permutations is the math podcast for you. This was the first podcast that I ever produced and featured my fellow graduate students at UNLV and I sitting around trying to be funny about mathematics while sneaking in some real content from time to time. I will readily admit it is not the best show, but it was tons of fun to do and from the feedback I did receive tons of fun to listen to if you are the right person.
  • Tom Henderson and Nick Horton hosted the Math for Primates podcast for 14 episodes. It was an entertaining and irreverent look at topics in mathematics that relied heavily on the idiosyncratic viewpoints of the hosts. I looked forward to every episode and was very sad when they stopped coming, because(as the hosts themselves say on their website) talking about math is more fun that throwing poo.
  • The Math Factor started in 2004 as a segment on Kyle Kellam’s Sunday Ozark’s at Large radio show on KUAF featuring mathematician Chaim Goodman-Strauss. Featuring a lot of puzzles and problems and other very Gardner-esque content the episodes were short, sweet, and well worth a listen.
  • Peter Rowlett’s first podcast, Travels in a Mathematical World was a podcast of interviews with mathematicians talking about their work and episodes about math history and news. Done with the support of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications the podcast really focuses on the cool jobs and interesting work in which mathematics allows people to take part.

There are also more general science shows that often talk about mathematics. What follows is by no means an exhaustive list, but it does feature some personal favorites of mine.

  • I will clearly expose my biases on this one, Radiolab is my favorite thing. I am actually wearing a Radiolab t-shirt as I type this. I will readily tell anyone who will listen about my favorite episodes and it is Radiolab’s producer and genius, literally the MacArthur Foundation decreed him as such, that is the reason that I even thought making mathematics podcasts might be possible. The show is mostly about big ideas and science, but some episodes do feature very mathematical stories.
  • Presented by Melvyn Bragg In Our Time is a long running discussion program from the BBC. Every episode features a topic and a panel of experts, usually academics, to discuss the topic. While not a math show a quick google search shows that they often cover the subject.
  • The BBC also has an irreverent panel show presented by physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince called The Infinite Monkey Cage. They have had episodes about Randomness, Six Degrees of Separation, and Symmetry amongst many other sciency topics.
  • Keith Devlin has been NPR’s Math Guy for many years and has contributed many different stories to the show Weekend Edition. Thankfully Keith has gathered all the episode for us.
  • Science Friday has been a US public radio stand by for more than two decades. While primarily covering other scientific topics, they also feature mathematics at times.
  • My podcast about fights from the history of science, Science Sparring Society, has featured stories about Newton Vs. Leibniz and Cantor Vs. Kronecker

Finally, I interviewed Mathbabe the other day and put it up on my podcast here:

Categories: Uncategorized

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